The Quickening

Jeff VanderMeer • February 4th, 2010 @ 6:29 pm • Fiction

In the old, tattered photo Sensio has been dressed in a peach-colored prisoner’s uniform made out of discarded tarp and then tied to a small post that Aunt Etta made me hammer into the ground. Sensio’s long white ears are slanted back behind his head. His front legs, trapped by the crude arm holes, hang stiff at a forward angle. The absurdly large hind feet with the shadows for claws are, perhaps, the most monstrous part of Sensio—the way they seem to suddenly shoot from the peach-colored trousers, in a parody of arrested speed. The look on Sensio’s face—the large, almond-shaped eye, the soft pucker of pink nose—seems caught between a strange acceptance and an inchoate rage.

Sensio was, of course, a rabbit, and in the photo, Aunt Etta’s stance confirms this bestial fact—she holds the end of the rope that binds Sensio to the post, and she holds it, between thumb and forefinger, with a form of distaste, even disdain? Such a strange pose, delicate against the roughness of Sensio; even a gentle tug and his humiliation would be undone.

Or maybe not. I don’t know. I know only that Aunt Etta’s expression is ultimately unreadable, muddied by the severe red of her lipstick, by the book-ending of her body by a crepe-paper bag of a hat and the shimmering turquoise dress hitched up past her waist, over her stomach, and descending so far down that she appears to float above the matted grass of the ground. (Between the two, a flowsy white blouse that seems stolen from a more sensible person.) She’d dressed me in something similar, so that I looked like a flower girl at a wedding. The shoes Aunt Etta had dug up out of the closet pinched my feet.

Sensio had said nothing as he was bound, nose twitching at the sharp citrus of the orange blossoms behind them. He’d said nothing as we’d formed our peculiar circus procession from the bungalow where we lived to the waiting photographer. No reporters had come, despite Aunt Etta’s phone calls, but she’d hired the photographer anyway—and he stood there waiting in white shirt, suspenders, gray trousers, black wingtip shoes. He looked hot even though it was only spring, and was so white I thought he must be a Yankee. His equipment looked like a metal stork. A cigarette dangled from his lips.

“That’s him,” Aunt Etta said, as if Sensio were her rabbit and not mine. Shameful, but that’s what I felt that long-ago day: Sensio is mine, not hers. I was twelve in 1955, and big for my age, with broad shoulders that made me look hunched over. I did chores around the orange groves. I helped to get water from the well. I’d driven the tractor. In the season, I’d even helped harvest the oranges, just for fun, alongside the sweating, watchful migrants. But I was still a kid, and as Aunt Etta put Sensio down and bound him to the post I’d pounded in the day before, all I could think was that Aunt Etta had no right to do anything with him.

“Do you have to tie him up like that,” the photographer asked Aunt Etta, but not in a caring way. He reached down to ruffle my hair and wink at me. I flinched away from him, wrinkling up my nose. People were always touching my head back then because I had orange-red hair, and I hated it.

Aunt Etta just looked at him like he was stupid. She was stiff that morning—a broken hip that had never completely healed—and further trapped in her ridiculous dress. She grunted with effort and no little pain as she leaned precariouslyto loop the rope over and over again across Sensio’s chest. “Shit,” she said. I heard her, distinct if soft. She looked over as she straightened, said, “Rachel, finish it for me.”

So I tied the last knots and knelt there beside Sensio, smelling the thick musk of his fur.

“It’s okay,” I said to him, thinking, Aunt Etta’s just gone a little cracked. She’ll be better soon. I tried to will the message into that deep, liquid eye, through to the brain beyond.

Aunt Etta tapped my shoulder with her thick fingers. “Come away.”

“Are we ready, then?” the photographer asked. Aunt Etta wasn’t paying him by the hour. He was already looking at his watch.

In the photo, Aunt Etta has the end of Sensio’s rope in her right hand, arm extended down, while her left arm is held at a right angle, palm up, thumb against the index finger. At first, when I show the photograph to people, they think she’s holding a cigar in her hand, because the photograph is so old. Then they realize that’s just a crease in the image and they think she holds something delicate in that hand—something she’s afraid to close her hand around for fear of damaging it.

But I know there was nothing in Aunt Etta’s hand that day.

4 Responses to “The Quickening”

  1. Jeff VanderMeer’s The Quickening « Angela Slatter says:

    [...] The rest is here http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2010/02/04/the-quickening/ [...]

  2. Divers Hands says:

    This has a deliciously rich flavor of the Southern Gothic to it. I am curious, is there intended to be more, or is this little reminisence complete. Personally, I think it would work equally well in either iteration.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    It’s part of a full-on story.

  4. Don Sabala says:

    Hey I end up here looking for definetly other stuff! Anyway i read happly this stuff and I’m sure i will come back again. great work

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