The Hare and the Hazard
Once upon a time there was a rabbit. The rabbit wore a gas mask in the city for fear that the air or the enemy bombs might kill him. Then again, it had been many months now, and still the rabbit had not needed the mask, and it was very hot to wear.
Rummaging along a mostly abandoned street one afternoon, the masked rabbit met a little boy. The little boy was listening to chatter from an old radio tuned to an odd frequency. The boy’s eyes were white as terror. But he wore very good shoes—strong leather cowboy boots—which the rabbit saw and immediately coveted. It had been a long time since the rabbit had seen something as lovely as those boots. And besides, the rabbit was always getting his feet sooty and injured foraging in the city.
So the rabbit approached the little boy in the empty street and, talking loudly over the annoying newscast, asked him if he’d like something sweet. He seemed like a good little boy who deserved something nice, said the rabbit.
The little boy nodded, listened a moment more, then turned off the radio and held out his hand. “I am blind,” he said. “So you’ll have to lead me.”
The rabbit took the boy’s hand and led him to a small cafe three streets away where people chattered at tables set against bullet-holed walls. He ordered the little boy an extravagant ice-cream with chocolate and cherries.
The boy gobbled it down.
“If only you could see,” lamented the rabbit. “You poor soul.”
The boy clicked his boots and licked his lips.
“But wait,” said the rabbit when the boy was quite full and done licking the bowl. “Perhaps my eyes can help you.”
“Your eyes?” echoed the boy.
“I wear a very special mask with special glass over the eyes.”
The boy leaned forward. “What kind of mask?”
“It’s magic,” whispered the rabbit. “Perhaps you might see again if you wore it.”
“Yes, yes!” cried the boy.
“But it is too dangerous,” said the rabbit.
“Why?” asked the boy, dismayed.
“Because the people here will hate me, for I am ugly and not like them. If I give you my special mask, they might kill me and I could not run fast enough on my tender feet.”
“No,” said the boy. “Take my boots. They will protect your feet in case you must run. It will be a trade.”
“But it would be dangerous,” said the rabbit, heaving an exaggerated sigh. “And it might not work. Perhaps it’s better if I simply go.”
“No! Let us try. Even if it does not work, it will be better to have tried at least!”
The rabbit smiled slyly. “Very well,” he said. “If you insist.”
And so the boy took off his boots and gave them to the rabbit, and the rabbit slipped off his mask and put it to the boy’s face so the white eyes were hidden. Then the rabbit ran as fast as he could, delighted with his trade and fearful the boy would try to stop him if he waited a moment longer.
But the boy did not want to stop him. The boy removed the gas mask and took out the white coverings on his eyes, then slipped the mask back on and went about his day. He listened to the radio voices all afternoon and smiled to himself.
That night, enemy forces dropped poison gas throughout the streets of the city.
Many people died, but the boy survived.
The next morning, the little boy found the rabbit dead in a den of concrete still wearing his boots. The little boy pulled them off the rabbit and slipped them back on his own feet. He then cut off one of the rabbit’s feet for good luck and went on his way.
Far away there is a girl in a red dress. Her grandmother is ill, and though the girl cannot remember the why of it, she knows she must go to the old woman. In this story, the girl is barefoot and the dress is too low and too long for a midday desert. She holds a basket against her hip as she walks, wicker snagging on the fabric of her gown.
A coyote howls—a dry, cracked sound—and the girl is afraid to look beneath the basket’s cloth. She knows it must be medicine, but she cannot remember what kind.
So the girl walks and does not peek. She burns the pads of her feet, rocks pinch her skin, and the round barrel cactuses wait like wrapped presents along her path. There are no shadows and there are no clouds and there is no water.
A coyote howls and the girl shivers beneath the sun and hurries.
Three miles, six miles, nine until the girl is at her grandmother’s and the red dress has ripped and browned along the hem. The door creaks open, and she calls for her grandmother.
Water boils in a kettle, plumes of steam wetting the air. She walks toward the bedroom, to the figure beneath the covers. “I’m here now,” the girl whispers, and sets the basket by the bedside.
A coyote howls again, but now the sound is close like a kiss or a cut. The figure groans, turns over, grins, watery eyes crinkling. “Grandmother,” the girl says. And “Grandmother,” the figure echoes.
Slowly, the girl peels back the cloth covering the basket. A small gasp escapes her when she sees the coyote’s head, snout still moist, teeth still slick with saliva like it could have been panting only moments before. Hands shaking, she removes the coyote’s head and offers it to the figure in bed, arms quivering from the weight. “For you,” she says, uncertain if she means it.
The figure in bed holds her arms out in return, but shakes so badly that the girl is certain she cannot bear the weight.
So, instead, the girl puts the coyote’s head in her lap. Instead, they whisper to each other in mirrored tones, hushed and stilted, until the girl cannot bear the weight. Instead, the girl slips the carved-out cavern of the coyote’s head around her own like a great mask and crawls onto the bed.
The kettle screams from the kitchen. Everything smells like iron and dust. Everything is wet. The red dress pools like blood against the covers.
Mackenzie Suess is a writer and editor based in Denver, Colorado. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Storyscape Literary Journal, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder, manages the online journal TIMBER, and writes for Longleaf Review. You can find her at mackenziesuess.com