After driving too far on a Wednesday morning into the winter fields of Fairview, a farming community east of Asheville, I find Old Fort Road on the second try. For five miles the hills bunch the houses. I turn up a rocky switchback, dark sheds and wet black trees pressing so close to the gravel road that I feel like a mountain goat climbing a pass. The drive tops out in a clearing of dry yellow grass below a high black ridge.
This is Walter Harrill’s land. Here, where his family has lived for generations, he and his wife and son grow blackberries for the popular homemade jam that has become their livelihood. Sometimes Walter shoots a deer on the ridge and breaks it down. The rabbits he raises he sells to restaurants still riding the trend that has made poor Southern food chic: heavy on the organ meat, bitter weeds, pork belly. One downtown chef buys quarts of fresh rabbit blood for sausages.
Walter meets me outside the rabbit barn, in a yard strewn with muddy ruts, buckets, tubs, a stump. Inside, a lowboy crouches in the dim light, stacked, I will learn, with slick pink rabbit carcasses. To the left is the shining white slaughter room, hard winter light from the window working up a snowy glare. In the corner a two-by-four hangs like a trapeze bar, dangling a few rubber-coated wire nooses.
Through the entryway to the barn is the rabbit hutch, about thirty wire cages hanging from a low ceiling. Chickens scratch in the straw, gurgling. Walter opens a cage and pulls a young rabbit—at fewer than twelve weeks they are called fryers, he explains, while older rabbits are roasters, and better slow-cooked—and tucks it into the crook of his arm like a football. He goes into the clean white room and stands in front of the rabbit wringer, a steel bar bent into a crook like an elbow. He stretches the rabbit out gently between his fists like an accordion, ears in one hand and hind feet in the other. The long pale fur over its belly fans out. He slips its head into the crook of the wringer and gives the hind feet a yank. There’s a soft little pop, the sound of the spinal cord severing.
See the front feet? Walter says. How they softly cross? This means you got him. He slips each hind foot into a little white noose. The rabbit hangs motionless, though I will learn later that they sometimes shudder.
In the movies, cutting a throat is drawing a thin red line from ear to ear. But in this case it is a firm punch up to the handle just in front of the spine, and then a brute slice forward. It severs everything. Dark red blood spatters into the white bucket below. It isn’t much blood, and the rabbit’s eyes just look. Its pupils eclipse what is inside, and within seconds its presence is in full retreat. It’s gone.
The butchering itself is easier. Now, it is meat, though the warmth of the body startles me. We decapitate the rabbit and put its head in the bucket. We pull down the pelt of soft fur, sometimes stained with urine. We slice up under the thin skin of the abdomen, heavy with organs and warm fluids. We crack open the back legs, take out the guts and the bladder, often full, and drop these into the bucket. We save the kidneys, the lungs, the liver, tossing the luminous green adrenal glands and the reproductive organs. Coming to the dark little heart, we slip off its viscous webbing and drop it into a sink of ice-cold water. It makes a small and able beat.
I went to slaughter rabbits because I wanted to know if I could do it. I was eating a lot of meat at the time, grass-fed and local when I could, and I had lived in the steaming, shrieking engine room of a farm-to-table restaurant in a small Southern town for almost ten years. I knew why local sustainable agriculture mattered. What I wondered was, could I belong to a life like that? Would it change me the way I wanted to be changed?
The next evening, I arrive at a south-side bar for a near-blind date I’d set up myself, one of only two I’d endured in my life. As I scan the dim, empty bar, I can’t shake the feeling that years of getting something wrong have landed me here, in the same plaid shirt I always wear to work Sunday brunch, my hair pinned up in the rearview mirror, offering myself to the scrutiny of someone I hardly know. I’m thirty-nine. I go up to the counter and order a tequila and soda.
Bruce shows up late and we share an awkward half hug, my head scrunching down like a kid’s. He sits next to me at my table and starts talking, and with a beat of surprise I feel myself align with him, like a horse falling into a canter along a split rail fence. He too is lucky not to be an alcoholic. He too disdains helicopter parenting. I gradually abandon awareness of my own organs’ activities.
We go inside and sit on a vinyl sofa, where his body begins to exert on mine a steady planetary pull. My flesh and my mind then discuss this in quiet murmurs, like twins telepathizing. I stare at his hands, his thighs covered in denim, his throat where the gray flannel shirt opens, the scar at the inside of his blind left eye. I stare and stare, taking up all five hours with my staring. I don’t feel bad. I watch and something unfamiliar rolls into being.
I walk him to his truck after midnight, where he leans against the cab. Facing him, I do a skittish little dance while my nervous system rings behind my face. We switch places, for no apparent reason. Parting seems dumb, but we do it, like adults.
When it is my turn to take a rabbit from the hutch, the one I choose scrabbles away from me with dark little nails. Walter pulls one, and I football it. I come to the white wall and the wringer, slip the head into the crook. I slow myself down. The rabbit is holding itself still. I look at Walter, pretending to be someone trained for an emergency that has finally come.
You got it, he says. I get a hold on the rabbit’s ears, as velvety as they always say, and lift its hind end into the air. The wringer is mounted high on the wall, and I’m afraid of not getting the necessary leverage. I’m afraid for this animal’s suffering. I pass the rabbit’s neck into the crook of the wringer and pull the legs out into the air, trying not to hesitate, knowing that hesitation will make it worse. I give the hind legs a yank. It is hard to make my body do it, and a bright pulse of panic rolls up from my lungs. I hold the rabbit up to see if its front paws are softly crossed, to see if I got this phase of its death right. I can’t tell. Walter slips its head back into the wringer and pulls, saying, You got him, you got him. He puts the hind feet in the little nooses while I take the knife. But I am afraid I won’t be able to do it, so Walter sinks it for me. The rabbit’s eyes watch, warm piss soaking its fur. The blood patters out, and what is inside the rabbit’s eyes departs.
On our second date, over a whole fried fish at a restaurant downtown, Bruce tells me the story of his blind left eye, destroyed by disease during his late teens. He dropped out of art school soon after. I decline a second glass of champagne because I want to be awake for this story, to follow its trail to the person inside it. A bowl of curly golden calamari arrives. We dig in.
“So there’s this woman in Santa Fe,” Bruce says after a few minutes, leaning in, and at first I think he’s still on the story of his eye. But then he sits back and shrugs. “I’m in love with her,” he says, “and if it works out, I’m going to marry her.” Stuck with a smile, I hang in there with the one good eye. When I see that he’s serious, I look down at the face of the fish and its own sightless gaze.
“Okay,” I say, unsure about what I’m agreeing to. Okay, no hard feelings? Okay, go get your girl? I settle for, “That’s great. No, that’s great. Just, what is it that you’re doing here with me?”
Bruce shrugs again. “I mean, I don’t know what’s really going to happen with this woman. It might not work out. Also, you asked for this date, and I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” I chopstick a tender frond of calamari and chew. I’m still chewing when the waitress passes and I send her a message with my eyes: More champagne.
“Listen,” I say. “I get it. No problem. Let’s just get the check.” The waitress delivers my drink and I toss back a swallow.
Bruce stares at me, crinkling up his face. “Come on,” he says. “What, you’re that insecure? I find you attractive, if that’s what you need to hear.”
I find my credit card, toss it into the little plastic tray with the check, and drain the rest of my glass. If I turned and looked out the windows, over the parking lot and its streaks of rainy light, south along the quiet street and then up thirty feet and a little west, I would see the warm lighted window of my fourth-floor walkup. “Want to split the check?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I knew you wouldn’t just let me pay.”
After two or three hours, I’ve had all I can take. I’ve killed several rabbits myself, and Walter, the white wall, our hands, the knife, are peppered with flecks of blood. Walter showed me how to break a rabbit’s neck with just my bare hands, since the wringer is mounted a little high for me. Holding the back of the rabbit’s neck, I lifted the hind legs into the air. Its body seemed to stretch and stretch. I braced my hand around the neck, keeping it down near my hip, and yanked the hind legs up. Heard that hollow little pop.
The smell in the room is loamy and organy, though I don’t notice it until I come back in from outside, where I stood sipping air and looking at the hardscrabble plot of land, the haze of wood smoke, the pale winter horizon that obscures my distant home. Walter and I take the cool pink bodies out of their sink bath, put each one in a Ziploc bag, and stack them in the refrigerator in the hallway of the barn. I stand in the middle of the slaughter room spraying my boots with the hose, rose pink water swirling down the drain in the middle of the floor.
Walter sends me home with a couple of rabbit hearts and a set of firm pink lungs in a Ziploc bag. Choice bits, delicious sautéed in butter. I put the bag on the floorboard of my car and pull away, crunching down the twisty gravel drive back to the highway. I drive in silence. The window is cracked, and the smell of the cold comes in. At home I leave my boots in the trunk of the car and climb the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment. The rooms are so still I imagine I can sense my own ghost. I put the hearts and lungs in the freezer, where they will stay for over a year. I take off my thick wool socks, damp from sweat, and my coveralls and old wool sweater. There are speckles of blood where the apron Walter loaned me didn’t reach, and a couple of constellations on the side of my neck. I start the shower and step under the stream of hot water. I can almost feel my nervous system still ringing with input, and under that vibration, some deeper stability. I remember each movement of the day, thinking, whew. Whew. Whew.
At the restaurant, on a Sunday soon after the slaughter, we serve bowl after bowl of rabbit stew made from Walter’s rabbits. It’s a popular entrée, but it upsets as many customers as it delights. When they read the description on the specials board—Rabbit stew with carrots, peas, and local oyster mushrooms in an herbed cream gravy, served over black pepper cornbread—they cry, “Oh no, little bunny!” and then order cheeseburgers and collard greens with ham. I don’t really blame them. It isn’t logical. Even after Walter and I took those rabbits out of the last morning of their lives and killed them and stacked them neatly in the lowboy refrigerator in the hallway of the barn, their bodies without heads and feet looked so neutral that it was an effort to reconstruct them in my mind as rabbits.
Walter is selling his jam at a stand in front of the restaurant that morning, as he often does on busy brunch days. We discuss what he might want for breakfast, and he settles on a sausage-and-sweet-potato scramble. When I deliver it to him a few minutes later, he invites me to another slaughter. He and a few buddies go in every year on raising a hog, slaughtering and butchering it and dividing up the meat. It’s almost that time. He warns me that a hog is different, that it takes three or four grown men to kill it. I take my time, considering, but in the end I decline.