Mama said spring is nature’s way of saying goodbye to all of the dead. Bobby loved spring because it meant new farm babies, especially new lambs. He chased them around the barn, mimicking their bleats, still too young to understand we’d lose half of them by the end of summer to foxes and wolves.
Gentle creatures are usually the first to die, Mama said.
Papa brought home three bunnies that spring. Mama reminded us boys not to name the farm animals lest we get attached. Roy and I knew better, but Bobby called the chunk one with the white fur and the brown spots Poof. He carried it around with him, cradling it like a baby, feeding it secret carrots. The air was still cool and thick as the smell of wood smoke from our chimney carried into the forest behind our house, the sound of cougars chirping signaling cubs had been born.
The night Poof disappeared from its cage, we had rabbit for supper. Bobby refused to believe it, shoved his plate away, and ran to his room crying. Roy and I laughed, being the older of the three. Mama’s face sagged in disappointment. She pointed at Bobby’s bone-white plate, a stack of Poof still steaming, and told us to finish it off. It was my eleventh birthday, and we were supposed to be celebrating.
I didn’t tell Bobby I’d watched Papa earlier that day string Poof up by its soft, cream-colored feet in the barn, grab its head and pull back while he took his knife and slit its throat. Its eyes rolled back and wild, feet kicking as its blood spread red as roses on the front of its chest and belly. The blood was the color of Mama’s fancy lipstick, the one she wore when she and Papa treated themselves to supper and dancing in town. I can still hear it shrieking. Sounds like a woman screaming, don’t it? Papa asked.
That night, no one bothered to check on Bobby ‘til we finished my cake. Mama didn’t want to miss snapping a photo of me blowing the candles out. I was selfish and ate his piece too. It was lemon with butter frosting, my favorite. That was the last sweet thing I remember.
Mama says if spring comes in like a lion, it’ll leave as gentle as a lamb. Bobby’d gone missing after supper, his bed still made, and his window wide open, the curtains whipping in the wind–a lost ship sail. Mama stood in his doorway, both hands over her mouth, her face a ghost. Sweet baby Jesus! Papa shouted, grabbing his rifle and coat, heading for the door. Roy and I ran to Bobby’s window and peered into the black, Papa’s lantern swinging side to side as he disappeared into the woods, shouting Bobby’s name. Mama was gone when I turned around.
Papa once said a mother cougar can smell her cubs from miles away, and I believe that to be true.
I heard the screaming first, deep in the woods. It was the sound of a rabbit dying, of a cougar crying out, and I knew. I stood on the porch and watched the lantern light begin to fade, holding Roy as he leaned on me with all of his weight. I planted my feet, needing to feel the earth beneath me while he sobbed, my heart floating away, soft as a dandelion puff. I held both of us upright for what seemed like forever because that’s how long it takes for an entire world to collapse.
That year, spring left us, gentle as a lamb.
Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019, and a finalist for the Big Other Book Award. Currently, she runs ☿ Al·che·my Author Services & Workshop and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and curates/hosts At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series focusing on creating safe spaces for all voices. She is a Kenyon Review scholarship recipient for 2021 and a visiting writer at Western Illinois University in the fall of 2020. Her writing can be found in both print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, and others. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at hillaryleftwich.com