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Hamlet, my tragic hero

baby_desert_cottontail_by_sataikasiaI was perhaps 8 or 9 when my father came home from work carrying a large cardboard carton with his old red flannel shirt jumbled in the bottom. The box hardly weighed more than the shirt itself, and he indicated, without words, that I should set it down and look inside.

I was thinking “squirrel” when I caught the first glimpse of fur, but lifting away the folds I uncovered a tiny bunny, no more than three inches long: perfect little ears folded flat against its back, impossibly soft fur, twitching nose at one end and a white poof of tail at the other. Hamlet.

He was a wild rabbit, a cottontail, and my father had found him on a job site. Hamlet moved into a cage in my bedroom and I fed him with an eye-dropper until he could eat the alfalfa-fragrant feed and carrot tops and the clumps of grass I pulled up from around the house. Set on the floor, he’d hop along the carpeted hallway, every few hops depositing a hard round pellet, a tidy little poop dispenser.

In spite of my diligent attention to cleanup, my mother grew tired of this, used the “underfoot” word repeatedly, and a decision was made that Hamlet would be relocated to our unfinished daylight basement, where he would have the run of the entire house.

In this new environment, Hamlet quickly lost any domestic tendencies. I would sit on the bare dirt next to his food and water bowls, a lettuce leaf or a slice of turnip in my outstretched palm, and wait. Sometimes he would come and accept my offering, but he’d no longer allow me to pick him up or lay more than a single finger on his soft back. I had terrible dreams that I had forgotten to feed him.

Hamlet had lived with us for about three years when my parents announced that we were going to “let him go.” Our back yard adjoined a huge cemetery, where I had often seen rabbits, and my parents assured me that Hamlet would be happier there. I was devastated, but I was a kid and couldn’t yet envision the fate of a semi-domesticated animal set free in the wild — even the wild of a mowed and manicured cemetery.

The underlying reason for this change was that my mother had discovered some pest in the house and had engaged an exterminator to spray, including Hamlet’s below-house realm.

So, dutifully, I left Hamlet’s last official meal in the usual place, left the basement door standing wide open and walked away, sobbing. The exterminator came and went. Each day, just in case, I’d fill the little bowls with alfalfa pellets and water.

Perhaps four or five days later, my father came up from the basement, excited. He had been taking some logs off the woodpile that lined one wall of the basement and Hamlet had hopped out from among the logs and right out the open door. I tried to imagine whether he had never left, or left and returned, and whether he would come back again. But the basement door was now firmly closed, the bowls banished, and much as I might examine the shrubs and the hillside and the green expanse of the cemetery, I never saw Hamlet again.
. . . . .
photo by sataikasia

2 responses to “Hamlet, my tragic hero

  1. Jennifer Bullis April 20, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Oh! What a wrenching thing.

  2. jik April 20, 2014 at 10:54 am

    It took me a long time to realize how wrong this was, but once I did I’ve never quite forgiven my parents.

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