James Valvis

Creative Nonfiction

James Valvis is the author of How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books, 2011). His writing can be found in many journals, including Anderbo, Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Juked, LA Review, Nimrod, Pedestal Magazine, Rattle, River Styx, and Superstition Review. His poetry has been featured at Verse Daily and the Best American Poetry website. His fiction has twice been a Million Writers Notable Story. He lives near Seattle.


Days before Christmas, on my nightly walk, the street half-lit by strings of festive bulbs while my more wealthy neighbors sleep in their somber mansions, I see something moving down the block some, just off the curb. It looks to my poor eyesight, muddied by early glaucoma, like a whirlwind of trash, or perhaps a dust devil of leaves, and anything’s possible in this weather, but as I draw nearer I see instead it’s a rabbit. Something’s wrong with one of its legs, and it’s spinning on the frigid asphalt like a crippled dancer having a nervous breakdown.

I think about walking by. This isn’t my problem and I have my reasons besides. Rabbits are a nuisance here all year long. They get into gardens, chew up our vegetables. They crawl into holes and leave droppings. Their overpopulation invites more dangerous animals down from the mountains.

Worse, I don’t know what’s wrong with the rabbit. It could be sick, diseased, contagious; one bite and I could maybe find myself quarantined for rabies. Even if I’m able to carry it safely home, I don’t know how to care for a wounded rodent, and my wife, who sleeps poorly, who sees everything as signs and frets, has enough to deal with at this time of year with the holidays and work’s end of quarter deadlines.

And yet in my life I have already walked by too much, the endless string of poor people who need money, weak who need strength, sick who need support, the sad who ask no more than a single smile I am always too entombed in my misery to give.

I stand over the rabbit, whose one eye, round as a rusted dime, stares up at me like he knows every sin I ever swore by.

I decide then to do the noble thing, but when I bend to pick him up he spins hard onto the curb, against a flower bed wall. I’m able to trap him there and pick him up, but his legs jerk and body twists, eyes desperate, wide and unblinking like wet stars.

Hoping its claws don’t break through my skin, I start walking the two blocks home. I talk calmly, tell the rabbit that it’ll be okay, as if it understands English. I think, more than anything, I’m trying to calm myself down. Somehow it works for us both. My stride becomes regular. Meanwhile, the rabbit stops struggling, though its tiny heart keeps pounding into my hand like a crucifix nail. For a block and a half we walk like this, the rabbit lying limp in my grip the way some living things, resigned, go limp in the mouths of a successful predator, its pulsing heart all that confirms it’s yet alive.

Just before I reach home, however, a bus passes. It’s as loud as nuclear war and by now an instinctual enemy to the rabbit, so the animal goes berserk in my hand. It flails and kicks and spends all its strength trying to escape. I have to hold it away from my body so its claws won’t rip into me, and I’m barely able to hold on. I curse my whole weekly allotment, but I do hold on. When it stops kicking, it lies even more still in my palm than before.

I make it home, and the rabbit is almost dead. Because of our cat, I can’t take it inside without waking my wife. And so, apologizing, I wake her from a rare sound slumber and ask her to get a box, which she does.

I set the rabbit down. It doesn’t struggle, doesn’t even attempt to move, just lies in the box on the towel like a stuffed animal. Its one eye trains on me, still wide, almost glassy. I’ve never been this close to a wild animal and not have it try to escape. I resist the urge to pet it with a knuckle.

My wife and I agree the rabbit will be dead by morning. There’s practically no hope at all. I’m surprisingly okay with this. I didn’t let the poor thing expire in the frigid night, writhing is unnatural agony probably because some driver clipped him and drove on, not wanting to ruin a Christmas with a problem.

I put a water bowl in the box with the rabbit, but it’s only a token gesture. It’s something someone does when he can do nothing more.

I decide to skip the rest of my walk and go to bed. I don’t dream. I never dream. I consider this a curse for some long forgotten sin, my empty, black nights. When I wake, I’m sure a dead rabbit will be waiting for me.

However, in the morning the rabbit is still alive, though it’s still not moving, still just staring with that one wide eye.

My wife goes online and we make a couple of calls. Turns out there’s a place you can take such animals locally, a wildlife refuge, an hour’s drive away. So we pack up the rabbit and head there.

Along the way my daughter pokes it once and reports the rabbit is still alive. Nothing can kill this rabbit, I decide. In my mind, I name it Lazarus.

The lady at the refuge takes the rabbit from me. She carries it into the back, box and all, and then returns with the empty box. We leave a $50 donation. There’s a whole room of wounded bunnies, the lady tells us, and ours should survive this ordeal. We walk outside. Just that quickly, it’s all over.

As we drive away, my wife and daughter hail me a hero and sing songs praising me. Daddy’s the best, they sing. Daddy’s a saint, they sing. I soak it in, since who doesn’t like a little praise once in a while, but deep down I know it’s nonsense. I’m no hero.

I wrote this story in one sitting a couple of weeks after the events happened. Rarely does life lay a tale at your feet like a cat might a toy mouse, but this was the case here. There isn’t much to add. I will say this, as a postscript. When we brought the rabbit to the refuge we were given a number to call to learn the rabbit’s fate, whether it lived or died. We made the decision as a family not to call. We didn’t want to know. This way we’ll always believe the rabbit not only survived but went on to frolic in the wild again. We each take our happy endings where we can find them.