One summer´s day when I was about ten years old I was playing on my grandfather´s estate when I came across a rabbit shivering among the dead leaves on the forest floor. As I crunched towards it the animal didn’t move. I poked it with a stick but it only stared at me like a prisoner whose will has been broken. Its eyes told me it was ready to die. Now that I think back and reflect, perhaps it wanted to me to kill it, to put it out of its misery.
I call the place a ´forest´ because that´s how it seemed to me then. Perhaps it was only a copse; a few trees at the edge of the grounds. I have never been back so I cannot be completely sure. I´m certain it will have changed by now. Everything has. Everything does. Only my memories stay the same.
I remember a lot about that morning, as though somewhere I knew what happened then would be important – not just for me but for the world.
The sun was strong; summer had been one of the warmest people could remember. I had been walking the lawns aimlessly, swishing a stick, and had ducked into the copse to take shelter. I remember it was dark inside, the canopy thick. The smell was verdant; pungent: the scent of hot firs and decaying pine-cones. The springy floor was a quilt of spiky needles and crisp leaves which turned to ash as I trod on them.
Ants shuttled up and down the hard trunks, oblivious to my presence. I might have been their God, watching them, occasionally crushing the life out of one, all the while invisible but for my acts.
I played prehistory: I was the first girl on earth. I felt close to nature. Prehistory, I instinctively knew, was a time when humans were much closer to the truth. I looked out at the modern world, at my grandfather´s faux-gothic chateaux, and saw a wild animal which wanted to devour me. Modern life was a façade.
I was an only child and a lonely child, too: something I still struggle to deal with. I used my imagination a lot then – I had to – but imagination is a twin-edged sword. It is primordial, unknowable and although it contains much of you, it also contains the wild and the all. Once you develop it, let it out of the box, it becomes simultaneously free and controlled. Hoping it will do your bidding is like trusting a tamed tiger or elephant. One day, any moment, and for any or no reason, the wild spirit may re-emerge. One must always be prepared for that. I know this now.
I live with this reality day to day. Or, to be more precise, night to night. Often my mind is ahead of my consciousness: I sometimes see the future. Often it processes sensations, mingles them with ancient instincts and creates vivid realities. Faces appear in clouds, in the dark flashes of light behind my eyes, behind me as I lie in bed. Leaves are shiny beetles. I see souls in animals and rivers. I feel the pain of being a stone and see the beauty of sand, as part of a process. I see impossible things, glimpse the worst terrors.
This rabbit, I remember thinking, poking it hard again, is ill.
My grandfather was a white-haired, serious man; thin-faced, always dressed in a shirt and cravat, constantly puffing his pipe. He had been a member of the French Academy for Medicine and lived with a glamourous, decaying creature called Collette. Their estate was just outside Fourchambault and we went there once or twice a year. My mother had died many years before and my father was a sad man, a shopkeeper, who tried his best for me but was a disappointment to everyone, including himself.
As we approached the estate down its long avenue of Italian Cypress trees we would sometimes see my grandfather on a beige cloud of dogs, floating back and forth over the front lawn with a book held up in front of him. He would be frowning, puffing smoke like a train. Not until my father had beeped the horn several times would he look up, and then only to scowl.
The rabbit stared at me from under its three swollen eyelids. It looked half-asleep, drugged. Normally the rabbits I encountered on the estate – and there were many of them – bounded away as soon as I came close but this one tried to shuffle towards me. It was a cowboy left scalped in the dust, still, somehow, alive and begging silently for mercy.
Its eyes were sticky black billiard balls and just as incapable of sight. I stepped closer, bending down, stick poised in case the animal went for me, in some last show of will or fight, but it only sniffed pathetically with its dewy, sore-looking nose. It´s buck teeth were tobacco-yellow. It looked to me as though it had been bitten by midges or gnats: there were bumps and weals rising from the tawny fur all over its face and neck. When it flicked its ears, fleas danced up in a thick, buzzing cloud. It smelled of death: perhaps its soul had already begun to leak out of its rancid fur and diseased pores? I stood back and tried to see, in the sickly sunlight, if anything was visibly departing.
I took the pathetic creature in my arms and began to pick my way back through the bracken and brittle branches. The summer had been very warm. Needles pricked the toes poking out of my sandals until I came out at the edge of a long, sloping lawn in the middle of which, up on a mound, was the swimming pool. Collette was standing between me and the sun in a black bikini, her arms on her uneven hips, ringed fingers glinting. She had a young woman´s figure but her skin couldn´t lie. It was waxy and loose, as though it had melted.
I called out to her as I approached. She turned, wearing dark, fly-eye glasses and a band in her hair, hand to her brow, trying desperately to be glamourous. But I could see what she was, even then. She was a woman chasing her moment of perfection. It is a moment every woman has – perhaps men too – but certainly women and girls. It is a moment when your body, spirit and aura are in line and you are truly radiant. When you flower; when you are at your most beautiful. For some it lasts only a second, the instant before a first kiss for example. For others it is connected to some achievement that has nothing to do with sex or love. It might last days or weeks – the length of a relationship, a holiday or a friendship. For the lucky ones, it lasts a lifetime or never happens at all.
Collette, I could see, as I walked up the steep bank towards her, was not happy. She had no aura. She was an antique; a soul that had not made peace with the passing of time. She wanted to be in flower again but spring had gone. She had fallen. Long since fallen and been trampled asunder. When she finally realised this, her mind would die. I saw all this as I walked up to the swimming pool and she backed away, flapping her arms, screeching.
The buck´s ears pricked up and it thumped its big flipper feet, showing some spirit at last.
My grandfather appeared at the top of the slope with his spaniels yapping around his boots. Father was behind him, as ever, slumped slightly like a hunchback, or someone watching their boules shot to see how it lands. The two were a vision of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
I held the rabbit aloft but my grandfather, foaming at the mouth, whipped it out of my hands with his cane, thrashing my knuckles so hard he drew blood. My fingers fell numb, as though I were playing the piano in mid-air. They would be purple for months.
“Ice and bandages,” grandfather barked and my father looked from me to Collette who was draped backwards over the pool fence with a hand over her brow. Meanwhile the rabbit was having the life beaten out of it via a ceaseless, remorseless rain of thwacks from my grandfather´s cane.
“Bandages!” I screamed until my father got the message and crabbed away uphill towards the house. I knew then, watching him go, that he had been beaten by my grandfather: I had seen the reflection of childhood pain in his eyes. Many times this had happened, probably. My father had the pale, crouching, apologetic look of a beaten man. Even I abused him. He attracted abuse as mice provoke cats to toy with them; toy with them to death.
I must say that throughout all of this I was never angry with my grandfather.
Once he had beaten the rabbit to death he bent to inspect it. I knew before he looked at me, before he spoke, that he was pleased with me; that his violent act had been to protect me in some way. I knew, too, that the rabbit, staring up at the glorious heavens with those dead, broken eyes, was infected and that the infection was the result of something my grandfather had done. I knew all this before he looked up at me and smiled. His eyes were wet with joy.
The three of us – Collette watching from an upper window, eye mask on her forehead, wrinkled hand to sagging mouth – walked out into the afternoon sunshine after a simple, truncated lunch. My knuckles were bandaged. Father was limping, lopsided. “This is the culmination of my life´s work,” grandfather was saying, and similar phrases, ploughing ahead. He was very boring and monotonous about his career, as any retired person is, successful or not.
“But where did you get it, sir?” my father asked, breathless, ducking so low he was almost bent double.
“Henri,” snorted the taller man, as though in disgust. “Who else?”
Henri, I knew, was an old colleague of my grandfather´s. There were many stories about Henri. You know, the one from Uruguay, my grandfather used to say at the beginning of a reminiscence. Worked wonders in Australia. Ah, Henri. I remember once, with Henri…
I shouted, “There´s one!” and we ran across to where a puffy-eyed doe, its skin blistered with tumours, crouched, staring up out of the grass at us. It was docile. Dazed. As it smelled us, it showed its cherry red teeth and gave a great shudder. There were black globules on its lips. Thick, coagulated, freshly-haemorrhaged blood dripped into the hot grass. She was doomed and knew it.
“Magnifique,” my grandfather cried, words which buoyed my heart with joy. “Magnifique!”
He looked up to the cloudless sky as though a prayer had been answered. Now that I know more about his story, I´m quite sure he was looking to see if his parents were paying attention. If they had seen what he had done for them.
We left after breakfast the next morning. It was sunny again but turning. Clouds were sailing in from the horizon, great two-ton cumulus which billowed up for miles.
As soon as he managed to start the car my father began to tell me that when my grandfather was young he was poor.
“It´s hard to believe now, when you see all this,” father shouted, pointing at the great house with its high garrets as we clattered over a grate. I knew he meant the pretty gardens, too, and Collete´s carefully curated rooms. “His parents were practically peasants. Farmers. They lived off the land.” We turned a sharp corner by an ancient wall. “They even had an ox. Sometimes it stayed in the house. Yes, in bad weather, in winter, say, or when summer was very hot, like now. Your grandfather sometimes rode the plough to school, you know.” Father tried to smile but he looked like a shark. “Yes, yes, really. I swear it.”
As we crossed a stone bridge over an algae-covered creek, I saw grandfather´s gamekeeper strolling to work from his cottage. He doffed his cap as we approached and, lit by the rosy morning sunlight, guiding an old horse, a gun strapped to his back and a pipe dangling from his mouth, made a quite beautiful sight. The memory of the old gatekeeper that morning always reminds me of the countryside when I was young. I think of him as my grandfather´s father, although of course this couldn´t be true.
“I´ve been back to where they lived once or twice. Pays de la Loire, it is.” Father was stuttering, shaking his head to free the words. “He always had something pushing him forwards, you see – something to fight for, to fight against.” A thin, wagging finger, still adorned with his wedding ring, rose over the gear stick. “That is the key. That is the key.”
My father´s skin was pale blue. His bones were soft. He ate only rice, cheese and fruit. He thought too much. Worried.
I wanted him to die. I needed him to die. He was the weak link in the chain. I felt closer to my grandfather. I was the next fresh, supple leaf on our plant. My father had withered on the stalk. He went mumbling on, revolting me.
“He saw my grandparents forced into poverty because of rabbits. One year they destroyed almost ninety percent of the crops on the farm. The family never recovered. They had no money.” Father chewed the skin around his thumbnail. “Terrible times.”
I felt a bump and, kneeling up on the hot seat, saw, in the middle of the narrow, empty avenue behind us, a freshly squashed rabbit. Its soul was clearly visible, rising like steam. The soul was well-formed: happy to be free. It was an old soul and it floated up towards the pointed crests of the Cypresses happy in the knowledge it was free again and might yet become something higher. Perhaps a large beast. Perhaps a naked ape. Perhaps a rainbow.
A fox came out of the ditch and paused in the road not far from the corpse. It stared me right in the eye, frozen in mid-stride, until we turned at a bend in the road.
In June 1952 Dr Paul Armand Delille, a retired member of the French Royal Academy of Medicine, inoculated two rabbits on his private estate in Fourchambault in an attempt to curb the rabbit population on his land. Within four months the virus had spread 26 miles (50km). By 1954, 90% of the wild rabbits in France were dead. The disease spread quickly across Europe, decimating the rabbit population. The disease was myxomatosis.