The first time I saw my yiayia skinning a rabbit, I was a child, and young enough that I don’t remember how old I was when it happened.
I just remember walking into her kitchen and her with her back to us, bent over the sink which overlooked her overgrown urban farm. There was the clatter of cages, the sounds of her budgerigars–hassling one another for a peck of cuttle fish that stuck, like broken femurs, from the sides of the cages that hung from the shingles of the bungalow next to the house–and the smell of tomato plants that permeated everything outside, baking in the sun and sifting in through the flywire door that led from the kitchen to the jungle. The knot of her apron was a bulbous protrusion in the middle of her back, her elbow sawing to-and-fro in its dangerous work.
She turned to greet us as we bundled in–me and mom and baby (or was it me and mom and toddler and baby by then?)–with her usual grimace, her deeply lined face making her seem a million years older than she would ever live to be. In one bare hand she bore her weapon, a sharp knife, and in the other she held the hind legs of the dead rabbit in a fearless vice grip, skin on skin, covered in blood.
The rabbits lived at the bottom of her vegetable garden, but it wasn’t a garden so much as it was a jungle masquerading as one; a wild hinterland that has no business growing smack in the middle of this city as it did. From the twisting vines of string beans, reaching upwards against wooden stakes hammered into the dirt, to blossoming pumpkin flowers that blazed like mini-suns in their green universe, to my favorites, the cankerous cucumbers that bulged unexpectedly amidst the softer, daintier fruits (herbs, olives, figs), none of it should have existed where it did.
There were five lemon trees too, and as children we would pee up against them because yiayia told us the lemons would be juicer, yellower, sourer. In the summertime after school was out, we’d sit in her living room glued to the television melting ice cubes in our belly buttons and she’d bring us a whole lemon each, peeled of its skin and cut into quarters, doused in sugar for the little ones (not for me though, the oldest, the strongest), and we would eat them as though they were oranges, believing we would grow magic with the power of our own urine.
So this jungle, where we would play hide and seek between rows and rows of greenery (and sit and eat straight from the branches as we waited to be found), was a secret, and people would say “oh what a lovely garden you have,” but it never really sounded quite right, hearing those words roll off a stranger’s tongue.
The rabbit hutch, embedded there at the bottom of the garden, down a makeshift stone path and pressed up against the great corrugated iron wall that signified the end of the jungle and the beginning of the cobbled laneway behind it, was handmade; some wood, a few nails, and chicken wire. Incidentally, there was a chicken coop too, right next to the rabbits; we ate their eggs in the mornings, when grandma would put them in little cups and we’d hit them over the head with a back of a spoon, peeling back the tan shells just enough to dip our soldiers in their gooey centres.
Once, as a child (still not old enough to remember how old, but old enough to remember and young enough to be embarrassed), I opened the door to the part of the rabbit hutch that led to the enclosed boudoir, where the rabbits slept, only to find one rabbit had mounted another and was vibrating, furiously. I quickly shut the door and never told my grandmother that I’d seen such an indecent thing, for an irrational fear that I would be reprimanded for bearing witness to such an unholy union.
Later, that rabbit, the one that looked up at me with big red eyes, that continued on vibrating as my child’s face, astonished, stared down into the cage, would be splayed across the cutting board, it’s two hind legs in my yiayia’s strong, bare hand. Or at least I imagined it was him. Back and forth her elbow went, and I (not old enough to remember how old, but old enough to be squeamish), could not watch.
It wasn’t until the rabbit was entirely skinless that I took my own dare to hazard a peek. And there he lay; naked and bloody, in a kind of rigor mortis that made him look as though he’s just stretched out on a summer day to tan, but had perhaps stayed out too long or fallen asleep in the sun. His eyes were disappeared, hollows in his skull, and I wondered if all animals were really just cows under their skin, because he looked like one of the cows I’d seen hanging from a butcher’s hook at the deli one time, just much, much smaller.
She held the knife under the running faucet and let the water turn to pink, then clear, and dried her calloused hands against her apron. She put her dry hands on her hips for a moment, and looked out over her jungle. But it was only for a second–then she was bending, pulling out a pot, standing again, by the sink, filling the pot with water and salt, cutting vegetables and preparing sauce.
The rabbit lay on it’s side, waiting.