The Rabbit’s Head

Fiction
Omid Fallahazad


Photo Credit: Kurayba/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

At first, she didn’t want to leave the house. He had to threaten her, then entice her, both tactics involving how much screen time she would get on his iPad, and she finally yielded. He thought they needed to go for a walk, with all that was on the news, just to get some fresh air.

It had rained all night, soaking roof shingles and leaving the tree bark a shade or two darker in color. Now it was drizzling with the confused wind of late March. He took their umbrellas from the stand. She giggled when opening the umbrella. He, too, felt childishly giddy going through the motions—the soft, springy release button, the way the canopy opened with a flapping sound, the gentle pitter-patter of the first raindrops landing overhead.

But then a gust of wind blew from behind and snatched his umbrella. For half a second the handle was out of his grip, the umbrella suspended in the air like magic. The man clasped the handle just in time and drew it back. The girl screamed. The wind was lifting her umbrella too, pulling it until the yellow, duck-faced canopy popped inside out. The metal ribs rattled hard. He turned about and gave instructions, yelling. She managed to point the top of her umbrella against the wind. It instantly popped back into shape, dignified, as if nothing had happened. The wind suddenly dropped, and he recovered his umbrella, too. He told her to pay attention to the treetops, to watch for ripples in unmoved puddles, any sign that helped to read the wind. She listened intently.

“You stick to me if we see someone’s coming our way, you understand?”

She nodded.

“And don’t say hello. No hellos.”

She held the handle close to her face, white-knuckled, wide-eyed, and nodded again.

They walked through the long U-shaped suburban neighborhood without a word. On the outer side of the curve, the sloping lot, stood colonial houses, imposing and a bit too angular. Water sprouts were shooting from the pruning wounds of a large birch tree. There was a bicycle left on the pedestal of a stump near a mailbox post. Opposite, on the flat surface of the inner side, was a handful of snug ranch homes, each surrounded by a modest but manicured lawn and dark-soiled flowerbeds. A couple times, the man had to stop for the girl to catch up with him. No matter how slow he strolled, she kept falling behind. As he waited, he stared at the picture windows of the houses, drawn to the eerie serenity of their dim interiors.

“Faster,” he called, and twirled the umbrella handle. Large droplets flew off the rib tips in a helix pattern. The air smelled of pine cones. In fifty yards or so, they would reach the main road. Time to decide. Should they turn around and retrace their path through the neighborhood to get back home, or go ahead and complete the loop by taking the main road, which connected the two ends of the U? Similar lengths, but one with possible predicaments. Predicaments, if anyone else decided to come out during that hour, like the lean bandit man the other day. But even an eager jogger like the bandit man could do without such miserable, spitting drizzle. That was what the man hoped for.

The girl was in no rush. The sleeves of her parka were wet up to her shoulder seams. He could see why. She was carrying the umbrella bindle-like, drifting along the edge of the grass, talking to herself, or to the imaginary characters in her head.

He walked up to the main road and scanned the sidewalk all the way to the bridge over the muddy river. It looked deserted. Nothing moved in the rain-slicked, single-lane road either. Regardless, the decision had triggered a fluttering in his chest, and he knew it wouldn’t go away until they’d reached the next corner and veered off back to the safety of their neighborhood. She was still lagging behind by ten paces or so. There was no sign of the jogger.

Last time, he had appeared from the other side of the road, apparition-like, and crossed the empty street with nimble side strides. Red-faced, forehead glistening in sweat. Workout layering all in black, like a thin-limbed bandit, except that he had no mask, nor scarf. The man had acted by instinct, placing himself between his daughter and the jogger’s projected path. He had assumed that the jogger would jump over the curb into the bike lane to maintain some distance between them, but he didn’t. He stayed his course and came at them. It felt like watching the act of predation from the prey’s point of view. The man put his arm around the girl and made a shield of his body for her. The pull caused a stumble in the girl’s quick steps. But then she did the unexpected. In a singsong voice, she blurted out: “Hello!”

The response, a massive, guttural “Hi” that the jogger barked back at them, shocked the man. His body went slack. He saw a stream of sweat and spittle shedding off the jogger’s jowls, or so he imagined in his nightmarish replays of the encounter. It was like the old Gatorade commercials in which athletes’ blue and orange sweat went off flying into the dark. Dribbling sweat while dribbling the ball, all shot in an artistic rim light. A recent viral video showed how laser beams were employed in some darkroom lab to highlight airborne spittles issued from a person speaking. The phosphorus light traced the particles just short of the microbial level. Amazing how far they traveled, how many of the concentric circles they reached. Who knew that death would become the human body’s most easily transmittable trait? Death, not love, not intelligence, not happiness. Death and disease, spreading like a yawn.

“Look at this!” the man called, standing before a rain puddle on the sidewalk.

At first, the girl couldn’t see what he saw. At her height, the reflection of the clouds masked everything. He held his umbrella above the puddle.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

But he lost it, too. He could only see a pine needle afloat pointing northward, compass-like. A little squinting, a little bending, and the grainy asphalt came to focus. A tooth-size piece of gravel. A few bits of wood chip, mulch or not, cinnamon-colored and fibrous.

“What is it?”

“A worm.”

“A worm?” She squatted down with a sympathetic moan.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“It moves.”

“Water makes it bob,” he said. “It doesn’t wiggle.”

She reached for a twig at the edge of the lawn.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Wait, Daddy,” she murmured. He could hear her swallow as she prodded the flesh-pink worm with surgical focus. Her dark curls, raindrops beaded in them, covered the nape of her neck.

He began to walk away, irritated with himself for showing her the worm. Perhaps it was habit rather than impulse. Every walk was punctuated with pauses like that, to point out the living things: a bird, a bug, dandelions, shoots, bumblebees. Now that he thought of it, maybe it was more to marvel at dead things. Yes, the dead. The hollowed tree trunk oozing decomposed cork powder. Rustling dry leaves clawing the pavement in the wind. The squashed bird, bones and feathers matted up under the sun, turning into a dusty felt whose mere proximity made their skin itch. A long-legged frog’s carcass, so hardened black that he thought there must be something he could make from the leathery piece, a patch of armor or a knife sheath, if only he had inherited the artisanship of some ancestors from a buried civilization. Dead ants by the dozen, belly-up roaches, coiled spiders. Bees, curled up as if stabbing themselves in the heart with their stinger, in seppuku, maybe. Did they even have hearts, the bees? And if they did, could they die from a heart attack? Another peculiar thing he could puzzle over. How had his eyes managed to see such things in the first place? Like this dead earthworm, putrid pink in the bottom of a rain puddle. It could be mistaken for anything, for a stringy, red root, or a tender, leafless offshoot, snapped when the wind made branches cross sabers. Or even a piece of yarn, a snagged thread of a sort, discovered as giggling guests got out of their car and rang the bell, bottle and chocolate dessert in hand. It must have been a cold evening, a Christmas party, when the wife spotted the red snag on the husband’s ugly sweater and yanked it right before the jolly host opened the door and invited them inside. The snow buried the small piece of yarn, and now that the ice had melted away, it had re-emerged, soiled and faded in the puddle. It could have gone unnoticed, plastered to the pavement until its total disintegration by the elements, except that it hadn’t. More importantly, it wasn’t a snag. It was a worm, a dead one, and she was carrying it on her tiny stick, her face crinkled up in the needling drizzle.

“You’re bringing it? What for?”

“For a funeral, of course.”

A funeral? He smirked, dumbfounded, but then turned, alarmed by the syncopated pop, pop, pop of a car’s exhaust. He saw the vehicle in the distance, a white pickup truck about 500 yards away, on the bridge. It swerved violently to the opposite lane, and its fat tires under the extended fender flares hit the sidewalk curb. The wet surface of the road bled red with the reflection of the brake lights. It must be something in the current, or maybe the lapping river itself, that had caught the driver’s eye.

“Hurry up.” He grabbed the girl by the wrist, but she cried in protest, and he had to switch to her other hand, the one that held the umbrella, not the stick.

“Can you run,” he asked, “just to get to the corner?”

She couldn’t, not with her eyes glued to the worm dangling from the stick. The truck was creeping back to the left lane, straightening itself. He knew that they wouldn’t make it, that there would be some overlap, them being on the sidewalk and the truck passing by. He could hear the fizz of tires on wet asphalt louder, nearer. Mist clouds plumed around the truck, and he suddenly had another fit of anxiety, this time at the prospect of an accident: he saw a steel object, something polished like the head of a golf club, coming off the spinning truck, going airborne with an impossible trajectory toward his daughter’s skull.

“Run!” He pulled her and the truck kept coming towards them. Ten yards from the corner, they passed each other. He locked eyes with the driver. They looked puffy, menacing, a day-long wrangle in them. The stubbled young driver had one arm in a sling. And of course, there was a dark-haired woman in the passenger seat, disturbed-looking, clinging to the dashboard. The truck looked sleek and unused.

The man and his daughter turned the corner, the noise quickly fizzling out behind them. From there he could see his lawn, cocooned in the quiet of the U-shaped neighborhood.

“I dropped it,” the girl whimpered. “I dropped the worm.”

“Look there.” He pointed at another puddle, this one on the neighborhood’s sidewalk, elongated and murkier than the first one. The girl immediately squatted down next to the water and began scraping the mud with her stick. The man’s toes felt cold in his dampened shoes. He checked his pocket for his phone, then remembered that he had left it at home on purpose, not so much to protect it from the rain but to save himself from the news. He’d had enough of the news. If it wasn’t the charts and radiating maps, it was bystander footage of refrigerator trucks and body bags forklifted onto them, or selfies of racoon-eyed nurses during their “mask break,” or scenes of burials with undertakers in all-white, resembling a moonlander crew. That could drive anyone insane, could force them out of their homes, drunk or not. And if you’re in the middle of a domestic fight, driving recklessly on an empty road, a muddy river was an invitation to darker thoughts. Better keep certain things out of people’s heads. Dissection wasn’t meant for everyone. Leave some stones unturned, some stuff unstudied, like the rabbit’s head.

He had come across the bloody head about a week ago, during one of their furtive walks. It sat on the sidewalk, its exposed front teeth just an inch from a pea pod of dark droppings. The head was missing the lower jaw, so cleanly severed it looked like a pencil drawing in a zoology textbook. He rerouted the girl to avoid the scene. But the eerie mystery of it, the Wiccan composition, bothered him. Why the droppings? Were they the predator’s? A coyote’s, perhaps? How could the rest of the carcass vanish without a trace of blood, without a tuft of fur?

Pop, pop, pop. The noise had returned. He eyed the main road. The girl was trying to dislodge a rock with the ferrule of her umbrella. Rain dripped from her springy curls. The loud engine sound caromed through the nearby houses. He saw the pickup truck drive by again, churning up mist clouds, tires hissing on wet asphalt. He saw the woman’s face. It was squished against the side window, not in a playful pig snout but in profile, cheek flattened on the glass, an eye contorted shut. And he registered the movements, the flailing hands fighting his arm that repeatedly hacked at them. That, he saw.

He came over to the girl. Under her umbrella, she was absently cooing at some living things. He picked up the wet rock and returned to the corner. The truck had stopped on the bridge in a peculiar position, two wheels on the road and the other two propped up on the curb. The rear windshield wiper was running fast. The door on the passenger side opened and closed. The man could make out a deadened yelling. Again, the door flung open, and the woman’s head and shoulder appeared with a jerk and disappeared inside the car. That happened a few times, like a cuckoo clock, each time the torso swinging out with a greater force until her hips were pushed off the seat, suspended in the air. But she hung on to the cab, hands clinging to the frame and heels hooked behind the sill.

Hey,” the man yelled, taking a couple steps forward. The woman found a moment to pull herself back inside and slam the door shut. Whether or not the driver was watching him in the rearview mirror, he could not tell. He squeezed the wet stone in his fist, muddy water dribbling through his fingers.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

He waited still. The truck door stayed shut. Then the red and white taillights came on in succession, a sign that the driver was working the gearshift.

“Daddy, hurry up,” his daughter called.

He glanced at the first house, the one closest to them, at the shut, quiet door behind strands of water dripping from the eaves.

“Daddy. Daddy.” The girl was walking to him. “I need to save them.” She had left the umbrella by the puddle. In the muddy cup of her hands, he saw the worms, two dirty filaments of flesh twitching violently.

“Away from the road,” he waved her off. “Go, get your umbrella, go!”

“I need a jar.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Why don’t you listen, Daddy?”

He cocked his head in the direction of the bridge. He didn’t know what to expect—a screeching over-steer for takeoff, or a slow, reluctant dispatch. He wasn’t sure how to account for any of those possibilities.

“I’m going home,” the girl announced and marched off, leaving her umbrella on the ground. It looked like a spinning top at rest. Her parka glistened wet all over. The man waited at the corner, listening to the drum of rain. Finally the truck moved and tires slowly came off the elevated curb, one at the time.

He watched the truck for a few more seconds, a last attempt to decipher any characters on the license plate. Pointless. Then he turned and started toward the yellow umbrella. A mellow gust of wind got ahead of him and teasingly tossed it into the puddle. About four houses farther, the girl had stopped to pack some more dirt around the worms in her hand. The man was in no rush. For once, let her be the one who had to cool her heels. Just as he reached the umbrella, the wind picked it up again and sailed it over onto the neighbor’s lawn. Uneasy, he invaded the lawn, but the wind swept the umbrella again, and it landed behind a sphere boxwood. Well, there was life and there was death, and there were all things in between, ridiculous things. Better get a hold of this umbrella before it turned into a circus. This time, he zeroed in on it with open arms and a wide-based gait, as if trying to catch a wild turkey. He snatched the handle, and, much relieved, shook it and collapsed it closed. Things in between, whatever it meant, he needn’t get doubly drenched like that.

When he returned to the sidewalk, he saw that the girl had stopped again, this time one house before theirs. She was holding out her arms, showing her precious finds in the palm of her hand to a bent-over, beaming bandit man.

pencil

Born and raised in Iran, Omid Fallahazad is a bilingual writer. His works of fiction in Farsi include a novel and two short story collections, all published in exile. He has also been a contributor in a number of Iranian diaspora publications and media outlets by giving interviews and as a writer of reviews and essays. His English writings have appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as Paul Revere’s Horse, World Literature Today, Tremors, and My Shadow Is My Skin. His short fiction, “Arrested,” won a prize and was published in Glimmer Train Magazine in 2016. Email: omid.fallahazad[at]gmail.com