I was cleaning cages in the garage. I had to clean half of the twenty-seven cages and aquariums every day to keep the smell down or my folks would start evicting my critters. Various rodents, lizards, and amphibians lined two walls in the garage and a corner of the basement. No animals were allowed in my room. Mine was next to theirs and Mom, especially, was personally affronted by pungent odors. It wasn’t easy to maintain control of the odor because I didn’t have store-bought bedding for my rodents and had to use hand-shredded newspapers. Selling babies to the local pet shop kept me in seed and pellets, but I couldn’t afford bedding. The manager preferred buying his rats, mice, hamsters, and guinea pigs from me because mine were all gentle, hand-tamed, and less likely to be returned for biting. He saved cracked aquariums and gave them to me for free. Neighbor kids brought me their folks’ newspapers and were on trash alert for great stuff like a bruised apple, wilting lettuce, or a pile of carrot tops and peelings from dinner. A couple of moms even wrapped their critter salvageable garbage in waxed paper for their kids to deliver for my “zoo.” Kids always popped in. All those little hands helped keep the babies tame and I taught them how to be gentle with animals.
As I softly poured a hamster family from the ice cream pail back into their clean cage, I heard a small troop of feet come up short by the open garage door. “I’m cleaning right now. Can’t play with ‘em till I’m done, okay?”
As I slid the cage cover on, they all started talking at once. “No. Rita, look! Look what we found.” My heart sank. I turned and saw two kids with hands cupped gingerly in front of them moving forward. One of the red-headed boys had something scooped up in his t-shirt and there were several observers anxiously circling.
“We saved ‘em, we did. From where they’re diggin’.” The foundation for the new Senior High School had begun about a block and a half away, just across the road from Moore Lake.
“You’re not supposed to go over there, ya know. Better not let anybody catch ya,” I warned. They knew I searched The Flower Field after the workmen went home. I was second to the oldest in the neighborhood. Besides, nobody would bother to tell my folks, anyways.
“We were watching from the backyard over there across the street.”
“They shut the machines off. They’re gone- eating their lunch.”
“Yeah! We snuck out. Only on the edge. Not by the big hole, ya know?”
“I didn’t go. I stayed in the yard,” said a little girl in back.
“Me, too. I stayed in the yard, too.”
“They chopped the Mom rabbit!”
“Yeah! They chopped her!”
“Well, most probley it was the Mom, ya know. She wasn’t way far from the babies.”
“It was the Mom,” pronounced the little girl with wet eyes.
“Yeah! Really icky! All blood and stuff.”
“This one’s leg is broke, though, Rita. Can ya fix it?” Hopeful hands raise the baby like an offering. A white bone stuck out of the rabbit’s back leg and the splintering of the wishbone at Thanksgiving jolted to mind.
“You didn’t see a cat or a dog by there, did ya?” I wondered about the facts.
“Lookit! You can see the bone right there.” One of the girls stuck her pointing finger too close.
“Get away. Don’t touch it.” The boy shouldered away from her.
“This one here’s got a bloody nose.” Another offering.
“Just a minute. Let me get a box for them.” I scrambled up the big ladder leaning against the back wall and found the smallest box I could in the rafters where all the forgotten junk was piled.
“Hey, Rita! Rita! He’s got three more of ‘em in his shirt.”
“Just a minute. I’m comin’.” Stealing an old hand towel from Dad’s rag-bag near the foot of the ladder, I headed back over to the group by the door. They hovered as I fixed up the box.
“Remember,” I warned, “I found those four baby rabbits last week that were way bigger. They had their eyes open and could hop and everything and didn’t look hurt or nothin’, but they all died.” I took the broken-leg bunny from the dirt-encrusted hands. Being ten, I could fit it pretty much in one hand. It never made a sound. I laid it carefully in one end of the box. It just laid there, flat on its side with its legs straight out and was barely breathing. It never tried to move. “Don’t think this one’s gunna make it. Sorry, can’t do nothin’ ‘bout the leg.”
“Here. Lookit this one.” The bloody-nose bunny was placed in my hand. I lifted my palm up and tried to see it from different angles. The blood was just kind of sitting in its nose making little blood bubbles. It was trying to sit up and I saw blood in its mouth, too.
“It musta got hurt inside.” When I set it down there was a little airy-squeak and it pushed its clotting nose up next to the broken-leg one, wobbled and fell over. “Don’t look good,” I sadly diagnosed.
The red-headed boy had inched forward and pulled his shirt out. A clump of bunnies swung in the bottom of his t-shirt hammock. These looked more normal, so I picked them right up, one by one, and looked them over and put them in the other end of the box. “These ones look good, but don’t know if I can save ‘em. Lookit. Their eyes aren’t even open yet. But, I’ll try, okay? But don’t be surprised if they all die like the last ones. Remember -these ones are even littler babies.”
I pulled a corner of the towel up over the three good ones who had curled up together in a ball. That done- I turned, put my hands on my hips and eyed them all good. “You could get hurt over there and I don’t want any of you kids gettin’ hurt, ya know? You hear me? What if you fell in that big hole and could never get out? What if you got chopped up like the Mom rabbit? Huh? What about that?” I stared them into silence. “If you see somethin’ just come and get me, okay? I will go out there, not you. Okay? Promise?”
“You guys, The Flower Field is gone. You’ll have to play over in The Grass Field and The Sand Dunes, ya know. And, you guys stay away from The Big Sand Dune and The Dead End so those bigger boys don’t push you down. You know you can come get me if you need me, okay?”
“Okay. I gotta try and get ‘em to drink something now, so you guys gotta get goin’. You should be eatin’ lunch, anyways. You can come and ask me every day how they’re doin’, ya know.”
With bright eyes and confident hearts, they scattered.
Carefully carrying the box steady, I opened the back screen door. Silence. I scooted through the backside of the house into my bedroom and quickly shut the door. Kicking everything over to one side of my closet floor, I scuttled the box into the corner, hauled the lamp in there, flicked the light on over them, and hunched cross-legged over the box. They had tiny ears lying flat to their heads and they reminded me of newborn kittens. At least I had learned not to use the heat lamp Dad used for his bad back. I, literally, cooked some Mallard eggs the kids brought me last year. My eyes still sting every time I picture the warm, wet feathers shining through the small hole I had delicately picked with shaking tweezers when I checked one of the eggs after it was cool enough to handle. Ignorance is no excuse for murder.
I wondered if the workmen thought about the animals they killed every day. It was spring, 1961, and there were babies everywhere up on The Flower Field where they were digging. Baby rabbits, thirteen-striped ground squirrels, gophers, mice, moles, killdeer, garter snakes, meadowlarks, and skinks were the ones I could think of right off. That’s not counting the salamanders, frogs and toads who wandered across the road from the lake. The best part of my own personal sanctuary was being plowed under. The prairie grass was shorter there and you could twirl and twirl about, arms raised to the sun, amidst the wildflowers. Tiny yellow, clumpy purple, small violet, yellow beady, and purple thistly flowers grew there. There were white flowers that grew in clusters like parachutes and orange daisies we made wishes on while we plucked them naked. I just could not believe that teeming, flowered meadowland was being replaced by a stupid old school. I hoped as many critters as possible had escaped either to The Lake on the one side or to The Grass Field and Sand Dunes on the other.
The bloody-nose bunny quit breathing. Not the one I thought would die first, but I was glad it wasn’t suffering anymore. I wished the broken-leg one would die soon, poor thing. It’s hard to tell how an animal feels when you can’t see its eyes.
I grabbed a couple of Kleenexes out of the box on my headboard, wrapped up the dead one and shut my bedroom door on my way out. I peeked in the living room and Dad was asleep in his chair. Saturday afternoon. I went out the back way to the garage, put the dead bunny in the ice cream pail and covered it. No time for burying. There’d be another soon, anyways, so I went back and stashed the bucket in my closet. Then I located the doll bottle in the basement, even though the last bunnies hated it and had kicked scratches all over my hands and forearms in protest. I needed to find something else. I searched the basement. I scrounged through the garage and quietly through the kitchen, so I wouldn’t wake Dad. In the bathroom medicine cabinet was a bottle of old eardrops with an eyedropper.
Down the drain. Hot water and soap.
“What on earth are you doing in there? That water’s been running for five minutes!”
Mom! I hadn’t seen her when I went through the house. She must have been in their bedroom with the door shut. Not good.
“Nothin’. Just washing my hands. Been cleanin’ cages. I’m almost done.”
“Well, good.” Oh, great! Dad was up. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, ya know. We pay for all that hot water.” He was backing her up. Not good.
I hid the bottle in my underpants. “Okay, okay. I’m done,” I said as I was already shutting my bedroom door.
The broken-leg one hadn’t died yet, so I covered it with some Kleenexes to keep it warm and, to be honest, so I wouldn’t have to look at that bone for a while. It puzzled me why it was hardly bleeding. I tried to give it some warm water where it laid, but it didn’t move. Arranging a t-shirt in my lap from my dirty clothes on the closet floor, I proceeded with the careful task of coaxing the three good bunnies into drinking some water from the eyedropper. I didn’t want to fetch milk for them until I knew whether Mom was working herself up to one of her filibusters or if this would rate as a minor skirmish. She sounded testy.
We moved to Fridley, Minnesota in 1956. We had been living in a duplex in South Minneapolis. My world had been; sidewalks, traffic, squirrels, tall trees, and a fenced-in back yard with patchy grass. I remember when we drove out one day after a rainstorm to see how the house was coming along. I thought the new housing development was an awful place to live. Flat. Sand. No roads- just rutted paths and mud puddles everywhere. Everything had been leveled and lots were paced off with stakes and string. Houses were in various stages of development. Basement holes were dug, cement floors poured, cement block walls were raised, and the dirt was filled back in around the basement walls and window wells when the blocks were dry. The timber foundations were braced for the main floor, the floor bases were laid, and then the outside walls would go up. Our house had gotten to the skeletal wall stage when we came creeping up the rutty road and Mom and Dad pointed out our new home.
Dad was going to park where it looked like the driveway was supposed to be. Mom said it looked like a lake there and he should park wherever he wanted. Always alert to authority, Dad was sure he would get in trouble if he didn’t park in the proper place. Mom said it was all just sand, anyway. There may have been no defining lines yet in the naked suburb, but there were always defining lines between my folks.
I don’t remember where we parked, but I do remember walking a wobbly plank over a mud puddle to get to the stacked basement blocks that formed the temporary front steps, climbing halfway up and Dad grabbing me by one arm and hauling me up onto a vast wooden platform. I stood on that plywood floor with the breeze blowing my jacket, looking through the wooden frame in all directions and thinking this was a terrible, empty, dead place as far as the eye could see. There was not one living thing. Not one tree. Not one blade of grass.
“I don’t want to move here,” I whined, tugging at Mom’s coat.
“Lots of kids will be moving here. You’ll like it.” She smiled.
She was all happy on the way home.
That night she cried. She was afraid the new neighbors wouldn’t accept her. She cried for three days.
Mom was right. There were, quite literally, kids everywhere. Every single house had toddlers and babies. Witnessing the magical transformation of the neighborhood was an adventure that mesmerized our puerile minds and convinced us we had moved into a place of eminence and grandiosity. Awe-inspiring machines graded and paved the streets with smelly hot tar and giant roller machines. A procession of giant dump trucks visited the bare yards, leaving mountains of black dirt that the moms had to keep the little kids out of all day until the shirtless, sweaty dads could shovel it into wheel-barrels and scatter the dark, loamy lumps to the staked edges of their property lines. Next came the huge flatbed trucks filled with rolls of grass.
The city planted a slip of an elm tree in everybody’s front yard by the street. The sandy soil was an unforgiving host and most of them died. There were no curbs or sidewalks. Garages went up- mostly doubles. Driveways appeared- with the kind of tar that would burn your feet and sink your kickstand in the hot summer sun. Flowers, shrubs, and trees arrived. The whole neighborhood went from brown sand to green manicured lawns in what seemed the blink of an eye and another suburb of Minneapolis was born.
We lived about a block away from the untouched Minnesota prairie land that surrounded the end and side of our part of the Vern Donnay housing development. We lived on the tip of, what seemed to us, an endless stretch of blocks of houses and on the opposite side was Moore Lake. I lived for summer. My heart and soul thrived at The Dead End, The Creek, The Grass Field, The Sand Dunes, The Big Sand Dune, The Flower Field and The Lake.
Take The Dead End, for instance. The short tar road just stopped on the top of a small incline. The rain had gradually undermined the artificial tar horizon, cracked and crumbled the edges of the road and dropped it off into a miniature, swirling ravine that fed The Creek that advanced across The Grass Field and carved through the base of The Big Sand Dune. The Dead End was my favorite place to be during the thunder and lightning of a hard summer rain. Waiting in anticipation for the dark swirling water of The Drop Off to rise high enough to overflow, being peltingly caressed with warm water, staring into the darkness of the unknown depths, being privy to the rushing birth of The Creek, staying ahead of the creation all the way to the oak tree at the base of The Big Sand Dune, laughing at my footprints in the sand, appreciating the true beauty of wet rocks, floating leaves, wiping water out of my eyes, and opening my mouth to the rain with arms spread wide was definitely worth the random possibility of being electrocuted by lightning. The sun came out and the creek dried up. Left in memory were the imprints of the moving water against the sand and the flattened grasses. I learned about the power of God at The Dead End.
The third good bunny suddenly stiffened in my cupped hand against my chest. Silently the little legs stuck out and it trembled. I hadn’t even gotten the eyedropper out yet. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t see what was wrong. Its mouth had opened and the tip of its tiny gray tongue stuck out. I knew it was dying. I just held it, kept it company and waited.
I wrapped the bunny in Kleenex and put it in the ice cream pail. Mom’s voice was louder and higher. The broken-leg bunny was dead, too. I wrapped it and put it with the other two in the pail. The remaining two had damp faces and they felt cool, even with the lamp on them. The bulb was too far away, but after the Mallard eggs I wasn’t pressing my luck. I could still hear Mom in the kitchen. I dashed out and grabbed a hand towel and two baby pins from the hall closet. I put the two in the towel, folded it in half and pinned it to my shoulders with the big baby pins. Cradling the bundle with my left hand, I put the lamp back where it belonged, moved the box and pail to the other side of the closet, sat in the corner and slid the closet door not quite shut. Now I could relax. They wouldn’t know I was here and I had enough light to use the eyedropper. I could hear Mom crying and shouting in the living room. Three dead already. It got hard to breathe and a tear fell off my face onto the towel.
When I was trapped in the house and couldn’t get away to my wild sanctuary, I could always go there in my head. I leaned my head back, propped up my legs, wedged my hands beneath the bunny bundle and remembered saved animals. One of the older girls came over one evening last spring to tell me that there were some birds in a tree trunk beyond her back yard on the edge of The Grass Field. “My mom and dad say they haven’t seen them get fed since yesterday. My mom watches the woodpeckers from the kitchen window- now she’s all sad because they’ll die. I told her I would come and tell you…that maybe you could do something for them?”
There were a few abandoned basement cement blocks on the edge of The Grass Field. Sandy helped me haul one over to the tree and put it on end the tall way. By this time it was dusk. I wasn’t tall enough to see in, but was close enough to just tentatively reach inside the hole. Beaks lunged at my fingers. I snapped my hand back so fast that I teetered the block. They were awful strong and were obviously better off in the tree trunk. We caught some grasshoppers. The birds actually pecked them out of my hand when I held them in the hole. They hurt my fingers, so I knew I couldn’t get any of the kids to help me.
Sandy and I spread the word and the kids brought me all kinds of bugs. Their initial enthusiasm waned in a couple of days, but by that time there were only a couple of beaks in the hole. Those birds ate so violently that I couldn’t believe they were dying in there, but they were either dying or leaving. I wasn’t tall enough to see into the hole, but I could see their heads sometimes and they had feathers. It smelled bad enough that I thought maybe they were dying in there!
That last week I only felt one left, which was actually good because by the second week I was getting tired of catching bugs all by myself and my hands were raw from beak abuse. Coming to the tree with a jar of juicy grasshoppers, I was just about to stun breakfast by snapping the jar back and forth as hard as I could, when I was stopped dead in my tracks. There was a grown bird sitting in the hole - just watching me. It took me a moment to realize it was the last baby, because it was a regular-sized bird, just a little fluffy looking. Seeing the whole bird, not just the bobbing top of the head and the flash of an eye, was enlightening. I wasn’t sure it was even a woodpecker.
We just stared at each other. Then it leaned forward and took off like it had always known how to fly. It flew low along the waving blanket of tall prairie grass and then rose up and circled the tree three times and headed toward The Lake. I let the grasshoppers go. I waded through the grass until I found a level spot without too many rocks, laid flat on my back, stared up the tapping straw walls in the narrow hole my body made, and watched dragonflies and clouds until lunch. Despite my total lack of categorical or labeling interest, I must confess that I searched bird books at the library until I found a picture of that up-close meeting.
We saved at least one baby flicker last year.
I smiled to myself in the corner of my closet. The two babies wiggled in the towel. They were warm now, so I reached for the eyedropper.
There was a physical pain in my chest when I thought about The Flower Field. Now, even The Dead End seemed pregnant with ominous intent, poised as it was over The Grass Field. I could not even imagine my life without startling a basking skink on a dune and watching it whip its stubby, snake-like body across the sand with its furious little legs pumping; or ignoring the male Killdeer’s pleading, broken-winged, pied-piper performance to walk softly in the opposite direction so as to glimpse the frozen female guarding her grass nest; or sitting on the crest of The Big Sand Dune and looking across the top of the oak leaves; or hearing the familiar rustling of the tall prairie grass that billowed in the breeze like a mom shaking out a clean sheet over a bed; or enduring the rough bark on the back of my thigh for the perfect, perching crook of the gnarly oak tree in The Flower Field; or twirling in the sun amidst the wildflowers.
I couldn’t imagine my life without it.
By some miracle, one bunny lived. The neighbors complained about Juniper for years, because she grazed in their gardens and bore babies under their bushes. She had to live with us… in the housing development. The remaining prairie land was transformed rapidly into more housing and Little League softball fields.
For the past forty years, when life cuts hard, I can still close my eyes and escape into my sanctuary fields…arms splayed, face to the sun, I twirl and twirl…where wildflowers brush my bare toes and baby bunnies are safe.