Four score and many meals ago, I set forth to make friends with rabbits. Not Beatrix Potter fantasies or Lewis Carroll shenanigans—real rabbits. Real friends.
It happened once upon a time in a German dorf where rabbits play and wine is as plentiful as water. In those days, I would daly in fields and vineyards, sprint headfirst into sheets of rain, and play hide-and-seek with my brothers. On odd days of sunshine, I would amble down Heidenshuhstraße to the farmer’s barn where the musk of animals loitered. I’d push open the gate and clomp through piles of hay (a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles socks hauled up my calves) to the rabbit warren at the back.
The farmer’s name was Herr Dahl. He was a brusk man, but kindly at his core and took to children with a surprising twinkle. Still, his voice was gruff and his accent thick; we could never understand him. And so, as one or two or three of us stood eyeing the angsty bunnies in their cages, Herr Dahl’s head would pop up from behind a hay bale and hoarsely greet us: “Hallo, Kinder! Machst du denn?” We would shrug, never replying, and he would wave his leathery hands in defeat, going back to pitching hay and feeding horses.
We would spend hours in that dank and dilapidated place—taking each bunny carefully out of his or her home, one by one, to pet and comfort. We gave them names, though I can’t remember them now—German-sounding titles that smacked of Victorian royalty. Sir Ferdinand the Brave. Duke Heinrich V. Isabella, the Droopy-Eyed. King Ludwig the Mad. The more time we spent with them, the more personality we saw. A twitch one direction was a sign of affection; a twitch the other way spelled misanthropic trouble. We each had our favorites, and they, in turn, picked theirs.
We fed them, coddled them, nurtured them. And in between their twitches and our giggles, the perennial voice of Herr Dahl grumbled in the background. It was paradise.
Come lunchtime, my brothers and I would careful stow the bunnies in their cages and race back up the street to my cousins’ house. On those bright, warm days, we could hear my parents on the patio guffawing, glasses clicking on a wooden table. We rushed back, ready to eat. Oh, and what a feast! My German uncle was as traditional as they come, his grill toiling to produce enough sausage and roast to feed the Steen masses. It was a midday processional of meat—smoke churning, beer flowing, laughs punctuating each and every bite. And though we kids were taught to sit at the table for a meal, the rules were somehow suspended on those summer days. We would get our plates—piled high with wurst and fleisch—nibble here and there, then chase each other around the yard with sticks. Out of breath a half hour later, we collapsed back in our chairs for a bite or three. Then more chasing.
Shortly after the meats began ushering from the flames, Herr Dahl would poke is weathered head around the corner of the house and mumble his hellos. Slowly, he settled into a chair and hoisted an already-brimming stein of beer to his lips. He would sit there and gurgle his laughter, but say little. That was how he was, as the others joked and drank and ate. As we nibbled and chased and, in quiet moments, sat.
After many of us had been sated, the dishes were cleared away and more plates were brought out filled with cookies and candy. My brothers and I dove into these without propriety or manners; sweets secured, we would run back out into vineyards and fields, carrying on with our childhood fantasies.
Later—many weeks later—when we returned to that little village on the edge of fall, I asked my father if I could go down to see the rabbits again. He nodded, brow furrowed and eyes buried in a newspaper. So I walked down alone, relishing the damp smell of late summer, and made my way to the back of Herr Dahl’s barn. I peaked in to the rabbit cages and saw fluffy butts twitching in the wind. There were fewer than I remembered—five perhaps, or six. I recalled so many more—an entire royal court. But children don’t linger on these things long, so I dismissed the thought and moved to pet and play with Klingenmünster’s loveliest German princes.
Lunch came, and so, too, the sausage, and the roast, and the bread, and the leberwurst, and the spätzle, and the wein, and the bier— and one other curious creature sprawled out on my plate. It had tiny arms and tiny legs, something like a miniature chicken.
“Dad, what’s this?” I asked, innocently curious.
“Rabbit,” he said. “Like it?”