- When you skin a rabbit by hand, you start by holding it upside down by the back legs. You feel the thin bones and delicate sinew stretch downward, as gravity wants to bury the dead rabbit for you. Don’t let the earth bury the rabbit, but feel how thin it is. How breakable. Marvel at how such thin stalks of osteocytes, holding hands like so many desperately clinging roots, could have spent so long carrying a living thing around without letting go or giving up. Even now, they don’t give up. Don’t give up.
- Tear the skin just behind the rabbit’s ankles. It won’t be too hard– it’s like ripping a wet piece of cloth. Pinch and pull. Rabbit skin is thin, delicate, and it will not be too difficult for your hands to work the meat away from the hide. You will realize, once again, how fragile life is. Try to ignore the ugly thrill of power, wet and clinging to the underside of your ribs. You have taken this life. You have broken this skin. If you do nothing else in your life, you will still have done this. Let that be enough.
- Work your fingers between the hide and the muscle sliding beneath it. It should be warm and wet, and it will smell like iron and dirt. You will not be prepared for the smell, but try not to let it show on your face. Try to breathe through your mouth. If the bile rises to meet your lips, swallow vigorously. Concentrate on the way the birds have stopped screaming in the trees to watch you work. Apologize over and over in your head to the rabbit and to god and to the birds who have been made to stand witness to this act. Some people leave the skin on the feet until later, like socks to keep it warm, but you shouldn’t do this. Work as much of the leg out through your tear as you can. It will be too hard for you to go back and clean this part up later. Don’t look into the rabbit’s eyes, wide and round with fear, even now when there is no light behind them. It will get easier.
- Tear the first strips of hide away. The meat underneath it will be pink and white and red and purple and it will look like a chicken leg from the supermarket if you look at it without looking at the rest of the rabbit. Worry that the small rocks and clumps of dirt on the table are hurting the rabbit. Like gravel in a skinned knee. Remember that the rabbit is dead. Remember that the rabbit is beyond pain and pleasure, at least as far as you know. Damnation waits for you like a red door as punishment for what you have done; for killing and ripping at an animal like this. Don’t pay any mind to this– just keep working.
- Now that you have the start of the leg free, it shouldn’t be too hard to take care of the rest. Pull the hide down towards the rabbit’s head. It will feel like pulling on a pair of pants or taking off a pair of gloves. Pretend that you are undressing a doll for some game. Imagine that you are a child and this is not about death and skin. Repeat on the other leg.
- Grab the rabbit by the slick pink ankles and pull the skin down along its back. It will be hard to work the flesh over the tail because the tail wants to be a tail, and not a stub of tissue, which is what it will become. Do your best, and if you tear the skin, do not cry. You cannot hurt the rabbit, no matter how many mistakes you make. It will sound like hair ripping out into a hairbrush and it will feel like the fur on the backs of the little animal figurines you can buy at gas stations along the highways filled with empty lanes and the smell of stale cigarettes. Be brave, you are almost done.
- Pull the skin off like a sweater, expose the long line of purple muscle, pale ribs like delicate bracelets will bend back to meet you. Use both hands. The rabbit is a cat arching its spine up toward your hands. Pull hard and fast. When the shaking of your hands causes the hide to come apart, still them by imagining that you are a scientist. Name what you know and assign constellations for what you don’t. Lumbar vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, scapula, you’ve always been shit at muscles, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Cetus. Don’t think about Orion or Perseus or Hercules. Do not think about the moments that led you to undressing a rabbit. Think about the stars. Think about a small, lonely speck of dust hurtling through space, and how small that makes this death. It is so small, my darling. Don’t worry.
- There is a thin patch of skin between the rabbit’s arms and its head. You’re going to have to break this with your fingers. It won’t be too difficult. By now, your hands will know how to run gently along smooth skin, and the motion will be easy, if clumsy. By now you will be tired and you will just want to stop. Keep going. Pull harder.
- When the skin is pulled clean up to the rabbit’s head, turn it sideways, feel it in your hands. By now it will be cold and sticky. You will have dirt and fur stuck under your nails. Marvel at how small the rabbit is underneath all that skin and fur. It is so still. It is bare and laid before you and you are closer to the rabbit than its own flesh. It will be lighter than it was when you started, and gravity will ask very politely for the honor of claiming the rabbit. Do not give in to it. This is your rabbit now– more yours than any lover you will ever take and more yours than even any child you might someday have. You have taken the rabbit, seen the secrets of its skin, the small words it had kept hidden between its shoulder blades like prayers or constellations. You have beheld its ugliness and its greatness and you have offered neither forgiveness nor salvation in return. In this moment, you have become god. You have written your name on the red door and it is now your home, so walk through it and hold your rabbit like a newborn bride against your chest. Mourn its loss. Mourn who you were before you knew the snick snap of skin coming away into your hands. You have done it. You have won. Wash your hands.
Poem first appeared in the 2016 edition of Slippery Elm Literary Journal.