Unsent Letters from Rabbit to Dog
by Chelsea Campbell
Correspondence: To My Brother (1999-2009)
A bullet descends from the sky’s gray winter nothing. An angel of death sniffing out families who forgot to paint lamb’s blood above their doorframes.
You, in your highchair while you smack your cherub hands against the plastic tray, red with spaghetti sauce. Even high above the clouds, the bullet sees you. Mistakes the noodles and ground beef granules smeared on your pink cheeks for viscera. A last-minute sacrifice to the angel.
Our mother lifts your roly-poly body to wash you and lay you down for a nap. This is when the bullet pierces our sliding glass door. The sound of death: Cold, electric festering of a mirror neuron. Pulsates in our mother’s pounding heart. Your infantile ear.
My little sister and I did not have toy guns before you were born. To play Cops and Robbers, we used rubber bands wrapped around our pointed index fingers and thumbs. Made-believe a hundred deaths.
When you are old enough to be bored by rubber bands, a pair of plastic cap guns with orange tips await on the kitchen table. We enjoy adding realism to our imagination, or at least what we think is realism. We like the acrid smoke smell after the pop pop pop. Sometimes the sound of death is a pretender. The laughter of children.
On your birthday, you receive a pair of nerf guns with safety goggles, Velcro darts that stick to vests with white target lines. After little boys eat cake and ice cream, they pretend to kill each other. We find spongy, orange darts in seat cushions for years.
You are gifted the semi-automatic nerf for your next birthday. You buy three earthy spray paint colors. Turn shiny childish blue into matte camouflage. There comes a point for many children where the real becomes more desirable and attainable than the imagination.
As you get older, the toys become heavier and more realistic. There’s the BB gun that you and dad use to shoot pests in our garden. The rabbits scream.
Then there’s the paintball gun. The airsoft gun. Boxes full of plastic or lead pellets. Yellow grass yards. All the places where boys pretend to kill each other.
Mom finds the bullet while navigating the icecaps of broken glass on the deck. When the police investigate and run the serial number on the bullet, they are shocked that it belongs to one of their own.
There’s a private shooting range for officers several miles from here, one says. They determine that the bullet must have hit something hard and icy, and then catapulted into the sky.
Our mother shudders at the thought of What Could Have Happened. Still, she thinks it’s a miracle. God stopped the bullet from entering our home with his hand. Modern stigmata.
The officers and the city clean everything up. Pay for a new sliding glass door. Shut down the shooting range. All they ask in return is that we not report this incident to the newspapers.
Newspaper Clipping (Attached Between Two Letters): Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan (2000)
An insignificant blurb in the police report section in the back of the paper reads: Nonviolent disturbance reported at 1205 Pasque Cir. resulting in broken glass door.
Correspondence: To My Brother (2017-2018)
It’s the middle of winter. We are in mom’s cold garage that still harbors dad’s tools. Your breath smokes as you tell me about your invisible gun.
For my protection, you say, with blank, red eyes which signal that you’re not quite here. You are seventeen years old, selling weed and pills. You try on a smug smile, thinking I will miss what’s broken. I tell you that I love you and that you need to get rid of it.
Who does it really belong to? Who sells a gun to a seventeen-year-old? You do not answer. When I ask you about the gun later, you deny having one at all.
I was messing with you, you say. I choose to believe you, even though I already know this is the wrong choice.
The police pulled you over because of a busted taillight. They found scales and weed and stacks of cash in the backseat of your car. No weapons. Our grandmother will read about you in the newspaper.
When you and mom aren’t fighting, you catch up on episodes of The Walking Dead together. A pretend world based on a comic book series where everyone kills everyone. Even the undead.
The season ends before you go to jail. You watch your favorite character die: the sheriff’s son, Carl, who is your age. He had survived so much in the apocalypse, including getting shot in the face, and for him to die from a zombie bite feels so unfair. Mom sees the tears in your eyes before you wipe them away.
I send you the first collection of The Walking Dead comics while you are incarcerated. According to your limited phone calls with mom, the stillness is difficult to cope with.
Mom told me you were sad about Carl dying in the show, I write in a note. I hope it helps to know that he’s still alive and kicking ass in the books.
In your cell, you read the story of the good, pretend boy who stays alive. Who learns to shoot guns. Not for fun, not for evil, but to survive in a world that wants to consume him. I question what I gift you. Is this a book of horror, or a tale of fantasy? I think it’s somewhere in-between.
P.S.— Whatever happened to your gun? Maybe you listened to me and got rid of it after all. Maybe you still have it hidden somewhere. What I know for sure is that your gun must have belonged to Chekov. In the first scenes, in the first act of your life.
In all of our hands.
Pamphlet: Gun Safety Rules (National Rifle Association), Attached to the Following Correspondence
1. Never aim your weapon at what you are not willing to destroy. This is the primary rule.
2. Always treat your weapon as if it is loaded.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
4. Know your target and what is beyond.
A second phallus makes you double the man, makes you feel safe and maybe even a little gangster. Like an Italian mobster, even though you want to be a cop someday.
First, an inventory on the mouth of a German Shepherd: spittle-spotted shark teeth embedded in labial gums, brown-black and baby-pink, as if they are hiding mottled meat scraps under their jowls. They cradle a sloppy, innocent tongue. It tries to lick its owner’s forearm shoved between its jaws.
I’m gonna teach him to guard, you say. You pretend to punch it in the ribs. You named it after Julius Caesar’s assassin.
You have no idea what you’re doing, I say.
I examine the dissembled Glock on your bedroom dresser, note its shiny beetle parts placed like a neatly pinned specimen. You know what needs to be cleaned and how. All those screw-and-spring guts belong somewhere in the cavity. To be reassembled and hidden in a deep denim pocket. A second phallus makes you double the man, makes you feel safe and maybe even a little gangster. Like an Italian mobster, even though you want to be a cop someday.
You tell me about your childhood home in New York before the planes punched holes into towers. All those people dying, and you were abandoned in a dark classroom, certain it was a sign that your parents were dead.
The last day of the first part of your life. Even after you find out your parents lived. Your paramedic father tended the broken and burned, and your mother was on her way to get you. That’s how a city boy moves to a small South Dakota town and prepares for home invasion. You tell me I should have a gun, too.
A pink Glock, you say. The color of bubblegum. As if sweetness lessens what it actually is.
I do not want a gun, I say. Over and over. Do not buy me a gun.
You take me to a shooting range to see if I can get the feel for one. We push a lever to control the distance between us and our targets. Our man-shaped papers run. Black silhouettes in a vacuum.
Once, someone crossed out your name when I wrote it down on a form. They thought I made you up. Translated from Italian, your last name means Saint Mary. Mother of God.
You worry. Tell me again that you will buy me a gun. I always say no. I think too many things could go wrong. Too much to clean, too many parts.
Your alarm every night: The sound of —. Dog ears stand at attention.
P.S.— One year after I break up with you, I receive a phone call from an unknown number before I attend a performance of Othello at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I let it go to voicemail so I can watch a man kill his wife in jealous rage. I check the voicemail later in my hotel room, and I am surprised that it’s from a detective.
We run into each other at a murder mystery party hosted by our mutual friends. After everyone finds the killer, you ask me to step outside the apartment with you to talk. I agree, and we smoke my cigarettes on the cement stoop in the sticky August dark.
Correspondence: To My First Boyfriend (2006-2007)
When I first tried to use a tampon a year ago, my mother shared a story from her childhood about her neighbor, who died from Toxic Shock Syndrome. At the time, I didn’t understand how someone could un-sense a foreign object in their body, and I am still too young to realize that un-sensing is exactly what I do when your fingers are inside me.
Note: To Self (2019)
P.S.— Today is the day the restraining order ends: June 1st, 2010. On this day, you come to the grocery store where I work. Lock eyes with me as you buy a candy bar at the register a few feet away. You don’t say a word as you smile. You don’t have to. You leave me, sweating in the air-conditioning, and enter the hot city afternoon.
Note: To Self (2019)
Note: On Target Shooting, Attached to the Following Correspondence
Correspondence: To a Guy I Went on Two Dates With (2011)
You are driving me home at the end of our second date in your nice, bone-white car that shines so beautifully we can see our reflections in the body. Then your mother calls you about something you don’t like. You scream at her for twenty minutes. I wonder how many women die hearing the screams of men ringing in their ears.
Correspondence: To My Uncle (2018)
I’m always counting things, you say to me once after church. I am a child. You, barely an adult. We are gathered in the parking lot outside, waiting for our family to finish their thirty-minute Midwestern goodbyes to other church families.
Even though I’m standing here, talking to you, looking you in the eye, you say, I’m counting the bricks behind your head.
To me, this is a magic trick. I try to total the sparse cars in the church parking lot without breaking eye contact. Unsuccessful. Either I can’t look in two places at once, or it’s because the cars keep driving off, carrying families to Sunday dinners.
I shouldn’t have asked why you count. You do not know the answer anyway. I should have asked what you are counting on.
You do not tell us why you keep your guns loaded, but I think I know what you would say. You have seen angels in diners and demons in truck stops. In your dreams, your visions, you witness walls of hellfire. So much suffering. Hear cacophonic blasts of a million trumpets as the sky cracks open, the screams of women and beasts. Sounds of cosmic holy war and righteous death.
You are not preparing for home invasion, but for something unimaginable to return with your savior’s second coming.
Your mother chooses a handgun and wraps her small, blue-veined hand around the grip.
Is this one loaded?
No, you say. You are so certain. No need to check the magazine or the chamber.
Your mother curls a knobby index finger on the trigger. Aims into the long-toothed mouth of the safe. All those shiny parts. She blinks hard as she pulls. Her pink finger whitens and strains against the metal. Gears click, grind. More resistance than expected.
While this is happening, I remember the unspoken question I heard several years ago when I held a gun in my hands at a shooting range. When a man I used to love wanted me to buy a gun. Because he was worried.
Are you sure? The unspoken question. I remember. I want to cry out and tell my grandmother to stop, but I am unable.
Something isn’t right. A cold sweat breaks over my body. I feel my pulse in my stomach. My throat. I can’t feel my hands, my feet, my face. I am the rabbit, and the dog keeps his nose to the dirt, inhaling my scent, coming closer.
Something happened. Something is happening. Something is going to happen.
Maybe he was worried because, deep down, he felt capable of killing me.
I cannot retreat to my comfortable emptiness.
Poem: After my grandmother pulls the trigger, I feel
the sound of life: seismic neuron waves pulsate from a secret / center in my murky brain—these displaced ricochets / in my unbroken white skull / plummet me off the precipice into the abyss, open me up to return / feeling to my unfeeling body / and my soul / I had hoped to banish into smoke, into space. / Look inside me, now, at what stirs / under my storm clouds. See the rabbits tremble in my marrow / dogs howl and gnash their teeth on my bones. / When the storm lifts, watch cool blood rain drops on glass window skin— / how they still quake from the low and distant rumbling thunder. / Their memories of lightning linger / so much longer than expected.
Correspondence: To My Son, Still Unnamed, Who Inhabits Me (2018-2019)
I take in the honey-yellow ultrasound image of your sweet, sleeping face. You are an unnamed resident in a body that is no longer totally mine. I am okay with this now. You are not a home invader, but an inhabitant. A growing part of me.
The technician tells your father and I that you will be our son. We are surprised because we expected a daughter. Do not mistake our surprise for disappointment. It’s just that I had dreamed you, and your name—Nora—and I cradled this girl version of you in my arms. We had backup boy names just in case, but now that I have seen your face, none of them feel right.
Before we decide a name for you, I wonder: What kind of man will you become? The mothers of Smith and Saint Mary once cradled their small baby boys in their arms. Fed them milk and mashed foods. Held their hands while crossing dangerous streets.
Your hands will slip away from mine to hold on to other things. Will you be close enough for me to cover your ears against sounds of death before you wander too far away?
Or will your hands become weapons? Will your fingers rest in the curve of a trigger, unbothered by resistance? What, or who, would come into your crosshairs?
Your father was a hunter. When he was a teenager, he and his grandfather would awake before dawn to perch in a tree stand. Pray for prey. In his perch, he practiced his predator skills. A forest is loud, but he learned how to listen for unique sounds. When something bigger stirs, the squirrels will chitter. Branches break.
Once, the forest moved, and your father waited for a buck. An animal with weapons. A small doe appeared instead. Not desirable. Your father raised his rifle scope to his eye to watch it anyway.
At any minute, I could have ended its life, he tells me. But I didn’t.
And how did that make you feel? I ask your father, not meaning to sound like a therapist, but I do anyway. I’m not sure if he will answer. Your father doesn’t talk about his feelings often. Says he doesn’t know how to talk about emotions. But your father doesn’t take long to answer this time.
It made me feel powerful.
For Christmas, I buy your father a grey t-shirt with an oak tree in the center. I spent hours searching for the right design and finally settled on the tree. He smiles when he opens the present, says thank you.
That’s not all! I say. Look underneath.
He finds the grey newborn onesie with an acorn in the center. I didn’t expect your father to cry. I’ve probably only seen him cry three times in the six years we’ve been together. Your father is a very good man, and the love of my life. But like all other men in my life, or the men that have passed through, he carries a degree of emotional stunting. He’s also the only one who has never taken it out on me.
I am still working on stopping myself from feeling responsible. To cease filling gaps made by male pain. I am so tired of emptying myself into men’s empty spaces as they dig their caverns into me.
My son, I think I want to teach you how to weep, like your father is, here, now. His tears of love for you wash through me, fill my soul. I think weeping is the sound of life.
Six years old, BB gun in hand, your father works his small-booted legs through the overgrown thickets with his family. He breaks into a sweat — the jacket he needed this morning has become too hot now, even in the shady trees. He works hard to clamor over sprawling, mossy branches and—
Watch the ground for pheasant nests! someone says. There are plenty of signs of life to watch for on the ground. Deer beds. Snake holes. Gopher holes. Rabbit holes.
Soon there is a flash of wing. A ring. An eye. The men and women raise their guns and fire into thrush. No warning for small ears.
So many sounds of death, so loud! Your father throws down his child’s gun and covers his ears as the birdshot whizzes by. Good god, the screeching! Blood and feathers explode like fireworks. The drooling dogs whine, so eager are they to retrieve the bodies when the shooting is done.
Your father’s ears ring when he lowers his shaking hands. Before the hunters cheer and collect their quarry, there is an unnatural silence. Nothing stirs. Your father holds his breath. Listens to the forest hold its breath. Everything waits to run.