My father was never a teetotaler, but that particular afternoon he might have considered taking the pledge. He was stretched out on the couch for a nap when something brought him back to half-consciousness. He looked out our large picture window, and his gaze was returned by Nellie. She didn't know she was Nellie then, but Dad knew she was a rabbit--a very large one. Technically, Nellie was a checkered Flemish giant. She weighed about 18 pounds.
Off and on during my childhood we had owned rabbits. They weren't always pets. My Uncle Med cooked a mean pot of hasenpfeffer. But Nellie wasn't for stewing. She had class. She was, from the beginning, a sort of Katharine Hepburn of rabbits. She had patience and wisdom beyond her lapin incarnation. And she was very independent.
Dad figured she had escaped from some other kid's backyard, and we spent weeks making announcements at school and running lost-and-found ads. But soon all of us--including our fox terrier, Hercules--knew that we now belonged to a rabbit. She started a rabbit craze in the neighborhood. My brother and I held a contest to name her; my best friend's big brother, Jimmy, won the prize for Nellie Belle. We just assumed she was a she. Jimmy and his sisters had rabbits, though, and their rabbits came to visit ours, and shortly we were sure we had a Nellie and not a Nelson. It wasn't hard to find homes for her children. Everybody wanted a Nellie rabbit.
We never caged her and she never tried to leave us. Every morning when my mother went out to the backyard to get Herky's dish, both dog and rabbit would nip at her heels until everyone had been fed. The longer Nellie was around Herky, the less she acted like a rabbit. For one thing, she learned to bark. Actually, it sounded more like a polite cough, but it did get our attention. She loved to stretch out in the yard and sun dog-fashion, only she looked more like a starlet posed for a publicity shot.
She and Herky had some sort of agreement over the territory. He protected her from cats, and she took over for him in the doll carriage, something Herky never enjoyed.
Nellie was a princess among rabbits, and we had her a long time. But then one winter she got sick. My father, afraid that it was rabbit fever, wouldn't let us into the backyard. It broke my heart not to be able to comfort her when she was ill. Unfortunately, rabbit fever can be as deadly to humans as it is to rabbits. And Nellie did die. The whole neighborhood was saddened.
Over the years, her story has taken on a sort of mythic quality. Neither my brother nor I have ever met a rabbit that was her equal. Last summer I started thinking about her again because of a story that I read to my niece. "The Velveteen Rabbit," by Margery Williams, is about a stuffed rabbit who wanted to become real. I think the magic can work both ways. After all, Nellie was "fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be." And by now I'm sure she has real thread whiskers and ears lined with pink sateen.