Within the humid shadow of our woods
stood an old cedar shed where our chickens
and my rabbit lived in the dark. The air inside
was dusty and acrid, the floor rotting
beneath the wire cages, slick from warm manure.
It was my duty to feed and water these animals—
to walk the wooden planks through nettles,
turn the wooden lock, open the door to rancid air,
the sudden rustling of life within the cages,
the pacing, rattling of wire walls, clucking.
I could feel the urgency of what they sought.
My presence came like hope, and I felt gracious
as I poured water in their dirty ceramic bowls,
rattled pellet feed into their dishes,
and they consumed. Each day before dinner
I walked the planks to their dark home.
Often I stood, wanting to touch them
as they ate nervously, but afraid they would bite me
and spread the disease I could smell in the air.
I was ten years old. Eventually I forgot them
for days at a time as summer cooled to autumn.
They became thin and weak. My father had
trusted me, asking only occasionally
if I had fed them. Always I said yes.
When he finally discovered how ill they were,
he took me to witness the way I had abandoned
their lives, how little they had left.
He opened my rabbit’s cage, grabbed its soft
shoulders, lifted its shivering body, its legs stiff
like petrified wood, and told me to go back
to the house. He carried my rabbit
behind the shed, and that night we ate
from the thin bones of my shame.
John Struloeff grew up in the coastal rainforests of Oregon and is now the City of Malibu’s third Poet Laureate. He is the author of The Man I Was Supposed to Be (Loom Press) and has published poems in The Atlantic, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, PN Review, and elsewhere. He is a former Stegner and NEA Fellow and now directs the creative writing program at Pepperdine University.