At the Sign of the Rabbit

He first met her when he was ten years old. He was riding his bike down a sun-bathed sidewalk one day in late August, his imagination on fire with the thrill of his speed and the rush of the wind on his face. The air was cool, the scent of sunbaked leaves hinting at the autumn that was quickly approaching. As he flew down the sidewalk, heading away from his house, he noticed a flash of movement in the yard to his right. He glanced over as he sped by, and saw a girl about his age swinging on a rope that had been tied to an old maple. The “For Sale” sign that had been standing guard on the property had disappeared from the lawn. The boy continued on his way without a second glance, his bicycle tires humming along the sidewalk.

He didn’t see the girl for several weeks. He rarely rode his bike, preferring instead to spend his time in the crumbling ruins of the abandoned lot that was adjacent to his home. The lot was hidden on two sides by an overgrown and half-dead hedge, and two tall trees stood sentinel in what was once a front yard. Only the cracked cement foundation and crumbling red bricks indicated that a house had once stood there. A small wooden yard sign, the white paint chipped and peeling, stood partially obscured by the tall summer grass. The sign hung lop-sided from a slender pole, the dark metal rusty and brittle after years of exposure to the elements. On top of the pole’s cross-piece, a flat metal rabbit was posed as if running. On the sign itself in faded black lettering were the numbers 6103.

This empty lot was the boy’s playground. The crumbling remnants of the house were his log cabin, the old hedge his castle wall. One tree was the Sherwood Oak, the other was the mast of the Hispaniola. Here, there was room for his imagination to roam free, for dragons to be slain and pirates to be fought, his mind coming alive to the drone of locusts and the trill of crickets. Here, there was space for poems to be written, tunes to be hummed, and sketches to be drawn. He played alone but was not lonely, his soul alive with the haunting ache of the quiet, abandoned beauty that surrounded him.

One day, about a week after he first saw the girl, he ducked through the hole he had cut in the hedge to find that he was no longer alone. The girl – the same one he had seen on the rope swing – was standing beside one of the tumbled-down walls, glancing around appraisingly. The boy stopped short. If someone from City Hall had barged through the hedge to inform him that the lot was going to be turned into an apartment complex, he could have scarcely been more alarmed.

“Hey!” he called.

The girl looked over at him and waved shyly. “Hi,” she replied, lowering a notebook. His notebook.

The boy sighed. So she had already found his treasure chest. Wonderful.

The girl took a few steps toward him. “I thought this lot was abandoned,” she explained, holding the notebook awkwardly in front of her. “Did you draw these?”

“Yeah,” he replied, quickly snatching the notebook from her hands.

“Oh,” she said softly, then in an encouraging tone: “They’re really good!”

“Thanks,” he muttered, not meeting her eye.

“My name’s Elise,” the girl announced, half-extending her hand toward him. “Elise Johnson.”

The boy looked up begrudgingly and met her eyes. They were a bright, crystal-blue. Not the green-blue he was accustomed to seeing, but a deep sky-blue that glittered with wonder and life. She smiled hesitantly, her elfin features framed by her long sandy hair. The boy found it difficult to remain angry with this girl.

“I’m Daniel Williams,” he told her, finally shaking her hand. He glanced down at his notebook. The girl had left it open to a sketch of a young knight resting against a tree. “Do you draw?” he asked her.

She shrugged. “A little. I paint, mostly. When I feel like it.” She bent to inspect the wooden box that had been hidden in a corner of the crumbling brickwork. “Do you come here often?”

“Yeah, pretty often,” Daniel replied. “It’s a nice spot.”

The girl laughed in agreement. “It’s quiet. Sort of sad, but in a nice way.” The boy just nodded at her, and Elise glanced around as if searching for an explanation as to why she was there. “We just moved in,” she explained, pointing through the hedge toward one of the houses. “Dad’s working at the power plant, and mom’s going to teach at the school. Over at St. Benedict’s.”

“Oh, I see,” the boy acknowledged. He didn’t think to ask if she was Catholic, but assumed as much. Wasn’t everyone? “How old are you?”

“I’m nine,” she said, then quickly added, “I’m almost ten. You?”

“I’m ten,” the boy replied with a hint of superiority. He conveniently left out the fact that he had only turned ten a week ago.

“Well I’m almost ten,” the girl repeated.

“Elise!” A woman’s voice called from the front porch of the Johnson house.

“That’s my mom,” the girl said, unnecessarily. “I’ve got to go. See you later?”

“See you!” the boy replied. Elise turned to go, but hesitated, half-turning toward Daniel.

“Do you think…do you think I could come back here again?” she asked.

The boy hesitated, surprised and a bit pleased. She was asking his permission. If he wanted, he could say no and maintain his solitude. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew that wouldn’t be right. The girl had found this place, and a now part of it somehow belonged to her.

“Yeah,” he replied, and the girl’s eyes sparkled. “Yeah of course. Whenever you want.” Elise’s face broke out into a radiant smile, and she hurried away back home.

“We’re orphans who just escaped from the orphanage,” Elise explained. It was November, and her breath floated about her face like the smoke of a pipe. Daniel sat by her feet with his back to a tree, carving a wooden knife out of a chunk of wood. “Mr. Hatchet is still looking for us, wanting to send us to Siberia. You’re the older brother, and I’m your sister,” she continued.

“You’re not my sister,” Daniel pointed out with a laugh. Somehow the distinction seemed important to him, though he wasn’t sure why.

“Close enough,” the girl said with a shrug. “You might as well get used to that.” The boy laughed again, diving into the game Elise was spinning. 

It had not taken long for Daniel and Elise to form a close bond. They were both Catholic, so they saw each other at Mass on Sundays as well as at school throughout the week. But it was after school, during the weekends, and during summer and Christmas breaks that their friendship particularly flourished. They would meet at the abandoned lot between their two houses, the dilapidated wooden sign serving as their trysting-place. “Meet at the sign of the rabbit,” Daniel would say, explaining to Elise’s quizzical glance that “It sounds poetically medieval.” Elise was less particular about such things, but her friendship with Daniel helped her through the transition to a new town and new school. Daniel for his part was an only child, and grew to appreciate Elise’s steady companionship.

Not only were the children in the same grade, but their parents quickly became close friends. It was not uncommon, some late Saturday night, to see the Johnson family walking home from dinner with the Williams family. The two families fell into a sort of cycle. They carved pumpkins and ate turkey together. They celebrated birthdays, Christmas, and Easter. They lit fountains on the Fourth of July, and watched fireworks burst over the ballpark across town.

In Elise, Daniel found his closest friend and confidant. They wrote stories together, and kept the notebook in a plastic bag hidden under an old paving-stone in the abandoned lot. The boy would hurry over in the afternoon, and, if he saw that Elise had added a few new paragraphs, he would sit in the grass and continue the tale. They had a strict rule against killing off each other’s characters. They wrote poetry under the scarlet fire of the old maple that stood in Elise’s yard. Daniel worked strictly in rhythm and meter, but when the girl wrote, her lines flowed like the cascade of a waterfall, or the brushstrokes of an artist.

When Elise was featured at a piano recital, Daniel was in the audience. And when Daniel won the lead role in the high school play, Elise was there to watch him. When Daniel’s grandma died, Elise attended the funeral. When Elise’s grandfather passed away, Daniel was there to comfort her. They stood by each other through good times and bad. They grieved together, learned together, and loved together.

They grew up together. And as they grew, their relationship became more and more complicated. They were not lovers, exactly. Or at least, not in Daniel’s mind. They were friends. Close friends. But although nothing would be more natural than for romance to blossom between them, Daniel was unsure what that blossoming might look like, or whether such a thing would come about. He longed for romantic love just as much as any young man does, but he was also afraid of it. He knew that in order to achieve romance he would have to risk the destruction of their friendship, and he was hesitant to take that risk.

When they were both seventeen, they were Confirmed together at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church. It was the happiest day of Daniel’s life thus far. He was pledging his life to Christ, and was able to do so beside his best friend. The Catholic Church had always lent a backdrop to their shared lives, and although Daniel was admittedly more passionate about his faith than his friend, even Elise seemed excited about the event. The party afterward was a joyous occasion, and it was then that he began to seriously consider the possibility of a romantic relationship. He could no longer ignore or brush aside the way Elise would smile at him, or the comments she would occasionally make that bordered on flirtatious. He realized that if romance was a possibility in his mind, it was a goal, or even an established fact in the mind of his friend. Even still, he hesitated, uneasy. 

That summer, he got a job at a Catholic summer camp named Camp Jogues, working as a counselor. There, he fell in love with his Faith. He tasted the love of Christ in a new and profound way, seemed to be surrounded by His blessings. The beauty of creation that surrounded the young man spoke to him, offering a silent witness to the glory of God. It was there that he first witnessed romance that was centered on Christ, man and woman both working to bring the other closer to heaven. Seeing relationships lived out in such a way awoke a deep longing in his heart, confirming to him that such an ideal could, in fact, become a reality. The young man grew in his understanding of the Faith and his ability to love. Prior to working at the camp, Daniel hadn’t realized that such a complete peace and active joy was possible. He longed to share this new experience with Elise, but she had taken a job at a hair salon, and he wouldn’t see her until the end of the summer.

They met at the sign of the rabbit one morning in August. Tendrils of mist rose from the hedge, the sun shining through the fog like the beam from a light house. The earth smelt fresh and new, the birds sang, and Daniel’s heart was bursting. Perhaps, he thought to himself. Perhaps I will ask her on a date. He greeted her with a quick hug, and for a few moments it was just like he had expected: she shared funny stories from her time working at the salon, he responded with stories from Camp Jogues, and the two friends were reunited. But gradually, Daniel realized that Elise was no longer the girl he remembered from only a few short months prior. She wore a nose ring, streaks of unnatural pink ran through her hair, and her clothes were tight-fitting and immodest. But it was her eyes that struck Daniel the most. The bright light of wonder that he had always associated with them was gone. Her eyes were listless and empty. The longer they spoke, the more he realized that he no longer understood this friend he had known for so long.

“How’s your family?” he asked her.

She shrugged noncommittally. “Fine. Not going to lie, we don’t talk much.”

“Oh,” Daniel replied uncertainly. He grasped for something else to ask her. “Are you doing much painting?”

Elise sighed. “I don’t have much time. My boss keeps me working late, and I’m just not in the mood most days.” She shrugged again.

I can see that, Daniel almost said. Elise’s mood, however she excused it, was not a good one.

The young man glanced around the empty lot. It looked much the same as it always had, but somehow the whole atmosphere had shifted. It seemed like a place where bitter teenagers might gather to smoke cigarettes and complain about their parents. “Well, I suppose I’d better get going,” he said uncertainly. He had planned on spending most of the morning with Elise, but he didn’t know what to say to this new version of the girl he knew. “I guess I’ll see you at Mass tomorrow?”

“Oh.” Something flickered across her expression. Anger? Guilt? “I don’t…do that anymore.”

Daniel stared at her. An uncrossable chasm seemed to open up between them, and in his mind’s eye he saw the girl he loved fading into obscurity, replaced by someone he neither liked nor understood. “I see,” he said, unable to keep all of the ice from his tone.

“Yeah…Sorry.” Elise wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“I guess I’ll see you later then.” Daniel ducked under the hedge and walked back to his house, badly shaken. Something had broken between him and Elise, and he had no idea how to fix it.

They still saw each other at school, and their families still got together on occasion. But there was a friction now that hadn’t been present before. More and more, Daniel found himself longing for the girl that he had grown up with. He began to wonder if the Elise he remembered had ever existed at all, or if she was merely the creation of his own nostalgia and wishful thinking. Had his love and friendship simply blinded him to this side of Elise over the years? Had she always been this way? He slowly recognized that his feelings toward her had been primarily based not on authentically selfless love, but a lustful attraction to her beauty. She was still attractive of course, but beauty without virtue now seemed shallow to him. He was haunted by the thought that he could have prevented this strange rift, prevented her abandoning the Faith, if only he had said or done something (he knew not what) while they were still close friends. He still felt responsible for her, somehow. 

“Prom is coming up,” she reminded him one day, months later. It was spring, but a blanket of snow still covered the frozen ground. Daniel clutched a pencil with frozen hands, trying to capture the outline of the two massive trees that guarded the lot. It had been Elise’s idea to meet at the sign of the rabbit, but her attitude when he arrived was just as bitter as usual. The young man shifted, squinting against the quickly-setting sun.

“Are you going?” he asked disinterestedly, adding some crosshatching to his sketch.

“I’m not sure,” the girl replied. She looked away. “Are you?”

Daniel snorted, shaking his head with a cynical smile. The idea seemed absurd to him at the moment. “No,” he stated. “No, I’m not.” There was so much more that could be said, but he didn’t know how to say it. No, I can’t go with you when you’re acting like this…and who else could I go with? No, because you’ve left the Church? No…but yes, if it could somehow bring you back to the Faith and put some light back into your eyes?

The silence stretched out between them, charged and hostile. “I see,” Elise finally said, but Daniel knew that she didn’t. How could she? Their hearts were both broken, tangled messes, and perhaps they always had been. She couldn’t understand him, and he couldn’t begin to understand her. They parted ways in a hurt silence. The metal rabbit, shaken by the wind, seemed to be fleeing in surrender.

They rarely spoke to each other after that. Elise moved out of her parent’s house as soon as she could afford to pay rent somewhere else. She left town, going to a university in a city several hours away. Daniel continued to live with his parents, and went to a technical college in his hometown. At first, he tried to stay in touch with Elise, but eventually he gave up. She was bitter, restless, and unhappy. She was out of his reach. Whatever immediate influence he might have once had on her life was over. All he could do now was pray for her, but prayer in this case felt futile. She had chosen a dark path, and he felt frustrated by how deeply he still cared about her. The years stretched on, and the two of them grew further and further apart.

The voices of children echoed around an abandoned lot as a middle-aged man stood silently in the snow. It was getting dark, the falling snow hastening the advent of night. In the nearby yard, his children chased each other, throwing snowballs and screaming with delight. Their laughter did little to lighten the man’s heavy heart. His father was dying, and he had come to stay with him for as long as was necessary.

The abandoned lot didn’t help his mood. It felt haunted, burdened by bittersweet memories. The man toed at a rotting crate, and removed a plastic bag full of tattered notebooks. The ink was faded and illegible, and some resourceful mouse had made off with many of the pages for her nest. Like so much straw, the man thought with a sad smile. His eyes wandered to where a metal rabbit ran, frozen in place on top of a metal yard pole. There was a rustling in the hedge behind him, and the man turned to see his wife fighting her way to his side. “Dinner is almost…” she began to say, but stopped when she saw the expression on his face.

“I’ll be inside in a moment,” the man said in a choked voice. His wife stepped forward with a nod, taking his hand in hers and leaning her head against his shoulder. Husband and wife stood there for a long, slow moment, watching the snow drift wearily down in the desolate lot.

Daniel Williams squeezed his wife’s hand, trying to collect his churning thoughts. He gazed across the lot to the house where his best friend had once lived, then bowed his head, quietly breathing a prayer for her, wherever she was. The prayer was simple and honest, and he had prayed the same one many times throughout his life. But he loved Elise more truly now than he ever had as a child or a teenager. It was an authentic, selfless love, free of lust or romance or anything other desire than her complete joy and unity with God. Somehow it seemed fitting to pray in that place. The man looked up, wiped his nose with his sleeve, then looked down at his wife. He kissed her, then hand in hand the couple turned away from the lot. Daniel Williams pushed his way through the hedge, walking to the house where his family was waiting for him.

At that same moment, hundreds of miles away, Elise Johnson awoke with a strange feeling. Her head ached, she was in debt, and her soul was in agony. But something about the moment just felt right. She had few friends, little of the beauty she had been born with, and no sense of purpose in life. But in spite of all of that the sun was shining through her curtains, reflecting off the brilliant white snow. She swung herself out of bed and crossed the room. The sky was crystal blue, and she felt her heart stir as it hadn’t in years. Her eyes turned to the heavens, and she watched pale clouds scud across the sky. She sighed, and a sob welled up within her. “God…” she whispered, her voice breaking. It was a prayer, not an oath, and it came from the depths of her soul. Tears leaked unbidden down her face. Somewhere in the depths of her blue eyes, a spark of wonder was kindled.

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