The Ushuaia Rabbit
El conejo de Ushuai
by Fernando Sorrentino
Translated from the Spanish by Michele Aynesworth
I just read this in a newspaper: “After long months of futile attempts and several expeditions, a group of Argentine scientists has succeeded in capturing an Ushuaia rabbit, thought to be extinct for over a century. The scientists, headed by Dr. Adrián Bertoni, caught the rabbit in one of the many forests that surround the Patagonian city. . . .”
As I prefer specifics to generalities, and precision to transience, I would have said “in such and such a forest located in such a spot in relation to the capital of Tierra del Fuego.” But we can’t expect blood from a turnip or any intelligence whatsoever from journalists. Dr. “Adrián Bertoni” is yours truly, and of course they had to misspell my name. My exact name is Andrés Bertoldi, and I am, in fact, a doctor of natural sciences, specializing in Zoology and Extinct, or Endangered, Species.
The Ushuaia rabbit is not actually a lagomorph, much less a leporid. It’s not even certain that its habitat is the forests of Tierra del Fuego. Moreover, not one has ever lived on the Isla de los Estados. The rabbit I caught – I alone, with no special equipment or help from anyone – showed up in the city of Buenos Aires near the embankment of the San Martín railroad, which runs parallel to Avenue Juan B. Justo where it crosses Soler Street in the district of Palermo.
Far from looking for the Ushuaia rabbit, I had other worries and was headed down the sidewalk of Juan B. Justo, a bit downcast. It was hot, and I had some unpleasant, not to say worrisome, business to do at the bank on Santa Fe Avenue. Between the embankment and the sidewalk there is a wire mesh fence supported by a low wall; on the other side of the fence, I spotted the Ushuaia rabbit.
I recognized it instantly, how could I not? But I was struck by the fact that it remained so still, for this animal is normally jumpy and restless. I thought it might be wounded.
Be that as it may, I backed up a few meters, climbed the fence, and lowered myself catlike to the ground. I advanced stealthily, fearing at each moment that the Ushuaia rabbit would take fright, and in that case, who could catch it? It is one of the fastest animals in creation; though the cheetah is swifter in absolute terms, it is not in relative terms.
The Ushuaia rabbit turned and looked at me. Contrary to my expectations, however, it did not flee, but kept still, with the sole exception of the silver tuft of feathers that shook as if to challenge me.
I took off my shirt and waited, stock still and bare-skinned.
“Easy, easy, easy . . .” I kept saying.
When I got close I slowly deployed the shirt as if it were a net, and suddenly, in one quick swoop, I had it over the rabbit, wrapping it up in a neat package. Using the sleeves and the shirttail, I tied a strong knot, allowing me to hold the bundle in my right hand and use my left to negotiate the fence once more and return to the sidewalk.
I could not, of course, show up at the bank shirtless, much less with the Ushuaia rabbit. Thus I headed home. I have an eighth-floor apartment on Nicaragua Street, between Carranza and Bonpland. At a hardware store I picked up a birdcage of considerable size.
The doorkeeper was washing the sidewalk in front of our building. Seeing me bare-chested, with a cage in my left hand and a restless white bundle in my right, he looked at me with more astonishment than disapproval.
As bad luck would have it, a neighbor followed me in from the street and into the elevator. With her was her little dog, an ugly, disgusting animal. Upon picking up the smell –unnoticed by human beings – of the Ushuaia rabbit, it erupted in earsplitting barks. On the eighth floor I was able to rid myself of that woman and her stentorious nightmare.
I locked the door with my key, prepared the cage, and with infinite care began unwrapping the shirt, trying not to upset, or worse, to hurt the Ushuaia rabbit. However, being shut in had angered it, and when I opened the cage door I couldn’t stop the rabbit from hitting my arm with a stinger. I had sufficient presence of mind not to let the pain induce me to let go, and I finally managed to maneuver it safely back into the cage.
In the bathroom I washed the wound with soap and water, and, right away, with medicinal alcohol. It then occurred to me that I ought to head to the pharmacy for a tetanus shot, which I did without wasting any time.
From the pharmacy I went straight to the bank to conclude the cursed business that had been postponed because of the Ushuaia rabbit. On the way back I picked up supplies.
Since it lacks a masticatory apparatus during the day, the most practical thing was to cut up the food into little pieces and mix in some milk and chickpeas; I then stirred it all together with a wooden spoon. After sniffing the concoction, the Ushuaia rabbit absorbed it with no problem, just very slowly. Its process of expansion begins at sunset. I therefore transferred the few pieces of living room furniture – two modest armchairs, a loveseat, and an end table – to the dining room, pushing them up against the dining table and chairs. Before it was too big to get past the door, I made sure it left the cage. Now free and comfortable, it was able to grow as needed. In this new state, it completely lost its aggressivity, and now became apathetic and lazy. When I saw its violet scales pop out – a sign of sleepiness – I headed for the bedroom, went to bed, and called it a day. The next morning the Ushuaia rabbit had returned to the cage. In view of this docility, I felt it was unnecessary to shut the door. Let it decide when to be inside or out of its prison. The instincts of the Ushuaia rabbit are infallible. Every evening it would leave the cage and expand like a fairly thick pudding on the living room floor. As is well known, its feces are produced at midnight on odd days. If one collects (in the spirit of play, naturally) these little green metallic polyhedrons in a sack and shakes them, they make a lovely sound, with a rather Caribbean rhythm. To tell the truth, I have little in common with Vanesa Gonçalves, my girlfriend. She is considerably different from me. Instead of admiring the many positive qualities of the Ushuaia rabbit, she thought best to skin it in order to have a fur coat made for herself. This can be done at night when the animal is elongated and the surface of its skin is broad enough that the cartilaginous ridges are displaced to the edges and don’t get in the way of the incision and cutting. I did not want to help her do this operation. Armed with only dressmaking scissors, Vanesa relieved the Ushuaia rabbit of all the skin on its back. In the bathtub, with detergent and running water, a brush and bleach, she washed off any amber or bile that remained on the skin. Then she dried it with a towel, folded it, put it in a plastic bag, and very happily took it off to her house. It only takes eight to ten hours for the skin to completely regenerate. Vanesa had visions of a great scheme: each night she could skin the Ushuaia rabbit and sell its fur. I would not allow it. I did not want to convert a scientific discovery of such importance into a vulgar commercial enterprise. However, an ecological society reported the deed, and a paid announcement came out in the papers accusing “Valeria González” – and, by association, me – of cruelty to animals. As I knew would happen, the onset of autumn restored the rabbit’s telepathic language, and although its cultural milieu is limited, we were able to have agreeable conversations and even to establish a kind of, how shall I say, code of coexistence. The rabbit let me know that it was not partial to Vanesa, and I had no trouble understanding why. I asked my girlfriend not to come to the house any more. Perhaps in gratitude, the Ushuaia rabbit perfected a way of expanding less at night, so that I was able to bring all the furniture back to the living room. It sleeps on the loveseat and deposits its metallic polyhedrons on the rug. It never eats to excess, and in this as in everything else, its conduct is measured and worthy of praise and respect. The rabbit’s delicacy and efficiency reached the extreme of asking me what would be, for me, its ideal daytime size. I said I would have preferred the size of a cockroach, but I realized that such a small size put the Ushuaia rabbit in danger of being stepped on (though not of being killed). After several attempts, we decided that at night the Ushuaia rabbit would continue to expand to the size of a very large dog or even a leopard. During the day, the ideal would be that of a medium-sized cat. This allows me, when I am watching television, for example, to have the Ushuaia rabbit on my lap where I can stroke it absentmindedly. We have formed a solid friendship, and sometimes we need only look at each other for mutual understanding. Nevertheless, these telepathic faculties that function during the winter months disappear with the first warm spells. We are now in the last month of winter. The Ushuaia rabbit is aware that for the next six months it will not be able to ask me questions or make suggestions or receive advice or congratulations from me. Lately it’s fallen into a kind of repetitive mania. It tells me, as if I didn’t know, that it is the only surviving Ushuaia rabbit in the world. It knows it has no way of reproducing, but – though I have asked many times – the rabbit has never said whether it is bothered by this or not. Moreover, the rabbit continuously asks me – every day and several times a day – whether there is any use for it to go on living like this, alone in the world, with me yes, but without other creatures of its own kind. There is no way it can kill itself, and there is no way I could – and even if there were, I would never do it – kill such a sweet, affectionate animal. And so, as long as we experience the last cold spells of the year, I continue to converse with the Ushuaia rabbit, stroking it absentmindedly. When warm weather returns, I shall only be able to stroke it.[Original title: “El conejo de Ushuaia.” First published in the magazine Proa, No. 70, Buenos Aires, September 2007, pp. 33-38. Included in El crimen de san Alberto, Buenos Aires, Editorial Losada, 2008.]