How to Dress a Rabbit by Clayton Lister

As I recall, before packing, we had warning sufficient, just, to eat a light breakfast. My younger brother Jake and I were lucky enough boys, so Mother put it, to be visiting our Granny Wallop. A holiday, she called it. I had concerns from the off, she never before having used Granny Wallop’s name in any but a cautionary context. Typically, ‘Ee, tha’d not be so swaimish, wi’ thi Granny Wallop rearin’ thee.’

Nevertheless, my hope was that if not the same taxi we caught from the train station in Settle then an ambulance would be returning Mother. For if she wasn’t herself planning on heading all the way back home to Leeds, at least there in Settle she might be delivered of her third child in hospital. This was a hope washed clean away with her breaking waters.

Forget a place to give birth, I couldn’t have imagined a dwelling more remote than Granny Wallop’s. Still, wedged as it was into a hillside otherwise adorned with drystone walls, mud and sheep only, better tumbledown Wallops Roost than the backseat of a taxi. Our cabby certainly thought so. Slewing around those hairpin bends, it’s a wonder we didn’t lose the baby down a gorge.

Although any relief either our cabby or I felt upon arrival, Granny Wallop soon dispelled. For her brittle sheaf of white hair that had slipped its tie and green eyes, wild like flaming copper, she might have just dismounted that besom she came out wielding. If I hadn’t been petrified at the sight of her, I’d have certainly jumped back in the car. Cabby was off before Mother could pay him.

Mother had given us boys more notice of our ‘holiday’ than she had her own estranged mother. And it seemed to me that only her being with child kept Granny Wallop from breaking that besom across her backside. She’d not be pregnant for much longer. Notwithstanding, with the same sublime indifference that Mother bore all adverse consequences of her own ill-planning, she waddled wetly across the cobbles into Wallops Roost. From across the threshold, ‘Thee mind Jake,’ she called over her shoulder.

As if Jake needed my minding. True, I was the elder by two years. Commensurable with my deepening perennial state of anxiety was envy of Jake’s general obliviousness. In which respect, he clearly took after our mother.

However, while we remained on the forecourt, it was Granny Wallop who followed Mother’s lead down the dark hallway, up the stairs. ‘Ned, thee mind ’em both!’ she barked over her shoulder.

I presumed she was talking to me. I presumed it was her mangy old black Lab she wanted minding. Clearly, between them there was no love lost. But no. She was talking to the Lab. Which, to my mind, could mean only one thing. My mother had named me after her old dog. I felt a fraction less than honoured.

He, Doggy Ned, stuck his nose — his cold sopping nose — into my palm. I didn’t aim a kick at him as Granny Wallop had, but he did move swiftly on to Jake. If it hadn’t been for the steady drizzle that swirled, I most probably wouldn’t have followed them into the house. I found the smell of woodsmoke nauseating. Its narrow latticed windows admitted so little light all the rustic impedimenta that was discernible might have been the stuff of witchcraft.

Yet, as upstairs our mother’s grunts grew into moans, these in turn drawing into wails, there in the parlour Jake coolly set to poking the fire. When he ran out of sweet wrappers to send flaming up the chimney, he sat back on the stone floor. Long before Mother’s grit- and limestone-rending screams had subsided, I believe he was asleep. By time the baby’s bawling had abated, I know he was. Because at the sound of Granny Wallop’s footfalls descending the stair, I had to shake him awake.

At length, she stood silhouetted in half-light of the doorway. ‘Bring ’em through, Ned,’ she said.

The scullery at Wallops Roost was larger than the parlour but only marginally less lugubrious. What light did find its way in fell chiefly on a large dark-stained farmhouse table — although we boys were sufficiently lit for Granny Wallop to adjudge us, ‘Aye, reight clemmed.’ When we showed no inclination to either confirm or rebut her opinion, ‘Well, ent thee?’ she demanded roughly.

‘Aye,’ I answered timidly.

‘Reight, then. Say so.’

From out of nowhere she then produced, of all things, a rabbit. It would have been shock enough if the thing were alive. This one was dead. I backed up against a dresser. Even Jake’s jaw dropped.

‘Ah d’n’t approve o’ thi mother,’ Granny Wallop told us courtesy of what exactly I’d not a clue. But she held the rabbit up by its ears. ‘Squeezin’ out brats like . . . Ee, well, Ah don’t know!’

Thud went the rabbit on the table. Granny Wallop drew a knife from a block. She splayed its hind legs and, on the blade’s point, deftly raised the soft skin between them. ‘It’s a boy, by the way,’ she said, rolling her eyes upward at the ceiling. Then she flipped the rabbit on its side and slit it open. Its skin, as she prised it from around its waist, sounded to my ears for all the world like trousers splitting.

Jake pulled out a chair, and scrabbled up.

‘’Appy?’ Granny Wallop asked.

I don’t know that Jake was ever happy as such. Come to that, he was never sad, rarely angry, or much of anything, actually. Satisfied that he was settled at least, Granny Wallop turned on me.
‘Ah d’n’t s’pose thee know oo father is?’

The baby’s? I had a fair idea. I suppose it was out of loyalty that I kept mum. Or perhaps it was that rabbit emerging bloodlessly from inside its own skin and fur that struck me dumb. It might have been a pair of trousers that Granny Wallop yanked off — tight for sure, but they came off in one.

Her eyes fell on Jake. He wouldn’t have known, or cared who the baby’s father was. He only looked up, as much to ask why she’d stopped — or maybe, why she’d left the rabbit’s socks on. Granny Wallop nodded knowingly. She pulled the rabbit’s ostensible jersey off — or almost, because, whilst able to tug its forelegs through its sleeves, she had to leave its head inside itself. Which was exactly how Jake himself looked with Mother trying to pull him out of his jumble sale polo neck.

‘Know oo thi father is?’ Granny Wallop asked Jake.

Jake didn’t even register the question.


I also was preoccupied. But my silence warranted a prolonged tut and hopeless shake of the head. Whilst asking, Granny Wallop had slashed either side of each of the rabbit’s hind knee joints. In turn, she now poised each lower leg over the table’s edge and snapped it off. The front legs she wrenched off.

‘Shut up, Ned!’

Doggy Ned had conceded defeat and stopped trying to jump up by now. With age, his legs were too stiff. But he would keep circling the table, whining.

Granny Wallop put the blade to the rabbit’s throat, and leant on it. Crack went the rabbit’s neck. Its head fell off. I felt faint but could not look away, slippery limp pink bag of guts that rabbit evidently was. Granny Wallop drew a line the length of its stomach. Out they oozed. I could smell them. Doggy Ned, too. As Granny Wallop teased those entrails on to the table, he began to drool.

‘Ah ses to ’er,’ Granny Wallop said, ‘she’s no more business rearin’ children than beast in t’field.’ From the rabbit’s ribcage, she scooped out its organs one by one. Each, as it came, she tossed to Ned. ‘Tho’ ’appen she do tek ’er pleasure like one.’ Ned wouldn’t have made long-stop in a Doggy Veterans Second Eleven. He could not catch. But he lapped each organ up from where it splat.

‘Tek it!’ Granny Wallop startled me. ‘It’s lucky. Or so folk say — an’ theur gawn t’need it, lad.’

Jake’s hand shot out. Apparently for my benefit he held aloft his prize of that be-socked foot. While Granny Wallop rinsed the rest of the rabbit in the sink, he snatched up its head and pelt and donned them like a glove puppet. ‘Nyerrr. What’s up, Doc?’

In my stomach, the metallic taste that I had been swallowing hard these past few minutes all at once rolled to a boil. I made it to the door but it was a stable door. I’d never seen one before, and in my confusion could not fathom its latches. I had to jump to reach, then hang doubled over the door’s lower-half so as not to spatter the scullery floor.

Granny Wallop marched me over the mess I’d made of her doorstep into the yard. As she did so, ‘Ned Wallop! Thee animal, thee!’ she hollered. I dropped to the cobbles fully expecting a kick in the side. But again, wrong Ned, for Doggy Ned it was who yelped. Regardless, Granny Wallop having disappeared back into the scullery, I looked up through my tears and rain to find him undeterred happily lapping up vomit.

Jake meanwhile was laughing like I’d never heard Jake laugh before — like he might die of laughter.

Smacking his jowls, Ned ambled over to where I, boy Ned, sat in my puddle and set about my face. Holiday? Wasn’t a holiday supposed to be a treat? Beaches, a donkey ride and stick of rock? This weren’t going to be no holiday.

Clayton Lister lives in Northumberland, England. This story is from his collection, The Cracked Objective Lens; he also has a novel living in his laptop, Tom Thumb's Chunky Blues. Both await re-housing to somewhere grander.