The cottontail rabbit, Lepus sylvaticus, has proliferated on easternLong Islandin recent years, a population boom largely driven by the widespread development of previously open spaces for human habitation, and the concomitant destruction of habitats favored by the rabbits’ natural predators. In an attempt to bring the rabbits’ numbers down, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation permits the hunting of cottontail rabbits between November and February. Long after the summer crowds have left, one can sometimes hear the soft crunch of autumn leaves beneath hunters’ feet, a sign that life has not left the area entirely.
It’s late August, and I’m crouched down in the hollow between two large flowering shrubs, hiding from my father, hoping to steal a few more minutes outside before he finds me and puts me to bed. I shuffle my feet in the dirt and wonder if I can flee here when my family leaves forNew Jerseyin a few days. We’ve been coming to our condominium at Whitefield Estate inSouthamptoneach summer for as long as I can remember, and it feels as much my home asNew Jerseydoes.
A few minutes later my father finds me, grabs my shoulder, and shouts, “I got you!” as he drags me out of the bushes. I say, “I’m a rabbit, this is my home!” and pretend to resist. We look at each other and collapse laughing, rolling around in the grass behind the bushes while my mother looks on from the patio with a mock grimace.
It’s just before dusk, and my father and I are exploring the empty field behind Whitefield, trying to see how many rabbits we can count, and how close we can come to them before they dart away. He makes it a game: who can spot more rabbits. I’m far too impatient to have any chance of winning. I just want to run to the rabbits as soon as I see them, to see if I can catch them. After the sky grows too dark to see any more rabbits, we drive to the Fudge Company for ice cream. As we lick the last sticky-sweet drops from our spoons, we forget there was ever a game to win.
It’s been raining all week, and we’re going stir-crazy in our little condo, sitting by the window and wishing we were at the beach. We’ve read every book and watched every movie we own multiple times over, and we’ve run out of subjects for conversation. Mom turns away and drums her fingers across the windowsill.
The moment we see a ray of sunshine, we pile into the car without a word. Mom decides that it’s still too cool and cloudy for the beach, so we drive in silence to a nearby miniature golf course. We putt across the course dutifully, each one of us pretending to enjoy the outing.
On the eighth hole, my mother putts the ball to just in front of the hole with one stroke, her best shot that day. She smiles and walks over to her ball, preparing to sink it with a second stroke. As she follows through with the putter, she feels a soft thud, and looks down to see a young rabbit right next to the hole, its head now caked with blood. We bend down to move it, but it’s already dead. Mom stomps away, shrugging off our arms as we try to comfort her.
My brother spends the whole drive back quoting statistics about how fast rabbits breed, how nobody in theHamptonscan possibly miss this one, how in just the time we spend in the car, theHamptonswill see hundreds more rabbits born. I glance sideways at my brother and think about slapping him.
At dinner that night, Mom tells her father that she killed a rabbit that day, trying to hold back tears while eating her salmon. My grandfather purses his lips and says that once, when he was driving near the coast ofDoverinEnglandduring World War II, his car hit a rabbit, and he didn’t even pull over to look at it. “War does that to you,” he says between bites of steak. “Makes you go numb. It took me years to get over it.”