The Pine Cage

I excitedly jammed my hands into the pockets of my polka-dot stirrup pants, searching for the three dollars I had worked all week to save, which was a quite a feat for an 8-year-old “pool rat” with an addiction to Green Apple Laffy Taffy.

This was worth it.

I looked at my little brother who stood next to me. Well, danced next to me. He had a death grip on the side of the carnival booth and was flailing his legs backwards, rocketing gravel into the spitters of half-drunk locals who were celebrating another year of farming. David wasn’t focused on any of the people, games, or cheap plastic toys. This year’s fair had a new prize to offer the youth of Brown County—a small herd of baby bunnies. From the moment we saw the huddled masses of scraggly, dusty baby rabbits, we immediately planned to build a home for one that would always be stocked with fresh clover from our front yard and have a warm bed made of straw. Previously petless, my brother and I knew we would be excellent rabbit masters.

Only three things stood between us and our new furry family member:

1. Three dollars
2. Tossing a ping-pong ball into a cup
3. Mom
In our youth, we were confident that as a pair, we could overcome all of these obstacles. My brother was, after all, David Pottroff: the most precious preschooler on earth. If his white-blond hair, chubby cheeks, and blue eyes weren’t enough, his interdental lisp and inability to pronounce the letter “r” made him the object of everyone’s affection. Even he knew he was adow­able. Combine him with a fluffy bunny and even our mom couldn’t say, “No.” And for a shrimpy girl with a bowl-cut, I already had an aptitude for basketball.

1. I finally found the balled-up three one-dollar bills in my pocket among navy blue lint and Green Apple Laffy Taffy wrappers. Wanting to look professional, I rubbed the crumply bills across my pant-leg to make them as straight as possible. Then I fanned them out, leaned against the carnival booth, and shouted, “One chance over here!”

2. Ball in hand, I looked back over at my brother’s hopeful blue eyes. I could tell that he was nervous. Earlier, he had no doubt in my ball tossing abilities, but now reality had set in. This was our one bunny chance. Again, wanting to look as confident as possible, I blew on the ping-pong ball for luck and held it out for David to do the same. I stepped up to the carnival booth and ran my eyes over the rows of cups forming a perfectly filled-in 3-foot square. I knew I should aim for the middle. I closed one eye, stood on one foot, and loaded my arm into shooting position. After a deep breath, I released the ball . . .

David let out a squeal—it looked like the perfect toss—the right arc, the right distance. I watched breathlessly as the ball floated through the air toward my intended target. I took in a violent gasp as my hope bounced off the lip of one of the center cups, sharply sending the grubby ping pong ball away from our dream.

In his grief, David yelped incoherently and I stood in disbelief. Never be­fore did we house this kind of desire. We loved those bunnies. We knew that we could care for them like no one else in the world. In our mutual fantasy, we saw ourselves covered in heavenly clouds of soft, loving bunnies. Not being unreasonable children, we would be happy to settle for one shared, precious animal. But even that dream had been plucked from our hearts. Unable to help myself, my bottom lip started to quiver and David’s face was already flushed with tears. I’m sure we were a sight to behold.

In our agony, we didn’t notice Walter, a middle-aged man from our neigh­borhood, come up behind us. We knew Walter, but not well. Our mother had told us to stay away from him because he drank too much and he wasn’t “nice.” However, her warning rang hollow, and during the summer we would bring his dog, Prince, our leftover chicken nuggets and hamburgers on a daily basis. Walter had probably seen me riding my scooter up and down our chip-and-seal street and my brother peeing on our neighbor Bernie’s flowers.

Walter pulled three dollars out of his wallet and took the ping-pong ball from the carnival worker. We give him our full attention when he flipped his long, jet-black hair over his shoulder. Like a basketball star, he shot the ball with impeccable form, and it landed cleanly into one of the cups. My bottom lip stilled as I watched Walter pick out one of the baby bunnies with a huge smile on his face. With cupped hands, he pulled the shivering animal close to his body and turned toward my brother and me. In that moment, our hearts nearly burst with hope. My brother ran up to Walter and reached to pet the caramel-colored bunny—I held back a bit, intimidated by his stature and darker skin. Then Walter squatted down and asked, “Do you have a name picked out?”

3. Like a hawk, my mother swooped in out of nowhere and grabbed David’s shoulder, pulling him away from his newfound love. Without acknowledg­ing Walter or his kindness, she tried to shoo David and me away from the booth.

“It’s time to go home,” she said, giving Walter a hard look over her shoul­der. But we were not prepared to let go of our dream so easily.

“He won that bunny!” I said.

“Chwisty mithed the shot! But Wahter made it!” yelled David as he pushed his way past my mother to pet the bunny in Walter’s hands.

Walter stood up and said to my mother, “I have a dog, so I don’t need a rab­bit. If your kids. . .”

“No. They can’t. They’re allergic,” she lied as she turned away. She picked up my brother and pulled me from Walter’s side.

I’m sure we put up a fight. But I don’t remember. I would like to think that I dragged my feet and yelled at my mother in protest with David following my lead. What I do remember are my mother’s angry words when we met up with my father and older sister a few moments later. “Stupid, irrespon­sible Indian! He tried to give my kids a pet! He’s probably drunk—why do they even come to the fair? Isn’t that what powwows are for?!”

In the weeks following the fair that summer, David and I constructed a cage for our imaginary rabbit. We spent our non-swimming hours fasten­ing together chicken wire and scraps of pine from our dad’s shop into a semi-respectable hutch. Our father had given us advice and supplies, but the hutch was our project. After hours of fastening and unfastening wood and wire, we would go stand with our dad in his shop. David and I would drink strawberry sodas and Dad would open a Coors—all kept in the shop mini-fridge reserved for beverages our mother forbade in the house. While we drank, our dad would subtly teach us skills necessary to build the hutch, never making direct reference to our cage.

The final product was about two square feet and sat on unintentionally lopsided legs to keep our prospective pet safe from neighborhood cats and foxes. Our hutch had a hinged back roof to allow easy access for bunny hugs. I was especially proud of my idea for the wire floor that would allow the poops to drop to the ground and not dirty our bunny’s feet.

But we didn’t get a bunny that summer. No matter how much we whined, begged, or cried. My mother had told a man that we were allergic to rabbits and didn’t want to be proven a hypocrite. Racist, yes. Hypocrite, never. The next winter, after Walter moved away, our wish was finally granted and we got Muffin, a snow white rabbit from a pet store.

A few weeks after our heartbreak at the fair, my brother came running inside and jumped right between me, lounging on the turquoise bean bag, and the TV. “I found a baby bihd in the backyawd!” he squealed.

Forced out of my afternoon daze, I followed him through the back door and saw the animal he was so excited about. Clearly, the bird had fallen from its nest and it was chirping steadily and loudly, which surprised me when I saw how small it actually was. Even we, in our desperation for a pet, could recognize that this was an ugly baby. It looked like a miniature greasy old man with an oversized beak. But, as new parents, we could accept that looks weren’t everything. We felt called to action to care for this creature that seemed so alone in the world.

I knew I shouldn’t, but I picked up the little bird. I felt its tiny heart vibrat­ing in my hand and the chirping intensified with desperation. “It must be scared,” I thought aloud. “Let’s put it in the hutch!” Holding the bird gently in both hands against my stomach, I swiftly walked over to the hutch with David close behind. He opened the roof and I sat our baby in its new home. For a few minutes, we frantically ran around finding things that might make the bird feel more at home. We threw in twigs, grass, acorns, a little bit of gravel and waited, with our faces pressed against the chicken wire, for our new pet to reciprocate our love.

After a few minutes of constant, frantic chirping, David and I knew some­thing was wrong. Knowing that we would get in trouble if our parents dis­covered that we touched a disease-ridden bird, we had to take care of this on our own. Our love for the little creature evaporated from our hearts in haste to avoid getting in trouble.

David reached in and tried to get the baby bird back out of the hutch. But it was stuck. I took a closer look and realized that its tiny claws were grip­ping the chicken wire floor in fright. The bird chirping like an alarm all the while, I ordered David to unclench the bird’s claws while I gently lifted its legs from the top. Again, I felt the bird’s heart beat and thought that mine was moving just as fast. Finally, we were able to free the creature.

I walked with the bird cupped in my hands back to the shade of the tree from which it fell. I thought about hiding it in the bush that surrounded the base of the tree to protect the trembling baby from the usual neighborhood predators. Realizing that it would never survive on its own, I put the bird out in the open expanse of our yard. I hoped to all of nature that the bird’s mother would fly down and rescue the baby from harm. And, in my mind, I imagined my own parents walking by and picking up the little creature to lift it back to the safety of its nest.

Preferring the unknown to being witnesses to the potential violent demise of our baby bird, David and I flew back into the house. We were both fright­ened and appalled by what we had done, but we knew we had to hide our emotions. So we sat together in the turquoise bean bag chair where I could feel both of our hearts beating wildly. Through the open window I could hear the creature’s cries. Regretting my decision of inaction, I tried to re­move myself from the chair, but I was stuck. Looking down, I saw my small hands, bone-white with strain, clenching the cheap vinyl.