The Part That Burns
A Novel Excerptby Jeannine Ouellette
I don’t believe in jackalopes. But people have to make up their own minds about these things. Douglas, Wyoming, is the jackalope capital of the world. A jackalope is a cross between a male jackrabbit and a female antelope. Jackrabbits and antelopes are both real. You don’t believe in them or not. They just are.
Douglas is the jackalope capital because it’s where the first jackalope was spotted in 1829 by a trapper named Roy Ball. So maybe jackalopes existed back then—but they were said to be extinct before we left Duluth for here. Still, people report sightings in Douglas even now.
I loved our house in Douglas. It was white and green and had a cozy front porch that jutted out into our little square yard of brown grass with its one spicy pine tree. Inside, wooden stairs led up to my bedroom, which had a slanted ceiling and peeling wallpaper that smelled of wood fires and old books. My bedroom was an attic, a fort, tiny and perfect. Beside my bed was a square-paned window, glued shut with paint. Pine boughs scratched against the glass when the wind blew. In Wyoming, the wind always blew.
In the middle of downtown Douglas, right outside the front door of the old train depot, was a giant eight-foot statue of the jackalope. The statue was painted gray and white. It looked friendly, like the Easter Bunny. But jackalopes are not friendly. They’re fighters. They use their antlers to attack and gore their enemies, which is why they are also called warrior rabbits.
I learned these things in Douglas. I also learned I had a Minnesota accent when I said house and rag and I want to come with, and that most kids in my second grade class didn’t believe in Santa, and that some schools, like Douglas Elementary, have no walls. I learned that if your mom cuts your hair very short because your face is narrow and you don’t look nice in long hair like other girls, your teacher might not know who you are. She might say, “And who is our new boy today?” I learned I had a talent for dirty looks, and that sometimes Mom thought my looks were funny and sometimes she slapped them off of me. I learned I could change some things but not others. For example, I could change the way I talked. It wasn’t that hard.
Jackalopes can change their voices too. They can even imitate human voices. My stepfather loved jackalopes. His name was Mike, but Mom called him Mafia. Everyone did. “Because he’s Italian,” Mom said. Mafia said he saw jackalopes on his long drives to and from the graveyard shift at the oil plant. The word graveyard made me imagine him working at a cemetery, like the one at the top of the hill in Duluth where Mom’s parents are buried. But really it was something about uranium. It stained Mafia’s hands. Whenever we drove past the plant at night—it sat back on the open road about twenty miles outside Douglas—I’d press my forehead against the cool glass of the purple Impala’s back window and watch for the shadowy shapes of the oil buildings with their millions of twinkling lights.
“In the days when cowboys sang by the campfire at night, the jackalopes would sing back,” Mafia explained one dusty afternoon. He blew smoke out of his nose. “Jackalopes like to sing before thunderstorms because they can only mate when lightning flashes. Their milk is a love potion.”
“Is that right?” Mom said. She and Mafia were at the kitchen table, drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes. My baby sister, Carrie, was on Mom’s lap.
“You bet it’s right,” Mafia said. “The jackalope is sometimes called the horny rabbit.”
Mom laughed into her sleeve, how she always did. “Little pitchers,” she said. Carrie was the one on Mom’s lap, but she was talking about me.
“Little pitchers should empty this ashtray.” Mafia picked up the gold dish from the kitchen table and held it out. I carried it to the garbage can by the kitchen porch, but I spilled a tiny bit on purpose, watching the gray ash float down to the floor before rubbing it into the yellow linoleum with my big toe.
Mafia didn’t like me, except for the tickling game. It went like this: Mafia chased me, I ran. He caught me, I yelled and shrieked. He tickled me—under my arms and behind my knees, under my chin and between my ribs. I shrieked more, until finally he pulled my clothes off and put me on his lap and rubbed his hands between my legs. When he stopped, the game was over. That’s how it worked. I was four when I first learned to play.
One way jackalopes escape hunters is by imitating the human voice. A jackalope will call out trick phrases—There he goes! and Quick! Over there!—to throw you off the trail. Mafia said the best way to catch a jackalope was to lure it with whiskey. “Jackalopes love whiskey,” he said. “Drunk animals are slower and easier to hunt.” Mafia rarely drank. Neither did Mom—not since the explosion. But I already knew how to get away. I pulled myself through a doorway inside myself.
Some people say it was a taxidermist in Douglas who created the first jackalope in 1934. The taxidermist was late for dinner one night and tossed a dead rabbit down on the ground next to a pair of antlers lying on the floor of his shop. When the taxidermist came back from dinner, he looked at the rabbit and the antlers and decided to mount them together, just as they were. The taxidermist made a fortune selling jackalope trophies. The Douglas Chamber of Commerce issues thousands of official jackalope hunting licenses every year. The hunting of jackalopes is highly restricted, though, allowed only between midnight and 2:00 a.m. on June 31.
Anyway, here’s the thing about doorways: once you go through, you’re through. That is to say, even if you go back, you will never see the world the same as before. It’s like being nearsighted and looking through eyeglasses for the first time. You can take the glasses off, but you will always know that cottonwood leaves shimmy singularly in the wind.
Someday I will go back to the Wyoming of my childhood. I will roam the open fields all the way to the foothills. Forget mountains—they’re too far out. In the fields, I will smell the peppery dirt. I will rub sage into my palms, my hair, my mouth. I will rip a tumbleweed from the ground and feed it to the wind.
I will visit the town of Douglas on June 31 between midnight and 2:00 a.m. I will walk in the moonlight and cast a watchful eye. I will trace my fingers along the length of barbed wire that separates one plot from another. I will feel in the dark for that particular point, sharp and exact, where I turned.