Uncle Toto took my hand in his and led me through the crowded parlor. The tail of his black scarf flapped in my face. It smelled of onions and ashes. People touched me as I passed them, their hands falling on my head, and murmured things I could not understand. A woman I did not know with a long neck and red eyes pulled her hair when she saw me and started screaming. Uncle Toto jerked me away from her, squeezing my hand until I felt the bones. My father, in a tight black suit, stood by a casket on wheels lighting a candle. He looked at me and smiled. His eyes rolled back.
Someone had died. People wept. Three old women in black occupied a brown velvet divan against one wall, nodding and weeping as they wolfed down tomatoes and tripe. One of them dropped a fork. I stepped over it. Uncle Toto pulled me into an unlit back room, leaving the door ajar. A wedge of yellow light spilled through, only to thin and disappear as a draft shut the door. I stood absolutely still as Uncle Toto fumbled with something in the middle of the room. I could just perceive his outline as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the large head, narrow shoulders. He was talking rapidly to me or to himself; I could not understand a word. It was too fast. He was dry, he sounded dry. His silhouette thrashed. Then a naked bulb flickered on, shedding amber light. Uncle Toto stood at one end of a heavy wooden table examining the contents of a brown paper bag. He gestured for me to join him.
“Hurry up,” he whispered. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to see?”
“What is it?”
“Come and see.”
In the dim light Uncle Toto’s missing eyeteeth looked like black fangs. His white forehead gleamed. I hesitated.
“Come on,” he said.
“I don’t want to.”
“You’re a donkey.”
I tried to move my legs but could not. I slapped my thighs and felt nothing. What was this? Uncle Toto pulled at something in the bag. Then he turned to me and moved his mouth as though he were speaking. But I heard nothing. Was this some kind of game? I wondered. His wide-eyed, braced expression suggested that he wanted an answer to whatever he had asked me. But when I tried to tell him that I had not heard his question nothing came out of my mouth. My tongue felt like a piece of paper and my vocal chords refused to issue any sounds. Uncle Toto struck the table with both hands and appeared to be shouting, but again I heard nothing. He hurled a shiny object in my direction. It missed me and struck the wall, shattering into silvery shards. Uncle Toto clapped his hands and brayed with laughter. Then he picked up another object and reared his arm, threatening to throw it also. I mustered all my strength and with a great pull managed to lift my right foot off the floor and heave it forward. The left proved more difficult to move. I found myself in a ludicrous lunging posture, my arms spread for balance. I tried to straighten myself out but my feet felt cemented in place, the left significantly back from the right.
His face hidden in shadows, Uncle Toto continued handling the contents of the bag, at one point punching it. Voices registered just outside the door. Cousins, perhaps, other mourners. No one told me who had died. My grandmother was still alive, I had seen her earlier in the bathroom fiddling with her dentures.
I wanted to turn around and go find her. I gathered myself and with all my might lifted my left foot and threw it down beside the right. The legs lacked all sensation. I sat down and stretched them out. Sawdust covered the floor and several empty brown beer bottles stood under the table with their labels peeling. Uncle Toto appeared at my feet. He waved his arms and hoofed me lightly but I could not get up. His lips moved but I heard nothing except rustling from the brown paper bag on the table.
Uncle Toto’s hands grabbed me under the armpits and lifted me to my feet. Then he guided me to the table, pushing me so close to it I had to reach out my hands. I caught a glimpse of something dark and flexible in the bag before Uncle Toto’s shadow covered the table like black cloth. I could feel his hot breath on my neck and his hands buried in my armpits. I pushed against the table, into his chest, and he released me, nimbly shifting to my side. I glanced at the bag. It rocked back and forth a few times then rolled once.
“She’s angry,” whispered Uncle Toto.
“What is it?”
“I’ll show you.”
His hands reached inside the bag and removed what at first looked like a black cat. But then a floppy ear popped out and I saw it was a rabbit, its limbs tightly bound in twine. Its upper lip looked torn, its choppers exposed and blood-streaked. Its eyes were bleeding. Uncle Toto slapped the rabbit’s haunches and it kicked some. He told me to touch it. I refused.
“Touch it,” he whispered, “for good luck.”
“I don’t want to touch it.”
“You’ll die, then.”
I tried to step back from the table but Uncle Toto’s hand held my shoulder firm. Then the door abruptly flew open and a wave of sound—chattering, laughing, crying—flooded the room. Just as suddenly the door shut with a bang. Uncle Toto laughed in his chest. He removed the scarf from his neck and formed a circle with it on the table. In this circle he placed the bound black rabbit. The rabbit twitched a little but had lost its will to fight.
“People have to eat,” Uncle Toto said. “The tripe is almost finished. It’s almost finished and what will the people eat when they come to pay their respects? They have to eat. Rabbit is the best thing. You like rabbit, I know you do, I’ve seen you eat it. You like the leg. Look at the leg. Do you like it now? Touch it. Touch the leg.”
Uncle Toto grabbed my hand and pulled it to the rabbit. I clenched my hand into a fist but he forced my knuckles against the warm fur. Tears fell from my eyes. I wanted to cry out for my father or my grandmother but when I opened my mouth Uncle Toto’s hand covered it.
“No screaming,” he said. “If you scream I’ll kill you.”
His hand fell away from my face. He fished around in his pocket and produced a small curved knife. He held it up to the light, his shoulders shaking merrily. He waved the knife under my nose. It reeked of garlic. Then he seized the rabbit’s rear feet and lifted it above the table. The rabbit squirmed. I could hear it panting. Blood dripped from its jaws.
“Kill it,” Uncle Toto said.
“I’m not afraid.”
Without another word he waved the knife again and stabbed the rabbit in the abdomen. The rabbit bucked like a fish. Blood poured from its wound but the rabbit wasn’t dead. Uncle Toto stabbed it again, this time in one of the legs. A terrible wet sound issued from the rabbit’s throat. Uncle Toto poked the rabbit again in the abdomen. Then he plunged the knife into one of its haunches, working with a sawing motion until the right rear leg came free.
The rabbit was still alive, but Uncle Toto started skinning it, cutting a slit along its spine. Just before he tore away the black fur he held the knife to me again. I took the knife and without hesitation pierced one of the rabbit’s eyes. Blood jetted out, then slowed to a trickle. This finished off the little beast. Uncle Toto clapped me on the shoulder. He told me to give him the knife and when I refused he slapped me across the face.
“You think you’re smart, eh? You’re not smart. You did a good thing though. In the eye. Nice. You’re a good heart, like your mother was.”
He slapped me again, harder. I could taste blood. He slapped me again across the ear and I felt something pop and then I could hear nothing from that ear but a roaring sound. Uncle Toto now flayed and quartered the rabbit carcass. He worked quickly, pushing aside the black fur, scooping up the watery blood with his hand and licking it off his palm. He ordered me to do the same but I refused. He went to slap me again but stopped in mid-motion as the door flew open. My grandmother stood there, dressed in black with a black veil covering her face, tiny, severe.
“Come here,” she said.
I thought she was talking to me but when Uncle Toto stepped toward the door I relaxed. He walked with his shoulders hunched, shuffling his feet. He kept some distance from my grandmother, nodding as she addressed him. I could not hear what she said; noise rushing in from the open door drowned her out. When Uncle Toto started speaking, rubbing his hands together and bowing his head, she lunged at him, slapping his face so hard it sounded like a clap of thunder. He fell backwards, knocking over a stool.
My grandmother now called for me. My legs trembled so violently I could not move. She called me again and with all my force I shifted my legs and dragged my feet toward the door where she stood waiting with her hands on her hips, her face hidden. Uncle Toto stood up and brushed sawdust off his trousers. My grandmother cupped her hands and stirred them before her breasts. I stopped well out of reach but she insisted I come closer.
“Are you afraid of me?”
“Don’t be afraid of me. Did Uncle Toto hurt you?”
“He slapped me.”
“Did he kill the rabbit?”
I looked at Uncle Toto who leaned over the table. He winked at me as he picked up the scarf from the table and draped it across his shoulders.
“I killed the rabbit,” I said.
“Don’t be afraid of him,” she said. “He’ll pay for what he did. He’ll pay. Now come with me and we’ll get you something to eat.”
My grandmother took my hand and led me out of the room back into the parlor. We passed the three old women, sitting on the divan with their legs spread open and their hands on their swollen bellies. My father still stood by the casket. This time he held a wreath of red flowers at his chest. He looked like he was singing but I heard no song, only the rumble of the people, some weeping, many eating from steaming plates. My grandmother took me to the bathroom and told me to wash the blood off my face.
“Are you afraid?”
“No, I’m not afraid,” I told her.
“Are you sad that your mother died?”
“Yes, dear, she died this morning. Now wash the blood off your face like a good boy.”