The Year of the Rabbit

The Rabbit is the fourth animal of the Chinese zodiac, sandwiched between the Tiger and the Dragon. When the English headed east and heralded the story of St. George, in a land where dragons are treasured, they found the Chinese singularly unreceptive. Perhaps the battle cry of England and St. George was taken as a sign of things to come.

I admit to an interest in astrology, but to the extent that the word was synonymous with astronomy over the period of The India Road. My take on it is summarized in the following quote from the book, which strangely enough also mentions rabbits:

For the common sailor, it was close to magic; if you could read the stars to describe today, then surely they might be used to foretell tomorrow! No wonder these magicians, who juggled numbers like rabbits from a hat, were known as astrologers—for where is the difference between time and space when it comes to telling the future?

But the Chinese zodiac is something else entirely. I was doing some work in China during the Year of the Cock (2005), sometimes known more prudishly as the Year of the Rooster. One of my Chinese colleagues in his opening address wisely explained that “the cock is the most hard-working of all animals, because he not only wakes up himself, but also wakes up all the other animals.” Food for thought.

Chinese signs are also extremely useful for finding out a woman’s age without causing offence. Women have special radar, so they can tell how old a man or woman is with remarkable accuracy. But men are hopeless at that, as well as at so many other things, so deviation and trickery are de rigueur. From Rat to Pig there is a twelve year span, so if a lady tells me she was born in the Year of the Monkey I have a window of over a decade to play with. If a guy can’t tell a woman’s age to the nearest ten years, he shouldn’t be curious in the first place.

The Year of the Rabbit begins on February 3rd 2011, but actually the Rabbit I’m writing about died one year ago yesterday. And she wasn’t a Rabbit at all, she was actually a Snake. More particularly she was a Fire Snake. In the Chinese Zodiac.

But in life she was very much a Rabbit, or a Coelho, to use the Portuguese expression. At least I called her that ever since I was twelve, when I decided I should abandon formal address and just call her Rabbit. She took it, like everything else, in good grace. One description of the qualities of the Fire Snake states they are:

 “…forever offering opinions and telling others what’s on their minds. Even so, others enjoy listening to Fire Snakes. They’re very persuasive and are especially good at convincing others that their ways are best…”

That’s actually not far off. This time last year I would have been unable to tell stories about her, my mind too clouded with grief, my eyes too clouded with tears. I certainly couldn’t have written about her on a public page. After one whole year, there is still a huge emptiness where she used to be, which matches the immensity of her presence.

And we’re not talking adipose-challenged here. This was a woman who came in at a height of not much above five feet, weighed in at 110 pounds. Her feet were so small that during a year in Edinburgh in the 1950s she could only find suitable shoe sizes in the children’s section of department stores.

Some years ago I became increasingly worried at her insistence on living alone. She was frail, and the prospect of a fall, a broken hip, or some other mishap which would leave her immobile and unable to communicate struck me as eminently possible. I tried to persuade her to get a warning bracelet, something she could activate and summon help with. The Rabbit took this as a serious affront, and hardly spoke to me for three weeks. Just after that, when her grandson called on the phone from the UK, she initially refused to talk with him, thinking it was me. Some months later, she proudly announced she had acquired a bracelet, linked up to emergency services. In her own sweet time.

A Lisbon tram, still an emblem of the city today.

She was smart as a whip, but always understated. When her sister was dying of TB in the early 1940s she regularly walked across Lisbon to teach physics to high school seniors and then walked home again, maybe a ten mile round trip, saving the tram fare so she could send it to pay for the sanatorium bills. Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but it took a further seventeen years before the first antibiotics started saving lives. For the Rabbit’s younger sister it was too late.

The Rabbit did not believe in corporal punishment – a fairly advanced viewpoint for the sixties, when my school was still enthusiastically applying the cane, though not with the “six of the best” gusto popular in English boarding schools. The more sadistic of such schools would use the pattern of the Union Jack so that the unfortunate child would bleed at the center point where all the blows crossed. Nice bit of empire-building. Ouch, I digress. One of the Rabbit techniques for restraining me was to tell me that whatever particular mayhem I had just caused took years from her life. At the age of 6 or 7, I was interested to know exactly how many years were involved, since I found this concept of life subtraction somewhat confusing. After cumulative wickednesses, it became clear that the Rabbit would perhaps have had a lifespan of no more than ten years, given the level of deduction. I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for the early death of my Rabbit, so it pleased me greatly that this was obviously a hoax.

Years later she brought home a tiny puppy from the hairdresser, a true representative of the pavement pedigree breed. The dog, which was known in my circle only as Rock the Stupid Mutt, showed none of the characteristics of canine discipline. It resisted all attemps to be trained in sitting or staying, and had a truly feline disinterest in walks. Rock learned to escape at will and would vanish for a couple of days at a time, returning invariably with no collar, like a drunk making it back from a bender. For all that, he was a great character, and a devoted friend.     

Rock was very fond of the Rabbit, and regularly made this clear by jumping through a gap in the hedge and sprinting down the road to catch up with the Rabbit when she was trotting to the railway station to catch the train to work. Normally the dog would leap joyfully on her when she was about halfway there, the dilemma then being whether the dog should be safely returned home, thus ensuring that the Rabbit missed her train, or whether there would be a tussle on the platform while the Rabbit attempted to restrain the mutt from getting into the carriage with her and presenting himself at the atomic physics laboratory of the University of Lisbon. Coercion was not an option, since the Rabbit’s aversion to corporal punishment also extended to her dealings with animals.

The rabbit’s solution was a masterpiece of ingenuity. The tunnel beneath the station was the scene of the crime: the Rabbit would duck into the toilets, happily followed by the dog. In those days, almost forty years ago, the smell alone would have stimulated any dog to leap into the restroom. Having irresistibly enticed the mutt, the Rabbit would dodge out, firmly closing the door behind her, and dash for the train. The dog always made it home, and I can only guess at the astonishment and fright of the subsequent users of the facility, whose first act was to liberate the hound from its pungent enclave.

Lídia ("The Rabbit"), aged 34 (1951). The "sinal" on by her face has been powdered out. There was no Photoshop at the time.

The Rabbit was compulsively studious ever since she was a little girl. Her mother had to forbid her to study and send her out to play. Together with her scientific achievements she developed a variety of esoteric interests, ranging from Esperanto to transcendental meditation, from graphology to  palmistry. In her later years, she became deeply interested in Reiki and applied it to all her loved ones, and to herself. Her grandson regularly availed himself of her services when sitting his finals. She informed me on one occasion that she had carried out Reiki healing on the trees that line her street, and that they were looking much better because of it. 

The last time I saw my Rabbit was one year ago. She looked so serene and peaceful, as beautiful as ever I saw her.

One Response to “The Year of the Rabbit”

  1. fredtmackenzie Says:

    What a wonderful and inspiring story. I certainly enjoyed reading it!

    Fred Mackenzie

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