The rabbit weighs at least five pounds including the single dangling foot left intact to prove it is fresh. The black nails, the grey fur and the smell of straw drift towards me. It is the first part I cut off, fluffy and soft in my hands. I stare at the carcass for some time, wash my hands again, sharpen the small knife and the big one. The year of the rabbit has come to an end, and all of Russia celebrates this by eating one. They say it is both significant and lucky.
I had a hard time finding one at rinok until I went to my halal booth, the same one where I bought our Thanksgiving turkey. They apologize for the price, telling me I should come back after New Year's and the cost will be half. I shrug my shoulders, try to say "what to do?" as I tuck the giant pink plastic bag under my arm and make my way through the noisy, chaotic, lurching crowd.
E is fast asleep, one hand perched awkwardly across her cheek.
I do not want her to see any of this.
Cutting the animal in half just above the hind legs, I pull sinew and spine apart. Breaking the legs down, I debone them, leaving the tough parts at the bottom to scrape off. The full pieces of meat are trimmed of silver flesh and fat, then go into the first bowl. The smaller bits will be salted, strewn with fresh thyme and a splash of olive oil, maybe a spoonful of good sherry. They will braise for hours under tin foil in an oven barely on until they become a fragrant mush called rillette that will be spread on toast.
When E was a baby a pair of rabbits hid sometimes in our front yard. There was a grown one and a little one. It was as easy to imagine it was a mother and child as it was to imagine it was a father and child. One rainy day in Fall, I stood for more than an hour at the front window watching them shiver under a canvas folding chair I had forgotten to bring inside. The rain dripped down around them, and they shook next to each other, feet tucked under their soft chests. E was standing then with my help, her fingers in my hands, balancing on top of a shoe cabinet to see them. I imagined they were scared, that maybe a dog had chased them in the park next to our apartment. I Imagined them making quiet noises to each other, giving comfort and reassurance, making plans for someplace safe to hide. There was something hopeless about them, as if I was preparing myself to be unsurprised to find them dead the next morning. At the same time, I imagined they would be fine, hiding in the bushes or in some backyard, dry and safe, growing fat and old.
E had already witnessed more fear and anger, more waste and pain than many people do in a lifetime. Somehow, the rabbit parent and child did survive that Fall and Winter, and were still there when we left that place.
The pile of bones and thick slivers of fat grows larger than what is left. The front legs are easier, as I know they are all going to be small pieces for the rillette. No need to go slow now. The bones and fat go into a pot of water with three fingers of salt and some bay leaves. The trimmed meat will brine in lemon juice and white wine, some mustard, fresh thyme and oregano, salt and pepper. The heart, kidneys and liver will become pate tomorrow but now I just wrap them quickly in a plastic bag and hide them in the refrigerator.
I thought it would get easier as I went, but no.
It is sober work that I do in silence.
Tomorrow will be the party, the clean table, the dishes salty and sweet, the crunch, the savory, the tender. There will be quiet toasts and smiles, laughter, hugs, kisses, jokes. There will be music and a door to the hallway opened for the new year to enter.
I tell myself the hard part is behind me, that I can wash my hands one last time but I know that this is just wishful thinking. Things are going to be messy for a long time.
A revision note: I stand corrected as to why everyone in Russia is eating a rabbit tonight. The year that is ending is actually the year of the dragon. The previous year was the year of the rabbit. People in Russia eat rabbits tonight because the incoming year is the year of the snake - and snakes eat rabbits.