TOM TERRY BECOMES A VEGETARIAN
By Upasaka Kuo Chou Rounds
If you haven't heard about Tom Terry before, you won't have known that all his life, until the time I'm telling you of, he was famous all across the Dakotas for his rabbit stew. Even his missus stood aside when Tom took it in his head to cook up a mess of rabbit, and her rabbit stew won the bake-off at the state fair two years running, even though the rules confined the entries to fruit pies. But Tom's stew, now; well, I never had a taste of it; he stopped making it before my time. I do know that on the day Tom broke his shotgun over his knee and said he'd killed his last rabbit, there was a dangerous insurrection in the valley of the Cannonball, which would have gotten serious if Tom hadn't invented his turnip-and-greens stew to replace it. They had to admit that the new stew was better. He never let on about the recipe for either one. All he'd say was, "Eat up before the juice dries and the fork sticks to your plate." You could never get anything out of Tom, except when he was pleased to tell you.
Now when Tom was still a fancier of rabbit, and when he'd feel the need of some of that stew on his tongue, he'd just pull on his wading boots and step across his fields to the banks of the Cannonball River, lined with thickets of cottonwood trees. He'd barge into the current and wade upstream, hollering, splashing, yowling, bellowing, generally raising a vituperous racket, and singing bits of hymns at the top of his voice—he had a fairly large voice for his size of man. I'm not going to tell you of the time he challenged a Montana grizzly bear to a roaring contest and deafened the poor beast. He was so sorry afterwards that he took the grizzly to the ear-doctor in Minneapolis. But that isn't part of this story. Of course, the rabbits who were busy nibbling the seed-pods at the tops of the cottonwood trees along the riverbank'-the rabbits being particularly fond of the topmost seed-pods, which have the softest cotton in them--this diet being the reason why rabbits have such particularly soft fur, even now, though they gave up their tree-living, cottonwood-pod-munching ways long ago--of course, when these cotton-picking rabbits heard Tom Terry's racket come hollering and splashing and yowling and roaring and vituperating up the river, they never failed to stop munching and to push aside the silver cottonwood leaves, each with his right hind foot, and they'd take a look below. You know how extraordinarily curious their nature naturally is; at least, it was. What did they see but a thirtyish, fortyish, fiftyish feller in dark blue overalls with a red woolen shirt on and a yellow straw hat; he had a big drooping moustache the color of his hat and little sharp eyes the color of his overalls, and blam-blam-blam-blam-blam! inside of five seconds he had five brace of rabbit plummeting through the air on the way to his rabbit-pouch. He was a wizard with a shotgun, Tom was. His mother told me once that the day he was two years old, he shot out the candles on his birthday-cake with the corks of two vinegar bottles, at a distance of fifty yards. She may have been exaggerating; I couldn't say.
Well, a dry year came to the valley of the Cannonball. The stunted wheat rattled in the fields. Tom Terry found himself hollering his way up the Cannonball two or three times a week to fill the bellies of his family. You'll understand me when I tell you that the rabbit got steadily scarcer as a consequence, and every day old Tom had to wade farther up the river to fill his pouch. One dry afternoon, far up the river, he took a turn into a bend that he didn't recognize. He told me afterward he could have sworn the river ran straight all down that country. But there was the river curving, in the shelter of a tall grove of ancient cottonwood trees. Their silver-leafed branches reached across and met far above the shaded water. As Tom was drawing breath to begin his hollering, he distinctly heard someone calling out his name behind him. "Mr. Terry?" Tom looked around; he couldn't see anyone "Hallo, Mr. Terry?" There it was again, coming from somewhere above him: the high voice of a girl or a young boy. "Speaking," boomed Tom, and he scanned the trees for the source of it. After a minute he noticed a shaking and a rustling high up in a particularly tall and ancient cottonwood, which stood by the bank at the apex of the riverbend. Hopping down among the silver leaves from thick limb to thick limb, was a large and jet-black rabbit, with particular white hieroglyphical markings on his cheeks and his brow. "That Mr. Terry there?" came the high, rather squeaky voice again. It was the rabbit's voice; there was no disputing it. The sound came from where he moved, and his mouth formed the words. The rabbit hopped to the ground and walked up the bank towards Tom, using just his two long black hind feet, kicking one foot up in front of the other. "Mr. Tom Terry?" said the jet-black rabbit. --"Himself," said Tom, from the middle of the river, with the current rushing by him; he was too dumbfounded to say more. The rabbit kick-walked up the bank till he was opposite to Tom, turned sideways to show the white markings around his right eye, and said in his high, rather squeaky voice: "Fire away, sir."
It's not that Tom had a slow mind, now; I don't want you to think that was why he stood there speechless with his arms hanging slack at his sides and his shotgun-butt trailing in the water. It was just that he wasn't used to seeing jet-black rabbits with particular white hieroglyphical markings on their faces, or any other color of rabbit for that matter, except a brown sort of grey, or maybe a grey sort of brown, and he wasn't used to seeing rabbits hop down to the ground and kick-walk up the river-bank, and he wasn't much used to hearing them talk English, either, especially dictionary English. In fact he'd never seen or heard tell of any one of these things. But Tom wasn't the kind of man to show his consternation for long, if he could help it; it didn't sit right with his principles. Mrs. Tom used to say that when the tornado of '95 snatched up their house and set it down politely on the top of the Grant County courthouse, then snatched the house up again and set it down home where it belonged, except slightly skewed around, Tom didn't even bother to get up from his dinner to look out at the sights flying by below. "His knee trembled a bit on the way down," Mrs. Tom said. But Tom denied it. "I always did want the kitchen facing the barn, so I could hear the cows better while I was eating," was all he'd say about it.
So the rabbit stood patiently on the riverbank, without the faintest touch of trembling about its black nose. "Well, Mr. Rabbit, sir," old Tom said at last, pulling himself together and bowing politely--he told me afterwards that this was how he guessed a man ought to talk to a rabbit. "My mother used to say, my boy: Tom, if you don't know who he is, then he's your better'," is how he explained it. --"Well sir, Mr. Rabbit," said Tom, then, "If you'll excuse me, I don't believe I can shoot you. Not like this, in cold blood; it isn't right."
"I beg your pardon," said the rabbit rather sharply. "Is that how your mother taught you to insult strangers? I believe my blood is as warm as any other rabbit you've shot down recently. I'll thank you to take aim." The rabbit turned his profile again, and his one large eye that showed watched Tom calmly.
"No offense meant, Mr. Rabbit," Tom said, stowing his gun under his arm, "but I'm not going to do it. A man has his principles." Tom's plow-mules were compliant next to him, when he had his mind made up to something.
"Indeed," said the rabbit, in a very polite, interested sort of way. "Just what are these principles, Mr. Terry? If there's no offense in asking?"
Tom wasn't a talking man, and he was getting a little impatient. "You don't shoot game that can't defend itself, if you've got any self-respect, Mr. Rabbit," he said severely, thinking maybe the rabbit should have known this without being told.
"I believe I'm beginning to understand now; this is extremely educational," the rabbit said. "If I don't want to die and I try to hide or run away, then you can kill me. Is that it?"
I told you Tom had a stubborn mind; but I also said he didn't have a slow one. "Don't you go and try running off," he said, "if that's what you're thinking, Mr. Rabbit, because it won't do you any good." And he hurled his shotgun onto the riverbank and crossed his arms on his chest.
"On the farm, now," the rabbit said, seeming not to notice, and with an air of someone trying to get a thing clear in his mind, "Before you slaughter a calf, say, do you require it to run around the pen a time or two, perhaps? Or maybe butt you a little first—not anywhere that might hurt either of you, of course?"
"Mr. Rabbit, I'm not a talking man," said Tom, with the air of a man who'd had enough of something. "I just know my ground when I see it. We're having turnip."
"In that case," the jet-black rabbit said, "I'll take my leave. I wouldn't want to be the one to jeopardize Tom Terry's reputation for keeping his word." The rabbit turned around, kick-walked his way back along the bank to the tall and ancient cottonwood tree at the apex of the riverbend, hopped onto a low limb, hopped onto a higher limb, and was gone among the shimmer of silver leaves.
Tom walked home that day without knowing he was doing it. "The cool air under those trees put me into a kind of sleep," he said afterwards. It wasn't until he got home, and Mrs. Tom asked him why he was out in the garden picking turnips when it was time to cook up some rabbit, that he suddenly remembered what had happened. He told Mrs. Tom about it, and she asked him if he wasn't feeling well. She might have persuaded him he'd dreamed it all, too, if it hadn't been that he noticed the next morning that the butt of his shotgun was warped. You remember I told you that he let it trail in the river when the jet-black rabbit dumbfounded him by talking to him. "I had to go back and find him," Tom explained to me afterwards. "Here I'd been wondering all my life why rabbits live in trees, and when I had a chance to find out, I forgot to ask. Besides, you never can tell: maybe he knew what the cows talk about in the barn at night. I was always wondering about that one, too, back then anyways." So Tom trudged up the river again. But the bend with the grove of tall ancient cottonwoods wasn't there to be found. Tom walked miles beyond where he thought the bend had been, and miles back again but the river ran straight all down that country. He looked up and down the valley for three days. At every particularly tall or stately cottonwood, he stopped and called up the trunk: "Mr. Rabbit, sir! If you're there, I would be mightily pleased for some polite and peaceable conversation!" Or he'd say, "Mr. Rabbit, sir! I've been thinking over what you said! I'm unarmed, just take a look!" He'd hold up his hands to show they were empty. But no squeaky voice came in answer.
From those three days Tom came back home a sore-throated and weary-legged and a changed man. He never shot a living thing afterwards; he wouldn't have a gun in the house. "I can't know who I might shoot," he told his missus: "It might be him." At nights you could sometimes hear Tom out in the barn, chatting with the cats and swapping stories with the cows. If you laughed about it, he tended to get testy: "They'd talk to you too, if they thought you'd listen," he'd say. Nobody missed his rabbit stew. The fame of his particularly savory turnip-and-greens stew spread far into Montana and east across the Minnesota line. Mrs. Tom said it was the dill she's spied him sneaking in from the garden. But he wouldn't admit to it. "I save on buckshot," was all he'd say, "and I never felt better in my life."
Upasaka Kuo-chou Rounds is a published novelist and Editor of the Napa County Record. He is also an active member of the Buddhist Text Translation Society.