A watery springtime sun waves over the word ‘Oryctolagus cuniculus’ when suddenly I feel it: eyes staring at the back of my head. I cautiously look up from my notebook, turn my head slowly to the right, and see it out of the far corner of my eye: a throbbing white erection, half hidden among branches of greenery, with a hairy-knuckled fist wrapped around it, furiously pumping up and down, then gently stroking. Splspl-spl, splspl-spl.
To my horror, my first reaction is not fear, but a hunger for more. I have never been good at assessing danger. My right eye is climbing upwards with difficulty, as if peering through a telescope, searching for a point of recognition, when he audibly exhales. His sigh sounds like a name, my name – no, not my name, but the name of one he once loved. It goes through me like a shock, as if someone just inserted a wet little finger into my ear; my whole body is suddenly an ear. His face is concealed in the shadows of the trees but I can hear it in his breathing: it is Jonas.
The one time I sucked Jonas off, I had a dead rabbit in my hands. My mother always warned me about him: she mockingly called Jonas the Sea Monster (Cetus), even though neither of us had ever seen the ocean before. She also called herself Jesus of the animals, so I mean, what did she know? It could not stop me. Ever since I was little, I had known Jonas and I were destined to complete the circle together: the sick animals my mother was unable to save at her practice ended up with Jonas.
When Jonas dug holes in the world, the veins bulged on his forearms and the sweat glistened in the hollows of his lower back. After the Great Plague, his whole burial ground was in a state of chaos for a while; a lot of animals needed burying. Those sweltering summers, I walked through the woods past the place where he worked, my curiosity growing with each summer day.
So, when I was eleven, I left my unnamed guinea pig to starve, but my mother did not deem the animal worthy of a wooden cross; after all, I had only had it a month. After that, when I got Thumper, my mother kept patching her up, skull fracture after skull fracture after skull fracture. Thumper was much older than the average rabbit when she died. It was another seven years and seven months before I finally got to go to Jonas myself, with Thumper. He was a man of thirty-three by then and I was still a nineteen-year-old child and alone. I was ready.
Splspl-spl, splspl-spl, the sound continues from about ten metres behind me. My right foot naturally starts tapping along to the sound of his tugging. Poppop-pop, poppop-pop. I breathe calmly in and out; look at how we slowly steal the oxygen from the beeches and the birches around us. For a moment I think: maybe he’s not here because of me. My gaze pings around the park like a sonar: no one. Not a human or a blackbird (Turdus… merula?), not a sparrow (Passer? Passer domesticus), nothing.
It goes on and on and on, our splspl-pop, splspl-pop, splspl-popping – and after about ten minutes in harmony I am almost giggling, laughing, roaring (what a situation, eh?!). I shut my notebook, stand up and wait.
I walk along the path and across the grass, and then: a tentative rustling. I stop at a weeping ash; the rustling stops too.
The last time I stood under this tree, with Thumper in a shoebox, the burial ground was not yet a park and I was still young. Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus, said Jonas. A French Lop. His fingertips touched me lightly when he put the lid back over Thumper, and I felt them leaving a layer of sweat behind on my skin. This is the moment, I thought. I saw the red hairs on his strong hands, peeping out from his T-shirt, along his jawline. He had been sanding wooden slats in front of his house, he told me, which he was then going to make into crosses. Jonas looked at me with hazel-coloured eyes. It had taken me years to penetrate this microcosm of dead animals. I decided to act vulnerable; show your neck, and you might get bitten. I would stand here, as if my back were against a rock, waiting for the sea monster to devour me. Anything could happen between man and human when the trees were not watching. He asked if I would like to help choose a cross, but I did not hear. It was his move.
Look, said Jonas, as I carefully sucked him off on this piece of grass, as awkwardly as every first time. No one ever looks up anymore, he said. He pointed with a thumb at the crown-shy treetops and then stroked my upper lip. That’s because most people prefer to look at each other, I said with my mouth full, when we heard something behind us. And suddenly: back to the real world. He pushed my head away, zipped up his fly and mumbled something about somebody waiting for him.
I walk on and come back to the bench. No splspl-spl-ing. The rustling stops; perhaps the rustling had already stopped forty years ago. The worst thing about cutting someone out of your life is that you no longer know where they will be in twenty years’ time, or thirty or forty, or if they will be saved, or what they will see through hazel.
After the animals left the village, never to return, Jonas struggled to remain relevant, but time caught up with him. The bulldozers came and mowed down the crosses, but left the weeping ashes. Jonas went back to her, and, as for me, I grew up. I never found love, but I did get divorced. Being an adult meant a drawer full of chargers for old mobile phones and too many cans of spray for leather shoes. I always thought these signs of affluence and prosperity meant something. But no; I am still a fifty-nine-year-old child and alone.
Before it falls silent, I hear one last sigh, his sigh – no, not his sigh, but my own. Every day I walk in circles here, round circles, even now, trying to fall asleep, looking up, learning the names of those who have left us – and here, here I still hear in every sigh the name of the one he loved and the rustling of his steps when he left.