The whistle screeched an echoed down the valley as the train pulled into the platform. Rosalie picked up her case and moved forward with the rest. Three people had walkers. She had a cane.
It wasn’t difficult to board the train physically, but she felt a pang of sadness. She’d been thrilled when she’d seen the mountain’s snowy head from the airplane. White smoke, fluffy as cotton candy, hovered in the air above the mountain. It looked like some kind of a luxuriant dessert from the air. It didn’t settle in. It was settling in now. By jiminy it was so.
“Are you as upset about this as I am?” asked a man in thick glasses with silver hair. He’d taken the seat next to her. She sighed. A talker. When she wanted silence.
“Did you hear me?” he said and raised his voice. “I asked, are you as upset about this as I am?”
“I got you the first time,” Rosalie said. “I was just thinking.”
“Hm,” he said. “My name is Robert Bolton. I like people to call me Bob.”
“That’s very original,” Rosalie said. She looked out the window at the quaint, little town with its gingerbread houses.
“It isn’t original,” he said. “It’s just my name. What’s yours?”
“Rosalie,” she said.
“Well that’s original enough for both of us, don’t you think?” The train was chugging up to speed. It thrummed and rattled.
“Excuse me but I am watching the view.” The train began its ascent of the mountain. Its whistle cried out again like a lonely bird and she wanted to cry.
“I asked you a question,” he said. “Do you feel as upset about this as I do?”
“How am I supposed to know how you feel.”
“You’re not. You’re supposed to ask me how upset I am.”
“Okay then. How upset are you?”
He took off his glasses, wiped them on his pants. They were probably dirtier when he put them back on. “My wife died last year. My grandchildren don’t ever visit. My son, he doesn’t even talk to me.” He smiled. “I was supposed to have surgery to remove a lump from my spine.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. I’m telling you that I am not upset at all to be here. I am thrilled to be here. Just take a look at that view. Who’d have thought? Snow on a volcano.”
The hotel up on the mountain was pretty swanky, Rosalie had to admit. “You get used to the smell,” said the manager when he noticed her wrinkled nose.
“What is it?” Rosalie asked.
“The rabbits,” the manager said.
“Right,” Rosalie said. She didn’t want to think about the rabbits yet.
Her room was very comfortable. The shower was lovely. There was a nice chair in it you could sit in as the water sprayed. Lots of handles. Even if the water smelled like rotten eggs, there was lots of it and it was always nice and hot. She had a good view from her window,, which looked out on the valley and the little gingerbread houses. This was unlike Mr. Bolton’s room, which had a window looking out at the caldera.
“Night and day,” he complained to her, “night and day I got to watch them do it. I didn’t know it was going on and I was eating my cornflakes and looking out there and the smoke and Peter—you know Peter who wears that ugly red hat?—he goes straight up to it, leans on the railing, and then he does it. What a thing. Every hour they do it.”
“Why don’t you pull the blinds, you old bat?”
“I need to desensitize myself,” he said. “It’s the only way.”
“I thought you understood. I thought you were thrilled to be here.”
“I didn’t know. I thought it was a joke my son played on me. He’s like that, you know. This is horrible. Just mad.”
They were having coffee together in the hotel dining room. Killing time until they were to get their own assignments.
“You know what I can’t stand?” Rosalie said.
“The smell,” she said. “I guess the hutches or warrens or whatever, they’re right under the hotel.”
“I don’t smell anything,” Bob Bolton said.
“Can’t you? It’s very strong.”
“No. I mean I don’t smell anything. Anosmia they call it. T. S. Eliot had anosmia, just like me.”
“Is that a fact?”
They drank their coffee. The dining room window looked out on the hotel swimming pool, thank goodness. There were potted plants. Nobody was swimming, although everyone said that the water was very warm and that there were no steps or slick surfaces anywhere. Lots of big railings.
They ate lunch—roast beef sandwiches and mineral water. Then she went with Bob Bolton to get her assignment.
The magician wore black silk. He told them to pick a card. On the card was a time. Eleven o’clock.
“This is when we’ll be escorted out to the caldera?” asked Bob Bolton.
“That’s when you go get your rabbit,” said the magician. “Then you get escorted out to the caldera. We don’t want accidents.”
“How do we get to…” Rosalie began.
“Come and I’ll show you.”
They followed him along the hall, which sloped down very gently, to a thick steel door. “See the button?” the magician asked. They both said yes. It was a large, round, red button. The magician pushed it and the door opened. The smell got a thousand times stronger.
“Thrilled to be here still?” Rosalie asked Bob Bolton.
“I guess not,” he said.
They went through and there were the rabbits in a pit or something. The pit was covered in wire except for a small hatch on one side. There was something like an arcade console with overlarge handles by the door.
“This is the grabber,” said the magician walking over to the console. “Who wants to try first?”
“Not me,” said Bob Bolton.
Rosalie stepped forward. She put her hands on the handles.
“You can move them forward, backward, side to side,” said the Magician. “Once you have the bunny you want, you squeeze them together. I’m afraid it does take a bit of practice. But we have some time now.”
As soon as Rosalie put her hands on the controls, a screen lit up showing a five-fingered hand poised above a maze of tunnels. Running through the tunnels in groups or in pairs or on their own were the rabbits.
“Don’t call them bunnies,” said Bob Bolton. “I don’t like that.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bolton,” said the magician. “Rabbit then. Or subjects. Or fur sandwiches. Whatever helps you get the job done.”
Rosalie moved the controls until she’d caught a fur sandwich. She pushed the handles together and the fingers of the hand closed on its ears. “I got one,” she said.
“Very good,” said the magician. “See how easy it is?”
“No,” said Bob Bolton. “I don’t.”
“Well you can have a turn now,” said Rosalie.
“Hold on,” said the magician. “You just press the red button there and your subject will be put into the containing basket.”
Rosalie hit the red button. Then she watched Bob Bolton try to catch a fur sandwich. He couldn’t do it to save his life.
“Damn thing,” he kept saying. “Damn thing.”
When he’d finally got one. He forgot to hit the red button. “Damn thing,” Rosalie said, meaning Bob Bolton.
“Finally,” she said when Bob had gotten a fur sandwich into the containing basket. “We’ve been here hours.”
“It’s okay,” said the magician. “We have two subjects and that will make up for the lost time.”
They each went and got their basket. The baskets were actually leather pails with big, rope handles. You opened the little hatch by the side of the pit and pulled up your pail, and you could feel the weight of the fur sandwich inside. It slid about and bumped itself against the lid.
They went with the magician out another door and were outside. It was cold out. But the fresh air was delightful. Those fur sandwiches stank. Out here all you could smell was rotten eggs and snow. You could turn and look down at the little town of gingerbread houses.
They went up the gentle grade to the guard rail.
“You first,” Bob Bolton said.
Rosalie looked over the guard rail. It was a long, long way down. She could see a smoldering red down at the bottom. The magma.
She lifted up the bucket and balanced it on its side against the top of the railing. She tilted it so that the fur sandwich slid against the lid then poked the catch on the bottom and the lid swung off. Her fur sandwich fell, its little ears flickering, its little legs waving, down into the magma.
“Well fuck a duck,” Bob Bolton said.
“Your turn,” said Rosalie.
About a week went by before anything interesting happened. She continued to have coffee with Bob Bolton. He’d sunk into a deep depression but put a good face on it. They played cards in the evening with the other guests. Sometimes shuffle board. Sometimes they watched old movies and ate pop corn.
“Why are we doing this?” Bob Bolton asked her. “I mean, what in hell are we doing this for?”
“Because you said you liked this actress.”
“No. I mean…Why are we throwing the rabbits into a damned volcano?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Because no one else wants to, I suppose. It’s moral suffering. That’s something old people can handle. I suppose.”
“I just read it,” she confessed. “Physically, we’re all a bit fragile. Mentally,” she gave him a wink, “some of us are a bit rubbery. This is something we can do and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental or physical ability.”
“Are you trying to convert me?”
“You just asked me why. That’s the only kind of answer I’ve figured out.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. Like why we have to do it. I meant like why does it need to happen at all? Are we punishing the rabbits? Are we being punished?”
“The magician says it’s what we have to do,” Rosalie said. “Ask him, why don’t you?”
“I will,” Bob Bolton said, but he never did.
The day Bob Bolton threw himself over the railing, they were all told they had a day off. No fur sandwiches needed to be thrown over that day. Bob was worth a lot of rabbits.
He was worth a lot more than that to Rosalie. She sat in her room while everyone played cards and stared out the window at the gingerbread town below. “Fuck a duck,” she said to herself.
She went into Bob’s room hoping to find a picture of him. She didn’t have a picture of him and she thought he owed her one.
The nightstands in all the rooms had deep drawers. She saw the ear sticking out and pulled the drawer open before she read the note. A tiny rabbit sat in the drawer, too scared to move.
The note said: Rosalie, you snoopy woman, this is my bunny. I named him Stylez because he has style, but with a z. He is one rabbit I didn’t want to let die.
“You’d think it would get easier,” said Pat D. He didn’t want to tell people his last name. “For religious reasons,” he said.
“What religion?” she asked.
“Church of the sacrificial rabbit,” he said. “Want to join?”
“No thanks,” she said. “But tell me about it.”
“We worship the sacrificed,” he said. “I light a candle every night and say I’m sorry and that I hope you’re eating all the green vegetables now you could want.”
“That’s nice,” Rosalie said.
“You know I was thinking,” said Pat D. “We should all just quit. Should all just say we won’t do it anymore.”
“Save the rabbits?”
“I don’t think refusing to do it will help. They’ll just get some other old people to take your room.”
“Maybe,” Pat D said. “Maybe not. But I’ve got a sign-up card here. Everyone who is going on strike signs this and that means they promise not to throw their rabbit over tomorrow.”
“Won’t something bad happen?”
“What could be worse than this?”
She signed her name. She did it for Bob Bolton.
the next day, they threw Pat D over the railing. The manager did it. Grabbed him under the arms and hustled him out and tossed him over. They all heard him scream. It was sad and lonely. They were told that they didn’t have to throw a rabbit over that day, because Pat D had fed the mountain. “But don’t none of you try to pull a stunt like a strike,” said the manager. “It will not end well if you do.”
In her room looking at the town, she lit a candle and stroked the little bunny. She hoped Pat D and Bob Bolton were happy where ever they were. Down there, in the town, she thought that the people must be happy.
No card did the rounds the next time. They all locked themselves in the swimming pool. There were heavy doors on either side of the pool and a fellow who was an electronics wiz in his previous life figured out how he could hack in and lock them.
So they sat inside on the chaise lounges with the doors locked. They’d give it three hours, they thought, just to make a point.
They could look out the window and see the caldera, see the rail around it anyway. They’d brought cards and they played cards and talked and told each other they were doing the right thing.
They saw the manager go up and throw rabbits into the caldera. He tossed in a whole bucketful while they all booed. Everyone was quiet after.
They tried to leave after the three hours was up but the doors wouldn’t open. The doors were locked on both sides.
The manager went up to the caldera again just before dark. He tried to throw another bunch of rabbits in, but missed. All the rabbits landed on the nearside of the rail and bounded off to freedom. Everybody inside the pool cheered, even though there spirits had sunk pretty low, being trapped in there for so long.
It was about midnight when they heard the train whistle. The train was going away, down the mountain. “That’s not a good sign,” Rosalie said to no one in particular.
At 2 AM the doors finally opened. The electronics wiz had been working on them off and on ever since they discovered their predicament. Finally he’d figured it out. They burst out into the hotel, only to find it empty.
“You think we ought to feed the mountain?” Rosalie asked.
“No way,” people said to her. “We’ve won, can’t you tell? This hell show is done.”
They cooked themselves ham and eggs and pancakes and everyone had good long showers and naps. The hours slid by.
Rosalie sat in her room and lit a candle. She looked out her window at the gingerbread town. It would be so nice to be down there she thought. They were probably all very nice people who lived down there. In the normal world. A world without fur sandwiches and magicians and calderas.
She thought about Bob Bolton and Pat D. They had been absolutely right to say that enough was enough. They weren’t fur sandwiches, by jiminy, they were living organisms, who did not deserve to be murdered. Pat D had been murdered.
The manager had been serious in his warning to them all. Now the manager was gone and all his staff. The magician, too, she supposed. They’d probably all gone down to the town to find more biddable old people who they could bully into doing their dirty work.
Rosalie heard a boom and thought it was thunder. She went down to the games room where there was a kettle. She was always a little bit nervous in electrical storms and thought a cup of tea might sooth her. Through the window, she could see black smoke coming up out of the caldera. Her kettle boiled and she poured the tea.
“Woe,” said a voice. She turned and looked. A column of black smoke spurted up out of the caldera, a column that grew taller and taller.
“That’s why,” she said aloud. She thought about the gingerbread town below.
“WE got to run,” someone shouted.
“No we don’t,” Rosalie said. “We got to stay put and take what’s coming.”
There was a deep vibration in the floor. Then a crack so loud that everyone in the world heard it. Lava rolled over the hotel like nobody’s business and continued down the mountain following the train track toward the town. Poison gas filled the rabbit tunnels below the hotel. Ash covered up everything.
Then the mountain settled down. It waited for its next offering. Surely someone would be along to feed it soon.