from A Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit

Sabine Heinlein

Unlike rabbits, the stereotypical German is stationary, predictable, and consistent. She plans ahead, stays close to home, and doesn’t risk awkward jumps. But rabbits and I—we are übermütig.

Composed of the German preposition über (beyond or above) and mütig, which derives from the noun Mut, or courage, übermütig is commonly translated as carefree, coltish, and slaphappy. But none of these translations captures the adjective’s condescending quality. A German who is overly courageous isn’t a hero. A German who fails to consider where her jumps will land her is conceited and presumptuous.

Rabbits and I live in the moment; we have a hair trigger and aim high. A truly happy rabbit doesn’t take into consideration the powerful strength of her springy hind legs. When she is exuberantly joyful, she puts on “binkies,” a series of Jerry Lewis jumps that land her in unforeseeable places. As a result, she bumps into walls and against chairs and slides across hardwood floors. Watching my pet rabbits do their binkies, the stereotypical German in me wants to call out, “Be careful! Don’t forget how strong your hind legs are! Don’t be übermütig!” But instead I stand back, applaud, and feel inspired.

The binkies are, of course, a form of joyous practice that saves lives in treacherous situations. With their unpredictable jumps and jolts and their ability to suddenly reverse direction, rabbits often manage to fool and escape their pursuers. A well-performed binky can be the difference between life and death.

Staying where I grew up would have killed me. My little Bavarian burrow was stultifying. I devoured the stories passing strangers brought to our home, but there were never enough.

My parents often called me übermütig as a child.

“You are übermütig!” My father would say when I jumped on the couch and ran around the fireplace, skidding on the tiled floor; when I let myself dangle from his elk trophies and climbed on the steel sculptures in the yard.

“This will end in tears!” my mother would warn. And often it did. Tears of embarrassment and anger, because whenever I did fall, my parents would say, “I told you so! You shouldn’t have been so übermütig!”

As a child I enjoyed digging and dangling, jumping and skidding, but hated the guilt it brought on. I wanted to free myself from my family’s fears and from Germany’s enervation. We rabbits are masters of escaping enclosures; if necessary we fit into the tightest spaces and can jump up to several times our height.

I got Nils when I was sixteen and didn’t know who or what I was (although I was good at pretending I knew). Nils was a small, skinny rabbit, four pounds at the most. He had black, velvety fur and black, beady eyes.

After high school, Nils and I left the German South of our childhood to Hamburg in the far North. In the late afternoons I sat on the piers and watched the sun disappear behind the ships that headed out of the harbor. This was when I knew that there was only one place else to go. While it would soon be night in Hamburg, the day had just begun in America. I wanted to be where Br’er Rabbit fishes with his predators and where Bugs Bunny dresses in drag. I wanted to see the world the way rabbits do: their eyes, positioned strategically on the sides of their heads, allow for an almost 360-degree panoramic view.

While I figured that in New York my rabbity idiosyncrasies would be welcome, I didn’t know what to do about Nils. He was a moody and sensitive rabbit and had already had his share of moves. Afraid that he wouldn’t survive a transatlantic journey, I decided to stay put awhile.

Nils was home when I returned from parties and soothed me when I was lovesick. Exasperated with family, friends, and myself, I burrowed my face in his fur. When everything around me was new and unsettling, Nils was there. His binkies brightened starless nights; Nils showed me how to fully enjoy the moment while staying on guard. Most importantly, he taught me to sit down and work. When I paced up and down with pursed lips, he stripped off the wallpaper and chewed on my rugs. But when I sat at my desk to read and write, he calmed down and rolled up into a ball by my feet. The writing of my first stories was accompanied by the sound of him crunching his teeth, the rabbit’s equivalent to a cat’s purring.

Nils traveled with the summer sun that lit my Hamburg apartment, his tiny black figure melting into the black carpet. After three hours of sunbathing, his fur was scorching like a cast-iron pan. To keep Nils comfortable on the dreary gray days that dominate the German North in the fall and winter, I bought him a white lambskin rug. This lambskin became his passion. He would pluck and pluck at it until he accumulated a large white beard. Then he would sit behind his beard in a corner, like a department store Santa Claus. Thanks to Nils it was Christmas 365 days a year.

Nils lived much longer than I had expected, and it wasn’t until after I finished school that I went to New York City for a visit. My first two weeks there only confirmed what I already knew: New York was where I belonged. As if my longing competed with his life, Nils suffered a stroke after my return.

At age eleven, Nils was suddenly unable to move his hind legs. I put him on his lambskin, and his large round eyes, still black and shiny, sank deep into mine.

It seems implausible now, how the old, cranky vet kept refilling the syringe, pumping more and more poison into my four-pound rabbit. As the drug finally began to work, Nils started crunching his teeth. “A reflex,” the vet said, dismissively. But I read that cats often purr as they are being put to sleep to either calm themselves or their owners. Maybe it was Nils’s last attempt to reassure me that life would continue without him.

The vet asked me to take Nils to the waiting room to give the euthanasia time to work. As I sat on my plastic folding chair, cradling Nils in his lambskin, I sobbed uncontrollably.

“What do you have there?” a woman with a cat in a crate said. My voice contorted by tears, I responded, “A rabbit. He’s dead.”

“A what?” the woman screeched. “A monkey?”

“A rabbit!” I tried again. Sorrow and tears had turned the German Hase into an Affe.

Friends and family thought it exaggerated that I suffered so much over the death of a rabbit. (In Germany, there are rules to everything. A relative’s death warrants one year of suffering; a dog’s death a week; and a rabbit’s death one day at the most.) But I felt as if with the rabbit, something inside me had died. I am my rabbit. My rabbit is I. There are few people I can understand and who can understand me, but rabbits and I can relate to each other.

Now that my last German rabbit was gone, I had to move on and away. In New York, I thought, I would become who I couldn’t be. I was terrified of my future, but nothing could now hold me back. Rabbits and I are anxious yet curious by nature. We are sensitive and hard-bitten. While we are easily startled, we are drawn to explore new, treacherous territory once the imminent danger has passed.

In the wild, rabbits can survive for months on nothing but branches and roots. Yet they can smell bananas, by far their favorite food, from a distance of two hundred feet. I found the rabbit’s versatilities well worth pursuing, but knew that I still had a lot to learn. I had to adapt to my new environs.

After a couple of months in New York, I couldn’t stand my rabbitless life any longer. I was stuck and needed a teacher, a friend, a playmate. One rainy day I walked past a pet store in the East Village, where, confined to a small terrarium, sat a large, gray rabbit. The raindrops on the store’s window made the rabbit’s fur sparkle. Clearly, he must be a treasure, I thought. Hoping to make myself whole again, I bought the poor beast. In a spurt of hope—hope for a sunnier sky, a sunnier life—I named my first American rabbit Sunshine.

A handsome lagomorph with very large ears, one floppy and the other pointing straight up to the sky, Sunshine was a prelude to a whole new learning experience. Not only did I learn more about rabbits; through him I discovered America.


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SABINE HEINLEIN lives with her husband and her three rabbits in New York City. Her work has been published in the American Literary Review, the Brooklyn Rail, the Idler, and Die Zeit, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and residencies from NYFA, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony. Her first narrative nonfiction book is forthcoming through UC Press.