They danced like young deer pawing the ground, they danced like devils let out of hell for the evening. They swung their hips and pranced and drank their fill of cactus–fruit wine.
They were shy creatures, the jackalope wives, though there was nothing shy about the way they danced. You could go your whole life and see no more of them than the flash of a tail vanishing around the backside of a boulder. If you were lucky, you might catch a whole line of them outlined against the sky, on the top of a bluff, the shadow of horns rising off their brows.
And on the half–moon, when new and full were balanced across the saguaro’s thorns, they’d come down to the desert and dance.
The young men used to get together and whisper, saying they were gonna catch them a jackalope wife. They’d lay belly down at the edge of the bluff and look down on the fire and the dancing shapes — and they’d go away aching, for all the good it did them.
For the jackalope wives were shy of humans. Their lovers were jackrabbits and antelope bucks, not human men. You couldn’t even get too close or they’d take fright and run away. One minute you’d see them kicking their heels up and hear them laugh, then the music would freeze and they’d all look at you with their eyes wide and their ears upswept.
The next second, they’d snatch up their skins and there’d be nothing left but a dozen skinny she–rabbits running off in all directions, and a campfire left that wouldn’t burn out ’til morning.
It was uncanny, sure, but they never did anybody any harm. Grandma Harken, who lived down past the well, said that the jackalopes were the daughters of the rain and driving them off would bring on the drought. People said they didn’t believe a word of it, but when you live in a desert, you don’t take chances.
When the wild music came through town, a couple of notes skittering on the sand, then people knew the jackalope wives were out. They kept the dogs tied up and their brash sons occupied. The town got into the habit of having a dance that night, to keep the boys firmly fixed on human girls and to drown out the notes of the wild music.
Now, it happened there was a young man in town who had a touch of magic on him. It had come down to him on his mother’s side, as happens now and again, and it was worse than useless.
A little magic is worse than none, for it draws the wrong sort of attention. It gave this young man feverish eyes and made him sullen. His grandmother used to tell him that it was a miracle he hadn’t been drowned as a child, and for her he’d laugh, but not for anyone else.
He was tall and slim and had dark hair and young women found him fascinating.
This sort of thing happens often enough, even with boys as mortal as dirt. There’s always one who learned how to brood early and often, and always girls who think they can heal him.
Eventually the girls learn better. Either the hurts are petty little things and they get tired of whining or the hurt’s so deep and wide that they drown in it. The smart ones heave themselves back to shore and the slower ones wake up married with a husband who lies around and suffers in their direction. It’s part of a dance as old as the jackalopes themselves.
But in this town at this time, the girls hadn’t learned and the boy hadn’t yet worn out his interest. At the dances, he leaned on the wall with his hands in his pockets and his eyes glittering. Other young men eyed him with dislike. He would slip away early, before the dance was ended, and never marked the eyes that followed him and wished that he would stay.
He himself had one thought and one thought only — to catch a jackalope wife.
They were beautiful creatures, with their long brown legs and their bodies splashed orange by the firelight. They had faces like no mortal woman and they moved like quicksilver and they played music that got down into your bones and thrummed like a sickness.
And there was one — he’d seen her. She danced farther out from the others and her horns were short and sharp as sickles. She was the last one to put on her rabbit skin when the sun came up. Long after the music had stopped, she danced to the rhythm of her own long feet on the sand.
(And now you will ask me about the musicians that played for the jackalope wives. Well, if you can find a place where they’ve been dancing, you might see something like sidewinder tracks in the dust, and more than that I cannot tell you. The desert chews its secrets right down to the bone.)
So the young man with the touch of magic watched the jackalope wife dancing and you know as well as I do what young men dream about. We will be charitable. She danced a little apart from her fellows, as he walked a little apart from his.
Perhaps he thought she might understand him. Perhaps he found her as interesting as the girls found him.
Perhaps we shouldn’t always get what we think we want.
And the jackalope wife danced, out past the circle of the music and the firelight, in the light of the fierce desert stars.
Grandma Harken had settled in for the evening with a shawl on her shoulders and a cat on her lap when somebody started hammering on the door.
“Grandma! Grandma! Come quick — open the door — oh god, Grandma, you have to help me —”
She knew that voice just fine. It was her own grandson, her daughter Eva’s boy. Pretty and useless and charming when he set out to be.
She dumped the cat off her lap and stomped to the door. What trouble had the young fool gotten himself into?
“Sweet Saint Anthony,” she muttered, “let him not have gotten some fool girl in a family way. That’s just what we need.”
She flung the door open and there was Eva’s son and there was a girl and for a moment her worst fears were realized.
Then she saw what was huddled in the circle of her grandson’s arms, and her worst fears were stomped flat and replaced by far greater ones.
“Oh Mary,” she said. “Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Oh blessed Saint Anthony, you’ve caught a jackalope wife.”
Her first impulse was to slam the door and lock the sight away.
Her grandson caught the edge of the door and hauled it open. His knuckles were raw and blistered. “Let me in,” he said. He’d been crying and there was dust on his face, stuck to the tracks of tears. “Let me in, let me in, oh god, Grandma, you have to help me, it’s all gone wrong —”
Grandma took two steps back, while he half–dragged the jackalope into the house. He dropped her down in front of the hearth and grabbed for his grandmother’s hands. “Grandma —”
She ignored him and dropped to her knees. The thing across her hearth was hardly human. “What have you done?” she said. “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing!” he said, recoiling.
“Don’t look at that and tell me ‘Nothing!’ What in the name of our lord did you do to that girl?”
He stared down at his blistered hands. “Her skin,” he mumbled. “The rabbit skin. You know.”
“I do indeed,” she said grimly. “Oh yes, I do. What did you do, you damned young fool? Caught up her skin and hid it from her to keep her changing?”
The jackalope wife stirred on the hearth and made a sound between a whimper and a sob.
“She was waiting for me!” he said. “She knew I was there! I’d been — we’d — I watched her, and she knew I was out there, and she let me get up close — I thought we could talk —”
Grandma Harken clenched one hand into a fist and rested her forehead on it.
“I grabbed the skin — I mean — it was right there — she was watching — I thought she wanted me to have it —”
She turned and looked at him. He sank down in her chair, all his grace gone.
“You have to burn it,” mumbled her grandson. He slid down a little further in her chair. “You’re supposed to burn it. Everybody knows. To keep them changing.”
“Yes,” said Grandma Harken, curling her lip. “Yes, that’s the way of it, right enough.” She took the jackalope wife’s shoulders and turned her toward the lamp light.
She was a horror. Her hands were human enough, but she had a jackrabbit’s feet and a jackrabbit’s eyes. They were set too wide apart in a human face, with a cleft lip and long rabbit ears. Her horns were short, sharp spikes on her brow.
The jackalope wife let out another sob and tried to curl back into a ball. There were burnt patches on her arms and legs, a long red weal down her face. The fur across her breasts and belly was singed. She stank of urine and burning hair.
“What did you do?”
“I threw it in the fire,” he said. “You’re supposed to. But she screamed — she wasn’t supposed to scream — nobody said they screamed — and I thought she was dying, and I didn’t want to hurt her — I pulled it back out —”
He looked up at her with his feverish eyes, that useless, beautiful boy, and said “I didn’t want to hurt her. I thought I was supposed to — I gave her the skin back, she put it on, but then she fell down — it wasn’t supposed to work like that!”
Grandma Harken sat back. She exhaled very slowly. She was calm. She was going to be calm, because otherwise she was going to pick up the fire poker and club her own flesh and blood over the head with it.
And even that might not knock some sense into him. Oh, Eva, Eva, my dear, what a useless son you’ve raised. Who would have thought he had so much ambition in him, to catch a jackalope wife?
“You goddamn stupid fool,” she said. Every word slammed like a shutter in the wind. “Oh, you goddamn stupid fool. If you’re going to catch a jackalope wife, you burn the hide down to ashes and never mind how she screams.”
“But it sounded like it was hurting her!” he shot back. “You weren’t there! She screamed like a dying rabbit!”
“Of course it hurts her!” yelled Grandma. “You think you can have your skin and your freedom burned away in front of you and not scream? Sweet mother Mary, boy, think about what you’re doing! Be cruel or be kind, but don’t be both, because now you’ve made a mess you can’t clean up in a hurry.”
She stood up, breathing hard, and looked down at the wreck on her hearth. She could see it now, as clear as if she’d been standing there. The fool boy had been so shocked he’d yanked the burning skin back out. And the jackalope wife had one thought only and pulled on the burning hide —
Oh yes, she could see it clear.
Half gone, at least, if she was any judge. There couldn’t have been more than few scraps of fur left unburnt. He’d waited through at least one scream — or no, that was unkind.
More likely he’d dithered and looked for a stick and didn’t want to grab for it with his bare hands. Though by the look of his hands, he’d done just that in the end.
And the others were long gone by then and couldn’t stop her. There ought to have been one, at least, smart enough to know that you didn’t put on a half–burnt rabbit skin.
“Why does she look like that?” whispered her grandson, huddled into his chair.
“Because she’s trapped betwixt and between. You did that, with your goddamn pity. You should have let it burn. Or better yet, left her alone and never gone out in the desert at all.”
“She was beautiful,” he said. As if it were a reason.
As if it mattered.
As if it had ever mattered.
“Get out,” said Grandma wearily. “Tell your mother to make up a poultice for your hands. You did right at the end, bringing her here, even if you made a mess of the rest, from first to last.”
He scambled to his feet and ran for the door.
On the threshold, he paused, and looked back. “You — you can fix her, right?”
Grandma let out a high bark, like a bitch–fox, barely a laugh at all. “No. No one can fix this, you stupid boy. This is broken past mending. All I can do is pick up the pieces.”
He ran. The door slammed shut, and left her alone with the wreckage of the jackalope wife.
She treated the burns and they healed. But there was nothing to be done for the shape of the jackalope’s face, or the too–wide eyes, or the horns shaped like a sickle moon.
At first, Grandma worried that the townspeople would see her, and lord knew what would happen then. But the jackalope wife was the color of dust and she still had a wild animal’s stillness. When somebody called, she lay flat in the garden, down among the beans, and nobody saw her at all.
The only person she didn’t hide from was Eva, Grandma’s daughter. There was no chance that she mistook them for each other — Eva was round and plump and comfortable, the way Grandma’s second husband, Eva’s father, had been round and plump and comfortable.
Maybe we smell alike, thought Grandma. It would make sense, I suppose.
Eva’s son didn’t come around at all.
“He thinks you’re mad at him,” said Eva mildly.
“He thinks correctly,” said Grandma.
She and Eva sat on the porch together, shelling beans, while the jackalope wife limped around the garden. The hairless places weren’t so obvious now, and the faint stripes across her legs might have been dust. If you didn’t look directly at her, she might almost have been human.
“She’s gotten good with the crutch,” said Eva. “I suppose she can’t walk?”
“Not well,” said Grandma. “Her feet weren’t made to stand up like that. She can do it, but it’s a terrible strain.”
“No,” said Grandma shortly. The jackalope wife had tried, once, and the noises she’d made were so terrible that it had reduced them both to weeping. She hadn’t tried again. “She understands well enough, I suppose.”
The jackalope wife sat down, slowly, in the shadow of the scarlet runner beans. A hummingbird zipped inches from her head, dabbing its bill into the flowers, and the jackalope’s face turned, unsmiling, to follow it.
“He’s not a bad boy, you know,” said Eva, not looking at her mother. “He didn’t mean to do her harm.”
Grandma let out an explosive snort. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! It doesn’t matter what he meant to do. He should have left well enough alone, and if he couldn’t do that, he should have finished what he started.” She scowled down at the beans. They were striped red and white and the pods came apart easily in her gnarled hands. “Better all the way human than this. Better he’d bashed her head in with a rock than this.”
“Better for her, or better for you?” asked Eva, who was only a fool about her son and knew her mother well.
Grandma snorted again. The hummingbird buzzed away. The jackalope wife lay still in the shadows, with only her thin ribs going up and down.
“You could have finished it, too,” said Eva softly. “I’ve seen you kill chickens. She’d probably lay her head on the chopping block if you asked.”
“She probably would,” said Grandma. She looked away from Eva’s weak, wise eyes. “But I’m a damn fool as well.”
Her daughter smiled. “Maybe it runs in families.”
Grandma Harken got up before dawn the next morning and went rummaging around the house.
“Well,” she said. She pulled a dead mouse out of a mousetrap and took a half–dozen cigarettes down from behind the clock. She filled three water bottles and strapped them around her waist. “Well. I suppose we’ve done as much as humans can do, and now it’s up to somebody else.”
She went out into the garden and found the jackalope wife asleep under the stairs. “Come on,” she said. “Wake up.”
The air was cool and gray. The jackalope wife looked at her with doe–dark eyes and didn’t move, and if she were a human, Grandma Harken would have itched to slap her.
Pay attention! Get mad! Do something!
But she wasn’t human and rabbits freeze when they’re scared past running. So Grandma gritted her teeth and reached down a hand and pulled the jackalope wife up into the pre–dawn dark.
They moved slow, the two of them. Grandma was old and carrying water for two, and the girl was on a crutch. The sun came up and the cicadas burnt the air with their wings.
A coyote watched them from up on the hillside. The jackalope wife looked up at him, recoiled, and Grandma laid a hand on her arm.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I ain’t got the patience for coyotes. They’d maybe fix you up but we’d both be stuck in a tale past telling, and I’m too old for that. Come on.”
They went a little further on, past a wash and a watering hole. There were palo verde trees spreading thin green shade over the water. A javelina looked up at them from the edge and stamped her hooved feet. Her children scraped their tusks together and grunted.
Grandma slid and slithered down the slope to the far side of the water and refilled the water bottles. “Not them either,” she said to the jackalope wife. “They’ll talk the legs off a wooden sheep. We’d both be dead of old age before they’d figured out what time to start.”
The javelina dropped their heads and ignored them as they left the wash behind.
The sun was overhead and the sky turned turquoise, a color so hard you could bash your knuckles on it. A raven croaked overhead and another one snickered somewhere off to the east.
The jackalope wife paused, leaning on her crutch, and looked up at the wings with longing.
“Oh no,” said Grandma. “I’ve got no patience for riddle games, and in the end they always eat someone’s eyes. Relax, child. We’re nearly there.”
The last stretch was cruelly hard, up the side of a bluff. The sand was soft underfoot and miserably hard for a girl walking with a crutch. Grandma had to half–carry the jackalope wife at the end. She weighed no more than a child, but children are heavy and it took them both a long time.
At the top was a high fractured stone that cast a finger of shadow like the wedge of a sundial. Sand and sky and shadow and stone. Grandma Harken nodded, content.
“It’ll do,” she said. “It’ll do.” She laid the jackalope wife down in the shadow and laid her tools out on the stone. Cigarettes and dead mouse and a scrap of burnt fur from the jackalope’s breast. “It’ll do.”
Then she sat down in the shadow herself and arranged her skirts.
The sun went overhead and the level in the water bottle went down. The sun started to sink and the wind hissed and the jackalope wife was asleep or dead.
The ravens croaked a conversation to each other, from the branches of a palo verde tree, and whatever one said made the other one laugh.
“Well,” said a voice behind Grandma’s right ear, “lookee what we have here.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
“Don’t see them out here often,” he said. “Not the right sort of place.” He considered. “Your Saint Anthony, now… him I think I’ve seen. He understood about deserts.”
Grandma’s lips twisted. “Father of Rabbits,” she said sourly. “Wasn’t trying to call you up.”
“Oh, I know.” The Father of Rabbits grinned. “But you know I’ve always had a soft spot for you, Maggie Harken.”
He sat down beside her on his heels. He looked like an old Mexican man, wearing a button–down shirt without any buttons. His hair was silver gray as a rabbit’s fur. Grandma wasn’t fooled for a minute.
“Get lonely down there in your town, Maggie?” he asked. “Did you come out here for a little wild company?”
Grandma Harken leaned over to the jackalope wife and smoothed one long ear back from her face. She looked up at them both with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
“Shit,” said the Father of Rabbits. “Never seen that before.” He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke into the air. “What did you do to her, Maggie?”
“I didn’t do a damn thing, except not let her die when I should have.”
“There’s those would say that was more than enough.” He exhaled another lungful of smoke.
“She put on a half–burnt skin. Don’t suppose you can fix her up?” It cost Grandma a lot of pride to say that, and the Father of Rabbits tipped his chin in acknowledgment.
“Ha! No. If it was loose I could fix it up, maybe, but I couldn’t get it off her now with a knife.” He took another drag on the cigarette. “Now I see why you wanted one of the Patterned People.”
Grandma nodded stiffly.
The Father of Rabbits shook his head. “He might want a life, you know. Piddly little dead mouse might not be enough.”
“Then he can have mine.”
“Ah, Maggie, Maggie…You’d have made a fine rabbit, once. Too many stones in your belly now.” He shook his head regretfully. “Besides, it’s not your life he’s owed.”
“It’s my life he’d be getting. My kin did it, it’s up to me to put it right.” It occurred to her that she should have left Eva a note, telling her to send the fool boy back East, away from the desert.
Well. Too late now. Either she’d raised a fool for a daughter or not, and likely she wouldn’t be around to tell.
“Suppose we’ll find out,” said the Father of Rabbits, and nodded.
A man came around the edge of the standing stone. He moved quick then slow and his eyes didn’t blink. He was naked and his skin was covered in painted diamonds.
Grandma Harken bowed to him, because the Patterned People can’t hear speech.
He looked at her and the Father of Rabbits and the jackalope wife. He looked down at the stone in front of him.
The cigarettes he ignored. The mouse he scooped up in two fingers and dropped into his mouth.
Then he crouched there, for a long time. He was so still that it made Grandma’s eyes water, and she had to look away.
“Suppose he does it,” said the Father of Rabbits. “Suppose he sheds that skin right off her. Then what? You’ve got a human left over, not a jackalope wife.”
Grandma stared down at her bony hands. “It’s not so bad, being a human,” she said. “You make do. And it’s got to be better than that.”
She jerked her chin in the direction of the jackalope wife.
“Still meddling, Maggie?” said the Father of Rabbits.
“And what do you call what you’re doing?”
The Patterned Man stood up and nodded to the jackalope wife.
She looked at Grandma, who met her too–wide eyes. “He’ll kill you,” the old woman said. “Or cure you. Or maybe both. You don’t have to do it. This is the bit where you get a choice. But when it’s over, you’ll be all the way something, even if it’s just all the way dead.”
The jackalope wife nodded.
She left the crutch lying on the stones and stood up. Rabbit legs weren’t meant for it, but she walked three steps and the Patterned Man opened his arms and caught her.
He bit her on the forearm, where the thick veins run, and sank his teeth in up to the gums. Grandma cursed.
“Easy now,” said the Father of Rabbits, putting a hand on her shoulder. “He’s one of the Patterned People, and they only know the one way.”
The jackalope wife’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she sagged down onto the stone.
He set her down gently and picked up one of the cigarettes.
Grandma Harken stepped forward. She rolled both her sleeves up to the elbow and offered him her wrists.
The Patterned Man stared at her, unblinking. The ravens laughed to themselves at the bottom of the wash. Then he dipped his head and bowed to Grandma Harken and a rattlesnake as long as a man slithered away into the evening.
She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “He didn’t ask for a life.”
The Father of Rabbits grinned. “Ah, you know. Maybe he wasn’t hungry. Maybe it was enough you made the offer.”
“Maybe I’m too old and stringy,” she said.
“Could be that, too.”
The jackalope wife was breathing. Her pulse went fast then slow. Grandma sat down beside her and held her wrist between her own callused palms.
“How long you going to wait?” asked the Father of Rabbits.
“As long as it takes,” she snapped back.
The sun went down while they were waiting. The coyotes sang up the moon. It was half–full, half–new, halfway between one thing and the other.
“She doesn’t have to stay human, you know,” said the Father of Rabbits. He picked up the cigarettes that the Patterned Man had left behind and offered one to Grandma.
“She doesn’t have a jackalope skin any more.”
He grinned. She could just see his teeth flash white in the dark. “Give her yours.”
“I burned it,” said Grandma Harken, sitting up ramrod straight. “I found where he hid it after he died and I burned it myself. Because I had a new husband and a little bitty baby girl and all I could think about was leaving them both behind and go dance.”
The Father of Rabbits exhaled slowly in the dark.
“It was easier that way,” she said. “You get over what you can’t have faster that you get over what you could. And we shouldn’t always get what we think we want.”
They sat in silence at the top of the bluff. Between Grandma’s hands, the pulse beat steady and strong.
“I never did like your first husband much,” said the Father of Rabbits.
“Well,” she said. She lit her cigarette off his. “He taught me how to swear. And the second one was better.”
The jackalope wife stirred and stretched. Something flaked off her in long strands, like burnt scraps of paper, like a snake’s skin shedding away. The wind tugged at them and sent them spinning off the side of the bluff.
From down in the desert, they heard the first notes of a sudden wild music.
“It happens I might have a spare skin,” said the Father of Rabbits. He reached into his pack and pulled out a long gray roll of rabbit skin. The jackalope wife’s eyes went wide and her body shook with longing, but it was human longing and a human body shaking.
“Where’d you get that?” asked Grandma Harken, suspicious.
“Oh, well, you know.” He waved a hand. “Pulled it out of a fire once — must have been forty years ago now. Took some doing to fix it up again, but some people owed me favors. Suppose she might as well have it… Unless you want it?”
He held it out to Grandma Harken.
She took it in her hands and stroked it. It was as soft as it had been fifty years ago. The small sickle horns were hard weights in her hands.
“You were a hell of a dancer,” said the Father of Rabbits.
“Still am,” said Grandma Harken, and she flung the jackalope skin over the shoulders of the human jackalope wife.
It went on like it had been made for her, like it was her own. There was a jagged scar down one foreleg where the rattlesnake had bit her. She leapt up and darted away, circled back once and bumped Grandma’s hand with her nose — and then she was bounding down the path from the top of the bluff.
The Father of Rabbits let out a long sigh. “Still are,” he agreed.
“It’s different when you got a choice,” said Grandma Harken.
They shared another cigarette under the standing stone.
Down in the desert, the music played and the jackalope wives danced. And one scarred jackalope went leaping into the circle of firelight and danced like a demon, while the moon laid down across the saguaro’s thorns.
Ursula Vernon is the author and illustrator of the Hugo Award–winning graphic novel Digger as well as the author of the Dragonbreath series of children’s books. She blogs at Red Wombat Studio, and podcasts fiction at The Hidden Almanac. She lives in North Carolina and does weird things to plants.