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Evidence for Underground Civilizations

by Jessica Cavero

CW: abusive relationship

I went to Okunoshima in search of the rabbits. In a wooded clearing I found them, scorched factories like mythic giants climbing out of the hills. The tunnel leading me there was graffitied with a question, but my mother didn’t raise me with Japanese. I couldn’t understand what the tunnel asked of me.

The rabbits were test subjects in the factories. Hairless babies crawling in glass boxes, filled with gas. The gas was part of a chemical munitions project during World War II. 


The legends go like this:

The rabbits were the offspring of those test subjects. Released after the war.

The rabbits were pets, let loose to fuck wild during a school trip.

The rabbits swam from Hiroshima to the island, wanting to be free.

This isn’t impossible. 

What’s it like, being free? I want to ask them. Do you even know?

What’s it like not being afraid all the time? They ask me. 

I wish I knew.

The air raid shelter is a mouth I drop into. In the dark, our noses twitch at the smell of old roots, at the cries of gulls, but mostly at nothing.


What I remember of that night: his black hoodie, white silhouettes of deer running on the front. My ex-boyfriend’s hands around my throat. This person who looked at me like I was treasure once, said he was lucky, so lucky. That night, I put my hands gently on top of his, thinking maybe I could make him stop, thinking maybe I deserved this. That night, he said he wanted to break me. 

I could tell you about the Before. Before the bruises yellowed. Before the look he’d give me, when he suspected I had secrets, like a gun going off. I could tell you how our togetherness was not unlike an intense drug high. I traced whorls on top of his scalp, signing hello, I adore you, decided this happiness was real. But all that comes to me now is the After. 


How a rabbit’s body responds to fear: rapid pink thump of her heart. Pupils dilate. Ears angle toward the source of what’s coming for her. Scatter of pebbles under her feet as she runs, leaps into the underground. At work, I wandered corridors from the bathroom to my office, and saw men turn corners and disappear through walls. Fear buzzed through my chest, spreading coldly to my feet, like a kind of numbness.

Am I going crazy? I ask the Best Friend. No, you are not, he says. You were indoctrinated to believe that. He tells me everything will be OK. He says it like this: You are going to be OK. It’s only years later when we are driving to the Meadowlands, shouting Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness” at planes in a cobalt Jersey sky, with the Best Friend’s hand in mine, that I start to believe it.


When I talk about him, in place of a name, I use L. Sometimes the Best Friend holds me and strokes my hair afterwards. Months later, L becomes a calcified stone under my tongue. I say, You know who I’m talking about.

The Best Friend says: He who shan’t be named?

Yes, I say.

The Best Friend says: But who shall be shamed.

Hell yes, I say. It feels good to laugh with him. 


I dream of aquariums in my refrigerator. There’s one on the main shelf where the milk should be, a smaller one in the crisper drawer. Rabbits blink at me from behind the glass, paw-paddling from the surface, and from the surface to the bottom. The water is so green. 


After my rabbit died, I flew across the ocean to Okazaki-Jinja to pray at the wooden gates, to rub the stone bellies of smiling rabbits on pedestals and make a wish. I took the shinkansen from Kyoto to Mihara and touched the graffitied ocean on a storefront there. The ocean flooded the sidewalk, wetting my shoes, and I let it guide me like the hand of a mother.


The Japanese Imperial Army had a plan. They erased the island off Japanese maps. They built a storehouse converted from an old fishery and intubated a colony of pregnant rabbits, dosed each one on Lewisite. After the war, they were euthanized. Allied soldiers took some of the research for themselves before leaving. After the war, the Japanese government dumped 5,000 tons of gas into the sea. They buried artillery shells in the forest. They demanded the factory workers to be silent and forget. 

On my brochure, I hold my finger to Okunoshima, comforted by its presence in green and blue ink, afraid that if I let go, the island and me will disappear. 


I am digging to the deepest core of the earth. The soil is infected with arsenic.

I ask the rabbits, What’s it like to create the perfect space for yourself?

The rabbits chew on my shoelaces in response.

The opening of the shelter is edged with moonlight. We sniff out the ocean, brace for impact. 


For years, I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to hurt and I wanted to stay angry, worried that forgetting would blank it out. As a child, I drew chalked squares around my feet, confident of my safety. I touched things to make sure they were real. My mother’s face in sleep, my rabbit’s ears, the water in a chozuya. The vines growing over the power plant like exposed, grey veins. The burrows and the nests of fur. And me.

Jessica Cavero’s work has appeared in SmokeLong QuarterlyBarren Magazine, Gone Lawn, and Jellyfish Review. Her short story, “Toguro,” won the 2017 Katherine Anne Porter Prize from Nimrod. You can find her on Twitter at @itangeishatrash. She is working on a novella based on “Toguro.”

Lead image: “Okunoshima (Rabbit Island)” (via Flickr user c_msmt)