'The lettuce!' I hissed

For a long time my wife and I talked about leaving the city, where we had lived all our lives, and finding a house of our own, with a little garden perhaps, where we could shape a new life for ourselves. Then suddenly one day, we sprang into action, and in a few weeks we bought a place not far from New York City, a small country cottage with a patch of land that we could cultivate.

We soon slipped easidy into a new kind of existence. I learned how to nurse the threadbare lawn back to health, and Marie cut back the overgrown ivy and established a flower garden. Since we wanted to grow vegetables, too - not on a large scale; I had neither the land nor the equipment for that - I selected a little parcel of earth next to the wall of the garage. And because the land dipped sharply, I mixed my packaged mortar and built a low brick wall - nothing elaborate - at the far end to counter the slope and level out the plot. I filled in the resulting trough with humus and soil that I dug out myself and then dragged in with a creaking wheelbarrow.

When I tried to turn over the earth, I found that it was so thickly matted with roots that I had to abandon the pitchfork and use a pickax instead. I mixed in lime and fertilizer, and when I was ready for planting I gave up all grandiose plans and put in only lettuce, since that would probably make the best use of the limited space at my disposal.

Every day I watched over the lettuce. I watered the plants, pulled out the weeds, and troweled the earth around the stems. As I sweated and toiled, the lettuce grew slowly, making a bright green pattern against the dark earth. Every morning, when I awoke, I looked out the window, noting with the satisfaction of a creator that my handiwork was being transformed into abundance.

One day, early in the evening, I noticed a patch of brown in the center of the lawn. As I walked over to investigate, I was astonished to see a large rabbit, a real, live bunny rabbit, placidly munching my grass. Delighted with the presence of wildlife in my domain, I backed away cautiously and whispered hoarsely to my wife, ''Look!'' Just then, two little rabbits emerged from the woods, and bouncing across the lawn together, seeming almost to hold hands, they settled down to their supper. In the dim light, the evening was warm with peace, and we surveyed the scene on our lawn, transfixed.

I broke the spell. ''I won't need a lawn mower anymore,'' I said, and I chuckled softly. And then it struck me. The lettuce! The three innocent animals suddenly turned into monsters of menace.

How long would it be before our guests would discover the green succulence of our crop?

''What'll I do?'' I asked. My wife shrugged her shoulders helplessly. I watched the rabbits chewing their simple meal as they crouched low in the grass. Trapping or poisoning them was, of course, out of the question, or harming them in any other way. But I had to protect my lettuce, the product of untold hours of planning, digging, hauling, planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding.

''I'll scare them off,'' I finally announced, ''and then maybe they won't come back.''

''They're so sweet,'' Marie said. ''They don't mean any harm.''

''The lettuce!'' I hissed. ''They'll eat the lettuce!''

I charged across the lawn howling. The rabbits looked up but did not move away. Then, as my headlong drive carried me nearer, they edged off, and when I came close up to them, they bounded away. I ran after them, shrieking every imprecation at my command. They scurried down the path into the woods, and I chased them, although I was easily outdistanced. A little farther down, they stopped and turned around to stare at me, wondering, undoubtedly, what kind of witless game I was playing.

But I knew. I was enacting an age-old drama: the farmer defending his plot against the claim of the wilderness.

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