My guess is that Beatrix Potter never read Nietzsche, but it’s just a guess. Perhaps she read and even mastered him. Perhaps, having mastered Nietzsche’s thought, she rejected it. Maybe she wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other books in defiance of Nietzsche.

I began to wonder about these things after I had invited Brendan to move in with me. He came with his own books, few in number but objects of intense devotion. I owned many books, including several by Beatrix Potter. Brendan traveled light and would never have kept a book that he hadn’t touched in ten or fifteen years, so my explanation that the Potter books were cherished relics of my childhood made no sense him. We quarreled about them.

Our quarrels were unpleasant. Yet I interpreted them as evidence that he valued our relationship. Friends meant a lot to him and I was more than a friend. For relationships both intimate and Platonic—a word that Brendan, as a devotee of Nietzsche, would spit rather than speak—he had high expectations. His consent to our relationship implied that he expected much from me and my Potter books disappointed him.

I didn’t want that because he had exercised power over me since our first meeting. We met at a Halloween party where he needed to explain his costume. He had strapped a wooden cross to his back. It was heavy as hell. I understood the cross but I knew nothing about Nietzsche, so Brendan’s rabbit ears baffled me. He said he had intended a commentary on what Nietzsche regarded as Christianity’s timid slave morality.

As for the rest of the costume: the sight of Brendan in a loincloth was redemptive.

I wished that I looked like that in a loincloth. You might ask, When does one ever wear a loincloth? A fair question. But if I could look like Brendan looked, I would wear one often.

Realizing that wishes wouldn’t get me there, I vowed to change my diet and join a gym and work out relentlessly. None of those things happened, so I would never have a body like his.

Except for Brendan’s own body. That Halloween night, it became mine to have and to hold.

He wore the rabbit ears to bed, but during his frenzy, they came off. In the morning, craving a souvenir, I tucked them inside my shirt. I kept them pressed against my body all day.


Before meeting Brendan, I had not opened my Beatrix Potter books in years. I might have gone another ten or fifteen except for the phone call from my sister to ask if I knew that our Uncle Tim had died. I said no and asked if there would be a service. She hadn’t heard.

It was a short conversation because I think neither of us knew how we felt. Tim had been our mother’s brother but they had never been close. She had died when we were in high school, and after her death, the connection was severed.

But before our mother’s death, he would babysit occasionally. He liked to read to us, and he often read Beatrix Potter.

Brendan would be out late. He had a graduate seminar—Aristotle—and the professor would use every minute of class time and usually go over. I figured I could get away with it. I took my Potter books off the shelf and sat down with a glass of wine in my most comfortable chair.

I was awakened by Brendan. He was raging at me and waving The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck in the air. I had not been reading The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. He had snatched it from the pile on the coffee table in front of me.

The words slave morality recurred. I was too rattled to respond. But the clock on the wall indicated that his seminar had ended a couple of hours before. I asked if he had been drinking. He gave me the answer I deserved: I had tried an ad hominem argument—not really an argument at all, he added—and his attack on slave morality would have to stand or fall on its own merits irrespective of his blood alcohol level. He asked what I had to say about slave morality.

I apologized for the ad hominem.

Still, I said, the question whether you’ve been drinking—or how much—is important. I grant its irrelevance to your argument about slave morality, but it merits separate discussion.

Only after we talk about slave morality, since I brought that up before you brought up the possibility that I’ve been drinking.

I could see what he was trying to do: if we talked long enough about what he wanted to talk about, the question of his drinking might be forgotten. And even if I remembered to go back to it, by the end of a lengthy discussion of slave morality the effects of any alcohol he had consumed would likely have worn off. I would have no evidence to support my case.

I should have resisted. But ever since our first encounter at the Halloween party he had been able to master me. I believe he hated slave morality because it was intrinsically alien to him.

He yanked me out of my comfortable chair and said, We need to talk to that little rabbit.

I’m tired, I said, and he said, Take the elevator.

We were on the fifth floor. He would run up and down the stairs and urge me to do so.

If you want a body like mine…he would say.

As I’ve noted, I already had his body.

He was waiting for me when I disembarked on the ground floor. We went outside. I was happy to see that even though darkness enveloped the apartment buildings on our side of the street, on the other side all was in daylight. That would make it easier to find Peter.

You won’t need that torch, Brendan said.

I had brought a flashlight.

I said, Torch? and he said, We should try to talk like them.

It was lucky that I wouldn’t need it. I tried to switch it on, but the battery was dead.

As for talking differently, even when it came to small things like calling a flashlight a torch, I worried that I would embarrass myself. Unlike Brendan, I had no talent for it. He had grown up in Brooklyn, yet he often spoke in a drawl redolent of the Mississippi Delta. I never asked why.

I realized suddenly that the daylight had a downside.

Do we have to go onto McGregor’s property? He’ll be working outside and he’ll see us.

Brendan looked at me with contempt.

You’re going to let that redneck intimidate you?

I wanted to object that calling McGregor a redneck was geographically inapplicable. I also wondered how the category of redneck would have fit into Nietzsche’s thought.

I waited at the curb for the light to change but Brendan sauntered into the street. This was risky after dark. A green Buick screamed to a halt no more than a foot short of him. The driver apologized as Brendan stared at her. I hurried across.

Instantly, exhaust fumes gave way to the rejuvenating smells of the English countryside. Those smells, and the sunlight on the grass, gave me respite from my anxiety about McGregor.

Brendan saw Mrs. Rabbit before I did. He nudged me.

Make yourself small, I said. She has even more cause than most rabbits to be timid. Her husband had an accident on the McGregor property and was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.

I guess you would know, Brendan said. You’re the expert.

We stooped as Mrs. Rabbit approached. I experienced some irritation with Potter for calling her “old” Mrs. Rabbit. Her clothes, in particular the shawl and bonnet, were conservative. But despite the way she was dressed I saw a female rabbit who had neither reached middle age nor lost her looks. Her children—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter—might have posed a serious obstacle to a male rabbit’s consideration of marrying her; she was probably destined to remain a widow. Yet I thought that any male rabbit ignorant of her children would have jumped at the chance to date her. I wondered if Potter’s misrepresentation had been driven by jealousy.

Good day, gentlemen, she said. You look to have lost your way.

We tipped our hats. Brendan had brought them, saying that it would have been the custom.

Mu’um, he said, we’re looking for a Mr. Michael McGregor.

Her eyes narrowed as she said, Friend of yours?

Not in the least, Brendan said. My colleague and I have…business with him.

Her whiskers had trembled when she heard McGregor’s name. Now they relaxed.

Keep straight on, she said. That will take you to the McGregor residence.

She didn’t move. I think she was curious about our business with McGregor.

The McGregors don’t often have visitors, she said.

She raised an eyebrow and said, Other than my son, Peter.

She gave a weary shake of her head. Her bonnet, which fit her loosely, slipped. One of her ears escaped and I admired its shape. I believe she noticed because she removed the bonnet altogether. Her two ears were perfectly matched in shape and size. I think she had not discerned the nature of my connection to Brendan, or my sexual preference, and was therefore flirting with me. I was flattered. Such were Brendan’s charms that strangers typically aimed their flirtations at him. But my admiration of Mrs. Rabbit’s ears was purely aesthetic.

Peter, she sighed. But I shan’t vex you with my worries.

It’s a mother’s lot to worry, I said in a sympathetic voice. Headed to the baker’s?

I had caught her off guard.

How…How did you know? she stammered.

She would have had no inkling of my extensive knowledge of her life.

My business associate and I just passed the baker’s. We were nearly diverted by the aroma of freshly baked currant buns.

That satisfied her.

Replacing her bonnet—but leaving her ears exposed—she said, I’d best hurry or I’ll find them gone.

She nodded.

Good day to you, gentlemen.

I nodded back. Brendan bowed slightly. Torch instead of flashlight, the hats, the bow: his swift adaptation to the unfamiliar environment impressed me.

There were also some fine loaves of brown bread in the window, I said.

After she had left, Brendan said, She didn’t say how far to McGregor’s.

It won’t be far. Unless the availability of food or cover is compromised, a wild rabbit will spend its entire life within the same ten acres of land.

He gave me a surprised look.

Reading Potter inspired me to learn about rabbits, I said.

He rolled his eyes and walked on.

We reached McGregor’s within minutes despite pausing to gather blackberries. They were exquisite. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of the currant buns. I appreciate the virtues of fresh fruit, but you can’t beat flour, butter, and sugar. (I have a high tolerance for both gluten and lactose.)

Brendan unlatched the gate and we went into the garden. It was laid out exactly as Potter had described: we passed lettuce, French beans, radishes, parsley, cucumbers, cabbage, potatoes, and gooseberries. Everything was beautifully maintained. I felt bad for not objecting when Brendan called McGregor a redneck. I wondered how Brendan felt about having used a slur.

The tool shed, he said, pointing.

We followed the narrow path between the cabbage and the potatoes. We trod carefully. It would have been a shame to do harm to the crops.

Brendan rapped on the tool shed door.

Shhh, we heard from inside. Be vewy quiet. I’m hunting a wabbit.

The Scottish accent was mild.  

Michael McGregor? Brendan said.

Eh? Who’s there?

My name is Brendan Boyd, Mr. McGregor. My rabbit may be in there.

Brendan winked at me. This was our private joke. His name was Byrd, but of course, he came from Brooklyn.

That scawawag bewongs to you? McGregor said.

I apologize for any damage he’s done to your lettuce and French beans.

And wadishes.

You’ll be compensated, Brendan said.

The Scotsman opened the door. He was breathing hard. Above his long white beard his face was red. He would not have been able to move quickly. I understood why Peter had managed to escape from him earlier despite becoming entangled in a gooseberry net.

If you’re waising wabbits for their meat or fur, you should keep a cwoser eye on them.

How much do I owe you? Brendan said.

McGregor said, Just get the wee mischief-maker off my pwopity.

He mopped his face with a handkerchief and came out of the shed, leaving the door open.

Going back to planting your young cabbages?

My attempt at friendliness was misguided. Brendan looked at me sharply. I thought we would need to invent an excuse for our knowledge, as with Mrs. Rabbit. But the old man did not react. His left ear had been toward me and I think in that ear he was hard of hearing.

We went inside and Brendan said, He’s hiding underneath a flower pot, right?

I shook my head and said, He’s in the watering can.

We stepped over the flower pots to get to it. Brendan reached down but I stopped his hand.

He’s already traumatized from being in the water, I said. You’ll scare him to death.

Peter emerged from the can. He looked impatient rather than frightened.

Hello Peter, Brendan said, and Peter shot back, Do I know you?

We know your mother. We were at the baker’s and we saw her buying currant buns. She said you might be here. You’ll be punished if she finds out.

Peter was shivering, I think more from anger than from being wet and cold.

My sibs will have bread and milk and blackberries for supper while I drink my mother’s shitty chamomile tea. They’re the ‘good,’ ‘virtuous’ ones because they do whatever she says.

He shrugged.

I have no regrets. I’d do it all over again and I’m coming back every chance I get.

I’ll bet The Tale of Peter Rabbit was read to me a hundred times when I was little, I whispered to Brendan. Peter sneaked into McGregor’s garden every time.

The eternal return of the same, Brendan said, looking pleased.

I’m going to check out the cucumbers, Peter said.

He hopped away.

We went back to our apartment in high spirits.

He’s a rabbit, Brendan kept saying. I thought I’d have to argue against slave morality!

As we made love, I willed the eternal return of those moments in Brendan’s arms.