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The Story of the Flying Rabbit

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You know, he made me feel I could fly too. That Big Water! I wish I could see it.
Watership Down

It was November, late in the afternoon on a mild, clear day some eight weeks after the defeat of General Woundwort. The sun hung low, almost grazing the summit of Ladle Hill, and the air was so still that the beech leaves, which had faded to a pale fawn but still clung to the branches, made not a whisper. In the golden light, thick as butter, every blade of grass cast a crisp long shadow, even the short grass of the gallops atop the down where the rabbits were at silflay. Kehaar had flown in from the Big Water only the day before, bringing with him another black-headed gull named Lekkri, and the two strutted up and down in the rougher grass near the hedge, sometimes taking little hopping flights just for the joy of being in the air.

Bigwig had wandered a little apart from the other rabbits, and sat tall on his haunches, watching his friend. His distinctive shadow, one lop-ear hanging down, stretched along the expanse of smooth-mown turf halfway to the hedge. Catching sight of it, the big rabbit hunched down, flattened his other ear against his body, and began to nibble at a thin-looking tuft.

‘Give us a story, Dandelion,’ said Hazel. ‘Something new, if you can.’

Dandelion had marked Bigwig’s sudden movement too. He glanced over at the pair of gulls and said, ‘I think I know one that most of us won’t have heard before. It took place not long after El-ahrairah had won the sense of smell for his people from the King of Tomorrow.’ A chorus of ‘I don’t know that one’ and ‘tell us that one, Dandelion’ went up from his audience, but the storyteller maintained that it was a tale for another time.

‘As you can imagine,’ continued Dandelion, ‘El-ahrairah’s people enjoyed their new sense very greatly. Every time they came out to silflay they sniffed the air, and their gift found them tasty cowslips to nibble and warned them of the most cunningly concealed of elil.’ Dandelion sat up and sniffed, and saw that Bigwig had edged close enough to hear him. ‘They were so impressed by their prince’s bravery in winning the gift for them that they showered him with praises, even more than they had done before, and they told him many times that he could do anything – even fly to the moon – so many, indeed, that El-ahrairah began to believe them.

‘“I don’t know about the moon,” he remarked to his faithful Rabscuttle, “there’s plenty of grass to eat down here on earth, but being able to fly would come in mightily handy.”

‘And over several days during which El-ahrairah talked of little else, Rabscuttle agreed that the leaf buds on the tops of trees might prove just as delicious as cowslips if only a rabbit could reach them, and that a flying rabbit would be almost invulnerable to elil and could get into gardens full of lettuce no matter how high the wall. “But master,” he said at length, “if rabbits had been meant to fly, surely Lord Frith would have given us wings!”

‘“Now that’s where you’re mistaken,” replied El-ahrairah, “for Frith didn’t see fit to give us a sense of smell, and look how useful that’s turned out to be! I can hardly imagine being a rabbit without it!” And with that Rabscuttle had to agree.’

Bigwig was following the tale with interest now. ‘Frith in a tree!’ he cried. ‘Rabbits wouldn’t be rabbits without our sense of smell.’

Dandelion did not seem to mind the interruption, though it was considered just as rude among rabbits as it is among humans to speak while a storyteller was in full flow. ‘All in good time,’ he said to Bigwig. ‘Now, it so happened that the first bird El-ahrairah met was a kestrel perched on a branch. If truth be told, El-ahrairah was a little afraid, and who wouldn’t be?’ Kestrels were common on the down, and all of Dandelion’s listeners had seen their devastating stoop and its bloody aftermath. ‘But his people had told him he was fearless, so El-ahrairah hopped right up to the tree trunk and looked the hawk straight in his beady black eye, and tried not to think about his strong curved bill and his wickedly sharp talons.

‘“Oh, kestrel!” he called.

‘“A rabbit!” said the kestrel to himself, for as a rule he did not talk to prey. “A great fat juicy rabbit with a death wish.” And at the back of his mind was the notion that the rabbit might be crazed with some poison of men’s making.

‘“Would you like to exchange your wings for my hind-legs?” enquired El-ahrairah. ‘They’re very powerful.’ And he flexed his body this way and that to show off his hindquarters, which were indeed very powerful.

‘“You’re lucky I don’t kill you where you squat, you dirty little vermin,” replied the kestrel, who was now sure there must be some human trick behind this ridiculous behaviour. “But I’ve promised to guard the nest while my mate is visiting her family, and a kestrel never breaks his word.” As it happened, it was not the nesting season, but it was the best excuse the befuddled bird could come up with on the spur of the moment.

‘El-ahrairah was too relieved to cavil, even when the hawk flew away soon afterwards. He felt much braver now the kestrel had gone, and strutted off repeating a ditty his people had devised to honour him. By the time he met Rabscuttle he was convinced the bird had flown off in fear, the coward – which wasn’t as far from the truth as it ought to be – and he was no whit discouraged from his goal of winning the power of flight.

‘Now Rabscuttle was as brave a rabbit as ever chewed pellets, but he knew that rabbits weren’t meant to stand up to kestrels: it was not the way of things.’ Here Bigwig growled but did not interrupt a second time. ‘He’d served his chief a long time, and he also knew that El-ahrairah was not to be dissuaded from any course he’d set his paws on. And so he guided his master to the nearby hedgerow, where many small hedge-birds flocked together chit-chatting. “Perhaps one of these birds could help you, master,” he said.

‘“Would any of you like to exchange your wings for my hind-legs?” asked El-ahrairah. “Look how powerful they are!”

‘But the hedge-birds just chittered and chattered amongst themselves, and paid the two rabbits no heed, no matter how many times El-ahrairah repeated his offer or how persuasively he wiggled his hindquarters. Up hopped an inquisitive magpie, keen to find out what had set all the hedge-birds chitter-chattering.

‘“Surely such a fine figure of a bird as this magpie” – for it was growing late and El-ahrairah was not above a bit of flattery – “will take up my challenge.”

‘Now as El-ahrairah well knew, the magpie was a proud bird, proud of his smart black-and-white plumage that glimmered with all the colours of Prince Rainbow, proud too of his cunning, for he accounted himself the cleverest of all the birds.’

‘Dam’ magpies,’ muttered Kehaar. ‘Deenk dey plenty clever. Dey nodding special. Dey should meet Kehaar. Den dey know vot clever ees.’ He punctuated his words with swift stabs at the turf.

‘Kark! Kark!’ cried Lekkri.

Dandelion waited until all was quiet again. The sun had sunk below the hill, the shadows had faded into the grass and the sky had taken on the clear deep bruise blue of a cloudless sunset. Fiver was keeping an unobtrusive watch. ‘Whatever the truth of that,’ Dandelion continued, ‘the magpie was certain he was cleverer than any rabbit. He’d heard all the hedgerow gossip about a rabbit facing down a kestrel, and he wanted to discover El-ahrairah’s trick.

‘“Indeed I will!” he cried. “Hand over your legs, rabbit, and you can borrow my wings.”

‘And as he said it, the thing was done: the magpie sprouted strong furry legs and the rabbit spread black-and-white wings. Rabscuttle, who knew his master’s every expression, thought El-ahrairah was as surprised as everyone else, though he covered it quick as running from a cat.

‘“I’ll have all the lettuces I can eat from the kitchen garden,” he boasted. “No man’s wall will ever keep me out again.”

‘The magpie toppled onto his beak on his first hop, but soon got used to his new legs and was frolicking about like a buck in a clover field. El-ahrairah, on the other paw, made little runs on his spindly bird legs, flapping his new wings, but never left the ground.

‘“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough,” said the magpie. “If four-week nestlings can fly, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of a fine rabbit like yourself! Try throwing yourself out of a tree, that’s my advice.”

‘“Silly rabbit’s too fat to fly,” sang the yellowhammer, and the other hedge-birds took up the chorus. El-ahrairah slunk off, trailing his wings—’

Thump, thump, thump. ‘Danger! Owl!’ It was Fiver. ‘From the direction of the sun rise.’

Dandelion’s audience melted into the gloaming like snowflakes in a woodland blaze. The rabbits nearly all bolted towards the warren, which luckily lay to the west, away from the hunting owl. Bigwig was the hindmost, whether because it pained him to flee rather than fight as he had of old, or because he saw himself as the rearguard, protecting the slow and the weak, or simply because his injuries still slowed him down, only he could say. The two gulls took to their wings and swooped and dived on the owl in turns, their harsh shrieks splitting the still air, till they drove the other bird to seek easier prey. It was over in moments.

The rabbits gathered in the Honeycomb, nosing one another and pressing flanks in reassurance that no-one had been injured and no-one had been lost. Bluebell and Blackberry came in last, after Kehaar shuffled in with Bigwig; they had been furthest from the warren and had taken cover in the hedge. Soon only Lekkri, who viewed burrows with an unalterable suspicion, remained above ground as twilight dimmed to night.

‘That was close,’ said Bluebell, ever one of the first to recover his spirits after some shock. ‘For a moment there I thought it was going to be too close. Well spotted, Fiver.’

‘I should have realised it was owl hunting time,’ said Hazel. ‘A good thing one of us was alert.’

‘So, Dandelion, what happened next?’ Bigwig asked, a hint of his old abrupt manner emerging. ‘Kehaar wants to know how rabbits fared with wings, and so do I.’

The terror of the owl had blotted the tale from Dandelion’s head. ‘Where was I?’ he asked.

‘El-ahrairah had slunk off with all the birds mocking him,’ said Bigwig.

Dandelion groomed his whiskers for a little while before resuming his story. ‘Now, El-ahrairah had some trouble getting into the burrow he shared with Rabscuttle, for his wings got in the way underground.’

‘Dam’ right,’ said Kehaar.

‘They kept catching on roots or tripping him up. But with Rabscuttle’s help, he managed to get settled—and when Rabscuttle awoke, it was as if the wings had never been. El-ahrairah looked no different from any other buck in his prime, sound asleep after a daring raid on a barn full of carrots. If it were not for one bedraggled feather clinging to his master’s flank, Rabscuttle would have thought he’d dreamed the whole thing. He picked up the feather, careful not to wake his master, and carried it a long way downwind of the warren before letting it float away in the breeze.

‘“I knew rabbits were never meant to fly,” he muttered to himself.

‘If Rabscuttle was foolish enough to think his master would give up his quest out of embarrassment, he was wrong. No-one bested El-ahrairah, not even Prince Rainbow, and he was all the more determined to find a pair of wings strong enough to bear him.

‘“We’ve been going about this scut over ears,” he declared. “What’s the largest bird? The pheasant, that’s what. We need to find a big fat pheasant, the stupider the better.” And he sought out Hawock, the pheasant that Rabscuttle had got to swim round and round a pond beneath the full moon to make his tail grow longer.

‘“Hawock,” he said, “would you like to be safe from men shooting guns at you?”

‘“Of course I would, El-ahrairah,” said the pheasant.

‘“Now answer me this, Hawock. When do men shoot at you?”

‘“Why, when I’m startled and fly up, El-ahrairah.”

‘“Of course! Everyone knows that men only shoot pheasants when they’re flying. How could I have forgotten!”

‘And so it was that El-ahrairah persuaded the pheasant to give him his wings, without even offering his own hind-legs in exchange. The yellowhammer’s song still rankled, and El-ahrairah did not try them out until he was certain that no-one was watching.

‘Some time later, he swaggered up to Rabscuttle and invited him to admire the long pheasant wings that swept the ground behind him. “Just help me into this tree, Rabscuttle, and I’ll show you how rabbits fly.”

‘“Hawock must be getting old,” observed Rabscuttle. “He seems to have been taking very poor care of his wings lately.” And Rabscuttle was in a good position to judge: they draped right over his eyes as he tried his hardest to push his master onto a branch far above their heads. “Just look at all this dirt! And there’s a feather missing here, and another one all bent here. No wonder he was willing to give them away.”

‘“Ah,” said El-ahrairah. It was his way always to be scrupulously honest with Rabscuttle, if with no-one else. “That could be down to a little trouble I had with a pair of kestrels earlier. They would keep following me about. I had to dive into a burrow to stop them knowing all my business.” He made an effort worthy of a prince among rabbits to reach the branch. “I’m almost there now. Just give me another push, would you, Rabscuttle?”

‘How Rabscuttle got El-ahrairah into that tree is as big a mystery as how he hid all the carrots that El-ahrairah stole from Prince Rainbow in a single day. But he must have succeeded somehow. Soon enough, El-ahrairah was showing off his new skills at flying – such as they were – to his friend.’

‘Fly no easy,’ interjected Kehaar. ‘’E take plenty practice, ya, ya.’

‘I imagine so,’ said Dandelion politely. ‘To be fair to the Prince of Rabbits, even pheasants haven’t mastered flying very high or very fast—’

‘Dey eat plenty man corn. Make dem all lazy und fat.’

‘—Which is probably why they have such bad luck with men carrying guns.

‘Once the little matter of landing safely back in the tree had been negotiated with only the loss of one or two feathers, El-ahrairah said, “Just think how much faster I’ll be able to explore the country on my wings! Imagine the treasures waiting to be found! The knowledge waiting to be learned! That Rainbow chap will have to acknowledge that rabbits are princes among animals. But first I’ll just fly over to that garden, you know the one I mean, Rabscuttle? The one where the man built a great big wall to keep us out of his lettuces. All this flying around is giving me an appetite.”

‘If Rabscuttle said anything in reply, it has been lost.

‘Now the wall around the kitchen garden was indeed big. The garden had been stripped bare by El-ahrairah’s Owsla so many times that the man had built a wall right round it, higher than his own head. What’s more, he’d buried solid stone in the ground deep as ever rabbit could dig. But El-ahrairah, with his long pheasant wings, had no trouble perching up on the wall and swooping down into the garden. The lettuces were everything El-ahrairah had dreamed about, and there were cabbages and carrots and all manner of flayrah too.

‘But El-ahrairah wasn’t the only creature with wings to enjoy nibbling on a tasty lettuce. He poked his nose up at the end of a row to find a gun pointing at it, a big black gun with a man behind it with a big belly and a red face and a white stick in his mouth. And with all the lettuces and cabbages and carrots in his own belly, El-ahrairah was too heavy by far to get off the ground, no matter how fast or how frantically he flapped his fine wings.’

‘Vot I say? Dam’ man food. Ees plenty bad.’

‘Let Dandelion finish,’ said Bigwig. ‘So what happened next, Dandelion? How did El-ahrairah get out of that?’

‘If El-ahrairah did get out of it,’ said their storyteller. ‘Not only was El-ahrairah too heavy to fly away, with his wings trailing behind him on the ground it was hard to run and even harder to hide. Not that there was anything bigger than a cabbage nearby to hide behind.

‘Now it was a sunny afternoon, and within the high walls no cool breeze could enter. The man was so hot that sweat dripped from his red face into his eyes, and his fingers were so damp that they slipped on the trigger. So it was that his first shot missed El-ahrairah altogether, and his second passed harmlessly through his borrowed wings. Even so, El-ahrairah thought the Black Rabbit would surely take him at last.’

Here Dandelion paused. His listeners held their breath with their prince. So caught up in the story were they that each felt they too were trapped between the high walls of the garden with the Black Rabbit at their shoulder. So still was it in the Honeycomb that the beech leaves shivering on their branches on the down above sounded like the cracking of ice through the unhealed breaches in the roof. Even Kehaar had nothing to say.

‘Then it was that El-ahrairah glimpsed a rabbit, black as night against the bright sky. It could be none other than the Black Rabbit, he thought, and he tried to come up with a carefree line to greet the darkest rabbit of all, even though it might be the last thing he ever said. But all that came into his head was “El-ahrairah’s too fat to fly.” After a while it came to him that they were the words of the Black Rabbit himself. Now however terrible the Black Rabbit seemed, El-ahrairah knew that he was the friend of all rabbitkind, and even in his terror he was angry to be so mocked. He looked straight up at the rabbit perched on the wall—and all at once he recognised Rabscuttle.

‘“Rabscuttle!” he cried, as he scampered from lettuce to cabbage, scattering feathers behind him as the man’s shots got closer and closer. “What in Frith’s name are you doing up on that wall?”

‘“Oh, you know how it is, master,” said Rabscuttle. “You painted such a tempting picture of these lettuces that I just had to see if an ordinary rabbit without wings could steal in to share them. And when I mentioned them to the Owsla, they decided to come along too.” And alongside Rabscuttle on the wall popped up rabbit after rabbit, till there were hrair times hrair of them. “I’m afraid some of them might have brought one or two of their friends, too.”

‘El-ahrairah was far too relieved to be annoyed, even if the entire warren were to mock him in his dishevelled state. And besides, all the rabbits looked very odd. “Just what is that you’ve got stuck to your back, Rabscuttle?”

‘Meanwhile, the man with the gun didn’t know what he was seeing. He could have sworn he’d seen a plump rabbit covered in pheasant feathers calmly munching on his lettuces. And now he was seeing double, treble, quadruple! Everywhere he looked there was a rabbit, and each and every one of the dratted vermin had pheasant feathers! He began to wonder if it was something he’d eaten. Or the heat. It was so damned hot, a man could be forgiven for seeing things that weren’t really there. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief. Sunstroke, maybe. That was it. He could just do with a nice cold beer in his cool shady kitchen. After all, a real rabbit – if there was one – could never escape over the walls.

‘Rabscuttle leaped down from the wall onto a handy pile of straw. “Oh, we borrowed a few feathers from Hawock’s family and friends,” he said. “You have been looking after his wings properly, I hope? The other pheasants were very keen to see him get them back in working order. Now, if you could just make a quick dash this way, master, we can take cover underneath those bean poles, there. I’ve set a couple of rabbits to chewing a hole through the gate…”

‘When El-ahrairah awoke beside Rabscuttle the next morning, in his heart he hoped that the pheasant wings, like the magpie’s, might have disappeared while he slept. But they were still there. He sneaked out of the burrow as stealthily as the rustling feathers would allow, trying not to disturb his friend, and crept off to a meadow some distance from the warren, where the cattle had trampled the grass till it was so thin and tasteless that only an outskirter rabbit would ever choose to silflay there, even when the sun had barely risen and the dew was still fresh.

‘“I can’t be the Prince of Rabbits dragging these useless things after me everywhere,” he said to himself, and he resolved to leave his warren behind. He wondered whether Rabscuttle would go with him, or stay and become Prince of Rabbits himself. “He was right, if rabbits were meant to have wings, Frith would have given them to us. I just wish they’d go away.”

‘And with that, a great weight disappeared from his back. El-ahrairah realised that the wings had indeed gone.

‘“I’m glad you came to your senses eventually,” said a voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once without being at all loud. “Rabscuttle as Prince of Rabbits? What were you thinking?”

‘El-ahrairah bowed to the ground. “Lord Frith, forgive me.” And El-ahrairah felt like he was swimming – or flying – in a stream of pure golden light. “I understand now that rabbits aren’t meant to fly. But, lord, why did you give all animals but rabbits the sense of smell?”

‘“Only you, El-ahrairah, could go from repentance to insolence before the dew’s dried on your whiskers.” Frith seemed more amused than angry. “Do you remember when I came to give you my blessing, you wouldn’t come out of the hole you were digging? You told me to bless your bottom where it stuck out of the hole. How could I give you the sense of smell, when all I could bless was your bottom? Go back to your people, Prince of Rabbits, for I have work to do.”

‘And so, despite his foolishness, El-ahrairah remained the Prince of Rabbits,’ concluded Dandelion. ‘But he never again defied Frith’s holy order and tried to fly.’

‘A fine story,’ said Hazel. ‘It’s good to be reminded how much El-ahrairah relied on Rabscuttle.’

Holly, who had captained the Sandleford Owsla, and many others joined in the praise, but Bigwig, unusually, remained silent.

‘What did you think, Bigwig?’ asked Blackberry.

‘I don’t see why rabbits shouldn’t fly,’ he replied. ‘You had us floating down a river on a man’s boat, Blackberry. Do you think Frith intended that? And yet it saved all our lives.’

‘All except Thrayonlosa,’ whispered Thethuthinnang, so quietly that the others seemed not to hear.

‘And men keep rabbits in hutches as playthings for their kittens,’ said Clover. ‘Is that Frith’s will?’

‘Men dey fly,’ said Kehaar. ‘Dey no vings. Eet no stop dem.’

‘Men can fly?’ repeated Blackberry, incredulous. ‘How can that be?’

‘Dey ’ave t’ing dat go on air, like poat go on vater. Plenty peeg t’ing, plenty dangerous. You no ’ear dem?’ But he could not make the bewildered rabbits understand that the aircraft that sometimes flew over the down with a roar like an avalanche were not birds at all, and had men inside. ‘Go roost now,’ he said at last, exasperated.

Bigwig followed the gull out. Kehaar did not head towards the beech hanger to roost with Lekkri, but chose the other direction, towards the gallops. The grass was already crisp beneath Bigwig’s paws; there would be a heavy frost come morning.

When they were a little way from the warren, Kehaar said in his abrupt, direct way, ‘You no ’appy. I see ’ow it ees. ’Azel got leetle vons. Speedvell got leetle vons. Even the Leetle Von got leetle vons. Pigvig, ’e no got leetle vons.’

‘No, that’s not it,’ said Bigwig. ‘Not really.’

‘Vot den,’ demanded the gull.

None of the rabbits, not even Hazel (perhaps especially not Hazel), would have dared to ask Bigwig what was troubling him – and if they had, Bigwig would have cuffed them, maybe even tried to kill them. But Kehaar was different. He was a fierce fighter, and an explorer who knew inside out worlds the rabbit could only dream about. When he’d lain injured that summer, the gull had confided in Bigwig his disgust at being dependent on ‘stupid weak rabbits’, his boredom at being trapped in one place, and his longing for the Big Water whose restless motion gave him his name. Most importantly, perhaps, Kehaar was not a fellow buck.

‘I’ve liked tales since I was a kitten,’ he started slowly, ‘what rabbit doesn’t? But I was always El-ahrairah in my heart. When I joined Hazel and Fiver’s band, before the old warren was destroyed by men, I was the biggest buck, the strongest fighter, the most experienced patroller. I assumed I’d be the leader – Thlayli-rah, the warren’s El-ahrairah. You understand?’

‘Ya, ya. You vant leader. ’Oo doesn’t?’

‘And now look at me! I’m a one-eared rabbit with nightmares and a limp that Hazel-rah condescends to call captain of his Owsla out of pity, when Holly and Blackavar and Silver are the ones who do all the patrols. They won’t let me out of their sight in case I wander off and challenge some cat and it tears me into pieces. And as for kittens, what doe would look at me?’

A buck faced with this torrent of self-pity might have nosed him, or if he dared, picked a fight and let Bigwig pummel him. A doe might have tried the crooning sing-song nonsense she spoke to kittens, or offered the comfort of her body if it was her time.

Kehaar did none of these. ‘I know vot you need,’ he said. ‘You need to fly.’

Back in the warren, Hazel lay beside Fiver in the burrow they still sometimes shared, when their kittens got too boisterous for a buck’s patience. ‘I didn’t hear Bigwig come back,’ he said. ‘Dandelion’s story made things worse, I think. And then I went and put both forepaws in it saying how El-ahrairah relied on Rabscuttle. Do you think he’ll be all right, Fiver? Kehaar wouldn’t be the companion I’d choose if I were feeling a bit melancholy.’

‘He’ll be fine,’ said Fiver. Then, perhaps seeing something in the veiled world he spent so much time in now, ‘Oh, yes!’

~*~

Humans tell tales too, after their own fashion. In a gliders’ pub in Kingsclere they swap stories of a rabbit, scarred, lop-eared and silver-furred, except for a darker top knot like a beaver hat perched between his ears. All the local hang-gliders have heard of him, and most say they’ve seen him, on Ladle Hill, or the steep scarp slope of Watership Down. The Southern Gliders made him their mascot, and call it lucky to see him before taking off. Members stencil rabbits on their gliders or fly with a toy rabbit for luck, and some even claim they’ve flown with the real thing tucked in a pocket. Marty Philips – who holds the club record for a flight of three hours seventeen minutes all the way to Selsey Bill on a Wasp 229 – says old Lucky was on board for his record flight. What’s more, he swears he was buzzed by a seagull the whole way there. Bloody thing never stopped shrieking, he says. And the funniest thing was, the gull turned right round at the coast and came back again!

But you wouldn’t want to take what Marty says after a pint or five down the Flying Rabbit as gospel.