It is often said that the only thing that runs faster than a rabbit is rumor.
Whether or not this is true, one day there came rumors of a 'rabbit who was not a rabbit', who did not run and did not smell right but insisted that he was in fact a rabbit all the same. Now, the elil took no notice of this -- most with the reasoning that if the not-a-rabbit smelled peculiar it no doubt tasted peculiar as well, some with the addition that no one sensible would claim rabbitness if they were not a rabbit and so this rumor was nothing more. And some rabbits said the same. But it was a curious thing, and rabbits cannot abide the rather itchy feel of an unsolved curiosity.
So El-ahrairah sent out scouts in many directions, to see if they could find what was behind this rumor. And one of the scouts reported back thusly:
When he had finished his report, the warren buzzed with conversation. El-ahrairah asked the scout, "What do you make of him, then?"
"It was a journey of several days to the place where I finally found the not-a-rabbit, and at first I was not even certain if such a thing existed. But then I came across a glade that smelled of man-things, and a boy playing and humming to himself, and farther on there was a nest of sorts, on which sat what looked like a rabbit, except that something was not quite right about him. He was rabbit-shaped all right, but his fur was strange and patchy, as if he were sick, and his whiskers drooped without twitching, and he sat unmoving even when he saw me.
"'Hello!' he said to me with obvious delight. 'You came back! Oh, I am so happy.'
"To this I said, 'I have not been here before -- perhaps it was another rabbit that you saw?'
"'Oh!' said he, 'there are more of you?'
"'Plenty,' said I. He had not come forward to greet them, so cautiously I came forward out of the bushes and sniffed. There was a bizarre, almost musty smell to the strange rabbit, like something long forgotten, and he maintained his odd stillness.
"'I should like to see that some day.' It sounded wistful.
"'Come with me, then, and see,' I offered, but he made no move to come with me.
"'I cannot,' he said. After another moment, he offered, 'I dare not leave the Boy,' as if that should mean anything to me.
"'Well,' I said, 'at least you could come for a run, or perhaps a silflay? The weather is good for it.'
"But the other rabbit stayed still, and looked small and scared. 'Don't want to,' it said, sounding sulky, like a kit who is trying to prove he is not afraid.
"'Well,' I said to him, 'are you a rabbit or aren't you?
"'I am; oh, I am!' said the other, his odd little eyes glistening with passion. 'I'm a rabbit, and I'm real, I am!'
"'Well,' said I, but there wasn't a whole lot more to say. And so I came back, to tell you what I saw and heard."
"He is an odd fellow," the scout answered promptly, "but no rabbit."
"Yet he says he is," Rabscuttle said, without much conviction. "And you say he was shaped like one."
"Looking like one isn't enough," said another rabbit. "Being one is something else entirely!"
"And he does not run," said a third, scornfully. "What rabbit chooses not to?"
"Perhaps he can't."
But the rabbet who had brought that up shook his head and stamped one powerful hind leg with the force of his irritation. "Nonsense! All rabbits run. So either this creature is not able to, which makes him no sort of rabbit, or he is able to and chooses otherwise, which also makes him not a rabbit either. He does not run, he does not dance, he does not silflay..."
But through all this, El-ahrairah was silent. He alone out of all the rabbits could remember the beginning of the world, when Frith first made it and all the animals in it. They had all been the same then, even the fox and the rabbit; they ate the same grass, and took the same form; but even then, there had been something undeniably rabbity about El-ahrairah and his people. Frith's gifts had perhaps enhanced that intrinsic rabbitness, but it had been there all along.
What made a rabbit a rabbit? Was it the legs, with which they ran, and the ears, with which they could hear their enemies coming? Surely not, even though their shape was an important part. Would a yona in a rabbit's form be a rabbit or a yona? If it looked like one and acted like the other, it was somehow both and neither at the same time, but it had to be more hedgehog-like because of what it was inside. But a yona in a rabbit's form that acted like a lendri--
"I shall talk to Lord Frith," El-ahrairah decided at last, "for Frith will know."
But Frith only laughed when he posed the question. "You are Prince of the rabbits," he told El-ahrairah. "You know a rabbit when you see one -- even if you can't say what makes it a rabbit. Go see for yourself."
So he did, following the directions he had been given.
He found the perhaps-a-rabbit in a sack of shabby dull objects intended for the trash, and while he was not quite shaped like a rabbit any more --really he was more of a vague blob -- El-ahrairah knew at once that there was a rabbit inside. "Come with me," El-ahrairah said, "and be a real rabbit."
"But I was Real before," the other said. "My Boy said so."
"And Frith says that you are real now," El-ahrairah said. Frith had not explicitly said anything of the sort, but El-ahrairah knew in his heart that it was the right thing to say. "Come to my warren; come run in the moonlight; be with your people."
The other stared at him for a long moment, moving only when his nose twitched, as if itching, and he scratched it. Then he gave a slow hop towards El-ahrairah, and then a grand leap, and now he looked like a regular rabbit, like any of El-ahrairah's warren.
Because, after all, he had been a rabbit all along.