Jack saw the first hare on a Tuesday morning. He knew it was Tuesday because he had overheard the foreman saying so to one of the miners, and the foreman always knew his weekdays. He saw the hare, and so he made himself a note, which means he made a little sketch of it on a piece of parchment paper he kept in his pocket. He had a vague idea as to how to spell the word hare, but he wasn't too sure, so he wouldn't risk it, for Jack was a perfectionist and set to do things properly.
Of course it was not the first hare Jack's ever seen. He had seen plenty of hares, sometimes he's been sent to poach them (which he detested) and often he sketched them (if he had some paper) or carved simple pictures of them on little pieces of old wood. Not only hares—foxes, deer, all sorts of wild animals. Ponies, naturally. He had a pony. So you see, Jack was a very fortunate boy.
That Tuesday morning was very wet and chilly. It was the sort of morning that was simply lovely to look at, but felt rather nasty if you had to work out of doors all the time, especially if the soles of your shoes had holes in them. Jack had just finished filling up his pony's cart when the hare ran towards him. Nearly brushing his feet, it swiftly turned around and disappeared behind the gorse. It was a beautiful hare, large and shimmering, like the hares in the church windows. His grandfather once told him of the Tinners' Rabbits, so he was not surprised to see one of them near the mines.
He was merely surprised that the hare had whispered, “Help me.”
But he had no time to think about it. The hare was gone, and he had to get his pony and cart to the village. It was a beautiful journey through bright gorse and dewy heather, and Jack's favourite part of work.
The pony was a little brown mare with very thick fur and a nice long mane. She was born on the moor and tamed by Jack's eldest cousin, and her name was Meadowsweet. She did not like the mines, but she loved to walk across the moor, and she loved Jack. Though forever wild at heart, she was always calm and sure, and Jack was surprised to find her so reluctant that day.
“Come on,” he whispered, “you can't afford to be naughty. What if anybody sees us?”
Meadowsweet moved on, but slower than usual and with a much harder gait, so that Jack soon had to dismount.
“You are sure a stubborn old thing,” Jack said. “Are you scared, love?”
The pony snorted and moved on again. Jack climbed her swiftly and the rest of their little journey remained uneventful. But Jack couldn't help wondering about his pony's demeanour—and Meadowsweet couldn't help wondering about her boy's obliviousness.
The second hare sped past them next Sunday. Jack and Meadowsweet were out riding across the moor when they heard the hunting horns in the opposite direction. Then they heard the hounds, in pursuit of a fox.
They don't care for hares, thought Jack, and indeed, the hare did not seem anxious. It ran back, closer to him and Meadowsweet (and closer to the hunt) and away again, and again, moving around them in a swift circle. This hare said nothing, and yet it seemed even more unusual than the first.
Then the circle, too, began to move, further up and further north, and boy and horse followed suit. The hare was quick, but not as quick as it could have been, for Meadowsweet easily kept up with it. Her sturdy little legs and neat, small hooves moved sure-footed across the wet and uneven ground.
Behind them, hounds and horses came. Men in bright red frocks, now beside them, all around them, Meadowsweet as fast as horses twice her size. Jack never questioned that no other horse and rider ever came too close, brushed them, even looked at them. It was almost hunting season, and why would they care for a pony and her boy? He never questioned that the fox followed the hunt. He never looked around—his eyes were fixed on the hare.
For a moment he wondered if the hunters were really after the hare, but then they all turned left, and the hare went straight on, over hills and bridges, until they came to an old mine, and it disappeared in a ditch. Meadowsweet came to a halt.
“This is an old mine,” said Jack. “It hasn't been used in—in ten years, or a hundred.”
Meadowsweet snorted and pawed the ground.
“I suppose the hare has made himself a burrow down there.”
Meadowsweet knew better than that. A tin mine was no good burrow, not for a hare such as this one. Or the other...
“Come on, love,” said Jack and clicked his tongue. They rode up a hill, down again, passed a tor and crossed a stream with the help of a little clapper bridge. There was no sound or sight to suggest that the hunt had ever been near. I wonder where they're going, thought Jack, Oh! How I wish I could ride with them!
Though of course—he had already done so.
“But what an odd party that was! They were so gay and careless, and seemed not to mind us running between them at all.”
Meadowsweet agreed with him, but she was not as pleased. She was a pony who set great store by proper conduct, and those horses running like mad across the moor, taking no notice of her, and what's more! with the fox at the wrong end of the hunt! displeased her immensely. But the horses were so full of beauty, and the riders of good cheer...
And, oh! It was a beautiful evening, as heather-purple and gorse-gold as the moorland around them, and the sky above was that stark shade of blue that looked neither dark nor light enough to be true. If it were a painting, a critic might have said that the colours were all wrong. Jack, of course, knew better than that. He had spend many an evening out on the moor. And Meadowsweet—oh how she loved it.
Then came the first hint of fog, all silver and gold, and then more and more, turning grey and blue. Fog like that was beautiful, and it was dangerous, for you could get lost in it easily. It was not much of a struggle for Meadowsweet, but even she felt uncomfortable like that, far away from the paths she usually trod on and which she knew by heart with no need to see or smell them. She moved straight onwards, paying no heed to Jack's commands, for little boys had not much sense when it came to things like that, and felt her way across the overgrown ground. Not too wet—not too wet—stay away from rivers, streams, and bogs. Still dry here. She went on that way, and it got better, drier still. The fog got worse—no, not worse—more!—for they were safe now.
“Where are we?” asked Jack.
Meadowsweet knew not where, nor how to tell him. Instead she stood still near a large group of trees, perhaps a little wood. But when Jack tried to dismount, she moved on, to make him understand he should stay.
Jack understood, bend down and wrapped her study neck in a tight embrace, and Meadowsweet stood still again, bending her head and bending a leg in rest.
Then, after a while, they heard the horn again...and the howling of dogs...the softened clatter of a hundred galloping hooves. Jack wondered vaguely how they should find home again, but he did not care much—they were so many, and all grown up and rich and all that, sure to be safe—and he was too tired to think much—and Meadowsweet laid down with him on her back and they fell asleep.
The third hare roused Jack long before dawn. The sky was pitch black, with no star in sight, but the fog appeared to have gone, for the only humidity Jack could feel was the hare's gentle licks in his face.
“Yes, of course,” Jack said. “Meadowsweet, love, wake up.”
Meadowsweet was already wide awake, carefully sniffing the hare's soft, brown fur. It smelled different from other hares. She had already suspected such a thing. But it had a smell, a distinctly animal one, sweet as a rabbit or a lamb, but richer, stronger, like a deer. And if it had a proper smell, then it was safe.
The hare stood still until the pony stood up and the boy rubbed his eyes, then it ran. It was impossible to see, but Jack had a vague notion where it was going, and Meadowsweet sensed it—it was a sense between sight and smell and touch, hardly describable, but just what was needed right now. The hare guided them deeper into the woods, between trees so close that they brushed them on both sides. They scratched Jack's bare calves, but he didn't mind at all, too great was his excitement. All week long he had been filled with a growing sense of glad anticipation, and when the hunt appeared it felt like Christmas Eve.
Through another set of trees, and suddenly he felt an icy cold wind, much colder than any Christmas Eve he ever knew, and then another two trees, scratching his arms, and the air was warm and sweet and just a bit too humid to please him, and then perfect calm, then wind and rain, then the rich scent of lilac—lilacs! lilacs in October!—and then a slight, salty breeze.
I wish it were day and I could see, thought Jack. Or maybe...rather not.
And all those noises! The rustling wind, a strange howl, something running that he could not see, birdsong...then quiet.
And then the breeze got milder and the air much sweeter, and they went up, and up, and then down, then up again, and down, down, down. There were fewer trees now, but still no stars in sight. They went up again, and it was still dark, then down, and down, and straight on and on, with no trees, but something on their sides. And then up again, and on, and the air got colder but softer, and harsher again, and still they went on, and finally Jack could see a hint of light, like the earliest dawn, and again he felt fog on his face, though not as thick as it had been, and then the hare stood still, and so did the horse, and the boy looked all around him with sparkling eyes and his lips parted as if he just wanted to say something, though for a moment forgot all words.