MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
A first spring birthday brings a surprise.
The trouble between rabbits and farmers goes way back, no doubt to the first garden that ever was.
This isn’t to say that farmers are bad, or rabbits are bad. Under the right circumstances, a rabbit and a farmer might be tickled to discover the basis of a real friendship between them, if they could ever sit down and put their feet up for a spell, share a glass of lemonade and a fistful of fresh spring clover, and talk things through.
As long as the topic didn’t stray to vegetables, they’d probably get along just fine.
Vegetables! See, that’s the problem right there. When it comes to vegetables, farmers and rabbits have a serious impediment. It’s what you might call a clash of priorities.
Here’s the trouble, in case you didn’t know: Farmers love to grow, and rabbits love to eat.
Maybe that’s putting it too gently. Farmers have to grow; it’s how they put dinner on their tables and everybody else’s tables, too. And no self-respecting rabbit can resist the mouth-watering menu offered by your average vegetable garden. Why, it’s practically a rabbit’s sworn duty to find the loose board in the wooden fence, the damp earth beneath the chicken wire that’s just right for tunneling through, the spare tires foolishly stacked too near the garden gate, like an engraved invitation to climb on up and hop right in.
Once that happens, it’s good night, vegetables. Rabbits eat like it’s a race to the finish. Two half-grown cottontails loose in a garden can wipe out a whole springtime of effort in a single early morning raid.
You can see why this would trouble the farmer, can’t you? And how that farmer might easily start thinking of rabbits as the enemy, and vice versa?
It’s hard to know whose side to be on, in this type of situation.
After all, everybody’s got to eat.
* * *
The farm across the meadow from where Alice and her littermates lived had been empty for years. Two years, to be precise.
To a grown-up human, two years flits by quick as a sparrow, in a “my, they grow up so fast!” kind of way. To a human child, two years is a long stretch of time indeed. It’s the difference between being a third grader and a fifth grader, a little kid or a big one. It’s the endless wait to grow tall enough to ride the bumper cars at the fair.
To an eastern cottontail, genus Sylvilagus, species floridanus, two years is a whole rabbit lifetime, full of joys and sorrows, adventure and friendship, and great-great-great-grandbunnies, too. To a young cottontail like Alice, a farm that had been without a farmer for two years might as well have never had a farmer at all.
Lester was the oldest cottontail in Alice’s warren, and even he only dimly remembered the stooped, gray-bearded fellow in overalls who used to live in the big red house. That didn’t stop Lester from telling stories about the old man, though.
“He was a deadly one, that farmer!” he’d say to the kits (young bunnies are called kittens, or kits for short). The old showboat of a rabbit would flatten his long ears against his head and make his whiskers quake. “A real villain. With his devious traps and his razor-wire fences, sharp as an owl’s beak! All to keep us rabbitfolk out of his garden.”
Lester would freeze like a statue and let his eyes go dead and glassy until every kit within earshot whimpered in delicious fear. Then he’d blink himself back to life and stand up tall on his hind legs, batting his front paws like a fighter. “As if rabbitfolk can be kept out of a garden with good eats inside! Not we, not we.”
“Not we, not we,” the kits would repeat, and ruffle their fur in brave defiance.
Alice would ruffle her fur, too, and flare her nostrils. She’d never laid eyes on a farmer, but she knew full well that farmers and rabbits were sworn enemies, always had been and always would be. All rabbits knew that, from the day they left the nest.
* * *
It was the morning of Alice’s first spring birthday. Rabbits have four birthdays a year, one for each season, so the kits of her litter were three months old in human time. There’d been six kittens born and four had made it this far, two does and two bucks, not bad at all. For any winter-born kit to see springtime was a happy occasion. These kits were celebrating in the usual way, by making their first foray past the thicket of shrubs and laurel bushes at the wood’s edge into the great wide meadow beyond.
Lester had gone with them, and they were glad about it. That silver-muzzled know-it-all loved to scare the young ’uns with his old rabbits’ tales, but there wasn’t a cottontail in the valley more skillful in the ways of being out in the open than Lester. The weather was just fine, and the morning sun sparkled on the dewdrops.
Alice was having a grand old time. A meadow seen from the shady edge of the forest is one thing, but when you’re tearing back and forth in the bright sunny middle of it, leaping high and slapping your hind feet together from the sheer pleasure of being young and alive, that’s a different experience altogether.
The grass spread wide in every direction, and the sky above spread even wider. She play-fought with her brother Thistle, the sweet, undersized runt of their litter, and ran circles through the tender spring greens, stopping now and then for a nibble with Berry, the other buck, a big, impulsive fellow. She touched noses with strong-willed Marigold and then jumped back as if stung with a wild half-twist in the air, to make her sister laugh.
When that wore her out, she flopped onto her side and stretched so long you’d think she was made of taffy. She rolled belly-up and kicked her back feet like she was trying to jump off the sky. She’d never yet felt so open to the world, so small and so big at the same time. If this was what growing up felt like, it was all right.
“Hop on up here, youngster!” Lester commanded.
Alice hopped once, twice, three times—it’s a rabbit’s inborn wisdom to zigzag when going from place to place, for safety’s sake—and landed on a low, wide tree stump the fabled former farmer had never bothered to drill out. She pressed her body close to Lester’s. She wasn’t scared, exactly, but being out in the open had a strange, floaty quality about it. It was nice to have something warm and familiar to lean against.
“You’re missing the view,” Lester said. “Why don’t you sit up and look?”
Alice rose halfway, until she could see over the tallest grass. So that’s what the big red farmhouse looked like! She’d heard the place talked about so many times she’d thought she had a pretty good notion of it, but to a young rabbit with no experience in such matters, big and red was the broken wheelbarrow some human-person had dumped in a forest clearing and left to rust.
The real-life farmhouse was nothing like a wheelbarrow. It was tall as a good-sized tree and scarlet as a holly berry, with white-painted trim around the windows and doors and along the roof’s edge. It gave the words big and red a whole new meaning, and Alice realized how off the mark her imaginings had been.
For instance, she’d never imagined the farmhouse would have a giant, square-cornered truck sitting in the driveway, with its back wide open and people swarming in and out. They were man-people with thick arms, and they moved furniture and boxes off the truck and through the front door of the house. Back and forth they went, with purpose, the way ants carry crumbs back to the anthill.
It was Alice’s first glimpse of a human.
“Lester,” she said, whiskers aquiver. “I thought you said the farmhouse was empty.”
“I know what I said, youngster.” He thumped his back feet, a sign of irritation. “When I said it was empty, that’s because it was empty. Now it’s got people crawling all over it.” Lester didn’t sound happy about this, but he didn’t bolt, either, so Alice knew not to be alarmed. If the sight of people was an emergency, he’d either freeze or bolt. That’s what rabbits did when danger was near.
And Lester was a bona fide expert about people, as he’d once nibbled and shredded his way through a box full of mail-order catalogs and yellowed paperbacks that had been left by the roadside. It was a real treasure trove of information, judging from the things the old rabbit knew, or claimed to.
The other kits sensed a change in Lester’s mood and gathered close to the stump. Thistle was too small and scared to jump up next to Alice, but Berry and Marigold weren’t. They hopped up and huddled against one another to watch the goings-on down by the farm.
At the back of the truck, three men struggled with an item that was bigger than they were. They grunted and groaned as they finally got it out of the truck and onto a wheeled dolly, which they pushed into the house.
“That, my young friends, is what is known as an armoire.” Lester flicked his ears forward twice, for emphasis. “Arm. Waahr.”
“Arm Waahr,” Alice repeated, learning it. “What’s it do?”
Lester flipped his ears to one side. “An armoire is a thing to put other things in. People do love their things.”
After a while, the men returned, pushing the empty dolly. One shoved a hand in his pocket and offered what he found there to the others. They each took a piece, put it in their mouths, and began to chew.
Alice’s nose twitched as she tried not to sneeze. Even half a meadow away, the harsh, minty smell was stronger and sweeter than any mint she’d ever nibbled, and she’d nibbled plenty in the weeks since the snows had melted and the early-greening plants had peeped through the soil.
The men chewed and chewed, but didn’t seem to swallow. Probably something to sharpen their teeth, she thought.
Soon the man-people went back to work. Boxes, lamps, dressers, more boxes. Lester’s ears flipped to the other side. “Look. There’s a bed. That’s what people use for a sleeping burrow.”
Alice stood up all the way, to see this bed-burrow. “That’s big enough for ten people, at least,” she exclaimed.
“You’d think. But people are funny. They mostly sleep in ones and twos, even in winter. Now that bed is big enough for two.”
The movers were having a hard time squeezing a king-sized mattress through the doorway. But they got it in.
“How many farmers does that make?” Thistle asked from the ground, too nervous to keep count.
“Three, so far,” Lester said. “Looks like we’re in for a real infestation.”
Something less big, with bars on all four sides, came out of the truck.
“Is it a trap?” Berry blurted. Marigold and Thistle squeaked with dismay, and no wonder. Most animals will flinch at anything that looks remotely like a cage.
Lester’s tail twitched, but his voice stayed calm. “No, not a trap. There’s a word for it, let me think … crib! That’s it. It’s a sleeping cage for a baby people.”
The kits took this in with a collective shiver. Baby rabbits slept all together in shallow nests dug by their mothers, lined with grass and leaves and soft fur plucked from the mothers’ own bellies. But perhaps baby people were dangerous in some way, and needed to be kept apart.
They all pondered this, until Marigold piped up. “Baby people are so…”
“Ugly!” All four kits said it at the same time, and laughed. You wouldn’t have been able to hear them, of course. No human ear could. Even a belly laugh from a rabbit in the throes of utter hilarity is quiet as the whisper of wind in the trees.
Still, it’s a well-known fact that rabbits have terrific senses of humor. Less well-known is that their favorite thing to joke about is baby people. It’s not nice, but can you blame them? Even the cutest baby people are nowhere near as cute as the least cute baby bunny rabbits, and every rabbit knows it. They’re conceited about it, to be honest.
Alice laughed along with the others, but she wasn’t sure how to feel about this turn of events. Farmers in the big red house! Baby people in sleeping cages! It was a lot to take in.
Lester hopped off the stump, and the others followed. Caution had overtaken them all since seeing that crib, and their zigzags back across the meadow were somber and silent. They didn’t stop until they reached the place where the shade of the treetops cooled the grass beneath their feet. They’d be harder to see here in the shadows, and closer to good hiding places, too, and that’s all pretty important to a rabbit.
Alice blinked and hunkered down into a loaf shape. “Lester, will it be good or bad to have farmers in the house again?” she asked.
Lester didn’t answer right away. When he did, he sounded wise as the Great Rabbit himself.
“Life’s been quiet for a spell,” he said. “That was bound to change, sooner or later. Looks like today’s the day.”
“But aren’t farmers dangerous?” Thistle chirped.
“There’s danger and rewards, young ’un. The danger is great, and so are the rewards. It’s been long time since I tasted broccoli,” he added, sounding dreamy. “And brussels sprouts. And Swiss chard, oh, my! A long time indeed.” He flicked his ears, thinking. “Remember, we’re rabbitfolk. A rabbit is way more clever than a farmer.”
“Are you sure?” All the kits wanted to know.
“There’s no doubt about it.” Lester paused for effect. “Anyway, it’s not the farmers you have to worry about. It’s their dang dogs.”
“Dogs!” The kits’ eyes went blank and their bodies froze midbreath. Their mottled brown fur blended perfectly with the muted tones of dirt, dead leaves, and the rugged bark of the trees. That’s called camouflage, and it means that a rabbit holding stock-still at the wood’s edge is as invisible as a visible thing can be. Anyone watching would swear the four little rabbits and one big one had vanished in a blink.
Alice was first to move again, tipping her muzzle upward to sniff. Her wriggling nose cataloged the grassy perfume of the meadow, the salty tang of man-people at work, and that stinging odor of mint.
She wasn’t sure what a dog smelled like, but she didn’t think it was any of those. Even so, her rabbit nerves tingled, and every muscle begged to race into the shadowed safety of the woodland, back to the cozy underground burrow that she and the others called home.
Lester sniffed, too, and said nothing.
“Do these farmers have a dang dog?” Thistle asked, taking one tiny hop closer to the wood’s edge.
“We’ll soon find out. Until we do, it’s one hop at a time, young ’un.” As if to prove the point, Lester jumped sideways into the sun where any hawk could have spotted him, and nibbled the fresh grass, too. “Yes sir! I expect we’ll find out soon enough.”
Carl’s whole life is wrecked.
“Sit, Foxy! Make Foxy sit, would you, champ? I can’t see out the back.”
“Sit, girl,” Carl mumbled.
Foxy kept staring out the car window, panting right in Carl’s face. Her front paws dug into the tops of his thighs. That dog was being a real pain.
That was one way of looking at it, anyway. The other was that Carl’s dad was the one being a pain. Carl was inclined toward this second interpretation. His main grievance was that they’d been driving for three hours and his dad had only stopped the car once, even though they’d passed approximately one million drive-thrus. Grinning buckets of crackle-coated fried chicken! Triple-decker meat burgers! Curly fries dripping with gloopy, cheesy mystery sauce! This was fine dining, in Carl’s opinion.
His parents felt differently. It had been quite a few months since Brad and Sally Harvey, the reigning adults of the Harvey household, jointly decided they were henceforth going to cook everything from scratch. “Henceforth, we will eat like royalty,” Brad had proclaimed in a kingly voice, as Sally nodded and smiled. A pair of cardboard crowns from a burger drive-thru would have made it comical, but they weren’t kidding. “That means whole foods only, prepared at home.”
“But what if I only want half?” Carl had objected, which led to a long explanation that defied the laws of math and common sense. An entire Frosted Toasty-Tart with cherry-flavored filling and candy sprinkles was not a whole food, but half an apple was?
The boy was confused, but soon enough he discovered the awful truth: What the Harveys’ royal decree really meant was that, henceforth, Carl couldn’t get within ten feet of a decent French fry, a supersized cola, or any foods that were of the type that some nice young person in a uniform packed up in a paper bag and handed you through a window. It was just one unhappy meal after another.
On a day like this, you’d think his parents would make an exception, but nope. Sally had been so unreasonable as to pack a cooler for the trip, full of carrots and hummus sandwiches on whole-grain sourdough bread she’d baked herself, a fact she mentioned far too often, in Carl’s opinion. Also, he still wasn’t clear where hummus came from. Did anybody know? It was so beige and smooshy. Highly suspicious.
“Champ? The dog? Please?” his dad said, less nicely this time.
“Almost there, honey,” Sally added.
Carl wasn’t a big fan of champ, but he really did not like being called honey. This was a relatively new and strongly held opinion that had taken hold of him since he’d turned ten. Double digits have a way of changing a person’s outlook on such matters. He hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell his mom yet, but that day was coming, and soon.
Not that his name was such a masterpiece. He was named after Carlsbad Caverns, a park full of caves that his parents had liked to visit before he was born. It was hard for him to imagine Brad and Sally exploring caves. He’d seen them carry a stroller down the subway steps lots of times, though.
“Okay, Dad! Come on, girl, sit.” Carl pushed Foxy’s rump down onto the seat and rubbed her belly to keep her occupied. Naming your firstborn child after a cave was bad, but calling a dog Foxy was just inaccurate. A dog is a dog; a fox is a fox. Case closed, as his dad liked to say.
Nope, nope, nope. Picking names was not a thing his parents were good at.
Neither, it seemed, was picking places to live.
“Prune Street?” he blurted as the car turned down an even narrower and less inhabited road than the one they’d been on. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Not kidding.” His dad sounded weary, like he needed a supersized cola to perk him up. “Eleven Prune Street is where we’re going.”
“Is that our new address?”
“Prunes are very tasty,” Sally added.
“Your statement is false,” Carl said in his robot voice. Prunes were what happened when plums were left out to go bad. Carl had known this ever since Sally became obsessed with her dehydrator. The dehydrator was a thing that took perfectly good fruit and made it rubbery and hard to eat. Sally had paid actual money for this contraption and loved it like a sister, or so it seemed. When the holidays came, she filled approximately one billion glass jars with ruined fruit and gave them as gifts. It was a wonder anyone was still speaking to her.
Eleven Prune Street! Carl slumped as far as the seat belt would let him. Their old address was normal: 1260 Oxford Street, Apartment 5F, Brooklyn, New York. It was one block from the subway that could take you anywhere, even to the beach, plus the bus stopped right on the avenue if you didn’t feel like taking the train.
School was a ten-minute walk from home, and the big park with the lake and the carousel was a twelve-minute walk. Most of his friends lived nearby, and Frank’s Market was right downstairs. It was so close that he used to be allowed to go there by himself to buy his favorite treat. Captain Skeeter’s Crunch Nuggets! Now, there was a candy bar.
Of course, that was before the dehydrator arrived and the henceforth rule went into effect. No more Crunch Nuggets for Carl. Now his mom just gave him dried-out rubbery fruit when he wanted something sweet. Or carrot sticks. Carrot sticks! The indignity!
Sally peeked into the back seat. “Imagine how much Foxy is going to like living in the country!” she said, much too cheerfully. “Maybe she’ll learn to chase rabbits.”
His dad snorted. “That dog wouldn’t know what to do with a live rabbit if she saw one.”
“Woof,” Foxy said, not bothering to open her eyes.
“Don’t make fun of Foxy,” Carl said rudely. He’d just realized the nearest bar of Captain Skeeter’s Crunch Nuggets was three hours away, in Brooklyn, and he wasn’t going back there anytime soon. “She didn’t ask to move. You’re forcing her.”
That made his parents settle down. But Carl felt bad that they didn’t scold him about being rude. That’s how he knew that moving to the country was a real catastrophe: from the way his parents had almost completely stopped scolding him, even when he was angling for it.
It wasn’t one hundred percent fair to blame them, either, since the move was fifty percent his fault. Here’s how he figured it: Last summer he’d gone to sleepaway camp for the first time. He’d begged and begged, because his best friend, Emmanuel, was going and had done a powerful sales job about how fun the place was, all pocketknives and swimming holes and secret handshakes. The camp was upstate, in a woodsy kind of place that looked a lot like the last hour of the drive to Prune Street.
After doing their “due diligence,” which was a mysterious ceremony the Harvey parents always performed before making a decision, they said yes. Carl was thrilled. He’d driven up with Emmanuel’s family, who seemed to handle the change of scenery just fine. But when Brad and Sally arrived at the end of two weeks to pick up the boys, they took one look at the trees and, blammo. It was like they’d been hypnotized. They couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful it was, how lovely to be in nature, how nice it was to be away from the city, which was so dirty and smelly and crowded.
What a tragic mistake he’d made, and all because he wanted to learn to shoot a bow and arrow! If Carl had never gone to camp, his parents wouldn’t have ever noticed how dirty and smelly the city was.
Carl had stopped rubbing Foxy’s belly somewhere along the way. Now she was up again, panting like a racehorse and fogging up the window with her breath. She looked excited and happy, but that’s dogs for you. Life is all chew toys and belly rubs as far as a dog’s concerned, even in the midst of disaster.
“You dumb dog,” Carl whispered, right into the dog’s neck, so no one could hear. “Our whole life is wrecked, and you don’t even know it.”
Foxy grinned like she’d just won a prize.
Carl made his most unhappy expression: He pushed out his lower lip; his mouth scrunched upward and his eyebrows glowered down, as if all his features were trying to reach the middle of his face. He would have liked it if just one living creature would admit what a horrible situation they were in.
His sister, Marie, snored in her car seat next to him. Marie was named after a famous scientist his parents admired. She’d recently turned one, and Carl still didn’t quite see the point of her. All she did was eat applesauce, mess her diaper, and prattle in baby talk that no reasonable person could understand, although Brad and Sally always pretended that they could.
“Looks like the moving truck beat us here.” Brad turned the steering wheel all the way to the right and pulled over on the side of the road, since the driveway was occupied.
Sally unbuckled her seat belt and twisted around to face Carl with a goofy smile on her face. “That’s it, honey. The big red house!”
Carl craned his neck to see past the moving truck.
“That’s our house? All of it?” he asked, disbelieving. You could fit four whole apartments into a house that size.
“It’s not just a house. It’s a farm.” Brad unlocked the car doors, ka-chunk, and let out a long, satisfied breath. “Come on, champ! The place is amazing. Wait until you see it.”
Copyright © 2020 by Maryrose Wood