I wasn’t always a rabbit--that much I can tell you.
Two years ago on this island, there were no rabbits at all. Just four girls, sisters, and a grumpy old man.
Before that, just the grumpy old man.
And then things . . . happened.
If you’re guessing that magic was involved, you’re correct.
Being a rabbit was not a bad thing, actually. Especially if a person liked carrots, lettuce, and other crispy green things. And fresh peas, perhaps the most perfect food on earth. (Not the kind that come in a tin and look like droppings.) Maybe being a rabbit was even better than being a girl. I had learned to be a good rabbit, after all.
I don’t know if I was a very good girl.
Now there were choices to make. If I stayed a rabbit, I could stay with the old man--we called him the Magician--and find a way to save the island. This was the hope that lulled me to sleep each night and greeted me when I awoke each morning.
If I didn’t remain a rabbit . . . well, that created all sorts of new problems. The biggest problem would soon return to the island, with big words like future and destiny and plans to take me away.
That problem’s name was the Boy.
When the Boy arrived, I wasn’t in the safety of my burrow. The Magician had planted quite a spring garden of sweet peas and miniature radishes, bless him! I have already spoken of the deliciousness of fresh vegetables, I know, but sometimes once is not enough. Unless there is broccoli in your garden, which I certainly hope there is not. Everyone knows broccoli is stupid. Why it even exists, I don’t know.
They weren’t coming up easily, the radishes. Instead of slithering nicely out of the moist dirt, they hung on to thick glops of mud.
“Ah, Albie, look at your paws--covered in filth. That isn’t like you,” the Magician said when he spied me radishing. A rabbit enjoys dirt, of course, but mud is another thing altogether. Yuck.
“You see, Albie. It’s getting worse,” he said. “We’re sinking. Soon we’ll be knee-deep in mud. And then . . .”
His words dangled.
The Magician sighed deeply, the breath rattling out of his old bones, and he walked back toward the castle.
I was going to need a new burrow--and quick. I’d need a safe place to hide from that wretched Boy. On the other side of the castle was a hill that was still high and dry. It would do nicely.
As I dug my new home and gathered carrots to snack on, I found myself thinking about my old home in Cork and all of the things I loved and missed. I remembered Mum, brushing out the tangles in my hair, whispering kind things in my ear to distract me from the tugging and pulling. “Don’t fuss, Albie,” she would say. “You are stronger than you know.” Or Papa, giving me my first slingshot, teaching me to aim strong and true. He was the one who gave me my nickname, Albie. He said that Alberta was stuffy. Apparently, Mum had picked the name, but I didn’t hold that against her.
But other memories were terrible, filled with bombs and explosions.
The very best memories were those of my sisters, but they were also the hardest. I missed them so very much. I clutched my carrots close to my heart. Carrots were everyone’s favorite.
A clomping-through-the-mush sound startled me back to reality.
The clomping got louder. I froze, my carrots falling to the ground with a soft thud.
I should’ve known the Boy would come early.
He wasn’t predictable. How such an irresponsible lad got a job as important as rowing the boat, I don’t understand. But letting my questions niggle around in my brain wasn’t doing me any good. I had to find a way out of the garden before he saw me. Or else.
The garden lay between the shore and the old castle. The Boy was going to have to pass through to get to the Magician in the castle. There was no path. We didn’t need one, for we didn’t have any visitors on this island.
Only the Boy.
“Hullooooooo,” the Boy called from the far side of the garden. As if the Magician could hear him. The Magician was old, getting older all the time. His hearing wasn’t that good, which was to my benefit. How else could I sneak into the house whenever I wanted a cup of hot cocoa? And no, I didn’t make the cocoa myself. I simply licked the dregs from the bottom of the cup. The Magician drinks tea on the nights he wants to stay up and work on magic and cocoa on the nights he wants to read.
I hid behind a rather large cabbage. Cabbages are better than broccoli but not much. The old Magician loves to cook colcannon, a potato-cabbage mixture that smells truly noxious. Thus, he grows lots of large cabbages. At this moment, I was quite grateful for mine.
For I wasn’t a tiny rabbit. When we were first changed into rabbits, we were small, but soon we became the largish, silverish variety with soft pink on the inside of our ears. Each of us had a distinct marking. Mine is on my tail. There were four of us once. Four beautiful, majestic silver rabbits on the island of Hybrasil.
Now there’s only me, on a sinking island.
The Boy was stepping gingerly through the garden. Luckily, the best part of the carrots was still underground, though I loved to nibble on the lacy green top. I watched, trying not to breathe.
Just then the Boy looked behind him, right at me. Or so it seemed. I was but one more gray shadow on a shadowy day.
“Hulloooooooo?” he called again. He was closer to the old castle now. Close enough for the Magician to hear him.
The Boy turned around quickly.
“I know you’re out there. Watching. I can feel it.”
I doubted this. From everything I knew of the Boy, he wasn’t the sort who could feel things.
“And we both know why I’m here. It’s your turn.” A chill trailed down my spine.
Yes. It was my turn.
“It’ll be easier, you know, if you just come with me,” he said.
If a rabbit could snort, I would have. It came out as more of a sneeze instead.
“I knew it.” He took a small step toward the cabbages. I didn’t think he’d be fast enough to get me. Unless he’d been practicing since the last time.
“Ah, my Boy, you’ve come!” the Magician said from the edge of the garden. The Boy turned, and I skittered back toward the forest and leaped behind a log. I dared not look up, but a rabbit does have fine ears.
The clumping of the Magician’s uneven step was getting closer. One of his legs didn’t work like the other, and he used a stick to help him along. Perhaps if he’d used his magic on his leg . . .
“The rabbit is nearby, sir,” said the Boy. “I feel it.”
“You’re getting better. Well done, lad,” said the Magician. “Yes, she’s here. But the task is the same as always. You can’t take the rabbit by force. She has to go willingly. Like the others.”
The Boy sighed. “I know. I hoped that, being the last, the rules had changed.”
The Magician laughed wheezily. “Now, why would the rules change?”
“I thought that with the island sinking more noticeably and all, you’d be more eager to . . . to help.”
“You’ve had an easy time of it so far, with the others. This one, well, she will not be easy.”
No. I would not.
“Come inside. I’ve a fresh batch of colcannon. Fill your belly, lad, and we’ll talk strategy. You may ask me your questions as usual.”
I chanced a peek over the log. The Boy walked to the castle with shoulders slumping. I hoped it was because he hated colcannon.
It would serve him right.
It would’ve been so much easier if the Magician had just told us the rules from the beginning.Instead, we had to piece them together from bits of what he said. This is what I finally determined to be the rules of the magical agreement between himself and the Boy--although I might be wrong about number three. I mean, the world is really, really big.
1. A rabbit cannot be forced into the boat. She must choose to get on board.
2. Only one rabbit at a time may leave.
3. The rabbit can choose any place in the world to go, and the Boy must ferry her there.
4. Only then can the rabbit change back.
5. The rabbits must never know the circumstances behind this agreement.
My favorite rule was the first one. It was the only thing saving me from being plucked by the ears and plopped onto that stupid boat. My least favorite rule was the last one.
Things that I wasn’t supposed to know made me want to find out about them all the more. I’m nosy. Perhaps all rabbits are.
Spying came quite naturally to me, so as the sun faded from the sky, I hopped up next to the window on silent paws. The Magician had dished the Boy a huge bowl of potatoes and limp, cooked cabbage. Disgusting. I wanted to laugh, until the Boy tucked in. He closed his eyes, savoring each bite.
He was putting on quite the show. Then I realized that he was just showing off. He expected me to watch.
Pathetic. I mean it was pathetic that I was actually watching.
“This is good,” he said. “But not as good as the food on the mainland. There, they add bacon to the colcannon--”
“We only eat vegetables here, you know that,” said the Magician.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t mean to offend.” The Boy had manners, at least.
“No offense taken,” said the Magician. There were cakes on the table, the small ones with crème filling and chocolate icing on the top. My favorites. The Magician knew this, which is probably why he put them there, to entice me into the open.
Not a chance.
I was spying through the window, with a nice thick pane of wavy glass between us. Easy for me to hear through but not so easy for them to see through. Especially with night falling.
“How are the others?” asked the Magician.
“Fine, last time I checked,” said the Boy. “I pass through every few months, you know.”
“I would expect no less of you,” said the Magician.
The Boy puffed up a bit.
“But this last one, sir, if I may be blunt?”
“Aye. Be as blunt as a knife with no blade.”
“This last one, I’ve watched her the whole time, from when I took the first rabbit, Caragh, across the Sea. She has watched me even more than I watched her. She knows my every move. I fear it will take too long to convince her. I fear we won’t make it before--”
“That is preposterous! I know what you imply.”
The Magician’s face was as red as a tomato. He was quick to temper, a poor quality in a practitioner of magic.
“I’m not implying anything, sir. I just worry for the island. That’s all. And maybe I worry a bit for you, too, sir.”
The Boy had the audacity to sound sincere. I could feel his earnestness. Strange.
“No need to worry for me, son. I’ll see things are done right by the rabbits.”
“I’m not talking about the rabbits. I’m talking about you, sir. What will you do? How will you escape?”
“I’m a Magician, Boy.”
The Boy glanced toward the window, his eyes searching the darkness. But they didn’t latch onto me.
It was time to build that burrow on the other side of the castle.
Burrows are cozy places, though a little lonely.
They weren’t always that way.
Once, all four of us lived in a burrow together, small puffs of fluff! The Magician had made a home for us in a drawer at first, with odd bits of fabric around the edges to keep us warm. But soon he decided that we needed to understand how to live outside of the castle. We were never to be treated as pets or property. We were rabbits.
As rabbits, we needed to learn what that meant. The Magician read us stories so we could learn how to be rabbits, for there were no real rabbits on the island. He read Peter Rabbit, which always made me very angry. Why should Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail get blackberries for dinner and not Peter? Peter did all of the adventuring, and all he got was punishment. Perhaps that was the Magician’s message . . . but I don’t think so. He just wanted us to be careful in the garden and in the forest. There’s no Mr. McGregor on our island. But out there, in the rest of the world, one couldn’t be too cautious.
Actually, there was a part of the island less safe than the rest. A part of the island we were never allowed to go to, even when we were girls. I suppose it’s one of the rules: Never go across the stick bridge! I can’t tell you what’s on the other side of the wild river that divides Hybrasil because I’ve never been. But the Magician is afraid of it, I think. He told us there would be no going back if we ever crossed the stick bridge. The bridge looked flimsy, and the trees that loomed on the other side, dark and bony.
There was also fog.
I can’t remember when fog has ever looked cheerful. It’s creepy. And I can’t think of any reason why I would attempt to cross the stick bridge.
As for my big sisters, Caragh, Isolde, and Rory, they weren’t the kind of rabbits to disobey an order from the Magician, so there was no need to worry about them crossing to the forbidden side. True, they were strong spirited. Mum would have been so proud of them. But they were content to forage for food, dig burrows, and listen to the books the Magician read to us.
The Magician read Watership Down to us because I think he just really liked it. So did we. We especially enjoyed how he made all the characters’ voices. (Though we were quite terrified that we might be related to the Black Rabbit of Inlé, which is kind of a grim reaper in the rabbit world.) The Magician assured us otherwise. We didn’t realize that it hadn’t even been written yet. The date on the inside of the book was 1972, some thirty years in the future! How could such a book even exist? Impossible! But what is more impossible, I ask you: reading a book that has yet to be thought of or becoming a rabbit (if you are not one already)? That was part of the magic of Hybrasil.