The Year Before
This is now a sober place where the old cannot offer much comfort to the young. Staying within the burrow means hiding in the dark and moving by flickering lights that offer little to see by. Instead, they cast jumping shadows that further the sense of unease always present. Here is a place where the young can be kept safe. But I cannot help but wonder if the price of it is worth it. Some have never known the light from the sun nor the taste of fresh clover. Nibbling on these dry pettles is harder for me then it is for them. You cannot miss something you have never known. I long to leave here and sometimes consider doing so. But these thoughts are madness when I have no place to go to. Living above promises death for me and puts the young in increased peril. For what? I know that the clover is no more.
The year before, things had been so different. We had been free to frolic. Sure, there had been danger, but if one was careful you could go without much risk. I had been young then. Merely two years old. Seems a life time ago, twice what has really passed. The air had been clean and sweet. Grass had been green and abundant. But then the shadows had come. They swarmed over our lands and devoured all that they touched. They had claimed so many lives in those first few hours. We had not known. How could we have known? Those who ran brought news to the next burrow. Gathering in this way, we ran.
I had been outside the burrow. At first it had billowed into the sky like the smoke of a plains fire, but as it drew closer the terrible differences became clear. Swarming by the thousands, they came upon us. Stinging and biting they drove us underground. The warnings had come too late for us to flee. Which left us to die or to go below. Running to the burrow, we called all those astray. Not everyone had come, but we had not been able to wait. When it hit the entrance, I slammed the doors closed and condemned the rest to die. What else could I have done?
I think that this is the last burrow to survive. Those from the burrows before us had fled here. We had been unable to send warning to the next burrow so it is unlikely that any beyond us had been able to hide soon enough. Thinking that this was the last of our people brought a strange mix of feelings. A part of me was sad to think there would be no more of us roaming the wide plains. But there was also a part that was glad that no others suffer as we do. This is a hard way to live. I wonder if it would have been better for us to have fallen with that first wave. Then it would have been done. There can’t be suffering beyond death. Either there is the promised after life that held endless fields of clover or there was nothing. Neither was suffering.
Walking in the tight tunnels, I pat the heads of the children that I pass by. In one hand, I carry my mask and in the other I have the shoulder bag. I wear my puffy pants and vest, which offer better protection than fur. I still have my healer’s badge on my left arm, but it long ago lost real meaning. When someone comes back from above with dark poison, there is nothing I can do but hold their hand while they die. These trips are nessary. We have to go above to gather food. But as often as not, those going don’t return. Of those that do return, many carried the dark poison. It is an illness like none I had ever known before. Nothing I have ever learned of healing offered relief let alone a cure.
I make sure no one is at the door when I open it and go out. The long outer tunnel between the door and above was an extra measure to protect ourselves that had proven mostly ineffective. I know that we cannot last here. Finding another place is our only chance of survival. This is the second purpose for my outward journeys. This second purpose one that the others neither share nor are aware of. It is better that way. Looking offers hope for something better and each time I return with nothing would be a blow to their hearts. Such things are cruel. So, I stay silent. When I find another place, I will tell them and I will urge them to move.
Going further then the others, I seek sign that there is a place untouched by this plague. Scrambling over the loose rocky ground, I come up into the dark morning. It is warm and I wish that I could doff this awkward attire. Even my fur would have seemed too much in this heat, but the secret I am keeping is that I have the poison already. I have little hair left now. I tell the others that it is simply because I am getting older and I think that most believe me. Those that don’t have been keeping it to themselves. I have to lead them from here before I die.
I head to the north. Landmarks have long been lost, but I can recall the directions from the shape of the entrance. To go north, I have to go to the other side of the mound and travel on the back side. Wind swirls and picks up the loose sand. Despite the heat, I am now glad for the extra layers. Even through the heavy fabric, I can feel the sting. I fear that without this protection it would tear off my hide. It is difficult to see, but I don’t worry about that. Every few steps I drop a single white stone. Looking back over my shoulder, I try to keep the line straight. They are easy to see in the shadowy murk and I will use them to find my way back. I loose all sense of time as I travel. There is no change in the light nor the landscape which to measure by. I am left only to count my steps and that has lost meaning.
Five hundred one. Five hundred two. Five hundred three. Four hundred and wait… I’ve lost count again. One. Two. Three. I keep the count as best I can to keep my mind from wandering into dispair. The numbers are better to think about then the ghosts that wander this place. I feel guilty that we left them behind and even now that is a raw wound. But I know that if I had not swung that door shut, we all would have died. There has always been that doubt and then a terrible image that there had been one reaching out to the door but invisible to me in the shadows. I shudder. It is such thoughts as these that I attempt to keep at bay.
Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifty seven. Shit. Well, it doesn’t really matter. Seventy one. Why was counting getting so much harder? Perhaps I am beginning to fall into the madness that this poison brings. Perhaps this is what happens to every mind that is left in such complete nothing. I am curious to know what others experience when they are out here. But I am afraid to ask them. Not because I fear my madness, but because I fear that they will come to suspect my poisoned state. I don’t imagine that they would trust me anymore then. And I cannot be cast aside to the medical ward where they would watch me slowly die. I would rather die out here, where there is the possibility of my death meaning something.
I climb up over a steep hill and am blinded by the sudden light. I blink rapidly, but it takes my eyes a long time to adjust. I haven’t seen light like this since the year before. I am crying. Perhaps because the light is burning but more likely because I am basking in something I had forgotten. Now that my vision has finally cleared, I take in the scene before me. It is beautiful. There is green! I can see clover and grass! There is a small stream that trickles through the field below. I can see other rabbits! We are not the last burrow. I am waving at them, but they don’t see me.
Sliding down the hill in my excitement and need.
“Hello!” I yell.
They look at me, puzzlement on all their faces. I flip off my mask and let them see my face. But their expressions don’t change.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
“Since the beginning,” an old rabbit answered.
His comes forward and meets me before I can reach the group. He is the oldest rabbit that I have ever seen.
“Since the beginning? Of what?” I ask.
He places his hands on my shoulders and smiles at me.
“This is the place that all of us come, when are work is done. It has been that way since the beginning of rabbits,” he explained.
“No,” I shake my head.
He tries to drawn me into an embrace to comfort me in my new distress, but I push him away.
I whirl around, but the green valley is all around me. Where are my stones? What happened to the darkness?
“No,” I whisper.
It seems that I have found the only place that we rabbits can escape the darkness.