Pray you never live your life confined to an existence in the dank holes and dingy burrows of the backlands of West Ireland. It’s a dismal life. The rations are bad, the dirt is poor, and our litters are often pneumonic, from birth to death by one. We live close and cramped, but there’s no camaraderie. We despise each other all the more because of it.
The other rabbits aren’t the worst of it. We are at constant war with the badgers, the moles, the foxes. The foxes are the worst. At least if you encounter a mole or a badger on a dark night in the forest, they’ll just grunt and glare past you. Foxes will eat you up. We hold a tenuous alliance with the moles, but I know the tensions are rising. Their hills alert the farmer to their presence, but the sticks of dynamite he drops down them blows all of us up. The badgers keep to themselves, but they spread disease among us. The farmer lost half his calf stock to TB last year. I don’t know why the stupid bastards even go near the cows. Probably to taunt them; make them aware of their own captivity. They can’t help it, but the badgers are smug. Smug and stupid.
The farmer is the one we all fear. He shoots us all without mercy. Anything that moves gets shot. There are poppies bowing at the edges of the field with bullet holes through their bloody petals. I took one of my litters to see them once. It’s good to show them what can happen, even if it scares them, which, more often than not, it does.
I’ve had eight litters, three of them with the same doe. Most have died. It’s a sad reality in this war. They are born sick; they live short, sickly lives; they die, feverish and sick in the thick, close warmth of their burrows. A few have been seized by foxes, and a few by the farmer. It’s often the fearless ones who are shot. Fearless, or just not fast enough? I’m not sure which it is worse to be.
I have four daughters now living. One has recently given birth. When she was born, her litter was the strangest I’ve ever had. One of her brothers had been almost black, and she the colour of bleached bone, as though her brother had stolen all her colour. Another brother was buck red. He had died in the jaws of a fox before his first birthday; his blood had been indistinguishable from his pelt.
This daughter keeps her kits in one of the burrows on the east side of the field, furthest from the farm house. She is smart; only ventures out under the cover of twilight, when the farmer is eating, and the foxes and badgers are shaking off the heavy cobwebs of sleep. Often I go with her, and together we pick our way across the dead, brutal earth of the churned field. It’s ringed with barbed wire, and against the blazing end of day, it looks as though it’s on fire.
We find flat mushrooms, dandelion leaves, and she even finds a few blackberries, shrivelled and hard, left over from the autumn which is just now turning on its heels to run from us. As we turn tail back towards the field, an ominous noise cuts the air. The rising and falling call of a fox, but she isn’t calling for her litter, or her mate, or to hunt. No, she’s sounding the alarm. My ears go up, and I hear the distant whine of the tractor. I flatten myself against the ground, trembling, but beside me, my daughter stretches herself out, bounding away from me, towards the field. She is thinking only of her litter, and her maddened maternal instinct makes her panic. Save the children, she thinks, protect the kits.
Who am I to deny her that primal protective parental instinct, when I take off after her seconds after she sprints away from me? Back through the trees; through the mud; across the ditch; under the barbed wire; into the open field, into danger. I leap after her, my back legs bunching, springing, bunching, springing. Her white hind bobs up and down frantically. The farmer is ready, waiting; his tractor’s whining a death rattle which cuts through the air. He takes his aim. Beneath me, I know there are families huddled in their burrows, listening to the war taking place metres above their heads. I race through the No Man’s Land. No Rabbit’s Land more like; there is no land for us. A spray of bullets: five quick shots.
Pray you never end your life with a lead bullet shattered in your ribcage.