by Archita Mittra
Once upon a time, there lived an unlucky rabbit at the edge of the woods. She was a playful and sure-footed creature, with grey-white fur that glistened silver in the moonlight and red eyes that gleamed like embers in the dark. She liked to frolic in the village turf, digging up carrots and munching on cabbage leaves or sunbathe in a quiet, mossy spot in the ground while the farmers took their afternoon naps. Some days, she’d venture into the forest, curious about what lay in that green darkness but always ready to scamper back to her burrow at the sight of wolf prints or the hint of a shadow that was larger than her own.
But one day, since she was rather unlucky, her foot caught on a hunter’s snare.
Try as she might, she could not get free. Frightened out of her wits and too breathless to scream, the little rabbit struggled valiantly to no avail. Thistle and nettle dug into her soft fur, and in the dusk light, little droplets of blood turned a nasty brown as though her back was filled with holes, and she slowly went limp even as her heart hammered like a storm.
It was then that one of the woodcutters, returning after a long and sweaty day of toil, found her voiceless and helpless, encrusted with dried blood. Taking pity on the poor creature, he carried her home in his arms. Slowly, he took out the bristles and washed her wounds, humming the lullaby his grandma once sang to him when he was a little boy. Wrapping her in a clean cotton sheet, he placed her in a cardboard box along with some spinach to munch on.
Within a week she was back on her feet, scampering around the house, pulling at freshly-washed bed sheets, and juicily chewing on newspaper and rags. Sometimes, she paused in front of the large gilded floor-length mirror that the woodcutter had procured from the merchants (as a gift for his wife who’d passed away last year), befuddled by the strange white creature that stared back. She even tried standing on her toes to get a better view, but her legs soon gave way and she stumbled backward, and the woodcutter, if he chanced to see this little drama unfold, laughed loudly and heartily, a ringing sound that happily echoed throughout the house.
Yet one grey morning, the unlucky rabbit awoke to find the woodcutter lying sprawled at the foot of the mirror, a pool of dried blood congealing near his head.
She sniffed him and furtively placed a paw on his chest, but there was no rhythm to be felt. She pressed her nose against his old cheeks, willing him to awaken, but there was nothing. The rabbit lay beside him all day, limp and silent, sure that by dusk, something would happen to make everything right. Perhaps he’d wake up with a startled yelp or the mirror would sway and reveal a hidden passageway, but in the inky dark of midnight, only a hairy brown Rat came crawling towards the body.
The rabbit standing vigil all this while, perked up, alert.
“Do you know what is wrong with him, Mr. Rat?” she asked.
The Rat nodded sagely. “He has gone away into the dark. He will not return.”
The rabbit remembered the darkness of the forest that she had stayed away from for all these years. “I must bring him back,” she decided, simply. “Perhaps he is lost.”
The Rat’s eyes glinted a silver-green. “Alas, he has crossed into the dark. They say a great three-headed Dog stands at the door. Perhaps you little rabbit with your fluttering heart, who burrow so close to the dead, could go and bargain with him if you dare.”
The rabbit was afraid of the forest, but she understood there was no other way. Some time ago, the woodcutter had brought her back from the clutches of that Black Dog and nursed her back to health. She could never abandon him.
With one sad backward glance at her fallen friend, she dashed towards the woods, leaving the house and the farms far behind.
* * *
The forest hummed with a mossy, fetid darkness. Although nimble and swift of foot, doubts and dark shadows assailed her at every step: Would she be able to outrun the wolves? What if she missed the hidden snares like last time? What if she got hopelessly lost and the whispering trees bared their thick branches and swallowed her up?
At the dark heart of the forest, stood the stump of a gnarled oak, and at its foot was a hole that all rabbits avoided. She scrambled down the opening, digging deeper until the world turned black and heavy like a starless sky.
She was truly frightened now, and the sound of her own heart drummed ferociously against her ears. Alone and beat, she missed the woodcutter’s soft fingers stroking her fur, just between her ears and tickling her back. Gingerly, she edged deeper into the dark, until her paw brushed against something wet. She blinked a few times, struggling to adjust to the darkness, and then the world slowly shifted, and she was at the edge of a riverbank and three pairs of fiery-orange eyes glittered dangerously from the other side.
A sob caught her throat. She could run as fast as her legs would carry her, but she could not swim.
Three voices bellowed ahead, in unison. “Who dares come here?” asked the three-headed Dog that Mr. Rat had warned her about.
Precariously balanced on the trembling muddy ground, the little rabbit spoke up bravely, “It is I, a rabbit come to beseech you for a favour. My friend has mistakenly walked through that door you guard, and I want to bring him back.”
The Great Dog laughed. It was a cruel and grating kind of laugh that echoed all around, and the little rabbit faltered. It was only a stroke of luck that she didn’t slip right off into the swirling black water.
“What insolence!” the Dog cried, “To come to my lair with a living heart and such a selfish demand!”
“Please,” the rabbit pleaded. “He saved me once, and I only wish to return the favour. I know I’m only a little rabbit but name your price, and I shall pay it.”
The Dog, shocked at the temerity of such a lowly creature, considered her for a moment. He then licked his mouth and smiled surely to himself. “Perhaps there is indeed something that you can do.”
The rabbit looked up eagerly as the Dog continued, “My days are spent in the darkness, devoid of light. Across the forest, there looms a mountain, and high up there is a cave. At the centre of it, lies a quiet pool, and in its depths, a bone of polished moonlight, hard-edged and white. Fetch it for me if you can, and perhaps then I shall consider your request.”
The rabbit was aghast. Crossing the forest and then following the mountain path was too difficult and dangerous a task. She had survived so far on luck alone, and like all rabbits, she knew how quickly luck could run out.
There was no way she could get that bone and return alive, to the land of the dead again.
She thought of plunging right away into the dark water, wondering if her woodcutter would be waiting at the door, when she floated up on the other side. Slowly, she said, “I am but a rabbit. Surely a wolf shall get me before I can even leave the forest?”
For a few moments that seemed to stretch forever, there was silence. Then the Dog spoke again. “Feeble as you are, your mind is set, and I have never met another like you. Timid as your lot claim to be, you have ventured here, hardly daring to breathe. And for that alone, I shall gift you a cloak so white that when you run in the moonlight, you are but a blur to your enemies. Take it and depart, but remember I make no promises.”
The rabbit humbly thanked the Great Dog for the gift and climbed out of the burrow.
* * *
The forest was dappled with moonlight, and she made swift progress running through the dense undergrowth. But the mountain was a long way off, and when her legs could carry her no more, she dug a hole beneath some brambles and curled into sleep. It took her three nights and days until she reached the foothills of the mountain.
On the third night, she was chased by a large snowy Owl.
With her white cloak, she was able to avoid the claws of that shadow that trailed above her, but the Owl would not give up and pursued her relentlessly over bush and bramble, over moonlit fields and steep, rocky paths. At length, the little rabbit could go on no more. She froze in fear as the gigantic Owl swooped down in front of her, rearing its glimmering wings.
But although she had stopped moving, the owl did not pounce upon her. Instead, he said in a gruff voice, “Rabbits do not often venture here. What brings you to these paths, little white ball of fur?”
The rabbit slowly raised her ears and sat up. “There is a cave high up in the mountain that I must reach. A bone of moonlight must I fetch from that darkness.”
“And how, I pray, would you be able to climb so high? I have wings to claim the sky, but you have four weak bedraggled legs. They will not carry you far.”
The rabbit hadn’t given that much thought. To be fair, she hadn’t even expected to survive this far, and she remembered what the Great Dog had told her about not making any promises. What if he had played a cruel trick upon her?
Her doubts must’ve shown on her face for the Owl continued. “A mile north, there rests a caravan. The travellers wish to continue northward up the mountain path as they are on a great pilgrimage. A lonely little girl waits restless, unable to sleep. Befriend her, and she will lead you to the moonlit darkness of the cave.”
The rabbit gazed at the Owl, awed by his help for the wild had never been a friend to her kind before. Thanking him profusely, she went on her way.
* * *
Just as the Owl had directed, she found the caravan and the sleeping party. There was the soft sound of weeping that she followed to one of the smaller tents. She peeped in and saw a child, crying and twirling a locket in her hands. The locket bore a faded picture of an older woman, and the little girl pressed it against her cheeks.
The rabbit had never approached humans on her own before, preferring to hide in corners until they walked past, but the child seemed so lonely. She crept closer, afraid of startling her, and the girl looked up, blinking back her tears.
“Hullo,” the girl said, reaching out a little hand to stroke her ears.
The rabbit did not quiver at being touched. Instead, she buried herself beside the girl’s tattered petticoat. Together, they wept silently for the ones they had lost.
By morning, they’d become friends, and the rabbit followed the girl around as she washed clothes, helped the older women with the cooking or went foraging for mushrooms and berries. On windy evenings, the party would gather around the campfire telling stories of animals and their cleverness and bravery, moving their fingers to cast shadowy patterns on a screen. The group always shared their meagre meals together, remembering to spare a few leafy titbits for her. Sometimes, the ladies gathered in their fusty tents, lighting incense and reading pictures on little cards or practicing their dances in tassel-heavy dresses.
The rabbit travelled with the little girl — a ball of white fur peeping out from her backpack like freshly fallen snow. The girl chirped about how they were going to a fair in one of the towns in the valley where they would sing and dance and perform tricks all night long. It was an annual festival for them to honour the Moon Goddess, but this time her mother would not be joining them.
The rabbit had never been to a fair before, but she could imagine the shimmering lights and the booming sounds of laughter. In her dreams, she became a little girl in a white petticoat, dancing by a forest pool in the moonlight, the air suffused with the scent of silver-tipped petals and rustling rain-washed leaves.
* * *
But the rabbit never forgot her true purpose. One day, as they neared the mountain top, she slipped out of the tent and made her way to the cave.
The cave was filled with cracks in the walls and ceiling, and silver shadows danced across them. The rabbit edged towards the pool and slowly looked into its clear depths. From a hole in the ceiling, the round face of the moon reflected in the shimmering water and as the rabbit gazed deeper into that crystal world, she saw there was no magical bone at the bottom.
Suddenly, a dark shadow clouded her vision, and she instinctively jerked back. An enormous black Bear loomed before her. The rabbit tried to scurry back, but it seemed the walls and the cave entrance had closed in upon her. There was no way out. Frantic, she tried to burrow, but the ground was too hard and rocky.
A voice roared in the darkness: “It is not every day that a mortal comes crawling to my den. What do you seek, little one?”
The frightened rabbit narrated her adventure fearfully, speaking of her woodcutter friend and her trip to the underworld that lay buried deep inside the heart of the forest and the Owl’s helpful advice and her journey up the winding mountain path with the caravan and the little girl who sang songs and carried her along until she slipped away to reach this sacred spot, in search for that bone to bring back the one she had lost.
The Bear listened to her story calmly and then shrugged. “You trust too soon, little one. There is no bone in my lair to bring back the dead. He never promised you a soul but set you off on a dangerous path. Perhaps he hoped you would fail and you’d have returned to his kingdom, sooner than before. Or maybe, he sensed something in your heart and wanted you gone, far, far away.”
For a long time, the rabbit remained still, tears silently trailing down her red eyes. Then very softly, she whispered, “For my friend… is there really no hope?”
The Bear nodded sadly. “A soul gone is a soul lost. Surely you, little rabbit, who burrow so close to the dead, should know this by now?”
Perhaps in her heart of hearts, she had always known the answer. She remembered that grey day, the dark blood near his head, his unmoving heart and the Rat who set her off on a wild chase, maybe just so that she’d never return. So full of betrayals and false hope was this broken world.
The rabbit tearfully looked up and gazed deep into the Bear’s glistening eyes. “There is… truly… nothing?”
The Bear did not reply immediately. “We can grant boons, but only if it is within our power to grant it. Yet you, like so many others before you, only ask for the impossible.”
She recalled the girl in the tent, clutching that locket and weeping by candlelight, and she saw herself at the edge of the dark river, beseeching the Great Dog to return a soul that belonged neither to her nor him. What was it that she truly wanted?
She wanted to wake up in a world where the woodcutter still lived, to feel the joy and safety of running across the creaky floors of his house, to hear his hearty laugh ring in her ears once more. She wished she could be human, like him or the girl, to be able to sing and dance and walk the woody paths without fear. And then, she remembered being chased by the Owl and other animals of the forest and being caught in a snare, too helpless to escape. Oh, how she longed to live in a world without fear.
But without her fear and without her hope and a bit of luck, she would have never been able to come as far as she did, on her four white legs and that white cloak the Great Dog had given her as a parting gift. Most other rabbits wouldn’t be able to come far as she had. They were careless little creatures after all, clumsy at times, rather unlucky and hopelessly frail with hearts that drummed a bit too quickly for their own good.
Finally, she spoke. “I want other rabbits to have a cloak like mine, to be swift of foot, a blur of white in the moonlight. In a world so cruel, I only wish for a bit of luck, so that we may live a little bit longer, have at least a fighting chance against the brush of that cold eternal dark.”
The Bear regarded her for one long moment. Then, there was a flash of silver, like lightning against the wall and the ground beneath the rabbit trembled. Rocks began to fall all around, and she dashed towards an opening, narrowly dodging the tumbling debris.
When she reached the tents where the people slept, the world was still moonlit, but there was a new spring in her step.
* * *
“And that is why rabbits are lucky creatures,” the girl said to an eager audience, moving her fingers to cast a dancing shadow on the wall. “They are difficult to catch and quick to run away as if spun out of wind and moonshine. So, when you’re lost in the deep, dark woods,” she went on with a familiar gleam in her eye, “search for a blur of white and pray for a whiff of luck and moonlight to guide you home tonight.”
* * *
About the Author
Archita Mittra is a writer, editor, and artist, with a fondness for dark and fantastical things. She completed her B.A. (2018) and M.A. (2020) in English Literature from Jadavpur University and a Diploma in Multimedia and Animation from St. Xavier’s College (2016). Her non-fiction has appeared in Tor, Locus, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere, while her fiction has been published or forthcoming in Lightspeed, The Dread Machine, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, and the Bram Stoker nominated “Human Monsters” anthology by Dark Matter Magazine, among others. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart and best of the net prizes, and long-listed for Toto Award for Creative Writing in 2020. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction or drawing fan art, she can be found playing indie games, making crafts, or deciding which new tarot deck to buy. She lives in Kolkata, India, with her family and rabbits, and may be found haunting Twitter and Instagram @architamittra.