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17. The Shining Wire

When the green field comes off like a lid

Revealing what was much better hid,

Unpleasant;

And look! Behind, without a sound

The woods have come up and are standing round

In deadly crescent.

And the bolt is sliding in its groove,

Outside the window is the black remover's van,

And now with sudden, swift emergence

Come the women in dark glasses, the hump-backed surgeons

And the scissor-man.

W.H. Auden, The Witnesses

It was cold, it was cold and the roof was made of bones. The roof was made of the interlaced sprays of the yew tree, stiff twigs twisted in and out, over and under, hard as ice and set with dull red berries. "Come on, Hazel," said Cowslip. "We're going to carry the yew berries home in our mouths and eat them in the great burrow. Your friends must learn to do that if they want to go our way." "No! No!" cried Fiver. "Hazel, no!" But then came Bigwig, twisting in and out of the branches, his mouth full of berries. "Look," said Bigwig, "I can do it. I'm running another way. Ask me where, Hazel! Ask me where! Ask me where!" Then they were running another way, running, not to the warren but over the fields in the cold, and Bigwig dropped the berries-blood-red drops, red droppings hard as wire. "It's no good," he said. "No good biting them. They're cold."

Hazel woke. He was in the burrow. He shivered. Why was there no warmth of rabbit bodies lying close together? Where was Fiver? He sat up. Nearby, Bigwig was stirring and twitching in his sleep, searching for warmth, trying to press against another rabbit's body no longer there. The shallow hollow in the sandy floor where Fiver had lain was not quite cold: but Fiver was gone.

"Fiver!" said Hazel in the dark.

As soon as he had spoken he knew there would be no reply. He pushed Bigwig with his nose, butting urgently. "Bigwig! Fiver's gone! Bigwig!"

Bigwig was wide awake on the instant and Hazel had never felt so glad of his sturdy readiness.

"What did you say? What's wrong?"

"Fiver's gone."

"Where's he gone?"

"Silf-outside. It can only be silf. You know he wouldn't go wandering about in the warren. He hates it."

"He's a nuisance, isn't he? He's left this burrow cold, too. You think he's in danger, don't you? You want to go and look for him?"

"Yes, I must. He's upset and overwrought and it's not light yet. There may be elil, whatever Strawberry says."

Bigwig listened and sniffed for a few moments.

"It's very nearly light," he said. "There'll be light enough to find him by. Well, I'd better come with you, I suppose. Don't worry-he can't have gone far. But by the King's Lettuce! I won't half give him a piece of my mind when we catch him."

"I'll hold him down while you kick him, if only we can find him. Come on!"

They went up the run to the mouth of the hole and paused together. "Since our friends aren't here to push us," said Bigwig, "we may as well make sure the place isn't crawling with stoats and owls before we go out."

At that moment a brown owl's call sounded from the opposite wood. It was the first call, and by instinct they both crouched motionless, counting four heartbeats until the second followed.

"It's moving away," said Hazel.

"How many field mice say that every night, I wonder? You know the call's deceptive. It's meant to be."

"Well, I can't help it," said Hazel. "Fiver's somewhere out there and I'm going after him. You were right, anyway. It is light-just."

"Shall we look under the yew tree first?"

But Fiver was not under the yew tree. The light, as it grew, began to show the upper field, while the distant hedge and brook remained dark, linear shapes below. Bigwig jumped down from the bank into the field and ran in a long curve across the wet grass. He stopped almost opposite the hole by which they had come up, and Hazel joined him.

"Here's his line, all right," said Bigwig. "Fresh, too. From the hole straight down toward the brook. He won't be far away."

When raindrops are lying it is easy to see where grass has recently been crossed. They followed the line down the field and reached the hedge beside the carrot ground and the source of the brook. Bigwig had been right when he said the line was fresh. As soon as they had come through the hedge they saw Fiver. He was feeding, alone. A few fragments of carrot were still lying about near the spring, but he had left these untouched and was eating the grass not far from the gnarled crab-apple tree. They approached and he looked up.

Hazel said nothing and began to feed beside him. He was now regretting that he had brought Bigwig. In the darkness before morning and the first shock of discovering that Fiver was gone, Bigwig had been a comfort and a stand-by. But now, as he saw Fiver, small and familiar, incapable of hurting anyone or of concealing what he felt, trembling in the wet grass, either from fear or from cold, his anger melted away. He felt only sorry for him and sure that, if they could stay alone together for a while, Fiver would come round to an easier state of mind. But it was probably too late to persuade Bigwig to be gentle: he could only hope for the best.

Contrary to his fears, however, Bigwig remained as silent as himself. Evidently he had been expecting Hazel to speak first and was somewhat at a loss. For some time all three moved on quietly over the grass, while the shadows grew stronger and the wood pigeons clattered among the distant trees. Hazel was beginning to feel that all would be well and that Bigwig had more sense than he had given him credit for, when Fiver sat up on his hind legs, cleaned his face with his paws and then, for the first time, looked directly at him.

"I'm going now," he said. "I feel very sad. I'd like to wish you well, Hazel, but there's no good to wish you in this place. So just goodbye."

"But where are you going, Fiver?"

"Away. To the hills, if I can get there."

"By yourself, alone? You can't. You'd die."

"You wouldn't have a hope, old chap," said Bigwig. "Something would get you before ni-Frith."

"No," said Fiver very quietly. "You are closer to death than I."

"Are you trying to frighten me, you miserable little lump of chattering chickweed?" cried Bigwig. "I've a good mind-"

"Wait, Bigwig," said Hazel. "Don't speak roughly to him."

"Why, you said yourself-" began Bigwig.

"I know. But I feel differently now. I'm sorry, Bigwig. I was going to ask you to help me to make him come back to the warren. But now-well, I've always found that there was something in what Fiver had to say. For the last two days I've refused to listen to him and I still think he's out of his senses. But I haven't the heart to drive him back to the warren. I really believe that for some reason or other the place is frightening him out of his wits. I'll go with him a little way and perhaps we can talk. I can't ask you to risk it, too. Anyway, the others ought to know what we're doing and they won't unless you go and tell them. I'll be back before ni-Frith. I hope we both shall."

Bigwig stared. Then he turned furiously on Fiver. "You wretched little black beetle," he said. "You've never learned to obey orders, have you? It's me, me, me all the time. 'Oh, I've got a funny feeling in my toe, so we must all go and stand on our heads! And now we've found a fine warren and got into it without even having to fight, you've got to do your best to upset everyone! And then you risk the life of one of the best rabbits we've got, just to play nursey while you go wandering about like a moonstruck field mouse. Well, I'm finished with you, I'll tell you plain. And now I'm going back to the warren to make sure everyone else is finished with you as well. And they will be-don't make any mistake about that."

He turned and dashed back through the nearest gap in the hedge. On the instant, a fearful commotion began on the farther side. There were sounds of kicking and plunging. A stick flew into the air. Then a flat, wet clod of dead leaves shot clean through the gap and landed clear of the hedge, close to Hazel. The brambles thrashed up and down. Hazel and Fiver stared at each other, both fighting against the impulse to run. What enemy was at work on the other side of the hedge? There were no cries-no spitting of a cat, no squealing of a rabbit-only the crackling of twigs and the tearing of the grass in violence.

By an effort of courage against all instinct, Hazel forced himself forward into the gap, with Fiver following. A terrible sight lay before them. The rotten leaves had been thrown up in showers. The earth had been laid bare and was scored with long scratches and furrows. Bigwig was lying on his side, his back legs kicking and struggling. A length of twisted copper wire, gleaming dully in the first sunlight, was looped round his neck and ran taut across one forepaw to the head of a stout peg driven into the ground. The running knot had pulled tight and was buried in the fur behind his ear. The projecting point of one strand had lacerated his neck and drops of blood, dark and red as yew berries, welled one by one down his shoulder. For a few moments he lay panting, his side heaving in exhaustion. Then again began the struggling and fighting, backward and forward, jerking and falling, until he choked and lay quiet.

Frenzied with distress, Hazel leaped out of the gap and squatted beside him. Bigwig's eyes were closed and his lips pulled back from the long front teeth in a fixed snarl. He had bitten his lower lip and from this, too, the blood was running. Froth covered his jaws and chest

"Thlayli!" said Hazel, stamping. "Thlayli! Listen! You're in a snare-a snare! What did they say in the Owsla? Come on-think. How can we help you?"

There was a pause. Then Bigwig's back legs began to kick once more, but feebly. His ears drooped. His eyes opened unseeing and the whites showed bloodshot as the brown irises rolled one way and the other. After a moment his voice came thick and low, bubbling out of the bloody spume in his mouth.

"Owsla-no good-biting wire. Peg-got to-dig out."

A convulsion shook him and he scrabbled at the ground, covering himself in a mask of wet earth and blood. Then he was still again.

"Run, Fiver, run to the warren," cried Hazel. "Get the others-Blackberry, Silver. Be quick! He'll die."

Fiver was off up the field like a hare. Hazel, left alone, tried to understand what was needed. What was the peg? How was he to dig it out? He looked down at the foul mess before him. Bigwig was lying across the wire, which came out under his belly and seemed to disappear into the ground. Hazel struggled with his own incomprehension. Bigwig had said, "Dig." That at least he understood. He began to scratch into the soft earth beside the body, until after a time his claws scraped against something smooth and firm. As he paused, perplexed, he found Blackberry at his shoulder.

"Bigwig just spoke," he said to him, "but I don't think he can now. He said, 'Dig out the peg. What does that mean? What have we got to do?"

"Wait a moment," said Blackberry. "Let me think, and try not to be impatient."

Hazel turned his head and looked down the course of the brook. Far away, between the two copses, he could see the cherry tree where two days before he had sat with Blackberry and Fiver in the sunrise. He remembered how Bigwig had chased Hawkbit through the long grass, forgetting the quarrel of the previous night in the joy of their arrival. He could see Hawkbit running toward him now and two or three of the others-Silver, Dandelion and Pipkin. Dandelion, well in front, dashed up to the gap and checked, twitching and staring.

"What is it, Hazel? What's happened? Fiver said-"

"Bigwig's in a wire. Let him alone till Blackberry tells us. Stop the others crowding round."

Dandelion turned and raced back as Pipkin came up.

"Is Cowslip coming?" said Hazel. "Perhaps he knows-"

"He wouldn't come," replied Pipkin. "He told Fiver to stop talking about it."

"Told him what?" asked Hazel incredulously. But at that moment Blackberry spoke and Hazel was beside him in a flash.

"This is it," said Blackberry. "The wire's on a peg and the peg's in the ground-there, look. We've got to dig it out. Come on-dig beside it."

Hazel dug once more, his forepaws throwing up the soft, wet soil and slipping against the hard sides of the peg. Dimly, he was aware of the others waiting nearby. After a time he was forced to stop, panting. Silver took his place, and was followed by Buckthorn. The nasty, smooth, clean, man-smelling peg was laid bare to the length of a rabbit's ear, but still it did not come loose. Bigwig had not moved. He lay across the wire, torn and bloody, with closed eyes. Buckthorn drew his head and paws out of the hole and rubbed the mud off his face.

"The peg's narrower down there," he said. "It tapers. I think it could be bitten through, but I can't get my teeth to it."

"Send Pipkin in," said Blackberry. "He's smaller."

Pipkin plunged into the hole. They could hear the wood splintering under his teeth-a sound like a mouse in a shed wainscot at midnight. He came out with his nose bleeding.

"The splinters prick you and it's hard to breathe, but the peg's nearly through."

"Fiver, go in," said Hazel.

Fiver was not long in the hole. He, too, came out bleeding.

"It's broken in two. It's free."

Blackberry pressed his nose against Bigwig's head. As he nuzzled him gently the head rolled sideways and back again.

"Bigwig," said Blackberry in his ear, "the peg's out."

There was no response. Bigwig lay still as before. A great fly settled on one of his ears. Blackberry thrust at it angrily and it flew up, buzzing, into the sunshine.

"I think he's gone," said Blackberry. "I can't feel his breathing."

Hazel crouched down by Blackberry and laid his nostrils close to Bigwig's, but a light breeze was blowing and he could not tell whether there was breath or not. The legs were loose, the belly flaccid and limp. He tried to think of what little he had heard of snares. A strong rabbit could break his neck in a snare. Or had the point of the sharp wire pierced the windpipe?

"Bigwig," he whispered, "we've got you out. You're free."

Bigwig did not stir. Suddenly it came to Hazel that if Bigwig was dead-and what else could hold him silent in the mud? — then he himself must get the others away before the dreadful loss could drain their courage and break their spirit-as it would if they stayed by the body. Besides, the man would come soon. Perhaps he was already coming, with his gun, to take poor Bigwig away. They must go; and he must do his best to see that all of them-even he himself-put what had happened out of mind, forever.

"My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today," he said to Blackberry, quoting a rabbit proverb.

"If only it were not Bigwig," said Blackberry. "What shall we do without him?"

"The others are waiting," said Hazel. "We have to stay alive. There has to be something for them to think about. Help me, or it will be more than I can do."

He turned away from the body and looked for Fiver among the rabbits behind him. But Fiver was nowhere to be seen and Hazel was afraid to ask for him, in case to do so should seem like weakness and a need for comfort.

"Pipkin," he snapped, "why don't you clean up your face and stop the bleeding? The smell of blood attracts elil. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes, Hazel. I'm sorry. Will Bigwig-"

"And another thing," said Hazel desperately. "What was it you were telling me about Cowslip? Did you say he told Fiver to be quiet?"

"Yes, Hazel. Fiver came into the warren and told us about the snare, and that poor Bigwig-"

"Yes, all right. And then Cowslip-?"

"Cowslip and Strawberry and the others pretended not to hear. It was ridiculous, because Fiver was calling out to everybody. And then as we were running out Silver said to Cowslip, 'Surely you're coming? And Cowslip simply turned his back. So then Fiver went up and spoke to him very quietly, but I heard what Cowslip answered. He said, 'Hills or Inl'e, it's all one to me where you go. You hold your tongue. And then he struck at Fiver and scratched his ear."

"I'll kill him," gasped a low, choking voice behind them. They all leaped round. Bigwig had raised his head and was supporting himself on his forepaws alone. His body was twisted and his hind parts and back legs still lay along the ground. His eyes were open, but his face was such a fearful mask of blood, foam, vomit and earth that he looked more like some demon creature than a rabbit, The immediate sight of him, which should have filled them with relief and joy, brought only terror. They cringed away and none said a word.

"I'll kill him," repeated Bigwig, spluttering through his fouled whiskers and clotted fur. "Help me, rot you! Can't anyone get this stinking wire off me?" He struggled, dragging his hind legs. Then he fell again and crawled forward, trailing the wire through the grass with the broken peg snickering behind it.

"Let him alone!" cried Hazel, for now they were all pressing forward to help him. "Do you want to kill him? Let him rest! Let him breathe!"

"No, not rest," panted Bigwig. "I'm all right." As he spoke he fell again and immediately struggled up on his forepaws as before. "It's my back legs. Won't move. That Cowslip! I'll kill him!"

"Why do we let them stay in that warren?" cried Silver. "What sort of rabbits are they? They left Bigwig to die.

You all heard Cowslip in the burrow. They're cowards. Let's drive them out-kill them! Take the warren and live there ourselves!"

"Yes! Yes!" they all answered. "Come on! Back to the warren! Down with Cowslip! Down with Silverweed! Kill them!"

"O embleer Frith!" cried a squealing voice in the long grass.

At this shocking impiety, the tumult died away. They looked about them, wondering who could have spoken.

There was silence. Then, from between two great tussocks of hair grass came Fiver, his eyes blazing with a frantic urgency. He growled and gibbered at them like a witch hare and those nearest to him fell back in fear. Even Hazel could not have said a word for his life. They realized that he was speaking.

"The warren? You're going to the warren? You fools! That warren's nothing but a death hole! The whole place is one foul elil's larder! It's snared-everywhere, every day! That explains everything: everything that's happened since we came here."

He sat still and his words seemed to come crawling up the sunlight, over the grass.

"Listen, Dandelion. You're fond of stories, aren't you? I'll tell you one-yes, one for El-ahrairah to cry at. Once there was a fine warren on the edge of a wood, overlooking the meadows of a farm. It was big, full of rabbits. Then one day the white blindness came and the rabbits fell sick and died. But a few survived, as they always do. The warren became almost empty. One day the farmer thought, 'I could increase those rabbits: make them part of my farm-their meat, their skins. Why should I bother to keep rabbits in hutches? They'll do very well where they are. He began to shoot all elil-lendri, homba, stoat, owl. He put out food for the rabbits, but not too near the warren. For his purpose they had to become accustomed to going about in the fields and the wood. And then he snared them-not too many: as many as he wanted and not as many as would frighten them all away or destroy the warren. They grew big and strong and healthy, for he saw to it that they had all of the best, particularly in winter, and nothing to fear-except the running knot in the hedge gap and the wood path. So they lived as he wanted them to live and all the time there were a few who disappeared. The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy's warren and paying his price? They found out other marvelous arts to take the place of tricks and old stories. They danced in ceremonious greeting. They sang songs like the birds and made Shapes on the walls; and though these could help them not at all, yet they passed the time and enabled them to tell themselves that they were splendid fellows, the very flower of Rabbitry, cleverer than magpies. They had no Chief Rabbit-no, how could they? — for a Chief Rabbit must be El-ahrairah to his warren and keep them from death: and here there was no death but one, and what Chief Rabbit could have an answer to that? Instead, Frith sent them strange singers, beautiful and sick like oak apples, like robins' pincushions on the wild rose. And since they could not bear the truth, these singers, who might in some other place have been wise, were squeezed under the terrible weight of the warren's secret until they gulped out fine folly-about dignity and acquiescence, and anything else that could make believe that the rabbit loved the shining wire. But one strict rule they had; oh yes, the strictest. No one must ever ask where another rabbit was and anyone who asked 'Where? -except in a song or a poem-must be silenced. To say 'Where? was bad enough, but to speak openly of the wires-that was intolerable. For that they would scratch and kill."

He stopped. No one moved. Then, in the silence, Bigwig lurched to his feet, swayed a moment, tottered a few steps toward Fiver and fell again. Fiver paid him no heed, but looked from one to another among the rabbits. Then he began speaking again.

"And then we came, over the heather in the night. Wild rabbits, making scrapes across the valley. The warren rabbits didn't show themselves at once. They needed to think what was best to be done. But they hit on it quite soon. To bring us into the warren and tell us nothing. Don't you see? The farmer only sets so many snares at a time, and if one rabbit dies, the others will live that much longer. You suggested that Hazel should tell them our adventures, Blackberry, but it didn't go down well, did it? Who wants to hear about brave deeds when he's ashamed of his own, and who likes an open, honest tale from someone he's deceiving? Do you want me to go on? I tell you, every single thing that's happened fits like a bee in a foxglove. And kill them, you say, and help ourselves to the great burrow? We shall help ourselves to a roof of bones, hung with shining wires! Help ourselves to misery and death!"

Fiver sank down into the grass. Bigwig, still trailing his horrible, smooth peg, staggered up to him and touched his nose with his own.

"I'm still alive, Fiver," he said. "So are all of us. You've bitten through a bigger peg than this one I'm dragging. Tell us what to do."

"Do?" replied Fiver. "Why, go-now. I told Cowslip we were going before I left the burrow."

"Where?" said Bigwig. But it was Hazel who answered.

"To the hills," he said.

South of them, the ground rose gently away from the brook. Along the crest was the line of a cart track and beyond, a copse. Hazel turned toward it and the rest began to follow him up the slope in ones and twos.

"What about the wire, Bigwig?" said Silver. "The peg will catch and tighten it again."

"No, it's loose now," said Bigwig "I could shake it off if I hadn't hurt my neck."

"Try," said Silver. "You won't get far otherwise."

"Hazel," said Speedwell suddenly, "there's a rabbit coming down from the warren. Look!"

"Only one?" said Bigwig. "What a pity! You take him, Silver. I won't deprive you. Make a good job of it while you're at it."

They stopped and waited, dotted here and there about the slope. The rabbit who was coming was running in a curious, headlong manner. Once he ran straight into a thick-stemmed thistle, knocking himself sideways and rolling over and over. But he got up and came blundering on toward them.

"Is it the white blindness?" said Buckthorn. "He's not looking where he's going."

"Frith forbid!" said Blackberry. "Shall we run away?"

"No, he couldn't run like that with the white blindness," said Hazel. "Whatever ails him, it isn't that."

"It's Strawberry!" cried Dandelion.

Strawberry came through the hedge by the crab-apple tree, looked about him and made his way to Hazel. All his urbane self-possession had vanished. He was staring and trembling and his great size seemed only to add to his air of stricken misery. He cringed before them in the grass as Hazel waited, stern and motionless, with Silver at his side.

"Hazel," said Strawberry, "are you going away?"

Hazel made no answer, but Silver said sharply, "What's that to you?"

"Take me with you." There was no reply and he repeated, "Take me with you."

"We don't care for creatures who deceive us," said Silver. "Better go back to Nildro-hain. No doubt she's less particular."

Strawberry gave a kind of choking squeal, as though he had been wounded. He looked from Silver to Hazel and then to Fiver. At last, in a pitiful whisper, he said,

"The wires."

Silver was about to answer, but Hazel spoke first.

"You can come with us," he said. "Don't say any more. Poor fellow."

A few minutes later the rabbits had crossed the cart track and vanished into the copse beyond. A magpie, seeing some light-colored object conspicuous on the empty slope, flew closer to look. But all that lay there was a splintered peg and a twisted length of wire.


16.  Silverweed | Watership down | 18.  Watership Down



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