In The Clearing

A Note: This is an original work of fiction. Please do not use or share any of the text without permission from me, Kirsten Petroska. 

The air was very still, tamped down by the snow that lay in feather-light layers on the branches of pine and the few bare spots of ground. The air was so cold that the flakes held hardly any moisture and remained entirely separate from one another, like ground glass. The crow sat deep within a tall pine on a bough he had freed of the snow. From the ground or sky, he would be impossible to spy, but he could easily watch from his perch, and so watch he did, with an un-crow-like silence.

It was hard to say what he might be after; he looked in all directions in equal turn, fierce head swiping up and then down and then left and then right, behind and forward. One might have come to the conclusion that he was no more aware of what he was looking for than the passive observer having just come upon the scene. Yet there was something in the way he looked, pausing just a few more moments than natural each time he turned his head, waiting just a bit longer to see if something would manifest itself.

At the base of the pine, well below the crow, a hollow had developed time within the trunk. It had been the home to many animals and in this season it housed rabbits, a mother and father and their five small children. As the crow looked out from the boughs above, Father Rabbit left the hollow, bounding around the periphery of a clearing in search for woody bits and twigs to munch on. Mother Rabbit had sent him out first this morning as much to scout their surroundings for things to be weary of as to collect himself a breakfast.

He startled and found himself crouched under the snow-laden branches of a fallen tree, dead leaves dry and rattling when his sharp ears picked up the stirring of the crow, who had detected him as well. Father Rabbit, of course, didn’t know that it was a crow in the branches of the large tree, which served as a center piece to the small clearing, the grandest feature making up its border. The rustling of wings and the steps of hefty talons upon a branch could easily be made by a hawk. As any small animal does, Father Rabbit had good reason to fear such a creature, and as such he curled up tightly and let himself sink deeply into the snow.

A moment passed before Father Rabbit again heard the sound of wings. He knew the bird was descending, making its way to where he hid. Having been lucky enough to never encounter a hawk (there were few rabbits about who had and were  able to speak of it), he could not have known that the power within the crow’s body was not anywhere near comparable to that of a hawk’s, and that if it had been a hawk, he would be dead already.

“Do not be afraid, Rabbit.”

Father Rabbit, who thought that was a foolish thing to suggest to a small animal in the dead of winter, poked his head out of the snow and saw the crow standing just before him, peering down at him. The sight of the crow eased Father Rabbit’s fear, though just a bit. Yes, crows were inclined toward rabbits, but they were certainly bigger, stronger, and much pointier.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the crow said, coming a bit closer. “Come out of that hole, won’t you?”

“Why would I do that? And why would you be waiting for me? Nothing suitably dead out there for you to eat?” It was very unlike Father Rabbit to be so sharp, but he was cold and hungry and now this crow was bothering him, frightening him, and he had enough. It was then he felt a sharp, yes, but also gentle beak close over one of his long ears and pull him forward.

“Come out of there, would you?” the crow said, voice muffled through his closed mouth. Father Rabbit didn’t struggle, but he didn’t cooperate, either, which resulted in the crow doing a bit of a flapping and scrambling in the snow as he pulled the reluctant rabbit from the snowy hole.

“Now, listen to me, I have something I need to tell you,” the crow said to a ruffled and unhappy Father Rabbit.

“If it’s about the fox that lives just over —”

The crow burst out in a flurry of frustrated caws, a language Father Rabbit couldn’t know, but at understood enough to know the crow meant for him to be quiet and listen.

“Listen to me,” the crow said, his dark and glossy feathers returning to rest on his body. “Something is coming.”

Father Rabbit sat uncomprehending. Something was always coming. Hawks and foxes and cold, cold winters with no food. This silly crow did not understand what it was like to be a rabbit, always scrounging and hiding while he sailed far above his enemies, hiding in plain sight  in the sky, pulling his life from death.

“Well then, thank you,” Father Rabbit said, doing nothing to hide his annoyance. He began to hop away toward the base of a smaller tree, one with some likely looking moss growing on it. But the crow stopped him once more, landing just in front of Father Rabbit.

“No, no! Some-thing is com-ing. I’ve known about it for days now and I’ve been waiting for a sign to appear, here in the the clearing, and you’re it. You are here and I must tell you to keep watch; something is coming.”

Admittedly, Father Rabbit did not know much about crows, but even to his meager knowledge, this behavior seemed strange. Keep watch for what? For whom? What was coming if it wasn’t that loathsome fox?

“How could I —? Where shall I —? What am I supposed to do?” Father Rabbit sputtered. The crow nodded and nodded and nodded, bristling with excitement.

“Gather, gather your family together in your little home, then come out and watch.”

Father Rabbit’s fur stood on end at this suggestions and his dark eyes narrowed. “Now, if you think —”

“Do not be afraid,” the crow interrupted, thrusting his beak forward, eye to eye with small rabbit.

The crow let Father Rabbit hop away this time, back to his family’s hollow at the base of the pine. The whole way back he muttered to himself, disgruntled and confused.

“Do not be afraid…Do not be afraid?” To ask such a thing of a rabbit, in winter, in those dark and dangerous days, was akin to asking a owl not to hunt or a tree to not shed it’s leaves in autumn.

And yet, Father Rabbit was not afraid. He was confused certainly, and knew Mother Rabbit would call him mad for listening to a crow.

“Surely,” she would say, “He’s a collaborator with a hawk or an owl or some such foul creature and after they’ve feasted on the babies they’ll let the crow make do with our leftover bits.”

And yet, Father Rabbit did not think this was the case and when he came the hollow, he gathered his five little baby rabbits and their mother, too, and they came to the edge of their home, just where the entrance to the hollow met the out, and they watched.

“What are we waiting for, Father?” one little rabbit asked.

“I’m not sure,” he replied.

The days were dim and short, the sun struggling to pass the tops of the trees in the wood and quickly falling back down. This day was the darkest of them all, the sun’s struggle to ascend becoming particularly difficult. The family of rabbits sat and watched as the light changed in the small clearing, a dark haze settling in the sky. Any other day, the rabbits would retreat now and snuggle up together in the hollow, giving each other warmth, but now they kept watch together and waited for what was to come.

The crow roosted back in the boughs of the pine, though not as high up as he had before. He could sense the rabbit family some distance below him, and he knew Father Rabbit was listening for any movement that might threaten the small them. The crow tried to not move unnecessarily, but now and then, his head twitched one way or another, just as it had in the morning, looking, looking, looking.

It was just as the light had reached the moment when it seemed it wasn’t sure if it would stay or if it would go that a doe, heavy with a fawn, stepped into the clearing. Stars had begun to pierce the sky above and she tilted her head up, as if she were taking them in, as if she were reading them. Her flanks shook, the muscles rippling with the efforts of labor, and she stopped in the middle of the clearing.

Father Rabbit glanced at Mother. Her own body shook with the doe’s, memories of labors past. She was worried, he thought. Last winter, before the five they had now, six bunnies had been born to them. By the spring they were gone. Every animal knew there was little hope to be had for a baby in winter. Yet, there was nothing the doe could do. The baby would come regardless, and so she labored in the snow, her own blood beginning to spot the white below her.

The air was still and cold as the body of the fawn spilled from its mother, all steam, and more liquid than form. The doe lay beside her newborn, her body curled around it in a near complete circle. She got to the vigorous work of licking it clean, pulling her scent off of it. She was not alarmed nor rushed, but each movement was discreet and with a purpose. There was nothing wasted in each action.

The fawn, itself, was unremarkable. Very small, spotted, hardly bigger than a house cat; and yet, in its lack of remarkability, it was wondrous. Life in the midst of winter, so cold and dead, is worth noticing, and so, Father Rabbit, followed by Mother and their five little ones, hopped forth, curious about this winter fawn and as pleased to see it as they might be about a small patch of green clover peaking through the snow. New life where there shouldn’t be any.

It was not only the rabbit family that grew curious about the newborn fawn. The crow descended and stood on a low branch, watching from a small distance. That nasty fox Father Rabbit had been so concerned about earlier appeared, too, but he stood farther back, so taken in by the doe and her fawn he did not give much thought to the rabbits. Slowly, those who did not take to borrows and caves and hollowed out logs for the winter came into the clearing; two moose, several cardinals, squirrels, a raccoon, and so very many tiny field mice.

The doe was not disturbed by this audience; she continued to lick the fawn who now nursed with a healthy eagerness. The other animals looked on, slowly closing in on the mother and infant. The presence of so many other warm animal bodies created a pocket of heat that prompted the fawn to pause from its meal and look about. Its wide and fresh eyes looked at every pair that gazed upon it. It was no longer just warmth there, among that small and unusual band of animals.

Time passed this way for quite a while. The sun had long since set and now the sky had brightened and a new sun was promised on the far horizon. Together, the doe and her fawn got to their feet. The fawn’s legs were shaky, but nimble. The onlookers stepped back a bit, better to see the fawn use it’s spindly legs. The doe gave it small encouragements, nuzzling and pushing with her nose.

It was as the fawn went to suckle from its mother again, this time standing, that the first shot was heard. It was far way, but still the animals, particularly those who knew what that shot could be meant for them, froze, ears perked, noses twitching. Moments passed and another shot was heard, closer this time, and those with the keenest ears could hear the heavy steps of a hunter and those with the keenest noses could catch his scent.

By ones and twos and threes, the animals dispersed, leaving the doe and her fawn behind. Only Father Rabbit lingered with the crow, gazes still fixed on the two deer. Mother Rabbit had ushered her brood back into the hollow and cried out for Father Rabbit to follow, but he waited a moment, curious to see what the doe would do.

Soon, the steps of the hunter grew loud and it must have been just at the edge of the clearing, perhaps with his rifle leveled at the doe. The crow took flight, noisily, raucously, joyously, and Father Rabbit scampered back to the hollow. Finally, the doe leapt across the clearing, too, with the small fawn still unsure but not far behind. In a few bounds they were into the forest, gone.

From the edge of his hollow, Father Rabbit watched the clearing, just to see. Sure enough, the hunter came, walking to the place where the doe had been with her fawn. He knelt down and touched a bare hand to the place of the fawn’s birth. He breathed deeply, as though there was a scent his ill-equipped nose could detect. He stood up again, reshouldered his rifle, and continued into the woods.

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