5. Safflower's Kits
All things truly wicked start from innocence
- Ernest Hemingway
At first the kittens were terrified of the Man who took away the ceiling of the hutch and picked them up; the rabbits could feel the strength in his hands and knew that if he had a mind to, could crush their bones as easily as twigs.
But he never did.
Instead the Man held the kits firmly yet with tenderness as he fed them milk. The milk did not taste like their mother's milk but the rabbits were so hungry they lapped it up with their tiny pink tongues gratefully.
Soon Safflower's kits learned not to fear the Man but to anticipate his arrival, growing every day for his nurturing.
The young rabbits did not know much about humans- what little they knew they had learned from their mother during their short time with her- but they quickly became content and complacent, the care they received easing their natural fear of large predators.
Walnut sat on all fours as he peered out through the chicken wire on the side of the hutch at the interior of the barn. All five kits now had soft brown fur coating their entire bodies, their dark eyes were clear and they were increasingly active, especially at dawn and dusk.
Rubbing a paw over his nose, Walnut, the smallest of the siblings, laid his ears flat against his head.
"I wonder what happened to Mother," he muttered out loud.
One of his sisters, Fern, spoke up, "Maybe the Man killed her."
Walnut glanced at his sibling, whiskers twitching, "No, I don't think so, don't you remember what happened right before?"
Fern, chewing on a piece of straw, shook her head.
"She ran away," Walnut continued, struggling to recall the memory; it was one of his earliest and like to disappear like the smoke from a human's white stick, "Something scared her and she left us."
"She could still be dead," Fern commented.
Walnut shook his head, "I can't believe it."
"Why are you so concerned about Mother? If she left us, as you believe she did, she mustn't have wanted us. I, for one, think we were quite lucky that Man found us."
"Lucky?" Walnut asked, "How can we be lucky? Separated from our warren? Locked up in this box? I want to be out there; I want to taste the grass, feel the wind in my fur."
Fern shrugged, "How do you even know we had a warren?"
Walnut sighed, "Every rabbit has to have a warren."
"Well, maybe we didn't," his sister argued, "Maybe that was why we were outside."
Walnut scratched his ear with one hind paw and turned away from his sibling. He didn't know why Fern was so eager to forget about their mother, about being outside, but he knew he wouldn't be able to convince her otherwise.
He turned to see his other siblings were fast asleep, curled together. Hopping over to them, Walnut squeezed in between his brother and another sister and closed his eyes.
"You're doing a fine job with those rabbits, son," Wilbur Ridgeway peered into the hutch in the barn at Safflower's kits.
Anthony smiled proudly.
"Soon enough they'll be big enough to put with the others," his father commented.
"Dad," the boy's face turned pale, "You said we wouldn't eat them."
Wilbur met his son's eyes, "Now, I said that if they were too small we wouldn't eat them. They're getting bigger every day, all but the one anyway, and you know our rabbits are for eating."
Tears gushed into the boy's eyes but he nodded, "Okay Dad… but… can I keep the small one? As a pet, please?"
The farmer ran a hand through his thinning hair, blew out a breath between pursed lips as he thought for a moment.
Gazing down at the five kits, he nodded, "All right. But the other four…"
Wilbur didn't need to finish his sentence; his son knew what he meant.
Walnut huddled with his brother and sisters and stared at the six older rabbits staring at them across the small patch of grass the outdoor cage covered. This hutch was different than the one in the barn, its sides made up entirely of chicken wire to give the rabbits and three hundred and sixty degree view of the farmyard they were in, and a wooden roof with a latch that could be lifted so straw could be placed inside or an animal taken out.
One of the older rabbits, which had white socks on her paws, stepped forward and sniffed the kits.
"Welcome," she greeted in a quiet tone, "My name is Snowdrop."
Mulberry, who was the oldest of Safflower's kits, responded, "Is the Man still here?"
Snowdrop dipped her nose down, "Yes, we are simply here for the summer."
"You got your wish, Walnut," Fern commented, flexing her toes against the grass, "We're outside."
"What are your names?" Snowdrop asked, looking to Mulberry.
"My name is Mulberry," he replied, "My brother Walnut and my sisters, Fern, Peony and Thresanyn."
Snowdrop nodded, "You already know my name but there is also Yarrow, Thistle, Enthuthlay, Bryony and Iris."
The older rabbits approached the younger, pressing noses to noses and sniffing each other to become familiar with one another and show they were no threat.
"Did you all come from warrens?" Walnut asked, finding his voice.
The older rabbits all shook their heads save one. Enthuthlay stepped forward, "I came from a warren just past the cow field."
The rabbit pointed her nose in the direction of the field where even now a herd of black and white cows cropped at the springtime grass in a docile fashion.
"The Man caught me when I tried to steal some hay from the barn," Enthuthlay told the younger rabbits, "Over the winter. He found me and chased me out of the barn but his cat caught me before I could escape. He put me in here with the others."
Walnut stared at the older rabbit with wide eyes, "You had a warren? Maybe that's where we came from!"
Enthuthlay smiled gently, "Perhaps."
"Our mother's name is Safflower," Walnut told her, "And our father is called Cloud, do you know them?"
The older rabbit thought for a moment before shaking her head, "I'm afraid not."
Walnut's ears drooped sadly.
Peony, who was nibbling on some fresh clover leaves interrupted the conversation, "The Man just keeps you in here?"
Snowdrop nodded, "As I said before, we are only here until summer's end."
"Then you're moved to the box in the barn, are you?" Fern added, sitting right beside her sister.
"Oh no," Yarrow commented, his tone surprised, "We all leave, eventually. Every so often the Man comes and takes one of us away."
"He does?" Walnut asked, a chill running down his spine.
"Yes," Thistle added, "Why, just yesterday, he took Daffodil."
"Where does he take them?" Walnut asked.
"We don't know," Thistle told him, "We only know we never see them again."
Before Walnut could ask any more questions, Snowdrop interrupted, "Well, this isn't appropriate to discuss. Let's all Silflay and not talk about Daffodil any longer."
Snowdrop nuzzled Thistle away from Walnut and the older rabbits ate the grass at the far end of the hutch while Safflower's kits remained where they were.
Walnut nibbled at a stalk of grass, peering across the hutch at Snowdrop.
Thank to Chipster-roo for reviewing.
Apologies for the ridiculously long wait. I had major writer's block and couldn't think of where this was going. But I've never abandoned a story and I won't start now. Thanks for your patience and continued support!