White Rabbit, White Rabbit
By S. Thompson
"White rabbit, white rabbit…"
The first time Andrew says it, it is exactly one week and three days since the day he got shot down (the second time) and dumped here (the second time; though officially it's only the first). He says it softly into his perpetually gloved hands, his usually loud voice a mumble, but you can hear the repeated words loud enough.
For a moment, you think he's teasing you, because it's the first thing you said this morning when you got up, and he's really the only one close enough to have heard it. I mean, you whispered it, after all. It's a bit silly for a grown man to still carry out a childish superstition....
But there's something innocent and non-assuming in his eyes when he glances up to see you peeking over edge of your bunk, so you don't say a word. Luck, after all, isn't something one man can lay a claim to. That lady is a fickle mistress, and if she wants to visit the Yank for a change, well.
Who are you to complain?
The second time he says it, you nearly punch him out of sheer terror.
It's pitch black, so bleeding dark that you can't even see your own hand in front of your face. There's no snow, no moon; there's nothing but clouds above, night around, and the far off ghost-of-a-drone that indicates the plane is approaching. You go to get out the flashlight, but a leather-gloved hand grabs onto your arm before you can. You turn to glare, realizing there is one thing you can see.
You can see Andrew, but only the gleam of his eyes, moving when he shakes his head. You listen, hard, past the plane's whining buzz, and just when you're about to tell him off for making your heart beat like a jackhammer at the back of your throat, you hear it: the snap of a single twig, barren branch scraping a tree trunk.
Any other night, it might have been the breeze (but tonight is dead still and dead calm; even the clouds above aren't really moving). It might have been a deer. But if it was a deer, you'll lose nothing by sitting still.
And if it's not a deer…
The next crack is closer, and you find yourself face down in the dirt, nose not three feet from some Kraut's too-shiny boot. Andrew's head is buried against your shoulder, and you can feel that he's shaking just as badly as you are.
Your hand's so tight around the flashlight that you just know you'll have the switch's imprint on your palm for the next week; your other hand's clenching the gun so rigid that you don't know if you'll be able to move enough to pull the trigger if it comes to it…
And then Andrew's bloody talking. His shaky whisper is barely more than a church mouse's squeak - there and gone without leaving a trace - but the repeated words sound like a shout in the stillness to your straining ears. If it weren't for Hans or Fritz standing there, your Yank friend would be sporting a black eye; but as it is…you're not entirely sure Andrew even knew what he was doing.
"White rabbit, white rabbit…"
The two word sentence, repeated once and only once, out of habit or tradition or both, still held all the strength of a mantra. And, when Fritz goes pacing off into the darkness not even twenty seconds later, you can't find it in your heart to yell at the Yank. You just wait, both barely breathing, until the woods' silence has lasted ten minutes. The plane's long gone, but that happens sometimes. The colonel will understand – and someone will try again tomorrow.
Andrew's the first up, brushing damp earth from his knees. You punch him, hard, on the shoulder when you sit up, but he just smiles his typical grin, and creeps off towards home. You just shake your head and follow…
But not before you've echoed his words.
LeBeau's feeling ill, and he's miserable. Which, incidentally, means that he's not cooking. Which, also incidentally, means that it's up to you or Carter to make the coffee. For some reason, the Colonel doesn't like your so-thick-you-can-eat-it-like-pudding coffee, and Carter takes anything the colonel says very seriously. So you're just sitting on the edge of the table, shuffling and reshuffling the deck of cards in your hand, trying not to listen to the pitiful coughing from LeBeau's bunk. Carter doesn't look up from measuring the coffee, carefully.
"Me sis an' I, we always used to have…well. It was kids stuff, really." You chew on your lip for a second before continuing. He's blabbed enough about his childhood and family since he'd been stuck here, and Lord knows you're not the strong and silent type, but...it feels awkward, talking about home and family here. "But we used to think tha' the person who said it first," you don't elaborate on it. He knows what it is – he's already said it. You heard him the moment he woke. "Well. It was stealin' the other person's luck, like, see? So we'd race to say it first…and tease whoever was slower for the whole month."
"Really?" Carter doesn't look at you when he sets the coffee pot back on the stove. He looks over at you with a half-smirk that is startlingly wise coming from the young man you've spent the last few months deriding (warmly, mind, but still deriding) as a farm boy.
"Yeah," is all you say, though that smile is vaguely disconcerting: it wouldn't have seemed out of place on some of your more worldly friends back home. Carter just shakes his head.
"Funny. My sisters thought the same thing. They used to throw fits until Ma stopped us…" You can practically hear the quote marks around stopped. Knowing sisters the way you do, you're willing to bet your Red Cross package that it never stopped. Carter's silent for a few minutes, until the coffee is ready. He pulls it off the stove, snags one of the tin mugs off the shelf, and heads for the Colonel's office. He pauses right outside the door.
You look up from the cards, questioningly, and that grin's back on Carter's lips. "Yeah?"
"Is this about all the gin games you've been losing lately?"
Part of the rules with the idea of luck-stealing, of course, is that the other person actually has to be awake to hear it. The first day of April, though, is April Fool's, and you're not idiot enough to try and wake a Yank on that day. Not after last year. Never again.
Carter doesn't wake up until roll call, which is a mess of backslang, rhyming slang, and Pig Latin, through all of which he remains silent. But you know, you just know, that he's just doing it to bug you; waiting for a chance to catch you off your guard…
But then when roll is finally over, your compatriots are falling out of the appel lines, and LeBeau and Kinchloe are placing bets on who can bamboozle more guards over the course of the day, Carter disappears before you get a chance to say a word.
If anyone notices that you don't say a word all day, they're probably assuming it's because of the day, not because you're worried about some little kid superstition. But when it's suppertime and Carter's still vanished…well. You might be starting to worry, just a bit.
It comes as a relief to see him sliding into place at evening roll call, but he's…different. Quieter than usual, and his mouth is still sealed shut. Now you're uncertain whether he's just trying to get on your nerves, or whether something's actually wrong. He had spent most of the time in the tunnels today – maybe something come through in the radio for him…
Looking at things that way makes the idea of just walking up and saying the words to him petty, and small, so you decide not to. And if he notices you acting funny during roll call, he never says anything.
It isn't until lights out, when he raps on the bottom of your bunk and whispers the words to you, superfast, that it finally sinks in you've been had twice in one day.
White rabbit, white rabbit…
You're ready this time.
Klink, the old windbag, is having some big to-do for the brass that he's perpetually kissing up to. It's sickening, really, how much the man acts like an eager little puppy. Doesn't he realize that it's the quiet ones that are respected the way he wants to be? But this time, like any time the generals are here, so are you and your friends.
The black jacket and bowtie remind you of home, of magic shows and con jobs pulled on people all too willing to be fooled. There's an analog for those crowds, right here in this room, in the generals stuffing their faces, all the while surrounded by people who would stab them in the back if there was the slightest prospect of getting promoted.
You have little to no respect for the officers of your own armed forces, but even their bickering and infighting seems like little girls on the playground when compared to the sheer pettiness of these men. And the Colonel's not helping matters in the least, flitting here and there like madness maddened, a social butterfly of pure, sneaking evil.
You've been pulled out to talk to some Kraut at what feels like two-hundred hours past his bedtime (and yours, but then you're not some old German geezer, so you don't really care.) Carter's out already, having his ear chatted off by some General's wife, in strongly accented English that sounds like she learned it from a dime novel.
You glance at the clock. It's five 'til midnight, and you can't help but grin. LeBeau's menu worked out remarkably well for tonight, of all nights.
Of course, the Kraut's idea of small-talking is the typical petty-minded rigmarole you've come to expect from any man who wears the armband. It's the more important half of what distinguishes poor, stupid Klink and sharper-than-he-seems Schultz from the rest of them. You can't help but realize that these other ones would not hesitate to throw you all to the dogs (and not the trained ones either).
It's easy to lead the conversation around to the food that the general clearly thinks you can't eat. If only he knew, you think, as he rambles about the crispness of the salad, the savory nature of the soup…you can see him eying Kinch with barely hidden distaste, and oh it's hard not to snarl at him for that. If he only knew the stuff Louie sneaks in there sometimes. You've donated his shoelaces to more than soup as flavoring, after all.
"But how," the general adds, "does a Frenchman make such perfect hasenpfeffer?"
"That's easy, General," you return, cheeky-as-you please, as your nan always used to say. It's easy, when you're thinking about the dog-food you switched the real meat out with, once you learned Schultz wasn't allowed at this meal. "The cook only uses…" He paused, one eye on the clock, the general practically leaning forward for your every word. The minute hand ticks over. And then you say the words, carefully.
Carter's infuriated look makes listening to the General's annoying laugh a little less painful.
You don't say them at all next go-round. It's four am, and he's not there. He was supposed to be back at midnight, him and LeBeau, and the Frenchman's been back two hours. But your Yank friend, your rival for lady-luck's capricious smile, is still out. Somewhere.
You can say it this time, Andrew. I promise. Just get back here to say it.
You don't say it, but you don't say it on purpose. If Carter's out there, in trouble, the last thing you want to do is steal his luck. But you will pace, and smoke your way through three of your cigarettes, before he finally comes staggering up the ladder. His eyes are practically glowing in the way that makes LeBeau and Kinch back away before he can burst out talking in that unending way he has.
But the moment he sees you, he says it. And this time, you don't mind losing.
"White rabbit, white rabbit, and boy do I have a story for you!"
It's the middle of the night, and you're still wide awake.
Sometimes, there's a good reason for sleepless nights. Papers to get to or from the underground, plane drops to retrieve, people to rescue or mislead, buildings or bridges to destroy…
Sometimes, however, this is no reason. Tonight is one of those. There's not a mission. There's no job. London's been silent for two days, the Underground of one…the prelude to something, the Colonel muses, and you're all liable to agree with him…
But a night with no jobs is a night with no jobs, and those are to be taken advantage of. The only person with a reason to be awake is Baker, manning the silent radio, just in case whatever's brewing on the horizon finally breaks.
And yet here you are, staring at the ceiling, almost praying it will fall on you.
It's been two weeks since the last rain. The barracks are stifling. You've got all the windows open that you can manage – a feat that amazed the lads in from Stalag Three, where the Kommandant orders the shutters locked shut nightly, come hell, high water or heat waves. There's a faint breeze wafting through, but it carries with it the scent of stale socks and twice boiled cabbage and too many men in a too small space –
And it's still too flaming (pardon the pun) hot to sleep. Your blanket's all bunched up at the end of the woodchip stuffed bag they claim is a mattress, but all that's really accomplished is made it so you're sticking to the bunk instead of the blanket. You sit up, about to hop down and go scrounging for water or something, when you hear Carter's voice.
He's mumbling, again, the strange words that you've heard him saying once or twice; the ones that sound lifted out of the cowboy pictures. You even compared them, once, after his first letter. It's the first time Andrew ever looked angry with you, and you've never mentioned it again. One of these days, you'll get around to asking Kinch, but right now…
Now you just lay there and listen to the fluid words. They've grown on you the last few months, to the point where it almost sounds like a song. When you peek over the edge, Andrew's leaned over the edge of the bed, re-reading one of the letters he must have received, oh, months ago – there hasn't been a mail call since weeks before the last rain, even.
The words have almost lulled you to sleep when two words in English throw you out of the half-doze. You frown, and they repeat – and when you look down again it's to see Carter sticking his tongue out at you. Then the lullaby words continue as if he hadn't noticed you watching, listening, and you're asleep before you think to echo.
Carter's been beaten bloody, but it's nothing you've not handled before. These things happen every now and again, and this time it's not as bad as it looks. He's not Andrew Carter, you're not Peter Newkirk, and neither of you are in Hammelburg. The Gestapo goon pacing the office has never seen them before, and really doesn't have a bleedin' clue what he's doing. He's mostly volume and teeth and quick fists.
You almost feel sorry for him. Louie and the Colonel are hovering outside, and you just know Kinch is ready to call in, resonant voice transformed into some hateful Kraut's. You'll be out in two shakes, free as a rabbit on the run, while this wren in raven's clothing will be left holding an empty bag. No prisoners, and no explanation…
But then you look over at Andrew's pale and bruised face, blood dripping from his nose, and that little twinge of pity is gone.
"Do you know," he's growling in Carter's face, in English that the American doesn't let on he knows, "How long I can keep this up? It's been one hour. Would you care to make it two?"
Carter's dark-smudged eyes lift to fix the Gestapo man with a pale stare – but there's a realization flickering in them. You, from where you've been trussed and tossed (on account of him wearing the major and you wearing the corporal this go-round) can see the goon's watch. It's well after midnight…
Carter's teeth are bloody when his lips part in a smile. He's opening his mouth to speak, but you blurt the words out in German before he can say them. The Gestapo man spins on his heel to glare at you, half in anger at the interruption, half in utter confusion, a confusion mirrored on Carter's battered face.
"Weiss kaninchen, weiss kaninchen…"
You just grin, smugly, and somehow – you're not quite sure how, of course, you being the innocent little beggar you are – the goon knows he's being laughed at. You see Carter's lips move in a whisper as the Kraut pulls his fist back to start on you, but he's interrupted by the telephone.
The Gestapo lad is not Hochstetter, but he's got a hell of an angry bleat. He grabs the phone and starts yelling – only to go straight to cowering when Kinch counters the shout, every bit as loud; audible through the phone.
And, as his back is turned, you can't keep yourself from sticking your tongue out at Carter.
You've won, this time.
September, October, November
After the Gestapo incident, there's a mutual decision that using it as a competition is probably not the best idea. You both still say it, and there is the occasion when you both say it at the same time, but it's never quite to the extent it had been.
If the others notice, again, they don't say, and it actually feels like a relief to have that measure of unnecessary tension taken away. And, after all, your silly superstition made you better buddies, didn't it?
And it's become something of a joke. There was a crude drawing of a white rabbit on your pillow on Guy Fawkes day. Of course, the rabbit was holding a bundle of fireworks, its tail was on fire and there was a row of exploding buildings behind him (complete, of course, with a little fleeing stick-Hitler), but it was still a white rabbit.
You reciprocated on what Kinch said was Thanksgiving, only your rabbit had a little headdress and a bow and arrows and was standing atop a turkey with a monocle. Schultz had thought them both hilarious when he found them comparing drawings the day after at roll call-
– hilarious until Klink saw them, and after that it was "Oh, kommandant, I do not know where they came from or where they get such ideas! and…"
They're in the kommandant's office now, locked in the safe until the "guilty party" steps forth. It's the thought that counts, right? You, nevertheless, resolve to steal them back the first chance you get.
It's still dark when you wake up, as usual. At first, you don't say anything. Habit, however, has left its mark. You whisper the words to your pillow before you roll over on your back.
There's something strangely peaceful about the barracks this morning, and for a moment, staring into the darkness of the rafters, you could almost (almost) imagine you were home, before the bombs started falling and people started sleeping restless and afraid.
The silence doesn't last. Louie, as usual, is the first up. You can hear him clattering around near the stove, trying to find the coffeepot. When he finds it, there's even more clattering as it tries to topple off the stovetop. Your French friend catches it before it hits the floor, setting it upright.
You hear a soft sigh, followed by, even softer, "Lapin blanc, lapin blanc, lapin blanc…"
You sit up so fast that your blanket goes slithering off the side of the bed. Carter lets out a sleepy whine when it lands on his face, but doesn't, you notice absently, bother to actually push it off. Or, more importantly, hand it back.
"'ey on, what'd you say?"
LeBeau jumps a foot in the air, still clutching the coffeepot. He shrugs, innocently. "It's the first of the month, non? You and Andre, you say it all the time." Another shrug. "Why?"
"You've noticed, then?"
The look Louie gives you is a strange alchemy of emotions, but incredulous pity seems to be at the top. "Please. The two of you, you are Laurel and Hardy. You are not that sneaky, mon ami." He plunks the coffeepot on the stove, and leans on the table, his arms crossed. "What is it? Some superstition?"
You can just hear the words being whispered under your blanket before it's pulled aside, balled up and tossed back to your bunk. "Something like that," Carter says aloud when he actually sits up. "It's an old tradition my Dad taught me, but I don't know where he picked it up, because our family's the only one that does it out of the whole family, and he never reall…"
"-me nan said it's for good luck," You interrupt, heading the locomotive of Carter's rambling explanation off at the pass. "And," you grin, to soften the interruption, but Carter didn't seem to mind even before the unspoken apology. That's just the sort of bloke he is, after all. Of all the lads in this miserable place, you'd never have suspected he'd become your friend.
"You 'ave to admit - it's not let us down just yet."
A/N: First of the year and all that, yanno! White Rabbit White Rabbit is something a friend clued me into a few years ago, and it's one of those sill things that just stuck. I don't believe in luck, but it's a fun concept, and one that's found on both sides of the pond. There's actually quite an extensive article on the superstition on our good friend Wikipedia that I trust you all can find on your own. Just search Rabbit Rabbit.
I apologize for using second person if it throws you off, but I was having too much fun to stop writing in that POV. Next time, I'll use a more conventional style, swears.