This is Runt’s debut in Stories from Bangan Forest. He is a recurring character and will show up again as Jag’s friend, Ricky Raccoon’s rival & Bunny’s saviour.
Runt Rabbit Runs Away
When Runt Rabbit’s mother took off, he barely noticed- that’s how crowded the den was. She said she wanted to stretch her hoppers; she needed a breath of fresh air. That was an understatement given that the older litter was still at home, and the newest one was still untrained. Runt Rabbit’s mother didn’t bother with moss diapers- there would be no end to them with 12 babies. She just swept out the den every morning.
It did get harder for Runt to get his fair share of food once she left, and he got no affection at all. He was last in line for carrot juice every morning. Big Brothers practiced their kicks on him, on all the new bunnies, and Big Sisters were always dressing him up in their doll clothes.
Runt was the smallest of the rabbits; his tan coat was faded and oversized. His feet were too large for him. The slightest noise made him jump up to the ceiling, even when he was sleeping. Runt was one twitchy rabbit. He skittered from topic to topic in conversation as if he were on skates, as if his words were sliding out of control all over the icy surface of his busy brain. His attention twitched, but so did his black eyes and his girl-nose and his sparse bent whiskers.
Runt Rabbit’s father tried not to look directly at him. He had so many children anyway, what was one dud? Odd little thing would be out of the den in a moment anyway; they grew up so fast these days. If he even made it to moving-out size. Probably Hawk would eat him up on his way home from school one day.
Runt was unreasonably confident. You’d think he’d be hiding most of the time, hanging out with Thistle or playing games with Long Grasses. Sometimes he did those things, but Runt was a sociable fellow. He considered Beaver and Mole to be his friends, although they didn’t treat him very well. In fact, Runt was bullied at school, but to him it was normal. He was in a good mood most of the time.
Like all young rabbits, Runt Rabbit was exploring career options. He considered architect, but he’d rather dig holes than draw pictures. He considered builder, but Little Fisher and Mole had laughed their heads off at that idea. He was just too small.
“Sex worker,” suggested Mole.
“Magician’s assistant,” grinned Little Fisher.
“I know! You can be a good luck charm in a human’s pocket!”
They rolled over each other, laughing wildly.
“Stew!” shrieked Little Fisher.
“Human toilet paper!”
Runt Rabbit didn’t do well at school. It wasn’t because he was bullied or because he looked like a girl, although those things were true. Runt Rabbit didn’t do well at school because his brain twitched. It twitched here and there and everywhere until Runt didn’t know what was a number and what was a letter. F and 5 were the same to him.
And so it happened that one day, when Owl’s glasses sat sideways on her face and she banged her pointer hysterically on ‘FIVE’ written on Big Slate and screamed, “It’s a word about a number,” Runt just got up from his stump in the front row and walked right out the front door of that school.
Now, I’m not passing opinion on quitting school, I’m just saying, it’s best to wait until you have a plan. Runt Rabbit had no plan and a twitchy brain.
Runt hopped right by his den at Tom Tree without stopping in to get a scolding from his father. He hopped right down Small Hill covered in goldenrod and purple asters to Main Meadow. He hid from Hawk by hopping erratically through Long Grass, stopping only under Queen Anne’s faces as if they were umbrellas.
Once he was through Main Meadow, he chose his favourite of Forest’s paths, a shadowy trail kept narrow by tall birches on both sides. It took all day, but he followed Forest’s path to the end where Debwewin River waited with open arms.
Runt could swim, and he crossed River without Current giving him a hard time. He quickly got out of open space and into a welcoming crowd of pines. This was the furthest he had ever been from Tom Tree. He stopped and twitched his whiskers. Runt Rabbit’s father had taught caution when it came to new spaces. Runt hopped around a bit, looking for safe shelter. He found Daisy Patch nestled under Little Bush, and he curled up beside her for a nap.
He woke up to a clawed foot in his face. Even before looking up, he could smell who it was. He twitched his pink nose at a face bigger than his: black, whiskered, not friendly.
“Move it,” said Skunk.
“Sure,” said Runt, and he hopped along the edge of cedars until he couldn’t smell Skunk anymore.
Runt was thirsty and hungry too. He foraged for forbs and greens along Shoreline for an hour before his belly was full. After that, he took Widest Path deep into Bangan Forest. It was a random choice, but it was a good one.
Widest Path was busy with animals of many species nodding politely to each other as they passed; even a group of mice with suitcases seemed to feel safe. Two skunks had stopped to talk by sugar maples and Runt passed them unnoticed. He was startled by Fox who overcame him from behind, his hot breath on Runt’s neck. Fox trotted right on by as if he wasn’t hungry, not even for a little snack like Runt. There were so many animals travelling that Runt wondered if he might find his mother.
He thought about his family sitting down to supper. Overcooked carrot tops. Weed salad. Two dozen chewing rabbits and two empty chairs. Maybe they thought Owl had locked him in the cloakroom again. Runt wished his father could see him now, strutting down Widest Path with all Forest’s animals.
And so he strutted a while, gaining confidence with every swagger of his hips.
He came across Turtle in a black cap. He had his shell up and was tinkering under the hood. Boxes were piled beside him.
Runt stopped to watch. “Hi,” he said.
Turtle was not fond of conversation at the best of times. He did not hit reply.
“Are you stuck here?” asked Runt.
Turtle ducked deeper under his shiny green and black shell.
Runt wasn’t surprised- Turtlegirl at Main Meadow’s creek was always in her shell. He shrugged and hopped behind bushy bushes to pee. From there, he could hear Turtle muttering, “Need a whole new transmission.”
An odd silver-grey cat suddenly appeared in front of Runt, facing him. He stopped.
“Greetings,” he said with a smile.
Lynx broke her own pledge of non-interference and said, “Watch out for Jag.”
Lynx’s yellow eyes held Runt’s brown eyes. “Take care of Jag.”
Then there was no one there. Runt swung his head right around in a circle. No lynx, no cat.
Widest Path led the way for nine days and nights. Raccoons and squirrels were the chatterboxes; they shared all sorts of information: old stories and new stories. One thing Runt learned was that Widest Path’s traditional name was Mnaadendmowin.
Mnaadendmowin was a place where all beings were respected. It had been safe passage for all animals since beginning times. Blood was never spilled there. Unless it was an accident of course, or maybe a surprise birth. Even humans didn’t hunt on Widest Path – in fact, nowhere in Bangan Forest at all – due to some metal signs near Danger Road.
Oh, Runt Rabbit learned many important things from raccoons and squirrels. He learned to watch out for Councillor Wolf who was obsessed with returning runaways to their homes. Just as important, Runt learned that no one cared about 5s or Fs. He learned that skunks can be distracted with a love song. He learned to pitch a tent in 3 minutes.
He learned to step aside for size when Buffalo almost pancaked him.
But the very best thing that Runt learned, was that all the things his father had taught him about survival were true all along Widest Path, not just at home in Main Meadow. Lamb’s Quarters loved Water, Clover loved Sun, and Moss welcomed him into bed at night.
One evening, Runt joined a singalong with young animals like him sitting in a circle, many of them playing music: Deer with wind chimes, Cubby Bear on saxophone, lots of little raccoons with guitars, mice with tiny harmonicas and tambourines. To Runt’s surprise, they sang songs that he knew the words to, and soon he raised his voice and stamped his oddly large feet along with everyone else.
After that, the young ones all trooped down Widest Path together, sometimes with their arms slung around each other, sometimes racing or playing games. Runt had lots of fun. They were always laughing, these guys, not a care in the world: young raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, even a weasel and a couple of skunks were tolerated.
Some of them were runaways like Runt (technically a hopaway), but most of them were just out of the den. Innocents. Legal age, but they hadn’t yet mated or fed yawling babies. Winter had a long journey before he would arrive at this place. Hunger could not be imagined. Grass and weeds were plentiful. Sun’s arms were welcoming and long. Rain fell gently, generously, and no one thirsted, not even Moss.
Runt was not bullied by his new friends. No one made fun of him at all. No one asked what he wanted to do with his life. Runt felt not stupid- he felt the same as everyone else. Spelling dictation was nothing but a bad memory, and his mind was free of Fs and 5s. Still, there was one important thing Runt didn’t think about. And because he didn’t think about it, he didn’t ask about it either.
The thing Runt Rabbit didn’t ask was this: Where are we going?
All of Forest’s animals know basic survival rules at an early age. Children are taught the signs of human presence and how to avoid them. These instructions first appear woven into bedtime stories for children: A hunter disguised as Wolf, Three Bears surprised by a home invasion, many tales about the Dragon Genocide. And then there was the warning that mothers whispered when they tucked their little ones in at night: “Don’t ever cross Danger Road. Many animals have died on Danger Road.”
Runt and his brothers and sisters would shudder and crowd together in bed when Father said those things about Danger Road. They would beg him to leave the candle lit. One evening, when Big Brothers and Big Sisters were close to leaving the den, Father said something different. He started the same as ever, “Never cross Danger Road. Many rabbits have died there.” but then he added, “If you absolutely must cross, ask Silence and Moon for assistance.”
This was what Runt was remembering as he stood at the end of Widest Path with his new friends. He recalled Father’s whisper on his twitchy cheek as he watched giant metal vehicles with giant rubber tires rage by on Danger Road. No one had ever mentioned the specific danger, but it was obvious now.
A few animals wandered along the side of Danger Road, in the ditch. They were afraid to cross and some of them told stories of dead animals down the way- Toad, Squirrel and Deer.
“Impossible,” said Runt. How could a big animal like Deer fail? And if Deer couldn’t get across, for sure, Runt wasn’t going anywhere either.
“Forget it,” he said to his friends. “We’ll never make it.”
“Sure we will,” said Little Raccoon. “Just hold hands and run fast.”
“What for?” asked Runt. “We don’t need to go anywhere. Everything we need is here.”
Wee Weasel rubbed his hands together. “Treats, my friend. We are going to Town for treats.”
“We crossed before – me and Wee Weasel and Squirrely,” added Little Raccoon. “No worries. We’ll be back in a couple of days.”
“Besides,” grinned Little Skunk, “the sugar is worth it.”
Later in life, when he was so old that he had a patch of skin showing between his long ears, and a hint of grey in his wrinkled tan coat, Runt would look back on this moment in his life. It was the moment that everything changed. He didn’t realize that he was making a choice; he just liked his new friends.
Runt Rabbit’s stomach felt sour as if he’d eaten white strawberries. “Father told me to ask Silence and Moon for help.”
“We always do.”
And so it happened that some hours later, nine little animals faced Danger Road under Moon’s light in the middle of Night. Their arms were linked. After waiting carefully for Silence, Little Raccoon hissed, “Now!” and they scurried across as one being.
No one died.
Alternate ending due to the possibility of an electric vehicle these days:
They all died.