In the North Country of England, the ancient sport of coursing—setting hounds to chase down a rabbit in an open field—was a crucible from which only the fastest and most intelligent dogs could hope to emerge with pride intact. Of these, Aleister of Braddock Farm was perhaps the greatest of the last half-century. One autumn morning, before the sun had burned the whiskers of frost from the tall grass, the farmer drove Aleister (and Aleister's young son Jubal, whom all hoped would someday be his father's worthy successor) out into the fields to train. When the truck stopped, Aleister and Jubal hopped down from the cab to wait patiently as the farmer rummaged among the crates in back.
“That one looks awfully quick,” Aleister said, as the farmer pulled a rabbit from the traps. It squirmed and kicked and cried, hanging by the scruff of its neck. “You think we’ll be able to catch him? You think your old da has still got the legs?”
Jubal, already panting in excitement, could only nod. The farmer pitched the rabbit free, gave the word, and the dogs were off.
The rabbit made for the stone wall that marked the edge of the farmer’s property, as the rabbits always did, hoping against hope to reach safety on the other side. But there was only one egress, and Aleister knew exactly where it was. He cut a long smooth arc though the timothy, neatly intercepting the increasingly frantic beast just as it must have thought it was saved. Now right upon it, he nipped at its tail, herding it back towards Jubal. Not to allow his son the kill, but so that he might see, at close quarters, how it was done.
Had Aleister wanted, he could’ve closed his eyes and never lost track of his prey. The unutterably sweet stink of its fear, tearing eyes and panting tongue and leaking bladder, were guides that kept him on course as surely as if he and the rabbit were chained together. The rabbit stutter-stepped, feinted left—for such simple-minded creatures, they were geniuses of evasion—and then broke hard to the right.
Aleister was already there, jaws opened wide as they would go. He seized it by the neck and dropped his weight on its back, breaking its spine. Salty blood spurted into his mouth. At that point, things grew a little fuzzy. So many sensations and inchoate emotions flooded him at once—bristle of hide, give of flesh, savage glee, bitter disappointment that the chase was over—that he became all reflex, snapping his head back and forth, picking up and slamming the corpse down again and again until clarity returned.
As he had hoped, Jubal, bright-eyed and panting, had carefully observed the kill. Now he stepped forward to sink his puppy teeth into the rabbit’s throat and gave it a practice shake. The carcass was nearly as big as he was. All he managed was to throw himself to the ground, which made Aleister laugh out loud.
“So you see how it’s done,” he said. “When you catch the rabbit, kill him quickly. He won’t feel a thing.”
“But what about scared? Don’t you think they feel scared?”
“I don’t think they feel things the way we do. Rabbits will run from anything. I’ve seen them trying to escape leaves blowing in the wind. They don’t know why they’re supposed to run. They just do.”
“Do we know why we’re supposed to catch them?” Caught by surprise, Aleister gave his son an appraising look.
“Why, because it’s what God made us to do, of course.”
He snagged the rabbit’s scruff with his teeth and carried it back to the farmer. Jubal trotted along at his heels. The farmer praised Aleister warmly, which he accepted with a kind of graceful boredom. He’d ceased to be impressed with his own success long ago. In fact, out of some three hundred chases, he’d only failed to bring down the rabbit four times. Thinking of it now set him to brooding while the farmer went to his traps for another rabbit. No one but Aleister seemed to have realized that it had been the same rabbit who’d evaded him on each of those four occasions. How could they? The contests had taken place in widely diverging parts of the country, and the rabbits were always caught locally, so that they would know the countryside and have a chance to escape. Even if Aleister had had a man’s tongue he probably couldn’t have convinced the farmer that the same rabbit had somehow managed to get himself trapped in four different counties.
Unlike the common rabbit, which was dun brown, this one had been golden, the color of autumn oak leaves just before they fell. Also, he had a distinctive white mark on his brow, like some forest nymph had blessed him with a kiss. Was there a better explanation for his extraordinary luck?
The first couple times, Aleister had written off as coincidence the resemblance shared by his escaping quarry. But by their fourth meeting, there had been no question in his mind at all. He’d focused as he never had before on putting an end to whatever game this creature was playing. After the rabbit was released, he waited patiently until the men judged that it had reached a sporting distance, and when his collar was slipped, he disappeared into the wheat field like a bolt of black lightning. No matter how the golden rabbit sprinted forward or doubled back, Aleister was always there to block, to flank, to corner. Finally he’d snagged him, catching the rabbit’s left foreleg between his jaws, a moment of triumph as sweet as any he’d tasted. One, unfortunately, that lasted only until the rabbit unleashed a blow with its powerful hind legs that nearly blinded him.
Aleister hadn’t let go, but his jaws, clenching in agony, neatly severed the rabbit’s leg from its body. The golden rabbit fell to the ground and somehow dashed off on three legs, leaving Aleister to howl his disappointment and glare at the world through a red lens of blood.
The farmer, who had seen the whole thing, had recovered the rabbit’s paw. Now it hung on a chain from Aleister’s collar. For good luck, supposedly, but for Aleister it was a constant reminder of failure. Although he’d never seen that rabbit again, and thought it likely it’d died from its wounds, still it haunted his dreams, and his hatred burned brighter from year to year.
The farmer was returning, another rabbit—plain brown, small and female—dangling by its rear legs from his hand. Time for another run. As Aleister brushed his nose in the dirt to clear it of any traces from the last kill, he realized his son was staring at him.
“Please, da?” Jubal said, and of course Aleister didn’t need to ask what he meant.
“You’ve barely got a stone’s weight on her, Jubal…”
“I’m ready, da, I swear, I’m really ready.”
Well, you couldn’t fault the whelp’s courage, that was for sure. Aleister sat back on his haunches and met the farmer’s eye. The farmer held his gaze for a moment, figuring on its meaning, then arched an eyebrow at Jubal and shrugged. Jubal began to prance in a tight little circle, unable to conceal his excitement.
“Save it for the chase,” Aleister told him. “Remember, she’ll make for the fence. Do your best to cut her off. Keep her in the center of the field, where you’ll have room to maneuver and to correct for any mistakes you make.”
Jubal barked sharply. “I’m not going to make any mistakes!”
At that, Aleister had to grin. That’s my boy, he thought. “Everyone makes mistakes, even your old da. Now give us a good chase.”
The farmer took firm hold of Jubal’s collar, careful to keep the pup’s snapping jaws away from the squirming rabbit. A gentle underhand toss put the startled creature flat on its belly, and as Jubal went mad with barking, the rabbit found its feet and sprinted away. Aleister sat up tall, trying to determine the path of its flight by watching the swaying of the grass. Just as he fixed its position the farmer slipped Jubal’s collar and the chase was on.
As many times as Jubal had gone out in tandem with his da, running down a rabbit on one’s own was something only actual experience benefited. Aleister imagined Jubal loosing a steady stream of curses as the little brown rabbit utterly defeated his every attempt to contain its path. And sure enough, the rabbit was heading towards the stone wall. Beyond lay Hogart Wood, sanctuary for any hunted creature. If a rabbit made it into the woods, it won its life. In his heart Aleister believed that was fair; as deadly as coursing could be, it was still sport, and even game deserved a sporting chance.
Judging by the rustling grass, the rabbit was going to make it. Yes, there—no more movement. The rabbit was gone. Jubal was coming hard, barking wildly, oh, he was going to be furious when he found the game was up, but suddenly the barking stopped.
The farmer got up off his stool, shading his eyes against the morning sun. Aleister, too, was up and scanning. He had told Jubal often enough, the woods are off-limits; surely the boy wouldn’t have gone in anyway. Standing at the farmer’s side, nose to the wind, Aleister waited, straining for any sound. After a few minutes, the farmer clucked his tongue and began to walk towards the wall. Aleister trotted after him.
He didn’t need any of his exquisite senses to track them. Stalks of long grass had bent under the coursing rabbit with his every bound, leaving a clear trail that ran in loops and sudden switchbacks right to the stone wall. At one point along its base a hollow had been dug by decades of struggling pests and vermin. The rabbit had plunged through, and Jubal followed. His sire, though, was too big to fit. He looked back at the farmer, who nodded. Aleister scrambled up and over.
No grass here to bend and break. Just an eon’s worth of dead leaves, fallen trees, and lichen-covered rocks. But once Aleister put his snuffling nose to the ground, the path they’d taken was clear. The rabbit, smaller than Jubal, had gained a little in the plunge through the hollow. She’d emerged, banked hard left to avoid the entangling roots of a great oak, then jogged right to take advantage of a gradual decline. Jubal, who had never been on this side of the wall, had rocketed out of the hole and straight into the tree’s broad base. Lucky the whelp hadn’t brained himself! But he didn’t seem to have lost much time. His trail was only seconds fresher than that of the rabbit. Shafts of sunlight were falling through the trees ahead. A break in the woods, a glade. Scent of rabbits everywhere; there had to be a warren nearby. And fresh blood! Good for Jubal! He’d gotten his kill after all. Hopefully that would make up for the punishment he was going to get for leaving the farm. But—was that a whimper? Aleister’s hackles rose. Something felt very wrong. He’d never smelled so many rabbits in one place. And oddest of all: there was no sweet terror scent, though they had to know he was about. Growling, he stepped into the light.
The glade was full of gravestones overtaken by weeds. At the far end lay Jubal, pinned on his belly by five of the biggest rabbits Aleister had ever seen. Immediately he understood why his son was whimpering; he was hurt, his flank covered with fresh blood. Jubal seemed to be having trouble focusing his eyes, but when the wind changed, his nose twitched in recognition and he wailed “Daaaaaa--!” until one of the brutes gave him a vicious bite on the ear. Terror froze Aleister’s heart. If these vermin had the foaming disease, that bite meant—but no. Although their eyes held a sort of crazed malice, these rabbits did not look rabid. This would be a tough fight, though, no doubt about that. Each one was almost half Aleister’s size, and five of them… He advanced in slow steps, his growls so deep they trembled his limbs. And that was when he heard the sneeze.
From behind a monument topped with a black iron angel limped a rabbit with a bedraggled golden coat and a white star centered on his forehead. The white patch was bigger than Aleister remembered, but that was unsurprising. Rabbits lived much shorter lives than dogs, and surely it was age leeching the color from this one’s pelt. It sneezed again, rubbing its nose with a paw. The right paw, for no left leg was in evidence.
Its left leg, of course, was hanging like ballast around Aleister’s neck. The humiliations he had suffered because of this creature, the dreams that never gave him even one night’s respite, all came flooding back, made the whole world smell of blood. He was going to crunch that little skull between his teeth. He was going to tear the still-beating heart from its breast and gobble it down. The carcass he would deposit at the farmer’s feet. Somehow the farmer would understand that this had not been an ordinary rabbit, but some emissary from the underworld. Once Aleister had slain it, his failures would be forgiven. He would prove himself the best of all good dogs.
“At last,” he said, slaver dripping from his jaws. “At last, at last, at last!”
But he had not taken a step towards fulfilling his destiny when Jubal’s scream froze him in his tracks. The biggest of his captors had fixed chisel teeth on the back of Jubal’s skinny neck, just hard enough to send fresh trickles of blood flowing down the whelp’s heaving side. When Aleister whipped around to charge, he heard paws whispering through grass, and from the corner of his eye he saw the golden rabbit withdraw. Suddenly it was clear: they were going to make him choose. Slaughter the golden rabbit, and Jubal’s life was forfeit. Save his son, and his enemy would escape. Unable to decide on a course of action, Aleister swayed, feet splayed and planted, whining in fear and fury. Now the golden rabbit was inching away, while the captor’s teeth sank deeper in Jubal’s throat, at the same time! How, how could these mindless creatures, these reflex machines, have devised—A shotgun boomed and one of the huge rabbits disappeared in a spray of blood. The farmer came blundering into the clearing, and with his arrival there was an explosion of rabbits, dozens, hundreds of them charging out of the underbrush and overrunning the graveyard in every direction. Aleister leaped for Jubal, but the pup and his captors were already gone. And though the glade was now a roiling sea of brown bodies, not one had a pelt of autumn gold.
The shotgun fired again; the farmer, sinking under the weight of a hundred rabbits, cried out for help but Aleister was already crashing through the underbrush, calling for Jubal. There were too many scents to unravel, too many trails to track. But suddenly—yes! A whiff of his son. And then, a little further, another. Mixed in: the golden rabbit’s raw tang; they were traveling together, or their paths overlapped. From the tell-tale patterns in the forest's soft floor of pine needles, Jubal was being dragged back towards the wall.
That was all Aleister needed. He sprinted back to the fence and took it in a single bound. Just as he’d hoped, he landed a dozen yards upwind of the hollow beneath the piled stones. This gave him a small advantage he could’ve better exploited with patience and stealth, but there was no time to lose. Some of the more timid rabbits, the plump females and the tottering young, stood clustered together, afraid to venture into the tall grass. But his stamping, slashing advent in their midst changed that in a hurry. For a moment he saw himself as they must see him: fangs shining, tongue lolling, a gullet wide enough to swallow the world.
Wild now, snorting and grunting, he sniffed everywhere for some sign of Jubal. And yes, he had been here; his scent was so strong he might have been standing there, invisible. But of course he was not. Aleister bayed hopelessly at the cloudless sky. But as his gaze fell back towards the earth he saw a flash of gold among the green timothy. That uncanny creature, the demon rabbit that had stolen his son! He would not escape, not this time. Especially hobbling along on three legs. A straight charge on a creature too crippled to dodge: it was almost too easy. In the space of two breaths Aleister was batting the golden rabbit flat with his front paws.
Just before he sank his teeth into his enemy’s neck, he sensed something was not quite right. The mingled stink of hot blood and cold terror was almost too pleasurable to bear, but strong as it was, it didn't quite mask a rank undercurrent of death and molder. Or a scent layered below that, one so familiar he couldn’t immediately place it. This was no time for hesitation, though, and Aleister’s misgivings gave way with the snap of the golden rabbit’s spine. He pounded the corpse against the ground until the tall grass was flattened into a killing floor. When the rabbit was nothing but a sack of loose bones, he tossed it away, coughing and hacking. The taste in his mouth was most foul.
As the corpse took to the air, its hide came loose, a fluttering golden streamer. The body that thumped to such an ungainly, undignified landing was not that of a rabbit at all. It was Jubal, his head hideously canted on a broken neck, clouds reflected in his unblinking eyes. The hide flapped to the ground beside him. It was nearly complete, missing only a patch of skin at the abdomen, and a leg. Jubal was also was missing a leg. The stump was minced flesh and slivers of bone, not at all an example of the patient work that had so perfectly skinned the golden rabbit.
Aleister cocked his head back and screamed his sorrow. Over and over he called out for someone, anyone, to take his pain from him. He was aware of nothing else until the tall grass before him began to stir. A gray hare with a bright star on his forehead—the same rabbit who’d worn the golden pelt in the cemetery—wiggled his way into the little clearing. Both of his front paws were in evidence. Something was clamped in his jaws. He spat it onto the ground: Jubal’s foreleg. “I’ll kill you for this,” Aleister promised him.
From the grass emerged the captor rabbits, with their vengeful eyes and razor teeth. Behind them were more, dozens more; common males, fast as the delivery of souls to hell, limping females who bore the marks of Aleister’s teeth and nails, young rabbits dragging limbs he had stamped to pieces. Far too many for Aleister to count. Far too many to fight.
“Each and every one of you!" he screamed. "You'll die with your throats torn out, I swear it!”
The rabbit with the white patch sneezed. The rest watched Aleister silently, arrayed all before him.
Behind him lay the open fields. He took a single step back. The rabbits followed suit. Very slowly, he took a second. This time, they waited. And waited.
And when he finally broke and ran, the rabbits gave chase.
~ ~ ~