I wrote this fictionalized tale of rescue after watching the inspiring video account yesterday of a man pulling off the highway to save a rabbit, in the middle of southern California’s hellish wildfires. If you have not already seen it on the news or social media, click on the link below this story and watch the video. You’ll feel human again. – Mark.
I am known for my big back feet. They even call me thumper because of them. My back feet are powerful and unwieldy at times, but the cool, tall grass beneath them makes it worth the ribbing. I was dreaming about running through the cool, tall grass when a whoosh of hot air shot down the burrow like dragon’s breath.
I awoke to see the shadows of my mother and father racing up through the tunnel ahead of me. My older brother was already gone. I imagine the rabbits in the rest of the warren, had long heeded the warning, but I have always been a heavy sleeper, not the best attribute when you’re an animal in the wild. As fast as my kind is, I’ve always been a slow starter. I catch up quick, but I am perpetually last in line.
My nose had barely breached the surface when I felt myself tumble backward. Light, heat, and smoke, like that from a thousand suns, slapped me hard across the face. Fire. I had heard about forest fires; every animal grows up hearing the stories of that particular killer. But I don’t think I had ever seen one before. No, I’m sure I would have remembered it, especially if I had experienced it this close to home.
My mind began to race as I felt my body try to catch up to my thoughts. I darted straight out the burrow’s opening. Fire! I ran to the left. Fire! I ran to the right and back again. Fire. It was everywhere, like a molten steel cage, all too easily entered, and impossible to exit. I had never felt fire before. But I had on two occasions felt the kind of fear that burns white-hot through your heart and brain. Once, from a young boy’s near-lucky shot, peppering the ground around me with bullets, and once from the shadow of a red-tailed hawk that overtook me like a storm. I thought I might well die then. It was frightening. And it was doubly frightening because I thought I might die completely alone. I felt that way in the fire too, but in the fire, my death felt probable instead of merely possible.
Our warren was large. It was nearly ten feet deep and fifty yards wide. The entrance to our particular burrow faced the busy highway. My parents passed down to me, long-held knowledge and advice about the highway; it’s a dangerous place to be, and I should never daydream while crossing it. Then, in an instant, everything changed, and all I wanted to do was stand in the middle of it and close my eyes. In the glow of the inferno, I could see the white stripes floating across heat waves like a lifeboat. Fire raged on the other side as much as did on mine, but in the middle, there was no fire, just human beings in their cars and trucks desperately racing to escape the flames. At that moment, the trade-off of being run over versus burned to death seemed a no-brainer. I ran through the flames and reached the hot asphalt having only the tips of my fur singed.
Just when I felt as though I had saved my life, I ran right into this crazy young man who had abandoned his car and began chasing me along the side of the road. He scared me as that little boy had a year ago with a Henry Classic-Lever .22 rifle. I am supposed to be afraid of humans, as I am, hawks, coyotes, and when I was younger, even snakes. So I turned back into the flames, no longer running from just the fire. I thought about going back underground, but there was no ground left to go beneath, only an alien molten sea. I am known as the slowest rabbit in the entire warren, but once again, my mind seemed to race at dizzying speed. I ran back to the road, then back into the flames, and then once again back to the road toward the human who’s arms were flailing about like hawk’s wings. To wild animals, the unknown has always been a greater threat than the known. No longer. I was exhausted and ready to take whatever the road or the human had in store for me, but I refused to be turned to ash just feet from where my home used to stand.
Human hands met me on the other side of the flame, just as I entered the road. The young man scooped me up and held me beneath his jacket, his face and hands blistered from outward exposure. Well, now here I am beneath his jacket, and it’s as crisp as a fall afternoon. I feel safe for the first time since emerging into the wildfire. I don’t know where we are heading, and I don’t much care as long as it’s far from here.
Somewhere there is a field of cool, dewy grass awaiting my unwieldy thumping feet. I hope my parents are there. I hope my brother is there. I hope my rescuer finds his people there too. I am afforded one last glimpse of flame and ash as he gently passes me from the crook of his right arm to his left. My one thought? Rabbits and humanity rise like the Phoenix. Hmm. It’s a healing thought, and it almost makes the destruction of the fire, and that of humankind, bearable.