The old rabbit limped down the path towards the sea. His hop was more of a waddle these days, but he could still forage for himself, and every morning he made his way down to the pebbly beach, to sniff the sea air as the sun flared below the edge of the horizon, and the man machines roared above him. He’d been coming here since he was a young buck, when he’d been able to run the length of the path without pausing, alive with pride and heart and strength. It was his place. He liked it, away from the politics of the warren, the constant chatter of the kits and the squabblingss and alarms of the bucks and does. Here, the sky was broad and wide and open, and the sea – sometimes placid, sometimes raging – filled his senses. Sure there were gulls, hard-eyed and rough, and even swans, with their dark angry eyes, but they left him alone. They had food enough.
He sat up on his haunches and gazed about short-sightedly. There was something new. Sometimes men slept in the shadows of the machine path, and although there were none here now, he could smell their stink. They’d left something behind, slashed across the stone, a sign for other men, perhaps. He took a couple of awkward hops closer, resting a paw on the wall so he could sniff the prickly scent of it. It didn’t smell exactly man-like. It smelled – savage. His ears twitched in alarm and he dropped back to all fours, backing away. From a safer distance he puzzled at it – strokes and cross-strokes and bloody runnels that crept down the wall then froze.
“Nasty, eh?” A voice said, making him jump.
He peered around at the duck standing squatly behind him. “Hey, Arnie. D’you know what it says?”
“Nah. Looks like sparrow scratches to me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” a new voice said, and another duck waddled closer, tipping her head side to side to get a good look at the message. “It’s too big. It’s man-writing.”
“Go on then, Doris,” said Arnie. “What’s it say?”
She huffed. “I don’t know. Ask the gulls. They reckon they’re the man experts.”
“Fair point. Hey – hey, Paolo! Check this out!” The duck shouted.
They was a swirl of wings, and a seagull clattered to a stop on the gravel, eyeing the old rabbit hungrily. “What?”
“You know what that says?”
The seagull turned his attention to the wall. “Yeah, sure. Of course. Yeah, it’s like – a message.”
“To who?” The rabbit ventured.
Paolo glared at him. “Who’s this?”
“Herbert,” he replied, puffing his chest out and drawing himself up a little straighter.
The gull shrugged, and turned his yellow eyes back to the wall. “So, yeah, sure, it’s like, a message. To… to…”
“To everyone,” a smooth voice said, and the birds spun in surprise. Doris squawked in alarm and started to waddle back to the water. “Hey,” the cat said. “Chill. I’m not hungry.”
Herbert had drawn into the shadows of a discarded boot, and now he looked out again. “Really?”
The cat purred. “Even if I was, you’re a scrawny old scrap. I can find better meals in trash cans.”
“So do you know what it says?” the rabbit persisted, emboldened.
“As it happens, I do,” the cat said, and extended a leg to groom. The birds and the rabbit waited expectantly, and after a moment the cat looked up. “You want to know?” she asked.
“Well, duh,” Arnie said, and took a few anxious steps backwards, clucking to himself, as the cat fixed him with green eyes.
“It means it’s coming,” she said finally.
“What’s coming?” Paolo asked, his wings shivering in excitement.
“The Red Evil,” the cat said, her voice a low rasp scraping across the bricks of the machine path. “The Red Evil is coming, so we all best hide our kittens and make our offerings.”
There was a long, aching silence, broken only by the sound of man machines above them and the chuckle of waves against the pebbles. Then Herbert turned and started back up his path as quick as his aged hips would allow him, and the ducks waddled hurriedly back towards the water, tails flicking anxiously from side to side. Paolo took clumsy, noisy flight. The cat watched them all go, her tail coiled neatly over her toes and her ears twitching with the sounds of the day rising around her.
“Red Evil,” Herbert repeated, his ears quivering with the stress of it all.
“I’ve never heard of it,” the old doe said, scratching her chin with one back paw. “It’s not in any of our legends.”
“I know that, Penelope,” Herbert said, aggrieved. “But that’s not to say it’s not something new. The cat had heard of it.”
“You can’t trust cats,” the doe replied. “Nasty, sneaky creatures.”
Herbert turned away, growling a little in the back of his throat. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said.
The next morning, Herbert didn’t go to the sea. He was too anxious to be able to leave Penelope and the rest of the colony, as if just by his presence he could stop the inevitable. By the time the sun had started trekking its way back down the sky, the news of the coming of the Red Evil was all over the little pocket of woodland. Sparrows chattered it to squirrels, songbirds sang it to mice, lizards whispered it to spiders. Everyone knew it was coming, and it seemed to Herbert that although no one seemed to know just what it was, everyone knew what should be done about it.
“Hide in the trees, and leave your best nuts out,” the squirrels said.
“Drop your tails and run to the caves,” the lizards whispered.
“Retreat upriver,” the ducks said.
“Go south,” the songbirds sang.
“To the city,” the sparrows insisted.
“To the village,” the mice replied.
“So what do we do?” Penelope asked Herbert.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re the cure keeper. You know how to fix these things.”
“Not this,” she said. “I don’t know anything about this. Can’t you go talk to the cat again? Everyone’s saying something different, and I don’t know who to listen to – or even whether to listen to any of them.”
Herbert sighed. “Alright,” he said. “But it might even come while I’m away. Best keep the kits in.”
The doe nodded, and nuzzled his face. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you,” she said.
Herbert savoured the warmth of her breath on his face, the scent of the herbs she’d been chewing, and felt his heart give a skip he thought had faded a long time ago. “I’ll be back, my love,” he said.
“Be careful,” she replied, and watched him limp away through the undergrowth, his gait slow and clumsy.
“Old Mother?” a small voice asked at her side. “Where’s he going?”
“To find answers,” she said. “Now, get back in the warren.” She shooed him in front of her, complaining loudly and dragging his feet in the dust. Better bored than devoured by the Red Evil.
It was long after dark when Herbert emerged from the scrubby trees and struggled across the rough ground towards the shadowed underside of the machine path. He stopped to rest in the shadow of a man-tree, the humming of lightening in its branches making his fur prickle, but too weary and pained to move any further. When dark had first fallen, every rustle in the leaves, every snapping of a twig under unstealthy feet made him jump and break into a panicked, shambling run. Now he was too tried to even bother with the bats wheeling above him, crying to each other about the coming threat. Eventually he got moving again, skirting a few ducks dozing uneasily on the bank of the river, their heads tucked neatly under their wings, and crept into the underbelly of the machine path. It was quiet, the machines sleeping, and just the soft night breeze moaned across the bricks. Even the sea was still beyond the stones, reflecting the lights of the man warrens. Herbert settled himself down on his haunches and licked a little water from the stones, softening the thirst in the back of his throat. He’d wait here. He’d never cared to find out where cats went, and he wasn’t about to start now.
Dead-smelling breath and a sharp pinch to his ear woke him. He squalled, pedalling backwards in fright, and fell sideways into the gravel, kicking wildly with his powerful back legs as he tried to both right himself and to get away from his ear-nipping assailant. He came to a rest against the wall, heart pounding and chest heaving with effort.
“Well, damn,” the cat said, her voice lazy. “You looked dead. How old are you, anyway?”
“Old enough that I should have earned a bit of respect,” Herbert snapped, then cringed.
The cat just huffed her amusement. “You got guts, I guess,” she said. “How come you’re back, old-timer? Thought you’d be all hunkered down, waiting for the Red Evil to arrive.”
“I was looking for you,” Herbert replied warily.
The cat tipped her head slightly. The lights from the man trees made her eyes glitter. “And what does an old buck rabbit want with a cat?”
The rabbit took a deep breath. “We don’t know what the Red Evil is,” he said. “We don’t know what to do. We – I thought you might tell us.”
The cat watched him for a moment, then nodded at the ducks, still sleeping by the river. “You know why they’re still here?”
“They got ducklings, too small to travel far. Everyone else has moved out, my fluffy friend. Everyone’s running and hiding and making little offerings. Why not you?”
“Is that what we need to do?” Herbert asked.
The cat looked at him curiously. “It’s what everyone else thinks they need to do.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” the rabbit said. “Do you even know?” For a moment he thought he’d gone too far, as the cat watched him, silent and coiled. Then she huffed her soft laughter again.
“Cats are different. We don’t bow. Or run.”
“So maybe we shouldn’t, either.”
“I guess it depends,” the cat said.
“On just how scared you are.”
A machine went past overhead, roaring in wordless fury, and Herbert flinched into the shadows. When he looked back, the cat was gone.
“So she didn’t know?” Penelope asked.
“I don’t know,” Herbert said. “Maybe she did, but she just wasn’t telling.”
“But what are we meant to do? The squirrels have gone deep into the woods, the lizards into the caves. The birds have flown – North, South, wherever they can. Even the mice and rats have gone. It’s just us, when it comes.”
Herbert thought for a moment. “Does that make a difference?” he asked finally. “If it’s just us, or us and them? If it comes when we run, or when we stand?”
Penelope considered that for a moment. “I guess it depends,” she said.
“On what?” he replied, and shivered at the echo.
“On just how scared we are.”
They looked at each other for a long time, old and time-scarred, the weight of their colony, their family, heavy and silent around them. The sunlight filtered through high branches to meet them, and it dappled the doe, making her look as young and sleek as Herbert had ever held her in his heart. Finally he said, “If the Red Evil is so bad, running won’t help. And when else do we have the whole forest to ourselves?”
The doe chuckled, and pressed her face to his. “You always surprise me, my love. Let’s tell the kits to come out. It’s too beautiful an afternoon to waste.”
The cat sat on a rounded boulder, still faintly warm from the day’s sun. The cars were quietening down from the manic roar of the afternoon, just snarling by in ones and twos now. The slits of her pupils widened as the light faded, but otherwise she never moved. The ducks were gone from sight, their ducklings ushered into tangled deadfalls of branches at the side of the river, and the seagulls had winged their way to other, less threatening ports. The swans had sculled off along the coast, and tonight not even the men with their heavy bags of threadbare possessions inhabited the dusty underpass. The cat waited as the silence grew, as the cars became less numerous, then less frequent, and the late evening runners plodded their way home to shower and draw their curtains against the night. The shadows were unmoving under the orange streetlights, and the evening breeze softly faded to nothing, so that not even the leaf litter shifted in the night. Still the cat waited, her eyes wide and predator-patient.
The lights went out. The cat’s eyes cut towards the new darkness, aware that the shops and houses along the road had gone to black also. Her pupils were huge in the new night, and she could smell smoke and musk underlying the salty dark. She shifted her weight just slightly, and a light flared under the bridge. It illuminated a face, long-snouted and long-toothed, and as the creature lit the cigarette in its mouth the flame slid liquid off sharp-pointed horns. The light faded, leaving the burning tip of the cigarette punctuating the darkness. The cat watched it brighten and dim as the creature drew on it, and after a moment a new glow curled into life. It came from the wall, and it formed slowly into the bloody lettering. Redevil, it said. Redevil. The creature snorted, a harsh, amused sound.
“So, kitty-cat,” he said. “Who’s been talking about the devil?”
The cat flicked her ears, but didn’t answer. The light of the writing washed the creature in ruddy light, making him look bloodied. He gazed around, sniffed the air.
“Everyone’s gone,” he said. “What have you been telling them?”
Still the cat didn’t speak, her attention unwavering. The creature walked over and crouched in front of her. In the dark away from the wall, he still seemed to smoulder slightly.
“Come on, kitty,” he said. “What gives?”
The cat met his gaze calmly, noting his pupils were star-shaped. Interesting, she thought. “I wondered if anything would come,” she said finally.
“And what did you say would come?” he asked.
She purred. “The Red Evil.”
The creature barked laughter. “Why would you do that?”
“I wanted to see what would happen.”
“And what did happen?”
“They pretended they knew what it was, and made up stories, and ran away to hide.”
“All the scared little woodland creatures ran away?” he asked, his tones faintly mocking.
“Almost,” the cat allowed. “There’s some rabbits that may have stayed.”
He waved his hand dismissively, straightening up. “And they call ignorance bliss.” He looked back at the wall, where the writing was quietly burning out. “And that – some man-child talking about devils and knowing nothing.” He leaned down and petted the cat, scratching between her ears and rubbing under her chin so she purred with delight. “And not even proper punctuation, let alone a decent sacrifice.” He gave the cat a final stroke and straightened up again. “You wanna tag along, kitty-cat?”
The cat considered. “May as well,” she said, standing and stretching on her boulder. “There’s one old rabbit that’s kinda interesting, but that’s about it for ’round here.”
The creature laughed. “Well, let’s go see what amusements we can find, shall we?” He turned away, and the cat fell into step with him, her tail high and her ears pointed, their shadows turning long and stark as the lights came back on.
Then they were gone.
The night drew on, still and quiet, and with the dawn came Herbert, lurching down out of the woods. He made his way to the cavernous underbelly of the machine path, roaring with the passage of the beasts, and peered up at the wall. The writing was there, but it had changed, burnt and blackened and scorched around the edges, already beginning to flake and peel. Herbert looked at it for a while, not understanding what it said but understanding it was over nevertheless, then turned and struggled back to the comfort of the warren and the warmth of the old doe. Behind him, the writing glared across the stony ground. Re:devil, it said, re:devil. A message never finished, but answered all the same.