The White Hare

I wanted to write a story to tell the young people I was working with at the weekend. As it happened the telling didn’t go that well – my fault really, I didn’t ramp up the energy enough or set out my story telling stall clearly. Anyway, here is the story in written form. It has a hare at its heart as one of the many things I miss about living in East Anglia – I grew up in Suffolk – is the hares; hares, and brent geese flying over the salt marsh at Cley and the light reflecting on the river where it cuts between the boats and fishing huts of Southwold and Warbleswick.

The White Hare

In the days before computers, before cars, before electricity or water in taps, or food in supermarkets or even before proper roads, people lived by what they could make from the land and the sea around them. Humans were closer to nature, at the mercy of cold and wind, frost and snow and drought, just as other animals were. Back then humans and animals were just fellow living beings, under the sky. Perhaps that’s why it seemed possible back then for humans to change into animals, and animals into humans.

The story I’m going to tell you happened at that time and it’s about a young girl called Ostra, who lived in the village we call Sherringham now. Back then it was just a cluster of huts – or what would look like huts to you and me; shelters made of wood, and stones, mud and animal skins. People ate what they could get from the sea and from the woods above the cliff tops. There were a few fields of crops perhaps, maybe even some skinny little sheep, a few ponies, but that’s all. There weren’t rabbits then either, just long lean hares, running on the heathery heaths and the cliff tops where trees wouldn’t grow on account of the wind.

Ostra was the eldest of five children. There had been more but a lot of kids died before they could walk back then, so Ostra’s brothers and sisters were already tough survivors. Their Mum was dead and their Dad spent all day trying to get them enough fish and crabs to eat, out in his boat, so Ostra did pretty much everything else. Cooking, sweeping, making clothes, wiping snotty noses, scolding, nagging, cuddling. And one other job too which was making her father’s crab pots. No plastic back then of course, just osiers – willow, long stems, bendy and springy.

Using osiers is a Winter job. In Spring and Summer willow stems lose their bendyness and become snappy and brittle. So on Winter evenings, after it was dark and her Dad was back from the sea, Ostra walked up the cliff to the marshy osier bed on the edge of the woods, to cut the willow stems and weave them. She worked by the light of the moon or a little rush lantern. In the cold, in the wind, in the rain. She liked the work, because it was peaceful and solitary and gave her time to be quiet. The rhythm of bending and binding the stems to make the big open, shape of the crab pot pleased her. Sometimes she sang quietly to herself, but more often she sat quietly listening  to the sounds of the Winter night…the screaming vixen, the owls hooting, the wolves howling…. and to the big silence of the stars….

And listening is how she came to hear animals speaking to her.

One November night, as she sat in the cold and cold with her strong hands bending the whippy willow stems, a robin came and landed on the ground at her feet. Its feathers were so fluffed out against the freezing night that it looked like a little ball stood on two skinny legs like wires,

“You got any food missis?” the robin asked.

“Only a crust.” Ostra replied before she had time to think that she was holding a conversation with a bird. Whether it had really spoken or she was just to tired to think straight didn’t matter. It as pretty clear that on a cold night like this is was only right to share whatever you had with other living creatures. She broke the crust to crumbs and scattered them on the ground for the little bird

“Fanks missis, “said the bird, through the crumbs, because no one teaches robins not to speak with their mouths full. It flew away saying

“You wont be sorry!”

Ostra returned to her pot making and told herself she must be hearing things.

But a week or two later it happened again. She sat bending the stems under the stars like always on a Winter night, and a wren landed on the ground in front of her

“I’m sooo cold missis!” it said in its tiny little voice

“Well come here and I’ll warm you!’ Ostra replied, as usual thinking of how she could help before she thought about anything else. She opened her hands and the bird came and sat between them while Ostra breathed warmth onto it.

“Thanks missis!” said the bird as it flew off, “you wont be sorry.”

Ostra shook her head, convinced she’d fallen asleep over her work – which was pretty likely as with all she had to do, she was always tired.

Back home she was too busy carrying wood, making fires, cleaning fish, fetching water, picking lice out of hair, sewing skins, and scolding, nagging and cuddling to even remember she thought she’d heard a bird say words.

But every few nights through the Winter, as she made her pots some little bird or mouse, some small, small helpless thing of the forest would come and ask for her help. And it was always the same, before she even thought, she gave whatever help was asked for. And the response too, was always the same

“Thanks missis, you won’t be sorry!”

So Ostra had to accept that she could hold a conversation with  small creatures, even though that ability seemed to make no difference whatever to the harshness of her life.

She was still fetching carrying cooking cleaning scolding nagging and cuddling and generally worrying over far too many other people, including her father, who was so tired when he got in from his boat, that all he could do was snore.

And so it went on.

But somebody else had noticed what a kind, reliable, hardworking girl Ostra was. Num the hunter, whose special skill was killing things  – stabbing, or strangling or trapping or poisoning. And then he ate what he killed or wore its skin, or traded its body for something else he wanted. He’d seen Ostra working and working away in those winter nights, her strong hands bending the willow, and he wanted all that hard work and strength and kindness for himself.

So come Spring time when other jobs replaced pot making, Num came looking for Ostra. One morning when she was up at dawn collecting young nettle heads for soup, he jumped out of a bush and greeted her.

Now I should say here that Num was very, very good looking. He would have made Jude Law look like a minger and Daniel Craig like a wimp, and Ostra was pretty pleased when he said

“Ostra, I’d like to make you my wife!”

She was all set to blush and say “Oh all right then!”

But a little robin landed on her shoulder and whispered into her ear

“He’s cruel and wicked. Tell him no.”

That’s when Ostra noticed string of robins, freshly killed and hanging from his belt by their tiny wiry little legs and dripping blood from their delicate little beaks in red jewels onto his leather trousers.

So she did what the bird asked,

“No, “she said, “ I can’t marry you while my littlest brother has a cough.”

The huntsman tried to put a good face on it, but he was handsome and he wasn’t used to women turning him down. He stomped off into the forest using words that Ostra had never heard anyone say before!

Two weeks later, Ostra’s little brother took a turn for the worse, and died.

The huntsman came and found her as she laid wild flowers on the little boy’s grave

“Ostra, “ he said, “I’d like to make you my wife.”

Ostra was so upset about her little brother that the thought of being held in the huntsman’s big strong arms made her want to say ‘YES!” but before she could get the word out, a little wren landed on her shoulder and said,

“He’s wicked and cruel, tell him no!”

That’s when Ostra noticed that the huntsman wore a necklace of a hundred baby birds, small and naked as peas, hanging around his neck like pink beads.

So she did what the bird asked

“No” she said, “I can’t marry until my sisters are old enough to keep house.”

Once again the huntsman stomped off into the woods, furious.

And two weeks later Ostra’s little sisters were down on the beach in the sunshine collecting driftwood for the fire. One second they were there, and the next they were gone! Ostra and her brothers and father and all the villagers searched and searched but the girls had vanished into thin air.

Ostra was grief stricken. There was less work to do now with three fewer children to care for,  but she cried over the fewer mouths to feed, and fewer little bodies to clothe and fuss over and care for.

But the work and the caring had to go on, so one Summer night she walked up the hill and onto the clifftop to gather sweet majoram and bedstraw to put on the floor of the hut to keep it smelling nice (and to keep the fleas under control). The huntsman came and found her yet again. His handsome face was tanned and his strong arms were bare and bronzed, his big blue eyes were the colour of the sea. Ostra felt her knees going quite wobbly.

“Ostra, now will you be my wife?”

How Ostra longed to say yes!

But a tiny harvest mouse, gold as the sunshine, ran out of the grass and up onto Ostra’s shoulder,  and squeaked into her ear.

“He’s wicked and cruel, tell him no!”

That’s when Ostra noticed that the handsome waist coat that covered (but only just)  Num’s broad chest was made of hundreds and hundreds of harvest mouse skins.

“No I can’t, “ she told Num the huntsman, “my brothers and my father need me to cook for them.”

This time Num didn’t even try to conceal his fury. He kicked trees, he snapped branches and he stomped away with a very unattractive expression on his face.

And two weeks later on the stillest, hottest, bluest day of all the Summer, Ostra’s father took his two young sons to sea, to teach them how to set a crab pot. Ostra watched anxiously from the shore, and she saw the boat sink, quite suddenly as if it had sprung a leak and filled with water.

Even before the sea had given back the bodies with the incoming tide, the huntsman came to find Ostra as she sat on the clifftop weeping.

“Ostra, “ he said, “you have no family and no protection. Now surely you must take me as your husband.”

Ostra looked at him, and she saw that he wasn’t handsome at all. That he had a nasty hard mouth, and his eyes were like those of a dead fish, and that his muscley body was rather stringy and ungenerous looking. So, when a beautiful brown hare popped his head out of the undergrowth and started to say

“He’s wi…”

Ostra interrupted

“I know, I know !” she told the hare, “but I’ve got no more excuses!”

“Then, “ said the hare, “RUN!”

So Ostra leapt to her feet and to Num’s astonishment she ran. She followed the  hare along the cliff top, past the osier bed, through the woods and out the other side. The hare and Ostra ran and ran, out at last onto the big heathery heath under the sky.

And that’s where Num the huntsman caught her. His long legs stretched out and his long arm reached and caught her by the wrist, squeezing cruel and wicked.

“I poisoned your little brother and still you refused me!” said Num, “I strangled your sisters and buried them under the sand, and still you refused me. I holed your father’s boat and watched him drown with your brothers, and still you refused me. Do you think I’ll hesitate to break your neck if you refuse me again?”

Ostra didn’t know what to say. She was full of fear and fury. But she didn’t need to say a word because a cloud was gathering over the huntsman’s head, and a moving carpet under his feet. A cloud and carpet of tiny helpless creatures, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of little beaks and little claws and little teeth.

They covered the huntsman, pecking and tearing and biting.

“Ostra, Ostra!” called the Hare, “ You can leave that all behind you now. Come with me” he said, “you won’t be sorry.”

And Ostra ran after the hare, faster and faster. Running out the tiredness, and grief and anger and fear. Running into the beautiful Summer night, under the silence of the stars, until all she could feel was the air in her lungs and the sweet springy turf, beneath her four, white furry feet.



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