This is how it happens. A door opens. Lights blaze up. An impenetrable blackness is hurled somewhere behind them. Voices of unseen creatures are raised in a hoarse cry. Life streams through me once again, and with it, terror. I run.
It is all I can do. The sequence is always the same; yet it is not so much a sequence as an instantaneity. There is only one direction I can take. I am hurled towards it with a power much greater than my own. In front of me, towards me, under me, crushed grey cinders fly, they scud like clouds or water. Or am I the one who is flying, scudding, streaming? The beasts behind me, their heads lowered, tear at the track with their long claws, a sound which is at once rending and pattering, merciless and hideously delicate. You would think that the cry which swells louder still out of the blackness, and rises in pitch, would drown such noises, but it does not. It does not even blot out the sound of the beasts’ panting, their slavering, the whimpers and mews that come from them, the clicks made by the meeting of their teeth. You might think also that the sudden rush of cold air out of that infinity of black space would thin and dissipate the stink of them; but it does not. Together with the smell of damp cinders, fumes, smoke, a choking sweetness I cannot name, my nostrils are filled with the musk of the beasts’ bodies, the meatiness of their breath.
That is how it happens, every time. I run in a straight line; then in a curve which inexorably leads once more to that straight line; and so over and over again, in alternation; until, with the same suddenness with which I was jerked out of my den, I am hurled back into its darkness and stillness. The beasts vanish, taking their rage with them; the immense but vague roar beyond the doorway subsides. I am safe. The force that sent me hurtling around the field drains from me instantly.
Sometimes long periods pass and I am left in peace; but there are other occasions when I am hardly back in my den before the door flings open, the lights burn, and I am running for my life. In one night this can happen six times, ten, a dozen, until it seems to me there will never be an end to it. Or rather, that there can be only one end to it: I will tire, stagger, fail, the beasts will leap, there will be an instant of tangled screaming and tumbling, soaring and tearing, and those claws will have ripped me apart, those teeth will have met not on one another but in me, through me. I long to gather myself and spring sideways, out of the flat, naked course ahead of me, as all hares are born to do; but the bar that is attached to me, which floats alongside me, will not let me do it. The same force that drives me out of my den when all I want to do is to remain hidden, cowering there, out of sight, unsuspected – that same force holds me rigidly on the path, directly in front of those needle-like muzzles pointing at me, boring ever closer. Then, just when I think I can go on no longer, when I have even begun to hope for the incandescent moment that will bring all this to an end, there comes instead the slam of darkness, silence, solitude. It may be for minutes only, as I have said, that I am safe; it may be for days and nights on end.
Empty days, empty nights. Anyone looking at me would think that I am completely comatose, even lifeless, a rag, nothing more than a handful of fur affixed mysteriously to a flat metal arm. I cannot move, it is true, unless that arm moves me; but at such times my mind is still active. I try to use the days and nights to find out as much as I can about why I am compelled to live as I do, in such alternations of frenzied activity and stupor, of terror and idleness. Much depends on the position in which I am flung when the door closes. Since the door of my den does not quite reach the ground, I can see a little way out of it, if I am close enough to it; when I lie on my side I can actually see better with one eye than I can with both eyes when I lie flat on my stomach. By using every opportunity given to me I have been able to gather some quite valuable information about both the beasts who hunt me and the relatively harmless humans who attend on them. The humans, who interest me less than my enemies do, are tall and clumsy; this being the consequence no doubt of their habit of walking on just two legs. They are the beasts’ slaves: they walk tethered to them, they feed them, they fetch water for them, they stroke and brush them like valets, they talk to them in soothing sycophantic tones, they dress them in little coats with buckles. Such attentions the beasts take for granted of course, as proper masters should. My suspicion is that the shouting I hear comes from the humans, who are cheering their masters on; like any enslaved caste, like any downtrodden rabble, they want to see someone who is even worse off than they are (i.e. me) humiliated and destroyed.
As for their masters, the hounds, the hunters, it is actually easier for me, given my vantage-point, to see them as wholes, from top to bottom and from end to end, than it is to see the humans, who are so tall. They look as strange and evil, these beasts, as you might expect them to. Like wraiths or devils they are shadowy, wind-swayed; like predators they are all will and muscle. They walk on tiptoe, on grotesquely mincing legs, their frail rumps raised higher than their heads; from those rumps depend tails that are tucked right into their curved, secret parts behind, though with an outward and faintly obscene flourish at the end. Their long backs slope down to necks too emaciated to hold upright their cone-shaped heads; their ribs show like those of starvelings (no wonder they are so eager to get their teeth into me!), and between rear legs and torso there appear on each side paltry, triangular flaps of flesh which expand and contract at every prancing step. Out of their pointed faces, out of their open mouths, over their white teeth, a flat but serpentine tongue lolls, laps, lets drop its spittle. All this is ghostly or demonic enough, but to it must be added the effect of their eyes, their swept-back ears, their polished pelts. Shining grey, shining black, brindle, fawn, white, tan: all are dressed to my eyes, in the livery of hell. And then there is the macabre farce of the little jackets in bright colours with which they are adorned. Even when they are chasing me they wear jackets, too; different jackets, embossed with magic numerals. Dressed to kill, they tear at the cinders with their claws, reaching for me with every stride they take.
That is how it has always been. Nothing will change it, I’m sure. They will always be what they are and do what they do; I will always behave as I do. Only, something has happened recently that has made a difference. It is a difference in my mind merely, in my understanding of what is at stake between me and them; it does not show itself outwardly. Yet now I sometimes find myself waiting almost impatiently for that electric jolt of terror to burst through me, for the door to open, for the yell to go up from the crowd outside. I am still appalled, of course, by what follows; I have to be; I could not run if I were not. But I am curious too.
No, I have not fallen into the complacency of telling myself that because they have not yet caught up with me, after so many attempts, they will never succeed in doing so. Or rather, if I have begun to think in these terms it is for reasons more complicated than any such bald assertion might suggest. Lying there in the dark, on my side, looking with one eager eye at my tormentors, I found myself beginning to wonder if the day would ever come when it would be possible for me not merely to recognise them as individuals when they were in front of me (which in a sense I have always been able to do), but also to remember them from one occasion to the next, and thus to be capable of recognising them when they were behind me too. Were they always the same hounds that pursued me? Or did they change from time to time? And if they did change, why?
Hard questions. Answering them seemed a task far beyond my capacities. First, there were so many of the beasts. Secondly, the essential resemblances between them mattered far more to me than any differences I might be able to observe. Thirdly, there was the distraction of the coats they wore – why should I assume that they did not exchange them with one another, and so (perhaps unintentionally) manage to confuse and mislead the onlooker? Fourthly ... But do I need to elaborate on the main difficulty? The sudden dazzle of light, the terror which possesses me, the speed at which everything takes place, the fatal, spectral presences behind me, their heads all bent to one aim: who can look for fine distinctions, who can expect his memory to work effectively, who dare to expend energy on anything but trying to get away, in such circumstances?
Well, I did my best. Obviously it was much easier for me to make the necessary discriminations when I lay hidden in my den, but I did try at other times too; even at the most desperate of times. Eventually, after much trying, I began to get results. I learned to tell the brutes apart from one another not just when they were parading and tittuping about near my door, but even on that shelterless track, when they were cascading after me in a single, molten mass. I even learned to know some of them by the names which their slaves used in addressing them, and which I had previously taken to be nothing more than interchangeable, honorific titles: Glamour Jack, Flibbertigibbet, Quasimodo, Queen Alexandra, Tony Pandy, Grey Steel, Snapdragon, and the rest. What is more, by dint of long study, the earnest committings to mind of significant combinations of features, the development of mnemonic systems too complicated to go into here, and above all, the taking of unprecedented risks as we ran, I began to recognise those among them who presented the greatest threat to me. In other words, I got to know which of them was likely to have his head farther forward than the others, whose teeth would be snapping most closely at my tail, whose bounding stride covered the greatest distance each time.
Though I did not realise it then, that was a crucial moment or series of moments: when I discovered that I could almost always tell in advance which one among a particular group of my enemies was likely to be the wickedest and most dangerous. I remember once lying in my den and thinking how rich I would become if only I were able to use my hard-won knowledge to lay bets against others – against other hares, hounds, people, whoever you like – as to which of the brutes would outstrip the rest. Of course, in my solitary, inert state this was mere fantasy. In any case the knowledge I had acquired so painfully was to bring me riches enough. Spiritual riches. Gifts of understanding. Power. Again, it took me a long time to realise how this could be; but I got there in the end. A number of disparate observations, to which I had not previously attached any significance suddenly came together, and I found that I had grasped something of great importance hitherto hidden from me.
You see, I had long been conscious of the fact that none of my enemies managed to hold on indefinitely, for chase after chase after chase, to his leadership among them. I had also long known that once the leadership was lost, it was extremely difficult for any of them to recover it. More than that: once one of the leaders had lost his position, he would fall farther and farther back in whatever troop he found himself – not immediately, but inexorably. And then? He would vanish! No more prancings, no more brushings, no more cossetings, no more murderous pursuings of someone who had never done him any harm. Gone. Finished.
All this I had gleaned either in the relative comfort of my den or, with eyes rolled back, in the dazzle and darkness of the chase. But its meaning eluded me until, one day, for no reason, without forewarning, a thought in the form of three simple words stole into my mind. They grow old.
Obvious enough? Yes, I grant you that – now. That’s how it always is. Even then I failed to realise the full import of what I had said to myself. It was not in fact until I was once again doing what I was compelled to do, flying, scudding, fleeing for my life, that it occurred to me: I am one, they are many; I alone am sent out to do this over and over again, a dozen times in a night perhaps, innumerable times every year; yet I feel no older, or slower, no less infused than I ever was with electric power. And where are those hounds that pursued me a year ago, or two years ago, or five? Old, lame, exhausted, enfeebled, dead perhaps. While I, their victim, their prey, the object of their lust, the creature for whom life and terror are one, am still here, still racing ahead of their successors, and the successors of their successors.
Bastards! Let them wear themselves out, generation after generation of them, chasing one timorous creature so much smaller than they are. Now I wait with some restlessness for each outing, longing to see which of them has managed to survive the course, what newcomers are among them, how well these new ones will do, which of those I saw before have gone for good. True, I am as frightened as ever, but fear itself has become a source of exhilaration for me. I dream of one day winning control of the force that controls me, and of using it to make me dawdle for a moment, so that I come directly under their noses, in order to drive them even crazier than they already are, and then to whisk me away from them, faster than I have ever gone before, to produce the same effect. Let them scrabble the cinders behind, and send their infuriated stink ahead, let their eyes burn and their spittle flash; the harder they run this time, next time, the time after that, the sooner they will finish themselves off.
Who is the tormentor and who is the tormented? Think of their children, as maddened and hungry as they are, as unavailing as they are, heads lowered, necks stretched, mouths open, minds charred, hearts bursting; and of their children’s children; and of me, the electric hare, flying.