Watership Down

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I picture them, those old friends who so admired one another, one a poet at heart, one a scientist, walking along in all that vast and sparkling white, talking about rabbits. But look at one’s face and you know: this is the embodiment of kindness. A friend once pointed out to me that a rabbit’s skull is even shaped like the human heart. She expresses her emotions with subtlety. He, like her, was an Idaho Democrat. He told me he was moved to hear my parents had fallen in love as they read his book. Most importantly, while they were dating those three weeks, they read   Watership Down. And she sat there for a few minutes in silence, thinking, while my dad, in agony, sat there and watched her think. It is that power that Richard Adams believed in and rendered in his novel. She was stunned by his proposal, and so she said, Let me think about it. Here, Emily Ruskovich revisits Richard Adams’s Watership Down. As I grew older, rabbits, like everything, became more complicated to me. He wrote back. I paced myself, to spread those beautiful twenty-four hours over the rest of that year apart. Watership Down is a kind of inheritance, a force that runs in my family, something that holds us together. On those CDs, I found twenty-four hours of his voice, chapters alternating with letters he spoke to me. In one sense, I admit that rabbits make for difficult pets. I read Watership Down for the first time when I was twenty-five. When one died suddenly from a botfly in her brain, the other was so devastated that he became a different rabbit—angry, bitter, defiant. I will continue to think of him when I give my rabbits an evening silflay of timothy hay, or when I hear the rumble of a hrududu in the distance and my rabbits’ bodies tense in the grass. Such a beautiful and whole heart gone from the world. The cover was shot through with white bolts where it had been creased, and perhaps it was from those severe folds that I divined the rabbit’s trepidation, and therefore felt my own trepidation about reading it. In those few minutes, she decided that even though she hardly knew my dad, she ought to marry him because:

He, like her, ate the entire apple, swallowed the core and all the seeds, so she knew he was not wasteful or pretentious. I didn’t read Watership Down as a child, though I remember seeing it around the house. We included this story—and my parents’ story—in our wedding vows, years later. She felt that Adams, more than any other fiction writer, had tunneled inside of her psychology and rendered her own emotions and behaviors perfectly in his rabbits. We are lucky he left his imagination behind. Again and again, an image from Adams’s life returns to me: of him and and his dearest friend, Ronald Lockley, an ornithologist who was also one of the most renowned rabbit experts in the world, who once traveled across Antarctica together. It is a terrifying sound. My parents had known each other for only three weeks when my dad asked my mom to marry him. The quote from the London Times on the back of the book still gives me chills: “I announce with trembling pleasure, the appearance of a great story.”
Never has a quote on the back of a book captured so perfectly my own feelings: this is the novel I love most in the world. Four hundred pages of a rabbit adventure, read by the man I loved. What a tremendous loss for all of us. To know that such a sound exists deep inside the silent body of my rabbit, and to know it is a sound she is saving up inside of her for the moment of her eternity, or at least for her moment of terror, and to know that she builds herself around that future scream, is a special kind of sadness for me. I remember knowing that this book was a part of the story of my parents’ love, and it was eerie to me that, in a way, I owed my life to this 1970s paperback. They were, and still are, a crucial part of my own life story. But then he made himself a studio by hanging sheets down from the ceiling around the couch, and there he read for hours every night. About a year after I read the novel, my boyfriend, Sam, gave me a collection of CDs. Shortly after Christmas, a dear friend wrote to me to tell me that Richard Adams had passed away on Christmas Eve. And I have seen two rabbits fall in love. They’ve been married now for thirty-three years. “You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. She chatters her teeth to purr—I can’t hear the chatter, but I can feel the vibration when I pet her forehead. She felt comforted by the rabbits’ straightforward approach to their emotions and said that reading the novel might actually help neurotypical people understand autism in a new way. Their stoicism is touching to me: a   rabbit makes no sound in all its life, except, in the moment of violent death, a rabbit can scream. My younger siblings had seen the animated adaptation and had told me there was a lot of blood. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel Idaho   is now out in paperback. They can be offish, easily startled, distrustful, and resigned. I saw that sadness on the cover of Watership Down. I have heard that scream maybe once before. After considering the question logically, my mom said yes, for five reasons. She is still young, but she is a member of the largest rabbit species on earth, a direct descendent from the Rabbits of Old. “They’ll be all right—and thousands like them. Revisited   is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Toward the end of the novel, the mythical black rabbit of death, a ghost rabbit of peace and power, appears beside the aged rabbit hero, Hazel, after he has brought two great rabbit societies together to live a peaceful life in the downs. I wrote to Richard Adams a couple of times, to tell him so, and sent him a photograph of the two rabbits I had who were in love. Unlike my brother and my older sister, who had both been attacked by rabbits, I had never known a rabbit to be violent. I have seen the aftermath of a mother rabbit tearing her newborn kits to shreds; I have had a rabbit leap at my hand one dark summer night and bite me so badly that it was difficult to stop the blood. Even as I write this, my Flemish Giant Marjorie rests on a towel on my desk beside my laptop, her red fur clinging with static to the screen. When my cousin, who has autism spectrum disorder, read the novel at my urging, she told me that the way Adams’s rabbits related to each other was the way she related to other people. The black rabbit suggests to Hazel that he come to join his Owsla. I know it probably wasn’t quite like that, but when I reread the final page of Watership Down and see Hazel leap into his beautiful afterlife, I think of Adams and Lockley   among the snowdrifts. That was the tipping point for my mom: if this strange and loud man could become so invested in the fates of rabbits as to have tears fill his eyes while he read, then he was, without question, a good man. I had spent my Christmas out in the country, and I hadn’t heard the news. She laughs when she tells this story, though she assures me that it’s true. She teaches in the M.F.A. I was mesmerized by the cover, the dignity in that rabbit’s eye, the sense of danger in that golden air all around him. So, for months, in secret, he had been recording himself reading Watership Down as a way to be close to me. Rabbits were prey, tender and strange, and I loved them deeply. “If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
The final words of the novel are a great comfort to me as I mourn the loss of Adams, who, though he is gone, has brought us together:
It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses. I listened to those rabbits make their harrowing journey as I rode the bus from Madison, Wisconsin, to Dubuque, Iowa, where Sam would be waiting for me to tell him what had just transpired in the lives of the rabbits he now knew so well. He and I lived in different states and were very lonely for each other. She likes the sound of my fingers tapping the keys. Rabbits killing one another in a war? The wound throbbed for days. My dad knew all the words to the Kenny Loggins song “House at Pooh Corner,” so she knew he was probably kind to children. Such power in one little rabbit—both of strength and of heart. Rabbits fighting? Truly—two rabbits who spent all their days licking one another’s eyes, licking one another’s foreheads. I didn’t want to see that. The author’s original creased paperback copy. program at Boise State University. He lived in a cabin with wood-paneled walls, so at first the echo on the recording was terrible. He would thump so hard out in his pen at night, challenging coyotes, that I would wake, panicked, thinking someone was breaking into the house. I didn’t read it as an allegory—I read it as a story about rabbits. He, like her, had always wanted to name a son the unusual name Rory, and that seemed an important, even wistful, thing to have in common.