A Story of Love and War in Wattle Flat
A Touching Tale
By Jenny Maclennan
I had this story from an old rabbit. He’d been a pampered pet in a plushy place in the town, but his owners had tired of cage cleaning and fur brushing. They had packed him into the car, driven some distance, and pushed him out of it by the side of the road near the small village. ‘Giving him his freedom’ they called it, but a rabbit it on the run finds himself in danger. He had no bush skills and was lucky to find refuge with a colony of wild guinea pigs, in a vast churchyard – all in ruins – in the little rural hamlet of Wattle Flat, up on the rise overlooking the village. The chief of the guinea pigs was Great-great-grandfather Romeo, a striking old gentleman with black and white fur. The rabbit was living out his days there when I met him, happy to be with creatures like him, yet unlike him, but sometimes nostalgia for human company had the better of him and he hopped down the track to my little shack, to nibble on a few lettuce leaves and pass the time of day.
Romeo, the doyen of the pack, the head honcho on the hill, as they called him behind his tail, loved to tell stories of the old days, and one October evening, the air still sharp, the silver moonlight shining on the old church, he rumbled around the churchyard, calling all the guinea pigs to attention. They settled down, grooming each other, the younger ones doing little hops in the air from excitement. It was story time.
‘It was on a night like this,’ he said, ‘that it all happened. The night of the battle.’
That wasn’t enough. The guinea pigs wanted to hear the entire saga of the colony’s life.
‘But tell us the whole story,’ pleaded the young ones, ‘right from the beginning.’
‘Very well. Our colony was formed when a few of us escaped from the hippies down the road, who were breeding guinea pigs to eat. Imagine little Peter here laid out on a plate covered with tomato sauce! The hippies left the cage open one evening, and a handful of us were brave enough to jump out. My darling Juliet came with me. At first we scattered in all directions in panic, but soon settled down and regrouped. Where to go? We didn’t have far to look. This churchyard had been one of the biggest rabbit colonies around, but the rabbits had left on a quest to find their spiritual home – Watership Down I think they called it.
‘It was perfect for us. Their old burrows protected us from the foxes and currawongs, an underground spring encouraged grass and edible plants, and the neighbours had gardens that any guinea pig worth his salt could break into. We have thrived here over the years and made a strong colony. But you couldn’t be complacent. We send scouts regularly at night to find out what was happening in the neighbourhood. A guinea pig has as many enemies as a rabbit. The humans had dogs, and cats were a problem. Bands of native animals lived at the Flat who would gladly eat a guinea pig. We could move fast into our little shelters, but a guinea pig’s life is always a hazardous one.
‘Then one day the scouts came with serious news. A colony of renegade bandicoots had formed in the Common just over yonder. Bandicoots mostly dislike company of their own kind and keep to themselves, but these young males had been harassed by gardeners, Jack Russell terriers and other enemies, and they were on the lookout for territory to take over. Our spies lay in the darkness listening to the bandicoots’ plan for a surprise attack on us.
‘We had to improve our defences. We needed numbers, and I,’ he looked really proud, ‘with my procreative proclivity,’ and here he gave a little wheek of pleasure, thinking of happy moments in the past, ‘helped to bring hundreds of new young lives into being. Bit by bit, we built up a defensive wall around the burrows with the hard shale stone that lies around. One of the lads came up with the idea of fashioning bits of rusty barbed wire, plenty of that here too, into sharp little swords. Every night we had troop drill, all the young ones, sword in their little paws, practising mock attacks. Our grasp of technology surprised us all. We had gone from cage-dependent, soft, plump dinner material for humans to tough, independent wild animals.
‘Our scouts kept up their surveillance and expected to hear more plans, but the bandicoots stopped talking about us. We found out later we had a Judas among us who had tipped them off. We made sure he had his just deserts … but I’m getting ahead.
‘It was a moonlit night in October just like tonight. We’d become complacent and were feeding outside our defence line, when the bandicoots attacked. We couldn’t retreat easily, so we had to stand and fight. They were tough, too, dealing blows left and right with their paws, kicking with their hind legs. My guinea pig family was dying on the dewy grass, but those long-practiced drills saved us. The troops picked up their barbed wire swords, always in readiness, and went in to meet the attack. Wounded bandicoots were bleeding everywhere. The cries of the injured and dying rent the night air.
‘The battle ebbed and flowed. We had better weapons, but the bandicoots were bigger and more agile. After hours of struggle it was almost dawn and the bandicoots were getting the better of us. A bandicoot prisoner of war told us about the Judas in our midst. On my responsibility a few of the lads overcame him by surprise and left his body at the churchyard gate. Guinea pigs have to stick together! It’s the only way forward for our society.
‘Ruin seemed imminent, but just as the birds started twittering we were saved. A human down the road let his dogs out for an early run, and they surprised the bandicoots from behind. Carnage! The remaining bandicoots fled and never came back.’
Romeo fixed his hard little pink eye on the rabbit, and some tears fell.
‘My dear Juliet was one of the victims, a sad evening.’
With a loud wheek he sent his listeners away and settled down quietly on his bed of straw.
‘That night,’ said the rabbit, ‘Romeo passed away to join Juliet in guinea pig heaven.’
‘Whatever that looks like,’ the rabbit added nostalgically, it couldn’t be more lovely than the old churchyard on a crisp October night, with the moon shining silver on the old gravestones.