The First Rabjinn
Part One of Three
By: Gabriella Balcom
As he took a long, deep sniff, Mortimer Sandyfur's nose twitched. Admiring his flowers and enjoying their fragrance were two of his favorite things. His climbing roses and morning glories entwined their way up a pole to the right of his door, stretched across the top of the doorway, and cascaded back down the other side. Pride expanded his chest as he took in the roses' rich huescrimson and maroon along with lighter colorsand the morning glories' varying shades of pink which blended right in with the reds. His decision to also include strains of vivid blue and deep purple morning glories had been a good one; they stood out beautifully.
Studying his home, a five-foot section of fallen tree trunk, Mortimer smiled. His love for it grew with each passing day, and the place was everything he'd hoped it would be and more.
A year ago, he'd come across a partially-burnt tree while exploring the forest beyond his village of Deep Thicket. He'd guessed it had burned awhile after being struck by lightning, then toppled over.
Unlike the other rabbits who'd foraged for food close to home, Mortimer's strong curiosity about their surroundings had always driven him to go longer distances. But he'd also been motivated by hunger. The more affluent rabbits had always exhausted the available food within the village and the areas immediately surrounding it. This meant the rest of them were forced to search farther.
Dwellings were also scarce in Deep Thicket if one wasn't born into a home. Usually, Mortimer had slept underneath dense bushes or downed trees, with occasional stays in the warrens of ill or elderly rabbits. So, from the moment he'd seen the fallen treebroken into several sections on the forest floorhe'd recognized its potential.
The village Council had been quite cross when Mortimer brought two bears with him to Deep Thicket one day. But they had been the only creatures big enough and strong enough to push a piece of that tree back to the village for him. He'd traded personal knowledgethe location of some particularly berry-laden bushes and rotten logs packed with grubsin return for their assistance, and they'd had no plans to hurt the rabbits or encroach upon their territory.
Despite learning that the bears meant no harm, the Council had considered banishing Mortimer as a punishment. Fortunately, a few others had risen to his defense. Even so, councilmembers had murmured about what they'd called his 'serious lack of judgment.' Their incredulity had grown when he'd decided to live in the section of trunk the bears had delivered for him. "We're meant to live under the ground in warrens and burrows, not in trees," they'd stressed. His defense had centered on the overcrowding within Deep Thicket, and of course, his homelessness. Although they'd acknowledged these facts, the Council had pointed out the trunk was in poor condition. Cracked and scorched, one end of it had even boasted a hole. But Mortimer had recognized the wood's underlying sturdiness and imagined how it could look, so others' opinions hadn't changed his mind. And he'd already considered possible solutions to the problems.
Remembering that day's arguments, Mortimer couldn't help but think of the ongoing food shortage their village faced and he shivered. Hunger was something he'd known firsthand. His parents' deaths in the dead of winter when he was quite young had left him in a perilous position, and none of his siblings had made it. He hadn't been able to find much food, and despite his inborn ability to regulate his body temperature and functions, he'd come quite close to freezing. Then, after leaving his family's warren one day to forage, he'd returned to discover it had been claimed by a large family of rabbits just as poor as he wasbut with many kits. Recognizing this, he hadn't argued the matter.
Elderly neighbors had shared their meager provisions with him and briefly taken him in. Their kindness had saved his life that winter, and he'd sworn never to forget. Enduring hardships and surviving had made him resilient, and he'd grown up determined to help others.
Mortimer had handled his share of issues with his tree trunk, too. But he'd bargained with birds, raccoons, and a pair of beavers living in the river near Deep Thicket, trading them food or other goods for their help in sealing the worst of the unwanted cracks. Eventually, his plans had been successful, and his new home had become snug and warm.
His next idea, which had been unheard of until then, was for the rabbits in his village to try to grow food for themselves and eradicate the scarcity. He’d brought it before the Council, very passionate about the possibilities, and he'd suggested everyone pitch in to help and get things started. But the majority of the councilmembers had responded with laughter and incredulous looks. He'd felt like sinking into the ground, but he'd moved forward with his plan on his own. Searching out wild carrots the same way he always had, Mortimer had eaten them only up to the roots, which he then saved to bring home with him. He'd combed through the forest directly around the village, then farther out, after which he'd carefully carried seeds, cuttings, and roots back to his home in his mouth. Then he'd cleared the earth around his tree trunk and planted everything he'd accumulated.
"Have you lost your mind?" other rabbits had jeered. "Are you a badger or dog, digging around like that? Or a human, to think you can grow a garden?" Mortimer had ignored the naysayers, thanked those who'd wished him well, and waited.
Deep Thicket usually got plenty of rain, but when it remained dry for a few days, he'd carried mouthfuls of water from the river to dribble over his garden.
Sprout after sprout had soon come up in Mortimer's yard. The plants had flourished, and the rabbits who'd scorned him had fallen quiet. Carrots, watercress, greens, strawberriesa large array had grown effortlessly, requiring little attention. After this, a few rabbits had followed his example. Since then, his garden had provided him with the majority of what he'd needed, and he'd shared with those struggling to care for themselves.
Thinking now about how far he'd come, Mortimer sniffed his flowers again, and couldn't help but feel a deep sense of satisfaction.
"They're beautiful, Mortimer," a doe said behind him.
He'd recognize Buttercup's voice anywhere. "Thank you," he said, turning to smile at her. They'd known each other from birth, raised in two burrows next to each other.
"You're welcome. Since you've proven everyone wrong about gardening, what are you going to tackle next?" She grinned at him. "Are you going to solve the problem of cold weather? Maybe come up with a way for all of us to stay warm no matter what?"
Mortimer chuckled. He'd always loved her sense of humor. But she'd reminded him of something important. "Something has been on my mind lately. I've been dreaming about it for months."
Narrowing her eyes, Buttercup studied him, then snorted. "Surely you aren't thinking of that brainless thing again."
"Primrose isn't brainless," he argued. "She's lovely. And delicate. A real lady and a wonderful rabbit."
"You can believe that if you want to, but it's not anywhere close to the truth. Do you honestly think she'd ever get her paws dirty helping you garden? Or help you bring food to the poor and sick?"
"Of course, she'd help." Mortimer's irritation grew. "She's not what you think. You're wrong about her. She's she's "
"A spoiled, lazy twit!"
He glared at her.
The following day
"Live in a hovel?" Primrose asked, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something rotten. "With you? You don't even have a decent warren."
Mortimer wilted at her obvious disgust, and he couldn't prevent the squeak of pain from slipping from his mouth. "I thought we had a… strong connection."
She stared at him incredulously. "You must be joking. You're the laughingstock of the village," she blurted before bursting into laughter.
The truth crushed him. "So you never liked me. Just the berries and clover I brought you?"
Primrose merely chortled as if she hadn't just stomped on his heart.
As he hopped away, Mortimer's eyes swam with tears. He couldn't see where he was going, smacked right into a tree, and fell backward, stunned. A few jeers rang out behind him from those who'd gathered, but he didn't care.
Once he'd returned home, he didn't bother lighting a candle, and just huddled in a dark corner. A few minutes later, he heard a tap on his door.
"Mortimer?" Buttercup called out. When he didn't answer, she added, "I know you're in there."
"Go away," he mumbled.
Hearing a creak, he realized he'd forgotten to latch his doorunwise with all the weasels and rats about, known for their unwanted intrusions. "I mean it," he stressed, hearing her move toward him. "Leave. I don't feel like talking."
"Okay." She sat beside him in the dark. "So don't talk." After several minutes of silence, she spoke softly. "You're kind, Mortimer. The kindest rabbit I've ever met. And for as long as I've known you, which is our whole lives, you've shared whatever you've had with everyone. You encourage those who need it and give them hope to keep trying. You've always been well, sweet and nice. And you're smart, too."
"I'm not intelligent at all," he murmured, still feeling the shame of being laughed at and hearing his home called a hovel and himself a laughingstock. "I’m stupid." Though he'd been insulted before, hearing insults from the one rabbit he'd longed for and daydreamed about for months had decimated his self-esteem.
"Listen to me," Buttercup fussed, moving to face him almost nose-to-nose. "Stop being stubborn and really hear my words."
"Okay, okay. Stop yelling."
"Then start listening."
Mortimer gave her a dirty look, "Pushy doe."
She crossed her eyes at him. "You, too."
Unable to keep his nose from twitching, he snickered despite himself.
"All right." Buttercup nodded in approval. "Now we're getting somewhere." After listing example after example of his generosity and kindness, she reminded him that he'd turned a tree trunk into a home successfully and demonstrated teamwork with other animals. "You had the idea for a garden, proved it could work, and helped several families grow their own. That got them through the winter. Look at everything you've achieved. You're successful add a great rabbit."
"Not to Primrose."
Buttercup shrugged. "So what? She doesn't matter. Her opinion doesn't matter. Have you seen her help anyone? Ever?" He said nothing. "You haven't, have you? That's because she cares about no one but herself. When kits and the elderly are hungry, she demands the best and juiciest fruits. And many have complained over seeing her throw away food she didn't think was good enough for her, despite others being in need and having nothing."
"Enough already," Mortimer muttered.
"Have I exaggerated?"
He just sighed.
"All right then."
Mortimer noticed her twinkling eyes. "You don't have to be smug about it."
"I'm sorry for your pain, but you deserve so much better. And when's the last time you admitted I was right?"
He grimaced and she chuckled.
Five days later
After a tasty snack of carrots and clover, Mortimer dozed off. But he woke to the sound of knocking on his front door. With a huge yawn, he stretched, then opened the door and froze. Governor Prentice Longlegs stood on his doorstep along with the rest of the elders in the Council.
"Ah, there you are," Governor Prentice said in his raspy voice. "We're here on a matter of the utmost importance."
Eyes flicking from one serious face to the next, Mortimer felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. "Uhwhat is it?" he asked, joining his visitors outside.
The governor had a tendency to ramble, and this time was no different. His long-winded discourse made no sense to Mortimer, who wondered what the Council's decision to form new alliances had to do with him. When he heard the word magic, though, he paid much closer attention. Rabbits had no magical ability whatsoever, but they'd all heard tales of other beings with powers. He'd always wondered if the stories were true.
Then Mortimer realized the elders had been accompanied by a large brown hare he'd never seen before. The hare nodded in greeting, but something about him set Mortimer's senses on alert. He stared hard at the stranger and realized he didn't look solid. His outline flickered slightly, and his body seemed smoky. Mortimer's hackles raised, and he bared his teeth at the newcomer. "What are you?"
"Mortimer! Don't be rude!" Governor Prentice snapped.
"It's all right," the brown hare said. "I respect directness and honesty." His body shimmered and began to expand. Soon a large smoky entity floated in the air, his brilliant crystalline eyes meeting Mortimer's suspicious gaze. "I'm a djinn," he explained. "But some people use the term genie for my kind. My name is Zaatad."
"Genie?" Mortimer thought of the tales he'd been told when he was a little kit. "Like in the human tales? Genies who live in lamps and grant wishes? I thought they were make believe."
"Oh, I assure you I'm real."
Seeing Zaatad's sparking eyes, Mortimer couldn't help but chuckle. But he gasped after Governor Prentice spoke again, then argued, "You can't be serious."
"I know you don't understand." Zaatad spoke firmly but his tone was gentle. "But you will. And it's not as bad as you think."
"What do you mean it's not as bad as I think?" Mortimer demanded. "It's much worse." He fumed at the Council. "You just said I wouldn't be able to live in my home anymore. That's bad. Telling me I'd be trapped inside some stupid metal lamp is bad, too. Saying I'd be relocated to the remotest part of Deep Thicket is bad again." Realizing his voice shook, he took a breath. "I'm not a piece of property you can treat any old way you want. I'm a rabbit just like you and I have the same rights you do. Just because you're wealthy and have power doesn't mean you can treat me as if I'm nothing. I don't want to be enslaved in some cold, nasty, old lamp."
"The agreement is already in place," Governor Prentice emphasized. "And this place is promised to another family."
"Promised?" Eyes blazing, Mortimer hissed at Prentice, who hastily backed away. "This home is not yours to give away. It's my home. I bargained to get it here, and my efforts made it what it is." His furious gaze swept over every councilmember. "None of you did anything to help me. Some of you went out of your way to discourage me and call me a failure. None of you apologized, even after you saw you were wrong. Even after I showed you a way to help our poor and proved it could be done. How dare you act as though you have the right to steal my home!"