The young rabbit had arrived in Thistlewood during the year of the flood. Like many of the little bucks and does who had fled to the drier warrens in Heartwood, he was alone. They asked his name, but even though he didn’t look scared, he wouldn’t speak. He was thin and tall for his age so they named him Reed.
Aster the plantwise took him in. She taught him the names of all the plants in her garden and the herbs and roots drying in her burrow. But about his past—where he was from, if he had brothers and sisters—he said nothing.
Reed loved Aster’s garden. He held each leaf and flower close to his nose, sniffing it carefully and curiously. This delighted Aster who saw it as a sign that he might become a plantwise like her. Reed wasn’t interested in the teas, herbal potions, and salves that lined her shelves, however, and he was careless in preparing the recipes she taught him.
Some mornings Aster woke to find Reed missing from his bed. When she finally asked where he had been he said he sometimes spent the night in the woods.
“Isn’t your bed comfortable?” Aster asked. He shrugged.
“I like it there,” he said and finished his breakfast.
This continued for weeks, Reed spending a few days in his bed and a few days in the woods. After a while, Aster stopped minding. She prayed to the spirit of the Dreaming Tree, which had given the rabbit folk the gift of thought and speech, to watch over him. And so she was satisfied that he was safe.
Then, one day, Birch the brewer came to get sage and yarrow for his ales. He lived alone at the edge of the warren and talked almost as little as Reed, so Aster was surprised when he spoke that morning.
“That buck of yours has been sleeping in the woods near my burrow,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, feeling slightly embarrassed. “Has he bothered you at all?” Birch said nothing. He just sorted through the pile of yarrow Aster had laid out. When he moved on to the sage, he spoke again.
“He’s more animal than rabbit,” he said. “Scampering up tres like a squirrel. Watching birds. Talkin’ to ‘em.”
“Talking to them?” Aster asked. This worried her. Was there something wrong with the buck that she missed? Perhaps she should give him herbs for his liver, which every plantwise knows must be healthy for a clear mind.
That was all Birch would say. He slung his full grass baskets over his shoulders, nodded his thanks, and left. That night at dinner, Aster told Reed about her talk with the brewer. She was worried about him talking to wild animals. Didn’t he enjoy the company of the other young does and bucks in Thistlewood?
“I like the animals better,” he shrugged and said nothing for the rest of dinner.
A few weeks later, Birch found Reed watching a group of waxwings outside his burrow in the way that he did whenever he studied an animal.
“Thieves,” Birch said. “Ate every juniper berry already.”
“All of them?” Reed asked.
“You see any?”
Reed looked at the trees that the waxwings were in. They were red cedars. Aster had taught him that. Only a day ago they were filled with berries. Now only a few remained.
Reed wandered off, and it wasn’t until hours later that Birch saw him again. He was carrying a grass sack filled to bursting with juniper berries.
“How’d you find those?” Birch asked.
“They told me,” Reed answered.
It was close to dusk and Birch thought it odd that the buck was still here.
“Don’t you got somewhere to be?” he said. Reed shook his head.
“Can’t figure out what to do with you, eh?” Birch said. “What about Flint? He built these.” He pointed to the stone huts built into the side of the large hollowed-out oak log that was his home. Reed said nothing.
Birch shook his head. He went inside and came out a moment later holding a bowl filled with boiled roots.
“It ain’t much but it’s dinner if you want it,” he said, laying the bowl on the stone wall. “Sleep in the granary if you want.”
Reed took the meal and walked off into the woods. Later, when he went to bed, Birch found the bowl back on the wall empty. The rabbit was nowhere in sight.
Over the next few days, Reed brought Birch more juniper berries until he told him he had enough. Any trouble the brewer had with the animals also seemed to go away when Reed was around. If Birch complained about squirrels dropping acorns on his roof, the next day the squirrels were gone. His small garden went untouched by bird or insect, and even the hornets that had nested in his storehouse had moved on.
“Seems like we can help each other,” Birch said one night as handed Reed his dinner. “I’ll cook and you fetch what I need. You sleep wherever suits you.” Reed nodded.
The next day Birch told Aster that Reed would be staying with him from now on. Some thought it a shame that the buck would live such an isolated life. Others considered it a perfect pairing. Who better to keep each other company that two rabbits who liked to live quietly in the woods?
At first, Birch sent Reed to get what he needed from Aster instead of coming himself. Then he began teaching him his craft, starting with the sweet licorice and ginger beers for the young ones.
Reed grew tall and strong, but never talkative. Each burrow he came to seemed blessed by his visit. Gardens grew fat, untroubled by crows and beetles, and a pair of owls settled in to watch over the warren. And with each year, the folk of Thistlewood would say that Birch’s beers and ales had never been better.