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Rensal the Redbit

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'Many years ago in Mytherranea, before the stars had names, when daisies were still called days' eyes, and the moon stayed up all night to keep the darkness company, there lived a race called redbits...'So begins the tale of Rensal, a small creature trying to make sense of a big world. Running along one day, Rensal bumps into the Tall One, a wise and mysterious redbit who loves to talk. Over tea, toast, and berries, the friends discuss life, love, creation, dreams, death, and everything else that lies under the sun.This is a book that gets to the heart of what it is to be young, of the joys and sorrows and confusions of childhood, and of the questions that continue to be pertinent even when we are full-grown - how we live, how we love, and what - if anything - it all means.

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I

ePub

Many years ago in Mytherranea, before the stars had names, when daisies were still called days’ eyes, and the moon stayed up all night to keep the darkness company, there lived a race called redbits. Mytherranea was so far to the East that some believed it was always the first to wake the sun in the morning. The redbits were not unlike our rabbits except that they were smaller and stayed small for much longer. There were grown-up redbits, of course, who were big, but the young redbits grew so slowly they could not imagine ever being big. Redbits loved to play in the grass. They ran around like flames dancing between the green columns and this was how they got their name. “There's a red-bit,” someone would shout, as if the grass had suddenly changed color. This mistake was repeated often and the name stuck (the world is probably full of colorful mistakes like these that nobody remembers anymore). The redbits had personal names too, of course, names such as Ludik and Silitar. But the redbit I want to tell you about was called Rensal.

 

II

ePub

Rensal began to visit the Tall One practically every day. It became a habit. Yes, Rensal knew what a habit was: he couldn't stop biting his nails at times, no matter how often he was told not to. A habit made a redbit special. Flowers were beautiful, but Rensal never saw a flower with its own habits. Redbits, on the other hand, had peculiar habits that made each one a little different from the other.

Most flowers lean on the wind in the same way. Redbits, on the other hand, play with the wind in a variety of ways. No two redbit somersaults look the same. No two redbits laugh or cry or smile or run or even think the same. Yes, Rensal knew about habits all right, and talking to the Tall One was a habit that was growing on him day by day.

Their first conversation about imagination, dreams, night, and death had whetted Rensal's appetite. To be sure, he was a little scared of the Tall One's candor and did not always understand the meaning of his words, but Rensal was a curious redbit, and he felt he could ask the Tall One almost anything.

 

III

ePub

One day, when the Tall One was stoking the coals to heat the water for tea, Rensal said, “Fire and water seem alike to me.”

“How so?” asked the Tall One, as the flames began to dance above the rake.

“They flow. They change shape. They are not solid like you and I,” said Rensal.

“Yet, we do have fire and water inside us,” said the Tall One.

Rensal began to touch himself as if he might reach inside and feel the fire. Finally, in disbelief, he chided the Tall One. “You can't fool me. The water inside us I can understand, but fire—you can't be serious.”

The Tall One smiled. “It is difficult to picture fire inside us,” he agreed, “but how else could we walk, run, talk, or somersault without a fire inside us to move the muscles, to lift the bones, to turn the wheels so to speak.”

Rensal had learnt that whenever the Tall One said “so to speak,” he was trying to make something difficult a little easier to understand. So Rensal thought for a minute about the wheels inside him and the fires that turned them.

 

IV

ePub

One day, Rensal woke from a dream that troubled him and he could hardly wait to tell the Tall One. In the dream, God was laughing up his sleeve at the redbits who believed in him. Rensal awoke with a sick feeling. God's laughter seemed so evil and the sleeve was the kind of sleeve that could only appear in a dream, a sinister sleeve to say the least. And the poor redbits in the dream seemed so betrayed…

Rensal was in a hurry to reach the Tall One and only washed about half the sleep from himself in his haste. He also knew that dreams had a way of finding perfect hiding places as the day went by. In the morning, he could catch a dream and hold on to it for a while. By afternoon, he couldn't be sure, so Rensal made an early start.

The air seemed young and fresh and not at all drowsy. The sun was beginning to climb the ladder of the sky, but the warmth of it still seemed far off. Rensal ran. The dew drenched his paws as he kicked his way through the grass. The Tall One was lighting his first pipe of the day when Rensal arrived, slightly out of breath from his running. The smoke framed their conversation with an envelope of scented currents as the dialogue began.

 

V

ePub

At night, Rensal often looked at the sky for hours on end. Sometimes, on very sleepless nights, he even saw the stars disappear into the morning mists. He imagined they were still there hiding in the dawn light. “Most things hide in the dark,” Rensal thought to himself, “except stars. They hide in the light.”

Rensal thought the moon was the most beautiful star of all, but the others winked at him so much he could hardly give them any less attention. In fact, he played more with the stars than with the moon. The moon had its own name after all and seemed to move around the sky with a mind of its own. The nameless stars were invitations to imagine whatever you fancied.

At night, his wishes hung in the sky, dangling from the stars like candle-lit gifts on a magical tree. Rensal had his own names for the stars, homemade names that made the night as familiar as his own backyard: Runaway, Comeback, Teardrop, Laughing-Eyes, Milk-Spill—these were some of his names for them. Others, he named in clusters according to their shapes: Four-Eyes, Silver-Spade, Night-Spire, Spider-Light, Looking-Glass.

 

VI

ePub

One day, Rensal was playing with Ludik and Silitar. They were running to and fro in the grass, like flames parting and becoming one again. The wind ran in and out between them, like a fourth player, eager to join in. Their voices rose and fell, accompanying their games like music. The sun, from afar, added heat to their rhythms. Stepping Stone Stream blew a breeze from its throat to cool them. In the small world of their play, they seemed as far from the commerce of the Tall World as night from day. But not for long.

They had played “Acorns,” “Hear a Leaf,” and were in the middle of “Touch the Sky,” when Rensal brought everything to a halt with one of his questions. This habit of Rensal's, needless to say, did not endear him to his friends. A game was something to be played, not questioned. In fact, there was nothing like questions for destroying the rhythm of a good game.

“Acorns” was a game redbits loved to play. When redbits were being called home from the fields for bedtime, nine times out of ten you can be sure Acorns was the game that was being interrupted. Acorns was so simple, yet so enjoyable. “How many acorns in my fist? How many acorns on your list?” one redbit would shout with his fist raised and the others would have to guess. The correct guess brought possession of another fistful of acorns. A good guesser could amass a small fortune of acorns by nightfall. There were bad guessers, of course, and fists were often raised for reasons other than counting. But the rhythms of games have their own ways of re-establishing order, as you know.

 

VII

ePub

When anyone asked Rensal what he would wish to be if he couldn't be a redbit, without hesitation he always gave the same answer: “A bird.”

At first, Rensal loved birds because they had wings but gradually he began to love their singing even more than their flight. It was birdsong that rinsed his face with music in the mornings, pulling him out of darkness into the light of day.

If Rensal had his way, birdsong would accompany him everywhere, as intimate and constant as his own shadow. Rensal could imitate their music and when the birds deserted him, he conjured them up again with the magic of mimicry. It was quite a sight and quite a sound to discover Rensal in rehearsal, but this was rare since he liked to keep his artistry a secret from everyone. But not from the Tall One.

The Tall One would probably never have known of Rensal's musical interest, had the topic of secrets not cropped up one day in conversation.

“Flowers have no secrets. They wear everything on their sleeves,” the Tall One was explaining. “Only redbits have secrets. In fact, secrets make redbits unique.” The Tall One's way of turning what seemed like vices into virtues always astonished Rensal. A secret, in the Tall One's opinion, was the mind's magic, nothing to be ashamed of.

 

VIII

ePub

After a conversation with the Tall One, Rensal would often continue the dialogue with himself. He would think of things he wished he had said, reminding himself to bring them up next time.

At such moments, Rensal seemed out of contact with the world around him, and was often called absent-minded by his friends. But it was not absent at all: In fact his mind was a canvas full of trial colors where words and images reviewed the scenes of the past and tried to peek into the future.

For instance, in their last conversation they had spoken about music and Rensal, in retrospect, could not for the life of him understand how poetry had stayed out of the reckoning. He wrote poetry. In secret, to be sure, but there were fewer and fewer secrets between him and the Tall One, so that could hardly explain his omission. “Next time,” Rensal said to himself, bringing the internal monologue to a close.

Next time, not surprisingly, turned out to be the following morning. It was the kind of morning that could pull poetry from stones, if you know what I mean. The sky was a sheet of white and blue, mixed so delicately it was impossible to say where one began and the other left off. The earth was moist and gently reaching for the sun. The stream was beginning to play with the fringes of light. The music of the birds was stitching the many fabrics of the world into one seamless piece of cloth.

 

IX

ePub

Rensal, though young, was becoming aware that life was not all play, nor all music and poetry either. There was fear and illness and death also, dark shadows that jostled with light for space.

War was another word that had recently entered his vocabulary. “The war is over,” he heard one tall one say expressively to another.

Rensal had not known that the war was on, or what war was for that matter, but it did seem to be something that was better over, that you're better off without. He wondered if it was a subject he could discuss with the Tall One. He would find a way to ease it into the conversation.

Next morning, on his way to the Tall One's, he picked some berries from the bushes beside the stream. “They will go well with toast and tea,” he thought to himself. The berries hid their dark rich colors under leaves and thorns, but Rensal's fingers could have plucked them in darkness without missing one or pricking himself. When his basket was full of berries beyond the brim, he hurried past the bend in the stream towards his destination.

 

X

ePub

One evening, Rensal fell asleep in the meadow under a quilt of stars and dreamt a dream that ruined the beauty of the night with its sinister plot.

In the morning, the dream made off in a hurry like darkness running from the dawn light but Rensal closed his eyes, strained hard, and held on to the vanishing images for dear life. His tenacity was rewarded and soon he had all the images on a string in his mind in a shining sequence: In the dream, a redbit looked in a mirror and watched the color fading from his hair, like rubies turning paler than snow in a flash. Without color, he could hardly recognize himself. But there was worse to come. When he met his redbit friends, they teased him and called him names, “Whitebit, whitebit, what an ugly sight-bit,” and they laughed and laughed.

In the dream, the laughter felt like a knife of shame that sliced the poor whitebit into several pieces; each piece trying to hide from the other in humiliation.

When Rensal awoke he felt convinced for a moment that he was the whitebit. That moment seemed longer in duration than many a day or night to Rensal until he reached the mirror of the stream and saw a familiar redbit looking back at him in relief. Rensal sighed. He sat down beside the drowsy stream, exhausted already first thing in the morning.

 

XI

ePub

One day, after Rensal had seen the redwing in the stream, he wondered what became of it. At first, he was afraid to touch it or even look at it. Later, he couldn't get it out of his mind.

What became of it after it drowned in the stream? Was there a history of redwings, or was there only a history of famous redwings? Were redwings who intimidated the wind with their flight remembered, while redwings who lost their hold of the wind were forgotten? If this was history, one were better off without it, thought Rensal to himself sadly.

“History doesn't exist,” said the Tall One, when Rensal arrived with his dilemma. “Redwings exist and the wind exists and death exists and memory exists but history doesn't exist.”

“What's the difference, then, between memory and history?” asked Rensal, trying to follow the logic.

“Memory is alive. History is dead,” said the Tall One bluntly.

“But isn't history a way to keep the dead alive?” asked Rensal.

“Yes,” said the Tall One, “But we can only keep the famous living. The forgotten are dead forever.”

 

XII

ePub

One day, Rensal was counting on his paws—three digits on one paw, three on the other. Suddenly, he said to himself, “If there were no parts of the body to count on, I bet there would be no numbers. Would the Tall One agree with me?” he wondered to himself.

Looking around him, suddenly he could see numbers everywhere: five flowers looking at themselves in the stream; hundreds of leaves above him; one sun; one sky; two white clouds chasing one other; eleven or more redbits in the distance, stirring the landscape a little with their play. “Could it all have begun on my fingers? What a peach of a question,” he whispered to himself, mimicking the Tall One.

When Rensal had a question such as this, there was an extra bounce in his legs as he made his way towards the Tall One. The question fluttered inside him like a bird in a cage trying to get out. The Tall One must have sensed Rensal's eagerness, since he greeted him by saying:

“Before you ask the question that is burning a hole in your tongue, would you like some tea? I still have a few of those delicious berries left to crown your toast with.”

 

XIII

ePub

One morning, after toast and a thousand questions, the Tall One said to Rensal quietly, “You have asked me many questions about beginnings, but never have you asked me how redbits begin.”

“I only ask you what I don't already know,” said Rensal simply.

“You mean you know how redbits are made and given birth to?” asked the Tall One in surprise.

“Yes, I've seen birth in the fields many times,” said Rensal matter-of-factly.

“And you know what slender seeds support our origins?” said the Tall One, not sure if he was asking a question or stating a fact.

“Yes, I've seen the animals in the fields. At first, I thought they were fighting. Then I knew it was not war but love. They were sharing pieces of themselves with each other so that new animals could be made out of the old.”

“Tall ones creating little ones,” added Rensal philosophically, simply, as if the mystery had been solved without difficulty.

“Well,” said the Tall One, “You're something else.”

 

XIV

ePub

One September day, when the air was sharp and the light was brilliant, Rensal watched the autumn leaves falling. He gathered a few and carried them to the Tall One.

“Spring and summer have passed. They have left their shadows behind in these leaves,” said Rensal like a poet.

“Even their shadows are beautiful,” said the Tall One consolingly.

“I remember my first autumn,” said Rensal. “No one had told me about seasons. I thought the trees were on fire.”

“Yes,” said the Tall One. “Flames falling out of the trees in many shapes and colors, giving a visible form to the invisible wind. I know what you mean.”

“I was really afraid the first time,” said Rensal honestly.

“But from then on you called it a season and you were no longer afraid,” said the Tall One knowingly.

“Yes, the word helped. Everything was falling down, but the word ‘season’ made sense out of it,” said Rensal.

“A word that helpful should be used more than four times a year,” laughed the Tall One.

 

XV

ePub

Having discussed the beginnings of each important thing that had ever entered his mind, one day Rensal had the idea to discuss where his interest in beginnings came from in the first place.

“What a perfect peach of a question,” said Rensal to himself, knowing that the Tall One would get as much of a kick out of it as he did. Rensal looked at the stream that kept him company as he walked. Did it care about its beginnings, the first seeds of water in the high rocks close to the sky that gathered speed, trying to make a name for themselves? Were beginnings the foolish obsession of redbits only?

The stream was beginning to dimple with gentle morning currents as Rensal reached the Tall One's house.

“Why do I care so much about beginnings?” asked Rensal. The Tall One was beginning to light his first pipe. “The stream doesn't seem to care a whit. It just flows and reflects me whenever I happen to be close to it,” said Rensal indignantly.

“Oh, you can be sure you're still there, Rensal, even when it's not reflecting you,” said the Tall One, trying to humor him, his pipe interrupting speech with punctuations of smoke.

 

XVI

ePub

One morning, Rensal awoke from a dream that troubled him so much he tried to stamp it out, like the cinders of a fire you have no further use of, but the dream refused to leave.

Rensal had a nagging memory. Dreams became a part of memory of course, a part he had grown to accept. But this dream he would have disowned if he knew how. The dream was set in a courtroom: a redbit judge was presiding; to his right a jury of redbits; in front of him a packed courtroom; the four walls resounding with the words, “No further questions.”

Rensal awoke in a cold sweat. In an instant he knew what the dream meant. In an instant he knew what he was trying to forget. If he had no further questions for the Tall One…What a rotten peach of a thought.

Rensal walked around all day after this dream like a redbit who has eaten the berries that make you see things that are not really there at all. He hardly greeted Ludik and Silitar when they met. He hardly noticed the stream or the sky or the very grass he walked on. At times he was beside himself, leaning this way and that way into his thoughts.

 

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