The Foundling

Elizabeth woke up early and lay in bed for a few minutes thinking about Gerald. Today was their last day together. Tomorrow morning his aunt and uncle would arrive from Connecticut to take him home to live with them. Elizabeth had no brothers or sisters, but for the past two weeks Gerald had been like a big brother and she didn’t want that to end. She watched the sun’s rays slanting across her bed and thought about the first night at the dinner table when Gerald had been so silent and shy, his almost white hair covering half his eyes. Neither of them had known what to say. Later when she had shown him around the farm, he was very quiet, looking a long time at everything but not saying much.

In the days that followed, he began to talk more as they rode horses through the sagebrush or gathered alfalfa for the rabbits. He never laughed, and Elizabeth thought he had the tiniest smile in all the world. Even though he was two years older than Elizabeth, he never acted bossy or like a know-it-all, the way the bigger boys at school did. He had told her about his parents’ deaths in a plane crash and about his aunt and uncle, whom he’d seen only a few times on holidays. Now they would be his new parents.

Elizabeth dressed slowly, wishing this last day would never end. When her father had first told her that a boy was going to stay with them for two weeks until his aunt and uncle could pick him up, she wasn’t sure she’d like that—a strange boy she’d never even seen before. But now she wished he could stay forever.

When Elizabeth went down to breakfast, she found that Gerald had already eaten and gone outside. She gulped her eggs quickly and ran out to find him. She searched around the chicken coops and looked inside the barn. Finally she saw him stooped down by a woodpile, peering between the boards. Elizabeth approached him quietly. “What are you doing?”

Gerald did not turn around. “There’s a baby rabbit in here,” he said in his quiet, pleasant voice. She stooped down beside him.

“Where?” she said softly. “I don’t see it.”

Gerald pointed between two boards, and Elizabeth saw the snowy white fur of the kit. Very slowly and gently, Gerald put his hand between the boards and then quickly grabbed the rabbit and pulled it out. It was very small and fluffy. He held it in one hand and stroked its ears with his finger. The kit blinked its pink eyes nervously, but did not seem too frightened.

“Last spring we had a terrific windstorm that blew over our rabbit hutches,” Elizabeth said. “Lots of rabbits got out and we never caught them all; this must be from one of them.”

“It’s as small and round as the white doorknob on our bathroom door,” Gerald said. “I’m going to call it Knob.” He stood up and tucked the rabbit into his shirt pocket.

Elizabeth followed him as he walked toward the canal, where some big white ducks were swimming on the still water. “Gerald,” she said as she caught up with him, “I think maybe you should leave that kit in the woodpile. Its mother is probably still nearby.”

Gerald looked at her, and the morning sun glistened on his hair. His eyes were very blue. “No,” he said, “this rabbit is an orphan like me. Your rabbits are all in pens.” He stared at the ducks, his mouth firm.

“Didn’t you hear what I said about the windstorm?”

“Yes, I heard, but Knob is an orphan.” He patted his pocket and smiled his tiny smile.

Elizabeth did not know what else to say. “Come on,” she said finally, “let’s go look at the new calf.”

They leaned their elbows on the rough boards of the calf pen and watched the wobbly black and white calf. From time to time Gerald took Knob from his pocket and stroked its little ears. Elizabeth could see how much he was starting to love the rabbit. She remembered the soft cocker puppy her father had brought her for her birthday, and she knew how Gerald felt. But she was worried about the baby rabbit, afraid that it needed its mother.

After lunch, she and Gerald sat on the sloping grass behind the house and ate cookies. “Gerald, that rabbit is probably hungry.”

He looked at her quickly, surprised. “That’s right!” he said, and broke a tiny crumb off his cookie and tried to poke it into the animal’s mouth. But it would not take it.

“It needs milk from a mother rabbit,” Elizabeth said.

“Do you think one of your mother rabbits would feed him?” Gerald asked.

“One of them has babies about that size. We could try.”

They ran down the dirt lane to the barn where the rabbit pens stood against the north side, out of the sun. Elizabeth opened the door to a pen containing a wooden nesting box that was open on one side. A doe was nursing her babies inside. “Just put it with the others. Maybe she won’t notice.”

Gerald took the kit gently from his pocket, looked into its eyes, and then placed it carefully in the box. The little rabbit sat still, blinking. Gerald pushed it up closer to the doe. The mother rabbit gave it a quick kick with her hind leg, and the kit tumbled into the corner of the box. Gerald put it up to her again, and again she kicked it away.

“It’s no use,” Elizabeth said. “If they won’t, they won’t.”

Gerald slowly picked up the rabbit and cupped it in his hands again, gazing fondly at it. He turned to Elizabeth, his eyes sad and helpless. “What will I do?”

“We’d better take it back to the woodpile.”

“No!” Gerald said, quickly tucking the rabbit into his pocket.

He and Elizabeth sat on a log in the shade beside the barn, both trying to think what to do. “Why wouldn’t she take him?” Gerald asked. “He looks just like her own.”

“But it’s not her own, and that’s why. She can tell by the smell.”

Gerald looked at Elizabeth closely and thoughtfully. “When my aunt and uncle come and get me, will they feel like that? That I’m not their own?”

Elizabeth wanted very much to say something to make Gerald feel better. She leaned over and sniffed his sleeve. “You smell OK, Gerald. They won’t notice.”

Gerald smiled the smallest possible smile. “They might notice. And when I do things wrong, they might say, ‘Well he’s not our own. We don’t have to put up with that.’”

Elizabeth thought for a few minutes. “I wish you were my big brother, Gerald.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No, I really mean it. We could explore in the foothills and ride the horses all over and get on the school bus together. It would be a good feeling to have someone who belonged to you, who’d always be around, even if you fought sometimes.”

“Well, I wish I could stay, too, but I can’t.” Gerald stroked his shirt pocket with his finger. “It was nice of your dad to let me stay here, your mom too.”

They were both silent for a few minutes. Finally Elizabeth said, “People are different from animals. When the bunnies get big, the doe just pushes them away. And she really doesn’t care about them anymore. If Dad butchers them and puts them in the freezer, she still doesn’t care. People aren’t like that.”

“I guess not.” Gerald dug around in the dirt with a small stick.

“Folks can love someone besides their own kids, and if they do, they keep on loving them no matter what they do.”

“I hope so.” Gerald smiled a little bigger smile. Then his face lit up. “Once my mama fed a baby kitten with an eyedropper. You got one of those?”

“I think so. We could try it. Come on!”

Later, on the front lawn with a cup of warm milk and the eyedropper, Gerald took the rabbit from his pocket. Its eyelids were a little droopy. Elizabeth handed Gerald the eyedropper full of milk. He pushed it into the corner of the rabbit’s mouth and squeezed some milk in. The rabbit sputtered and coughed as the milk ran out of its mouth.

Gerald looked at her despairingly. “If Knob won’t eat, he’ll die,” he said. Neither of them said anything for some time. Gerald stroked Knob’s soft fur from its pink nose to its powder puff tail with his finger. He rubbed it gently against his cheek. Finally he looked up at Elizabeth. “Come on,” he said, “let’s take it to the woodpile.”

Elizabeth jumped to her feet. “OK,” she agreed happily.

At the woodpile, both of them carefully lifted off the boards and laid them aside. Peering down, Gerald saw some white fur way down on the ground. “She’s still in there,” he whispered. His face was sad but relieved. They removed a few more boards until they could see the rabbit better. Several little furry balls lay along its stomach nursing.

Gerald knelt down and took Knob from his pocket, looked at him for a minute, and then carefully put his hands through the boards and laid the little rabbit against its mother. It lay for a moment and then nosed into the mother’s fur and began to suck. Gerald half smiled at Elizabeth.

“He’ll be OK now,” she said. They carefully put the boards back and walked toward the house.

“Your aunt and uncle will be here tomorrow, I guess.”

“Yeh.” Gerald kicked a small rock through the dust. “I hope they’ll like having me.”

“If they like you as much as I do, you’ll be all right,” Elizabeth said. She smiled at Gerald, and he smiled back—a big smile this time.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown