Exploring the art of prose


The Witch Hare by AJ Strosahl

alt text: image is a color photograph of a lantern surrounded by autumn leaves; title card for the short story "The Witch Hare" by AJ Strosahl

In the first sentence of her outstanding author’s note, AJ Strosahl offers an essential craft lesson in a mere eight words. While constructing character, Strosahl’s former instructor Ingrid Rojas Contreras asks, “How is this person ruining their own life?” This question has the potential to serve as the foundation for internal and external conflict, a jumping-off point that drives both character and plot development. When asked during the opening pages of a short story or novel, the answer to this inquiry will offer the protagonist’s status quo, revealing the character’s current situation, flaws, and, ultimately, the necessity for change. The steps the character needs to take—or thinks she needs to take—in order to remedy this ruin will inform the core action of the story.

In “The Witch Hare,” Strosahl utilizes this question not only to create three strong central figures, all of whom feel deeply developed and alive, but also to create a plot full of urgency and increasing stakes. Additionally, she expands the inquiry to demonstrate how our own decisions also impact the lives of those around us. Early in the narrative, Strosahl’s narrator encounters a young girl, Macky, and her mother, Sheila, with whom she enters a relationship. Shelia, obsessed with self-sufficiency and survival, pushes often unhealthy extremes on both her daughter and the narrator. She seems too myopic to realize how her actions ruin not only her own life but the lives of those she loves. The narrator, meanwhile, ruins her own life and contributes to the ruining of Macky’s by refusing to address Sheila’s behavior in any meaningful way. Strosahl also gives readers a minilesson in how to heighten the stakes of a piece in a truly organic way. Both action and inaction weave together brilliantly as the repercussions of each character’s behavior become increasingly threatening and irreversible in their damage.

Framed by a poem that mirrors the story’s themes, as well as a heartbreaking interaction in the present tense of these characters’ lives, “The Witch Hare” succeeds in creating an unforgettable narrative about how sometimes even our best intentions harm the people we love. —CRAFT


In The Witch Hare, a witch’s familiar—a curious young hare—goes on a globe-hopping journey to help her sad companion learn to live life to the fullest again. As the hare ventures out to seek adventure, she shows the witch that everyone deserves love and that the wonders of the world are not just without, but within. Following the plucky hare from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the pyramids of Egypt to the comfort of her own backyard, this book is about the healing power of family and friendship when the world gets you down. Appropriate for children four to eight years of age, with some mild references to mortality and depression. Nominated for a Newberry Medal. The Witch Hare, written and illustrated by MacKenzie Harris. Common Sense Media recommends this book.

The book-signing line is slow-moving, and it’s completely Macky’s fault. She asks each child and parent for their names, then smiles as she does a little doodle on the title page. I can’t see from where I’m standing near the back of the line, but she could be drawing hearts or stars or maybe a rabbit face, just three slashes for the eyes and nose, then big, expressive ears. She used to draw like that as a kid, not really giving much attention to faces, then spending months perfecting feet or fingers. I was never any kind of artist, but Sheila was a prolific doodler, always filling up the little yellow pads she kept by the phone with simple sketches of fruit bowls and farm machinery. I wonder if they spent time together that way, drawing, after I left.

Macky’s gotten plush, in an inviting way. She looks both malleable and firm, like a stress ball. I would have recognized her at a thousand paces, even with her head tucked down, sketching her inscription into a redheaded girl’s book. I thought it might be hard for me to see her this way, grown up and unknown to me, that I might be overcome. But it isn’t hard and I’m not overcome, not exactly; it’s a little strange, but it’s not like she’s still my Macky. We’re just two adults now, in a bookstore.

“It’s only a story,” I’d said, after the first time I told her about the witch hare, when she was six and all three of us were snuggled together in the canvas tent Sheila set up in the front yard. Macky was obsessed with sleeping rough back then; she kept trying to sneak outside and bed down under the hydrangea hedge. It turned out she was right: it was hot as hell that summer, and it was nice to sleep outside, when the air cooled but the ground retained a diffuse warmth that rendered us drowsy and peaceful. Before those nights in the tent, I’d still thought of Macky as something like an extra limb of Sheila’s, just a small, round person growing out of my girlfriend’s hip.

Sheila believed that kids needed to learn to entertain themselves before sleep, so she never told Macky stories, would only read to her during the day. She wanted Macky to find her own meaningful emotional life, as if that was something a kid could or should be forced to do.

Macky didn’t like me to read from a book. If I brought one into her room—even something she loved, like Ivy and Bean or The Secret Garden—and opened it, she’d get that double crease in her forehead and say, resolute:

“No. Tell me a story.”

I really only knew the one. A dumb thing I grew up knowing in the way that kids do, by cultural osmosis. Macky never really bought it anyway, and I never told it the same way twice. Seeing her here, grown, is like seeing the hare itself—both unremarkable and miraculous, like a story told a million different ways at once.

A witch encounters two hunters and their black terrier in the woods. She tells them they can walk across her land to the river if they will promise to make sure their dog doesn’t harm any rabbits. They promise, but later the black dog snaps its lead and chases down a large gray hare. The dog bites its left flank before the hare escapes into the brush. Later, the hunters come back to the witch’s home and find her abed, resting her wounded left hip. The men come to no punishment. The witch’s only consolation is being right.

I meet Macky before I meet Sheila. She’s shoeless in corduroy overalls, eating a handful of granola she took from one of the bulk bins. She’s stuffed her pockets full as well, and crumbs tumble out and scatter the floor as she careens down the aisle. She’s four but looks older, like a precocious kindergartener, and I don’t see any other adults around.

“Hey!” I call to her, setting the jug of apple juice back on the shelf. “Are you with someone? Do you need to find your mom?”

Her bare feet squeak against the floor as she stops.

“I’m with myself,” she says, so definitively that I almost accept it at face value and go back to minding my business. She’s aghast in an adult sort of way, as if she’s unaccustomed to suffering fools.

Then Sheila whips around the corner with her long, dark hair flying out behind her. She beelines for Macky. Her aspect is so urgent and stern that I worry she’s going to slap Macky or shake her or do something else I’ll have to make a conscious decision to either ignore or accept. Instead, Sheila lightly drags her knuckles across Macky’s scalp—three times, affectionately—then pulls a handful of dried cherries, also obviously pilfered from the bins, out of the pocket of her Carhartts. She presses them into Macky’s outstretched hand and grins at her, then tips a wink my way.

I smile back, already loving them both.

The witch hare travels over hill and dale, so quickly its feet barely touch the ground. It will easily outpace any predator, unless the witch asks it to be still.

Macky always sings along to whatever song is on the radio, whether she knows the words or not. Sometimes it’s a tuneless idioglossia. Sometimes she just replaces unknown words with known ones. Sheila is an indiscriminate hummer too, always droning an unplaceable melody in her throat.

One afternoon, while Sheila is watering the squash patch from the rain barrels and Macky and I are lazing on the back porch in the spring sun, Macky draws me a picture. She’s only seven, but it’s an orderly piece, a plump heart drawn with a sure hand. It’s outlined in red and pink and teal, but she’s colored the entire interior a seamless white. The leftover chunk of crayon rolls between the slats on the porch and vanishes under the house forever.

“Why is it white, Macky?” I ask her. “Also it’s really, really good. Very evenly shaped. Symmetrical.”

“It’s fading,” she says. “Like the song.”

She looks at me like what she’s saying is obvious.

“What song?”

Macky gets up and pops her hip out to the side, sings a smattering of notes I can make out. She loves Motown and we listen to Sheila’s Smokey Robinson CD at least once a week.

“Oh.” I laugh, and sing the line. “It’s ‘my hope is fading,’ Macky. Not ‘my heart.’ But I love this drawing. It’s beautiful.”

She scowls at me and suddenly I understand that her drawing changes the lyrics. Whenever I hear the song after this day, I’ll think of an ashen heart, pale in the gills, fading with each passing beat. Sheila straightens up and frowns at the rain barrel, shaking the last of the water from the pump hose into the soil. For a second she and Macky wear the same expression, brows drawn downward and teeth slightly bared. Sheila’s been stressed about rainfall lately, thinking we should get more barrels and collect more water, for reasons I don’t understand. Macky snatches the drawing out of my hand.

“Mom!” she shouts to Sheila, waving the paper over her head like a flag. “Mom! This is for you now!” 

The witch hare chafes at the limitations of its connection with the witch. It seems unfair to them both that their bond should be so punitive. The witch will die if the witch hare dies; she will hurt if the witch hare hurts. But what of joy, longing, fury, pleasure? The witch hare rolls in a field of clover and drinks from a stream. The witch feels nothing at all.

Macky gets sent home from fifth grade because she has pinworms. It’s insult to injury, really. She’s gruesomely ill in the girls’ bathroom during lunch period. Then, when she flushes, she can’t help catching a glimpse of what’s in the bowl: loose, yellowish stool that is moving in a way it should not be. That looks somehow alive. In the office, Macky begs the school nurse to call me instead of Sheila, and the nurse does.

Her stomach has been bothering her for weeks, but we’d thought it was because of Sheila’s new dietary restrictions: no meat, no gluten, no nightshades, no dairy. Sheila says it’s the way we must eat if we want to live after the end of all this.

“Sustainability is key,” she says emphatically, at least three times a day. “In every single way, our lives must be sustainable, even if they are no longer falsely supported by social infrastructure. How could we safely eat? How would we ensure we had fresh water? This is just a baby step toward that self-sufficiency.”

“Can you talk to her?” Macky asked me one night while Sheila was out weeding the garden. “My stomach feels weird and I’m hungry all the time.”

I told her I would, but I could never bring myself to. It made Sheila so happy, the idea that we could train ourselves, our bodies, into readiness for catastrophe; that anything we did might better equip us for the actual end of the world. And what did I know anyway? I grew up drinking Faygo like water and eating two bologna sandwiches every day, one for lunch and one I made myself after school, before my parents got home from work.

Sheila had assured me that Macky was getting enough calories, even showing me a YouTube video made by a fruitarian who was raising her own children almost exclusively on bananas and papaya, as if that proved something obvious. I believed Sheila, but it meant I had to distrust my own eyes: Macky looked unwell to me, even before the worms. Almost elderly, whey-faced and slightly gaunt in the cheeks.

I’m concerned that Macky got worms from the occasional burger I snuck her for dinner when Sheila worked late, but the nurse just rolls her eyes when I ask if that’s possible.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s nothing you did. There’s an outbreak, and a bunch of the kids have ’em. You’ll need to take a sample to her pediatrician, though, when you go get the dewormer. And I think she’s anemic, so you might want to ask for a blood test.”

Macky heaves a huge sigh, her chin trembling. “Mom’s going to want to use my poop as compost. She’s always saying we need more worms in the bin.”

Later, as requested, Macky brings me a Ziploc baggie with a nearly liquid horror inside. There’s more variation in the worms than I’d have thought. Some are as small and white as sesame seeds; others are muscular, writhing, actual animals with a defined and pressing task.

“I’m disgusting,” Macky moans, leaning against me. “Some got on my hands.”

“You could never be.”

A few weeks later, Sheila starts talking about building out a closed-loop system for the house, one which would synthesize our untreated sewage into fertilizer, inside a wooden drum. Macky catches my eyes as Sheila sketches out her plan on the back of a receipt, and I remember the bag of shit and worms. And we both start to laugh. 

In the black furrow of a field

I saw an old witch-hare this night;

And she cocked a lissome ear,

And she eyed the moon so bright,

And she nibbled of the green

And I whispered “Wh-s-st! witch-hare,”

Away like a ghostie o’er the field

she fled, and left the moonlight there.

Every other Thursday, Sheila and I both have the day off. After we drop Macky at school, we get naked. She likes to push me up against walls and doors, and she makes it feel so gentle, even on days when she works her whole hand inside me. She’s always calmer when we’re done, tickling my sides and calling me honey. They’re our easiest moments together, languid and kind.

I tell her about worrying I’ll never have kids of my own and about how petrified I am that my parents will need to move in with us when they get old. I tell her about the first woman I ever kissed, outside a bar in Akron, my first year of college. I tell Sheila how I put my hands in that woman’s hair and it was so unbelievably soft that I couldn’t decide if I should ask what conditioner she used, or keep kissing her senseless.

Sheila tells me that Macky’s full name was her ex-husband’s idea.

“It’s my maiden name,” she says, snorting. “MacKenzie. I think he wanted to name her that so if we got divorced, I wouldn’t be able to change her last name to mine. MacKenzie MacKenzie.”

“I think Macky could pull it off,” I say, nudging her bare calf with my toe.

“She could!” Sheila laughs. “She really could. Joke’s on all of us, I guess—he ran off and we were happier for it. Plus, when she was little she could never even pronounce it right.”

I wish I’d known Macky as a baby, held her when she was fresh in the world, still wet and bound to the inside of Sheila’s body by a gnarled, living cord.

Sometimes what Sheila tells me feels important, but I’m not happy to know it, like when she says that her college girlfriend drowned in a basement during Katrina. Or when she tells me that her father once gut-shot a sick cow in front of her so they could watch its body perform the work of dying. I wish I’d never known she’d seen that.

Today, after sex, we are dozing against the footboard of our bed, replete, when I notice there’s a bright smear of blood on my thigh. It’s not my period or a scratch I didn’t feel in the heat of the moment. It’s the thumb of her left hand, which had earlier been gripping my leg. The area around her nail bed is inflamed, oozing blood and clear liquid. Her whole finger looks like a wound.

Weeks ago, her office had an earthquake preparedness meeting, and she came back pale and trembling.

“We have to get ready,” Sheila said once Macky had gone to bed. “For the big one.”

It occurs to me that since that day she’s hovered in the margins of my vision, worrying at her cuticles with teeth and tongue. I can’t remember a time recently when I haven’t seen her with her fingers in her mouth. She’s been goring them with purpose, like she’s trying to strip wire. 

A trapper kills, skins, and guts a regular rabbit, because he’s trying to kill a witch.

While Macky and I are sleeping, Sheila takes the cell phones. We’ve just gotten Macky hers for her thirteenth birthday two weeks ago, but her devotion to the device is already absolute. She starts to bleat like a smoke alarm if separated from it for more than a few minutes at a time. When Macky wakes that morning to find both phone and charger gone from her night table, she raises hell.

“I need it!” she screams, directly into Sheila’s face, balling her fists up at her sides. “Celia got two kittens and she’s sending pictures today! It’s an emergency!”

Sheila tells her it’s a situation we’re all in together, an action we must take as a family.

“I’m sorry,” Sheila says to Macky, and for once, she does look it. “It’s the radiation. The RF energy. It’s just not safe.”

She’s usually unrepentant about these things, cheerfully declaring that we’ll no longer be using anything but her hand-ground quinoa flour or banning the use of deodorant because of the aluminum. It worries me that she looks genuinely forlorn now, like the only person who has come to terms with a necessary sacrifice.

“You’re psycho, Mom,” Macky snarls.

“Hey,” I say softly. “Come on, now. Your mother has a point.”

I have no idea if what I’ve said was true. Macky reels back like I’ve slapped her.

Later, Sheila tells me she didn’t actually throw the phones out, just locked them in the lead-lined safe in the garage.

“I just couldn’t do it. So expensive,” she frets, looking disappointed in herself.

“You know,” I tell her, “they have phone cases that block radiation and whatnot, if you’re worried.”

I hope this is true. Similar strategies usually work with Sheila, at least to avoid a fight: I just have to convince her there is something reasonable she hasn’t tried, something she doesn’t yet know.

Sheila stares at me, trying to sniff out a lie.

“How do you know they work?” she asks. “Who makes them?”

I tell her I’ll take it on, as a research project, and report back. She gives my phone back, wrapped in a sock. My heart skitters a little, feeling the weight of it in my palm; I’m not sure if I can truly feel its sickly warmth through the soft fabric, or if I’ve only imagined it.

Sheila insists I keep it in my car. And that I don’t tell Macky, who won’t be getting her phone back.

“She’s my daughter,” Sheila says. “I can make this decision for her and for me, at least.” 

The witch hare is caught by a wolf. Or, the witch thinks the witch hare is caught by a wolf. In her dreams, the witch sees teeth, claws, the whites of animal eyes. But she lives. The witch lives. In her rose garden, she finds the soil puckered and sopping with blood. There is no trace of the witch hare, but for a flat scrap of furred flesh hung from a thorn. The witch feels a lonely violence in her body. She does not feel she has cheated death. Instead, she is certain that, somehow, death has cheated her.

For weeks at a time, Sheila can be peaceful. She spends the entire summer after Macky’s seventh-grade year building a shed for our new generator and putting up canned food. Macky and I love the canning days the most; when Sheila is at work in the steamed kitchen, all we can do is watch in awe. She is beatific as a Madonna; more than any other time, her hands always seem to be, improbably, in the right place.

“You’re like Doc Ock,” Macky says, while we watch Sheila pluck canned dilly beans from their water bath, using one hand to snatch each from the pot with tongs and the other to swoop in with the dish towel to dry them. Sheila’s face is red and slick, like we are seeing the layer of blood and muscle beneath her skin.

“I have no idea what that means,” Sheila says gaily, then performs a curtsy after she’s set the jar on its cooling rack and rubs her knuckles across the crown of Macky’s head. “But I thank you.”

She grabs my waist and twirls me around, then gathers me up and presses her hot cheek to mine.

In October the first cold snap comes. As the leaves fall, the warmth drains from her, and her fear returns. Sheila’s face has microclimates; it’s possible to watch a storm travel from the muscle in her jaw all the way to the fine wrinkles around her eyes. Sometimes in the set of her mouth, I feel thunder shaking the land beneath my feet. Ten years on, it’s not that difficult to read the weather.

In bed, her body is stiff and thrumming with skittish energy next to mine. I sometimes feel she is poisoning me, slowly; my every taste of her lately leaves a bitter, uneasy flavor at the back of my throat. Sometimes, I come out of sleep terrified and gasping. My heartbeat is infected with dread, galloping in a feral, borrowed rhythm. I find Sheila up at all hours, making lists on one of her little yellow pads, chewing her cuticles to ribbons, or just sitting in the dark, thinking about all the horrors that might one day come and the ways we might meet them.

Point of view: You’re the witch hare. The only thing you can do to kill your master is kill yourself. The witch is your protector; you are a prey animal. You are a thoughtless little runner. You are killable and weak. Your frailty is your power; if she does not protect you, your vulnerability becomes hers.

Sheila’s car breaks down on the way to work at the city planner’s office one morning, and I drive out to pick her up and change the tire. Turns out her spare’s flat too, so we sit together in my car, waiting for the tow.

“What’s this?” Sheila asks, holding up a cardboard Filet-O-Fish box, which I’d left on the console a few days ago. She pinches the edge of it with just her thumb and index finger, so hard that her nail beds turn white. She dangles it directly in front of me, inches away from my face.

“Nothing. Lunch.”

“Was it when I was at work? Did you give one to Macky?”

“No,” I say, patting her thigh. “But I might’ve. If she’d been with me.”

“We talked about this.” Her chin wobbles. “And I don’t see your go-bag in the car? I need you to have it in case something happens.”

“It’s in the trunk.”

Sheila looks small to me suddenly, blinking fearfully in the bright daylight, her eyes fixed on the road.

“Are you trying to kill yourself? People die from eating this bullshit, you know that.”

“I was starving. I didn’t feel like cooking. You can’t make me vegan without my consent. Or Macky. She threw up a couple weeks ago because she was so anxious you’d find out we had milkshakes on the way back from school.”

I’d never felt more like a failure than I did that day, kneeling by the toilet next to Macky, feeling cold sweat beading her brow as I held her hair back. When she finished, we sat on the tile floor, breathing long and slow, talking nonsense about the Amazing Race episode we’d watched the night before. I was dreading the moment Macky would ask me to talk to Sheila again. But she didn’t. It turned out that her silence felt even worse.

“She probably puked because she can’t process dairy. I am trying to make changes for the good of our health and the health of the planet!” Sheila slaps her palm against the dashboard. Her whole face is pale except for her nose and cheeks, which always turn red when she’s upset.

“We’ve been—”

Then Sheila is sobbing tearlessly, gulping stuttered breaths in as she shouts; it is less a release than a convulsion, bright fury lashing through her as she crumples the sandwich box in her fist. She tells me about what a Filet-O-Fish really is, just white sludge made of trout guts and old mayonnaise and inorganic produce crawling with E. coli. She tells me she can’t breathe for the dreams she has, dreams of scorched landscapes and killing storms and tidal waves and me and Macky lost to giant fires and burst seams in the earth. She tells me that she dreams of animals brutalized in a thousand different ways. The bloody paw hooked to a keychain. The trap-caught. The farmed.

When I reach out to touch her face, my hand looks frail. I am trembling violently enough that I have to put both my palms flat against the dashboard to steady myself. Sheila is still squeaking out little sobs and moans—a “dry cry” she always calls it, because her body only produces tears for pure anger or pure sadness. If it’s a mix of both, they won’t come.

We have lost our common language. We fill the car with our disparate animal sounds. I wait for the tremors to leave my body so I can soothe her, but they don’t and the fear doesn’t either. Because I can’t calm, she does. Eventually, the steady drone of her breath and the whoosh of cars going by are the only sounds, and they are such normal sounds, so ordinary and known, that I become ordinary and known to myself again too.

The witch hare runs faster than it has ever run before. It runs so fast that anyone can see it is trying to save two lives.

It’s a long way to Bedford Heights, and when I arrive, I realize I’ve just experienced something that Macky would appreciate: highway hypnosis. The seven hard hours on I-90 are nowhere to be found in my memory. They may as well have never happened, but for the fact that I’m here in my Honda with a gas station coffee in my hand, in my parents’ gravel driveway. I think Macky would like to hear about it: miles traveled in a trance, a cosmic acceleration of time, hours of boring dead road skipped like magic.

As I get out of the car, Ma opens the front door and stands there in her chenille robe and house slippers, squinting into my headlights. I can hear the TV inside, and the shifting squeal of the springs in Dad’s favorite chair. I’d talked to him when I stopped for gas on the way, murmuring low into the phone, like I had something to hide. The night is quiet and navy blue, and I lurch out of the car into my mother’s arms, already crying.

“It’s over,” I say into her shoulder. “I left Sheila.”

“Thank Christ,” she mutters, patting my back stiffly. “Poor Sheila, but she’s a damn lunatic.”

“Don’t call her that.”

Ma takes the keys out of my hand and shuffles to the car. She turns it off and locks it, then looks around inside.

“Where are your things?” she asks.

I pat the old leather handbag slung over my shoulder and shake my head.

“I couldn’t wait,” I said. “I wasn’t prepared.”

Ma sighs at the wastefulness of everything I’ve left behind, then leads me into the house.

Sheila’s been calling them all day, and at some point, Dad unplugged the phone. I call her back from the cordless in my old room, whispering so my parents, down the hall, won’t hear.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Because of a fish sandwich? Really?” Sheila’s voice is snotty and damp—a real cry—but I’m not sure if she’s sad or angry.

“I’m done,” I tell her.

“You don’t mean that.”

“I think I do. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I really, really think I do.”

I almost ask if Macky’s still awake, if I can at least talk to her, tell her about the highway hypnosis or maybe just hear her voice. Before I can, Ma flings the door open and stands there scraping at the carpet with the toe of her slipper. I hang up before Sheila can say anything else.

“Then the witch makes the hunters promise—”

“It doesn’t make sense!”

“What doesn’t?”

“Why would the witch trust hunters to keep a promise?”

“I don’t know, Macky. She just does.”

“But why?”

“Maybe she was just trying to be polite.”

“This is a dumb story.”

“So make up a new one.”

I never went back for her.

I turn The Witch Hare over in my hands. On the back is a photo of Macky holding up a drawing of the witch hare—well, her version of the witch hare—and grinning. She looks good; she’s wearing soft pink lipstick, and her hair has been styled aggressively. On the cover is the hare, relaxing on a checkered picnic blanket with a brown dog. The Taj Mahal is visible in the background.

The witch hare looks like Macky herself did as a child: toothy and moonfaced, happily dazed. I hope that even if I hadn’t seen her name in the local events section of the paper this morning, I would have known it was Macky who wrote the book if I’d passed it on a shelf someday. That if I had seen the wide-eyed brown hare with the crooked left ear and the tender, searching expression, I would have recognized her anywhere.

The line is moving a little now, and I feel strange standing here with a book too juvenile by a decade for my own son. Macky was fourteen when I left, and I heard things got very difficult for her and Sheila afterward, that she was emancipated at seventeen and maybe went to college out west. I emailed her and Sheila quite a lot that first year I was gone, but I never heard back. I felt sure coming here that it had been too long, that she wouldn’t want to see me or wouldn’t remember. But now, seeing her, I feel like it might not have been long enough.

Macky laughs as the boy whose book she’s signing does a hopping dance—two big jumps and then one small one, in quick succession, with his hands forked into bunny ears above his head. She applauds and sticks two fingers in her mouth, wolf-whistling, and everyone in the place starts clapping too.

As she looks toward the queue, her eyes rest briefly on mine, and an arresting, unreadable expression passes over her face. She looks at me hard for a few seconds, then leans over to whisper something to the proprietor, who is sitting next to her at the signing table, passing her books to sign. The woman nods and then hurries off. The line inches forward, and Macky doesn’t meet my eyes again. I busy myself by paging through the book, catching snippets as I go:

the witch hare had never seen such a beautiful and delicious cake—

the witch was still sad but—

and the taste of ramps from the garden—

The proprietor comes back to Macky, holding a pair of tortoise-handled scissors. Macky takes them and thanks her, then grabs a copy of The Witch Hare from one of the stacks on the table. She cracks the book open and, with a flourish, tears out the flyleaf, to a scandalized gasp from both the shop owner and the parents in line. Macky still isn’t looking at me when she folds the paper and sets to her work: pressing the torn sheet in half so she can cut out a big white heart.


AJ STROSAHL is a writer and small business owner who lives and works in Oakland, California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming from Ruminate, Cleaver Magazine, Blue Earth Review, Coal Hill Review, and other outlets. Her short story “Dayton” was longlisted for the Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction in 2020 and her essay “Dogs I’ve Read” was a finalist for the 2021 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has received recent support from the Vashon Artist Residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. AJ holds an MFA from St. Mary’s College of California and is working on a novel, Only in Pure Air, loosely inspired by the Huanghe Shilin ultramarathon disaster. Find AJ on Instagram @ajs1025.


Featured image by Marko Blažević courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

In graduate school, one of our wisest teachers, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, said that when she constructs characters, she always asks herself: how is this person ruining their own life?

I have found the directness of this question to be shrewd and revealing when it comes to determining what choices my characters will make in the course of a story. It’s also an extremely depressing line of inquiry to apply to any character who is a parent. Because, of course, it’s not just their own life they’re ruining.

In 2021, I wrote “The Witch Hare” to explore the intractable, interdependent bond between parents and children and the often-fraught role of the surrogate or stepparent. I tried to write the narrator and Sheila as opposite poles, both of whom are loving and harming Macky: one through inaction, and the other through actions she believes are righteous. I love writing paranoid characters, because sometimes they’re—kind of right to be worried? The idea that it’s possible to prepare so thoroughly for catastrophe that you earn the right to survive is comforting, but isolating and dangerous in practice. I think I’ve written Sheila somewhat uncharitably, but I really do feel for her. What an awful thing: to terrify and fail the people you love in your desperation to save them.

The mythology embedded in “The Witch Hare” was largely invented but also informed by a variety of sources, beginning with the poem “The Hare,” by Walter de la Mare. I also looked to regional versions of other witch stories and visual art, including the sculptures of Beth Cavener and paintings by Alex Kuno and Henri Rousseau. I have always been intrigued by “The Hare,” which is in the public domain and which I’ve used in its entirety in the story. The dichotomy in how the titular hare is written delights me: literal, corporeal details (her lissome ear, her eyes on the moon, her nibbling teeth) are paired with descriptions of her spectral, mystical presence (leaving the moonlight and fleeing into darkness like a “ghostie”). I love that her behavior in the field feels both alien and utterly natural, and that she is distinctly feminine, but also menacing in her activeness and poise. I wanted the interwoven tale of the witch hare to express a similar tension.

Just as the witch and the witch hare have a codependent but ultimately inequitable power dynamic, Sheila and the narrator both pose a threat to Macky that she does not pose to them. In the internal logic of the story, each iteration of the witch hare exists as a lens, and an implicit question. The narrator is transfiguring her memories into myths, so she can better understand them. I’m drawn to art, in all disciplines, that articulates something about our messy human psyches through explorations of animal consciousness, and I wanted to make a small contribution to that body of work with “The Witch Hare.” Animals in fiction can be an ideal blank canvas: like parents, they always seem to know too much and too little, all at once.


AJ STROSAHL is a writer and small business owner who lives and works in Oakland, California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming from Ruminate, Cleaver Magazine, Blue Earth Review, Coal Hill Review, and other outlets. Her short story “Dayton” was longlisted for the Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction in 2020 and her essay “Dogs I’ve Read” was a finalist for the 2021 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has received recent support from the Vashon Artist Residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. AJ holds an MFA from St. Mary’s College of California and is working on a novel, Only in Pure Air, loosely inspired by the Huanghe Shilin ultramarathon disaster. Find AJ on Instagram @ajs1025.