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.