Rumpus Original Fiction: Wild Animals

By

My mother became a hare just after winter began, though we had all seen it coming. She spent most of her time in the garden, her wispy frame over the root vegetables, sorrel, and radishes. She’d always been attracted to the imperfect disposition of nature, drawn to the dirt and its cultivation. Yes, becoming a hare was a practical choice for her, one that made sense to all of us.

What surprised my father and I and what left us with so many questions was the state in which she disappeared—without a note or letter. Did she retain her sentience after withdrawing into an animal state? Or did she forget her previous life and fall into the instinctive nature of a hare, bound only by the earth?

Her transformation began during the summer, and I first noticed it over a dinner of soup and buttered bread. I looked up at her across the dinner table and saw thin whiskers sprouting from her cheeks. They were twine-colored like her hair, which had been unabashedly gray for years. I searched her face for any other telling new features but this was the first, and it pained me. I could tell my father noticed them, too, because he shuddered and moved as if he were going to say something. But then, thinking better of it, he frowned and looked down to inspect the tablecloth, as if to smooth the damned thing out as an iron does a wrinkled sheet.

My mother concealed her whiskers with silk scarves. That summer, she spent long hours in the garden in her corduroy working pants, looming over the flower patch and herb bed. Feathery arms of French marigolds grew tall on all sides of my house, cocooning us in a sleeve of red and orange. I wish I had noticed it back then; I wish I had reveled in the miracles sprouting from her palms. Meanwhile, her skin became stippled with whiskers and her movements shifted, her body mimicking the brittle and restless resolve of a feral animal.

In September I caught her eating sorrel from our garden. This alone would not be particularly extraordinary; it was the manner in which she did it that surprised me: she nibbled at it from the stem, like a wild animal, severing and gnawing at it with small, skittish bites. This was another indication of my mother’s hare-ish tendencies—though this she succumbed to, and if she caught me staring, would state: “I simply can’t help it.” The indications only accumulated until she completely transformed on a December afternoon.

I came home from school, letting myself in through the screen door. My father worked late, but my mother was always there when I got home. When sleet began to corrode the gardening tools, she stayed inside and moved restlessly throughout the house. I took off my coat in the kitchen, and heard shuffling from the next room. Looking over, I saw the tail end of a brown hare dart through the back door. I followed it, running into the backyard, but upon stepping outside I could not see her; snow covered her tracks. She must’ve dived into a rabbit hole.

 

A while later, an old woman who worked as a cashier at the market attempted to make me more comfortable with the idea. “My third cousin, Helen, married a man who became a wild bull. See, these things aren’t so uncommon.”

Did Helen, too, recognize the signs? Did she sit across from him at dinner, over carrots rendered into a loveless stew, and think, Who is this wild bull of a husband?

Perhaps it was the fact that wild hares are inherently untethered to man. I have never heard of anyone turning into a bulldog or a goldfish. If my mother had become a goldfish, she would’ve sat on a table and warbled the rest of her days in a glass bowl, and my father would’ve stared at her through the bowl sadly all the time. Maybe we would’ve decorated her bowl with various plants and algae, and perhaps, if we talked to her as if she could answer, she might flit her gills or let out a few bubbles. But this didn’t happen. This is because people are not looking to become domestic animals, bound to the constant pestering and prodding of man. Becoming a wild animal is simply an alternative to the grievances and bitterness of growing old.

 

Many weeks after my mother had become a hare and spring was just beginning, I heard about the jackrabbits and hares that accumulated around the old Catholic church. The hares were eating the lettuce heads to ruin. The hares gathered around that holy place after the evening service had finished and all the churchgoers had gone home.

I had seen the hares gather as a child, when my mother used to take me to church. She watched them descend into the creek into their battered burrows and dams. I saw a hare once travel the length of our front yard into the English sage. My mother told me stories about them, that they had their own little city of burrows beneath our town. Our town was structured the way most little towns are built, buildings coming together in small clusters between large expanses of empty space: fields dappled with cows, bison dwindling along the sides of dirt roads, foliage encroaching into gated yards. She said that their roads mirrored ours, weaving their way underground, stretching across highways and grassland.

I wonder, now, if she had thought about becoming a hare in her old age, if the simple lifestyle of a wild animal had always seemed enticing. Or did it dawn on her one day and, with little objection, her body adjusted to its new identity?

I dreamt of my mother for a long while after it happened, as the frost accumulated and clung to the rim of my windowsill and everything was quiet. An eeriness set about my house, a stillness that clung thickly in every room. At night I dreamed lightly and woke often, imagining the fervent nature of hares beneath the floor. I heard the floorboards giving way, so alive with their movement underground. When I woke up in the dark, the house was quiet.

 

After weeks of sitting in the dark listening to my father shuffling around, I decided to look for my mother. I went at dusk. I wondered if I would find her there, by the church, and perhaps, upon recognizing me through those beady little rabbit eyes, she might be convinced to leave the life of a wild animal. I knew the effects of becoming an animal must, inherently, be irreversible. And yet I felt it would be impossible for me to not attempt to persuade her to come back.

“I’m going to get some milk from the supermarket. We’re almost out.” I said to my father, pausing by the door. He sat on the armchair in front of the TV, eyes closed. He nodded slightly and I let myself out.

I wasn’t worried about my father becoming an animal. He was too timid, too subscribed to his bodily identity. He couldn’t imagine a life outside of Ohio, too afraid of what people would think. I could see him trying desperately to relate to the animal life, perhaps even attempting to become a well-natured hare himself. But ultimately, in defeat, he was left picking apart the different moments in which he recognized the signs.

I drove the car halfway across town as it neared night. In small towns like these, everything goes to sleep after 7 p.m. Even the supermarket pinches its sliding doors shut, though the lights remain on, perpetually glaring. I parked two blocks away from the church and walked the rest of the way.

As I neared the church, I saw the windows first, stained glass etched into the curves of the building. During the day the church’s windows made everyone inside draw warm, blue breaths, but at dusk the windows were lifeless and cold, all of the blood drained out of them.

For the first time I wondered if I could one day become an animal, too. Maybe when I grew old I wouldn’t be unable to uphold the weight of being an old woman, and my body would adjust to a new animal life. I could see a new miraculous lifestyle as an egret or sparrow, unrestrained by the wills of gravity and ground. I thought about what freedom that must bring, for all human things must become muted when one becomes an animal—just a rapturous quiet.

I could not see any hares yet, only grass spotted with sleet. I could hear the rush of the cold creek that ran down the lap of rocks between the church and vestiary, and I imagined burrows drawing arcane patterns beneath the ground. Sitting beneath a white archway, hidden behind a shrub, I waited, trying to be as still as possible. I don’t know what I expected to happen. I didn’t think.

I woke up very suddenly a while later, and once my eyes had adjusted to the dimness I saw something dapple across the grass into the shrubbery that lined the church. It moved in jagged, erratic lines and darted through the tall grass as wild animals do, with little direction but the motivation of food.

My foot slipped from the ledge. The hare stopped and looked up at me, and I wondered if anything could be truly still and if it could, then it must also be true that this hare was the most stationary thing I had ever seen. It was a stagnant root to the ground.

I searched in its beady eyes and tried to find a motherly warmth. Somewhere far away there was a car’s headlights, and among the shrubbery I could almost see the beetles and flies beneath boughs and branches, creating dizzy circles. Frost clung to my thick socks. I wanted only familiarity, a response in the dark. But within the gleam of the hare’s eyes I felt only fear and something feral. It flitted back towards the creek.

 

As spring unfolded and unearthed itself, a part of me wondered whether my mother would follow. I wondered whether her disappearance was little more than a lapse in time or leave of absence. But this wasn’t true. The French marigolds were never awakened from their dirt beds or drawn into little pots to be adorned on the windowsill. Pears did not hang swollen from their branches the following summer.

With time our front yard became barren, and even the plants that didn’t need tending eventually died. People forgot about the incident, though a few new neighbors asked what had happened the previous winter. My father shuttled her gardening supplies from the garage into the cellar as if they were her corpse.

In this town people die in obscurity, as rabbits do in the ground, peacefully and without fuss. Their ghosts linger, bathed in blue light but empty as shells. This is how my mother left us, without affirmation or conclusion. Her clothes remain folded in drawers and gardening tools in their crates in the cellar, as if they will be readily used the following summer.

Part of me still wonders if I’ll see her one day behind a tree root or inside a hollow log, and she will not recognize me and I will not stop and we will pass, unknowing of the other. Perhaps these things will one day become as accepted and sadly arbitrary as growing old, whiskers and fur no more unnerving than wrinkles. Perhaps then, years later, when looking at myself in the mirror and finding thin white fur covering my own face, I will understand.

***

Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.


Ren Weber is a mixed writer from San Francisco. She is pursuing a BA in Cognitive Science and a minor in Creative Writing at UC Berkeley. She wrote “Wild Animals” when she was sixteen and it received 1st Place Fiction in the SF Unified School District’s Literary Arts Awards. She is also a semifinalist for the 2019 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize. More from this author →