I was intrigued by the most recent Daily Post short-story challenge on the theme of metamorphosis, so I threw together this bit of speculative fiction. To be honest, it’s 99% wish-fulfillment fantasy. If only it could be real!
Anyway, I veered away from the official topic – what if a transformative chemical got released into the water supply? – but I had a cathartic experience writing it and produced a bit of fiction that I think is pretty worthy of reading. Let me know if you agree.
I’ve often thought it should happen earlier in the process, before the formal engagement perhaps – before you’ve invested so much in the ream. We had three hundred guests just outside the door,waiting to see a wedding. Thousands of dollars had changed hands, for gowns and for flowers, for wine to flow freely at the celebration, for a cloud car to whisk us away on a tropical honeymoon, all expenses paid. Surely there was no backing out, not now.
And yet they gave us this one last chance.
We stood hand in hand before the Chymist as he explained the drink to us, his words recorded by the scratchy quill of the Scribe sitting in the far corner. Coby and I each had our three attendants standing by, along with his parents and my mother, all off to the sides of the room to keep their reflections out of the mirror. Only the two of us, alongside the Chymist, would appear. This was not necessary for the process to work, but it was tradition.
The Chymist explained it all in careful, precise terms that he must have used a hundred times before. “On average, the effects of the drink last about five minutes – sometimes more, sometimes less, but never permanent. It lingers just long enough to get a glimpse of one another’s true nature before solidifying this most irreversible of commitments.”
He frowned sternly. “Be warned, what the drink shows will always come out sooner or later. Over the course of a lifetime, we all show our true stripes – or spots or swirls or feathers.” He chuckled a little at that, then turned serious again. “Who you really are, sooner or later, will always come to the surface.”
He eyed my yards of expensive fabric. “Your body might change shape or size to a small degree as part of the drink’s metamorphosis; that’s why it’s traditional for a bride and groom to wear loose-fitting garments, of course. But you will mostly retain your human shape. Whatever you become will appear as a hybrid of your human self and your essential animal nature. Most of the change will appear in your face, though it’s common for the body to break out in fur, scales, or feathers according to your nature.
“Dangerous side effects are extremely rare, but I am well-equipped to treat those that occasionally surface. You both look quite healthy, though – I wouldn’t worry.”
I felt a nervous flicker in my heart as I accepted the cup from the Chymist’s hand and listened to his ritual words. Not about the possible side effects – I didn’t care about that even a little bit. But the impending change frightened me. My hands trembled as I raised the chalice, filled with peculiar bright-violet liquid, up to my lips.
What would I reveal myself to be?
* * * * * *
The subject came up over and over in conversation throughout the course of a lifetime – the mysterious transformation we all must face as we prepared to marry, according to the law of the drink. As schoolgirls we tried to guess what animals we would become and puzzled over what transformations would indicate the best husbands or lovers. Sometimes the answer was surprising. My cousin Jet had learned at her own wedding, a few years earlier, that the man she was set to marry was, on the inside, a snake. That would have set me running the other way screaming, but Jet has a fondness for snakes, and they’ve been very happy ever since. Their second child is on the way soon. They named their firstborn Boa.
When I was small, my mother often speculated about the animal nature I would reveal on my wedding day. Her observations were not always kind.
“Listen to you, squawking like a mockingbird! It’ll make a man’s heart sink to see what a noisy chattering thing he’s marrying on your wedding day.”
“If you don’t shape up, you’ll show yourself a pig at your wedding, and your husband will run off the other way.”
“Ye gods, you’re so slow, Lavender! I’ll lay down good money you come out as a turtle when you marry.”
I always rather imagined myself as a mouse, timid and flawed but ultimately inoffensive. But you could be wrong, even about yourself. In fact, it was common. The elders had a verse they would quote to young courters:
“The one creature you say you’re most certain to be,
That’s the face in the mirror to know you won’t see.”
For years, my best friend Kita – who was there standing as one of my attendants that day – always swore she’d come out as a goat, braying and stubborn. But when she actually got married a year ago, she was pleasantly surprised at her transformation: ferocious and glowing, beautiful and serene, a sleek Sumatran tiger.
But it can go the other way, too – the way of the unpleasant surprise. That was what frightened me most. What if, instead of a mouse, I turned out to be a persnickety, self-centered rat? Or a dull, slovenly warthog? Or something worse?
* * * * * *
I hear that the drink tastes different to everyone who tries it. To me it tasted of grapes and berries, with a grassy undertone like salad leaves without seasoning. It was fresh and flavourful – strange, to be sure, but I decided I liked the taste.
I kept my back to the mirror as I waited for the change to take place. They say it’s unsettling to watch. Some people will keep their eyes fixed on the mirror as a dare, challenging themselves to endure the experience. I’m not that kind of girl. Even my mother advised me so: “don’t try to watch yourself change, whatever your friends say. It will frighten you too much. You always were so easily scared.” Instead I kept my eyes on my little band of supporters – bright-eyed Kita, pretty Amica, and hopeful, smiling Reesey – and my mother, whose face was pinched and anxious over what my drink would reveal about the child she had raised. I wondered if she remembered the harsh predictions she had made over the years.
I glanced at Coby, looking so fine in his loose-cut groom’s suit, and I prayed he would like what he saw me become. He gave me a tight-lipped, nervous smile. I grinned back weakly, and absently scratched an itchy spot on my right cheek.
That was how I noticed my nails had turned into thin, sharp claws.
I started noticing everything all at once, all the changes that were happening in me. My skin itched and tingled all over. I could feel it stretching as my body rounded. When I glanced down, my arms were sprouting thick black fur. I felt my jaw stretch and tighten. It hurt enough to make me whimper. My shoes began to pinch my feet, so I kicked them away.
Coby looked coolly surprised, but not displeased. I glanced at my attendants, who were all smiling encouragement. Even my mother seemed to relax visibly, so I turned to the mirror to confront the creature within: white-faced, black-eyed, round, and placid.
I was a panda.
I couldn’t help laughing a little as I held up one big hand – a paw, rather, I suppose – to touch my firm, round face. The panda-person in the mirror did the same thing. I opened my mouth to examine my panda teeth – pointed bear canines in the front, jagged molars as big as suit buttons in back. I wriggled my little panda nose, and watched the mirror-panda do the same.
Better than a mouse, I decided. Stronger, less scared. Lovelier. I’d never have guessed it of myself.
The Chymist looked almost proud, as if he had wrought this result in me. “Let the annals show,” he dictated to the Scribe, “that Lavender Dore contains with in her a panda bear. Gentle, relaxed, and easy to love, contented in her world, though able to defend herself when threatened.” He beamed at me like a kindly father, and I realized he had sensed my nervousness, and the relief that had replaced it. I sighed my relief.
With the official pronouncement now complete, my bridesmaids crowded around me like butterflies, wanting to touch my soft sleek fur and examine the changes in my features. It was strange to feel Kita’s fingers tweak the high, round ears on top of my head, or to feel Amica’s seamstress fingers take the measure of my newly-voluptuous panda figure. My classmate Reesey ran her fingers along my bear claws, fascinated. “I hope I do this good one day,” she murmured.
Kita jabbed me lightly in my well-padded panda ribs. “Didn’t I always tell you how you had something good on the inside?”
Even Coby’s parents seemed pleased. His attendants started hesitantly towards me, wanting to share in the celebration, reaching out to feel my pelt. Coby, who had looked reasonably glad up to this point, frowned at them. “She’s still my bride, guys,” he grumbled. “Hands off.”
Casimir and Rune, his two friends from school, stepped guiltily away. But his brother Jagger stepped forward jauntily and defiantly reached out to stroke me alongside Reesey. “She’s not a piece of property,” he remarked in a mild tone. “And we’re just proud she turned out so beautiful. It’s not like we’re seducing her.”
“Jagger!” Coby’s mother scolded, scandalized.
“Couldn’t seduce her if you tried,” Casimir chimed in. “Female pandas never want to mate more than a couple days a year. Rotten luck, Coby!”
There was a chorus of bawdy laughter, through which I blushed scarlet, but likely no one could tell because my face was still covered in panda fur.
The Chymist extended his hand to Coby to get the ceremony back on track, asking the ritual question. “Coby Westminster, having seen your bride’s true nature, do you still wish to wed Lavender Dore?”
“Yes, I do,” said Coby. My heart danced like a tiny sparkler shooting embers out into the night. I thought I might burst into fireworks.
At length the drink wore off, and I melted down to my former shape, shed my fur. Amica gathered a handful into a keepsake bag for me and hung it from my belt as part of the ceremonial garb. The groomsmen swept the rest away.
By this time, the Chymist had prepared the second drink, and he held it out to Coby. I watched him take it in hand as the Chymist intoned the same ritual prayer he had spoken over me. Coby threw back the contents of the cup in a sweeping, manly swig.
“Ugh! It’s bitter!” he exclaimed as he handed the chalice back to the Chymist. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then turned directly towards the mirror. He would watch the drink take hold, head on. I remembered how he had told me he expected to appear as a lion or a regal eagle. But I also remembered the wise elders’ warning, which I had never known to prove untrue.
“The one creature you say you’re most certain to be,
That’s the face in the mirror to know you won’t see.”
* * * * * *
He stared at the mirror intently as the transformation began. I watched his spine start to twist and jerk. It curved up like a jagged question mark, pushing his head down. His face stretched into a strange snout. I watched bristly hair spring up across his bare skin, black and tan, speckled. It formed a sharp ridge of fur across the top of his head and on his back, as if somebody had combed it straight up with styling serum. Callousing spread over his smooth fingers, and his nails narrowed into nasty claws. His jaw dropped open to reveal his teeth elongating into sharp ivory daggers. Around them, his skin had gone black as slate. His eyes were wide with horror.
The room was deathly silent. Coby’s parents looked aghast. No lion, no eagle, was their son.
The Chymist cleared his throat. “Let the annals show that Coby Westminster contains within him an hyena.”
From somewhere in his throat I heard a strangled wail. He could not tear his eyes from the creature in the mirror.
The Chymist continued awkwardly on. “An hyena is a scavenger who feeds on prey other predators have taken down. Known for their hysterical laugh, which gives them an air of the unstable and ungenerous – “
Coby’s wail built into a tempestuous howl that cut off the end of the Chymist’s pronouncement.
I glanced at my mother, whose face seemed twisted with indecision: her horror at the personality her almost-son-in-law showed, at war with her horror of a wedding cancelled in front of three hundred guests who expected a celebration. I wondered what would win.
The Chymist raised his voice above Coby’s wails to ensure that the Scribe could hear his words. “Lore tells us that the hyena will prove unfaithful and selfish, prone to theft and petty jealousy, likely to cut with his words.”
Coby’s wail became a string of moans. “It’s not who I am, it’s not me, it’s not, it’s not . . . “
But we all knew that the drink doesn’t lie.
Coby knew it too.
Suddenly, abruptly, he turned on his heel and fled the room, hands thrown up to hide his face from anyone who might see. His twisted claws nicked his forehead and drops of blood mingled with his tawny-yellow fur. The sound he made was some strange mixture of a braying sob, a scream, and an unearthly high-pitched laughter that hinted at madness.
We were all too shocked to stop him. Dead silent, we watched him run away. To this day I do not know where he went.
The Chymist turned to me. Awkwardly he spoke the ritual question in Coby’s absence. ”Lavender Dore, having seen your groom’s true nature, do you still wish to wed Coby Westminster?”
God help me, I thought about it. Had I still believed my true self was a small and undeserving mouse, I might have assented to the union. A mousy throwaway girl takes what she can get, even when she knows he will devour her. A mouse has probably been scurrying away from prey most of her life. What else does she know?
But inside, I was something else. I said, “I do not want a life with someone like that, no. I do not wish to marry Coby.”
Even my mother, looking deflated and shamed, knew better than to challenge me.
* * * * * *
Afterword: I am aware that many of the unflattering traditional ideas about hyenas are misconceptions, but for the purposes of the story, the traditional image fit too perfectly with the character I was imagining and I couldn’t resist. I’ve deliberately left it open-ended as to whether the characteristics come from the animals’ real-life traits or from traditional social interpretation of what the animal symbolizes. As the reader, you can decide what you think.
That said, I’m also interested in hearing what animal you would have chosen to represent Lavender and/or Coby . . . or any of the other characters. I can’t quite figure out what Lavender’s mother would have been. What do you think?
Lastly, as an author I’d just like to mention that, though I adore pandas and would be glad to become one in the universe of the story, I consider myself more of a wild horse. This is based on a quiz from the World Wildlife Fund that I once took. As was Lavender’s experience with the drink, it helped me to see myself in a much more positive light than I would ever have expected.