Short Story Polymorphia
I’ll shed those onerous memories and transform into an animal unconstrained by terrible burdens. I’ll lead a life without guilt.
Mercy for She-Elephants
There’s one in particular I remember—a bull named Arthur. He had giant padded feet, a trunk with the rhythm and sweep of a flamenco dancer, and a rump like the dome of the Taj Mahal. Despite our maturity, we were a pair of dynamos. He’d rut me like an adolescent, then melt—his legs spread sideways, his trunk draped over me.
“You’re the only one I can talk to,” he’d rumble in his sexy bass. “No way I can do this with the mother of my calf. She stands with her trunk erect when I’m grazing, blasting me if I don’t reach for the tallest branches.”
After which Arthur would gaze longingly through his black lashes, loving me for hearing his woes. “It hurts having to stretch all the time,” he said. “That damn cow doesn’t care if I starve without the lower leaves, she’s all about increasing my height and virility.”
Arthur had no need to starve himself. He was plenty hot. Arthur is one of many; they all love me for listening to their problems.
I’m overflowing with memories—everyone else’s. As a she-elephant, it’s our biology to remember. If we survive the poachers, we live longer than the average American white lady. Our trunks rake the grasses, plucking memories like berries. You see us as thunder thighs leisurely traversing the savanna, but we’re mammalian Geiger counters, combing for flashbacks, dry grains of recall to hide in the creases of our skin. Our wrinkles stash itchy, prickly secrets. With keen intensity, we listen for recollections amidst the breezes. Memories are crumpled, folded, stuck under our tongues and between toenails; they pockmark our skin. The tearjerkers, the family slights, the shame trapped in our hides.
I have it worse, however. It’s not enough that several decades of memories press down with a weight only an ox could bear. I’m also a genetic anomaly, born with a skin defect that lends my hide a strange porosity. I’m a landlocked sponge, uprooted from the ocean bed and tossed into the savanna to absorb more memories than any six she-elephants.
Arthur shared other secrets, too—bloody fights with his brothers that left the oldest dead, horror stories about his criminally absent mother. Stuff like that. Unburdened, he lightened like a balloon ready to float; clueless about the strange memory-laden psoriasis that’s my cross to bear. He divulged things he’d never uttered aloud, let alone shared with another elephant. He was the one. But after a night or two or three, he turned out like the rest. “Gotta go, precious,” he whispered, trunk in my ear. “Always remember, you’re a gorgeous little piece.”
I’ve had enough. Oh, to be a zebra, with unique, magnificent stripes. Gleaming in the sun, powered by limbs meant for running. Manes like the night sky, undulating from the speed of four athletic legs.
But wait. What if those stripes mean something else, like a cage in a zoo? No, I’m better off as a horse, galloping like a streaking comet.I know what to do; I’ll lumber through the veil that keeps us one from another. I’ll shed those onerous, overflowing memories and transform into an animal unconstrained by terrible burdens. I’ll lead a life without guilt and worry, free to be free.
The Curse of the Dapple-Gray
So I transfigured into a stallion. Don’t ask how. I was in the right place at the right time. I’m lucky that way—things happen to me; I get chosen. One minute, I’m a she-elephant, crushed beneath a leaden blanket of memory; the next I’m sprinting across the Great Plains without a care in the world. I’m male, and happy for it.
None of the other horses knows where I came from. Why would I tell, and who would believe me, anyway?
There’s only one problem. I wanted to be silvery white, shimmering like a newly minted coin in the prairie sun. Or silken black; sleek and virile. Instead, I’m dapple gray. I look too tame, and in this business, looks are everything. Who would choose a stallion with my coat, when she can go for some glossy purebred, flank muscles rippling and a tail Svengali would envy?
The point of being a stallion is for the mares to sidle up—their voluptuous nostrils steaming—and let me know they’re available for the taking. To be their favorite, welcome to mate whomever I please; no strings attached, no questions asked.
It turns out my best chances are with the overaged ladies whose studs have long since galloped off; the gals who are saddle-backed with bloodshot eyes from too much hauling, or from birthing too many colts, or too few colts, or because some human family treated them shabbily before sending them out to pasture. They’re so thrilled to have escaped the business end of a shotgun that they’re willing, even eager, with me. I know that in the dark, they’re all supposed to be the same, but how about the daylight? I’d rather have the juicy, succulent ones, not these dames.
“Watch yourself!” the first one complains. “I’ve got a bum ankle.”
“I need help with my mother,” the next one says. “Aging’s not her thing.”
This is the worst—one of them has me in a stationary graze for hours while she snorts on and on without asking a thing about me. I’m not interested in her twisted history and I sure as hell don’t want anyone dependent on me. Why should I have to work at this? I’m a stallion.
I’ll go after the young ones. Talk about bodies; these are sleek little things ready for the taking, no longer colts, but not quite mares either. I hang around and charm them, and before long, they’re looking up to me. They can tell I’m special.
I take one for a canter on a nice autumn day. Carrie, she’s called. We end up in a field of moist grass. She’s brown like the color of earth after fresh rain, legs the opposite of the stringy ones holding up the desperate broads I’ve been romancing. I could lick Carrie clean, but she’s already glittering in the sunshine. Ambles around grazing, lifts her head to smile at me, neighs occasionally, and hangs onto my every word because she knows I’m clever. We mate like the first pair of horses ever to do so. She’s shaking from ecstasy, waving her tail like she’s about to send off fireworks, collapsing afterward with satisfaction. Ah, my Carrie. She’s a love, she is.
“I have to go home,” she says—real quiet—her head down in some kind of false modesty.
“A little longer,” I say, trying to get closer.
But as she scoots away, I see her eyes are wet. “I have to go,” she says again, standing stiff and awkward, as if something hurts. Way to play coy.
She’s mum on the return trip, silent as a butterfly missing a wing, nothing like her cute chatty self. Who knows what’s bothering her? She’s a little uneven and slow, too. I nudge her along, but she says in her squeaky voice, “Please stay away from me.”
She doesn’t mean it. Dusk is falling, sunset starting to paint the sky. My Carrie might be limping—she trips a little—but more likely she’s showing off her naive diffidence to let me know how exceptional I am.
When we get back, the other horses are lined up like a firing squad, their hindquarters to the water trough, as if drinking was the furthest thing from their mind. I glimpse Carrie’s mother, standing like a sentry ready to take me out. She’s a fire-breathing dragon. “DON’T YOU EVER TOUCH HER AGAIN!” she whinnies. As if I were some kind of deviant instead of a stallion. Carrie hobbles over and nuzzles against her mother (what an act!), just like she did with me an hour earlier, all innocent-pretending.
I’ll sleep well tonight for the first time in years, dreaming of Carrie, that tantalizing ripe apple. I know she fancies me. But I also know better than to stick around.
Marsupials Lug Around Too Much
At first, I was hesitant. I mean . . . a kangaroo? Then I thought about having hind legs like taut elastic. Before long, I was salivating at the possibility of those muscular thighs, brimming with confidence, and a tail that won’t quit.
Boom! I was now seeing the world from above, from a height that’s closer to birds than mammals. I’m female once again, flying through eucalyptus forests and across beaches, leaping carefree, capturing the admiration of passers-by. It’s incredible; I stop for a breather and tourists ooh and ah and snap pictures like I’m Marilyn Monroe. My fur thickens and my tail gets smarter. I’ve arrived!
I meet this guy with a thatch of hair on his chest like you wouldn’t believe. Built like a brick shithouse, confidence spilling out like thunder from a raincloud. He hops so fast I may as well be trying to keep up with the wind. But is it ever worth it! I’ve never had such a hunk. We rut like it’s a contact sport; we don’t even care who’s watching.
Then it turns out I’m pregnant. Never mind that he didn’t bother asking whether I wanted to be a mother. Or that he’s fulfilling his life’s ambition to seed a tribe. He’s keen to protect me, my joey, and the rest of the mob (did I ask for that?), which means he and the kid are mine forever.
Living in a group is a nightmare—the suffocating nosiness! Everyone’s in my business, treating my joey like a communal pet. Kangaroos in an enclosing horde, sniffing to screen each other as if conformity were a sacrament.
Well, I’m not about to start conforming now. Come to think of it, aren’t kangaroos a little silly? With their forepaws hanging down as if at any moment, they’re going to raise them to motion “huh?” And another thing—Australia is far from everywhere, unless, perhaps, you happen to be in New Zealand, which isn’t that near anyway. Then there’s the pouch. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to design a pouch where you’ll be the only one lugging the joey around? It’s murder on your posture and slows down your speed. And forget privacy; the baby’s always hanging out.
Speaking of privacy, why would I want to join a congregant species?
One Thing’s Better Than a Chameleon
Finally, I landed: Chameleon.
It’s not just the beauty; it’s also the flexibility. You alight on a shiny green leaf, ripe with dew, smooth as a woman’s back. Your skin brightens to royal green. You become her; no need for her to change. You caress her surface. Your feet, ever-so-slightly sticky, pad gently across her back. Your tiny luscious toes take her in, the morning smell, the ridges of her veins. She doesn’t have to say she loves you; you know it because you match.
Or you climb a purple stalk, fuzzy with wiry bristles like the hair on a man’s chest. You hang there, vertically, your breast against his, your skin turning a mottled shade of lavender. You’re blending in; he’s swaying with you. You’re his color; no need to distinguish yourself from him, or sharpen your identity. He’ll provide it for you.
Transforming into a chameleon was an inspiration. However, I ended up in a family where I’m the sole artist. The rest are somewhere between dull green and gray. “Why so fancy?” they ask. Of course, it’s meant to be an insult. “You never commit to anything or anyone.”
How many ways can I explain that we creative types operate outside a falsely imposed system? Monogamy is so clunky, so yesterday. Where’s the harm in lying on a leaf that’s already been spoken for? It’s her choice, or his, or theirs. Leaves crave the full palette of love and I provide it. I’m a rainbow; I’m whatever they seek in the mirror, the doppelgänger of their desire.
Since being around my family makes me anxious enough to molt, I spend my time away, finding new leaves, giving pleasure with the vibrant spectrum running down my spine, shades morphing from lime green to rose lavender. I’m a masterpiece, capering up and down stalks, smiling, pointing my toes and snaking my supple thighs in and out of tough spots. I change shades to accommodate my surroundings with subtlety and grace. I fit in, even if they don’t know to value it.
Because who would have guessed? I’ve never been so lonely in my life. I’m lonelier than an abandoned peach pit left on a dusty road. Lonely like the last white rhinoceros or a dead baby in a mammalian womb. I give, give, give to leaves that take, take, take. It’s not that they don’t appreciate me—sometimes they do—but they don’t invite me to stay. They have their own life, attached as they are to branches, connected to their fellow leaves and to the flora and fauna that surround them.
How have I done everything right and ended up like this? There’s got to be something better. Chameleon must not be it. Better to be an amoeba. Molting is useful, but imagine being fluid, taking the shape of your container, untethered to form.
Finally, an Amoeba
Yes, amoeba’s the thing. Shapeshifting, permanently in flow. The wiggle and shake through the water. There’s no pressure. I float aimlessly; wrap my body around anything I need to. Sometimes, I swallow them whole.
I swim forward, sideways, even backwards—unfurling my sides, skimming the surface like oil on water. I don’t mind that it’s muddy and brackish. What’s a little tannin? It adds mystery and keeps things interesting.
It takes a while to get my sea legs and figure out who’s nearby. As it happens, you can’t believe who’s swimming around. All kinds of motherless girls; dried up crones; frisky boys; droopy, sad old men. They haven’t known love or warmth until they meet me. Thank goodness I’m here. They gravitate to me because they can tell what I’ve been through. Plus, I know what I’m meant to be.
On the other hand, lately the water’s been getting colder, and if the temperature gets any lower, I’m out of here.