Once upon a time, in a kingdom very far from the sea, there lived a little princess who spent her days scooping up frogs and kissing them full on the mouth (though with very little tongue). This was the destiny bespoke her: that her lips would one day free a prince, who would come to rule her people with justice and grace and love her as deeply and true as only a man with a second chance at life can.
One day, the little princess noticed a strange thing happening. After each kiss, even as the frogs remained all entirely frog-like, a green splotch would bloom upon her fair skin. Then two splotches. Then three. No amount of lemon juice or pumice stone undid the pigmentation. Soon she grew quite mottled, her once smooth complexion pebbled and waxy to the touch.
“Well, no matter,” she thought to herself, “for isn’t this the essence of love? To transform ourselves without question into that which our Beloved will most desire?”
◊ ◊ ◊
First things first.
I was born from a line of shapeshifters.
Shapeshifters, for those who do not know, are brood parasites. Like the cuckoo that lays its egg in another bird’s nest to be hatched, each shapeshifter finds herself raised in a family of strangers. She learns to mimic their words, their forms of touch, their expressions of love, all the while knowing something underneath remains amiss. She looks in each mirror and tries to see herself in the strangeness staring back.
All my life, I have waited for an act to set my birthright in motion: the scratch on a full moon, the fang in my neck, vile curses muttered by an old woman dressed in rags and vodka. All thus far for naught.
My bones sing to be released, and still this human face perches, polite and undislodged, atop my true visage.
◊ ◊ ◊
The day after a woman sleeps for the last time with a man who will soon divorce her (not that either of them knows this yet), she sits across the table from him at dinner, eating soup. She glances up into her beloved’s eyes and thinks, “I could swallow you whole, I am so angry.”
Remembering how he touched her, the things he said.
How frightened she felt.
How frightened he intended.
She thinks, “I am so angry I could rip you open like the seam of an ill-fitting dress, snap your ribcage like a wishbone, and pull out your entrails to festoon our home.”
He blinks back at her. She smiles.
Out loud, she asks, “Would you like more soup?” and passes him the ladle. They both return attention to their meals: he spooning up his tepid dinner and she, her boiling rage.
(Note: I am not saying this woman was me.)
(I am not not-saying it, either.)
Women traditionally murder with poisons, were you aware? We harvest plants, crush herbs, bake bread and the now-dead flesh of last week’s barnyard pets—and then we feed you. Nourishment or death, only the hostess knows.
(Let’s just say: I know where this woman’s coming from. Let’s leave it at that.)
“How do I convince him I mean well?” the woman wonders.
If indeed she does.
“How do I prove a negative, which in this case would be: No, I do not wish to hurt you. No, I do not seek the destruction of you and all your line. No, I have never—would never!—think to break your infant heirs’ necks in front of you like kindling, nor toss their limp bodies onto my kitchen fire to roast like so many suckling pigs.”
He would have only her word, of course, that she does not wish these things.
Only her word and her solemn handshake, made perhaps less stalwart by the smear of blood along one thumb or the dried red crust beneath her nails.
I mean you no harm, I do assure you.
Not even to return harm given?
Please. Eat of my soup, so heartening and hale, so very not-poisoned. Let me feed you, my love; my dumpling; my angel fallen from heaven to bring light and joy to all my days. Let me at last feed you.
And no, I do not mean to our dogs. Cross my heart.
My uneaten heart.
“Would you like more soup?”
Now shut up and eat it.
◊ ◊ ◊
No one heals from the injuries of the world by simply abstaining. Though I understand the impulse.
Half a century gone, all of it in human form—yet my shapeshifter’s soul is not without hope. In years past, despairing of tenderness, I often resorted to self-violence: knives and razors, hurled words, the smack of my open palm against my own head. Now, in the solitary dark of my room, I stroke my naked body and croon softly to her, my little beast-pup within, urging her at last to surface.
Perhaps the inaugural act is not our own to make, after all.
. . . sometimes a throat will moan at a single touch.
. . . sometimes a mouth will whisper “pleasepleasedon’tstop” before a mind can think to close it.
Could it be that what releases us to ourselves is not anger, or control, or even an act of will? Perhaps it comes through love. Perhaps it comes through care. Perhaps it comes through another’s hands that do not seek to have, or take, or change; only to give and to receive.
Half a lifetime is long to reach such knowledge.
But no lifetime becomes too long to wait, if at the end we can see our beloved’s face in the mirror—and recognize it as our own.
◊ ◊ ◊
Once upon a time, in a kingdom very far from any sea, there lived a regal queen who ruled her people with justice and grace and who loved herself as deeply and true as only a woman with a second chance at life can. Each evening, after removing her crown and smoothing down the velvet cushions of her throne, the queen retreated to the inner sanctum of her chamber, where her consort waited beside the canopied bed and a night table littered with books. Broad mouth trembling, skin in the candlelight gleaming the color of moss, or maybe mushrooms, the queen’s companion met her eyes and smiled.
Smiling back, the queen slipped between the silken sheets and patted the open space next to her in invitation.
Did they live happily ever after? Who’s to say.
But happily for tonight?
That, I can assure you.
Her companion reached out a webbed hand, moist and smelling of garden soil, and laid it upon the queen’s cream-skinned belly. They fell into a deep and restful sleep, dreaming of ponds and castles.
[For C.L., with affection. And webbing.]