The shapeshifter met her husband during her horse era. She, gleaming and muscular, with chestnut fur and a black mane. He, heart pounding, face sweating. A few weeks into their time together, he licked his lips and said there must be no one like her in all the world.
The horse was a good form, and she enjoyed long, frequent walks with the man and being an agreeable partner. She decided that he didn’t have to know every side of herself. She could be the horse with him, which was, after all, part of her, and the vulture sometimes at night with her friends, laughing raucously ugly laughter that made her feel free and full of life. The man loved her, and she was happy with him in their little house surrounded by trees—or at least the horse form was happy.
They married quickly. After a few months, while they were walking through the garden of their new home, he began in a roundabout way, telling her how he loved her muscles, and the way she ran, how he’d first fallen for her when he saw her sleek fur reflecting the sun. How her mane and tail flew behind her when she galloped. And he was very happy with her, and also, since they were going to be together for the rest of their lives, wouldn’t it be fun—for both of them—if she introduced another form? Knowing that she could, after all, take other forms, as she’d told him once, something he believed still, though he’d never seen it. And, he added, he knew she’d done it in a past relationship, but not for him.
What kind of form? she said.
A swan, he said. He’d been thinking about swans lately, couldn’t get them off his mind. And once he started, it was swans everywhere. He noticed them at the pond—which he passed daily, when he took a certain route to work—and in city gardens. They had such soft, regal, white feathers, those coy black masks, bright orange beaks. A horse was certainly a majestic creature, but a swan? He let out a soft groan of longing.
That evening, the shapeshifter looked herself over in their bedroom mirror and noticed her back swayed in a way it hadn’t before, that her coat was a little rougher than she remembered. It was true a swan wouldn’t age in the same way as a horse, or at least wouldn’t seem to. She decided, it would be her decision after all, that a long neck and graceful body might do her good, and maybe, after all, she was doing it for herself. And so, after securing promises that her husband did still treasure her from mane to fetlocks, the shapeshifter transformed into an elegant white swan.
In the mornings, when she went foraging for worms and frogs and other delicacies, she felt him watching her lovingly out the window. And she did feel more beautiful, somehow, than she had when a horse, even though she couldn’t run as quickly. He was more attentive now and stroked her long white feathers as he’d used to, but stopped, with her mane. He said she was more attractive than any of the other swans, had a more perfect curve to her neck, such soft, cloud-like wings, really more angel than bird.
Sometimes, her neck got twisted in the bedsheets, and her tail was uncomfortable in bed, but she liked her life as a swan, despite the quiet, nagging feeling of missing the galloping through the hillsides. And the other feeling, which was that there were still parts of herself she hid from him.
Sometimes at night while her husband was sleeping, she turned into a bat and flew out the window. Banging in freedom against the eaves. Watching the stars above, catching bugs, sailing through the black summer air, she felt freer than she ever did in the daytime. Elation—a soaring off into infinity. And then at the end, she would come back because she did love and miss her husband and didn’t want that soaring freedom forever, only for a little while.
Sometimes, she wished to be something grotesque, for the feel of it. One day, when her husband was out of town, she went out drinking in a dive bar as a terrible tarantula, and told stories, met with strange men, never feeling vulnerable, never once hit on, as they never imagined she was a woman at all, just a form, a terrible spider. That night, she bought drinks for everyone and stayed out until two in the morning, and not once did anyone ask her to be anything other than who she was. This, later, she would recall, even more than the bat form, as the happiest night of her life. At the end of the night, she embraced the men she was drinking with, using all eight hairy arms, and did not flinch when they stroked hers in return.
After a few months of mostly keeping the swan form around her husband, he began to feel more absent and no longer looked at her with desire. He became agitated about the grass and beetle parts she dropped on the kitchen floor when she wasn’t careful, and the sounds of her honking. He began, one afternoon, to tell her again how happy she had made him, how in love with her he was—she felt the question coming: Wouldn’t it be better—
They contemplated other forms. It seemed everywhere they went, she could feel him watching other birds and fish and mammals. She began to fear then that the problem, really, was her. That she, by sharing anything of who she was, had created the situation in the first place. The shapeshifter, over a plate of algae and spiders, one night, asked her husband to table the conversation of forms, and so they did. They held a party, where their friends touched her soft feathers in conversation and admired her as she circled their home in flight. At the party, too, was a little peacock her husband had met through friends, small and blue, and she noticed his eyes resting on the long tailfeathers tucked behind her.
A week after the party, her husband asked the shapeshifter, apropos of nothing, whether she’d ever thought about becoming a peacock. She swung her long neck in his direction.
Really. A peacock.
He said the idea had just come to him from nowhere, and wasn’t there some essential sweetness and life to their love, that if they could just capture again, like they had once—and peacocks had such delightful colors, and she should show herself off more anyhow. He hadn’t thought about that before with the swan suggestion—it was his fault—but another form would solve all of that.
There was something alluring about the man that had made her fall for him in the first place, that came down to his desire for her. It was a powerful feeling, being swept up in a gaze like that, most of all when she saw herself as he saw her—a gleaming horse, a regal swan, a peacock. She felt as though she might do anything to maintain that feeling. Sometimes it was hard to know herself at all, except through his eyes.
But as they spoke she began to wonder, with the tiniest sliver of doubt, whether she had a true self, whether there was one, and if it was, whether the bat, or the tarantula, were truer selves than the horse or the swan, which were also her, but not the whole her, and if so, how would she ever tell her husband, whom she loved.
After a long fight that went into the night, she agreed to change once more, adding that after that, she wouldn’t change again for a full year, and he shouldn’t bother asking. He agreed.
In the morning, she was an emu. Enough like a peacock to delay, but only for a second or two, the moment he realized what had happened, wordlessly bringing his hand to his mouth.
She liked being taller, high on spindly legs, with no iridescence or grace. She could see better out the windows of their home. She could reach all the high kitchen shelves without flying. Their friends commented she had really let herself go.
But the thing that surprised her was how happy and careless and free this form made her. Dropping berries and seeds all over the living room, things that got buried in their textured carpet. And she found herself more affectionate toward her husband, and sought to nuzzle him in the evenings with her beak, though she could feel him growing distant again.
Eventually, the shapeshifter’s husband declared he was tired of the very idea of forms, and one day, she saw him watching a woman who lived nearby, a woman who was always herself, shaking out the rugs into her garden. And he gave that pained look of longing.
The shapeshifter decided she had no other recourse left. She would get a tattoo. And once settled on the idea, it enthralled her, because it would mark a constant self, despite the shifting forms—something she had long desired.
The tattoo did not save the marriage, of course. Her husband left her, but the shapeshifter did love her tattoo. It was a drawing of a yellow butterfly, her favorite form, which she now adopted, and what was better than a butterfly with a tiny butterfly tattoo? She had gotten it on her stomach while she was still an emu. And then, as she settled into the empty home, and pondered what form she might choose for herself, she changed into the butterfly, small and light and lively, and made sure to flutter by once in the window, while her former husband and the woman were having breakfast. And she knew that he saw her, and that was all she wanted, as she embraced her new form, the emblem of shapeshifters.
The shapeshifter told the story of her tattoo over drinks with friends like this. There was once a woman who got a tattoo after falling hopelessly in love with a man who thought she was very nearly perfect—except for that which made her essentially herself. Then, she marked her stomach, to remember that there was an essential self.
The shapeshifter found the tattoo very funny, all her friends did too, and she exposed her belly, and they poked at it, looking closer and closer to find a tiny butterfly tattoo on the tiny belly of a butterfly. It tickled, and her laughter was a happy, microscopic tinkling.