butterfly

The Shapeshifter’s Lover

Today, her lover is a jaguar. All those nights when she’d longed for it — longed to feel the pressure of a warm body stretched out beside her, coarse hair under her palm, eyes glowing in the light of the bedside lamp — now that it comes to it, she is terrified.

Saliva beads on her pillow. Miriam eases herself slowly out of bed, careful not to rouse him. Stealthily she creeps to the door, ignoring the house robe, the slippers, the sound of his breathing. The floorboards are cold; she prays they do not creak. In the kitchen, she checks the refrigerator even though she knows she does not have what he needs. A quick call to the butcher’s, delivery scheduled for seven a.m., and she looks at the clock on the microwave, wishing the numbers would flip quickly, that she herself could move time. She does not think about what would happen if she couldn’t meet his needs. So far she has managed it, but he has not yet run the full spectrum. What are there — two million? five million? nine million different species on this earth? So far he has been through eight hundred and fifty-four changes. She has kept count.

Miriam hears the sound of something hitting the floor upstairs, an ominous thud, then silence. Her husband is on the prowl. She freezes, there in the kitchen, as the seconds on the microwave tick by. She holds her breath. The morning sun streams in through the window above the sink. Petunias wilt on the sill. The sink is full of last night’s dishes, but the tile floor is clean. Yesterday had been a good day; she’d been able to get some things done. Today will not be a good day. She considers, briefly, locking herself in the guestroom.

He always seems to know who she is, but that does not lessen the danger. How much of him is actually in there, she does not know, can never know, and he — on those rare mornings when his eyes look into hers and his full lips curve in a smile — is unable to tell her. He cannot remember the change, and he does not remember the days lost to them, to this man and wife who together share the secret of his shifting.

Yesterday, he was a sparrow. In the morning, his wing had brushed her cheek as he’d flown up and away from his pillow. Outside, the wild sparrows had been singing. She had risen and opened the window, but he’d followed her downstairs and perched on her finger as she’d held a mug of coffee to her lips. She had whistled at him and scattered seed on the kitchen table, then cleaned up the mess he left behind. Eventually, he did fly out the window. He will never know how relieved she had been.

Imagine, being afraid of a sparrow.

She hears him now, coming down the stairs. His movements sound languid, thump… thump… thump… like slow drums. She takes a deep breath. One hand moves toward her throat, as though her puny collarbones could protect her. One bite and he’ll crush her skull. It could be worse, she thinks. It could be worse. He hasn’t yet been a grizzly bear. A rhinoceros. A wild boar. God help her when he is, and her house, too.

She had fallen in love with him on the day she first saw him, way back in high school. Ninth grade, it was, the first day after summer break. In December he finally noticed her, claimed her, spoke those words she and her girlfriends longed for — you are the one. He proved himself loyal, faithful, and kind. Four months after they graduated, they were married. Her parents had wanted her to attend college. Instead, she and he had moved to another state with the money they’d been saving from their summer jobs. They were typical, even stereotypical, in their rebellion. After a few years they settled down, found decent work, saved again and bought a home. This home — this beautiful house that has since been invaded by eight hundred and fifty-four strangers.

Once, he’d been a fox, lean and red. She had been afraid then, too. She had fed him fruit and the previous night’s leftovers. Afterwards, he had dashed through the house, knocking over lamps and breaking some of her best china, and then he’d curled up on the sofa, where he washed himself unconcernedly while she kept an eye on tooth and claw. She is always afraid. She never knows what she’ll wake up to.

How does one co-exist with a jaguar? It had come as such a shock, his first change. She will never forget that morning. She’d thought he was tickling her awake before sunrise, but when she opened her eyes to look into his, she’d screamed and sent the little black squirrel scurrying. Compassion won out; she’d coaxed him out from under the bed and had cooed as he curled up in her hands. It was easy when he was so sweet; his little paws had pattered in her palm, and he’d spent most of the day clinging to her shoulder. That day, even though she didn’t understand what was happening or how it could possibly be happening, she had accepted the transformation of the man she thought she loved.

The jaguar is native to the Americas. It can be distinguished from the leopard by the rosettes that spot its huge body. The male jaguar is a solitary carnivore, most active at dawn or dusk. If she’s lucky, he will eat and then sleep the day away, and she will be safe if she does not disturb him. She does not know how he will react when the doorbell rings, or what she’ll do if the butcher’s boy should peer in and see him in the hall. If the boy is smart, he will not run. If she were smart, she would run, right now before he makes his way into the kitchen.

He slinks in and sits by the door, rubs his neck against the frame, and begins to purr with each exhalation. He is beautiful; she cannot deny it. His coat is sleek. Muscles bulge in his shoulders. His tail flicks enticingly. One bite, that’s all it will take.

There are so many of him, and only two of her. There is the woman who hides in the guestroom, who cannot leave the house, who keeps her fingers crossed and a prayer card hidden in her underwear drawer. This woman often cries for no apparent reason, and sometimes begs him, when he is inhuman, to be human again. The other woman watches all of this in horror. Miriam does not recall when she first divided, and she hates who she has become.

The jaguar shifts his weight and yawns. The doorbell rings. He turns a lazy head and blinks his yellow eyes, but seems otherwise uninterested. She takes a tentative step, then another, and when he remains motionless, she leaves him in the kitchen and greets the butcher’s boy at the door.

So much for clean tiles. She slings the meat toward his feet; it leaves a slimy trail of blood on the floor. He bends his head down and sniffs it, then stretches out and cradles it in his front paws. The sound of his chewing makes her a little nauseous, but he is occupied and she is grateful.

If only, she thinks, he could remember. She long ago gave up wishing he would never change. By now all she wants is for him to know how much he scares her, how love falters in the harsh light of day. She contemplates things as impossible as he is — a small cottage by the sea, a cabin in the woods, an apartment in the center of the city. She wants to know what it feels like to walk to the shop, to swim in the ocean, to climb a tree, without the weight of this terrible secret dragging behind her.

What will he be tomorrow? What food will she have to acquire, what mess will she have to clean up? Who will she have to lie to in order to protect him? Every night she asks these same questions. Every morning she wakes to their answers.

*

Today, he is a man. She opens her eyes to his face, peaceful in the slackness of sleeping. His lips are slightly parted, his chest rises and falls, and she realizes that even now she does not recognize him. She eases out of the bed, puts on her house robe, her slippers, and creeps down the stairs like a thief in her own house. Miriam prepares breakfast out of habit. The scent of frying bacon will rouse him — it always does.

When the coffee has finished brewing, he appears in the doorway, casually running his fingers through his unruly hair. She lays a place for him at the table, serves him his meal, and without a word leaves him to it.

Back in the bedroom they have shared for all these years, she drops her nightgown to the floor. She puts on a pair of jeans, a camisole, and a sweater, spends a minute cursing as she looks for her boots, and then, as an afterthought, wraps a silk scarf around her neck. She empties the contents of her jewelry box into her purse, picks up her nightgown, puts it into the laundry basket and shuts the lid. They have made love in this room so many times she is loathe to leave it, but those days are as distant now as the peaks of a mountain on the other side of the world.

“Where are you going?” he calls out as she walks past the bright kitchen.

She stops and leans against the doorframe, arms crossed. That other her, the one who hides in the guestroom, is watching the scene in shock. He’ll find you, she says. He’ll gobble you up.

“Out. We need groceries.” Miriam forces herself into the kitchen, gently kisses his cheek, and then leaves him, slightly bewildered, to the remains of his breakfast.

That other her is roaring now, like the lion he never was. Her legs feel like they are pushing through water as she leaves the house and walks toward the Volvo. She fumbles and drops the keys. Her breath comes quick and sharp, and the pain of ulcer is blossoming in her stomach. You can’t! You mustn’t! He needs you! Miriam clenches her teeth, slides behind the wheel, slams the door and drives past the grocers. For miles, she keeps looking back.

*

It has taken years, but Miriam is now undivided.

“You’re lucky you got out alive,” her new friends often say.

“Am I?” Miriam says. “He never actually hurt me.”

Miriam doesn’t believe it was luck that moved her feet that morning. It was the threat, the constant threat of danger, the dirty sheets, the stinking fur, the endless cleaning, the food bills, the hiding in the guestroom. It was all of this, and none of it. Would she have stayed if he’d never become a jaguar? Miriam has eight hundred and fifty-four reasons for having left him, but in the end, it was the jaguar. You can excuse a sparrow, or a fox, but when one bite is all it will take to kill you, you realize how precious life is.


[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]


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