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The Shapeshifter Unraveled

S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, and Uncanny, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website, s.qiouyi.lu.
Marie was thunder and lightning, a tornado tearing through the plains, weaponized rage consuming everything in her path. And I was a mouse clinging to a stalk of grass in the distance, watching her, trembling in the wake of her glory.
Envy swallowed me. I wanted to be her, a force of nature instead of this borrowed shape; I longed to be anything but what I was inside.
I became an oyster first. I drank saltwater and plunged into the icy depths of the Pacific; I wanted to take the sand gnawing at me and turn it into something beautiful.
But all I did was eat grit and slice my insides. I bled and felt the emptiness within me, the hollow where a pearl should have been, where the perfection I saw in her should have echoed in me.
I tried again, this time becoming a peacock. I fanned my tail out until I became a cascade of emeralds and sapphires ringed with copper. Perhaps if I could preen enough, if I could boast enough, I could mimic her glory.
But I faded, my tail collapsing under its own weight. This was neither me nor her, the falseness tearing at me until I became a whirlwind of feathers.
Before I could settle back into my true skin, I became fire, raging as I consumed whole forests through the Sierra Nevada, leaving destruction in my wake. I wanted to be seen like her, to be feared, to strike awe like her, to have people witness my power, my rawness, the jagged edges of me whipping the air.
But after the embers faded, after I was left with only smoke-choked lungs and ashes, I remembered: I am nothing but this soft-fleshed thing, this utterly human thing, round and naked and vulnerable, this imperfect creature that is the only form I can claim as truly my own.
The next time I saw Marie was in San Francisco's Chinatown. I had given up pretending, resigned to my own odious body; I bumped into her as we were both entering a tea house.
I thought the tornado was her true form, but she was human just like me. I could still see the lightning in her eyes, hear the thunder coiled under her tongue; at the same time, I could see how tired she was, how small she'd become. She was lightning and thunder and glory, she was a tornado that could tear through one house and leave another unharmed, but she was destroying herself in the process.
We greeted each other warmly, and I offered to buy her a drink. We sat across from each other by a window, sunshine gleaming off our teacups. The silence between us was awkward at first, years of distance and casual acquaintanceship separating us, but then she spoke.
"I'm sorry for not being very chatty. Between my exhibition opening and the commissions I'm working on and the media attention--it's been a lot to deal with."
She set down her teacup, and I noticed then how delicate her wrists were, the jade bangle encircling her left wrist duller than my own. My father's words echoed in my mind: A shiny bracelet is a mark of good health.
"That's all right," I said. She smiled, the warmth of it making me blush--how genuine she was, always open; her emotions were what made her strong, what she poured into her work to give it life--and yet sometimes she poured too much, risking herself in the undoing.
"Have you been working on anything lately?" she asked.
I shrugged. "It's been difficult for me to paint recently. Just... a lot on my mind."
"I understand." She took another sip of tea. "For what it's worth, I've always admired your work. I know you think it's too simple, but there's a clarity to your lines, a cleanness to it that takes others years to master. I always feel like my work is too messy, too raw compared to yours."
"Thank you," I said. "It means a lot, coming from you."
She blew on her tea and took another sip. "I miss elementary school," she confessed as she looked out the window. "Do you remember how we used to run across the playground to that big tree and climb up into its branches?" She turned to look back at me. "I miss being friends with you."
"Me too," I said, and found myself surprised by the way my voice trembled, the way my heart clenched tight against my ribs. I'd spent so much time trying to be her that I'd forgotten what it was like to be with her, how I'd loved her and still did, how we weren't in competition but could work alongside each other.
"Will you be here for long?" I asked.
"I'm visiting family next week, but other than that, I'm here to stay."
Behind her lightning and thunder I saw someone more vulnerable, someone imperfect, and as she looked at me I felt something stirring within me too: my own force of nature, not destruction, but the shoots pushing out of the ashes in the wake of a fire, the soft hoofprints of deer cresting hills being reborn. I was not her and I would never be her, but I didn't need to be, either: I could just be myself, and trust that she saw the goodness in me, and that would be enough.
I reached across the table and placed my hand over hers. Calm washed over me and I felt settled in my own body, my true form, if only for a moment.
"It's not too late to be friends again," I said.
Outside, rain began to fall--a light pitter-patter that heralded no storm.
She smiled.
"I'd like that."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
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