Nina Kiriki Hoffman
April 14th 2023
Tara was a shifter. Half the women in her family shared the trait. Her mother wasn’t one of them.
Her mother said, “When you get your first blood, you might follow the family way and change. You start feeling peculiar, you run next door to Auburn’s house and let her lock you up in the basement. Let’s practice.”
Aunt Auburn had three big steel cages in her basement. The basement walls and ceiling were painted with colorful forest scenes — trees, wild animals, some North American and some tropical — but the cages still stood out. The basement smelled dank, and like fabric softener sheets. The washer and dryer were against one wall, with a big sink next to them.
“I’ll be glad when I reach the age of reason,” Aunt Auburn said, “and stop bleeding.”
For practice, Tara ran to Aunt Auburn’s house, and Aunt Auburn hustled her down to the basement to a cage. There was a bed in there, and a camping toilet, a bowl of water, and a big food dish like for a dog.
“Go in, honey.” Aunt Auburn waved her inside. In Tara went, and Aunt Auburn turned the key in the lock. “Lie on the bed, baby. Leave your scent. That’ll make it easier when you come back.”
Aunt turned the lights low and vanished upstairs, leaving Tara locked in a cage for the first time. She rattled the door. It wasn’t going to let her out. She swallowed panic and lay on the bed. She stared up at the painted ceiling.
Presently she smelled something delicious. Aunt Auburn came downstairs carrying a plate of buttered toast. She handed toast through the bars. Tara ate until she was stuffed.
Aunt Auburn let her out.
Three weeks later, Tara felt an ache in her stomach. She called Aunt Auburn and rushed next door.
Aunt Auburn hugged her tight, then urged her into the cage.
“If the change comes, try not to destroy things. I’ll be here. I’ll take care of you.”
The blood came first. Tara sat on the camp toilet, wondering if she was dying. Then she bristled inside, bumped and burped and changed. She grew bigger and rounder and furrier. Her head filled with rage. She raced around the cage, knocking into the bars, bleeding from behind, growling.
A sound broke through her frenzy: a voice, singing. “Here you are, my love, where you change, where you change. In the change, in the change. Be the change, be the change.” The voice soothed her, though she didn’t understand the words. She slowed, stopped, lay on the bed, and slept.
Aunt Auburn let her out of the cage three days later. She had shifted back into a girl, though she felt bigger and stronger. She helped clean the cage, then took a shower. Her aunt gave her a new dress, soft brown. It smelled like her aunt. Smells were stronger and more informative. The world was alive in a new way. A squirrel ran across the lawn at her house, and she focused on it so intently she saw the layering of hairs in its tail, red for the short hairs, and white-tipped black guard hairs for the longer ones. Her stomach growled.
She still had rage in her belly. Now it was a comfort, like the glow from a campfire.
“You’ll learn,” Aunt Auburn whispered as she led Tara home. “Sometimes we go out to the forest. First you have to learn to be your other self.”
Tara gave a sleepy growl and smiled.
Nebula- and Stoker-Award-winning writer Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold more than 350 short stories, and a number of adult and young adult novels. She lives in Oregon in the US.
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