Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Twokk, as it turns out, is mostly surrounded by farmland. I suppose most towns are. They had run out of things to paint - the need for artists tends to be limited in places this small - so I moved on this morning. The cook of the Moons and Magpie gave me half a dozen different kinds of food when I left, all of them made of locusts.* She says they'll last for months. I believe her.

The road out of town (an actual road, not one of the treacherous paths of the Scalps) winds through fields of cotton. The vegetable lambs are still young at this time of year. They sit curled on top of their stalks, cradled by leaves, pink skin still showing through their first layer of cotton wool. The fields are full of the sound of tiny bleating.

Most people are fairly sure that the vegetable lambs were created by shapeshifters. Not all hybrids of plants and animals were shifter-made, of course. Though no one can be entirely sure, tubermoles probably came into existence the normal way (whatever that happens to be), as did the enigmatic Greenlings and the trapper vines with their subterranean stomachs. Most of them are closer to one side or the other, though. Greenlings and trapper vines are mostly animal; they just happen to be capable of photosynthesis. Tubermoles are basically roots with digging claws.

The vegetable lamb, though, is an even division of plant and animal: a little sheep on a stalk. That rarely happens when shapeshifters aren't involved. No one is sure how many of the living things in Hamjamser were originally created by shapeshifters. The meatroots that feed the floating cities** certainly were; their creator's name was Sashrem. Tesra Sashrem, some call her - a craftswoman who worked in flesh and bone. There are statues to her on most of the floating cities, depicted as whatever species she happened to look like at the time each sculptor met her. She also created coal-nuts and the dirigible octopus. She supposedly said that sea-spackle, silt-crabs, and the surprisingly popular memory leeches were also created by shapeshifters, though she respected their privacy too much to mention their names.

She was unusual. It's rare to meet a shapeshifter and know it. Nearly all of them stay hidden, anonymous, using their extraordinary abilities to appear completely ordinary.

Most of Hamjamser's disguised people have a perfectly innocent reason to hide themselves, of course. Vancians consider faces to be private. Visitors to Samrath Kazi used to be required to wear a mask if they didn't meet the town's standards of beauty.*** Cloisterers hide their faces for religious reasons. Aggravarns (sometimes called the Worms that Walk) occasionally cause vomiting in people who are scared of worms; they usually feel just awful about this, so they wear coats over their collective bodies when they go outside, recognizable only by the faint squishing noise when they walk. Some troglodytes simply sunburn easily. Shapeshifters have a similar but different reason: they don't want the attention.

Like anyone with rare and exceptional abilities, shapeshifters tend to become instantly famous whenever and wherever they reveal themselves. Everyone is curious about them. Everyone wants to find out more about them, to understand how they work, often to ask them for help. Even ordinary conversations with shapeshifters can be awkward; no matter how good your intentions, it's almost impossible to forget that they've built themselves from scratch. The mind has a tendency to dwell on how they must have sculpted their bones, strung their muscles, tailored their skin, wired their nerves... If, that is, they even need nerves. People with near-perfect control of every cell of their bodies (or whatever they prefer to use instead of cells) have little need for anything as inefficient as a nervous system.

This is why many people are somewhat uncomfortable around shapeshifters. Of course, being basically sensible, most inhabitants of Hamjamser think nothing of it after a few days; they have no qualms about eating dinner with someone who uses a homemade stomach and could grow their own silverware from their fingernails. The shapeshifters answer the same questions that everyone asks them constantly over the years of their unending lives, smiling patiently, and all is well.

Still, there are always a few people who can't get used to shapeshifters, and even more who are just annoyingly curious. This is why most shapeshifters have stayed in disguise for the last few centuries. Their existence is fairly common knowledge; most people have heard of them, if only as a myth. Individual shapeshifters, though, prefer to stay anonymous. All we see is their handiwork.

Many village healers are actually shapeshifters. (The villagers are usually polite enough to avoid finding out.) Being able to manipulate individual cells - their own and, with far more difficulty, those of others - shapeshifters have healing abilities far beyond anyone else's. Most of what we know about biology was discovered by shapeshifters; they've seen it, or sensed it, firsthand. They build their own cells, defend themselves against diseases, puzzle out the complex mechanics of reproduction (and often design more convenient systems of their own). Medicine would be very different without their vast and microscopic experience.

Their creations have changed the world just as much. Life on the floating cities would be impossible without the meatroot; even if there was room for pastures in the vast machinery of the cities, the weight of a whole city's livestock would make them too heavy to float. Without memory leeches, who provide brains in exchange for blood, the mental abilities of abacus thinkers and omniglots would be equally impossible.

Then, of course, there are their descendants. About one person in sixteen has some sort of obvious quirk inherited from a shapeshifting ancestor, however distant. Some call it the Shapeshifter's Curse. Many of its apparently random manifestations certainly seem like curses - there are tails that never stop growing, hearts that play hide-and-seek with doctors, and a bizarrely common variation that causes the random growth of extra teeth.**** It's harmless most of the time, though. Many people even consider it a gift. It also shows itself in unexpected wings, in perfect immune systems, in shifting kaleidoscope skin, in bodies that heal without scars when anyone else would die - sometimes even in immortality. Many inheritors of the Shapeshifter's Curse never age past a certain point. I've met people who have been thirty (physically, at least) for hundreds of years.*****

My own variation of the Curse has been useful, however slow and uncontrolled - a constant, gradual change that always seems to know what I'm going to need, wherever I find myself. In the Winter, I grow fur; in the swamp, I once grew gills. It's possible that the legends about the wandering of the Cursed are true, and I might have settled down in one place if I had a body that could settle down in one shape. I don't know. Without shapeshifters, though, I'm sure I'd be quite a different person.

Without shapeshifters, you probably wouldn't be reading this letter.

* Swarms of locusts come through Twokk occasionally, though it might be more correct to say that the town comes through them. The insatiable insects normally eat everything in sight. They're probably surprised when Twokk eats them instead.

** Another combination of plant and animal, by the way. The meatroots are enormous, turnips the size of mountains with roots of solid steak.

*** This is not the case now, of course, as the town no longer exists.

**** I have several myself. There are rumors of people who have even grown teeth on their eyeballs, but I suspect that this is hyperbole.

***** Whether they see it as a blessing or a curse after all that time depends heavily on the person.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter