Last night you were a great black cat, larger than me, with shining green eyes. You stretched out on the bed and I curled against you, the back of my head against your belly. Your purr of contentment vibrating through me. I fell asleep, so happy that I nearly didn’t think of your former self.
When I wake, you are gone.
I go to the window and look out. There’s a white heron in a pine tree waiting for my gaze.
Sunlight strikes your white feathers. You shine against green needles.
I wish you weren’t so far away.
There was a whole week when you were a fish. A beautiful goldfish, long as my arm. Patterned in gold and red and orange, with flowing tail and fins. It was a full day before I found you in the pond under the willows. I was so relieved that I cried. I brought you bread over the next several days, and you swam close to me to take it. But not close enough to touch.
There are times when we can’t touch. Can’t even breathe the same air.
You were a red-winged blackbird next. You perched outside my bedroom window and woke me with your song. A run of trills, repeated again and again.
When you were still human, you told me love stories.
Two birds nested in the woods, you read.
Lamplight golden on your long, slim hands as they touched the page. Your face in shadow. Your voice a clear, resonant baritone, soft in the falling dusk.
You spoke of doves that served as messengers between lovers. Of magpies who formed a sky-bridge to unite a husband and wife. Of lovers who drowned and were turned to kingfishers by a merciful god.
Of lovers lost and parted forever.
Two birds in the woods, you read. And then one woke to find itself alone.
We fled before my mother’s rage. It is one thing for a princess to play with the latest court poet. It is quite another for her to marry him.
We fled to an enchanted island in a great lake, where we could always be together. But my mother twisted the enchantment, making of it a bitter joke.
She knew that I fell in love with your voice and stories, so she took them both away.
I speak, but you never answer in words. I wind my fingers in your fur or stroke your feathers or scales. I listen to your purr, your growl, your squeak, your chirp. When I can, I tilt my head to listen to your heartbeat.
There is a desert of pink sand, you told me. We lay together in my mother’s gardens, under the weeping willows.
At the edge of this desert, you continued, is a city carved of cliffs striped rose and gold. The air smells of cinnamon. At dusk, a thousand bells ring.
Our hands reached each to each. Our fingers intertwined.
There is a city by the sea, I said. A city carved in pearl and mother-of-pearl, built of coral and shells. A city that shines like light on water. The people carry lamps of phosphorescent fish and tend gardens of swaying anemone.
This was how it happened: with stories. Stories from books and song and memory. Stories spun of our imagination, pure fantasy, traded back and forth between us, growing wilder with each iteration.
Stories of our hearts.
A man stood on the walls of his city, you said. His heart was a white bird which he flung into the sky. His heart spread wings and soared over the walls, over the desert, searching, searching. . .
She swears that you will never speak again. She promises that you and I will be together, but always apart.
She is waiting for me to tire of you. To leave this island and crawl back to her.
You are iguana, fox, beetle, mouse. Deer, fish, crow, and snake. Some forms are easier than others to hold in my arms.
You’re a bee and then a spider which I can scarcely see.
Understanding flickers in your eyes as you change. You know more, and then less.
I hold on to what I have.
In the audience hall you sang of great feats of love. A mountain of glass scaled, a desert crossed. Oceans swum. War fought for a lover’s hand.
The evil sorcerer defeated. The war won. The curse shattered.
At night, in the secrecy of my bedchamber, we whispered the small intimacies of love. The tender names, the private jests. The hitch of breath and muffled cry.
And now you are absent. Hidden. I search the forest for you, wondering what you’ve become today. I scan the tops of trees.
I sing part of a song we made together.
She stands on the walls of her city.
Her heart is a white bird which she flings into the air.
Her heart soars over water and desert, searching, searching. . .
All the stories we told. Your hand in mine. Lamplight shifting over your face, your golden skin. The arch of your brow, the pout of your lips, and then your face filling with laughter the way water fills a bowl.
Are you sure? you said when I brought you the silken cords that would bind us for life, that would tie a marriage knot witnessed by heaven.
I didn’t care about your lack of titles, your common blood. I didn’t care about the risks. I looked into your tender, wondering eyes. I’m sure, I said.
Through all my magic defenses, my mother finds ways to send me messages. Owls and ravens come marked with the glowing sign of peace, but with notes tied to their feet. The notes remind me that she’s waiting. They speak of honor and duty and a greater world. They’re filled with threats and promises of forgiveness.
I tear her messages to shreds.
The willow leaves turn yellow. A cold wind blows.
You change unpredictably. Vole, stag, possum. Wren, squirrel, wolf. But the next time you change to a goldfish, you remember me. This time, you take the bread from my hand.
Fall and winter, and you’re a brown bear sleeping in a corner of my room. I read to you aloud. I watch you twitch in unknowable dreams. I speak. You’re so far away.
I’m still telling our stories.
When you’re not here to listen, I write them in ink pressed from berries and roots, stirred from pine resin and ash. I write on scraps of parchment that I find in the house. When that runs out, I strip bark from birch trees to use as scrolls.
My words pile up.
All the longing I feel, all the rage and grief, and the joy we once shared. The days of our lives now: the solitude of this island, the sunlight on water and drip of rain through the trees. My happiness when you have eyes that look into mine, that seem to understand—even a little—of what I say.
Spring and summer and fall again.
My mother’s messages come this year as golden leaves blown into our home, her writing scarlet along the veins. I tear them up and ask the wind to blow them away.
You were beautiful. You are beautiful, still.
Whatever form you take, you are beautiful.
I find myself speaking less and less. My own voice grows strange to my ears.
There is a language deeper than words. A language of silence, touch, and simple presence.
This is the language we speak now.
You’re a rabbit watching the sunset with me. A butterfly on my table as I write. A small cat the color of smoke, curled upon my lap.
Seasons turn and blur, and our past life feels like a dream.
Were you a poet and singer once? Was I a princess?
Did we meet in my mother’s garden? Sneak kisses in the arbor? Did we tell each other stories?
Did words spill between us like a rushing river suddenly loosed?
There were cities in this dream. Impossible cities of sand and light. Music and dancing, a glittering court. Books of poetry bound in red silk. A man’s voice singing, soft as dusk.
A princess in her gilded cage. A stranger from a far-off land. A story.
Wisteria in bloom. A curtain of green willow leaves. Your hand on mine as I turned a page.
Our hearts singing through our words, each to each.
I try singing a bit of poetry now.
Their hearts were white birds.
Their hearts were singing.
Their hearts flew over desert and sea, mountain and plain. . .
You whine and push your cold, wet nose under my hand. Your large, brown dog eyes look into mine.
I throw my arms around your furry neck and hug you.
I miss you.
Two birds in the woods. The poem echoes in my mind. And then there was only one.
I’ve been afraid.
I’ve kept us on this island in a far northern lake. I’ve used what magic I have to keep us shielded from my mother’s power. Safe.
You change through countless forms, and I stay the same. Each time, we find one another. We’re together. But it’s not enough.
I’ve been afraid to take the next step.
But I step from our little house now, in search of you. It’s spring. The entire sky is ringing with birdsong. The robins are here, and the red-winged blackbirds. Waterfowl are migrating up from the southern lands. I’ve heard the calling of loons. Red-tailed hawks are nesting.
You’re a white heron stepping delicately at the edge of the pond. You shine against the green willows.
I hold my mother’s latest message in my hand. A green leaf this time, her words written in gold. She says that she has lost all patience. That she has found a way to breach my island defenses. That if I do not return, she will come to finally silence you in all ways. Forever.
I toss her message to the wind.
It’s time. Even without her warning, I would know that it’s time.
I swept our little house this morning. I stacked my birch-bark scrolls neatly on table and shelf. Three years of writing. My mother can read through them if she wishes. All those scrawls of ink, all to say only, I was here.
I am done with words.
You move toward me on your impossibly thin heron legs.
My love, I’ve clung to what I am. I’ve been afraid to change with you. But I’m ready now.
Your gold-rimmed eyes look into mine. I reach out and touch your feathers.
It’s you. Through all your transformations—somewhere deep inside—it’s always been you. It took me this long to be sure.
I can’t undo my mother’s spell. I can’t make you human again. But I can extend the spell to myself. I can join you.
I let the protective barriers around the island drop. The wind picks up. I feel the surge of energy flowing.
It’s time to leave, my love. To dare the wider world together. I can’t guarantee our safety out there. But if you could speak, I know you would agree to the risk.
You stand still as I stroke your back. I reach for the spell wrapped tightly around you. I tap into the energy flowing, released, from the collapse of my wards and protections. I reach into myself and draw on everything I have.
I pull on my mother’s spell. I stretch it out. I wrap it, shimmering, about myself like a shawl.
I feel my limbs shrinking and then stretching. My bones lightening. Hollowing.
You’re with me. I cry out as feathers break through my skin like a thousand hot needles. My bones melt, flow, and are reshaped. Wings curve from my back. You’re with me. I feel your beak on me, tenderly grooming my feathers.
Memories flash. Images of a different life. The strum of a lute, the smell of spring flowers. A man’s voice calling for me in the dark. My heart was a white bird, seeking yours. We met in a garden.
Sky. Sky above, so much sky, an endless ocean of it—
White wings. White feathers. Two birds. There was one but now there are two—
The last words I’ll ever think, ever know.
Our hearts are flying over sea and desert, mountain and plain. . .
Our hearts meet in the sky.
We’re in the sky. The wind is beneath us, the sun above, the island behind, and we’re flying flying these are my last human thoughts my last words there is only sky and wind and you beside me changing forever we’ll change together me and you—
Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Liminal Stories, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Neil Clarke’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4. For more, visit her website at www.vanessafogg.com.