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Under Cloud and Under Star
by Radioactive Loner
Radioactive Loner -- all rights reserved
 

It was a bad part of town. In another life, I might not have noticed this. But, nevertheless, this ground was considered sacred, holy soil. Few predators dared to tread here. And those who did were quickly disabused, both by those within and those they hunted with. Neutrality fiercely fought for and earned.

It had been a very long while since I had set foot within the Fifth Street Shelter. I clutched my cloak, a gift from recent friends, tight against me as a bitingly cold December wind blew amidst the solitude of the street. A bad part of town at a deadly quiet time of night. By all rights, I should be totally on edge. Yet there was only peace as I stepped over the threshold. I had contemplated this return for quite some time.

Summer heat can occasionally be fatal to the homeless; the freezing temperatures of the winter almost always are, and it is this season that shelters, both established and makeshift, are always packed to the gills. Ours was no different.

I saw a few faces here and there, but due to the late hour, most everyone was asleep, the shelter's beds full and borrowed cots and blankets filling up much of the floor space.

I heard the clink of ceramic, the gurgle of running water, and the murmur of hushed conversations coming from a door with a crack of light fanning out from underneath it. I knocked quietly and then pulled it open as little as I had to in order to slip through (not wanting to flood the sleeping with a blast of light).

As I opened the door and quietly slid in, the chatter I had heard drew to a stop, only to be resumed by a cry from a furry wolfmorph who cried out, "Tara!" and embraced me in a very comfortable hug. From the warmth and comfort of the fur surrounding me, I could see why the more enlightened of the hospitals were using more furry SCABS volunteers for touch therapy among children. It certainly was a lovely sensation to be hugged by a wolfmorph ... and I promptly returned it with a tight hug of my own. "Wanderer, buddy, it's really good to see you."

As he drew his hands away I felt a warm dampness on my back and noticed what I hadn't before ... that the hands hitting my back had been a bit soapy, encased in rubber gloves. He looked a bit sheepish (there's a funny metaphor, I thought, a wolfmorph looking sheepish), pulling the gloves off and laying them down by the sink. Gesturing at the gloves, he said, "Avoids wet fur. You think it smells bad, it feels ten times worse." He smiled wryly. "Plus, plates don't look their cleanest with wolf hair all over them."

There was a rather bushed raccoon morph looking a bit awkward at the back of the room -- well, not necessarily awkward, but rather that "okay-something-semi-private-is-happening-in-front-of-me-and-I-guess-the- polite-thing-to-do-would-be-to-wait-to-be-noticed-before-piping-up" kind of look. I smiled at him and said, "Hey, I'm Tara Bard." I reached out a hand. It's been ten months and I'm doing a little better with it, but I still get a very odd feeling whenever I see the new, lighter, female arm and hand reaching out attached to my body, or feel it enveloped by a larger, male hand. Still, my time away had helped with that ...

"Brian. Brian Coe," he said, reaching out a hand of his own. For the most part, Brian looked human, except for what appeared to be a pair of raccoon ears near a head of hair that, I thought to myself, just had to be a racoon pelt. Looking downward, I noticed a racoon tail near his tailbone. "Nice to meet you."

"Brian's the local optometrist," Wanderer said. "He donates his services to the people here at the shelter, and he's on the Board."

I smiled. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Brian. Here, let me help you guys with these dishes." I shrugged off my overcoat, grabbed a dish and started scrubbing it with a sponge, as Wanderer pulled the gloves back on. "Don't the residents normally do this, though?"

Brian spoke up, "Yeah, but the residents were pretty much swamped today ... so many people, SCABS and non-SCABS alike, are coming in to get out of this cold that the residents were stretched incredibly thin, and they all were pretty pooped by the end of the day. What with the shelter being stuffed to the gills, me and Wanderer are trying to make a dent in these dishes before hitting the sack tonight."

I nodded. "Yeah, this snowstorm's pretty bad. One of the worse I've seen in the area. What's the forecast?"

"Ten inches by Saturday night."

I shook my head. "Yeesh. You guys stayin' here, or are you braving the winds tonight?"

Wanderer glanced at Brian as he said, "Oh, I'm spending the night. Splendor," he added with mock-solemnity and a trace of Brit, "has requested the honor of my presence." He chuckled then, and the accent fell away. "I'm a pretty good barometer of a crowd. If nothing else, she can just watch me instead of everyone else."

Brian groaned. "Let me just see how I feel after finishing this nightmare stack of dishes."

"So," Wanderer blurted out, as if he couldn't contain himself any longer. "Where the heck have you been?" He then seemed to think better of it. "I'm sorry, Tara. That's assuming you don't want to keep it to yourself."

I picked up another dish. "I don't mind telling the story. It's an interesting one. I've been communing with the Free."

Wanderer's eyes widened. "I wouldn't have taken you for a hippie ... "

I smiled. "Nor did I, really. I actually just sort of fell in with them. You may remember that I was not in the best frame of mind when last you saw me ... "


I absent-mindedly rubbed at the faint white lines where stitches used to be. I was slowly fighting my way back from a suicide attempt ... a failed one, obviously. I had been discharged from the hospital about a week or two ago, but counseling didn't seem to be helping. Aside from one interesting thought -- the thought that, since I wrote Wanderer that note ahead of time, perhaps I was setting myself up to live -- the counselors seemed way too overloaded to do much in-depth counseling. And what troubled me was that walking around in this city, seeing the same things and people that I had always encountered as good old Paul Bard, I was just getting very ... weird. How to explain? After the suicide attempt, I chose life. And that restored some equilibrium to my life. But slowly, I once again felt that emotional balance slowly falling out of whack, until I was once again feeling as if I was on a slide, a slide that would end in sharp edges against new, softer skin.

I shook myself. No. A voice, small, yet of iron and steel, spoke quietly to my mind. No, you shall survive. You shall not kill yourself. Many a person handles harder problems than these. You shall simply ... survive. And outlast these problems.

And the slide's degree lessened. But ... I still felt as if I was falling towards doom ... just not quite as fast.


I walked along the waterfront, looking out and seeing the water stretch as far as my eye could see. I remembered this very spot ... a few short days after my transformation, I looked out at this very same seascape, only painted with the tones and colors of night and a high wind, and thought about re-enacting the death scene of Ophelia. Then, I was tempted by death, but chose life. The sea and its natural beauty had always been very life-affirming to me, and the Sea had not lost its wisdom simply because this postulant came to it in a different form.

I sat down on a rocky outcropping and let the waves crash beneath me. My eyes slowly closed, letting the faint red of sunlight filtered through blood vessels imprint itself onto my vision, the warmth filling my face. The wind ... felt odd, as I suppose it would, it blowing more coldly against a face with not a trace of facial hair ... but the experience was still calming. My mind began babbling, as it often does when I seek calmness, and I simply took deep breaths ... again, a somewhat disconcerting experience due to the sensation of two additional weights rising and falling with each breath. I tried to let the discomfort pass by my mind, and simply let the busy rush of incoherent busy-thoughts slowly ebb out, like the tide, like the tide ...

Finally, calm, peace. And in this inner peace, I spoke to myself.

I am now a woman.

Yes.

There's nothing I can do about that.

Is there?

Perhaps not. Perhaps so. I don't know the answer now.

Okay.

I have tried suicide in the past. Each moment I live now I make an active choice not to.

Yes.

But it's growing harder.

Why?

The life, the trappings, the people. All things I need to readjust to. I don't have the strength.

Why?

It takes so much strength to take the familiar and see it in a new angle. To adjust my old life to my new form.

Then ...

What?, I thought, trying to coax the answer out. I felt the weight of an idea tugging on the mental thread.

Then why stay with your old life?

What?, I thought, and tried to envelop the idea further. Suddenly, the idea had been coaxed enough and came out fully-formed.

Why stay here? Why not create a new life that need not adapt to differences between an old and new form?

My eyes opened in surprise, and saw the seascape crashing around me.


Paper to pen, the same words ... "Dear Wanderer." I'm probably going to give him a heart attack, I thought wryly. My humor dried up, though, suddenly. You owe him more than just a note goodbye, my conscience said.

And so I shortly found myself sitting across from a wolfmorph, a small bar pizza sitting between us. I had ordered it beforehand, but neither Wanderer nor I seemed to have much of an appetite. My mental appetite was still adjusting to the smaller stomach and higher metabolism of this new body. The silence between us was a bit deafening, as I vaguely picked through and discarded possible ways of broaching the subject. Finally ...

"I'm leaving, Wanderer," I said. "I wanted to tell you."

He looked at me, very wary, choosing his words carefully. "Pardon my asking ... but what manner of departure are we talking about, here?"

"Huh?" I looked at him. Then my mind clicked. "Ohhhh. No. Not that. Gods, no. In fact, you might say this is a journey in the opposite direction from that destination."

"Why did you tell me?"

I looked solemnly at him. "I felt I owed you that."

A longer pause. The next two questions seemed almost to fall off his tongue. "Are you coming back? Where are you going?"

"I don't have the answers to either of those questions, Wanderer. Something in me feels as if I might return ... this is home, and there are Golden Moments here, still ripe for the plucking. But at the same time, right now, it just feels very ... wrong in this new life. I have to go and make the world feel right somewhere else. This isn't the place to do it."

There seemed to be a quiet pause as the words sunk in, were absorbed, and his reply was grown. Finally, he said, "I can't say I won't worry, especially given ... recent events. But perhaps I can understand. And I won't worry as much as if you had suddenly disappeared."

A sad smile came to my face. "Thanks, buddy," I said. I reached over and gave him a hug.


There are many ways that a journey can start. Tolkein once noted, through the guise of a furry little half-pint hobbit, about how the simple act of stepping out of one's doorway can sweep one anywhere. Well, I thought bemusedly, I'm certainly not a furry-footed hobbit, but I sure feel like a half-pint, compared to the way I used to be.

In my case, my journey started by stepping into the city's bus terminal and letting my eyes fall upon the departure board. I reached once more for that inner calm, that inner voice, and let it react to the names that came to my mind.

New York.

Seattle.

Chicago.

Austin.

Oklahoma City.

New Orleans.

But it was only when my eyes hit the word "Boulder" that I felt a slight tug to my soul. I let my eyes trail down the list further ...

Boston ... nothing.

San Francisco ... nothing.

Toronto ... nothing.

Boulder ... tug.

I took a wad of cash out of my wallet ... odd how so many things are differentiated by gender, I thought, realizing it was still my male wallet, despite my female driver's license ... I gave it to the clerk. "One ticket to Boulder, Colorado, please."


It had been a long, and mostly boring, journey to Boulder. A bus ride that stops only for gas and pee breaks certainly is not the most pleasant modes of transportation ... especially when faced with the repetitive scenery of the field after field of wheat, corn, rye, and so on that collectively made up the "breadbasket of America". Only when we crossed Illinois' border going west did the scenery even begin to change in the slightest ... and then we saw the mountains.

My heart leapt into my throat at their beauty. These selfsame majestic peaks topped with snow are so often seen on postcard and poster the mind wants to write them off as a cliche, but it is such a different experience to see the "purple mountains' majesty above the fruited plains" in real life, and to see them slowly growing larger and larger as you approach ... it's a beautiful experience.


I was in a dream, a dream of vagueness that slowly began to dissipate from my mind. Symbols, odd and foreign, clouded my vision ... vision quest ... quest for Camelot ... witchcraft and magick ... do you believe in magic? ... in a young girl's heart ... and the noisy hiss and grunt of a bus slowly settling back onto its mechanical haunches as it pulled into a stop promptly pulls all such thoughts from my mind.

"Pueblo. Pueblo, Colorado. Departure from this stop promptly in thirty minutes."

I noticed a small Mom-and-Pop diner a short distance away from where the bus was parked. My stomach gurgled at the thought of a hamburger and slice of apple pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream atop it. And depending on how quick the short order chef was, I thought, I just might be able to do it.

I took ten dollars out of my wallet and shoved it into a jean pocket, tucking the wallet deep into my duffel bag which I promptly restored beneath my seat. In retrospect, I had many a moment to ask why in the hell I did that ... perhaps it was vague fears of being mugged, although why I would worry about such at a truck stop doesn't make much sense. Still, I challenge you to find a recently changed gendermorph whose thoughts always are perfectly sensible ... I was still getting used to being a lot less intimidating and being a lot more intimidated than I ever had been before. Perhaps my nerves were firing a bit too hard today ... and overcompensating this time in one small way ... to my later detriment.

Sure enough, in a few short moments, I found myself marveling at the cheaper prices on the menu as I ordered up a hamburger with tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and the works ... and the aforementioned and much drooled-over apple pie and vanilla ice cream. I found my teeth sinking into the burger, the juices greedily going down my throat. "This is great," I marveled to the chef.

"Sure enough," the chef said, lifting up a section of the counter and sitting himself down next to me. "What's a pretty thing like you doing in the middle of nowhere?"

I mentally sighed. Oh, God, I'm beginning to hate this old chestnut. "Visiting my fiancee in Boulder." My stomach still did a belly-flop whenever I found myself the victim of the more lecherous male attention (hell, let's be realistic, Tara, even the polite ones give you the shakes -- damn it, I wish I had become an ugly woman sometimes!), and all of a sudden the burger was nowhere near as delicious. Still, I'd found that pretending to be spoken for was usually the most effective way to turn off a moron's interest, no matter how much drool had collected on their chin.

Unfortunately, the Pueblo breed of moron seemed not to have assimilated that particular reaction.

"Why, you're spoken for? Spend one night with good old Jerome, I swear I'll change your mind," he said, giving me a lecherous wink. "Little Jerome has quite a reputation around these parts," he said, gesturing downward.

I wiped my mouth with a napkin and grabbed the ten dollars out of my pocket. "Thanks for the dinner. I'll be going now."

He followed me over to the cash register where he toted up my bill. "I'll give you the pretty-lady discount," he said, giving me about half the bill back.

"No, thanks, I'll go with the full amount." He wasn't necessarily bad-looking ... where the hell did that come from? my mind said quietly ... but it was the unwelcome attention and his seeming inability to hear 'no' that was beginning to piss me off.

"Come on, baby," he said, reaching out and caressing my shoulder. "Hasn't a guy ever treated you right?"

The slime was practically dripping from his voice right onto my shoulder, and my temper began to flare up. No, don't ... came a faint voice of alarm in the back of my head, but I was relishing dropping this particular bomb on the guy.

"No, I used to be a man about a month ago, so BACK OFF and let me out of here."

The look on his face was worth it, until hatred slowly began to filter in through his eyes. "You're one of those damn SCABS?"

You're letting y--. I mercilessly squelched the voice and said, "You bet your ass, buddy."

Grabbing my arm, he yanked me close enough to him so I could smell the onions on his breath. "Well, I hope you liked eating one of your brethren, there," he said quietly, but with great malice. He cupped one of my breasts. "You're a nice piece of meat there, yourself." He shoved me away, laughing.

My voice nearly dropped out from under me as I looked aghast at him, then my skin began to feel cold as my rage grew and grew. Self-defense classes suddenly sprang to my mind, and, reaching out, I grabbed his arm, pivoted, rolled him along my hip, and let him fly, watching with some relish as he crashed into a table. I quickly leapt after him, taking a fist and with one well-aimed blow feeling the bridge of his nose crunch. I pulled my fist back for another blow ... and felt a cold, metal cuff snap closed around it. I felt my other arm yanked behind my back, my other wrist encircled in steel, and the words of an all-too-familiar routine beginning ... "You have the right to remain silent ... "


I told you so ... the voice lectured me as I felt the same ever-so-slender hand being forcibly stuck on an inkpad and then rolled onto a card. The standard routine of name, address, and so on began, only to be stopped by me jolting to my feet as I heard the hiss, gasp, and growling motor of a bus pulling its way out of the depot. With my stuff on it!

"My stuff's on that bus! You can't let it go!" I yelled at the deputy.

"Sit down," he said, glowering at me.

"But I don't have any other money on me! My clothes, my stu--"

"SIT. DOWN." And one hand dropped down to his pistol.

Great. Right into the town of a bunch of cannibal SCAB-hating rednecks, I thought. This is something out of a bad movie.

"Oh, give me a break, Merle," said the rough-edged voice of a man decked in a two-piece suit coming into the room. "I know you folks don't like SCABS, but this one's a stretch even for you folk. Anne Jacobs, Rebecca Meister, and Betty Marshall are all willing to testify that Jerome manhandled this young woman despite repeated requests from her to back off."

"But this girl used to be a guy, Frank!"

"I don't care if she used to be a two-toed sloth hanging from a tree in the middle of the Brazilian rain forest, Merle, just 'cause she's a SCAB doesn't mean she's lost her civil rights. Now, I'd be happy to slap a little wrongful arrest lawsuit on you on behalf of the dear miss ... " he gestured at me.

"Tara. Tara Bard," I replied.

"On behalf of the dear Miss Bard," he said, "and as you can see, I already have a good couple witnesses. And after the antics the State boys did with poor Ms. Edmonson's boy out on the north 40, I don't think I'll be drawing too friendly of a jury pool for you ... come on, Merle. I'll have the missus bake you up some of that peach cobbler you like."

"Well ... " And with a few more negotiations, I found myself free. Broke and in the middle of nowhere, but free.


I stepped into an office lined with musty books, a draft of sunlight making its way around books piled atop file cabinets to land upon a desk that had approximately three feet of layered papers standing upon it. I watched and marveled as my savior reached into the pile seemingly at random and yanked a piece of paper out to give to me. Another dive into the pile yielded a business card, which he handed to me.

"Frank McCorkle," proclaimed the card. "Public defender."

I reached out a hand. "Mr. McCorkle, I'm grateful for your help."

He paused, then slowly reached out and grabbed my hand. "You're not going to believe it, Miss Bard, but you're the first SCAB who I've shook hands with. Sure does make it a sight more tolerable to be shaking one who happens to be a beautiful lady."

"Well, it's not contagious," I said, smiling halfway. The man seemed to have a bit of prejudice himself, but he just defended me against someone much more of a bigot ... that's got to count for something, I thought.

"That's good," he said ... and watching his features relax a bit, I realized the man had actually worried about that for a second! How much of a redneck town is this place?, I asked myself. Could I have actually ate ... my stomach turned queasy for a moment and I shook myself mentally. Let's not even think about that one now.

"Mr. McCorkle," I said, addressing myself to the man across the desk, "I appreciate your help. I do have a slight problem, though. I just lost every single worldly possession I can get to at the moment, and I'm flat broke."

"Well," he said, hunkering back, "that's more than a slight problem. But that's what that paper's for."

I took it in hand. It was a tract of sorts, proclaiming the philosophy of the Free. As far as I had noticed in the past, the Free seemed to be for the most part a resurgence of the hippie movement of the 1960s, a "neo-hippie" movement of sorts, tied in with SCABS (but not limited to those with the syndrome) advocating oneness with nature, expanding one's consciousness, accepting one's body and the SCABS syndrome [...tug...], SCABS civil rights, and ... what was that? I felt the very same tug on my soul that I had when choosing the town. It wasn't Boulder, but ...

"I figure, miss, if you're a SCAB, these folks might be more than willing to take you in, seeming as they're a very welcoming people. Their commune's a few miles out of town. In the meantime, I'll get ahold of Greyhound and see if I can get your stuff shipped back here to my office. I wouldn't hold your breath, though," he said apologetically.

I took the flyer in hand. "I appreciate it, Mr. McCorkle. I might check these folks out."


Unfortunately, it being a small town, word had already got around that the strange young woman in town was a SCAB, and I couldn't find a ride to hitch out the way to the commune. Still, the Colorado air was fresh (if a bit thinner than I was used to), the mountains were visible and majestic, and I was definitely on some sort of path. Frodo and Bilbo seemed to walk alongside me, singing a Hobbit song of journey, singing of cloak and dagger and elves and many leagues to travel before one's sleep. The verses, like long lost welcome friends, came back to me, and I found a tune spouting from my lips as I began to sing along to one of their songs ...

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea:
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

"And under mountains in the moon," I heard a male voice echo mine. I whirled around. There stood someone I would have sworn was Wanderer ... except, I chastised myself, upon closer look he didn't look at all like Wanderer. Stop generalizing, Tara. He was much thinner, his fur much more short and trim and of a tan, brownish color (as opposed to my favorite wolfmorph's grey pelt). More compact, his shape slightly different, I realized he was probably an entirely different breed of animalmorph. Same family, though, I realized.

"Well met," my companion said. "One who knows Tolkien is truly of a good breed. My name is Jepeth. I'm a son of the Earth and of the coyote. And yourself?"

"My name is Tara Bard," I said. "I'm ... a ... ?" I trailed off, not knowing how to match his form.

He smiled. "Are you human? SCAB?"

"I'm a gendermorph."

"I see. A son and daughter of the Earth. Embracing both yin and yang. You truly have many secrets within you."

I shook my head. "I'm stuck this way."

"Did you wish to join our commune, Tara?"

I realized the invitation was much more than it seemed. "Jepeth, I ... don't know. I'm not sure if I'm in it for the long haul. I do know that ... I'm stuck as a SCAB without food, money, or shelter, and also ... " I took a deep breath. "That my life's not working the way it is yet. And that I'm on some form of journey. Whether the commune's my journey's end ... I don't know."

"Fair enough," he said, and his eyes seemed to carry an approving look. "Someone who would make a decision based on the moment is one element of the world ... but someone who would learn more is yet another element. Neither are less than each other. Come, visit us. Perhaps we're a waystation on your journey."


By the time Jepeth and I had walked the remainder of the way to the commune, the sun had begun to hide itself amidst the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I thought of a long-dead folk singer speaking about his Rocky Mountain high, and realized what had fueled his Muse as the crisp air invigorated my lungs. As I approached the commune, I saw a rather sizeable vegetable garden, as well as a group of people playing hackeysack in the distance. The building was an old farmhouse that seemed to have been kept in good repair. As I walked in, the most delicious smell wafted right into my nose, and my stomach gave an audible growl, something I hadn't thought it would have ever done again, after this afternoon's experiences.

"Bonnie," Jepeth called out, "any more of that delicious portabella mushroom soup left?" He looked at me apologetically. "We don't eat meat here."

A dead weight filled my stomach as I recalled the last meat I ate. "It's okay. I'm not vegetarian, but I'm strongly considering giving up meat."

Jepeth's nostrils opened and closed a little. "There's a scent to you when you say that ... there's a story there, when you wish to tell it."

"It's the story of how I got here, actually."

"Do you wish to tell it?" I nodded. "Well, then, let's call everybody together and exchange stories. You shall tell us what brought you to our doorstep, and we'll tell you each of our own."


The remnants of the soup made the sides of the bowl glisten in the light of the fire that snapped and danced in front of me. There were about eight people sitting in a circle around the fire, nearly all dressed in the style that had been popularized by their movement's ancestral roots so many decades ago. They all seemed captivated as words began to fall from my mouth, telling of an actor and part-time box office manager who many months ago caught the Martian Flu, and thought he had got away scott-free ... and then who woke up one morning with a very different body, and a very different life facing him. (Her. Damn it.) Eyes winced and heads nodded in weary familiarity as a father's harsh and tormented words were recalled, as an employer's tricky wording was relayed to those in front of me. Silence and attention as the story of a knife drawn across wrists and a wolven savior was told. And lastly, the words told of my travel across thousands of miles, of my encounter with Jerome and Merle, and Frank. And of Jerome's words as he cupped my ... (think it, damn it) ... breast.

"Truly, I can understand why meat would hold little attraction for you now," Jepeth said. "The townspeople in Pueblo are certainly not the most welcoming children of Earth. But perhaps he was jesting with you. Seeking recompense for what was, in his eyes, a humiliation."

I shook my head. "It didn't seem that way."

"We have a matter we must vote on before we speak further," Jepeth said. "Tara, your soul and Fate have together brought you to our doorstep. You have many a gift and many a problem, and I for one feel we would be enriched by your presence. And perhaps your soul may find healing, or at least rest, here with us. I vote that we offer Tara a place among us here in the commune, for as long as her journey and her travels keeps her here."

Approving murmurs of "good call, brother" and such rang around the circle. The vote was taken, and I was looked at expectantly.

My soul flew away from myself, and a presence filled my mind. The waves rushed in and out, and a voice spoke through me. "I'll stay. For as long as my journey keeps me here, I'll stay."

The rest of the Free commune introduced themselves. There was of course Jepeth, who I had met before. Jepeth had probably morphed into the worst possible shape for his ancestry ... the Navajos considered coyotes, especially an anthromorphic Coyote, pretty much the equivalent of a Christian Lucifer. And there was Bonnie, a skunkmorph whose scent was a mixture of a very, very light skunk musk and much more a scent of patchouli, combining to make an odd, yet pleasing, mix. Bonnie was a truly wonderful short-order cook who had slowly but surely lost all of her friends after her transformation, causing her to look elsewhere for her support.

Jacob seemed to be a very young boy, but in reality was a chronomorph who had woken up one morning to find himself twenty years younger. At the time, Jacob was twenty-six years old and on his own, his parents having died the year before from Martian Flu complications. He had been with the commune for two years and, instead of growing a day older each day, he grew a day younger. The now four-year-old boy had his story mostly told for him, as his brain's development was regressing along with his body, causing his intellect to slowly regress with him.

Henry was a girthful hippomorph. "Just call me Henry the Hippie Hippo," he said, giving me a small grin, the group chuckling at what was obviously a well-worn joke. Henry was definitely the jokester of the group, but also the muscle. He had declined to tell his story when first joining the group -- as was his right, and the group accepted him anyway, at face value. There were Mark and Jennifer, a perfectly human couple in their mid-twenties who joined the Free for the beliefs espoused (and acted as informal parents for young Jacob), and Julie, a very beautiful partial dogmorph who continued to write poetry and plays after leaving her university's academic atmosphere, one that had slowly became more and more chilly after her bout with the Martian Flu.

And there was Jessie. Jessie was a beautiful woman with hair the color of fire, who, before my eyes, slowly transformed into a raven-haired man. "I was born a woman," Jessie said, "and one day woke up next to my boyfriend as you see me now." He grimaced. "Needless to say, he didn't quite take it well." Jessie's visage slowly became that of her female shape. She reached out and took my own pale, slim hand in her own. "We have much to talk about, Tara. We are well-met." I felt chills run down my spine the moment I saw her, and something magic travel along my spine when first she touched me.


"Whoo ..." Wanderer said quietly. "You sure can tell you're an actor, Tara, 'cause this is a heck of a story."

"Come on, hand me another dish," I said, elbowing him lightly in the side. "We'll be here until tomorrow morning at this rate, slowpoke."

"So," Brian said, accepting a wet dish from me to dry, "what did you spend your days doing?"

"Well," I said, "we rotated duties. The commune grew their own food, for the most part, and traded off duties like cooking, cleaning, and so on. It wasn't like the first hippie movement, where there was a lot of chauvinism. There really was a lot of equality, except in cases where someone obviously had a strength. For instance, Henry usually did a lot of the tasks that needed muscles, because it was easy as pie for him."

"Did you ever find out his story?"

"Yes," I said, "but that comes later in the story."

"Well, keep on going," Wanderer said, eyeing the stack of plates, pots, and pans still awaiting being washed. "We still have a-ways to go."

"Well," I responded, "the days were for the most part pretty boring. I've never really been into the farmer gig. But we didn't do it all the time ... after all, we had those great mountains nearby, and field trips were definitely allowed."


"Come on," Jessie said one afternoon. "You and I are going on a field trip."

I paused from my hoeing and looked at her blankly. "I beg your pardon?"

"We're going on a walk, Miss Tara." She gave a toss of her red hair. "Or, as Jepeth might say, 'We are furthering your journey,'" she said, emulating the solemn tones of the coyotemorph.

A half an hour later, we were well on our way along the mountain trails. It was not cold enough yet for snow to have made hiking uncomfortable, and I had worked up a good sweat. Whenever I get bushed, I tend to look more down at the path, and doing so, I nearly bumped right into her. She stood looking at a crossroads. "Where the ... right," she said, the memory coming to her, "Right around this bend. Close your eyes."

I closed my eyes, and she grabbed my hand. I tried not to think of how it felt to have a woman's soft hand in my own ... you're a woman now, too, you nit-twit ... , a thought came from nowhere ... and then I felt myself being lowered upon a stump. "Open your eyes," a voice whispered in my ear. I opened my eyes ... and the most beautiful vista of nature surrounded me, making me gasp in pleasure. Valleys, trees, rivers, mountains ... I felt as if I was soaring.

"Now," she said, "close your eyes ... keep that feeling of flying ... and reach towards your male self! Don't stop to think!"

Trust. Beauty. Flying. Soaring. My eyes shut, my heart tried to encompass those feelings ... I felt something twist, tighten, slightly ... would it go farther? Could I finally escape this trap of breasts and hair? With that thought, I felt things untwist. I opened my eyes, and brought a hand to my face. Still the delicate hand and nails of Tara Bard. Tears came to my eyes.

Jessie hugged me, let me cry upon her shoulder. "It's okay!" she said, trying to comfort me. "Do you realize something?"

"What?" I tried to push out from beneath the sobs.

"I saw you change ... slightly. Probably nothing but a fellow gendermorph could pick up on, hon, but there is hope."

She hugged me further, then she brought her face up to mine. Her lips softly brushed mine.

I pulled away. "I'm sorry, Jess ... but I'm not gay," I said.

She smiled. "Gendermorphism throws sexuality into one big higgledy-piggledy mess -- haven't you figured that out yet?" she said. A half-smile came to my face in response. "Listen. Even aside from my thoughts, yes, you're a woman ... but you're a gendermorph who was born a man. I'm a gendermorph who was born a woman. Surely our minds," she said, tapping her temple, "our original sexualities count for something."

"Yes," I said, "but, um, hell, Jessie, I'm flattered, but I'm ... um, I'm just not ready to have a lesbian relationship, anyway -- physically."

"So what if I assumed my male form?" she asked, her shape beginning to bulk out slightly and morph.

"Gods, no ... I'm not ready to have heterosexual sex from the female perspective, either."

She looked at me critically as she let her female form return. "So ... if we go by your mind, you say your body's the problem. But if we go by your body, you say your mind's the problem." She harrumphed. "Tell me, are you planning to be a monk, Tara? Or a nun, for that matter?"

I looked at her crossly. "No, of course not." Off in the distance, I heard a hawk cry.

"So something sexual's definitely in your plans?"

"Well, I ... I just don't really know, Jessie," I sputtered. "Come on, lay off a bit."

"Tara, don't you realize that that's what this morphlock is all about? This is the crux! You're not only rejecting the physical part of you -- your new body -- you're refusing to recognize your spiritual essence, too -- the simple fact that what makes you you has absolutely nothing to do with tits and ass!"

She looked at me, then looked off into the vista before us. "Since I laid eyes on you, Tara, I felt very much as if we were soulmates. I don't know why, but I almost instantly felt a deep well of caring fill me. I care for you very deeply." She bit her lip. "But I don't know if you feel the same way."

I looked down, and in a very quiet voice said, "Jessie, I felt very much the same way. It's just ... the way I am now ... " I gestured down. "I ... "

"In the words of an old '90s song, Miss Bard," she said, "we need to 'free your mind, and the rest will follow.'" And, leaning in, she went to kiss me again. As she approached, she whispered quietly in my ear, "Don't pull away."

I didn't.


The experience reminded me of the first time I lost my virginity, yet in many ways it was different. It embodied both feelings both familiar and alien ... Jessie's gender, obviously, was familiar -- things I had seen before, the gender I was used to relating to. Of course, the alien was what I myself was, my role in the experience, and my feelings, both emotional and physical.

But certain moments were definitely the same, regardless of my own gender ... the feeling of sudden drunken intimacy, the quenching of that sharp edge of loneliness, the feeling of physically reaching out and becoming one with another person's soul and body, and of reducing the loneliness in that other person, of bringing intimacy to them; of my own loneliness being reduced, of intimacy being brought to me. It had always been a magic experience for me in the past ... and it was magic this time, too, only in a very (obviously) different way.

Jessie looked over at me. Her happiness shown through on her face, but her face suddenly became urgent. "Now, Tara, don't even think about it -- envision your male body and leap towards it!"

Trusting in her completely, the warm diffuse joy of loneliness quenched filling me, I closed my eyes and made that odd mental jump to nowhere, that act of mentally reaching, and I felt something twist ... twist further ... I felt my height increasing, my ... my eyes snapped open, and I saw my body suddenly slump back into its female form, as I felt something untwist back to normal.

"You got a lot farther that time," she said, smiling. "Definite visible changes. Your breasts started to shrink, your shoulders got wider, you gained some height ... anyone could've seen it."

Rather than being sad this time, I felt a sense of warm happiness fill me at the progress I was making. For nearly a year, I had been trapped as a woman. I might be able to change back! The thought was intoxicating to me ... until a thought brought me up short.

I looked at Jessie. "You didn't just do that so ... I mean, what we sh--"

She interrupted me, looked at me a little sadly. "No, Tara, I did that because I wanted to. I'm not that kind of girl." And, turning away, she began to lead me back down the mountain.


It was my turn in the kitchen, but, fortunately, given the fact that I had absolutely no culinary skills and was liable to induce commune-wide food poisoning, Bonnie had agreed to give me a hand and a few lessons. I watched her carefully chop onions to sprinkle atop the salad -- "good to add flavor," she said as she mixed.

"You know, you really hurt Jessie the other day," she said as she carefully sprinkled some parmesan cheese (fortunately, the commune wasn't vegan) in on top of a vegetable lasagna ready to go in the oven.

"I know," I replied, a little disconcerted that Jessie had spoken to Bonnie about that. The smell of Bonnie's patchouli filled the room with a pleasing smell, but mixed oddly with the wafting scents of the various pots and pans full of dishes she was cooking. "I ... it's just weird, Bonnie. I'm sure you understand."

She looked at me crossly. "No, I don't understand. Perhaps you don't fully understand the disadvantages of being turned into a skunkmorph." Her musk began to mix more noticeably in the air.

"No, I'm sure I don't," I said, beginning to realize I'd pressed a wrong button somewhere.

"I mean," she said, running a hand along her side, "the fur looks great, actually. It's not that out of place nowadays -- the Martian Flu seems to have hit everywhere, so furry SCABS aren't that uncommon. But think of the Pepe le Peu cartoons with the genders reversed -- you'll pardon the expression -- and you get an idea of how my love life's been the last few years." Throughout her speech, the scent began to get more and more overpowering.

"And to think," she continued, "you actually have Jessie chasing after you, and you're running away!" Just as the musk began to get suffocating, she sniffed the air, then cried out, "Oh, goddamn it ... you've got me so upset that I've ruined dinner. Everything's going to smell like me, now, DAMN it!" Grabbing pots and pans at random, she started throwing everything into the trash, then walked out in a major huff.

I stood there, holding a ladle. I set it down, opened a window, inhaled some of the fresh mountain air, and began preparing some sandwiches. And as I did so, I thought. Thought hard.

Misery.

It's so easy to become caught up in it. Caught up in the negative. I've been letting this preoccupation with my body make me blind to my feelings and make me blind to who I really am.

It doesn't matter whether I'm Tara or Paul, I'm me. The spirit, the thought, the inner me is the same whether I'm a portly six foot male or a statesque brown-haired girl. It doesn't matter whether I'm transformed.

The outer shell doesn't matter.

It's the inner transformation that counts.

And I've fallen victim to an inner transformation ... a poor one. I've allowed myself to become so caught up in my own misery that I've become blind to others', and self-centered, and indrawn.

And that's going to stop.

Now.

Now.

NOW!

And with that, I felt a knot within me simply ... relax. Untangle. I reached out, felt my body shift ...

And for the first time in oh, so very long, looked down and saw the body of Paul Bard beneath me, somewhat amusingly dressed in clothing much too tight for my out-of-shape male physique.

Closed my eyes, reached ...

And I was Tara.

And a world of choice lay before me.

But the first step was going to be along that inner road. I went to go find Jessie.


"Jessie!" I cried out, running into the common area.

Only to find Jerome, that redneck from the diner, standing there, a bloody knife held upright in his right hand.

The crumpled form of Bonnie lying in the corner, the black fur around her side obscenely slick with blood.

"Oh," he said, "it's you. How you enjoyin' your time among these freaks, darling?"

"They're not--"

Freaks, I was going to say, but then I realized that if Bonnie were to live, speed was of the essence. Not to mention my life.

Flash. Memory. Jerome's breath absolutely reeking of alcohol when he held me close back at the restaurant.

Flash. Memory. A friend telling me, "Next time you're drunk, you'll remember last night better. It's weird, but my psych teacher tells me you remember better when you're in a similar state as when the memory was laid down. It's hard to remember drunk times when you're sober."

Flash. Supposition. Jerome may not remember that day clearly at all. And if he doesn't remember my exact words, but maybe just the actions ...

Idea.

Choice: a tactic that would have been unthinkable to me before. And mentally crossing my fingers ...

"Thank God, hon," I cooed. "I can't believe you actually believed that horse puckey I dished you at the diner."

His eyes dimmed in confusion. "You said you was a SCAB. You ain't?"

"I was just foolin' with you. Some men, they like that." I took a step closer. "They think it's ... exotic. After all, I figured, a big brawny guy like you must have a lot of women heading his way. I needed something to put myself ahead of the pack." Another step.

Too soon. He brought the knife up, but slowly. Sort of like his cognitive process. I saw him put one and one together, and get three and ...

"Then why'd you flip me?" he said, waiving the knife in my direction.

Knew that was coming.

"Darlin'," I said, again going for the cooing tone that was no doubt a lousy copy of all the third-rate 'B' movie vamps I had ever seen, "you squeezed my breast pretty hard. That level of pain, it's an instinctual reaction for those girls trained in the martial arts. But ... I'm pretty well-toned as a result. Us karate gals have extra endurance." Step. "Stamina." Step. "Strength." Step.

No reaction. He just stood there, letting me advance. Thatta boy, let it do the thinking for you like you normally do ... step ...

"And," I said, putting one hand on his shoulder. Breathily, I continued, "it helps us a lot when we ... " I brought my face closer, as if I was going to kiss him on the lips. " ... do ... "

His eyes closed in anticipation.

Perfect.

Inside, I reached. Maleness flooded into me. "This, you bastard."

His eyes flew open in surprise at the new voice.

As my male knee, powered by male muscle, slammed home into his crotch with all the force I could muster.

And with a squeal of almighty, righteous pain, Jerome went down.


Had I known then what I now know, my next act would have been to take the knife and coldheartedly slash Jerome's throat myself.

I'm not the killer type, but had I known that Bonnie's essence would slip away as I held her in my arms and begged her to hold on, had I known that those sweet eyes would close as I literally saw some spark depart them, had I known that Bonnie's death would often revisit me in my dreams for years to come ... well, the rage, the sorrow that filled me ...

Well, he would have been a dead man. In a heartbeat.

For all the heartbeats he took away from her.


After the funeral, the commune gathered together for a meeting.

"I'm leaving," I said aloud, looking at the ground. I couldn't bring myself to meet Jessie's eyes. Or, for that matter, anyone's. "My journey's taking me back home."

"Tara," Jepeth said. When I didn't answer, he said my name again, more firmly. "Tara." I slowly brought my eyes to meet his.

"When I met you, you were singing a verse from Tolkein. Know you not how it ends?" His baritone voice sang the melody as the words echoed into me:

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar,
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

"You're called home, now. We have done what was meant for you in your life."

Tears began to silently run down my cheeks. "But all I brought in return to you was death ... poor Bonnie ... "

Jessie spoke up. "Bullshit." As my eyes met hers, I saw tears running down her cheeks, too. "That fucking redneck bigot did that. Not you. Don't you dare even try to take responsibility for that insanity."

"And you've allowed us the honor of being teachers," Jepeth said. "There are few higher honors." He rose, and put one furry paw on my shoulder, standing before me.

"You will always be welcome here, no matter whose form you wear, Tara. But as you yourself said, we turned out not to be your journey's end, Tara, but merely a waystation."


"They're friendlier now, you know," Jessie said. She, and she alone, was waiting with me for the bus. She nodded at the diner, where this journey had begun. When I didn't reply, she continued. "Jerome's hatred really made a few people take stock of their own hearts, helped people cast out some of the prejudice they'd been walking around with."

I looked at her. "I'm glad," I said simply. "But ... "

She put a finger on my lips. "I know. This doesn't have to be a 'goodbye forever,' you know." She gave me a faint, sad smile. "Maybe we'll see each other again someday."

"Like every romantic movie in existence?" I said. She chuckled, my comment jostling the severity of the moment. God, she looked beautiful when she laughed.

And the bus chose that moment to pull up.

"You know where I live," I said, picking up my suitcase, returned to me courtesy of the ever-handy Frank McCorkle. "You can often find me at the Blind Pig Gin Mill there. It's one of the best SCABS joints in town."

I heard the conductor shout out the last call. The desparate loneliness of goodbyes began to set into us both. Neither of us wanting to say those words, I merely brought her into my arms, gave her a fierce hug, and kissed her softly on the lips.

What gender was I when I did that?

Does it matter?


I handed the last plate to Brian. He didn't react right away, so I smiled and waved my hand at him.

"Wow," said Brian. "That's ... a pretty amazing tale."

"And pretty sad, too," I said. "I miss them."

I smiled. "But I missed the Blind Pig gang, too." I gave a side hug to Wanderer.

As I did, he gave an appraising look. "You definitely do seem different, Tara. Even your scent's a little different now."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"Perhaps it's the male you're smelling on me now."

Wanderer looked doubtful. "That might be it ... but you've definitely changed. Stronger, I think. Less fear."

"Inner change, buddy." I assured him.

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