io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird” by Maria Dong. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
In the beginning of me, I was a bird.
A magpie, although I’ve since been a jay and a red-tailed hawk and even a big, black crow, crying tok-tok-tok at every passerby.
But the magpie was special: on my first day, I saw those flashing blue wingtips, and I was myself. And every day after, I woke up and flew to a shiny window, just to admire my plumage.
Birds don’t last. Their hearts beat so fast, the seeds burn them out. We didn’t know that yet—the sky had only just split open, the almost-microscopic seeds floating down on thorn-tipped maple wings to drill their way into whatever they landed on. Sometimes it was soil, or water, or concrete—but often, it was flesh.
Once you got the seed in you, the clock started. After a few jumps, you considered your options carefully. You in a magpie isn’t you in a dragonfly or a trout or a spotted dalmatian. We like best the animals that make us feel most ourselves.
As for me, I only feel right when I’m some kind of bird.
Here is a story about us, from before I was you:
“Get off that branch!” I whistle a sharp warning through my beak, but you are playful, and you are daring, and you are the fastest finch in this tree or any other. You will not be told.
You descend branches until you’re a few above the lowest. How visible you make yourself, how loud your song! Who cares if there is a fox under you, staring up hungrily? You are the invincible bird, king of—
But oh, that is not just a fox. You flit down, closer, because you can see the spark of the seed—this fox is like you, human and not human.
(And thinking of it now, you ache—because it was early, yet, and you could still be surprised.)
“Hello,” you tweet, only just out of reach. There are stories of people going completely native, unable to control themselves, but you think these stories are inaccurate. You think it’s more likely these people were foxes all along, and finding the right body only gave them the excuse.
“How are you?” says the fox. “I am finding this a bit disorienting.” Their voice is—not muffled, exactly. It reminds you of meeting someone that’s only recently arrived in your country. Accent—yes, that’s the word. An accent.
(It was hard to remember what countries were. What accents were. You wondered, not for the first time, if you would ever stop being a bird.)
You pick a mite out of your wing. “Is this your first hop?”
The fox nods, swaying a bit—it can be hard to get used to the equilibrium of a new body, the semi-circular canals in the wrong places.
“It’s okay,” you say, your tweets gold and sparkling.
“It’s not okay,” says the fox. “My body—”
“Has been invaded. And now you’re an invader.” You nod and hop-hop-hop around the branch—closer, and then away, because the fox still looks hungry. “But you have to let go of that, I think.”
“I don’t want to be a fox,” says the fox. “I want to be a bird, like you.”
“You should have decided that before. When you feel yourself get hot, you need to—”
The fox lunges, russet length a hunter’s snapping trap. Incensed, you flit to the highest branch, but you’re too proud to fly away.
The fox waits for hours. Eventually it leaves, because a fox can never catch a bird without trickery, and this fox is too new to attempt anything clever.
Maybe I’ve made a mistake. I thought this was a story I could tell as it comes. But now?
I’m sorry. It’s hard, piecing together the . . . I want to call them memories, but that’s wrong. It’s as if I’ve jammed a giant needle into your temple, and when I pull the plunger, out comes everything you are. Shove that into something else’s brain—something that hears frequencies you’ve never dreamed of, that can smell death on the wind two miles away, that’s rutted but never made love. Something with a heart that beats four hundred times a minute—scale and tempo, remember this for later: it’s all scale and tempo.
Without the same nose, or eyes, or heart, or brain, what do you remember? And a better question is: who, or what, are you now?
In the beginning, before I was me, I was sick. It was two weeks after I’d felt that seed burrow in—a prick like a fang, and then the soft, slow wriggle of a little hungry worm. If I moved the wrong way, it would pinch, like a splinter I couldn’t find.
I didn’t know what it was. Still, I should’ve told someone—but I had just moved to a new place: a squalid, shoe-box apartment on the fifth floor. And even if that hadn’t been the case, I was single and unemployed and kind of shy—actually, I think this is all you need to know about me: on the rare occasions I traveled, I had to go to the post office and tell them to hold my mail, because there was nobody who might pick it up.
The pain grew until it followed me everywhere: stabbing me each time I shifted, waking me from a dead sleep. Before long, I wheezed through lungs filled with sludge, and I could no longer visit my café to read, though that was probably for the best. The last time, the pain had gotten the best of me, and I snapped at a woman for sitting in my booth.
And still, I didn’t call a doctor. I didn’t believe I was dying, even as I guttered like a candle flame drowning in its own wax.
Toward the end, I fell, and I couldn’t get up. A neighbor knocked on my door—perhaps because of the thump, or perhaps because of the smell I’d started to emanate, like dirty dishwater and burnt hair. I thought it was a woman, because I could see her shoes, black and white and shiny, with pointy toes—but I didn’t answer, and before long, she left.
On the last day before I was someone else—
Before I was myself—
—I sat in my cramped galley kitchen, too exhausted to make it to the sofa. The window was cracked open, and the roving white cat I sometimes fed scraps of ramen noodles was on the window ledge, awaiting its dues.
“Help me,” I begged, but the cat just sat there.
After a few more minutes, I started to gasp, as if dry-drowning, and my heart was beating so hard it roared in my ears. My whole body boiled with fever.
I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t cry out. I knew it was the end.
In my final seconds, I had the thought—how good it was, that my parents were both dead, because seeing me die alone like this would’ve broken their hearts—and then I floated up and out of my body, no more substantial than a dust mote.
It felt wrong. The kind of wrong that explains why every culture has a story about being stuck behind the veil. I could feel myself dispersing, like when you open the door to the bathroom and all the steam billows out—but then there was a tug, a knocking outside—except, no, I was outside—and I grabbed on and let myself in.
I can see why you might get mad. If animals are sentient, we can’t justify driving them around like machines.
Except—when you’re in a cat, you’re also the cat. Did you really think you could be a cat and not carry some of that away with you? Not leave some part of yourself behind?
You’re not even the one in control, at first. You don’t know what’s going on or have your bearings, and you keep switching from one mind to the other, as if you were merely high and not of two minds at once. And although I was dead, there were parts of me that were jubilant. My eomma had wanted me to become a doctor (or at the very least, a nurse.) She’d never, in all her life, imagined that I might become a cat.
And so there we were, drunk and happy on our swishy tail and the way we could hear the scuttle of a mouse on the fire escape and the strong, strong, salty smell of noodles and burgers and the banh mi place down the road and—
Even now, I still get lost in smells, so we should move on.
We, who were ironically named Shadow, stalked the mouse on the fire escape. We pounced, grabbed it in our jaws and pierced its flesh—salty and sweet was the blood—but we didn’t agree with ourself on what to do next and fought over our jaw muscles, and the mouse fell into a trashcan below.
Then, we were in agreement, both of us above soiling ourselves with garbage. But we were still hungry, so we went to Second Best Food Place, which was not as tasty as First Best Food Place, but it also had Soft Bed Place and Many Strokes Human.
We climbed another fire escape—so fast, we were so fast, even if we didn’t like the feel of the metal grating on our paws—and slipped into a window that led to the stairway, before coming around to the front door of Second Best Food Place. We meowed and meowed to be let in, me marveling at the way our throat stretched and twitching of the muscles in our legs and the little blossoms of life in our belly—kittens, we were going to have kittens, soon, six of them, and the second one refused to stop kicking us.
The door opened, and we went inside. It was only then that I noticed the woman’s shoes—shiny and black and white, and with pointy toes, and we didn’t know the word, but I did. Wingtips. They couldn’t have been the same ones, I thought as I fought with us to control our head, to look her up and down.
She was thin, and not in a glamorous way. There were dark bags under her eyes and a sheen of sweat on her forehead, and she smelled . . . bad. Like the time we scaled that tree and swiped that egg from the robin’s nest, and then we cracked it open and it was rotten—
No, I wasn’t there, I told us, but we didn’t seem to understand.
“Oh, Shadow,” said the Many Strokes Human. She wrapped her arms around herself, as if she were cold. “What have you gotten into?”
Her lip curled up—disgust. She disappeared for a moment—faucet sounds, squeak-squeak-squeak—and then came back with a rag to wipe the blood from our face.
After she bathed us—which we permitted only after a great fight with her and our selves—we spent the night curled up to her. At one point, she got up for the bathroom, and we played pounce with her feet, but we were tired from having two minds and two souls and only one body. Already, our insides were hot, too hot, and I could feel that the distance between our selves was compressing, that parts of me were getting woven into us.
Lying there, on her bed in the dark, it scared me, because it didn’t feel like I could get them back.
The next morning, she went to get dressed. She opened her closet, and I saw it—me. Not us, but me—photo after photo after photo, all black and white, of the person I’d been before.
The hair went up all the way down our spine. We lashed our tail, but we padded closer, barely noticing her as she shuffled around through the hanging racks for an outfit.
In the photos, I never looked at the camera. Some were close-ups, taken from afar, as if with a telescoping lens. Others were blurry thumbprints—phone photos that had been printed and cut out, my face dispersing into fields of dots up close. There were many from the café I thought of as my café—I’d rarely left the house, but when I had, it was there, to read—but only when I could get my table, the one in the very, very back, away from the windows and the baristas and the light.
From the angle of the photograph, it had been taken from the café’s bathroom. There was even a sliver of the door in the photo, grainy and out of focus.
She’d been watching me. This woman, who I had never met before, who I didn’t know the name of, and I had no idea why.
I should be afraid, I thought, but I was also a spirit inside a cat’s brain, and I’d just spent the night with the woman—and anyways, we didn’t feel nervous about it at all, because this was the Many Strokes Human, and we were not afraid of her.
I waited. We started to get anxious from being inside for so long (for although I knew how to use the door, we could not.) I guess the woman could tell, because she opened the door, and we slipped into the hallway.
But then she came out after us, shutting and locking the door behind. I got another look at her, this time in the light spilling through the window that we’d slipped through yesterday.
She looked sick, and she blinked her eyes rapidly against the light. I realized for the first time that she hadn’t turned on the lights when we’d been inside.
After a moment, she went down the stairs. We wanted to climb out the window again and go looking for First Best Food Place, but I was stronger now—even though there was less of me left.
I pushed and pushed and pushed, and we fought, but I won, and our legs turned and we went down the stairs, skulking after the woman and her pointy black shoes.
Traveling was different—I was able to perceive more through our senses, but it didn’t match up with the mental maps I had of this area, and I couldn’t orient myself well. Perhaps that’s why we made it all the way to the door of the café before I realized where we were going.
I debated trying to slip into the café behind my neighbor, but we balked hard at that—it was an enclosed space with no open windows, and people had kicked us and spat at us before—so we stood on our back legs and put our paws to the window, scanning the glass for her image.
She didn’t go to the counter. Instead, she went straight to the back of the café, right to my table. A moment later, she came out.
The next place she visited was my apartment. She went straight to the door—but skulking, just as we were skulking behind, and I’m sure we’d have made a funny image to anybody watching—and knocked tentatively.
We didn’t like this. The knocks were loud and sharp to us, and we could smell me inside, my ripe, rotting body. It made us want to yak all over the hallway carpet. I didn’t know, yet, that the dizziness was from my presence, the strain of having us both inside of this cat-body, chewing it up.
She waited and knocked again, and then she scrunched over and put her cheek to the door. “Hello,” she said. “Are you in there?”
We meowed plaintively, but she didn’t seem to notice. We waited for her to leave, but she slumped against the wall and folded down, down, down, and now we could see her face, her cheek and its small red blemish. Before, we would have taken it for a pimple, but I knew what it was because I’d had one like it before I became us.
A seed. A seed had drilled into her cheek, and she was weak and smelled bad, almost as bad as my body did, and that meant she was dying.
She would need a body. This one was already occupied, but I had an idea.
We checked the dumpster, but the mouse was gone. We argued briefly, because although we agreed that catching a mouse was a good idea in principle, my insistence that we not harm it meant we couldn’t taste the blood.
But I was stronger, because our body was getting tired, running hotter and hotter, and so I won. We caught a mouse and brought it up by its tail.
The woman was lying down. We could tell she didn’t have the strength to sit up. She shuddered when she saw us and the wriggling mouse, but she didn’t try to move, and we waited while the mouse bit us and kicked and bit us—
She died, and I felt her, inside and outside, here and there—and then she was herself and the mouse, and of course, they were both you.
Our friendship wasn’t a friendship, at first. You and I couldn’t talk, because mice and cats couldn’t speak to one another yet, and so I had no way to tell you who I was or ask you why your closet was full of stolen photos of me.
And you were afraid of me, very afraid, because you were you, but not yet. Not all the way. Not the way I would be, once I became a bird.
Before long, our body that was Shadow became very sick—but you were sicker, because you were smaller, your tiny heart running like the fan in a gaming computer. More than once, you tried to escape, but you were a small thing, and we an order of magnitude larger, and we caught you easily.
When it came close to time, the we that was once Shadow picked you up by the tail and dragged you to the zoo. We set you to rest in the giraffe pen, and then we used what was left of our strength and jumped higher, higher, until we found the button that unlocked the enclosure. We managed to swipe at it a moment before our body hit the ground, and then the we that was once Shadow was not Shadow anymore.
This time, we were both giraffes—knobby-kneed and long-necked and proud, and it wasn’t until I felt myself stretching into this new form that I realized my miscalculation: we were the same species, now, the I-we and the You-we, but while giraffes communicate, it isn’t with words. There was no way to say photograph, or apartment, or wing-tipped shoe. I tried scratching figures in the dirt with our cloven hooves, but it all came out as wobbly squares.
Still, you could tell that we were talking to you—and perhaps you could feel me now, the way I felt you, no more fear of my feline teeth and claws. Or perhaps you’d realized what had happened, how close you’d come to expiring—I know that each hop between bodies frightens you, that you never forget the wrongness.
Cat-me had made other miscalculations. For one, though the door was open, we were still giraffes, and giraffes seldom pass unnoticed. They cannot traipse around downtown without being caught and brought back to the zoo.
But it was a comfort to wind our long neck with yours, and though I burned to discover why you’d been spying on me, the truth was that you were my only kindred spirit—at first. As the days passed and people visited the zoo, we heard their phones, their conversations, their tiny radios playing the news. We knew more people were dying, though nobody had put the bodies and the seeds together.
Before long, zoo-comers dwindled, until there were none. We realized they might never return. Still, time was passing, and we burned through each animal in the enclosure, through the very last.
We would’ve died, then, had not a pair of bees buzzed by.
We leaped into them, and then you took off, and I had no choice but to follow, though I couldn’t control this body the same as you could yours.
(I feel so much grief for you, for if I am me when I’m a bird, you are you when you’re a bee, and a bee is so tiny that you may only be you for a few minutes at a time.)
I didn’t know where you were going, but I was not going to lose you, and so I did my best with our wings. But you timed it wrong, dropped from the sky like a shot. A moment later, I felt ourself arc down after you, our bee-body already a shell—and that’s when I felt them below us, twisting and agile and muscular. You and I, we plunged into two dolphins, and again, I was I-we, and you were you-we.
Dolphins can speak, though it’s not the same—not something I can translate, though I will try.
I said, “Who are you? I click-bounced you, outside the place I am always swimming.”
And you said, “What is happening to us? Was it the kelp-sperm that floated down from the sky?”
And I-we nodded, and tried to stand up on our tail, although we couldn’t do that yet.
But you laughed, a series of stutters that we felt rise from our lower jawbone, conducted through the water like the drumming of fingers on a table. I was embarrassed, but you swam toward me and said, “Catch me!”
The harder we used these bodies, the faster they would burn away. But we felt your wake as you streaked away like a comet, and the part of us that was not me pushed our body to follow.
As the days passed, I started to hear a thrum, a low susurration like waves. I couldn’t tell if it was new, or if I’d ignored it my whole life.
But I knew it got louder each time we changed.
We left the zoo in the bodies of two smallish monkeys, for we’d realized, by then, that even if was just the two of us, the zoo animals would not last forever. And I tried not to think about it—what it meant leaving behind this carnage, what we were doing, body after body burned out from the inside like dugout canoes.
There was nothing else for it, was there? After all, we wanted to live.
I was afraid to leave that place, though, the safety of those walls. Afraid there was no way to make it out of the city to the real wild spaces, but I shouldn’t have worried. Amidst the streets and the cars and the buildings were ten-thousand synanthropic hearts: little brown house mice and big black roof rats, pigeons and ducks and hidden urban farms of bees and geese and chickens, falcons and foxes and silverfish, roaches and squirrels and raccoons and rabbits, small bevvies of skunks, hordes of flies and bedbugs, and once, even, a pair of armadillos.
By the time we made it to the edge of the city, I was loathe to leave—but the murmur in the background of our minds had grown to a roar, a wild clamor of all the voices that lay out in the green spaces, both tamed and free—though to us, all of it was freedom. By then, too, we could feel in the milieu around us the others like us—those the seeds had taken, more and more every day, though the people that were left went on oblivious, saying things like reasonable precautions and disease.
We hurtled into the wild spaces with the howl of monkeys, the stuttering laugh of dolphins conducting up jawbone. By then we were learning to speak, stumbling upon words as if we’d once known them, like immigrants with half-forgotten childhoods. It was a language not made with tongues or teeth or the clicking of mandibles, and yet we understood it and each other and all the furred and feathered and hard-shelled things around us, for they spoke it, too.
And each time I closed my eyes and listened, I found new voices joining. I could hear the oak trees and the whoosh as the trees pulled water through their roots, their trunks, their leaves. The buzz of the stars overhead, muffled by the hymns of clouds. The wild rumbling beneath our feet, a concerto of plates crashing into each other like rams butting in the mountains—for it was all scale and tempo, and it was all available to us.
And things were good, and we were joy and wild speed, and I forgot all about the photographs in the closet—
Until the day we coursed downhill, two deer, white-tails flashing, and the shot rang out, and you stumbled into the earth below.
I didn’t flee.
You have to understand. In every space we had explored, there was always something living around us. Hadn’t there been Shadow? The bees? The rats running along the roof-lines?
But I could feel all the voices around us—even the forms we could not take, like the trees and the sky and the dirt, and that’s how I knew it was only us three: you, me, and the hunter.
His boots approach you, heavy footfalls like the titanic clashes of the plates below, and I hate him. I have no right to hate him—isn’t what we’ve done a thousand times worse? The bodies we’ve left behind, a multi-species extinction event—
And yet, I hate him for the way you lay gasping, your eyes glazing over. Your tongue is out and wet with pink foam, and your sides heave.
There is nothing close by—not a worm, not a fly, not a bird, for something has been done to this spot, befouled it, coated with some rampant poison, and though I don’t understand it, I know that it was done, that there is no time.
He raises his gun again. We plead with him with our deer tongue, with our stamping hooves, and when that doesn’t work, we howl at him in the language of all things.
Do not do this!
Do not do this!
He stops and blinks. He shakes his head, even sticks a dirty finger in his ear—but then something comes over his face, and I know it’s a hardness in his heart, an illness that I, too, once used to have, that makes him deaf to the world.
He raises his gun again.
I know that this will not happen. It cannot. This cannot be the end of you.
But there’s a flash—and I feel it, then, you inside and outside, and I know you’re not in the deer, not anymore.
And there is no body nearby. None, except this one.
We’ve never tried to return to a body that one of us has left—but my-ours is new, and fresh, and still strong. It would have lived another few days, at least.
Here, here! I call in the language of all things. We can share!
And this is a lie—I know it is. I know we cannot share. But if you are not here, I don’t want to be here, and so when you come hurtling toward me, swifter than the bullet that took you down, I ready myself. In the moment before you storm inside, I flee—
But you catch me. You reach out and grab me, a comet clinging onto another, and you try to drag me in with you. There is a terrible pain—the scorching heat of too much, trying to go into too little—but I can hear it, your mind working, neurons you don’t have firing—and when there is not enough there, you draw outwards, instead, from everything around us. You ask the leaves and the bark and the dirt below, dead though it is: help us.
And suddenly, I hear them all answer.
A moment later, I am back in the deer, and you are with me. And as the hunter raises his gun again—this time for us, for we, too, are a fine prize—we flip up our tail, and we’re gone.
We’ve tried, but we cannot separate.
We still haven’t figured out what any of this means—the seeds that came down from the sky, the way that they’ve connected us to all things. You maintain that the bodies we leave behind are not dead, and though I cannot agree, I say I do, because we share one mind and body, now, and it’s easier when things are quiet.
Secretly, I think someone will come for us one day. That the seeds that took us from our bodies could not be an accident—but that day has not arrived.
You were smart and suggested the ocean, and now we always find ample hosts around us, though we are careful to keep ourselves close to shoals of fish, to choruses of dolphins. Once, we were attacked by a shark, but then we became the shark, and it made you sad and me happy.
I used to worry that we would run out of animals, but now I am not so sure. The seeds are still falling, thorn-tipped maple-wings that float down from the sky like ash, and although humans try to avoid them, they cannot always. They must sleep, and the seeds are strong. They know no barrier. They penetrate stone and roofing tar and wood as easily as flesh.
Animals are still reproducing, aren’t they? If there are no people left, in the end—if we all become seeded—will we overtake them? Or will their numbers always be greater than that which we can take?
We’ve decided to go deep, leapfrogging from creature to creature, descending into an ocean trench. We are an anemone, a coral, a clownfish, a jellyfish, an eel. It’s easier, in some ways, to only need one body for us both, though we are always careful, always ready to flee.
Somewhere between when the dark stops and the trench ends, we run into a patch of bioluminescent algae. It glows, disturbed by our movements, and I take that as a sign—it’s finally time to ask you.
I want to know, I say, about the photos in the closet.
By now, of course, you know that I was once the person in them. It’s not a thing I could keep secret from you, not when we are always together.
You are quiet, at first. Then, I feel you give—a soft give, like the bending of a blade of grass. I was a private investigator, you say.
Because this amuses me, I give you a dolphin’s jawbone laugh. It’s my favorite laugh because it was yours. Were you investigating me?
No, you say. Before you can answer me fully, we sense something passing us by—a slimy pink fish—and we jump inside. I am delighted to find that there are gaps in our skull, that our bones are soft—and that although we have eyes, they do not seem to do anything. We were adapted for this place.
I had a client who wanted to know if his wife was cheating on him. I was watching her, and you came down and sat across from her in her booth, and then she got up and walked away.
I have to think hard about what you’ve just said, as if recalling the plot of a book, and not my once-life.
Finally, though, I remember. I didn’t know her, I say. She was sitting in my spot.
And you laugh—like a dolphin’s stutter, like the buzzing of a bee. It doesn’t matter. I followed you, and you fascinated me. You never went anywhere, and you were always alone. You were . . . so lonely.
Yes, I say, because it’s true—though these words, too, are part of that world I struggle to remember: alone, lonely.
Maybe I was like that. But so were all of us, weren’t we?
And because I’m right, you say nothing, and we plunge ourselves further into the deep.
A prolific writer of short fiction, articles, essays, and poetry, Maria’s work is published or forthcoming in over a dozen publications, including Apex, Apparition, Augur, Fantasy, Fusion Fragment, Kaleidotrope, Khoreo, Lightspeed, and Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, comes out from Grand Central Publishing in winter of 2023. Although she’s currently a computer programmer, in her previous lives, Maria’s held a variety of diverse careers, including property manager, English teacher, and occupational therapist. She lives with her partner and a potato-dog in southwest Michigan, in a centenarian saltbox house that is almost certainly haunted, watching K-dramas and drinking Bell’s beer. She is represented by Amy Bishop at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. She can also be reached via Twitter @mariadongwrites or on her website, MariaDong.com.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2022 issue, which also features work by Aimee Ogden, Jenny Rae Rappaport, Jendayi Brooks-Flemister, Vanessa Fogg, Leah Cypess, N.K. Jemisin, Lincoln Michel, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition via this link.
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