I Change You

Dana Diehl

The first time my girlfriend turned me into an animal, we’d only been dating for two months. I woke in the middle of the night to her side of the bed cold, the covers pushed back. Still half asleep, I wandered through her dark apartment, feeling for the door frame, for the knob. I’d forgotten to put on my glasses, and when I opened the bathroom door, the room swirled with white mist. My girlfriend sat in the clawfoot tub, water to her waist. Her edges blurred. Her skin fractured light.

“Tam,” I said, and she gasped. Her arms curled over her face. And in that same moment, I became a salamander.

I didn’t know I was a salamander at first. I just knew that I had become small. I could smell the water in the air, could hear the pop of soap bubbles in the bath like tiny bells.

Tam stepped out of the tub, wrapping a towel around herself. She dripped puddles onto the tile, and I felt myself drawn to them. My skin shivered with the feeling.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, gently nudging me into her palm. “I’m so sorry. It was an accident. I swear I didn’t mean to.”

My toes clung to her skin. I could feel the pores in her finger pads. I flicked my tongue, and could taste the sweetness of her sweat. I’d never felt closer to her, never loved her more, never felt loved by her more. She took me to bed, kept me safe in the curled basket of her fingers. By morning, I was a man again.

“This happened with my high school boyfriend,” she said, sitting cross-legged in the bed next to me. “I’d get annoyed by something small, and suddenly he’d be a moth. Or a hedgehog. Or a little turtle.” She pulled the blankets up over her lap. She spoke in a disjointed way when she was nervous, putting long spaces between her words, like she couldn’t catch her breath. “I dated a few guys in college, but it never happened again. The animal thing. I thought it was something I’d grown out of. The way kids grow out of wetting the bed or getting warts.”

I wrapped an arm around Tam’s shoulders, let her lean her face into my neck. Now that I’d tasted her sweat, now that I’d felt my feet suction-cupped to her skin and spent a night sleeping in her palm, I noticed things about her that I didn’t before. The three strands of silver hair that grew behind her ear. The fact that her blinks were exactly ten seconds apart. The cluster of blue veins on her inner ankle.

“I know this is a lot,” said Tam, pulling away.

“It’s okay,” I replied mechanically, but it was the truth. I’d known when we started dating that Tam had a bit of magic to her, I just didn’t know how much. “We can make this work.”

The second time Tam turned me into an animal, I became a bat. We’d been watching her favorite childhood movie. She’d been so excited to share it with me, but I was distracted that night, never laughed at the right moments, spent too much time looking at my phone.

“Fine,” she’d snapped eventually, turning off the movie. “We don’t have to watch it.” And suddenly, I was flapping circles around the ceiling fan. The room around me lost its definition. Time slowed down. I could count every rotation of the fan blades.

The third time, she turned me into a snail. She’d been speeding in a parking lot. I’d told her, maybe more harshly than I needed to, to slow down. As a snail, I glided across the car seat, leaving a silvery trail on the fabric. The world was colorless, full of large shadows and explosions of light. I felt her pick me up, place me on the bare round of her shoulder. My brain sparked with the texture of the fine hairs on her skin. Her lips moved, and I couldn’t hear a sound, but my body tingled with the vibration of her words.

I lost track of the reasons Tam changed me.

She made me a baby caiman. An elf owl. A bullfrog.

She made me a gila monster. She made me a lightning bug.

Tam was always sorry afterwards. She’d take me into her arms and stroke my fur or my scales or my exoskeleton and whisper apologies into my skin. “I didn’t mean it,” she always said. But after a few months, I started to wonder if she had more control over her power than she claimed.

Once, Tam turned me into a goat for an entire day. By the time I transformed back, it was dusk, I had a mouthful of grass, and the overgrown weeds in her backyard had been gnawed to their roots. Another time, she turned me into a spider. When I was a man again, my belly was heavy with mosquitos and flies, and Tam was dusting webs from the corners. I began to wonder if she changed me out of convenience rather than out of anger.

But it was difficult for me to ever hold onto these worries for long. As an animal, I’d rest my body against the warm swell of her stomach, her breaths soothing me to sleep, and I’d forgive her of everything. Every animal I became would give me a new reason to love her. The short, dark hairs on the back of her neck. The smell behind her knees, a smell that reminded me of the wind that blows out of the forest at night. The tiny blood vessels shaped like splintered lightning in her eyes. Details I wouldn’t have noticed as a human.

I never thought of the possibility that she’d break up with me.

We were eight months into our relationship. She invited me out to a bar I’d never been to before. It was the kind of place that has only eight cocktails on the menu, each varnished with a bundle of fresh herbs tied with lemon rind.

“This place used to be a funeral home,” Tam told me as we found a seat on a pew in the back corner of the space. The only light came from antique, stained glass lamps and tealight candles on the tables. “They used to embalm bodies in the basement.”

We sipped our drinks and traced shapes in the condensation on our glasses.

Tam took a breath. “I think we need to take some time apart.” She saw my expression and said gently, “Don’t act surprised. You must have known this was coming. For months now it’s been the same. We get on each other’s nerves. I change you.”

I don’t mind, I wanted to say.

She placed a hand on my knee and held my eyes. “Every relationship ends somewhere. Why shouldn’t ours end here?”

So, I stopped seeing Tam.

On weekends, when in the past I’d spend all my time with her, I now drove to the woods. I didn’t follow a trail. Instead, I’d find a crow to follow. Or a creek. Or a toad hopping through the mud.

Those senses I gained when I became an animal, they never truly left me.

I’d see a mushroom growing on a trunk and ache to scrape its flesh with my teeth. I’d feel a weight to the air and know it would rain soon. But in my human body, reading the world around me was like trying to see through static.

At night, I could no longer get comfortable in my body. My hips were too solid, jutting out of me like stone. My feet were heavy and loud. I dreamed of having a skeleton small enough to fit in Tam’s pocket. Of being a vampire bat, able to smell the heat of her blood from the air.

A month after we split up, I walked to Tam’s building. It was late, but I texted her until she buzzed me in. I sprinted up the three flights of stairs to her apartment. I found her in her doorway, hand on hip.

It was incredible how little she’d changed. She still wore the extra-large, white band T-shirt that she’d slept in every night with me. A single black hair tie on her wrist. A mole on each cheek. Flecks of mascara under her eyes.

“I don’t think you should come in,” she said.

I crouched, hands on my knees, catching my breath. My whole body hurt with its humanness.

“Change me,” I gasped. “One more time.”

She laughed. “You don’t want that. Go home. You’ll feel better in the morning.” She turned back to her apartment, started to pull the door closed.

“Wait,” I said, and she did. I stood up straighter, stepped closer. “Listen. The best, simplest times were when we were together like that. Maybe there’s a reason you could change me. Maybe it was meant to be that way.”

Tam let out a frustrated sigh. She curled her hand into a fist and pressed it into her forehead. I wished I was a fox that could wrap around her ankles. I wished I was a canary that could build a nest in her hair. I wanted to touch her in a way she’d welcome. I wanted touch that was just touch.

“Listen,” Tam said. I could feel her trying to make her breaths slow, her voice steady. “I used to think all girls could turn boys to animals. I thought of it like an old, inherited magic passed from mother to daughter. But I was wrong. You can’t imagine how lonely it is to be who I am.”

“Please,” I tried again. “Change me, and I’ll stay forever. You won’t have to be lonely.”

I could feel her fighting it. But the angrier she was with me, the more I felt my skin shiver.

“Please,” I said. I took a step towards her.

I took another step.

And with the next step, I changed.

My hooves clacked on the tiles. My antlers knocked against the ceiling. I felt the urge to jump, to leap. I felt I could jump as high as I wanted, clear any hedge, any brook. I was a buck in the king’s wood, pursued by baying hounds. I was a buck on the tundra, wolves’ breaths hot against my flank.

Still in her doorway, Tam covered her face with her hands. I didn’t understand why she was so sad. I placed my soft lower lip on her wrist. I nibbled her like she was the sweetest apple. I nudged her hands with my nose, then with my cheek. Now, when I smelled her, she would also smell a little bit like me. And that’s how I’d know I belonged to her.


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