by J.D. Molloy

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

T.S. Eliot, Preludes

Thing was a diseased shapeshifter. Her people were like quicksilver; they were created to be fast, fluid, and graceful. They called themselves names like "Fish" and "Moon", after objects which sparkled, flashed, and changed their shapes. They called her "Thing" because she had Shapeshifter's Lump Disease (SLD). SLD fixed its victim in an earthy, lumpen shape, so that she could no longer shift. People with SLD were shaped like ogres, short, broad and flat-footed.

Thing hated herself. She went away from her people and lived in places deep in the woods, where no-one could ever see her. Thing dug up roots and picked fruit from the trees; she had sworn never to kill another living being.

One day, Thing was asleep at the foot of a huge old elm tree when voices woke her. They were coming from inside the bole of the tree. The voices were so faint that Thing could almost not make them out. She crept up to the trunk and laid her large, lump-shaped head against it. Inside, she could hear a whispered conversation, carried on by people who were located far from her and from one another. She knew that the whisperers were geographically far-flung because one spoke of economic conditions in the North, another of weather in the South, a third of politics in the West.

Thing returned to the tree and listened for many days before she dared speak. Only when she felt that she knew the people well--they had names like Silverlake, Lady Ewas, and Truthseeker--did she join their conversation. "My name is Thing," she whispered, "and I am in the East." There was an immediate silence, which lasted just long enough that Thing imagined they had all fled in horror of her. But then the voices all broke out in exultation: "A new friend has found us! Welcome, Thing!"

They explained to Thing that each of them, like her, had heard the whispered voices in the bole of a tree. The roots of the magic elms passed through the dirt and rock beneath them to connect the whole land and even, perhaps, the entire world. For generations, people who discovered the magic root network had come to the forest, to whisper to friends they had never seen.

Most of them led other lives and were only by their trees for a few hours after they had worked their farms, tended their vassals, or fought dragons all day. Only Thing, who lived like a large gentle bear in the forest, was there at odd hours. Sometimes she fell asleep by the tree and woke in the still of the night. She would whisper to the tree, but there was no-one there--except once, when a startled voice spoke to her in a language she did not understand.

One day, when she and the Lady Ewas were the first to arrive in the morning and whispered to each other for an hour before the others came, Ewas promised to spend the night by her tree so that she and Thing could talk some more. That night, in the companionable small hours, Ewas explained to Thing the customs of the root network. Not every one of the friends was who he, or she, claimed to be. Because everyone's voice was heard as a whisper, it was impossible to tell whether someone was really a man or a woman. There were friends who said they were one thing but were really the other.

Thing had been careful never to reveal her gender. Now she became frightened that she had opened up to a man, as men had named her "Thing" and been very cruel to her before. She asked Ewas, who replied with a dry chuckle, "No. I am truly female."

Thing said, "So am I," and the two women spoke until the dawn came, and became intimate friends.

From that day forward, Thing lived for Ewas. When she was not speaking to her, Thing felt empty. Her life in the woods had seemed very full before. Now it became a pointless, mechanical search for sustenance. Thing only felt alive when she heard her friend's voice.

The two spoke many nights through the roots but Thing learned little of Ewas, until the night she whispered to her: "Ewas, I love you."

"Oh, Thing," Ewas said sadly, "Don't love me."

"Why don't you want me to?"

"I'm not worth it," Ewas said. "I'm selfish and cruel."

"I don't think so," said Thing. "You've been very kind to me."

"Being kind to you is easy," Ewas replied, "but I am not a good person."

At about that time, there was a new resident in the woods, a young student of great charisma who was known as Dark Boy. He said the name was a contrapuntal joke, based on his fairness of skin, blond hair, light blue eyes; there seemed nothing dark about him at all. Dark Boy was writing a tome on the hidden plants of the woods, the roots and tubers which Thing knew so well because they were her sustenance. It took him many weeks to win her confidence, but they became friends. Thing took him about and showed him where to find the plants that were the subject of his quest.

Dark Boy was charming and he was the first person in ages who could make Thing laugh. She felt almost light and graceful when she was with him; he was quick to praise her for qualities that Thing didn't even know she had.

She was reluctant to tell Ewas about Dark Boy, though she wasn't sure why. But soon she was spending so much time guiding Dark Boy through the woods that there was little time to whisper to Ewas. Thing had always been honest but now she found herself becoming evasive. Ewas knew something was wrong and confronted Thing, so that before she was quite ready, she found herself telling Ewas about Dark Boy.

Ewas became angry and cruel. "Thing," she said, "You've told me you have SLD and that you are broad and short, like an ogre. Dark Boy doesn't love you; you're too ugly. Get away from him immediately, because he is going to harm you."

After that, Thing stopped talking to Ewas.

One night, Dark Boy invited Thing to stay at his rented house. That day, they had rambled through the woods nearby, and a late thunderstorm had arisen. Though Thing had slept outdoors through many storms, it suddenly seemed very inviting to spend the night by Dark Boy's fire. She came in and together they drank some mead, until Thing, who wasn't used to strong drink, felt very dizzy. She went to the guest room Dark Boy had indicated to her and collapsed on the bed. She woke when Dark Boy came into the room and with an evil grimace she had never seen on the face of a man before, burned her with his magic spear. She fought him off and fled back to the woods, but the fire he had shot at her burned up and down her side.

The spear's evil magic triggered in Thing the terminal stage of SLD, in which the lump-like being loses all physical and mental integrity. Thing began to shift again, but the shapeshifting was not under her control. Sometimes she seemed to phase in and out of other worlds, so that people in the woods could hardly see her or described her as a shifting cloud of shapes. At other times, parts of her body melted like wax; a leg would drip away causing her to fall, or an arm would become liquid just as she tried to lift something.

On certain days, Thing could not remember who she was. For a while, she was able to keep herself organized by concentrating on the rage she felt at Dark Boy. She realized that she would rather die than live as a rageful Thing, because she recognized that this was how beings, born good, became evil. She feared that one day she would remember nothing but rage and would become a monster of the woods, killing people until a warrior came to destroy her.

When all her other emotions and memories were stripped away, Thing had nothing left except her love for Ewas. She returned to the magic elm and found Ewas among the other voices. She told her what had happened. The last thing Ewas heard as Thing faded away was, "I love you, Ewas. I'm so sorry...."

Thing fell into lumps and puddles of flesh by the tree. Some of her evaporated and rained down in the forest; parts were carried away by birds and squirrels. Pieces of Thing were in trees, hidden in caves, planted in fields, caught amidst river rocks.

It took Ewas one hundred days to journey to Thing's wood, during which she had many adventures. She located Thing's elm and began her search there. It took her months, but she found Thing: not every piece, but enough to matter. She retrieved fragments of Thing from the treetops, from the rivers, and from underground.

Ewas carried the pieces of Thing in a silk sling tied around her neck. During her hundred days' walk, she had stopped in the land of the shapeshifters to seek their counsel. They had told her that their people--healthy ones, at least--could regenerate from a few pounds of material. Shapeshifters couldn't return from the dead; in order for them to reconstitute themselves, at least one piece had to have retained life. You could tell if a fragment of a shapeshifter was alive because it moved and changed, however feebly. None of the pieces of Thing still lived; they were all dry as leather.

When she had a few pounds of material in the sling, Ewas went to a sacred grove where miracles were said to happen. She prayed all night to the Lady of the Wood, kneeling with her forehead against a young oak until every one of her limbs was in terrible pain. She offered the Lady her own life, or any kind of servitude she determined, if only she would make Thing live.

"That won't be necessary," said a kindly voice. "Thing is alive. She's in your ear."

Ewas woke and wasn't certain if she had heard the Lady's voice or merely dreamt. When she touched her ear, a seed fell out, which squirmed on the ground.

All day long, she had been hearing a drumming in her ears, which she thought was the sound of her own heartbeat. Now the beating sound came from the seed.

When Thing had whispered the words, "I love you, Ewas. I'm so sorry...."the last living piece of her had flown through the root network to Ewas. All this time, Ewas had been carrying Thing within her.

She took the seed and placed it in the sling, and within moments she saw all the dried leathery pieces take life from it and form into a ball, which assumed a roughly human shape, which became a little girl with blue eyes, black hair and a quick laugh. "Who are you?" the child asked, seeing before her a young woman with hazel eyes and blonde tresses.

"I am Ewas," said the young woman. "And you...."

"I am Thing," said the child, throwing her arms around Ewas. Ewas held the child Thing to her heart.

"Thing," said Ewas, "I am so sorry I was cruel to you. I am here because I love you." She cared for Thing and fed her until Thing had enough substance to be woman-sized again--which took only a few days. The most wonderful of all was that Thing no longer had SLD, and could take any shape at all, and be graceful and lovely, because she was loved by Ewas.

When Thing was well and fully grown again, the women left the forest, and traveled the land. And they met many people, and had wonderful adventures. Sometimes they were rich, and sometimes poor; sometimes they had friends and other times were alone. But Thing will tell you that all the other stories are those of other people, and that the story of Thing ends here: with Ewas.