Call me Mal.
It’s not who I am. Not really. Oh, I learned to wear the name – they tell me I picked it, after all, which counts for something, I suppose, but then again things are never that simple.
I was about four and a half years old when I stepped onto that ship that would take me away from the only home I’d ever known and towards something else, something new, something that would involve that choice. I trust the memory I have because I have always trusted my memories. But from the inside, it’s always different.
I have a notebook, which I never show anyone, and a pencil which goes with it, which is always kept sharp. I draw my memories. And the things I draw come alive for me. It’s like magic – it’s always been like magic – I can look at a sketch and the reality of the scene unfolds around me like a holographic projection. It was years before I found out that it was only me for whom this was true. That’s when I started hiding the notebook, and telling everyone else I couldn’t draw a stick figure to save my life. But one of the first things I drew in that secret book, the one that nobody knew about… was that ship. That day. The day I took up the mask.
A brown-haired boy, standing on the rolling deck of a ship under way, steadied at the shoulder by his mother’s hand. A man walks by, stops, smiles – he is dressed in a uniform, he is ship’s crew, but his hair is white and his hands are not young any more. He wears a name tag, and it says “Malcolm” – it’s shiny, engraved on a brassy background. Shiny enough to draw a child’s attention. Shiny enough to stick in a child’s memory.
He is kind. He always wears that smile, and it is sincere. This is his last voyage on the ship – that shiny pin with his name on it, he gives that to the boy at the end of the voyage. He no longer needs it, after all. And before the end of the voyage, sometime in between the moment of the boy standing at the side of the deck looking through the railings at the sea and the moment of the ship coming in to the dock in a strange new place, there was something else, there was the reason for the gift of that pin.
“We all have to do it,” the boy’s father’s tries to explain. “It is a new world, and a new place, and we will have new names in it. You can choose one you like. Is there a name you like?”
But the boy is too young, and he does not know many names. He thinks about it and first offers the familiar ones, the ones that like the one he already bears, the ones that now have to be left behind. He is told that no, it needs to be a new name. A really new name. Something that will fit with the life about to start, which has nothing to do with the life he is leaving behind. And when he finally understands. the name that comes to mind is engraved on a shiny name tag worn by a man who is kind.
“Mal-colm,” the boy says, breaking his tongue over the foreign syllables a little.
He sees his parents exchange looks over his head, and knows that they do not understand – but now he is stubborn, as only a four-year-old can be stubborn, and he insists. It is a name that has attached itself to him, and now ripping it away would leave scars.
So they leave it. He is Malcolm now. They say they will begin calling him that immediately so that he can get used to it, to the new name, so that he will answer to it when they get to their new home. They also tell him that his sister has a new name too. That she is no longer Svetlana, no longer Svetya, the sister whose name was a part of who she was in her little brother’s mind. She is now different too. She is Celia.
Everything is different. It is all going to be different. Nothing will ever be the same again. The little boy has no name for what he feels, for the thing that flutters inside of him like dark wings. He does not understand it. It feels like nothing he has ever felt before.
But he is Malcolm now. A new person. Not at all who he was before.
It is only right that he should feel new things.
But I was still Malcolm, then. I couldn’t even say it myself, not properly. The sister who was formerly known as Svetlana but must now be called Celia told me that, later – we still talked between ourselves in the language we spoke from the cradle, sometimes, although our parents who wanted us to assimilate into our new lives as fast as possible frowned on it.
“You kept saying “Macom’,” Celia said. “That middle L. It just wouldn’t fit in your mouth.”
“But it got shortened,” I said.
“Eventually. But not for Papa. I think it was his penance, that he had to say the full name every time he used it. He felt responsible for making you give up your first name, your real name, and then this – when you chose it – he just took the name you actually chose and it became a sacred duty for him to call you by it. And besides…”
The besides was that I went as ‘Macom’, and then as full Malcolm, for quite some time. Celia might have started calling me by the shortened version of the name, but it was Chalky who permanently turned me into Mal. Years after.
I must have been all of ten years old when Chalky and I first crossed paths.
By that age, I was starting to grow out of being the scrawny little boy of my early childhood and into the first adolescent promise of my adult shape. I had already developed a reputation for being “trouble” and knew every crack and stain in the corridor outside the Principal’s office, where I was all too frequently sent to cool my heels after infractions – well – let’s be blunt, after my usual scuffles and fights. In the beginning, those fights were responses – instinctive responses, in the only way I knew how, the physical, to the taunts and slights and teasing of the early days of my career in the public schools of our new world as a known Were boy. As yet unturned, to be sure, but I was “one of them”, and I was foreign, and I was small, and this world was merciless to me and to those like me right from the start.
When I first physically lashed out at a bully, it was with predictable results – and those results repeated themselves all too often in the fights that followed. Black eyes. Bruises. Scrapes and scratches. Bloody noses. Even, once, a broken arm – but that one, I gave as good as I got, and you should have seen the other guy, as they say. Well, perhaps I exaggerate. But I wasn’t a punching bag. I was a miniature warrior, standing up for… for things I myself was probably too young to fully formulate in my own mind. All I knew was that it was necessary. That words would only be laughed at the harder. Celia did have that option – and I knew something of her own troubles, and her loneliness, but she was a girl and she dealt with things in her own way, quietly, on the inside. It would only have made it worse if I had tried to do the same.
So I fought. And I lost the fights. And I learned from every one of those losses. Until the day that I actually found myself left in possession of the field, breathing hard, a magnificent bruise already starting to flower on my cheekbone, but still standing, and with no other combatants in sight.
For the first time… ever… I had actually won.
There had been two of them that time and I knew that if I relied on physical strength alone I would have gotten more bruises than usual. But for once I fought quietly, coldly, using guile and strategy rather than simply strength, and somehow I was still standing after they had had enough and had slunk away.
I became aware of my audience only slowly, an awareness of a presence, and for a moment I braced myself, expecting a new assault from a fresh adversary. I had spent myself already and I was simply going to have to curl up and take the blows as they came. But it wasn’t a third enemy. It was a boy whose age I found hard to guess. He was thin, almost scrawny, but there was a sense that he was made of steel and whipcord underneath clothes which hung awkwardly on his wiry frame. His dark hair, chopped by an obviously amateur hand, just brushed his shoulders; his face was all hollows and cheekbones and his eyes were an odd dark green shade which I’d never seen on another human being before. He gave me a half salute once he realized that I had registered his presence.
And brought into focus another thing.
There had been three of them who had jumped me. I had dealt with two. But there had been a third. A shadow somewhere behind me. I had no clear memory of what had happened, after, but that third shadow… it had just…
Now that I filtered my blurred memories of the fight to focus on what I had not had the time to pay close attention to in the thick of battle, I remembered a grunt and had a glimpse of falling. But it hadn’t been my doing. None of it.
The boy watching me could probably see all of this unraveling in the expression on my face – the realization of what must have happened, and a blossoming resentment that my accomplishment, my winning this tussle, was not my own accomplishment. He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of teeth which looked like they ought to be sharper. His build and his looks might have hinted at vulnerability but it was camouflage, and that grin was pure predator.
“I saw them jump you,” he said. “I hung around to see if you might need help.”
“Do I know you?” I asked, spitting the words out through uneven breaths I was still struggling to get under control. He was a total stranger; I didn’t know every face of every kid in our school, to be sure, but I was pretty certain that I’d have remembered this face if it had been hanging around the halls. And I didn’t know him. I was still out of breath, but I figured I could take him, In a moment of two. When I had recovered just a little.
But he didn’t seem inclined to pick a fight. In fact, he looked about ready to leave me to it, shoving himself off the wall he had been leaning against and stuffing both hands into the pockets of his scruffy jeans.
“Don’t mind me,” he said, shrugging his narrow shoulders. “Just happened to be passing.”
“What did you do?” I demanded, furious, as he turned his back on me and began to amble away.
“Not all that much. Didn’t stop him from doing anything he wanted to do. He just happened to walk into something on his way there.”
“Walk into what?” I said, still not mollified.
“My foot,” he threw over his shoulder, together with a last flash of a grin.
“He’ll just come back to finish it!” I yelled after him as he walked away, presenting me with a view of a thin back and a pair of long gangly legs clad in clean but obviously well-worn jeans.
“So you’ll get him next time,” he said as he vanished around a corner.
I was right, as it happened, because they did come back again, the bullies who wanted to exact their revenge for the lost round of fisticuffs… but somehow it was easier that next time. I knew I’d done it once before. I took a beating, but I didn’t go down.
The next time they returned, there were more of them, and my guardian angel turned up again – doing nothing more than just being present, being a witness, and again occasionally introducing a foot into someone’s path – I don’t know how he didn’t get his own dose of flying fists but it seemed that he was practically invisible to the ones who came for a piece of me – other than when they ran into him, literally, they didn’t seem to notice him at all.
It was much later, and in very different circumstances, that we learned more about one another and actually exchanged names. It was me that broke down, after seeing him several times at the library in our neighborhood (and I was pretty certain by this stage that he did not live anywhere close by). I stepped in front of him, and introduced myself, by name. Outside my house, aside from Celia who had special dispensation, I was still clinging stubbornly to my full name, the “new” name, the full version, the only one I wanted to answer to when addressed by those who were not part of my own immediate family – Malcolm Marsh. He offered his rather fabulous one to which I returned what must have been an all too familiar double take to him.
“Saladin van Schalkwyk?”I repeated. It was a mouthful. “What kind of a name is that?”
He shrugged. “Happens, when you have parents like mine.”
I tried to get a handle on the name, but couldn’t until he spelled his surname for me – and when I got the letters in the correct order and got over the pronunciation, I simply gave up and took the easy way out, calling him something that resembled that outlandish surname without having to twist my tongue around it. And he became Chalky.
In return, it was he who first called me ‘Mal’ – at least in public, as a persona – the first one outside of Celia, that is. I mean, diminutives were not exactly strange to me, our entire lives my sister and I had known that there were pet names by which family members called one another – when we spoke amongst ourselves in the old language (discouraged by our parents, but they couldn’t supervise us all the time) I still called my sister, who was now Celia, by her childhood nickname of Svetya, and she still called me by my baby name, the first twisted syllable that I had uttered when I had tried to say my own original given name as a baby barely learning to talk, Gog. But outside our house, to strangers, she was Celia and I was Malcolm – the full formal names – no nicknames or diminutives were permitted past the door.
But when the boy I quickly came to know as Chalky took his leave of me by a cheery wave and a breezy, “See you, Mal!” – things began to fall into a better place. Because that I could somehow accept, could wear, far more comfortably than that ‘Malcolm’ which I had picked because it was the only permitted name I knew. I could be Mal… outside of my sister’s loving sphere. I could make that name into something new, something different, something strong. I could transform myself into a Mal. A Mal (at least this new Mal, not the beloved little brother with that name) would be leaner and meaner and more dangerous than a Malcolm could ever be. I could see a way to use that. It was protection. It was the first mask willingly taken.
If things had fallen out differently, then, I might have taken a different road. After I began to get something of a reputation for never backing out of a fight I began to realize that there were other boys, my own age or a little younger, who were starting to hang around in the back, the nucleus of a gang of my own, if I had wanted one, if I had felt the urge to swagger or to take on a more public leadership role.
But somehow instead of making me cocky and self-assured and ready to step out in front of a gaggle of others ready to follow me, I turned inward instead. I kept to myself. I had been given to understand, all too bluntly, that I didn’t belong, that I would never belong, and I ended up not wanting to belong – I was a solitary, out on the edges, happy with enough of a rep to be respected by those who needed to and to teach respect to those who didn’t think it was due. And somehow it was Chalky, another outsider, another solitary, with whom I found a way to connect. If I had a best friend or a brother, he became that.
He never gave up all of his secrets, or at least he doled them out sparingly, a little at a time. He was the closest thing I had ever known to a wild thing. I discovered that he did not in fact go to my school (or to school at all, by the stage I met him), that he was born Were, just like me, of two perfectly straight Were-folk parents, but that he himself was… something… else… something different, something strange. He hadn’t bothered to give it a label –it was something he did, something he was, and he didn’t think about it in terms of defining it. But when he finally opened up enough to tell me the truth, I found myself naming it at once.
“You’re telling me you Turned at eight?” I asked him, astonished, when he told me that he was already capable of doing something that I myself would need years to graduate to. In fact, I squawked about it, feeling the sting of it. “But Were don’t turn until they’re fifteen…”
He shrugged. “Or thirteen. Or seventeen. Whatever.”
“Still,” I said stubbornly. “Eight is… awfully young. What did your mother do about it?”
One of the tidbits that he had already volunteered was that his father had abandoned the family when Chalky was quite young, leaving his son with few memories and little more than that preposterous name, and so it would have been his mother who would have had to deal with his precocious gifts. Alone.
He shrugged off the age. “Eh. What can I tell you. I was eight… and as far as my mother was concerned, I knew that I couldn’t tell her. I knew even back then that she couldn’t possibly deal with it. Mother… didn’t exactly want to deal with a kid. Not really.”
“You never told your mother that you Turned – how could you – I mean, aren’t there laws about…?”
I already knew about the Turning Houses, where hapless Were-kind with no place deemed secure enough by the authorities had to report to endure their three days of the Turn. Were folk were not permitted to roam the streets while in their secondary form. Even adults. And here was Chalky, telling me that he had been eight years old when he first Turned… and that nobody knew about it.
He looked at me sideways, in a way that he had which said a whole lot without him saying a word. And then he shrugged it off again, as if it was utterly immaterial. “I figured that telling Mama would be the absolute worst thing I could do about it. She’d be of no help whatsoever, and she could have easily got it into her mind to…” He sniffed, rubbed his jaw with his hand, thought better of going any more deeply into the matter.
“To what?” I asked. “She would have done what?”
“I don’t know. But I didn’t really want to find out. So I just kept it quiet for a couple of years.”
“But how could you…?”
“Well she was Were,” Chalky pointed out. “She was Were-sandcat. Quite a pretty one, I saw her change, I saw her other form.”
“She didn’t go into the Turning House?”
“Not while I was around. I took care of her.”
“But you were just a kid…”
“And as far as that went, I was still me during the Turn. As far as she knew, anyway. She couldn’t ask because she had no clue that I had already found out… well, but I had a secret life. She never knew about it. I couldn’t trust her with it. She probably couldn’t have handled it anyway.”
“But if you had Turned yourself…”
He gave me a strange look. “You aren’t listening. I didn’t… Turn. Not like you will Turn. Not at the full moon, for three days, regular as clockwork, you and your creature changing places.”
“I am Random,” I said, “I can probably change into anything, if I see it at the right time.”
“But you get to pick your primary.”
We had had that conversation, by father and I – what I wanted my primary to be. This was a new world with new rules and it turned out I could choose – there were people who would let you hire an animal which you could have in front of you when you Turned, so you could Turn into an image of that beast, a palimpsest, and that would be a primary form that a Random like me would fall back on at any time if no other creature presented itself to his gaze at the wrong moment to derail his Turn.
I had already picked my beast – I wanted a wolverine. It was not an animal I had even heard of before we had moved to this place, they did not exist in the land where I was born, but I had read about them and the beast appealed strongly to me as my alter ego. My father had demurred at what would be an expensive animal to rent by the hour until such time as I Turned and it became unnecessary, but he hadn’t said no, not firmly, and I thought I had a good chance of getting what I wanted in the end.
“And you…?” I asked, still not quite understanding.
“I don’t have a primary,” he said patiently. “I don’t, really, have a Turn. I can tell myself to change, and I do. That’s all.”
“Into anything I want.”
“Well, I guess the usual applies,” Chalky said. “The kind of creatures that would be open to you. I don’t think snakes and cockroaches are an option. On second thought, I don’t know that I’ve ever really tried.”
“And so when the full moon comes you just…”
He was shaking his head. “No. Not just then.”
“Any time. Whenever I say so.”
“Prove it,” I challenged, with all the pugnacity of a ten-year-old who had been given something that was simply too hard to accept.
And then took it back, hastily, when I remembered the realities of shifting – that whatever he changed into would entail him losing the clothes that his human body was wearing, and changing back into a naked boy. I assured him I believed him, that I absolutely believed that what he said was true although I wasn’t sure I really believed him.
I was waiting for my fifteenth birthday when I would come of age as a Were and Turn into my own alternate form, and face the reality of doing this, of being this, for three days out of every month for the rest of my life. I wasn’t certain at this point whether I felt happy about this, about the stability of this, or if I was just envious of the freedom that Chalky’s own transformations gave him. He lived by no rules that I knew, in any respect – but I was already an outlier, an outsider, a loner. How much more of one was he, by definition…? Because he wasn’t a Were, not really, not the way I knew the term. He was… he was…
“You’re a shifter,” I told him, defining him.
He didn’t argue the point.
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