Autumn colors spread across the summer sky as the sun eased its way over the
horizon. Any other time, Russ would probably have admired the sunset. Right
now, he was more interested in the flat, featureless desert which surrounded
him. Rising heat made the terrain waver, blurring detail of distant objects.
It was easy to forget he was in Montana, and imagine this to be the plains of
He shivered despite the high temperature, feeling frightened, excited, and
stupid all at the same time. He'd tried some oddball things before, but never
in the presence of another. Jumping naked over a beaten copper knife, wearing
what was supposed to be a wolf skin belt, drinking vile-tasting concoctions
made up from recipes found in dusty books. Nothing had worked. Yet here he
was again, standing naked in the Montana desert with a strange old woman,
waiting for the full moon.
"Here." The woman in question thrust what looked like a piece of beef jerky
into his hand. "Start chewing it. The time draws near."
He took the cardboard-like meat and stared at it apprehensively. "This is
"What did you expect, boy?" She snorted in disgust. "Can't just walk into a
store and grab a Zebra heart from the butcher. Now, if ya' wanted to be a cow
or a chicken..."
"OK, OK!" He stuck it in his mouth, wincing in anticipation of really
terrible taste. "Actually, I wouldn't mind being a cow. Or a bull. Maybe
not a chicken, though." The meat really wasn't bad. In fact, it pretty much
tasted like store-bought jerky. He couldn't help wonder for the umpteenth
time if this was all some elaborate hoax.
"Cow's aren't traditional. Neither are chickens. And this American
preoccupation with wolves!" The woman spat. "Fah! Nothing more than wild
dogs. My people practice tradition. My magic follows tradition."
Russ didn't point out that he obviously wasn't one of her people. Blonde hair
and blue eyes hardly marked him as a follower of African folklore. In fact,
he would have preferred the wolf shape she seemed to despise. Still, becoming
a Zebra, a cow, Hell, even a chicken, would fulfill a longing which tore at
his soul. Werewolves had filled his youth, but as he got older, he had
discovered that the legends of shapeshifting covered every form of animal
known to man.
Even now, almost ready to graduate from college, he found himself taking
chances. Tonight, for instance. He'd met the old woman two days ago. Poking
through an occult shop in search of shapeshifting books and paraphernalia.
Her shop. He had felt her eyes watching him the whole time he browsed. At
the time, he'd thought she was making sure he didn't shoplift. And when she'd
grabbed his hand at the register, turning it to read the lines on his palm,
he'd figured she was more than a little crazy.
So what was he doing out here in his birthday suit? Other than making a
complete and total fool of himself? Because she had made the offer. The
offer to shapeshift in the light of the full moon, to throw off the bounds of
human skin and gallop across the earth on four hooves. The offer to transform
him, just for one night, into an animal.
He'd already told himself this wouldn't work. That this strange old woman was
a fraud, a phony mumbo-jumbo artist out to cheat the silly white boy. Yet she
had asked for no money. In fact, she'd insisted that he bring nothing but
whatever clothing he had to wear. Blackmail? There was no law against eating
Zebra hearts. Running around naked might raise an eyebrow or two, but he
doubted even that would get him more than a lecture from the police.
More violent possibilities, such as kidnapping, murder, or rape had crossed
his mind briefly. And were just as quickly dismissed. While no football
halfback, Russ was lean and strong. The old woman didn't come up to his
shoulders, and he hadn't seen so much as a pocket knife in her shop. Not to
say he wasn't watching her carefully. He might be crazy for doing this, but
he wasn't stupid.
"Swallow!" Russ jumped at the sudden command, obeying instinctively. Even
though it had tasted OK, he couldn't help gagging a little at the thought of
what was sliding towards his stomach. The heart of a Zebra. According to the
woman, this was the first step of a ceremony brought over from Africa. She
claimed to be the equivalent of a sorceress, her craft passed down over
generations. Not voodoo. Or the curses and love potions marketed by those
so-called witches in magazines. And, he hoped, not Black Magic.
So far, he'd seen nothing he would regard as Satanic. Her shop dealt with the
spirits of nature, animal totems, and African veldt. Oh, and Tradition.
Jeez. The woman prattled on about tradition. The rites and ceremonies which
were almost lost, for they could be passed only verbally. No written language
could capture the sounds and movement.
He heard the woman pick up something that rattled, and turned to see what she
was doing. Amazingly, he was more embarrassed to discover her without
clothing than he was to be naked himself. He averted his eyes, though her
body was nothing to be ashamed of. Especially at her apparent age. He'd
guessed her to be in her sixties, but below the neck she could be half that.
Flushing, he had to remind himself of his own earlier fears. The woman was
old enough to be his grandmother! Yet she circled around him now with uncanny
grace, her arms reaching up as she chanted gibberish, softly at first, and
then with growing intensity. A prickly feeling ran down his spine, and he
turned to look up at the now darkened sky. Hanging directly overhead, pale as
death, was the full moon.
He could hear his heart pounding, feel the blood pulsing through his body.
And then a second beat joined in. A second heartbeat. Russ stared down at
his chest, trying to disbelieve the new sound. He could feel the steady
rhythm growing stronger, more centered in his ribs. And then a spasm rocked
him backwards, arms thrown stiffly up. Snapping back, he gasped and clutched
his aching breast. And felt it push outward in the center.
There was only one heartbeat now, a thundering sound which echoed in his head.
His skin was becoming rough with emerging hair, shifting and pulling over his
expanding bones. Oh, God! It was really happening! He dreamed of this for
years, but faced with the reality, Russ was terrified. Another spasm threw
him forward this time, and he screamed as he fell heavily on numb, swollen
hands. Fire raced over his back, leaving an odd sensation of thickness. As
it spread down his arms, he saw smooth skin darken, and then vanish under a
blanket of white and black fur.
Fingers and toes throbbed, melting and reshaping into solid hooves. He
screamed as the fire consumed his head, the sound catching in a throat which
stretched impossibly. Vision blurred and expanded, split in the front by the
swelling mass of his face. It seemed as if his very brain was being dipped in
acid, his insides filled with boiling oil.
And then it was over. The relief was so sudden it shocked him almost as much
as the pain. He was gasping, drawing great volumes of air through flared
nostrils. New sensations bombarded his mind, which curiously seemed able to
sort and identify them. Everything felt different, but natural. Standing on
four legs, lashing an unseen tail, the ripple of muscle under his thick hide.
Even his thoughts had changed.
A small corner of his mind marveled at the clarity and concentration of equine
comprehension. Anyone who thought the animal mind was dull or slow needed to
experience the world as a Zebra! His ears picked up a symphony of sounds, his
nose drank in scents familiar and strange. And dangerous. That last though
confused him. What danger could he face out here?
He turned towards the old woman, trying to ignore the instinctual alarm as he
reveled in his new shape. She had given him his dream! He'd do anything for
her. It was hard to spot the woman at first, for his equine night vision was
poor. Then he caught movement to the right of the car, and trumpeted
"Yes. You have discovered the strength of the animal spirit. The power, the
purity of thought." Her voice was oddly distorted, pronunciation somewhat
lisped. She stepped closer, almost staggering. Yet even hunched over, she
displayed a fluidity of movement that belied her age. The woman stood
suddenly, stretching out her arms with a cry of pure pleasure. Russ saw her
skin ripple as pale golden fur sprouted, her slender form growing thicker and
The Zebra backed away, only barely held in check by Russ's fading intellect.
He recognized the danger now, the threat which his new instincts had tried to
warn him of. Her scent was thick in his nostrils, musky and ripe with the
promise of death.
"My people are true shapeshifters." She flexed her hands, watching calmly as
they swelled into massive paws. "The slavers who brought my ancestors here
learned too late. And we found ways to adapt. To chase rats in the city, or
perhaps a deer in the woods. Enough for basic needs, but not really
"You wished to know life as an animal. There is more than just the physical
form." She was more lioness than human now, yet he could still understand
her. "Now you will know the primal instincts, the fight for survival. The
thrill of the hunt." She dropped to all fours and arched her back as the
transformation completed, her voice lost in a rumbling which finally broke
through Russ's paralysis.
Spinning, he surrendered to the Zebra mentality, unleashing the power of his
legs in a spray of sand and dust. The lioness was watching him, not giving
chase just yet. Playing with him. Or perhaps, giving him just enough of a
chance to make things interesting. He was very fast, and there was a lot of
open land to run. He just might survive. But deep in his pounding heart, the
Zebra knew which ending was traditional.