The day that Fabian Vitalik’s wife left, rain masked the roar of the sea just beyond their rock garden. Fabian ended fishing early because of the storm, and came home to find his wife dozing on the sofa by the window, unfazed by the sharp pat pat pat of rain fingers on glass.
He found her enthralling when she was still and senseless like this, so he sat down and watched her breathe, the pearl necklace that rested on her chest rising and falling like waves. Their handmade string of seashells hanging from the ceiling tinkled above her head.
“I love you,” Fabian whispered to her sleeping figure, rubbing fish grease on his pants. He thought his wife was most beautiful when she was human.
Of course, she was famous for her shape-shifting. When he’d first seen her high up on the stage, twirling and morphing into other things, the audience had gone wild for the black sleekness of her cat’s fur, the shine of her teapot porcelain surface, the perfume that wafted from her petals when she mutated into a lilac bush. Oh yes, he remembered the hoots and howls of men when she danced her way across the stage as only a dress, the movement of shimmering fabric emphasizing the curves of the woman that would be underneath.
He had stared up at her in that crowd, marking the flashes of skin when she would have to, for a moment, be herself again before transforming into something she was not.
Now her overalls were fraying, her hair graying at the roots, the creases of fake smiles ebbing over her face. But so beautiful. Perhaps that was why she had married him, a simple fisherman living in Camber who’d tracked her down when the rain started pouring and the audience dispersed with newspapers over their heads. Nobody had glanced her way after she converted back into a woman, rain-soaked and delicate and normal. Nobody but him. And thirty years later, Fabian could not stop staring.
It was only when the rain stopped that she tensed and shifted her body on the sofa, as if the lack of pattering on the window was an alarm. The seashells clinked to a still. Her eyelids fluttered open.
“How did you sleep, love?” Fabian asked from his armchair, drinking in her presence.
She blinked at him, flexed her fingers as if amazed that she had fingers at all. Far off, they could finally hear the ocean again, roaring and crashing onto the beach. She looked back up at him. “What have you been doing this whole time?”
“Reading,” Fabian said, although his book lay unopened on the other end of the coffee table.
“How’d fishing go? I assume the rain ruined things.”
“Caught some, but not much. Had to come back early.”
“Hmm.” His wife glanced out the windowpane, where the rainstorm had leaked into a gray drizzle. The stones in their garden glistened with the residue of the storm. “You know,” she said, “I have always wanted to shift into wind. Or fire. An element of some sort, but I don’t know how. Which muscle do I reach for? Which thought do I think? Which color do I let fill me up?”
Fabian did not answer, only stared at the curve of her mouth, thinking about love and fishing and the sea. How many times had he woken from a night of lovemaking to find something else on his wife’s pillow — a dusty book, a glass doll, a starfish? When she was transforming, she was so much like the sea, wild and unpredictable. But when she was human, she moved like a butterfly, gently, gracefully…
“— simply rise and plummet where I please.”
Fabian nodded, not knowing what she had just said. He remembered his wife giving birth to their three children, who were all grown and traveling now — Josiah had come out covered in fur, his shape-shifting abilities stuck between some kind of animal and the baby he was. The doctors had panicked until the little guy had given a sharp, sputtering cry and shifted back into baby skin.
None of their other children could shape-shift, and Josiah never did again. The curse, the blessing, of having an ordinary father.
“— hear me, Fabian? Does it not faze you, what I just said?”
“What?” Fabian jolted out of his visions, refocusing on the woman before him.
“I don’t want to stay here anymore. With you, with this dratted, God-forsaken house.” His wife stared at him with the haltingness of a sand crab caught by a seagull eye. “I want to simply rise and plummet where I please. You, Fabian, do not appreciate my needs to escape confinement, and —”
The crash of the ocean. Fabian’s ears roared with the sound. He did not know whether his wife meant confinement in his house, or in her body, or both. She was touching the pearls on her neck, the pearls he had plucked from shored oysters himself.
“— and my love has crumpled inside me, Fabian. I feel like a rock when I am with you. You never admire me when I’m a cricket singing you songs at night, or when I’m a vase of flowers in our kitchen, or when I’m a wardrobe holding our clothes.” Angry blotches were rising on her cheekbones now. “I feel like a rock,” she said again. “I have since I met you. I want to feel like — I don’t know, something lighter, something more free and beautiful and untamed than I am now.”
Fabian stared at her. He wanted to say he didn’t need a cricket to sing him songs, her human heartbeat was enough at night. He didn’t want a vase of flowers to make their kitchen pretty, his wife cooking was enough. He didn’t need another wardrobe to hold his clothes. He wanted to hold her. That was all he’d ever wanted. Why couldn’t she appreciate it, the boundless depth of his love?
But the words curled inside him, drowned by hers. I want to feel like — something lighter, something more free and beautiful and untamed than I am now. Flashes of soft butterfly wings fluttered behind his eyelids.
“Do you understand, Fabian?”
He blinked. Those seashells above her head turned on their strings, but did not touch each other, and so were silent. “I understand,” he said. “I want you to feel like a b- to feel beautiful too, darling.”
She did not reply, only rose from her seat and wafted toward the kitchen, wispy like wind. He could hear her clanging in their cupboards and fridge, bringing out wrapped tuna and a knife. He could hear the metal of the knife slicing through scales and skin, the smell of innards floating into the living room. Fabian only stared down at his fishing calluses.
I feel like a rock. Did she really think all his fishing and hard work and love only amounted to rocks? Was she really so cold to his efforts?
Long after the knives quit chopping, he heard the sudden disappearance of his wife and the padded prowling of some creature that took her place. But for all his curiosity, he did not look back to see what his wife, in her disguised grief, had transformed into this time. He only knew that no butterfly was about to flutter over to him and rest gently, silently on his shoulder.
Fabian lugged his empty fishing bag through Camber, past the barber shop and post office and butcher’s, all vacant in the grayish night. His footsteps splashed in cobblestone mud. He didn’t know why he was making his usual daytime trek through town in the dead of night, especially when he’d spent the last few weeks simply staring at the sea, not brave enough to face fishing with his wife disappeared. But he’d heard the fishermen talk of her performing again and wanted to know, wanted to see her one more time….
Up ahead, lights and shouts from Patty’s Tavern grew with every step. Music, clapping, hollering, a man stumbling onto cobble with his boots on his hands. Fabian slunk to the open front door and peered inside, where an audience was roaring and hooting, circled around a spectacle in the center of the bar.
She danced and twirled and morphed. She was a spinning wheel, polished, rotating, churning out strands that a few men reached forward to touch… Fabian felt a sharp prick of jealousy… and then the thread was gone. The men staggered forward, fell on their knees to the roar of audience laughter, and there was a split moment when Fabian saw his wife again, her glowing face and upturned smile and brief mien of concentration, the pearl necklace he’d made for her still dangling around her neck.
Then she was a violin playing itself, a bluebird that screeched and spiraled into a waterfall of buttons, which exploded and clattered to the rotted floorboards. A single button rolled to the doorway. Fabian bent to pick it up, but just as he touched the button’s smooth, rounded edge, it disappeared between his fingers, and in the center of the bar there was suddenly a fishing boat, rocking as if on a boiling sea.
She knew he was there. Knew his touch.
The empty fishing sack slipped through Fabian’s fingers. He left it there, left it at the open doorway where his wife was performing, and staggered around like a drunk, away from the tavern, back toward his home. The world spun around him. Shapes bloomed in the darkness — buttons, birds, spinning wheels, flowers, teapots. Even the eyes of some nighttime cat seemed to glow green in the darkness between two run-down houses. Fabian yelled at them. The eyes blinked and vanished, but other shapes continued to blossom in the darkness, haunting Fabian until he made it to his doorway. He reeled inside and ran to his bed, where, for a moment, he thought he saw his wife’s sleeping figure breathing on the bedsheets.
But no, she was long gone, entertaining other men, transmuting into other things.
Fabian stumbled to their closet and rummaged through shoes, coats, dresses, anything that his wife might like to turn into, anything that he could pretend was her until morning. He knew she would never morph into anything simple; his fingers clasped something cold, and he pulled out an old candlestick she had used to hold candles during winter storms. With its twisted, ornate silver twining around the hilt, the candlestick was intricate enough that it would do. Fabian brought it to his bedside and gently placed it on his wife’s pillow.
Then he crawled into bed. The coldness pressed in all around him, but he looked at the candlestick where his wife should be, and its shape comforted him.
“Goodnight, my love,” he said to the candlestick. It did not reply, but he placed his fingers on its silver and soon found himself sinking into dreams, dreams where his wife was not betraying him in the tavern; instead, she drifted back home to lie by his side once more.
He awoke to her meow.
He mumbled, reached out across his pillow, found the cold hilt of the candlestick. Something wet touched his hand. He opened his eyes to see a cat staring at him on its haunches — his wife, his wife was finally back. Fabian’s chest leapt with a burst of adrenaline. He wiped his eyes and sat up to look at the cat better.
But his wife was always a sleek, black cat when she morphed, not this dirty tabby nudging his hand, its ears crooked and nose scarred.
“What…?” Fabian asked. The cat jumped off his bed, knocking the candlestick to the floor.
Perhaps she had aged so much that her cat form had aged too. Fabian tried to think back to the last time his wife had become a cat and couldn’t recall. Suddenly he wished very much that he had turned around to see what she had become in the kitchen the day she’d left.
The cat yowled, racing into the living room and out his front door, which Fabian must have left wide open last night. He staggered after it, every step making his stomach plummet as he realized that the cat was not his wife, and the candlestick was not his wife, and all the chairs and windows and outside trees were not his wife. When he saw the tabby waiting for him in his rock garden, he could have kicked it away.
But then he noticed what was resting at the tabby’s feet in the rocks, like a mouse that the cat had dragged to his doorstep as a prize: his wife’s pearl necklace.
“What did you do to her?” Fabian said slowly, bending to pick up the necklace. The cat meowed again. Fury tumbled inside him. “Where is she?” he said. “Where the hell is my wife?”
The cat turned and streaked down his yard toward Camber.
Fabian ran after it, past all his neighbors’ houses and onto the main street of the town, through the daytime vendors who shoved flower seeds and shish kebabs and painted seashells in his face.
The cat weaved through the crowd, past the dry and emptied Patty’s Tavern, shooting down a shabbier, muddier avenue, where hedges lined the yards of run-down hovels. Fabian followed it to the furthest hut, where the cat slipped inside the open doorway and meowed a greeting to whoever was stirring inside.
“Fabian Vitalik?” somebody called.
A man from beyond the open doorway shifted, then emerged onto his front steps with a wan smile. Fabian recognized, with a jolt, the town herbalist, whom he’d only ever met once at a neighborhood funeral.
“Come in, Fabian Vitalik,” the herbalist said with a beckoning hand. “Your wife — she is here.”
Fabian did not hesitate as he ran into the depths of the house after the man. Soil caked the floor, moss was growing on the molding, and sunlight surged through a vast open window toward the back of the house. Sitting on an earthy rug below this window, surrounded by an array of plants in clay pots, was his wife. She was human.
She was also swaying, as if to music that Fabian couldn’t hear.
“Darling,” Fabian said, but the herbalist put a hand on his shoulder. The cat was twisting itself around his wife’s rocking body, meowing.
“We found her in an alleyway last night, Fabian Vitalik, soaking wet and unable to speak. My little helper here —” He nodded at the cat. “— is adept at sniffing out illnesses, and brought me to her. I believe she has suffered some kind of stroke from excessive shifting.”
Fabian clutched the pearl necklace tighter. The herbalist moved toward a rounded table, where he swept a hand across bowls of powder and jars of dark green liquid. “I have given her turmeric stewed at midnight, but she still won’t speak. Ashwaganda ground in halibut. Thyme and flax seeds. Her condition has not changed. She has the mind of a three-year-old, and I fear —”
“— Darling,” Fabian said again, crouching low, not wishing to hear the rest of the herbalist’s prediction. His wife looked up at him. Docile eyes. A sweet expression that softened her wrinkles. She would not stop swaying.
“She needs someone to take care of her, Fabian Vitalik. I fear she will not get better.” The herbalist crouched beside him and peered into her face. “She certainly cannot shift anymore, and if she attempted to it would be catastrophic. She needs fed, bathed, dressed, put to bed —”
“She’s not my wife anymore,” Fabian said for the first time. “She left me. Somebody else has to take care of her.” He felt the coldness rush up his spine at these words, desire and anger clashing like crests against a boat. His wife smiled sweetly at him, and he felt bile in his throat. If he had just stayed at Patty’s Tavern last night and stopped her from continuing to perform… of course she would have hated him for it, but she already hated him.
The herbalist was watching him steadily. His wife swayed like waves.
“There is no one else to take care of her, Fabian. No one else that cares for her when she is stuck in this form.”
“She left me,” Fabian said again, the pearl necklace in his hand slipping in sweat. He did not want this to be so valid an excuse that she couldn’t stay with him, but he wanted an apology, a sad sheen of understanding in her eyes, some subtle sign that she was sorry, and that even if she had not gotten sick, she would be returning to him.
But vacancy stayed spewed across her face.
“She is the mother of your children,” the herbalist said gently.
And at this, Fabian felt himself break down. Of course. Of course he would take her in. He would slave over her until she got better, because she had to get better. And then he would let her go, for surely, even if she couldn’t shift, she would want to leave him again when she healed.
“Fabian,” the herbalist said, as if in reply to his thoughts. The tabby meowed. “She mustn’t try to shift. I doubt she would be able to, but if she did manage it… she would be stuck. Stuck in another form forever.”
“There’d be no way of bringing her back?” Fabian asked, finally standing up. He tried to imagine his wife stuck in her cat form, or worse — some kind of inanimate object. A decoration, or a candlestick.
The herbalist bowed his head. “If she shifted, there would be no way of bringing her back, no.”
A cloud must have passed over the sun, because in that moment, the room was cloaked in eerie, greenish shadows. Fabian bent, strung the pearl necklace around his wife’s neck once more, and heaved her into his arms. She allowed this as if she were little more than a rag doll. Fabian started toward the door, then hesitated.
“Isn’t there anything that can be done? She — she hates her human body.” His wife seemed to feel the tremor that ran through him, because although she did not stop smiling, a flicker of unease ran across that strangely vacant face.
“As far as concoctions go, none that I know of. Just love her, Fabian Vitalik.”
Fabian nodded, turned away from the herbalist and the cat, and stepped back into broad daylight. His wife’s dead weight threatened to bring him to his knees, but he did not stop carrying her, not when he made it to Camber’s main street again, not when pedestrians stopped their market trading to stare. He hauled his wife all the way to their house at the shore, sweat beading on his forehead. When he finally made it through their rock garden and set her down underneath their string of seashells, she began swaying again.
His wife was back.
Yet Fabian wanted her to be capable of talking. Of shifting. Of leaving him again. Because only if she was capable of leaving would her staying mean she loved him back.
Shouts, music, and the clanking of glasses washed over him in a buzzing void, but Fabian, sitting at the bar in Patty’s Tavern, concentrated on one sound. A pepper-haired man was giggling as he and some comrades danced around an empty plastic pail by the smoke pit, chanting, “Shape-shifter, shape-shifter, alter faster! Quicker! Swifter!” They hooted, hollered, whistled like they had that first night Fabian had peeked into the bar, and eventually a guitarist began strumming his instrument in tune to the mantra. Soon, so many men turned on their stools that half the bar was singing to the plastic pail, slopping beer down their shirts, believing the pail to be Fabian’s wife.
“You know what I think?”
A woman slid onto the stool next to him. Tall, long legs. Her jacket swelled where it buttoned up over her breasts, and oh, she smelled good, like lilacs and shellfish and wine. His wife used to smell like that, whenever Fabian would come home exhausted and lay his head down on her lap and listen to her hum songs.
“Well, if you’re not going to answer,” the woman said, fingering her shot glass, and now, at last, Fabian was zeroed in on something other than those wretched men fawning over a plastic pail. “The name’s Zoey. And that bucket was being used to catch a leak in the roof long before those assholes came in. If you ask me, the shape-shifter’s anywhere but here. After that one fiasco last month? I’d say she’s out of the continent.”
Fabian grunted, took a swill out of his mug as he pictured the shape-shifter lying on his bed half a mile away, taking her daytime nap, very much in the continent. A word surfaced to his brain.
“Fiasco?” he repeated.
“Yeah, I was there.” The woman brought her glass to her lips and drained it in one gulp. She wiped her lips. “The girl — well, she’s more an old lady now — she was performing, you know? And she was turning into all kinds of things, vines and animals and all that drat. She said to get ready for her grand finale, that she was going to turn into wind — and then she just… exploded. Into all these butterflies”
“Exploded into butterflies,” Fabian said. In his mind, he heard, I want to feel like a butterfly again, although he wasn’t sure if his wife had actually said it or if he had simply fabricated those words in his mind.
“Yes, and the butterflies began twirling like a tornado. Almost wind, but not quite. Only, the tornado was screaming. God, it hurt my ears. Then the whole thing just disappear — hey! Where are you going?”
Fabian had fished into his pocket, smacked some coins on the counter, and started toward the door, leaving the woman and her long legs behind. Once out on the street, he targeted the peddler’s cart that sold flower seeds, and asked the vendor which flowers attracted butterflies.
For the past few weeks, he had been trying to get his wife to talk. Shifting would be, as the herbalist put it, catastrophic, but talking? Fabian had thought she’d find her voice again if he read to her, but maybe she needed a reminder of what was beautiful before she found herself again. Maybe she needed butterflies in their garden instead of rocks.
Once the vendor had sold him a packet of daylily seeds, Fabian hurried to the house, where his wife would be waking up from her nap. He left the seeds on the kitchen table and rushed into the bedroom, where his wife was sitting up in bed, swaying, smiling pleasantly.
“Hello, beautiful,” Fabian said, opening the window blinds to let sunlight through. “Are you hungry? I’ve finally gone fishing again, and I found some mussels with nice, hearty meat in them. You love mussels, remember? And I have a surprise for you, too. It might take a while — they need to grow first, but you’re going to love it.”
His wife just smiled.
Fabian began his usual routine of setting his wife near the sofa where he slept at night, cooking, cleaning, talking to her as if he expected a reply. Occasionally, when he had the spare money, he would buy some paper and finger paints and place them on the floor in front of her. These were the only times she would finally quit swaying, dip her fingers into the paints, and create.
The pictures were crude, to say the least, as if a toddler had painted them. But Fabian had still been able to decipher wind, fire, earth. Today, as he popped open the mussels and set them over a small kitchen fire to sizzle, she was drawing a distorted ocean. Sun glaring down on miniature whitecaps, seashells as big as ships, curling, spiraling waves.
It happened after feeding her supper and taking the trash out. Fabian came back inside to find his wife’s pictures abandoned on the floor. For one jolting moment, he thought she was gone.
Then he saw her swaying in the kitchen. She was sitting neatly in their tarnished tin tub that he bathed her in at nights. Her clothes were in a pile on the floor, so that only her pearl necklace gleamed on her bare chest.
“It’s not bath time yet, darling,” Fabian said, shaken. He started forward to pick up her clothes and dress her when a change flashed over her face. A frown. Then that soft, sweet smile again. But for a brief moment, he had seen the crunch of her eyebrows, that concentration she wore when she was trying to shift.
“How about we just have bath time now, then?” Fabian said slowly. But even as he walked toward the faucet, he saw that flash of concentration again, heard the small whimper escape her mouth. They stared at each other. His wife’s smile was still etched on her face, but the corners of her mouth were quivering. And suddenly, Fabian knew that he needed to plant those seeds now.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispered, backing away. “Right back. Please don’t go anywhere.”
He grabbed the packet of seeds from the table and in a flash, leaving his wife in the tub, was on his knees in the rock garden. The sky overhead was churning and the sea’s high tide was a sharp crash in his ears, but Fabian dug rock after rock out of the dirt and threw them to the side. He felt the sharp plop of water on the back of his neck, but he welcomed the rain that splashed onto the soil beneath his fingers.
“Butterflies,” he murmured, ripping open the packet and pouring beetle-black seeds onto his palm. He dug into the dirt, feeling the prickle of time pepper his head, as if he could only save his wife by planting fast enough. He dropped the seeds into those little cavities in the earth, covered them back up, and stood, panting.
His front door was still ajar.
Fabian crept back into the doorway and peered inside, where the shadowed sky cloaked their living room and kitchen in dim shades. His wife’s picture was flapping in a sudden wind that swooped past Fabian, into the house. Her clothes still lay discarded on the floor.
But the tarnished tub was empty.
“Hello? Where — where are you, darling?” Fabian called. The paper flapped, moving across the floor. The sea still sounded in his ears, but otherwise there was no sound.
Fabian moved further inside and called his wife’s name. He went into the bedroom, but she was not there either. And now his heart was crashing in his chest, and he began racing to every corner of the house, calling for her, trying to find her again, and the sound of the sea was slapping against the shore, slapping against tin…
Fabian halted. He turned, looked at the tub still sitting in the kitchen. The slapping sound was coming from the tub’s direction, so Fabian took a step toward it, then another. When he was finally hovering over it, he looked down and saw that the tub was not, as he had thought, empty.
Water was sloshing inside, sloshing as if desperate to free itself. His wife’s pearl necklace bobbed on the uneasy surface, tossed back and forth by miniature waves.
Fabian fell with a thud to his knees. He clutched the edge of the tub and moaned into it. The water shuddered, rippled, whirled like the sky and sea outside.
If she shifted, there would be no way of bringing her back, the herbalist had said. When Fabian had thought of all the things she might turn into, he had pictured animals, objects… things he could continue to protect and serve if need be. He had never imagined water, wild and ancient, something he could not contain even if he wanted to.
But deep within himself, he had known she would never be satisfied in her human form. Not when the whole world waited for her.
Love her, the herbalist had said.
So Fabian grabbed hold of the edge of the tub, dragging it across his living room and over the threshold of his front door. The cleared circle of soil in their garden was soaking up the rain, but his wife would never see it. Never see it, unless —
The tub flinched forward in his hands, her water centimeters from slopping over the edge and splashing onto the soil.
He could water the flowers with her, and when the first buds poked through the earth, when the first petals uncurled themselves, stretching toward the sun, they would be her. The butterflies that came to rest gently, silently among the flowers would be her, too, and when he drank coffee on his morning porch he might feel their weightless presence rest upon his shoulder, as if his wife was touching a delicate hand on him once more…
Love her, the herbalist had said.
He just wanted to be with her, but she wanted to be a butterfly, or something like a butterfly, free, beautiful, untamed, always stationed in his garden, always with him…
The realization bubbled up inside Fabian just as he was tipping the tub to pour it over his seeds. She did not want to be a butterfly captive in a garden. She never had. She had morphed into an element for a reason.
Love her, love her, love her.
Fabian looked down into the contents of the tub, saw her water drinking up the rain. He had always loved her how he wanted to love her, not how she wished to be loved.
With a sudden surge of will, he put both hands on either side of the tub and lifted the whole thing. It was heavier than his wife’s human weight, but he blundered toward the roiling shore, the tub pressed up against his chest, the sound of her waves mingling with the sea’s. Pebbles turned to sand. Water lapped up to his boots. Sea foam sprayed his cheeks like tears.
Fabian collapsed. The tub overturned on its side, and he watched as the water within gushed out, joining with the sea he loved. The pearl necklace caught on the tub’s handle, and for a moment, Fabian had an urge to snatch it, to keep that last remnant of his wife.
But he found his fingers untangling it, feeding it to the sea. The waves dragged it underwater and out of sight, and then she was truly gone, freed as she had always desired. He exhaled, touched his lips to the surface of the water to give her a last kiss.
Then he retreated, leaving the tub lying by the shoreline, using the last of his strength to get to his feet and limp back to the house alone. Once inside, he eased the door shut and looked past the string of seashells out the window. In that garden, flowers would still grow. Butterflies would come to rest among them, although they would only be fluttering reminders of what he had wanted his wife to be.
But past the garden, Fabian would always be able to see his wife in her true form: a dazzling ocean, swaying, untamed, free — constantly ebbing to kiss the shoreline where he’d stand.