October Stories

As I was walking to the Charles Spa for a soak the other evening, I spotted what I thought was a purse lying on the sidewalk at the corner of Clancy and Broadway. Concerned, I bent to pick it up, and then stopped. It wasn’t a purse. It was a large pink bra. The cups—double-D, I guessed—were on top of each other, and the straps lined up, making it look like a purse. I left it there in case its owner should realize she lost it. If it had fallen from her spa bag on her way to or from a soak, she would surely miss it. There was no one else using or departing from the women’s hot spring baths, though, when I got there. No one to whom I could say, “Excuse me, did you lose a bra?”

On my way back from my soak, I saw two people approaching up Clancy from the direction of the river, and one of them was shouting something over and over. A thin man with a cane he wasn’t using and a thin woman in tight jeans strolled along, their pace and demeanor out of sync with the fact that she was yelling. As I got closer, I could make out her words. “Jeremy! Jeremy!” I paused and looked at her, puzzled. “I’m trying to find my husband,” she said, and kept walking and hollering. All the dogs for blocks around barked back at her. No Jeremy appeared. I didn’t ask her about cell phones. There are still a few people in the world who don’t have them, and some of us have been known to lose them. How she’d misplaced him, though, is a mystery.

I saw a perfect circle in the sand at Elephant Butte Lake State Park recently, near a trail where I was running the desert. Curious, I had to stop and examine it. The circle had been cut into the sand by animals, their paws and hooves digging deep. The paws ran up the center of the circle and followed the hooves part-way in the arc. On the trail a few feet from the circle was a scuffed and scarred area. Mule deer spring straight up, tucking their legs under them, when they take off. I pictured a deer stotting on the trail, then leaping away in an attempt to escape. The coyote came straight at its prey, but the deer kept running right past and around its enemy. Mysteriously, there were no tracks leading to or from the circle except for the take-off spot, the deer’s stot marks. No other animal tracks, that is. Plenty of humans. Shapeshifters? Eek. I wish I hadn’t thought of that.

But that could explain everything. Jeremy couldn’t answer his phone in his deer shape. The owner of the pink bra discarded it as she felt herself becoming a coyote. This transformation first happened when they met on the trail, and then again when passed each other in town. Anything’s possible at this time of year.

*****

My shapeshifter short fiction, Bearing, is a horror story without gore, as you might expect from the author of mysteries without murder.

Shape-Shifters: How Did You Think of That?

SwainsonHawk23One of the hardest questions for a fiction writer to answer is exactly where an idea came from. I was asked that question recently about some of the imagery in one of my books. The short answer is that I imagined it, but the long answer mixes research, experience, imagination and dreams.

In what is basically realistic fiction with paranormal elements, I create some characters who have unusual abilities—psychics, healers, mediums, and shamans. A few can take—or seem to take— animal forms, and my Apache characters speak about this with fear and caution as the sign of a witch. Bearing is a horror story (though gore-free), so in that genre I made the shifting real. In the Mae Martin Mysteries, characters who shape-shift are not physically becoming animals but psychically manipulating others’ perceptions to create the illusion of another creature, or so strongly identifying with an animal that a psychic could pick up the imagery. The power of our minds to share images and information is astounding, and that ability is at the root of the stories I tell.

When I was choosing search terms to help readers find Bearing, one of the ones I chose was shape-shifter, a concept that I associate with skin-walkers and similar witches. I was surprised to find that there are shape-shifter romances. The possibility that this power was romantic had never crossed my mind. To me it’s scary, so it’s an element I use in fiction to give readers goosebumps. What makes an animal image scary to one person and beautiful and powerful to another is often regional and cultural. One of my Apache friends told me some terrifying stories of owl-witches that chilled me to the bone. He scared himself by telling them and said he shouldn’t be talking about the subject. When I was in my teens, I had what turned out to be a premonition, a frightening image of someone prowling outside the house hooting like an owl. Around ten years later, my roommate and I were disturbed at night by owl calls first at the front and then at the back of our townhouse apartment. Her cat’s hair stood on end and he quivered and made pitiful sounds, his fear scaring us all the more. We’d never seen him act like that. My roommate looked outside and saw a man she worked with but didn’t know well, and she called the police. The man admitted to stalking her but couldn’t explain what had gotten into him with the owl calls. Somehow that was creepier than if he knew.

One of my good friends in high school had repeating nightmares about wolves looking through every window of her house, and the way she told it gave me the shivers. When I was a very small child, I had repeating nightmares about bears, including a strange one in which I was a fourteen-year-old boy camping on a hunting trip with an uncle, and it ended with being attacked—I think killed—by a bear. No one in my family hunted or camped, and I had never seen a bear or a gun or even a tent at the age at which I dreamed this.

A little girl I knew years ago liked to think she had hawk powers. We were swinging in swings and she told me the reason she could go so high was this special power she had. She stayed in my mind, too, as another way that people identify with animal spirits.

This can be a “treasure hunt” through the series now. (Obviously the bear story is the standalone Bearing.) Readers will find the wolf, the hawk and the owl in the Mae Martin series. No spoilers. I’ll let you look for them.