“It’s about Were-kind, but it’s so much more. It’s about finding your place in your family, your country, your world. It’s about prejudices, and _human_ rights, and love of your family. It’s deceptively easy to read, because it’s a complex story, clever and intelligent…” ~ Maggie ForestSaladin van Schalkwyk – better known as Chalky – was a lost child. A true friend. A gifted hacker. He was also unique, a Shifter, able to change form at will. All he tried to do was help. Instead, he started a war.
Excerpt from the first chapter of Shifter
I must have dreamed it.
Those were the words she often used, my mother. I was cajoled with them and blackmailed with them and bullied with them because they were the wall she used against anything that she couldn’t handle, that she could not or would not believe was real. If she could not cope with it, that’s where it went—into the dream hopper. Where she didn’t have to deal with it.
When I was very young, I accepted the truth of it without question. But I very quickly began to question the whole idea. If I had dreamed a life for my-self, I would have done a better job of it. I would have dreamed that I was like everyone else, that I fit in, that people liked me, that there were those in this world whose job it was to protect me and to take care of me. I would have dreamed of someone who was not the complicated thing I discovered that I was, and someone who had been given a name that didn’t paint a target on my back, or occasion a double take every time someone tripped over the full glory of its improbability.
I would have been someone other than what I was. If I had had any choice in the matter at all, when I was that child trying to find solid ground in the quicksand of my beginnings, I would have chosen to be nothing less than ordinary. But I was not.
My name is Saladin van Schalkwyk. And in a world divided between Were-kind and mundanes, I belonged in neither camp, alien and threatening to both.
I am a Shifter.
I measured my life by the moments which I recognized as crossroads even before I understood just what that idea meant. My early memories are nebulous, as they would have to be, being formed in the mind of a baby who still had no yardstick by which to measure and understand the things I was observing. They were there, and even with all of their fuzzy edges they were real.
Quite simply, I remembered growing older. I had a sense of time passing which, as I came to understand later, was quite unheard of in a child of that age.
My first milestones involved seeing two faces—one male, one female—bent over my crib, saying goodbye, and then a few days later, saying hello again. I told my mother I remembered this, once, and she told me that I could not possibly have done so because I was only months, perhaps only weeks, old then. Be-cause she dismissed it, I didn’t speak of it again, but I never stopped believing in the truth of it.
And later, when I had the information with which to under-lay those memories, it became clear to me that I was remembering the Turns that my parents made when I was a young child… and so I was defined as Were, from the cradle. I knew of Turns long before I knew what they actually were.
Three days of every month when my parents, and others like them, changed into their animal forms. They lived as those beasts for seventy two hours before the shadows began to nibble at the edge of the full moon and it began to diminish again. They then returned to being human, without any memories of their lives as animals.
In those early months of babyhood I spent those Turn-days in the care of a woman whose name I do not know now, if I ever did—someone who may never have spoken directly to me at all because I remember nothing of her voice, just a round face under an untidy fall of shaggy dark hair. She did not mistreat me. She did not particularly care about me, though. She was a babysitter and I was a job to do.
I do remember voices. Not the babysitter’s, but theirs, my mother’s and my father’s. I remember arguments. Words which stuck—meaningless at the time but with meaning accreting to them as I grew older and mulled them around in my mind. Words like: I can’t do this anymore. Or It’s over. This time it really is over.
Very occasionally, there was laughter, but more often there were tears, hers, and silent absences, his. For a while, he always came back, no matter how badly the argument had gone, no matter how long he chose to stay away. He returned.
But one day—I had just turned four years old—I remember his face, his expression, clearly saying goodbye. I remember that he kissed me, on the fore-head, and ruffled my hair; I remember how bright his eyes were, too bright—but there were no tears, not quite. And then I remember him walking away.
I never saw him again.
After that, things got a little difficult. Tighter. There were boxes, one day, in the small house that I thought of as home. A lot of stuff in the house did not end up in the boxes which were packaged up and hauled out of the front door, and into a small truck. I hesitated in the door-way, looking back, knowing I was leaving this place but bewildered by all the things that were still there, still in place, still an anchor tying me to a different world.
Mamma slipped an arm around my shoulders as I stood there and held me tightly to her side for a moment before leaning down and planting a light kiss on the top of my head.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s just you and me now. There’s a new place waiting.”
And so we moved, Mamma and I. The new place turned out to be a tiny little one-bedroom apartment in an intimidating building that was high, and wide, and full of windows behind which lived other people. I spent my days in a gloomy small-windowed room with a clutch of other children of like age, all of whom seemed to me to be barely more than larvae. They staggered around on unsteady feet or crawled on the floor which was covered by foam squares in bright primary colors, building things out of blocks, or smearing crayons over outlines on pages of coloring books without regard to where any edges went.
I had more of a clue about it, somehow, but perhaps happily still lacked ac-cess to the dexterity that would have been required to betray that fact and so I smeared my crayons with the rest of them. My mother came to pick me up every day, in the late afternoons, usually the last child there, looking tired and drawn.
I quickly learned that her patience was very thin, and did not try it. I must have been the quietest, best-behaved four-year-old, ever, but all I knew then was that I was being careful, and somehow doing what I could to steer my universe along safe and calm waters.
I should have started school at six years of age, but somehow… that never quite happened. I outgrew the room with the red and blue and yellow floor, but I never graduated to anything else. Mamma seemed to have forgotten about me, other than a background responsibility. She would feed me; sometimes she would even read to me, from books which I quickly learned by heart; other times she would talk to me, over our food, as though I were another adult, and
I would understand maybe one word in five but it seemed to soothe her that she had someone there to listen and so I did that for her.
I did other things, too, because it was at about this age that Mamma Turned unexpectedly in the apartment.
I was six years old and this had caught me by surprise; I had been asleep, and when I woke, I was alone in the apartment. Alone, that is, except for a large cat which I had never seen before, and which stalked, hissing and spitting in the tiny confining space it had found itself in.
Perhaps I should have been quicker on the uptake, but I failed to connect the large cat which was suddenly there, in a solid way in which my mother failed to be there, with the fact that
Mamma was gone—she was often gone, after all, and I was used to her absences. But this time she didn’t come back, and the cat growled and prowled and scratched at doors and windows until I finally, not knowing any better and not being able to think of any alternatives, helplessly let it out. And then I was alone in the apartment. Mamma had vanished.
I was a self-sufficient kind of child and I was not afraid of being alone. But
I didn’t get into my pajamas to go to bed when night fell, sleeping fully dressed on top of my bed with only my shoes kicked off onto the floor.
And the next morning, she wasn’t back.
I ate, when I got hungry, whatever I could get my hands on—a couple of stale bread rolls which had been left on the counter, bowlfuls of the sugary cereal which I was partial to and which Mamma always had on hand. I could be trusted to eat that even when I turned up my nose at anything else that she put before me, and, once, our neighbor noticed me hanging around and offered me a bowl of soup and a nice grilled cheese sandwich.
But I was pretty hungry by the time Mamma did turn up again—rather spectacularly. Early in
the morning of the fourth day of her absence she rapped on the door to the apartment, which I had managed to lock. The knock continued until I finally broke down and opened it to have my wild-eyed, snaggle-haired, and very naked mother all but fall inside.
“Close the door!” she hissed at me, and stole a frantic look over her shoulder. “Did anyone see me come in?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered, pushing the door closed behind her as instructed. I goggled at her. She had interesting scars on her back which I had never seen before. And a large mole on her hip.
All this, in the space of a handful of breathless seconds, before she ran, half-crouching, down the corridor towards the bathroom.
“Don’t make a sound!” she flung at me over her shoulder as she slipped into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.
In this commanded silence, I heard the shower running, followed by long minutes of a total absence of any hint that she was still there at all. I sat, quiet and frightened, and waited—and eventually the bathroom door opened again and she came out again, wrapped in a fading pink towel, hair damp on her shoulders but less insanely wild than it had been when she had come to the door. She was more herself again, and I began to relax a little.
“I don’t suppose there is much to eat in the kitchen,” she said. “I for one am starving—and you—I’m so sorry, I really didn’t mean to—well, but, any-way. I’ll go get dressed and then we can go out for pancakes. You like those. How about that?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Go look in my purse,” she said, as she disappeared into the bedroom. “See how much money I’ve got in there.”
There wasn’t much, but I helpfully added a handful of coins which I had collected while burrowing into the furniture during the three days of her absence, and in the end there was at least enough for breakfast. So we went down to the local 24-hour pancake shop which I liked and she ordered two adult portions of pancakes, four large ones on each plate.
I drowned mine in maple syrup and wolfed them down, cleaning my plate before she had barely started on her third, and she passed her last one to me after she saw me eyeing it and sat there watching me mop the remaining syrup up with it.
“You shouldn’t have let me out, Salah-al-Din,” she said, picking at her food, giving my name that lilt that only she did. I was Saladin to everyone else—but I thought of her version, the Salah-al-Din, as my true name, that nobody except the two of us was allowed to know.
“You should never have let me out. It was my fault—I let the time slip away—I should have started out for the Turning House long before anything had a chance to—but there you go, I was late from work, and you were whining that you were hungry, and I was trying to get some-thing together for your supper, and it all just got away from me—and it ended okay, anyway—but if anyone really saw, if anyone was paying attention, then we could be in trouble…”
“Was it a secret? Don’t they know you’re Were?” I asked, kicking my heels against the hollow booth to produce a satisfying hollow noise which seemed to irritate the people in the booth across the aisle from us no end… which made me all the more eager to keep on doing it, to keep the reaction going.
“Of course they know,” Mamma snapped at me. “But I don’t go by my real name, and they don’t know where I am or how to find me… or you…” She looked around the anonymous pancake house, furtively, as though it was filled with spies.
Me? Someone was looking for me…?
“I gave up so much,” Mamma continued, almost oblivious of my presence by now. She was justifying something to herself. “When I took the child they wanted and ran away, the money that they paid—the child support—that all went…”
There were times she made too little sense for me. I was happy with the pancakes, that time. We didn’t get much further than that. But that was the first time, and after that things started to trickle out when she wasn’t careful.
The first development was simply that Mamma suddenly formed a para-noid aversion to the Turning Houses where she had been going for her man-dated three-day retreats during her Turns. I discovered that she had in fact been going to different ones every Turn, hiding her identity, running from some-thing that I could not understand but running, cowering, scared.
The next Turn she stayed away from the Turning House, too, and I took care of her as best I could inside our apartment. It was messy, but I learned. The Turn after that, it was better. And after that it was simply understood. She would be a sandcat for three days, and I would take care of her. Then she’d Turn back into Mamma and take care of me… as best she was able.
There were the good days, like the time she decided that something needed to be done about my book-learning—but instead of school I got a library card.
I remember the morning that we went to our local library, a low red brick build-ing a couple of blocks away from our apartment, and she presented me to the librarian at the desk.
“And how old are you?” the librarian asked me with her best placate-a-small-child smile.
“Nine,” I said instantly. And could see that she was skeptical in the extreme about that. So I backtracked, just enough to be believable. “Eight and three quarters,” I said, my lower lip thrust out in a sulk.
Mamma smiled. “Eight and three quarters in a month and a half,” she said, the lie coming as easily to her lips as to my own.
The librarian still looked unconvinced, but in the face of that united front she couldn’t exactly call us both liars, and calling for my birth certificate seemed a bit extreme. And then Mamma made it better.
“Actually, he’s already finished all the books in our house,” she said, which was perfectly true, although the librarian could have no possible clue as to just how limited that selection was. “So I was hoping for something—I don’t know—do you have a Teen Card?”
The librarian looked even less convinced. “The teen section can have a lot of material that—he isn’t—you say he’s going to be nine soon?”
She was buying into it, which was good—and once she did that it was not that much harder to get her to cave on the Teen Card. The bonus to that was the Teen Card came with computer privileges. It was the first cracking open, just enough for a sliver of light to shine through around the edges, of a door that would take me into conquering a world that was always meant to be mine. But first, I had other lessons to learn.
The first time I stepped through the veil… it was into a bird.
I had taken care of Mamma through many Turns by the time I was eight years old, and things were not getting better. The good days were fewer and fewer, and she grew more secretive, more paranoid… and more violent. A couple of months after my eighth birthday, I didn’t have something that she wanted quickly enough after she came out of one of her Turns and she slapped me so hard that my head snapped back on my neck and one of the loose milk teeth I was in the process of losing that year literally rocked in its socket.
After the slap I ran from the apartment to get away from her and as I slouched down the street with the hood of my sweatshirt pulled up over my hair and as far over my face as I could make it go I was able to simply pluck that loose tooth from its socket.
The future stretched ahead of me, grey and bleak, unchanging. I was way too young to do anything other than knuckle under and endure. I was already infected by Mamma’s wariness towards everyone else, her treating every other soul out there as a potential enemy, and it did not occur to me that there might be an option of actually asking for help. I wouldn’t have had the first idea who to ask, anyway.
If she was hiding from the Were I couldn’t run to them, and I already understood that those who were not like us, the majority of the people out there, would wash their hands of someone like me fairly quickly by quite simply not accepting me as their problem.
Maybe it was just that on this particular day I was more sunk into misery and self-pity than usual. Perhaps I was wrapped into myself deeply enough to trigger something without knowing—but I found myself watching a couple of crows picking at something unspeakable on the tarmac in a half-empty parking lot in a drizzly sort of rain…and wishing I was like them, with nothing to worry about but carrion.
And something happened.
To say I have no memory of what actually happened would be lying. I do. I remember that it hurt, agonizingly so, that it was human screams that merged with a crow’s caws in the end. I remember that I felt the feathers break my skin, every one of them a shot of sharp pain—as though I had just been fallen upon by a company of knife-wielding thugs intent on stabbing until there was no life left in my body at all. I remember that the light dimmed behind my eyes, into greyness, into blindness, and when sight returned it was different somehow, that things now stood out in sharp focus that were not so before. I remember stumbling, unbalanced, falling down with wings… wings… spreading out to catch my fall. Crying out. Crying. Crying. Staggering on two thin trembling legs, my mouth open, screaming—caw caw caw—until finally some instinct made me stretch the wings and beat them and I was somehow airborne., I was unsteadily,weaving through the air just above the ground but flying—I was flying—I had no right to do this, no knowledge of it, no sanction, I was still a child, this should never have happened to me.
It was way too early for a traditional Were Turn, and anyway it was not the full moon, and anyway it was still daylight. And I didn’t just Turn into a bird and forget my human self. I retained full self-aware-ness. I knew who I was.
It was all so wrong, so utterly wrong…
Except that it was not. It was right for me. My wings suddenly remembered the mechanics of something they had never done before and I finally rose into the sky and circled above the parking lot. And the cries changed—the fear, the panic, the confusion had somehow shifted into something else, into something that was joy, almost triumph. I could see, down on the ground below me as I circled, the pitiful pile of rags which was the clothing I had been wearing, which my body had shed as it had changed. I braced myself for never seeing any of those items of clothing again (and it wasn’t as though I had clothes to spare, lying about at home) and for the technical difficulties of somehow dealing with getting home later, naked, in just the skin I was born in.
I remembered everything, in fact. I was a crow, but inside that bird’s head I was still me. My own thoughts, my own memories, I recognized things that had belonged to me-the-boy when I saw them through the eyes of me-the-bird.
I was very young but that didn’t matter—there were things you knew about being Were, simply by being Were, no matter what age you happened to be. I knew about Turning Houses, and I knew that they had been built to keep my kind away from the non-Were, ordinary, mundane human beings during the times that we changed into our animal shapes. The thinking behind this, the reasoning, the justification, was that when we Turned we lost our human mind and became all beast and therefore could not be trusted not to act out of pure animal instinct and prove dangerous to unsuspecting humans crossing our path.
It was common knowledge, a common wisdom, and I had never heard it refuted or read that it was wrong, that we Were carried two distinct things in ourselves, our human forms and our Were forms, and that those two things did not communicate.
There were supposed to be no shared memories.
The human-shaped Were being knew and saw and understood things; the animal-shaped Were knew and saw and understood different things; they were only supposed to be able to make sense of stuff from one of those two worlds at a time. In other words, as the crow, the pile of clothes on the pavement should have meant nothing more to me than a jumbled mess of fabric. I might have been moved to investigate underneath it for possible hiding food sources but nothing beyond that. I should not have been able, as that crow, to look down on that pile and know it for what it was—the discarded clothes which I had been wearing, as a boy, moments earlier.
There were laws about this sort of thing. Natural laws. Laws that I should not have been able to cross.
Then there was the fact that the Were Turned at age fifteen, on average, give or take a wibble year or two on either side. I was at least six years younger than that average. In the absolute terms of an eight-year-old mind, my Turning was a lifetime away—I would have to live almost as long as I had already lived before I would even have to consider thinking about the idea.
Then there was another natural law of the Were—that we Turned when the moon grew full, except for the few who Turned at the new moon, and Turned back three days later. Our world was like clockwork, perfectly tuned, ticking along in the man-ner that it had always done. And yet. And yet. And yet. There I was, boy-crow, coming down in a somewhat awkward, but nonetheless perfectly serviceable, landing on top of a wall just above my clothes. Emphatically Turned. And absolutely aware of both my identities—and I somehow knew that I would just as surely remember the things that I had seen as Crow when I Turned back into Boy…
If I Turned back to Boy. For the first time a touch of unease. Would I even be able to do that? Ever again?