speculative prose

Sometimes Heron, by Mari Ness


Sometimes she is a duck.

This is for moments on quiet bodies of water—small ponds, gentle lakes, and the like—or for the rain. She has found this so useful that now, when it rains, her shoulders almost twitch with the need to be a duck.

She never quacks. It is, she has decided, a silly sound. But she never hesitates to dive into the water, searching for fish, her feet flapping merrily in the air.


Sometimes she is a dolphin.

This is for long, swift journeys of exploration, or when she needs to get to someplace connected by the sea. Cheaper and more reliable than air transport these days, if slower. But she loves the feel of the water. She is not one of the common dolphins, or the bottlenose dolphins still performing in oceanaria. She is a spinner dolphin, leaping into the air and spinning over the water, or a larger, swifter, darker false killer whale, driving herself through heavy waves. Once, in honour of extinctions, she was a baiji dolphin, one of the now extinct dolphins from the Yangtze river, blind, long nosed. The ocean had rolled her over and over, and the blindness had filled her with terror. She had become something else, right there, in the sea, that could not breathe or swim, but see.

Now she focuses on leaping over the ocean, watching the clouds above her as she soars.


Sometimes she is an elephant. This is when she needs to fight something, to inspire terror. One of the great cats—a lion or tiger perhaps—might work just as well, but truthfully, she is not a particularly combative person. She has found, however, that when as elephant she stampedes forward, bellowing, trumpeting, everybody darts out of her way. Sometimes she does not even need to stampede. She can merely stand there, one leg slightly raised, trunk uplifted, and others will run.

Sometimes, though, she is a tiger, when she needs to move softly through giant trees and sharp grass. As a tiger, she is always hungry.


Sometimes she is a girl. An ordinary girl, stuck on a chair, or lying in bed.

Why would you be interested in that?


Sometimes she is a cow.

She dislikes this, partly because it brings up faint, grey memories of other small children calling her a cow, yelling at her, shouting cow cow cow. She still feels fat at the memory, and being a cow—an actual cow—does not help. She also dislikes getting milked, no matter how sanitary, how removed, that process now is: having metal sucking something out of her feels unclean, wrong.

And she is not useful as a cow.

She is not sure why she is sometimes a cow. Perhaps it is meant as a reminder of the insanity of the world.


Sometimes she is a boy. That is even less interesting.


Sometimes she is a fox, full of tricks. This is not, as she has found, completely true about foxes—they are no more sly, no more tricky, than any other animal can be, but she is able to use the legends to her advantage, sometimes, when she must be near people. She loves the speed, the stealth of the fox, the way she can crawl beneath bushes and move through tall grasses, or hide behind trees. She especially loves the long, soft tail, and the sleek fur.


Sometimes she is a cat.

This is good for resting, and even better for sneaking up on people. Cats are known to be curious, are known to be sometimes affectionate, and if she bounds up and sits near or on someone, she is sometimes scratched on the head, and more generally ignored. Some people, it is true, ease away from her—they are allergic, or have had poor encounters with cats, but in every mission she has found someone who likes cats.


When she is a girl, they feed her soup and ice cream. She has grown to detest soup. She still has mixed feelings about the ice cream.


Sometimes she is a spy. This is where her ability to be other helps; no one, she realizes, suspects animals. Sometimes, they even scratch the head of the animal and sigh and ask the animal for advice. In these cases, her spying is particularly simple: look as innocent, as wide eyed, as cute as possible.

When she is a spy, she is usually a dog, or a squirrel. When she is actively spying, that is. She finds that to reach her target, it is best to be something other than a dog, or squirrel. Neither one can move quickly enough.


When she is a girl, she plays video games. Sometimes a lot of video games, violent, like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Mortal Kombat. When she is a boy, she just reads. She thinks she is defying gender stereotypes.


Sometimes she is a horse. This was a problem, once, when she was the horse in the wrong place—on a harness track—and she found herself having to race, to run, pulling a cart, listening to the tumult of several voices behind and around her. As a horse, her hearing was not particularly good. She did not know what to do; she stopped in confusion, only later feeling the sting of losing the race. At other times, she has been a police horse, or a wild horse, or a performing horse in an elaborate dinner show. She likes the applause.


Sometimes she is an otter, playing in the ocean, snacking on rich, salty urchins. She rolls under waves and through kelp beds, feeling the thick leaves brush and massage her soft fur.


When she is a girl, she does not actually like animals very much. They never do the things she wants them to do. She has a cat, who does not come when he is called and never does tricks the way Amy’s does, and three fish swimming in a 50 gallon aquarium, looking rather lonely. She is never the fish in that aquarium or the cat in the house.


Sometimes, when she is a girl, she is trapped in bed, drawing. Writing aimless words.

Her feet never twitch when this happens, but her hands do, always.


Sometimes she is a rabbit. Sometimes, she is a rabbit within her own home. When this happens, the television is turned on; she drinks water from the aquarium, disturbing the fish; she eats cookies, even if they are not rabbit food. She is soft and cute and loveable. Rabbits need cookies.

When she needs hands, she is a monkey, able to play with the remote control, flush the fish down the toilet (they are not nice fish, although when she is a girl, she feels guilty about this, knowing that whatever the cartoons might say, no fish flushed down a toilet will ever reach an ocean), lock the door. When she is a girl again, she sleeps behind that lock, the aquarium silenced, the few cookies not eaten by the rabbit within her reach.


Sometimes, she is a frog, sitting quietly on the edge of a pond, hungering. Her tongue flickers. She waits for bugs.


When she is a girl, she is not allowed to watch much TV. It stifles the imagination, her mother says. They do not want her imagination to be like the rest of her. She would not be able to change much then.


Sometimes she is a tricoloured heron, a delicate, blue grey bird that paddles gently through wetlands, half seen behind grass.

She likes the feel of the fish sliding down her throat when she is a heron.

She likes to fly.


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Issue 7 (Summer 2015)

Story copyright © 2015 by Mari Ness

Artwork copyright © 2015 by Stacy Nguyen

Mari Ness has published poetry and fiction on and in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, and several other publications. A longer list can be found at her blog, and she can be followed on Twitter @mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.

Stacy Nguyen is a graphic/web designer, illustrator, and writer working in Seattle. She is a former news editor and the current editorial consultant for Northwest Asian Weekly, the oldest Pan-Asian weekly still in print on the West Coast. Her illustrations have won awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Stacy earned her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.



This entry was posted on July 29, 2015 by in Stories.
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