Wednesday
Aug212013

Incidents of Travel Among the Metamorphosians

Pierre Bettencourt
Translated by Edward Gauvin


 

They are mad for metamorphosis.

You land with your human form, sure of your identity, and the very next day you pass two men in the street, then ten, then fifty. In less than a week their city's filled with members of your species. "Strange," you muse at first, "so many tourists," and then panic, as you've come to study the ways of natives but soon can spot so few specimens. Before long, it's like you're back on Earth, and your efforts to get away from "yourself" have come to nothing. But once you've been lost among them for a few weeks, they think you're gone, and since being imprisoned in any single form too long deeply disturbs them, they take up their variable, changing shapes again, always transforming, each in their own way: nothing remotely like a race here, no ready-to-wear look. Then you stand revealed once more, the only one who can't change; they discover you, they "see" you, they breathe you in, and everything starts all over again.

 

 

If you come without a woman, they'll never get the idea to create one. How would it ever occur to them that you could be beautiful in one way but not another, that it takes two to make a third, that you could be born and spend your lives tirelessly exploring the consequences of the same bone structure, the same skin, the same sex, the same shape? How very boring! For they are always transforming; they are at every moment their own fathers and mothers, as though their bodies wed at will their own ideas of them. Three heads one day, a thousand legs the next, or else rolling along like a wheel. But should one of them take on an unfamiliar shape, the others want to try it out so much that soon they're all wheels: rolling, rolling breathlessly along night and day. All the way to the sea, where they can't resist instantly becoming fish. The beach is almost always empty; in the distance, a fisherman listlessly pulls in his net. No sooner is his catch tossed ashore—before he's had a chance to sort through or sell—than the fisherman finds himself among fishermen, his traps empty, efforts wasted. The Metamorphosians pointed out one among them who, from stubbornness and bravado, hadn't changed shape for two months. Heroic? No, foolhardy: go too far against your own grain and you might awaken lethal forces of repulsion. Big and small don't matter to the Metamorphosians; one day a tree with vast foliage, surrounded by a thousand, a hundred thousand fellows. But stop by the next day: nothing left of the woods but rabbits and a vast herd of cows.

 

 

Of course I'm picking my examples from shapes that are familiar to you, shapes you see slowly following, from day to day, evolutionary pathways; shapes that, among thousands of brief flirtations where love of novelty was much to blame, show no continuity among them. Who among the Metamorphosians could ever have fun being a tree, a cow, or a rabbit (unless all the same day, on a whim), not from any lack of imagination, but rather from a surplus of it, since there are so many more entertaining possibilities—while we spend millennia going from one shape to another? And cannot be ourselves unless caught in the net of a single form: for us, the human skin.

 

 

In wartime, there is soon a single army, long before either side's defeat: the commanding general of the conquered forces has, without waiting for the fighting to end, become a carbon copy of the victorious general, for none but the most trivial of reasons (because he liked the latter's uniform more than his own). His soldiers follow suit with the enemy soldiers and, turning around, join in the attack. And this single army, having absorbed its enemies—twice as big as it started, with no one left to fight—goes parading down the boulevards of their capital as one man, but with two triumphant generals, neither of whom know which is which.

The Metamorphosians build malleable houses, the same texture as their spongy soil. One day they're inside, lost amidst a thousand rooms, and the next, stricken by another megalomania altogether, they plunge these houses into water and wash themselves with them, to the great displeasure of friends and acquaintances who thought themselves safe but are suddenly drowning. Or else they toss each other around like balls. Sometimes an anthropologist I stayed with had me ride him like an elephant, and at other times scurried along beside me like a little dog. All this while keeping up a very animated conversation about women, whom he couldn't manage to grasp in the slightest. I tried to draw him a picture; I'm no specialist, but when you've known a few women, you have some idea of what one is. He tried turning into a woman twenty times over, but never got it right: once she had a tail, another time so many pairs of breasts she was covered head to toe, another time butt cheeks on her face, a vertical mouth with two pairs of lips where his nose should have been. Not for a moment could I ever say Stop! and make love with him. With her. We had to give up. Still, what a shame! I thought. To be so gifted and not be able to become a woman! I decided to return to Earth and come back with my wife. And now here I am with her. It was madness. In less than twenty-four hours, all I could see was my wife, such that a second after leaving on an errand, I couldn't see her anymore. What a silly habit it is to be yourself, I thought, how it plays tricks on you! They'll get tired of it, I decided, moving on with my thoughts, and my wife will quite naturally emerge as the only one of her kind: just like me the other day, though for now I was still waiting. That night, tired of running into her everywhere and not seeing why any one was better than another—one probably looked fresher and prettier, but that's how it is with the same person depending on mood, age, and what day it is—I decided to pick one at random and take her back to my hotel, where the bellhop, elevator boy, and chambermaid making our bed had all become my wife. Which was terribly embarrassing, like a reprimand for living with only one of them, the one I'd chosen without even knowing if she was the right one. Luckily, another traveler checked into the hotel the next morning with his wife, a petite blue-eyed blonde (mine was a brunette, and quite tall in heels). What a rush! In less time than it takes to say snap, one and all had become blue-eyed blondes, even the woman I'd spent the night with. So this one's not mine, I thought, and immediately left, ashamed of my infidelity, hurrying into the street to look for my wife, my real wife, my unchangeable wife, and soon I found her: there she was, the only one of her kind, looking through the window of a shoe store. I gazed at her with unbounded happiness; she barely gave me a glance, as if I'd been there the whole time, and pointed out a pair of shoes: "They have such cute shoes, don't they? Let's go in!" We went into the store, where the cashier, three salesladies, and two customers awaited us, all blue-eyed blondes. Whew, I thought, we can travel in peace at last.

You'll grant me that it's fairly disturbing to find yourself in a world where neither the word sex nor the word death exists, as if the two were somehow complementary. We'd come from Earth with our little cat; my wife hadn't wanted to leave him. What with fatigue from the trip, emotional whiplash, whimsical food, mice that became tigers about to devour you, and the sadness of finding a planet without cats—well, our cat gave up the ghost. He had been the subject of great curiosity; he was almost given a burial in state. You can guess what happened next . . . The day of the funeral, following us as we followed the coffin, there wasn't just one cat, or two, or even ten, but thousands. My wife was bawling. "Look," I told her. She turned around. "So what, there'll never be another one like ours." And as the Metamorphosians had neither graveyard nor church, we put our little cat's coffin in one of their rockets headed back to Earth, piloted by a little cat. Death as a phenomenon greatly intrigued them; they couldn't wrap their heads around it; they vanished a hundred times a day without ceasing to be. How could you be "lost" forever? "Why let yourselves get caught like that," they would say, "Why not shed your coil before it sheds you, and grab another one?" They poked and prodded us all over as if we were of dubious quality, maybe even fakes (who knew?), despite our protests. One minute they were us, and the next someone else. Death could never catch them; no one could. They were too quick. I got the idea to tell them about our books, of plants that became pulp, pulp that became paper, ink that became sounds and ideas, but also about paper that became fire. Here, they caught on. "Maybe your books are more evolved than you are," they said, "at least they change. Why have you remained so slow, so backward? Can't you get over yourselves a little to have at least a shot at transplanting yourselves somewhere else?"

 

 

Reproducing made them laugh, when they had mouths to laugh with. "So you never get tired of being you!"

"It's our way of changing," I told them, "of metamorphosing. A cobbler might have a priest for a son, or vice versa; she who was a grandmother is now a little boy. And she who was a pauper, sweeping up the shavings of her carpenter husband for kindling, became the mother of God." They stared at us wide-eyed, when they had eyes; I remember that character with a phallus-shaped head, his mouth at the top of his skull, who spoke in a cavernous voice. "And your God," said he, "what became of him?" He never becomes, I wanted to reply. He is the abyss at whose edge we all stand. All we have to do is dive in. They knew that; we didn't. Our caution led us astray.

The day we left, the city seemed deserted. There was no one in the streets. Yet on our way out of the hotel, a Metamorphosian who could have been my brother brushed by us as if still half-asleep. "Have you seen the anthill?" he mumbled at me. And already, he was an ant.