by Mel Kassel
There’s a gull on Davra’s back porch.
Its feet slap against the wood as it walks at a skulk and then a strut, peering into the gaps between each board and darting its head forward to probe for crumbs. Its neck spasms as it buries its beak in the cracks.
It is a scavenger, a shover, stupid and graceful. Like every other gull, it has to be a bully. It spreads its wings into sharp angles that seem knife-cut, and she can make out the tiny feathers on its chest that overlap into a soft sheet of white.
She thinks about the dog. Brown all over, with gold eyes that swam like they had mercury in them. As a human he had been painfully predictable: generous and needy in equal measure. What was worse, he could tell when she tired of him. He had sat in the corner and sobbed until she became angry.
Had Reev said anything about taking a bird as a familiar?
* * *
They were sitting in Reev’s kitchen.
“Reptiles will be sluggish, prone to sleeping in the sun. Squirmy. Strange in bed. Lerna tried a snake once, said it gave her the willies. We all think that Jarro’s used to be a lizard, though. Look at the eyes.”
“She calls it Mouse!” Davra cackled, basking in the gossip.
“A bad lie! She’s an idiot.”
* * *
She collects silky threads of influence around her fingers. The gull could fly away at any moment, and she wills it to, thereby absolving herself of guilt. It begins to preen. It looks comfortable.
“Hello,” she says, flicking her fingers in its direction. Her influence twists in the air before slithering towards the gull. It forms a noose around the bird’s neck, with tendrils drifting back to pin its wings. The gull’s orange eyes flick up, a membrane flashing over them. Is it panic? Fury?
She feels excitement flare in her lower belly and tightens her grip on the gull. It wrenches its neck to the side and opens its beak. Its call sounds like a door screaming open.
* * *
“A dog, then,” Davra suggested. “Unless you think I should aim higher?”
“No, a dog will be good for you. A primer. You won’t keep it, I don’t think.” Reev liked to hint that she had a vague sort of precognition, and most people wrote it off as a harmless bid for respect she already had.
“Too loyal. You’ll be bored.”
“You don’t know what I’ll like.”
* * *
She stretches the gull’s bones into taffy as it stares. Sweat runs down her back with the effort of lengthening its skin, softening its beak, smoothing out the pebbles of its legs. She straightens its knees (a sharp cracking sound), shrinks its feathers to stubble, then to nothing. She pulls its body up, higher and higher, redistributing organs as if its torso was a cluttered shelf.
The finishing touches happen without her say-so. Just as the dog had sprouted a thicket of back hair, the gull has telltale marks: a jutting sternum, long fingers. Its dirty white hair is swept back in a stripe.
She cannot change its eyes. When she tries to mute the orange in them, her influence pools harmlessly about the familiar’s face.
* * *
“Better a dog than a cat, I suppose,” Reev said as they cleaned dishes together.
“It’s a crapshoot. Most will ignore you. None of us have cats.”
“Maybe none of you can charm them,” Davra teased.
* * *
He still doesn’t blink. He tilts his head at her, considering something. He is more attractive than the dog, she decides.
“Hello,” she says again, holding her right hand out so that it reaches beyond the window. Gull walks toward it. His movements have only a slight bob, recalling the gait of a dancer or a wrestler. Perfect; she had been worried he might be ungainly.
He takes her hand and inspects it, then lets it go. Her influence still hangs from him in stringy clots, and she begins to retract it, winding it back around her fingers.
“The door is there,” she says. He steps over, turns the knob, comes inside. She stands to greet him and sees that he is even taller than she thought.
“How do you feel?” She asks, tracing the outline of his collarbone. There are slight pinpricks from forgotten feathers.
“Hungry,” says Gull.
* * *
“Don’t go assuming you’re better, Davra. Not before you’ve changed anything.”
“You’re right, I haven’t changed anything, so no one knows how it will go. Not even you.” She sat, suddenly sulking, at the table. “And I don’t think I’m better. I just want to do something different.”
“You want to impress people. But this isn’t about them.”
* * *
She gives Gull a piece of bread. He compresses the entire thing into his mouth and chews, glancing about as though waiting for someone to try and take it from him. He holds out his hand for more, and she gives it. But she refuses him a third piece.
“Why?” he asks.
“Later,” she says. His eyes widen, and to her delight, she sees no childish petulance—only anger, electric and threatening.
“Later,” she repeats, and he sighs. His body slackens.
She shows him her home, and he puts his hand on the small of her back as they explore the rooms together. At the kitchen sink, he splashes water over his face and slicks back his hair, over and over.
* * *
“Want to know what my first was?” Reev asked, wanting to patch things over with a story.
“Goat isn’t your first?”
“We don’t like to talk about our failures.”
“Yes, then! Tell me.” Davra demanded, all tension forgotten.
“Give me secrecy,” said Reev.
“I won’t tell!”
“Even so, I’m afraid I must insist.”
* * *
In the bedroom, she dangles her jewelry from her hands. His smile blazes with small teeth as he follows the pendants, reverently rubs his face against the gold chains.
“Oh, I like these,” he says.
“You may carry them with you, if you want.” She thought this might surprise him, but he snatches a necklace from her before she’s finished giving permission. He wraps it around his wrist and holds it up to the light.
“Very handsome,” she says. He looks down at her, eyes glowing, unblinking. They scare her, and she relishes the fear. “Now, what will you do for me?” she asks.
* * *
Davra said the spell for secrecy: “I swallow your words.”
“Don’t roll your eyes.”
“I knit my throat together.”
“I bind my lips.” Her fingers flew over her mouth and influence parted her lips to slide down her throat. It would always forbid her from repeating what Reev told her next.
“My first was a beetle.”
Davra opened her mouth and croaked. She had tried to say “A bug?”, but the spell would not permit even that.
“Hah, you should see your face.”
* * *
Their sex is selfish, from both sides. Gull grabs the back of her neck and digs his nails in. Once he’s finished, she has him chew a poultice that replenishes him, and goads him into more.
When she curls her influence around his mind, she feels a springiness, so different from Dog’s warm swamp of love. Swamp was indeed the right term. She had felt mired in it, up to her knees in devotion.
“Wasn’t that fun?” she asks. Gull gives her a low laugh. He moves about the room the same way he had moved about her porch: methodically, tirelessly. He checks the space between the wall and the dresser, peers under the bed, checks every line of shadow.
She searches for the dog’s old clothing in her closet. The pair of shorts she finds still smell a bit like him, and she feels a twitch of a remorse, a reflex. She doesn’t miss him.
She brings the shorts out to Gull and he puts them on slowly, relying on new instincts. They are too big for him, so she cinches the waist with a thin scarf.
“How long will you keep me here?” He asks from above her head.
The question astounds her. No one had told her that a familiar could ask it.
* * *
“I hadn’t heard of it being done to a beetle before. Of course, I’m sure it has, but I hadn’t heard of it” Reev said.
“What was he like?”
“He was lovely. Industrious. He fixed everything in the house—sometimes he broke things just to fix them the next day. He was very protective of me. More than the spell demands, I mean.” She smiled, looking around the kitchen at various gadgets that her old familiar must have mended.
“I’m not sure. Either I was inexperienced, or something about him … He became brittle. Parts of him started to flake off, or he would forget how to speak. I think it was because he would have died by then, had he been what he was before.”
“How sad for you,” Davra ventured, awkwardly.
“Yes, well. He just had to go sooner than most.”
* * *
“You want to leave?” She heads back to the bed and pulls on her skirt. She can’t tell if her voice sounds bothered.
“But … I just made you.” His expression doesn’t soften.
She sees that he finds her curious, but not more so than whatever dust had been lingering behind her headboard. Dog had been thankful for the change; Gull seems to have forgotten it.
She stretches out her influence again, feels that same springiness in his mind, and tries to sharpen the tip of her thoughts to pierce through it. It doesn’t work. She can’t see what he is without breaking him. She hadn’t counted on this.
Gull shoves her, hard, and she grabs onto the dresser to try and keep from falling. The drawer comes out and falls with her, hitting her elbow.
“Don’t do that to me with your thoughts,” Gull says.
She looks at his arms, and they are lean with sinew, the bones within them far from hollow. He smiles down at her, then turns towards the door.
“Wait!” she says.
* * *
“A dog will be fine. I’ll grab one from the town tomorrow.”
“Go at night.”
“Of course. I’m not stupid.” Davra waited by the front door. She never left Reev’s house without a lesson, even after her apprenticeship had ended.
“And mind that you get a watchdog or a hunting hound, not something a child will miss. That’s just cruel.”
* * *
Gull pauses, startled by her yell.
“You’re … a waste, I think.” Her voice breaks and she feels herself blushing. She lets her hair hang in her face so that he won’t see. She can picture the others tittering at her for trying with a bird. And not a pretty, singing jay or a raptor, but this marauder, reeking at once of brine and a city alleyway. Novice, she thinks at herself, venomously.
Her influence grids itself into a net at the doorway. It denies him exit.
“The others can’t know about you,” she says.
“Oh, don’t sound so intrigued.”
Tendrils of her intention, as thick as tree roots, shoot from the net and spiral about his arms and legs.
* * *
“I’ll pick out a handsome hound, don’t worry.”
“I worry that you’re too fond of challenge. Start with a dog. I’m serious. Don’t pause to look at a bird or a badger.” Reev spoke slowly, trying to make the words linger in Davra’s ears.
“You don’t have to mother me.”
“It’s how we teach.”
“Well, I’m not your student anymore.” Davra pointed to the ritual scar above her left eyebrow, and after a moment, Reev sighed.
“You’re right. You’ll have to learn from your mistakes, now, I suppose.”
“Thanks for your faith.”
* * *
Changing him a second time is harder. The feathers don’t want to poke through his skin, and they draw blood when they come. She spreads her influence over his mouth so that he can’t scream while his arms wrench backwards and fan into the air. She is careful not to let his ribcage break out of his chest, rimming it with muscle as he collapses to the floor.
“Almost,” she says, holding her breath and drawing out his beak. His body has started to respond to the spell, and she can see what she must adjust next like she’s completing a puzzle. She returns the scales to his legs and the webbing to his feet. The orange eyes swell from almond-shaped to round. She shrinks him too fast on purpose, feeling a few parts crunch as the change completes. She’s crying, angry tears that needle their way down her cheeks.
The crippled gull stares at her, looking ugly and squat in the context of her bedroom.
“Get out,” she tells it, kicking at its tail so that it tries to fly and shrieks in animal confusion.
* * *
“I don’t doubt your abilities, Davra,” Reev said as they finally embraced.
“I’m simply telling you not to rush. If you’re patient, you won’t have to change many. You’ll learn what you like.”