Magdalena's Dilemma

July 3, 2011
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Ever since I was a small child living on the lands of Gregory, Earl of Northampton, I had been different from others. Not different in the sense that my hair was an odd color or that I could read, but different in the sense that I could do things that no young child, or truly, no person, should be able to do.
The first time I became aware of this difference, I was but five years old. I was out alone in the forest near my home, gathering herbs for my mother, who was ran the village apothecary. She was already grooming me to follow in her footsteps. She gave me little rhymes to remember herbs and their uses, which I was to recite as I searched.
“Yarrow, migraines and wounds of an arrow. Horehound, coughs, colds, found on the ground. Rue, for bites and sight, who knew!” I sang as I walked, scanning the ground for the herbs.
Like a magpie distracted by glints of sunlight, I caught sight of a baby chipmunk scurrying along the ground and immediately chased after it, forgetting about Mother’s instructions and precautions. Suddenly, my feet went out from under me and I fell forward onto my hands. From the ground, everything was larger, even my woven basket, which landed next to my head. Then, I realized that everything was larger because I was smaller. Terrified, I stared at my hands, or rather paws, covered with chestnut fur. But, as soon as I had realized my situation, I was myself again, looking at my human hands, stained with dirt and grass, but skin and veins nonetheless.
Hands shaking, mind racing, I finished gathering the herbs and rushed home. But before I rushed through the door and blurted out what had happened, I stopped. What if my mother didn’t believe me, or thought me mad? So for that reason, I kept this to myself, to think about and wonder at in the distorted time between dreams and reality.
It was years before it happened again, so long that the incident had been pushed to the back of my mind. This time it was with a hawk. I soared and swooped high above the treetops until a frightening realization hit me: what if I changed back while flying and fell to my death? From then on, I stayed firmly on the ground. But this time, I had to tell someone, so I went to the logical person: my best friend Haydn, who I had known since our mothers rocked our cradles side by side while spinning.
He didn’t believe me at first, but over the years, as it happened time and time again, he grew into the truth. With him, I could be completely open and share what I did while in another form, or the fear I felt when an owl nearly caught me while I was a wood mouse.
I became anything and everything as the years past: a chipmunk, hawk, mouse, sparrow, even a wolf. And after each transformation, I would run up to Haydn and tell him about it. He always knew when it was coming and would grin, saying “Maggie, again?” Never did he call me Magdalena, my given name, always the familiar Maggie.
The transformations started lasting longer and coming closer together as I aged. And one day, when I was fourteen, what I had feared for years happened. It started out like usual, seeing and concentrating on an animal (a fallow deer, to be precise), then that terrifying yet exciting falling sensation, and suddenly I had four legs. I wandered, wobbling on my new thin legs, over to a nearby stream to see my current state of being. I don’t always portray the animal as it always is seen. Occasionally my bright green eyes will stay the same, or my feathers will be midnight black like my human hair instead of the normal brown of the falcon.
Gazing in the still water, smooth and clear as glass, I saw myself. Unlike the deer, which on Earl Gregory’s lands are usually brown with white spots, I was a brilliant mahogany combined with black, a bit of my coloring mixed with the deer’s. Along my back were hundreds of tiny white spots, like stars in the night sky. My eyes once again remained a luminous green, standing out against the white fur which outlining my eyes like kohl. My form was graceful, muscled, and lean, ready to run at the slightest need.
I was content with grazing around until I changed back. Hours past, until my stomach, not satiated by the bits of grass I had consumed, started growling. As sunset approached and the east started darkening, I began to worry. Mother would be frantic if I were not home by dark. Hours more moved at a snail’s pace and I realized that never before had my transformation lasted this long. They ranged from a few minutes to a few hours, but never to a half a day like this one.
Well past sunset, I decided to get some sleep. I would deal with my predicament in the morning. I slept fretfully, waking often when an unfamiliar noise startled me. Dawn came, with a beautiful sunrise, but I was too disturbed to notice. I was still a deer. I needed help, yet who could I ask? Or more appropriately, how could I ask them?
I could not approach my Mother, however worried she may be, because she knew nothing about my transformations. Haydn would be the logical person, but how could I communicate that I was Maggie, not an overly curious deer?
Thinking along the way, I started walking toward his house on the outskirts of the village. That was lucky because a deer wandering through town would attract too much unwanted attention. Before long, I was at his door, determined to stay there until he came out to gather firewood from the pile near the door.
Only minutes passed before Haydn walked out, hair tousled and eyes bleary with sleep. Fighting the native instinct of my deer form to run before he got too close, I stayed, and finally caught his attention. Startled, he jumped back, swallowing a yell.
“What is a deer doing on my doorstep?” he asked himself, and then saw my eyes. No one else in the village has eyes like mine, not even my mother or my deceased father.
“M-maggie?” he whispered. “Is that you?”
Not sure how to respond, I nodded my head. If only I could write, I could tell him everything by scratching it in the dirt. But then, Haydn would have to know how to read, or else involve someone who we do not want involved.
“Why are you still…changed?”
To that, I could say nothing; only plead with my wide eyes for him to figure it out.
“Wait, I haven’t seen you since yesterday morning. I thought you were just busy when you didn’t come by last night. Have you stayed a deer since then?” he wondered.
Grateful for his quick mind, I nodded again, an odd jerk of my head that a deer shouldn’t make.
“Maggie, oh God. What are we going to do! You need to be changed back. How about this, if you’re not you again by sunset, come and see me. If you change back before then, come and see me. I’ll make up a story for your mother and try to see what to do about changing you back.”
Haydn was always one to act, not dither around about what to do. I nodded my approval and slipped back into the forest under his watchful eye. Though I was unwilling to put the burden of lying to my mother and helping me find a way to be human again, he was the only person I could go to.
The day passed in much of the way the previous one had, slowly and filled with grazing and wandering. By noon, I knew that I wasn’t turning back on my own and that my only hope was Haydn finding a solution. At sunset, I was at his doorstep. He walked out, looking crestfallen when he saw I was still a deer.
“It’s alright Mags, I’ll find a way,” Haydn reassured. “And until I do, I want you to come here at every sunrise and sunset, so I know that you’re still alright.”
For days I lived my life as the deer, active during the dusk and dawn hours, grazing and walking for hours on end. Every morning and evening I returned to Haydn’s house. And every day, after he was assured I was safe, he gave me a sad look and told me that he had found nothing, but would keep looking. This continued until a week after my original transformation. It was sunrise and as I waited by the door, Haydn walked out in traveling clothes, carrying a sack bulging with food and clothing.
“No one around here knows anything. I’m going to Meadhbh,” he announced, his voice shaking just a bit on the last word. Meadhbh was known for miles around, a witch who could be deadly or helpful, depending on her mood. She once healed a mother, dying from the labor of childbirth, yet in the same month, killed a young man asking for the way to true love. Thanking him with my eyes, I nudged his leg to reassure him, and left, not looking back.
I wandered farther each day, not having to return morning and night to Haydn’s home. Every few days I checked back, but mostly I explored the forest. Nothing happened until about three days after Haydn left.
I was about a two day walk from the village, getting a drink from a stream in a clearing when I heard a noise. It was a rustling, cracking sound that only with my enhanced hearing as a deer I could hear. I stiffened and got ready to jump up and run, faster than any predator in this forest, when I heard another sound, a soft twang, a rush of air and a thump. An arrow had just flown by me and embedded itself in the tree behind me. I sprang away and ran as I heard more of the twangs, bowstrings being pulled and released, and arrows flew past.
I ran until all four legs were shaking and my chest was heaving for breath. I figured that was far enough away from the hunters. Actually, poachers. There was no hunting to be done on Earl Gregory’s land unless it was in certain areas or approved by my lord.
Only after I stopped did I notice a sharp pain in my side. I had been hit by one of the arrows! I hurried to the stream to look at the reflection to gauge the seriousness of my wound. I had seen plenty of injuries helping Mother at the apothecary and hoped mine was one I could recognize as minor. The sharp pain faded into a throbbing ache, which was more bearable.
I looked into the stream and was relieved by what I saw. Though the fur around the wound was matted with blood, the arrow had only grazed by side and it was a superficial wound. It would heal quickly and cleanly and was nothing near the worst case I had imagined.
Just to be safe, though I knew I was far from the poachers, I started heading back to the village. The journey took a bit longer than it should have because of my injury, but I was at Haydn’s door before three days were through.
He was not there that sunset, and the next two as well. But on my fourth day back, when I visited at sunrise, Haydn opened the door wide, excitement showing in his eyes
“You’re back! Thank God. I don’t know how long Meadhbh would wait!” he exclaimed. Correctly interpreting my look of surprise, he continued, “She agreed to help you! Since she didn’t want to stay in my house, she is camping nearby. We have to go to her right away. Actually,” he said, puzzled, “I’m surprised that you didn’t pass her on your way here.”
There was a reason for that: I had been staying as far away as possible from humans after my last encounter. Haydn kept chattering on about his journey and approaching the witch as we walked toward where he said she was staying. “You know, she’s nothing like what I expected,” he said a few minutes later, and suddenly noticed my wound, which had begun bleeding again because I we were walking at a faster pace than normal. “Maggie! What happened?” he asked. “Wait, never mind. Is it bearable?” To this I nodded yes. “Are you going to be alright?” Another nod. “Do you know who did it?” Yet another nod, but with a headshake at the same time. I knew who did it, poachers, but I wasn’t sure who. “Well, as long as you’ll survive the walk, we’ll have Meadhbh take a look at it.”
By this time, we were well into the forest, east of where I had been residing. Smoke rose in a hazy thread a few hundred feet from where we were standing, a small campfire was built in a makeshift ring of stones about ten feet in front of a pitched tent.
We approached the tent and out walked Meadhbh. Haydn’s description was correct; she was nothing like I expected. Though hundreds of years old, her skin was as pale and unlined as though she was not a day over twenty. Her voluminous red curls fought strained against the ties and clips that held it. Her garb was not what one would expect of a witch as there was neither a pointed hat nor a billowing black robe in sight. Her emerald green dress hugged her form to where it was gathered at the waist, then fell to the ground in pleats and folds of fabric. Gold embroidery adorned the cuffs and hems of the garment, in patterns that were Celtic in nature, swirling elegance and beautiful chaos. She looked as though she had been living in luxury, not traveling and staying in a small tent. Her eyes caught my attention. In their silver depths, her ancient knowledge showed. Never before had I seen eyes of that color. They shone like the moon on a starless night, catching your attention and keeping it.
“So this is the girl,” said the witch. “The one that has gotten poor Haydn into such a fuss.” Her voice was velvety and transfixing.
“This is Magdalena,” said Haydn formally. His hand rested on my back, clammy with fear. “Please help her.”
“Did I not already agree to?” demanded Meadhbh. The question was not one to be answered as the woman continued immediately after asking. “How long has this been happening?”
Haydn answered for me. “It started when she was five.” Shrinking under the witch’s powerful gaze, he continued. “They were short at first, only moments, and started getting longer recently.”
“Magdalena, does this happen when you concentrate on an animal?” asked Meadhbh, kinder than she had sounded before. Surprised she could guess, I nodded my odd head jerk.
“Then the solution is simple. Concentrate on being human. Think about everything that makes you who you are and that you love when you are in your given form. Concentrate as hard as you possibly can. Try it now,” ordered the woman. “Oh, and lay down in case you lose your balance when you change.”
I carefully lay down on a lush patch of grass and thought. I thought of waking up in the morning to my mother’s soft breathing. Of running through the village, the wind in my hair, the smells of the day, bread baking, fires burning, the chemicals of the tanner and the dyer. I thought of Haydn and walking with him, how I trusted him more than anyone in the world, trusted him with my secret, how he cared enough to risk his life against the witch to let me live mine as I should. And a burning feeling came through me. My body filled out, my legs lengthened and I felt my hair brush my shoulders. My side was smooth, unwounded. I guess Meadhbh had cured that as I transformed.
A grin crossed Haydn’s face and he ran to help me up, my legs as wobbly in this new human form as I had been at first in my deer state. I was myself again, and what a pleasure it was! Never has the grass beneath my sensitive feet or my hair fluttering in the faint breeze felt so good.
I hugged Haydn tight, tears of joy flowing from my eyes. “Why are you crying, silly? You’re back!” he asked, confused.
“That’s why I’m crying: I’m back!” I answered. To Meadhbh, I asked “How did you know how to turn me back?”
“Child, I didn’t turn you back. You turned yourself back. And to how I knew what to tell you, I have a similar problem, which I solved long ago,” said Meadhbh. “Try to stay human. And if you don’t, keep your visits to the animal world short and sweet. You become too much like the animal if you keep their form for too long.” And with that, she turned away, heading back toward her tent.
“Wait!” I called. She turned back, her expression slightly annoyed. “I just wanted to thank you.” I walked toward her and said “And do this.” With Haydn’s surprised gaze on my back, I embraced Meadhbh as I would a mother or a sister. “Thank you.”
I walked back toward Haydn, leaving a stunned Meadhbh to think about what may have been the first hug she had received in centuries. “Thank you for everything,” I told Haydn as I took his hand and started walking back to the village.





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