Every morning we meet in the kitchen and unsheathe our needles. Serena delicately peels down her underwear, exposing a modest triangle of buttock; I count to three, hold her hip to steady her trembling frame, then jab, thrusting the handle until the fluid disappears. She exhales, in one quick hiss, like a cat. Then I turn and bend over, underwear around my ankles. I don’t care what she sees: my cottage-cheese ass, the tuft of fur between my legs. I used to wax and prune, to spread “smoothing creams” on every inch of my body, even the parts no one ever saw in the daylight—but since I started taking the shots, my attitude has changed.
Needles don’t scare me like they do Serena. But when she plunges it in, I give a little yelp of solidarity. We are in this together—at least for now.
The two needles look identical, although their contents are different. We have different goals. Serena wants to become a mother. I want to become a horse.
Q: What does it mean to be a horse?
A: First, it means not being a person. No credit cards, no fad diets, no existential questions, no more boring meetings or family dinners. No political allegiances or disappointments, no responsibility to anyone but yourself. Mostly: no embarrassment, which (as a great writer once said) is the fundamental condition of being human.
Q: How do I become one?
A: It’s quite simple. State your desire in writing and we’ll take it from there.
Q: Is it expensive?
Q: Why not?
A: Because there is not yet sufficient demand for the procedure. All the more reason for you to try before it becomes pricey and exclusive. Right now it costs less than a Pilates vacation in Tulum. Would you rather transform your core, or your entire being?
Every time she saw the blue minus sign, she said, Serena heard a big game-show buzzer going off inside her head. She was running out of time: only one more round of IVF before her money dried up. In the meantime, her ovaries swelled painfully, she felt like a hormone-soaked sponge. I didn’t say so—I held her hand, I told her she was beautiful and perfect, I spoke soothing words about the future—but she looked like a hormone-soaked sponge: bloated, leaking feeble aimless tears.
Serena’s name fit her perfectly: she was sleek, composed, never a hair or a word out of place. Even in rare moments of rage, or grief, or drunkenness, she seemed exquisitely self-controlled; her emotions seeped out of her like an invisible vapor, leaving her porcelain-doll face, her slim body, unchanged. Now, though, she’d begun to grow blurry. This was what she wanted, to blur and smudge her own outlines: but she wanted pregnancy, not anxiety or disappointment, to be the cause.
Meanwhile, I felt my formerly messy self congeal, cohere, grow tight and purposeful; I became leaner, more alert. Sometimes, walking down the street, I gave my long hair a toss, I almost let out a whinny of delight.
Q: How does the process work?
A: The process now known as Equinification was discovered by Dr. Janus Beláček, a Hungarian doctor employed by the government of Croatia. While using horse DNA to test a method of improving hair luster, Beláček discovered that his subjects—but only the females—had begun to grow hooves. This accidental discovery enabled Beláček to extend his formula, transforming human DNA into horse DNA. The process requires only a simple series of shots.
Q: Where do these horse-women live?
A: Atalanta Ranch, which occupies an entire island off the coast of Florida and has been built expressly for this purpose.
Q: What do the horses on the ranch look like?
A: They look like horses, which is to say that they look exactly like themselves: tall graceful animals designed for running and for grazing, muscles rippling beneath a shiny coat of fur, hair flying in the wind. They don’t look like the sad, compromised horses you might see plodding around muddy rings carrying children, or dragging tourist-laden carriages through a city park. They look like they are doing nothing other than actively being themselves—as if this, the act of being themselves, joyfully absorbs all of their attention. They lap from clear pools beneath waterfalls, they canter across open fields, they nibble grass at the base of exquisite, tree-lined foothills.
Q: Are the horses happy?
A: There is no way of knowing for sure.
Q: But what’s your gut feeling, though?
A: How could something that beautiful not be happy?
“Why do you want to be a mom so bad, anyway?” I asked Serena. We sat across from each other at the kitchen table, fingers curled around steaming mugs of tea, the offending pee-stick faceup between us. “It’s weird that I’ve never asked you.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just always have.”
“Are you sure you really want it? That it’s not, you know, just socialization?”
She set her mug down and closed her eyes, as if gathering her thoughts, and then opened them. “Sometimes I want to hold a baby so badly,” she said, curving her arms around the invisible burden, “and it’s not an idea, it’s a physical need. It’s stronger than the need for sex. The warmth, the weight—I don’t know. It’s incredibly specific. It’s a more specific desire than I’ve ever felt for any man.” She looked at me. “You’ve never felt that, not even a little bit?”
I shook my head. “And I’ve always thought, when people say they want to start a family, why would anyone want to create more family? Isn’t family the thing we’re all trying to get away from?” She laughed, while I blushed and backpedaled: “I mean, yours won’t be like that. Yours will be great.”
She shrugged. “My kid won’t always like me. Maybe I won’t even like him or her all the time. But I don’t care. It’s like—” She hesitated for a moment. “You’re going to think this is cheesy, but I heard this song lyric once that described children as ‘life’s longing for itself.’ That’s the best way I can describe it.”
I blinked, startled by the phrase. “I know exactly what that means,” I said. “Life’s longing for itself. But for me, it has nothing to do with children.”
Serena had a husband once: Bill. Nothing was wrong with him, really; he just didn’t stick. Some people slide right off each other, despite their best attempts to stay attached.
I’ve never had a husband, or a wife. I’ve had lovers, some briefly, some for ages. One of us always left. At first I thought I was failing at something and then I realized I was aiming for the incorrect goal. In trying to knit my life together with someone else’s, I was going in the wrong direction entirely: what I wanted was to be free, utterly free.
At first love appeared to offer freedom; it gave me a kind of soaring feeling, the world seemed to belong especially to me. But every long-term arrangement made a mockery of this initial flight: each shared domestic situation became a sadistically nurtured garden of resentments, each nonmonogamous configuration required a volume of careful politics—of unceasing demands disguised as negotiations—that I imagine it might take to run a progressive, moderately sized nation. Sweden, for example.
But single life didn’t offer the kind of freedom I wanted, either, with its stale routines, its clumsy infrequent sex. What I wanted was something not offered by human existence at all: the wild, unfettered life of the body. As I neared my fortieth birthday, I felt increasingly constricted by daily postures—sitting in a chair at my desk; hunched over the steering wheel in my car; cocking my head with feigned interest at a party; stirring spaghetti sauce over the stove. I started taking expensive vacations to engage in extreme physical challenges: mountain climbing, skydiving, snowboarding. These pursuits all induced a feeling of mastery and freedom, but only after learning a complex set of rules regarding harnesses, buckles, and straps. I wanted to do away with constraints entirely.
Then I learned about the ranch.
Q: Does the process always work?
A: Unfortunately, no.
Q: What are the potential side effects?
A: Sterility, seizures, Centaurism.
Q: Why does it only work on women?
A: We’re not sure, but we think it’s because they want it to.
Q: Is that how science works?
A: No one understands how science works, not even the most scientific scientists. Dr. Beláček himself has been given to grand pronouncements of the following nature: “It’s desire, not gravity, that holds the universe together—and desire, not dark energy, that pulls it apart. Outcomes do not respond to our efforts in a linear way; rather, outcomes retroactively reveal the depth and mystery of our desires. My process is nothing more, or less, than a patented conundrum.”
Q: What does that mean?
A: It’s hard to say without a working knowledge of Hungarian idiomatic expressions. In the obscure dialect region from which Dr. Beláček comes, the same word is used for “conundrum,” “miracle,” and “mistake”; it has also been used to refer to the feathers of a chicken (but only in circumstances when they are no longer attached to the chicken).
Of course, I went to visit. Otherwise, how could I be certain it wasn’t a scam? Serena had been skeptical from the beginning: “I don’t know, Cass,” she said. “What if there is no ranch, and it’s all some plot to turn gullible women into pack animals? What if it’s some awful military-industrial-complex type of thing?”
But the ranch was just as they’d described. The horses looked healthy and vibrant. Conspiracy theories like Serena’s had been debunked by that point anyway—journalists from all the major news organs had thrown up their hands, finding no evidence of a sinister agenda—but there was nothing like seeing it for myself. Their hooves pounding across the plains, making a sound like rainfall; their coarse hair rippling in the wind; their quiet gaze of recognition as they watched us approach.
“Do you think this is some kind of modern version of the lesbian separatist utopia?” I mused that night to Cathy, one of the other women on the tour, over gin and tonics at the island’s guesthouse. “Except not just for lesbians.”
She laughed. “Old fantasies die hard.” She gave me a meaningful look. “Can I ask something? What’s your reason?”
“Boredom,” I said, without hesitation.
She nodded; my answer seemed to make sense to her. “What about you?” I said. “What are you escaping?”
She replied with a long story about her body, which had endured nearly every tried-and-true form of female trauma: abuse, rape, abortion, endometriosis, hysterectomy. “I guess,” she said, “I want a different body, with a clean slate.”
They kept refilling our drinks, without our asking, and soon we were very drunk. Somehow we found ourselves in my room, stripping off our clothes, hungrily tonguing and sucking each other’s bodies as if, by taking in the other’s flesh, we could achieve the kind of transcendence we were hoping for, while still remaining human. This sex was like a competition: who could manage to escape her body, using the other’s body, first? We pushed against each other with such violence that orgasm became inevitable. But the noise she emitted as she came—a helpless whimper, like a child’s—brought me back into the room. Embarrassed by what her cry had introduced, we turned away from each other. Just then, I sensed movement behind the window; boldly I got up, stark naked, and pulled aside the curtain. One of the horses was standing right outside, staring in with her dark liquid eyes. I felt the bed creak behind me, then heard Cathy gasp: so she saw it too. The horse gave a deep, slow nod, as if to demonstrate that we had understood each other; then she turned and disappeared into the night.
Q: When I become a horse, will I still have human consciousness?
A: We believe this question is best answered by iconoclastic seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who tragically died from the effects of inhaling glass dust. Spinoza defines God in the following way: “By God I mean an absolutely infinite being, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.” In other words, a horse and a woman and a stone are not different things, but rather all attributes of the same thing, which is God. “Every substance is necessarily infinite,” Spinoza writes, but has its own “essence.” In a similar manner, you will simultaneously be your human self and not be your human self when you become a horse. You will think the same thoughts, but in a horsey manner; your personality will have the same attributes, but horsily expressed; your thoughts will take on a horsey cadence, your feelings will pulse and throb with thick horsey blood. We cannot guarantee that you will continue to inhabit your human identity in any recognizable way. But much as Spinoza accepted that not only his human lungs but also the glass that subtly punctured them and the air that suspended and delivered the glass to his pulmonary tissues were all made of the same substance—God—and that therefore his death was only a matter of taking God into God, of God puncturing God and delivering God into another form of God, we hope that you will accept any change in your nature as both natural and sacred, however artificially induced.
Q: Do you believe in God?
Serena went to the doctor, reported that the second attempt had failed. “We don’t say ‘failed,’” said the doctor, kindly. “We say ‘unsuccessful.’”
“That’s almost as bad,” said Serena.
The doctor shrugged. “You want to have a baby,” she said. “You should probably get used to feeling unsuccessful. It’s not possible to ‘succeed’ at parenthood the way you’ve ‘succeeded’ in your career. Treating parenthood like a career can cause anxiety, wrinkles, and helicopterism, especially in older mothers like yourself. Sometimes I give my patients a mantra to repeat. I will not succeed. I will not succeed.”
“Oh,” said Serena. Then, after a pause: “I wouldn’t say I’ve succeeded in my career.”
“I don’t know anything about your career,” said the doctor. “I was just using that as an example.”
Serena is naturally self-deprecating; I, at least, consider her successful. We became friends in a Ph.D. program that she actually finished. I dropped out after our third year, when I realized that the most pleasurable part of my life was my summer waitressing job. At that job I felt competent, dexterous, sexy, a person who could face the world with an air of cockeyed challenge. I strutted between the kitchen and the dining room with plates expertly balanced on my forearms; I joked and flirted with the customers; I swore good-naturedly at the line cooks; I finished each shift pleasantly exhausted, my ponytail loosened by exertion and my body aching for earned indulgence. My nights often ended on the incense-scented mattress of another server, a drummer named Matty, where we fucked and smoked and fell asleep after four in the morning. When I had a day off, I spent it walking through the city, or going swimming or rock climbing, or reading books I actually wanted to read. It was an absorbing existence, and I didn’t care that I might be atrophying the higher parts of my brain; for once, it seemed I had discovered something actually true about myself, not something that was just supposed to be true.
But it got old. Eventually I became annoyed at Matty—his generic compliments, his bad toenails, his constant quotation of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—and we got a meaner boss, and I started to get a persistent pain in my hip that turned out to be sciatica. I tried a few other restaurant jobs, then finally settled for freelance copyediting, for which my half-degree apparently qualified me. I had no desire to go back to school—I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that the world would ever care what I had to say about Virginia Woolf or Deleuze or anything, really, and anyhow I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to say it.
Serena graduated with honors, and won an award for her thesis on eighteenth-century women’s novels. For her, intellectual labor felt like labor, in a good way, the way waitressing had for me: honest and exhausting and satisfying. But after graduation, despite her accolades, she couldn’t find a job. She had dozens of interviews, almost got several tenure-track positions, but in the end they always went with someone else. I encouraged her, but privately ascribed her failure to her meekness with strangers; with friends she was self-possessed, often cuttingly funny, but she was a cipher in interviews. She seemed to equate “professionalism” with a total erasure of her personality. In the end, after a few miserable years of adjuncting, she got a job teaching English at an all-girls high school. To her surprise, the girls recognized her quiet power and obeyed her, surrounded her with a mute halo of reverence. She became one of the school’s most beloved teachers, supervising the literary club and an adorable baby-feminist zine, matter-of-factly explaining the mechanisms of birth control and orgasm to anyone too shy to ask the health teacher. Yet, no matter how deeply the work absorbed her, she always felt like a failure because she wasn’t leading obscure seminars on object theory, or giving papers at the MLA conference, or being addressed as Professor Lowry. She suffered from crippling spasms of envy every time one of our former classmates got a job or published a paper. Eventually, after we became roommates, I forbade her from complaining; it seemed she was being ungrateful toward the gifts of her life. I was much worse off, bored and restless in a deeper, more fundamental way.
Yes, I was bored, I was deeply bored, I was rapidly approaching a crisis of boredom. It seemed more and more like boredom was the fundamental condition of my existence, a monolithic truth I ignored with less and less success as the years passed. I was bored with my job, bored with Boston, bored with my periodic escapes, bored with my attempts at relationships; by womanhood, personhood, life. I wondered whether I was particularly bored, or whether everyone secretly felt as I did and found ways to distract themselves. Either way, it was becoming intolerable.
Q: Isn’t this really a glorified form of suicide?
A: We prefer to think of it in the opposite way, as a kind of birth: deliverance into a denser, quicker, more urgent form of life. But your friends, lovers, and relatives may not see it this way. You may have to prepare them for your transformation as you might for your death. Some choose to attend support groups with their friends and partners. Others complete their transformations in secret, leaving only a note behind.
Q: Will I need to make out a will, then?
A: Yes. You may not bring anything with you to Atalanta Ranch, besides your body.
Q: Can my loved ones visit?
Q: Will they recognize me?
A: Most of them claim to, but it is impossible to determine how much this recognition depends upon wishful thinking.
Q: Can they ride me?
A: We don’t recommend it. So far, every attempt has ended in tragedy.
It started happening right after my fortieth birthday, in June: I woke up in the middle of the night with a strange feeling in my feet—not pain, exactly, but pressure so intense it absorbed my whole attention. I cried out in surprise, and Serena rushed into my room, and then we pulled back the covers to see that my feet had been replaced by perfect horse hooves, black and stonelike.
As predicted by the pamphlets, I felt disgust, then wonder: The transformation of your own body will be a spectacle arousing both revulsion and awe.
I got up and tried to walk around. Serena and I both giggled, manically, the way terrified people do. My hooves were tender, and it hurt to walk on them, like when my feet used to ache at the end of a night on high heels. I felt lopsided and clumsy; these hooves weren’t made to carry a bipedal organism. But hearing their clop-clop-clop around the floors of the apartment, I grew excited: it was really happening!
We couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. We stayed up, rereading the informational pamphlets, speculating on how quickly the rest of me would start to turn. We had six months, we imagined, until the change spread up to my torso and I’d have to head down to the ranch to complete the rest of my transformation.
As if by magic, by some prearranged signal of the gods, Serena peed on another stick the next morning and discovered she was pregnant.
Q: Are the horses tame, or wild?
A: The horses at the ranch are wild. We provide nothing but acreage for running and grazing. We do nothing to “break” them. There are no harnesses, no bridles, no whips.
Q: What does it mean to break a horse?
A: A broken horse is an obedient horse. This obedience follows from trust, and from a system of rewards. The horse is habituated to its bridle, causing it to associate restraint with comfort. If done properly, restraint need not be a form of violence; rather, it is a language, a grammar of leather and human touch that the animal body comes to understand and to welcome. Yet we at Atalanta Ranch eschew human-imposed languages of any and all kinds. Among other purposes, the ranch exists in order to cultivate wildness.
Q: What is wildness? And may wildness be “cultivated,” or is that phrase not oxymoronic?
A: That is what we’re trying to find out. All we can say is: either you personally resonate with this desire, or you don’t. Either you like the idea of shaking off your restraints, and are willing to give up everything you know in the attempt to do so, or you are like most people: comforted by language, by clothing, by laws.
Maybe you are the kind of woman who experiences this comfort but feels deeply suspicious of it, suspicious of all male inventions. Maybe you have longed to strip away the grammar of patriarchy and reinvent everything from the bottom up. If so, we welcome you, but with one important caveat: when you become a horse, you will not care about sisterhood or equity, and if you did, you would have no way of working toward these goals. Instead, most likely, you will care only about the kinesis of your muscles, the yellow butter of the sun, the furry grass between your powerful teeth.
Walking around town with my hooves, I gained a new kind of attention. Women regarded me with disgust or envy, men with disgust or desire. I’d heard, on my trip to the ranch, about people with Centauride fetishes, but I’d assumed it was a super-niche population—basically, people with a bestiality kink who’d discovered a new outlet. But it turned out to be a much wider spectrum.
My first night out at a bar with some friends, I was the object of many stares, but I sensed a particular heat coming from one man at a corner table. He wore the distinct, recognizable look of a graduate student: floppy hair and a lanky frame and a too-large cotton hoodie. He was at least thirty, but looked like he’d only recently learned how to dress himself. I kept feeling his gaze on the back of my neck. Every time I looked over at him, he turned away, red-faced. Eventually, when he approached the bar to get another drink, I addressed him.
“Hey,” I said.
He blushed again, flicked his eyes down to my hooves, then back up, then blushed deeper. “Hey,” he said.
“Am I the first you’ve seen?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry. I guess I was staring.”
“I’d heard about—you. But I wasn’t sure it was real.”
I shrugged. “Looks like it is.”
“Is that—is that the only part of you that…?”
“So far, yes.”
He nodded, swallowed, looked at me hungrily. I grabbed a pen from my purse, scribbled my number on a napkin. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him, but I’d been hugely, aimlessly horny since my hooves had appeared.
“Look,” I said, pushing the napkin toward him, “my friends and I are about to head to another bar—but if you want to meet up later, text me. I’ll be free by midnight.”
Later that night, on the mattress in his spartan studio apartment, he stared at my half-clad body as if he’d never seen a woman before. (Of course, he’d never seen one like me.) I felt his gaze playing over me, lingering on the spot where the slope of my ankle gave way to the ashen density of the hoof. The feeling reminded me of being with a boy for the very first time, in high school. He’d reached out for my breast with undisguised wonder; his desire had been enough to inflame my own.
Now, though, the hunger in the eyes of the floppy-haired grad student failed to make my general desire focus more specifically on him. Something was happening, though, a violent molten feeling welling up within me. As he reached out to touch me, to grasp me around the ankles, I recognized it as rage.
But it was too late: it had already happened. I had kicked him.
He jerked backwards, drawing his hands to his face. Blood seeped out between his fingers. He said something, or tried to, but all I heard was “unhh, unhhh.”
The old me would have taken responsibility: would have gone and fetched him a towel, called a taxi, accompanied him to the hospital. But I was no longer human. The sight of his bloody face only increased my rage, tinged it with contempt for his weakness. I fought the urge to kick him again, harder; it was all I could do to get out of the house. I hurried down the stairs of his walk-up, pushed open the door, and ran through the streets of Somerville, awkward on my hooved limbs but propelled by the heat his near-touch had unleashed. It wasn’t rage at anyone, or anything: just a pure, propulsive red-hot urge. I ran past Harvard’s gates, over the bridge, through Boston at a full sprint. At some point I realized that my awkward gait had been replaced by something graceful and rhythmic and, well, horselike; I had stopped noticing the strangeness of my hooves, I was using them as they were meant to be used. I was cantering.
By the time I approached my own neighborhood, I’d slowed to a trot, but I felt elated: my very nature was changing. I was becoming wild. The man’s touch had been a bridle, and I had kicked it away.
Q: What symptoms might I experience during my transformation?
A: The same symptoms you would experience during any transformation: mood swings, growing pains, strained relationships. Also, possibly, the occasional blinding toothache. To find a Centauride support group near you, consult our website.
Q: Am I required to go to the ranch? Or can I make an arrangement in advance, in which a friend or relative agrees to take care of my horse-self on his or her own property?
A: This is permissible, albeit at a slightly higher cost (the cost of preparing the more complex legal paperwork that such an arrangement requires).
Accept this caveat, though: your friend or relative must be aware of your wildness—of the fact that you most likely will not submit to their attempts at friendship, and if they persist, they may incur violence. If you are willing in advance to be domesticated by your friend/relative—to be “broken” by someone you love—you must sign paperwork to that effect before completing your transformation.
Over the next few months, the change slowly inched upward. My human ankles became horse-ankles, I grew coarse caramel-colored hair on my legs, my femurs stretched and thickened. Occasionally I felt sharp pains in my bones—growing pains—but other than that, the physical transition felt invigorating.
My rage, however, only grew. I was energized by aimless, volcanic fury, 100 percent of the time. Perhaps I wasn’t changing my nature but recognizing something that had always been there. My boredom had never really been boredom, but rather a deep, deep anger: the molten lava at the earth’s core, unseen until it disrupts the placid surface.
Where had this come from? Did everyone have it? Or had I done too good a job of submitting to myriad invisible harnesses? Either way, it was obvious, now, to everyone I met. I responded to routine rudenesses—catcalling, crowding on the subway, an unsolicited hand on the shoulder—by snarling, flashing my eyes, baring my teeth. People’s eyes grew wide; they stepped back; they treated me like the dangerous animal I was. I loved it.
Serena too was changing. Her first three months she’d looked sickly and drawn, she’d thrown up all the time, but finally the pregnancy had rooted in her body, and she blossomed. The first sonogram showed not one but two fetuses in her belly. Now her face looked inflated but ruddy, glowing with health. Every moment she wasn’t teaching, she was at the computer, researching the development of the strange creatures inside of her.
I, on the other hand, found myself unable to sit still. I’d sit down, get through one paragraph, then feel it kick through me: the wildness, the aimless rage. I’d leave the house, drive to the river, canter up and down the path beside the Charles, kicking sod fiercely into the water until I got it out of my system. My white-hot anger was surrounded by a bright corona of joy: every act of violence rang in all my pleasure centers, sent a thrill of aliveness down my spine. This was what I’d been missing.
Then, one evening, I got so frustrated with my work that I stood up and kicked a hole right through the kitchen cabinet. This time, the joy was quickly eclipsed by horror: the splintered wood, the ugliness, the cost.
Serena appeared in the doorway, pale, one hand on the swell of her belly. We stared at each other, gripped by the same mute question: how much longer could we go on like this, sharing the same space—my destruction, her attempt to create?
That night, lying in bed, I heard the unmistakable sound of muffled weeping. I got up, knocked lightly on Serena’s door, then cracked it open. At first she didn’t notice me, because she was turned toward the wall. This gave me a moment to just look at her and feel my feelings.
I had two feelings, simultaneous but contradictory: a rustling annoyance, the pitying contempt I’d come to feel for humans still trapped in their weak hairless bodies—but, also, compassion. Serena was the person who most reliably aroused my remaining human tenderness, and she was suffering. I walked in, sat on the edge of her bed, lightly stroked her hair. This only made her cry harder.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she choked out. “Just hormones.” But before I could respond, she corrected herself. “I’m fucking terrified. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. And I’m doing it totally alone.”
“You won’t be alone, you have your family. You have your friends.”
She laughed bitterly. “Yeah. Except for you.”
My brain flashed back on our ritual with the shots. That seemed like such a long time ago; the needles had done their work, we’d launched ourselves onto opposing trajectories. Did we still need each other? If not, did this mean we had failed to love each other, or that we had loved each other well?
With effort, Serena sat up in bed, wiped her eyes, looked at me. She was still waiting for me to respond.
I just stared at her. In the greenish light coming through the window, she seemed distinct and alien, like someone I had never seen, really seen, before. The protrusion of her belly was impossible to ignore: it crested just below her breasts, then stretched toward me, an insistent convexity with an agenda of its own. There were two whole people in there: for the first time, the terrifying marvel of this fact hit me full force. Perhaps her transformation was even stranger, even wilder, than mine.
“You can come visit me,” I said. “Bring your kids to the ranch. It’s so pretty there.”
“And tell them what?”
“This is your aunt Cassie. She was restless, and she turned herself into an animal.”
She snorted. “And what? That’s supposed to be an example of some sort? Things get hard and you just leave? Just peace out of human life entirely?”
I shrugged. “Maybe it’s a cautionary tale. This is what happens when you ignore your own wildness for too long. Your unhappiness becomes a second skin. You have to get an entirely different skin, in order to survive.”
“You’ve really been that unhappy?”
“It hasn’t been obvious?”
“I always thought you had so much more fun than me. You were constantly trying new things. You had none of my hang-ups about sex. You slept with men, you slept with women, you never seemed to care.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Were you ever attracted to me?”
“Yes. Never mind. It’s a stupid question.”
“Were you attracted to me?”
“No, I don’t think so. But there were times when I wished I was. That we could actually, like, fuse with each other. Like we could break into each other and both become something different.”
“Yes,” I said. “But maybe we did do that. Just not with sex. We’re different now, aren’t we?”
She considered this. “Then why am I so afraid?”
“I’m afraid too,” I said. I’d spoken automatically, to comfort her, but as soon as I said it, I realized it was true.
We looked away from each other, toward the window—embarrassed as Cathy and I had been at the ranch, but for different reasons. This time, of course, no horse appeared: just a faint mist, illuminated by streetlights. What had been illuminated? Perhaps the wild thing in the room was not in fact my kicking legs, or the strange life inside of her, but what lay between us: the animal tide that can arise between two women, more mysterious than sex, hardly touched by the simple word “friendship.” It rose and crested, it rocked the small bed like a lifeboat.
Q: Is the change reversible?
A: No change is ever reversible.
Q: What happens if the process doesn’t work on me?
A: You’ll get your money back. We may ask you to participate in an ongoing scientific study of long-term Centauride health outcomes, for compensation—but you may decline.
Q: That’s it?
A: It’s not possible for us to do more. There are support groups; we can refer you to one in your area. However, your human or half-human life is out of our purview.
Our legal agreement requires you to assume responsibility for the risk of the procedure’s failure, before it begins; we try to make these risks clear. We ask this not only to protect ourselves from litigation, but to encourage each person considering the procedure to take responsibility for her own life in a way that should hopefully prove transformative, even if something goes wrong along the way.
This requires bravery. Our hope is that the Centaurides living among us will be viewed not as freaks or as failures, but as emblems of courage: female animals who gathered up all the uncertainties of their existence into one single, massive risk.
I went for a checkup with the Atalanta doctor. The visit was routine, had been scheduled for months, but I was nervous: my progress since the last visit seemed to have stalled. She examined me all over and said “Hmmm” a lot. I grew increasingly worried.
“When did you say the fur reached your belly button?” she asked.
“A month ago.”
“And no change since then?”
“I don’t like the sound of that ‘hm.’”
“Well,” she said, “the good news is that you’re showing none of the other markers that usually accompany the procedure’s failure. The bad news is, that means I have nothing to tell you about why this is happening, or whether it’ll pick up again.”
“So you think it’s possible the procedure is failing?”
“I’m sorry. I know this is stressful.”
“Have you encountered this before? A case like mine?”
“Frankly, no.” She smiled. “You’re special.”
“That’s what my mom always said.”
“We’ll keep checking up on you. Don’t lose heart. But in the meantime, you might want to make some arrangements for the next few months, in case you can’t leave for the ranch as planned. Will that be a problem, do you think?”
It would be. The situation in our apartment was growing tense, nearly untenable: Serena was huge, growing huger by the day, while I stayed the same. I’d moved out of my bedroom—she needed it for a nursery—and given most of my possessions away. I was sleeping on the couch in the living room, unsure of how long I could stay.
The joy had gone out of my violence; it had become a compulsion, an irritating itch. I battled to restrain myself from destroying everything in the house. All day I ran along the river, roamed through town, pummeled punching bags at the gym, then arrived home at night to find Serena sulking like an abandoned cat. I’d stopped trying to explain why it was better for me to stay away.
But I wasn’t avoiding her only out of concern for her, or her possessions: it was painful to witness the obviousness of her transformation, with my own now so uncertain.
When I got home from the doctor’s, I saw that yet another delivery of baby stuff—hand-me-downs from friends, large Amazon boxes full of equipment—had arrived at the apartment, and completely taken over the living room. In other words, my room. To reach the couch, I had to pick my way over and between the boxes, stepping as delicately as possible with my horse-legs, legs that were not made to do anything delicately. Even when I got there, I couldn’t sit down: it was piled high with baby clothes.
I lost it. I whirled around and began kicking with an aimless violence that, even after my run of rage-soaked months, startled me with its force. I had not intended this; I was beyond intention; I was fighting for my literal life, like if I stopped kicking and hurling things, I would implode into nothing, less than nothing, I would cease to exist.
By the time I’d managed to stop, I had wrecked not only most of the new baby equipment, but also the large flat-screen television and the coffee table; I had seriously damaged the couch. I looked around, at the torn baby blankets strewn with broken glass, the mutilated breast pump, the mangled stroller, the tiny books with their torn pages.
Just then, a key turned in the lock, and Serena stood in the doorway.
She looked from me to the mess, from the mess back to me. She didn’t seem surprised, exactly; her perfect, masklike features did not move at all, but seemed to grow harder and sharper, to register a sudden sedimentation of dark knowledge.
It would be pointless to apologize. I could offer no defense or consolation. I only had one option.
“I’m going to leave now,” I said. “I’ll find someplace else to stay.”
She nodded, with no expression, then walked into her bedroom and shut the door behind her. I picked up my purse and left.
I walked aimlessly, vaguely in the direction of the downtown hotels. My muscles grew leaden with shame. I felt like I was walking underwater.
What pained me was not the notion that my wildness, my horsiness, had finally overtaken me. It was the suspicion—the reluctant conviction—that my violence had been entirely human.
That night, under a scratchy hotel blanket, I contemplated my situation. While I was probably worse off now than I’d have been if I’d never attempted the transformation, in certain ways I had gotten exactly what I’d asked for. I’d received a revelation of my true nature. I had always been an awkward thing, stalled and half wild, willing to try anything but unable to commit, so suspicious of restraints that the suspicion itself became the biggest restraint of all.
For the first time in nearly a year, I cried: sobbing into the lumpy pillow, mourning the grotesque monster that I was, howling at my failure: my loneliness, my inadequacy as woman and as animal. Eventually, from sheer exhaustion, I slept.
When I woke in the morning, I saw that during my few hours of sleep the fur had finally reached upward. My breasts were gone, replaced by a fine equine torso. I raised my hands to touch it, then realized that they had been replaced by another set of hooves.
I wasn’t stupid enough to think that this development had happened because of the previous night’s revelations. Life is not like a self-help book, where you understand something about yourself and then the universe reaches out to physically manifest your new insight. We might long for change, work toward it with intention, but its arrival—if it ever arrives at all—always feels like an ambush.
Still, I was relieved. Maybe my horse-life wouldn’t be better; but it would be different. I would accept that difference humbly, allow it to work itself through me. I would accept the logical outcomes of my choices, now woven into this transformed horse-body: its hard sinews, its vulnerable flesh.
I went downstairs to the concierge, asked her to use her human fingers to make a phone call. Red-faced and excited, she rang Atalanta. They would send someone that afternoon, they said, to pick me up.
I did not call Serena. Maybe when I got down there. Perhaps, with all those miles between us, I wouldn’t notice the bruise in her voice. By then, at any rate, I’d be easier to forgive: I would already be gone.
Q: Who are you?
A: Why does it matter?
Q: If I’m going to hand my whole life over, I don’t want to give it to some faceless disembodied corporate entity, albeit one who quotes Spinoza. I want to know who’s behind this whole thing.
A: But do you, really? If you could view the author(s) of these words as finite, defined by a particular gender and ethnicity and pattern of face and body hair, would you trust the process more? Or would you see your prejudices reflected, or not reflected, and feel disappointed? The word “corporate” is often used by liberals nowadays as a blanket put-down. With good reason: many corporate entities in this country are rapacious and amoral. But in this case we would like to remind you where the word “corporate” comes from. It shares a root with corpus, body. A corporate entity consists of many bodies, aggregated into one; it then paradoxically becomes bodiless, capable of much more than any single body might achieve. Our bodies themselves are corporate, made up of thousands upon thousands of individual beings—not only cells and atoms, but other living things, bacteria and other organisms too tiny for the naked eye to record. Any body, in other words, is simultaneously a tightly arranged symphony and a provisional, cacophonous jumble. Thus, any name I could give myself would be no more than a useful lie, a loosely hung banner, threadbare and flapping in the wind.
Should you become a horse? I don’t know. That’s up to you. However, keep in mind the above: if you transform into another sort of animal, it will only be a steeper, more obvious transformation than the one you would undergo anyway, as a human female becoming a human female—always animal, always becoming.
I have four horse-legs and a horse-torso and a horse-head. Outwardly, at least, I am all animal.
I believe I still have a human brain, mostly—but every day, its language grows rougher around the edges. For minutes at a time, when I am running or eating in the pasture, I have no thoughts. My brain is not empty, exactly—it’s as though a hot wind blows certain textures through my mind, shifts its responses to the world around it, to itself, in dark pleasurable ways that I cannot quite describe. My rage has diminished, but I am neither contained nor calm. I feel many emotions now, but they don’t quite fit the words I know; I would describe them, mostly, as variations of active receptivity, of alert acceptance.
Somewhere, soon, Serena will be teaching her children the words for things. This is a table. This is a chair. This is your mommy. This is a horse. This is the earth that ties you down, that holds you up. Meanwhile my language is slowly departing, the words replaced by syllable and breath, yes mm yes huh no hmmm brrrrrrrrr. Long after I’ve lost my words completely, her kids will begin to ask her why: why is the sky blue, why did I come out of your tummy, why don’t we have a daddy or another mommy, why did Aunt Cassie become a horse? She will struggle for answers; sometimes she will find them, and sometimes she won’t. Sometimes she will sputter and snort, wave them away.
Maybe she’ll come visit one day. Our final phone call, from the ranch, was brief, halting, awkward—but perhaps over time, in my absence, her hard judgments of me will soften, turn into questions. They will lead her to me, across the long grass, and I’ll look at her and nod. I’ll recognize her. She won’t try to ride me but I will allow her to approach, put a hand on my forehead, feel my horsey warmth.
There are touches like bridles you can kick away, and then there are touches that startle you into temporary submission, like the universe catching its breath: body against stunned body, mind against bright mind. A sudden snare of recognition. Wildness regarding itself.