"Yes," he said, voice soft, and I realized his unhappiness wasn't just travel and being away from me.
"Is their form change tied to the full moon like most shapeshifters?"
"What do you mean at first?"
"This is a large extended family, Anita. Most of them all seem perfectly human at first, but some of them start to manifest this . . . change in early adulthood. The youngest male started to change at fifteen; the oldest was almost forty. If they make it to forty without this happening, they seem to be safe from it, but they can still pass it on to their children."
I said, "The only lycanthropy that I've ever seen run in families is the weretiger clans, but that's like regular lycanthropy, when they start to change in adolescence. It's a whole-body change, not piecemeal like this."
"It usually starts like the first picture, with a hand or arm or some small piece changing, but then it grows worse over time, like the second photo."
"You hinted that it's tied to the moon at first. I take it that later on it happens more often."
"Yes, just like regular lycanthropy: Stress, anger, any strong emotion, can bring it on, and sometimes the changes become permanent."
"Does it get any worse than the second picture you showed me?"
"I sent you one last picture. It's worse."
The phone dinged and I didn't want to look at it. I saw my share of awful crime scene photos--hell, I had waded through my share of serial-killer crime scenes--but I still didn't want to see worse this time. Micah had seen it in person. If he could see it live, then I could look at a picture.
The upper-right side of the man's body was a mass of writhing snakes. The right side of his face was covered in livid green scales. I expected his eye on that side to be like the snake's eyes, but it was still a human eye, brown and ordinary. Coming out of the side of his neck and trailing up the edge of his face were more snakes. It was as if his human body was turning into a mass of serpents.
I got back on the phone; my voice was as empty as I could make it. The picture was too awful for me to add more emotion to the situation. "Do they eventually change into a whole bunch of snakes? Does the human body lose integrity and just become individual serpents?"
"And that's one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about it. That's a question I never thought to ask. If the answer is yes, does it change anything?" he asked.
"Maybe. I mean, do they just become a mass of snakes and never re-form into a person, or do they stay attached to each other like a really creepy version of Medusa?"
"Does their snake, or snakes, become a beast like yours and mine? I mean, my inner beasts have thoughts, emotions, and if my body would let the change happen, if I could really turn into the physical form of my beasts like you can, the beast is sort of independent. It's its own being, animal, personage. Is one snake arm like that?"
"No, it's more like that rare medical condition, alien hand syndrome, where one hand begins to act independently of the person. They'll get flashes from the snakes, but it's mostly about biting, attacking, violent impulses."
"Are the snakes afraid of the human body? I mean, does the snake want to get away like a real snake would want to hide from humans?"
"I don't know, and I'm not sure they know either. They see it as a curse, Anita, a true curse, so they don't spend a lot of time trying to communicate with the monster parts of themselves."
"Surely you've told them that if you cooperate with your inner beast, you can control it better. The more you fight the change, the more violent it is, and the less control you have as a beast."
"I've explained that to them, but they don't want to make peace with it. They want it gone."
"A lot of new lycanthropes feel that way."
"But this isn't like regular lycanthropy, Anita. They aren't becoming their animals; they're losing pieces of themselves in a way I've never seen. Their minds never stop being human and being horrified at what's happening to them. There's no moment when they can embrace their beast and enjoy the release of simpler, more linear thinking. Giving over to my leopard is peaceful sometimes, almost meditative."
"Do you think there's any chance of them finding peace with their beast parts?"
"You've seen the images. I get the feeling that there's worse to come, but they either don't want even me to see it, or they suicide before it gets much worse than the last picture I showed you. By the way, that's one son, one father, and one uncle."
"Is it only men in their family?"
"No, but it manifests differently in the female line, and it's less prevalent."
"You mentioned Medusa. It usually starts there, like one snaky curl, or one picture is a snake curled between a woman's breasts, but the snake just happens to be growing out of the woman's ribs. It's usually calmer and it seems to be a different species of snake. It can also appear years earlier, even in early childhood."
"Can you send me a picture of it, the snake at least?"
"Hold on a second; there's someone at the door." He put me on hold.
I was left staring at the bridal dresses again in their plastic cocoons, waiting for the big day when they would come out and turn into beautiful brides and friends in rainbow colors. I wondered if anyone in the family Micah was helping saw marriage the same way. Did they tell their would-be spouses that any children might suffer the family curse? At what point in dating do you tell someone that particular truth?
"Anita, are you still there?"
"For you, always," I said.
"Thank you," he said.
"For reminding me that you're there for me. I don't know why this is bothering me so much."
"It's pretty terrible, Micah, and you can't figure out how to save them from their fate. Your inner white knight is really unhappy with that."
"You know me too well."
"No such thing, between us," I said.
"True," he said, and his voice sounded lighter. "Sorry, the witch has a few questions for me before we fly home to St. Louis. She's willing to see what her magic can tell her about the curse. More information is what I'm hoping for, but of course the family wants a cure."
"Is it the witch my friend recommended to the Coalition?"
"Yes, but I really don't think any modern witchcraft can cure this. If it's a curse, then whatever power was behind it is not like anything we can do today."
"Yeah, witches can't turn you into toads or any of that kind of stuff."
"I'm trying to talk them into a multiprong attack--magic, medical science, and gathering information from anyone old enough to have seen this kind of thing before--but if they won't share information, or allow me to share information, then there's not much we can do. Honestly, I'm not sure there's much we can do if they do come completely out of the closet. I've just never seen anything like this."
"What did they expect you and the Coalition to do for them, Micah? I mean, why did they call you in?"
"They want a cure."
"No type of shapeshifting is curable," I said.
"They want help, Anita. They've been very careful about who they let me see, but they are a big family, and the curse, or whatever genetic disorder this is, is getting worse."
"Have you seen any of them where the change is permanent?"
"How do they function with part of their body like that? I mean, how do they go out and about if it doesn't go away? It's not like they can hide it."
"If it's just an arm, they put it in a cast or a sling. If it spreads to the point of the last picture I sent you, and it's permanent, the family hides them away, or they suicide. Though I'm not certain about that last part; they won't say suicide out loud, but it's implied loudly enough. Too many stories about family members who become less and less coherent when they change form, and when I ask how bad did it get, they get vague. They say grandparents can't live forever, or they have accidents,
lots and lots of sudden, fatal accidents."
"Maybe they're not saying suicide because it's closer to assisted suicide, or even murder."
The silence on the other end of the phone was heavy. He sighed. "I guess I didn't want to think about that, but of course, you're right; that's probably what's happening. I'm not certain on that last part, because they won't confirm it as a solution, not out loud, but it's implied."
"Have they tried cutting off the arm when it's just one snake?"
"If you chop it off with a blade, it either goes away for a month until next full moon, or it splits and becomes multiple snakes faster, and the multiples become the form from the full moon onward."
"It sounds like the Lernaean Hydra from the Labors of Hercules. Every time you cut off a head, two grew back in its place."
"The family has Greek ancestry. They believe that their curse goes back to ancient Greece."
"What did their ancestor do to piss off the gods?"
"A seduction gone wrong and maybe turned into a rape, depending on which side of the story you're on."
"You know this can't really be a curse by the gods, right? It's some kind of genetic lycanthropy that we've never heard of, but it's not a curse."