I had heard, of course, that the Lady Uduru was the most beautiful woman in the world. I was not impressed. Beauty doesn’t matter much to a goatskin girl—beauty brings nothing but trouble, usually from the men who are always talking about it.
But kneeling before the Lady Uduru’s chair, I could see the truth for myself. She was clothed in silk and cotton whiter than new goat’s milk. The cloth had been beaten to paper-thinness so that the outline of her body sloped beneath it like a shady oasis in dry-season sun. Her smooth skin was the color of a starless night, her eyes agate-dark. Her hair was knotted so that the ends rose in tufts above a nest of braids, the roots painted red with clay slip.
She is too beautiful to be human, I thought. She does not look real. Don’t think that I meant this as a compliment, or as an insult. The surface of things isn’t what matters, as every goatskin girl knows.
When the Lady Uduru spoke, even her voice was otherworldly. It seemed to rise out of the Earth beneath her, like a tree taking root. “Do you have a name?” The words reverberated in my chest the way drum-beats do.
“I am called Shanzi,” I told her. My own voice sounded hollow and nasal in the wake of the Lady Uduru’s.
“What did you cost?”
I peered up into her face for clues; it was blank as a mask. “Three buffalo,” I answered, “and some lentils, and some yams.”
“How many yams?” The Lady Uduru’s neck was so long and straight. Egrets had necks like that—and Egrets did not smile, either.
“I did not count.”
“Then how do you know what you are worth?”
I tilted my head, else I should have shaken it. “I do not know, Mistress. But I know I am worth the same as I was before the yams and the lentils and the cattle changed hands.”
Ah, I thought, there is something human in there, because a emotion tugged at the Lady’s broad, perfect mouth before she spoke again. “You will stay with me, Shanzi,” she told me. “And what I tell you to do, you will do.”
Of course I would—but what, I wondered, did the most beautiful woman in the world want with a two-skinned girl?
Before you ask, no, it did not trouble me to have been either bought or sold. My Mother and Father, and little Ange and Nasif, had more to eat, and I myself had a softer bed and better meals than in my old life. What other arrangement would have gotten us all of that? Marriage, perhaps, but most men do not want a wife who is only human when she chooses to be.
The Lady Uduru was older than me by eight rainy seasons. She spoke twelve languages and read books—real books, sometimes I could hardly believe her wealth!—and when emissaries visited town, it was always the Lady Uduru who served as hostess.
The Lady Uduru created nothing with her hands, except occasional letters that I could not read. She did not weave or hunt.
“Sit with me,” she commanded, when rich foreigners came to dinner. She seemed to always be sitting. “Stay beside me, and listen.”
Which after all was an easy job. So why complain? At those dinners, I was obedient and therefore silent, because there were always good things to eat.
The moon had poured itself into darkness and then refilled before I learned that the Lady Uduru did know how to make things with her own hands after all.
“We are going out today,” she announced on rising from her bed, and I trailed after her like a tame dog.
Perhaps you have not spent much time in the grasslands—then, let me tell you what it looks like: it is broad, and flat, and if you do not know how to see, it looks sickly most of the year. If you have clever eyes, though, you can see that the place is sleeping. Seeds curl up under the dust, and frogs bury themselves in the mud beneath pools before the pools go dry, and all the animals hide beneath stones, or lie panting in the dirt as if the life is fading from them.
The Lady Uduru went out alone, except for me. She rode a white buffalo whose sides were streaked with dry-season dust. I trotted behind her as a girl.
As soon as we left town, a white sheet of cloud unfolded itself just above us. The Lady Uduru looked up and nodded, but she did not say anything to explain.
We went a long ways, until the houses were all far behind us, and that cloud sat fat and heavy above, spreading and puffing itself up, swelling with rain that did not fall. Out among the boababs, she bade her buffalo stop—he was a very obedient animal—and she left him in my care.
“Wait here for me, Shanzi,” she commanded in her earth-and-heaven voice, and I nodded but promised nothing.
So she left me there, and the moment she was out of sight I tied the buffalo’s rope to one of the trees and slipped on my goatskin.
Now, the goatskin is a slippery thing, and it lets you make choices. It’s magic so I can’t explain to you how it works exactly, because you’re either born knowing or you aren’t. I was, and so when I slipped my goatskin on I told it, You’d best make me into a snake this time, old skin! because a snake could slip through the grass and over stones without being seen. Whenever I slip on my goatskin, there is always a kind of bonecrackle, and a squeezing, and a bloom of confusion, but after the first few times you learn to expect the feeling and to ignore the pain.
When I unwound myself, I was a puff adder—big and sharp-toothed and poisonous, the safest things to be when you’re a girl on her own. I slid off sideways in the earth, so as not to startle the buffalo.
The Lady Uduru was out in the open. She looked around carefully to see who was watching, but she did not spy me in my new body. Satisfied, she lifted up her hands—lovely, soft, idle hands which so often went to waste. Her hands tightened to fists, and she yanked down, like she was pulling something out of that cloud.
What came out was rain.
It did not come slow, either. It came suddenly and in fat ripe drops sweet as fruit and cold as stars. Blue fire cracked out of that cloud, and it was bright and angry and it bit. I’d never seen lightening like that before, not so focused on one thing: every time it struck, it struck the Lady Uduru.
All around us, the world woke up. My snake-tongue could smell all the seeds poking out their shoots, and all the frogs under the earth began to shudder to life. That made my stomach rumble, though I don’t care for frogs in my girlskin. Pools and ponds and watering holes began to fill, and still the water came. I slid up onto a rock to watch—the Lady Uduru’s lips grew tight and thin, and the fine red clay washed out of her ruined hair, staining her cheeks and forehead. The muscles in her neck strained; her jaw was set. This was hard work, anyone could see that.
After a while I slid back toward the tree where the buffalo waited. Alright, old skin, change me back, and—with a crunch and a blot of red-black that left my head aching—there was a girl-me where the snake-me had been. Things feel different in different bodies, so I couldn’t smell the frogs anymore, but I could feel the fat raindrops, and they were warm and pleasant on my girlskin.
After a long time, I can’t guess how long but I was I terrifically hungry and had been for ages, the Lady Uduru returned at last.
She did not look like herself. Some of the light was gone out of her, and she was tired and cranky and very human.
I learned one thing about the Lady Uduru that day: she was useful. The most useful of anyone in our city, I think.
Funny, how no one ever talked about it.
I can see from your face that you are very confused. Don’t they have goatskin girls where you’re from?
No, the goatskin isn’t an actual skin, like a pelt or a shirt. It’s a thing you’re born with. It’s another way of existing. It means you can’t understand people, most of the time, because how can they stand to wear the one same skin forever and ever?
Why do they call it a goatskin, when you can become anything? Because girls who are born with it have one leg that folds back, like a goat’s does, and that leg ends with a goat’s hoof.
See? On me, it is my right leg. No need to gape. It is perfectly natural.
Two seasons after I came to live with the Lady Uduru, a visitor arrived from the North. I did not quite understand where exactly he lived, or how far North it was.
Ah. Yes. I see that you already know who I mean.
His hair was as dark as anybody’s but finer, very straight and soft. His eyes were strange, too, light brown and smiling—but insincere. And yes, his skin was lighter, but not so light as all that.
In his own way, he was as appealing to the eye as the Lady Uduru herself.
I sat at the table with them and poured their coffee while they ate dates and honeycomb and thin slices of meat.
“I have heard I great deal about you,” said the man, who introduced himself to us as Master Akiiki. “The rumors, it seems, are true.” And he dipped his head and smiled. His smile showed more teeth than was polite—he reminded me of a nervous baboon.
“There are always rumors,” said the Lady Uduru, sipping her coffee. I was beginning to suspect that she was tired of all the nonsense about her looks, but there was so much magic in her that she couldn’t help what everyone thought. People are drawn to magic like hyenas to a young wildebeest. It can be dangerous.
“How fortunate,” said Master Akiiki. “They are right about your eyes—storm black, they say.”
The Lady Uduru’s wide lips thinned. “How kind of you.”
He went on to praise each and every feature of her face, her figure, her household. I let my mind wander—sometimes when I do that, I can see under the skin of things, into their meat and muscle. It’s not magic, exactly, but a by-product of the magic. That is a talent you can learn.
The thing I saw inside of Master Akiiki was a sharp dark shadow like a wasp in its nest. It made my mouth taste sour, it made the toes of my left foot curl.
I kept my eyes open that night; I snuck as much coffee as I could drink before bedtime, though it had long gone cold, so that I could watch out for the Lady Uduru. I did not like that Akiiki, did not trust him by half.
Thusly, while the Lady Uduru was roaming deep though comfortable dreams, I was awake to hear the sounds of two people approaching. He knew the rumors, you see, rumors I had not even heard, about what the Lady Uduru could do. Water is valuable everywhere.
Yes, there is danger in good magic. Fortunately the danger runs both ways. I pulled my goatskin on at once—back into my puff-adder shape, the last one I’d worn—and slid into the Lady Uduru’s bed.
Hardly a moment later, two men, Akiiki and a servant of his, snuck into the room. Akiiki covered the Lady Uduru’s mouth at once, to stop her screaming, while the other man tied her up. I hissed very softly at them, but they did not hear. The Lady Uduru struggled, but as I have said she spent most of her time sitting and writing letters and entertaining, and she was not very strong. When they were done they shoved a rag in her mouth so that she could not scream.
It was a rather dirty rag. I did not think she would care for that at all.
Finally, they wrapped her in her blankets and carried her away. They did not know it, but they carried me as well. Had I been a real puff adder, things would have gone much worse all around.
It was obvious to me that the Lady Uduru’s powers did not extend much beyond storms. When the men tossed her in a cage, and tossed that cage into an ox-cart, she lay there very hopelessly and shuddered. To her credit, she did not cry—but if it had been me, I would have turned into a cobra and avoided the whole problem.
But she was not like me. Both of the Lady Uduru’s feet were shapely and perfect. Poor thing!
When we were alone, and I was sure Akiiki and his man would not come back, I slithered out of my hiding place and wound my way around her. I felt her breathing stop and her heartbeat stutter when she saw me, but she did not cry out.
“Don’t worry, Mistress,” I told her, “it is only Shanzi.” Alas, she did not understand me.
With a sigh, I slid off to the very cornermost edge of her cage and pulled my girlskin on. I heard the breath wheeze out of her lungs, and the blood left her face to that she looked pallid and grey. I’m told the transformation is difficult to witness; I myself have never seen it done.
“It is only Shanzi,” I said again, in a hoarse whisper. This time she nodded.
I remembered the cloth in her mouth, and pulled it out very gently. My fingers brushed her teeth, and for a moment I felt something like embarrassment. She was certainly not used to people seeing her like this.
The cart hit a stone, and our teeth rattled. I could smell her fear, the sharp and bitter tang of nervous sweat, and it roiled my stomach.
“We’ll get you out of here,” I promised, cool as well-water. I, of course, could come and go as it pleased me.
“But how?” she asked.
I shrugged. She was the clever one, with so many languages and letters. Surely she could devise some plan.
She chewed her lip, a lip that was chapped with thirst. She is not so old, I thought. “You could put on a skin to look like me,” she suggested. “Then I could escape, and when I get free of them you could turn back into an adder and slip away, too. Perhaps we could trick them somehow, when they saw there were two of us?”
“It hardly matters,” I said. “I have never tried to wear another girlskin, but even if I could we’d be easily told apart,” and I showed her my leg.
Oh, yes. I see your confusion. We’ll come around to that.
She nodded. “But you can turn into a beast? Any kind of beast?”
I squinted at her. I had not seen this side of her before, the curious part. She had never shown much interest in other people; but perhaps that was part of her performance as the world’s most beautiful woman. For the first time I saw her as a person who might well be my friend.
But she would have to be free first.
“Let me try something,” I suggested, and slid into my goatskin and became a mouse. I winked at her—although I doubt she could see it—and skittered out into the front of the wagon, down into the ropes that held the ox to the cart. Akiiki and his man were talking in a language I did not know, but it sounded rather as if they were discussing their impending fortunes. Whether they meant to sell the Lady Uduru off, or rent out her magic, I did not know and did not care. I wanted only to put a stop to it.
It is one thing, you see, to be sold to a reasonable mistress who puts good food in your belly, and gives you a clean bed to sleep in, and keeps things interesting for you. It is another thing to be stolen for someone else’s profit.
I bit into the ox’s ropes one by one. I nibbled and chewed ever so carefully, and I was thorough, although every moment carried us farther from home and closer to wherever Akiiki was taking us. It doesn’t do to be hurried and careless. This is another thing we goatskins know.
When my work was done, I dropped off of the cart and rushed away into the grass, to a place where I could change skins without being seen. I tugged at my goatskin, thinking, What about a sleek, lean lion, wouldn’t that be a nice shape, oh flesh of mine? And a moment later, I was.
I liked being a lion. I liked it tremendously.
I followed that cart on my new lion-limbs. I could be a lion forever and be content with that, I think. But I had work to do, and I did not enjoy it as much as I might have.
The ox pulling that cart smelled sweet, as sweet as it would to my girlskin if it were roasting on a spit. I crouched down and snuck upwind of the ox. No self-respecting lion would ever do that, because it would frighten the ox into a frenzy—but this was my desire exactly.
The beast began to shuffle in its traces. “Hurry up, you dumb thing!” demanded Akiiki, whipping it mercilessly, but the ox was frightened of me more than it was frightened of an old whip.
When the ox’s eyes began to roll in its head, and Akiiki was blue in the face from all his yelling, I sprung up out of the grass and roared, charging the cart. The ox screamed and bolted away, as fast as it could. The cart bounced over rocks and snagged on shrubs, and at last the ropes broke and the ox hurried on but the cart did not. Akiiki’s man fumbled with his spear, but I was a long way off by then. I intend never to be gored!
Then, when I was out of sight a ways, I tugged myself into a bird skin and flew back.
Circling the cart, I watched Akiiki and his man pull the Lady Uduru from her cage and pack up what supplies they could. I did not have to understand their language to guess the meaning of their words—swearing sounds alike in every tongue.
“Shoo, buzzard!” cried Akiiki, waving his spear at me.
The Lady Uduru smiled up; she looked battered and disheveled from the cart ride, but pleased.
There, I thought, wheeling away. That will slow them down for a bit. But men like Akiiki sleep on the skins of lions. He was not afraid of me, and I would not surprise him again. Not in that skin, anyway.
I followed them for a long ways but saw no other opportunity to strike. I suppose I might have turned into a scorpion, or an asp, and ended it, but I do not like to use my magic for killing. In my girlskin, I hunt and defend myself like anyone, but magic is subtle, and its patrons must be subtler. So I observed.
They were kind enough to the Lady Uduru—had they laid a hand on her, I would have killed them gladly.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, in between dainty sips of water. In the old days I would have rolled my eyes, but I was beginning to see how her body was a kind of weapon, and how she could wield it as cleverly as I could a knife.
“To my brother,” said Akiiki. “You will marry him, and you will bring rain in every season.”
“Will I?” asked the Lady Uduru. The way she said it answered clearly, No I won’t.
“You will,” said Akiiki. “My brother will see to it.”
The Lady Uduru was so bold as to laugh in his face. Oh, I loved her nearly as much as I had loved my lion body.
Alas, Akiiki and his man were careful. They did not let her out of their sight. They took turns standing guard that night, and while the Lady slept a little ways off, and had her privacy, she had no chance to escape.
I know. I kept watch all night.
They rose early the next day to continue their march.
“This will be a very long trip on foot, I think,” said the Lady Uduru mildly, stopping to shake dust out of her shoe—it was a man’s pair, salvaged from the ruined cart.
But Akiiki’s man shook his head. “We will take a ship this evening. We would have arrived last night, if it weren’t for that cursed lion...”
The Lady Uduru cast her shoulder a frightened glace; I was riding in the folds of her dress, back in my little mouse-skin. That was no good! We’d have to escape before we reached the boat. Even if anyone came after us, and if they knew somehow which direction we’d been taken, they’d never find us upriver.
Us—well, one thing was sure: they would not come looking for me.
I tugged gently at my goatskin, just to see if it would be possible to put on an Uduru-girlskin if it came to that. The goatskin pulled back; it did not like that shape. My goatskin might be flexible, but my girlskin was unique.
The main thing to do was buy us more time, and by the time the Lady Uduru and her captors had taken their morning break for water, I had an idea. I folded myself into a golden sparrow when the men weren’t looking and flew off, scanning the ground. I did not have to go far to find what I was looking for: a sandy red hill built up against the side of an old tree.
A siafu anthill.
Surely even you know that the jaws of the siafu can carve flesh, and that when the siafu travel in their driving line, anything in their path will be eaten to the bone. It was not the season for lines to form, but I could not wait for the right time.
Landing safely in the tree, I tugged myself into the skin of a siafu. It was the smallest skin I’ve ever worn, and I was half-afraid I’d burst out of it again, but my goatskin held as I entered the anthill.
Ant brains are not like human brains; you have only to think something, and nudge the fellow nearest you, and he’s thinking it too. The fellow beside him knows it in a moment, and then... suddenly, the whole anthill knows, fast as thought. It’s a lovely way of communicating, when you aren’t trying to trick someone into doing something that isn’t their business.
So I didn’t let myself think about why I was there. I only thought what I wanted. Time to go time to go it’s the time now hurry hurry, I thought to them. Ants, like all other creatures, love to be powerful, and so stirring them against their natures was not as hard as it might have been. It helped, I’m sure, that I was a rare female in a Queen’s harem.
The ants came with me in a flood; I could lead them by little more than thinking, and even in an ant skin my will was stronger than theirs. We were not swift, but we did not have to be. We only had to cut off Akiiki’s progress. Once they got going, they were impossible to stop.
When Akiiki reached our drive, fifty thousand strong, flowing like a deadly tributary through the sand, he cried out in frustration. “We’ll go around,” he snarled, and the three humans followed the ants upstream, hoping to find the far end and circle around.
The Lady Uduru winked at a hyena lying in the shade of a nearby baobab. Her magic must have been getting better, because she was right: it was me.
Slow them down it did—but my tricks did not stop them, and in spite of everything they reached the river that night. There was a small port along the water, only an abandoned house and a creaky dock. A boat too fine for that river-harbor was moored in the black water.
“The boat will have to wait for morning,” Akiiki growled. His manners became sourer, and his looks less pleasing to the eye, with every passing moment. I would have been proud of my work, except that the Lady was not yet free.
Three men were waiting in the little house; all Akiiki’s men, ready to sail at sunrise. There was no one else; and no one else would come.
“It is only a day by boat to his brother’s town,” moaned the Lady Uduru when I snuck into her private room. “What shall we do? I want to go home.”
My family was better off for having sold me into the Lady Uduru’s service. But if there was a drought, their new fortune would dwindle to nothing in a single year.
The land is kind to us when it wants to be, but sometimes it forgets. My family was better off if the Lady Uduru was safe in her fine house, with her fine books, wielding her cold manners in one fist and her magic in the other.
“Hold out your hands,” I told her. She did, and I laid mine atop hers so that our palms touched. Very, very gently, I tugged at the edge of my girlskin.
“Oh!” cried the Lady Uduru, yanking her hands away from me as though I was on fire. “What is that?”
“I have a solution,” I told her. “I think I can look like you. But I think... I think we will have to exchange girlskins.”
She gaped at me, and I smiled at her purely human expression.
“I will become you,” I explained. “That is, I shall look just like you. But when I wear the goatskin, I am still myself inside—so I believe that if we do this, I shall still be me, and you will still have your magic, and you will be able escape, only...”
“Only I shall look like you.” The Lady Uduru said this neutrally, but I noticed the way her eyes roamed over me, over my face and arms and down to my feet. I could feel the blood rising in my neck and face. At last she said, “I am older than you are.”
“Then clearly you will get the better bargain in this trade,” I snapped.
She laughed at me, loud and low in that fine deep-rooted voice, and I could not guess what her captors would be thinking if they heard her. “Then try.” She held her hands out to me, and I placed my palms on hers and changed my girlskin for the first time.
Every animal is different on the inside. I was long used to the shape of new bodies, but this was something else, because for all my changing, the girlskin was the only constant shape I knew.
It was strange, too, to see Shanzi sitting across from me, staring at her hands in wonder, then staring at me in awe.
I recognized her expression. It was the same one I had when I looked on her for the first time.
“Well,” I said, “it worked.”
Shanzi bent forward to examine me more closely. “This is very strange,” she murmured. “I don’t know if I like it.” Then her hands found her face and traced the shape of my nose and my lips—No, don’t forget, her lips now—and her ordinary face was overtaken by a smile. “No. I am certain. I do like it.”
Even in her new body, she was more radiant than I had been, and so I was quite sure that she had taken her magic with her, and that I had kept mine.
“You can’t turn into a mouse and sneak out,” I told her. “You’ll have to find another way.”
“I can go by the door,” she teased, rising on shaky legs—but I shook my head.
“If they catch you, that will be the end of it.”
“Then we will need a distraction,” she said with relish. “I have just the thing. Oh, and Shanzi?”
“However many yams I paid for you, you were worth it.” Her grin sat strangely on my face, but I did not dislike it.
Shanzi raised her hands above her head, just as she had done in the grasslands. For a moment nothing happened—was the magic gone?—but then the air quivered with static, and a drumming of thunder shook the walls, and then, wonder of wonders, a bolt of that merciless blue lightening split the roof open, and then there was another, and another, reducing the room to rubble and letting the rain in.
The first thing Akiiki thought of, of course, was his prize, and he was on me as soon as he could push through the rubble.
“I don’t know your game,” he snarled, grabbing my arm, though clearly too afraid of me to hurt me, “but it won’t help! You’re still my prisoner.”
“Yes,” I said, watching the faint outline of Shanzi disappear forever into the rain, “I am.”
“I won’t take my eye off you again until you are safely in my brother’s house!”
On he raged, but I was smiling to myself, because when Shanzi ran off into the night she had two ordinary feet, and by wiggling all my toes I had discovered that no matter who I appeared to be, I would always be a goatskin girl.
The rest you know. Your brother brought me here, and true to his word he has not let me out of his sight for a moment. But now it is just the two of us, and instead of the most desirable woman in the world with her life-giving storm magic, you have got me.
One of two things will happen now. I will turn into an adder, and either you will let me go because I am worthless to you, or you will try to kill me for my impudence. If it comes to that, we will see who strikes first. I do not like to kill with my magic, as I said, but I will defend my life in any skin.
After that? When I reach the open desert, I will tug myself into a lion skin, and I will leave you behind.
Yes. It is possible that I will return the Lady Uduru to her own skin, and take Shanzi back.
It is possible. But it is not the only choice a girl with my magic might make.