Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
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Little Brown Changeling

for Otter

by Lauren Scharhag

I found a tiny creature in the vacant lot beside
an abandoned hotel. I thought it was a kitten.
It was kitten-shaped and mewing. I searched
the dry July weeds for a mother cat or littermates

but found none. The creature was all alone, so I
took it home. Having no money for a veterinarian,
I asked a farmer friend with a colony of barn cats
to come have a look. She agreed that it was, indeed,

kitten-shaped. No mites, no fleas, just a little brown
bag of bones, barely three weeks old, fur brittle and
falling out from lack of nutrition. I know now that she
should have been bottle-fed. I know now that I did

literally everything wrong. All I had to feed her was
dry kibble. I wetted it down to soften it for her milk teeth.
She gobbled it all up and wanted more. When I could
afford a vet, he agreed that she was definitely

kitten-shaped, and we scheduled an appointment to get
her spayed. When she peed under my bed, I asked her not
to do it again. She listened very seriously, nodded,
and honored my wishes. Then, when I gave her

her first bath in the sink, her paws grew webbed and powerful,
her fur grew sleek, her pipe cleaner tail thickened into one
more suitable for aquatic propulsion, and just like that, she was
a baby otter. We had all suspected she wasn't really a cat,

or if she was a cat, she was an absolutely singular feline.
The other cats made it clear she was not of their ilk,
and I will never forget how joyfully she splashed and frolicked
in the water. For a time, her favorite form was a bat.

Around and around the apartment she sailed on brown wings,
whipping around corners to startle us, tiny fangs glistening
as she laughed. She never grew very big, five pounds
for most of her life, but despite my meager ministrations,

our little foundling thrived, her fur becoming burnished
and downy soft. Then came her owl phase, golden eyes
blinking in the darkness, rotating her tiny bird head
to smile at us. I still have a brown feather from those years.

When she was frightened, she would become a brown crab
with a piecrust carapace, scuttling sideways, pincers clicking
defensively, and when she was feeling guilty, she'd move in
a strange, hump-backed shuffle, eyes paling to yellow,

a hyena. If you'd dropped her in a barrel full of regular crabs
or a cackle of hyenas, I still would have known her.
Her distinct vocalizations were always the same
regardless of shape. She trilled and cooed

when she was happy, snorted and chuffed
when she was annoyed, chittered to demand treats,
and at night, she became a little brown dormouse,
snoring in her blanket nest. I saw her become a rat,

a buzzard, a monkey, a raccoon, a salamander.
Her body would lengthen itself into serpentine form,
and we'd have a tiny dragon on our hands, belching tiny flames
like a scaly brown Zippo. In the water, she liked to be

a mermaid, though more of the Fiji variety than HC Andersen,
with her mashed-in face and sargasso hair. She was a sphinx,
a fairy, an elf, a manticore, a banshee, a gargoyle, a squinty-eyed
gremlin, a goblin, a Gizmo, a Gollum, the world's smallest

Wookie, whatever the hell Grogu is, and Salicious B. Crumb.
She was the rarest of beasts, and like all fantastic pets,
the day came all too soon for our little brown changeling
to leave us and go back to her realm for good.

One final transformation, one final conflagration,
and in a little brown urn, we keep her phoenix ashes.
Sometimes, I still hear her singing, and sometimes,
she visits me in my dreams, and there, at last,

she shows me her true face.

© 2023 Lauren Scharhag

Lauren Scharhag (she/her) is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry, and a senior editor at Gleam. Her latest poetry collection, Midnight Glossolalia (with Scott Ferry and Lillian Necakov), is now available from Meat for Tea Press. She lives in Kansas City, MO. https://linktr.ee/laurenscharhag

Find more by Lauren Scharhag in the Author Index.