It was a balmy night, spring had started to slip into early summer, the trees’ leaves were thick and bright green. We didn’t speak, we only looked each other in the eyes and received the paper bags that Momo ceremoniously handed to us. And when I opened my bag in Bella’s room, my heart started beating so fast it hammered in my ears.
She had made me a tiger costume. There was a hooded coat and a pair of elbow-length gloves, the tip of each finger adorned with a golden claw. There was no mask, no plaster to hide my face, but she had taken a thin nylon stocking and painted it with dark-brown filigree. I pulled the stocking over my face and lifted the hood onto my head. Then I looked in the mirror.
A shriek escaped from me and hit the glass, it bounced sharply between the walls of the room. I couldn’t get a proper look until it died away. Shere Khan shimmered in the mirror. He glared at me, yellow eyes glowing, his face dark and threatening. The broad coat and hood concealed my usual mannerisms and when I moved, he moved too, but not like a girl with a pimpled back and a body full of worry. He moved like a king, and we were one and the same, he and I.
Yes, Momo had really outdone herself. As I walked toward the garden with the weight of the coat upon me, I realized that she had planned this evening down to every last detail. Lanterns illuminated the greenhouse and apparently she had managed to get hold of a large stereo because pounding drums and dark rhythms spilled from the greenhouse, an undulating melody that made me think of gold and glinting eyes. She greeted us inside the greenhouse where the party was to take place, and as I came closer I saw an explorer standing by the wooden table, sporting a white safari hat and a waxed mustache. I glimpsed the mysterious flower’s head through the doorway, it nodded gently as if she were craning her neck to get a good look at us. The terrace door opened and the explorer laughed with delight as a silverback entered. He supported his steps with his knuckles and when he was very close he unleashed a howl, and I couldn’t help but join in on the laughter.
The explorer bowed, and with a sweep of his gloved hand he gestured to the table.
“Welcome to the tropics, my friends. Dinner is served.”
It was a clear, starry night. We lay on the lawn outside the greenhouse, resting our heads on each other’s stomachs. Momo had taken off her safari hat, her hair rippled over my tiger-chest. The flowers around us had opened up, their soft interiors glowing in the darkness. She looked at us through the doorway, her face was open and smooth and it made me think of butterflies, how their pointy proboscises pierced sacs of nectar, how they sucked it in. I propped myself up on my elbow and raised my glass of tea with a practiced gesture.
“Would it please the gentlemen to add some true drops to the brew?”
I moved Momo’s head off my stomach. She looked up with surprise when I wrapped my coat around me, walked up to the flower and started inspecting the teeming vessels in the center of its head. They were like small blisters protected by petals, straining and aching and filled with something that had to get out.
Bella, in her unwieldy gorilla costume, stood up. She had been in high spirits the whole night, alternating between her gorilla howl and howling laughter, and now she was so hoarse and tired that she swayed as she made her way to the greenhouse.
“Oh yes! New life will course through our bodies, and the stars will take our secrets to the grave!”
Then Momo giggled. She couldn’t help it with Bella striding so comically across the flagstones. The pants of the gorilla costume had hitched themselves up, revealing the tube socks she was wearing. But Bella gave her a stern look and Momo got hold of herself and said:
“Let us make a pact, gentlemen. Let us brew a Magical Potion and drink together. Let us never speak of our drink to any mortal, whatever may come!”
And as she spoke, she raised her glass of tea to the heavens, and we raised ours as well. Bella skipped forward toward me and carefully pulled the flower’s head down.
“Yes, I swear, I swear!”
We swore our oaths and I pierced one of the small blisters with the claw of my index finger. Thick nectar seeped out.
One drop for each glass.
We toasted. Then we gulped the tea down because suddenly it tasted irresistibly sweet and spicy. And when we looked up from our glasses, when we looked at each other’s faces, a deep silence fell over us.
Without saying a word, we walked through the garden, into Bella’s bedroom. We stood in front of the mirrored doors of her wardrobe and undressed. Gingerly, we peeled our garments off in slow motion. We let them fall, gazing tenderly at our reflection, tenderly down at our bodies. We could barely breathe, looking at what was in the mirror, our eyes did all the talking, as if they were asking it: “Is it true, what we’re seeing, is this really happening, or will we wake up and vomit and remember everything as if it had been a dream?”
The three of us stood there, naked, in the bedroom of the terraced house with smoky mirrored doors. Our breasts were gone and the roundness of our hips had straightened out, the tendons and muscles of our shoulders and arms were different, visible under our skin. Our throats and necks were wider, and in the middle of our throats were Adam’s apples as large as ripe plums. I swallowed and felt how it sat in my throat, a heavy, bobbing float. Our stomachs had hollowed, the fat under our skin was gone, and we didn’t have a slit between our legs anymore. The hair was still there, sparse and so delicate that it hurt when stroked against the grain, and beneath that little bush, between our thighs, we each had a penis. Soft skin covered the glans and under it hung a wrinkled sack of skin with two oval stones inside.
Momo was the first to open her mouth, her voice was rougher than usual and broke with a screech at the last syllable.
She grabbed it and it filled with a rush of blood. I watched how her balls contracted and she opened her eyes wide.
“It’s like, like . . .”
I wrapped my hand around my own and felt a faint tickle in my stomach.
“Like a baby bird.”
When I spoke, my voice scratched my throat, as if I had swallowed a strand of hair. We stood holding our new lives in our hands. We looked at our new bodies, we flexed and stretched our new limbs and we felt something fresh in our blood. We gazed at our boy-bodies, reached out our hands, touched the surface of the mirror and our eyes lit up, flashing like lightning in the glass.
I ran down the street through the night. My legs were made of power and speed and strength. I felt the soles of my feet hit the asphalt and every step felt like the bounce of a trampoline, a leap into the air, the breathtaking feeling of being able to fly. Like being born again, as if my body had lost all memory of the past, and had stepped onto an invisible, unknown path.
I ran and Bella and Momo ran behind me. They laughed and shouted, and I recognized their voices, even though they didn’t sound like themselves. Momo caught up with me. Her boy-face barely resembled her but I could still tell it was her. It was in the eyes, perhaps, or in her facial expressions, or how her smile split her face as she ran past me. She pranced and stretched her arms into the air, as if the whole world suddenly was there to do her bidding.
We arrived in the center of town. The neon lights glittered before us. We walked three-wide. We didn’t talk, we didn’t need to talk. I felt the wonder pounding inside me, I listened to Momo drinking in the air and scents, I watched Bella flex her muscles.
We came across boys. Our eyes met theirs for a fraction of a second and then they sort of just looked past us, past our eyes. It was strange. No slick, slippery looks, no desire, no grinning mouths, nothing that crept under our skin and sunk its teeth in. Just a glassy, distant look that neither looked at nor looked away.
We came across girls and we didn’t know what to do with their glances. We instinctively looked down at the ground and I thought that this reality we were walking around in was madness, that what had happened to us was impossible, that it absolutely couldn’t have happened, and yet it had. It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a game. Strangers looked at us and their gazes were different. Our new bodies were reflected in them. It was so unbelievable, the dizzying thought took hold of me and left me reeling. I had to lean on Momo’s shoulder in order to steady myself, and Momo put his arm around me. An arm around my waist, my arm around his neck and our bodies, that feeling, Momo’s body hard and boy-soft against mine—another hole in reality opened up, so like an abyss that I immediately let go of him and laughed it off. It was a nervous laugh that unleashed a rollicking energy into the air. I ran a few steps, careened like a foal, grabbed hold of Momo’s jacket and chased him for a while down the street until I forgot that feeling, the one that was so unreal it was impossible to ponder.
Dawn broke on the horizon, a stretch of forest separated the city from the plains and we kneeled down there among the spruce trees. Among the bilberry bushes, we sat. The damp worked its way into our jeans and we held each other’s hands. Our noses ran because the cold morning was raw and damp. Momo’s forearms had been scratched by the slender, dry tree branches and my knee was swollen, my pant leg was rolled up and the skin was bluish red and a little bloody. I ran my tongue over my upper lip to prevent the snot from running, felt the short, spiky fluff that grew there.
We sat close together in a circle, our boy-hands gripped each other tightly. We had spent the night intoxicated by enchantment, but now the light was returning.
We were exhausted, but we didn’t dare shut our eyes, we didn’t dare lose sight of the others. We had a feeling, a bad feeling: that falling asleep would have dire consequences.
I shuddered with cold and exhaustion. Momo held my hand, clasped it. His voice crackled, it was a boy’s voice, and even through I had been listening to it all night, it startled me.
“Do you think we’re going to die?”
We were silent. I thought of my parents, about how they’d have to file a missing person’s report at the police station, but that I’ve never be found, that I’d be an unsolved case. And Momo’s parents and Bella’s dad, everyone would wonder. Sooner or later someone would find the three unidentifiable boys in the forest. They might be able to trace our clothing, but then . . .. It was impossible to think further than that, it jumbled in my mind because it was so unthinkable, the thing that had happened.
The thing that was happening.
But I didn’t say any of the things I was thinking, I tried to steady my voice:
“Of course we won’t.”
Bella looked at me with bloodshot eyes. His boy-lip quivered, from exhaustion and cold and fear.
“Maybe we’re just hallucinating. Maybe we’re just unconscious on the lawn back home. Maybe everything is the same as always.”
I didn’t answer, just concentrated on the large lump in my throat that bobbed up and down even though my mouth was bone-dry. Momo crept even closer to me and put his arm around my waist. I pressed myself against his warm body, the tears burned and wanted to fall. Bella too came closer. Our boy-faces were close together, I saw their pores and strands of hair and moles but I tried to focus on their eyes, nowhere else.
Tears fell from Bella’s greenish-gray, fright-tired eyes.
Momo held me tightly:
“If we die. If we die now, then at least we’ll die together.”
And Bella managed a weak smile through his tears and nodded. I felt their pulses beating in their lanky, sinewy bodies, and I thought, “Yes, if I’m going to die, I might as well die now, here, with you.” Momo’s breath stroked my face and Bella’s cheek pressed against my neck, Momo’s sharp shoulder jutted into mine and we whispered in unison, “If this is death, if what we’ve done is take our own lives, then that’s what’s going to happen, now, sitting here, close together.” And when we had said that, it was as if something released inside of us. Our bodies softened and I took a long breath—our lungs filled to bursting and pressed against our slender boy-ribs.
The last thing I remember is that I lay with my cheek against Bella’s armpit, and that it smelled sweet and acrid.
When I woke, rays of sunshine probed the spaces between the jagged spruce branches. I opened my eyes, my body was cold and tender and damp. The bright sky high above appeared as blue patches. I raised my head, groaning, propped myself up on my elbow and looked around. And then I remembered. I remembered every minute of yesterday, the game and the intoxication and the fear and I bit my tongue when I looked at the others. I bit it so hard that I tasted blood. When I opened my mouth and shrieked, my voice was as clear and shrill as I remembered it.
I was awake. This was my usual reality. We were not dead. We were wet and dirty, but we weren’t dead. It wasn’t death that had come for us, but something else, something incomprehensible, but now everything was back to normal. The boy-bodies had softened away, our shapes were girl-shapes and my shouts rang through the trees. I cried out and hollered and hysterically waved my arms in the air. Bella and Momo woke, sleep still in their eyes. I saw their memories return, how their faces lit up when they realized that they were alive.
We hugged each other tightly, Bella, Momo, and I. We hugged each other and laughed and cried a little, too, we jumped up and down with joy and excitement. Bella ran her hands over her breasts, looked down at them tenderly and I saw the love in her gaze and touch.
When the excitement had wound down, when the ache in our bodies had reasserted itself, we sat back down on the ground. We kept our heads close together, spoke to each other earnestly, in low voices. Momo looked at us with wide eyes and said, “We have to promise, on our honor, that we will never tell a living soul about this. We have to promise!”
And so we promised. We nodded and swore that this was our secret and Momo laughed amid all the seriousness, because we were as dirty as trolls and because the whole thing was so nuts, nuts and unbelievable and fantastic. I laughed, too, and Bella looked up between the spruce branches, she squinted at the morning sun and then she fished her watch out of her jeans pocket.
“It’s only six. No one will notice a thing.”
And she was right. Inside the terraced house, Bella’s dad was sleeping in front of the TV. The flickering screen cast a blue glow through the doorway and we padded past him and snuck into the bathroom. We tore off our disheveled, dirty clothes. I touched my knee. It was tender, but it wasn’t bruised any more and neither Momo nor I still had scratches on our forearms. We scrubbed our hands and faces, combed the needles and chaff from our hair.
In the mirror, three familiar girl-faces looked back at us, but they had new eyes.
Pojkarna. © Jessica Schiefauer 2011. First published by Bonnier Carlsen Bokförlag, Stockholm 2011. This extract is published by agreement with Nordin Agency AB, Sweden