Trading Up | Audio
By Tracie McBride
Tracie McBride is a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children. She is a member of the Melbourne-based speculative fiction writers group SuperNOVA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 40 print and electronic publications, including Pulp.Net, Coyote Wild, Abyss and Apex, Space & Time, Sniplits and Electric Velocipede. She won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent for 2007 and the Williamstown Literary Festival's Seagull Poetry Competition in 2009.
Mamma has always had a love for other people's possessions. Her house is like a giant magpie's nest. Everything in it is second-hand, some items legitimately purchased but most stolen. A collection of knick-knacks clutters her mantelpiece, thrown together with no regard for colour, form or value. A trio of pink plaster kittens, bought from a teenage boy for fifty cents after he had won them at a sideshow shooting gallery, is equally valued with the emerald encrusted Faberge egg she lifted from the drawing room of an exiled Russian heiress. Even her husbands all started out as someone else's.
There is one thing, however, that stands out from her purloined belongings, one thing that she coveted above all others, one thing that has proved more costly to possess than she ever could have imagined.
When Mamma first saw me, I was little more than mist in a dusty bottle. We glimpsed each other through an open doorway as I peered from my glass prison on a shelf in the back room of a curio shop. It was mutual, familial love at first sight. Something in her unfettered spirit called to me, and I to her. The avaricious old man who owned the shop guarded his stock like a vulture over a scavenged carcass, so, even for a practiced thief like Mamma, it took several return visits before she saw her opportunity. With a swirl of misdirection from her saffron silk scarf, she slipped me into a concealed pocket in her jacket and took me home.
Once home, she uncorked the bottle, but she did not know that, without a suitable receptacle for me to enter, I could not leave. She pressed her face to the glass and murmured to me, sometimes pleading with me to come out and play, sometimes singing lullabies, and sometimes uttering nonsensical terms of endearment. Never did she become angry or disheartened. Day by day she sat with me, while her other less cherished belongings gathered dust, her face grew lined and haggard, and her fourth husband left her. She barely noticed, so intense was her infatuation with me.
Two years to the day after she found me, fortune struck. Mamma was carrying her bags into the house after one of her infrequent shopping trips when a sparrow flew in through the open door. It careened in panic about the living room before flying at full speed into a window, dashing its little brains out and falling to the floor. I felt the old familiar pull of the void left by its departing life force. Almost without my volition I slipped out of the neck of my bottle and flowed into the bird's body.
Ah, the freedom! The delirious, intoxicating freedom! For a moment I forgot about Mamma as I flexed my tiny muscles and took to the air. She frowned up at me, not yet aware of what had happened. I landed next to my bottle and pecked at it. She shooed me away angrily. Snatching up the bottle and peering into it, she turned white as she realized it was empty. I fluttered down and landed on her shoulder. She raised her hand as if to dash me off, when she recognized something in my chirruping. Tears of joy filled her eyes as we touched for the first time, her forefinger stroking my head, as delicate as a butterfly kiss.
She called me Jeannie. It was a private joke. Unlike the mythical spirits I was named after, I have no power. I could not smite her enemies. I could not provide her with material wealth. I could not grant her any wishes, save for one, the single wish her starved soul desired -- unconditional love.
My new form allowed me scarcely more ability to communicate than my old one, but I was grateful to have the use of all five senses. In time, however, I was no longer able to maintain the sparrow's body. It began to disintegrate around me. I shed feathers at an alarming rate, and soon was unable to fly. Mamma was concerned, then frantic when my skin began to bleed and peel. Pressing her hand to her mouth to stem her sobs, she fled the house. I thought she had abandoned me to my fate, which would be dire indeed. Without a corporeal form, or the correct incantation to send me back into my bottle, I would be cursed to an eternal half-life in the void between heaven and earth. But Mamma soon returned, clutching a plastic bag that sagged with the weight of a freshly gassed cat.
It was a beautiful creature, part Siamese with a glossy pure black coat, but in that body I was a poor substitute for what she really longed for, which was a child of her own. It wasn't long before she devised a solution. She developed a relationship with a local funeral director, and, using a combination of sexual favours and blackmail, she procured the cadaver of a young child. I could not leave the house for fear of being seen by former relatives, but that was no great hardship. I have lived for hundreds of years, so the outside world holds little mystery to me. Far more fascinating was the kindred spirit I had found in Mamma.
But the day soon came when Mamma needed to arrange a new body for me. She went to visit her undertaker friend, only to find the funeral home locked up and vacant. It seemed that bartering bodies for sex was not his only vice, and he had been arrested. She offered to get me another animal body in the interim, but I told her that, having progressed to higher life forms, from bird to cat to human, it was impossible for me to go backwards. I must take another human form.
This was a lie. Although the comparative strength and agility of animal bodies has its compensations, I much prefer humans. For me, there are no substitutes for a functioning voice box and opposable thumbs. Besides, I had Mamma's best interests in mind. I was sure that she would find taking a backward step to animal bodies to be unsatisfactory as well.
For two days Mamma paced about the house chewing her nails and muttering, pausing only to glance nervously in my direction. When I began to slough off rashers of skin, she got desperate. She dressed us both in scarves and dark glasses, bundled me into the back of a Ford Fairlane that had taken her fancy in the supermarket parking lot (it was mainly the fluffy dice she was after) and took to the streets in search of a new body.
What we found was a five-year-old girl, alone in a playground after dark. Beneath her snarled blonde hair, dirty scabbed knees and dull pain-filled eyes, I saw a beauty surpassing any of the forms I had ever occupied. It was obscenely easy to take her. She must have thought she had little to fear from a gentle-voiced woman and another (albeit strangely attired) small child, so she climbed into the car readily on the promise of a hot meal and a ride home.
Her death was peaceful. After dinner Mamma drove around dimly lit streets until the girl fell asleep in the back seat. Using a similar technique to the one she used to dispatch the cat many months ago, she asphyxiated her with noxious gases fed into the car from its own exhaust. As my current body was already technically dead, I was able to sit safely next to the girl and take possession of her body at the precise moment of expiration. I caught a glimpse of her soul as it rushed toward the afterlife with a speed only seen in the very old and the very young. It was mostly coloured in the bright golden glow of joy, but with two distinct dark stripes of resignation and reproach. I did not tell Mamma of this. Even with her fluid notion of morality, taking a young child's life was causing her considerable discomfort. It was better for her to think that the girl went entirely willingly into the afterlife.
I don't know how the police found Mamma. Now she is in jail, and I am in the care of strangers. From what I can ascertain from eavesdropping on my keepers' conversations, the initial charge against Mamma of child abduction could become more serious. They think that I was seriously mistreated in her care, because I have no memory of my life prior to her arrest. I hear terms like "amnesia", "ten year sentence", and "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder". Several doctors have seen me. They have stripped me naked and all but turned me upside down in search of scars, and sure enough, they found them. They are unaware that those scars were inflicted by someone else before Mamma found their daughter. The situation would be laughably ironic, were we not in agony over our separation. And if the doctors were horrified by what they found, just wait until the little girl's body starts to reject the foreign entity inside it.
I calculate I have about two weeks before that process begins. How fortunate that I have a human body now, not an avian or feline one, or my plan would be nigh-on impossible to execute. I will have to obtain a new body for myself. This one may be small and weak, but it can still wield a knife in the dead of night. Then I will exchange a series of bodies, seeking forms of increasing strength and influence, until I find the one that is best equipped to release Mamma. I believe the modern term for this is "trading up".
Something about my intended course of action bothers me. Ah, yes. If I remember correctly, the last time I found myself temporarily without a master, I did something similar. The townsfolk were less than pleased, so they employed a sorcerer of immense knowledge and power to imprison me behind glass. But I need not fear. The old magic has been long since forgotten. There is no one in this world of shysters and charlatans who can stop me.
Don't fret, Mamma. I am coming for you.