I know what I am.
I always have. It's like instinct - the knowledge is just there. I know what I am, what I can do, what I'm capable of. But I don't think I was always aware. My memory is excellent - I can recall almost anything throughout my long experience. There are flashes in my mind's eye that I can only assume are remnants of memory from various life forms - single celled organisms, bacteria, protozoa, larva, worms and insects - I have no idea how long I spent, thousands, possibly millions of years content to explore inside a single drop of water. But my first real memory, of being aware of myself, began when I became the mouse.
I remember when I was fully conscious of myself. I sat in a little ball, cleaning my fur and running my paws over my face to clean my whiskers. I was surrounded by yellow and brown, a quiet rustling, the hot, brittle scent of hay in the sun. I was in a field of straw, and I remember it clearly - it was all I could see - tall stalks of very dry, dead grass. It was hot. I expect the field was suffering from drought - the earth beneath my feet was hard and dry, and the grass rustled. I marveled at my vision, at the sensation of hearing, the sensation of feeling. I sniffed at the scents in the air. It was the first time I was truly aware of myself. I knew that... I was.
I wasn't a mouse for very long, or maybe I was. Time doesn't have much meaning, and it was fascinating, exploring this newly discovered world. I snuffled about for seeds in the grass, enjoyed the sensations of taste, sight, and sound. I was so enamored with the sensations of my surroundings - I could possibly have spent years in that shape, just marveling at being aware. But as I explored and learned the abilities of my new shape, I ignored the alarms of instinct that were built into this little body when a shadow passed over the sun, and a hawk picked me up for it's supper.
The excruciating pain of being crushed by talons was agony. I marveled at it; I marveled at the panic; the tiny heart beating fiercely, the pressure of blood in my ears, the struggle to breathe. I squirmed, and the talons cinched tighter. I squeaked. I heard my own voice squeak in pain. I tried to squeak again, but the breath was gone. I felt my eyes bulging from my head. I saw a smattering of sparkles; bright points of light scattered over my field of vision that slowly faded to black.
I wasn't the least worried. I know what I am; I have always known. I had the same knowledge then as I do now. Even as the hawk stripped my hide away from my body in neat strips of red meat and ruffled grey fur, it's sharp beak snipping and talons squeezing the last of the breath from my lungs, even as it tossed back it's head to gulp me down bit by bit, I was already in the process of ingesting it.
It was nothing I had to think about; it was purely instinctive. My awareness slipped away from the mind of the mouse, and then I was no longer the mouse. I was… cells. That's the only way I can explain it. My cells incorporated themselves into the cells of the bird, even as it ate me for nourishment. I ingested it's cells, blending them with my own, learning it's blueprint, it's DNA, and upon mastering this knowledge, incorporating it and adjusting my own cells to match. Using the bird's cells as food, energy, and the building blocks of my new body, I eventually became everything the bird was, without losing the knowledge of what I was. I was both. Myself and the bird. Having integrated the bird with my own cells, I had also absorbed all it's memories and added them to my own.
I don't know how long it took to complete this process - I wasn't very large at the time, and I had to grow to fill the whole new body I was acquiring. A day, a week - I think it was more likely a month, but eventually I was aware of myself as a complete organism, preening my feathers, peering through amazing eyes and hearing with intense clarity, and hunting prey.
The hawk kept me fascinated for quite a while. Being able to see so far, to fly, to perch, to hunt and eat were sensations I very much enjoyed. I think it was probably decades in that I remained content to occupy this form. I took a mate and nested, laying eggs and sitting over them broodingly, but the eggs never hatched. My mate eventually died, of extreme old age and I moved on to spend time with another. The world grew and changed around me, and eventually I became interested in the larger life forms that had moved in to inhabit the forest. Curiosity for the new became overwhelming. I didn't put much thought into it, really; my brain was that of a bird. I just felt a growing restlessness. An instinctive urge, a need; I wanted to expand and to grow.
Soaring, I searched the earth below for an acceptable target. I picked out a large buck, and attacked it as though it were prey. It was startled and sprang forward, dancing in a zig zag stagger and bucked, but my talons were firmly planted, and it doesn't take long for me to start ingesting. My talons, already buried deep into the shoulders of the deer, had already altered, my natural cellular structure coming forth to begin merging with the cells of the buck. The process is apparently painful, and I was familiar now, with pain, having experienced the sensation of being eaten, as well as being bitten and clawed by other animals while hunting as a hawk. The buck sprang and jerked and even rolled, huffing and eventually bellowing while trying to shake me off. But I wasn't very concerned with this; my consciousness had altered into the cellular state. The bird I was became merged with the buck I ingested, and would eventually merge completely, the feathers fluttering off when the buck shook it's shoulders. Eventually, my cells would completely learn it's structure, and take it's shape. I expect I looked odd. I'm not entirely sure what I look like when I'm in a state of metamorphosis - perhaps the buck appeared to have a bird riding it's back for some time, or perhaps the bird cells degenerated into a mass that quickly penetrated the deer - I don't know. Once again, I was small, compared to the buck, and it took me a while to grow and ingest all the cells in the body, to learn them and make them my own. Eventually I was flicking my tail and scraping my horns against brush and trees, intensely aware of the itchy discomfort and trying to strip off the velvet.
As always, I knew what I was. I remembered everything about what I had been. I retained all the information learned exploring multitudes of simple celled organisms. The brief years of existence as the mouse were bright a crystal clear, as well as the memories I'd obtained from the bird. I also had all the memories I'd created myself, while being the bird. Now I had all the memories of the deer - from frolicking as a fawn to memories of fright and flight; but the deer itself was gone. It's protein, enzymes and energy had been used to reproduce my own cells. My own cells had utilized every last bit of bone and flesh to recreate this duplicate form, and what it didn't, it flushed out naturally through the newly formed intestines and bladder.
Understand - having learned the deer's DNA at a cellular level, I was, in fact, a deer. You are what you eat, and for me it's very true. The brain was a replication of the original; I had grown my own, but everything that had been in the original was retained and added to my own store of previous memories. I had all the knowledge of all the various tiny lifeforms I had occupied, as well as that of the mouse, the hawk, the deer - and myself. I still knew what I was.
But at this point I was still very much animal, and I explored the environment from the ground now, with the knowledge and tastes of a deer. I felt the sensations of rut, of shedding my antlers, of winter and hunger and cold. I knew how to survive, because the deer had known how to survive. I lived through a multitude of summers in that form, fighting and winning the right to the does, but producing no offspring of my own.
People became more prolific while I was exploring in this shape. One shot me, and I became familiar with pain again. I looked inward and worked the bullet out of my hide and it dropped to the ground while I concentrated on merging the cells back into their proper form. Then I redistributed my awareness and lowered my head to sniff at the offending metal. My ears flicked and my head came up as I heard the hunters call to each other, looking for me; reacting completely on the instincts of the deer, I bolted.
They didn't find me again, but I was aware of them now, and curious. And again I felt the strange need, the restless urge to move on; to become something more.
These creatures weren't easy to approach, and I needed to touch one. I was shot a multitude of times, and it was extremely painful - I had managed to master the nervous system perfectly. To be honest, I had mastered all the cells perfectly, it was simple instinct - I just knew how to do it; it was natural to me. The bullets were a mere annoyance and I learned how to expel them fairly quickly; then it was just a matter of repairing the damaged cells. Still, the pain was intense and I became skittish. I was learning to see man as a dangerous animal that needed to be avoided. I understood instinctively, however, that these predators were superior to the form I had now, and so, very simply, I had to become one. We stalked each other, but the instincts of the deer were powerful, and would not let me get close enough to touch one.
It was deep summer when I came in contact with the woman. She was alone in the forest and when we saw each other, we both stopped and stared. I huffed at her, trying to scent metal, but she dropped her pack and knelt down, holding her hand out to me. I approached cautiously, step by step, and she smiled and spoke. I had no idea what she said at the time, but she was encouraging me, telling me not to be afraid. And I wasn't; not in the least. I saw no sign or scent of a gun and, tail flicking nervously, I approached her, step by hesitant step. Eventually, we made contact.
Her screams of pain are horrifying to me now, and I remember the pain in exquisite detail; her memories are mine, now. It didn't take as long to ingest her, due to my size, but it took longer to learn her cells and her memories - she was a much more complex entity than any of the forms I had experienced before. After completing my meal and reeling in confusion over the vast wealth of new information I had ingested, I finally blinked my eyes and looked up at the sky from where I lay flat on my back on the forest floor.
I lay there a long time, paralyzed, completely horrified by myself, for I knew what I was, and what I had been, but I also knew all of her memories, and using her great store of knowledge, her beliefs, her philosophies, I was completely aware now, having a human brain, and was completely horrified by what I had just done. I was confused. I knew I was dead - that is, that she was dead, and that I was her, or thought that I was her, but I also knew I was me. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was still myself, and that she was not me. It was very confusing, and it took me a while to sort out. But I couldn't lay there forever - my body wanted food, it needed to eliminate the excess, and…. it remembered.
But my mind continued round and round in a loop of memory. I remembered dropping the pack, putting my hand out to the deer, marveling that such a beautiful, regal buck was actually approaching me with complete trust, and at the same time I cringed, knowing that the buck was feeling no real fear whatsoever. I saw my hand reach out to touch the deer and screamed in horror and revulsion as the deers head simply dissolved and merged with my arm. I tried to pull away, and was horrified to see my arm stretching elastically, hinged to the body of the deer, and the whole time, I remember the intense pain, like a severe, icy muscle cramp, that crept up from my hand into my shoulder. It didn't last long. The shock, the pain, the sheer horror of it, caused me to black out. Then the memory reverted to a cellular level, of encompassing and dissolving tissue, of rebuilding the cells I had just ingested into replicas using my own body structure.
I was fascinated to see what actually happened from her perspective, and horrified by her reactions - her complete trust of the deer and her shock, horror and revulsion, her desire to live. She was gone, now. And I had a family - a husband, and two young sons. I had a job and worked at a small animal clinic in the city but I often longed for quiet, solitude; for the scent of pine and the feel of spongy loam under my feet. Unfortunately, my family didn't have the same longing for nature that I had, preferring computers, video games, and the internet to the great outdoors - so I often took the time to go for a hike alone and enjoy the fresh scents of the earth I so craved, that were so missing from the cement and pollution of the city. And it was such a miracle, nature, and such a gift to earn the trust of such a beautiful, wild creature…
...and the loop would begin again, of me reaching out in complete amazement, feeling blessed and awed by the fact that I was being approached, so trustingly, by such a majestic, wild creature.
I couldn't move. I simply huddled there on the ground, thinking, thinking, thinking. I'd never had so much to think about, so much information, and all of it at once; all the learning and memories of a 28 year old woman, all the relationships she had with other people, her childhood, her schooling, her work, and I was so totally horrified by the knowledge that I was due home soon. They would miss me. And how could I return to them and behave normally, knowing what I was, what I had done? I knew I could easily blend in, but I was using her memories, her beliefs, her etiquette - and I was quite horrified by what her opinion would have been of me, for I was able to assess that, using her mind. I was, essentially, her now - her feelings and beliefs and view of life were mine, and it was overwhelming. I couldn't swallow and integrate the memories as easily as I had assimilated her body.
Being what I am, I naturally and instinctively began to protect myself from the sensory overload, and I found myself fumbling at the clothing I now wore. I untied the shoes and took them off, pulled off the socks and neatly tucked them together, then pulled off the rest of my clothes, folded them neatly as she would have done and tucked them with efficient, practiced fingers into the back pack. I then took the pack and stuffed it deep into some thorny brush where it couldn't be seen. Then, without even being really aware that I was thinking on it, I quickly and efficiently, as smooth as breathing, did something I had never done before.
I turned back into the stag.
I felt the now muddy thought processes of the deer take the forefront, but in the end, it didn't work. I was now a deer with the memories of a human being, but at least I was able to get up and wander about, to graze and drink while I continued to process through my new situation. I was not comfortable with myself, not at all, and I felt panicky at the very thought of hiking back up to my car and driving home. There was no way I could function normally - not now. I had to take some time to get used to this. I had to take some time to think it all through. They may come searching for me/her, but they would never suspect the deer. I knew this because she knew this. There was no knowledge of me in her mind, not even an inkling that something like me even existed in this world, and I now began to wonder, I KNEW how to wonder, now, and that was something to think on all by itself. I was now aware - I didn't simply exist. I wondered. What was I? Where did I come from? Were there more out there like me? How could something like this happen to me/her?
It took me months to sort through all of it, and still I had questions. I allowed my body to function using the instincts of the deer, the mind of the deer, which I still possessed, but I was able to avoid contact with predator and man alike, utilizing the greater resources of the human mind. And while I grazed and drank and slept and foraged, I thought, and came to terms with the fact that I had swallowed a lot more than I had ever expected to chew. I came to terms, and she and I, we became one, and I understood that she was gone, and that what I was now was not her. But she had strong feelings and a strong sense of responsibility - strong desires and emotions that were now mine. She would never abandon her family, and so, neither could I. I had to be responsible. I had to take up where she had left off. Using what I thought of as my own mind, I felt I owed her that much.
She had been missing for months now, all the time it took for me to assimilate her memories. I would emerge from the woods, and I would be able to cover for my strangeness due to starvation, exposure and being lost for so long. I went and retrieved her pack from where it was hidden, and then covered many miles of ground running as the stag through the forest to become convincingly lost. I would emerge, but it would be far from the original spot where we had found each other. I had to convince everyone that I was hopelessly lost.