Stefan Fleischman, the Wandlungsmensch, never wanted to be a warrior, but fate paid no attention to his wants. His destiny came to him several centuries ago when he lived at the base of the Alps near the High Salt Castle. For all his longevity, he remembered those days with intense detail.
Stefan was seven years old, which meant it was time for him to choose his Verwandlungstier, the animal he would be able to change into for the rest of his life. Wandlungskinder could change to any animal they wanted, which made them a great challenge to raise, but the seventh birthday marked the day they would only be able to choose three more times. The blessing—or the curse—of their species never varied.
“Mutti,” Stefan called to his mother. “I’ve decided to be a mountain goat.”
“A mountain goat?” she said. “That’s a noble creature, but an unusual choice, my child. Why a mountain goat?”
“You will see,” he said.
“Go then,” she said.
Stefan bounded out the door, running through the cool alpine air that soothed his face, and in mid-stride he changed into a mountain goat. His eyes were a little closer to the grass, and his speed picked up. He bleated happily on his way to his goal, the precipice where the lion’s paws grew. He’d always wanted to pick them and take them to his mother, for she was his first and greatest love.
The wonderful ability to climb is what enticed him to be a mountain goat. He’d seen them walk easily along steeper drops than this one, so steep that his father had difficulty convincing him they were not magic, though his father seemed less certain himself when he was through.
The path up to the lion’s paws appeared naturally to Stefan. He followed it without fear, picking his steps with skill not requiring thought. The boy inside the goat delighted in the climb, the steep drop so far, the ground so small. He kept climbing until he reached the white blossoms shining in the sun.
He plucked a few with his teeth, but when he went after more, he chewed up the ones he already had, so he ate them along with the others that were loose. They tasted like soft honey and spice, which he liked very much. He plucked and ate a few more, then realized there were only five left. After chewing up and swallowing what was left in his mouth, he carefully plucked two, laid them down and plucked three more, setting them next to the others, then carefully pulled them into his mouth with his lips.
With a victorious heart, he picked his way back down to the valley. At the bottom, he turned to gaze up where he’d just come from, happy with such a wonderful skill. Then he ate the flowers.
No! He bleated angrily at himself and returned to boy form as he trudged home.
The next day another idea revived his spirits. He remembered a majestic animal that came to the High Salt Castle with a troop of acrobats. “I’m going to be an elephant, Mutti.”
“Why would you want to be a elephant?” his mother asked.
“You will see,” he said.
Stefan skipped outside, then turned himself into an elephant headed toward the river by the mill. He would fill his trunk and bring back water for his mother, then help his father move and lift all the heavy building materials for the new barn.
When he reached the river, he tested his trunk, dipping it in the water and drawing it in. It was cool and right. He sprayed it into the air and trumpeted a laugh. He drew more and sprayed it over himself, rolling around with the joy of it. He rolled to his feet to get more and fell into the mill, collapsing a section of wall almost as big as himself.
It terrified him so much he returned to boy shape without realizing it. He turned and ran for home to tell his parents how sorry he was.
After a few days softened his remorse, Stefan approached his mother with some gravity. “I am going to be a golden eagle.”
“That is a wonderful choice,” his mother said. “But you must give yourself some time to be sure about this decision because it will be your last. You will have to live with it forever.”
“I want to be an eagle,” he said.
“You may be an eagle. But first go out and observe all animals for a while. See how the eagle is part of it all and see if any other creature strikes you as worthy. Can you do that?”
“Be off and explore.”
Stefan enjoyed the day thoroughly, pretending to be an eagle and talking to all the other creatures. He was lucky and spotted a pair of golden eagles soaring off in the distance. He imagined them looking down, seeing the vastness of the world in fine detail. He would be able to find things that no other could. He would travel long distances much faster than anyone else. He could escape all manner of dangers and swoop in for surprise attacks on all manner of enemies. The freedom flight would give him thrilled Stefan and filled him with energy as he ran back home.
When his house came into view, he saw three figures struggling in front. He looked hard and realized two men were attacking his mother. He was horrified, then angry, and he picked up his speed to stop the fiends.
Rage grew in his heart, filling his head, and leaving his throat with a roar. He remembered another animal accompanying the acrobats. An animal that matched his fury, with giant teeth and claws, black stripes on amber fur. A tiger. And that’s what he became as he bore down upon them. He crushed ones head in his jaws and ripped out the middle of the other, his insides spilling to the ground.
His mother was safe, but she cried for many days, though Stefan did not think she was scared anymore, so he didn’t understand. His father encouraged him and told him not to worry. He praised him for protecting his mother while he’d been gone. Eventually she heartened and embraced Stefan proudly. “I love you, child. You will be a magnificent Wandlungsmensch.”
That was how he became a warrior for the Wandlungsmenschen, for what else can a tiger be? He doesn’t climb like a goat or work like an elephant or soar like an eagle. He hunts and he fights with the sharp features the creator gave him.
He remembers all this now, watching his wife and son, Michael, on his seventh birthday.
“I wanna be an otter, mom,” Michael says.
“A virtuous beast, indeed,” says his mother. “What do you like so much about being an otter?”
Stefan smiles at the familiarity of it. He will stay home and guard the house.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just wanna try it.”
He is the warrior, so his son doesn’t have to be. He closes his eyes and imagines himself soaring high above the earth.