shape shifting

The lemming changed position and said: ‘I am not a specialist on Kafka. Of the modern Eastern Europeans, I personally prefer Musil, but my research has focused more on French deconstructivism…'”


by cedric popa



Two weeks ago I got an exclusive interview with a lemming. With ten lemmings, I should say – the other nine showed up at the front entrance, looking sad and questioning, and I couldn’t leave them out, just couldn’t listen to them bundling against the door, pushing it slightly. Once they were in, they hunched down, eating the three cans of sardines I had brought for the occasion, while my interviewee watched me from the armchair.

I had thought a lot about my opening question. I considered humour – ‘Sorry this is taking place on the tenth floor, it’s where our meeting rooms are. Hope you’re not going to jump off, ha ha’. Too crude. ‘Tell me a bit about yourself’ was too much like shifting the problem of how to start on the interviewee – I mean, how could they avoid the obvious starting point without being, well, obvious?

Then I left it to inspiration. I stood up from my chair and pinched my chin in a pensive pose.

‘Consider Kafka’, I said. ‘In his best known short story, Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach. What is your perspective on this?’

The lemming changed position and said: ‘I am not a specialist on Kafka. Of the modern Eastern Europeans, I personally prefer Musil, but my research has focused more on French deconstructivism’.

Two of the other lemmings nodded energetically and tried to applaud, while the others shushed them.

‘Nevertheless’, he continued, ‘I couldn’t fail to notice the motif of longing for the freedom of shape-shifting. For the primordial ocean soup, where everything turned into everything else.’

‘So you’re saying that we should not be repulsed by this metamorphosis?’

‘Au contraire. There is nothing repulsive about change. It is the freezing into one shape that is the tragedy. When we are frozen on one level, by physics or chemistry or our own psychology, it is our duty to try to overcome this. To erupt to a higher level of synthesis, where shape shifting is again possible, permitted’.

‘Please continue’ I said, ‘ I am sure our readers would want to understand you’.

‘Naturally. Let me help. I would ask you to consider dead mice’.

‘They stink’, I answered immediately.

‘Yes they do. This is chemistry and is unavoidable. If you, however, consider a mouse falling from a great height, you have a different proposition. Physics dictates that the mouse’s terminal velocity, the point where gravitational acceleration is cancelled by air resistance, isn’t too high. The mouse, hitting the ground, will not die. It will not stink. The mouse’s shape and size are adapted to falling from a great height’.

‘Whereas’, I said.

‘Indeed. Our size is not appropriate for such a fall. We do, indeed, crush. And stink, I would assume’.

‘You are very frank’, I said.

‘You may correctly conclude that our tragedy is to have the souls of free-falling mice, and the shapes of lemmings. An inadequacy of size. If we limited ourselves to being frozen in this dimension, we would indeed be tragic. As, doubtless, your readers see us.’

I trembled. I felt that we were on the brink of a great discovery.

‘The truth is, or perhaps I should say our current level of truth is, that this ignoble death is an illusion. You are of course familiar with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Just like Achilles never catches up with the tortoise, it can be easily shown that, on a certain mathematical level, we never reach the ground.’

‘But’, I mumbled, ‘this is a mathematical trick! Achilles does catch up with the tortoise! You do hit the ground!’

‘Oh’, said the lemming. Then, turning to the others, he continued: ‘An interesting theory, and one that we would have to test. I do presume that we have unanimity’.

The heads of the other lemmings bobbed up and down in perfect synchronicity.

‘In that case’, the lemming said, and took a short bow before throwing himself through the window.

Nine greyblack shapes followed him at staccato quarter-second intervals.

I sat down at my desk and looked at the proofs for tomorrow. This interview was going to make at least page three.

I thought I heard a small squeak from the corner of the room, but I decided it was my imagination.

Originally published:
Issue Fifty-One
January 2008



Cedric Popa hails from Romania and lives in London. His fiction has appeared in Seventh Quark and Leaf Books and online in Eclectica and AntipodeanSF.


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