It was an easy thing for Diti to lose himself in. Beak closed, flippers and body moving, surrounded on all sides by the cool blue. Relaxed yet swift. Bubbles trailing off behind him. The small emperor penguin did some of his best thinking like this, but there wasn't much on his mind to distract him today.
Except lunch. Well, he could do that while he was out here by the sea today. Get lunch, take film to develop, pick up some more, get some photos. An excellent way to spend the day, if the weather held. Up above the water for a moment to grab a breath, then back with a splash; a few clouds, nothing to cause any trouble.
It was familiar water, and Diti knew the sights. The sands of the shore gave way to rocks and plants. Plus gear lost by swimmers: instant cameras and snorkels, keys and coins, toys. Sometimes interesting things to find and recover, but mostly a little way out, where the sea bed started to darken.
Like that. What was that sparkle? The penguin slowed, span around, and dipped to get a closer look. A smooth, shiny egg of metal on a thin chain. Seemed recent, no salt or rust. Hooked on his beak then, as Diti headed back towards shore, as good a time as any to get back on land and see what he'd found.
With his feet back on warm sand, water running down his yellowish breast feathers, Diti's curiosity had him turning and prying at the object in his flippers before he was even dry. Medical electronics, with a local hospital name and a couple of dates stamped into it. After all that time in salt water, it'd surely need a good clean and dry if it was ever going to power on again-
Or not? Once held for a few moments, black dots in the surface started to pulse with blue LED light. Well-made then, and Diti felt it was almost a shame, as the penguin was looking forward to seeing how it was put together. After a bit of towelling he wore the device around his neck, as seemed to be its design - followed by his trusty Nidak camera. The occasional blue glow was distracting to start, but he got used to it quickly. Another item for his list: let the hospital know someone had lost their thingy. Whatever it was. Technology was ever-changing and Diti didn't recognise what it was supposed to be at all.
It could wait. Fish would come first, and the penguin waddled up back towards the road, and on with his day.
Diti woke up with a jolt in the middle of the night. Hadn't even made it back to his bed, he'd nodded off on the couch. Food was good, he had over half a reel of film for later, he'd been in the mood for a large dinner, and then that was it for the night.
Ugh, he felt achey and rough. The wall clock said around 2am. Bleary, tired penguin ignored the warmth in his limbs and went to his bathroom, hugging the walls, turning on the light, looking down-
Oh. Oooh. He had legs. More than he was used to, with small feet- were those paws? Claws? Was he still asleep, was this a lucid dream? Diti became very aware of his own change in balance and grabbed onto to the sink, suddenly alert, heart racing in his ears.
His ears. In the mirror, he could see them growing, right then. Tall and fluffy. His beak felt smaller, his teeth felt strange and sharp to his tongue. Bird-like kraaas of surprise sounded quite unusual, deeper and less convincing. Soon he had no beak at all, with a little shiver down his back. Diti could hear every new breath, feel his own panic and confusion rising. Should he be awake by now?
Nose twitching, growing; small whiskers sprouting under the touch of his flippers. Diti grew larger as he stood there, staring at his changing reflection, feeling his arms get lighter and seeing the tips of his flippers start to split. Of course, if he'd have paws for feet, no reason he wouldn't have them for hands as well.
"Help!" he squealed in his new voice, trying to dash away, who knows where- but he no longer knew his body, tumbling out of the bathroom, ending up on all fours. Definitely paws for hands, strange sensations of fingers he could move, pads that bore weight, claws that added some pale colour to his dark feathers. No, fur. Itchy, not very warm, but it was fur. Diti was a prisoner to whatever this was, prickles all through him from his limbs to his body, stretching tall and growing slim and soft. His colours weren't changing much, from his black paws and grey fur to the bright orangey red bib and inner ears. He was so very long. A sharp jolt wandered down his back, before a tail started between his legs, growing, eagerly spilling out of him. Some sort of mammal, maybe a weasel, but much broader. His body felt light and sore, Diti didn't want to think too hard about all the changes that might be going on in there, trying to make a mammal out of bird physiology. Trying to keep his wits about him, here on the floor having the oddest dream, though the not-penguin was less certain it was a dream with every moment-
Round his neck. The medical device rapidly flashing, easier to see in the dim hallway. It seemed surreal to jump to it being the cause, but Diti quickly learned to grab with his new fingers, sliding the thingy off his neck and tossing it to one side. Deep breaths. Huff. On his back, breathing deeply as the prickly warmth still ached through his body, perhaps it was easing off, though at this point there wasn't much penguin left at all except for his colours.
It could have been half an hour, maybe longer, until Diti felt able to pull himself up in front of a mirror. Unsteady legs. Not asleep. Not a penguin, at least on the outside. As best as he could identify, he was a pine marten; the long head shape, pointy ears, long body, furry bib. No beak, no feathers, he was so light and quick now, but all his senses and actions had been turned up to eleven and Diti was jittering about, as well as because he was nervous. What now? Who did you call if you'd just turned into a marten?
"Morning Thar," he said into his phone. "No, it's me, no, I don't have a cold, sorry, it's early, but hey, there's something I really need to show you…"
"Yeah, I noticed..."
"Definitely a pine marten."
"Can't climb trees, not fond of heights. Still me, I just look like this-"
"Do I? Anything? I've been wearing this thing for hours."
"No, you're still a silly stoat."
"But I want a cool transformation too," lamented the stoat, nudging at the little device round his neck.
After the call, Diti had waited for his friend to come over. That was Thar, a friendly stoat. From late spring he'd be brown, but right now he was still in ermine, white creamy fur from head to tail, with a black tailtip.
"What's it like being a marten?"
"I just look like one. I'm still a penguin."
"I know. Um. Okay. How about a marguin? It's helpful and descriptive. You've been turned into a marguin. Marten outside, penguin inside."
"... yeah actually that sounds kinda cool. Fine. Marguin!"
"So what's it like being a marguin?"
Could have been any other weekend, hanging out, drinks and snacks. Diti felt good being with someone while he worked out what to do next. The hospital couldn't help right away, but otherwise he seemed healthy - so he could come in and wait to be seen, or he could wait for a call. Either way was a wait, so he might as well be comfortable. Besides, being a marguin still felt strange. His balance was different. He had this oversized tail that went pretty much where it liked and made sitting down more awkward. Fur was colder than feathers and hide, but he was getting used to that.
"You always say your tailtip is full of magic, Thar, can't you fix it?"
"Yeah, but it isn't magic that changed you. Besides, it doesn't work like that. I mean, you could give it a nibble and see what happens."
"Nah, that's fine, I'll pass!"
"Suit yourself," said the ermine, grinning.
Over the day, he was getting used to walking. These long legs took some time to master, but curiosity got the better of him; once he felt up to it, he encouraged Thar to come out for a walk.
Others had no idea, and how could they? Heading to the shops, out into the park, Diti saw a couple of people he knew, even got talking with a fox who lived near him. Strange colours the marten had! Reminded him of a certain penguin. Diti felt a bit awkward trying to hear about himself in the third person, but he didn't want to confuse anyone. Not unless he thought it'd last for a while…
Back at home, the sun was getting low in the sky, and Diti picked up his ringing phone to see a call from the hospital.
"Hello, is this about my call earlier?"
"Afternoon! It is, yes. Could you come in for a check-up? Don't worry, it's not serious."
Hard to say no, really. Diti was a little nervous but Thar again offered a lift, to be company, and not least because he wanted hear what was going on for himself.
"Before you ask: no, it wasn't my fault," said Nall, the pine marten. "I'm here because you found something I need."
At the hospital, after the marguin's check-up, he was asked to wait for the results of a test. Nall was there waiting in the lounge as well. Cinnamon, black ears and paws, creamy tail stripe and glasses. Seeing Diti and Thar in there, he came over to take a seat. Cheerful and often full of advice, he seemed to know what was going on straight away, which made both the other mustelids quite suspicious.
"I mean, Diti, you're a marten-"
"Marguin, that's cute, and Thar, that little device is mine. You know me, always changing. Sometimes I need that to get back to being a marten."
"But, you're magic too, can't you just do it?" wondered Diti, tail flicking. More questions than answers. "And why only me, Thar isn't changing at all!"
"Good question. I don't know. It's only supposed to work on me. Hopefully that's what we'll find out today."
"So I'm not gonna be a marten?" wondered Thar.
"Not like this, anyway. But if you want I'm sure we can work something out," said Nall, grinning.
When the clinician came out to see them, they all went in together.
"It's who you are. You're just more prone to turning into different things," said the crow doctor. "Pretty much everyone needs a big push to become something new. Nall needs very little, I could just caw at him by surprise and he'd sprout feathers, that's what the anchor device is for. Diti, you're somewhere in between."
"So… what now? Do I need one of those anchors as well?" asked the marguin, fidgeting with his camera to give his paws something to do.
"Ideally. But it's not quick to do, it'll take us some time. And you need to stabilise, we can save some lab time if you bring in feathers you've shed before finding Nall's anchor… but realistically, you'll be a marguin for at least a couple of years."
Diti's eyes widened, his tail dropped to the floor in surprise. "What? Years?!"
"Sorry if that's a shock. I don't recommend magic solutions, I mean you can, but it's likely to make the underlying condition worse."
"I mean, transforming a lot isn't a bad thing…" suggested Thar, over to Nall's smile at that statement, but Diti looked up, seeming rather lost.
"Well. Okay, I made it worse with magic, but that's me, that's in my job, it's a lifestyle," said Nall, retrieving the little glowy egg from around the stoat's neck. "So the short of it is. Be a marguin, I mean, you have to be. Then be a penguin again. Then see what you want to do."
"I mean… it is pretty nice. Better photos. Fewer stepladders. Swimming though," mumbled Diti, under a little cloud. "I'm sure you've been aquatic, Nall, you get it, right?"
The cinnamon marten tugged on his ears, thinking. "Yeah. I get it. Got an idea though. Just give it a few weeks…"
A few weeks. Diti apologised to his fox neighbour, but it wasn't a problem at all. Fish were still tasty, but his marten body needed other things too. Thar and Nall helped. Swimming was still fun, but not really in the same natural way.
To the forest, then. Tree climbing. He'd been many times a week, he'd watched and tried and learned and occasionally had tumbles, but not for a while. It got easier. Much easier. Today, it didn't even cause the marguin to stop for breath.
"Looking good," said Nall.
"I still don't know about heights," said Diti, avoiding the look down.
"I'm here for the view. And the photos," said Thar, from on Nall's back with the marguin's camera. Click!
"Getting up is the hard part. And it's not even that hard. You can also go across. Like so." Along a branch went Nall. "And you can make all these jumps. It's easy but it's not. Well, you'll see."
It was easy. It got faster. Green and brown whipped by. Diti had paws down, then was in the air, tail out and spiralling along. Faster than he could swim, and he could tell Nall was only pacing. His heartbeat raced, the world flew by, claws and fur, tree to tree to nothing to tree. It wasn't so natural or even all that relaxing, but it was invigorating.
Eventually he did need to catch a breath. Yes, in a way, it did hit that sweet spot. Penguins play in the sea, marguins play in trees. Diti could go with that. It'd be an interesting couple of years, to say the least.
For Diti, written in April 2020 -- a cute little story of a penguin turning into a penguin-coloured marten (marguin!), and getting used to a new life. Swimming might not be as easy as it was, but it's not the only way to relax~