Ami called Fujita-san that afternoon to tell her she was eating out, so the housekeeper had left when Ami and Yuki got back to Abikocho. A quick tour of the house ended in Ami’s bedroom. Thanks to Fujita-san, the bed was made, the floor vacuumed. Only the desk remained in its ever-cluttered state.
Yuki perused the bookcase. “Man, most of this stuff is Greek to me. Ah—” She hefted the Encyclopedia of Dogs off the shelf. “Did you figure out who runs faster?”
“What? Oh. Gray wolves can sprint at thirty-five to forty miles an hour. Red foxes are five miles an hour faster.” She felt a prim sense of superiority about that last fact and quickly added, “Foxes and wolves are more evenly paced over longer distances.”
“Hmm, so it isn’t decided. We’ll have to have a race then.”
Ami nodded dumbly as Yuki flipped through the book. Race for what? She’d rehearsed what she was going to say at the restaurant like studying for a test. Even then the conversation was like pulling teeth. She hadn’t thought about entertaining company. What did she normally do at home? She studied and read and watched nature programs on TV and waited for her mother to come home. Lame.
Yuki looked up. “Oh, Ami, you would know this. Lieutenant Kuroda—we board his German Shepherd at the clinic—he gave me a police manual about training SAR dogs. I’ve been reading about operant conditioning.”
The cloud of consternation lifted. A smile rose to Ami’s lips. Saved! She could have hugged Yuki right then.
“So what’s the deal with negative reinforcement? The manual says it’s the opposite of what I thought it was.”
“Yeah, it is confusing, like a double negative. When the monk at a monastery whacks you over the head with a Zen stick, that’s a positive punishment. Negative reinforcement rewards behavior by removing something that’s negative.”
“Ah, like using a head halter. It’s not to punish the dog. The dog releases the pressure when it stops pulling. Hey, here’s you!” Yuki grinned and held open the book to a full-page photograph of a red fox.
That reminded Ami of the purpose behind Yuki’s visit. She said tentatively, “You were going to show me—?”
“Oh yeah, that.” Yuki pursed her lips and scratched her head. “Hmm.” She’d obviously left the crucial decision to the last minute and was only now making up her mind. She looked up and clapped her hands with a bold sense of resolve.
“Well, I said I’d show you and there’s only one way to do that!”
Yuki replaced the book on the shelf. She closed the blinds, took off her watch and set it on the desk, reached back to remove her ponytail holder and shook out her hair.
She said to Ami, “Stay there,” and went to the bedroom door. Ami heard the click of the lock. Show me what? she puzzled, beginning to get a tad bit nervous. What did she need to lock the door for?
Yuki glanced around the room, went to the closet, undid her tie and started unbuttoning her blouse. They were wearing their uniforms from school. Except that Yuki was definitely taking hers off.
Yuki was down to her underwear and wasn’t stopping. She held up her hand to forestall any objections. Finally naked, she rolled her shoulders and stretched her arms over her head. Her dorsal muscles flexed and rippled.
When she turned around, Ami couldn’t help noticing what Yuki meant her first day in school by “all of it.”
Yuki strode up to her. Ami reflexively retreated until she bumped into the desk chair. Yuki said, “You should probably put your hands over your mouth.”
Yuki gently took Ami’s wrists and raised them to her chin. “We don’t want to startle the neighbors.”
The teasing smile on her face didn’t qualm Ami’s anxious state of mind. But it at least kept her from screaming, What in the world are you doing?
Yuki pointed at her eyes, then rested her hands on Ami’s shoulders. Ami focused her attention on those calm pools of amber. The intense intimacy of the moment vanished a second later. Yuki wasn’t there. No, she was still there but not the human Yuki.
The sound of muscle and bone in motion filled the air around them—a sound like a lion’s purr slowed down in a massive Doppler shift—a sound Ami had never heard but recognized deep down in a hidden corner of her mind.
With the soft whisper of silk gliding across skin, a sheen of white snow fell across Yuki’s face, except for that splash of black between her brows. Her forehead drew back. Her nose and jaw thrust forward. Ears rose to soft, snow-white points. Ami felt Yuki’s hands folding into paws on her shoulders. Her breasts flattened against a chest covered with fur.
The features flowed, the creature emerging from within as if from a melting block of ice. The transformation wasn’t shocking or grotesque. It was beautiful, even sublime.
And she was face-to-face with a wolf. Not a human that resembled a wolf. Not Homo sapiens. This was Canis lupus. A good thing she had her hands pressed against her mouth. Her muffled cry was not one of fear but the product of pure surprise and wonder.
The wolf reared up and dropped to all fours. Her fluffy white tail swished back and forth. She circled the room, jumped lightly onto the bed and lay down, rested her chin on her paws and peered up at Ami.
I said I’d show you.
Ami took her hands from her mouth and placed them on her chest, calming her madly pounding heart. Finally assured she wasn’t going to swoon like a silly girl, she cautiously extended her hand.
“What does it feel like?” she asked. The easiest thing to do in a situation like this was yield to her curiosity. “Oh, that’s right. Canine vocal chords. You can’t talk.”
The wolf’s head was soft and warm. The wolf gave her a droll expression and Ami realized she was petting Yuki on the head. Blushing at the familiarity of the gesture, she hastily withdrew her hand.
“How do you change back?”
Answering the question, the wolf stretched out—paws became hands—legs straightened into limbs—the fur pulled back inside the follicles of her skin. The image of a Möbius strip sprang to Ami’s mind, a ribbon with a simple twist that merged its two surfaces into one.
The human Yuki lay on the bed, her white hair spilling over her shoulders onto the comforter. She propped her chin in her hands. “Like that.”
Ami backed away out of sheer surprise. She approached again. “But how do you do that?”
“Hmm,” Yuki said with a puzzled frown. “I’ve never given much thought to it, sort of the way that once you learn to ride a bike, you stop thinking about how. It’s a state of mind, I guess. Like staring at an optical illusion until you suddenly see it. Whoa, I’d better get dressed.”
She scrambled off the bed. The reappearance of the “normal” Yuki drained the tension and adrenaline from Ami’s body. Her legs wobbled beneath her. She sat down on the edge of the bed.
Yuki said as she pulled on her blouse, “I bet you can see and hear real good, even as a human.”
Ami looked up, initially confused by the question. “Yes!” she said excitedly. Like a switch turning on in her head, the myriad of incongruities that made her not like everybody else suddenly lit up. No matter how fantastical and bizarre, here was a cause that matched up perfectly with the effects.
“Well, take that feeling and, um, push it through your body. Start with the basics, like changing your hands into paws or your fingernails into claws.” Yuki said with a sheepish shrug, “I know that sounds pretty airy-fairy. I’ve always taken who I am for granted. I’m not good at self-analysis.”
Ami nodded. For a moment, she flashed back to her father’s advice from so long ago. She and Yuki really were mirror opposites, though their fairy tales were more of the Grimm variety. They’d been taken away by the kind huntsman or sent to live in a tower, away from those who could not abide their presence.
The fairy tale was over. She was Darwin setting foot in the Galapagos. A whole new world opened up before her, explanations for everything now within her reach. And everything right then was too much for her to handle.
Sorrow was the last thing she felt. But she had no way to express the contradictory emotions that welled up inside her. Her chin slumped to her chest and she wept.