two shape-shifters, one bed — and a kaddish for the undead

You probably know shape-shifters of your own, or you’re a shape-shifter yourself.  T would say that of course you are.  That you shape-shift every time you switch consciousness from say, your corporate self to your personal self.  Your social self to your lover self.  Your talking-to-mom on the phone self.  To…   Well, you get the idea.  This being Thanksgiving today, you may bell have been shape-shifting all day long and well into the evening.   Shifting into an exhausting something you’re not terribly happy playing at.  Yah, T equates shape-shifting with performance.  Performativity.  Not that you’re putting it on, exactly.  No, not that —

But that you can show others a different persona, at will. The at will part is important.

But not all shape-shifters agree that that’s what it’s all about.

The beautiful C used to live with me from time to time when she needed to. She had a house of her own across town but for ‘complicated’ reasons was having trouble staying there at the time. So. She had a room at my house she called her own.

C was a shape-shifter of extraordinary power. And people saw in her an antique man of her own lineage, who once had ruled Romania, and terrified the countryside by appearing to manifest as undead. C and her ancestor were in fairly constant communication, and I got to know him quite well. Nice bloke. Interesting family. Came to rule just after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. He didn’t take well to the Turks …

The point is that C took responsibility when her audience saw this ancient ruler instead of her when she spoke. She took credit for his manifestation, as well as for the deeds that he might do and the things that he might say. When you spoke with C, you were in conversation with the lot of them. Especially him. (I later learned that this ancestor and others of his family manifested to many in Romania at the time, and that C’s relationship with him was not at all uncommon).

But when he manifested for her, other people would see him! They could describe him! They saw his long black ringlets— and that thick handlebar moustache. They could describe his big eyes and the crownlike cap upon his head. The carmine jewel at his forehead. And on and on. They saw him. They did not see her.

I never saw this stuff, but I certainly was in the conversation.

So. C used to stay at my house when she needed to. Which means the whole bunch of her ancestors were there as well. She claimed her own room. And she claimed her own bed. Or maybe it was ‘they’ and not her at all.

But I had another friend of the shape-shifting persuasion.

And he too would stay in what by default was becoming the ‘guest bedroom’ — since calling it my ‘study’ didn’t seem to be working out too well, with all the house guests at the time. His home was in Budapest, but he would visit every two to three months for two or three weeks at a time.

He called himself a scientist. And what he wanted was to build a computer that could do what he could do: read energy fields and heal folks by shifting their magnetic fields. Or something like that. That’s what he purported to do. Whatever it was, his hands-on healing was powerful. And I never thought a machine could duplicate whatever it was that he did. I just thought of it as ‘body work’ — until I myself saw him shape shift.

Right before my eyes (and no drugs in sight) he transformed into an ancient mythical being documented from northern Europe. It’s not a figure I’m familiar with, although just the other day I saw its image on an archaeological volume at the meetings in New Orleans. T recognized him. I still can’t remember the name. He had two very large antlers. That I do remember.

The scientist from Budapest acknowledged the shape-shifting, but his explanation differed from that of C’s. He said that what he did was ‘normal’ healing within a realm that would be able (at some point) not only to be explained by science but to be duplicated by it. He insisted that what people saw during his healing sessions were projections that they themselves manifested — and had nothing to do with him.

So. Two views of shape-shifting. His. And hers.

His: people see what they need or want to see.

Hers: people see what she purposefully projected for them to see.

I’m not here to say one of them is right or wrong.

I’m here to say that they were both periodic guests in my house. Staying in my ‘guest room.’ Which should have been my study. And it was bound to happen that at one point they would both be claiming that room — and that one bed — as their own.

Now, I know that I should have taken charge of the matter. So, in essence, this is all my fault. But my excuse is that I really don’t like making decisions for other people. I didn’t want to decide between them who got the room and bed, and who slept downstairs on the couch. I mean, these are after all, both powerful magical practitioners that I didn’t really want to piss off. She, especially, had a vile temper — and she was also my best friend. But he would come all the way from Budapest, and surely could use a decent bed.

So. I did something you’ll probably agree was pretty stupid. I left it up to them.

These are two intelligent, articulate, periodically rational adults, right? I figured they could decide which one of them would take the bed, and which one would take the downstairs couch. Or maybe they’d come up with alternating nights. Or weeks. Something reasonable and mutually acceptable.

I went to my own room, shut the door, picked up a good book, and went to sleep. Let them figure it out.

But no. They both claimed the territory to the end. They both headed for the room. Both planted their stuff in the room. Both washed up and brushed their teeth. Put on their night things. And both climbed into the bed, growling and snarling at each other in some inhuman-sounding form. It sounded like whatever creatures they were, were ripping the house apart. I felt dismay that all my books, fieldnotes, and computer were in the same room with them.

In the morning they both came down for breakfast, which I had made. They ate my grandpa’s Macedonian Sephardi eggs still glaring at each other, and went off about their day.

They never overlapped again.

But now, when I think of it, I wonder: is there a kaddish for the undead? Did anyone ever in history say a kaddish for Vlad Tepes, Draculea himself, prince of Wallachia, who lived for a time at my own house?

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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