Copyright © 2012 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.
For me it was so long ago, it’s almost my first memory. It was the morning after my first day at nursery school. Mother was feeding my baby brother, and Daddy was hiding behind his newspaper as usual, with a mug of coffee in his right hand.
It seemed such an innocent thing to ask, I hadn’t even thought about it before the words came out.
“Daddy. Why aren’t there any girls?”
Mother shot me a panicked look across the table, then glanced nervously at Daddy as he slowly let his paper fall.
If his look of boiling rage hadn’t been enough to silence me, the beating he gave me certainly was. I was still crying when Mother dropped me off at school. The bruises were beginning to show as we settled down to our first lesson, but the teacher didn’t seem to notice. I wasn’t the only one either. It seemed that a lot of my classmates had asked questions of their own that morning. We found a quiet corner at recess and compared notes and war wounds. Different questions, but always the same response. We none of us asked again.
That night, when Mother came to tuck me in, my tears were still close to the brim. Mother had shushed me with a quick motion as she settled on the bed beside me.
“You can’t ask, sweet one,” she’d said, her voice heavy with sorrow. “Not even me. Be patient though. The answers will come soon enough.”
It had been over ten years since that day, and I was still no closer to understanding. Lessons had grown progressively harder with the passing years, but I’d acquitted myself well, at least in the academic disciplines.
A lot of our schooling had involved practising with our weapons, which I absolutely hated. I had no desire to attack or hurt any of the people I knew at school. Even the bullies who were never seemed to stop picking on my friends and me. It just seemed that whenever I was paired against another boy, be he foe or friend, all the fight would go from me and it would be all I could manage to raise my weapon and deflect his blows.
I always lost, and my fighting teacher would look down on me with undisguised contempt.
“You’re nothing, and worse than nothing,” he told me on many occasions. “How do you hope to become a man if you can’t hold your own in the arena?”
The question was rhetorical of course. We weren’t even allowed to speak in the presence of our teachers – any questions regarding our studies having to be submitted in writing. It was probably just as well though. My answer would almost certainly have disappointed him more.
The fighting lessons did achieve one thing though – they helped to define us. There were others in my class who were reluctant to fight, although perhaps not quite so much as myself. We stuck together during recess, standing up for each other when the more arrogant and violent of the lads in our school came by. They still threw taunts at us, which hurt because we were all too aware of our shortcomings – how far we were from being the men our fathers wanted us to be – but when we were together, none of them quite dared to get physical with us.
I made some good friends among the less aggressive boys in the school. As much for companionship as for mutual protection, we’d meet up and walk to and from school in pairs and small groups. On rare occasions, when Daddy was away from home, Mother would allow me to have a few friends over to stay the night, or over the weekend. Those were my happiest memories, just being able to relax with my friends.
We avoided the awkward questions though. The ones we were all asking inside our minds and our hearts, but which we didn’t quite dare to give voice. Only once did I break that taboo, and I’d regretted it almost immediately.
Of all my friends, I lived furthest from the school, so I regularly walked with a small group, each one peeling off to his own home as we passed it until there was just one friend and myself for the last quarter-mile, till we reached our neighbourhood. We’d always lapse into a sort of silence over those last few blocks, as though we were both trying to summon the courage to speak. Fewer friends, less risk, greater temptation. It was at one of these times that I gave into temptation.
“Do you ever wonder,” I began, glancing around nervously to make sure no-one else could hear, “what it would be like to be a girl?”
My friend stopped in his tracks and gaped at me with the most profound look of shock on his face. I felt awful – suddenly terrified that I was alone in holding such thoughts. I remember blushing so much I felt sure my cheeks would blister. My friend didn’t speak a word in answer but, once he had recovered enough, walked straight past me at a pace I couldn’t match until he reached his own home.
The next day there were whispered conversations among my friends, all of whom fell suddenly and suspiciously quite whenever I turned up, and over the next few days our group of friends split into two smaller groups. By unspoken agreement, we’d separate at the school gates and take different routes home. The friend from my neighbourhood had not said a word to me since the incident, and remained with the other group. We never really spoke after that, and the few times we were paired up in fighting class, he would attack me with an uncommon vigour. He was still pathetic, but since I was more pathetic still, he beat me with comparative ease.
I learned my lesson. Some questions were not to be asked, even of close friends.
The last quarter mile home might have become a regular harrowing experience for me, had it not been for Jeremy. Now that I was walking alone, some of the bullies who frequented my neighbourhood started waiting for me, and I began to vary my route home in an effort to avoid them.
Jeremy was different. He was arguably the best fighter in our year group, but he wasn’t arrogant or condescending like so many of the others. Whenever we were pitched together in the fight arena, he always went easy on me. We both knew he couldn’t be too obvious about it because we were always being assessed, but I knew he could fight better than he did against me, and that the bruises he gave me were far less extensive than they might have been.
He stayed clear of my friends and me at school. Peer pressure being what it was, he couldn’t afford to be seen associating with the Wimpettes, as we were called. What he did start doing though, was he would walk on ahead of my group of friends, and as the last of them disappeared into his house, he would slow down so much that I had no choice but to catch up with him.
The first few times it happened, I was terrified as to what he wanted, but it soon became apparent that he was even more nervous than me. He would simply fall into step beside me and walk with me until we reached my front door, at which point I would smile my thanks to him and slip indoors.
It took more than a week before either of us spoke. I had worried that he would lose standing among his friends at school, but apparently it took more than associating with the likes of me to strip him of his status. There were a few of his mates who sported black eyes and fat lips for a few days, which I supposed was the result of his consolidating his position among his fellows, but that was all I noticed. I eventually found courage enough to speak.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Jeremy,” I said nervously as we turned into my road one afternoon, “but why have you started walking home with me?”
He gave me an odd look I couldn’t interpret.
“It’s been going round the school that you walk the last part of your way home alone these days. I heard some of the less pleasant characters at school making plans to ambush you, and it didn’t seem fair to me that anyone should have to suffer at their hands.”
“I didn’t think you lived anywhere near here.”
“I don’t, but I can always use the extra exercise.”
We arrived at the gate to my parents’ house.
“Well I’m grateful. I hope standing up for me hasn’t cost you too much credibility.”
“Not that I’ve noticed.” His sheepish grin admitted the lie.
“Whatever. If you can think of anything I might do for you in return…”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind some help with my maths if you’ve got the time.”
“Sure. Tomorrow lunchtime in the library?”
So we began seeing each other regularly in school. He wasn’t as bad at maths as he made out, but he still managed to make me feel like I was paying him back in some small way. Before long, and much to my surprise, I found that we had become friends.
Over the last year at school, I noticed that a lot of the tougher nuts started pairing up with my friends. For tutoring help they said, but that didn’t always make sense as some of the Wimpettes were as seriously weak academically as they were physically. By then I was too occupied by my own studies and the help I was giving Jerry though, so I didn’t think any more of it.
Exams passed and graduation came. I was delighted to graduate suma cum laude, and even more so when Jerry managed magna. I don’t know why, but his result actually pleased me more than my own. Now we were only one step away from being considered as adults. I would finally be able to ask my every increasing list of questions, but it was this last step I had been dreading more and more as this day approached.
Scholastic achievement was one thing. Fighting prowess was the other. The final stage of every graduation in recent years was a contest of single combat between pairs of students chosen by I-don’t-know-what method. Whoever I ended up fighting, I knew I would disgrace myself horribly. Jerry had tried to coach me a little, but I just didn’t have the heart for it. I hated my weapon, but I had no choice but to carry it with me.
We took our place in the graduates’ lounge. The fights would take place in short order, but only parents were allowed to watch. The rest of us sat nervously, waiting for our names to be called. Whether for good or for bad, I didn’t have to wait long.
“Jeremy Barber,” the tannoy announced. I looked up at him, to offer him my best supportive smile, but his face was set and he didn’t look at me as he readied his weapon.
“Michael Pearce.” My face drained of colour as the realisation settled on me that I would be facing my friend in the arena. I looked across at him, but I still couldn’t catch his eye. Not the least sign of emotion showed on his face and I felt chill spread through me. Was this some sort of setup? Had he just pretended to be my friend all along?
We stepped out into the arena, weapons held ready. I stood in my usual defensive stance, and Jerry took an aggressive position opposite me. His eyes finally met mine, but the lack of emotion there frightened me more than any threat I had faced in my short life.
The bell sounded for our match to begin and he charged across the arena, fierce determination setting his face into an ugly grimace. Terrified, I stood transfixed, unable to move as he bore down on me with incredible speed. His weapon was longer and heavier than mine. I tried to defend on myself, but the blow was so fast, so strong, that my own weapon fell to the ground leaving me staring at my empty hands, throbbing with a cold numbness.
I looked down at the ground in disbelief. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d been without my weapon. Through all the practise sparring we’d done at school, we’d been warned that disarming an opponent was absolutely forbidden, that it was a tactic to use only when fighting for real. I looked up at Jeremy, imploring him with my eyes, but his expression was implacable. He stepped forward and plunged his own barbed weapon deep into my abdomen.
There was a brief moment of pain, then the most amazing feeling spread through me. Was this really what it felt like to die? I was filled with the most exquisite sensation, as my entire being was flooded with a euphoria I had never suspected was possible. My eyes widened with surprise and wonder, even as Jerry’s flooded with tears. The last thing I remembered, as I surrendered to the encroaching darkness, was the audience rising to their feet and applauding Jerry’s prowess.
The light was fading when I came too. By all accounts I’d slept through the whole afternoon, but that was no great loss given that I hadn’t expected to wake up at all. I felt strange all over, and was dimly aware of a hand gently holding my own.
“Hello sweetheart. Glad to have you back.”
I tried to sit up in my bed and ask the first of a million questions. Both actions were beyond me, and all I succeeded In doing was collapsing in a helpless fit of coughing. The sense of strangeness increased.
“It doesn’t seem fair does it?” Mother disengaged herself from me for long enough to pour me a glass of water from the jug on the night stand. “Reaching the age when you can finally talk to adults and ask your questions, only to be too weak to do so?”
She cradled my head and lifted the glass to my lips, my own arms being too feeble even to lift their own weight.
“Lie still,” she continued, “and I’ll try to answer the most pressing ones.”
She settled on the side of the bed and picked up my hand again. I glanced down at it, almost failing to recognise it as my own. Since when had my fingers been so slender?
“It was at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” Mother started in her bedtime story voice, “that geneticists discovered that the male Y chromosome was degenerating, and by some calculations they estimated that we wouldn’t have to pass through too many more generations before we started to see the effects of this decline. They decided then and there to try and come up with a way of reversing the damage.”
This was an odd way of answering my questions, I thought. I gave her a quizzical loom and she smiled.
“Bear with me sweetheart, it’ll all make sense in a while.
“It took them around about fifty years, but they succeeded in producing a retro virus which they were convinced would repair the Y chromosome. With all testing completed and with everyone as sure and they could be, they released the virus into the general population in dozens of places around the world.
“It surpassed all their expectations. Within just a few months, it had spread around the world and affected every member of the human race. It wasn’t until about a year later though, that they realised that it had worked too well.
“Nine months after its original release, hospitals started to report a decline in the birth of girls. Six months later and not a single new born was female. The geneticists looked into the problem, and in short measure announced that an unexpected side effect of improving the Y chromosome was that they had also vastly improved the Y gamete. Under natural conditions, any sperm carrying an X chromosome was outmatched by its Y counterpart and had next to no chance of making it through to the ovum.
“Efforts were made to counter the trend by artificially inseminating eggs with only X chromosomal sperm, but it was a short term solution. The changes progressed within the new generation until the Y gametes began to compete actively against the X, and it became progressively harder to harvest X gametes.
“A solution was needed, and many were proposed. The favourite would have been to design a similar sort of improving retro virus for X gametes, but although an effort was made to produce one, by the time it was ready to use, the situation was too far out of balance.
“Instead another solution was proposed and accepted. A different retro virus was created to insert some DNA from a particular species of flatworm.
“What interested them about flatworms was that a great many species are hermaphrodites, and amongst those, there are some a mating pair will duel until the dominant one succeeds in impregnating the weaker. This impregnation triggers a release of hormones that causes the weaker one to develop female characteristics.
“With males dominating the human species, it was felt that the best we could hope for was to ensure that female DNA existed in a latent form within all children, ready to be triggered by that first impregnation.
“This left the geneticists with two problems to overcome. The minor one was that first impregnation invariably caused pregnancy, so at what age should they start? Too early and you would end up with a world filled with thirteen and fourteen year old parents, too late and you risked allowing the development of strong masculine physical characteristics just at the time you were seeking to change that individual into a woman.
“The solution they found was to identify less aggressive, more feminine individuals while they were still young, and to feed them androgen blockers to prevent the onset of puberty. That way, when they reached a more appropriate age for the change, they would retain enough childish characteristics to develop into attractive women when the change finally came.
“Sixteen-seventeen is still a little young to become a mother in my opinion, but the scientists had to weigh this against the long term effects of taking androgen blockers, especially of a high enough dosage to cancel the over-active masculinity in the modified human race.
“The second, and more challenging, problem was that the triggered release of feminising hormones wasn’t always fully effective. In the beginning, there were a number of desperately sad cases of partial transformations, of foetuses dying in partially formed wombs, of youngsters being stuck halfway between male and female. I don’t want to speak of what happened to them, it’s too sad, but we learned from it, and what the scientists discovered was that in order for the hormones to have their greatest effect, the individual had to be in a state of complete surrender at the point of impregnation.
“Youngsters who were aware of the change they were about to undergo, even if they welcomed it, wouldn’t be completely transformed because their hyperactive masculinity would fight it even when their minds didn’t want to. It turned out that a combination of fear and complete surrender created the most optimal environment for the hormones to do their work. Early on an attempt was made to recreate this condition artificially by injecting the necessary doses of hormones, but it was found to be less effective than the natural way.
“That’s the reason for the rule about children not talking to adults. It’s hard enough not telling you what’s to come under those circumstances, How much less tolerable would it have been to do so in the presence of all those questions. The only thing worse would have been to answer you and then see you unable to complete the change.
“Michelle, your father and I have known for a long time that you should have been a girl, but we couldn’t tell you. Jeremy, being one of the stronger alpha-male types, was also let in on the secret, but sworn not to tell it to anyone young enough to be affected by the truth. I’ve known about you sneaking into my room and trying on my clothes, and I’ve so longed to buy you a wardrobe of your own, but we’ve all had to wait for this moment.
“It’s a bit much to take in, I know, but that last part of your graduation, that duel with Jeremy, was the point it which you transitioned from being a boy to being a full grown woman. The changes are taking place even as we speak. They need a lot of energy, which is why you feel so weak at the moment.
“It was also the point at which you became married to Jeremy and started your family. I know that seems unfair, and you would have preferred to have a choice in who you married and when you started your family. The thing is in order to make those decisions for yourself, you would have had to know so much about the changing process, that it would have affected the likelihood of success.
“There was no wholly right course in this case, so we chose one that benefits that human race. Besides, I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that you actually want to be a woman, am I right?.”
I nodded my head, then managed to croak out, “What if it doesn’t work out? With Jerry?”
“Oh there are bound to be mistakes. All we ask is that you try, for at least a year. If things aren’t working out for either or both of you by then, you get a free divorce.”
“What about my friends?”
“Pretty much all your friends have undergone the same transition. Some of them will have a harder time accepting the change because they’ve convinced themselves that being male isn’t such a bad thing, but believe me the human race has been doing things this way for a long time now, and we’ve become pretty good at picking candidates for motherhood. I wanted to know the same thing when I transitioned, so I asked my mother. Neither she nor I have heard of a woman who regrets her transition. Believe me, you’re going to love being a mother.”
There was a knock at the door, and I turned my eyes to see Jeremy standing in the doorway, looking worried. I turned away, not wanting him to see me in my current state, but Mother gave me a stern look, misinterpreting my reaction.
“Now be nice,” she said. “Jeremy’s been through a lot today as well.”
She stood and left the room leaving me alone with… my husband?
“I’m sorry,” he said hesitantly. “I wish I could have told you.”
I offered him a weak smile. “It’s not that, it’s just that… I must look a right state.”
He laughed. He actually laughed. It was a lovely sound, and I couldn’t help smiling along with him.
“This is so weird,” he said. “We’ve been friends for over a year now, and in all that time I’ve thought of you as a really good mate. A bit wimpy to be sure, but when you get past that, you’re smart and thoughtful, and you never once made me feel like thicko when you were helping me with my studies. I liked you from the moment I started walking with you to keep those apes off your back, but I never really saw you as a girl until you just said that.”
“Well, I feel like a wet weekend. I’ve never been much to look at, but I must be a real scary mess right now.”
“You look just fine,” he said gazing into my eyes. “In fact you look better than fine.”
He brushed a matted wisp of sweaty hair off my cheek and in that moment I felt my heart open completely to him. He wouldn’t thank me for the comment, but he had the prettiest eyes I’ve seen, and such a loveable smile. I’d thought as much before, but felt guilty for doing so. Now I didn’t need to feel guilty. I was changing. That hated part of me that stood for all the aggression I had never been able to feel was gone forever, and soon I would have a body to match the way I thought and felt.
I hated the decisions that had been made on my behalf, but I could understand the need for them, and just which one of those decision would I have made differently if I had been given the choice? I was going to be a girl, and most of my friends were too; we were going to be mothers, and that was an adventure we could share; and best of all, I was married to the most wonderful man – a man who had started showing his love for me even before he felt it, even before I was someone who he could love.
Funny how things work out.