Phantoms of the night
There are these things called supernumerary phantom limbs, which is a mouthful and a half. You mostly see it in academic papers. Amputees sometimes get phantom limbs where they feel as though their arm or leg is still attached. Many report that they can wiggle their nonexistent fingers or toes. "Supernumary phantom limb" is the fancy medical™ way to say "I feel an extra limb that never actually existed on my body." It's not something that was amputated. It's an extra that's along for the ride.
I've had a lot of these come and go over the years. Sometimes, it's a set of wings wrenching their way out of my back, skin membranes stretched tight over invisible bones and muscles. I can feel the pull of them all the way down my back and out across my shoulders, the way the muscles tie into each other and tug against the bones. I have a tail most of the time. It's a sweeping extension of my spine that flows down through my pelvis and out of my body as a fluid limb. No one's ever seen it, not even me, but the visceral sensation of its vertebrae persists anyway.
One evening, I was treated with the bizarre sensation of branches and wooden skin while staring at the little cyprus shrub on my desk. Leaves and cellulose spun their way out of my shoulders and skull, tendrils grasping for the lamp embedded in the ceiling. Their sturdy, twisting shapes stuck around for a few days before receding back into my body as though they'd never been there. A snout and too-long teeth replaced them.
When I first found the alterhuman community in 2015, I had no clue what I was. A lot of us were in that position at some point- it's practically alterhuman culture to have to explore different species and categories to find where we belong. It's expected that newcomers will spend a while thinking about it and questioning their options. It felt a bit different for me. Others had consistent signs that added up to a coherent picture. My signs were scattered as though someone tried to play darts while blindfolded.
Two years out, I still had no idea what I was. Most folks seemed to have at least a rough idea after a few years of exploration. They might not have it nailed down to a specific species, but folks knew they were canines or carnivores, knew they were something with certain traits. I didn't know that. I experienced phantom limbs and nonhuman impulses like the people around me, but I couldn't pin them down. One day, I'd have feathers running down my back. The next, I'd have finned ears and feel that having feathers would be wrong for my species. I'd feel predator impulses on one day and a prey mindset on the next. It felt like I was everything at once. How was I supposed to pin down what I was if I kept changing?
I started racking up an impressive list of kintypes. I was a domestic cat, shadow person, large dog, angel, demon, seagull, astral being, fisher cat, some sort of deer-bird hybrid, a handful of fictotypes, and the list kept growing. I'd experience a new species identity, spend a few days or weeks finding a match for the experiences I was having, then add it to the collection. I didn't feel like it got me anywhere. Unlike other kinfolk I knew, these identities never stuck around for long. They'd pass by after a few days or weeks, leaving me feeling like nothing at all until something new took hold of me. That didn't match up with the alterhuman experiences surrounding me. Eventually, I settled on calling myself eldritch because it was the best explanation I had for my rapidly changing experiences, but it never felt like it fully explained everything. It was close, but not the full picture.
And then I came across an article about polymorphs.
Well, that would explain a lot.
A polymorph is an energy being with no set form. Instead, the polymorph can take on multiple forms.
That definition is taken straight from the Kinmunity terminology page, and it's one of the better ones I've seen. Some definitions add that polymorphs usually mirror the forms of those around them: for example, a polymorph might take on a dog's shape if they spend time around dogs. Other definitions leave that out. All of them agree on the basic idea that a polymorph is a being that shapeshifts in some way.
What makes a shapeshifter different from a polymorph?
The usual distinction is that shapeshifters have a base form or "true" form. They have some shape that's who they are at their core. Polymorphs don't have a true form. They're formless beings at their core. When a polymorph isn't shifted, they don't have a shape.
I experienced a changing sense of form: my internal sense of shape shifted between many different species, and I felt phantom limbs in line with that. My form seemed to mirror the creatures I was exposed to. I felt like a cat when exposed to cats. Around birds, I felt wings and a beak, strong talons and sleek feathers. When other kinfolk talked about their experiences, I'd find myself mirroring their kintypes for the next few days. I didn't feel like I was those species once the form shift passed. When I wasn't in an active shift, I felt like nothing at all. I didn't feel like I had a base form like everyone else did. I felt like I was supposed to be some ambient cloud of consciousness without a set shape.
All the pieces clicked together. I was a polymorph. I wasn't broken or confused; I'd been unable to pin down my species because my species can't be pinned down in the same way as traditional kintypes. Phantom limbs and instincts hadn't gotten me anywhere because I don't have a set form like others do. It felt like the pieces of my alterhuman identity clicked into place.
Unlike my previous attempts to pin down my species, being a polymorph only feels more correct as time goes on. It feels like coming home.
To folks who are reading this and wondering whether they're also a polymorph:
I can't ultimately say what you are. You're the only one that can answer that question, and relying on others to tell you who and what you are is risky at best. What I can do is offer up a few questions that I've found helpful for figuring out whether "polymorph" applies to myself and others. This whole article was inspired by accidentally being someone's polymorph awakening, so I've got some decent questions on hand!
- Do you feel that your internal sense of shape/form changes? Do you find shapeshifters relatable?
- Do you still have your species identities when not actively shifted into them? For example, if you're catkin, do you still identify as a cat when not experiencing a shift, or does it not feel relevant in the same way anymore?
- If you have forms that you keep coming back to: is that actually who you are, or is it just a form you really like or shift into often?
- What are you when not shifted?