“I rented a video from Facets. It sounds interesting.” When Selena shared this with her partner, Ry replied, “Another porno?” Selena had been bringing home lots of “interesting” videos since they’d picked up a small television with built-in VCR from Goodwill.
“Probably. Stu recommended it.” Selena met Stu through her grad program, and his tastes leaned toward the perverse and the obscure. He had described this filmmaker, Charlie Q, as a local weirdo, brilliant and reclusive and almost totally unknown, though Stu—here his narrow chest puffed out—had admired his work for years. “I mean, her work. Theirs?” The uncomfortable way Stu talked around the director’s gender made Selena think they might be queer or trans, or both. She was intrigued. The video was called Wild Animals.
Selena inserted the cassette and watched the VCR suck it inside. She settled next to Ry on the sunken seats of their couch. Marlo, their cat, leaped up and nestled against her thigh.
The video began with a shot of a white wall. The camera zoomed out and a leopard padded heavily into the frame, mottled markings winking. In the center, the big cat paused and stretched its front half; beneath dense fur, its intricate musculature quivered. It relaxed into the crouch, haunches lifted, ears twitching, long tail up and swooping lazily. The camera crept in tight. From the left, a fist emerged, and entered the leopard’s rear.
“I guess we could have predicted that,” Selena said. She was unfazed, or trying to be. There was something odd about the leopard’s lack of reaction. She assumed the two images were superimposed.
The leopard pushed back into the fist and began to rock.
“Uncanny,” Ry said. “It seems almost human.”
The leopard grunted. That, too, seemed human. Well, Marlo sounded human sometimes and was still a cat. The fist pummeled steadily; the grunting found a beat. Marlo crashed against Selena and rolled over for a belly scratch.
Then the leopard became a stallion.
“When did that happen?” Selena said. The leopard and horse bodies had muscled into each other so gradually she didn’t register the transformation until it was nearly complete. Astonishing. It was as though all of the black of the leopard’s coat had slid into the stallion’s calf markings, its mane and tail, leaving the body a golden brown—all without disrupting the rhythm of the movement.
This was a film about syncing, she thought. About techniques of editing. She leaned forward, entranced.
“Horses don’t crouch,” Ry, ever the boner-killer, observed. “They kneel.” Selena still teased Ry about their first date, when Ry had brought over a cassette tape called Cyborgasm: Erotica in 3D Sound to play on Selena’s old boom box and, as Annie Sprinkle gasped hotly through a cosmic sex scene, calmly summarized that day’s meeting of their critical-resistance group. But they were right. This stallion’s forearms stretched out unnaturally, maintaining the cat’s position. Otherwise the realism was extraordinary. The visual rhythm held steady, marked audibly by metronome-consistent grunts.
“Hmm,” Selena mused. “I wonder how this filmmaker achieved this effect.”
“What you are witnessing is not a visual effect but an experiment.” The sudden voiceover was hushed, worshipful, almost obsequious, and very close to the mic. You could hear tiny crackles of saliva between words. “An experiment in possibility... e-ro-tic possibility.”
As the word “possibility” echoed in the air, the figure morphed gradually into a tortoise, its starkly patterned shell spectacular. The tortoise lifted its backside to accommodate the slow pummeling. Selena frowned, perplexed. The outdated audio technique would have been laughable if the image weren’t so disconcerting. The creature’s limbs were too long and too thin, joints weirdly prominent.
“Interesting progression of species,” Ry murmured.
“Agreed. Cats and horses, hot; turtles, not.”
“I don’t know. I’m attracted to turtles.” Ry shrugged but did not take the argument further. “But that’s a tortoise. Often confused with turtles.”
“You are a tortoise.” It was true. Ry moved slowly in all matters; was prone to withdrawing into their shell.
The next progression moved toward the human. The flat head morphed to a bald bulb as the leathery skin melted to soft flesh. The tortoiseshell markings evaporated into splotches, more than freckles, something else. At the tip of the shoulder blades, bony nubs, vestiges of the shell? Selena didn’t know. She waited for the human to arrive but the figure solidified as human-ish. The tail remained, swinging.
“We are all animals,” the voiceover sounded. The word “animal” echoed overdramatically. “You are an animal too.” (Oo, oo, oo.) The echo synced up with the grunts.
The creature lifted its head and spoke to the camera. “We welcome you to new erotic possibilities.” Its eyes flashed black and reflective, like videotape ribbon. They seemed to stare directly at Selena, who, shuddering, blinked.
The fist pulled out and exited the screen. The creature quivered, then stilled. Sat back on its haunches, stood up, and stretched, tail dipping behind it. The image went black. “Are you disturbed?” Ry said, reaching for the remote. “I’m disturbed. That was disturbing.”
Selena lifted Ry’s hand and dropped it between her thighs.
They had slow, rhythmic sex that night, her imagination so inflamed and swollen she was almost insensate. Of course they would reenact the scene, Selena crouched and grunting, imagining herself first as leopard, then as stallion, her horse dick slapping her belly as she bucked. She suspended her climax for hours. It rolled out in tremors, a slow growl that felt a little like being emptied out.
“It’s like in The Ring,” she said over dinner the next day. “I’ve been infected.” The images repeated in her mind. She had spent her lunch period researching the film and the filmmaker online.
She found very little information on Charlie Q. An American expatriate who had gotten her (sometimes his) start in Hong Kong before settling in Chicago, Charlie Q had been making low-budget art porn for three decades. Apparently still active but likely working under another alias. The only image she found was a scan from a news clipping, gray and blurry. Charlie was androgynous and wore a mischievous smile under what was either a John Waters mustache or a bad printing job.
The film’s copyright was 1988, before major advancements in digital editing. That could be a false date, Ry suggested. Or the morphing may have been unusually skillful for the time. “It’s not like special effects didn’t exist before the era of Final Cut Pro.”
Ry was right. The eighties had seen great advances in such effects, she reminded herself. Blade Runner, TRON, and E.T.: all released in 1982; Aliens in 1986. If its copyright was accurate, Wild Animals had come out the same year as Willow, the first film to use extensive digital morphing for Fin Raziel, a sorceress woman who shifts shapes repeatedly in the film. The technology was groundbreaking for morphing not between computer-generated creations but between real animals—rodent to crow to goat to ostrich to peacock to turtle to tiger to, finally, human being. Selena found a clip of the climactic sequence in Willow. A bit pathetic, really. The morphing body had clearly been pasted into the scene; you could see the crude outline. Inferior in comparison with Wild Animals, which bore no trace of an editor’s hand. Wild Animals, not Willow, should have been nominated for an Oscar.
She watched the film twice more on her own.
In The Ring (the US version of the Japanese Ringu), whoever views the cursed videotape dies in seven days. After one sorry week of nosebleeds and cords clogging the throat, that’s it. You’re dead. There is also a cursed video in Infinite Jest, which Selena hadn’t finished. She remembered the tape being dangerous because it was too engrossing. Anyone who watched it was destined to keep watching it, too captivated to do anything else, even eat.
Though intriguing, Wild Animals did not absorb her in this way. Nor did it clog her throat. Rather, each new viewing produced an opposite effect. The symptoms of her infection were an unclogging, an opening up. To insatiability. To sync. She felt not closer to death but newly alive, newly enraptured. “Erotic possibility” ... the words lingered within her as she moved through her days, a steady rhythm, an echoing pulse. She was compelled to plunge her fingers into the whorls of trees as she passed. She caressed the slots of the ATM machine, tried licking the wings of the fly on her bus window (it flew off). She wanted to slow down her body so her soles slapped the skin of the street in sync with the under-rhythm. It was as though she had developed an additional sense that could sear away familiar reality to reveal its organizing undertow. There, in that other realm, was a rhythm so fixed that bodies didn’t need to be.
At home she became a large cat. A black panther stretched out on the biggest boulder. She lifted her head and maneuvered herself up casually, stretching, a nice, long, vibratory stretch. She licked her paw to groom her face, letting her tongue loll out, too pink, perverse. Swung her tail left and right, a thin rope of muscle snaking through the air. She padded toward the couch, dropping her spine, her shoulder blades lifting like fins. She tried leaping onto the couch like Marlo. Her body was too heavy, clumsy, too human; she hurt her back. She scrambled down to the floor and became a horse. Pawing at the ground with a hoof. Neighing. She could feel, at the top of her ass crack, the sprouting of a column of hair. She shook it loose.
Ry was not on board. Selena wanted to bat Ry’s tiny head with her massive paw. She wanted to chase Ry around the kitchen and stick her claws in their thighs. She wanted to sync and keep syncing.
Ry did not want to have sex with a leopard, they said, not even a fantasy cat. Selena was annoyed.
Ry was dull and unsensuous, she decided, where she was shining and attuned. She didn’t trust Ry’s immunity to the film—where she was inflamed by it, Ry found it disturbing. Ry was such a tortoise. Big and bulky, ready to retreat inside when exposed to anything actually exciting. Selena understood this as additional evidence of their erotic imbalance, an issue they’d navigated fairly well in the past but now hinted at an impasse. Ry refused to sync.
Selena didn’t like these judgmental thoughts about Ry and wanted to maintain the relationship. She returned the film.
“What’d you think?” Stu said, with a smug little smile.
Selena shrugged, avoiding his taunting eyes. “It was all right.”
“You’re not bothered by the eroticization of cats?” Ry had returned home to find Selena watching Cat People, a horror film about a woman who believes she is descended from cat people (she is). “Keeping them as pets is already morally questionable. Do we have to make them sexy too?”
Selena paused the film. “This is fiction. Obviously.”
Ry narrowed their eyes. “Is this about the film? The other film, I mean.”
Selena swiveled away from Ry to show her back. That’s what a cat would do.
“I wish you would get over your weird obsession with it. You're verging on appropriating furry culture.”
“Dude. I’m exploring new things. Don’t shame me.” She couldn’t explain to Ry that her new obsession had nothing to do with animals or sex per se, but with possibility. Rolling back the layers between reality and that other world. Where one could be in flux.
And she couldn’t tell Ry about her ride on the Endangered Species carousel that afternoon, how she had beelined for the leopard and mounted it. The leopard’s back sloped down but she gripped the pole to press her pelvis against it and slowly, slowly she rubbed. Ry would have squinted at her, frowned. Been embarrassed for Selena, who was inappropriate. Tortoise. As the ride accelerated, she increased her pressure, slid up, pressed, back, pressed, her clit swollen and begging. Beneath her, the regal cat moved, dense and warm between her thighs. It arched its back up and into her and yowled.
In bed next to sleeping Ry, Selena lets her mind stray. She is sinking a finger in the horse’s anus, gently massaging. The horse nutters. No. Now she is on her hands and knees, and behind her she doesn’t know what… a fox. Slipping in and out of her. No, it’s a dog. A cat—No. The leopard with its swooping tail, hypnotic, upsetting the air. Marlo rubs up against her breast, purring. He swivels so his asshole winks in her face. She sucks in a breath, brings a finger close, close, then she is touching it. His tail twitches. He hops off the bed. She’s the cat now, a big cat stalking her prey, a dull tortoise, basking on a flat rock in the sun, neck out and vulnerable. Cats don’t stalk tortoises, she can hear Ry say. The pairing is incompatible, queer. She purrs. Tortoise stirs and retreats into its shell. She noses the shell, nudging Tortoise over and onto its back. She sniffs its ridged chest, licks neatly and patiently its openings. She stands over the wobbling hemisphere, then crouches, rubbing her belly against its belly, her rows of nipples tightening as she moves. Tortoise’s beak peeks out, she can hear it rasping. “Whoa,” Tortoise says. “Wait. Selena.” She can’t. She keeps rubbing. Then Tortoise is on top of her, holding her down, yes, she’s yowling and jostling and fighting back, claws out, her snout slamming against its beak. Tortoise is small and weak, no match. Soon she’s back on top, snarling, rubbing, her nascent tail shooting out behind her and snapping the air alive.
* This story is inspired by Yumiko Kurahashi’s “The House of the Black Cat” (translated by Atsuko Sakaki). The italicized line “her imagination so inflamed . . .” is lifted directly from Sakaki's translation of Kurahashi’s story.