Shoktel Kartington was excited. Today was the day. For many months he had been writing carefully considered pieces that appeared in the pages of important journals. But he did so only as an invented writer—a pathetic portmanteau, an aching amalgam of Kartik and Dan’s rather tired identities.
And all of that was about to change. Today was Shoktel’s creation day. He was to exist in bodily form. Shoktel was about to go to a conservation conference, and he had to appear in person. Shoktel had never appeared in person anywhere. He couldn’t. He didn’t really exist. But today, in order to attend the conference, he was going to be given a form, an appearance in which to appear.
Shoktel could feel the electricity in the air. This was a coming of age moment for many reasons. The conservation conference was exciting enough. People would fly to the venue from all over the world to fight climate change and applaud the heroes (and, wait for it, heroines) of conservation. And he would be amongst them. He would be speaking about the global re-afforestation programme, the half galaxy project, and his latest idea: compassionate forestry. There was even talk of a new national park providing vital habitat for all the world’s greatest conservationists.
And this was more than just a major conservation event. At last he would learn what he really looked like. But would he, he wondered, live up to his expectations?
He sighed. And a slow thrill of excitement built within him. He had felt that sigh. He had lungs! He could feel his shoulders rising and falling. He could feel his legs. He took a tentative step and the shock of the floor through his feet jarred his soul with joy. Suddenly his nerves (he had nerves!) were tingling. He could feel clothes on his back. His toes wriggled in fresh new socks. He strode around the room with excitement. He needed a mirror. Now!
Already Shoktel was rehearsing the pleasure and dignity he would feel on seeing himself for the first time. He knew how significant he was. He was a senior man attending a major conservation gathering. You don’t get much more important than that. And now he was going to look the part.
Glancing down he could see that he was wearing smart suit trousers and shiny patent leather shoes. Good. That was a start. The corporate look was vital these days. But his shirt was all wrong. It was rather vivid and appeared to have some sort of vegetation printed on it. Worse than that, it was far too short. He could see his belly button. Doubtless his authors had made a typo somewhere.
Tentatively he reached up to feel his face. And a deep sense of satisfaction filled him. His nose was most dignified, and he had a full head of lustrous hair. It was modestly cut, but thick and glossy. No surprise his authors wanted that for him. He reached up and pulled a strand out. But that was strange. You can’t go to a conference with pink hair. He inspected it again. No, it was not pink, but orange. And then pink again. What was going on?
A movement caught his eye, his shirt was changing as he watched. The green floral designed shimmered into starch white. Cuff-links winked on his wrists. And then it was green again, his belly button was back in view and—Good Lord! Was that a navel piercing?
Shoktel closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Creation was always stressful. It would be much easier if one could evolve slowly over millions of years. But he was a magazine feature with publishing deadlines to meet. There was no way that the profit margins of the publishers could tolerate evolution.
When he opened them, peeking cautiously through rather thick eyelashes, some sort of normality seemed to have been restored. His shirt was crisp and ironed, and a very sensible shade of light blue. It masked his well-proportioned paunch. Being important means eating well after all.
He checked his face again, stroking his chin. Bristles scratched his fingertips. Goodness but this is a manly chin. It’s got one of those dimple things in it. In fact—Shoktel gripped his jaw again—it’s more than manly. It’s enormous! What are they doing?
Panic-stricken, Shoktel seized his face, trying vainly to push his preponderant jawbone back into his head. It felt huge in his hands. His knuckles clenched white in fear. Finely manicured fingernails, painted lilac and olive green, pressed into his cheeks.
Manicures? Nail varnish? No!!
Shoktel tried to peer around his jawbone to inspect his hands. Somehow, they seemed far away. And then he saw the preposterousness of it all. His jaw was not large. Instead his hands were ridiculously tiny. And effeminate. Very effeminate.
At this point Shoktel got quite cross. How dare they do this to him! Who did his authors think they were? He was Shoktel Kartington—arbiter of conservation truth since at least 2018. He couldn’t turn up at a conservation conference looking like this. Masculinity in conservation conferences is a carefully performed affair requiring LOTS of testosterone. Indeed, in some conferences, the ‘real men’, so rumour has it, are so macho that they wear khaki shorts and no underpants.
He kicked the wall in frustration at the injustice of it all. And stubbed his toe—badly. His patent leather shoes had been replaced by open-toed sandals. Suddenly he realised that a physical presence was full of disadvantages. And these problems were compounded when his creators were apparently arguing about what he actually looked like.
Shoktel watched with sad resignation as unseen forces pummelled his body into ever more ludicrous shapes and combinations. His hair grew long, then golden. Thick sideburns sprouted from his cheeks, that quickly dissolved into a downy wisp over a maiden’s blush. He acquired a limp, a stoop, knocked knees and then a rather well-formed pair of dancers’ legs. He found himself wearing a t-shirt and then a kaftan that bulged over a quite magnificent beer belly. His trousers shimmered into khaki shorts (ew—the rumour about the underpants was true!), and scruffy brogues morphed into large walking boots and thick, woolly socks.
Shoktel began to feel sick. The transformations were dizzying, and the combinations they produced stupefying. If this carried on he would have to become a social scientist and write about ‘identity’. But that would be ridiculous. He knew who he was. Everyone did. And identity has nothing to do with real conservation.
And then, finally, the maelstrom of change began to subside. He felt his body and clothing begin to settle. Even better, he found he had been placed in the conference hotel room. It had a mirror. Now he was finally going to meet himself: the consummate conservation professional, the researcher extraordinaire. He just hoped that his reflection would be sufficiently aware of its privilege.
He waddled across the room to the mirror. His thighs were suddenly wobbly. He felt tired, bloated and rather bulbous. Phlegm clogged his throat. And before he saw it he had a sudden premonition that he would hate this image of himself.
Sure enough, standing in the glass before him was a worn-out old businessman who had spent far too many decades propping up bars and eating function food. His trousers were tired and travel-stained. His socks sagged, unwashed for days. His underpants were back, but their sweaty wrinkles were rubbing sores into his buttocks. His tummy rumbled and flatulent slips betrayed a fake vegan diet. He was balding, his breath smelt, his skin was flaking. When he shrugged his shoulders, the dandruff drifted in tiny dunes. Cautiously he checked his midriff. No jewelled piercing, but thick secretions of tummy button fluff had layered in the folds of his abdomen.
Shoktel felt sick. How could his authors even know that this sort of thing existed? How diseased were their imaginations? The being standing before him could barely save itself, let alone the planet.
He choked back tears of frustration and clenched a flaccid jaw. His jowls slopped in anger. They would not win. He would have his revenge. He must have his revenge! If ever he got to that conference he would not present his brilliant thinking, his masterful mosaics of fact and inspiration. He would bore his audience with interminable social science waffle, and pathetic claims about class, wealth, constructed truths, and multi-species jargonizations. If he was going to be the face of anything, then, with this face, he was going to represent everything that was wrong with conservation.
Far, far away, in a distant office on a parallel dimension, Dan and Kartik smiled tentatively. They surveyed the detritus of their morning’s work before them. On one half of the table a mess of papers and notes was strewn in a dishevelled pile. On the other, books and source materials were stacked neatly, arranged by size and colour.
“You know,” said Kartik laughing, “I think we have him figured out. I thought it was really funny when you gave him navel fluff.”
“Wait,” Dan replied with furrowed brows, “I thought you did that!”
“Nope. That last paragraph was all you. If I may point this out, I didn’t know what navel fluff was until you wrote it.”
Dan shook his head. They looked at each other in puzzlement. Was Shoktel shapeshifting all by himself? Had they created some form of Artificial Idiocy?
Then they both said simultaneously: “The illustrator shall fix this!”