Once upon a time there was a forest. It was surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains, hidden from the human eyes hence providing a perfect hideout to a huge number of creatures. It was an abode to a variety of plants and animals. Throughout the year, there was greenery. Huge ancient trees sprawled the forest like weeds. They threatened to touch the sky above. Rays of mellow sunlight filtered through the canopy, struggling to penetrate through the dense forest. Whenever it managed to, it cast an amazingly greenish-gold luminescence over the ground. Huge, tangled roots dipped into and out of the ground. Aerial roots grew out of most of the trees, each almost as thick as the main trunk. Dead leaves, ferns, and moss covered the ground like a thick carpet. The chirping of birds and the occasional sounds of various animals residing in the forest were the only sounds one could hear. A gentle breeze always blew, making the leaves rustle and almost creating music in the process. The earthy smell, mixed with that of fresh berries and wildflowers was captivating. There was a small clearing in the forest. Nestled in it, was a small cottage where the Stellers lived. This story is about them.
“Choo choo” a small red engine entered the house hissing and puffing.
“Oh! Please stop it!” someone shouted in irritation.
The engine was suddenly out of sight and a shiny yellow ball came rolling towards an armchair. The wooden armchair looked old yet firm. It rocked once when the ball touched it, as if in acknowledgment. A mop soon started cleaning up after the mess the engine had made. It was hissing angrily at the ball. Outside, a lawnmower was working on the lawns with no human in sight, as if on its own. This was a normal sight at the Stellers’ place.
The Stellers were no ordinary people. Yes you could call them ‘people’. They, however, were anything but ordinary. They were a family of shape-shifters, they could take any shape they wanted. They were one of the few wild ones left and the only ones in this area, most of them had been domesticated by the humans.
The family consisted of mumma, papa, grandpa, and Cheetos. Cheetos was a little kid, changing shapes and sizes at a whim every minute. Mumma and papa changed shapes only at times if needed. The oldest member of the family, grandpa, hardly spoke, never moved or changed shape. He was too tired and lazy. Hence he was always the rocking chair. The only way you knew he was alive was by his occasional rocking. No one really knew what they actually looked like. They were so used to constantly changing shapes.
“Let’s go berry picking” Cheetos turned into a trumpet and blew himself.
“Go. Call papa” mumma motioned towards the lawnmover.
Together, the three of them went out to pluck berries.
“Hello, Mr. Rabbit!” Cheetos turned into a rabbit and greeted a rabbit who was on his way home.
“Oh, hello Cheetos,” the smart rabbit winked.
They soon saw a bunch of orangutans and Cheetos started jumping along with them from one branch to the other.
“Wooahhh, aaahhh!” Cheetos shouted as the orangutans started playing catch with him. He was seemed to be having a galla time.
He scoured the skies with a flock of birds and swam into the depths of lakes with a school of fishes.
“I will eat you!” he roared like a tiger bouncing at a herd of deer almost scaring the shit out of them.
“Relax. It’s Cheetos” the experienced elders smiled at him knowingly. Soon the herd charged at him and he had to run to the elder deer for protection.
The animals loved playing around with Cheetos. The Stellers were loved by all.
He saw snails and became one with them, a crow soon swooped in and picked him up, happy for the day’s meal.
“Leave me! I am Cheetos” he struggled out of the crow’s beak, thought of changing into a ball and roll down but in his fear, he turned into an egg instead, and therefore humpty dumpty had a great fall!
Mumma papa laughed in unison. They picked his broken pieces and joined them together like a jigsaw puzzle to make their son one.
They finally reached the berry trees. Blueberries, raspberries, wild berries, the trees were adorned with all kinds of berries. It looked like someone had painted a colourful canvas. Cheetos forgot everything and began bouncing around like a spring trying to pluck berries or growing an extra-long arm to do the same. Berry picking was always a fun time for them. They would pick the choicest and the juiciest of berries. The three of them often ventured out into the forest, plucking juicy fruits and picking up fresh meat at times if they were lucky. They loved making jams and jellies and storing them in jars to last them the entire year. The honey bees also considered them as friends and gladly gave up their honey to them when they were ready to leave their hives or at times when the family was in need of it.
On their way back, they cleaned themselves in the spring nearby.
“I am a water demon!” Cheetos turned into a small whale and charged at mumma, spraying her with water.
“When will you grow up, you little monster!” mumma hugged him dearly.
“Grandpa must be waiting for us. Let’s get going” papa motioned to the two of them to hurry up.
They reluctantly got out. Mumma cleaned the berries and they began trotting home like rabbits.
“Here grandpa, catch” Cheetos threw a few berries at his grandpa, the berries soon disappeared from sight. Grandpa rocked in happiness, berries were his favorite.
“Mumma, when will we go to see humans?” Cheetos enquired as he often did.
“Baby, we are free to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Why would you want to give up all this?” mumma always cajoled him. She tucked him in his bed and kissed him goodnight.
Cheetos had heard a lot about humans from his cousins who were domesticated. The younger ones were always naughty. They loved changing shapes just like Cheetos even though they couldn’t do it as often or as freely as Cheetos did. They would take the shapes of glasses and then suddenly change into something else while their poor humans would keep looking for them, often landing on their heads, just in time to be discovered by someone else. They even took shapes of keys or tic tac clips, and then changed into useless papers. The clueless humans always thought that they had misplaced these items. They often got scolded for their gimmicks by the elders. The elders were mostly mobile phones or electronics. They said their humans loved them more than their lives. Was it really possible? Cheetos always wondered. When they got bored they would either make the younger generation replace them, more like an upgrade or they would deliberately slip out of their human’s hand and pretend to break. The lovey-dovey couples always stayed together in pairs like earrings, shoes, cups, and saucers, mobile and charger, etc. The grandpas would often hide in coal mines like diamonds and wait for the humans to find them. They often even formed groups and changed to some yellow metal called gold and got themselves discovered in some mines. This way, they said they could continue living and didn’t have to bother changing unless the humans beautified them which they didn’t really mind. If any of them wanted to take a break from the humans, they would turn to rocks and boulders. This way, the humans didn’t bother them much. At times, very rarely they would come to visit the Stellers. Cheetos really wanted to see humans with his own eyes. He sighed and dosed off. He dreamt of distant human lands and humans.
The season to make jams and jellies soon came. Cheetos loved turning into a ladle and helping his parents mix the different kinds of berries.
“We have lots of ladles. Why do you always want to jump in?” papa hit the berries with him making them splash.
“Haha, it’s fun!” He jumped on the berries harder. It was a delight seeing him all covered in berries. A huge tongue soon came out of the ladle and licked itself clean. He burped loudly and sprang out of the vessel.
The Stellers’ lives were doing well until one day when they heard through the grapevine that two humans were in the neighborhood. Old Malcon, the falcon was the first one to see them.
“What? Are you serious?” enquired the bears.
“Yes, we saw them too. A short plump human and a small blonde kid. Both females I believe” the monkeys soon chipped in.
“Oh god! We are doomed!” the moles peeped out from their burrows.
Even the big cats seemed nervous hearing the news.
“Mumma, humans are here!” squealed Cheetos.
“Shhh! Quiet. They shouldn’t know about us. All of us should stay like grandpa, not changing shapes, if we see them.”
“AND NO TALKING.” She barked at Cheetos.
“We can do our chores when they aren’t around. There aren’t any houses here. I hope they don’t end up staying here.” Mumma looked grave. “I wonder why anyone would venture into this area. Our forest is well hidden and dangerous for the humans.”
Their biggest fear, however, came true. The humans managed to find their house and began staying there. The elders were skeptical but Cheetos couldn’t have been any happier. He would often bounce around like a ball. The little girl Myra loved him and always played with him. Her mumma would do all the household chores and make food Cheetos had never seen or smelled before. He would often shamelessly wait for the leftovers and rush to have a taste. If the food looked too appetizing, then he would convert to a spoon and have almost half of the food. His mumma never cooked afterall and Myra hardly ate anything so her mom would be overjoyed seeing her empty plate and give her a second serving.
The mother-daughter, Seema, and Myra were good humans. They loved each other, handled all objects (including the Stellers) with care, and always kept to each other. Just like mumma, Seema also kept tidying her house. They, however, were hiding from someone, always on the lookout, even the slightest sound scared them. So Cheetos tried to be as quiet as he could. The Stellers adjusted themselves around the humans. Mumma was a carpet, papa a mop and Cheetos tried to stay as a ball. Once when Seema was dusting and couldn’t find a pan, he rolled out of Myra’s hands and soon came in front of Seema’s eyes as a pan. He left no chance to please them, always coming in handy. The unsuspecting human never doubted anything. They went out every few days to get fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat if any. They never really bothered any animals. Every night, after the humans were asleep, the Stellers would gather together and eat or venture out. The animals were always curious to know what the humans did the entire day and would gather around to hear stories from the Stellers. Cheetos, at times, carried spare human-made food and fed the baby animals. He was loved by all, but he became an overnight star among the baby animals. The baby animals, just like Cheetos, were curious to see the humans but the elders always scolded them and managed to keep them away. After returning, without fail, Cheetos would curl up against his mumma who would roll and form a cocoon around him, trying to protect him from all forms of dangers.
How does the ball always end up here at night? Seema often wondered.
Everything was going well and the Stellers’ identity was well hidden from the humans until one day, a bad man came looking for them. He was tall and well built, his face looked like a turnip. He had short, greasy hair at the center of his head, which was otherwise bald. He had a goatee on his chin and a big mole on his nose. He had a really foul smell and he looked menacing. Unlike Seema and Myra, his clothes were dirty and tattered. He was really in need of a good bath. Seema and Myra shivered at the sight of him.
“You thought you could hide from me forever. Did you?” He kicked Seema as soon as he saw her.
“I.. we.. “ Seema protectively held on to her daughter, words failing to come out of her mouth. She was trying her best to stay calm and not cry.
The man continued abusing her. We all sat in silence looking at him. Cheetos loathed him. He snuggled up close to Myra trying to calm her down.
The bad man kept shouting at them. He got up and started hitting Seema.
Myra was inconsolable. “Please papa, please do not hit mumma.” She begged.
“You are no good. You had the audacity to rat me out. If I don’t steal, where do you think the money to feed you two monsters will come from? I had to spend so many days in jail. What do you know about it? And then I come out and see you two have disappeared without telling me about your whereabouts! Thought you could just run away. Did you? Like mother, like daughter.” He glared at Myra.
“A bitch can only give birth to a bitch. You cannot expect anything better from her. If only you would have been any better, I would have had a son like me.” He hissed at Seema.
“All I did was beat you two. I should have killed you instead, would have served you right. You should have been grateful to me for feeding you two and stayed at my feet. But no!” He pulled Myra by her hair.
“Please don’t. Please leave us alone” Seema sobbed.
“Leave you!!” He spat on her and sat on grandpa.
Cheetos was very angry and wanted to attack him but mumma forbade him from doing so.
“You know…” he began, but couldn’t continue as grandpa moved. This was the first time Cheetos had seen him move. He parted his legs and the evil man fell on the floor.
“What the..’’ he began but papa, who was a mop, soon fell on top of him, making his head bleed. He got up howling in pain. Cheetos was so happy, that he climbed on top of a cupboard and bounced down at him, hitting him straight on his face. He looked around in bewilderment. Mumma soon rolled from under his feet, making him fall headfirst outside the house. The house followed suit and banged the door on him. The windows opened, to give them a clear view of the man. No, the house wasn’t a shape-shifter, but it had learned a few tricks from its occupants over the years. The man had fallen on a puddle and surprisingly smelled better than he did before. He got up scared and this time, tumbled and fell down on his own.
Seema and Myra looked at all these in shock.
“This house is haunted!! Stay here only. It will serve you good.” The evil man started running in the opposite direction, scared for his life. The look on his face made Cheetos roll around laughing.
The happiness, however, didn’t last long. Soon, everything was quiet. Cheetos rolled next to Myra hoping to be patted but Seema screamed and pulled Myra aside. Both Seema and Myra, still shaken from what had happened, began looking around in fear. The Stellers understood that they had scared the two more than the man whom they drove out. In their effort to help the humans, they had acted out rashly scaring them instead. They uncertainly looked at each other, not knowing what to do.
Papa finally took charge and came forward.
“Hello. We are the Stellers. We are sorry we didn’t introduce ourselves earlier. We are shape-shifters, we can change shapes whenever we want and become whatever we want. We live here and we welcome you all to stay with us for as long as you want.” He looked at mumma for help.
Mumma hesitated a little but soon added “We aren’t ghosts and we will do you no harm. We were in hiding because we were scared of you.” She looked at Seema apologetically. “This is my husband, this is my son and that is my father-in-law.” She pointed at each of her family members.
Seema looked at them, unwilling to believe her eyes and ears, holding Myra tightly against her.
“Thank you.” Myra whispered after a long silence.
Seema looked at her in shock. She got her voice back and began “I-I have never heard of shape-shifters before,” she looked at each one of them.
“I am sorry that you all had to witness that,” she shuddered. “Thank you for helping us.”
After a moment’s pause, her curiosity took the better of her and she couldn’t stop herself from asking “So can you really take any shape?”
“Oh yes. Any.” Cheetos piped in, changing into a butterfly, a doll, flowers, and a teddy in quick succession.
Seema looked at him in shock, her legs gave away and she sat on grandpa.
“Aaah!” she sprinted back realizing what she just did. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She looked horrified.
“It’s absolutely fine.” Grandpa smiled at her.
Mumma cleared her throat “Please continue staying as you have been. We won’t come in your way. And please, please do not be scared of us. I am a mother just like you,” she hugged Cheetos. Her heart went out to the poor woman.
All the happenings in the past few days now made sense to Seema, how the things she wanted suddenly popped in front of her, how the carpet always curled up around the ball and how Myra at times ate more than she usually did.
“So, you like the food I cook?” She looked at Cheetos and chuckled.
Cheetos, who was now a teddy, nodded in embarrassment.
“Mumma please let’s just stay here.” Myra freed herself from her mom and petted Cheetos who squealed in happiness and rose up like a balloon. Myra too started jumping in joy.
Seema considered for a moment and then went to Mumma. “I am sorry we just barged in. We did not know and we had nowhere else to go.”
Mumma nodded in understanding. Only a mother can understand another mother’s plight.
“So will you stay here?” Cheetos looked at her hopefully. Myra’s eyes almost begged her to say yes.
“Yes!” she finally said. “From now on, you all don’t have to live according to my convenience. Let’s all stay together as a family.
Everyone cheered in happiness.
They stayed together, played together, plucked berries, and made jams and jellies together. Seema also taught mumma cooking. Mumma was happy that they stayed with humans but could still live freely, the thought of domestication feared her. Myra and Cheetos became best friends. And so they lived happily ever after.
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