Shapeshifter – a fairy tail

Using the padlock from which I received a photograph of Le Jardin Victor as a starting point, I wove a fairy tale and a weave that together report on my discovery a transgender woman and my transition.

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It never really seemed special to her, the antique padlock. That’s sometimes how it is with things you’ve owned all your life, even if they have a certain magic it passes you by. Only after the change happened did Elena understand that it had never been anything ordinary. The male layer covering her existence back then had kept her from understanding, from seeing it. The image of the woman on the padlock while going through life as a man, it just didn’t rhyme. In fact, she thought it was just a stupid lock, just as she thought anything that confronted her with her identity was stupid at the time. And yet she kept it all those years with care in the secret place, the niche behind her bookcase. And later in life every time she moved to another place it traveled faithfully with her in the box of relics of yesteryear.

Until, a week before her discovery, she received an envelope from her aunt. It was a letter addressed to her from her great-grandmother who had died years before. It felt strange getting a letter from her years after her passing. Suddenly she saw the friendly, thoroughly wrinkled face of Betsy before her. Her shining eyes always curious for something to question. The envelope felt heavy. Opening it, a puff of lavender scent came out. Betsy had small bags of lavender in everything she could put hem, probably including the box the letter had been in. Inside the envelope was a rusty key and a folded letter, yellowed by the passage of time. She knew instantly that it was the key belonging to the padlock. On the little paper was only one line of text. In her great-grandmother’s old-fashioned cursive handwriting it read, “Only those who know their true identity may use this key.” Strange and typical again. Truly one of those Grandma Betsy riddles. Elena felt slightly offended by the words, though she couldn’t quite place that feeling. Perhaps because she was again expected to solve a riddle; she had other things to do. Without trying the key she put it back in the envelope and almost carelessly shoved the envelope into a drawer.

But ever since she had gotten her hands on the key, her world seemed to tilt. The ominous feeling that so often beset her became unbearable. She began eating more, drinking more, she even got back to smoking. Anything that could temper her agitation as she had done for years. But it didn’t help. Until, on the seventh day, she looked in the mirror and saw that confused look back in her reflection. Because still all these days she had not tried exactly that one thing that cried out in her, screamed that it could put her at ease. Because it all sounded so banal, too abnormal, ridiculous even. But it kept going through her mind anyway. She wanted to wear a dress. She had felt this longing so many times but she had always put it off as some kind of sin to feel that way as a man. But now she decided to give it a try. After all, she had nothing to lose and no one needed to know about it.

Five years later she found the key again, in the same drawer where she had left it. She immediately thought of the very thing she was avoiding back then. She searched among the boxes of old textbooks, photographs and other things from the past until she found the relic box. She opened it and fished out the old padlock. It was a beautiful lock she realised in astonishment, made from plated copper with an illustrated image of a feathered goddess engraved in it. The Shapeshifter, she somehow understood from her memories. On the back a text in a language unreadable to her. Bizarre how the keyhole was in the exact spot that had been so much a matter of concern to herself. She pressed the key into the somewhat uncomfortable spot and began to turn it. The lock was stiff and old and didn’t seem to yield at first, but with some prying, the shackle popped off with a rusty click. The sound was louder than Elena had expected, as if her hearing had zoomed in to the lock.

Nothing happened at all. Elena looked around confused. No strange light shows, magical spins or special creatures appearing. Of course not, but somehow she had hoped for that. Literally nothing more happened than the shackle rising from the lock. It took a moment until it dawned on Elena. For her clever Betsy had been ahead of her, she had always seen it. And indeed, all the magic had already happened she now understood. Not long after she tried that dress she understood what it was that confused her all these years and decided to change her life. She started hormone treatment, she had gender affirming surgery and started living as a woman. Over the last years she learned to love herself, which she couldn’t before. Maybe her Betsy just wanted to tell her that she was allowed to be who she was back then, even if there was that strange wrapping around her, she could change that. The lock was just a symbol. Not the lock but Elena herself was the shapeshifter. Transformed into herself. She had unconsciously complied with the text in the bill. Her identity was now completely true and she confirmed this with the decision to open the lock. It was not the lock she was releasing, it was herself.

Text and fabric Stellata Koppe, collage and photograph by Virginie Moerenhout. February 2024.

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