Thunder and Herbs
The written words of Jenny Hackett
Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 9: Hitting the Books
It’s Monday, and Daniel and Michelle are at the public library. On the outside, it’s a small and unassuming building barely larger than a neighbourhood post office, but this exterior masks a cavernous, TARDIS-like interior consisting of an enormous underground chamber that stretches out underneath the council building next door. The two teens make their way in via a broad entrance surrounded by carved marble, and head down a set of stairs into the library proper.
The library, as Daniel vaguely recalls, was originally built during the Second World War as a bomb shelter for local government officials. During the Cold War, it was adapted for long-term use in the event of nuclear attack, with bunk beds and food cans stacked on top of each other in the same bureaucratic manner. Some time after it became clear that nuclear strikes weren’t about to destroy the planet, the bunker was renovated for use as a library paid for by some rich businessman with ties to the area, some local-boy-done-good. The renovations have done little to mask the claustrophobic atmosphere of Cold War paranoia, but it’s the best place for miles when it comes to the selection of books.
This library trip is ostensibly to look for information on “sex changes” (for lack of a better term), but that’s really only a half-truth. Daniel has no intention of going the medical route: rather, they intend to take matters into their own magically-augmented hands. They know there’s some things that medicine can do — they’ve not been living under a rock or anything, they’ve seen the reality TV specials — but they’re not about to put their trust in some random doctor, and medical science can only go so far. Anyway, they’re pretty sure it’d cost a lot of money1. In both routes, however, the first step’s the same: research.
According to Garl, the first step to modifying yourself is to understand how you work as-is; in that respect it’s much like changing anything else. The main difference between changing yourself and changing something else is that if you fuck up changing yourself you might not be around for long enough to unfuck it — not that Garl uses words like “fuck” — so it’s important to have a good working knowledge of medical things like anatomy and endocrinology.
Daniel doesn’t actually know what “endocrinology” means, but Michelle seems to think it’s relevant to the whole gender thing, so they imagine it’ll be useful.
Michelle leads Daniel down through the maze of bookshelves — she’s been here many times before, but they haven’t — to a section marked “Medical Science”. Before they have a chance to orient themself, she’s pulling heavy books from the shelf in a seemingly random (but presumably purposeful) fashion, handing each to Daniel as she does. By the sixth book, Daniel’s arms are complaining loudly and threatening to buckle: they’ve never had great upper-body strength, and these books are testing their limits.
Michelle mercifully stops at eight books, and the pair go to find a reading station to assess their spoils. (“Reading station” being a fancy term for a wooden table with a chair and a light.) They find one near the edge of the place, where the ceiling slopes downward at an angle for some aesthetic or structural reason that Daniel’s not aware of. Michelle grabs a second seat, and Daniel lets the books drop onto the table as loudly as they dare in a place as quiet as this. Their arms cry out in sweet relief.
Together, the pair spread their spoils across the table, so as to see them all at once. The eight books comprise:
- An Introduction to Human Anatomy (Second Edition)
- Reproductive Anatomy for Medical Students (Fifth Edition)
- Basic Endocrinology (Second Edition)
- An Introduction to Neurology (Fourth Edition)
- Medical Embryology (Second Edition)
- Human Psychology for the General Practitioner (Third Edition)
- Modern Surgical Techniques (no edition given, so presumably First Edition)
- Elementary Biochemistry (Second Edition)
Daniel’s not sure what half of these titles have to do with gender. To them, it’s as though Michelle’s thrown a handful of darts at a Dewey Decimal catalogue and picked up what they stuck to, and they’re not sure there’s a single medical topic that’s not covered by this selection. Not that they’d know, to be fair. Nevertheless, they grab one of the anatomy books along with the endocrinology book — might as well find out what that actually is — and get reading.
It takes six chapters and forty minutes for the despair to set in. It’s all a lot more complex than they expected.
First of all, there’s the anatomical differences. As Daniel had expected, ovaries and testes both develop from the same initial structure. Unfortunately, the point of divergence is so early in development — before birth! Who designed that? — that they would effectively have to roll back 15 years of growth to switch themself onto the other path. It’s like an out-of-control train that’s already past the last junction that could divert it, and Daniel’s tied to the tracks like a wannabe-damsel in distress. Except the train is testosterone and Daniel is, well, still Daniel.
Secondly, Daniel doesn’t have a uterus, and even if they could create one from nothing, they’d need to fiddle with their bone structure and connective tissues to fit it in somewhere. If they can do that, then there’s more problems to solve, such as: how do you reshape genitals? Can bodies reject magically-grown organs? Can you change your DNA? Do you even need to?
Finally, there’s the endocrinology, which turns out to be the study of how hormones interact with the body. On the face of it it’s a promising direction of enquiry, but in practice it’s all rather Complicated, and fixing hormones isn’t the simple matter of swapping one thing for another they’d hoped for. Both oestrogen and testosterone are present in most people: the difference is in quantity. That’s before you take the menstrual cycle into account, which is a complicated mess of half a dozen chemicals all in a precise dance throughout the body; and there’s more than one kind of oestrogen to worry about, and testosterone is not the only “androgen”, either. Finally, there’s a whole host of ancillary chemicals, all with subtle but important functions. The whole thing makes their head spin.
Daniel only notices that their teeth are chattering when it gets loud enough to hear. Then they notice other symptoms — short breath, hands shaking, vision fading — all leading to the obvious conclusion: they are panicking. They put one vibrating hand into their pocket, but the comforting power of the penny has gone along with their belief that it could help them. Traitor.
They begin to sob silently, head against the surface of the table. Michelle’s still engrossed in the psychology book; there’s no way she’s going to notice Daniel’s distress, so they just keep hyperventilating silently, trapped by the paradoxical desires for attention and isolation. Tears drip onto the plastic laminate of the table. They make no attempt to stem the flow.
Daniel’s got no idea how long it’s been when Michelle speaks. They’re not even sure it’s the first thing she’s said.
Her voice is gentle, slowly drifting into Daniel’s awareness. She asks again: “What’s wrong?”
Daniel’s not really able to manage words at the moment.
After a while, Michelle speaks again: “Daniel?”
Fuck. They’re really starting to hate that name; not that they’ve got anything better. It takes a few minutes to build up the energy, but they manage to croak out a single word in response.
They feel a hand placed on their back; Michelle must’ve come around the table at some point.
“What’s useless?” she asks, gently.
Daniel breathes a long, weary sigh as they try to build up the energy to speak. “Stuff. This.” They swallow. “Never gonna be…” they begin, but they trail off, embarrassed and ashamed by their own choice of wording. They say instead: “Never gonna get what I want.”
Michelle’s arms snake around their shoulders into an embrace. It’s comforting, but a little constricting at the same time. They’re not sure whether they want to lean into the hug, or pull away.
“It’ll be okay,” she says. Her voice is gentle, but her words are not quite credible. “I mean, there’s lots of options for you. There’s hormone therapy, surgery…”
That’s not the same as being real, Daniel doesn’t say.
Michelle strokes their shoulders — big and bulky, yuck — for a few minutes or so, before suddenly stopping.
“I’ve got an idea,” she says. Her voice sounds a little brighter than it did a moment ago. “Let’s go shopping.”
Daniel blinks their suddenly-dry eyes, surprise momentarily overcoming distress. They mumble: “What?”
Michelle disengages from the embrace, hurrying around the table to where she left her psychology book. She flips through it with purpose, quickly scanning page by page until she finds what she’s looking for. Finally, she spins the book around and shoves it in front of Daniel’s face.
“See?” she says, jabbing her finger at a passage.
Daniel lifts their head sluggishly and focuses their eyes on the text. It says:
Male-to-female transsexuals typically find that dysphoria can be alleviated partially by spending time “in role”.
They squint at the text, making little sense of the jargon; they think “male-to-female transsexual” means them, but besides that the book may as well be in Latin.
Presumably reading their bewilderment, Michelle explains: “Er, basically it means dressing as a girl might make you feel better.” She says this even quieter than her usual library hush, a discretion that Daniel’s incredibly thankful for. They’re not exactly thrilled that Michelle’s prescription is for them to become some kind of sissy.
Eh, fuck it. Not like they’ve much to lose, and they can at least use magic to avoid some unwanted attention; perhaps those glamours will come in handy after all. Taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm frazzled nerves, they shakily stand up.
“Okay,” they say, “but I need to go to the loo first.”
The library’s toilets are a fair distance from where Daniel and Michelle have set up camp. It takes Daniel almost ten minutes of navigating the labyrinthine bookshelf-corridors that make up the library, going left-right-right-right-left-left — or was it right? — before they reach the trio of doors leading to the gents’, ladies’ and disabled toilets respectively. In this case, they opt for the disableds: it’s where they’re least likely to be disturbed.
This particular disabled toilet’s kind of run down: the toilet roll dispenser’s been vandalised, and there’s graffiti covering the walls. The library’s old enough — well, the building is — that it wasn’t exactly built with wheelchair access in mind, so while it’s theoretically possible to get a wheelchair down here, clearly too few people actually do so to make maintaining the facilities worth much effort. No matter: Daniel’s not actually here for that.
They take the penny from their pocket, holding it up between themself and a mildly-cracked mirror. Full body glamours are awkward, at least as far as their limited experience goes, so they want to get this right. They roll the coin from knuckle to knuckle, carefully examining the pattern of their body, scanning their face, their chest, their hands, their feet, their knees and so forth several times over before eventually finding an entry point at the base of their skull.
Step one is to construct the glamour itself. Daniel does this by creating a knot out of stray reality-weave, pulling threads this way and that through a disturbingly high number of dimensions. What they’re trying to do is subtle but kind of high level — a far cry from the simple colour changes they’ve mainly performed before — which makes the whole process a little involved. Once they’ve constructed something that looks truly Gordian, they feed a loose end through the entry point they found earlier, doing their bet to integrate it with their own weave. The penny grows hot with the energy it’s having to marshal.
Daniel steps back from the mirror, work done. It’s a complex glamour, but they think it’ll hold: now, anyone that looks at them will be nudged toward assuming that they’re female. It’s probably not going to affect anyone who knows them already, but it’s better than nothing.
Daniel puts the coin back in their pocket, and —
No. Fuck it. Let’s do this right.
Penny puts the coin back in her pocket, and heads out the door.
Author’s note: They are misinformed on this point. In the UK, the National Health Service provides a range of treatments to trans people, including hormone treatment and various surgical procedures. These services, like most NHS services at the time of writing, are free at the point of use. That being said, they are far from perfect, suffering from long waiting lists and often being subject to “gatekeeping”, where doctors valiantly judge whether you are “trans enough” to get treatment, unhindered by their blinkered perspectives on matters of gender. ↩