He never shouted, It’s alive! He didn’t say anything…he just stared.
But I got right to work.
I loosened the straps that bound the creature. Not all the way, of course, this was the first test of fine motor skills. I waved away smoke from one of the doctor’s humming machines with a bit of cloth. The doctor had still not moved but the creature was already undoing his straps, taking the first tentative steps of his life, and I could not witness it. There was no time. There was work to be done. Always work to be done.
As I carried a tray full of vials and beakers from the room, I heard the first timid groans of the creature, which were promptly silenced by my slamming of the door.
It wasn’t as though I wasn’t interested in the outcome of our months of work. Quite
the contrary actually. I had spent, if I may be so bold, even more time making sure that each facet and step of the procedure went smoothly and without error than the doctor himself. I had gone through processes of trial and failure, bringing the doctor body parts that he would either keep or reject. I spent rainy night after rainy night digging through muck and mud and grime just to find a pinky toe that met his satisfaction. All the while, the doctor pored over notes and, more often than that, drank to a successful night’s work, or drank to numb the pain of a night’s failure.
My quarters were tucked away just underneath and around the corner of the large, hulking stairwell that encircled the doctor’s castle. It was a modest home, only privatized by a shabby bit of tapestry that ruffled limply behind me as I sat on the creaking spring mattress, setting the tray of containers on my bedside table as a reminder to clean them in the morning.
I lit a few candles that threw the small room into an orange light that flickered as the flames performed their dances. A few pictures hung from the stone wall. Scraps of scientific sketches that I had taken from some of the doctor’s textbooks. He used them for information. I kept them for their beauty.
I was always struck by the careful hands that seemed to draw the pictures. The largest of the ones I had taken for myself, was the outline of a bateleur eagle (or terathopius ecaudatus, as the tiny scrawl in the corner always reminded me). The left half of it was shaded in charcoal-colored strokes, the giant wingspan flat against the page, while the right side was entirely skeletal, all jagged bones and skull. It was not only educational, but a beautiful reminder of the mortality of being. And doctors, like the one upstairs, glanced at it as though it were a bit of common text to be skimmed. There was such beauty and poetry in science, and the doctor’s ignorance of that fact had always been a source of irritation for me.
As I stared at the picture, my eyes grew heavy. I realized, with a subdued sort of shock, that I had not slept in nearly thirty-six hours, having spent most of the previous night in the graveyard, and the following morning cleaning the body parts I had retrieved. I tried to keep my mind awake, forcing myself to go over the parts of the eagle that I had committed to memory.
The digits that made up its strong talons. Tarsometatarsus. A fusion of the tarsal and metatarsal structures.
And I was asleep, dreaming of men with great wings and talons, laboratories with floating body parts, and the voices of my past whispering that they hated me.
A crack of thunder woke me so suddenly that I sent the glasses I’d brought from the lab clattering to the ground. In the shadows of my room, I reached out haphazardly, foolishly trying to grab broken glass in the dark. The candles had gone out, and the only light from the room came from occasional streaks of lightning that leapt through my curtain-door.
My hands groped around for the nearest box of matches and I struck one, which sparked brightly before settling on a more subtle amber glow.
A cold chill crept up through my heart and into my arms so that the match I held shook violently, casting the room in an unsteady light. With a gulp that I hoped would help me regain my sense of balance, I lit my candles and saw that I was not alone in my meager little room.
There sat the creature, on the edge of my bed. It was an astoundingly human practice, sitting politely on the edge to signify that he understood he had not gained passage underneath my covers.
In my haste to clean the Doctor’s lab, I realized that I had not had a moment to fully gaze at the creature’s visage.
Perhaps not conventionally, but by the sheer knowledge that I (and my employer) had worked and toiled to bring these features to life, I could not help admire the graceful way his long black hair framed his smooth and pale face. His nose was crooked, clearly the man we had taken it from had it broken, and his eyebrows were slightly lopsided. But these imperfections only served to make him seem even more human. More tangible and real.
“Mmmmruh,” he said again.
“Hello,” I said.
I am not entirely positive what compelled me to speak so plainly to him, but I felt an urge in my gut or heart or brain to speak with him.
“Hello,” he recited back to me, testing the syllables on his tongue with an expression that resembled curiosity and morphed into contentment.
I clapped my hands together.
“Oh wonderful!” I exclaimed, patting my hand further down the bed to indicate that he should join me. “Can you speak fully then? I had thought you might. The doctor said it would be impossible; that you would have to relearn. But I knew. I knew that the sheer essence of humanity and language was more powerful than death. That brain of yours can still remember a thing or two, yes?”
“I can..speak,” he said. “I do not remember much from my past. I know that I am made of many things. Many people. Many lives.”
“You remember nothing?” I asked quietly. My heart was beating with an anticipation that had been mounting ever since the doctor had asked me to don the cap of graverobber.
I lit a few more candles while he thought. The room was bright now, the creeping sunlight of morning filtered through the windows and my curtain, though the soft pattering of rain outside still echoed in the great stone halls of the castle.
“I do not,” he said in a soft voice. His milky yellow eyes, which the doctor assured me would fade in time, looked sadly back at me. “I feel conflicting memories. Pieces of a past life coursing through each of my body parts in turn.”
“I see,” I said, nodding quickly and trying not to let the sinking feeling in my stomach show on my face.
“This troubles you?” he said. “I can still sense emotions, even more so now that my brain is, for now, so clear of thoughts and memories.”
I looked hard into his face and he stared at me too.
“I remember, very clearly, when the doctor asked me to assist him in this particular endeavor. I have worked for him for a long time. As a butler, a chef, a maid, whatever he required of me, I listened to him. When he approached me I was…in a state of distress.”
The man on my bed said nothing. He did not fiddle with the loose strings of my sheets, or glance at the candles flickering lights. He sat still and stared at me, listening to my words.
“I had a lover,” I continued, my throat drying quickly so that I had to swallow several times before going on. “More than a lover. A companion. A friend. The doctor never knew. Not that he’d have minded at all, he simply never cared to ask. My lover, my Jonathan, he died. Scarlet fever, that’s what the doctor said at least. I brought Jonathan to the doctor, but I never let on that we knew each other. I simply posed that Jonathan was a sick man I had noticed while picking up supplies in town. But the doctor could not save him. It is, afterall, medicine and not magic that he practices.”
The man now ran a hand through his long black hair, and I was once more struck with how quickly he picked up human traits like that.
“And so when the doctor came to me to ask about animating a corpse, building another, my mind naturally went to Jonathan.”
I looked him in the eyes and I saw that, even as I spoke, their yellow tint was turning to a softer green.
“But the doctor wanted pieces. I do not know why. Perhaps because it gave him more of a challenge to build from the ground up. Perhaps because he wanted, in some strangely respectful way, to leave at least some of the people at rest that we were desecrating. But…” I swallowed again, agitated by my voice’s quiver. “For the head, I used my Jonathan. I thought the head would hold the memories and the…the love. The knowledge. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps it truly is the heart. The Greeks believed it was the stomach. Perhaps we’re all wrong.”
The creature knit his lopsided eyebrows together with an expression that was unmistakably scrutiny.
“My head…comes from your past lover?” he said, working out the equation in his newly born mind.
“You are nearly the spitting image. The doctor had to make some adjustments but, when I look at you, I can trick myself into seeing Jonathan,” I said.
“I am not Jonathan,” he said. And he stood up now, his barefoot crunching against the broken glass on the ground that were once beakers. “And I know little of love and companionship. Even still. You cut off the head of the one you love? Rather than leave him at peace?”
“Jonathan…” I began, but he cut me off.
“I am not…I was never Jonathan. You shouldn’t have done this. I feel disjointed. Strange and unstable.”
“That will pass,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. “In time you will settle-”
“In time,” he spat. His eyes were wild now, anger pulsed from him as his hands and legs shook, as though he did not know how to properly process the feeling. “I shouldn’t need the time, I should be at peace. I was given time and I do not regret what I did with it. We were given our time,” he said, and I felt a sadness in his words that surprised me.
A voice suddenly broke our conversation like glass on stone.
The word rang through the castle from high above. The doctor’s voice growling and howling from the lab.
I stood up so quickly that blood rushed to my head.
“You must go,” I said, surprised at my own words. “Quickly.”
“You would let me leave?” he asked, the face of my Jonathan looking quizzically back at me. My lip trembled at the sight.
“Yes,” I said. “He would have you paraded around. You would be at carnivals and exhibitions. You would never be more than an experiment.”
He bent down and kissed me. My eyes, in my surprise, remained open the whole time, and to this day I regret that. Had they been closed I would have savored the moment. With my eyes closed we could have been anywhere. Far away from this place, left to hold that kiss for as long as we wished. I felt the familiar curve of his mouth against my own, like a shoe that still fit, once lost under the bed.
And then he was pulling away, wrapped in nothing but a blanket that billowed as he walked toward the front door. I unlatched the bolts for him, hearing the creaking of another door above us that meant the doctor was coming.
We did not say goodbye. I don’t remember him stepping out of the castle at all. I simply remember him walking away, his back to me. Morning was here and the sun filtered through the rain, casting iridescent light all around the castle grounds. The winding road took him to the spot where the path curved, and the mountains swallowed him from my sight.
I still see him every now and then. We do not speak. But I see him at the markets. He works for a flower peddler, chopping up bunches and wrapping them in paper, careful not to prick himselfs on their thorns. People do not pay attention to him. They do not see what a miracle he is. What a work of art-come-to-life he is. But I know. And when I see him in the market, I feel sad, looking at the face of my Jonathan. I wonder, vaguely each time, what he calls himself. If he has a name at all. And even more I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to ask.
Patrick Crossen is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA trying to balance reading, birdwatching, writing, and breathing. When he’s not writing, he’s eagerly checking under bushes and stones for the pixies he knows are watching his every move. But he’s not paranoid.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Quetzalcoatl Comet” by Titus Green.