Perhaps you know this scene. The man in black—others refer to him as the creature or the monster—approaches me in the laboratory, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius at my sides. The man in black reaches out his thick arms, puts his strange, shiny hands on me. He pats my hand like he’s trying to guess the contents of a wrapped box. Friend, he calls me. When I pull back from him, he grabs hold of my arm. When I scream, he lunges toward me. Wields his arms like wooden clubs. Knocks equipment to the floor. Reaches for the lever. Dr. Pretorius warns that pulling the lever will blow the laboratory to atoms. The man in black pauses, considers. At that moment, Dr. Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth, appears at the door. The man in black releases the couple, says, “Go. You live.” He turns to Dr. Pretorius and says, “You’ll stay. We belong dead.” We meaning me, too, presumably, though he does not address me directly, does not look at me as he pulls down on the lever, setting off a series of explosions.
Before I tell you about what happened after, allow me to go backward for a moment. I want to tell you about my strange rebirth. I want to tell you how when I opened my eyes in that high-stoned laboratory, like being at the bottom of a well, it wasn’t just that space and those men that were unfamiliar. Most alarming of all, my own body was strange. Those long legs: they were better suited to an egret or a stork. That belly: how did all the necessary organs fit? Only my mind, my head was my own.
Yet when the man in black, a giant of a man, big as a wardrobe, put his hands on that arm I didn’t recognize, I felt his touch. His touch was like a second bolt of electricity, the way it awakened me. What I mean is that unlike everything else thus far in this second life, his touch was familiar. I remembered another man who’d grabbed at me with the proprietary ease of a child picking flowers. Another man who’d lunged at me when I pulled away. Another man who’d roared when he didn’t get his way.
Strangely, it was the man in black’s touch that confirmed that though this body was unfamiliar, a hand-me-down, it was mine.
And when he pulled that lever, without so much as looking at me, I remembered something else: I’d died at the hands of a scorned man before.
Only this time I didn’t die.
I let him lead me into the woods. I even let him put his arms around me, for his arms and chest gave off ample heat. When voices came near, and he pressed his palm against my mouth, I didn’t fight him. I didn’t make a sound.
By the second night, we were so deep into the woods the only light was the moon. And at dusk: fireflies. Beside a gurgling stream, its water cold as ice, he took my hand in a gentler manner than the night before, called me “friend” again, as he had back in the laboratory, leaned in so close that his forehead almost mashed into mine.
I wanted to scream, but I did not. Instead I lifted my chin and pointed to the lines around my face, the threaded notches. “Everything hurts. Even you touching my hand hurts. You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”
He looked alarmed. He reached out as if to cup my face, then stopped. “Help?”
“You help me by not touching me,” I said.
“Until you no hurt,” he said, pausing after each word.
I said nothing to this, but the next morning when a thorny burr lodged into my once-white dress, I removed it only to hide it inside a pocket in my dress. After, I kept an eye out for sharp things—jagged stones, pointed sticks, and, once, a porcupine quill.
Some days later, my dress studded with secrets, we came upon a lone house in a green meadow. There was a gap where the door used to be. The roof leaked over the bedroom. Lizards, snakes, and rodents had taken up residence inside the stove and the straw-filled mattress.
He said, “We make this a home. Together.”
I had been helping him with his words all these days of travel. His vocabulary had improved, but he was dull-minded and I could see that this would not change.
“It’s a house, yes,” I said. “But a house is not necessarily home.”
“Wife,” he said, pointing to me.
“No. I am not your wife. My name is Iris,” I said. All that walking wound me up like a clock. I remembered more bits of my other life. I remembered a house with too few windows. I remembered a man who worked at sea, came home smelling of brine. I remembered my name. But that was only one-part true. This body? What had been her name? That I knew I would never remember.
He reached a hand toward my chin, and I stepped back and tilted my head to show him my scars again.
“Pain,” I said. “Terrible pain. Touching me hurts me.”
“But in woods,” he said.
“That was to stay alive,” I said. “I would have frozen to death. That was necessary pain.”
He looked wounded, but did not reach out to touch me again. Not then.
I didn’t see what other choice I had but to help him repair the house. At least in a house I could keep warm on my own. No longer would I have to endure his body pressed against mine.
So he axed down trees and I planed the logs. We sanded the lumber and fastened the pieces into a door we then fit onto hinges. He re-tarred the roof, while I swept and scrubbed. He sealed leaks around windows while I emptied and refilled the mattress with fresh straw.
That there was only one mattress didn’t worry me so much because I figured he would be a gentleman and offer it to me, but then I came inside from foraging and found him lying on the mattress, his shoes still on.
“Good home. We make. Now you decorate,” he said.
“Decorate?” I said.
“Make beautiful.” He smiled and patted the space on the mattress beside him. “Like you beautiful. Friend,” he said. “Wife.”
“I am Iris,” I repeated. “I am not your wife.”
He sat up. “You wife,” he repeated.
I was a wife, or I had been once, but not only would this explanation not satisfy him, I realized I’d rather fight him off with the burr in my pocket than resort to defending myself with the claim that I belonged to another. Though the throat upon which my head was stitched was not the same throat that husband had taken between his hands and crushed as though it were a nut he were cracking, I felt the memory of his hands on that throat nonetheless.
Once again, I tilted my head and pointed to the stitches on my neck, but this time when I said that I was in pain, I wasn’t lying.
I sat at the kitchen table and dozed.
Over the course of a few weeks, I made curtains from the hides of deer he brought back, carrying the strangled creatures against his chest like sleeping children. With berries and flower petals, I made dyes and stenciled leaves onto the walls. I dried flowers and wove them together into a wreath.
In this way, I made pockets and in these pockets I hid more weapons. In an opening stitched into one of those curtains, I hid a blade I’d found in the kitchen. In a hole in the wall, a handful of poison berries. In the wreath, the dried skull of a snake, its fangs still intact.
Eventually, he offered me the mattress, said he would sleep in the kitchen. I refused his offer, though. How would I defend myself on my back?
I found seeds and sharp tools in the little shed behind the house, so I raked the land to start a vegetable garden. We’d been subsisting on deer and rabbits and what fruits we could find in the woods.
In the southwest corner of the garden, where I planted sweet peas, I also planted an axe. Not firmly or deeply, the axe. Covered it with two inches of loose soil, so that I could reach my hand in the earth and pluck the weapon as easily as a tuber. I marked the spot with a stone. In the northeast corner, next to the potatoes, I planted a hammer and set a second stone. Next to a little pond I dug and filled with water, and where tadpoles metamorphosed into frogs, I buried a hatchet.
When tender green seedlings sprouted from the soil, I felt something like pride. I did this, I made this, I thought. Then I reminded myself that all I did was what Earth would have done long ago if a human had not collected and preserved those seeds so that they could not yet grow.
Still, what a wonder it was to watch things flourish. Every day a little taller. Every day a little sturdier. I measured their growth with my fingers, then my hands, then my arms.
One day I was crouched in the garden, yanking up rose-colored radishes smooth as river rocks and he walked out of the house and stood smiling tentatively down at me.
He said, “It’s been long time now. Many months have passed. My wife’s pain is gone now.”
I wondered whether his smile was for me or for his progress with language. Never had he spoken so articulately.
I stood, though standing hardly made a difference. He still loomed over me. He could knock me down with a single push. I remembered the way he’d swung his arm back in the laboratory, how he’d pulled that lever despite Dr. Pretorius’s warnings, how he’d wanted to kill me.
“I think I’ll always be in pain,” I said, letting the “wife” slip for now.
He made a face like there was a grain of something in his eye. He reached out his arms, stupid as logs.
His fingertips grazed my arm, and I jumped back. I started to tilt my neck, but he made that awful growling sound. Shook his head. Stomped his foot.
I wanted to kill him.
Could I? I wondered. Was I capable?
I took pity on him, a monster like me. I pitied him his loneliness. I pitied him his learning impediments. But these were the very reasons he was dangerous. Whatever leaps he made with language, he would never learn that I didn’t belong to him. He would never learn that his claim on me was every bit as terrible as those scientists’ claims on the both of us.
I practiced on rabbits. With the machete I kept hidden in the pile of firewood, I chopped off their stony heads. I made stew after stew.
But a rabbit, though it thumped its legs and scratched and bit if given half the chance, was poor preparation for the beast of a man relaxing inside the house while I worked. I worried I wouldn’t be able to do it. What if I brought the blade down too softly? What if he woke before I’d swung? What if I looked upon his sleeping face and pitied him again?
The sun was setting, and I was sitting in the dirt of the garden, picking caterpillars off the fuzzy, green leaves of tomato plants. Caterpillars were easier to spot in the evenings as the light began to dim. During the day, they hid beneath the leaves, shielding themselves from the sun. In the evening, there was no sun from which to hide, and they hadn’t learned yet to hide from me.
They weren’t easy to remove. Their tiny feet clung to the plants like the burr inside my pocket to that worn fabric.
I pitied the caterpillars when I flung them far from the garden. They should have remained hidden, like my burr and my quill, my snakes’ fangs and my hatchet. Like me inside this body the scientists fashioned like a curtain or a wreath. I suppose my former body was too bruised, too broken. Or maybe they’d felt dissatisfied with simple resurrection. Maybe they’d wanted to make something that had never existed before. Whatever their reasons, they didn’t account for my memory, my intelligence, my will, my own secret weapons. That dim-witted man in the house didn’t see me coming.
He saw a fruit he wished to pluck from its stem.
Do not pity a man such as that, I told myself, touching my fingers to my neck. Do not let yourself die the same way twice.
I have come to think resurrection is no incredible feat. Seeds lie dormant for years in the dark, then spring to life at the first sprinkling of rain. Or the berries and tomatoes and rabbits and deer that reconstitute as new cells in my skin and hair and eyes to replace retired cells that have withered into mere atoms.
Resurrection is as commonplace as sunshine and soil. Wondrous, yes, but commonplace.
And so it is with the man after I bring the hatchet down onto his unsuspecting neck. And then down upon his shoulders and his thighs, for he is much too heavy for me to carry from the house whole. He is reborn as potatoes, sweet peas, tomatoes, and corn. I take nothing for granted.
Michelle Ross is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and was a Finalist for the 2017 Foreward INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, and other venues; and her work made the Wigleaf Top 50 for 2019. She's fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com