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.