I was born in horror, my first speech a scream.
Consciousness came as I convulsed upon a slab, thick leather straps binding me to a plank of wood as iron manacles funneled lightning into my body and brain. I shrieked in birth agony, as if mother and child in one, and the strangeness of my own voice frightened me. Through the thin veil of gauze over my eyes, I could see the blue fire of electricity flare around me.
Then everything went dark. My fingers and feet tingled, either from the residue of static or from the blood that began to course through my extremities.
My throat raw, I gasped and hiccoughed, unused to the chore of breathing. I heard the scuffing of footsteps, and felt brusque hands tear open the rough smock that covered my chest. A circle of polished wood—the bell of an ear-trumpet—pressed down upon the cleft between my breasts.
"The heart beats." A voice, clipped and frigid, dripping with disappointment and disgust. "Your mate lives."
"Let me see her," another voice demanded, deeper and cruder than the first. I thrashed to free myself from my bonds as heavy, thudding steps approached.
"She's not ready," the first voice protested.
"Show her now!"
I heard a scuffling, and the first voice cried out. "Very well, very well! Now unhand me . . ."
He panted with panic. I strived to hear what they might do next.
Then the cool blade of a pair of shears slid underneath the gauze at my neck and snipped away the bandages that wrapped my face like funereal cerements. As the strips of cloth fell away and my eyelids flicked open, the terrible new wonder of vision assaulted my unformed mind.
Beside me stood a man, though I did not understand that his sex differed from mine. All I knew was that he was a being like myself whose thoughts were inscrutable to me yet who had me at his mercy. Attired in a fine if somewhat severe black frock coat, he possessed a high, cerebral forehead made more prominent by a receding shock of reddish-brown hair. The gravity of his expression etched deep lines in his youthful face, and he peered down at me with eyes that each contained a smaller, screaming face. Those tiny faces were actually my own, reflected in the oval lenses of his spectacles.
"There," he said, and I recognized at once the brusque, clinical tone. "I trust you are satisfied—"
"Release her." I strained to see the source of that other, harsher voice, but it remained just outside the periphery of my vision, deliberately shying away from me.
The man clenched the fist that held his shears, as if tempted to use them as a weapon. "I tell you, she's not ready yet."
"I want her to come to me."
The man's frown deepened, and he cast aside the shears. "As you wish."
He took a metal ring from a peg on the adjacent wall. An odd, square-shaped metal key dangled from the ring, and he used this key to unscrew the manacles at my ankles and wrists. When I wriggled to worm my limgeologists from the leather straps that still held them, he flinched away.
"Be still now," he murmured as if to calm a captive animal. He unfastened the circlet of iron that encompassed my forehead and pried it off. Charred skin clung to the metal points that had fired sparks into my temples.
I watched, chest heaving, as he undid the leather bindings on my legs and midriff. My fear had no patience, and before he could free my right arm, I yanked it loose, ripping the thick animal hide in two as easily as if tearing fine lace. The man staggered back in fright.
Sensing that I now had the advantage, I sprang forward, snarling. But I had no mastery over my body, and when I levered my feet off the wooden plank, the legs folded beneath me and I fell to my knees on the hard stone floor. I yelped in pain and grabbed the edge of the slab to pull myself back up, the strip of torn leather still hanging from my right wrist.
The man shot a panicked glance into the darkness that lay at the far end of the room. There, outside the circle of yellow light from the oil lamp above us, I saw a hulking form hunched in the shadows. It appeared to be almost as tall as the man and twice as broad.
Then it stood up.
Its head nearly brushed the ceiling timbers. Even with the face blotted by darkness, the figure possessed a misshapen, distorted quality, a fearful asymmetry. Lightning from the ongoing storm outside flashed through one of the chamber's narrow windows, so that the silhouette appeared to emanate a flickering aura of unearthly silver-white energy. The stone floor seemed to quake under the giant's tread, amplified by the reverberation of thunder. It reached for me with arms that were too long and too large for its frayed peasant's coat, its splayed hands the size of a bear's claws.
As the creature stooped down into the lamplight, its head emerged from eclipse like a baleful moon. Lank black hair drooped in unctuous tangles about an unfinished face. Yellow skin stretched like a distended lamb's bladder over sharp bone, its translucence revealing a web of veins that had darkened from blue to a gangrenous purple. It leered at me, black pupils in jaundiced eyes, and bared tarnished teeth in the crooked semblance of a smile.
Yet it was not the creature's hideous aspect that repulsed me. Innocent as an infant, I had no aesthetic prejudice with which to judge it ugly. Rather, I instinctively feared the desperate desire that trembled through every fiber of the monster's massive frame--an all-consuming possessiveness gathered into the single word it spoke as it came for me.
Shrieking, I dropped on all fours and scuttled away from its grasping hands. To my surprise, the thing did not attempt to seize me but instead retreated into the dark end of the chamber as though I had frightened it. It wrapped its arms over its head in abject shame and wailed. "Damn you, Frankenstein! You made her pretty."
The well-dressed man regarded me with scorn. "That is easily fixed."
The man called Frankenstein snatched a scalpel from a tray of surgical implements beside the slab and stalked toward me, raising the blade. I barely dodged the knife as he slashed it in an arc toward my cheek.
Scrabbling away across the floor, I realized that I could never escape him by crawling. I clutched at the corner of a dissection table opposite the slab where I had lain and hauled myself up to a standing position, willing myself to walk as my pursuer did. As I gripped the table's edge, my fingers slipped through a slick, viscous liquid, and my nose filled with a heavy iron odor. I raised myself above the level of the tabletop and saw the nude form of a woman in repose upon the marble, her figure statuesque, her skin as pale and unblemished as alabaster. Yet a ragged gash punctured her chest just below the breastbone, and her swan-like neck ended in a stump of sawn meat and bone. Dark burgundy fluid drained into a chiseled gutter in the table's stone surface.
I recoiled from the headless corpse and nearly collided with Frankenstein, whose knife I dreaded more than ever. He grabbed a fold of my loose smock and dragged me toward him, the blade scything toward my face.
The creature seized Frankenstein's arm in its enormous fist. The man cried out in pain and dropped the knife, and I tugged my smock free of his other hand.
"Are you mad?" Frankenstein shouted at the monster. "Do you want her or not?"
Indecision rippled the beast's expression. He released his grip on the man, who surged toward me.
Tottering like a newborn calf, I lunged for the first weapon I could lay hands upon. Wooden shelves laden with glass containers lined the walls of the room, and in each jar gelatinous organs floated in a murk of alcohol and blood. I hurled these flasks at my pursuer, and a stink like pickled pig's feet erupted as the jars burst and splashed entrails on the floor. The lid of one container came off in midair, showering Frankenstein with plasma solution as two raw kidneys spattered his waistcoat.
While he wiped the slime from his spectacles and spat dripping blood, I frantically pawed the perimeter of the square chamber, seeking an exit. Reaching a gap between two sets of shelves, I beat at the heavy oaken door I found there but succeeded only in rattling its cast-iron hinges.
A shadow engulfed me and I gasped. The creature had come up behind me. I trembled in terror, certain that it would crush me in its embrace. When I gazed up into its yellowed eyes, though, I saw such an aching sadness there that my fear dissolved into pity for the monster. Rather than seizing me, it slid back the door's iron bolt, lifted the latch, and pulled the portal open.
I had neither time to wonder why the giant had shown me such mercy nor words to express my gratitude to it, for I heard the blood-drenched man behind me give an angry yell. I plunged through the door's open archway and nearly tumbled down a flight of stone steps. Clinging to the side of the unlit stairwell, I stumbled blindly down its incline, feeling for each step with my bare feet. As I came to the first corner in the descent, the dim amber rays of a lantern fell on the stairs behind me, but I shrank from its searching beams as it approached.
Spurred by the rapid patter of leather-soled footsteps behind me, I hurried down the stairs and around the next right-angle turn. My pace quickened as I learned to use my legs, and two more flights of steps brought me to the bottom of the staircase. Feeling my way forward, I touched the rough grain of another heavy wooden door. I battered it with my fists, threw my entire weight against it. The door shuddered, but it would not open.
Lantern-light bloomed in the stairwell behind me, the footfalls growing louder. Frantic, I remembered how the creature had opened the previous door. I pawed the wood until my fingertips brushed cold iron fittings. I shot back the bolt and rattled the latch until it clattered open, falling through the archway as the door swung open into the room beyond.
I slumped onto the smooth marble floor of this new chamber. A faint, guttering glow illuminated furnishings of richly-carved mahogany and walnut and gilt-framed portraits of glowering ancestors. I shrieked when I saw what appeared to be a silver man with a spear standing over me, but it was merely a hollow suit of armor with a pike held in its empty gauntlet.
I was not alone, however. The light in the room emanated from three tapers in a candelabrum held by an old man in a nightshirt, who gaped down at me in wide-eyed astonishment.
I sprang to my feet again and skittered away from him. As I did so, Frankenstein burst through the open doorway from the stairwell. "Hans, you fool!" he shouted at the old man. "Stop her!"
Seeing both men come toward me, I darted glances around the room, seeking escape. Lightning flashed in a window to my left, and I understood that the storm raged outside this place where I was trapped.
The incandescent flicker also revealed a pair of doors beside the window. Unlike the other doors, these were smooth and polished, with handles and hinges of fine brass instead of rough iron. I charged toward them, but Frankenstein caught me about the waist. Without thinking, I roughly shoved him away, and to my surprise, the force of the blow sent him reeling back against his elderly manservant.
I tore one of the double doors open, hesitating only an instant as another thunderbolt cracked the darkness ahead of me. Then I dashed out into the night, taking my chances with the storm and the unknown world beyond.
Raindrops pelted me as I raced down a dozen stone steps and barreled into the black wilderness beyond. The crack of thunder startled me, and, panicked, I looked back over my shoulder. A blindingly bright lightning bolt struck a rod atop one of the two square towers that rose from the castle I'd fled. As thunder rent the air, an enormous silhouette filled the tower's narrow upper window.
I knew the strange figure could not be Frankenstein. I could see my well-dressed pursuer in the lightning's silver glare as he burst forth from the castle's doors. Wearing a tall, broad-brimmed hat to shield his eyes from the rain, Frankenstein still carried the lantern in his left hand, but now cradled what appeared to be a long metal tube in the crook of his right arm.
Although I could not begin to understand the danger I was in, I ran as if I did, colliding with the cragged trunks of trees that seemed to materialize in front of me with every flicker of lightning. Every time I glanced over my shoulder, I saw the lantern's amber glow bobbing after me like a relentless revenant.
Rainwater matted my hair until the locks dripped right into my eyes. My bare feet sank to the ankle into an ooze of mud and sodden leaves with every stride. The ground sloped downward unexpectedly, and I slipped in the muck, water sluicing around me as I slid along the incline. I scratched at the hillside, sinking my fingers into the silt to halt my descent. As I lifted myself, drenched and shivering, from the slime, I saw Frankenstein stop only a short distance behind me. He set the lantern on the ground beside him and lifted the metal tube to shoulder-level, sighting along its length as he pointed it at me.
I mistook the loud report that followed for another thunderclap. But I could see the puff of smoke from the barrel and the flare of sparks from the gunpowder, which he must have kept dry by bracing the gun's stock under the sleeve of his frockcoat. A musketball whistled past my ear and chipped bark from a tree behind me.
I wheezed with fright, and Frankenstein cursed when he saw that he'd missed. With no time to muzzle-load the weapon, he threw down the musket and reached beneath his coat to draw a dueling pistol from the waist of his breeches.
I scampered off, darting and weaving among the trees as he tried to aim. He must have snatched up the lantern again, for it shafted sickly yellow light through the branches around me as I ran. Another crack, and a pistol ball nipped off the bristle of a pine right above my head.
The slope leveled off and the woods thinned. I panicked as the fringe of the forest gave way to an open clearing, for without the protection of the trees, I would have no place to hide. I turned back toward the woods but found the lantern hovering mere steps behind me, the hunter at my heels.
Another flicker of the storm revealed a rutted dirt road to my left, the canals of its wagon tracks flooded with rainwater. The road curved toward a cluster of slant-roofed buildings, dark and sleeping in the depths of the night. With no other shelter available to me, I sprinted toward the town.
I reached the largest of the structures, a large, drafty stable. Its doors were closed to me, however, and I did not see the sort of bolts and latches that I knew how to open. Frenzied with frustration, I pounded at the entrance with such force that the whole stable rattled and the thick oaken beam that barred the doors groaned and nearly buckled. Startled by my assault, the horses within bucked and whinnied, ready to bolt.
Lantern-light bathed the right side of my face, and I looked over to see Frankenstein standing near the corner of the stable, panting with exertion. Lightning illumined the dark face beneath the brim of his hat, revealing the cold determination of his expression. He pulled a second dueling pistol from beneath his coat, the twin of the one he'd already fired, and cocked the hammer, leveling the barrel at the circle of light he had centered on my gaping eyes.
At that moment a second lantern swung into view, emerging from a cottage of timber and brick adjacent to the barn. "Settle down, you stupid beasts!" an uncouth voice yelled as the horses continued to stamp and neigh. "Great God, but it's only a bit of thunder."
My pursuer lowered his weapon, cloaked his own lantern with the tail of his coat, and hastily retreated around the stable's corner, out of sight. Since I did not know what I might have to fear from this unexpected stranger, I, too, shied away, flattening myself in the shadows far to the left of the stable's entrance.
A bow-legged peasant waddled up to the doors, his shirttail only half-tucked into his breeches. "Keep whining like that," he muttered to the unsettled animals, "and I'll give you something to whine about."
Mopping rain from his brow with his sleeve, the peasant hung his lantern on a hook to the right, levered the bar up to one side, and pulled one of the two doors open enough for him to sidle through the gap. When he retrieved his lantern and entered, I crept in after him. Although I could not be sure what harm the peasant might do me, I knew that, as long as I was in the stranger's presence, Frankenstein would not dare to come near.
I kept well outside the aura of the stable hand's lantern as he moved from stall to stall, alternately soothing and berating the horses for their noise. The animals must have sensed my presence, for their agitation only increased. Fortunately, the peasant dismissed their restlessness as a reaction to the storm outside.
"Devil take you all!" he grumbled when both coos and threats had failed to calm them. I crouched behind a pile of hay as he trudged out, not exhaling until he barred the barn door.
Penned in darkness with the horses, I buried myself in the straw to conceal my body from both human sight and animal scent. The horses quieted as they gradually forgot about me, and this impromptu nest lulled me with such a sense of warmth and security that I succumbed to the oblivion of sleep.
I then had what may have been a dream.
The clatter of hooves awakened me. The horses brayed with anxiety again, and I was certain that I'd been discovered. I peered out through a small hole in the hay but could see no one. Cautiously, I raised my head. Doves that were roosting in the rafters above me suddenly scattered, the frantic flutter of their wings causing me to look up.
Through the square windows near the roof, the storm's glimmer played upon a shape. It hunched at the edge of the loft like a gargoyle. Rain had pasted the black hair to its livid brow. Ebon eyes peered, unblinking, down upon me. Watching me . . . or, perhaps, watching over me, a sentinel to defend me from Frankenstein and any other hostile humans.
Whatever its motives, the creature remained as motionless as statuary. I fixed my gaze on the loft even as the stable went dark again, every muscle tensed for flight in case the giant should come for me.
When lightning next shimmered in the barn windows, the loft was vacant.
I stifled a cry and kept utterly still, straining to catch any glimpse or sound of the thing. I stayed that way until the storm ended, until the dreary gray sunlight of an overcast dawn seeped into the loft.
The creature was not there. Perhaps it had never been there.
Although the immediate menace of Frankenstein was gone, the morning brought no comfort. Having slept little the previous night, I felt the vigor of fright give way to the dull disease of exhaustion. I sprawled in the hay in a stupor, leaden weariness weighting my limbs. The grassy smell of straw and manure that had made the stable seem so snug during the storm now sickened me. And I was still lost and alone among beings I did not understand and could not trust.
I wanted to leave the stable before the peasant could return, but to my dismay I discovered that the barred doors could only be opened from outside. The horses grew restive as soon as I revealed myself. The noise would rouse their master before long. In search of another exit, I cast my eyes upward to the loft. If I had, in fact, seen the creature perched there, it must have climbed in through one of the open upper windows. But they were all so high above me . . .
I was so preoccupied with finding a way to reach those windows that I still stood dumbly in the center of the barn when I heard the peasant lifting the bar from the doors. With no chance to burrow back into the hay, I hurried to press myself against the wall to the left of the barn's entrance, holding my breath and hoping he wouldn't notice of me.
The right door creaked outward, flooding the barn with daylight, and the irascible stable hand shuffled inside. Again, the restlessness of the horses worked in my favor, for their clamor irked him, drawing his attention away from me.
"Be still, you miserable nags, or I'll whip the lot of you! Come now, Gretchen—time for work."
As he went to the mare's stall and fitted her with a bridle, I scurried through the open door.
Still wary that Frankenstein might be lurking in the woods behind me, I meandered onward, deeper into the forbidding maze of civilization. White cliffs of buildings three stories high walled me in on either side, studded with windows trimmed in red. The gray dawn roused the town, compounding the risk of discovery. Many times, I scuttled into the narrow alleys off the main thoroughfare in order to avoid the street vendors with their pushcarts and the shopkeepers who set out their wares.
With no object other than self-preservation, I wandered the jagged avenues in a kind of delirium, stupefied by my new surroundings yet driven by a need I could not name. An agonizing emptiness cramped my stomach and dizzied my head, until I reeled from weakness. Only when I caught the warm gravy scent of stewed rabbit on the air did I learn the craving that compelled me.
All caution departed as my yearning body staggered toward the source of the smell. I tottered from a dim passageway between two boardinghouses into a small plaza. In the plaza's center was a baroque structure of reddish stone whose spire dominated the cityscape—the town's Stadtkirche, or city church. A mass of beggars and cripples had congregated around the octagonal chapel at the near end of the building. There, a balding man in a black cassock and a matron in a drab gray dress ladled stew from an iron pot into bowls fashioned from loaves of bread. The indigents ranged in age from children barely able to toddle to shriveled crones propped on walking sticks, but each accepted the offered food with a humble bow. Some wore rags as frayed as my smock, many were missing limbs or were disfigured by pox, all stank of filth. Yet, as I lurched into view, eyes bulging and ravening like an animal, the paupers scattered, so terror-struck they even abandoned the meal they'd come to beg.
Only the minister and the matron remained, aghast at my bestial appearance. The woman dropped the ladle and grabbed the silver cross that hung on a chain around her neck, kissing the symbol and whispering under her breath. The pastor merely whispered "My God" as I ripped a stew-saturated loaf from his hands and tore into it with my teeth, gagging as I tried to swallow without chewing.
"Child, who are you?" He bent over me as I squatted on the ground and gorged myself. "Where is your family?"
Even if I had understood him, I would not have answered, so intent was I on stuffing my mouth with bread and meat.
"She must be mute," he concluded. "Perhaps even deaf. We must tend to her."
The matron regarded me with a fretful look, the cross still at her lips. "Georg, are you sure . . . ?"
"Birgit!" he admonished her. "She is a child of God!" Little did he know that he and I did not share the same Creator.
Unconvinced, Birgit continued to worry at her cross while I wolfed my bread. Although I would have eaten three more loaves like it, Birgit reluctantly took my hand and pulled me upright.
"We must get you inside." Casting embarrassed glances up and down the street to see who might be watching, she tugged my smock closed over my exposed bosom and hurried me across the square to the townhouse that served as the parsonage. Too dazed and weary to resist, I allowed myself to be led like a docile cow. These people had given me food, and that was reason enough to stay with them.
Once we were inside the sparsely-furnished abode, Birgit shut the curtains on the front windows, muttering her thoughts aloud. "I suppose we shall put you in Gerta's old room. There might even be a dress to fit you. But not until you're clean."
She herded me down a hall of lacquered wood and into a barren room that contained little more than a cot, a stool, and a wardrobe. After forcing me onto the stool, she bustled out the door, holding the hand that had touched me away from her as if it were tainted. Several minutes later, she returned with a chamber pot of water and a scrap of stained linen.
"Can't have you looking like you sleep in a sty." She soaked the cloth and swabbed my face with it, washing the smeared gravy from my mouth and the dirt from my brow. Though she believed me deaf and dumb, she kept chattering to me in an indulgent way, as if pampering a pet.
"There," she chimed with a final, triumphant swipe. "You look almost human now."
To have me admire her handiwork, she led me to a framed pane of silvered glass. Other than a crucifix hanging on the opposite wall, it was the room's only ornamentation, and one could see the cross in the mirror's reflection—the spiritual and the vain in perpetual confrontation.
"See what a pretty girl you are!" Birgit said as I gaped at an image I did not understand was my own.
I put out my hand, half-expecting to touch the soft cheek of the woman who reached toward me. Though the glass stopped my fingertips, I pressed them against the fall of blond hair, still damp and tangled from Birgit's cleaning. It amazed me when the head in the mirror cocked in tandem with mine, for I felt peculiarly detached from the form I wore, as if I were merely manipulating a marionette. I did not know what Birgit meant by "pretty" and neither liked nor disliked the features of the woman before me: large, almond-shaped azure eyes; a straight, slightly upturned nose; prominent cheekbones; and a strong chin. Framed by the flaxen mane, the face possessed a vaguely leonine appearance.
"You'll have plenty of time to preen later," Birgit chided as I gazed at myself. "First, we must get you into some decent clothes."
She peeled the wretched smock off my shoulders. Unschooled in modesty, I let the garment fall to the floor without objection.
"Oh . . . oh, my." Birgit backed away from me, mouth bobbing as she hyperventilated. She gawped at me with such horror that I wondered if my appearance were truly that repulsive. "Georg! Georg!"
She ran from the room to fetch the pastor, leaving me to contemplate my own nakedness. The body I examined was trim and well-proportioned, the ivory skin still grimy from my escape but otherwise unblemished. Yet one thing did mar its purity: at my shoulders and hips, the red lips of puckering scars had been cinched together with rag-doll stitches. Another such seam formed a circlet around my throat.
I leaned toward the mirror, traced the black tracks of the stitches all the way around the nape of my neck and back to my windpipe. My skin stippled with gooseflesh, for I needed no lessons in anatomy or medicine to know that no living thing should survive having its head severed.
At that moment, I realized I was a monster.