People like to say that you can hurt a person’s body, but not their soul, though you and I know it isn’t true.
For when the king’s army came, they took the singers’ first, and cut out their tongues, and threw them in the river; and where were their souls then, if not swimming like fish in the waters.
And they took the players’ various masks, the writers’ index fingers and thumbs, my husband’s hands. They stole the eyes of newsmen and professors, pulled the lawyers’ canines, stripped the confessors of their ears after shaking them for loose change secrets.
Little of the teachers survived—a open hand, here, a still-beating heart, there. Where the faces, where the tongues, where the ears, where the—
They emptied out the students and the children.
In the river they all went, and since there were no eyes, no tongues, no ears, certainly the soldiers couldn’t have known better, nobody left to warn them, the books that could have told them stacked and burned months before the Grand Mutilation.
It didn’t happen instantly, mind you. It was years before the heads found their way to the necks, before the shoulders began to remember themselves. Frankenstein’s monster, creating himself? Certainly he had all the best to work with.
A beautiful nightmare, the thing that loped from the river. A theatre mask for a face, a voice like honey, the confessors’ ears. He remembered every word he heard, and some you’d heard besides—perhaps he’d found the students’ brains. Was that Orpheus’ head it wore?
I invited it into my house, and fed it everything I had—too polite to admit it was still hungry, strange thing, but a cook knows. The soldiers watched from outside, smiling uncomfortably, like sick dogs. But it asked them in and spoke to them and flattered them decently, and so they left to bring their superiors.
“You know you won’t get far, with a face like that,” I told it, glancing outside. It dabbed its mouth with its napkin. The blacksmith’s hands, whiteblue, hard as river stones, glanced over mine, settled a single moment, and I wondered whose heart he—it—had taken.
Soon it appeared in all the papers. Creation of the Republic! The End of Death! The best of everything in one, it said—a triumph of science and discovery.
No one seemed to mind when it took the general’s face, and one day the king came to meet the creature, so splendidly it spoke and put on. I spread the picnic for them myself upon the riverbank, kept my face away from the cameras. The creature allowed itself to be made over, the blacksmiths’ hands curled stiffly behind its back. Something feminine, tentative about the way it moved, a curious bend to its back whenever it thought you weren’t looking, as though used to long years of stooping. How long it must have slept, hibernating, waiting for richer harvests.
The king said that of course it would have to come to the capital and be shown around; the creature’s eyes fixed rigidly, perhaps remorsefully, on the river. Is that what it woke up for, after a thousand years? Perhaps it had forgotten to acquire a spine, while plumbing the river’s depths for human pieces. Perhaps there were not many to be found.
There was only dessert left, and I gritted my teeth as I prepared it. Of course the soldiers hadn’t bothered to take anything from me; of course I saw none of myself in the monster. But why should that offend me?
The monster only ate meat, and so of course he did not eat the dessert. He watches, curiously impassive, as the king began to falter, the slow lean forward, the suddenly unblinking eyes. He turned to me. I missed his theatre-mask face, hated the chill of his hands in mine even as I squeezed them tighter.
“Where do you think he keeps his soul?” I asked quietly, attempting a smile. Steel against my temple. I knew I would be mutilated, now that I was no longer harmless, and I found myself forgiving while I still could. Could I borrow the confessors’ ears, if only for a moment?
What, I wonder, will they take from me?
“Stomach, of course,” said the monster, answering a question I had forgotten asking. He looked up at the soldier beside me, his expression merely curious. Then he took the king’s crown up, gently moved the soldier’s gun away from my head, and walked forward toward the cameras. He no longer loped, but moved slowly, regally. I collapsed forward, weak with anxiety, and my eyes began to close. I could see the cameras, the screens, as he approached them.
He gave them a smile—the one I had greeted him with, each day he had come home to the inn, insincere in everything except its hope—and in not one but many voices, he began to speak.