“Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, trying to animate lifeless clay?”
-Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein"
It started with the skin.
Elsa would stay up all night looking at it. Sometimes she got so close that Elizabeth, sleeping next to her in bed, stirred, fitful and dreaming, and Elsa would have to stay absolutely still and quiet so that she didn‘t wake up. But the whole time, she never took her eyes off the skin.
The skin seemed like a whole, solid thing, but up close, at night, she saw that it was really millions of tiny pieces, fitted together in a way too subtle for the human eye.
Even so, it could move any way that it wanted without breaking. And when it did break, it would always make itself whole again. It was a miracle.
Once, Elizabeth had asked what Elsa loved most about her. Else answered at once: “Your complexion.” And it was true: Elsa loved the skin. Because she loved it directly, her love was pure and uncompromised. And everything was good.
Then, one morning, everything changed. Elizabeth’s side of the bed was cold; the skin was pale and clammy. And it didn’t move when Elsa shook her.
Elsa wrapped her body around Elizabeth’s still, unmoving form, trying to coax the skin back to life. Soft kisses and gentle touches did nothing. The skin on Elizabeth’s face didn’t twitch back into a meaningful expression. Her chest didn’t rise and fall with breath. No warmth came back into any part of her.
Elsa examined every inch of skin on the dead body and found that it was all still perfect. It was the body beneath the skin that had failed. Blood, bone, heart; these hidden things were so unaccountable. Anything could have gone wrong with any of them.
But maybe the skin could be saved? Mind racing, Elsa imagined a new and better body for it, a perfect body. One she would make herself.
She took the body to the basement, laid plastic sheets on the floor, and got the sharpest knife in the house. She had to work fast to remove the skin before it spoiled. She made the pieces as large as she could so that she would be able to put them back together later. All the while she was planning the next steps.
She needed parts. Nothing from the old body could be trusted. She would throw it all out and start from scratch. That meant Elsa had to go shopping.
So at night, instead of staying up and looking at the skin like she used to, she covered her own skin with makeup, scented it with perfume, and accented it with fabrics. And then she went out and met people who had muscle and sinew and bone beneath their skin, people with beating hearts and quick minds and strong bodies.
She talked with them, drank with them, danced with them (skin touching skin in the dark corners of clubs and bars…). Then they went home and fell into bed, gasping and giggling, clothes coming off so that Elsa’s eyes taking in every beautiful inch of skin moving on her, against her, under her.
Some of it what she encountered was beautiful, but not as beautiful as what she would make. Still, one by one, she found the things she was looking for:
A heart that beat strong and steady when she put her ear against the chest.
Arms that felt solid when they held her close.
Lungs that took steady breaths in spite of the exertion.
Eyes that looked at her with compassion, and a tongue that said things as sweet as honey.
She’d wait until her acquisition fell asleep, and then in went the needle, quick and easy, the skin accepting it so that only a little dot of blood marked its passing. Then she’d carry the sleeper down to the basement and begin cutting.
It took years. Her creation aged in reverse: The more time passed, the closer it came to life, further from death. When the body was done the old, perfect skin had to be attached to it. She spent sleep hours hunched over a table, sewing the skin to its new frame as finely as she could.
And once she was done, how to animate it? How to make the skin move and live again? It lay on the slab, pale and perfect, like a statue of an angel, but unmoving and unaware.
She remembered the electricity of their touch; maybe the skin would remember too. She shed her clothes and climbed onto the slab, straddling the body between her legs. She laid her skin against it. Kissed its unmoving lips and rubbed its hips, its thighs, its stomach.
She kissed its neck and shoulders and the hard protuberances of its nipples, letting her tongue wander. She recreated the long nights and the warm mornings of years ago, hoping that the skin would remember.
It was subtle at first, but she felt it: a quiver, like the vibration of a spider's web. Then it stirred. The ribs expanded with the first breath, and when she felt the fingers twitch and twine around hers she gasped and whispered in furious exaltation:
"It's alive...it's alive!"
It stood. It walked. It was perfect. Elsa threw her arms around her creation and kissed it…but it didn’t kiss her back.
She waited, aching to feel those arms around her again, but it did nothing. And she saw indifference in its eyes…
Elsa ran away. As she wiped her tears in the bathroom mirror, she understood: She saw the wrinkles in her face, the wear, the marks of age. Her creation became whole with time, but she had fallen apart. It probably didn’t even recognize her.
Her body was strong, but her skin had failed. She would have to fix it. To become perfect again.
She steadied her hand as she placed the knife against her cheek. "Throw it all out," she said. "Start from scratch…"