My body is a palimpsest, erased and written over. I update my mutable self, always hunting for new traits that better suit me. The gap-toothed smile taken from the French dairy maid, the beautiful nose worn by the Egyptian bureaucrat, the dimpled ass of the Grecian olive oil maker. I always thanked the wearers for carrying the traits to maturity before taking what had always been meant for me, but even with my thanks and care, my mutability branded me a monster in the eyes of officials and lawmakers. I was hunted through the years and continents. Their systems were built on rigidly defined categories with almost impossible to cross boundaries but through which I slipped.
“Is it about beauty?” a witch hunter once asked as his life drained from the careful cuts I had made to extract his belly button.
“No, it’s about creating my true form,” I told him.
It’s true. I am not vain. My home is not made from mirrors so I can admire my beauty, but to admire the body I have built.
I am a sculptor.
I am a surgeon.
I am a sorcerer.
It’s a matter of perspective.
You appear in my house of mirrors, having somehow fooled my security system.
I’ve never met you before, but I recognize the folded way you hold your body. You tuck in, you bind, attempting to reconfigure your form, or failing that, make it invisible. I remember the small measure of relief that posture once gave me. It’s a parlor trick compared to what I can do now.
You seem like the other supplicants and acolytes who have come looking for me in the past hundreds of years. Many spurned me when I pulled out the tools, fainted when I cut and stitched and seamed and disposed of the carriers.
These days, doctors do the cutting, the hands of the squeamish stay clean. Fewer people seek me out now. Stories of me have faded into myth, magic an unlikely explanation for the uncanny during this modern, scientific age. Few people believe I could be real, and even less seek me out. It suits me; I’ve grown tired of seeing myself turn from hero to villain in the eyes of supplicants, seeing their unease at my own fragmented, uncategorizable body.
For the few who still look, I have learned to use new tools to protect myself. I have alerts. I track online searches. I can receive enough warning to lay low for a couple of years or, for the truly determined, lay enough breadcrumbs to lead them to their demise (or into a house full of mutilated corpses with police en route). There had been no surprise visitors in a decade.
I can see your hunger, your love of refinement. You strike me as someone who understands that to facet a gem, to make something more beautiful, part of a precious stone must be destroyed.
“Teach me,” is the first thing you say as I turn on my kitchen light and see you standing there amongst the chrome and polished marble. Behind you, a shivering man cowers. He is small, perhaps malnourished, terrified.
“You want to do the whole thing?” I ask. “Or did you have a specific part in mind?”
You point to the man’s nose. It’s delicate, upturned.
“And my payment?” I ask.
“You’re free to take whatever else of his you’d like.”
You deliver the line with confidence, so sure that it will be payment enough. I laugh at your naivety. I like the way my vocal cords laugh; it’s what drew me to them.
“I hardly think your leftovers are a fitting payment for my tutelage,” I say.
I walk over and take your chin in my hand, examining what your face has to offer. You try to hide your fear but your striking green eyes, which at first refuse to make eye contact and then hold it too long, make it obvious.
“I like your eyes,” I suggest.
Two handed, you push me away.
They flash in anger and I like them even more. I want them. I could pluck them right out of your head. In fact, I should. They are mine; you’re just another carrier. I feel a hunger rise in me, and it’s hard not to kill you on the spot. It’s been a while since someone delivered something to me I wanted as badly. But I’m also intrigued and maybe growing tired of solitude. Your company is almost as valuable as your eyes.
“Something else. Pick another thing,” you say.
There is one thing, not something I’ve often asked for.
“A favor,” I say, knowing it makes me sound like a parody of a mythological monster, the kind that live in moss-covered cottages in dark forests, overcharging the desperate for small magics. But this house is no shack, you are not desperate, and what I am about to teach you is no trifle. “Final offer. One favor, to be claimed at some unspecified future date. If you fail to comply, every seam in you will come loose on the next full moon.”
You gnaw on your lips. They are not your best feature, and I’m shocked you aren’t replacing them first. But maybe you just haven’t found the right set yet. As you contemplate, I look over at the man’s nose. I have to commend you; it is rather nice. Not one that suits me, but it is attractive.
“Fine,” you say, sticking out a hand. Verbal confirmation is enough to seal the deal, but you seem to think a handshake is needed, so I acquiesce.
I feel your power when our skin touches. You would have figured out my tricks on your own, but this will speed up the process. I understand your need to slough the ill-fitting skin you were born in.
I pull you in closer. I want to be near the heat of your magic and potential. You don’t resist me, and our knees knock together.
“You better not be squeamish,” I say with a smile.
You nod grimly and turn to pull out a scalpel from a small carrying case. You’re prepared. I like that.
We spend decades together as I help you build your body. It’s a slow and difficult process. Not the transplantation, the grafting, you pick up the trick of that quickly. It’s your judgement that needs work. Just because you like the trait on another does not mean it suits you. Just like with a perfume, your own essence needs to be factored in. But you’re so desperate to transform that you don’t wait to find the right parts. So what you stitch onto your body rots and festers, rejected. Shamefully, you try to hide a bad ear from me for a couple of days, but I can smell it, the sweet stench of rotten flesh. I rip it off you in the night, unable to sleep because of the stink. It feels slimy in my hands, the tissue sloughing off the cartilage.
“You’re ruining my pillowcases,” I say as you cradle the hole in your face.
You’re bitter at breakfast the next day, wrapping your head with gauze like a mummy.
Your silent treatment lasts months. I’m hundreds of years old, so I’m patient, but your pride is still a newborn thing, every hurt new and fresh.
I’m the one who caves, unable to bear your silence. So, I ask questions to get you talking.
“How did you find me?” I try, and it works.
“I was an art historian,” you say. “I traced you through art. It wasn’t easy. Most days, I felt more like a paleontologist trying to reconstruct a lineage from slight changes in the extant images of your body. And I’m still missing some steps, but I got enough to piece it together.”
You hold up a finger and go riffle through your things, which you carried into my apartment in suitcases years ago and only ever half unpacked, as if unwilling to commit or ready to flee—I never asked. You come back and place a binder on the countertop. In it are art prints of varying quality, my face circled in each, sometimes with notes like “different eyes” or “perhaps shorter?” and “male? female?” I recognize some paintings as ones I sat for, but some are new to me, likely made without my knowledge.
In some ways, I am not surprised to see so many representations of me; I have always liked to have my body immortalized in art. But I have been quite scrupulous about destroying evidence of my previous forms when I find a better feature, unwilling to see the incorrect body I once occupied. Seeing so many old pictures makes me feel sick, like my skin is wrong, like I felt before I found this power. Even my lungs feel wrong, unable to fill with air.
“What?” you ask when you see me struggling to breathe.
“Burn this!” I roar at you, but you pull the binder out of my reach. “It’s not right, those aren’t right! They aren’t me! I don’t want to see those faces in my house. Or anywhere.”
“No!” you protest. “I spent years on this thesis! I ruined relationships! I spent every cent I had searching for the smallest hints of you. I’m not just going to throw away my life’s work because you don’t think it’s a flattering representation of you.”
How can I make you see that it’s not vanity? That those images are wrong, false, repulsive. I thought if anyone would understand, it would be you.
But you see it as a personal attack. You think I don’t value you or your intelligence and hard work. I can see how hurt you are, those green eyes so close to tears. A part of me wants to explain but, as I watch, the book vanishes in your hands.
I wonder if you’ve had other uncanny teachers. Have you given decades of your life to others? Have you left them breathless or begging for more? The jealousy and rage lock away my ability to form coherent sentences, to explain how the pictures are a violation of my trust, one you should be able to understand. So, I use my lungs and vocal cords to scream.
We fight for the first time, bitter, biting. I tear at your skin, and you tear at mine.
“It’s me or the book,” I offer as I grip a section of your scalp. You hold some of my fingers in one hand and a bloodied knife in the other.
I know your answer before you turn to the bedroom and pack. You leave without saying goodbye. You aren’t sentimental and you’ve learned what you needed to.
The years roll on full of forest fires, floods, and technological progress.
I patch my wounds after you go, but I am loath to change the body that knew you. When I realize this, I hack at myself with a vengeance, trying to erase every trace of the skin you once touched and let go of. I move frequently, desperate to find new material. The world is a blur of dust and LED lights and the bodies of carriers.
Decades pass. Sometimes I see faces in a crowd that remind me of features you had talked of wanting for yourself. I approach them, curious if they are you, but I don’t feel your energy, your electric buzz. I think briefly about kidnapping them, finding you, and presenting them like an offering or an apology.
I’ve grown sentimental in my old age.
Surgery gets almost as good as me as the world around me changes. To think that powders and pads and fake noses were once high technology and now you can get your fingers lengthened, your genes tweaked, and your irises modified.
I occasionally wonder if I would have needed this power if I had been born now, capable of changing myself without resorting to such bloody measures.
I dismiss the idea. I prefer shaping my own destiny. My fate feels much better in my own hands, away from the prying eyes of authority.
I watch governments and empires rise and fall. The ceaseless swing of the pendulum.
Changing appearances is just as often about anonymity as it is about beauty. The cities, still clogged with dust and fog, with people and cameras. Augmented eyes glow dimly with newsfeed and friend updates, eye contact obscured by information. Cameras dot the streets, found in everything from cleaner bots to vending machines. The robots see us to better serve us, assess our emotions, remember our preferences. Privacy is the price you pay for endless convenience and connection. Yet another deal where the price is greater than the reward.
Regulators say crime is down, but it’s just that incarceration is up. It’s harder to run in a panopticon. Those who want to hide can change their nose shape. They pay extra to do it in an unlicensed chop shop that does not report their new face to the Information Ministry. And that will help for a bit, but no doctor can change the skin you shed on every surface. Because it’s not just cameras suspects need to evade, but sensors too.
DNA fuels the surveillance state. Suspects can wear gloves, but who wants to in this inescapable heat? They can scrub every surface they touch, but something will be missed, one hair will be caught by a breeze or slip under a chair, some bot will brush by them and collect a sample.
Those wanting to hide come to me, because they know I can do what those doctors can not.
Petitioners find me through others. The stories of me spread once again, but not all are willing to pay my price. It takes a certain desperation, a certain ferocity and will to live, to find me, to drag behind yourself the body you are willing to take and to acquire the money I will demand in exchange. And those bodies don’t last very long. You reject what is not yours, so they must keep coming back.
I live quite comfortably in my new house of mirrors.
I’m aware I have not changed my appearance in too long. This is a risk, but I’m busy and too confident.
One day, I see you across a train platform, two train lines and hundreds of people separating us, surrounding us. At first, I’m not sure how I know it’s you; your current body is different from the one I knew so intimately. You stand tall now. You favor full lips as I do, although there is a delicacy to the rest of your body and features that I never found appealing. I like edges, sharpness.
You kept your eyes. This strikes me as sentimental, but I’m glad I might get another shot at those green shimmering orbs.
I want to approach you, to touch you. My mouth and eyes water. It’s been hundreds of years; I’ve lost count.
(567 years, 180 days, 7 hours, 15 minutes. I should stop.)
I want to ask you why you’ve resurfaced now. You must have been avoiding me. It’s a small planet. I should know.
You make eye contact. It feels electric.
And that’s when a shock bullet pierces me.
“Help,” I say to you, calling in my favor.
I fall into a sea of panicked bystanders and then darkness.
I wake up in a cell for the second time in my life.
I spend the day screaming until my vocal cords show signs of rejection.
Then I stay quiet as I recall that first cell.
I have been born many times, but I only died once, over a thousand years ago.
I had been a strange child, then a strange adult, unliked by most. In those days, my options had been the nunnery or the wedding bed. I asked my parents for a monastic life, envisioning life as a nun as one of freedom and learning, one where my body was a thing between me and my maker. But instead,
I was to be an anchoress. A steady, fixed point of faith. A chain to link the mundane to the supernatural. To God. Kept outside society to gain a greater perspective.
“It is an honor,” my parents told me, before handing me over to the church. They found it easier to grieve me than to love me.
I screamed myself raw that first night, those first weeks, I dragged my hands along the walls, trying to pry the stones loose or widen my three windows (one for food, one for waste, one to provide guidance). I succeeded only in painting my walls with my bloody fingertips.
The priest refused to acknowledge me, even as I wailed through mass. I was, according to the records, dead. And in my death, my purpose was to provide heavenly advice, not mortal complaints.
The bishop came and told me to stop, but I spat on him through my window.
I was declared unredeemable, to be discarded and replaced.
They sealed my cell, closed up my three windows. I sat in what my body created, this body I had never felt comfortable in, unable to escape.
I was going to die. I had already died. I would die again
I could not lie down in my ready-made coffin. I refused to let others decide my fate for me.
I was reborn from my own dirt, a creature full of rage and determination, stubbornly immortal. I kicked off the board covering the chamberpot hole and dug in the dirt until I could squeeze through, the skin on my shoulders, ribs and hips pulling, tearing, and sloughing off as I pushed myself through. I walked through the dark of night to my family’s farm.
I always admired my older brother’s arms, so I took those. I liked my sister’s hips, so those became mine as well. My mother created fine needlework with her hands, which I gleefully attached to myself as she watched. Her muscle memory would serve me well for years to come.
From my father I took eyes much like my own.
I remade myself in my own image.
I escaped my first cell. I escaped my first life.
But this new cell has no holes that could grant me passage. Waste and food are pumped through pipes I will never fit through. A hand-sized flap at the bottom of the door allows passage only to the cleaner bot that comes daily. The lights beam down at all hours from much further up than I can reach. I never leave. I am interrogated via a screen. The electrified floor keeps me honest.
The woman who interrogates me has ears that remind me of your failed attempt; she has the same attached earlobes and pronounced tragus. I focus on those. I think of you and what you owe me. You don’t have much time left to rescue me, although I will admit I have not been tracking the moon cycle. The passing of time in this place has been fuzzy. If you die, I’m not sure how I will get out of here.
“How did you acquire the right thumb of Reginald Williams born 2538, died 2565?”
I do not answer. The days pass.
“How did you implant the teeth of Kim Minji born 2601, died 2613?”
I do not answer. I wonder if I choose to die, will my body obey me? I think about how there are things much worse than death, especially in a place like this. Death might be preferable to this parody of a life.
The names and the dates keep coming. They are people of science who believe there must be a logical explanation, so they are loath to call me a sorcerer. They finally take me out of my cell to try a new tactic. Like a kid trying to figure out how a toy works, they disassemble me. They think that by pulling off an arm, they can figure out how I attached it. They draw blood to determine what cocktail of chemicals keeps my body from rejecting what they deem to be foreign tissue, but these parts have always been mine, and my body knows it. It is the only way this ever worked.
The dismemberment has another purpose. If I’m in pieces, in jars, I can not teach others.
And then, behind a mask, I see your eyes.
You waste no time. You slice into the doctor next to you with your scalpel. My mouth fills with blood that is not my own. Doctors and security try to stop you, but you’ve had centuries of experience dicing and cutting and slicing. I watch you with one eye and smile, but I’m not sure you can see my joy with what’s left of my face. You’re so elegant now, so confident and comfortable in the skin you’ve made.
You free me, cradling a body that is not much more than a torso. I sleep like a babe against your chest.
The next morning, I awake in a body that isn’t quite right but will tide me over for a little while. As I stumble to the mirror to see what you have done, I see one of your eyes looking back at me from inside my skull.
Movement behind me catches my attention and I tense, afraid of floors, afraid of capture, afraid of an unending brightness and scrutiny. But it’s just you, rising from the chair in which you had been resting. You look tired (I must have taken hours to repair) but good.
“It won’t last long. I did the best I could with little notice,” you say. Your voice is raspier than before.
Your eyes are mismatched now. The skin around your new one is inflamed and the eye is protruding a bit, as if under pressure. You’re already rejecting it.
I know I won’t reject the one you have given me; it feels right. I wonder how long you have before I decide that I want the complete set.