Willow Schafer is a full-time honor student pursuing classical archaeology while following her other passions of writing and art which she’s had since she was a child. She has spent much of her time volunteering at Sarasota Country Library and attending her local art center in Southwest Florida. Some of her published work can be found in the Elektraphrog Literary and Arts magazine. She is also working on getting her first science-fiction novel published.
Anima Ex Machina
This was a man with everything to live for. He was from a wholesome family, he was healthy, happy, even had a pregnant wife. The mother of this man was as proud as ever, often badgering her daughter to why she could not be more like her brother. Everyone always wore such perfect smiles, especially the mother’s son. This was his last weekend here with her, before he left for Africa for volunteer work.
A week later, the mother was hunched over her morning coffee as her daughter made breakfast. The son would be gone for about two or three months, and she wondered if he would return just in time to see his child born. Every night she would burn a single candle by the window, piercing the dark like the eye of God. The eye of God was not awake now in the morning light. She watched her daughter scurry around the kitchen, her body boney and pale, always wearing long-sleeves to hide the needle puncture marks on her arms. How could the mother have two such different children? One perfect, and the other… some drug addict. The daughter stopped in front of the coffeemaker. “Stop looking at me like that. Like I’m just some shadow.”
The mother rested her hand under her chin. “You’re my daughter, not a shadow. You only act like a shadow, and that’s what is so shameful.”
“What else about me do you think is so shameful? My decisions? Or is it this?” She tapped a cracked fingernail beneath her eyes. Her daughter had not been born with blue eyes, but brown. Not long ago one of her daughter’s drug deals had gone wrong and her dealer came at her with a knife to her eyes. But the daughter didn’t stay blind for long because she always knew how to scrape up money anytime she really needed it. She got herself some synthetic sensory prosthetics so she could see again. New eyes. The mother did not agree with such things. It didn’t matter if they helped people. They were inhuman.
The phone rang. The daughter answered and the way her expression dropped told that something was wrong. “It’s him,” she said. “He’s back.”
“How’s that possible?” asked the mother. “It’s too soon.”
At the city hospital they found the son hooked up to many medical machines. The doctors said he had picked up some disease from Africa and it was attacking his organs. Her son was going to die. “No,” the mother said. “No, don’t let him die, you can’t. I’ll pay for anything you can do to save him. An organ transplant, can’t you do that?” They said no. But they had one last option.
“We can make a fabricated organ transfer,” said a doctor. “Your son’s best chance at survival is if we replace his failing organs with fully artificial ones.”
The mother felt frozen. She could feel her daughter’s eyes on the back of her head. Fake eyes, inhuman eyes. Was it even her daughter’s gaze at all? What about her son…? Her perfect son. It was just some internal organs. No one would ever know just by looking at him. But how much of her son would still be left? She couldn’t think like that. Not with him. He would still be her son. “Yes,” she said. “Do it.”
And her perfect son was still alive. The mother insisted that he live with her until he was fully recovered. She kept lighting that candle in the window just for him. The candle looked like a star from outside. “Keep that star burning,” the son said while out walking with her, “and I’ll always be here for you.”
Time went by and the son was getting stronger. Soon he insisted that the mother had taken care of him enough and he went back with his wife to their house down the street. A few days passed and everything was wonderful. But the mother could not sleep soundly one night. She called her son but there was no answer. He always answered, no matter how late it was. Paranoia gnawed at the mother’s mind and she ended up at her son’s doorstep, knocking. Finally, the door swung carelessly open and she saw her son slumped against the wall holding a bloody tissue to his reddened mouth, looking like he was about to pass out. “Mother,” he croaked before collapsing to the ground.
The doctors said the disease had unexpectedly spread further into his system. Again, just when things seemed to be looking up, he was dying all over again. More organs were failing. His blood was not circulating properly and his feet were sickeningly blackened. They would have to be amputated. Modern prosthetics were only realistic to a point, but they could never quite master the real texture of living human skin. She couldn’t do it. She could not let her son become some… factory-made abomination. But all the doctors said he would die tonight if they did not make the transfers immediately. She couldn’t imagine that, for her son to be gone in an instant. It was so wrong. But he was her only son. “Do it,” she said.
Her daughter would not talk with her anymore. The mother didn’t care. All she could think about was her son and all his prosthetics. She held onto his hand as he struggled to remain conscious. His whole torso was lined with horrific scars, and even with a fake heart he was still smiling. “It’s all alright,” he said. “I’m here.”
Things kept getting worse. The disease was trapped within his system and it kept spreading no matter what the doctors did. The mother broke down in the hall outside the operating room, sobbing because she had somehow agreed to let the doctors cut out as much of her son as was necessary to keep him alive. What was he anymore? Some scarecrow stuffed with fancy technology all as some poor substitute of keeping him human. She had tried to lie to herself in the beginning. Just a few organs, he was still human, pure. What was the point until he wasn’t human anymore?
Her daughter stopped in front of her in the hallway, looking down at her. “I can’t believe you,” she said distastefully. “You’re biggest grudge against me has been about my eyes. Fake eyes. But when it’s him you don’t care what they do just as long as they keep him alive.”
“It’s still him,” the mother sobbed. “He’s still my son.”
“And I’m your daughter. But I guess that never really meant much to you. Never human enough, I guess.” The daughter left the mother alone in the corridor.
Weeks of recovery time went by horrifically slowly. Every night the mother would go back to her house to light that single candle in the window. The disease was worse than the doctors could have ever expected. Surgery after surgery, they took out more every time. Did real blood even run through her son’s veins anymore? She did not know. The only thing left of her son was his brain. That was all that mattered. The anima was within the brain. The soul. The soul had been known religiously for thousands of years, but only recently was it scientifically recognized as the main administrator of the electrical impulses of the brain, truly defining what made a person a person. As long as that was safe, everything was okay.
She found it sad when her son’s wife went into labor and had the baby in the same hospital he was having surgery in. It was a boy without a name. Only a few moments after the baby was born, a doctor came and told her there were more complications with her son. At that, she almost collapsed.
She could see her son though the window of the operating room door. A machine with a soul. He was not horrific, he looked human enough, but there was something about his unnaturally smooth artificial skin that was so unnerving. Too perfect. Her beautiful son. The disease had spread to his brain. She thought she would have cried and screamed or done something, but she had already done all of that.
A brain transfer was necessary. An artificial anima transplant. Somehow technology made it possible to syphon her son out of a human brain and into… whatever mass they planned to implant into his head. Then nothing human would be left. Was that true, even if he still had all his thoughts and memories? Would it still be her son, or would he already be dead and she would just be talking with a shadow? She couldn’t do it. Let her son die while he could still be called human. But then she thought of his wife and the baby. The wife would be so eager to see her husband again so he could see his son for the first time. She told the doctors to perform the surgery, but she could not bear to be in the hospital any longer so she went home and burned a candle.
Her son came home next week. He did not have any disease anymore. He was cured. He was a machine. He was her son. He did not come to her first like she thought he would. He stayed at his own house with his wife for a while, and the mother did not visit him because she was… unsure. Her daughter had moved out and she was alone in her house. She wondered if it was possible for her son to die now, and if he did die would his artificial soul be able to travel anywhere, or would it be trapped in his fake skull forever?
The mother often watched from outside her window but did not leave her house. Sometimes she could see her son wandering around with the baby in his arms. He did not smile like he used to. The son never glanced at his mother’s house when he passed it. She never left her house, she was terrified of what was out there, all the things that might or might not be human. Was her son still out there? She was still lighting that abominable candle every single night at the front window, letting it burn out in the dark, a beacon for her lost son to come home. Come home.
One night he came home. The mother saw him standing on her lawn, slightly illuminated by the light of the moon. His false face quite looked like him. Blond, blue-eyed, fair, with laugh-lines around the mouth that were not used so often anymore. His eyes glinted blankly in the night, catching on the distant light of the candle from the window. “Mother,” he said. “I’m here.”
The mother stared at the man on her lawn. She wet her fingers, putting out the candle, and she closed the curtains.