She was nine years old, experimenting with alchemy in the back yard, when her father finally came home from his wars. She ran to hug him, and he was huge, so vast that she felt three years old again. He kissed her and gave her a gift. She loosed the red ribbon, clumsily tied by his thick fingers, and opened the white box to find a human heart inside, resting on red velvet.
The heart was small, probably a child’s heart, and black. She blew on it, and it fluttered, becoming tinged with pink. She looked up at her father and thanked him. He appeared smaller now, as though the heart were pulling him down to her.
That night she slept with her new heart, cupping it in her hands, blowing on it from time to time to keep it alive. The next morning, after her mother had left for work, and her father slept on, exhausted, she rifled the house for what she needed. She filled her mother’s laundry basket with Angel Food cake mix, eggs, vinegar, milk, baking soda, a thermometer, two forks, two cat’s eye marbles, and a knitting needle. She carried all this out into the early spring garden. At the far end where nothing had been planted, she took a hoe and began gathering earth.
She made a long mound, formless. She knelt and began working the earth, plucking out weeds, smoothing the soil. She lightly sprayed the mound with the garden hose until it was damp, then she reached for the things she had brought.
She poured out the cake mix, sprinkling it over the mound. Then she cracked the eggs, a whole dozen of them, and dropped them in the mixing bowl. She scrambled them lightly with one of the forks and poured the mixture over the mound. She took two eggshells, pressed them into the mud at one end, and dropped a brown cat’s eye marble in each. She opened the milk and poured a little in each eggshell, covering the marbles. She crumbled the remaining eggshells and spread them over the mound.
She continued working the soil, mud clinging to her fingers, blending cake mix and eggs, mud and milk and eggshells until the soil took on a paler brown color, almost yellow. Then she dusted the mound with baking soda and sprinkled vinegar over it from end to end. It fizzed and muddy bubbles bloated and popped.
Things began to take shape, almost without her being aware of it. She saw the head forming, then the torso and legs. She made it a little smaller then herself, someone she could be a big sister to. She considered making a boy, but was afraid she might not get the boy parts quite right. Besides, what she really wanted was a sister, someone like herself.
When she was done shaping, she dug a small hole in the chest and laid the heart. As soon as it touched the enriched earth, it began to beat. She took the thermometer and broke it, pouring the mercury into the chest cavity.
She went to the garage to get her father’s battery charger, then ran an extension cord out from the house and plugged it in. She took the forks, and she stabbed them into the earth, one near the head, the other near the heart, then took the clamps from the charger and attached the positive to the fork at the heart, the negative to the fork at the head. She switched the charger to fast charge. A white mist was soon rising from the mound, and the heart beat stronger: she could almost hear it. The milk in the little eggshell cups solidified, and the marbles rose to the surface.
She folded soil over each unseeing eye, making eyelids. She took the knitting needle and began pulling at the quicksilver around the heart, making little channels for it. Soon the quicksilver began finding its own paths, branching out and thinning until it was finer than a spider’s web, tracing all the pathways of vein and artery throughout the awakening body. The web began to pulse in time with the beating of the heart. The crumbled bits of eggshell drew minerals from the soil and knitted themselves together to form bones.
She shaped a nose and mouth. She fingered the mouth open, then leaned forward and spat to give it saliva. She blew in the mouth and nose to teach them to breathe. The earth took on a more fleshy appearance, but still it looked unnatural, like plastic.
Then she knew what was missing. She ran into the house for a needle. She came back to kneel beside the mound, took a deep breath and pricked her thumb. She let the blood drip around the heart. She squeezed her thumb as hard as she could until blood stopped coming.
The heart was bright red now, and red blood flooded the arteries all around it. It was time to close the chest. She folded the earthly flesh over the strong beating heart, and her sister opened her eyes.
Her father was sitting at the kitchen table. He was not eating. Only staring. Overnight he had become years older, so much smaller, and so tired. When they came into the kitchen, he looked at her new sister, the naked child she had made.
“What is this?”
“It’s just a doll. I made her.”
He sighed and grew older still.
“Little girl,” he said, “What have you done with my heart?”