The air in the shop smelled of talcum, resin, and tissue, with a faint, almost indefinable undertone of pine and acid-free paper. I walked down the rows of collectible Barbies and pre-assembled ball-jointed dolls to the back wall, where the supplies for the serious hobbyists were kept. Pale, naked bodies hung on hooks, while unpainted face plates stared with empty sockets from behind their plastic prisons.
Clothing, wigs, and eyes were kept in another part of the shop, presumably so it would be harder to keep track of how much you were spending. As if anyone took up ball-jointed dolls thinking it would be a cheap way to pass the time. We all knew that we were making a commitment that would eat our bank accounts from the inside out.
I looked from empty face to empty face, searching for the one that called to me, that whispered, I could be the vessel of your sorrows. It would have been easier if I’d been in a position to cast my own; resin isn’t easy to work with compared to vinyl or wax, but it’s possible, if you have the tools, and the talent, and the time. I had the tools and the talent. Only time was in short supply.
Father would have hated that. He’d always said time was the one resource we could never acquire more of—unlike inspiration, or hope, or even misery, it couldn’t be bottled or preserved, and so we had to spend it carefully, measuring it out where it would do the most good. I could have been making beautiful dolls, both for my own needs and to enrich the world. Instead, I spent my days in a sterile office, doing only as much as I needed to survive and stay connected to the Kingdom of the Cold.
My head ached as I looked at the empty, waiting faces. I had waited too long again. Father did an excellent job when he made me, but my heart was never intended to hold as much emotion as a human’s could.
“Perfection is for God,” he used to say. “We will settle for the subtly flawed, and the knowledge that when we break, we return home.” Because we were flawed—all of us—we had to bleed off the things we couldn’t contain: sorrow and anger and joy and loneliness, packing them carefully in shells of porcelain, resin, and bone. I needed the bleed. It would keep me from cracking, and each vessel I filled would be another piece of my eventual passage home.
Times have changed. People live longer, but that hasn’t translated into longer childhoods. Once I could have paid my passage to the Kingdom just by walking through town and seeing people embracing my creations, offering up their own small, unknowing tithes of delight and desolation. Those days are over. Father was the last of us to walk in Pandora’s grace, and I do what I must to survive.
A round-cheeked face with eyes that dipped down at the corners and lips that formed a classic cupid’s-bow pout peeked from behind the other boxes. I plucked it from the shelf, hoisting it in my hand, feeling the weight and the heart of it. Yes: This was my girl, or would be, once I had gathered the rest of her. The hard part was ahead of me, but the essential foundation was in my hand.
It didn’t take long to find the other pieces I needed: the body, female, pale and thin but distinctly adult, from the curve of the hips to the slight swell of the breasts. The wig, white as strawberry flowers, and the eyes, red as strawberries. I had clothing that would fit her. There was already a picture forming in my mind of a white and red girl, lips painted just so, cheeks blushed in the faintest shades of cream.
Willow appeared as I approached the counter, her eyes assessing the contents of my basket before she asked, “New project, dear?”
“There’s always a new project” I put the basket down next to the register. “It’s been a long couple of weeks at work. I figured I deserved a treat.”
Willow nodded in understanding. The women who co-owned my favorite doll shop were in it as much for the wholesale prices on their own doll supplies as to make a profit: I, and customers like me, were the only reason the place could keep its doors open. I prayed that would last as long as Father did. I couldn’t shop via mail order—there was no way of knowing whether I was getting the right things, and I couldn’t work with materials that wouldn’t work with me. I’d tried a few times while I was at college, repainting Barbie dolls with shaking hands and a head that felt like it was full of bees. I could force inferior materials to serve as keys to the Kingdom, but the results were never pretty, and the vessels I made via brute force were never good enough. They couldn’t hold as much as I needed them to.
My total came to under two hundred dollars, which wasn’t bad for everything I was buying. I grabbed a few small jars of paint from the impulse rack to the left of the register. Willow, who had argued Joanna into putting the rack there, grinned. “Will there be anything else today?”
“No, that’s about it.” I signed my credit card slip and dropped the receipt into the bag. “I’ll see you next week.”
“About that . . . ”
I froze. “What about it?”
“Well, you know this weekend is our big get-together, right?” Willow smiled ingratiatingly. “A bunch of our regulars are bringing in their kids to share with each other, and I know you must have some absolutely gorgeous children at home, with all the things you buy.”
I managed not to shudder as I pasted a smile across my face. The tendency of some doll people to refer to their creations as “children” has always horrified me, especially given my situation. Children live. Children breathe. Their dolls . . . didn’t. “I can’t,” I said, fighting to sound sincere. “I’m supposed to visit my father at the nursing home. Maybe next time, okay?”
“That would be nice.” Willow barely hid her disappointment. I grabbed my bag and fled, and this time the bell above the door sounded like victory. I had made my escape. Now all I had to do was keep on running.
The cat met me at the apartment door, meowing and twining aggressively around my ankles, like tripping me would magically cause her food dish to refill. Maybe she thought it would; it’s hard to say, with cats.
“Wait your turn, Trinket” I shut and locked the door before walking across the room—dodging the cat all the way—and putting my bag down on the cluttered mahogany table that served as my workspace.
Trinket stopped when I approached the table, sitting down and eyeing it mistrustfully. The tabletop had been the one forbidden place in the apartment since she was a kitten. She badly wanted to be up there—all cats desire forbidden things—but she was too smart to risk it.
The half-painted faces of my current projects stared at me from their stands. Some—Christina, Talia, Jonathan had bodies, and Christina was partially blushed, giving her a beautifully human skin tone. Others, like Charity the bat-girl, were nothing more than disembodied heads.
“I’m sorry, guys,” I said to the table in general. “You’re going to need to wait a little longer. I have a rush job.” The dolls stared at me with blank eyes and didn’t say anything. That was a relief.
Trinket followed me to the kitchen, where I fed her a can of wet cat food, stroked her twice, and discarded my shoes. I left my jacket on the bookshelf by the door, hanging abandoned off a convenient wooden outcropping. I was halfway into my trance when I sat down at the table, reaching for the bag, ready at last. The tools I needed were in place, waiting for me. All I needed to do was begin.
So I began.
The doll maker’s art is as ancient and revered as any other craft, for all that it’s been relegated to the status of “toymaker” in this modern age.
A maker of dolls is so much more than a simple toymaker. We craft dreams. We craft vessels. We open doorways into the Kingdom of the Cold, where frozen faces look eternally on the world, and do not yearn, and do not cry.
I learned my craft at my father’s knee, just as he’d learned from his father, and his father from his mother. When the time comes, when my father dies, I’ll be expected to teach my own child. Someone has to be the gatekeeper; someone has to be the maker of the keys. That was the agreement Carlo Collodi made with Pandora, who began our family line when she needed help recapturing the excess of emotion she had loosed into the world. We will do what must be done, and we will each train our replacement, and the doll maker’s art will endure, keeping the doors to the Kingdom open.
I fixed the face I’d purchased from Willow to the stand and began mixing my colors. I wanted to preserve its wintry whiteness, but I needed it to be a living pallor, the sort of thing that looked eerie but not impossible. So I brushed the thinnest of pinks onto her cheeks and around the edges of her hairline, using an equally thin wash of blue and gray around the holes that would become her eyes, until they seemed to be sunken sockets, more skeletal in color than they’d ever been in their pristine state. I painted her lips pale at the edges and darkening as I moved inward, leaving the center of her mouth gleaming red as a fresh-picked strawberry. I added a spray of freckles to the bridge of her nose, using the same shade of pink as the edges of her lips.
She was lovely. She’d be lovelier when she was done, and so I reached for her body and kept going.
Somewhere around midnight, between the third coat of paint and the first careful restyling of the wig that would be her hair, I blacked out, falling into the dreaming doze that sometimes took me when I worked too long on the borders between this world and the Kingdom of the Cold. My hands kept moving, and time kept passing, and when I woke to the sound of my cell phone’s alarm ringing from my jacket pocket, the sun had risen, and a completed doll sat in front of me, her hands folded demurely in her lap, as if she was awaiting my approval.
Her face was just as I’d envisioned it in the store: pale and wan, but believably so, with eyes that almost matched her lips gazing out from beneath her downcast lashes. I must have glued them in just before I woke up; the smell of fixative still hung in the air. Her hair was a cascade of snow, and her dress was the palest of possible pinks. She was barefoot, and her only ornamentation was a silver strawberry charm on a chain around her neck. She was finished, and she was perfect, and she was just in time.
“Your name is Strawberry,” I said, reaching out to take her hands between my thumbs and forefingers. “I have called you into being to be a vessel for my sadness, for there is no place for sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold. Do you accept this burden, little girl, so newly made? Will you serve this role for me?”
Everything froze. Even the clocks stopped ticking. This was where I would learn whether I’d chosen my materials correctly; this was where I would learn if they would serve me true. Then, with a feeling of rightness that was akin to finding a key that fits a lock that has been closed for a hundred years, something clicked inside my soul, and the sorrows of the past few weeks flowed out of me, finding their new home in the resin body of my latest creation.
It’s no small thing, pouring human-size sorrow into a toy-size vessel.
Sorrow is surprisingly malleable, capable of adjusting its shape to fit the box that holds it, but it fights moving from one place to another, and it has thorns. Sorrow is a bramble of the heart and a weed of the mind, and this sorrow was deeply rooted. It held a hundred small slights, workdays where things refused to go according to plan, cups of coffee that were too cold, and buses that came late. It also held bigger, wider things, like my meeting with Father’s case supervisor, who had shown me terrible charts and uttered terrible words like “state budget cuts” and “better served by another placement.” Father couldn’t handle being moved again, not when he was just starting to remember his surroundings from day to day, and I couldn’t handle the stress or expense of moving him. Not now, not when I was already out of vacation time and patience. Lose my job, lose the nursing homes. Lose the nursing homes, and face the choice so many of my ancestors had faced: whether to share my space with a broken vessel who no longer knew how to reach the Kingdom, or whether to break the last dolls binding him to this world, freeing their share of his sorrow and opening his doorway to the Kingdom one final, fatal time.
I could send him home. No one would call it murder, but I would always know what I had done.
It was a hard, brutal concept, one that had no place in the modern world, but I had to consider it, because Father had always told me that one day it would be my choice to make. Life or death, parent or duty—me or him. And I wasn’t ready to decide. So I poured it all into the doll I had crafted with my own two hands, and Strawberry, darling Strawberry, drank it to the very last drop. I couldn’t have asked for anything more than what she offered, and when I felt the click again, the key turning and the doorway closing, I had become an empty vessel. My sorrows were gone, bled out into the doll with the strawberry eyes.
“Thank you,” I murmured, and stood. I carried her across the room to a shelf of girl dolls who looked nothing like her, yet all seemed somehow to be family to one another: There was some intangible similarity in their expressions and posture. They all contained a measure of sadness, decanted from me through the Kingdom and into them over the course of these past three years. I set Strawberry among her sisters, adjusting her skirt and the position of her hands until she was just so and exactly right, as if she had always been there.
Then, light of heart and step, I turned and walked toward my bedroom. It was time to get ready for work.
The day passed in a stream of tiny annoyances and demands, as days at the company where I worked as an office manager so often did.
“Marian, do you have that report ready?”
“Marian, is the copy machine fixed yet?”
“Marian, we’re out of coffee.”
I weathered them all with a smile on my face. I felt like I could handle any challenge. I always felt that way right after I opened a channel to the Kingdom. People like my father and I used to be revered as surgeons, the doll makers who came to town and helped people remove the parts of themselves that they couldn’t handle anymore. The bad memories, the pain, the sorrow. Now he was a senile old man fading away by inches and I was a woman with a strange, expensive hobby, but that didn’t change what we’d been designed to do. It didn’t close the doorway.
The sound of Clark’s voice wrenched me out of the payroll system and sent me into a state of chilly panic, my entire body going tense and cold with the sudden stress of living. No, no, no, I thought, and raised my eyes. Yes, yes, yes, said reality, because there was Clark, useless ex-boyfriend and even more useless coworker, standing with his arms draped across the edge of my half-cubicle like I’d invited him to be them, like he was some sort of strange workplace beautification project gone horribly wrong.
“Hello, Clark,” I said, as coolly as I could. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“You can tell me why you’re not answering my calls,” he said. “Did I do something wrong? I know you said you didn’t want to be serious. I didn’t think that meant cutting me out entirely.”
“Please don’t make me call HR,” I said, glancing around to be sure no one was listening. “I said I didn’t want to see you socially anymore. I meant it.”
“Is this because I said your doll collection was childish and weird? Because it is, but I can adjust, you know? Lots of people have weirder hobbies. My little sister used to collect Beanie Babies. She was, like, twelve at the time, but it’s the same concept, right?”
I ground my teeth involuntarily, feeling a stab of pain from the crown on my left rear molar. I had sliced half of that tooth off with a hot knife when I opened my first doorway to the Kingdom. Early sacrifices had to hurt more than later ones to be effective. “No, it’s not,” I said stiffly. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about this. I definitely don’t want to talk about it at work.”
“You won’t take my calls, you won’t meet me for coffee, so where else are we supposed to talk about it? You haven’t left me anywhere else.” He looked so confident in his answer, like he had found the perfect way to get me to go out with him again. I wanted to slap him across his smug, handsome face. I knew better. I flexed my hands, forcing them to stay on my desk, and asked, “What do you want me to say, Clark? That I’ll meet you for coffee so we can have a talk about why we’re never going to date again, and why I’ll report you to HR for harassment if you don’t stop bothering me?”
“Sounds great.” He flashed the toothy smile that had initially convinced me it would be a good idea to go out with him. I should have known better, but he was so handsome, and I’d been so lonely. I’d just wanted someone to spend a little time with. Was that so wrong?
No. Everything human wants to be loved, and wants the chance to love someone else. The only thing I did wrong was choosing Clark.
I swallowed a sigh and asked, “Does tonight work for you?” Better to do it while I was still an empty vessel. If I waited for the end of the week, I’d have to pull another all-nighter and add another girl to my shelf before I could endure his company. That would be bad. Not only would the cost of materials eat a hole in my bank account that I couldn’t afford right now, but the strain of opening a second doorway so soon after the first would be . . . inadvisable. I could do it, and had done it in the past. That didn’t make it a good idea.
“So what, first you play hard to get and now you’re trying to rush me? I thought you said you didn’t like games.” His smile didn’t waver. “Tonight’s just fine. Pick you up at seven?”
“I’d rather meet you there,” I said.
“Ah, but you don’t know where we’re going.” Clark winked, pushing himself away from the wall of my cubicle. “Wear something nice.” He turned and walked down the hall before I could frame a reply, the set of his shoulders and the cant of his chin implying that he really thought he’d won.
I groaned, dropping my head into my hands. He thought he’d won because he had. I was going out with him again. “What the hell is wrong with me?” I muttered.
My computer didn’t answer.
The bell rang at 7:20 p.m.—Clark, making me wait the way he always had, like twenty minutes would leave me panting for his arms. I put down the wig cap I’d been rerooting and walked to the door, wiping stray rayon fibers off my hands before opening it and glaring at the man outside.
Clark took in my paint-stained jeans and plain gray top, his jovial expression fading into a look that almost matched mine. He was wearing a suit, nicer than anything he ever put on for work, and enough pomade in his hair to make him smell like a Yankee Candle franchise.
“I thought I told you to put on something nice,” he said.
“I thought I told you I was willing to meet you for coffee,” I shot back. “Last time I checked, the dress code at Starbucks was ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service.’ I have a shirt and shoes. I think I’ll be fine.”
Clark continued to glower for a moment before shouldering his way past me into the apartment.
“Hey!” I yelped, making a futile grab for his arm. It was already too late: He was in my living room, turning slowly as he took in all the dolls that had joined my collection since the last time he’d been here, some three months previous. I tried not to open a doorway to the Kingdom more than once a week, but sometimes it was hard to resist the temptation, especially when I had more than one trouble to decant. Dolls like Strawberry held sorrow, while others held different emotions—anger, loneliness, even hope, and love, and joy. Positive emotions took longer to grow back and had to be decanted less frequently, but they were represented all the same.
Clark’s examination took about two minutes before he focused back on me, disdain replaced by pity. “This is why you broke up with me?” he asked. “I mean, you said it was because of the dolls, but I thought that was just a crappy excuse, you know? The weird-chick equivalent of ‘I have to wash my hair on Saturday night.’ But you meant it. You like plastic people better than you like real ones. There’s something wrong with you.”
“My dolls aren’t plastic,” I said automatically, before I realized I was falling back into the same destructively defensive patterns that had defined our brief relationship. I glared at him, shutting the door before Trinket could get any funny ideas about making a run for the outside world. “You want to have this talk? Fine. Yes, I chose my dolls over you. Unlike you, they never tell me I’d be pretty if I learned how to do something with my hair. Unlike you, they don’t criticize me in public and then say they were just kidding. And unlike you, they shut up when I tell them to.”
“You really are a crazy bitch.” He strode across the living room, grabbing the first thing that caught his eye—pretty little Strawberry in her mourning gown. His hand all but engulfed her body. “You need to learn how to focus on real things, Marian, or you’re going to be alone forever.”
“You put her down!” I launched myself at him as if he weren’t a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than I was. I was reaching for Strawberry, trying to snatch her out of his hand, when his fist caught me in the jaw and sent me sprawling.
I’d never been punched in the face before. Everything went black and fuzzy. I didn’t actually pass out, but the next few minutes seemed like a slideshow or a Power Point presentation, and not like something that was really happening. Static picture followed static picture as I watched Clark stalk around my apartment, grabbing dolls off the shelves. When he couldn’t hold any more he walked over to me, looking down, and said, “This is what you get.”
He kicked me in the stomach, and then he was gone, taking my dolls with him, and I was alone. At some point, I came back to myself enough to start crying.
It didn’t help.
Trinket stuck her nose through the curtain of my hair and mewled, eyes wide and worried. I sniffled, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, and sat up to pat her gently on the head. “He didn’t hurt me that bad, Trinket. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
I was lying to myself as much as I was lying to the cat: I might be many things, but I was distinctly not okay. I picked myself up from the floor inch by excruciating inch, finally turning to take stock of the damage.
It was greater than I’d feared. Fifteen dolls were missing—at least one from every shelf, as well as one of the unfinished dolls from my table.
Relief washed over me when I saw that. At least not everything he’d taken was a weapon. Shame followed on relief’s heels. He’d stolen fourteen full vessels, fourteen doorways into the Kingdom of the Cold, and I was relieved that it wasn’t one more? What was the difference between fourteen and fifteen when you were talking about knives to the heart? Fourteen would be more than enough to kill. The only question was who.
If I was lucky, he’d accidentally kill himself, and all my troubles would end . . . but that might leave full vessels floating around the world outside, ready to be found by someone who didn’t know what they were holding. Open a vessel improperly, and everything it contained would come flooding out. And there were many, many improper ways to open something that had been closed.
I wanted to go after him. I wanted to demand the return of my property, and I wanted to make him pay. I glanced to the remaining unfinished dolls, assessing the materials I had, automatically counting off the materials I’d need. Forcibly, I pulled myself away from that line of thinking. Revenge was satisfying, but it would be hard to explain if he had some sort of bizarre accident, and I’d already been reminded that I couldn’t take him in a fair fight.
Hands shaking, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the number for the police. When the dispatcher came on the line, voice calm and professional, I began to tell her what had happened.
I made it almost all the way through the explanation before I started to cry.
That night was one of the worst I’d had since Father started getting bad. We’d both known what his lapses in memory meant, but we’d denied it for as long as possible, he because he wasn’t ready to go, me because I wasn’t ready to be alone. Every keeper of the Kingdom eventually develops cracks. It’s a natural consequence of being a vessel that’s been emptied too many times. There’s a reason we don’t use the same doll more than once for anything other than the most basic and malleable emotions. That was the reason I couldn’t make myself a new doll, one big enough to hold my shame and grief and feelings of violation. I’d emptied out my sorrow too recently. I was too fresh, scraped too raw, to do it again.
The officers who came in answer to my call were perfectly polite. They took pictures of the empty spaces on my shelves and of the bruises on my face and stomach, and if they thought the number of dolls still in my apartment was funny, they had the grace not to laugh in front of me. Eventually, they left me with a card and a number to call if Clark came back, and the empty promise that they’d see what they could do about getting my stolen property back. One of them asked me, twice, about filing a restraining order. I refused both times.
I didn’t sleep. All I could do was lie awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking about the dolls who had been entrusted to my care, now lost in the world with their deadly burdens of emotion. They were so fragile. They had to be if they were going to properly mirror the fragility of the human heart, and do the jobs that they were made for.
When morning came I rolled out of bed and dressed without paying attention to whether my clothes matched. My face hurt too much for me to bother with makeup, so I left it as it was, bruises like smeared paint on the side of my jaw and around the socket of my left eye, and exited the apartment with my head up and my thoughts full of nothing but vengeance.
A shocked hush fell over the office when I arrived. I ignored the people staring at me as I walked to my desk. Something white was trapped under the keyboard. I pulled it loose, only to gasp and drop it like it had scalded my fingers.
Strawberry’s whisper of a dress fluttered to the floor, where it lay like an accusation. You failed us, it seemed to say. You didn’t protect. You didn’t keep. You are no guardian.
I clapped my hand over my mouth, ignoring the pain it awoke in my jaw, and fought the urge to vomit. Bit by bit, my stomach unclenched. I bent, picked up the dress, and walked calmly down the hall to the door with Clark’s name on it. He had an office; I had a cubicle. He had a door with a nameplate; I had a piece of paper held up with thumbtacks. I should have known better than to let him buy me that first cup of coffee. Even if I didn’t have that much sense, I should have known better than to let him take me out for dinner even once. I was a fool.
Foolishly, I raised my hand and knocked. Clark’s voice, smooth as butter, called, “Come in.”
I went in.
Clark was behind his desk, a broad piece of modern office furniture that was almost as large as my worktable at home, if not half as old or attractive. He looked . . . perfect. Every hair was in place, and his tailored suit hung exactly right on his broad, all-American shoulders. His eyes darted to the scrap of fabric in my hand, and he smiled. “I see you found my present.”
“Where are my dolls, Clark?” I’d meant to be more subtle than that, to approach the question with a little more decorum. Father always tried to tell me you got more flies with honey than you did with vinegar, but he’d never been able to make the lesson stick, and the words burst out, hot with venom and betrayal. “You had no right to take them.”
“And you had no right to call the police over a little lover’s spat, but you did, didn’t you?” The jovial façade dropped away, leaving the snake he’d always been staring out of his eyes. “I was going to give them back. As an apology, for losing my temper. I shouldn’t have hit you, and I know that. But then the cops showed up at my apartment saying you’d filed a domestic violence complaint against me. I’m sure you can see why I didn’t like that very much.”
I stared at him. “I didn’t file a domestic violence complaint against you, Clark, because you’re not any part of my domestic life. I filed an assault charge. You didn’t just hit me. You beat me down. Where are my dolls?”
His smile was a terrible thing. “I’m not part of your domestic life. How would I know where your silly little toys ended up? As for your trumped up charges, my lawyer will enjoy seeing yours in court. Now you might want to get out of my office before I tell HR that you’re harassing me.”
Wordlessly, I held up Strawberry’s gown, daring him to say something that would deny he was the one who’d left it on my desk.
“What, that? I found it in my car and thought you might want it back. You know how it is with grown women who play with dolls. They’re just like children. Leaving their toys everywhere.”
He sounded so smug, so sure of himself, that it was all I could do to not to walk around the desk and snatch his eyes from his head. I kept my nails long and sharp, to make it easier to position delicate doll eyelashes and reach miniscule screws. I could have had his eye sockets bare and bleeding in a matter of seconds.
I balled my hands into fists. I was my father’s daughter. I was the keeper of the Kingdom and the maker of the keys, and I would not debase myself with this man’s blood.
“This isn’t over,” I said.
Clark smiled at me. “Actually, I’m pretty sure it is,” he said. “Bye, now.” There was nothing else that I could do, and so I turned, Strawberry’s dress still clutched in my hand like a talisman against the darkness that was rushing in on me, and I walked away.
The rest of the day crept by like it wanted me to suffer. My eyes drifted to Strawberry’s dress every few seconds until I finally picked it up and shoved it into my purse, hoping that out of sight would equal out of mind. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but it made enough of a difference that I was able to complete my assigned work and sneak out the door fifteen minutes early. Thanks to Clark, I had lost track of fourteen filled vessels. I needed to find them, and that meant I needed help. There was only one place to go for that.
The Shady Pines Nursing Home was as nice a place to die as money could buy, with all the amenities a man who barely remembered himself from hour to hour could want. I had made sure of that. Even though I was keeping him alive past the point when he was ready to go, I wasn’t going to make him suffer.
Part of what that money paid for was an understanding staff. When I presented myself at the front desk an hour after visiting hours, a long white box in my hands and a light layer of foundation over the bruises on my face, they didn’t ask any questions; they looked at me and saw a dutiful daughter who had experienced something bad, and needed her father.
“He’s having one of his good days, Miss Collodi,” said the aide who walked me through the well-lit, pleasantly decorated halls toward my father’s room. “You picked an excellent time to visit.”
I could tell he meant well from the look on his face—curious about my bruises but eager not to offend. So I just smiled, and nodded, and said, “I’m glad to hear that.”
We stopped when we reached the door of Father’s room. The aide rapped his knuckles gently against the doorframe, calling, “Mr. Collodi? May we come in?”
“I told you, the dollhouse won’t be ready for another three days,” shouted my father, sounding exactly like he had throughout my childhood: aggravated by the stupidity of the world around him, but trying to improve it however he could. “Go away, and come back when it’s done.”
I put a hand on the aide’s shoulder. “I can handle it from here,” I said. The aide looked uncertain, but he nodded and walked away, leaving me alone with the open doorway. I hefted the box in my hands, checking the weight of its precious burden—so few left, and no way to make more—before taking a deep breath and stepping into my father’s room.
Antonio Collodi had been a large man in his youth, and that size was still with him: broad shoulders and a back that hadn’t started to stoop, despite the deep lines that seamed his face and the undeniable white of his hair. The muscle that used to make him look like a cross between a man and a bear was gone, withered to skeleton thinness; his clothes hung on him like a shroud. He was standing near the window, hands curled like he was working on an invisible dollhouse. I stopped to admire the workmanship that had gone into him. I must have made some small sound, because he turned and froze, eyes fixing on my face.
“I’m your daughter,” I said, before he could start flinging accusations.
He usually mistook me for Pandora—a natural misunderstanding, since I looked exactly like she did in the painting that we had been passing down, generation to generation, since the beginning. He didn’t like being visited by dead people. He said it was an abomination, and a violation of our compact with the Kingdom of the Cold, which some called “Hades,” where the dead were meant to stay forever. “Daddy, I need your help. Can you help me?”
“My daughter?” He kept staring at me, dawning anger melting into amazement. “You’re beautiful. What did I make you from?”
“Bone and skin and pine and ice,” I said, walking to his bed and putting down the long white box. I rested a hand on its lid. “Pain and sorrow and promises and joy. You pried me open and called me a princess among doors, and then you poured everything you had into me, and kept pouring until my eyes were open.” I remembered that day: waking on my father’s workbench, naked and surrounded by bone shavings, my teeth tender and too large in my little girl’s mouth, my face stiff from the smile it had been painted wearing.
My family has guarded the trick to calling life out of the Kingdom for centuries, since Pandora brought it to us and said she was too tired to keep the compact any longer. No one you didn’t make with your own two hands can be trusted. That’s the true lesson of the Kingdom, and what I should have remembered when Clark smiled his perfect smile and offered me his perfect hands. But my father made me too well, and when he bid me to become a woman, a woman I became. If I’d stayed a doll of bone and pine, Clark would have had no power over me.
“Yes, that’s how you make a daughter,” said my father, following me across the room. “Is that why I’m so empty?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I should be in pieces by the road by now.”
“I still need you.” I took my hand off the box and opened the lid, revealing a blue-eyed boy doll. He was dressed in trousers and a vest a hundred years out of date, and his face was painted in a way that subtly implied he had a secret. I undid the ribbons holding him in place and gingerly picked him up. He weighed more than he should have for his size, and my hands shook as I held him out toward my father. “There are five of these in the world. That’s why you can’t go. If you break this one, there will only be four, and you’ll be one step closer to entering the Kingdom.”
We doll makers were supposed to be at peace there, finally home among our own kind. We were supposed to be rewarded for the things that we had done while we pretended to be human. I didn’t know if that was true . . . but I knew that the humans lived for the promise of Heaven with much less proof of its existence than we had of the Kingdom.
Pandora and Carlo Collodi had been real people, flesh-and-blood people. Pandora had carried a vase like a broken heart, meant to contain all the dangers of the world, both sweet and bitter. She had been tired from her wandering, from years on years of struggling to recapture the evils she had accidentally released. Carlo Collodi . . .
He had wanted a daughter. Of such necessity are many strange bargains born.
Father took the doll. I didn’t look away. This was on me; this was my fault, because I was doing this to him. I could have crafted my child as soon as it became clear that the vessel of Father’s thoughts had cracked. I could have set him free. I was the one who wasn’t willing to let him go.
“Oh, my brave boy,” he murmured, cradling the doll in his hands. “Your name was Marcus, wasn’t it? Yes, Marcus, and you were a vessel for my anger. The world was so infuriating back then. . . . ” He raised the doll, pressing his lips against the cold porcelain forehead.
It felt like the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees, the doorway to the Kingdom of the Cold swinging open and locking in place as all that Father had poured into that blue-eyed boy came surging out again, filling him. He stayed that way for almost a minute, lips pressed to porcelain, drinking himself back in one sip at a time. The chill remained in the air as Father lowered the doll, and the eyes he turned in my direction were sharp and clever, filled with the wisdom of two hundred years of making dolls to hold every imaginable emotion.
“Marian, why am I still here?” he asked. All traces of confusion were gone. The sad, broken vessel was no longer with me, and I rejoiced, even as I fought not to weep.
The dolls he had filled before he had broken grew fewer with every visit, and his lucidity faded faster. I was running out of chances to call my father back to me. “Four dolls remain, Father,” I said, rising and sketching a quick curtsey, even though I was wearing trousers. “Until they’re used up, you can’t finish breaking.”
“Then use them. Stop wasting them on me. I command you.”
“I can’t.” I straightened. “I would if I could. I love you, and I know my duty. But the world has changed since you were its doll maker, and I can’t do this without you. I need to be able to ask my questions, and have someone to answer them.”
He frowned. “Have you made a child yet?”
“Not yet. I can’t.” Once I made myself a child—made it from bone and skin and pine and ice, like my father had made me, like his father had made him—my own cracks would begin to show, and my essence would begin leaking free. A vessel can only be emptied so many times. The creation of a child was the greatest emptying of all. “I’m not ready. But Father, that isn’t why I came. I need your help.”
“Help? Help with what?”
I took a deep breath. This was going to be the difficult part. “There was a man at my office. . . . ”
I spilled out the whole sordid story, drop by terrible drop. The smiles, the flirtation, the dates for coffee that turned into dates for dinner that turned, finally, into Clark deciding he had the right to start dictating my life. From there, it was a short progression to him knocking me to the floor and stealing my dolls.
Father listened without a word, letting his precious moments of lucidity trickle away like sand. When I was done, he inclined his head and said, “You have been foolish, my Marian. But you’re young as long as I’m in this world—children are always young when set against their parents—and I can’t fault you for being a young fool. I was foolish, too, when I had a father to look after me.” He held out his empty doll. I took it. What else could I have done? He was my father, and he wanted me to have it. “You know what you need to do.”
“I don’t want to,” I said weakly—and wasn’t that why I’d come to him? To find another way, a better way, a human way, one that didn’t end with someone broken and bleeding in the street?
But sometimes there isn’t any other way. Sometimes all there can be is vengeance. “You have to,” he said gently.
I sighed. “I know.” The empty doll was light as a feather, nothing but a harmless husk. I could sell it to a dealer I knew for a few hundred dollars, and watch him turn around and sell it to someone else for a few thousand. It didn’t matter who profited, or how much. All that mattered was that this shattered little piece of my father’s soul would no longer be in my keeping. One more doorway, permanently closed.
“Now come, sit with me.” My father sat down on the edge of his bed, gesturing for me to return to my previous place. “I don’t have long before the cracks begin to show again, and I would know what you’ve been doing with your life.”
“All right,” I said, and sat, settling the empty doll back into his box.
Father reached for my hands. I let him take them. We sat together, both smiling, and I spoke until the understanding faded from his eyes, and he was gone again.
There are always consequences when you spend your life standing on the border of the Kingdom of the Cold.
I spent the night at my worktable, a rainbow of paints in front of me and Charity the bat-girl’s delicate face looking blindly up at the ceiling as I applied the intricate details of her makeup, one stroke at a time. She’d been waiting for the chance to be complete for months, but I’d passed her by time and again to focus on newer projects. I’d always wondered why. It’s not like me to leave a doll languishing for so long. Now I knew: Charity had a purpose, and until the time for that purpose arrived, I would never have been able to finish her.
Charity was meant to be my revenge.
Morning found me still sitting there, now drawing careful swirls on the resin body that would soon play host to her head. Her wings would get the same treatment before they were strung into place. She was less a bat-girl than a demon-girl, but “Charity the bat-girl” had been her name for so long that I couldn’t stop thinking of her that way. I reached for my silver paint, and cursed as my hand found an empty jar.
I’d been working without pause and hadn’t stopped to assess my supplies. Charity needed the silver to be properly finished. I glanced at the clock. The doll shop would be open in ten minutes. This was their big gather-day, but I could be in and out before anyone had a chance to notice that I was even there. I wiped down my brushes, capped my paints, and stood. Just a few more supplies and I could finish my work.
The drive to the doll store took about fifteen minutes, minutes I spent reviewing what I was going to buy and how I’d explain why I couldn’t stay if Willow or Joanna asked me. I was deep in thought when I got out of the car, walked to the door, and stepped inside, only to be hit by a wave of laughter and the smell of peppermint tea. I stopped dead, blinking at the swarm of people—mostly women, with a few men peppered through the crowd who moved, chattering constantly, around a series of tables that had been set up where the racks of pre-made doll clothes were usually kept. A second wave hit me a moment later, this one redolent with sadness, and with the smell of cold.
My stolen dolls were here.
I shoved my way through the crowd, ignoring the startled protests, until I reached the table. There they were, all my missing vessels, even Strawberry, although someone had re-dressed her in a garish red and white checked dress. All fifteen were set up as a centerpiece, surrounded by a red velvet rope, as if that would ensure that people looked but didn’t touch.
“Marian?” Willow’s voice came from right behind me. She sounded surprised.
I couldn’t blame her for that. I had other things to blame her for. I whirled, pointing back at the table as I declared, “Those are my dolls! How did you get my dolls?”
Willow’s expression changed from open and genial to closed and hard. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, dear. Those dolls were sold to us by a private collector, and you’ve always been so adamant about not showing or selling your work that I can’t believe you’d have sold this many to him. They’re a fine collection, but they’re not yours.”
I ground my teeth together, pain lancing from my damaged molar, before I said, “Yes, they are. They were stolen from my apartment two nights ago by my ex-boyfriend. I filed a police report. We can call the station and get them down here; I’m sure we’ll find your ‘private collector’ matches Clark’s description.”
Her eyes widened slightly at his name. I resisted the urge to smack her.
“He didn’t even lie about his name, did he? Clark Hauser. You probably wrote him a check. You’ll have a record.” I shook my head. “You had to know those weren’t his. I bought most of these materials here, and they are not common combinations. You knew. But you took them anyway.” The crowd around me was silent, watching. I turned to them. “Think they’d buy your dolls, too, if you got robbed?”
“We didn’t know they were stolen,” said Willow. We bought them legally. We—”
“Give the lady back her dolls,” said a weary voice. Willow turned, and we both looked at the dark-haired woman in the workroom door, leaning on her cane. Joanna focused only on me. She walked slowly forward. It felt like she was studying me, taking my measure. She stopped about a foot away and said, “Doll maker. That’s what you are, isn’t it? You’re the doll maker.”
I nodded mutely.
“I always wanted to meet one of you.” She waved a hand at the table. “They’re yours. Take them. I knew we couldn’t keep the collection as soon as I put my hands on it. They’re dangerous, aren’t they?”
I nodded again.
“Then get out of my store. Was that all you came for?”
I found my voice and managed, “I needed some silver paint.”
“Take that, too. Call it our apology.” She smiled thinly. “When you take your revenge, doll maker, don’t take it on us. Willow, get the lady her paint.” Willow hurried to obey.
I looked at the crowd, and then back at Joanna, and said, “Thank you.”
Joanna smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Restoring the vessels to their proper places made me feel infinitely better, like a hole in the world had been closed. I apologized to each of them, and twice to Strawberry: once as I was stripping off that horrible checkered dress, and again as I placed her back on her proper shelf. I felt their approval, and the approval of the Kingdom beyond.
Silver paint in hand, I sat down and got back to work.
Crafting a vessel for the self is easy, once you know how. It requires understanding your own heart—a painful process, to be sure, but your own heart is always close to hand. Crafting a vessel for someone else is an uphill struggle, and I felt it with every stroke of the brush. I mixed the last of the silver paint with blood taken from the small vein inside my wrist, and it made glittering brown lines on Charity’s skin. There was a moment right before the designs drew together when I could have stopped; I could have put down the brush and walked away. But Clark had struck me, had stolen from the Kingdom, and he had to pay for what he’d done.
I dressed Charity in a black mourning gown and placed her in a long white box, covering her with drifts of tissue paper. Then I fed Trinket, left the apartment, and drove to Clark’s house. I left the box on his doorstep. I didn’t look back as I drove away.
Clark didn’t come to work on Monday. That wasn’t unusual. Clark didn’t come to work on Tuesday either. People were talking about it in the break room when I came to get my coffee.
Wednesday morning, I called in sick.
The key Clark had given me still fit his lock. I let myself in. There was Charity on the floor, full to the point of bursting, and there was Clark next to her, eyes open and staring into nothingness. He was still alive, but when I waved my hand in front of his face, he didn’t blink.
There was nothing left in him.
“You shouldn’t open doors you don’t know how to close,” I said, bending to slide my arms under Clark and hoist him to his feet. He would have been surprised to realize how strong I was. “It’s dangerous. You never know what might happen.”
Clark didn’t respond.
“I never told you where my family was from, did I? We’re doll makers, you know. We go all the way back to a man named Carlo Collodi. He wanted a daughter, and he used a trick he learned from a woman named Pandora to open a door to a place called the Kingdom of the Cold. It’s a good name, don’t you think? There’s no room for sorrow there. The people who live there don’t even understand its name. He called forth a little girl, and as that girl grew, she learned so many things the people of the Kingdom didn’t know.” I carried Clark to his room as I spoke.
“Sometimes that little girl sent things home to them. Presents. But more often, she used the things her lather had learned from Pandora. There’s too much feeling in the world, you see. That’s what Pandora really released. Not evil: emotion. So the little girl collected feeling like a cistern collects the rain, and when she held too much, she pulled it out and sealed it in beautiful vessels. Sorrow and anger and joy and loneliness, all held until her death. We can’t contain as much as you can. We’re not made that way. But we need something to pay our passage home.” Home, to a place I’d never seen, with halls of porcelain and nobility of carved mahogany. We were revered as craftsmen there, and all we had to do to earn our place was keep repaying Pandora’s debt, catching the excess of emotion that she had released into the world, one doll at a time.
I unpacked my father’s last four remaining dolls before I unrolled the bundle that held my tools, pulling out the first small, clever knife.
“Every vessel holds a piece of the maker’s soul. We pack it away, piece by piece, to keep us alive after we cut out our hearts and use them to make a child. Our parents’ dolls give us the scraps of soul we’ll need to create a new one for the baby. They’re not the only thing we need, of course.” The scalpel gleamed as I held it up to show him. “Puppets come from blocks of wood. Rag dolls come from bolts of cloth. What do you think it takes to construct a child?”
Clark never even whimpered.
There was a message from Father’s nursing home in my voicemail when I got back to the apartment. I didn’t play it. I already knew what it would say: the apologies, the regrets, the silence where my father used to be. That didn’t matter anymore. My chest ached where I had sliced it open, and I rubbed unconsciously at the wound, looking around the room at the rows upon rows of dolls filled with my living. They would sustain me now that I had no heart, until the day my daughter was ready to be the doll maker, and I was ready to stop patching the cracks left by her creation.
She snuffled and yawned in my arms, wrapped in a baby blanket the color of tissue paper. She’d have Clark’s perfect smile and perfect hair, but she wouldn’t have his temper. I’d given her my heart, after all, just like my father had given his to me.
The police would eventually notice Clark’s disappearance. I’d left no traces for them to follow. A good artist cleans up when the work is done, and I had left neither shards of shattered porcelain nor pieces of dried, bloodless bone for them to track me by.
I walked to the couch and sat, jiggling my daughter in my arms. She yawned again. “Once upon a time,” I said, “there was a man who wanted a son. He lived on the border of a place called the Kingdom of the Cold, and he knew that if he could just find a way to open a door, everything he dreamed of could be his. One day a beautiful woman came to his workshop. Her name was Pandora, and she was very tired . . . ”
The dolls listened in silent approval. Trinket curled up at my feet, and the world went on.
Originally published in The Doll Collection and reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2016.