Melanie's Online Fiction

The Dancing Doll

The Dancing DollIt wouldn't be fair to claim we had no problems before the Dollmaker--though why I should worry about fairness at this point is beyond me. Maybe this official investigation, with social workers like you and lawyers and, yes, police, has triggered a naive assumption on my part that fairness has something to do with it, or ought to. Or maybe I just want you--someone, anyone--to understand what's happened to us, to bear witness.

Oh, Jesus. Sorry. The idea of anybody understanding this craziness just struck me funny. You probably ought to write that in your report: "The father laughed inappropriately."

Anyway, what I'm alleging is that the Dollmaker took advantage of our family's vulnerabilities for her own evil purposes. In the process, she may have destroyed my daughter's life and my own; to some degree, that depends on what all of you decide. What's the matter, you don't like the word "evil"? How about "sick," then? "Maladaptive"? But "evil" is what I mean.

Yes, okay, I know her name. As you point out, we've been neighbors for years; our big old Victorian houses are on opposite sides of a street and opposite ends of a block of squat thirties bungalows and crackerboxes from the fifties, as if holding the corners down. I call her by name. But I've always thought of her as the Dollmaker, because of the dolls in all her windows. You've seen them, crowding the attic window like extra gingerbread, or like something trapped up there that doesn't even want to get out, hung by their necks in the second-story windows of bedrooms used as workshops; filling the entire bottom rectangle of the arched parlor window that faces the street on the main floor. A life-sized old-woman doll on the porch swing, in its lap the makings of a smaller old-woman doll, in its lap the makings....

All wasn't sweetness and light before my wife died, either, or before she got too sick to do many motherly or wifely things anymore, or before the diagnosis, or before the first dizzy spell which we didn't know was the start of anything. Funny how things can sneak up on you.

Thank you.

Looking back, I wonder if maybe Greta and I were too close, and if Cassidy felt shut out. Parents can't win, you know it? If you have a lousy relationship, the kids are damaged. If you have a wonderful relationship, if your spouse is your soulmate and the love of your life, the kids are damaged. Which, come to think of it, is what keeps people like you in work, isn't it? No offense.

I suppose in some ways you could call us dysfunctional. But I considered us a pretty strong family dealing pretty well with major problems. I was even proud of how we handled Greta's illness. She was at home. We didn't think Cassidy should be kept away from her mother's death. Maybe that was a mistake. Do you think that was a mistake?

During the last weeks of Greta's life, Cassidy started spending a lot of time with the Dollmaker. She's right when they tell you that it was with my permission, though I had more and more misgivings about her being over there so much. I can't claim prescience, though, because what worried me was that Cassidy, who was a handful when she was on her best behavior, might be making a nuisance of herself. Now there's a straw man if there ever was one.

From your experience, do you think it's in the nature of being a parent to worry about things that actually aren't threats to your children and missing things that are? Or is it some flaw in character or imagination that causes some of us to fail their kids?

I do want it understood--in my defense, I suppose--that Cassidy had visited the Dollmaker before. Greta had checked it out and told me the woman loved kids and didn't have any of her own; her dolls were her children, she said, but that could go only so far. Cassidy had brought home a cabbage-patch-like creature fashioned from half a pair of pantyhose and a football-shaped baby whose limbs and facial features she'd rather primitively sketched on the cloth with magic marker; I remember being vaguely bothered that she didn't show them off to her mother and me as I thought most kids would have, but settled them in out-of-the-way places in her room, not quite hidden but not exactly on display, either. The summer before Greta got sick the Dollmaker had taken Cassidy and another little girl from the neighborhood to one of those Renaissance Festivals where she had a booth, and Cassidy'd thrown a fit when her mother insisted she wash off the face paint before bed that night.

So this relationship wasn't totally out of the blue. In fact, I'm convinced the Dollmaker was lying in wait. Cassidy started rushing through her homework every day so she could go over there; when she wanted to go straight from school--"She'll help me with my homework. She knows a lot of stuff!" as if I didn't--I said no, which set off a tantrum. I did allow the Dollmaker to take her places on weekends once in a while, to the Doll Hospital, the yarn shop, the fabric store. Then she kept her overnight a few times. Then she began picking her up from school; I made sure there were seatbelts in the rattletrap van, but that was, I admit, the only precaution I took.

I know now, of course, what a mistake that was, but at the time I was grateful for what I took to be neighborliness that let me pay more attention to Greta. It also seemed to me that a child that age needed a break from sickness and dying, and that it would be good for her to have an older, grandmotherly type to talk to.

Do I sound defensive? You're skeptical, aren't you? I don't blame you. Let me get to the dancing doll and maybe you'll see what I mean.

That doll. Yes. I didn't realize you had it. It's unnerving to see it drooped on a chair like an ordinary doll, lanky flesh-toned arms and legs splayed and dangling, eyes that perfect shade of green. Don't you see Cassidy in it? I have to restrain myself from holding it on my lap, from telling it to sit up straight. Please be careful with it. Not only because it's treacherous in ways I hope you'll have an inkling of by the time I've finished, but also because at the moment it's one of the few things I have left of my daughter.

Greta died on a June afternoon. I was with her. Cassidy was at the Dollmaker's. I spent maybe a half hour alone with the body of my wife, alternately distraught and at profound peace. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be telling you things you don't need to know about us, but my state of mind may be germane. When I did call over there to talk to my daughter, the Dollmaker asked why. I didn't want to tell her Greta had died before I'd told Cassidy. I also had no energy for a conflict. So I said something like, "It's time for her to come home."

"Well, this isn't a good time," the Dollmaker said to me. "We're in the middle of something." Doesn't that seem outrageous to you? As though it was hers to determine a good time for my daughter to come home.

I'm afraid I lost it a little. I shouted into the phone, "You send my daughter home now!" and slammed down the receiver. That's what she's referring to when she says I was rude. Maybe I was. But I'd had my first intimation that I could lose my child to this old woman, and, though I tried to put it down to grief and shock and fatigue, I was genuinely panic-stricken by the time Cassidy got home, which took considerably longer than it should have.

Through the front window I watched them finally coming up the walk, the old woman and the little girl together, and with a terror I thought was disproportionate--but which, trust me, has turned out to be justified--I saw that Cassidy was moving strangely. Stiff-legged, stiff-armed, bobbing up and down, twisting awkwardly from side to side. Something's wrong with her, I thought clearly. She's dying, too.

I was enormously relieved, which I shouldn't have been, to realize what was causing the change in her--though it wasn't the cause, of course, only the instrument. A doll as big as she was, hands and feet attached to hers by strips of elastic, face on a level with hers, reddish-brown yarn braids matching those I'd lately learned to plait in her hair, yellow sunsuit an eerie replica--on closer inspection, an exact replica, complete with the faint strawberry stain on the front--of the one she was wearing.

"She's a dancing doll," my daughter informed me. "See?

Humming and "la la la-ing" in a voice I first thought was on a tape inside the doll, she cavorted around the dusty living room, through the kitchen with its sink full of dirty dishes, into and out of the bedroom where her mother's body lay on the bed.

I kept saying her name more and more loudly, more and more impotently. She was oblivious. I wasn't about to chase her, but I did manage to intercept her as she twirled and dipped in front of the bathroom mirror. Grabbing for her arm, I didn't realize at first that I'd closed my hand around the doll's instead, and was horrified by the smooth, squishy, not entirely lifeless feel of it.

I got my arms around child and doll, sat down on the floor, and pulled both of them into my lap. Cassidy's singing grew louder and faster; I figured she knew what I was going to tell her and didn't want to hear it. But she had to hear it, didn't she? Because it was the truth now, our truth.

I said, "Cassidy, honey, listen!" I shook her--just a little, not enough to hurt her--and brushed her hair out of her face. Her eyes were as flat as if they'd been sewn on, and her mouth gaped, still emitting "la la la's" in a harsh, screechy voice like a cartoon character. The elastic loops still tethered her hands and feet to the doll's, so when I took my daughter's face in my hands I had to reach around the doll in a clumsy embrace. "Cassidy, Cassidy, hush!"

She just kept on. Her song was completely tuneless by then and on the verge of hysteria. I raised my voice to be heard, and I was on the verge of hysteria, too, I guess. I'm not proud of this but I ended up yelling at her, "Shut up and listen to me! Your mother is dead! Do you understand that? Your mother died!"

There was a shocked silence. Then my daughter burst into tears, squirmed herself and the doll out of my lap, and staggered into the arms of the Dollmaker, who'd been observing all this from the hall.

Now, am I wrong to think she should have brought her back to me? It was our grief. It was our family. She had no business even being there. Instead, she held Cassidy and the dancing doll so tight that when I'd collected myself enough to get to my feet, I practically had to fight her off. This upset Cassidy even more.

The Dollmaker did say, "I'm sorry," but she was looking at Cassidy, not me.

"Leave us alone now," I told her through my teeth. I don't mind telling you that by this time I was crying, too.

"No!" Cassidy howled, and tried to wrench herself and the doll out of my grasp. She was kicking her heels back into my shins, and I could feel the doll's feet pummeling me, too, with surprising force. Unable to turn or lower her head enough to reach me, she yanked the doll's head forward and down against the back of my forearm.

Here's where things start to get weird. The doll bit me. As you can see, the mouth is just embroidered onto the fabric of the face in a closed-lip smile like Cassidy's when she's hiding something, no teeth showing. The head is stuffed with cotton batting and there are no jaw hinges, no movable parts of any kind. But when the doll's head pressed against my flesh, I felt sudden sharp pain, and I yelped and jerked my arm away, and there was a bite mark, plain as day, blood already oozing up.

No, there's no sign of it now. It healed.

The Dollmaker went home. Cassidy calmed down. I disinfected my wound and found a Band-Aid. We went in to the bedroom together; she wouldn't let go of the doll, and I didn't make an issue of it. She kissed her mother good-bye, then bent the doll over Greta's face to kiss her, too. It was such a sad, sweet, childish gesture that the biting incident was almost obscured. We both wept. I remember thinking, Maybe we're going to get through this after all. Maybe Cassidy and I are going to be all right.

But she wouldn't let go of the doll for supper, for bathtime, for bed. She kept insisting she couldn't. It was only when I lost patience and tried to pry the doll away from her that I realized she couldn't physically, literally. I tried to loosen the elastics over her hands and feet and found they wouldn't give. I tried to tear them away and she screamed.

So she slept with the doll that night. She hobbled into the kitchen with it in the morning and perched it on her lap again, barely able to feed herself with the spoon clutched between her hand and the doll's. She looked and acted exhausted, didn't say two words during the meal, would hardly look at me around the doll's head that was always between us.

When I went to the funeral home to make arrangements, I left Cassidy with the Dollmaker. I hate saying that, because by this time I should have known better, but I wasn't trusting my own instincts, and she was right across the street, and Cassidy was more than willing to go. Besides, I wanted her to do something about that doll; I thought--illogically--that maybe Cassidy was reacting to something in the elastic, and if nothing else the doll could be cut away and when I got back we'd go to the doctor to get the pieces removed. "I'll take care of it," the Dollmaker promised, and she tousled the unbraided hair of both my daughter and the doll.

It didn't take long at the funeral home. Greta and I had made most of the arrangements together ahead of time, and the funeral director was helpful. I sat for a few minutes in their chapel, and then I went home.

The dancing doll was on my steps, arms around its knees the way Cassidy often sat, wearing a red sweatsuit like the one Greta had bought her on what turned out to be their last shopping trip together. Its loose hair hung in its face. Seeing it sitting there made me afraid. Then, as I pulled up to the curb, I realized it was Cassidy, and the fear became this terror that's been with me ever since.

She was conscious, but limp and barely responsive. I carried her into the house and laid her on the couch. Her pulse seemed strong and regular. Her breathing wasn't labored. She didn't have a fever. There was no sign of injury or illness, except that awful torpor. I called 911.

I spent the night at the hospital. Cassidy's condition didn't change, and the doctors didn't know what was wrong; there was speculation about brain fever, brain injury, stroke, but nothing quite fit. They put her on an IV for nourishment. They ran tests. When they took her for a brain scan and I couldn't be with her anyway, I went home to wash and change clothes.

But I stopped at the Dollmaker's. I rang the bell. The second time I knocked, the door swung open. So I stepped inside. That's what she's talking about when she says I broke into her house. I didn't break in. She left the door open.

I called out. She didn't answer, but somebody did. Somebody said, "Hi, Daddy." The front room was stacked shoulder-high with bales of cotton batting like body bags, boxes of heads, bins full of yarn which in some cases had already been formed into pigtails and ponytails and topknots. Coming toward me along a very narrow pathway through all this clutter was something that looked, moved, sounded, even--God help me--smelled like my daughter. And it said, "Hi, Daddy. Did you come to take me home?"

I stood still. The thing approached me, tilted up its head just like Cassidy in one of her more affectionate moods, reached out its hand. I let it touch me. It was a dancing doll; elastics crossed its palms. The fingers that interlaced with mine were squishy and their skin was cloth. But the doll had been animated to replicate Cassidy, the little girl I'd left in the hospital so mysteriously drained of the animation that was hers.

Then there were dozens of Cassidy dolls all over me, grabbing my hands, flinging lanky arms around my thighs, leaping onto my shoulders. All of them humming and singing "la la la," not exactly in unison but certainly in concert. They all wore Cassidy's clothes--the red sweats, the yellow sunsuit, my favorite denim overalls and flannel shirt, the fancy pink dress from last year's Christmas pictures. They all had her voice, the voice she used to have. They all moved the way she had, when she'd been able to move.

One of them slipped elastic strips over my hands and feet so we could dance. As Greta would have been the first to tell you, I'm not much of a dancer, but the Cassidy doll had me prancing and sashaying around the Dollmaker's front room and kitchen and even up the stairs, dipping and turning, bumping into boxes and tangling my feet in bags, and laughing. Laughing.

The Dollmaker was in one of the upstairs rooms, working. on the table in front of her another doll was laid out. This one was my daughter as I'd left her that morning: hospital gown, tubes in its arms and groin, green eyes staring, mouth slack. The head, torso, arms, and legs weren't attached to each other; the body cavity was unstitched and only partly stuffed.

I lunged. The Dollmaker blocked my way, and the Cassidy dolls pulled at my clothes and flesh with hard fingers and sharp teeth. My rescue attempt was aborted; I managed to grab only a hand. I have it right here. I can hardly stand to touch it, and I can't keep my hands away. See how it has Cassidy's long fingers and squarish nails, like her mother's? Maybe you've never noticed Cassidy's hands.

I ran out of that house, knocking over some dolls and stepping on others and feeling like an abuser. The Dollmaker didn't try to stop me. With the Cassidy doll's hand in my pocket like a talisman, I sped to the hospital, certain I'd find my daughter dead,

Instead, she was in the state you see her in now. Comatose, hooked up to tubes and machines that perform her bodily functions for her, giving no indication that she's part of this world at all anymore. Which she isn't. She's in the Dollmaker's world. The Dollmaker has her.

That brings us to where we are now. The Dollmaker has to be stopped. Somebody--social services, the health department, the police--has to raid her house and destroy all those Cassidy dolls, and somebody has to prevent her from making any more. Otherwise my daughter will never be released.

Our fate is in your hands.

copyright 1999 Melanie Tem

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