Jenna held the small parcel in her hands tightly. “You say you’ve done this before? More than once before? Has it ever failed?”
She and Tom stood before the desk of the doll maker. He gestured to the wall behind them covered in thank you notes and snaps of happy customers with their purchases.
The doll maker smiled with a fixed grin. “All that’s needed is something that was always close to him and a lock of his hair.”
Jenna handed over Henry’s tiny, curled lock of hair from her locket and his blanket, the one she’d sewn in the months spent in blissful anticipation of his arrival. The one he’d been wrapped in for his first hours of life. The one that she tucked around him in his cot each night. Tom shifted uneasily beside his wife. The doll maker solemnly placed the items and closed the casket. They should return after three days had passed.
For those three days Tom’s tense resistance, pulled at every part of Jenna. He thought it a stupid, sick idea. How had they let it get this far? They should pull out. Seeing how his words stung her, he crossed the kitchen to make the most of the impact. “I agreed because I thought it would make you see there’s no sense in looking back, Jen.” He folded his arms around her trying to find the old warmth he’d felt between them before all of this, before Henry, before the doll maker. Jenna slid away and out of his smothering reach. She didn’t want to hear another reason to stop what they’d agreed. Here was a chance and she wasn’t going to let Tom browbeat her into letting it go.
“We’ve paid him now.” Jenna’s eyes were fixed to the floor. Her heart had been heavy for so long she’d almost stopped looking anywhere else. “We might as well see what he’s done. It’s a lot of money.” She watched as Tom pressed his lips tight together, exhaling heavily through flared nostrils. Her tone hardened. “I’m going to collect what we’ve paid for. You don’t have to come with me, but I am going.”
Since she had heard of the doll maker, she’d thought of nothing else. She knew that Tom couldn’t be reached by the idea now. He had sobbed pitifully in the car after their visit to the doll maker’s, parting with Henry’s things was too much to bear. He thought that the whole business was a cruel play on their grief. A con. These things had occurred to Jenna, yes, of course they had. But there was no room left in her mind for doubt to take root because ‘What if?’ grew like wild vines wrapping around every thought. There could be no going back. There would be no going back.
The doll maker greeted them with the same fixed smile. “Take a look. He’s yours.” Inside the casket a replica of their child, Henry. Still and unmoving like the doll it was, but with an uncanny life-like resemblance, it caught Jenna’s breath, snagging her heart.
Tom’s reaction was immediate and searing. “It’s a doll, an overpriced sick stunt! You feed people’s misery and prey on their heartache! I’ll be damned if I let you do it to us!”
Tom stormed out of the doll maker’s studio. The grey chill of winter frost hung heavily on the gravel drive of the studio as Tom pounded manically at the trunks of its bare branched cherry trees, kicking at its kerbs and spitting oaths at the indifferent world. The reignited suffering had wrenched his heart from its seating and left Tom’s hurt to bleed out. “Bastard! Bastaaaaard!”
In the studio, Jenna remained rooted, looking down into the casket. Her fragile wishes for Henry’s return granted, she dared not move nor speak for fear of the vision disappearing like the fantasy Tom had said it was.
“Why don’t you hold him?”
Jenna, tenderly raised the doll. Heavy and solid like a child’s weight, soft and supple like a child’s body. She pulled the familiar blanket aside to reveal one of the doll’s hands and brushed her index finger across the tiny fist.
Had she seen it unfurl? Just slightly, not fully but just a little, like a half asleep reflex? Jenna’s eyes darted to meet those of the doll maker. His head inclined in a slow conspiring nod that sent Jenna’s pulse racing. She turned her back on him, nestling the doll more closely in her arms and held the hand of the doll in her own. Tiny fingers splayed out and curled around her fingers, she was sure, before they returned to a tight fist. A sob escaped from Jenna’s soul, a release that was raw and terrible.
Tom appeared at the doorway. “Put that thing down, Jen. A doll won’t replace a baby no matter how much it looks like ours did, and it won’t bring him back either. Let’s go.”
“I’ve paid the money, Tom. I’m taking him.”
“Taking it, you mean?”
She cradled the doll as if it were their own lost son. “Yes. Taking it.” Jenna’s eyes were fixed onto the face of the doll, as if she were to look away, the spell would break, and he’d be gone again. Tom, gripped by nausea rising in his gut, was struck dumb by her sudden wild possessiveness.
Repulsed by the doll, Tom, refused all contact with it, convinced that Jenna’s obsession would fade. At first, Jenna hid her routines letting Tom believe that the doll remained in Henry’s cot for her to look at, as she might a photograph. But the bond between Jenna and this new Henry ignited each time Tom left for work. She fed it from breasts that bore no milk. She changed unsoiled nappies and washed the unblemished doll in warm baby baths. Her memory filled the silent rooms with the cries of her baby son, the cooing and babbling she recalled from that time before. She thought she could smell the talcum dusted skin of her child, feel again, the warmth of his skin against hers. She remembered the rise and fall of his breathing body, and the tiny sighs and mews that came from his dream filled sleep. She conjured all of these memories filling the house with them so often that she couldn’t tell which were recollections and which, she was convinced, were new to her. It made her smile; it had been so very long since she had smiled.
Routine turned days into weeks and life had a little of the old brightness about it, she might even say she was happy again. She was so busy with this baby. Just listen to that crying! The more attention she gave, the more was needed. More feeding. More comforting. More bathing. More lullabies. More rocking. This new Henry needed her and what mother could deny her baby anything?
Knowing that the doll was in Henry’s room, Tom found it impossible to enter there, and so frequent changes of the doll’s clothes remained undiscovered, as did the opened packs of nappies and the mounting quantities of baby paraphernalia accumulating on every surface. What was noticeable was Jenna’s increasingly frequent and obsessive need to check on, to fetch, to search for an array of obscurely urgent things. It was on such an errand that Tom found Jenna leaning over Henry’s cot, cooing and comforting the doll.
His heart sank low into the pit of his stomach, aching with pity, with appalling horror. But Jenna didn’t flinch. Defiant accusations flew from her. It was Tom who was cold and unnatural, whose heart had hardened and whose love had fled from their family! She would not stop. It made her happy.
“It’s not Henry. It’s a doll, we bought it, for Christ’s sake!”
Her face reddened with resentment at Tom’s his pleading, his sour looks and sermons. It was all too severe. Who were they hurting? Why didn’t he just let them be?
Tom watched on bleakly, unable to stop his wife’s wilful embrace of this dark make believe, so utterly bereft of anything wholesome. Pretenses were dropped, and Jenna chattered each evening about ‘the baby’, impervious to Tom’s brooding disgust and silences.
“Did you see that lovely smile?”, “Oh what a racket that child can make when he’s hungry!”
He’d thought about going, leaving Jenna with the hideous doll. But he wouldn’t. In time, he was sure the illusion would pale and she’d see what she had been doing, what her life had become. Tom wanted to be there when the realisation came. She would need him. She was his wife.
It was a fine Spring Saturday when Tom suggested they go out, “Let’s get some fresh air and a change of scenery, eh?”
“It’s too cold for the baby. What if he caught a chill?”
Tom’s voice was tender, “Let’s leave the doll here. We can spend some time together, y’know, like we used to. It’ll still be here when we get back.”
“Leave him here?! How can you say that? No!” Jenna scuttled off with the doll in her arms, mumbling baby voice reassurances into the blanketed bundle as she placed it back in the cot. She turned to find Tom standing close behind her.
“Come back to me, Jen.”
“No. Not without him.”
Tom held Jenna’s hands. Their faces close enough to touch.
“Please Tom, what’s the harm?”
Tom folded into Jenna’s embrace, resting his head on her shoulder as he allowed his tormented sorrow to erupt in great heaving sobs.
And it was then that he saw. The head of the doll had moved, barely, but unmistakably and a tiny sigh had escaped the sleeping form. Jenna felt the change in Tom’s body and saw the stunned apprehension on his face.
“You see? You could love him as I do!” Jenna’s voice was urgent and rasping. But she had read Tom’s reaction poorly.
Tom reached into the cot and wrenched the puppet from Henry’s blanket. Fury and fear mixed and raced within him, hatred for this usurper bubbled over into a red, red mist. Jenna ripped and clawed at Tom’s arms to reach the doll but was flung away by the strength of his rage. Growling and howling like a wounded animal, Tom hurtled the doll into the corner of the room, watching it plumb to the floor and lay there twitching for a moment before stillness and silence filled the room.
Still not quite summer, the funeral flowers carried the sharpness of early blooms. Jenna’s folks had come to stay for a day or two to help sort her things. They expressed some surprise at the way Henry’s room still looked as if it was used. They scowled at it, linking it to their own child’s demise, silently blaming Tom for the help he didn’t give or seek for their daughter. Surely, he had seen the signs? He must have seen her suffering. Why hadn’t he cleared this room to help her? Perhaps then, it would never have come to this.
Blossoms fell from the cherry trees like snow, covering the gravel drive and collecting in deep drifts at the edges of kerbs. Tom stood and started at the door of the doll makers studio. A lock of Jenna’s hair in his locket.
Pam Knapp lives in the UK’s rolling countryside of the Sussex Downs, close enough to London to feel the heat, far enough away to avoid being burnt. Optimism is her greatest asset. Her recent writing can be found in Dreich Magazine, Green Ink Poetry, Owl Hollow Press and In Parentheses Literary Magazine.
photo by StockSnap (via pixabay)