“The doll…a blind and hideous automatism dictated by the race…its vitality insuperable. The maternity instinct defies, even denies death. The doll, whether left upside down on the floor with broken teeth and ruined eyes, or lovingly arranged to be overlaid in the night, squashed, tortured, mutilated, survives all cruelties and disasters, and asserts finally its immortal qualities. The doll…it is unkillable…it is beyond death.”
– The Doll (1946), Algernon Blackwood
Willa, the Poppet
It was sheer insanity that Nester Turville even had thoughts of seeking out Aunt Jessie, but there he sat in his coach, hands clasped and heart pounding in equal fear and panic as his coachman George, steered him to Aunt Jessie’s domicile. The sky opened its mouth and unleashed its unholy fury. The two-horse coach pulled steadily along towards the perilous path to Aunt Jessie’s swamp.
“I reckon your little Willa has a few days. A week at the most.”
“She’s dyin’, Nester. You gotta do somethin’. You gotta save her!”
Old Doc Judd’s words rattled around in Nester’s mind. His wife’s tearful eyes and broken pleas haunted him incessantly. Nester had two grown boys that were starting their own families, but Willa, Willa was his baby girl. The daughter they always wanted and thought they’d never have. It didn’t matter to Nester that she was conceived in Ellie’s weakest moment with that shyster bible seller. Willa was his daughter and couldn’t nobody tell him otherwise.
Just up ahead, Nester could make out the shape of Aunt Jessie’s cabin. It looked to ascend from the mouth of the swamp. People said that Aunt Jessie held the beasts and creatures of the swamp under her power. If she could control the gators and the snakes, the snakes and the fish, was it so unfathomable that she might be able to save his little Willa?
The coach slowed as the path narrowed and tapered off to a rickety bridge that wouldn’t sustain the weight of the horses and coach.
“Bridge ain’t gon’ hold, suh!” George hollered out over the rain and thunder.
Nester wanted to turn back. He wanted to go home and sit with his wife and daughter until it was time for Willa to go with God. But Ellie’s desperate pleas refused to let him turn back.
“George!” Nester called over the pounding rain and howling wind. Pulling his coat tight and lowering his hat down to his eyes, Nester helped George down. “Get on in the coach and wait for me.”
Rain poured down his dark skin. “You ain’t wan’ me tuh go, suh?”
“Naw.” He shook his head even though he considered it. “I won’t be long.”
Nester took the small lantern, but didn’t dare light it until he had enough shade against the wind and rain. The rickety bridge swayed with the wind like a tide in the sea. Nester looked down and could see where the swamp began and how it circled around Aunt Jessie’s place like a backwoods moat. He held both sides of the narrow rope feeling the strong winds lift his feet several times before he made it across to solid land. He was halfway there, but the journey was still as dangerous as if he had been back on the bridge. To get to the cabin, Nester had to follow the path through the trees whose branches spread and curled like skeletal fingers waiting to grab and drag him deep into the darkness where only the yellow eyes of man-eaters give way to light. Nester huddled within himself to shield his match from the wind, but to no avail. Whenever he tried, the wind and rain would howl and whip through the trees extinguishing the match before he could light the lantern.
“Lord, this is my last match,” he prayed. “Please let it hold.”
His prayers were answered and he was able to light the lantern. With the light illuminating several feet before him, the tawny eyes he once thought he saw all around him disappeared. The ground was soggy; each step pulled his feet deeper into the mushy earth. Nester walked as fast as the muddy suction of the ground, the thick rain and the howling winds would allow. Thoughts of his suffering wife and ailing daughter kept his steps sure and steady.
Nester could see the lights of Aunt Jessie’s cabin. He was close. Just a few more steps would put him up the walk to the porch. But something moved just up ahead. Something on the path only ten steps ahead of him. Trepidation seized Nester’s heart as he raised the lantern shining it at the moving thing barring him from Aunt Jessie’s cabin. He drew back in horror, his hand fast at his side for his pistol.
Its eyes opened. Deep yellows glowing at him. It opened its jaws, teeth white and gleaming. The gator growled deep and lifted itself, preparing to attack. Nester cocked his pistol. The loud click made the gator growl more as if he sensed the danger Nester posed.
Another sound came from ahead this time directly behind the gator. A weird screeching call like the mothers of the wild calling to their babies. Another sound – a splash of something falling into the water.
The gator followed the splash, effectively dismissing Nester as a worthy meal and scurried over to the water letting its long and wide body ease in. Nester moved the lantern to get a better look. A headless bloody chicken bobbed on the surface only for a moment before the gator dragged it down underneath.
“You best come now!” a woman’s voice called to him speaking in an accent that Nester couldn’t place. He could just make out her shape on the porch. “He’ll be through with that bird soon and I won’t waste anymore of my meat.”
Nester didn’t hesitate to hurry up the walk before the gator attempted to pull him in too. He remained on the porch in the pretense of shaking water off his clothing when it was fear what actually held him back from crossing her threshold. Aunt Jessie had seated herself at the round table in the center of the room. She was peculiar in more ways than just her looks alone. She didn’t sit like a lady; rather she lounged in the high backed chair with the armrests that curved like the trees in the swamp. Both arms dangled carelessly over the rests as she held him with her penetrating eyes. Aunt Jessie stood out amongst the other women of her race with her high yellow skin and striking green eyes that while beautiful, looked wholly evil in her unusual face. Her hair was not the color black and she didn’t wear it in braids or covered with rags. It was a yellow gold and as thick as a bullwhip handle. Around her neck, she wore teeth. Fangs. Sharp white gator and rattlesnake fangs with tips glistening as though they could still drip venom. In her ears, she wore shining jewelry and thick red bangles around her wrists. Although she was very beautiful, Aunt Jessie’s presence as a whole emitted a sense of foreboding for whoever crossed her path.
Candles were lit around the inside of the cabin drawing strange shapes against her skin. She waited for him. Nester forced down his apprehension and went inside. He closed the door behind him and pulled off his soaked hat.
“Miss Jessie, my name is –”
“I know who you are, Nester Turville,” she waved her hand as if she were a lady in her own court dismissing a commoner. “Do you remember this one? Your wife sold it to me just last year.”
She pointed to the little black doll with two messy pigtails standing in the corner holding a stuffed rabbit with floppy ears.
“Gail.” Nester made the dolls in his shop while Ellie designed and sewed the clothing, styled their hair, and gave them all names. Dressing and naming the dolls was something that their Willa had taken great pleasure in from an early age.
Gail was number three in the black doll collection. Ellie made a checkered red and white dress for Gail with a white undershirt and Mary Jane’s. It caused quite the uproar when Nester and Ellie announced that they would add doll lines of all colors to The Playhouse starting with the blacks. Coming off the freedmen’s era, they ran the risk of losing their core customers, but Nester’s designs, whether they be black or white were too great to be ignored, and Gail’s dimpled face and wide brown eyes charmed even the most bigoted ladies in New Charity.
“Yes, I saw her and knew at once I should have her.” She offered for Nester to sit across from her. “Now as to why you are here.” Her bright green eyes narrowed sharply easily diminishing the comfort established through their common love for the doll.
“I brought you my Willa’s scarf.”
Nester pulled the silk cloth from underneath his shirt. Since her illness, he always wore it close to her heart just to keep sane.
Aunt Jessie held up her hand. “Unnecessary. I don’t have to look to the spirits to tell me what I already know. The child is dying. You know this, too.”
Nester’s misty blue eyes unfocused as her unrepentant declarations reminded him just how hopeless Willa’s case was. “No, I don’t accept that.” His white mustache twitched as he shook his head stubbornly. “Doc Judd says she’ll be dead in a week. We tried medical; alternative is all we have left.”
“And you think that my…alternative methods can save your wife’s daughter?” there was a trace of irony in both her voice and her eyes that filled Nester with unease.
Nester wasn’t sure if by calling Willa Ellie’s daughter was meant to salt his wound or gauge his sincerity.
“I do, Miss Jessie. I’m willing to pay whatever price. Just name it.”
He watched her steeple her fingers and turn to gaze at Gail standing in the corner. “Two things I want.”
“Name them,” he readily answered, finally feeling that saving his little girl wasn’t as impossible as everyone thought.
“Three hundred dollars.”
Nester didn’t blink at the high price. No amount could ever be enough, he thought.
“And two, you create a line of dolls that symbolizes my heritage.” Her eyes met his again, a spark of condemnation pinning him to his seat. “And not from those shameful Uncle Remus drawings I see in the papers and in the books! She should have my hair and dress as I dress. And you shall call her Mahalia.”
Aunt Jessie stood abruptly, gliding across the room. There was a wood shelf set against the wall with rows and columns. Each column held its own jar or pouch. Aunt Jessie’s hands swept over each row before finally retrieving a black pouch.
She set the pouch on the table. “This is what you need, Nester Turville.”
“What is it?” Nester envisioned mixing whatever was in the pouch with liquid. Willa would drink it and come sunrise she would be well again.
“It’s essence powder. The child’s body has failed her. It cannot be healed.”
Terror, pain and anger flashed in Nester’s eyes as despair tangled his tongue. “B-but you said –! You said!”
“Her body has failed her,” Aunt Jessie said again slowly. “It cannot be healed. It cannot be salvaged. You wish to save her? You must find another body.”
Nester drew back aghast. “Another body! You can’t mean…” it was too horrible to imagine. Taking someone else’s little girl just to prolong the life of his?
“Whether you choose to do this or not, Nester Turville, is your decision.”
“What,” he swallowed heavily. “What happens to the…the other little girl?
Aunt Jessie’s unblinking eyes and blank face confirmed what he had already ventured to guess.
Nester wouldn’t let Aunt Jessie remove the pouch from the table. “I-I’ll do it. For Willa, I’ll do it.”
Aunt Jessie’s long fingers clutched his wrists. Her black painted nails in the flickering candlelight looked more like talons.
“If she dies before you can administer the powder, then it is over. You must NOT use the powder once her heart stops beating. You won’t like what you create if you do.”
“Mix Willa’s blood with the powder,” Nester muttered to himself, pacing back and forth near the schoolhouse. “Sprinkle the powder over the donor’s face. Mix Willa’s blood with the powder. Sprinkle…”
There were many little girls that he could have taken as their schoolmistress had her back turned speaking coquettishly with the groundskeeper. But Nester couldn’t take any of those girls. They visited The Playhouse at least once a month. He knew them, he knew their parents. It was a foolish endeavor. Willa’s death was in God’s plans. What right did he have to interfere? Nester would dump the powder, return to his home and
“I’ll get it, I’ll get it!” Little Mary Ellen Hyde chased the stray ball into the woods.
Mary Ellen was the most beautiful child since his Willa was born. With her white curls and rosy cheeks and laughing blue eyes. She would be perfect. Nester and Ellie could pack up and go somewhere where no one would ever know what he had done.
Before the plan had fully formed, Nester took off towards the woods in pursuit of Mary Ellen. He found her holding the red ball watching rabbits feed from the wild lettuce. She was just within arm’s length. Mary Ellen turned quickly hearing the twig snap under Nester’s shoe.
“Hello, Mary Ellen,” Nester said, hoping the panic didn’t show. “Do you remember me?”
The little girl nodded silently.
“You remember that pretty little doll you wanted that your sister wouldn’t let you have? Molly Sue with the hat and pearls?”
The little girl nodded again, eyes wide remembering how she begged and begged her sister for her.
“Well, I have her in my coach.” Nester held out his trembling hand. “Come with me and I’ll give her to you.”
The little girl shook her head and stepped back from Nester.
“Come on,” he cajoled, seeing that flight instinct in her wide eyes. “It’s just a short walk. I know you want her. I’ll take you to her.”
The little girl shook her head more firmly. She saw the anger build in Nester’s eyes. Mary Ellen threw the ball at him as hard as she could and started running deeper into the woods.
“Mary Ellen!” he yelled, chasing after her as she ducked and weaved, squeezing herself through tight openings. “Mary Ellen!”
The little girl tried hiding behind a tree, but the bright pink colors of her dress gave a sharp contrast to the browns and greens of the trees and leaves. She heard him coming and panicked, turning to run again, never seeing the half-unearthed root. Nester was helpless to watch as her foot caught under the root, the speed of her run propelling her forward onto the flat rock.
The loud crunch of her skull and the squelch of her flesh impacting the rock turned Nester’s stomach. He quickly shut his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see her fall, but he would forever remember the crunch and squelch.
Little Mary Ellen’s body lay still. Her white curls fanned and staining red as her hot blood gushed from her wound, eager to mix with the wood floor’s bed. Her legs splayed and her arms lay twisted and crushed beneath her from attempting to cushion the impact.
“Oh no!” Nester cried, wiping the sick from his mouth. “Oh no, oh Jesus! What did I do? God in the Heavens above, WHAT DID I DO?” he bellowed, pulling at his gray hair.
In the distance, he could hear the schoolmistress calling Mary Ellen’s name.
“What have I done?” he whispered. “What have I done?”
The schoolmistress’s frantic voice sounded closer and Nester had no other choice but to run. Even as he heard the echo of her horrified screams, Nester kept on running.
Roya S. Hill lives in Alabama, is 24 years old and is an aspiring author. You can follow her on twitter at @Hill_Roya