It was over. His baby girl was going to die. Nester stood behind his wife, his hands on her shoulders as she sobbed over Willa’s body. Willa lay in her bed, pale and sweating. Her eyes rolled back and forth behind her closed lids. She was unresponsive to every word and touch. Whenever she breathed, the death rattle echoed loudly around the room marking her final minutes on this earth.
“She can’t be leaving, us, Nester,” Ellie cried. “She just can’t!”
It hurt Nester to see his wife in such pain. “I did all I could, Ellie. I swear I did.”
“No, no, you didn’t.” Ellie shook his hands off her shoulders. Her eyes were colder than he had ever seen. “You knew she wasn’t yours and that’s all that mattered,” she accused.
“I loved her too, Ellie.” Nester knew she was only talking out of grief and despair, but it didn’t erase the pain from her callous words. “I loved her just as much as I love our boys. I didn’t care if she didn’t have my eyes, she was mine. I raised her!”
“If you really believed that, Nester, you would have saved my little girl instead of killing another one.” The savage triumph in Ellie’s eyes over his falling tears sickened Nester. They never discussed Mary Ellen. Now that Ellie was bringing it up as they sat beside Willa’s deathbed, Nester didn’t know how to feel about his wife. “You say you never cared she’s Ernie’s,” Ellie continued her misplaced diatribe uncaring that even mentioning Ernie Wilcox’s name invoked an encompassing murderous rage deep within Nester’s breast. “But I see the way you look at her and I see the way you look at me.”
The unintentional guilt that had leaked into Ellie’s voice erased all thoughts Nester had of strangling his beloved wife.
“You’re wrong, Ellie. You’re wrong.”
Willa’s final gasp put a stop to Ellie’s attack. They hurried to their daughter’s bedside, calling her name as she opened her eyes and fixed them to the ceiling. Silence reigned in the bedroom as Nester and Ellie watched Willa’s chest fall waiting in vain for it to rise again. Ellie fell onto the bed, hugging Willa’s lifeless body against her chest. John and Junior came in and helped carry their bewailing mother from the room managing to suppress their own grief to ease her through hers.
Nester stood in the silent bedroom, gazing at Willa’s body. He sat at her bedside holding her cooling, clammy hand between his as he sobbed and apologized for not saving her.
Nester sucked in a breath and pulled himself together. He brushed his hand over Willa’s eyes to close them. Nine weeks after she was born, Nester made a doll that looked exactly like Willa at that age. Baby Jessica. Large eyes, a rosebud mouth and her curly dark hair. Ernie the shyster bible seller’s hair.
“I see the way you look at her and I see the way you look at me.”
Two years ago, he made another doll. Life sized. Midnight blue almost black eyes. Curly black hair with a ribbon on the side and a white frilly dress. The Rosabel doll. She was Willa’s favorite. The doll that stood in the corner beside her bed. Nester’s eyes went from the doll to Willa and back to the doll again.
Could he really…? More to the point, should he?
“You knew she wasn’t yours and that’s all that mattered.”
“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.”
“If you really believe that, Nester, you would have saved my little girl instead of killing another one.”
“I can bring you back, Willa. Just you wait.”
Nester took the pouch of powder from his pocket, along with his pocketknife. He acted quickly, fearing one of the boys or even Ellie might come in and catch him. Nester made the tiniest cut on Willa’s finger and squeezed three drops of her blood into the pouch.
“God, I hope that’s enough.” Nester closed the pouch and shook it a little so that the blood would spread through the powder. He seized the Rosabel doll and lay her across the foot of Willa’s bed.
“Let this work, let this work.” Nester sprinkled the powder over her face. “Come back, Willa. Come back to Papa.”
He took Willa’s silk scarf and wiped away the residual powder. He waited.
He waited for anything, any little sign that he was not a fool and that Aunt Jessie was not a crazy old woman. Anything. A move of the head. A twitch of the fingers. Anything.
But nothing happened. Aunt Jessie was a fraud. Her magick wasn’t real and Willa really was gone. Nester truly felt his fifty-three years as he kissed his daughter’s forehead for the last time and pulled the sheets up over her head.
He left the boys and Junior’s Agatha to tend to Ellie. Meanwhile, Nester retreated to his workshop. Not to create or design, but to lose himself in his favorite bottle of Jack D.
Willa’s funeral was short, sweet, and the saddest thing Nester had ever experienced. Fortunately, he was so drunk that he didn’t remember most of it. He didn’t remember being the church. He didn’t remember the preacher. He did remember the burial. The whole town turned out. Even Aunt Jessie. She stood back a ways. She didn’t look at the coffin or at the preacher. She looked at him. Her damning eyes silently accusing him of disobeying. He remembered Ellie’s stinging slap against his cheek when he referred to her as the shyster bible seller’s whore – in his defense he believed he thought it rather than actually having said it – when she rebuked him for disrespecting Willa’s memory. He remembered Ellie leaving to spend the next few days with John and his family until she figured things out.
But the one thing Nester Turville could not remember was exactly how he’d ended up in the bed he usually shared with Ellie and why he awoke suddenly smelling grass and wet earth.
Nester sat up on his elbows and lightning lit the sky and illuminated the room to near blinding heights before plunging back into blackness. He opened his bleary eyes again, but had to close them back as another bolt of lightning flashed through the window.
PIT-PAT PIT-PAT PIT-PAT
What was that?
Nester sat up slowly clutching his forehead. The splitting pain of a hangover almost made him sick. He reached to his left fumbling for a match to light the candle. Yellow-orange light flickered in the room. Nester scratched his head at a loss for where the mud stains on his sheets came from.
He picked up the candle for a closer look. The muddy stains looked to be shoeprints. Little shoeprints that came up to his pillow. Nester could not wrap his head around it. The shoeprints weren’t just on his bed. They were on the floor beside the bed, trailing out to the front room.
Nester followed the trail, his heart pounding as hard as the thunder clapping outside.
“Dear God!” he gasped, refusing to believe what stood before his eyes. Willa’s doll. Rosabel. It couldn’t be…and yet there it was in his living room. One thing that stood out clearly about Willa’s funeral in Nester’s memory was Ellie requesting that the Rosabel doll be placed inside of Willa’s coffin.
But there she stood in the center of the room. Rain dripped from her hair. Mud smeared on her fingers and shoes and staining her white dress and beautiful face.
The doll didn’t move. Didn’t blink. Didn’t speak.
Was it possible that Aunt Jessie really was a conjure woman? That Rosabel, alive with Willa’s spirit, had clawed and crawled her way up out of the grave and returned to him?
“S-stay there,” he said, feeling excited and foolish all at once. He lit candles around the room and then went back to his bedroom to retrieve the keys to the workshop. The Playhouse was built onto the front of Nester’s house and the front door connected to the workshop door, which led to the showroom. Nester hurried into the workshop and looked around for Ellie’s sewing case. Whether or not Rosabel was really Willa remained to be seen. In the interim, he wanted to clean her up. Ellie had a new dress designed for the Delia doll, the last doll he made before Willa took a turn for the worse. Delia was only a half a foot shorter than Rosabel was, so the dress would be shorter than her original.
Nester placed Ellie’s case back where he found it and relocked the workshop. He returned to the front room carrying the new peach dress and white sandals.
The doll stood exactly where he left her. Nester wasn’t sure if he should have felt relieved or disappointed. Nester carefully picked Rosabel up. The bisque porcelain doll did not show any discernible changes at a glance, but Nester thought she felt warmer against his skin and somehow softer than before. Nester laid Rosabel on the table and cut off her dress. He washed away the mud restoring her to the beauty he created. Between the dress and the shoes, Rosabel looked like a new doll.
“Are you alive, Rosabel?” he stared into her dark eyes for any signs of recognition. “You must be because I put you in that coffin myself. Yet here you stand like…like it never happened.”
Rosabel’s placid expression and ghost of a smile never seemed as lifelike as it did in that moment.
“Give me a sign,” Nester urged. “Some sign that you’re alive, that you’re really my Willa.”
His waiting was in vain. The doll made not a sound and moved not an inch.
Ellie came home a few days later. She felt ashamed for her behavior after Willa’s death, but who she returned to was not the same man she left just hours after the burial. Nester wasn’t drinking anymore. He had kept the house in order and cooked his own meals. He had even returned to the workshop to create a new line of dolls. But his return to normalcy was greatly hindered in Ellie’s eyes, because instead of just seeing him surrounded by the hundreds of dolls he created over the years, she entered the workshop to find the Rosabel doll standing atop the table. The doll stood there as if supervising his work and watching Ellie with cold eyes that suddenly weren’t so lifeless.
Seeing the Rosabel doll upset Ellie greatly. Nester was adamant that the doll was a duplicate he’d made while she was gone. Ellie didn’t like it. She thought the doll looked too real and she hated how Nester would talk to it like it understood everything he said while he worked on other designs. Ellie urged Nester to sell the doll but he refused.
Nester sent the first new doll he made, called Mahalia, to Aunt Jessie’s swamp with George. He never gave Ellie a straight answer as to why he was making special dolls for that woman. Ellie’s suspicions grew and so she started to watch Nester closely. He portrayed none of the grief he exhibited in Willa’s passing and the days following. He seemed happy, thrusting his entire being into his work with the same zeal and vigor he had shown before Willa’s illness. Worse than him seeming to erase Willa’s memory, was the love and affection he poured into that doll. While it was true that Nester loved all his dolls, he treated this one as if it was a living, breathing person.
It wasn’t just Ellie who noticed Nester’s weird attachment to the doll. The townspeople saw how he carried the doll with him whenever he went to the store to buy materials or food. He took the doll to the park and played with it as if it were a child. He brought it to church services and set it between himself and Ellie. Nester’s behavior was so disturbing that parents wouldn’t bring their children into the Playhouse if Ellie wasn’t there as well.
The disquieting relationship between Nester and the Rosabel doll wasn’t restricted solely to the public. At home, Ellie would put the doll away in Willa’s room only to awake the next morning and find it standing at the foot of the bed. It happened three times before Ellie lost her temper and demanded Nester leave the doll whenever she moved it. Nester looked at the doll and didn’t say anything for a long while, and when he did he said, “I think she’d rather be with us.”
The more Ellie tried to separate Nester from the doll, the worse he became. He wouldn’t speak to her for days at a time choosing instead to talk to the doll. Sometimes, Ellie would stand back and listen, her fanatical thoughts making her wait to see if the doll would actually respond. It never did and Ellie grew worried that she was losing her mind right along with Nester. Her only recourse was to sell the doll. As he continued interacting with the doll, Ellie started to see less of her precious Willa within it. Although he made to look exactly like her, all Ellie could see was a soulless entity that was slowly driving her husband round the bend.
She asked their youngest, Junior, to come in and help around the workshop. Both sons trained in the doll making and sketching, but Junior loved The Playhouse the most. Junior created their first boy line starting with Billy. Ellie hoped that working with Junior again would bring Nester out of his delusions.
“How’s he been?” Ellie whispered to Junior when she brought them lunch.
Junior glanced over at his father who was busy telling the Rosabel doll about his new designs. “People been talking. I ain’t know it was this bad.”
“I hate that thing,” Ellie ranted. “It looks like Willa and your father swears it’s a different doll, but we only made one Rosabel doll and she was buried.”
“Momma, think about what you’re saying. Do you think the doll got out the coffin and walked back here? Or do you think Pa went back and got her out?”
Ellie shivered. Neither scenario was ideal for her. If it was a new doll, then why did Nester still call it Rosabel? Ellie didn’t want to believe that Nester had gone back and taken the doll from the grave, but she didn’t believe that it was a new doll either.
“Lord, I hope not. I’ve been thinking, Junior. We need to sell that doll.”
Junior looked back at his father. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Momma. You see how he loves that doll. What if you take it from him and he goes crazy or something?”
Ellie watched her husband sit the doll on his lap so it could “see” the new doll designs. “Can’t be any further gone than he’s at now.”
Roya S. Hill lives in Alabama, is 24 years old and is an aspiring author. You can follow her on twitter at @Hill_Roya