Doll Seed

June 15, 2021

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Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, a writer, a creativity coach and a pug-lover. Her main love is writing speculative fiction, though she also is known to write poetry and creative nonfiction, too. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction has appeared, or is forthcoming in 100 Word StoryGlint Literary Journal, The Wild Word, Thing Magazine, Blood and Bourbon, FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Flying South, Oracle: Fine Arts Review, Carolina Woman, Ms., The Feminist WireWestern North Carolina Woman and various zines and anthologies.
Content Warning(s):
Racism and/or racial slurs, Self-harm and suicide

1952

She stood in a brass doll stand on the window shelf in Mrs. Lovey’s Irresistible Toys and Candy Store looking out on Eighth Avenue and 72nd Street. The casual passer-by would have easily missed the momentary gleam in the doll’s eyes. She awoke that day and named herself Chevella because that was the only word she could remember from the old language of the doll world. She didn’t remember much of her life before; all she had now was the rubbery plastic odor of her, the mahogany sheen of her doll skin, and the intense yearning for love that yokes all doll forms to the human world. 

A sharp voice pinched into her newly awakened mind. 

“The new one’s here. Finally. Your body’s been sitting around forever. Didn’t think anyone would come.” The voice continued, “I’m Missy Ann No. 13. Little girls always come in and touch me. One time a Negro girl even tried.” 

Chevella could not yet fully use her new doll eyes, so she could only dimly see the doll nearby. Standing twenty-two inches tall next to Chevella, the newly awakened doll, was Missy Ann No. 13. A cream-colored doll with cascading brown hair tied in ponytails held by thick red, white, and blue satin ribbons. Dressed for a picnic, she was, with a crisp white shirt, navy skirt, and a straw hat clutched in her hand. A dainty picnic basket graced her side.

Missy Ann No. 13 added coyly, “I won’t be here long, but stuck in that body, I bet you will.”

“Be nice, mon cheri or later I’ll come and pull on your ponytails,” another voice inside Chevella’s head countered. “Welcome friend. I am Marie,” Marie continued. Her voice had a light, musical quality.

“I am … Chevella,” she said, testing out her dollmind voice.

“Yes. we shall talk now, and later you’ll be introduced to the toys. They can’t speak dollmind to dollmind like us.” 

And then she heard the voices of the other dolls in the toy store clamoring, raking across her awareness like a flock of hungry seagulls on a vast beach. They chattered about the card games they would play in the evening, how stupid the toys were, and how appealing they were to little girls. 

As a thin ribbon of night enveloped the city block, Chevella instinctively knew it was time to finally move. A fluttery feeling in her stomach snapped her mind to attention. The forced stillness of her limbs faded away. Her scalp tingled and heat flushed her body. Now she awoke as a person would from a long nap. Her eyes took in everything. She stretched her fingers slowly and circled her wrists. Gaining confidence, she rolled from her feet onto her toes, holding onto the doll stand, feeling the exquisite coolness of the windowsill underneath her. Wrapping her arms around herself, she breathed into the hug, luxuriating in newly felt senses. Not only could she hear, smell and see like during the day, but now she could taste, speak aloud and move. Looking down, she ran her hand across the soft gingham dress (complete with a white handkerchief in a side pocket), white lace frilly socks, and black shoes. Her hands reached and felt for her straight ebony hair that hung down past her shoulders and complemented her well-formed head, dimpled cheeks, and wide-set eyes. When humans looked into Chevella’s eyes they would unconsciously register an alertness and curiosity that set her apart from other dolls.

Awake and alive. She had made it over from the doll world to the human one.  

§

The dolls and toys gathered in the middle of the store as they did every night, enjoying their nightly rebirth as much as Chevella was enjoying hers. The Original Enchantment that binds the tongue and movement of all toys and dolls during the day fades away at night. And, away from human eyes, toys and dolls took on all the physical sensations of life. Lucienda, a white yarn doll with slate-colored buttons for eyes and pig-tailed golden yarn hair waved her knotted hands at Chevella. 

“Come down and join us, Chevella,” she said.

Chevella turned, watching and listening, wanting to understand her new world. Her nerves pressed down into her stomach like tightly coiled springs ready to burst. Unsure of how to proceed, she fiddled with her handkerchief and took in the scene. The shelves on the far side of the store held large jars of candy: butterscotch, jellybeans, gumdrops, and lollipops. The smell of saltwater taffy, licorice, peanut brittle and chocolate tickled her nose.  The siren screech of a small fire engine truck jarred her. She saw many toys gathered in the center, including stuffed giraffes, Jack-in-the-Boxes, plastic guns, and rubber balls. Nearby, Missy Ann No. 13 played with marbles.

She noticed several other Missy Anns dressed alike. In fact, she counted thirty-six Missy Anns! Missy Anns Nos. 1-15 were dressed as picnic goers, Nos. 16-25 were dressed in nightgowns and each possessed a pillow, and Missy Anns Nos. 26-36 were dressed as elaborate princesses with a chicory blue bodice, billowy white taffeta dress, white satin gloves, and matching blue slippers. Marie, an elegantly dressed doll with tight brunette curls (who also waved to her), and Lucienda, stood out in the sea of giant Missy Anns.  

Marie and Lucinda stacked lunch pails to help Chevella climb down from the window shelf. The fire engine drove up below her, startling her with his scratchy, yet strong voice. “Hey, Chevella, let us get to know you. I’m Sammy,” the Fire Truck said. His enthusiastic greeting matched his outrageous candy red color.

The chatter died down and soon all the dolls and toys focused on Chevella. During the introductions Missy Ann No. 28 said, “How is she going to choose a human?”

Missy Ann No. 36 nodded. “Yeah, I don’t see how she is going to choose somebody.  As dolls we have to choose humans with our doll seed—that is the law.”

Chevella shrank back from the group and tried to gather her voice. Before she could respond, Missy Ann No. 15 addressed the group:

“Does she even have a doll seed? Why did she come through here—to this store?”Missy Ann No. 15’s head shook so hard while asking these questions, one pigtail ribbon slipped off.

Caruthers, a mint-colored unicorn, walked into the center of the circle, cleared his throat, and paused. By far the largest toy in the room, everyone drew back and the Missy Anns quieted. They clumped together, their soft red lips holding a collective girlish pout, yet Chevella noticed the flat coolness of their eyes.  

“Leave the child be,” Caruthers said. “We all come for a reason. She still might be able to choose somebody.” Turning toward her, Chevella felt the reach of his wise golden-brown eyes all the way down to her toes. She stood straighter.

“Can you feel your doll seed?” he asked kindly. 

“What is that?” Chevella asked.

“Only your most important thing,” Missy Ann No. 15 huffed. 

“It’s the one thing that keeps us from being a toy,” Missy Ann No. 36 said, coming to lean against Missy Ann No. 15, adjusting her friend’s ribbons. 

Caruthers swung his head to look at the cluster of Missy Anns to the left of him, snorted and stamped his left foreleg before turning back to Chevella. “There are those among us who sow divisions as their pastime. The Wind Mother and Father of Offerings who sent us to tend to humans care for us all. They created us from the same elements that make up humans—air, earth, water, ether, and fire. Dolls have just a tiny bit more fire and ether than toys. Toys have more earth in them. Such small differences. “

“We don’t have to listen to a giant ass,” Missy Ann No. 13 said. She turned, snapped her fingers, and most of the Missy Anns retreated to the other side of the room behind the counter.

“Good riddance,” Sammy the Fire Truck said.

Chevella wanted to lean against Caruthers’ sturdy frame and collapse. “I am a little weary,” she said, feeling very stupid. She gripped the cloth in her pocket for comfort.

Marie moved to the center, dressed in the high couture of the eighteenth century: a pastel pink silk Josephine dress with a high waist and low bodice that fell to ankle length. Three small red feathers poked out of the bun in her hair. A perfectly round mole dotted the left side of her face and she held a small parasol. With a firm, gloved grip, she turned Chevella and guided her out of the circle. 

“She just got here from the other side,” Marie said in a stern, but kind voice. “Leave her be. Don’t any of you remember what it was like?”

Chevella felt the stares of the remaining Missy Anns burning into her back, but the group’s conversation sped on to discuss the day’s radio shows. I have no answer for them, she thought. It was all still so new—the toys, doll-speaking, doll seeds, the smell of candy, the freedom of movement.

“Rest now,” Marie said, gathering up her dress. She took one of Chevella’s hands and they climbed the lunch pail stairway. With care, she eased Chevella back into her doll stand. “All will become clear later.”

§

The next night Missy Ann No. 13 pointed a finger at Chevella and said to the group, “She’s not doing her choosing. We have to choose. Can’t she feel her doll seed?” She looked around to the assembled group, dolls mostly in the front and toys in the back. 

“I don’t understand,” Chevella said, her stomach lurching. During the day, hadn’t she stared at many people? Didn’t her hopes rise when a girl of about five with carrot colored hair, clutching her mother’s hand, came to the window gazing at her? But then the moment passed, and the mother tugged on the little girl and the crowd swallowed them. All day, near misses. 

I should appeal to humans, Chevella thought. I’m here, ready to choose and be chosen; ready to love.

“Oh, how can she choose when she’s a doll who looks like a Negro?” Missy Ann No. 13 said throwing up her hands. 

“She probably doesn’t even have a doll seed,” Missy Ann No. 22 said lying on her stomach, absently doodling with a discarded crayon on a sheet of yellow construction paper. Under her breath she added, “She’ll never get bought because she’ll never be able to choose.”

The princess Missy Anns halted their several games of checkers. They sat up, alert, nodding in unison with their fellow dolls.  

“Take it back,” Lucinda said, rocking from side to side and clenching her yarn hands.

“I’m only saying what I see,” Missy Ann No. 22 said.

Sammy the Fire Truck’s sharp bell (one of his many sounds), snapped like a whip he as rode around the circuit of the room.

Chevella closed her eyes for a moment and rubbed her head.

“Now wait a minute. How would either of you busybodies know?” Sammy the Fire Truck said, flashing his headlights on Missy Ann No. 22 and No. 13. “Chevella hasn’t even tried yet …” He turned to face Chevella. “… have you?”

Before Chevella could answer, the Missy Anns rose like a well-ordered flock; they clapped their hands over their ears and chanted, “Horrible toy!” 

“Stop it!” Marie said. She rushed to the center of the circle, pointing at Chevella with her parasol. “Listen to me. Dolls are special. We become the form and the shape given to us. We understand humans because we are like them, in looks and temperament. By night, we see, hear, taste, touch just like humans. We feel on the inside, too. We have doll seeds, that’s our essence—that’s why we can choose humans. We understand who they are and who they can become.”

Lucinda added, “We can sometimes see their thoughts, too.”

Marie nodded. “Yes, it’s the extra ether, or star space, in us.” 

Questions raced through Chevella’s mind. “Where’s your doll seed?” she asked Marie.

“For every doll it is different. I feel mine on the inside of my cheek,” Marie said.

“It could be anywhere in you, you just have to feel for it,” Lucienda offered, her lively button eyes looking back at Chevella with tenderness. 

As if holding court Marie sermonized to the others, “See, I am French … that is what I know … croissants, the history of the …”

“… more like a common tart,” one of the Missy Anns sniggered. 

“… I have come to know everything French. Think about what you know, and what you feel deeply, Chevella. You will know things about humans, all humans.” 

“What do they know?” Chevella said in a whisper, pointing to several of the Missy Anns who were off to the side of the circle having a spirited conversation about how they might feel when their paint began to flake off and their hair fell out.

“They know how to be silly little girls,” Marie said, louder than Chevella’s whisper.

Putting her crayon down, Missy Ann No. 22 drew up to her full height, “We are the most popular dolls of our day. Aren’t we Missy Ann No. 5?” 

“Personally, I’d like to run every one of—” Sammy the Fire Truck said.

“Don’t,” Marie said pointing her parasol at him. “They love it when they can divide us.”

“Maybe Chevella can go home with Mrs. Lovey,” Missy Ann No. 23 called out. She reclined on a chaise lounge supported by a pile of pillows taken from one of the giant dollhouses. “She’s got some strange ideas.”

“They know what some little girls dream of,” Lucienda said with a sad wistfulness. Chevella sensed Lucinda’s yearning and the feeling of it settled into her heart.

“We can feel that we’re wanted. We sell all the time,” Missy Ann No. 23 jeered.  

It’s true. Chevella couldn’t count how often Mrs. Lovey fussed with them. Or, how disappointed a girl would sound after her mother found out the cost of a Missy Annand announce she just couldn’t afford one of them. The sharp and penetrating cries of the girls’ regret knotted up her stomach for hours.  

“Negroes don’t have any money to buy dolls or toys. Mr. Lovey says that all the time,” Missy Ann No. 5 interjected and cocked her head to one side.

“He also said that Japan was going to win the Great War,” Sammy the Fire Truck said.

“Shut up, toy,” Missy Ann No. 13 snapped. “Why do you think you know what’s best for dolls? No toy can choose a human like a doll can.”

“Oh yeah? Dolls are so damn special cause of your dumb extra part. Toys have our own special connection with humans. We’re not that different from you.” 

Chevella sucked in her breath as Sammy the Fire Truck backed up, revved his engine and careened toward Missy Ann No. 13. Herblue eyes widened, but she stood perfectly still with her large foot raised ready to crush him. He drove up, then used his brakes, stopping less than a quarter inch away. 

“Enough!” Marie shouted.

Missy Ann No. 13 nodded to the other dolls, lowered her foot, and walked away. 

Defiant and proud, Chevella thought. Not shrinking like me. Looking around, she saw in the smugness of the Missy Anns’ creamy faces how they wore their sense of being wanted like a knight’s armor: strong, resistant and durable.

After glaring at Sammy the Fire Truck, Marie resumed, “Your doll seed is what is given to you for the new world. It will develop sure and true. And, when it does, you will be able to choose. The doll seed draws us in perfect correspondence with humans.  It’s why we were created. We can choose many humans, many times, again and again.”

“What happens if I don’t have one? Or, if I can’t choose?” Chevella asked, looking around the circle. 

Shaking her head, Marie said, “No, cheri, that is impossible. You must have one.”

“It is not impossible, Marie,” Missy Ann No. 16 said, giving her a sidelong glance. She skipped up to the group. “Remember Miranda?” A sour, thin-lipped smile spread across her face. The accusatory question hung in the air, quieting the whole store.

Chevella shuddered. For a moment she considered crawling under Caruthers, who was snoring in the corner. Instead, she managed to ask, “Who’s Miranda?”

“It is a sad story.” Lucienda shook her head. “She—” 

“She JUMPED DOLL,” Missy Ann No. 31 said, laying a gloved hand over her heart.

“If you do not use the doll seed then you can’t live. It is too hard and painful for a doll to not find love and be loved. Miranda did not ever use her doll seed. She never chose. She jumped doll.” Marie said.

“And went back to the old world?” Chevella asked.

Lucienda shrugged, “When dolls jump, who knows where they go.”

“If a doll jumps it’s because no one wanted her and she couldn’t make it on this side,” Missy Ann No. 16 sneered. “Food for thought, eh, Chevella?” 

“We don’t know what made her jump doll,” Marie said, sitting down on a nearby cushion. “But I think when we can’t or won’t choose, a void gets created on this side and we can tune into it. I’ve heard that when humans drive over a tall bridge, they sometimes wonder about what it might feel like to put one leg over the railing. What it might feel like to fall into the open sky. What it might feel like to surrender. We can feel like that, too, but because we are part of the Original Enchantment and connected to humans. The feeling opens something else up from the other side.”

“None of the Missy Anns have ever jumped doll. Never needed to,” Missy Ann No. 16 said, folding her arms.

Just then a high neigh broke through the conversation. “Jumping doll is just that, Chevella—talk and legend.” Caruthers stood and shook his white mane. “You concentrate on finding your doll seed and you’ll please The Wind Mother and Father of Offerings.” 

“We’ve been talking of nothing but somber business tonight. Mrs. Lovey keeps the radio on during the day.  If you listen to it, you’ll learn the ways of humans and that will help trigger your doll seed,” Marie said, squeezing Chevella’s hand.

§

Chevella stood in the toy store for three months, morning through sunset, waiting and trying to push herself into the minds of humans. Marie and Lucienda gave her daily pointers up to the day they were bought. Marie chose a doll collector: an older woman in a tailored gray suit who was visiting her niece in the city. A gangly girl with black wavy hair and protruding teeth bought Lucienda. Lucienda chose her with ease. Chevella’s sadness snaked through her whole body when she saw the child outside the store throw Lucienda up into the air, catch her, then snuggle her friend close. 

She waited and tried to do as many of the Missy Anns had done, call humans (mothers, fathers, sons or daughters—it did not matter to her) to her being—choose them. Lucinda’s parting words, in dollmind were, “You plant an image of yourself in them and your doll seed moves around, makes itself known … and you have someone. It’s not hard, just have patience, Chevella.”

She spent hours searching for it. She scanned every part of her body, probing for the very essence of her like a surgeon looking for the right place to cut to find something hidden, listening for something to whisper back to her. Was it in her ear? In her tummy? Behind her nose? Her attempts to enter a person’s mind felt like momentary tadpole-like extensions, barely breaking the surface of a person’s thoughts. She floated about in the jittery flotsam of the person’s conscious thoughts with no real direction, unable to sink deeper.

Learning about humans went easier. She kept listening to Mrs. Lovey’s radio. And she did learn of the times. The Korean War, the Mau Mau rebellion, and the kids who died a quiet polio death all fascinated her. She learned of human imagination and dreams, how they cheered when Rocky Marciano became world heavyweight champion after knocking out Jersey Joe Walcott, how Mrs. Lovey and her husband loved the hit song “Singing in The Rain,” how people couldn’t tell if Elvis was a sinner or saint. Listening to the radio drowned out the taunts and mental static the Missy Anns emitted, a buzzing, malignant frequency. 

One afternoon she noticed she had one white gentleman all to herself. He looked at her, and she could feel him wanting to come in. She sensed he was thinking about a doll for his six-year-old polio-stricken daughter confined to a wheelchair.

Yes, I can do this. I can choose him.  Straining with mental effort, she squeezed her insides and telescoped her mind outward, reaching for his. 

Missy Ann No. 15 on the window shelf (she had replaced Missy Ann No. 13) shouted in dollmind, “She’s trying to get this man!” nearly breaking Chevella’s concentration. Other Missy Anns whooped and collectively surged forward with group determination, reaching for him like an eagle hunting prey. 

Don’t! She pleaded. This is the fifth time you’ve done this to me! She was pleasant to them and laughed at their inane jokes, but nothing helped since her other friends had left. Hurry, she told herself. She entered his mind, placing her doll image there. But shortly, as if she rested on a glass surface, her image faded. Some unconscious part of this human with watery blue eyes laughed at her, mocked her. She could feel his desire for a different doll—a doll of fairy tales, fantasy, and soft pink lips. A line of dolls that looked like his family.  

She drifted. Tried to pull free from his mind, but how? Ah, why didn’t I ask Marie and Lucienda for advice? She bumped through gray tunnels full of long yellowish tubs, the baths of his imagination and memories. But she tired quickly and soon his mind’s eye began moving her again. I must get myself back.

Then she lay on her stomach, deposited into one of these tubs. A see-through version of the man stood over her, in a silver colored suit, peeing on her. A wave of human urine splattered onto her doll image. It felt as real as she did at night. The steady stream hit her back and she felt the weight of it soaking through her clothes. Drawing up all her energy and viscerally pulling away from his thoughts with a final tug, she left his mind.

“She didn’t get him,” Missy Ann No. 15 announced.

“Maybe one day, Chevella,” Missy Ann No. 11 said with the merest hint of sympathy.

Chevella, too stunned from the encounter, couldn’t reply. Had they seen or felt what she felt? No, she realized, or they would be cackling right now. Would someone want to pee on any of the Missy Anns? she wondered. She drew into herself, tucking away the shame and confusion around her like a shawl.

Later that day Mrs. Lovey worked on rearranging the items on Chevella’s shelf. As usual, she talked while she worked. 

“When is a nice Negro girl going to come in and get you? You’re occupying some of my best shelf space.” Mrs. Lovey shook her head and fiddled with the hem of Chevella’s dress. “I’m going to have to sell you to my maid … Her niece would like you … but she’d never be able to afford you. Maybe I was wrong about this … about you.”

Chevella simultaneously heard the disappointment in the woman’s voice and the collective snickers of the Missy Anns.

Later, Chevella tried to let Sammy the Fire Truck’s words comfort her. 

“Do not cry too hard. I have been here a long time, too. My price is so high I will need a wealthy housewife to buy me,” he said, punctuating his thoughts with a cheerful ring of his bell. 

They sat behind one of the large dollhouses. She bent down and gave the truck a gentle pat. He did his best to console her after hearing her story, and she appreciated him for it. 

“Yes, Sammy,” she said, not believing him at all. 

§

On a bleak, gray winter afternoon, a Negro man approached the window and looked at Chevella. He pressed up close to the window, his breath catching in the December air and fanning out over the glass. Chevella took in his face: a generous mouth with a full lower lip, a sharp chin with a cleft, a flared nose, and a perfectly groomed thin mustache. Below his high forehead were inviting deep-set, brown eyes that reminded Chevella of a sunflower’s soft furry center.

It was his eyes that made her heart leap. At first Chevella read his face as human-attractive, yet also sad and all wound up with hope for events of the future. But upon a closer look she could feel, rather than see, a breeziness of personality that could burn the sadness off. Chevella then felt a sharp stabbing pain in the back of her left knee. It spread across the entire back of her knee, pulsating with a current of doll life. My doll seed! The throbbing created a rhythm in her body and the steadiness of it made it effortless to slip into his mind and peek at his thoughts. 

“I have it! I have a doll seed! How do I use it?” she blurted out to the other dolls.  “He’s mine!” Chevella shouted, hearing the sharpness of her urgency.

“Go ahead, he’s Negro,” Missy Ann No. 15 said, then almost as an afterthought, muttered, “Like I would want him.” 

The comment pierced her, stripping away her momentary joy.Chevella hesitated, then lost her concentration and the man walked on into the cold city air. He receded into the throng of people. The pain in her knee quickly subsided.

She sat not knowing what to make of Missy Ann No. 15’s statement. It reminded her of the feeling of being peed on, a casual yet simultaneously primal act. She waited and wanted to ask someone, but who could she ask? Wasn’t she supposed to try for Negroes, too? Is that what she knew? Did she know anything at all?

§

After losing the man, Chevella became a sentinel, more determined than ever to find her potential human again. She wanted him to come back. Over several nights, she kept by Sammy the Fire Truck’s side and under the protective and calming flank of Caruthers. She tucked away her anger and regrets and made quiet company.

One day, an hour or so before dawn Chevella awoke to a hissing sound in her mind. Slowly the hissing subsided only to be replaced by a strong humming of juuuu, juuuuum, juuuuuu jummmm. She saw that Missy Ann No. 15 wasn’t in her stand.

“Chevella! Chevella! Chevella!” Their voices called out to her. The humming continued. “Juuuuuuu Jmmmm Juuuuuuuuum. Chevella.”

“Missy Anns?” she called out. 

She climbed down from her stand and watched for a moment. Most of the toys were preparing to settle back in their places for the morning. Some nodded to her as she passed by, others gave her a quizzical look.  

She walked over to the farthest end of the store, kicking a loose butterscotch. The door to the basement was ajar. It led downstairs to the storeroom, a place that she had seen once months ago. 

“Who’s there? Missy Anns, are you down there?”

The only reply she received was the voices calling out to her.

“Stop it!” she said in her dollmind voice.  She turned around to go back to the window, but their voices bugled inside her head. She pushed at the door. Chevella went down the large stairs slowly. She’d come to the edge of a stair, sit down and then edge herself over it, jumping down to the next step. She tired by the fifth step. And still the humming persisted, growing stronger and stronger; she stopped and held on to a plank of wood between the railings. Determination urged her on, for a moment overriding the fear pooling inside her. 

At the bottom of the stairs Chevella looked around, her breath labored. One of the two overhead bulbs provided a dull light. In the middle of the storeroom boxes of unopened toys, wooden pieces of an unassembled rocking horse, and newspaper stuffing surrounded her. Wads of twine resembling snakes lay along the floor, and a broom stood in the farthest end of the corner. A small heap toward the back of the room caught her attention. A brightly colored peach cloth that had crooked letters in black paint spelling out her name scribbled on it covered … something. The something was talking.

“JUMMMMM,” the collective voice said.

Slowly she approached the cloth, squeezing her handkerchief. A ring of mouse feces surrounded what was under the cloth. 

“I know you’re down here, Missy Anns!” she said, suddenly afraid of what sat under the cloth.

Chevella pulled back the cloth and felt her stomach clench from both fear and at the nightmarish sight before her.  She stood transfixed by the figure of a large doll, three times as large as the Missy Anns. The doll’s head drooped to one side like overripe fruit, and what was left of its blonde hair looked like clumps of cooked spaghetti left to rot. Chevella forced herself to take in its face, which was smeared with black paint and had deep grooves under its eyes. The doll wore a faded dress the color of applesauce. Her dirty stockings were dotted with holes, and the big toe of the left shoeless foot poked obscenely through the stocking.

To be so near a doll, yet everything about it abandoned and gone caused Chevella to crouch and cover her face. Was this Miranda? For a moment, Chevella felt as if, like this poor doll, all her love would leak out of her, never used, never known. 

Suddenly, bright light flooded the room, and then came the Missy Anns, running from every direction, forming a ring about her shouting:

“JUMP DOLLLL JUMMMP DOLL JUMMP DOL JUMMMMMPPPPPPPPPP DOLLLL!”

The Missy Anns pecked at her, pinched her, pushed her and bounced her around the circle. 

“As a doll you are worthless!” Missy Ann No. 33 shouted. 

“You don’t belong here …” another voice said.

“Please, please, stop,” Chevella cried. “Help! Help me!” 

They chanted and whooped around her. They pushed! The doll crashed into her, causing her to fall on the wooden floor with a thud. The dead thing pinned her. Chevella writhed and screamed trying to get from under it. 

Her dollmind grasped for the wild, sweet face of the man who came to the window. If I get out, I will choose him. He will come and take me away.

From what felt like far away she heard Caruthers demand, “What is this madness?” 

His voice boomed from the top of the steps calling on the Missy Anns to stop. A moment later Chevella felt a soft mouth carefully hold her leg and pull her from under the dead doll.

One of the Giraffes nuzzled her face. Caruthers continued to scold the Missy Anns. Chevella held the face of Giraffe close, holding on to the furry knobs on either side of his head, feeling herself shake uncontrollably. The Missy Anns retreated like muttering vultures, cheated of their feast. 

§

Daybreak approached as all scrambled to return to their proper places. The toys did a good job of cleaning Chevella up, though a small speck of paint remained on the palm of her hand that they could not remove. The Missy Anns stayed quiet but their silence radiated an oily, palpable displeasure, making the air feel thick and sticky.

They knew they outnumbered the toys by three to one. As the Original Enchantment crept over her limbs, Chevella could still smell the places where the mouse feces touched her skin. Chevella vowed to turn her outrage into new determination.  She would leave the store!The man would save her, she knew it. 

When the Negro man came again later that afternoon her heart jumped. She locked him into her gaze; he would not escape this time. The doll seed popped twice behind her knee. She wished she could reach down and rub it, but she concentrated all the harder on him. Putting her in his mind, she saw him surrounded by different types of children—his present, she assumed. This picture stroked anticipation and a feeling new to Chevella—giddiness—washed over her. 

After a moment he came in, sauntering through the glass doors. He waited patiently in front of the store. 

After finishing with a female customer, Mrs. Lovey looked up and said, “Yes, may I help you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the man said with warmth. “Mighty fine store you have here.”

“Thank you, we’ve been here for many years.”

“Uh-huh, my wife has passed by here several times. She loves your displays,” he replied. “I’d like the doll up in the window … the Negro doll, please.”

When Chevella heard the register ching-ching, and when Mrs. Lovey wrapped her in tissue paper, she was sure that some adorable girl like the man, all sad smiles and breeziness, awaited her. 

As they approached the black car, the man began to talk to Chevella. The sun came through the clouds, and Chevella felt as if it smiled for her.

“Oh now, honey, what’s your name? The lady in the store never told me … Well, sit back and enjoy the ride,” he said sliding her in the back seat, removing the paper and bending her so that she could sit up. “There you go.” 

He opened the driver’s door, slipped in, and looking in the rearview mirror said, “I’m Benny. You sure are one very lucky lady. We’re going to meet Mr. Kenneth Clarke. You have got to play your part. We all play our parts. Yes, indeed.”

Chevella listened but her attention was drawn to the bustling life on the streets. So many people!  

“—I’m just a peon, a graduate student that is, but one day I’m going to do what Dr. Clarke is doing.” Benny looked back at her in the rearview mirror again, laughing. 

“Yes, in just a few more years, things are going to be real different. Change is blowing strong through all of us. Indeed.”

Small piles of letters, journals, and magazines addressed to a Benny Harwood at the New York University, Department of Psychology, lay on the seat beside her. Benny. My Benny.

His car smelled of cigars and hibiscus and jasmine, the kinds of flowers Mrs. Lovey sometimes kept in the store. The smooth ride gave her mind the freedom to wander back to the incident of the previous night. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. I can choose.

Yes, and oh yes, how she would be the envy of all in that little store. She would soon be held in the arms of children with their love, kindness, lollipops and playground wisdom. Chevella daydreamed on. She rode with Benny, the man who bought her, who saved her, whom she chose. She rode along ready to start her new life; the only regret that stood on her heart was not being able to say a proper goodbye to Sammy the Fire Truck and Caruthers. 

Later that night when Chevella could move, she slid herself carefully from the hotel nightstand where Benny had sat her and made her way over to his bed. She had waited for so long for this moment, heard so much about it from other dolls, and here it was. The snuggle time! Close-up, she sat next to Benny and looked at him. Her Benny. She put her ear close to his heart and relaxed into the rhythm of his life. She curled herself around his arm. It would be hard to tear herself away at dawn. 

1953

The little black girl standing in front of Chevella had two thick braids on each side of her head and wore a stained green jumper. She stared at Chevella for a moment and then went over to Emma and pointed at her. Without hesitation, the girl pointed to Emma and said in her clear, six-year-old voice, “That’s who I want, Dr. Clarke. This doll.”

“Very good,” Dr. Clarke said from across the room in his throaty, rich voice. Dr. Clarke was a well-groomed Negro man of about forty with an even complexion and a smattering of various sized dark moles scattered across his face. He made a mark on the thick sheets of paper stuffed into his clipboard.

Again, Chevella thought, spirals of rage rippling through her. It had happened again. How many times, she wondered, would this scene repeat? She sat in the makeshift laboratory of Dr. Kenneth Clarke and Benny—his graduate assistant. This laboratory was really a hot schoolhouse in Charleston, South Carolina. 

For the last year she had sat with Emma, a mostly silent white doll with dull, tawny colored hair and a milky complexion, and watched as little black and white girls and boys tried to answer a set of questions developed and delivered by Benny and Dr. Clarke: Which doll is prettier? Which doll looks cleaner? Which doll would you want to take home with you if you could?

Interested at first in what Benny, her chosen, wanted, she went along with the psychology experiment—whatever that was, giving it her best. She thought that if she complied, she’d be free. She did not want to choose again, she wanted to please Benny. She kept trying to choose the black child, thinking that would make him happy, but the game yielded no special attention or tenderness from Benny. So, with effort, she began to blockthe black children and try not to choose them and that seemed to make Benny and Dr. Clarke happy. Then she aimed for the white children.

One day it occurred to her that Benny seemed happy if she could not choose anyone and if no one chose her! Her doll seed ached from trying to choose, and he had no idea about her pain. 

Frustration ran through her as she let the memories flood in. Anytime a black child did pick her, which was rare, Benny and Dr. Clarke would make a sour face and shake their heads, scratching their marks down with care. She was fixing Benny now, wasn’t she? She had stopped choosing anyone. On strike now, she refused to probe the kids’ minds one bit. Not even one bit! She sat and watched them all pass by her. It had meant day after day of blankness, the moments running into days, days running into weeks; all her joy and love shriveling up. And she always felt so tired. Too tired to try to snuggle with Benny, impossible most nights because she was usually with Emma in the trunk of the car.

She looked at Benny as he escorted the child out of the classroom. Traitor. 

§

Benny sat on the edge of an old school desk, shuffling through papers. Dr. Clarke poured himself a cup of coffee from his thermos. 

“Kids are hard work, Dr. Clarke.”

“I know,” the older man said, nodding. “You have been doing a fine job. How’s Carolyn holding up?”

“Oh, the traveling has been hard on her, but thank goodness we’re staying with some of her folks here in town.”

“Glad she could come and visit with you on this leg of the trip, and that she’s got family here,” Dr. Clarke said, taking a sip of his coffee. 

“But they don’t understand what I’m doing with you,” Benny said, excitement strumming his voice higher. Chevella noticed how after a long day with kids or traveling and setting up, Benny liked to stretch his thoughts with Dr. Clarke. Dr. Clarke struck her as a good listener and most reflective at the end of the day.

Bored, she reached out to Emma in dollmind. 

Emma. Want to talk? 

Emma stayed silent. She was hardly a companion these days. 

“Her people think we’re just trying to stir up trouble. They think because we’re trying to show how detrimental racism is, we’re saying that whites are somehow better. That we want to be white—that white schools are better. Dinner time’s different now … Oh, we argue about it all the time. Older folks can be,” Benny hesitated. “Sorry sir … no disrespect.”

“None taken, son,” Dr. Clarke waved him on, Chevella thought, encouraging his thoughts.

“I try to tell them what a free and open society might look like. The fact that children consistently choose that white doll,” he said, pointing to Emma. “Means something.”

Dr. Clarke took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.

Nothing to say. Emma finally answered. Dumb men.

I don’t think they’re dumb. Chevella’s thoughts drifted to the differences between humans and dolls that her travels gave her time to think on.

It’s the small lick of fire in us that makes us so like them, Emma. We are like them at night, we feel and move, but our bodies don’t bleed or get hurt in the same way. The fire element in their bodies pumps their blood and gives them passion. But when things aren’t right among them, we feel that, too. Benny’s reaching for something better—

And it ain’t you. Dumb men with too much fire.

Chevella sighed and wished for the company of her old friends from Mrs. Lovey’s store.

“Old ideas are never going to get this country out of the mess we’re in, Benny,” Dr. Clarke said, waving his hands as if to move on to another subject. 

He paused then said, “Well, Benny, I’ve been holding out on you. I have some great news. It should make you feel a whole lot better. This morning I had a conversation with Thurgood.”

“Yes,” Benny’s said, raising his eyebrows.

Why do you think we’re tired all the time? Dumb men. Emma said.

They have their reasons. 

Trying to make us choose over and over again. It’s wrong.

“I didn’t want to tell you until we were finished with our work for the day.” Dr. Clarke leaned over and grabbed Benny’s shoulders. “Thurgood and his men want to use our work with the set of desegregation cases coming up before the Supreme Court.”

Benny’s mouth quivered. He let out a shout, then self-consciously looked around the empty schoolhouse. “I don’t believe it. Your work will be famous.”

“If they win son, and there’s no guarantee in that,” Dr. Clarke said. “But I would like to buy you a drink before we each go our separate ways tonight. A friend from Howard told me about a place not far from here.”

“You’re on. I can call and let Carolyn know I’ll be late.”

They talked on about the implications of this development as they packed up the dolls, stray papers, and books in a big suitcase. Their voices raised and lowered, and they laughed at times, too. They locked the suitcase with the dolls in Dr. Clarke’s car and left to get a drink and celebrate. 

Emma and Chevella listened as the men’s voices trailed off into the sticky South Carolina air.

“All this going to be over soon, better enjoy it while you can,” Emma said.

“Maybe it’s a good thing. Supreme Court. What does that mean?” Chevella asked.

“Doubt it. Dumb men,” Emma said with a grunt.

Chevella trusted that Emma knew of what she spoke—Emma had been the second white replacement doll for this experiment. Chevella wondered what this change meant for her. Benny is mine. She knew Benny’s smile and his moods. She knew Benny liked to eat his grits with ham, buttered rolls, and applesauce, if a diner had it on hand and if the diner served Negroes, which wasn’t often in the South. She knew Benny talked a lot about the Klan, and how careful a driver he had become on Southern roads. She knew Benny loved his wife, even though she was barren. She knew how he tapped his feet when trying to decide on something important and how he sometimes held his breath when the children were choosing between her and Emma. And she came to know Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, New York, and Washington D.C. How could she not?  And she came to know the schools of the South, the often dirty, rickety facilities with leaky roofs.

And, she also knew Benny never bothered anymore with her hair; her plain white dress  was smudged from motor oil that he had forgotten to wipe off his hands somewhere between Ohio and Virginia, just like Emma’s. Her hair was beginning to mat, just like Emma’s. Chevella wished she could move and stamp about and shout. How can I choose a good human when he wants me not to? She still didn’t understand the topsy-turvy world of humans. She wished Marie or Lucinda were around to guide her.

When she looked at Benny’s face, she no longer saw breeziness. Instead, she saw ambition, progress, and the eager desire to make his mark on history. Fire, fire, fire! Did he or Dr. Clarke really look at the children anymore? she wondered. They hadn’t noticed the troublesome little white boy with kind eyes who had rubbed snot on her. He had picked her up, inspecting her. Up close, she heard his stomach growling. Had they heard? Did they care? She wanted to ask them, when this case (she thought that was the right word) goes to court and all is said and done: Then will she and Emma be loved? Would she snuggle with him more? She loved Benny, but she longed to be with a child.Where was her child?Instead of a child companion, she had gotten speeches, theories, and the cold calculations of adult men. 

1958

Chevella sat in Minnie’s Resale Shop on an oak lined street in a small town in West Virginia. No fancy doll stands or candy smells here. The patrons that came were down on their luck. How she missed Marie, Lucienda, and Sammy from the toy store, and even the occasional hesitant touches of the children in the experiment. Minnie, the proprietor, was friendly enough, but she didn’t know a thing about how to make toys and dolls look good. Chevella was crammed in a small box of used toys, between a Jack-in-the-Box with a faulty spring, a small hand-built log cabin house with two logs missing, a stuffed rabbit, and a collection of battered toy soldiers. The toys were all friendly enough, but they were toys and she was a doll; she tried to keep her attention focused on her future but her memories drew her back. 

Benny, my Benny! I miss him. Since Benny’s death in a suspicious car wreck in Missouri, Dr. Clarke abandoned her and Emma to a thrift store and left to continue his research up North. She had made up her mind: she was not going to make the same mistake. She was not going to be betrayed again. She would choose differently and better this time. She would choose a child. 

Today, several families milled about. There was a white woman of about thirty-five, squeezed in to a long polka dot dress and black buttoned down shirt, with her meaty feet forced into too-small shoes. At her side was Katherine Ann, her dark-haired eleven-year-old daughter. The mother and daughter pair walked slowly around the perimeter of the resale shop; the mother holding her daughter’s hand tightly. Katherine Ann’s mother released her hand upon seeing a chenille bedspread, and Katherine Ann headed toward the toys.

At the same time, Denice, a black girl of about nine with a bottom tooth missing and smelling of peaches spotted Chevella. She picked her up and was about to run to her grandmother when she paused. 

Chevella’s doll seed popped and she momentarily reveled in the forgotten sensation, but with all her will she ignored the tug toward Denice and fixed her attention instead on the white girl coming toward her. She tossed and turned in Katherine Ann’s mind, finally feeling the freedom of a child’s imagination; here was wonder and possibility. Yet part of Chevella’s attention was drawn back to the black girl’s kind eyes. Pulling away from the white girl for a moment, she zoomed into Denice’s inner space, feeling deep pools of gentleness—this girl talked to flowers and made daisy bracelets for her friends. 

No, she thought, she wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. She was not going to be betrayed again. Negroes have problems. I don’t want you, go away, Chevella thought. Too much trouble you’ll be. She pushed out of the girl’s mind. For a moment, Denice looked befuddled, and shook her head, but Chevella continued focusing all her effort on Katherine Ann.

It felt different. Benny was gone. Maybe her doll seed was broken. It always ached and it hadn’t worked right since.

For a moment more Denice absently played with Chevella’s hair, then suddenly dropped her back into the box, as if given an electric shock. 

Katherine Ann arrived at the box of toys and reached for Chevella. 

Katherine Ann brought Chevella close. They carefully studied each other.  

“Katherine Ann? I’m ready to go,” her mother called.

“Over here, Mama,” the girl replied. 

Pride washed over Chevella; she would not be alone for long. I have chosen. 

“Mama, I want this doll,” Katherine Ann said matter of factly.

At first a look of disbelief, then displeasure flared over the plump woman’s face. 

“No. Put that thing down,” she said in a tight, clipped voice.

“Mama, I want her. I think she’s pretty. Please. You said I could have whatever I wanted from the sale bin. Remember?”

“Don’t be simple, Katherine Ann.” She hissed, snatching Chevella from her daughter. “She’s colored.”

“I know,” the girl said, rolling her eyes. “But she’s the only doll here. I looked.”

“Kids are hard to argue with,” Minnie said, approaching the feuding mother and daughter.

The mother blushed as Katherine Ann promptly took the doll back.

“What if I make you a deal?” Minnie asked.

“What kind of deal?” the mother asked, looking around and lowering her voice.

“Eleven dollars for the doll and the bedspread. If you’re taking that bedspread, that is. How’s that?” Minnie asked amiably, slightly rocking on her heels.

“Mama, please. You promised.” Katherine Ann said and squeezed Chevella.

Chevella heard the wheezing ching of the register and a hand stuffed her in between the folds of the chenille bedspread. She felt safe.

§

Cuddling with Katherine Ann the night before had Chevella in a good mood. Katherine Ann sauntered to school the next day with Chevella tucked in her bag. At recess, Katherine Ann and her friends gathered in the play yard and headed toward the only shade available and their usual spot—a bench under an old mulberry tree whose leaves grew strong in the spring.

Sue, a blonde girl with buck teeth said, “My dad gave my brother and me our first allowance. I’m gonna save mine up for something I really want.”

The girls began setting up their playthings: paper dolls, toys and tea sets. Chevella imagined they did this every day. 

Katherine Ann casually pulled Chevella out of her bag and sat her up on the bench. 

“Ewwwww … What is that?” Glenda, a red-haired girl cried, pointing.  

Screwing up her face, Katherine Ann said, “It’s a doll, stupid. Mama got it for me at the resale shop.”

“It’s ugly,” Glenda replied, sticking out her tongue. Sue nodded.

“Don’t say that,” Katherine Ann said, blushing.

“Why your mama got you a darkie doll?” Sue asked.

“Ewww,” Glenda repeated.

Without waiting for a response, Sue shrieked: “She’s got a darkie doll! Katherine Ann’s got a darkie doll!”

“Does your mom like a house full of darkies?” Glenda said and within a few moments her ranting solicited the attention of girls at the other end of the yard. 

“Katherine Ann’s got a darkie doll!” Glenda continued, varying her pitch, sometimes cooing, sometimes raising her voice.

“Stop being such a jerk. She looks better than anything else around here,” Katherine Ann shouted.

Chevella agreed. Most of the toys, she noticed, looked a bit down on their luck. Just like the kids. 

Most of the other girls snickered and stared. Other girls joined in with Glenda’s taunting and soon the whole schoolyard surrounded the little bench. Katherine Ann seemed not at all prepared to face a set of screaming kids, and while they shouted at her she bowed her head and traced her foot around a small hole her shoe dug in the ground. 

Sue grabbed Chevella and threw her up in the air. While aloft Chevella remembered when she saw Lucienda thrown in the air by a child. This has gone all wrong, she thought.

“Give her to me!” Katherine Ann said.  In a flash, Katherine Ann took hold of Sue’s shoulders and began shaking her.

A pinch-faced woman, her hair held in a low bun with a pencil, broke up the group of shouting girls and confused boys. 

“What’s going on here?” she demanded as she stood between the girls. “Are you all a bunch of ruffians? Little ladies don’t scream and they surely don’t pull on one another.” 

Sticking her chest out, Sue said, “Mrs. Richardson, Katherine Ann’s got a darkie doll.”  Holding Chevella by her feet, as if handling a dirty diaper, Sue handed her to the teacher.

The teacher blinked a few times, then looked at Katherine Ann and back down to Chevella. She pulled in her lips several times and shook her head.

“Is this your doll?” Mrs. Richardson asked in a tone that reminded Chevella of the Missy Anns.

“Yes,” Katherine Ann said in a voice so low, Chevella could barely hear her.

“I see. Katherine Ann, start packing up your things. Your recess is suspended.”

“Glenda, Sue and Katherine Ann, you have detention today.”

Glenda called out. “Why we got to get blamed?”

Mrs. Richardson just looked at her. “Miss Taggert, are you up to questioning my authority today?”

“No, ma’am,” Glenda said.

“Good, because for a moment I thought you were. This nonsense has already interrupted my lunch break, did you know that?”

“No, ma’am,” Glenda pouted. Chevella could hear some of the girl’s bravado draining away.

“And that’s enough for everyone,” Mrs. Richardson said, addressing the group of staring children. “Go back to playing.”

The girls packed up their things. Glenda and Sue headed to the school. Katherine Ann lagged behind. Mrs. Richardson stopped Katherine Ann. Holding Chevella at arms distance, she said, “This is not a doll you need or one you should have.” 

“But, I …” Katherine Ann stammered.

The teacher’s green eyes flashed coolly when she added, “I’m sending a note home with you to your mother. A disturbance like this will be put on your record.” As Mrs. Richardson huffed off, she threw Chevella to the ground.

As the kids walked past her without making eye contact, Katherine Ann tentatively picked Chevella up out of a puddle of ice cream, lollipop wrappers and leaves. The leaves were still green, but with a hint of yellow and orange brown foretelling of the coming fall.

1968

Darkness enclosed Chevella. They had been working off and on in Katherine Ann’s bedroom, she guessed, for the better part of an hour. 

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do. She was all I had,” Chevella heard Katherine Ann’s mother say. 

“We are going to get you through this … step by step, Suze. And God will help too,” said Justine, a friend of the family.  

“Can you do her clothes today, you think?” Justine asked.

“Yes, I’ll try … everything else we can tell the superintendent to get rid of.”

“I’ll go downstairs and get the rest of the boxes for Goodwill.”

Katherine Ann’s mother approached the closet where Chevella sat on a shelf under a pile of clothes. She heard Suze’s sobbing, but focused on her own trough of grief. Katherine Ann’s overdose six days ago in this cramped, run down flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, did not surprise Chevella. Chevella thought about how the apartment contained the remnants of the two Katherine Anns: the creative, imaginative child and rebellious woman. Half-finished sketches, oil paints, and used brushes sat against a wall in the living room, whimsical fish were drawn on bedroom walls in blues and oranges. Remnants of the recent Katherine Ann were there, too: stolen cameras, silverware, and radios waiting to be traded for drugs, piles of smelly clothes, puke in the bathroom and needles in every room.

After the school incident, Katherine Ann hid Chevella from her mother. After Katherine Ann moved to New York, she occasionally took Chevella out from the closet and talked to her about her art and dreams. Chevella used all that time to think.

I didn’t choose right that day, Chevella thought. I chose what was easy and ignored the goodness that had been in front of me—acting more like a human than a doll.  It was never a perfect fit between her and Katherine Ann, yet the girl had always showed kindness to Chevella. And, Chevella felt grateful to have known a child—a troubled child, yes—but a child all the same. 

Katherine Ann’s mother muttered and squinted. She had been separating shoes and now, with effort, tried to match them up. It was a meaningless task, something to give her hands to do. Chevella understood. 

“You take care of her, hear Lord? She was a good child, strange but good. She should have never come to this disgusting city.” She stood up ready to tackle the top shelf of the closet. Chevella saw Suze’s hand reach up and touch her leg. 

Grunting, she brought Chevella down along with some winter sweaters. 

Seeing Chevella, she yelled, “You! How could she keep you?”

She threw the doll across the room.

Please, I loved your daughter. I chose her, probably for the wrong reasons then, but I still loved her.

“You ugly thing. Mess all started from the damn day I ever brought you home for her.” Suze walked over to where Chevella lay crumpled, her dirty white dress up over her bruised body. With a howl, Suze picked up Chevella by her legs and smashed her against the wall.  

Katherine Ann’s mother clawed at Chevella, ripping the old, faded, stained white dress with ease. She pulled Chevella’s arms off, threw them across the room.

“What is it? Suze, what are you doing?” Justine ran over and grabbed her friend’s shoulders.

Shaking, the woman slumped incoherently to the floor.  She pushed the doll in Justine’s lap and said, “Get it out. Get it out.”

Justine looked back and forth between Chevella and her friend. She grabbed a bag of trash, went outside around the back of the building and threw both the bag and Chevella in a dumpster.

§

It was finally dark. She had been in and out of waking for some time. She heard the rats first; they squealed and squeaked on their nightly prowl. It took her a moment to sit up and assess the damage. Both arms were gone, like her clothes, and she still had a large gaping hole above her thigh from a careless cigarette burn inflicted by one of Katherine Ann’s roommates, years ago. She jerked her legs and examined her feet. They were eroding into nubs of rubber, most of the toes gone years ago. 

Moving from under a bit of rotting cantaloupe, she listened. In the distance she heard voices talking. After a few falls, Chevella slid her way down from the heap of trash into the night air and slowly shuffled toward the voices.  

Rounding a small bend of rubbish with tires piled high, she stopped. This close up, she heard the voices with clarity. 

“Hello, up there. Who’s there?” she boomed in the loudest voice she could muster.

“Be quiet, someone’s here,” a voice said.

She squinted in the night and waited.

“A doll, a doll … hello, are you up there a doll or a toy?” Chevella said.

“Toys and dolls, if you must know.”

“More dolls than toys,” another voice said. 

“I’m coming up,” Chevella said pleased with the prospect of company. Without arms, however, she could not easily climb her way up through the debris.  She fell on the same bent blender blade four times. After a slow attempt with little progress made over an hour, she resigned herself to shouting, “Hey can you come down? I can’t get up there.”

The long silence made her think that they had moved on.

“Later,” a female voice said. 

As the inky blackness of night thinned and gave way to dawn, she settled herself and waited.

The next night she called to them again. She kicked over a rotting book and sat on the edge of it waiting for the voices to come down. 

“This better be worth the trip,” she heard one voice say.

“Shut up and move your arm up some,” another voice said.

Two figures descended the mountain. A baby boy doll carried a blue rubber ball, bigger than a tennis ball, but not by much. She saw that he was a well-constructed doll, with eyes that blinked. 

Chevella gasped when she saw that his companion was a Missy Ann No. 17, though worn and without her pillow. Half of her face, a hideous storm of charred blacks and purples, revealed an empty eye socket and a gaping mouth. Her blue nightgown was cut, now functioning as a top that stopped at her stomach. In her arms she carried the head of another Missy Ann—Chevella couldn’t tell which one. The Missy Ann’s white almost-bald head reflected the little light the sliver of moon offered.

“Well, look who it is!” Missy Ann No. 17 said. Her voice sounded deeper than Chevella remembered.

“Chevella,” the head said. 

Chevella could see that the years hadn’t been kind to either of the Missy Anns. Etched into the face of the Missy Ann head without a body were deep black grooves over what were once delicately painted flaxen eyebrows. 

Chevella’s hopes for good company sank.

The baby boy doll put the ball down and it rolled to her. 

“Hello. How did you come here?” the ball asked.

“Someone threw you in the trash, didn’t they?” Missy Ann No. 17 said.

“It’s not true,” she started and then stopped herself. It was true. Turning her attention to the baby boy doll and the ball she said, “I’m Chevella. What’s your name?”

“I’m Edward and he’s Star,” the baby boy doll said.

Overcome by the absurd situation, she laughed. “We’re the same now, toys and dolls, aren’t we? There is no one to choose. Not now. Not here. We’re all in the big human trash heap.”

Pointing her finger, Missy Ann No. 17 stepped forward and said, “No! We were in a fire in a girl’s house. Isn’t that right Missy Ann No. 2?”

The bodiless doll cocked her head to the side, “Someone will always want us. We can be cleaned up and restored. No one will ever want you. You’re even uglier than before. Much uglier.”

Star the Ball rolled back to them. “How unkind.”

“Shut up, toy,” the Missy Ann head said.

“Yes, you wait and see. Sometimes humans come by this dump to scavenge.” Missy Ann No. 2 continued. 

Star bounced himself up and into Edward’s arms. Edward said, “We’re going to watch the pigeons near the gutted pickup truck. Do you want to come?”

“No,” Chevella said. Sitting down, a heavy weariness came over her.  She knew they were right in a way. What chance did a dirty, dark doll in a garbage dump have? What was left for her? For any of them?  But if a doll seed can choose humans in life, she wondered, can dolls follow humans in their death? The vacant face of Miranda flashed in her mind. No, she wasn’t like Miranda. Miranda had only known pain and coped as best she could for any doll. Chevella had loved. She had given her heart. And, she had been loved too, albeit briefly. Couldn’t she know something? Neither Benny nor Kathleen died normal deaths, she thought. She ruminated on all that Marie had taught her about dolls and humans. Sitting there, an idea hit her as if it floated to her on the wind.  

She got up and shuffled. “Hey, Missy Anns!”

“What is it?” one called back.

“I want you to help me JUMP DOLL.”

“What?” cried Missy Ann No. 2.

“She’s lost what little sense she once possessed,” Missy Ann No. 17 snickered.

Chevella, with her unsteady gait, approached them. “Can you do it?”

“I don’t know … Why?” Missy Ann No. 2.

“Why do you care?” Chevella said.

“Of course we can,” Missy Ann No. 17 interrupted. “We’ll be glad to get rid of you.”

Star rolled from around the heap toward the dolls, but Missy Ann No. 2 screamed. “Get out of here, toy!”

The Missy Anns’ weak voices started the chant. Jummmmmm Jummmm Jump doll. JUMMMMM. At first all she could feel in the rhythm of the chant was a choking anger, heavy and python-like. Chevella struggled for breath. She let their sounds guide her down past the hurts, slights and memories of mistreatment she held deep inside her.  

“JUMMMMMMPPPPPPP JUMMMMP…” 

Now the chanting felt different, as if each breath took her closer to what she believed could be true.  She felt their every syllable swell in her like ripe fruit, filling her with potential.

Maybe she could follow humans from one place to the other. Maybe, somehow, dolls and humans were connected in the doll world? Humans called death the final resting place, but if they were chosen by a doll and loved, where did they really go? What were dolls without humans? What were humans without dolls? Maybe the Missy Anns were the ones afraid this time, she thought. Yes, in the vise-like dollmind frequency, she could feel their frenzy, their suffering from holding onto a place that was misery and pain even for them. Their world had shifted right under them. Did they know they couldn’t crossover because of their fear, because they could not let go? she wondered. 

“JUMMMMPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!”

It started as if a fly landed on her arm. Then her body felt as if many flies were landing on her, walking and probing her body. She felt something gently pushing down on her limbs. The noise of the dolls began to fade away. Her skin prickled up as she felt the darkness drawn to her, sticking to her, exploring her. Her skin drank in the pleasant sensations.The earth trembled; she lost her balance and fell onto her face.  She rolled in the dirt and debris as the ground opened, as if being ripped apart by unseen hands. She slid eel-like down into the rip. In her last thought, she laughed: the Missy Anns were wrong, as usual. This moment felt like a homecoming.

She awoke on a riverbank and knew herself as Chevella. Her form was different now, less human-looking. She gazed at her gray spindly body and was reminded of giant mushrooms. Her mind latched on to Benny and Katherine Ann, the names she could remember from the human world. Other gray forms sat on the bank or stood near it. Rising, she saw the river was deep with memories—thousands of memories bursting to the surface and retreating again. Every single moment of her life on the other side bubbled up. She doubled over and shuddered as déjà vu swept through her.

After some time, she turned away and looked around. Others here must be seeing their lives, too.

A form like her, but taller and even less human-like approached. The white mycelial-like buds on its head extended and touched her face. “A jumper. Rare here.” 

Its face (a generous term in Chevella’s opinion), was perfectly round, lineless and with an opening ringed by short tentacles.

“Where is here?” Chevella asked.

“The dream place of The Wind Mother and Father of Offerings.”

“Do human souls pass through here?” she asked. She could feel the odd sensation of her head swelling as she spoke.

The slender stalks that were caressing her face retracted. 

“No,” it replied.

Chevella’s body sagged to the ground. The ground felt damp and comforting.

“But,” it continued, “Humans are made with the five elements.”

“Yes,” she said. Looking up at him, she blurted what she remembered, “Fire, ether, air, water and earth.”

“In this place, the Elements themselves can be called upon and asked to yoke together what once formed a human soul. When made, if it wants, the soul can stay here for a time.” The form bobbed its head, “It is a weighty task.”

“Show me,” Chevella said. 

And, the form did.

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© Michele Tracy Berger
Originally published in Fiyah Magazine, issue 11 (Summer 2019)

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