The fantastic has always been at the edges of Heather O’Neill’s work. In her bestselling novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, she transformed the shabbiest streets of Montreal with her beautiful, freewheeling metaphors.
In Daydreams of Angels, O’Neill’s first collection of short stories, she gives free reign to her imaginative gifts. Each of these beguiling stories twists the beloved narratives of childhood—fairy tales, storybooks, Bible stories—to uncover the deepest truths of family life. We’re pleased to share “Dolls,” a story as poignant as it is surreal.
The rummage sale was set up in the church basement. All the dolls were put together on one table. They started chitchatting immediately. Dolls are social. That’s what they were invented for after all, to always be up for playing with children when no one else is.
Humans can barely make out their voices when they talk. They make an almost inaudible sound that is similar to that of hair burning. It’s a small noise that you assume is coming from someplace far away.
None of the dolls here were in particularly good shape. Everyone had lost their shoes. They wore dirty socks and their dresses had chocolate-milk stains. There is no laundry for dolls to go to. Once you are dirty, you are dirty forever. You are stuck with a bad haircut into eternity.
The marks of ballpoint pen were on most dolls. But the worst is what the dogs had done. There was a doll whose red jacket and matching trousers had been taken off. Without these, she was almost certain not to be bought. The worst thing is to be a naked doll. She was terriﬁed that she would be mistaken for garbage.
There was a doll that used to be named Mary. The doll with four ﬁngers. She had been operated on by a child with a pair of blunt scissors and black yarn. Her intestines were ﬁlled with hidden things, a key to an old diary and a few coins from Poland.
She was ﬁfty years old, but she had the face of a baby girl. She once came in a marvellous box ﬁlled with trinkets. There were postcards of the Eiffel Tower and bottles of perfume and powder. There was a pill bottle ﬁlled with baby teeth. There were porcelain teacups with zebras and birds with winding tails on them. She came from a good time.
Now she wore a dirty white coat and a blue nightgown that she had borrowed from another doll twenty years before. She liked to talk about the war, about how it made everyone feel so alive. “What we would do for a pair of stockings!” she cried. Her hair had gotten into a mass straight up over her head and had a plastic barrette with a duck stuck in it. She had long eyelashes drawn around her eyes by a child with a ballpoint pen. They gave her a misty-eyed drunk look.
• • •
Next to Mary was a doll in a black dress named Clemente. Clemente had a faded, faraway look about her. Her eyebrows and lips, which had once been painted carefully on her face, were worn off. She had been left under the snow for an entire winter once. She claimed to have had an affair with a rat at that time. The rat’s name was Charles. They ate cake all night long. Often he would set the tip of his tail on ﬁre to please her.
Once she was brought back inside, she became friends with a taxidermied rabbit in the hallway. They were always pretending that they were married. He had a little piece of paper with his Latin name on it written in black ink. He thought this was his ticket to a museum. Clemente had once believed she might end up in a museum just like some other dolls she knew, but she had been wrong. She had ended up here, at the rummage sale, with a price tag for seventy-ﬁve cents on her wrist.
• • •
Then there was a doll with fancy clothes named Marguerite. She was from England. She had been bought for a child by an aunt while on vacation. She had once had a parasol, but her accessories had all long since been lost.
She came with a book that described her. According to the story, her father owned a manor, where she had a horse named Phillipe. She was given French lessons on Wednesday by a tutor. The little child who owned her believed all of this, but Marguerite knew it was a lie. She had come from a toy shop in downtown London. She had always felt guilty about her forged identity. She hoped that she would be able to start all over with a new kid.
• • •
Then there was Esta. She was a rather cheaply made doll. She hid the information on her behind that said her date and place of birth. She couldn’t have anyone know that she was only ﬁve years old and had been made in China.
• • •
There was a German doll named Karmen. She talked about how in Germany all the dolls wore black boots and were given their own beds. They were driven in baby carriages down the street. She used to go to a tea party every day of the week. She was not ashamed to admit that now she was addicted to tea. She had spent the past few nights going through withdrawal.
• • •
One doll named Ella had an eye that fell into the back of her head. You had to shake her violently to get the eye to go back into its place. But she claimed that when her eye was in her head, it had visions. She was able to see the little girl who used to own her standing on the back of a bench, waiting for a bus. She was able to see her wearing a long black coat at her mother’s funeral.
• • •
And then there was a doll in a blue dress named Hannah. She claimed she had been owned by a lonely child with no other toys. All the dolls became quiet to pay attention to this story. To have a child who has nothing and is miserable without you is a rare treat indeed.
“She lived with her grandmother and her grandmother did not buy her any gifts,” Hannah told them. “The little girl used to pray that her mother would come and visit her, but she never did. The little girl was always hungry. She never had anyone to play with after school. She had ugly clothes. She never went on holiday. She had one seashell that she would dust.”
“She must have loved you,” Mary whispered.
The dolls all knew how it went. You were taken home and told you were special. You were deﬁned by being loved. Love exposed you to loneliness. Love gave you a personality but damaged you, too.
None of the dolls at the rummage sale wanted to see themselves as trash. Each one knew that once, she had been special. Once, she had been loved.
Heather O’Neill is a contributor to This American Life, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. Her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, an international bestseller, won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Canada Reads competition in 2007; was short-listed for six prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Governor General’s Literary Award; and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was short-listed for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She lives in Montreal, Canada.
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