By Michelle Patricia Browne
My grandmother bounced up the steps of the shop with her usual false gaiety. “You’ll love this little place,” she said. This is what I did not say: yes, I like antique shops too, but this place is very out of the way. I also did not say: Grandpa looks like he needs to be shot.
It was quite a peculiar place, but then, that describes more than fifty percent of Nova Scotia. It was a farm on the mainland, far enough from the ocean that it wasn’t in sight, yet close enough to catch brine on the air. It was painted the same shade of blue as a cloudy day, and the windowsills had white trim. Antique Shop, said the signs outside. Please come in.
With an invitation like that, how could I resist? I followed, not grumbling, because the little I could glimpse behind the windows looked exquisitely promising. The curtains were the prerequisite ivory lace, real Irish, from the looks of it. The door chime tinkled with a sound like the tines of a fork playing on a wooden xylophone. My grandmother, chattering incessantly at my grandfather (who grunts occasionally, blinks in a thick, sleepy way behind his camera-thickness lenses), proceeds into the den immediately to inspect the pricey antiquities of her youth: the gold-leafed plates, the china, the relics of a time when washing machines were rare beasts and cars were tinny matchboxes. I am frozen in the chandeliered entranceway. The ceilings in this house are low, and if I were just a few inches taller, I could easily reach up and remove one of the crystals, tuck in my pocket like a thief. But the golden chandelier doesn’t hold my attention for long. The next thing I see is the dolls.
They are such dolls as I have never before seen in my life. These are not the dull, daft-eyed Victorian creations my mother and grandmother had. No. Perched there on the dark violet brocade, above the intricately carved, darkly shining wood, these are dolls with a curious soulfulness. I step over to them, ignoring the entranceway to the rest of the house-cum-Antique shop. There are half a dozen here, bodies soft, slender, flowing, covered with thick, cushiony silks and velvets. They have lace at their wrists and necks, beautiful small charms stitched below their necks and in other places like jewelled embroidery. They are all dressed the way jesters are, in dramatic colours. The clothes alone would make them remarkable, but it is their faces and hands that intrigue me most, force me to kneel before them in amazement.
Their hands are smooth, more like mittens than the proper, familiarly built, five-fingered ones I am used to. The faces are smooth and flowing, as if a proper person’s face had been wrapped in a layer of misty gauze. Arching, smooth brows, pointed, vague noses, hollow eyes with painted, expressive shadows within. The mouths are lipless, the hair, painted in curling brushstrokes. They are blurred, formless, and yet oddly, frighteningly expressive, like Greek statues twisted in ecstasy, yet missing limbs. All are made of smooth white porcelain.
One is a jester; he’s laughing silently at a joke I don’t understand and have no wish to. His face is oddly brutal. Two are ladies, in flowing skirts with wistful expressions, unspeakable sadness. One is twisted, with doubled hands and two different faces. He frightens me. One is a gentleman. The last is Death. Death holds a dainty, elegant scythe, and smiles ambiguously. He is not cheerless, but his face reveals nothing, answers no questions. I stare at him for a long time before I drift after my grandparents like a ghost .
There is a cheery tour guide here, who babbles on absently. I feel as though the sightless eyes of the dolls are following me, that the creaking of the wooden floor beneath my feet is merely the house conversing with them, that the soft sloughing of cloth brushing against itself is not their whispered conversation about the strange, pale, plump girl watching them with such intensity. There is no relief among the delicately lettered price tags on the items in here, the stained bureaus and old books. There are more dolls, one with the face of a lapdog, more jesters, more two-faced men, a king of spades. I want to laugh at some, others make me shudder in fear. These are not the dolls children cuddle and slowly destroy with their brutal affection, these are something else, people and creatures photographed in clay in their unsuspecting moments. Tolkien’s craftsmen couldn’t have created more exquisite clothing, rendered the insignificancies of buttons and lost earrings more intimate and expressive.
I leave and circle through the rooms, seeing more of the dolls each time, and finally find my way to a staircase I hadn’t noticed. It is slender, tucked right in against the wall, and the ceiling gets lower and lower as I ascend. I follow it, and a bending, low hallway—painted white, now that I’ve noticed; all the rooms had been egg-shell white—leads me around a corner. There is a tiny set of steps, and more rooms than any house should be able to hold, all crammed against each other and unexpectedly spacious. I peer through doorways—children’s toys, more antiques, a washroom. Old rocking horses, well-loved, tiny houses, teddies, a baby’s nightgown. Suddenly, a vague instinct grows stronger and directs me THAT WAY. And I follow it, and there it is. The room.
This is where nightmares are made and dreams are given the fearful dignity that makes even the most light-hearted, pleasant ones oddly captivating. There is a modern sewing machine on a disappointingly pedestrian desk, and on other tables around the room, bits of fabric, chests of buttons, of worthless jewels, of thread and gleaming silvery scissors and needles. And then I see them, the dolls’ heads.
The clay is shining, still moist above the newsprint marked darkly with wet spots. One head is there, perfect, smooth, perched on a stand. On the face is an expression of incredible agony and heartache, and the strangely joyful acceptance of a finite existence. It is impossible to describe, except as a concept, as emotion. There are other heads there, rounded shadows beneath cloth There is a leather book, thick, old, Victorian-looking. I have expected it. In chipped, peeling gold leaf on the cover, it says, simply, Doll Making. I head footsteps and turn, too late, too late. There is a woman in the doorway.
She is not an incredible beauty, nor is she incredibly old. There is little incredible about her. She is entirely unexpected nonetheless. Do that I don’t have to meet her gaze, my eyes travel over her forehead first. Her hair is curly, and the fawn-coloured ringlets are looped with grey; her clothes are nondescript. Her eyes are keen, observational.
“I see you’ve wandered up to my workshop,” says the dollmaker. I nod. My words are gone.
“They’re amazing,” I say. She nods. It is an old art, doll making. Goes back to the first hex-figures, fertility gods, comfort objects. The fire in her pupils bespeaks shaman around their smoky fires, holding up buffalo manikins, African witches, dressmakers’ sightless dummies, mask makers’ sightless, hollow-eyed wooden visages. I am wordless. I can hear my grandmother clomping around below me, distantly, distantly, as if I were inside a glass ball. Inside a porcelain shell.
The dollmaker smiles, sits down at the chair before the Christ-head, begins sculpting it. I am dismissed.
I run downstairs, back to my grandmother’s chattering and my grandfather’s silence, and I am peculiarly quiet on the drive home. That night, it takes me a very long time to get back to sleep. All I can see is the face of the dollmaker—the smooth, blurred flesh of a burn victim.