Mastodon The Soul of the Doll, a short story by Robert C. Hardin

The Soul of the Doll

Being the Recollections of a Late Inmate (1931–1946) of the
Dalmarnock Asylum for Children in Glasgow, Scotland

The eyes were what changed and flayed me above all else—the eyes or, rather, the doll’s eyes’ dead caress. Black glass in a placid head opened similar holes before me, offering streams of amnesia through crawlways gone smooth and useless. Down cephaloid miles uninflected by edge of iris or glare of sclerae, I dove and drank. I was the infant mole who plummeted inward. It was as if I were looking into the dollhole of my past and could go nowhere but backward, into the lobotomized lull its gaze evoked. I drank and yet I feared my impulsive thirst. I feared the therapist’s doll not because of its physical presence but rather the psychic excavation the eyes invited. They were tunnels of history and I was loath to gain entrance.

A day, a year ago, I didn’t know which: A nail-file with amber fluid drying along the edge, a snarl of flaxen hair, a crying matron, a fist to the back of my head, the blood-tint of hemorrhage sifting intricately behind closed lids. Vertical metal bars ringing against searchlights, chill fingers clamoring across my knees, silverfish or frozen rodents come to life in sickness’ thrall. No parent’s care, no window, in that prison—just parched light drying on a concrete facade. When I brushed against its coldness, I saw caverns; I flowed with the facefall of my shame into a moonbleached gallery where, past that poultice, I plundered hungers. Clumsy and numbed, I tripped on ripcords, strangled on coral, grasped at strands. I peered over undersea bridges and caught glimpses of my sickness, ink fanning outward over an ocean bed. I wasn’t afraid of becoming a chimera, since monsters are still ordinary men. Rather, I was afraid I’d be proven too weak to become anything else—that past ignominies had stained my self-perception until I couldn’t recognize any truths at all, which always hid among monotonies of gray.

Illustration by Leslie Hardie
She Sees Us, mixed media, by Leslie Hardie

And then I found Isabel. She stood dilated and distressed in Dalmarnock, awaiting me in the playroom after I withdrew from the cliffs of sickness.

The bisque head tilted back to glare at me from the cupboard. Isabel’s putty fingers found my neck and traced the perforations, the forkholes, at the base. I didn’t cry out, as her touch was almost familiar. I squinted and crinkled my eyes. I do not trust myself, I said. I do not trust my hands.

Light through a sticker of red cellophane spread across my limbs, rinsing my face with the chamber music of sunset, crimson dye and shadow, a complex erasure that drew my hand closer to Isabel’s nascent breasts, slight and evocative, things I’d imagined, old castaway that I was at fifteen (a confusion of premature nostalgia disillusioning me still). Performing some cliché ritual and yet still trembling. “Here’s where you stabbed yourself.” Fearing discovery and capture in the therapist’s office, knowing how insensitive the nurses were to their own nuclear presence, omniscient nurses as severe and stylized as Templars, with their scorching discoveries and scalding collargrip, with disapproval that detoured and dead-ended our explorations even when the nurses themselves proved absent, leaving unalterable marks in ambiguous places, numb spots to ponder later, when exploring our skins in bathroom light, tracing cattlebrands of trauma at some future decaying age. Who did that? Wasn’t me. It isn’t me now.

I feared the therapist’s doll not because of its physical presence but because of the psychic excavation the eyes invited. They were tunnels of history and I was loath to gain entrance.

We sang some putrid song that seemed like an anthem then, and lowered gowns, the ritual making me queasy. Nausea’s music. I tried to concentrate but couldn’t, I couldn’t stop thinking in words. That’s when Isabel spoke to me, spoke because she knew I needed her enveloping voice, a sheet drawn over my features.

She was distant, too, I knew. She didn’t actually hear me. But neither did I, for that matter. I wasn’t in my skin and hadn’t slept for weeks, worried by some cruelty I’d inflicted or imagined or couldn’t remember. I’d set fire to a slug, thinking it was dead. But it wasn’t. The slug was alive.

“The slug is alive,” I told her. And then I watched my fingers leave slime-trails across her pelvis and over her thighs, their wakes’ tingle a salve to her nerve-ends. It was something she could feel instead of my fascination with her numbness, instead of/in place of trajectories of guilt.

The doll gazed at the slug trails like a camera photographing us, just as I was being photographed by my own mind or, rather, as my mind recorded her body’s reaction to thought. Thumb wrinkles touched the edge of the reading desk, and then she stared up at me, delighted and gone, and I almost forgot the shunt cell where Father sagged against my sickle, or so they swore at the inquest, or so they lied, and I told myself to be quiet, I’d wished for this.

Then clay spread across her arms and everything felt viscous, easier and more exciting and somehow worse. The mental color of disgust slid into view: Purple, an overripe surface dyeing the light three shades past crimson. And I told her no, I exclaimed she should wait and not sweat, and she stiffened, then stopped, but it was too late, I was inside her, sheath of warm liquid distracting me somewhere. I didn’t feel I was doing it the right way, as a normal, less disgusting boy might have done it to her.

What would I do if the Templars burst in? Could I bring myself to withdraw, could I control my rigid stump, or would I keep grinding?

The sky turned more violet than my dream of zygotes wriggling. Motes of light flickered in darkness around me, scotomas caused by peering at the lightcrack under the door. Who was there? What would I do if the Templars burst in? Could I bring myself to withdraw, could I control my rigid stump, or would I keep grinding, would Isabel be shamed when they shined the flashlight on us and banished each to a quiet room and told us never to touch? Would she feel sufficiently shamed to kill herself, or would she suicide over another groping boy? My mind blurred with the distraction of her hand touching my testicles. I shoved her hand back—don’t do that!—fearing I might shriek. Then I placed my fingers around her neck and squeezed just a little, just enough for her to know. And as she gasped for air, and removed my hand and kissed my fingertips, I pretended we lived on a secret island where trees sprouted cakes and sleep did not exist. And anyone who needed to dream floated physically toward wishes that rose in clitoral peninsulas, and no one on our insomniac island knew what I’d done to my father and mother, nor what I was doing to Isabel this moment. She’ll be damaged for life, damaged or dead, I whispered. And if she heard, she pretended not to understand, and studied her own palm as I pumped her and finally let go, hitting my own face as I tingled, my own cheek to avoid hitting hers, punching my eyes and letting rhapsodies of discharge fade to the flicker of throbbing lids, some correlation of bone and skin making pain feel mechanical, an alert resonating through the calcium stick-man inside. And I reached over our heads and up to the cupboard and tried to bat the doll’s scrutiny away, but the figure tumbled down on us and Isabel shrieked softly and leapt off me, disengaging and disengaged. My orphaned cock floated below her, chilled by vertigo, and I picked up the doll and rose to a standing position. I knew I could never put it back in exactly the right place—after all, we had fucked in this room, so everything in it would now look different to the Templars, we had made everything stink with our sex stink and we couldn’t wipe it away, and the Templars would sense it just as they sensed now in their slumber that we were here and I was touching the doll. The nurses knew and my days would now play out dully, would consist of panicky sleep as promised by the doll’s disapproving eye, by the sucking tunnel, by the leeches inside head’s hollow.

I knew this as I’d known it before and always. I patted Isabel’s forehead and sang that wretched anthem, that horrible doggerel about “guardians in the night.” These were the only consoling rituals I could remember clearly enough to perform, now that the act was over, now that I’d hurt her, now that I’d failed to control the thing that called me away.

Above us shone the gleam of empty centuries. Eyes black and unblinking, always the narcotized eyes. Still disarranged from falling, the doll’s cloth body canted to one side, promising to topple. Yet its face was aimed so precisely the head might have been mounted on a tripod. One bisque hand described the crack in the door, the other, Isabel’s breast. A doll’s touch resonates with the caress of dead children, I thought. Eyes gazed through me, their pupil, and slept through forever.

Theodorus Laftsoglou Colquhoun

December 31, 1946

–Robert C. Hardin


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