Forest of Dolls

By Judy Darley

Ella likes to line the dolls up on her grandma’s kitchen countertop. That way, if she lays her cheek against the cold surface, she can pretend she’s in a forest of painted dolls. They stretch all the way to the horizon, casting shadows taller than giants. The smallest, the lone un-openable doll, catches the sunlight and blazes like a birthday candle. If Ella tries very hard she can make it lift into the air – fuelled by solar power and her imagination – and zoom around the ceiling.

Matryoshka dolls, that’s what her grandma tells her they’re called. Ella whispers it to herself like a magic spell: “matryoshka, matryoshka.” Granddad used to get her to say strange words like that to help him do his conjuring tricks. “Repeat after me,” he’d command. “Verucca, pertrucca, kertrucca.” And then he’d open his hands and the coin would be gone, or would have appeared, glowing against his palm like a solid spot of sun.

These days he doesn’t do magic tricks any more. Doesn’t do anything much; just sits in his chair by the hearth emitting harrumphing noises with a wet, sticky finish. Ella cringes when she hears it, but Grandma just murmurs: “Oh dear” and goes over and wipes his chin. Sometimes, when he opens his pale blue eyes and seems to watch her, Ella will kneel down beside him and mutter, “matryoshka, matryoshka”, and close his fingers around the smallest doll, just for a moment. Sometimes when she does this, his lips twitch like he’s about to smile.

Ella’s certain the smallest doll has other powers it has yet to show her.

When it’s time for her to go to bed in the room that’s hers when she sleeps at her grandparents’ place, Grandma goes and gets the phone from the shelf in the hall. Then, once she’s said goodnight to Mom and Dad on the phone, and to the baby brother she’s yet to meet, she and Grandma place each of the dolls back inside one another, all except the smallest, which Ella cradles in her hands all night long. Sometimes she hopes the heat from her palms will split it open – like an egg hatching – to reveal what’s nestled inside. But every so often the hugeness of the possibilities of what that thing might be scares her and she wakes Grandma with her wailing.

Granddad never stirs.

The new baby is called Liam – a soft name, like the touch of Grandma’s cat’s belly fur against her hand. Yet when she thinks of Liam it’s not soft belly fur that comes to mind – it’s teeth and claws that twist at her insides and make her wish she could curl up small enough to hide in the largest of the matryoshka dolls, snug and secure.

When Mom and Dad told Ella about the new baby, before he even had a name, she knew a little brother to would be better than any toys, even the matryoshka dolls. But she got impatient waiting and began to nag at him to come out, whispering softly to Mom’s belly: “Push, push, come on!” So when he suddenly did decide to come out, very quickly and far earlier than he ought, she knew it must be at least partly her fault. The screaming still rips through Ella’s head late at night. Sometimes it bursts from the body of the smallest matryoshka doll, making Ella shriek with it and soaking the darkness so that Grandma has to come upstairs and change the sheets.

Ella doesn’t like to play with the dolls when Grandma’s cat is around; he occasionally makes a sudden pounce into the midst of them, or treads very delicately between them, then knocks them spinning with a twitch of his tail. She waits until he’s safely outside, busy stalking bees among the clover that dapples the lawn.

Grandma is upstairs helping Granddad have his bath, so Ella has the kitchen to herself. She lines up the dolls all along the countertop, a forest of dolls, with the smallest catching the sun like a birthday candle, ready to be blown out, blown up, in exchange for a wish. She has an image of something fluttering inside the little wooden body, full of air and energy. Like the air and energy her little brother needs.

The doll is a chrysalis, she decides, and inside is a golden butterfly that will zoom from Grandma and Granddad’s house to the hospital and the cage where Mom, Dad and Liam are trapped, and the butterfly will unlock the cage and reunite them with Ella and Grandma and Granddad.

It makes such wonderful, shimmering sense that Ella has to gasp for breath. She lifts her face from the cold countertop and reaches for the smallest doll, not caring that she knocks some of the others spinning in the process.

She takes the nutcracker from the kitchen drawer and places the tiny painted doll inside, and she turns the screw, winding it tight. The doll squeals as the screw presses into her belly, but Ella ignores it. There’s a soft cracking sound and Ella closes her eyes, expecting a blinding light to burst out, fiercer than the sun. She stays like that, eyes pinched closed, the nutcracker cradled in her hands, the splintered doll inside it, and she wishes as hard as she possibly can.



Judy Darley is a UK-based fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her words have been published by literary magazines and anthologies, including Unthank Books’ Unthology 8. She has read her short fiction on BBC radio, in cafés, in caves, in artist’s studios and in a disused church. She blogs about art and other things at, and tweets @JudyDarley.

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