While reading for my MA I came across a piece by Rainer Maria Rilke called “Some Reflections on Dolls”, and it fascinated me with its ideas about dolls as voids, empty spaces into which we constantly throw our affections, affections which are never returned. What does this say about how we train little girls (in particular) to love? To love hopelessly, eternally, something – and in later life, perhaps someone – who never returns our love? Just a thought.
But anyway! The jumping off point for me was this idea, and my natural writerly progression was, ‘What if this soulless, unloving thing might be given a little piece of soul? What if it might seem to be animated?’ Of course, there’s a lot of creepy doll potential there, but what if these kinds of dolls were things given to the daughters of rich men, of princes? The ultimate high-end toy with someone else’s very core inside them.
And what about the doll-makers themselves? How much might they give up to create these little monstrosities, to create things like children who suck out the very spirit and marrow of the maker, the mother-figure – what might happen if it went unchecked?
Bitsy appears in Sourdough in two other stories: she’s the child pulled away from the burning of Blodwen in “Ash”, and is seen much later in “Sister, Sister”. Selke is one of the characters in my Tor.com novella, Of Sorrow and Such, out in October 2015.
A Porcelain Soul
‘Now. Slice it thin.’
Mater Lucina’s voice is soft, barely heard in the cool of Tertiary and her tone belies what she’s asking me to do. The gossamer substance floats in a small glass box that’s been carefully placed on the beaten bronze bench top. It is the closest thing in consistency to that of a soul. Pious mothers bring newborns here and donate their babies’ breath, so we students of Tintern Doll Makers’ Academy will have something on which to practice. It doesn’t hurt the babes at all: just a few aspirations into a vial and it’s done, no one even misses it. Harmless enough ’prentice work materials for us, before we start using our own souls.
‘Slice it!’ A sharpness, because I hesitate when I shouldn’t, weighted down by the worry of failure.
So I go at it in a panic, conjure a blade and see it form inside the box. Another part of my mind holds the floss steady and I slide the knife through it, so a thin, thin piece peels off. Thinner than the soup in an orphanage, thinner than the horizon. A sliver so waif-like that for a few moments it doesn’t even know it’s been cut. It wobbles, finds itself unanchored from the clotted mass, shivers and falls with the elegance of a fainting dancer.
Shuddering with relief, I wipe the sweat from my forehead. It was better than I deserved to produce, so much better. Lucina knows it, too, and she tells me as much. Her tiny mouth bunches and puckers in irritation. I cringe, knowing that making her angry won’t help my cause.
‘For that,’ she finishes, ‘for the hesitation and a result you did not warrant, you will clean out Primary tonight.’
I stifle a groan. Primary Workshop means clay, slops, slurry, shards of fired and discarded porcelain, the broken pieces of dolls that did not make it, and all the dust and coughing that goes with it. Then there’s the dryness you cannot get out of your hands for days. But I need to be obedient, I need to be the best.
She smiles at me, not unkindly, but with a certain disappointment that hurts. ‘You have to learn, Bitsy, to be decisive and to earn what you get. You can’t simply rely on your talent to give a good enough outcome. One day your luck may run out. One day very soon you’ll be doing this to your own soul and believe me, you don’t want to make mistakes then.’
I nod, but don’t say anything. My throat feels constricted with the efforts of the afternoon. I start to clear away the tools, but Mater Lucina shakes her head. ‘Selke will clean up in here; her punishment for that mess last Sunday.’
I hide a smile. Selke slipped five homunculi in amongst the church choir. A harmless enough trick and, if anyone had paid attention, they’d have noticed the blankness on the ill-painted faces and known them for the soulless abominations they were. She set them to explode when the hymns were sung. Not all together, mind—they were timed to go off at different pitches, so through the service there were these little explosions of glitter, fabric and false flesh. And the squeaking, the God-awful squeaking they made just before they popped.
The tutors don’t like us playing with homunculi—too inhuman, they say—but Selke and obedience don’t seem to mix well. She is quite brilliant. Her toys are bizarre and dangerous and spectacular. She really shouldn’t be here; she should have gone to one of the Armourers’ Academies where she could set her mind to things that are meant for war. Truly that’s where she’d rather be, but an accident of birth got in her way. So, she’s here instead and it presents a problem for both of us.
It’s late when I finish Primary, and I miss dinner. Luckily the kitchen mistress likes me and I find a small basket of food waiting on the steps of the workshop when I step out. I lift the red and green cloth: a hunk of cheese, black bread, two chicken legs, a fat slice of gooseberry pie and a small skin of milk.
I pass by Secondary, its lights already extinguished (no one else required punishment this eve) and then see there is a glow from inside Tertiary.
Selke is still there. She isn’t, however, tidying.
A wolf, just a small one, barely beyond a pup, lies where the box of breath was earlier. There’s no rise or fall of its chest. It looks beautiful and sad. Beside the body is a lead coffer, about a foot square, which Selke is opening.
‘What are you—’
‘Sssssssh. Stay out of my way or help,’ she hisses. Her red curls are piled up in a haphazard mess on her head, damp with sweat, and her green eyes look through me like a cat’s.
I put the basket down and lock the door behind me. ‘But Selke, what are you . . .’ I wave my hands in despair.
‘Stand there and watch.’
I look around for something, anything to use in case this goes wrong. She drops back the lid and it gives an angry clang. Up floats a cloud of something that whirls and spins in a tight ball, like chaos barely contained. Animal souls are erratic and volatile; they have none of the calm inertia of a human one. Selke’s mind-knife appears and she takes a slice.
‘Too thick,’ I tell her. ‘Far too thick; too much anima.’
‘Shut up, Bitsy!’ She frowns and sweats as she manœuvres the piece of roiling grey to lie just above the dead beast’s chest. Then she lets it sink into the fur to dig deep into the meat of the animal. The wolf shudders, his entire body shaking as part of it becomes transparent, part of it remains solid, in a kind of incomplete decay that surely must hurt and confuse it. The creature is now half spectre, half rotting corpse, mad and in pain.
There’s no time, really, between this and when it rolls to its feet and begins snarling. Selke is frozen, transfixed by the thing she’s created. It gathers its legs beneath it to spring, every stable muscle straining, but the ephemeral sections shiver and shake as if a strong wind might blow them away.
I bring the hammer down on its head, which has, luckily for us, remained real and stout. It releases a tiny whimper and gives up the ghost one more time. The grey of the soul seeps out and slowly dissipates, freed of the spell that held it.
‘Shit,’ she says, then glares at me. ‘Now I have to start again.’ ‘Not tonight you don’t and not without a tutor here! You’re not
good enough to keep it contained. You still can’t get the balance between light and dark right. Selke, you’re amazing, but this just isn’t your skill!’
She looks set to argue, so I say, ‘Another word and I will tell your aunt—then you’ll be cleaning Primary for the rest of your life.’
Selke subsides. The last thing she wants is for Lucina to hear about this—it may tip the balance the wrong way for her.
‘Peace offering?’ I say, holding the wicker basket high. We are not bad friends, but at the heart of matters we are rivals and this causes tension. Oh, others here have their special talents—Kina can make pretend birds that sing you an aria, Lalla can paint a doll’s face so it seems to have a different expression depending on the direction from which you view it, and Talia’s soft fake foxes will curl about your feet and purr like cats—but Selke and I have, as Mater frequently tells us, the most developed abilities. Some days I think Lucina says this to make us opponents so we will strive harder. It’s worse, still, that Selke is being offered what I so desperately want when she has no desire for it at all.
‘Nice to be the good girl,’ she sneers without heat, and takes the chicken leg I offer.
‘Oh, c’mon. I’m not the one with the exploding simulacra. What did you think that would get you? Top of the class?’
She shrugs and says, ‘Still and all, it was pretty spectacular, wasn’t it?’
I have to agree. We eat in silence for a while, then she asks ‘So, has she set your final task?’
A successful graduation piece gets you admitted into the Doll Makers’ Guild and then you can find gainful employment in one of the town or city fraternities. Some might have the luck to be taken in by one of the houses rich enough and large enough to employ a dedicated doll maker. Some may take to the roads, as itinerant wanderers and makers of toys, living hand to mouth. Or some can teach—if you’re really fortunate you might be asked to join the staff of an academy, like Tintern, which may be small, with no more than forty students, but our work is respected. And we have a powerful patron, which counts for a lot.
‘A special commission. You?’
‘Well, if she lets me graduate—’
‘Avoid the exploding things and you should be fine,’ I interrupt, halving the piece of pie and sharing it. Selke will graduate whether she wants to or not
‘Shut up. The wolf—Rennak of Lodellan wants guard dogs for his cathedral.’
‘You mean . . .’ I bite down on a gooseberry and its juice is sour. ‘You’re reanimating for the Archbishop?’
She grins in a way that strikes me as obscene. ‘As soon as I can get the balance right, the slices thin enough.’
‘How does that count as toy making, Selke? If it were clock-working I’d understand.’
‘Oh, c’mon. You think your puppets are any better? I’m using existing materials to create something different. Same as you. And don’t get onto your reanimation soapbox—when you’re fully fledged you’ll put a sliver of your own soul into each doll.’ She makes a face as she, too, gets a bitter berry. ‘Anyway, you know I’m not interested in the stupid dolls.’
She never has been. If she manages the wolf then martial households will fight for her services. In fact, if she pleases the Archbishop, she’ll find a place in his grand home. That is if, and only if, Mater Lucina lets her go. ‘Besides, clockworking is unreli-able. Eventually the damned things run down, they need maintenance. The wolves are another matter entirely. Anyway, the point may be moot.’
‘Selke, she’s let you learn the art—no one else has been allowed to deviate from standard instruction—she’s letting you do the wolf. She’ll let you go.’ We both hope I’m right. If she is allowed to go, then perhaps I will be allowed to stay. Resources are finely balanced in a small academy—there is only room for equilibrium.
She shrugs, morosely. ‘What’s this special commission anyway?’ ‘A doll for Lord Holgar’s daughter.’
‘Will you use one of these?’
I look at the rows and rows of porcelain shells lining two of the four walls of the room; all empty and waiting to be filled with a tiny piece of humanity. I shake my head
‘No, I’ll start from scratch. She needs to be right. I don’t want it to be . . . easy.’ I smile.
‘You won’t have any trouble with making her beautiful.’
‘No, it will be the slivering. It will be keeping steady when I do the soul.’ I’ve made dolls before, lovely ones, perfectly gorgeous toys that we’ve sold at great profit, but the little piece of spirit inside has never come from me; one of the tutors has always done that. I know all the theory; I have done all the practice with breath; but this will be the first time I’ve worked on my own soul. Everything rests upon this. But even if I succeed, there’s no guarantee I will be given what I want.
We finish the cheese and bread then turn down the gas lights and go to the Dormitory. Before I sleep I remember that tomorrow my cousin will arrive with Lord Holgar. I have not seen Benedict for some time. I wonder if he will look different.