The Children’s Gifts

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on

The curio shop is dark and dusty.

How atmospheric Sylvia thinks as the wooden door catches and again strikes the little brass bell.

It’s much darker inside, she has to squint until her vision adjusts to the darker environment. On the street, the sky was California clear and bright and high in the sky. In here the lighting is dim, the windows are coated with some purple, cracked film that cuts down on daylight.

The sign outside said ‘Madame Xavier’s Curious Shop of Wonders.’ Sylvia was uncharacteristically super early to work and seeing as how her first client had canceled (yet again!) she decides to check out some of the shops on the street where she rents space to run her massage business.

Glass display cases stretched from the front of the shop to the back on both sides of the long, deep shop. There was a walkway beyond for the salesperson to wait upon the customer and against the wall were shelves overflowing with knick-knacks, paraphernalia, and all manner of oddities. Everything seemed to be very old, very authentic. Sylvia can already tell that she will need hours to explore everything in this magical place and now doesn’t feel quite so irritated by the morning’s cancellation. Down the center of the shop were several long tables, each stacked high with boxes, dolls, blankets, knickknacks, and what she felt certain were less expensive items; it seemed that a lot of these items must be subject to shoplifters. The items on the sides of the shop seemed to exist in a state of controlled chaos. The items in the center seemed subject to no such control and there was no discernible order or system of organization that Sylvia could observe.

She looks around for an employee or the proprietor or anyone but sees no one. Her eyes haven’t fully adjusted yet. Sylvia takes several tentative steps into the shop on the aisle formed between the center counter and the right side cases. She sees wooden boxes with brass fixtures whose purpose is a mystery to her, glass bottles, metal tins and boxes, leather appliances, toys, stuffed animals, and dolls. This is the biggest surprise as Sylvia had had in mind a project for Halloween involving dolls dressed in gruesome or macabre tableaux. She loved this more than anything else she did in her creative projects. Finding objects in one state to repurpose them into another altogether different function and state. Dolls were, for the most part, uniformly playful and associated with the domain of youth. Dolls were harmless, innocent, simple, and pure. They represented a time of pristine innocence associated with childhood. So naturally, Sylvia had wished to feature them prominently in grisly tableaux that would reenact scenes from her favorite short stories by Poe, King, or Lovecraft.

She sees a set of five ceramic dolls that would be perfect for what she has in mind. Each doll is about 8 inches tall, each is a plain, flat white, just crying for some color or paint to be applied to bring them fully to life.

She wanders deeper into the shop while mentally reviewing her checking account balance and how much she is willing to pay for the white dolls. Sylvia decides she will not offer more than $40. She loves the potential they represent, but she must also be reasonable with these expenditures.

She reaches the counter at the end. An ancient cash register sits on one end and appears to be what the proprietor uses to collect payment. Then she sees the sign below the cash register, written with a blue marker on a faded white poster-board, “Cash Sales ONLY. ALL Sales FINAL!

But she must have the dolls! Then she remembers she still has cash tips in her wallet from yesterday’s clients. Probably only $30 left after last night’s Starbucks stop. Sylvia will try to negotiate them down to $30 or less. There is an ATM half a block down past her shop, the other way, but she really wants to explore this shop today.

“Hello. May I to help today?” a little, wrinkled, short, older woman says to her with a thick Eastern-European accent. She is dressed in a black beaded shawl and is wearing about a dozen colorfully ornate necklaces around her sunken neck.

“Oh, hey! You startled me,” Sylvia says. “Yes, I was just exploring your shop here, and you have lots of great stuff in here! But I don’t see prices on anything.”

The woman merely smiles and nods, affirming that this is true.

“So I was wondering how much the dolls are? The ones …”

“They $2.50 one or $10.00 whole set,” the lady says.

That’s weird how did she know which dolls I wanted, Sylvia thinks. She cast her eyes around the store and there are dolls everywhere. Most of what she sold seemed to be dolls.

“But you don’t know which dolls I mean. Do … “

“White dolls. Set of five? Very special,” the lady says, pronouncing white as wide.

“That’s incredible. How did you …”

“You take?” the lady says as she heads down the narrow aisle beyond the glass case.

She can’t believe they are so inexpensive. Heck yeah, she will ‘take!’

“Yes, I will take them I think – may I just see them first?”

The lady returns to the cash register and gingerly sets all five dolls down in front of Sylvia for final approval.

Sylvia leans in and carefully looks over each one. They look even better up close.

“May I?” Sylvia asks, gesturing with a palm-up hand.

“Yes, may you,” the lady says.

Each of the dolls comes with its own pedestal with a smooth wooden dowel sticking up the back and allowing them to pose without falling over. At the front edge of the pedestals, the names of the doll have been carefully engraved.

Sylvia lifts the smallest one free from her pedestal. It appears to be a little girl about five years old. The is surprisingly heavy considering its small size. ‘Alba’ carries a large wicker basket filled with appear to be vaguely misshapen long-stem roses. The ceramic finish isn’t overly smooth and Sylvia expects that each doll will shine when she starts applying her paints. The roses with the green and brown stems, red flowers, in a golden yellow wicker basket. She can see it already.

She replaces Alba on her pedestal and lifts the next one.

‘Crispin’ looks to be a seven-year-old boy with a hat pulled down low, locks of hair sticking out in the front and back. Crispin holds an oddly thick leash to a round ball of pointy fur which she assumes is meant to be a dog. Well points for trying, she thinks.

She hefts the largest and is again surprised by how heavy the dolls are. This one is ‘Winifred.’ She is wearing a cloak and an exceptionally long-handled parasol as if she were walking in bad weather. Behind her, she drags a heavy burlap bag. The bag appears to be made out of an actual bit of burlap. Sylvia likes the way the texture feels against her fingertips.

The last two share a single pedestal. Sylvia assumes they must be fraternal twins because of the shared pedestal and the alliteration in their names – ‘Maxim and Mirabel.’ Maxim carries a small round cloth bundle tied to the end of a very straight, quite long stick. Maybe he’s running away from home, Sylvia thinks? Mirabel holds a cane in her right hand a basket of flowers that Sylvia doesn’t recognize in her left. 

She sets Mirabel back down on the pedestal she shares with her twin, Maxim. As heavy as each doll was, she’s surprised that the frail, older-looking proprietor could manage them all in one trip. She will need a box to get these to her car.

These are quality dolls. Am I stealing from her? Does she know what this set is even worth, Sylvia wonders?

Not that Sylvia knew the worth either. For all she knew the dolls could be worth less than a dollar.

“So. You like? You take?”

“I do like and yes, thank you, I will buy them,” Sylvia says.

“Have one condition. You must treat them nicely. These from nice lady. She ask special that they be taken good care of. They must stay together. We have deal?”

Sylvia figures what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her. She doubts the curious old woman would look very kindly at Sylvia using the dolls to create some tableau from The Masque of the Red Death or The Cask of Amontillado! Or, worse, some re-creation of a horrible scene from Lovecraft. She laughs inwardly as she thinks about asking the old lady if she has any doll versions of Cthulhu!

But Sylvia also hates to lie to the woman so she dodges the question artfully. She merely nods.

“And no painting! Leave white, okay?”

“So ten dollars then for all five, right?” Sylvia asks as she begins digging through her purse for her cash. She doesn’t even bother to consider the no-paint condition. That was always a given in Sylvia’s mind from the instant she saw the five lovelies.

Sylvia sets the cardboard box filled with the paper-wrapped dolls in her backseat. She closes the door but then is worried about how hot it might get in her car while she’s massaging clients. She reopens the car, removes the box, and goes inside her office to start her workday. Besides, who leaves children unattended in a car!? She laughs to herself as she stows the box in her linens closet.

Sylvia sets the box down on her kitchen table. She’s already spread the newspapers to catch paint drips. She’s decided that the best usage of the dolls will be to create a tableau of her favorite scene from The Masque of the Red Death. Sylvia had already found the perfect doll to play death at another hobby and craft store. It was a thin, discounted Halloween decoration. A thin depiction of the grim reaper; he would do quite nicely she felt to portray the ‘death’ figure who had come to put an end to the merry, death escaping, revelers gauche celebrations.

Led by Prince Prospero, the revelers had sought to cheat death and were shown just how foolish such a plan was. The death figure was already secured to the center of the ‘black apartment’ with its ghoulishly dark, red windows that cast a horrific hue over all the party attendees within. The five children would simply be made to look like some of the partiers. Or perhaps some of the wealthy friends of Prince Prospero had brought their children into the locked, fortified abbey? In which case, the child dolls could remain, children, she felt.

Sylvia begins painting the cutest of the dolls, Alba. Sylvia decides the child is five years old and a blond, fair-complected child filled with laughter. The painting goes fast. Sylvia is a good painter, but she feels genius descend upon her as she disappears in the act of giving color to each of the dolls. No longer will they be a tabula rasa, innocent, empty. Now they will, through the addition of color and details, become children. As Sylvia rises slightly out of the flow state she fell into as she painted Alba, she is surprised to see that the child is now utterly lifelike. Only 7 inches tall perhaps, but a miniature person in every other measure.

Sylvia rinses her brushes and turns her attention to Alba’s basket of long stem roses. She selects the six tubes of paint she feels will perfectly finish the basket of flowers. The golden, warm wicker basket seems to reflect the warm-tones, inherent in the morning sunshine. She begins to paint the roses. The stems are flat and sleek and straight. When she touches her red paint-loaded brush to the flowers she startles as the leaves begin to dissolve. But, as if possessed, she is unable to stop and explore the mystery. Now, there is only the painting that is, ironically, proving to be both a covering and an uncovering.

When she finishes, she rinses her brushes and repeats the painting and uncovering process for every other doll on the table.

Sylvia spends hours painting the dolls, but her subjective experience tells her she has only been at it for fifteen minutes. The intoxicating endorphins of the flow state recede when her consciousness returns to its normal, more fragmented, compartmentalized mode. She realizes her low back is achy and stretches backward against her chair.

When she sits forward again, she is filled with horror. She looks at the dolls and each has been transformed into a tiny person. But, their ‘accessories’ are what fills her heart with fear. Alba’s wicker basket of flowers is gone. In its place is a blood-stained basket of long stiletto knives. Crispin’s long leash and rotund, pointy-haired dog have morphed into a shocking heavy ball and chain – a blunt, deadly medieval weapon and certainly not a toy intended for a child.

Maxim’s hobo pole and pack have transformed into a long, heavy, metallic, medieval pike. Sylvia glances at her tubes of paint and notices she didn’t even bring her silver or metallic paints to the table.

His twin, Mirabel, the nine-year-old girl with a walking cane and a basket of flowers. Her cane has become a two-headed, steel war hammer and the basket of flowers, that Sylvia couldn’t quite recognize in the curio shop, has become a basket of glistening steel, throwing daggers.

The eldest of the children, which she sees either in her painting or in the original sculptor’s design, are all siblings, and Winifred is the eldest and looks to be a healthy eleven-year-old, ruddy-cheeked girl. Her long-handled parasol is now a long-handled hatchet, with a thick, oak, blood-stained handle. The burlap bag she drug behind – which Sylvia had assumed was a change of clothes for herself and the other children and perhaps a few soft apples and dried meat for them to eat on their ‘journey’ – is now leaking caltrops. A medieval trap that is shaped something like a jack with only four points. Each point was a barbed hook. If you stepped on one, or one was thrown against you, it would stick in your flesh, causing great pain and preventing you from walking.

She can’t help herself and gently reaches out and gently taps the tip of Maxim’s steel pike. It is far sharper than it has a right to be. It pierces her finger and it burns somehow. Something tells her she should wipe the blood off the pike’s point, but she is noticing how sleepy she is.

Sylvia looks at the clock over her stove. It’s 2:45 AM. She should have been in bed hours ago. She is no longer certain about these dolls but a profound, bone-deep weariness has seized her. Sylvia brushes her teeth, washes her face, and by the time her head hits her pillow, sleep has already claimed her.

A small voice inside her brain is trying and has been trying to tell her something, but sleep wins out and the voice is pushed to the back of her brain.

She dreams all night of five children. Children who had lost their mother and father. Kindly relatives have tried telling the siblings that their parents were overcome by the plague but the children knew better. It was the witch from the forest behind the church. The children had seen it all from their loft. Winifred and Maxim had done their best to keep their brothers and sisters from screaming out or crying.

Then nothing but clouds blowing by her on a bitterly cold, moonless night.

Then Sylvia saw the kids living on a severe farm with some distant relations in Antwerp. The work was hard and the children longed for their far more comfortable, prosaic existence in the forest with their parents, where ‘errands’ didn’t last from sunrise to sunset and their caretakers didn’t resort so often to the strap.

Then, one day, when the children were uncharacteristically left to their own devices, a walk in a wood on the edge of the property, there was a second witch. This one wasn’t frightening. This one seemed good. This one had told the children things about the witch that had killed the parents and had given them gifts. Gifts that they should never, ever speak of, to anyone.

Then more wispy clouds, streaming past her in the dark.

Sylvia jerks awake and automatically eyes her bedside alarm clock.

5:13 AM.

Her bladder did this to her every night. Sylvia can’t remember the last time she’s slept the entire night. She rises and exits her bedroom turns down the long hall and finds her way to the bathroom. She stops at one point when she hears giggles from the hallway. But when she falls silent, there are no giggles. Only the normal, lonely, creaking sounds from the house settling.

The floorboards creak as Sylvia makes her sleepy way back to her bed.

“Ouch!” she cries. She has stepped on something sharp in the darkened hall. It burns like fire.

Sylvia leans against the wall and raises her foot. There in her arch is one of the caltrops! It is still burning. She reaches out and tries to pull it out of her foot, but then it snags her fingers. She jerks it out of her foot and howls in pain. It is free from her foot but now stuck to her fingers. As she stands upright again. She tries to put weight on her wounded foot. She stumbles and then slams her other foot down upon two more caltrops. Her body, already eager to give up, collapses to the wooden floor, and she feels the infernal caltrops penetrate her shins, hip, and elbow.

Then, from her new vantage point on the floor, she sees them.

There are only three of them, but she knows without reason that she is seeing Maxim, Mirabel, and Winifred at the end of the hall that opens into the living room. They are just three shadowy figures, backlit with the meager light from the living room beyond.

Maxim is tapping the end of his pike on the wooden floor. Mirabel is swinging her wicker basket which causes the daggers to tinkle together musically. Winifred raises her long-handled hatchet into the air and then brings it down lightning quick. Sylvia can feel the shockwave from the splitting floorboard. Her world begins to crumble.

Sylvia’s bedroom is just there, on her right. She scoots as best she can with the embedded caltrops into her room, shuts the door, and then leans against the door. Sealing, she hopes, the monstrous children on the other side.

She shuts her eyes and without falling asleep, she begins dreaming. A waking dream. In it, she sees the violence and mayhem on the farm in Antwerp. Despite being warned to never use their gifts on anyone but the ‘bad witch,’ there came a time when Alba was struck one time too many for her four siblings and the distant relatives were shown the children’s gifts, and then they were shown the strap, and then some of the heavier devices in one of the darker sheds on the farm; the place that always made Alba and Crispin cry, the dark place where the pigs were slaughtered.

Sylvia jerks awake. After her waking dream, she had foolishly fallen asleep, then her body shifted against the door and the caltrops screamed again in her flesh and she was awake and sobbing.

“There were only three children in the hall just now! Where were the other two? Crispin and Alba?”

Then her eyes adjust and she sees them. Exiting her closet. Crispin dragging his heavy ball and chain across her precious wooden floors. The heavy ball rumbled and tumbled, gouging and scratching as the spikes caught and pulled wood up as the two youngest children sauntered to her. Alba giggling as she begins picking her favorite stilettos from the basket. Then, from just inches behind her back, she feels the three older children begin whittling away at the wooden door with the two-headed hammer, pike, and hatchet.

Sylvia begins to scream. Then the children begin to scream also Sylvia thinks but then realizes they are only shrieking with laughter.

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