All Original Bébé Jumeau Poupeé (with Violet Eyes and Closed Mouth Circa 1874 in Very Fine Condition)
Ellie spent a great deal of her time behind sloping diaphanous folds hanging beneath the subdued and softer but no less amaranthine valance that obscured from view the mahogany skirt carved to match the posts and the footboard with elephants and camels and flowers and cows and to complement the foliate crest of the headboard on the authentic early Victorian circa 1840 colonial with no replacement parts or hardware and with all original wood lovingly restored and, though previously prevented from delivery by trade restrictions enacted when the East India Company commissioned the piece for the daughter of an executive or a general or even a Raj, made available to me on the occasion of Ellie’s seventh birthday by the dealer from whom I’d purchased the maple secretary only a month before and the chest two months before that and the parlor table and sideboard before that. I think it was the toile that made me so insistent that the soft lining of the burnished brass casket that became my final gift to her just ten months later be lavender as well, although I had to settle for a soft heliotrope, and as my wife and I tossed heavy handfuls of soil into the grave and I held tears at bay rather than allow that any should see me sobbing, I considered for us both that Ellie would spend forever shrouded in the folds of the soft purple cloth she loved. Though my wife wept aloud, she wept no harder than I wept because I was not as David seeking the day when he would go to his son but instead impossible to be comforted as Rachel weeping for her children, and she knew that because she always knew me, and the fact that she understood the methods of my lamentations was perhaps the reason we first came together, so when I killed Madeline, I’m certain there was no mystery in my conduct.
I took the hammer and brought it down upon her head in a fury of indignation because Madeline knew her as I never had, and the pain of my ignorance was beyond bearing and not because she was insured or for any gain beyond the satisfaction of removing from my presence the reminders of the daughter lost to me and the reminders of days I also lost, days spent in pursuits that made expenditures of more than the average man’s monthly or even quarterly salary on a bed no more of an imposition on our lifestyle than for that average man to spend only a hour’s wages on anything at all; but days of production and profit kept me from knowing Ellie as Madeline had known her. And though Madeline knew her better, it was not because I didn’t love my daughter or that my time spent in contract review and location analysis and preferred security driven diligence kept her from my mind, because she always filled my thoughts and from the planes or the trains or the limousines and once even from a helicopter always flowed an endless river of doll house furniture, silk felines, and pewter figurines in blue velvet boxes; and she always took each gift from my hands with a squeal, a grin, and a quick kiss, excited laughter still squeaking through her lips as they brushed my cheek; but when I brought her the doll, she jumped in my arms and didn’t laugh but clutched me in an atypical mixture of wonder and joy and later as my wife drank champagne and I drank single malt scotch, I realized none of the little metal dogs or lions or rhinos or koalas engendered that reaction.
What was strange was that I bought the doll on a whim when I saw it behind glass at an auction I attended because my secretary found an antique doctor’s case and knew I wanted one, but the case was American Civil War era and the selling point was really the collection of medical equipment and I had no interest in ancient saws or ivory tongue depressors or steel morphine injection syringes with two replacement needles or Sharp and Dohme ampoule sodium cacodylate for IV use in paper sheaths; but when I saw the doll I thought of Ellie and decided to buy. The house employee misunderstood my question and explained to me the perfect bisque free of all crazing indicated and the Bte stamped on the wooden ball-jointed body in black ink proved and the original clothing even down to the shoes showed and the letters demonstrating provenance guaranteed that the doll would certainly sell in the six digit range; and I told her I was sold already and knew nothing of the collectability anyway and didn’t care but I wanted to make a present of it and I grasped her hand and placed within it five hundred dollar bills, and she changed the schedule so the all original Bébé Jumeau Poupeé with violet eyes and closed mouth circa 1874 in very fine condition came up next on the block, and as soon as the auctioneer opened at three thousand dollars I bid five times that amount and walked away with the doll in its original wicker trunk, the entire bundle enveloped in gauzy linen and boxed with Styrofoam in reinforced cardboard wrapped in purple paper and covered with a bow.
When Ellie’s room was still populated by seven-year old girl and seven-year old girl imagination, the princess feted pewter menagerie guests by directing sewn silk cat subjects to pour great torrents of invisible tea and honey and elderberry wine into tiny doll cups and to place on tiny doll plates unseen cucumber sandwiches and transparent roast pheasant under ethereal glass; and I didn’t know this because I’d seen her play but because Madeline told me about it, and even though she said nothing about my absent observation, she couldn’t conceal the bitterness in her tone that told me she thought I was a father who failed. She never mouthed the words, though, and seemed quite innocent and reasoned as though her intentions were only to celebrate and mourn the memory of the girl we both loved, but she emphasized my scarcity in thinly disguised anecdotes of Ellie playing house with her felines; and the silk mommy cat took the silk baby cat to the park to play on the swings or to buy balloons or to ride on the carousel but the silk daddy cat, Ellie placed in a drawer under her socks and her pajamas because he was away on business but the baby cat had no reason to worry because when the daddy cat returned he’d bring lovely gifts in pretty packages.
I hated the goddam doll. I knew Ellie was always the princess, but I was told she made the bisque-topped plaything that represented opportunity cost of thirty-thousand candy bars or forty-five-thousand four-hundred and fifty-four and a half juice boxes her diva who sang for her carnival collection of mammals and marsupials all hand crafted from soft tin, antimony, copper, and lead; and the little animals sat politely in their imagined dresses and tuxedos as the girl with the enormous violet eyes painted on unglazed porcelain beneath brushed lashes and perplexingly mis-painted closed lips sang arias until Ellie clapped and shouted “bravo” and the wildlife applauded primly. Madeline told me of the long concerts and the way Ellie would wear her special dresses—my wife always bought the clothes and left the toys to me—and would comment on the excellent reviews in The Post or the superiority of live performance over recorded and how the doll had that certain Johnny Seekwhat that made her a star; and often she would end her night with late evening dining at posh restaurants at the head of her bed, just a short walk away from the Opera House. Of course, when she told me the story, I realized the bitterness wasn’t my imagination but real because my daughter knew no arias and though my wife and I held box seats in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, neither she nor I ever brought Ellie with us and royal feasting and house and tea parties were the fruits of the labors of Lang, Anderson, and Grimm, but none played opera at seven years old; and the realization made it certain that Madeline had erred in concealing the certainty of her plot to punish me for my absence from my little girl.
I hated the doll before the opera story, though, because it glared at me and even its perfectly molded fingertips told me I’d succeeded in buying Ellie’s adoration and purchasing her love and procuring the commodity of her affection and it towered above the cats and pewter and stared with giant eyes at my every paternal imperfection until I cursed the easy, thoughtless purchase and the string of successful investments that made the expense as trivial as the purchase of a dime store novel by any of the hundreds of men and woman who labored at stations for injection molding or tool and die machining or cutting or stamping or packing at any of my factories. I also hated it because Madeline told me that sometimes our cook would prepare picnic lunches and our housekeeper would arrange them on a nineteenth century patchwork quilt for Ellie, who would eat them in the manicured rose garden with the butler’s son and the gardener’s daughter for company, and she would always invite the servants’ children to her room to play, and the doll was evidently a favorite toy and I didn’t know, hadn’t even looked at the thing since the clutching hug and the kiss, and the implication in her words that the gardener’s girl might have known my daughter better than I wasn’t lost on me but was another in the long list of subtle hurts and painful insinuations.
The transparency of the attacks made them no less hurtful, but I allowed that Madeline was speaking from her own pain, and it wasn’t until I realized that she not only used her knowledge of me to exacerbate my sorrow, to intensify my regret, to keep from me every succoring memory of interaction that waged war against the blame but that she indeed knew Ellie with a depth of understanding that made my knowledge inconsequential, and it was then the first thought of her destruction entered into my head; but for loyalty to Ellie, I had resisted the urge that grew stronger with every visit to the room with the pewter, silk, and bisque and the draped purple cloth that shrouded the colonial bed. It wasn’t the opera story that decided Madeline’s fate. A man might live with unspoken but by no means unsaid criticisms for decades, but this final tale illustrated the vitriolic intentions behind the romantic recollections, and I dismissed most of my prior unease realizing that an exaggeration of that magnitude must surely point to the meretricious nature of the previous narratives and I wasn’t after all a bad father but instead the victim of bitter and regrettable hurt misdirected at me for lack of an easier target; but what made it necessary that Madeline must die was the realization that she spoke the truth and I was all that her hinted claims suggested.
I said as much, that her stories were imagined recollections designed to hurt me, but on that night, I sat on the footboard of the bed and looked at the animals and the cats and the twenty-four inch doll that regaled my daughter’s toys with Mozart and Verdi, and I wouldn’t have thought that Ellie had ever heard the songs to make her doll sing them, but the doll turned its painted clay head, brushed ringlets of real human hair from its brow and sang for me Habanera, and even though I hated the thing that stood on the cherry wood shelf dressed in its cream gown with rose trim, its ruffled café-au-lait hat, and its stacked disk plum earrings, I couldn’t help but recognize that she sang with perfect pitch and perfect emotion and the damned thing really did have the je ne se qua of Callas, Sutherland, or Tibaldi, and Madeline’s fate was determined. It took me far too long to find a hammer, having no need to lift any household implement in a number of years, but one hung from a peg in the gardener’s shed next to a rake and a hoe and a strange two-poled post digger and something about the shed made me reconsider, made me think that the murder would be a betrayal and a wounding of Ellie’s memory, but the heaviness of the hammer’s head and the rough texture of its handle were reassuring, and I found Madeline where I left her and threw her onto the planks of the Patagonian maple flooring and struck her.
She didn’t protest as I’d imagined she would but stared dully up at me as though her every spoken word in the twenty or so days since I’d buried Ellie had been designed just to bring about the lifted hammer and the angry tattoo of the arteries behind my eyes and I hesitated for just a moment on top of her, but it wasn’t indecision so much as a fascination that she wasn’t reacting to the inevitable result and inescapable consequence of the course of action she’d plotted for me over the three weeks prior. Even as the blow descended on her forehead, she didn’t scream as I expected and I realized I hadn’t thought to consider the blood, but there was none, only the dull popping sound of her skull breaking, shattering really beneath the blow and I backed away and fell to the floor myself, leaning against mahogany elephants and camels and flowers and cows and dropping the hammer to my side as I looked at Madeline, still staring with violet eyes wide open and painted mouth closed, and I cried until my wife came and found me there. She stroked my cheek and kissed my forehead and then searched the closet until she found the wicker trunk, and I noticed as she swept the broken bisque into it that one of the earrings had rolled to where I sat; but she found that as well and added it, along with the ball-jointed body, to the broken pieces, and when she was done, she sat beside me and held me and we wept for Ellie together.
W.J. Rosser is a poet, storyteller, and novelist currently living in Orange County, California, with his wife and seven children. His stories have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies. He is currently the managing editor at Literary Landmark Press, whose first anthology “The Spirit of Poe” was published to benefit the Baltimore Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. A spirited rhetorician fully committed to reasoned argumentation as a means to reach the best conclusions, he can often be found in conversations with complete strangers attempting to provoke thought and avoid punches.