Issue 1 cover

Women of the Doll

by Nisi Shawl

Issue 1 :: Autumn 2007 (stories)

Josette admired the countertop's sheen while she waited for the desk clerk. Black marble, veined with green. Like endless Niles etching dark and fertile deltas, she said silently to the stone. Like malachite feathers resting on a field of night.

The surface was interrupted by a white rectangle sliding towards her: the charge slip for her room. She signed dutifully. It would get paid; it always did.

The clerk had hair like black rayon. Her smooth brown face was meticulously made up, copied exactly from some magazine. "Twelve-thirteen," she said. "Elevators are across the lobby to the left." Then she noticed. "Oooh, how cute! Does she have a name?"

Automatically, Josette tried to tuck her doll further down into her handbag. She wouldn't go.

"Viola," Josette told the clerk. She settled for pulling a bright blue scarf over Viola's long woolen braids. The painted eyes stared enigmatically from a cloth face caught midway between sorrow and contentment. "I love her very much."

"I'll just bet you do. Can I hold her?"

Josette didn't want to be rude. She ignored the question. "What time does the gift shop close?"

"Six p.m."

Plenty of time to get rid of her luggage first. She wheeled her bag around and started towards the elevators, crossing alternating strips of that same wonderful marble and a whispery, willow-colored carpet. "Enjoy your stay," chirped the clerk.

Mirrors lined the walls of the elevator. Once that would have been a problem, but Josette had reached the point where she could make an effort and see what pretty much anyone else would have seen: a woman with a soft, round face, short, curly hair, a slim, graceful neck. Breasts rather large, hips, waist, and legs like a long walk through the dunes. Blue cotton separates under a dove-grey woolen coat—knits, so they wouldn't wrinkle. Golden skin, like a lamp-lit window on a foggy autumn evening.

There was nothing wrong with how she looked.

Room 1213 faced east. Josette opened the drapes and gazed out over parking lots and shopping malls. Off in the distance, to her left, she saw a large unplowed area. A golf course? A cemetery? The snow took on a bluish tinge as she watched. Dusk fell early here. Winter in Detroit.

There was a lamp on the table beside her. She pressed down on the button at its base and fluorescence flickered, then filled the room. A bed, with no way to get under it—less work for the maids, she supposed. An armchair, a desk, a dresser, a wardrobe, a TV, and a night stand. Nothing special, nothing she hadn't seen a thousand times before.

She sat on the bed and felt it give under her, a little more easily than she liked. Her large handbag, which doubled as a carry-on, held a few things to unpack: a diary, a jewel case, handmade toiletries. Bunny was scrunched up at the bottom. She pulled him out and sat him next to Viola on the pillow. He toppled over and fell so his head was hidden by her doll's wide skirts.

"Feeling shy, Mr. Bun?" she asked, reaching to prop him up again. She knew better than to expect an answer, with or without the proper preparations. Bunny was a rabbit. Rabbits couldn't talk. Anyway, he wasn't really hers; he belonged to Viola.

The clock radio caught her eye. Three red fives glowed on the display. Oh no, she thought, and rushed out, leaving her doll behind. Probably Viola wouldn't care. She might not even notice. Certainly she'd be safe alone for just a short time.

Josette made it to the gift shop with a minute to spare, but it was already closed. Frustrated, she stamped her foot, and was rewarded with a stinging pain in her ankle and a lingering look of amusement from a passing white man. She ignored both and quick-stepped back to the elevators.

There was a wait. The lobby was suddenly filled with people, mostly men, mostly white, mostly wearing name tags. A convention of some sort. She let a couple of cars go up without her, but when the crowd still showed no sign of thinning, Josette resigned herself to riding up in their company. The amused passerby joined her load just as the door began to close.

The elevator stopped at nearly every floor. The men all stared at her, surreptitiously, except for the late-comer, who smiled and was quite open about it.

There was nothing wrong with how she looked. She stared right back.


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"Women of the Doll" is roughly 10000 words.

Nisi Shawl's story "Cruel Sistah" was included in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #19. Her work has also appeared in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy and both Dark Matter anthologies. Recently she perpetrated "The Snooted One: The Historicity of Origin" at the Farrago's Wainscot website. With Cynthia Ward, she co-authored "Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction" (Aqueduct Press). A board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, one of the Carl Brandon Society's founders, and a guest speaker at Stanford University and Smith College, Nisi likes to relax by pretending she lives in other people's houses.