Fiction from Erin McIntosh: The Doll’s House

The autumn just feels more Gothic than other seasons (at least here in North Dakotaland). The days get shorter, the weather cooler and more abrupt, and the sun lower in the sky. To celebrate this annual turn, we decided to share another story from our forthcoming issue, NDQ 87.3/4.

Erin McIntosh’s “The Doll’s House” is atmospheric and left me unsettled. It’s a good story that leaves the reader confused, satisfied, and just a bit haunted.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.

We are currently reading poetry and essay and are always reading fiction. You can submit something to us here. If you already subscribe, you should get receive your latest copy of NDQ in November. If you’d like to subscribe, please go here.

The Doll’s House

I came to the McMannaths when I was forty but already I had started to fade. Entire meanings of words escaped me. I’d spend days not remembering a thing like perchance. All of my mother’s English lessons leaving me in a stream, and I couldn’t help but smile, imagining her disappointment.

The McMannaths had two girls, fourteen and seven. The mother was a cold woman, old and gray, too old for children. In photographs I looked like another of her daughters more than a peer. Her hair clung to her cheekbones and her eyes never smiled. I skirted around her whenever she ventured out of the room where she wrote, a reprieve from the clacking of typewriter keys.

Her husband was stranger still: a short, jaundiced man, slobbery and milky-eyed, packing himself off each day to some factory he managed. In the evenings he would return, garble something under his breath, nod in the direction of his daughters, and take himself upstairs – and up another stair – into the lofty part of the house where I was not allowed.

The girls were forgivably odd, but when I first arrived I did think there was hope for them yet. The oldest, Olivia, was papery thin and pale, a blonde version of her mother. She was good at her studies and never complained; in fact, she hardly spoke at all. Her gift was in her fingers. When she sat at the creaking upright in the hall, the sounds she could make made the house come almost alive. I was curious of her, and fond of her, if only out of pity. It could not have been easy to be a child in a place like that.

The younger, Fiona, was like a little cat. She climbed on counters and cabinets, tops of furniture, anyplace high enough to perch. She liked to watch. The only thing that gave her away was the little cackle she’d give when she thought you weren’t paying attention. It was a child-sized cackle, to be sure, but the sound of it used to make the hair rise on my arms and my neck. Her eyes were yellow, like her father’s, and no matter how many baths she endured, her dark curls hung lank and dirty around her ears.

The real coup of the day was the doll’s house. Mr. McMannath brought it home with him on a Monday, without explanation, along with two greasy young men to haul the thing inside. It was draped over with sapphire velvet, and Fiona jumped down from atop the mantel when she saw it, slinking after them, sniffing at the air. Olivia watched from the shadows, but when they revealed the house, shoved onto the kitchen table, miniature and complete, her eyes glowed.

Mr. McMannath attempted a smile and almost succeeded. He shook the greasers’ hands and slapped their palms with fresh bills, instantly crumpled and shoved into filthy pockets. The two of them took their leave, and after a moment of gazing at the little house, almost an exact replica of their own, the girls’ father gave a shallow bow and withdrew.

Fiona came nearer yet, nose twitching in the air. Olivia reached one hand out and then the other, touching ever-so-lightly various points: now the tiny welcome mat, now the graying lattice, now the perfectly scaled drainage pipe, clogged with perfect paper leaves.

I went round to the other side of it, hoping to get a glimpse upstairs. The rooms were filled, all of them, with everything the real house was filled with, only smaller, and somehow this made it all seem more real than the real thing. There, the chip on the cabinet where Fiona fell and broke her tooth. There, the mismatched knobs on the bathroom drawers. A doll-sized plunger, wooden and rubber, sat next to a doll-sized toilet, with an itty-bitty chain dangling from the side for flushing.

My eyes moved upward. The attic room was empty.

Olivia had noticed this too, and her fingers paused just above the replica landing, hovering. Fiona made a dark, murmury sound in the back of her throat like a threat and Olivia withdrew her hand.

“It’s not for touching,” said Fiona, and Olivia nodded a long-faced nod and for a while after that everything remained as it was.

Two months later on a Wednesday, Mr. McMannath didn’t come home from work. Nobody made much of a noise about it. The girls remained silent and their mother’s cheeks twitched but she said nothing, not even into the telephone. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t, if there had been a sudden business trip or a dead relative. One week after another passed and Olivia started haunting the doll’s house again. I’d enter the kitchen and there she’d be, standing in the shadows, unlit, surrounded by humming units and cold marble countertops. I never saw her touch anything, but the stare in her hollow eyes as she gazed at the fabricated mansion frightened me.

Whenever Fiona caught her at this, she’d slink under the table, hiss at her sister’s ankles.

“All right then,” I’d say when this happened, trying to think of something neutral. I didn’t want to alarm either of them. I didn’t know how they were handling their father’s absence, whether it was mysterious to them or mundane.

They both blinked at me, more and stranger as time passed. Mr. McMannath didn’t return and the already gloomy house took on another, tenebrous mood.

While the girls read their Virginia Woolf and their Lord Byron, I eradicated. I armed myself with off-brand cleaning supplies and rags from cut-up shirts. I stripped off my sweater, buttoned and mauve, and rolled up the sleeves of the collared blouse underneath. The poultry for dinner was in the oven, rosemary and thyme wafting, and the girls’ mother tucked away in her office, likely click-clacking away. I began by dusting; the sitting room first, where Olivia curled on her father’s high-backed chair and the pages of Fiona peeked out from underneath the sofa. I dusted in the crevices and the cracks. I removed books from shelves and dusted the furthest corners I could find. I dusted windowsills inches-deep in gray.

After the sitting room, I moved on to the dining room, and from there the study, where the only thing I didn’t touch was the father’s giant desk, cold and unused.

I thought of knocking at the mother’s office, but last-minute I left her alone. Maybe I could get in there while she was eating dinner with the girls. A rare occurrence, but tonight there was poultry. Tonight there was harvest bread and baked dessert bars. I had outdone myself, and on purpose.

Upstairs I cleaned each bedroom meticulously, avoiding my own, which I attended to daily. Fiona had finished her reading and slunk around after me, watching from the shadows. Both girls’ rooms were sparse and tidy, undecorated and already-clean. I sprayed a homemade freshener (my mother’s recipe, lemon and mint leaves) into the air and left them alone. Fiona entered hers tentatively, sniffing at the scent I’d left. She sneezed, giving me a wounded look.

Mrs. McMannath’s room (for I could find no sign of a Mr. McMannath in it) was velvet-filled and reeked of vile perfume. I spread the curtains, freeing the windows, and weak sunlight washed the room in murky yellow. I scrubbed at the stains in her carpets, the stains on the bedside tables, the stains in the bedcovers. I picked up the corpses of clothing lying scattered and dead and draped them over the backs of chairs. No matter how I scrubbed or the amount of spray I loosed in the air, the scent of sorrow and decay refused to flee, and eventually I left the room alone, admitting defeat. Fiona followed after me, pulling all the curtains closed again as we went.

When I reached the landing that led to the forbidden floor, I paused, and I could feel Fiona’s eyes on me, appraising. I must have stayed there for at least five minutes, listening to the empty of the house, wondering the things I wondered. At last I dropped my arms and turned myself back around, and Fiona blinked at me as if to say yes, I thought so.

I’d saved the kitchen for last, and just in time, too, as the thermometer in the poultry crept upwards toward 160. The kitchen was the cleanest to begin with; I spent most of my time there and was forever tidying up and scrubbing little vicious scrubs here and there. I had gotten my knack for cleaning from my mother, who during my childhood was someone’s else’s maid, and while I liked to think of myself as being a step above (the old English title of “governess” always echoed in my mind), there were times when I knew I had disappointed her, and, more to the point, myself.

The table perfectly set and the poultry carved, I called the girls into the dining room to sit and left them there for a moment. I walked the hall to their mother’s office and gave a soft knock at the door. I pressed my ear against the walnut finish and listened. I heard nothing. No reply, no clacking of keys. I gave another, louder knock.

“Mrs. McMannath,” I said, making my voice pleasant and light. “Dinner is ready. The girls are sitting down. I cooked a hen.”

Still no response.

I waited a moment and knocked again. “Mrs. McMannath,” I called out. The only thing I could hear was my own breathing.

I returned to the kitchen. “Do you know,” I asked the sisters, “whether your mother is well?”

Olivia looked at me and said nothing. Fiona rolled her eyes.

“Mother,” she said, “is always all right.”

“She’s right, you know.” I was startled by Olivia’s voice. I couldn’t recall in that moment whether I’d ever heard it before. “Mother is always all right.”

The pair of them stared up at me, unsmiling. I felt they were saying something I couldn’t grasp the meaning of.

“We’d like to eat now,” said Fiona.

I looked to Olivia, but she turned her eyes back to her plate, letting her pale hair fall across her face.

“All right, then.” I didn’t know what else to do, so I filled their plates with food and let them to it. I myself had no appetite. I was miffed at my lost chance to explore the upstairs, and underneath that, a dark plume of unease had begun to unfurl in my belly.

After putting the girls to bed that evening, I made my way back to the walnut door of Mrs. McMannath’s office. I pressed my ear up against it. I tried the handle. It was loose and the door swung open. I peered inside, trying to see in the dark. My fingers found a switch and I flipped it to  illuminate an empty room. My heart sank along with my stomach. I tried to think back to the last time I’d seen the woman – was it five days ago? Six? A small desk held the typewriter, armed and loaded with a blank piece of paper, and stacked neatly to the left of the typewriter lay piece after piece of blank, white paper. Apart from that, there was no sign of anything peculiar, other than the obvious absence.

I tried to think. I wondered if I should wake the girls. I let my footsteps carry me swiftly to the master bedroom, praying I would find a lump in the bed.

No lump.

Next, determined, I made my way toward the forbidden landing. I tip-toed up the stairs, and up the other stairs. I reached for the door, my heart beating faster and faster until I thought it might fly out of my throat and into my mouth.

I grasped the knob. The door was locked. Tears of frustration flowered in my eyes. What to do, what to do, whispered in me till I grew dizzy.

I took myself to the kitchen once more. I put on a kettle, dug through a cabinet for chamomile.

While I waited for the water to boil, I sat myself down. The doll’s house sat in front of me, quiet and dark like the thing it represented. I opened tiny cupboards to find tiny folded linens and tiny silver spoons. I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch, but Fiona wasn’t here, and neither was her foreboding. I opened closets and pulled out dresses and scarves no bigger than my thumb. I made my way from room to room, poking, exploring.

The whistle on the stovetop called to me and I stood, eye level with the top of the house. My eyes pulled toward the forbidden wing. I let out a startled cry and instantly smothered it with my palm.

The attic room was no longer empty.

“We told you not to touch,” I heard from the doorway, and if my hand hadn’t been held to my still-gaping mouth, another cry might have escaped.

Fiona and Olivia stood there in the dim light, watching me.

“Girls,” I said, trying to collect myself.

The whistle of the kettle morphed into a scream.

I tried to swallow but couldn’t. Tears threatened again, storm clouds on the backs of my eyelids. The sisters continued to stare, their faces young and grim.

I glanced back to the doll’s house. I had to have been imagining. But no: in the attic room, a minuscule sheet, drenched and crimson, dripping. Gashes of red on the white canvas walls. Horror gurgled in my throat.

I forced myself toward the stove, diminishing the flame. I couldn’t hide the spasms in my hands as I moved the kettle, attempted to pour.

“Let’s all,” I said, “go back to sleep.” I gave the girls a feeble smile.

“It’s too late for that,” said Fiona. Olivia nodded, mournful.

I swallowed.

“Where,” I said, looking them in the eyes, conjuring what I hoped was a stern expression, “is your mother?”

Their faces gave me nothing. Olivia walked out of the doorway toward me and all the muscles in my body tightened as my breathing held. She reached for the kettle, and my teacup. She poured the steaming water atop the waiting teabag and held the cup out. Her hands were steady. Her eyes connected to mine and she nodded, as if to say, take. You’ll need this.

Somehow Fiona was directly at my side, too, and I nearly dropped the tea, my nerves in overdrive.

“Can you remember,” she asked, peering up into my face, “how old you were when you came here?”

“Well,” I said, but before I could answer, she continued.

“We can’t.”

“You’re seven,” I said, and my eyebrows frowned in confusion. “And Olivia, you’re fourteen.”

Fiona gave me a look like she was disappointed in me.

“And you’re forty, I suppose,” she said.

Olivia had started to cry; fat, round pearls slipping in silence down her cheeks.

“It’s the house,” she whispered, so softly I almost couldn’t hear.

Fiona nodded, gave a sigh of regret, put her little girl hand on my own.

“Miss. Nobody who ever comes here ever leaves.”

“But your father,” I said. “His job.”

“He built the house,” said Fiona. “He was allowed.”

She turned toward the miniature house, glancing at her sister as she did. “Until this. He thought it would work like a safe, keeping us here, locked in, in case anything happened to him on the outside. I don’t expect he realized it wouldn’t like him leaving, either.”

“The men who brought the doll’s house!” I was excited to remember. “They left, too.”

But Olivia shook her head solemnly, and Fiona’s eyes glowed.

“Those who try,” little Fiona said, still holding my hand, “never come back.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” I said, attempting a laugh. “Isn’t that the point?”

“You don’t understand,” said Olivia, and her voice was breaking. “They’re still here.” And she reached a hand out, still untrembling, and pointed a pale finger toward the doll’s house, toward the basement windows I had never thought to peer through. I swallowed, stalled. My body didn’t know how to behave: in one minute, chills, in another, dizziness. For an entire five seconds I forgot how to breathe, and nearly passed out from the burning swell in my lungs and throat. I wasn’t sure I could handle whatever revelation they were trying to bestow.

I knelt in front of the kitchen table. Fiona stood by my side. I looked at them both, begging wordlessly for an answer apart from what I knew I was about to find. Their faces were an impasse. I put the ball of my eye up against the miniature windows, my eyelashes fluttering against the pane.

What I saw there I cannot unsee. I withdrew with a choke. I began to weep, now, too; low and moaning. Fiona’s hand was at my back, a pitiful pat, a child’s attempt to console. I assumed the two of them had already seen what I’d just laid eyes on. For a moment I wondered where the entrance to the basement was, but realized just as quickly that I didn’t want to know. I never wanted to go down there. I never wanted to witness again what I’d just now witnessed.

“There’s no way out,” I said, or perhaps I asked it. Neither of the two said anything, but Olivia shook her head from side to side, eyes still crying, and I could feel a heavy sheet of hopelessness drape itself over my shoulders, my head, my entire body.

So this was it, I thought. This was going to be my life. These walls. This oven. That grandfather clock. And even though it already had been, and I had lived day to day, unquestioning and unconcerned, the knowing now made me want to retch.

“We can destroy it,” I whispered. In one swift movement, as if daring them to stop me, I reached for a kitchen drawer and yanked it open, my hands scrambling inside for the matchbook I knew lay tucked inside. Finding it, I struck a flame and moved back toward the house.

Olivia continued to cry but Fiona’s face was empty of feeling. She watched my frenzy as if reading a book to which she already knew the last page. I held the match to the corner lattice of the roof and it burst into light. I moved it inward, letting it lick the edges of curtains, tablecloths, bedclothes. The flame of the match burned until it kissed my fingertips and I dropped it on a tiny rug, the pinprick of pain barely registering.

The entire house crackled. The girls’ eyes glittered, reflecting the fire. The heat kindled my face and I could feel moisture blooming at my temples.

Slowly, the flames receded, a tide going out. Soon the light was extinguished. The doll’s house, painted and pristine, remained erect, untouched. Nothing had shifted except the bloody attic scene where the red had dried into a sickly brown. I rushed to the sink and my shoulders shook as I shoved my head into the porcelain womb, dry heaving.

“There’s a hammer in the umbrella stand,” Fiona said over my shoulder, “if you want to try. But it won’t work. Nothing will.”

In time, we moved because we had to. I heard my mother’s voice in my head: staying put in one’s fear is not a forever option. Together we found a thick, woolen blanket in the back of one of the linen closets, and the three of us pulled it over the house and the table. We pushed it into a corner and brought another, smaller table in from the sitting room. Fiona made tea again for all of us. She forced Olivia and I to drink. When we finished, she led us to our rooms and put us in our beds, tucking us in like dolls, kissing our foreheads gently. Turning out the lights.

*

It was breakfast time, and what a breakfast. I had no sense of time anymore, what day or what year it could be, but I’d woken up that morning and felt a sense of wholeness, like words were finding their way back to me. I ran through them in my brain: loquacious, gamut, bombinating. I could remember the meaning of everything.

I called to the girls to draw them downstairs. I looked over the array of food to see whether I’d missed anything. There were strawberries, generously sprinkled with sugar; there were waffles, fluffy and buttermilk. The syrup steamed, the sausage wafted. Sunlight flowed through the windows. It had rained the night before, and this morning, everything was light. Everything was bathed in gold.

Olivia entered, and she smiled to see the spread. She dipped a finger into the berries and I didn’t even scold. She sat in anticipation, and I stirred the last of the eggs on the stove, scrambling them out of the pan and into a glass dish, which I brought along with myself to the table.

As I sat, smiling at the girl before me, I took a deep breath. From the corner, the gray mass that was the doll’s house stood in stoic silence. It was all right though, I thought. Certain mornings were like this. Certain mornings, if I tried hard enough to empty my mind, were the way they’d been before: unfathomable, sprinkled with joy, if only because I knew they couldn’t last.

“Do you know,” I asked Olivia then, after a moment’s pause, “where is your sister?”

And as soon as I’d said it, we heard the front door slam, and we shot up, the look of terror on her face mirroring my own. We rushed to the door and opened it, but all that stretched before us was empty lawn and the street where no cars seemed to pass. We both hovered there, wanting to move, unable. Neither of us could bring ourselves to take a step. Reluctantly I closed the door, and we rushed back to the kitchen, broad windows overlooking the backyard and the trees and the emptiness beyond.

We saw her then. She had on a coat, crimson and bold. Her dark curls bobbed in the sun. I wondered how many years she’d been here, and for how long she’d dreamt of this moment. Olivia pressed her hands to the window, eyes glued outside. From somewhere deep and guttural below our feet, the house groaned. The doll’s house underneath the blanket began to vibrate.

Together we took a breath. The figure ran. For a moment, we really believed it, that this was all it took, that the day was as bright and as kind as it looked. That freedom was as easy and simple as opening the front door. Deciding to run.

We looked at each other, and again out the window. The flash of red was nowhere to be seen.

~

Erin McIntosh is a Los Angeles-based writer whose fiction has appeared in Two Serious LadiesHobart, and Noble / Gas Qtrly. More than 30 of her poems have been published internationally in journals including Bone Bouquet, Lavender Review, Vending Machine Press, and Two Hawks Quarterly. Visit her at www.erinmcintoshofficial.com.

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