December 2018 WinnerPosted 15/01/2019 under Magazine,
December 2018 Contest Winner
Philippa Crundwell is a twenty-year-old writer hailing from Sussex, England. After winning the Peace One Day poetry competition in 2013, she had her debut poetry anthology commissioned and published, which launched in Waterstones in 2015. You can find out more about it here. You can also tweet Philippa @PipCrundwell.
The Russian Doll by Philippa Crundwell
The colours had faded. Or perhaps Martha’s memories had falsified their brightness. But now, as she looked at Polina, the blood red of her dress of old was now the pink of a bloody flower blooming in the snow. And the violet flowers on her dress were now the shade of the grey sky that had portended that snow. The scarf around her face was dimmed to almost the white of her cheeks, but her rosebud lips still shone out from her delicate features. These were the colours of time, she thought, as she stroked the woodwork of the doll. It had, indeed, been a long one.
Martha had been drawn to Polina as soon as she walked in the room. She had seen nothing else. But now, as she looked around her, at the skeletal bed and the empty shelves, she realised that it was deserted, and that there was nothing else to see.
“Why are you still here?” Martha asked the doll. “When everyone else is gone, why did they leave you?”
The doll didn’t respond.
Polina had been sitting on the windowsill when Martha came in. She, and the smaller Polinas were lined up like the foothills to the stony mountains that lay outside. The dolls had been stationed this way. Martha wondered whether the arrangement was the work of her parents, or whether it had been the evacuation team that had come to help clear out the house. Some sort of symbolic gesture. Neither seemed likely. They wouldn’t have given a second thought to Polina in the circumstances of upheaval. So perhaps the doll had done it herself. Maybe she had hidden until the people had left, then she and the little Polinas had taken up a front by the window, like soldiers, ready to defend the house from the inevitable.
Martha took off her coat which was flecked with the first flakes of snow. Hanging it on the hook behind the door she smiled. She was home again.
“Cold outside?” asked a voice.
Martha turned around and discerned that the speaker was one of the inhabitants of the windowsill.
“Oh,” stumbled Martha, “yes, it is.”
“You seem surprised,” said the biggest doll.
“Well, I am. I didn’t think you’d talk to me again.”
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” retorted the doll.
“I’m sorry,” said Martha, “Polina, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the doll. “Why have you come back? You left ten years ago and never came to visit us in all that time. And now that they’re gone…”
“I know,” said Martha. “I need to look around. Do you mind if I take you? This place feels lonely and…”
“That’s fine,” replied Polina, “you don’t need to explain. I’d rather not sit on the windowsill waiting for…” she tailed off.
Martha unscrewed each of the Polinas and placed them one inside the other. She was one unit again.
“So,” began Martha, regarding Polina. For a moment she saw a smiling five year old reflected in the gloss of the paintwork. She recalled the excitement she’d felt when her father had first brought the doll home.
“Where did you get her from, Daddy?” she’d asked him.
“A wise woman in the Land of Ice and Snow gave it to me,” he’d told her.
“Really?” Martha had said, shaking the doll. She’d heard it rattle with secrets, or laughter. “From the Land of Ice and Snow?”
“Yes, the Land of Ice and Snow.”
“I’m going to live there when I’m grown up,” his daughter had said.
“But wouldn’t you miss the springs and the summers and the autumns?”
“No. The snow is the most fun,” she’d said, and shook her snow globe to show her new doll.
“Silly girl,” her father had said, and went back to reading his newspaper. His face had gone back to being sad, as it always was when he read the papers. Martha had wanted him to play with her and Polina and make up a story, but she’d thought she better not interrupt him because the news always put him in a bad mood.
An electric crackle snapped Martha back to the present. She spun round, half expecting her parents to appear behind her, but the room remained empty. Then the sound of music drifted through the walls. It was a song she recognised.
“You’d better find out where that’s coming from,” advised Polina.
“But I’m not supposed to be here,” began Martha as she tried to open the window. “No, it’s locked. Do you suppose they locked all the windows up here?”
“I don’t see why they would have,” smiled Polina, “it’s not like anybody would want to break in. There’s nothing here to steal and there’s nobody here to steal it.”
“You’re right,” Martha agreed, “I suppose everyone’s left by now.”
The music seemed to grow louder and Martha tried the windows again.
“What are you doing?” Polina asked.
Martha’s eyes flitted like the wings of a trapped bird.
“I might need to get out, Polina. You know that nobody’s supposed to be here. What if it’s the authorities downstairs? What if someone’s reported me?”
“Calm down,” said Polina, “I don’t think the authorities would play music upon their arrival.”
“No, you’re right. And if it’s all locked up no-one could get in without a key anyway, could they?” said Martha, venturing onto the landing.
“I don’t know,” said the doll, “you got in with a key. That means they haven’t changed the locks these past ten years.”
Martha’s brow became furrowed and a flicker of guilt twitched across her face.
“Perhaps they thought I’d come back,” she said.
“Well, you kept your key for all that time and what’s more – you have come back,” said Polina.
They crept downstairs, and the song was nearing its end. Martha brimmed with the urge to sing along to the howling final verse.
Aeeeaaaeee, wherever I go the snow will find me / Aeeeaaaeee, it seems the end is written now / But I will try to see the silver lining / Of a coffin in the ground.
The house was silent for a moment. Martha’s head was ringing with echoes of her parents singing voices. They’d always sung in the earlier years of her childhood, especially in the days when they were allowed to play music using electronic devices. But after the Curfew had come in and there was only an hour a day for using such things, the singing had stopped. There was no time for singing any more. Not after the troubles began. There were no more stories either.
Martha and Polina followed the crackling end notes of the song towards the kitchen. It seemed that that was where the sound had emerged from. There was another crackle and Martha jumped, almost dropping Polina, as a woman’s voice permeated the house.
“Areas 56 and 57 are being evacuated. Civilians are advised to remain in zones 1 – 45. Alert stage is now critical. Movement outside of safe zones has reached a Mortality Warning of 96%.”
“It’s the old radio,” said Martha, setting her doll on the table and examining the device, “I’m surprised it was playing music though. Isn’t that a bit odd?”
“What’s more worrying is that you’re here – in zone 51. You’re supposed to be in one of the safe zones,” said the doll, looking accusingly at her.
“What about this house? Do you just expect me to leave all this?” Martha said, moving towards the patio window which looked out onto the garden and the mountain range beyond.
“Then why didn’t you come back before? Why have you come back now? – The moment your parents left, and everything’s gone from this place,” asked the doll.
“Sometimes you only realise when it’s too late,” said Martha, watching the wind catch the swing that she’d played on so many summers of her childhood.
“But it’s not too late,” countered the doll; “your parents are still alive and well. You can go and find them, if you leave now.”
“But they’re not how they were, Polina, this world has changed them. I can’t stand them now. Everything is freezing or burning in this world; the people with it.”
She gasped as the wind bit hold of the garden swing and flung it up then down onto the branches of the apple tree, snapping the seat that her father had once made.
“It’s coming!” said Martha.
And at that moment the wind clattered against the windows and heaved through every vent and crack in the house walls. The curtains billowed and Martha caught the smell of her home as it used to be. The memory was somehow trapped in the folds of the fabric and now it engulfed her as she sucked it in through her nose and it reacted with the chemicals in her brain.
An image flashed of the day that she’d left the house ten years ago. Her bed had been made, as if she were to return to it that night. The teddies were lined up on the pillow. Some of her old clothes were still hanging up in her wardrobe. Jumpers – hole-ridden and impregnated with woodsmoke from years of camping in the mountain woods. Jumpers that were too soft and smelly and familiar to throw away. Yet they were unsuitable to bring with her into her new life and impractical for the new weather conditions. So, they were left there, in limbo, hanging in the deserted wardrobe, that was not to be opened for another ten years. And then there was her windowsill, with the arrangement of ornaments and objects that she’d collected throughout her childhood which stood as some kind of monument. The rock collection on the left, the snow-globes on the right, and, of course, Polina in the middle, ranged out in the seven ages of herself. Seven dolls in a row, from the Land of Ice and Snow. And then Martha realised that Polina had never been moved. It was her – Martha – or the eighteen-year-old version of herself that had arranged the dolls that way. And although all else had been swept out of the house when the alerts came in, Polina had been left, exactly as she’d been when Martha had closed the door on her room ten years ago.
“They didn’t want to touch you,” said Martha.
“Why?” asked Polina.
“They knew. And they were afraid.”
“What?” Polina stared at Martha as if she were mad.
“They knew you were a part of my childhood. They had to leave one thing standing. One thing from the old world, our old lives that they tried so hard to forget. But I never forgot, these past ten years I’ve been in mourning.”
“Is that why you never came back?”
“To come back would have been like opening the coffin and looking the corpse in the face,” said Martha.
“But everywhere else has been destroyed too,” argued Polina. “Everywhere is either melting or frozen, even the safe zones where they’ve tried to control things.”
“Yes, but here isn’t everywhere else. Here is the place that I sat on the swing to watch the sun climb over the mountains. Here is the place where I had adventures, sang songs, and wreaked havoc. This was the only place I was ever happy. Don’t you see?”
But the doll didn’t respond. The atmosphere began to groan and heave around the house and a splattering of snow salted the patio window. The view was obscured. Martha took flight up the stairs and entered her room.
“Don’t you see?” she said to the doll again, holding her up to the window. The scene outside was growing white and furious. It seemed that someone had dimmed the lights on the sun.
“So what will you do now?” said the doll.
Martha did not respond.
The mountains and garden were now whitewashed with snow. And the wind began churning up stones and trees in its swirling white saliva. The windows rattled and clattered as if some howling white demon was trying to break in.
“What will you do now?” asked the doll again.
But now was too late; for the windows smashed and a gale full of glass struck the doll and the girl and they were blasted backwards into the wall. A shower of paint and plaster fell around them like snow.
The girl wheezed a breath and a trickle of blood dropped from her skin and onto the wooden doll.
She could see that the world had become a snow globe around them. And that they were in the house trapped at the centre of the dome which some fool had shaken or thrown, and now the snow was swirling, swirling out of control. The glass itself was cracking.
And somehow Martha was smiling.
“I’m home now,” she said. But she could see that the doll was crying.
“Is this what you came here for?” asked the doll.
But Martha didn’t reply, for she was old enough to know that dolls didn’t speak and that the Land of Ice and Snow was no real place on earth. She closed her eyes and her hands loosened. The doll rolled onto the floor.
And at this moment the mountains trembled for the ache of the lost world and the ground began to move. And although the girl’s eyes were closed, she could feel the tremors in her bones. The earth rumbled as a sea of snow descended down the valley towards the house.
And down in the kitchen the radio crackled and the final verse of the song blared once more. Then all was silenced, for there was no radio; there was no kitchen; no bedroom; and no girl. For everything was white. And everything was buried. The land was snow and nothing more.