The Magician’s Doll
When he was thirty-six, the magician took a wife—a plain and plump and doughy thing, because no one could possibly accuse him of being vain. On their wedding day, he made the water jump in heart-shaped arcs, and the flowers grow in gold, and even took credit for the brightness of the Sun—although, in reality, he couldn’t control the weather—and she, ever-in-admiration, said “I do” with tears of hot devotion smudging her rouge. But no music played as she walked down the aisle, for the magician abhorred the sound of song.
This was the only aspect of the wedding on which they had argued; the magician’s wife was, generally, a very quiet woman. For when he was angry with her, he made her bathwater boil, and her hair clips bite her, and the doors in the house would screw themselves shut. She, poor thing, would weep alone in her room nursing burns and bruises with a sheen of devoted fascination in her eyes. It was a contract of compliance from the very beginning. But everyone thought she was lucky; she, too, thought she was very lucky, to be the magician’s wife. He treated everything he owned with utmost care. And so it did not seem such a sacrifice to listen to music only when he was out, and begin to host silent parties, and to lock up her flute and her harp in the attic.
As soon as she started showing, he sent for a midwife, and only the best would do. And he paid magnificently; for such a sterling reputation, he was willing to go above and beyond her already arguably extortionate rates. The midwife—a practical and forthright woman, with little patience for magicians—considered this a not-unreasonable fee for coping with all his pretences.
Nine months, in the end, proved too long to do so, and she left part way through the pregnancy in an almighty huff.
Embittered by the experience, the magician took over his wife’s care himself, although—as the midwife had pointed out—he was a magician and not a medic, earning his keep with performing animals and enchanted furniture. His wife’s condition deteriorated. The magician, still, did not call anyone. His pride had been wounded.
He did, in the end, regret that he did not ask for help before it was too late.
By the time he had considered how hopeless things were, it was apparent even to him that no sorcerer, however powerful, would be able to ensure her survival. So he shouted, and cried, and cursed the town’s trees with a terrible rot (it didn’t work), and then gave her a draught that would make her sleep.
The magician remembered, always, the weather of that night. It was a pale winter night, the air all heavy with rain. Once she had fallen asleep, he took her—his wife, his astonishingly devoted young wife, who had believed completely that he was qualified to care for her—and cut her open to take the child.
It was a girl.
The magician’s wife was dead within the hour, but that was not the story that he told. In fact, at first, he told them nothing; even his sister-in-law was turned away from the majestic magician’s gates in that initial period of grief. But eventually, he made an announcement—all dressed in black, and pale as her corpse—that both she and his son had passed, and that he was in mourning. Aside from any very urgent magical requests from the townsfolk, which would have to go through his staff, he would not leave; his new curtains, all black, would remain drawn; and, he announced, he would be taking no visitors, for an indefinite period of time.
“You can’t stay there completely isolated,” the baron told him. “Now’s the time to be around others.”
“I will be fine,” said the magician. “I am making myself a doll for company.” And on that he would take no further questions. But indeed, he called the daughter he had cut from his wife, his doll; taught her to walk stiffly, used magic to shape her baby features, and had her obey as if she had simply no inclination to do otherwise. The year she was sixteen, he presented Melissa to the baron, who could not believe his eyes.
Hours after the magician had left, the baron sat brooding by the fire. . The doll, in her strangeness, was fascinating; he could barely believe that his friend had created such a thing, nor imagine the depths of darkness he must have been engulfed in to do so. “Grief, terrible grief,” he repeated, for perhaps the sixth time that evening. “And loneliness. Perhaps we should have visited.”
“I don’t see how we’d get inside a magician’s gates, dear,” said the baroness.
Silence. And then, “Don’t you think, the doll looked a little like poor Margery?”
“Don’t be absurd,” she said, surprised —”his wife, bless her, couldn’t be less like that pretty doll. I wonder if the magician would make a miniature for the children?”
The magician, of course, refused all such requests, claiming that he wished to move on from that dark age of his life. Soon the word spread, that the famous magician had outdone himself despite his misery and built a wonderfully lifelike doll. She spoke like a girl; she looked like one. She bled real blood and cried real tears. It was simply marvellous.
He was seen out in town again, inviting guests and performing the kind of services and enchantments that he had once before—a talking mirror, an enchanted suit of armor. He even managed at last to get a horse to speak, although that was rather a failure, since the horse was very rude.
But his doll, Melissa, continued to live in the confines of the castle—only now it was worse, because she was expected to entertain. The people were new, that was true enough; and some were even kind. But as they believed her incapable of exhaustion or pain, many of the guests had no consideration for her; they often wished to inspect her craftmanship, which she hated; and they marvelled at everything she did, from the way she walked to the way she spoke, as if she were some kind of parrot. All the admiration was, of course, directed at the preening and peacocking magician since they barely considered her sentient. Nor did the magician. He had a fascinating ability to convince himself of his own lies.
When not working, Melissa would wait—in anticipation or dread, she could never tell—for the next guest, staring out of the jade turrets of the magician’s famous castle.
The summer she suspected herself to be twenty-one, the first guest to arrive was named Edmund. She noted, curiously, that he walked; most of her father’s guests arrived by carriage, if not at least by horse.
Edmund’s horse, as it happened, was long gone, lost in a night of drunken revelry. He was the least well-established of all his father’s sons, and any attempts at making something of him were rebuffed. He spent very little time at home—very little time anywhere, really, floating whimsically along with the companionship of his flute. He had enough charm to be dependent on it.
It worked well enough on the magician, especially once he had invoked his noble father; a room was soon prepared for him to stay overnight. Further, in the spirit of his famed generosity, the magician arranged for a horse with which Edmund could ride back in the morning. Any need, he said, would be taken care of by Melissa, who stood very still in the corner of the room. Edmund did not wish to look at her.
He had heard, of course, much about the doll, who bled real blood and cried real tears—but he thought, seeing her, that she was a deeply tragic thing. Her eyes were frighteningly wide, but too comprehending to be empty; her movements did not seem manufactured so much as they were unnatural, slow and stiff as if they pained her. He ate his pheasant looking at her as little as possible—the magician, laughing, enquired as to why he was so scared.
“She doesn’t bite! You have your father’s face; I thought I’d see more of him in you.”
“So did he,” said Edmund, who had become remarkably sick of the subject of the Lordship his father. The magician, as he expected, ignored the bite, and instead laughed heartily; he loved the company of people like Edmund, funny and careless, although he inwardly harbored for them a kind of mild scorn. Edmund sensed it; he knew that the magician was formulating a kind of moral lesson in each joke that he told, that in a few weeks, he would have an important guest over, and say, “I met Lord Barclay’s youngest son just the other day, and he’s done nothing despite all his father has given him.” So he drank his wine as quickly as he could, and excused himself early, citing tiredness.
Melissa watched him leave. She had, thus far, no opinion of Edmund; she was always glad not to be the focus of the room, but there was something dehumanizing in being ignored, especially as an object of discomfort.
“Our guest dislikes you, Melissa,” said the magician. “He has avoided looking at you all night long.”
She said nothing.
“You should be hospitable,” he continued. “We’re good friends with Lord Barclay. You’ll remember the work I did for Lord Barclay—I made the roast chickens dance at one of his dinners.”
Melissa, still, said nothing. She had never been to a proper dinner, at least not as a guest; the magician did not trust her to mingle freely upon very many people. She had viewed parties, onstage as part of one of his demonstrations.
“You should ensure that he has everything that he needs for the night,” the magician concluded, having finished reminiscing on his performing poultry. “No wine, mind. I think yesterday he must have been drunk.”
“Yes, sir,” said the magician’s doll.
Melissa had planned to leave Edmund as her final chore of the day, as she usually did with people. There was no knowing how long they would keep you. But the sound of music interrupted her.
Melissa had never heard the flute. She’d seen pictures of one. The magician said songs interrupted his thinking. They’d had a housekeeper that hummed, but he had sacked her; even at the parties where Melissa performed, there had been nothing playing while she was onstage. And now here was Edmund, staying in the magician’s house, casually playing the flute.
Melissa was well used to thinking about the magician without crying. Evenings spent resisting provocation from amused guests, who thought her nothing more than a wind-up toy who might produce her famous tears if they were lucky, had taught her composure. But it was brittle—she had often wondered how long it would last—and, that night, it all fell apart at the sound of his song.
The flute was soft, delicate, stirring. It dragged through all her thoughts like flooding water. It pierced to the very marrow and extracted from it the tears that she had stored there. Melissa had imagined her heart, the construction of it, a thousand different ways, but now she was quite sure it was an instrument—a harp or a piano like she had seen in books, and Edmund was pressing the keys or plucking the strings with every beautiful note.
At some point, her sobs—the kind of sobbing she had been punished for as a child, most certainly not doll-like—must have overtaken the sound of the music, because Edmund opened the door. Melissa tried to calm herself, but in her panic, the sounds she made were all the more guttural. Edmund stood there astonished—wondered, for a second, if she was malfunctioning, and then saw the hunger with which she was looking at the flute and felt astonishingly guilty for the first thought.
“Are you alright?” he eventually asked.
Polite, Melissa noticed with some distraction. More polite than anyone would need to be, to a doll. She swallowed harshly and spoke with some semblance of normalcy.
“My apologies about the disturbance. The master sent me to ask whether you needed anything for the night.”
Edmund frowned. “No thank you,” he managed, with none of the surety with which he had commanded the instrument in his speech. And then, “are you sure you’re alright?”
“I apologize. I have just never heard music before,” Melissa said, the high pitch of her voice—which was, by virtue of her father’s early teachings, a kind of synthetic instinct—wavering with the strength of her emotion. “The master does not like it. He may be angry, to hear you play music.”
“He’s a bastard,” said Edmund, with a roughness that surprised both of them.
Melissa’s mouth opened. She knew she should defend the magician; that if he or any of the other servants were listening, that this would be world-ending. But the moment for obedience had passed—she had been so surprised, to hear someone think of him poorly, that her delight could not curl in on itself. She had not formulated an answer before Edmund spoke.
“Would you like to come in, Melissa?”
At that, she nodded mechanically, and followed him behind the closed door. Questions like that were orders. Orders for what, she did not know—Edmund seemed quite different from anyone she had ever met, but men had previously shocked her by the sheer speed with which monsters could break out from their skins. But she hoped that only wonderful things lay behind Edmund; she hoped that only good people could play beautiful music.
“You can sit down,” said Edmund, interrupting her musings.
Another order, disguised as a suggestion. Melissa did.
“Would you like to get yourself anything? Have you eaten?”
Dolls don’t eat, said the magician in her head. She dutifully repeated the words. Edmund raised an eyebrow; she could tell that he’d practiced the expression, as Melissa practised hers, and it felt suitably chastising.
“But you do, don’t you?”
Melissa ate in private, in silence. Guests were not supposed to know it happened. “Dolls don’t eat.”
“And are dolls moved by music?”
She did not want to respond. She had debated her own nature before and knew that it was always a course that failed her. With herself, she maintained a precarious victory, despite everything that the magician told her; one day, she had opened up her arm with a kitchen-knife, terrified that she’d see cogs and gears there, but it had been real blood and real tissue just like the rumors said. And she was confident that the magician could not have built a real person. It wouldn’t take a God several months to make a horse talk.
With others, she never won. She could not. They did not believe her capable of reason, so it followed on that all she said was unreasonable; a machine advanced enough to be deluded was still a machine. It was best to simply comply.
“I was made by the magician.”
“And why,” asked Edmund softly, “would he make a doll that so loves music, if he so despises it?”
Melissa opened her mouth, and then closed it again. It seemed amazing to her that Edmund had known already of the magician’s hatred for music and decided to play it anyway. Now, he moved towards it again, as if he was going to play it.
“Don’t,” she said hastily—too hastily, not doll-like, she thought. Idiot. “It is not for me to question the magician. But I know that he does despise music, and if he hears it, he might turn you out.”
In the end, it was the sight of her hand—trembling, slightly, despite all her efforts—that convinced Edmund of his next course. Maybe the magician had made her, maybe not; but, in either case, she was a real girl. Too real to be locked up in a castle and treated as a doll.
“My horse will be ready tomorrow morning,” he said abruptly. “And you can ride with me if you like.”
Melissa’s eyes widened. “Sir—”
“I play the flute all the time, so you can hear it, and I move from place to place, so the magician shouldn’t find you. We can make a disguise of some kind, if need be. And you’ll be free to do as you want.”
The idea, as he voiced it, seemed slightly different from all his other absurd ideas; he wasn’t sure how, or whether, things would end. But it seemed very important, especially when he stared into Melissa’s blank, uncomprehending eyes.
“Dolls don’t have wants,” she said softly. Another command that came as easily as tying her pinafore.
“I don’t believe you are a doll.”
Not for the first time that night, she opened her mouth and nothing came out. Edmund had taken the harp she had for a heart and broke it into two. What a sentence! She thought she had imagined it; she had imagined it. Still imagined it, in fact, on nights when she had nothing but dreams to keep her living. The conjured words were a comfort blanket more than they were a hope.
But he had said it. Edmund had actually said it. And he played the flute.
Melissa wondered if he had been put up to this, if this was a cruel and elaborate trick of the magician’s, but then dismissed it. She felt exposed and shocked; if this was indeed some form of strange sadism, then whatever additional heaping of cruelty she would now earn herself seemed a fair price—if, of course, she could hear the flute just once again.
Edmund, she thought, was a terrible boy; a reckless and irresponsible boy, if he was not a liar. And to go with him would be terrible too.
But even a terrible girl was a girl. She was not a doll. And her decision was made.
“The magician will want me to tell you when your horse is ready,” she said, lifting her chin in an un-doll-like way that would prompt the magician to strike it. “I will. And we must be hospitable; he’ll let me out the gate to help you with it, if only you ask for my assistance.”
“You can’t play the flute while riding a horse,” Edmund said. Admittedly, he sounded rather disappointed. “Perhaps I should learn.”
Melissa did not—could not—respond. She had always thought that the magician’s death would be her escape, whether he died of natural causes or if she finally got her hands on some poison. But, perhaps, this was it; a horse, and a flute, and a boy who thought she was not a doll and might even be a friend.
The magician owned many friends. Melissa had envied not the company, but the companionship: all her life, she had been alone.
Now that might change.
The gates were behind her. She had feared that they would snap shut, reach out, swallow her or bite her or cut her into two. But it turned out that the gates did not even know that she was standing on the other side. A very poor magician had enchanted them, after all.
The pit of her stomach was screaming; it cried, go back, go back, go back. She kept thinking that she might be sick. But the horse was galloping fast enough that her nausea could be thrown to the wind. There would be no going back to the magician now; he would know what she had done, and would punish her terribly, because his illusions were already fading. The swollen roses of her cheeks were paling; her hands were getting bigger. Edmund said that her freckles were beginning to disperse across the rest of her face, and that her features were starting to look more proportional. Her eyes and nose felt like they folding, crumpling.
“The magician might not even recognize me,” she said in awe.
“You know what, I don’t think he will,” Edmund said, turning to look at her for as long as he could from his position at the front of the horse. “I’m probably what we’ll have to worry about, now that we’re on the run.”
The thought didn’t seem to disturb him. In fact, he was grinning; he’d always been planning an escape, Melissa thought, just like she had—they were each other’s hidden route, trap door. Her new life would not be stable. But Edmund—Edmund who was wild, and kind, and played the flute—could not be more different from the magician. It would at least be new.
“I’ll need a new name,” he said happily. “I’ll show you the ropes of the big wide world. We’ll find a few more friends to travel with, since they’ll be looking for a two. And it’ll be a new life.”
The horse rode faster still. The sun was crowning itself on the horizon. Melissa wondered if she should also choose a new name and thought about having even more friends. She wondered if she could learn an instrument.
Dolls don’t play music, she thought, suddenly sick with glee as well as worry. But what was she? Not a doll anymore. And so, she concentrated on the brightness of the Sun, which seemed closer on the hills than it ever had at the castle, and bared her twisting teeth to the wild wind.