Updated: Apr 14, 2022
By Nora Sun
Doll has round blue eyes and wide pink lips like Jane. She has chubby red cheeks and thick brown hair like Jane. She’s the length of Jane’s forearm, just the right length for Jane to tuck into her chest, just right for Jane.
Jane loves Doll.
Jane carries Doll everywhere she goes. After Jane hunts for Mama, she gives Doll half of her beetle shells even though Doll can’t eat. They sit together with Mama by the roadside, and Jane talks to Doll even though Jane’s voice annoys Mama. When Jane is scouting the road for Mama, she carries Doll on her shoulders because Doll likes to be high up so she can be the first to see all the pretty views. When the sun is too bright, Jane covers Doll’s eyes so they don’t ache like hers do. When Jane is washing clothes for Mama, she also washes Doll’s dress. The blue of that dress has faded into white after being tenderly scrubbed so many times. Jane sleeps with Doll at night. When there are stars, she makes sure to lay Doll on her back so Doll can see them too. Doll loves the stars.
Mama hates Doll.
The first time Mama saw Doll seven years ago, her face became scary. Her eyes narrowed. Her gums flashed. Spit flew. Mama slapped Jane. Called Jane “idiot girl” over and over. Asked Jane who gave her Doll.
Jane told her that Boy gave her Doll. She doesn’t know Boy’s name. She thinks Boy felt sorry for when he saw her sitting alone at the town market, and that’s why he gave her Doll.
That made Mama slap Jane again. Then she made Jane leave that town even though Jane liked not having to walk all the time. When Jane asks Mama where they are going, Mama gets mad. When Mama gets mad, she wraps her fist around the locket she always wears around her neck, and her cheeks turn beet red. Jane and Doll like to laugh about it in secret.
It’s alright if Mama doesn’t like Doll because Jane knows that all the love that she gives Doll has been building up inside Doll. One day, Doll will have enough love to be reborn as a real girl, human in every way. Then, Jane and Doll will be best friends forever.
Jane and Mama spend the day walking like they always do. They follow the main road that all the Nomads follow, but they walk into the woods when they see City people coming. The City people don’t like Nomads. Once, a group of City people walked behind them on the road. They rode carriages and didn’t like that Jane and Mama walked too slowly on foot.
A few of the men got out of the carriages. Mama tried to offer them Jane, but they weren’t interested. Some of Mama’s fingers fell off that day.
Jane doesn’t like the City people. They are weird. They live in houses instead of moving from place to place. Jane hasn’t seen a house in years. When night falls and the air grows cold, Jane and Mama make a place in the grass by the road to sleep.
But then, Mama points at Doll and says, “After tomorrow, you won’t have that stupid thing anymore.”
“What?” Jane whispers, unbelieving. She’s always had Doll. She does not know what Mama means.
“We’re going to the Doll Deconstruction Factory,” Mama announces. “That thing is coming too close to being alive.”
Jane has heard of the Doll Deconstruction Factory. They take apart little girls’ dolls so that they can never come alive. They are Jane’s idea of evil.
Jane shakes her head, tears streaming down her face. “I’ll take care of her when she comes alive!” Jane pleads. “I promise! I-I already give her half of my food. She won’t bother you!”
Mama spits in Jane’s face. The wet glob rolls down Jane’s cheek. Mixes with her tears. “You can’t take care of anything,” Mama says.
“Mama, please,” Jane says, because she doesn’t know what else she can say, “Mama pleaseMamaplease….” Mama has never changed her decision, no matter how hard Jane pleads, once she’s made up her mind. Jane tries her hardest to convey every ounce of desperation she feels in those three syllables anyway. Mama just turns away.
“Go to bed,” Mama commands emotionlessly.
Jane screams. She runs away from Mama, clutching Doll to her chest. She runs deeper and deeper into the woods. She runs until her lungs burn. Until her tears are dried up by the wind. Until the world goes dark, and Jane’s body swoops towards the ground.
Mama can smell Jane. She finds Jane in the early morning when the sky is still dark blue. Pours a bucket of cold water on Jane’s head. Calls Jane a parasite. Commands Jane to do her chores. Forces Jane to give Mama all the beetle shells she hunts.
Mama only gives Jane her small portion after Jane apologizes until her throat is dry and agrees to follow Mama.
Mama drags her off the dirt road, away from the other Nomads, into the forest. She makes Jane walk through thorns that make her ankles bleed and streams that soak her cuts in grimy water. Slaps her back like she’s a horse when Jane moves too slowly. Jane walks without food until she can only see black and purple stars.
“Look!” Mama screams when they finally stop. Her nails dig into Jane’s face. Force her eyes wide open. Makes her look at the mountain before her and realize that it’s not a mountain at all.
It’s a nest of starving bones in the landfill. It’s a mass grave.
“This is what happens to dolls who are loved too much by little girls!” Mama screams.
These are the mounds where dolls that come alive and become unwanted are discarded, Jane thinks. This place is a whisper among Nomads. Jane didn’t know that it was real.
Jane looks closer and realizes that some of the limbs on the mountain are moving. One girl, her face so emaciated and her eyes so green that she looks alien, is trying to crawl out. Suddenly, she tumbles downwards from the mound, past a stack of bodies several meters tall, before landing in the grass.
Jane automatically moves forward. Mama grabs her wrist and curses at her.
The girl’s neck is bent at an awkward angle. There is a trickle of blood from her thin lips. Her green eyes are wide-open, and Jane thinks they are looking straight into hers, but Jane knows that she is dead.
Finally, Jane understands. Mama doesn’t want another mouth to share the beetle shells Jane hunts. If Doll comes alive, Mama will force Jane to abandon her here like the green-eyed doll.
Later, when Mama is asleep, Jane whispers, “Am I bad?” Am I bad for loving Doll too much? For wanting, just a little, to bring her into a world where she will only suffer? Just so I can meet her?
Mama doesn’t answer, but Jane already knows what Mama will say: selfish, stupid, sentimental girl. Then Mama will slap Jane for waking her up.
The Doll Deconstruction Factory is a metal expanse in the northern country. A sea of smokestacks pumps out gray clouds in front of the pale blue mountains.
The inside smells sterile, and the air is cold. Jane sits in a waiting room with dusty white walls while Mama talks to a lady behind the front desk. It’s been so long since Jane has been indoors.
Jane cradles Doll close to her chest. She has been holding Doll here for seven years now. Doll has soaked up her tears and listened to her lullabies. Doll has survived Mama’s angry words and the Borderlands’ harsh winters with Jane. She’s had Doll when she’s had nothing. What will Jane’s hands feel like without Doll’s weight?
Jane focuses on the only poster on the bare walls. It has a picture of a faceless doll with a red cross through it. Messily written above this are the words: “REMINDER - WOMEN WITH ANDOs & ANDOs ARE PROHIBITED FROM ENTERING THE CITY.” In smaller text, the poster says: “Is her cotton body really worth your life?” Jane knows that ANDOs are animated dolls. Dolls that come alive because the girls who own them love them so much. She knows that it’s all because of overpopulation in the City. Even with all the new factories, they couldn’t make enough food to feed humans and ANDOs. Law 132 discourages the creation of ANDOs by banishing all ANDOs and the girls who created them to life as Nomads.
Jane realizes that life is better in the City. That must be why girls would abandon their dolls so they could stay there.
Mama is done talking. Two women wearing thin colorless robes open a side door. They have shadows under their eyes and calluses on their hands. They don’t seem evil. They just seem tired.
Jane walks silently into the room, holding Doll tighter. This room is a smaller version of the last. It is empty except for a metal slab on the other side of the room and a white plastic bin beneath.
Jane takes a deep breath.
“They make you watch,” Mama told her. “They say watching helps you let go.”
Jane expects them to at least ask her name. But they don’t. One woman just stands by the door. The other extends her hands.
Jane stares at those hands. They are pale yellow with scarred palms and long fingers. She knows that she will remember them for a long time.
She lifts Doll to her chest. Feels Doll’s surface against her beating heart for the last time. Looks at Doll’s eyes and Doll’s dress and Doll’s smile. Tries to memorize every bit of Doll. Each time she moves to give Doll away, she hesitates and pulls Doll back to her.
After an eternity, she finally puts Doll in the woman’s hands.
Immediately, cold air rushes into the places where Doll used to be. Jane shivers violently. Her hands move idly around her. She’s not sure what to do with them now that she no longer has Doll to hold.
The woman puts Doll on the metal slab. Pulls out long, skinny scissors. Cuts off Doll’s dress. Snip, snip, snip. Tosses it aside. Digs a blade of those scissors into Doll’s hair. Cuts down Doll’s face. Snip, snip, snip.
Doll’s face bursts into cotton.
Suddenly, she realizes that she has forgotten how Doll’s legs look. It is just a small detail—were there stitches at the knees?
Jane lunges towards the table. The woman by the door is faster. She holds Jane’s arms. Jane thrashes in place. Words and saliva fly out of Jane’s mouth in a jumbled mess. She tries to explain that she’s not stopping them; she just needs to see. See Doll one last time. Hold Doll one last time. Even if there’s only half of Doll left. How could Jane forget so quickly after seven years?
When her words don’t make the woman’s grip loosen, Jane screams over and over. Her mouth opens so wide that she is more monster than girl. Her teeth are sharp. Full of wolf and lion. Her shrieks are carnal. They vibrate through the thin walls. Cut across the smokestacks. Send rifts into the dirt. Shake the villagers in the mountains. Makes earthquakes in the City.
Then her voice dies with a broken sound.
Jane’s mouth is still wide open, but nothing comes out. Her throat burns like it’s been torn open and painted with salt.
There’s nothing left of Doll on the table. All the cotton inside Doll is in the bin. The woman with scissors must’ve pocketed Doll’s cloth face somewhere.
Jane’s tears blur her view of the scene.
The woman wipes away Jane’s tears with rough hands. Says Doll is just a cotton, cotton and Jane’s dreams, and cotton can’t feel. Says it’s very silly for a smart young girl like Jane to ruin her life over a face woven from threads. Says Jane’s only spent twelve summers on this earth, and there are many more ahead of her. Says maybe one day Jane can get a new doll.
Takes the bin of cotton out and leaves Jane collapsed on the floor like another emptied doll.
A week later, Jane finally works up the courage to ask.
“Mama, let me see it, Mama, I wanna know, Mama, Mama, Mama, I love you, Mama,” Jane says over and over again, her small hands curled into fists on the front of Mama’s dirty dress. She makes her voice soft and small. Widens her eyes so they are round like a doll’s. I love you are the words that disgust Mama most.
Mama grips her wrists. Tries to rip those little fists away. Her yellow nails sink into Jane’s skin. Ugly red blood wells up everywhere. Jane’s hands shake violently, but she doesn’t let go.
“Fine!” Mama yells. “You want to see?” She rips the locket from her neck. The hook bursts against Mama’s neck. A few rusty iron links fall into the grass. Mama throws the locket onto the hard dirt, where the top of the locket cracks.
“Take it,” Mama yells. “Take it! God damn me if I want it!”
But Jane knows why Mama keeps it. She picks up the broken locket from the ground. Cradles it in her hands like it’s her life. Inside is a picture of a girl just a little older than Jane with pale hair and warm brown eyes. She’s wearing a shiny black dress with a slender waist. The girl is holding a fabric doll. The doll has round blue eyes and wide pink lips. It has chubby red cheeks and thick brown hair. It is the length of the girl’s forearm.
Jane barely recognizes Mama because the girl is smiling, and Jane has never seen Mama smile.
“Mama,” Jane says sweetly, “you looked so pretty.”
Jane knows that all the City girls take pictures with their dolls. These pictures are used as proof to banish the doll and the girl if the doll comes alive. She also knows that Mama stole hers from the Collection years ago, and Mama keeps it close to her as proof of what Jane is in case Jane tries to run away to the City instead of serving Mama.
But Mama doesn’t know that Jane knows this.
“Oh Jane,” Mama says, and she’s crying. Fat translucent drops slide down her ruddy cheeks.
“Mama,” Jane whispers, “Mama, why didn’t you take it”—because it looked like her, but it wasn’t her yet, it was just a doll, it was just cotton—“to the Factory?” If Mama never wanted her, she should’ve destroyed the doll. Then, maybe Jane’s soul could’ve been born into a human girl’s body. Maybe she could’ve been a happy daughter in the City like Mama once was.
But Mama doesn’t give an answer. Mama just cries and cries like a big baby. Jane knows that those tears are not for Jane; they are for the life she lost because of Jane.
Jane thinks of Doll. She wonders if Mama once loved her like that before she came alive and got Mama exiled. She must have loved Jane a lot to make her come alive.
Jane sees the City on the horizon. She no longer thinks that it is strange. Instead, she finds the metal towers and the glass buildings and the idea of a home rather charming.
Mama can’t enter the City. She’s dried and hardened like a prune, anger lines like scars on her face—a Nomad at first glance.
But the Factory woman was right. Jane is still young and pretty. She can enter after she destroys Mama’s locket.
Nora Sun is a Chinese-American writer from Chicago. She loves language, iliac crests, and brevity's talent for breeding mystery. She occasionally exists on Twitter @ortolons.
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