I fell in love with her the moment I saw her with the head between her hands. No chill ran down my spine, no tingle of premonition — just the desire to possess her.
In Seattle, down near the ferry docks, there used to be a little run-down street lined with junk shops. They’re long gone and the street is different now, but when I was in college that was where I went when I was bored or blue. I was studying archaeology then. The decaying streets of the old waterfront were my Pompeii; the moldering shops contained the detritus of lost worlds.
It was the early 1950's. The war and the hard times were over. Young people wanted modern things; no one shared my taste for the past. I took Robert—my best friend at the time—just once. He started checking his watch within 10 minutes. After that, I always went alone.
But I was telling you about the doll. After the war soldiers brought dolls like her home by the boatload, Japanese dolls in glass showcases, wearing bright kimonos. Pretty, but cheap, and interesting mostly because they were foreign. She was different.
I suppose it was the head. She was kneeling and held it on her lap, displaying it to the observer like a prize. A severed head, with a look of terror on its face.
Rather unusual, yes? That was what initially drew my eye.
But her face was what held it. Her face—can I say this about a doll without sounding a bit mad? Her face was beautiful. Not puerile, like the face of a little girl’s china doll; as beautiful as a real woman’s. Her hair was black and straight, and hung to her waist. Her kimono was white, gone brown at the sleeves with age, and scattered with tiny red peonies.
She held the head between her hands and looked through her glass case serenely, with just the hint of a secret smile, like an Asian Mona Lisa.
She fascinated me.
“How much?” I asked the old man behind the counter.
“Her?” He closed his newspaper and looked at me sharply, sizing me up. “You like her? Make an offer.”
I hesitated. I expected she was worth more than I could afford in those student days. I usually spent just a dollar or two during my junk shop ramblings, and never more than five.
“The case is chipped,” I said.
“Yes,” the man said noncommittally.
“Kind of an old thing,” I added. “The cloth is turning brown.” I hesitated, waiting for him to respond. He didn’t oblige me, so I continued. “My mother might like it. She likes odd, old things.”
Now that was a lie, since my mother was dead, and I wondered why I’d said it. But I seemed to be speaking from someone else’s script, because I went on. “How about two dollars?”
“Six,” the man said.
I was surprised he’d countered so low, and strangely excited. Maybe I could have her after all. “Four,” I replied, and he nodded.
He’d given in very easily. It should have made me stop to think, but I was so pleased with my coup, I didn’t.
Her body is fragile, her skin pale as chalk. Her hair smells of peonies. Her robe is off her shoulders, held round her waist by a thick red sash.
“Mai-chan,” she calls me. Little Michael, darling Michael.
I woke up happy. The room still smelled of peonies, of her hair and skin. It took some time to understand it was a dream.
I didn’t have the dream every night. Sometimes it would be days, even weeks. But it seemed so real and contented me so much that to the same degree, my real life began to take on the quality of a dream. I kept going to my classes, and to my night job as a campus janitor, but nothing beyond the necessary. I was present; I moved and spoke, but something inside had come undone.
“I want you to meet someone,” Robert said when I happened to run into him between classes. “I hardly see you anymore, you’re studying so much — or whatever the hell you’re doing. Barbara has a cousin, she just started this term—”
“Look, Mike.” He sounded half-angry. “I didn’t want to say anything. I hoped you’d get over it. But there’s something wrong with you. I don’t know why you’re holing up at home, but you need to stop. You’ve lost weight and you look like hell. I want you to meet Karen. She’s a nice girl, and you need to get out and have some fun. If you won’t come on your own, I’m going to go to your place and drag you.”
There’s a certain passive quality to my character when confronted by a stronger will. And I think, deep down, I was glad Robert cared enough to be angry with me. So I went with him and met Karen—and she probably saved my life.
“Barb says you’re studying archaeology?” We were sitting at the Hi-Lo, watching Barb and Robert dance. The Hi-Lo was the student hangout then, a hole-in-the-wall kind of place right off campus. It’s gone now too, like the junk shops.
“That sounds so interesting,” Karen went on. “I love reading about history and old civilizations.”
Karen wasn’t my first girlfriend. There was a girl in high school and another girl after, but things never got very serious with either. For one thing, my mother didn’t like them. She never said so directly, of course. She was always pleasant to them—but she said things to me. Nothing too obviously cruel. But I knew she didn’t think they measured up, and it made me see them — and myself, for choosing them—through her critical eye.
When I quit seeing Mary Powers—that was the girl in high school—mother didn’t conceal her pleasure. “I’m glad you’ll be around more now,” she told me. “Someone better will come along,” she told me.
But she didn’t like Mary Anderson either. And after mother got sick, she wanted me at home more than ever. To sit with her in her room, with its closed-up windows and its cloying smell of perfume and decay. She needed me, she said. She couldn’t bear to have anyone else around, she said. So the second Mary faded out of my life too. Karen was the first girl I’d dated since.
Karen wasn’t particularly pretty—rather plain, actually, with her dishwater hair styled in a poor imitation of the fashion of the day—but her face lit up when she smiled. She was one of those enthusiastic people who always bubble with energy and good will. It wasn’t politeness that made her say, “That sounds so interesting.” She really was interested—not only in me, but in most things. Non-judgmental and open to the world.
I normally didn’t talk to people much about my interests. In fact, if I was keen on something, I pretended to be indifferent. I’d learned by then to hide my feelings; I knew how other people’s judgments could influence mine, could so easily devalue what I cared for.
But her enthusiasm was contagious, and her straightforward friendliness inspired trust. There at the Hi-Lo, in the bright sunshine of her admiration, the shadow I’d been living under began to lift. So we talked about archaeology, and when she asked, “What do you plan to do when you finish your degree?” I told her.
“Honestly? I want to be on a dig team. In Egypt or Asia.” In case that might seem too grandiose, I quickly added, “But I wouldn’t mind teaching if it didn’t pan out. How about you?”
I’d already guessed before she told me, though. Grade school teacher. It was a common enough aspiration for women in those days, but it suited her. She radiated maternal competence. She was grounded.
I was not grounded. I’m sure that’s what attracted me to her. I think I half-understood the turn my life had taken recently wasn’t healthy, and saw in her the hope of rescue.
“It’s your first term,” I said. “Which hall are you living in?” In those days, all single freshmen women had to live on campus, in a residence hall or sorority.
Her face lit up with that wonderful smile. “Hansee. I love it. I love all the girls, and Miss Hart—she’s our housemother—she’s wonderful. It’s like living in a big family with a lot of sisters. Barb said you live off-campus?”
“He has the cutest little house,” Barb said, sliding into the booth beside Karen. “It’s on the other side of Ravenna Park. Right next to the park, actually.”
“You live by the park? Barb took me there the first week I got here. It was like being out in the woods, with the big trees and the creek. So quiet.”
“That’s why I took the house. You’ll have to see it sometime.”
Barb caught my eye. “Why don’t you have us over? Karen and I could cook, and you and Rob could eat.”
“Eat? Someone said ‘eat’?” Robert put a basket of French fries in the middle of the table and sat down beside me.
“We just invited ourselves to Mike’s for dinner,” Barb told him.
“Sounds perfect to me,” Robert said.
The prospect wasn’t unpleasant. “Sure. Maybe this weekend? I’ll buy the food, since you’re cooking.”
“You supply the stove, I’ll supply the food,” Robert said.
“You made it! Let me take that for you.”
Barb swung the grocery sack away from me. “I carried it this far, I can carry it to the kitchen. You show Karen your place first. We’ll unpack and get set up.”
“Do what she says, buddy,” Rob added, pushing past me to the kitchen.
I turned to Karen. “Would you like the tour? There’s not much to see.”
“Sure. This is the living room, right?” She smiled. “I love the little fireplace. And all the knick-knacks,” she said, touching the things on the mantelpiece. Who’s this?”
“My mother.” I kept her picture there, in a silver frame.
“She’s beautiful. What gorgeous black hair. Does she live in Seattle?”
“It’s an old picture. She died two years ago.”
“Oh. Mike, I’m sorry. You must miss her.”
“Yes, sometimes.” I didn’t know what else to say, and stood there awkwardly for a moment. “Anyway—the fireplace works. It’s nice in the winter. And here’s my couch and coffee table,” I said, gesturing toward them and putting on a showman’s voice. “And over here—”
But she wasn’t listening. She’d knelt down in front of the coffee table to look at the Japanese doll.
Tentatively, she touched the case, then drew her hand back. “Where’d you get this?”
“In a junk store. Isn’t she interesting?”
“Kind of…creepy. Is it a man or a woman’s head she’s holding?”
“Mike’s junk,” Rob called out from the kitchen. “He just loves junk. Mike, old man, where’s your can opener?”
“Second drawer down. I’ll get it.”
When I came back, Karen was still kneeling in front of the doll.
“You don’t like her?”
She stood up. “I don’t, much,” she said apologetically. “But never mind. Let’s see the rest, then I have to help Barb.” She linked her arm in mine. “Lead on.”
That evening we walked the girls back to campus through the park. It was a pretty night, with a full moon and a skyful of stars.
The sickly smell of peonies. She takes my hands. “Mai-chan,” she says breathlessly. “Stay with me.” The shadows turn her face into a mask. I want out of the dark room, so heavy with her scent. I pull my hands away.
“It’s another world down here,” Karen said, swinging my hand. “Where to now?”
We’d spent the morning exploring the docks and eaten lunch in a dockers’ tavern. Seattle had a working waterfront then—it was a little rough. Most girls I knew wouldn’t have set foot inside a dirty workman’s dive. I half-fell in love with her that day just because she was so game. It was funny, I remember thinking at the time. She was so open to most things, but she’d taken such an immediate dislike to the Japanese doll.
“My secret street,” I said, kissing her cheek.
“I’ve been waiting for you to take me to your secret street.”
In the shop where I’d found the doll, I bought her a celluloid hand mirror and a box of old valentines. As the proprietor rang them up, he said, “You’re the one took that doll off my hands. I was glad to be shut of it.”
Karen raised her eyebrows. “The doll holding the head?” She put out her hands to demonstrate.
“Why did you want to get rid of it?”
He turned to the jumbled shelves behind the counter and pulled down a book. “Well, it was kind of an unusual thing. Thought it might be worth something. Did some research.” He thumbed through the book and laid it on the counter. “Here,” he said, pointing at the text. “That’s your doll.”
“Lady Saisho (Kobayashi Saisho),” Karen read, stumbling over the unfamiliar names. “Of the Northern Court of the Nanbokucho Period. A noble from a rival clan seduced her, only to discard her for Kigumi Osan (Lady Osan). Using a ruse, Saisho lured Osan to her chambers, then stabbed and beheaded her. The story was the basis for Yamato’s ‘Saisho Monogatari’ (1850). According to Yamato’s tale, after death Saisho’s jealous spirit could not rest. She became a succubus (muma), appearing to men in dreams and drawing the life from them.”
Karen shut the book and looked at me pointedly.
I’m not sure why I felt defensive. “I don’t think that story has anything to do with my doll.”
The shopkeeper looked at Karen. “I’m superstitious,” he said to her, ignoring me. “I like to sleep easy.”
“I wish you’d put that thing somewhere else. I don’t like it watching us.”
I removed my arms from her waist, kissed her, and got up from the couch. I’d been seeing Karen more than a year by then. It had been a happy year; I was eager to please her. I put the doll on the shelf in my closet and covered it with a shirt for good measure. Karen stayed with me that night for the first time.
In the morning we walked to campus together very early. The park was beautiful that morning. The air was clean. The rising sun was just showing itself through the trees, casting a fairy light on the scene. Everything was new, and fresh with possibility.
“It’s like the first morning of Creation,” I remember her saying. The kind of romantic thing women say, but it felt true then.
After my classes, I went home to get a nap before work. I had the dream again that afternoon, the first time in months.
She paces the room, back and forth, her eyes wet with tears, her dark hair flying wildly behind her. She talks in gibberish I can hardly understand, except for one thing.
I’ve betrayed her. I’ve betrayed her.
I try to touch her, to convince her that it’s her I love, only her, but she can’t hear or see me. The smell of peonies is overpowering, nauseating, and I wake up in a sweat of fear.
That was why I proposed to Karen. I’d been considering it anyway, but the dream confirmed my vacillating intention. I’d been so happy since meeting her, and I felt I was being pulled back into my earlier lassitude and darkness; it frightened me. But if I married her--
My proposal wasn’t very elegant. One weekend when she came to stay with me I simply said, “I think we should get married once I graduate, don’t you?” She stared in disbelief, then laughed and threw her arms around me.
Maybe that was the happiest night of my life. We stayed up talking about all the things that lovers talk about when they’re planning a future together. This kind of work, that kind of house, this many children.
But I remember pushing away the shadow of a doubt. Mother had died the year before I entered college. I’d never known my father, or had a proper family. Could it really be this easy to create one? For a while, though, we were happy.
It’s a common theme, and a human one, I suppose. Once we possess something, it loses value. One morning I had an urge to take the doll out of the closet. I put her in her old place on the coffee table, wondering why I’d ever let Karen talk me out of keeping her there in the first place.
That night I dreamed.
She’s even more beautiful than I remember. “You won’t leave me again?” she asks, but it’s not really a question. Her face is as serene and knowing as the doll’s. I’m caught in that strange interval between sleep and waking, drowning in the smell of peonies.
“Why did you put that thing out again?”
I’d moved the doll from the coffee table to the bookcase, hoping Karen wouldn’t notice, but of course she did, as soon as she came in. I tried a sort of joke, though the tone of her voice set me on edge. “I felt sorry for her sitting in the closet.”
“I wish you’d put it back in the closet. I wish you’d sell it, actually, or throw it in the trash. It gives me the creeps, Mike.”
She said it in a calm, reasonable voice, but I could see that she was close to tears.
I’m sorry to say I answered her thoughtlessly. “Don’t be so stupid. It’s just a doll. It’s an antique, this is my place, and if you don’t like her—sorry.” She dropped it for the moment, and turned away from me.
I had to work that night, so we ate an early dinner. A rather silent one. Our usual after-dinner routine, when I had to work and she was there, was to sit together talking for a while, then walk to campus together. But when I started to put my arm around her in the usual way, she told me—told me—to throw the doll away. I refused, and not politely. It was our first real argument ever, and it concluded with her leaving.
I shouldn’t have let her. It was just before seven, dark, with only a sliver of moon out. Her dorm was just twenty minutes away—if she walked through the park. It was more, though, if she went around. And of course she’d have to go around, walking alone at night. But at the time I didn’t care. I was furious, sick of her, sick of her meddling and manipulation, as I suddenly imagined it. I waited about five minutes, then put on my coat and gloves and left for work. It was early; I told myself the walk would cool my head. But my mind kept working, gnawing at the memory of our quarrel.
She doesn’t love you. Oh, yes, marry her, then she’ll have her hooks in you forever. Her little trophy, her little prize…
That night, half-drunk, I had the dream again.
The smell of peonies. The dark room. I am lying on her lap; she strokes my hair, holds my head between her hands. “Little Michael,” she whispers. “Darling Michael.”
Robert called two days later. “Where the hell have you been?”
“I’ve been here. I’ve been sick. Why?”
“Karen’s dead. They found her in the park. We’ve been with the police all morning.”
It’s years gone by now; the details run together. I was under suspicion for a time, but in the end, there was no evidence to charge me with.
Yes, she’d been here, I told the police. But we fought, and she left. I went to work on time, worked my full shift, went to the Hi-Lo afterwards for a beer. I caught a ride home with one of the other janitors. He dropped me off a little after two.
No, I didn’t try to call her.
I broke down then and started crying. I was stupidly, unforgivably, waiting for her to call me, I said through my tears. While she was lying dead.
It was no use staying at school after that. Before I gave up the house, I carried the doll into the park, down into the wooded ravine beside the creek where they found Karen’s body. I sat there with her for a long time in the autumn woods. Like a child who still believes in magic, I had the notion I’d get some answer—but I couldn’t have said to what, exactly. Why things happen the way they do. Why the past won’t let go of us, even when it’s dead. The doll just smiled serenely as she always had, still offering up the prize she held between her hands.
Children when they lose their mothers, old men when they lose their wives, incline toward death. Maybe they continue living, but never in the same way. Some necessary illusion has been shattered. Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t imagine it’s possible for your heart to just go out of you like that. But it is. I never went to Egypt. I never finished my degree.
It’s a terrible thing, I know. Karen was a lovely person. I think of her almost every day. I remember, especially, how she turned when I called out to her that night, there in the darkness on the edge of the park; how hopeful and forgiving her smile was.
But at night, when I dream—it’s not of her.