Aurore is dead from the moment she walks into my shop.
Her entrance is accompanied by a soundtrack of clicking heels and an equally entitled whistle, the shrill notes of “Oh, my darling Clementine” ringing proudly in their dissonance.
I’m immediately enamored—how can I not be? Strawberry corkscrew curls, a carnation pink mouth, skin that was just made to be porcelain.
I like the way she walks, like she’s done me a favor by strolling through the door.
I like the way her eyes sway from one glass case to the next, the lazy hang of her lids a clear giveaway that she’s trying hard not to seem interested.
I like the way her name blooms from the back of her throat, like the sun tearing open the dawning sky and pouring light upon the lonely Earth.
More than anything, I’m drawn to her smile: that self-assured and helplessly performative grimace, masking a soul that I know is just as lonely as I.
As pretty as a doll. As broken as a promise.
(Yes, I think I could love her for the rest of her life.)
She silently scans shelves upon shelves of the finest porcelain girls, lined up in perfect rows and sealed away with lock and key. Their eyes sparkle from behind their glass shields. Their oblique mouths hide secrets.
“Do you have one with hair like mine?” She turns to me, tugging on a spiraling lock for emphasis.
“Not yet,” I answer, knowing full well there has never been another like her. “Come with me.”
I lead her into the small corridor behind the front counter, ushering her through the door marked STORAGE.
The room is a blizzard of dust, the singular window high up near the ceiling spilling a single column of light that transfigures the storm into flecks of spinning gold.
I relish in her look of patent distaste, the slight twitching of her nose.
“Is this place ancient, or something? Or do you just not clean?”
I shrug. “What is wrong with it? Dust is just the accumulation of time, the proof that something has lasted.” I swipe a thumb over one of the shelves, studying how the fine particles coat the labyrinth of my fingerprint. “Lovely. Like snow that doesn’t melt.”
“Are all these boxes full of dolls?” she asks, roaming around. Click, click, go her heels.
“No. Most are miscellaneous pieces and parts: eyes, hair extensions, paint, dresses, and bits of lace. All the tools I need to make anybody I could ever want to have.”
I gesture for her to sit down on the sofa against the wall, which she does with surprisingly little regard for the grime that laminates the upholstery in a film of silver. I take a seat next to her, leaning in as close as I dare.
“To create a doll, I need to understand the person. Tell me about yourself.”
That first day, I learn all the basics:
She’s the youngest of four daughters, and has been spoiled haughty all her life. She laughs with the back of her hand pressed to her mouth and listens intently to everything I say, even though she can’t wait to get a word in.
She speaks in strings of questions, and rarely appears satisfied with the answers.
She tries to see the world around her as ugly, because she can’t stand the thought of not being the most beautiful thing. Everyone has always seen her as beautiful, and it shows.
Nobody has ever loved her. It shows.
She wants a replica of herself, a perfect porcelain doll that will be her identical twin in every which way. Something that will last forever.
I tell her I’ll need a month for her commission, and she visits me on every one of those days. I don’t ask her to, but she comes. By the time the fourth week rolls around, I know her soul back and forth.
Aurore brings me flowers, tulips of violet and vermillion. She says my shop is too gloomy and morose, and that I need more color around me.
When I tug on the end of a curl and say that she’s already brought me all the color I need, she blushes.
For the short half hour that she stays, she helps me with the inventory, folding away boxes of tiny velvet gloves and sorting buttons of copper and pearl. Under her breath, she hums while she works, jumbling up the words:
You are lost and gone forever / Oh my darling, Clementine.
“That song is a favorite of yours?” I remark one day, after I’ve heard it a thousand times.
She scoffs. “It’s a nice melody, but Clementine is an idiot. I would never die so foolishly.”
My heart grows impossibly fond.
“You think that you are invincible,” I tell her softly, “because nothing has ever tried to kill you.”
Her red mouth opens like a poppy at midmorning. For a moment she looks afraid, then emboldened.
“And nothing ever will.”
“You know what I’ve noticed?” Aurore comments, looking around. It is the final day, and she wears a lost expression on her face, as though she has just realized that something is amiss. “You don’t get many customers, do you?”
I’ll miss her silly little inquiries.
“There’s not much demand for antique dolls, Aurore. And it matters little to me how many sales I make. These are my treasures.”
“Hm,” Aurore says, her tone unconvinced. “Just how antique are they, anyway? These little girls?” She drums her fingers against one of the glass panels.
“None nearly as antique as I,” I tell her playfully. She’s not very amused.
“Don’t be silly! You’re only a young woman, just like me.”
“I’m older than all of the things inside this shop, and most of the things outside of it, too.”
She remains indignant, and I can understand why—for she can only see what’s on the outside, and if I am antique, then what is she?
“Don’t worry, my darling,” I say reassuringly. “Your doll will be brand new.”
She perks up. “So it’s finished, then?”
“It only requires one finishing touch.”
I lock up the shop, take her back to the storage room. I settle her down upon the velvet cushions, and snake my fingers into hers.
“I have something to tell you.”
She looks down at our interlocked hands and back up at me with rose-tinted cheeks, her lips fluttering nervously like petals in wind.
“What is it?” Her laugh is a high tremolo. I can feel her pulse weeping beneath my touch.
“Where is the doll?”
I shake my head, reaching up with my other hand to softly trail a finger over the slopes of her face. Our palms disconnect as I move upwards to take her elbow in a firmer hold. I confess to her in a hushed voice:
Her eyes widen. She looks down at the soft indents of my fingers grasping onto her arm, pink flesh blooming splotches of cream.
I can see the exact moment she begins to feel it: her blood crystallizing in her veins, coagulating into rubies, her paper skin freezing into something firmer, something less ephemeral.
She lurches away, severing the contact and spilling onto the ground like a fallen vase. There’s a noise like something shattering.
“I don’t know what you’re doing—get away, don’t touch me!”
I look at her pitifully. “My touch has nothing to do with it, darling. It’s too late for you now.”
But my words are lost on her as she suddenly cries out, staring at the spot on her wrist where she had collided harshly against the wooden floor. My heart stills; we watch together.
The crack spreads like frost over a lawn, the same sound it makes as it splinters beneath a foot.
“I’m broken,” she utters in disbelief. “I’m falling apart.”
I shush her as she begins to weep. “Don’t worry, my sweet.” Kneeling down beside her, I pet her hair, sweep her cheeks dry. “I’ll fix you up like new. You’ll be perfectly flawless, forever and ever.”
“What did you do to me? What’s happening?” Her voice is a low whimper, like a wounded animal.
“I didn’t do anything,” I shake my head in defense. “All I’ve done is fall in love with you.”
She’s paralyzed now, her legs frozen where they’re splayed out beneath her. Her tears evaporate as her eyes begin to mist over. Her damp lower lashes are slicked down, looking like they’ve been painted on with a fine brush.
“Did you know that it started out as a curse?” I laugh. “That everything I loved would become petrified, that all the hearts I made mine would no longer beat. But oh, how that was all backwards. The true curse is to live forever; but to immortalize my love into something that will last forever—why, it’s been the greatest blessing I’ve ever received.”
“You love me?” she whispers, hearing nothing else. It breaks my heart how unsure she sounds, as if this has not been her fate from the second I first saw her.
“Forever,” I assure her, pressing my forehead to her chilled one. “Now I can love you forever.”
“But I’m broken,” she moans, looking despairingly down at her fractured complexion. “You can’t have me like this.”
“You’re perfect,” I repeat, “I’ll fix you.”
I answer by gathering her up into my arms.
I hold her until my love turns her soft body to ceramic and her heart into a lump of fired clay; I hold her until all her sorrows quiet, and all the brimming aches and pains of being human run dry.
I love her until she is no longer real, until she has metamorphosed from something that will turn to dust, into something that will collect dust.
I set her down on my worktable, get out my supplies. First I paint over the fissures of her skin, sealing them with adhesive glaze until no one would be able to tell she was ever broken.
I polish her glossy sapphire eyes until they gleam with a perfectly preserved affection.
Her hair I meticulously posture around her face and over each shoulder, winding each curl around my finger to renew its springy bounce.
When I’m done, I carefully set her on a new shelf mounted just for her, and stand back to admire my work. I’ve made an exquisite thing.
I lean over and place a tender kiss upon her ossified lips.
I cannot wait to see her collect dust.
Copyright 2022 Gem Cassia