"It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body."
Tomas Tranströmer, from "After a Death", translated by Robert Bly
Chapter One ~ Cold as Clay
The winding, darkened halls at Rose Hill Orphanage are always bitterly freezing; even the beds and shiny classroom desks are as cold as clay. I press my small hand into the many decorated walls endlessly and never find warmth, only icy brick and winter plaster. But I like the cold, it makes me feel pure and fragile, as if I could dissolve into snow and disappear from here forever. I like to crawl beneath my blankets at night, shivering and hiding, and the heat of my dreams covers me like a fever shadow. It is magical to escape from the other children, to drown in the black coldness and become a mermaid of the dreaming sea. During the suffocating days with the others, I am the mermaid of pain, taking their words and torment and swallowing them like poison, dragging my bleeding feet and crying with a sore, silent mouth.
Rose Hill Orphanage is part of a grand, decaying manor; the other half of the impressive house is where a funeral parlor lies, and where we children are not allowed to go. Still we creep to the chain-locked doors; still we try to peek in at the silver trays of corpses, and still we dare each other to sneak in when the swaths of padlocks happen to be unchained. Always our knees tremble and knock together, always someone wets their pajama pants or nightgown. When I am the one to be pushed into the deathly frozen hall and trapped there, to hear the hushed laughter squealing and fading on the other side as they run away to leave me, I quietly lean against the slick wall and wait for Madame Louisa to find me. I have never soaked myself with stinking urine and crawled back to bed in shame! But the echo of the stilled morgue, the dream of heavy, sad and thumping footsteps coming towards me in the dark haunts my nightmares and decorates my skin with a river of goosebumps.
"They wrap you up in a big white sheet, from your head down to your feet! They put you in a big black box, and cover you with dirt and rocks! All goes well for about a week, then your coffin begins to leak. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout! They eat your eyes, they eat your nose, they eat the jelly between your toes! A big green worm with rolling eyes, crawls in your stomach and out your eyes! Your stomach turns a slimy green, and pus pours out like whipping cream. You spread it on a slice of bread, and that's what you eat when you are dead!"
Their favorite song, the chilling 'Hearse Song' meant to make little children laugh, but my flesh crawls when they sing it at me, their faces blurred so close to mine, slashed mouths loudly chanting. I cannot count how many times they have put stale, lumpy cream cheese on my toast in the morning; or crept into my room at midnight to smear it on my belly while I am sleeping, gleefully waiting to hear my cries when I awaken. Do not forget the slippery purple jelly they slide between my toes, which I spend hours in the bathtub scrubbing away furiously.
All of them are stronger than me, which gives them the delicious and wicked energy to torture my powerless, babyish self. Rhonda is their leader; she is eleven years old and wears her uniform dress too short, so that it shows her shimmery-smooth thighs. She has smoky-black hair that trails to her waist, hair black as her heart. Harold is her slobbering dog with his tight leather leash; eleven also, thin as a doll made from sticks and breath that could make the dear birds drop frightfully from the trees. Peter is my age, seven, but disgusted to have anything to do with me, his fat stomach drooping over his pants each time he attacks, sometimes even brushing against my arm which makes me retch. Julia is seven as well, and as frail as I am, but her gray eyes shine with hatred from behind her glasses when she thinks of me. I dream sometimes of punching them into her face and making blood streak down her bony cheeks like tears.
"The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out!" Harold and Peter snicker into my ears as I travel down the hallway to lunch. Their grubby hands grab at my long hair, one set of spidery fingers and another of fat little fingers they pretend are squirming worms. Their nails snag viciously in my pale blonde strands and tug me backwards, which makes me the last one to reach the splintered wood table as they untangle themselves and hurry on laughing.
"Carrie, glad you could join us," Madame Louisa is never happy to see me, I sit down silently as she splatters mashed potatoes melted with what is probably cheddar past its expiration date on my plate. I thank her and adjust the big white ribbon tied around my waist. Our uniform dress is deep, midnight blue with ribbon, white lace stockings and black patent Mary Jane shoes. We are allowed to wear our hair how we like it, bows and ribbons are encouraged but I always let mine hang straight down my back.
"Madame Louisa, I believe there is a worm caught in Carrie's dirty, greasy hair!" Rhonda squealed, and Julia's eyes glittered maliciously. "It is so very rude of her to come to the table with worms in her hair! Please make her leave immediately, I won't be able to keep my food down!"
"Hush Rhonda, all you children with your silly games. Carrie needs only to comb her hair more properly," she dropped her glinting fork into the potatoes while eyeing me greedily. I knew that Rhonda, Julia, and Madame Louisa were all jealous of my hair, and because theirs was not as shiny or silky they put their anger and wrath upon me, hoping it would turn my sunflower hair to rotten weeds. I kept my head still while I ate, so my hair wouldn't happen to catch light from the fireplace and gleam, inspiring their hatred of me to a stronger fury.
"Look at what I found out in the gardens!" Mr. Grammel trudged in and grunted at us, carrying with him a sweet little dummy dressed in a black tuxedo, his hair the color of flames and eyes like emeralds. Oh I wanted to go and kiss him immediately, but he was so dirty! "I'm gonna wash the little devil up and then put him in the play room, he might have worms stuck in his head,"
"He sounds like the perfect companion for Carrie!" Julia announced, and my cheeks flushed as I continued to eat in silence, hoping I could play with him and have him all to myself. Mr. Grammel would do a very fine job with cleaning him up, he was the gardener but worked inside as well, repairing the furnace whenever it went out, fixing the pipes when they were frozen solid with a sheet of water, or whenever Harold found it funny to clog them. His hands were so beautiful, I thought they must be able to put anything back together, so I was sure he would take care of my dummy.
"Maybe he walked all the way here just to be with Carrie," Mr. Grammel smiled at me, his misty brown eyes twinkled and he left for his office. I watched the dummy as he was led in Mr. Grammel's hand, and swore that his bright red wooden lips actually curled into a smile as he stared back at me, which was impossible! But my heart was warmed, maybe he could be my friend, and I wouldn't feel so terribly alone and empty, moving through the house like vapor each day.
That night when we gathered in the playroom, which was like a museum of dusty vintage toys, the dummy was there waiting for us, propped in a cushioned rocking chair with his hands folded serenely on his lap. I stood in the doorway holding my breath, too scared to approach my beautiful new friend. Peter reached out and slapped his wooden cheeks cruelly.
"He's so ugly! Mr. Grammel should have buried him and put him out of his misery!" Julia wrinkled her nose in disgust, and Rhonda quickly agreed with her.
"I don't even want him in this house! To even think about his ugliness, it's appalling!" she crossed her braceleted arms and refused to look at the poor lonely dummy.
"Leave him alone!" I cried, and flitted into the bitter room, taking my friend into my loving arms. "I think he is nice, beautiful even," I crooned into his shiny scarlet hair and petted his fancy suit.
"Look, of course Baby Carrie loves him, he is her kind! Ugly and unwanted!" Julia and Rhonda begin to chant that together, Ugly and unwanted! so that Harold and Peter join in. Julia reaches out for a strand of my pale hair and yanks it. "Why don't you take your ugly dummy out of here! He's even uglier than you!"
"Yeah, we don't want to see your stupid faces!" Peter shoves me out of his way and sits down in the rocking chair, it creaks wearily.
Tears sting my eyes as I keep the dummy close to my chest and wander into the dark bath of cool air that waits in the hallway, tears not for myself but for my friend, because it is only his first night here and already they treat him as badly as they treat me. "We'll be safe in my room, I'll bolt the door," I whisper in his bone-sharp little ear, putting him on my bed and then shoving a desk chair beneath the doorknob. I wiggle it to make sure it can't be opened, and then change into my nightgown. The dummy waits comfortably on my pillows, and I cover us with blankets and stare into his large, seedy eyes while the wind blows the crisp autumn leaves outside. In the morning the garden will be sheathed in dead yellow jewels. His wooden skin is so icy to touch I shiver, it has a pale-green shine to it, almost as if he was once alive but now his flesh is rotting from an enchanted curse put upon him. "You are as cold as clay," I tell him, cuddling him against my frigid skin. "I think you are beautiful, the others are so mean and wrong to treat you that way. They are mean to me too. I'm so lonely and miserable here, will you be my friend?"
Was it a trick of the moonlight? I swear that his green eye winked at me!