“The Dollhouse,” a short story by Meiko Ko

Once more, the man said he was lost. I told him no, he wasn’t, from where I sat I could see him clearly, cross-legged on a braided rug. I said, “You are free. You can leave anytime you want.” He would not believe me. He said I was only a child. Don’t be too sure, I said. From his point of view, he wouldn’t be able to judge. Whatever the case, I could see his exits, I pointed out—the doorway was to his left. Beyond that, the stairs. If he could just step down, he might feel at home in the living room, snug and mahoganied, carpet, curtain, lace, armchairs upholstered by English swallows. Mrs. Take drinking air from a China teacup by the fireplace, which didn’t burn. The mantelpiece had two candlesticks, a watercolor painting hung above it. The grandfather clock’s pendulum didn’t move. It might, when I was ready for time. From the living room, he could walk right out.

“You liar!” he said, “liar!” Each time he tried the stairs he only reached a dead end after one flight. There were no stairs leading down, only a wallpapered plank, sealed fast and hollow when he hit it with his fists. He could only climb back into the study. Therefore, in his view, the living room didn’t exist. “Children loved to lie,” he said, “I was no exception.”

Doll man would like to forget the living room, I thought. That was where it all began—the living room. Then he’d be safe. A baby crying in the nursery, Mrs. Take a dead mass on the backyard’s vegetable plot, half-buried, he shrugging in puppet mode and saying, “Saw nothing.” Nothing would be traced to him, no records or police questioning—”Could I get some coffee?”—he wouldn’t have to face the consequences of his inaction. No dreams too, in the poster bed with honeycomb quilt, only rubber sleep. Doll man was anti-children, anti-growth. Thought he was a time controller.

“You immigrant child!” he said.

This was a trap, I skipped it. It was over if I believed in this sentence. Dying was out of the question, I had things to do, missions to fulfill. I put down my Nintendo Switch tech fantasy and picked up a magnifying glass and peered at him. “I can see your face,” I said.

I didn’t like being in the same room with him. He was star man. Not all shiny men were bad, some knew right from wrong, betrayed only the bad guys, but doll man was intentional and shifty. Soapy respectable innocent face, size of a kidney bean. Selfishness peering out at the end of the walkway, knowing smiles into the camera. Trick: Don’t look into the Eye. Then he could fool them all, keep them in the dark. Play them out. Asian compassionate political TV man, tourist in his forties in foreign sports cars. Lovingly made in Indonesia by women’s hands.

“Your fists are match-head sized,” I said.

He flicked his battery-operated chestnut eyes and glared at me. One rainy day I had removed his clothes and inserted a chip into his sacral area, and his skin turned transparent, and, a heart, the smallest strawberry I’d ever seen, began to flutter and pump. A voice said: “My heart came from Malaysia, Genting.” Liquid maroon filled his veins, then lightened into neon cherry, tangerine, amber. Finally settled into orange-brown skin. “Tanned somewhere?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “in California.”

“Could I get some coffee now?” he said.

“No, not until you apologize for calling me a liar.”

He did not comply.

I got up and went to my bed. The cotton bed sheets were exceptionally beautiful. There was an angel weeping, Taiko drums beating, emperor heralding infant. The baby was called Sanada Yukimura. Two months ago on Christmas it was put into my arms in an old hospital run by the Charity of Saints. Mother carried it, then passed it to me. It came with a birth certificate and passport tied to the wrist. We left the hospital through the Cancer Area which had a skyway connecting to a great mall called the Edmonton Plaza, took an escalator down. At the bus stop, we carried everything and boarded. I kept Yukimura’s documents in a goldfish kimono pouch, which grandmother offered to sew, since she had time in Ward B and the skills of any craftsman in Kyoto. Santa was away then. He was Chinese and on excuse in Shanghai. I thought to call him and say, “We live in America. You’re required to be Santa.”

Santa was in mine and the doll man’s blood. That was the only reason he was in my room. Father came in every now and then. They were in collusion. He’d sent him to me one Tuesday, in a box, and I cut the tape with my pair of scissors. There was the guilty conscience on the kidney face. He was chosen for me on purpose. If this were 1888, I’d be married soon, no lack of men who liked it young and fresh. Father was dangerous. He preferred the health of economies and good looks and doll men.

I picked Yukimura up and went back to the braided rug.

“See Yukimura?” I said, “he speaks the truth.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The baby saw everything.”

“It’s not possible. His eyes are just like mine. We blinked according to batteries.”

“No,” I said. “Yukimura is alive.”

Doll man pouted because he felt replaced. He was flat. At his end. He could never be anyone else but doll man. I’d given him a chance to be a detective, as he wished, but last minute he’d reneged, started acting like a superstar. “I never said that.” Of course he never said anything and everything he said was up for debate. He had reasons, he’d explained, pressures from above and Nature. How would he know why? Therefore, Mrs. Take wasn’t his problem.

Then he grew vain. Vain and action-packed. Went up and down the dollhouse (he’d made a rope) campaigning everyone of his innocence, face like a baby’s. Shook hands and gave out coins, like charity men, hostaged everyone’s ears, “I am the new king!” Doll man was very vain. Fan-blowing-into-face vain. Image-eaten-and-eating-into-lies vain. Almighty-trench-coat-flasher-no-genitals vain. Get-me-some-spice-tea-you-servant vain. You-foreign-child vain. “You could never be one of us because we didn’t age.” Drop Lego, Barbie, Monopoly, Uno, My Little Pony—he had a heart, they didn’t. “But Barbie was your mate,” I said. “Barbie! That bitch was Tuesday’s news. She was your wife!” In name only. In truth, she was the competition and a concubine.

“Yukimura is older than earth, 1567. He can never be replaced,” I said.

“Yukimura? He’s dead!”

“I find you very rude to say that. I am the one who keeps things alive.”

He lowered his chestnut eyes to almond-like. As though a milk scent wafted from plastic irises. When he lifted them again, he said, “I doubt so.”

This was making me angry. A quiet, serious wrath stirring in my ageless mind. Doll man was modern, westernized, one-dimensional, and reductive; in other words, arrogant. He didn’t understand what I meant by children were eternal. I meant I was and wasn’t a child. I meant beware of children because they had nothing to lose. I meant a war fought for the sake of children in ’41. I meant the future belonged to them and me, not him. Even now he was still flirting with me like a pedophile, while Yukimura was fighting at the Siege of Osaka. He should know that anytime I could shut down his shop and pull out his chip and that was The End. Skin returning to glass and blood receding, back to the strawberry heart. Marching bands for his funeral, if I passed a death certificate, while he watched.

“You think so?” I said.

“The Indonesian factory women had made me very lifelike too.”

“This isn’t how you can be the best doll.”

“What do you want me to do then?”

“I want you to apologize.”

He sneered. He refused. I could only release Yukimura. Yukimura was born out of place in New York, he was supposed to belong to another time, when Japan wasn’t known or rich. At that time, most Americans had not heard much about the small island tagged in the east as the land of the rising sun except from the Chinese. In the beginning, they were friends. In my arms now, Yukimura was asleep. He was a large baby, weighing nine pounds. A bit too heavy for me, a serious sack of sticky sumo rice. His eyelashes were real. Even his anus pooped. Even his poop stank. A mouth perched like bow and arrow, could eat, shoot, drool.

Sanada Yukimura was the sweetest thing I’d ever seen.

Sanada Yukimura was the sweetest thing I’d ever seen, and if I met his maker, I’d bow to him. His passport had an address: Nagano Prefecture, Ueda City. There was little information otherwise—a red Hanko stamp, a circle with two characters called “Above the Well,” a six cents coat of arms beside that. I was checking these up, marking places on my map. If I were up for it, next week or month I’d write a letter and send it out. I would introduce myself in the keigo language of the Japanese: 謹啓 風が初夏の香りを運んでくるのを感じる季節となりましたが、御社におかれましてはますますご隆盛のこととお慶び申し上げます。And if he replied, slowly, I’d tell him about me.

This wouldn’t be a love that smiled easily. Determined, the way a samurai raised his sword not to kill, if one could handle that contradiction. A woman wasn’t scary. Because it was built slowly, day after day, in the monotony of summer fading into persimmon glows, heaven had sent down love letters through the teardrops of snow, to arrive at the final lucidity. In 2015, when I turned seventeen, some psycho was busy running around on TV.  He came up with the idea to shoot real life children to get on TV—“Dear Mr. Inoue, I am sorry to send this letter to you from America. My mother and grandmother, Sumie and Michiko, had been abducted by an oily alien Shanghai man who caused wanton damages with a savage concubine system, so I must live in New York today. They have given me a mission to search for the man who’d never kill …”

“Dear Akemi, my regrets to hear the present state you are in. Over here in my mountain workshop it is peaceful and halcyon as the night warbler’s cries. Regarding the future of Sanada Yukimura, whom I was very unwilling to part with after his completion, but am now happy that I did …”

And eight years from now, after I’d worked as a bartender, a babysitter, a library page, a ticket seller, an usher, a dim sum maid, and possibly a dishwasher; after plenty of smiling to fun men who’d not give you a job if you didn’t, or—“You’re fired!” because “Listen. There are plenty of girls for me to choose from, a hundred faces anytime. You must please me. I like to feel my power,” the way a kid crushed a caterpillar before it turned into a butterfly, because he liked feeling what his palm could do, because he could not stand seeing others happy, you slut, whore, dirt, moth—after I’d saved enough and turned twenty-three, I’d be on the airplane to meet the maker. Soon. Only eight years. 2021. Patience.

Then we might be in Ueda City listening to cicadas croon electric calls while we walked through the hometown of Sanada Yukimura, the legendary samurai whose clan had been defeated—what way out now—but one of the bravest, going into the battlefield with a red-armored horse knowing he would die. Stuck a spear into the ground, pulled out his pistol, only one chance, silence, eyes withdrawing, world cold. Most would be dead but not the target—”This was a warning. Your acts gave me reason, I would kill.” Then he picked up his spear again, looped his horse, and fought the army, to die in their hands. The target, the shogunate, was moved. If he were assassinated by Sanada Yukimura, he would not mind.

Then maybe the maker and I could take the bullet train to Tokyo. Come up out of the station onto the lively bannered streets swept clean, orderly people on their way, past the lanterns and neon signs, so many curious things to see, each a puzzle behind them. A blonde-haired girl in checkered red skirt and knee-high socks asked, “How about a pamphlet?” An old woman dressed for an occasion, in kimono. The people went on marching. Some in gloves, hats, mouth guards, umbrellas. They knew which corner to turn. When we grew tired, we stopped and entered Café Doutor. An electronic peal, a woman’s voice calling, “Welcome to our shop.”

“The cake set and blend coffee, please,” I’d say, memorized, and Mr. Inoue would order ice latte café. The sandwiches looked good but he would not have it. “He was in training.” “Weight loss?” I’d ask, but he’d shake his head and smile. Maybe one day I’d understand what he really meant: He just wanted to respect his mind. After we ate I’d pull Yukimura out of my backpack, dressed in its original cloth armor, and tell him how I survived and escaped Father and the evil doll man. He’d listen, if he was the true maker of Sanada Yukimura. We might go to the bookstore after we finished, after we tired of talk, to Kumazaya, Maruzen, Sanseido.

 

 

***

Meiko Ko’s works have been accepted by Blue Lyra Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, Columbia Journal, Epiphany, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities, Litro Magazine, and are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review. She was longlisted for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. She lives with her husband and child in New York.

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