Dolly’s Coffin

Dolly's Coffin

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Wade Newhouse

 

When my daughter Julia was born, she immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth, began to suck on it, and refused to be placated with anything else. We have a few photographs of her as a baby, thumb in mouth, looking new and innocent.

Julia got Dolly for her first birthday. Dolly is a soft pink doll, basically just a puffy stuffed shapeless torso with nubs for arms and legs and an oversized head with a smile painted on. Somewhere inside her squishy middle there was a tiny rattle of some kind, and we knew that Julia had picked Dolly to be her special toy when we could hear the muffled rattle in the middle of the night.

For the first few years after that, Julia carried Dolly everywhere with her, and invariably when Dolly was in one hand the other hand was shoving its thumb into Julia’s mouth. Whatever comfort doll and thumb provided seemed to be magnified by the other; just for fun we would sometimes pull Dolly away from Julia’s arms, and as if they were connected by a magic thread the thumb would pull out also. As soon as we released her, Dolly would snap back into Julia’s embrace and her thumb would pop back into her mouth.

By the time Julia started talking, Dolly was still cute but the thumb was not. We started to ask her when she might be a big enough girl to get through the day without sucking the thumb, but that line of questioning led to silence and a tighter embrace of both doll and thumb.

Are you going to suck your thumb in first grade?

Do you ever see any of your friends sucking their thumbs?

The more you suck that thumb, the longer you’re going to have to wear braces when you’re older.

Of course our talking did nothing. Whatever compels a child to suck their thumb is beyond the reach of language. It was not something she would talk about or try to negotiate; it simply Was, before and beyond all consciousness like St. John’s Word in the Beginning. But we began to decide that the thumb-sucking was becoming psychologically inseparable from Dolly, who by now had lost her ability to rattle and was limply, flatly, threatening to come apart.

When Julia was in third grade, Dolly and the thumb-sucking were becoming rarer parts of Julia’s routine, but in those most shadowy moments between stages of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, hiding after a particularly traumatic confrontation with authority—she would clutch Dolly and suck her thumb as heartily as when she had been an infant. We decided at the end of that summer that it was time to give Dolly up, and we decided to give Julia as much ownership of the process as possible.

“It’s time for Dolly to go away,” we said one Saturday morning.

“You’re going to throw her away!” Near-hysteria, with some hammy overacting.

“We’re not going to throw her away. We’re going to put her away, someplace safe where she can stay forever. And then when you get older and don’t need her anymore we can take her out and you can see her again.”

The hysteria became a blank stare.

“Now,” we continued. “You should make a box and decorate it however you want, and that’s where we’ll put Dolly.”

Julia considered this idea. Decorating boxes was a favorite activity, one that we had found useful to attach to all manner of otherwise unpleasant tasks. So she looked down at Dolly for a few moments, then went into her room and reappeared with her box of markers. I showed her the empty shoebox that we had already scrounged from a closet, and with a quick glance to indicate resignation, determination, and a fair amount of loathing aimed in our direction, Julia took the box and began to sort through her markers on the kitchen table.

Falling back into the routine we had established for artwork at the table, Julia reached for the day’s newspaper that she could spread out underneath her work. I got to it first and handed her the unread sports section, taking care to keep her away from the large headline on the front page. The oversized typeface announced starkly that the police were searching for the body of a third girl missing and presumed drowned in the lake behind our neighborhood.

* * * * *

Hillman Lake looks, in the early morning and at dusk, as if it might date back to prehistoric times. It is not roundly pond-shaped like those deep swimming holes carved out by glaciers in New England. Instead, it has that skeletal, graspy shape that is so typical of muddy waterways here in the south: long and narrow and winding, with fingers of water that curl in and out between jutting teeth red clay banks studded with pines and live oaks. To look across it at any point is easy, but to turn toward either side and imagine what torturous route it follows from here to somewhere further makes your head spin. Its tendrils snake off from the main body in almost untraceable tentacles of brown water that eventually appear under every secondary and state road north of Raleigh; you mount a strong bridge, believe that you have “crossed the lake” and then three hundred yards later cross another bridge. And then a mile further the trees thin out to your right and you see it over there as well. Occasionally narrow tracks of gravel lead off from the roads to those areas of the banks that have been cleared for fishing, but if you follow one and enjoy that location you might never find the same one again. Weather-blasted gray trees emerge from the shallows, showing their tangled roots above the water and then ending, broken off as if by some silent catastrophe. Up from the red earthen banks the land rises quickly into ridges and swales covered over with forests of white pine. When the water is low you can see the strata of the earth revealed in bronze and coral layers.

But Hillman Lake is not prehistoric. In truth, it is barely historic. It was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to control the course and flooding of the Neuse River and to provide drinking water for the city of Raleigh, which canny planners were beginning to predict would soon burst out of its sustainable postwar growth and into something potentially unmanageable. We have arrived there now. Great care has been taken to ensure that the entire endless perimeter of the lake is well screened from the development that creeps, amoeba-like, endlessly outward from the city. The closest neighborhoods, like ours, are a half-mile away from the water and built to seem organic, entirely and naturally part of the tall leafy forest that, on good days, disguises the very fact of so many people living in such proximity to one another. Numerous paths tumble their way down from our back yards, into the screen of trees and ridges and eventually down to the shoreline.

When I was fourteen my family lived in a small house on a gravel road on a different part of the lake. There were no subdivisions then; houses and streets simply sprang up in one place or another, and ours was one of several two-bedroom red brick ranch homes that had somehow been built in a sort of row not far from SR 98. Back then that was how you got from Wake Forest to Durham, and in the course of five miles you crossed the lake four times. Our road was just out of sight of two of those crossings. Without a neighborhood we had no real neighbors, but in the summers the kids from dozens of houses like mine would drift down to the water’s edge and we would get to know one another. We pursued adventures in the trees and in the water, but none of us ever grew particularly close.

That summer Emily appeared. I don’t know where she lived; I had the impression that she came quite a distance along dusty roads and through thickets to get to the part of the lake where I spent my time. Parents are always exasperated when kids can’t answer simple questions like where someone is from, but it really just never came up. Kids become just summer friends, together as time and opportunity allow. Emily came out of the brush one day and offered to help me build some floating contraption I had pieced together out of logs. Sometimes she joined the other kids in the water; other times she was fishing with one or another. Many times there was just the two of us, playing and growing through the summer the way everyone does.

She had strawberry blonde hair and dark eyes, and at fifteen she was shedding her tomboy angles and starting to soften around the edges. As the summer wore on her legs seemed to grow longer and smoother; the white strap that fell down from her shoulder seemed to grow tighter as her breasts began to be noticeable under her shirt; when she stood in the shallow water with her hands on her hips I began to see curves there. She tossed her hair back from her forehead and laughed at me, and I had to turn away or be caught staring. The other boys I played with noticed it too, and one by one they seemed to drift away in little groups of two or three, not sure what exactly she was good for or how they ought to treat her.

Eventually she realized this, and finally (more brave than I) began to talk about it.

“You ever been skinny-dipping?” she asked me one afternoon.

“No way. You?”

“No. You afraid of some girl seeing you?”

“More afraid of what might be in the water.”

She threw a stick at me. “You think some fish might mistake your thing for a worm and take his chances? You got a hook hidden in there somewhere?”

I jumped up from the water’s edge to the line where the erosion ended and the bank rose up in a sudden jutting line of red clay layers and exposed roots. “You don’t know anything about it. There’s a lot of stress involved in packing all this equipment in the water. What if—” I struggled to find a ribald joke that might sound appropriately grown-up. “What if I got it all tangled up in some roots underwater and got pulled under?”

Now we were both laughing. “I’d come down there and pull you out.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay stuck than have you pulling on me.”

She came up out of the water too and started pulling off her t-shirt and shorts.

“Good lord! Are you really going to try it?”

“No, stupid. I’ve got my suit on.”

She wore a white and yellow one-piece swimsuit. I usually just swam in whatever shorts I was wearing that day, and I always found it fascinating that girls had to change from one look to another in order to be right for swimming. I was sitting on a dead log that had fallen from the eroded ledge down to the water, and Emily sat beside me. It was brutally hot, and the far side of the lake shivered in a filmy haze. I often looked across from here and wondered how long it would take to swim across. At that time it never occurred to me to fear what might hide beneath the surface, or to wonder how deep the water ran.

“We should go skinny-dipping some time,” she said. “Just the two of us. Then we’d know what it was like, but no one else would have to know. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, would it?” She looked at me, not quite. “I mean, you wouldn’t be shy around me, would you? You know I wouldn’t look at anything.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. It’s just looking.”

I was looking somewhere down—not straight down at our feet but kind of halfway down, toward where the waterline began, and I turned toward Emily just as she hooked a thumb into the elastic legband of her suit and snapped it free from wherever it had stuck. In that brief moment the material pulled away from her torso and I saw, unbidden, a glimpse of porcelain untanned skin and a dark tuft of hair. I turned away, pressure rising up into my chest, and then I stood up and took a step closer to the water.

“Are you going in now?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just standing here.”

She hopped down from the log and joined me, then went the few extra steps and into the water up to her thighs.

“You’re not afraid to go out there?” I said.

“I got nothing for the fish to try to grab onto.” She held out her long arms and turned her hip sideways to show me.

“My dad said two girls have been found drowned. Both in like the last two weeks.”

“Boys can drown too, you know.”

“I’m not in the water.”

“Come on in, then. Keep me safe.” She smiled at me, and the complexity of her face then has returned to me endlessly over the years since. I have seen many smiles from many girls, and then women, and each new time I try to figure out how they work, what muscles they use, what emotions they connect between eye and lip and heart. I suspect Emily’s was simply honest, but I had never seen anything like it before.

A breeze came up, and I saw the point of Emily’s nipple stiffen beneath the fabric of her suit. “I think I’m going to go home,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in with me?”

“Not today.” Then, stupidly: “Maybe tomorrow.”

She laughed, and I think there was some sadness there. “I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Eventually?” It was the most complicated time scheme I could imagine back then. “Eventually.”

I pushed my way back through the brush and up the hill away from the water, and I thought that she might be close behind me. At some point I turned back, and I could just make out the gray glint of the surface through the trees, but she wasn’t there. When I was back on my street, with the chunks of gravel uncomfortably real beneath my feet, I felt the full weight of my foolishness. With the straight line of the road and the sight of those tiny houses tucked under their green and yellow canopies, the realization that a pretty girl had asked me to come into a lake with her pushed down on me so crushingly that I felt dizzy and out of all time and space. I turned back, but the trees had pulled over the path I had taken, and it suddenly seemed that I had been here between the mailboxes and driveways forever.

When I heard the next day that Emily’s swimsuit had been found at the edge of the lake, my first hurt, ignorant thought had been a lashing indignation that she had actually dared to go skinny-dipping without me. Even moments later, when I realized the true import of this discovery, I could not escape the mental picture of my own water-pruned fingertips touching some part of her just under the glassy green surface and how she might have smiled at me there, in secret, just the two of us.

After a day with no sign of her, the police and groups of volunteers began to descend on our corner of lake to search, dredge, and speculate. I lurked at the edge of the treeline, not far from where I had surrendered to my particular stupid fear, but after a time the police said they had enough men for the search and any more would be in the way. A Baptist preacher, his hair platinum-blonde above dark-rimmed eyeglasses, prayed with members of his congregation and explained the duality of grace and free will while middle-aged women sat in the shallowest water and clenched their hands and eyes tightly shut.

Closer to me was a plump woman of uncertain age, wrapped in thick brown and gray cloaks and blankets. She looked as if she herself might have been pulled from the water recently, with greasy brown hair half-plastered and half-frizzing around her round white face. Her skin was leathery, and a smell like old smoke lingered near her. By the time I realized how close together we were standing, she had noticed me.

“They won’t find her,” she said, as if we had been having a long conversation.

“Why not?” I had not then developed my habitual reluctance to talk to people I had not been introduced to and had no reason to trust.

“Some things just happen. Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be. That’s a whole different kind of gone for a girl to be.”

“Maybe she’s not gone,” I said. “Maybe she’s just lost.”

Now the woman turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had said something insightful or irredeemably foolish. “And now you tell me,” she said, “just what would be the difference between being lost and being gone.”

“She wanted me to swim with her,” I said, and in the strange comfort provided by anonymity I felt the enormity of the horror and my own place in it sweeping around me. The sky seemed invisible beyond the huge blackness created by my smallness being driven away on inconsequential winds. “But I didn’t go.”

“Of course you didn’t go.” If the woman knew about the choking guilt that I was only beginning to realize, she did not betray her knowledge. Instead, she smiled thinly at me—my second memory-corrupting female smile in as many days.

“Some things,” she said, “happen because they do. Some things you accept, or you don’t. That’s your choice to make. You can only react. But you can react well.”

Over my shoulder someone made some kind of strangled cry, and their foot splashed in the shallows, and the Baptist preacher was going on. “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

That night I dreamed that Emily came to me in the dark. I could not see her in the dream, but her voice was talking to me in my head, telling me things. She sounded very far away, but moving closer, and her voice was sad while she talked about being lonely and about how her skin felt when it was touched. When I opened my eyes she was asking me to please swim with her. I lay there breathing for a moment, staring up at the dark ceiling of my bedroom. Then I turned my body to the right and she was lying there beside me.

I closed my eyes to make her go away, and in the darkness of my head I smelled lakewater and sunscreen and wet swimsuit, and I wished that autumn would come.

* * * * *

Her brow creased in concentration, Julia was painting the inside of the shoebox pink. She had dug our miniature hot glue gun out of the drawer where we kept small tools and had plugged it in to warm up. On the table she had gathered a pile of small pebbles. She mumbled something to herself, fragments of a song, while she set the pink box down to dry and inserted a glue stick into the gun. Then she spread the pebbles out and searched for some that might match in size and general shape.

“Can we go swimming later, Dad?”

“I thought you were making a box for Dolly.”

“It will take time to dry. That leaves, like, hours.”

I could imagine the scene at the lake: police, concerned neighbors, television news teams.

“I don’t think today’s a good day to go to the lake, honey.”

Julia stopped her painting in mid-stroke and looked up at me. “What lake? I’m talking about going to the pool. Like yesterday? And the day before that?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Already she had forgotten me. “I’m going to put these little rocks all around the edge of the box. And then I’m going to put some words on the sides, so Dolly will have something to read while she’s in here. Then when I get her back she can tell me what she thinks about all of it.”

An eight year-old’s concept of time is much less absolute than ours. In our minds, we saw Dolly going into the box, then the box going onto a top shelf in a closet somewhere, hopefully to be forgotten until some distant moving day when we might, as a family, open the lid and remember how cute it was all those years ago when Julia needed Dolly by her side. But Julia was thinking not in months and years but in moments: there would be some bedtimes and some morning cranky times without Dolly, and then sometime Dolly would come back from her long sleep and they would start over again as if no time had ever passed. In short, I viewed the pink box studded with pebbles as a coffin, while Julia saw it as an elaborate drawer that could be reopened at our whim, provided that she could pressure us into having such a whim.

“You work on finishing up Dolly’s box. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes. When I get back we’ll see about the pool.”

Of course she never swam in the lake. Our backyard was a thick forest; we had chosen the house for this very feature, and Julia complained constantly that she was the only one among her circle of friends without a real backyard. A few yards past our property line the rules of the development ended, and as the boulder-studded ground began to slope downward toward the lake you could see where primitive paths had been cut into the woods before the development had been placed here.

I walked through our leafy wooded yard and, as if crossing a magic barrier at our property line, found the end of one of the paths. From here the walk was all downhill, and I remembered a thought I had had when we first bought the house, that autumn would be a fine time to take this walk, free from buzzing insects and with a smoky gray bite in the air. Now it was hazy and steaming; the ground was dusty beneath me.

The path ended on a rise of ground, one of those thrusts of land that stretched out into the lake and made boating a matter of some skill here. As I made my way down from the high ground to the beach, I felt for a moment as if I had discovered something secret, for in the thirty years since I had last played here the summers had grown hotter and the rains less common; the lake was slowly drying up, and the waterline had pulled itself down and back from where my memory told me it should have been. The beach was now some ten to fifteen feet wide from eroded cliffside to gray lapping foam. Bony stumps and branches poked up from the earth that had once been the shallow bottom, now streaked with deep gore-like fissures as the sun had baked the clay and it had shrunk in upon itself, cracked, and split open. Each year, as the parching summers and the growing thirst of the city pulled more water from the lake, more of the bottom was being revealed. Old losses were coming to light, old discarded remnants waking up from watery graves. The lake no longer seemed prehistoric, for no Jurassic waterhole would be found with a plastic doll’s head jammed into its hot dry earth, or broken bottles and rusted cans wedged together beside the shattered remnants of a Styrofoam cooler. These things had been safely invisible, but the water was retreating and taking secrets with it.

As I had expected, I was not the only local with a mind to visit this increasingly archeological site. There was a public beach not far from here, just around two more of these narrow escarpments, but the media had chosen this stretch for their background because it looked more bucolic, more like the kind of mysterious No Man’s Land where a teenaged girl might disappear. A pretty blonde reporter stood with her back to the water (though where she was standing would have been four feet deep when I was a child) while her cameraman adjusted his position relative to hers to get the best framing of water, sky, and treeline on the far bank. Several families’ worth of fat children gaped on the sidelines.

The whole scene was strangely noisy, and people kept coming and going through the trees in groups of two or three. Curious college kids holding beer cans, mothers in large sunglasses trying to keep their toddlers from the water’s edge, an oblivious old man with a fishing pole and tackle box who appeared to be irritated that his chosen spot had been set upon like this. A man with bright blonde hair was holding a Bible and leading a small group of older women in prayer.

“Like Your son, we ask that this cup of sadness be taken from us. But also like Him, we bow to Your awesome will and ask for the strength to endure whatever You ask of us.”

Sitting on a sun-bleached log, a very old woman in a shapeless and colorless dress watched the movement of society around the waterline. Her greasy gray hair lifted itself in the humidity, half-plastered and half-frizzing around her wrinkled white face, but her leathery skin was dry, as if she had been sitting here in the sun for eons and had given up all the moisture of her body to the air. She held a stick, broken from a dead branch. I could smell faint smoke dissipating with the briny odor of the evening water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked her.

“Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be.”

“Some things just happen.”

She started to turn toward me, but stopped herself, tired from the effort. “That’s right. Some things just happen.”

I heard someone mutter an Amen, and then someone said, “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

I looked back up the path that snaked through the trees and back to my neighborhood. “And in thirty more years? Will we be here again?”

The old woman poked at the ground with her stick and drew something there. “Some things you accept, or you don’t.”

I remembered that it would not take Julia long to finish Dolly’s coffin. I started to scramble back up the embankment with the exaggerated quickness of someone who pretends to believe that a few extra quick steps will change the amount of time needed to get from one place to another. I did not look back to the people by the lake, but as I went into the trees the smell of old smoke thinned out and I smelled instead something like youth: suntanned skin and wet swimsuits. I picked up my pace and it stayed with me. By the time I came out from the path into the sculptured landscaping of my backyard I found myself squinting into the sun, almost dizzy with the certainty that someone was just behind me, reaching out to upbraid me for my inability to be where I was needed.

The pink shoebox, decorated with pebbles and lined with scraps of paper bearing quotations from some page-a-day calendar of aphorisms by great thinkers, was waiting for me on the kitchen table. Glued in the very center was a square of paper that read, “Put Dolly Here.”

* * * * *

That night I had to tuck Julia in without Dolly. Julia put on a brave face and pulled her covers up tightly around her. She gathered up a menagerie of other stuffed animals and placed them ceremoniously around her.

“Dolly will come back, right, Dad?”

“Dolly will come back. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

“But you can’t be sure. Sometimes things just happen.”

“That’s right. Sometimes. But we’ll take care of her.”

She considered. “Maybe I’ll write her a letter. Just to let her know that I still love her.”

“I think that would be very nice.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sweetpea.”

“Night.”

I do not know exactly where Dolly was put; by the time I had left Julia’s bedside my wife had placed Dolly in the box and hidden her somewhere. We agreed that, since I was weaker at resisting Julia’s entreaties, I should not know where the box had been placed.
Sometime after midnight, when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, I opened Julia’s door to check on her one last time. She was sleeping peacefully, but the gaze of the damp and gently curving body of the teenaged girl in the bed beside her met my eye passively. I smelled distant sunscreen and wished for winter.

 

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