The Doll of the Orphanage
By Robert Russell
With the departure of little Mallory Mason at summer’s end in the year 1921, Harmer’s Orphanage and Boarding School for Girls, a private institution located in Bristol, Massachusetts came to house thirteen girls, the lowest number in just under six decades of operation. Mallory’s leave had been sudden and universally mourned among the girls who all had loved and cherished her. But exulted by her leave was the headmistress Sister Mary Loretta. A woman of large stature, looming in her sable habit and cowl, Sister Loretta commandeered her establishment with a vicious ruthlessness. In the midafternoons, she marched with conviction down the lengthy corridors, wielding always a bible in her left hand held firmly to her heart and a long, thin switch in her right, tucked neatly under the swath of her sleeve. The rubber heels of her shoes echoed through the halls, striking fear into the minds of the children and stirring their tiny hearts into anxiety. She delighted in viciously punishing the poor girls for even the smallest of indiscretions–a drop of a bible, an inadvertent shout, or perhaps a glance, one of innocence, but one nonetheless which the indomitable sister deemed disagreeable. The girls trembled in her presence and shuddered from the thought of her.
Thrice-weekly Sister Loretta traipsed down the hallways, halted before the girls’ classroom door, and peered stealthily through the glass-panes, scanning each and every face, searching intently for a reason to scold and abuse one of the girls. Invariably she would find something and then enter, silencing both instructor and students, saunter towards the condemned, bend her ruddy-cheeked face towards the cowering countenance of the student, and mutter unintelligible words before taking the girl by the arm, crying, out of the classroom and down the hall to her office. The poor girl’s wails of ferocious pain mingling with the air-slicing whip-crack and blow of her switch would fall unto the deaf ears of her peers back in the classroom but still ring a pang through their minds and hearts nonetheless.
Pervasive, unrelenting fear threatened to extinguish what little flame of hope the girls so carefully held onto. That is until one night, after dinner, when the girls had been sent to their residential quarters, a sprawling room with single beds lining the walls like that of an infirmary, when the darkness touched every corner save the splash of moonlight that trickled in from the upper windows and washed the floor’s center with an ominous glow, little Sadie Turner sat up in her bed, turned her legs outward, planted her bare feet onto the cold floorboards, walked slowly towards the shared armoire resting against the back wall, unhinged its door, slowly swung it open, and retrieved a large doll. The other girls watched in the quiet darkness, mortified yet excited, murmuring curiously and shuffling under their sheets. Sadie Turner carried the doll into the moonlit center of the room and sat on the floor, cradling it as if it were a child.
One by one, each girl rose from her bed, sauntered carefully, silently, towards Sadie and sat in a circle around the girl until all the beds were empty. Sadie held the doll close to her chest, admiring the creamy pallor of the skin, purple eye-shadow, and reddish freckles which spanned the cheeks and turned to stitched lines that leapt sporadically down the legs. She was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for the cosmic circumstances that had bestowed the doll unto her; from the communal receptacle which exited the building through an outside orifice into an ashbin, its face skewed upward from the refuse had caught Sadie’s gaze as she peered out the classroom window the other day. Secretly she had taken it, and now she moved it ever so slightly in her arms, gently, respectively, protectively, before turning towards one of the girls and passing its small body to her. She held it like Sadie had, close to her chest, swaying it, protecting it, feeling it, before passing it along to the girl at her left. In the subtle light of the quiet night, these movements were repeated until each girl had had time with the doll, doing just as Sadie had done, holding the tiny thing, cradling it gently, protectively, unearthing a glimpse of the stifled maternal sensibility which misfortune and tragedy had so deprived them. Once the last girl was finished, she passed the doll back to Sadie who then stood and walked silently back to the armoire and returned it to its place to wait for the next night when it would be exhumed and hence the ritual resumed. Not a single word had been spoken.
The days seemed to grow brighter from October to November. Though Sister Loretta’s frightening caprice still loomed heavily over the girls, they began to turn their minds towards the doll, letting it float into their reverie, its body swaying in their arms, feeling its imagined warmth against their tiny chests, and slowly the perennial fear of punishment diminished, defeated by the joy inspired by their little routine. They attended their classes regularly and many even began to excel in their studies to the delight and surprise of their instructors who knew nothing of the girls’ unspoken secret–a secret sequestered only to the night. Without need of acknowledgement, the girls vowed never to speak about it during the day lest they allow the threat of being found out. They were careful not to act too out of nature, meticulous in their awareness of their individual presentations. But despite all of their conscientiousness, all their efforts to maintain a scrupulously carved façade of normalcy, one person was able to distinguish even the slightest hint of a shift from the pervasive fear which most marked their previous behavior–Sister Loretta.
On the first of December, the snow-covered fields breathing a quietude through the walls, turning air into ice and breath into smoke, Sister Loretta could stifle her indefatigable suspicion no longer. Bible in her left hand, switch in her right, she walked steadfastly through the corridors, past the classroom which held the studious girls, straight to the residential hall. Crossing the empty, neatly-made beds, the nun stopped in the light that fell in through the window aloft, and turned slowly, making a complete scan of the room. At length, her eyes fell onto the grand armoire resting against the back wall, its door slightly ajar. In one motion, she was there and swung open the door with a force that nearly broke it from its hinges. Flies burst from the shadows catching light in the air, and she looked in horror at what lay inside. Tucked into the darkened corner, under the hanged sleeves and pants of the girls’ clothes, was the corpse of little Mallory Mason, her skin a pasty grey-white, eyes shallowed into purpled hollows, blood-speckled knees bent upright into her tiny frame, the vestiges of the switch still visible in her thin shins and sunken cheeks. Guilt and grief assailed Sister Loretta as the deathly smell penetrated her nostrils amplifying the horrific sight, and she fell to the floor before the open door, unconscious.