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It’s late, today, when she asks me to leave the kiln on the minute she walks in.
“No worries, I wasn’t turning it off.”
I tell her I’ll be needing it a few more hours today. Five-hundred mice to make: there you have it. And tons of unpaid overtime, of course. Why would I even bother asking? Manel and Joan Lluís got nothing for their extra twenty hours last month, when they had to finish up those damned pots for the fair—and it’ll be no different for me and my porcelain baptismal mice.
The windows rattle like chattering teeth, and the sky, too bleak for this time of day, pitches a storm. Cecília doesn’t look amused at my staying but says nothing. She rummages through her locker for a while, picking out molds from the shelves. She doesn’t like people poking around in her locker or meddling in her work, and she’s looked daggers at me more than once for getting too close.
Joan Lluís sweeps the floors and rants to his father about the last time Mrs. Gregori screwed him over. He still hasn’t caught on to Cecília’s presence—breaking off mid-sentence at the creak of her locker, right when he was about to compose a most genteel epithet for Mrs. Gregori. But Cecília just turns to him blankly:
“Well don’t mind me. You can go ahead and say it.”
Joan Lluís gives a sheepish titter and goes on sweeping quietly. Cecília scares him a little. When she first started coming to the workshop, we all assumed she was just a spoiled girl taking up ceramics on a whim. He would sweet-talk and ogle her—until one day she aimed a merciless stare at him and told him to leave her alone. Joan Lluís took her words to heart. Now that she’s already learned everything there is to know and can get by on her own, he just looks at her from far away—just like his father does.
I decide I’ll risk her scolding and carry my box of mice over to the table beside her. But she holds back: maybe she isn’t peeved at my company today. I take heart and drop in on her table, where she’s wiping the molds she picked out from her locker. There’s one mold for each arm, one for each leg, and one for the head.
“What are the arms doing?” I probe, guarding my tone.
“They’re drawing a bow and arrow.”
“Heading out. We’re done for the day,” huffs a tired-looking Manel. He and Joan Lluís walk out the door quietly, letting a draft of cold air scamper around the shop.
With just the two of us left, only the clinking figurines I pull out of the box break the silence, until I have them all laid out in front of me. I guess the Pied Piper must have felt like this. Then I notice Cecília peering at me from the corner of her eye as I ready my paints, and she asks me when the order’s due. Tomorrow morning? Tomorrow, yeah. We go on working and say nothing to each other for some time, listening to the bluster that whistles through the hinges on the top windows. A few minutes later, a light flashes through them, and when the thunder strikes, our eyes meet and she makes a face at me, playing scared. I’m so struck by the change in her usually deadpan expression that I burst into laughter. The thunder roars on and the occasional specter of lightning bounces off the walls, but the rain holds back. It hasn’t even been fifteen minutes since the first thunderbolt when Mrs. Gregori barges in.
“What are you still doing here?” she barks at Cecília.
I’m stuck with my paintbrush in the air, petrified. Every time this woman walks into the workshop, our blood runs cold—her icy draft profaning our sanctuary.
“I’m working, mother.”
“I see,” she retorts sarcastically. “You sure don’t bring a lot of dolls to the shop, for someone who works so hard.” She turns toward me: “So you’re here to work, huh?”
I decide to pretend I’m not the one being addressed and just lower my gaze—I’d rather not take the hit. Cecília goes on polishing the molds cool-headedly and doesn’t look up either. When she’s done, she lines them up on the newspapers, picks up a bottle of porcelain, and starts pouring its milky white liquid into a container.
“Are you listening to me?” Mrs. Gregori snaps.
“Then answer me!”
Cecília opens a small metal box, measures out half a teaspoon of iron oxide, and sifts the rusty powder into the container.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she replies as she stirs the liquid. “When I do bring more dolls, you say they take up too much space and don’t sell.”
“No. The real problem is you’re a liar, or worse.” Mrs. Gregori glares at her scornfully, making sure to pause long enough to let her implications settle in with their full weight. “Your aunt and uncle are coming over for dinner tonight, so I need you home by nine. And wear something nice, for God’s sake. You’ve been disgusting lately.”
“Okay,” she replies, impassively, and goes on stirring the porcelain as its immaculate white gives way to a fleshier tone. Mrs. Gregori casts me one last venomous glare before she walks out the door without a goodbye.
Now that the porcelain’s blended at the right tone—like rosy skin—Cecília carefully sieves it into the molds and runs them over the container, letting the excess porcelain drip back in.
“Why do you let her treat you that way?”
This is one of those times she could very well flash me one of her icy glares, kind of like her mother does, and tell me to mind my own business. But she doesn’t even lift her gaze. It’s as though she hasn’t heard me, focusing all her attention on the porcelain dripping from her mold.
“I’d get with you just to make her mad,” she says without facing me. “At least that way she’d be right for once.”
This doesn’t really sound like a proposal, but I indulge in the fantasy, if only for a minute. Mrs. Gregori says Cecília looks disgusting—and that isn’t really the case. It’s true that she’s skinny and has none of the usual womanly curves, and she usually looks like she threw on the first thing she could find. Sometimes, her hair falls over her face and she just shoves it behind her ears without an inkling of flirtation. But still, her pale features, which hold no charm in particular, possess a certain strength, a steadfast focus that attracts me.
Lightning flashes across the sky once again, and a thunderclap makes the windows ring louder than before. Cecília rests her brimming molds on the newspaper and gets up to grab a sweater from her locker. Then she comes and hovers over me, watching me paint the mice’s eyes and tails blue and gold, their mouths and whiskers, black. A little inscription goes on the animals’ left flank: “Marc’s Baptism 6/22/20—.” Cecília sighs.
“She wants to stop paying you commissions for the porcelain figurines. And you won’t even have to worry about it for too long—she’s having me take over that as well.”
Her words hit me like a bucket of cold water. With the economy in trouble, Gregori’s been snipping at our salaries—and of course we can’t complain—we just have to grin and bear it or lose the rest as well. Still, this thing about the commissions catches me by surprise. It makes my blood boil to think I’m being cheated of something that should be mine, and I don’t know how to fight it.
“Great. Manel’s going to throw a fit.”
“Well he should be careful, because she’s under the impression that she can replace you without a hitch.”
I can’t work with her rambling, and that impassive tone of hers gets me even more rattled—it’s like she’s just talking about the weather.
“You do know about Manel’s wife, right? That they’re about to lose their house because of her?”
“Yes”—now she looks me in the eye—“I do know. I told her I can’t handle the figurines on my own. I have too much work with the dolls as it is, but when she gets something in her head there’s no stopping her—there never is.”
At that moment, the door bursts open yet again and Ecaterina walks in the room.
“Buna!” cries Cecília with a smile.
Ecaterina shuts the door and lets out a puff, her nose red from the outside chill. She ran here all the way from the store, she explains, out of breath. I can tell she’s surprised I’m still here. I’ve usually been gone for hours by the time she arrives. Ecaterina sits down next to Cecília, opens her bag, and starts unfurling a jumble of needles, threads, and fabric scraps.
She’s laughing but her eyes falter as she tells us she was late because Gregori bombarded her about how many dolls they’d made and how many hours they’d spent on each dress. Halfway through her story, though, she looks at me and hesitates. Then she starts speaking Romanian and averts her gaze so adamantly that I know it’s me she’s talking about. Cecília tries to stop herself from bursting into giggles—apparently exasperating Ecaterina, who now speaks in a whiny and somewhat irritated tone. In the end, Cecília shakes her head and laughs, muttering a few more words in Romanian. I don’t think I’d ever seen her laugh before, or maybe I can’t remember, but I’m surprised to see her this happy. She no longer strikes me as that standoffish girl who always works soundlessly in the corner. Then she picks up one of the molds and examines it top to bottom, showing it to Ecaterina.
“The archer’s head,” she says, this time in her Catalan.
“So you think Mrs. Gregori is really going to sell these Amazons of yours?” I smirk. “She’s usually so classic. . . . ”
“She won’t sell this one. She won’t even see it, in fact.”
“Is it for your private collection?”
“I didn’t know you could speak Romanian.”
“Ecaterina’s a very good teacher.”
Her teacher, however, refuses to acknowledge my presence: she threads her needle and starts hemming a little dress, pretending she isn’t listening at all. Suddenly, a dry wind smacks the windowpanes and the rain starts lashing at the laminate roof with such force that soon enough we hear nothing other than its constant hammer. The hours come and go. Inside, as the rain keeps falling and the sky goes dark, the three of us hone in on our own painstaking tasks. Cecília and I take turns at the kiln. I go first and pull out a batch of one hundred mice, then she goes over and fires the pieces of her archer—already stripped of their molds—and I hear the click of the knob as she adjusts the temperature. She heads my way and sits down next to me. Without a word, she grabs a brush and starts painting the mice.
“There’s no way you’re finishing these by morning on your own.”
Sometimes Ecaterina absentmindedly breaks into song and we just paint and listen, our heads bent over the figurines. The deluge goes on outside, and every now and then the too-close thunderclaps make us jump in our seats. Inside, though, I feel sheltered and connected. This is different from being with Manel and Joan Lluís, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Today’s company is perhaps warmer, more intimate. It’s also true that my colleagues don’t quite sing like Ecaterina, and they never offer to take a load off me—probably because they’re also drowning in work. Every once in a while I take a peek at Cecília’s hands: they cradle the mice so carefully you’d think she was holding a live creature, but I’m taken aback by her nimble brushwork. It’s just baffling—I’ve been painting at least eight hours a day for ten years, and I still can’t paint the way she does.
“Where’d you learn all this?”
She smiles and hums Ecaterina’s song. I guess some people are just naturals who can pick up painting in a heartbeat—while it takes years of tireless practice for the rest of us. As luck would have it, Mrs. Gregori’s daughter is the perfect craftswoman, and with everything staying in the family, Gregori doesn’t even have to pay her for the work she’s been taking from us! It’s no wonder she wants us out. We should be glad she didn’t have more daughters like Cecília. We’d be out the door by now.
We have the first hundred mice painted in just over an hour and they’re ready to go back on the tray for a second firing.
“Give me a minute. My archer’s probably ready.”
She opens the kiln, pulls out the tray of doll parts, and sets it on her table as I stick my mice in the fire. Ecaterina comes close: the two of them fix their gaze on the doll’s head—still white and hairless—and study it with utmost attention.
“Wait till you see her painted,” whispers Cecília.
The mice, just like the doll, are porcelain and have to go through at least two firings: first at eight hundred degrees, and then, after a coat of paint, at two hundred. Our most valuable pieces, like the dolls, get a second coat—maybe even another one after that—and they have to be fired again after each layer. But my poor little mice are just party favors—you can tie a bag of candy to their necks and let them gather dust on some dank shelf, until they fall and break a few years from now or the next time you find a new apartment—which is why they only get the two non-negotiable firings, and presto, they’re off to the store with a single layer of paint. No matter how simple, though, the great family of five hundred rodents for Marc’s baptism—how this many people could possibly attend a miserable baptism, I don’t know—will cost me hours and hours of sleep, today.
Some time later, the patter on the laminate roof scatters with the waning storm. Ecaterina gathers her things and announces that she’s done for the day: her eyes hurt. I hear them whisper in Romanian. With a bag on her back but no coat, Ecaterina walks out into the dark, windy evening, and bereft of her song, the workshop goes dreary.
“It’s ten till nine,” I tell Cecília.
“I know, but I just want to finish the eyes.”
When she finally gets up I’ve already painted another twenty mice, but rows and rows of these creatures still squint at me blindly, and I can’t help but let out a sigh. Then she sits back down next to me.
“Listen, you really don’t have to. You should leave—your mother’s going to be furious.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I can be a little late.”
But she isn’t just a little late. Minutes fall upon minutes and I keep glancing at my watch so she’ll notice, but she just goes on painting the black whiskers and gold and blue tails while I agonize at the mere thought of Mrs. Gregori’s face as she sees Cecília walk through the door.
I’m not exactly sure when we started talking, but our chatter makes me forget about the time. This girl, whom I’d always found as cold and sullen as her mother, now speaks to me candidly and opens up about just how hard it is to live in the same house as that woman. And she tells me about her sister, who is just like her mother, and about how she’s dying to go live with Ecaterina in some small apartment downtown. But she can’t do that yet, she says. Not until she’s sold at least one of her high-end dolls.
“Yeah. She lives in an awful boarding house and wants out as well. If she can get my mother to pay her for the dressmaking… between that, her storekeeping, and whatever I get from the dolls, we could make ends meet.”
“So you’re not selling them at the store?”
“No. I’m tired of working for my mother. I know a few collectors, and these kinds of things sell well online.”
Then I ask her about the dolls, and she talks about them like they’re her children. It takes her about a month’s worth of free time to craft each one, and she has the porcelain and paint shipped from abroad. The hair is always real—hers, Ecaterina’s, or another friend’s—and she gets a professional embroiderer to detail the dresses, she tells me, proudly.
“They’re one-of-a-kinds. I’ve put so much into every one of them, it’ll be hard to see them go.”
“The archer’s a one-of-a-kinds as well?”
“Yes, but I’m not selling the archer. She’s part of my . . . what did you call it? My private collection.”
“And will I get to see any of these one-of-a-kinds?”
She replies with a laconic “I don’t know” and looks at me like she’s probing my character. Soon enough, the rain pours down once again, this time with no lightning or thunder. Two beeps announce that the firing is over, so I head toward the kiln and pull out a tray of mice. It’s a little past ten. Her family dinner no longer has any bearing, and Cecília looks like she’s in no hurry to leave. How long will she stay? And why the hell is she still here?
“All set!” She waves her paintbrush in the air like a triumphant flag. “Bring your next batch over, and there you go, another hundred mice in the kiln!”
Between the two of us, we arrange the painted mice on the tray and then she sticks them in the fire. We stand in front of the kiln for just a moment, basking in its warmth. Maybe she’s staying because of me? I cast her a glimpse out of the corner of my eye and notice a smudge of gold paint on her cheek.
“Look, you got paint on your face,” I say as I put my thumb on her cheek.
I think I feel her warm skin quiver, especially when, possessed by some brazen feeling, I not only don’t lift my finger, but let another two graze over her skin, and then slide all three down her cheek in a hesitant caress. Cecília throws me a piercing glare, her eyes hardened in anger. I’m pretty sure she would have slapped me if she’d had the time. But she can’t lift her hand and I can’t pull back mine, because at that precise moment, Mrs. Gregori bursts into the workshop and sees us planted before the kiln in that ever-so-mistaken situation.
I pull my hand down in a flash, and Cecília turns to see who’s there. Mrs. Gregori’s shape in the doorway could chill anyone to the bone: she stands there drenched, with her usually coiffed hair plastered to her forehead and her fitted dress clinging to her lanky body—her brutal stare gone black from all the mascara running down her cheeks.
“You!” she explodes, her voice hoarse with rage. “You filthy whore! You’re a rakish slut! A disgrace to this family!”
She closes in on Cecília as she speaks, and I shrink back, panicking before her kniving flood. Cecília doesn’t budge. She only lowers her gaze and presses her lips together, as if she were struggling to keep herself from talking back.
“You never get enough, do you? Between him, that piggish whore, and Joan Lluís… You probably served it up for Manel, too!”
“Alícia, please calm down,” is all I muster the courage to say as I try to steady my voice. That’s how afraid we are of this woman. “I can assure you there’s never been anything between me and Cecília: not today, not ever.”
She runs her venomous gaze over me.
“Shut your mouth, you.” She turns back to Cecília, who hasn’t budged an inch. “You won’t deny it, will you? So the rumors about you are true, then? You’re that big a tramp?”
She finally lifts her head and looks her mother in the eye.
“It’s my life and I’ll do whatever I want. I don’t think I’m a tramp for loving…”
And then everything happens at once. Without letting her finish, Mrs. Gregori lifts her hand and strikes Cecília with all her might. And Cecília, so frail, buckles over the nearest table—the one with the tray of freshly fired mice. She desperately reaches her hands out to clutch something to keep herself from falling, and that something is the tray. Then both Cecília and the tray crash to the ground, and the figurines, still warm from the kiln, shatter to pieces in a great quake of broken mice. I let out a bewildered cry, and Mrs. Gregori jumps back in shock, rubbing the hand she just flung at her own daughter. Then a wave of nausea sweeps over me as I notice the colossal diamond ring on that same hand.
“Cecília, here, Cecília! Get up. Are you okay?”
But she just lies there, huddled on the floor, speechless. She grips my arm as I help her up and sweep her hair back from her mouth. She pats the wound with her fingers and looks at them. There’s a trembling cut on her lower lip, and a dark trail of blood oozes down her neck, making its way to her sweater. I can’t get her to stand straight. She’s pale and her legs give way. She must be dizzy from all the blood.
“Ecaterina will no longer be working at the store,” Mrs. Gregori announces, tripping on porcelain as she pulls back, unfazed. “I don’t want to see her in the workshop again. As for you, you’ll work at home from now on, and whatever needs to be done here, the boys will take care of. Understood?”
Cecília doesn’t say a word. She’s still clutching my arm, using her other hand to prop herself up against the table as she fights the urge to look at her mother. A sob escapes her, but just one.
“Understood!?” cries the authoritarian Mrs. Gregori.
“Yes. . . ” Cecília mutters in the end.
The windows rattle as Mrs. Gregori finally slams the door behind her, but the ensuing silence, that muted quiet of rain, weighs down on us like lead. Cecília lets go of me and drops to her knees. She stretches out her arms and starts gathering the mice scattered about her, making a little pile of shattered porcelain.
“What a disaster!” she says, faintly. “What a disaster!”
I bend down and pick up a mouse’s head. Its mouth and whiskers are painted exquisitely: she must have done this one. Cecília heaps the shards together and the pile grows taller and taller as she rambles on about the disaster, and then blood starts dripping on it, too. I’m feeling queasy, and now that it’s too late, I’m filled with regret for having touched Cecília and caused that look of hate, and I’m even more sorry I did nothing to stop her mother from hitting her. I’m at a loss as to how I can comfort her, and while she’s down on her knees, I do nothing but stand there uselessly, staring at her with my heart still shrinking. And she keeps on crying and whimpering, not because she was hit, not because her friend was fired, and not because of her own predicament as an exploited house worker, but because of the broken baptism figurines!
“Listen, Cecília, come on. Leave the damned mice alone. There’s a first aid kit in here somewhere. I can fix you up a little.”
“What a disaster!” she cries again, disoriented.
“Damn it, Cecília!” I snap, and hastily make an effort to soften my tone. “Come on up, let’s get you off the floor. . . . ”
I pull her up with one arm, surprised at how easily I can lift her tiny, trembling body. She obligingly lets me steer her to the little cupboard and makes no objection when I sit her on a chair and dab her mouth with gauze. But it doesn’t help at all. Her lip keeps oozing blood, and it goes on trickling down her neck with every passing moment.
“Hold this gauze up against your lip,” I instruct, taking her hand and placing her fingers on the wound, “Like that, put some pressure on it for a minute.”
I can’t tell if she’s listening. She stares blankly ahead, and even though she presses her hand firmly against the gauze, her body seems inert, as if the strength had been sucked out of her.
“I’m going to go clean this mess up, okay? Just stay calm and sit still.”
With the thrust of the broom, the scraps of porcelain screech against the floor like the shrill cry of some small rodent. Drops of blood speckle the ground and table, and I clean it all up with the cloth we use to polish the figurines. I turn to look at Cecília every now and then. She seems to be calming down. She’s still huddled up in her chair, pressing the gauze against her lips, but no longer looks like she’s in a trance. As I’m throwing out the shards of porcelain, I try not to think about the hundred mice that have gone to waste, except I can’t help but feel hopeless, because if I recall correctly, there’s only one small box left in the store, meaning I only have fifty left. Oh, God! What’ll I do when they come pick them up tomorrow morning? With any luck, if I finish doing all the rest, I’ll still only have four hundred and fifty. And maybe Mrs. Gregori will refuse to remember she’s the one who got us off schedule in the first place, and then she’ll try to calm her furious clients by billing me for the broken mice. Or worse—I might have to do like Ecaterina and find myself another job.
Her voice is so close it startles me, tearing me away from my qualms. Her lips, though very swollen, have stopped bleeding. She sets her eyes on the shards of porcelain I just threw out—half buried in the dust and workshop waste—and I worry she’ll start raving on about the disasters again.
“Don’t think twice about it, Cecília. I’ll figure something out; there might still be a full box in the warehouse.”
She shakes her head.
“There’s only a crate of fifty. But I was thinking there’s something else we could do.”
“Oh, yeah?” And really, on a night as bewildering as this one, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if she were to open her locker and tell me she always keeps a stockpile of two-hundred mice—all painted and fired—just in case.
She pulls her purse out of the closet and lays the archer’s parts inside—each piece wrapped in a separate cloth.
“Yes. Could you come to the warehouse with me for a minute?”
One of the less practical things about our workshop is that the warehouse is in a completely separate building, a few blocks down. So whenever we fire a batch of cooking pots or vases or anything, if we’re not ready to take them to the store, we have to haul the stock over to the warehouse with a pushcart, precariously rolling it around the narrow sidewalks. Mrs. Gregori says she can’t afford a bigger location where we could have the warehouse and workshop in the same place, but she doesn’t want anything cluttering up the workshop either. Everything has to be stored in the warehouse, clean and tidy. If a pot or plaster angel cracks on the way, then it must be that we’re clumsy—and she’ll take it from our check.
When we get to the warehouse and I wield my key into the lock, Cecília stops me.
“No, no. Come this way.”
We circle the building and arrive at a side street. Cecília makes her way up a flight of stairs that goes straight to the second floor. There, she unlocks the door with a key she wears around her neck and flashes me a mysterious smile. We walk in, and right away, I can tell I’ve never been here before. We rarely go up to this floor: we only store a few sacks of plaster and cleaning supplies up here. But I’m positive I’ve never seen this room. Cecília switches on a light and I run my gaze across the small, tidy room brimming with cabinets and cupboards full of boxes.
“This is my private warehouse,” she announces, and that guilty smile on her beaten lip troubles me a little.
She picks up one of the boxes and carefully sets it on the ground, and as she opens it, she unveils a whole slew of little boxes. She pulls them out gently and shows off their contents without masking her pride. There’s a small porcelain turtle in every one of them, each meticulously crafted. With their marvelous shapes and peculiar color combinations, I’d even dare say they’re exquisite, showing such dexterity that I must admit I feel a little jealous.
“Turturică,” she pronounces, gazing at the one in her hand as if it could come to life with the sound of her voice. “I have exactly fifty. With the fifty mice downstairs, that makes one hundred. Isn’t that lucky?”
We study the turtles for a while longer, and she shows them to me one at a time, pausing to tell me a little anecdote about each of them.
“Ecaterina loves turtles. I was going to give her these on her birthday, but it’s still a while away. I can make new ones.”
“But the molds, did you save them?”
She shakes her head.
“I wanted them to be one-of-a-kinds, like the dolls. . . . ”
I shake my head obstinately and start stuffing the figurines back in their boxes.
“I won’t hear of it, Cecília. We can’t just sell these turtles by the pound like party favors and tie little candy bags to their necks. Please! I’d be mortified! No, no, I won’t hear of it! Marc’s parents asked for a box of mice, and they’ll get their damned mice and nothing more.”
“You’re still missing fifty,” she probes. “The turtles are just the right size, and there’s enough space for the inscription on the shell.”
“No, no, no. Manel must have some leftover chicks from last week, or maybe those cats. . . . ”
Now she’s the one shaking her head.
“Ecaterina sold them all this week.”
“How could she sell them if they weren’t painted?” I hesitate.
“They were painted.” She lowers her gaze and I catch her cheeks burning red. “My mother had me paint them; she was in a hurry to get the orders done. . . . ”
I can feel my blood boiling over and almost work myself into a huff, but when I look back at her swollen lip my anger fades as quickly as it came. Cecília shuts the box and signals me to pick it up. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that she’s giving up these gorgeous turtles, that I’m letting her sacrifice her treasure to save me. Now that she seems to have forgotten everything that went on just a while ago, she looks serene—so serene, in fact, it’s almost disconcerting. I insist just a bit more. I tell her to save the turtles for Ecaterina, that they were meant for her, but she keeps cutting me off with a smile before she finally puts her foot down:
“Look, it’s settled: we’re using the turtles. This will all be over soon enough, and then I can make as many as I want.”
I wait for an explanation, but she seems to be done. Then she heads toward the door between the cupboards in the back and pivots toward me.
“So do you want to see the dolls or not?”
The light clicks on. We’re in a tiny room, almost like a closet, but it’s pleasantly warm and gives off a scent of wood. Display cases line the windowless walls, and a dark fabric veils the cabinets on the right, hiding whatever’s inside. Cecília’s one-of-a-kinds deck the shelves to the left, and as I edge closer, all those sets of eyes peer into mine. Some have darker skin; some are black; some are very pale. I’m surprised their faces lack the childlike features of most porcelain dolls: their adult complexions steer away from those perpetually ditzy expressions—instead, they’re so alive and human, it’s disturbing. One of them sobs—her face warped to the point that real tears seem inevitable. Another bares her teeth in a terrible and maleficent smile, and the way she conceals her arms behind her back makes me dread her cruel treachery. Another laughs and thrusts her fist into the air, celebrating some colossal triumph. Yet another screams—her palms gripping her temples as her entire face coils in pain. The last one kneels, and my heart shrinks at the prayer I read in her pious countenance.
“God,” I whisper. “Of course they’ll sell. They’re magnificent, Cecília.”
She flashes me a proud smile as she unwraps her archer, carefully ensconcing each part in a wooden box lined with hay.
“And I assume your private collection is back there,” I say, pointing to the hidden display shelves on the right.
“Can I see?”
I pinch the fabric by its corner and slowly peel it back. Without warning, Ecaterina’s pale, plump face appears smack before me. I jerk back in surprise, and the fabric swishes over the display case once again. Cecília bursts into laughter.
“Don’t be scared, silly—it isn’t real.”
I pull the fabric back again and fix my eyes on the doll: yes, this definitely is Ecaterina’s placid, smiling face, with that same, slightly bent, Roman nose, thin lips, full cheeks, and those constellations of freckles under her eyes. She’s wearing a flowy country dress and an intricately woven pair of leather sandals. Tucked under a flower crown, her curls fall over her shoulders; her hair, with that precise orange, must be Ecaterina’s. The doll sits on a bench and peers down at her lap: she’s cradling a little turtle in her hands.
After hesitating for a moment, I inch back a second piece of fabric and another doll appears before me. This one is standing, her dark head of frazzled hair bowed to the floor as she stares down at her bare feet. She wears a simple, striped dress, and between the tresses of hair that fall on her shoulders, she wears a face of utter sadness. This is the same Cecília who took a beating just a moment ago, the same one who caved in to her mother’s abusive regime with a word and nothing more. But now that I have the flesh-and-bone Cecília before me, I discern a far more vital expression on her face.
“There’s more over there.”
I push aside the rest of the fabric covering the first cupboard and come upon another Ecaterina. Tall and magnificent, she wears a long, immaculately white dress, with layers of embroidered silk falling down to her feet. A delicate wedding veil sweeps over her face and this Ecaterina seems too thrilled to smile. She peers through the silk with dreamy eyes, clutching a bouquet of minuscule flowers in her pale hands.
This time I don’t wait for Cecília to remind me there are more dolls. I pinch away a hint of fabric from the second cupboard, and what a terrible sight I find when I unearth Mrs. Gregori’s twisted face. Swollen and scarlet, with her jaw dropped open in a shriek that’s been captured at the epitome of its horror, she’s a monstrous spectacle, and her crazed eyes glare at me the way they glared at Cecília right before she struck her. The doll leans forward like she’s hunching over her victim and thrusts an admonishing hand into the air.
“Do you like it?” Cecília smiles spitefully.
“Scary as real life.”
Convinced I’ll find another screaming Gregori or turtle-promenading Ecaterina, I finish pulling the fabric all the way up. But I wasn’t ready for what I saw. I jerk back in shock and drop the fabric once more, aghast. Cecília snickers at me and tells me to get a hold of myself. I pull the fabric up again. This was another Mrs. Gregori indeed, but this time she’d collapsed on a chair as her features writhed in pain and shock. Her black and white dress-suit is just like the one the real Mrs. Gregori often wears. Three arrows pierce the doll’s body but draw no blood: one on her left breast, one in her stomach, and one on her right side. The doll struggles to wrench this last one out. Her right hand clutches the shaft, her stout porcelain arm contracting in exertion. Perhaps her other hand made a lunge for the arrow in her heart but didn’t make it and now lies limply on her striped dress.
Hypnotized by the doll’s agonized expression, I don’t dare look at Cecília. She draws the fabric back over the cupboard and covers this heinous sight. She peers at me vaguely, pale. Minus the wounded lip, this is the same aloof Cecília as usual.
“You might as well go down and fetch the mice. I have to tidy a few things up in here.”
I obey without a word. Then I trudge back up the stairs, dump the crate of mice on the box of turtles, and just stand there, stupefied. They keep flashing before me, over and over: the angelical, beaming bride; the moribund Mrs. Gregori’s twisted face, disfigured in pain. I stare at the boxes blankly, and my stifled brain refuses to focus. Until a box—smaller and darker than the others—catches my eye. This one isn’t cardboard, but wood. I cave in to my curiosity and edge it off the shelf. I try to muffle the noise as I slip the cover off. Cloth lines the inside of the box. A little cushion that’s made to shape nestles a metal bow, polished and glistening with pulleys at its ends. Beside it, a case holds three long, aluminum arrows, about twelve inches each.
A noise in the other room startles me. A hinge must have squeaked as Cecília opened one of the cupboards. I hastily shut the box, stuff it back on the shelf, and retreat to the doll room. Cecília stands behind an open cupboard on the right. With the fabric covering her, I can only see her legs.
“Will you let me see the archer?”
“I was just putting her away.”
She opens a box, and inside, cocooned in hay, the arms are ready to shoot; the fingers, strained in effort; the legs, slightly bent, will steady her aim. Still lacking hair and eyebrows, there’s a look of intense concentration on her face, and her forehead creases in a hunt for precision. Only the eyes are painted: wide open, attentive, and indisputably determined.
I nod and head back to the other room. I pick up the boxes of turtles and mice, go outside, and breathe in the street’s cold air. I sense the blue mountains circling the dark valley in the distance, hiding in the night. An icy gust sends a shiver down my spine.
“It’s quite cold for June, isn’t it?” Cecília remarks, standing at the doorstep.
“It really is.”
“I wonder if it snowed up there. . . . I guess we’ll know tomorrow.”
She locks the door and takes one of the boxes from me, smiling.
“Shall we go paint some mice?”
We make our way back to the workshop in silence. The houses around us are locked up and dark, the earlier storm drizzling down their shingles. Up ahead, the workshop’s top windows give off a vague, hazy light. I realize with dismay that my fingers have gone numb from the chill and excitement: painting with cold fingers can be a nightmare, and sometimes it’s just impossible. But then I remember we left the kiln on—thank God—and that the workshop must be warm. As if she’s just had the same thought, Cecília smiles, and then, ever so quietly, she starts humming Ecaterina’s song.