“This isn’t right,” Klara said.
Her hands fluttered around the open cavity in the doll’s back. Her fingers never quite left a clear route into the delicate workings below.
“You had your chance to have doubts before you completed my Olympia’s vessel. Now if you’ll make way, I need to cast before her soul is irretrievably lost,” Nathanial snapped.
He slapped her hands away. Klara bit her lip and stepped back. Perhaps it was a creator’s sense of possessiveness motivating her, but there was something wrong about the image in front of her. Her doll, the product of intense labour and investment, was laid out with her workings exposed and soon to be defiled. Stood beside her, his eyes hard with thunderous grief, the good doctor was beheading a young hen. Chanting some Latin that Klara only half-understood, he poured in as much blood as could be collected from the spurting stump. She felt her gut churn as the immaculate gears turned shiny rust-red.
“Return to us, Olympia,” the doctor exclaimed, shutting the doll’s back with a snap.
Klara resisted the urge to wipe away the streaks of red that marred the soft glow of porcelain. For several long moments, the only sound was the wind stirring in the rafters of the empty house. The silence was broken by the sound of a deep intake of breath, accompanied by the creak of the doll’s whalebone and wood ribcage. It wasn’t a loud noise, but after the deep silence it may as well have been a shriek.
“It worked?!” Klara said, waiting for proof that her senses were playing tricks.
Nathanial ignored her and knelt at the doll’s head, pushing back her midnight black hair with a desperate smile. The doll had moved from her original position on her stomach, and was now curled up on her side. Her eyes, the clearest periwinkle glass that Klara had ever laid hands on, were wide and panicked. They darted around the room, rarely resting in one place. He cupped the doll’s face in his hands, whispering comforting but meaningless nothings at her. His fingers left streaks of red against his daughter’s face.
"Father?" the doll asked, once her eyes had stopped their frantic skittering.
"Yes, Olympia. We brought you back," Nathaniel said.
"Back? From where?" Olympia said, trying to push herself up and look around.
"Don’t you worry about it. You were sick before, but you’ll be just fine from now on," he said, pushing her back onto the gurney. "Now, we can be a family again. That I promise you."
He stood and pulled up the blanket that had bunched up around the newly inhabited doll’s legs.
"Klara, would you be so kind as to assist Olympia getting dressed. She may be somewhat disorientated," he asked, his voice mild and reasonable.
For a moment, Klara couldn’t find the breath to reply. There was a large part of her hindbrain that was screaming at her to run. She still had time to escape this house of unnatural birth and spilt blood. But, as always, there was the voice that whispered, "What about Giuseppina? You still owe her" that kept her rooted to the spot.
"Of course. May we have some privacy?" she said, unable to keep the shake out of her voice.
"There are some clothes in the trunk in that far corner," Nathaniel said, already halfway out of the room.
Olympia watched the closed door until the sound of his footsteps were another part of the old house’s background noises. She sat up, pulling her knees close to her chest. Klara pulled the trunk over to the table, being careful to avoid the spots of blood from Nathaniel’s ritual. It was as much for her own peace of mind as it was for the sake of the trunk’s cleanliness. She laid out a chemise, drawers and petticoat after much consideration of the trunk’s contents. The stiff fabric beneath her fingers was almost comforting in their normality. She had moved on to trying to figure out which dress was most appropriate for such an unusual occasion, when she noticed that Olympia was still sat curled up. A frown curled the edge of the girl’s painted lips.
"Is there something the matter?" Klara asked.
Olympia thought the matter over and said, "I don’t remember having this body. It feels wrong.”
Klara paused. Nathaniel hadn’t discussed how to deal with the possibility that Olympia might know that she was a doll. He hadn’t even considered it a thought worth entertaining. Nothing but the blind chase to secure his daughter’s soul had mattered to him.
“How much do you remember from your illness?” Klara asked, picking up the washcloth that Nathaniel had laid out, only to forget about in his haste to leave.
“I remember everything hurting. I couldn’t breathe for coughing. After a while… it all seemed to stop,” Olympia said, brow furrowed.
As Klara wiped the blood away from the girl’s back, the seams of the hatch no longer visible in skin that had taken on warmth and softness foreign to porcelain, she could feel Olympia make an intake of breath.
“I don’t remember where I was after the pain stopped, but there was warmth and soft light. I could have dissolved into that feeling,” she continued, her words slow and ponderous. “How long was I dead for?”
Klara moved around, washcloth gently dabbing at Olympia’s face.
“About three months. It was so soon after he’d lost sweet Giuseppina, I don’t think you father could have coped if you were lost too.”
Olympia’s eyes widened.
“I see,” she said, her voice unsteady. “Poor papa.”
Olympia had always had a petite frame, but the thought of her father’s desperate grief seemed to make her even smaller and more fragile. Klara had a sudden pang of guilt. As uneasy as she still felt over the whole ritual, she had provided the vessel for this soul to inhabit. She could hardly leave the girl to flounder.
“Your father assumed that you wouldn’t remember anything beyond your illness. Perhaps it would be kinder to let him continue believing that?” she said, attempting a smile.
“But… how can I keep this to myself? It’s too big a secret.”
“Then we can keep it together. A problem shared is a problem halved, after all.”
“You would do that for me?”
Olympia looked at her with such seriousness in those pale blue eyes, that Klara felt the urge to let tears well. Add a couple of decades, and she could pass seamlessly for Giuseppina. The thought hurt more than she had thought it would.
“You need only ask,” she said, her voice more subdued than she had intended.
Olympia smiled weakly and nodded.
“I would like that. Very much.”