Clara – Excerpt 2

Dear Doll Doctor,

First of all, let me apologize for the circumstances of our meeting.  I’m not certain that any etiquette book or instructor could have properly covered the topic of how to handle bequeathing your corpse to a distant acquaintance.  I do imagine you’re feeling a bit startled and confused right now, and for that, I’m truly sorry.

You might remember me.  We met years ago at an antique doll show, and I got the sense that you might be one of the very few people who could understand my deep love for dolls.  You seemed to have a sense of purpose that came through in the way you spoke about hundreds of hours spent hunched over your workshop table, restoring childhood memories for grateful customers.  I’ve followed your work for years since then, occasionally seeing you pop up in newspapers or conversations at doll shows.  I even brought you my own childhood doll a year ago, shortly after I realized I’d be passing on soon.

It was a leather doll, if you’ll recall – a relic from my own childhood, loved a little too well and showing every bit of it. You kindly restored it with all the care and skill of a surgeon.  Loose seams became tight, cracked leather made soft, and my dolly’s ruby red lips shone once more. Truly, you are an artist!

There’s one thing I didn’t tell you, though, and that’s the story of how I came to love dolls so much. I’m not sure you would have believed me anyway.

I was always a sickly child, but there was one winter in my childhood where things got much worse.  Living in a rural area, it wasn’t like anything the local doctors had ever seen.  They recommended a doctor in the city – a specialist – but the city was 3 hours away and there was no money for such things, what with the hard times and so many little mouths to feed. As much as it killed my mother, they had to leave it in God’s hands.

God wouldn’t be the one to save me, though.

In fact, this is where my story turns downright unholy. You see, once everyone knew I was dying, neighbors and distant family members descended upon our home to say their last goodbyes – and to feel better about themselves for having attempted to brighten a dying child’s final moments.  It makes people feel good, you know, to suffer in someone who isn’t too close.

The stress of a dying child and constant visitors took a toll on my mother, so she did what she always did under stress.  She baked.  With news of each impending visitor, she’d put on a pot of coffee and whip up a batch of her famous vanilla madeleines. To this day, I can’t go near a coffee shop without feeling the familiar weight of imminent death upon me. It served me well as a sobering reminder to cherish every minute, and oh, I have done so, Josephine!

But let’s not get off course – back to the illness.  I made it through the winter, but there was no improvement in my condition and the doctors feared it was just a matter of time before my tiny body would give out.  Truth be told, I thought the same thing – but I hadn’t finished my goodbyes.

As my mother tells it, she sent a letter to my aunt and uncle in Europe the very moment doctors began to suspect the worst.  Aunt Bea was her older sister, but it was no great secret that my real favorite was the man she married, my dear Uncle Barnaby.  Barnaby was an incredible man.  One part adventurer, one part businessman, and one part kindly grandfather. Even better, I seemed to be his favorite. I was NEVER anyone’s favorite, but he took a liking to my weird, sickly little self. I always felt like he could look into my eyes and see that I was different than the other kids.

My uncle was in imports and exports, but all I really knew about his business was that it kept him and my aunt away for many months at a time, and that it resulted in his possession of some of the strangest collections I’ve seen to this day.

Since becoming ill, the quality of my visitors had left much to be desired. The endless procession of somber faces and cautious conversations was depressing.  Children were shushed if they mentioned plans for the upcoming summer I wasn’t likely to see, and everyone kept a safe distance, fearful they might catch what I had. I wanted to know MORE about what came next – and I had a nagging feeling that their vision of me in heaven with grandpa and my stillborn baby brother was inaccurate, at best.

Not Uncle Barnaby, though. He came in enthusiastically, lifting my tiny frame out of the bed and into the air with no effort at all.  I wrapped my spidery limbs around him, so grateful for real human affection. I can still remember his familiar scent – like well-worn leather, pipe tobacco, and the dime store pomade that was no match against his wild and increasingly silver hair.

Hearing my excited screams, my mother and aunt rounded the door shortly after, interrupting my moment of sheer joy. “Put that child down!” my aunt shrieked in horror. My mother wisely held her tongue since it wasn’t her husband – but I could tell she was thinking the same thing.

“Now Bea, it seems to me the poor child is already knocking on death’s door. A hug could do her some good.”  As soon as the words came out of his mouth, my mother and aunt turned to Uncle Barnaby in horror, followed by guarded looks at me to see how I was handling his statement.

I wanted to speak up and tell them I was glad someone was finally speaking honestly – that my illness and impending death made me deserving of such adult treatment – but Uncle Barnaby didn’t pause for even a second. “Traditional medicine isn’t going to cure this dear child. She needs hugs – and a present.  And the one I’ve brought is extremely special. “

Uncle Barnaby saw my older brother John peek into the room.  “Johnny, go grab my leather bag from the car. Don’t open it, and be extremely careful.  There’s a reward in it for you, too.”   My brother dashed off, carrying out the task with the utmost care.  No one wanted to disappoint Uncle.

Uncle Barnaby sat down on my bed and gestured for me to climb up onto his lap. “Clara dear,” he said. “Do you know what I do for a living?”

I shook my head slowly.  I had a vague idea of what my uncle did, but not enough to feel confident nodding yes. I was afraid he might ask me to explain it.

“Clara, there are some people who call me the ‘Merchant of Death’.”

I held my breath. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded terrifying.

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