In The Attic

by M. Wilson

Jesus, who hung on the wall above, happened to be gazing at Miriam when the rays of the very early, very bright sunshine reached through the attic window at an angle to strike her eyes and wake her. She blinked in pain and her fingers flew to her face and pressed at her eyes; they must have hurt quite a bit, since she slept always with her eyes open. She also slept sitting up, with one lovely arm extended and holding aloft a green plastic wine goblet that happened to fit her hand precisely. All her days were spent in an old ceramic bowl filled with small glass marbles, having rather the look of a bubble bath, or this was at least the intention. She had been in the bowl for nearly a year and a half, ever since the old man who owned the house had last climbed the stairs and been in this room, doing this and arranging that, smiling at his fancy, then descending again when he was finished. Never to return, since he left this world shortly after leaving the attic. She and the others here had entered into an era of neglect, but this was only one more period of empty time after so many others. Such was the life of a doll.

Dust motes wheeled slowly round in the beams of light that raked the room. Miriam rubbed her eyes as well as she could, the goblet which she could not loose hampering her somewhat, and gave a tiny sob, a plasticky squeak. She did not often allow herself to cry. She produced no tears, anyway — which she might have been tempted to use for dramatic effect on the other dolls. As it was, she considered the act of crying self-indulgent, so the noise she made now was only for herself. The silence surrounding them indicated that the others were not up yet. Only she and the celluloid Jesus were alert, since they were closest to the window and tended to be the first ones to wake. And being with Jesus was as good as being alone. As she cried He looked at her with slow, sure eyes and said nothing.

Miriam was hurting, and tired. There were some twenty-five dolls in the attic, mostly 11-and-a-half-inch fashion dolls, like herself; besides this harem of Barbies there were some male dolls, a few elephantine baby dolls, a couple of corn-husk dolls with blank, bland faces, two or three smaller fashion dolls, and a Spanish dancer made of muslin and cotton wadding and wire, whose speech nobody could understand. Miriam was the oldest. The old man had singled her out to pose her by herself, probably because she was so different from the Barbies’ cheerful, wholesome, smiling Americanhood. She had a quality of stillness. And solitude. Her eyes were tilted up at the outside corners but half-hooded by white lids, the thin eyebrows very arched, her cheeks a little too high, her expression one of a sort of middle-European withdrawal into her own thoughts. To accentuate her look, the old man had placed a couple of his late wife’s crystal-drop gemmed earrings into the crunchy, elaborately curled masses of her silvery-gold hair and tiny pieces of gold chain around her neck and wrists. He had thought she looked like Marie Antoinette, beautiful and knowing her doom. Even before he had arranged her this way, her limbs had hurt when moved. Now they were an agony. And she was always slipping forward because of sitting on the marbles, so her back frequently ached.

She heard feminine yawns, and looked up to see the Barbies beginning to stir. They seemed to be posed as a group, so alike were they in their happiness; over here, a ponytailed blonde Barbie sat on a tiny doll’s park bench beside a ponytailed brunette Barbie, both wearing pert pink and blue dresses, their arms around each other’s waists, like two teenage girls giggling over nothing; there, a streaky-haired blonde Barbie sat on the edge of an antique writing desk beside a male wizard doll (about the size of a Ken), swinging her bare feet and waving her left hand — which was posable — at nobody in particular; two dark-haired Barbies whose legs were articulated leaned against dusty lamps in difficult ballerina positions. One Barbie who had no clothes was seated in a cloth swing made from an old nylon nightie, and it was twisted around her for modesty. This swing dangled from an upright bar on a set of metal utility shelves. The waking girls blinked their eyes, moved their limbs, and began chatting — softly, out of deference to Miriam, since they knew quite well she detested morning. Later, they would be louder. Their easy transition from sleep to wakefulness, their instant “on,” annoyed Miriam. But they’re so much younger, she told herself, and bashed the ugly head where it was rearing.

She turned to look out the window and sighed. The arm she held the glass with creaked and dropped into her lap, giving her a sudden pain so exquisite she gulped. Then it infuriated her. “Oh — God!” she whispered, seizing her elbow with the other hand. “Jesus Christ!”

Jesus lifted His head suddenly, startled but attending, thinking she was actually calling on Him. Miriam met His glance, and shame flooded her. “Oh, no — I’m sorry!” she said, shaking her head. “So sorry,” she repeated. She lifted her chin high, in control once more. Jesus did not speak, but she could feel the pressure of His mind on her, prodding her to tell Him what her trouble was. She tightened her lips and looked away, out the window again. Jesus, she told herself, was here to watch over the silly Barbies, not her.

After a few minutes she stole a glance over at Him. His head drooped on His chest in centuries-old weariness. His eyes were nearly closed, glazed over in ancient agony that was remembered now only in the curves of the brittle celluloid that made His face shine. Jesus was only three inches long and not a complete crucifix, only the shaped mold of the body atop a partial Cross. The feet were missing. The Cross had cracked off across the bottom when He was removed from a fancy boxed set of books.To stop the thin tendril of pity she felt climbing into her heart, Miriam forced herself to drop her glance and look instead at the bookcase below Him, where a heap of tangled rosaries lay in between some prayerbooks. Their faint glitter drew her for a moment. These objects she did not fully understand; they seemed to be jewelry but it was more complicated than that. She had a vague memory of a teenaged boy, perhaps the old man at a younger time? coming into the attic, dumping the heap of rosaries up here, grinning and calling them “vampire repellant.” So evidently they were also useful. The human world had such mysteries, behind its appearances. Why couldn’t they simply be necklaces to wear?

“To count their prayers,” Jesus said very, very quietly. He did not even look up or lift His head. “That’s what they’re for. I don’t know what vampires are.”

“Maybe they’re some kind of bug,” Miriam replied frostily. She found it unsettling sometimes when He answered her like that, although she had known for ages that He could read her thoughts.

One of the Barbies called out to Miriam. “Ma’am? We were wondering something, Ma’am… We felt sure you would know. Why is it that almost no Barbies have red hair?” Eight pairs of huge beautiful eyes turned to her, waiting. She smiled kindly, not without inner amusement.

“Why, plenty of them have red hair. You’ve just seen very few, blonde being the predominant color. Actually, nearly all of you are made after the California beach girl concept, with some exceptions like this American Indian black-haired girl,” she pointed at one, “and the free-spirit, hippie-type girl” — she nodded at the streaky blonde — “and a number of well-groomed career girls.”

“I did work in an office, originally,” one Barbie admitted.

“I think I drove a bus!” another remembered. “Or a car.”

“The most popular career used to be … “ Miriam paused. They waited, fascinated. “Stewardess.”

They were silent for three seconds of respectful meditation. “Oh, wow. They didn’t even call them the right thing,” someone muttered. Another concurred: “And who would want to be that?” Another: “If I’m going in a plane, I’m flying it.” “Or going as a U.S. marshal.” They brightened at this thought too.

Miriam said, “For a number of years, red hair was reserved for Midge, Barbie’s best friend, who was plain-faced.” They were puzzled.

“You mean, she was made not pretty? On purpose?”

“I’ve never seen that,” the other park bench Barbie murmured.

“What’s a Midge?” one girl queried, trying to be funny.

A deep voice intoned, “A midge is a gnatlike fly of the family Chironomidae. They tend to hover in clouds over stagnant water.” Then Jesus dropped His head again. The girls stared at Him. Then they turned questioningly to Miriam. Miriam nodded wisely, knowing the fancy box Jesus had been pried off had been a set of encyclopedias published by a Roman Catholic firm. He had told her this once. He still retained a memory imprint of all the words and information He had lain against for so many years, and it bubbled up at odd times. He could not help it.

The girls, easily distracted from what they did not understand, turned their discussion to anticipated events that day. “Do you think someone’ll finally walk upstairs today?”

“Do you think a bird will run into the window today?”

“Do you think we’ll see some beetles crawl across the floor? A spider start a web?”

Miriam bent her head in momentary grief, at this talk of attic insects and dirty webs and the grimy day-to-day routine. Sometimes she detested these young dolls and their resilience, their ability to be curious about anything, to take an interest in any stupid thing that now happened in this their horrible life in the attic, and she hated this life, knowing there was only more of it to come. No events, no real people, no newness; she would never again, for instance, be a girl’s new birthday present and be awed at. Or be played with in association with other dolls, among whom she would be the most beautiful and sophisticated-looking. She was not young and soon she would not be able to talk and joke with the other dolls. These Barbies here were already beyond her level of energy; toys and objects tended to slow down and go silent with greater and greater age, and this was beginning to happen to her, but something in her nature was preserving that sense of herself in spite of everything, while other objects forgot who and what they were. She valued her memory, but it was also the source of pain.

She wished she felt like the Barbies. She moved her fingers slightly over the dust-coated marbles and thought: My heart is becoming as dry as this bath. But even as she thought this she felt how artificial and untrue it was. The problem was that her heart was very wet indeed, in fact she sensed watery tears right now pressing against the bottom rims of her eyelids, against every seam and joint of her, ready to burst from her like a bad water main in an unseemly display of despair. Utter self-loathing filled her. She stared down into her lap for many minutes until, little by little, the feeling disappeared into the void of her own tiredness. She was, she reflected, too old even to sustain strong feeling.

Hours passed. The Barbies began, some of them, to take cat-naps in the afternoon sun. It grew quiet in the attic again. From time to time, tiny exhalations sailed from the lips of the smaller dolls; two pretty ones whose only wardrobe was a ball of pink angora wool their bodies had been thrust into, sighed most frequently; their glass eyes they did not even bother to move, so infantlike were their minds, and when a thought actually passed through their heads, they sighed in reaction.

Miriam watched and felt herself parching in the dry light, lifting off in dusty layers with the motes that swirled in the window’s light. I’m going to die, she thought. And no one will see. She felt no particular sadness at the idea of dying, but was aware of a vague alarm. But even it was sluggish; she felt her own resources dwindling and slow to respond with any self-preservation. She let her gaze move around the room. The crystal beaded rosaries drew her vision again, and she lifted a hand to point at them. Her arm creaked like a mummy’s as she did so. “If I had one of those, I could count my prayers,” she said aloud. She spoke slowly. It took a while to marshall the words. “And look nice in a necklace.”

Jesus said, “You can already count.”

“Why, yes… I can count,” Miriam said, recalling a dim game of hopscotch she had participated in long years ago. A girl had jumped on one foot, with Miriam clutched in her hand … and a cadence of the numbers rang in her head again, echoing through that odd, deep well of time. And there had been games of jumprope, too, involving counting. “I can count to … twenty-three,” she said.

“Then you don’t need a necklace,” He told her.

She was silent. She was swallowing something difficult in her throat, something large and prideful and she knew how hatefully hard what she was going to do next would be, but she was aware of a harder, firmer thing inside her that her own stubbornness hit, and bounced off, and flew out of her. It was like an iron bell inside her, which rang for one long, low note, calling her to herself. And the taste in her mouth which had been acidic changed, and she could swallow again; she rested her palms in her glass-covered lap and looked across at the young Barbies, and thought: How nice they are, really.

He was waiting.

“One,” she croaked. The edges of her lips were drawn up in a tight, nasty, self-mocking smile she could not seem to avoid– it was the last vestige of her unwillingness to submit — but she felt her facial muscles begin to relax when it occurred to her that He would forgive her that ugly smile, He would not mind it at all, and all her fear was melting as she realized how grateful she was to be now learning at this moment a new thing, a new important thing that installed her heart in the present instant, now and forever, and the consciousness of it kept renewing her interest in the now and how stunning it really was in its liveliness, how alive she felt now, how good it was, each and every moment of experience, and now her mind poured sweetly like a river and she saw how easy what He was asking her to do was. What came next? … She opened her mouth to find out: “Two. …. Three,” she prayed. 

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