Isle of the Dolls by Sarah Jane Hodge

The villagers never spoke of the isle that lay in the large river. It was out of their view and out of their nightmares. When the isle’s caretaker never came back, no one in the village questioned his disappearance. The absence of his rickety boat in their muddy harbor held no condolence, only whispered fearful thoughts.

A consensus was met within the village council, and they sent a letter to the caretaker’s only relative, a son, Juan. He had long since abandoned their humble village for the sinful metropolis on the other side of the mountains. Weeks passed with no answer. Then one day while the sun was high, Juan arrived in the rare sight of a car. It had been painted red by the dust and dirt spat up by the tires on the twisting jungle roads.

The caretaker’s son wore an expensive suit and shined shoes that looked quite out of place amid the homemade rags of the villagers. Half-naked children stood in clusters watching him like a mythical trapped animal. Juan ignored their dark, skinny faces dotted with black eyes. The adults too watched him from a distance, halting their weary routines for the outsider’s approach.

He had forgotten how much he hated the muggy air. It made him feel slimy, and his clothes weighed heavily against him. He patted a woven cloth against his face. As he replaced the handkerchief in his pocket, a steady hand rested on his shoulder. It was the very old Shaman in his royal rags of woven color. His old hand remained on Juan’s shoulder, and he began to walk with him. With every step, his necklace of white bones jingled and clanked. His darkened skin had been consumed by age, leaving crevasses where wisdom hid.

Juan. Said the Shaman in his wrinkled voice. The cities share in darkness. Do not turn your back on the spirits of the earth.

Juan had not spoken his father’s language since he was a boy. It sounded rusty and thick. On his tongue, it sounded old-fashioned and foreign. He had the refined language of civilized city men.

The earth is alive. The earth thrives below our feet. Said the Shaman. His hand weighed on Juan’s shoulders. That which cannot be explained cannot be ignored.

Juan shook his groomed head at the Shaman’s disproval. All around him, the black eyes were staring at the scene like the city children stare at their television screens. They mirrored their Shaman’s faith in the supernatural. They were full of warning, but Juan knew those warnings were useless and unsupported.

Your beliefs are nonsense. Superstitions, and false impressions. Juan said to the Shaman. His outsider’s accent was obvious even to his own ears. The way of the earth is science. Physics command the way, not your spirits.

The Shaman took his hand from Juan’s shoulders and shook his old head. His solid eyes were painless pinpricks that pierced into Juan’s soul. He felt uncomfortable within the Shaman’s gaze, like his entire being had been violated. Juan scoffed and laughed at their simple third-world fears, hiding his own disquiet.

I will retrieve my father’s body. I need a boat. Juan said to the Shaman.

It is too dangerous. Said a woman who hurried to Juan’s side. She grabbed his arm with the grip of a disapproving grandmother.

You too will be lost forever. A terrified child shouted.

You will never come back. Said a hoarse man, rapping a cane on the ground.

You speak nonsense! Juan shouted to silence them. He was tired of their constant fear in the nonexistent. He died of old age, eaten by alligators, bitten by a snake, fell asleep and drowned. There were many reasons for a man to not return.

Why? Asked the Shaman. His dark eyes bore into him.

He is my father. Juan said. He did not know the words in their language for his explanation. Though he had not seen his father since he had left this drab place, he still felt a biological obligation to make certain his father rested in a proper grave. He would want his son to do the same for him.

An old woman whose white hair seeped like dying vines from underneath her faded yellow headscarf, wobbled to Juan. One of her eyes was dark and alert, the other gray and dead. Her arms jingled and chimed with an assortment of bangles.

If you go, you will need supplies. Said the old woman. Dulce, nine velas, new muñeco. Do this and you might come back.

Her voice was an emery board, thick. Her words were foreign to him. This the old woman must have known, for she took his arm into hers and pulled him into the hushed market. Juan tried to break her grip, but she had a force not proportioned to her size and age. She led him through the smoky and crammed market of wooden stalls to a candy counter, where a man was reading a cloth bound book.

The old woman talked quickly with the vender, and he laid an imported bag of chocolate sweets on the counter. She nudged Juan, who paid, though disgruntled. He would rather be rid of her than fight her over a few measly coins. It was the same at a candle stand, where she made him buy nine white candles. They stopped a third time at a doll maker’s stand, who was painting intricate eyes on a head without a body. On the shelves was an odd assortment of limbs, heads, wigs, and paints. Eyes slept in a jar waiting within the shelf of unfinished girls, each waiting their turn to come alive.

That one. The old woman said. She was pointing upward to a black-haired doll in a red dress. She will like that one.

She? She who? Juan asked. But the old woman didn’t answer.

He was once again being led along the market’s narrow streets. He left a longing to stop at a popular counter that smelled of warm cerveza and unwashed bodies. But the old woman’s grip was too strong. And what if he smelled like them afterward?

There was a boat waiting for him at the haphazard dock. The Shaman stood beside it with a grim face. Juan almost laughed, but held it in. It was the most pitiful little boat he had ever seen. The hideous muddy waters of the river splashed up against it. The old woman placed the candy, candles, and the doll into the boat’s bow with gentle hands.

Juan rowed away from the village. The Shaman’s dark eyes, full of misery, grew smaller and smaller. The old woman had disappeared from among the crowd; however, Juan wasn’t that concerned about her. He could feel the beginning of a bruise on his arm.

The river grew wider and wider. The water was deep and murky and splashed up with each row in a nasty brownish green. Birds were chanting in the trees, and insects that inhabited the jungle made their incalculable presence known. All these sounds were soothing and reminded Juan just how many thousands of creatures were still undiscovered in these dense and wild areas of land.

Like the civilized and educated man he was, Juan tried to rationalize the woman’s odd behavior. He finally came to the conclusion that she, like many old people in the city, had succumbed to the memory loss. She had thought that she was somewhere else and he was someone else. That was it, Juan assured himself.

He rowed for some time. His arms were aching and his legs were already sore. Trees loomed on either side of the river, leaning inward as if threatening to swallow trespassers. The tunnel of scattered sunlight between the rustling leaves faded slowly into late afternoon. In all the wild brush, anything could be lurking, Juan worried. Animals thrived at night, like venomous snakes and the big cats.

Juan gripped the handle of the row tighter as a great rustling came from the distant brush. It was hidden in the shade of the trees, in the thick shadows of the jungle. He hesitated his hands, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Then two yellow eyes poked out from the brush, from the dark head of a large feline.

Juan scoffed at the villager’s uncivilized fears as he began to row again. There was nothing on this world that science could not explain.

It was not long after the big cat that the monstrosity that was the island came into view. Thin trees grew at odd angles, their branches yawning in every direction. They sprang into the water like thick dead snakes. Brush and weeds had grown so tall, they had begun to double over and die. The wind rippled through the isle, waving the leaves and weeds. The water flowed straight past this obstacle, like it wasn’t even there.

Juan spotted the tiny dock that made the villagers’ look foolproof. As his little boat bumped into the shanty dock, he noticed the sound. There was none. The birds had stopped singing. The insects has ceased their claims. Only the water that lapped the shore and the slight rustling of the isle greens made any sound.

The isle was a horrible place. Within the weeds, hundreds of years of superstition had marred the possible beauty of the landscape. Dolls had been nailed to tree trunks, their heads staked to the ground, strung between branches on twine, and left to decay on the earth. Old and weathered, the mutilated dolls’ surfaces had eroded away. Some were complete, while others were still melting. The tilted sun hit the topmost twine and made the dead dolls’ eyes glisten. Missing eyes were replaced with ugly flesh colored sockets. The dolls were still, like dead little bodies mummified and left to waste.

Without realizing it, Juan stepped out of his boat and onto the shore. Dirt and sand crunched under his feet and stuck to his shiny leather shoes. The island was so quiet, like a nightmare when no one could speak, or scream, or even whisper. It was disorienting, Juan twisting his neck to see the horror in its entirety. It was a madman’s lair from Hollywood; it couldn’t be a real place. No sane person would have succumbed to such foolish fallacies. And yet, his father had spent his life caring for this atrocious place.

Some of the dolls looked newer than others. Those up high were decaying off the twine, their once peachy flesh now a deadened gray and black. A few closer to the shore looked untouched by the weather or time. One doll sat amidst a crude semicircle of burned down candles, little black wick stubs laying in a hardened pool of white wax. Close to the doll was a pile of sticky, moldy mush he assumed to be the candy.

Juan laughed at the ridiculousness. It felt wonderful in his chest, a relief floating out and away through his throat. He patted himself, surprised at the tension he’d built up. He presumed it was the boat ride. If only he had stopped for a cerveza, or two.

In a sudden wisp of good humor, he arranged his doll and candles in an identical fashion and dumped the candy on the ground. Mimicking a priest, he took his own trusted lighter from his pocket and lit each candle, mumbling drivel words under his breath. With pretentious hands, he mumbled erratically as he made nonsensical hand motions over his odd little altar just as the priests did over their odd little altars.

He stood up to admire his work. He laughed and left his little altar to search for his father’s body. A narrow path drew away from the dock and he hadn’t taken but three cautious steps onto it when a horrid smell permeated his senses. It stung his nose, his throat, everything the air touched inside him. His eyes watered, tearing down his face. He stumbled down the path wiping his eyes with his sleeves. He tripped, falling flat on his front.

Juan sat up on his knees. In front of him, the path veered to the right where a shack, or shed, had turned the color of ash. The roof leaned precariously to one side, the wooden walls brittle and splintering. Vines grew all around it and hugged it tight. The smell was intolerable. Juan thought, and then knew, it was the missing corpse of his father. He must have died in the shack. Juan had never smelled death before, and he was not ashamed of it.

The door was bent awkwardly into its frame. There was no handle or knob, only the slab of wood and the indention where a handle might have once been. Juan pushed, and pulled at the edges, but the door did not budge. Juan hunched, and with one mighty blow of his shoulder, he burst the door open. It fell inward, causing a small quake to run through the entire shack. He stumbled inside, but there was no dead father.

Hundreds of dolls. Nailed to the walls. Nailed with rusty iron to the rotting support beams and floor. They grew through cracks and hung like ugly weeds. They stared forward like beggars, starving children, tiny little peasants begging for rescue from their miserable lives. Insects made homes inside their empty skulls. An empty eye had become a home for an ugly black spider. Mold grew on their skin and in their hair. They were still, and would be, until they rotted away.

He lurched on the shack’s floor. He pushed himself out and landed with a hollow thump in the weeds. Pulling himself from the ground, he glanced back inside the shack. What a horrific sight indeed, but there was definitely no dead man inside. If his father hadn’t been there, where had he gone?

A sudden splash rattled him. He jumped. A gasp escaped his mouth. He cursed and peered around the shack. The water was closer than he thought. It lapped up against a tree that shared the same endless vine as the gray shack.

It was a fish. Just a fish. Fish. Completely rational. Juan reasoned with his thumping heart. He decided to leave, body or no body. He would tell them the body was beyond removal. He would not contribute to their traditions of earthy revenge and spirits.

The path to the boat felt longer than before. Juan was almost to the shore when he heard the splashing. He laughed, but he was nervous. It was a feverish splash, like a fish caught in a net. The wind blew through the trees. All the leaves rustled together, echoing thousands of tiny whispers, tiny high voices, like the dolls themselves were spirited.

Explainable by physics or not, Juan did not like this island. He didn’t like it at all. For a moment, the red dress doll he’d brought moved. He didn’t laugh. He stared at it, the glass eyes frozen in time. He dared it to move, dared it to challenge the ways of the world, of science. The left eye of the doll fell closed, as if deliberate after his dare.

Juan heard the sound that came from his mouth, something between a moan of disgust and shock.

Ridiculous! Nonsense! He told himself. Gravity. Newton’s law of something. Over and over. But it didn’t stop his heart from hammering in his chest. So loud it pushed in his ears. Loud was the wind, the voices, louder, louder, LOUDER.

He couldn’t take any more of this silliness. He crossed the shore at a hurried pace to his tiny boat. He would paddle away from this godforsaken land as quickly as possible. But something was closer to his boat than he. In the water, splashing, was a dark shadow below the water’s surface. He stopped short, and in his speed, he stumbled. Onto the sandy dirt he fell, and it gathered on his suit’s fine fabric.

He did not delay himself to curse the dirt. For a small, delicate hand surfaced and clawed at the shore. It fell, defeated, back beneath the water. A second hand, the other’s twin, reached for anything. It too fell back below. The splashing enraged. He watched this unreality from the danger of his proximity. The doll-like limbs, bleached of color and life, dug lines into the dirt.

Its doll-perfect hand clamped onto a rock stuck into the dirt. It was followed by its symmetrical sister. Out of the water it came, sudden, deliberate, aimless, it rose. Together they pulled, and it began to crawl onto the shore, heaving itself upwards. A black head, flat with water, birthed from the murk. Dark hair surrounded a hellishly white face with wide black eyes. It sucked in a ragged breath of warm air. Gasping, it crawled toward him. The dry ground was pulled onto its slimy body, dirt became muddy splotches.

A cry, shriller than the wind could ever make, thrashed the air. He covered his ears with shaking hands. The shrill cry became hoarse and desperate, the empty black eyes set upon him. Juan became aware of his reality and this horrific thing and his entire body jerked upward. He ran; he didn’t know where, but he ran. Away from it. With every step, his already exhausted body grew weaker. He dashed through the brush, and thorns tagged his skin and snagged at his clothes.

His legs gave up first, and he fell. His breath escaped faster than he could draw it back. Suddenly, there was no ground, only water. It rushed over him too quickly and pulled him down. His chest was burning; his lungs were aching for air. The water swirled over his face. The light of the late day faded on the water’s other side. He reached out for the sun and felt his hand breach the water’s surface. When he cried out to the sun, water rushed into his mouth.

Panic. It was the only thing he felt. He had to get back up or he would die. He thrashed in the water, trying to push himself up. It fought him and tried his limbs with unnatural force. It pulled him down, down. There was no bottom, no end. Just as his lungs were about to burst and kill him, he broke through the water’s frail surface and it shattered like glass.

He was on the other side of the island. There was no shore, but a steep drop off made of dead tree roots. He climbed back up and collapsed onto the island floor. His wet suit was ruined. His father remained missing. When his breath caught him, Juan sat up and looked back into the murky waters. The water sighed away, leaving the smooth shine of the sun to stare back at him.

He crossed the isle to the dock where the boat waited with inhuman patience. He pushed it out and tossed himself inside. He dared not look behind him as he paddled back to the village. Still, he did not know what he would tell the villagers, yet he suspected the Shaman would see his face and already know the answer.

Juan thought back to his city, where even grown men in suits like him, with proper education and civilized tongues, searched for refuge in hallowed halls underneath steeples and bells and statues of virgin women. He had seen them cross themselves at tragic events or to terrible words spoken in public, like humans were not capable of dealing with human actions. Juan sighed as he rowed with sore muscles. He thought, for a moment, not all was explainable by reasonable things, by human minds.

The island of the dolls was behind him, forever, where it would stay.


Sarah - Headshot
Sarah Jane Hodge lives in Southern Illinois with her family where she enjoys coffee, yoga, and writing into the night. She is a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University.