Streams of light roamed in between the dense foliage, highlighting the random arm or bit of foot poking from between the leaves. Stray clumps of hair dangled from pockmarked, baseball-sized heads. The dolls hanged intermittently throughout the forest. The feet dangled from the tree limbs at irregular intervals and path-walkers had to duck around them. Tourists moved about the forest in clusters. A little girl could be glimpsed as she darted through the trees, peeking out from behind gnarled, thick trunks and crouching beneath dirt-grazing branches.
She wandered off to the edge of the forest. The scene was less unintelligible when viewed from the outside. The trees stood far from each other; the little girl could see through the leaves quivering in the breeze to the dolls hanging high above the ground and dancing in the breeze. The dolls tethered by their necks and arms bounced their legs and the ones tied by their legs or waist waved their arms in the air carelessly. The eerie choreography made the little girl shiver. Her fair, mahogany hair quaked in the wind when she shook. It caught the liquid streams of sunlight and washed her entire body in a spotlight of warm, buttery yellow.
She was alone. The island buzzed with groups of tourists, but none claimed her. Women smiled serenely at the startlingly young girl’s mocha skin and assumed she was with another group, confident that a doting mother would soon dart in to sweep up the seven or eight year old girl. Men shot glances at her, very few looking for longer than a moment. The men who did watch her were fathers, their glances proprietary and protective. She was a beautiful little girl. Her eyes were wide, outlined in feathery lashes and a small wrinkle when she smiled. Her lips were puckered in a permanent pout because of her overbite. The girl only smiled with her mouth shut and her eyes wide.
She giggled and dashed towards the center, playing a game with the dolls to the delight of the women and fathers. She tugged on the errant legs and arms, her tiny fist barely wrapping around the baby doll’s plastic limbs.
The sun’s departure made the little girl’s game turn frantic. Her desperate movements were juxtaposed against the sad serenity of the island. The moon hanged lazily in the sky, clouds casually passing over it. The trees bent naturally with the breeze. It blew in from the coast and dragged twigs and leaves with it.
She stopped when the breeze brought a voice with it.
“Carmen,” it called. “Come home.”
Carmen dropped her hands to her sides, palms hitting her hips, and dragged her feet through the dry dirt. The dolls sagged heavily on their lines of twine as though disappointed that she hadn’t managed to release them from their nooses and let them finally complete their suspended fall to the forest floor.
A ragged man stood at the entrance of a small, disguised hut. The skin of his face drooped heavily with wrinkles, the curls of skin bulging towards the end with stray lines of fat.
“Julian, can’t I go home?” She brushed her dirty feet against the woven mat propped on the stone hearth of the building.
“Sweetie, you are home,” the man said. “You can accept that, can’t you, mija?”
“Sure,” she said, despondent. “Sorry, Papa.”
He leaned his arm against the door frame and nodded towards it. She ducked in beneath his outstretched arm and settled on a couch. Above it, the wall was blank but for one framed photo. The woman pictured was garishly attractive. The eyes she pointed carelessly at the camera were empty, its corners pointing to crow’s-feet. Her lips were badly chapped and lines were visible in the fine skin. Her neck was wrapped in a tacky, multi-colored scarf. A gift from Julian.
Carmen was in the space between two cushions beneath the photo. She sank into the space and curled into a fetal position.
“Stop sulking,” Julian said. “Your mama will be here soon.”
“She isn’t my mom!” Carmen cried. “I want to go home.” She turned her head away from him and his gaze traveled upwards to the photo of Lumia.
“You will accept your mama when she gets here,” he said, staring at the photo.
“She isn’t coming, Julian,” Carmen spat. She still didn’t look at him. “It’s been thirty years. Let me go home.”
“I told you to call me dad.”
“You’re not my dad.”
Julian stood and walked out of the room. He came back bearing a doll cradled in his arm. Although it had all four limbs — unusual for Julian’s collection — its face was pimpled by plastic blisters from fire. “Let’s go.”
Carmen shook her head vehemently, the bronze hair flipping across her face. “I’m not doing it tonight.”
“You have to,” Julian said plaintively. “You have to be here when Mama arrives.”
“I said to come with me. You’re supposed to do what I say, I’m your father.”
“You’re not my dad.”
“I’m as good as you’ve got, so you obey me like you should. It’s time to perform the ceremony, and you want to make daddy happy, right?”
Carmen sulked. “I’m not going. I’m not getting trapped here.”
“I have enough to trap you here forever, Carmen, this is just extra insurance. Your disobedience won’t stop me from making sure Mama has a baby to come home to. She’ll be here any day now, Carmen.”
“No she won’t!” Carmen screamed. “She isn’t coming. Julian, she isn’t coming, she would have come here when you came here if she had meant it. I’m not your puppy love’s daughter! She was a prostitute! She said what you wanted to hear so you’d pay her!”
Julian slapped Carmen across the face. The fleshy bang echoed through the trees. Carmen leapt to her feet and snatched his cigarette pack. She ran from the hut. He roared and stumbled after her, trying to rise to his feet and run at the same time.
Carmen’s breath burst from her lungs as she ran. She fumbled with the pack and extracted a lighter from amid the bent cigarettes. Julian’s strong legs caught up to her easily. He wrapped his hairy arms around her skinny waist and her flailing legs rocketed Carmen’s lower body into the air. Julian hefted her under one arm and snatched at her wildly waving arms, trying to grab the lighter despite his inability to see in the absolute darkness.
“I’m going to let the dolls go, Julian,” Carmen huffed through his suffocating grasp. “You can’t keep me here anymore. I want to go home. Let me go!” She flicked the lighter multiple times, trying to spark a flame.
“You can’t,” he said through gritted teeth. “Killing the dolls will kill the parts of your soul in them. You won’t have any soul left to go home.”
“I’ll have whatever you haven’t stolen,” she said. “I’m not yours.” The lighter caught and she flung it far from his wildly searching hand.
The lighter plopped into the center of a pile of dry leaves. Carmen and Julian stopped moving, stopped breathing, did nothing but waited. The leaves shuddered in the breeze and suddenly, instantly, the entire pile was aflame.
Julian wailed a single note of pure, despaired lament. The fire spread quickly in the dry heat, roaring as purely as Julian did. Carmen went slack in his arm. Her face lit up with excitement. Julian dropped her and she fell lifelessly to the ground. When she stood, she stretched her arms out from her sides.
And although she stood as far from the flames as Julian, a solitary fire licked at her feet and began to curl around her limbs and climbed up them, fully encasing her in moments. Julian watched in terror, crying fat tears without realizing it. Carmen’s fire painted his face with oranges and golds. She stood still and watched the fire absorb her. She recoiled backwards as the fire spread across the island and consumed dolls. Each twitch corresponded to a doll falling to the ground.
“It’s happening,” she said. The flame was to her chest. She licked her lips and said, “I can feel it.”
Julian stopped crying and watched, face impassive. His eyes were flat and dark, his arms clasped together behind his back. He watched as the flame rose higher and Carmen’s jerks came more frequently. She began to convulse frantically as the final dolls fell together and faster. She cried out and he looked at her. Her face was contorted by an expression of pain, of heat and misery, and of absolute joy and awe. She moved forward and Julian took a step back.
“I just wanted to tell you that I can feel the pain for the first time since I died,” Carmen said. “Julian, I can feel it. It’s so beautiful.” She crumpled and the flames consumed her.
Bio: Courtney Duff currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter at @CourtneyEDuff for absurdist ramblings and rare insight.