They found the first coffin in North America, in Vancouver, BC, at a graveyard. The slender mahogany box was no larger than the forearm of a child of ten. The workers were digging up a slot for an upcoming burial of an important political figure that I were hired to document. This was meant to be a historical moment, among the others I documented, but this one didn’t seem as important in comparison, and only perceived as more important because of the politician’s wealth and power, making his voice louder, more heard than others who lay voiceless in their graves around us. I wasn’t there for the voiceless, but I should have been. Both the diggers and me were surprised when they unearthed the miniature coffin instead.
Within the coffin lay a molding doll dressed in plain black cotton smeared with specks of dirt and one eye missing. Where there should have been a black, plastic, void, there was instead a deep speckled green that spread across the rubber face like disease. Her raven hair which resembled the colour of my own was tangled, lank, clumped, and greasy—singed and split at the ends. She had blackened, charred, toes with darkness crawling up her legs like a living, growing shadow, though the doll herself was dead, as was the owner she resembled.
A cruel joke, was what I hoped this was, as heavy droplets of sweat rolled down my back, catching at the waist band of my high waist jeans. The handle of a thin blade—sheathed—tucked at my side tremored against my skin as I shook. It was probably unnecessary, but I could never be too safe. It would be a risk being unarmed since the first time my ex breached my restraining order against him. It was lucky I only came away with a minor concussion. Staying in the dark for a week wasn’t too bad, but missing the jobs I could’ve taken on, like this one, made a dent in my savings—a dent I couldn’t afford.
I stood next to the workers as they continued to dust off the small coffin. My face scrunched up in a confusion that matched theirs.
“What is that?” I asked.
A young boy ran forth and snatched the coffin from the digger’s hand—one of their sons perhaps, maybe take-your-kids-to-work day. What a great place for the boy to frolic—and clutched it with a grip so tight his bones showed through stretched translucent skin. If the doll were alive, it wouldn’t be able to breathe between his fingers.
“Broken,” the boy whispered with bulging eyes and a smile so wide it looked as though his face would rip apart.
I wondered where else might similar dolls be unearthed.
The second coffin was found in the basement of a condo set for demolition in Manhattan. Its wood—waterlogged—was consumed by murky mold from prolonged exposure to moisture and lacking sun. The second doll was missing her legs. Her ginger hair sat in a messy top-knot with her yellow cotton dress, embroidered with sunflowers, soiled beneath the hips. The doll’s eyes were intact, but they looked tired, weary, defeated with oval indents of purple weighing down the lower lids.
Second Doll’s husband was a joy, on the outside, with a cigarette in one hand and the palm of his other digging into the small of her back at his company annual party. Her bright gold dress cost more than half her salary working part-time at the grocers as a cashier, but her husband forced her to buy it anyhow—a new one each year. The husband didn’t want Second Doll to work full time and certainly didn’t allow her to wear the makeup she had on now to work.
“There’s no need . . . especially for a job like that,” he had said.
Second Doll stayed. And she smiled. And she blinked back liquid pain that burnt the lower lids of her eyes, lined them red. What else could she have done? Her parents loved him, her friends loved him, she… loved him? Didn’t she? Yes, of course she did—does. There would be no one else more suitable, her parents had said, And she was running out of time. No one wanted a withered flower whose petals had already begun falling. She was already twenty-five and still unmarried—the same age her mother had given birth to her. Yes. Second Doll needed him.
Second Doll didn’t attend the next annual company party. Her husband didn’t want her wearing a maternity dress; he wanted her to stay home: “It’s better this way. You need rest, don’t you?” She caressed her growing belly and leaned back against the headboard of her bed with her legs elevated on pillows. Second Doll watched The Great Gatsby for the eighth time that month, knowing but denying that under similar dazzling lights of Gatsby’s ball, her husband would be drinking wine with a woman not named Myrtle—but might as well have been.
“My love,” Second Doll said in the French words her husband loved to hear from her lips before they married. He hung up after quickly telling her he was busy.
Did she want her baby to live with such violence?
I ripped the second Doll’s MISSING poster down from where it was posted on the chaotic announcement bulletin in the abandoned condo’s lobby, the paper curling at the edges with a few phone number tabs pulled off. 212-XXX-XXXX. With the poster folded in halves, I put it inside my pocket. Was the phone number that of a family member, a relative, her husband, or maybe a casual lover who found themselves far too deep to leave, a Gatsby, or maybe someone like me?
The third coffin was found in a large sports field in Mexico City. Within the wooden walls slept the third doll with his eyes closed. Where his arms should have lain were limp bits of deflated grey fabric—grey because his mother wouldn’t allow anything more vibrant, eye-catching, the neon that Third Doll loved.
“Why can’t you be more like your father?” Third Doll’s mother asked in English, slamming her kitchen knife through chicken, flesh splattering across the cutting board.
Third Doll bowed his head, hands tightened into fists at the sides of his body. He was only fourteen, had only begun high school this year. Why must he carry the weight of his family, his mother’s pain, responsibility for his sister’s future in his barely calloused hands?
“You can be better,” his mother muttered.
Indeed, he could. He knew he could, but with his mother reminding him daily that he could never be as great as his father, how could he continue believing that better was possible? That to be a man was possible? What did it even mean?
As Third Doll’s mother continued to grumble in Spanish—words she knew he couldn’t understand having been sent abroad for school until now—he couldn’t help but imagine Lady Macbeth in the place of his mother. She was never satisfied. Even before his father passed, she never did stop comparing him to more capable men, more traditional men, me who were more Mexican, and perhaps that was why he disappeared into the storm three years ago. Third Doll’s grandparents sent his father to the States, and Third Doll’s parents sent him to Canada. Why, if his mother would only complain about his whiteness when he returned?
And perhaps that was why Third Doll, too, would disappear three years later.
Though his mother had blubbered on the news article I read halfway from the comfort of my home in Ontario, I felt the raging storm and the bone-chilling dampness that seeped through clothes and skin. And I imagined Third Doll trudging through the heavy winds into a world of madness that may not be quite as mad as the one he left even though it was dry and warm—though only physically.
Third Doll’s mother was not unlike the relatives and strangers I’ve encountered, who always asked, “How can you not know Chinese if you’re Chinese?” And all I could answer with was “I’m sorry,” in English, before leaving them standing, open-mouthed, speechless. What else could I have said?
They didn’t find coffins in Saskatchewan, but they found hundreds of dolls: each had a missing mouth—not so much missing as sealed with tight black stitches sewn across the lips; each had on white cotton dressing, their original colour almost unrecognizable for the dirt stains ingrained into the fibres of the material. Hair, long and short, trussed or missing, hung down the faces of each doll, hiding their chips and scars.
The dolls watched from a distance the same way their parents watched them, their figures seemed more like shadows that could be mistaken as only a brief wavering of the trunk of trees rather than a real presence. There was an unseen bridge the dolls could not cross—what the teachers and their employers bestowed upon them were not enlightening teachings but vicious borders, chain-like boundaries.
They tried to whisper the words their teachers could not understand under their breaths. But the sound too different from the dominant tongue rang loud across the unspeakable school grounds.
“English, only,” the teachers shouted.
The dolls slept amongst those like themselves yet learned from others who held completely different values, beliefs, traditions, and spoke a different language.
Unlike Coyote, the Trickster, the teachers had tamed the dolls, forced assimilation, created a neat uniform line of “model citizens” churned out like clone figures from a factory conveyor belt.
And the traditional songs, the culture, the words, and the stories stutter, then stopped at the tip of the doll’s tongues as foreign words strangled and forced the muscle behind teeth, behind lips to form words that caused their spirits to weep—for the mind knew what the body didn’t: words could be as poisonous as hemlock.
But still, I stood at grounds where they unearthed the dolls, the horrors, the unburied and lowered the camera in my hands, wondering how could they ignore, suppress, the truth of the unspeakable schools because they tarnished a history that was already tainted?
But there are also missing dolls elsewhere, not only in North America. In Edinburgh, near the towering, ancient volcano called Arthur’s Seat, were seventeen murder dolls found by three boys in 1836.
The echoes of these dolls will remain as ghostly whispers, repeating the same question, “What will happen to me when I die?” and receiving the same answer: “You’ll be sold for seven pounds. For science.”
And in a particular museum, I found these dolls. The knife still tucked in my waistband warmed with my skin. I ran my fingers over the leather sheath, and beneath, the plastic body of the handle.
For who knew where other missing dolls may be, and what parts they may be missing, or whose hands they may still be in. Sometimes not knowing was better, or so I told myself, but I needed to know—I had to know.
And where these dolls—the missing humans—were buried, well, their lives may have been far more gruesome than their graves—though those were often equally frightening.
If I hadn’t left the house and my rather handsy family when I had, would there have been a doll of my own? And these missing dolls, perhaps I could help them with my words.
I unsheathed my knife, a different one—a fountain pen—and buried the tip into my notepad, my eyes never leaving the coffins in the museum display cases. Each one was different yet the same, but each held my gaze captive, begging me to hear their silent plea and warnings for the other living dolls in North America and across the world. Though it was not my story to tell, I wanted to listen to their words with my own. We were all connected, both the living and the dead—dolls with our tongues missing.