What’s in a Shell?

By Nathalie Boisard-Beudin

I remember the whole thing.

It all started by Auntie Alice saying that she had brought us back something special from her trip in Russia. Now, considering her history of gift hunting, I’d rather deducted that something “special” was most likely to turn out being a hugely discounted trinket bought from a dingy store, or something she might have been bartering from an illegal street vendor.

Nonetheless, the set of Russian dolls she deposited on Jonathan’s bed seemed quite normal. Lovely even, delicately painted in the best tradition of miniatures: rosy cheeks, flowery head scarf and apron, big eyes.

Mind you, this was the first Christmas since Jo’s accident, so everybody brought all sorts of extravagant goodies to his room. He was cutting such a cute stricken-angel figure with his golden locks and big forget-me-not blue eyes that it was sometimes difficult to move about for the mass of gifts that well-wishers would shower him with.

However, a set of Russian dolls might have been thought of as being a strange choice for a boy’s gift and this is probably why the gift box bore my name as well, for once (Auntie being the famous penny pincher she is known – worldwide – to be, you’d figure that she would try to kill two birds with a single kopeck).

Now, I am a tad too old to really be playing with dolls but since, exceptionally, Auntie seemed not to have erred on the cheap side, I was not going to complain.

I was still a trifle skeptical, though: maybe the nice exterior was only there to fool punters. Perhaps, once we’d started to un-nest the various layers of matrioshka, we would find that they were not painted at all, or that they had bawdy motives – although tourists would probably pay more for these than for the political ones – or that instead of hiding a dozen or more smaller versions of the top doll, it would only contain four or five at best.

So, we set to open them with gusto and an inquisitive mind. They proved, however, difficult to undo, even with a screw-like motion, and it took us the best part of fifteen minutes to get to the second layer. It looked just as lovely as the top one, with maybe just a slight slant to the eyes, giving it a somewhat shifty look. I was about to get up close and personal with the new doll when Jo signaled me to pick up the first shell.

I gave it to him, thinking that he wanted to close it again, but he started to inspect the interior of the box instead. I climbed onto the bed to look over his shoulder and, amazingly enough, the inside of the doll had been painted as well, which probably accounted for the difficulty in opening them, as the wood had not been machined with that in mind. The painting was all over the interior and represented some star formations. We had been through a fury of astronomy two years before, so identifying the constellations should not have proved to be problematic and yet, we could not reconcile the patterns with our memories. I went out to my room to get the celestial maps but, even with this aid at hand, we had to admit after a while that we were not able to identify the stars represented there.

We waved it aside, agreeing that the artist had probably invented the formations: after all, what would a poor guy reduced to paint dolls for a living know – or care – about stars?

We therefore abandoned the constellation puzzle to focus again on the second doll and the boon she was meant to hide within.

Again, it was quite a struggle to unfasten it and I will confess that at one point I was tempted to use a spanner to wrench it open. In the end, I demurred: I could not face the damage that such a crude tool would have necessarily caused to the exquisite painting and my restraint paid off, for the two parts came away in the end, without any damage to the lacquer. The third doll was just as cute as the second or first ones and had a rather sarcastic smile on her cheery lips. This was a nice touch, I thought: an exact image reproduced at a smaller scale would have been rather boring. More traditional, surely, but boring nonetheless.

Jonathan reached for the open box again, and this time, I had a look in myself before passing it on to him. Once more, the same starry night had been depicted inside the doll’s body, but although the constellations matched – we checked that – the design in the second matrioshka felt different, as if we could really see the stars glitter this time . Jo complained about feeling cold and quickly put the bits away – after all, the star formation was just as indecipherable as the first one. We rubbed our hands a bit – I even went as far as to go and make tea, for it decidedly felt chilly all of a sudden – and we attacked the third doll.

Although she was slightly easier to open than her bigger sisters, she still put up a good fight, and I got irritated because it looked like her smile had become a smirk, and that she was mocking my efforts and sweat – that little exertion had got me warm all right. However, the feeling of aggravation must have spiced my twisting motion a trifle because she suddenly gave way, sending me flying from the edge of the bed where I had perched myself. Jo was mightily amused by my antics – despite the fall, it felt good to hear him laugh again after the accident that had killed his legs and left him alive but comatose for such a long time – and happy because the two halves of the open doll had landed in his lap.

I therefore examined the fourth-layer creature while he inspected the inside of her bigger avatar. She had the same sarcastic smile as the one before, but had a somewhat-darkened expression by extremely arched eyebrows that lent a rather diabolical air to her otherwise coy demeanour. I noticed that the flowery pattern on her shawl and apron had given way to a green, twirling motif that should have been innocuous, but somehow conveyed a feeling of chaos. It did not help that – by some optical trick surely – it looked like it was moving, reaching tendrils in the direction of the onlooker. Unsettling effect, although I did admire the skills of the maker.

I was getting cold again and reaching for my cup of tea when I spotted the look on Jonathan’s face. His huge blue eyes wide open, he seemed captivated by something hidden in the third doll’s cask. Maybe this time, the star pattern made sense or perhaps we were to be treated to a different design altogether? I was, however, disappointed to find, upon looking over his shoulder into the hollow, that it was again the same constellation showing.

At first, I could not fathom Jo’s fascination with it, but suddenly I thought I spotted something strange with the painting. Some type of dark cloud seemed to move over the twinkling stars, obscuring them in a viscous way. A trick of the light upon the lacquer work, I thought, and yet it did disturb me more than was reasonable. The thing felt alive. And while I immediately shook the idea away as being thoroughly ludicrous, I gently wrestled the parts from my brother’s hands, placing a mug of tea between them instead. He let me do this rather absently, as he had in the months that had followed his accident, when he was there but not quite with us.

I supposed that the whole doll business had finally bored him into a stupor, but when I suggested that we put the matrioshkas away for the day, he violently insisted that we should go on and unveil all their mystery.

So, I opened the fourth doll – with only a little struggle this time – and uncovered her little sister. The creature was definitively impish, with what I thought was a rather cruel smile on her painted face. Her dimples held no genteel charms and she looked like she had been modelled from a rural version of Sacher-Masoch’s “Black Czarina”. Her shawl seemed richer, too, nearly pulsating with the design that had intrigued me before. The motif had become more intricate as a sort of wriggling maze made of emerald tentacles, this probably caused by the fact that the drawings of the previous doll had been kept in size and not scaled to fit a smaller body. It was fascinating and looked as if it was alive, as if giving an ominous throbbing sound as it twirled and reached. I dropped the doll, with a sudden sense of repulsion and fright – ludicrous impression; for all her diabolical sauciness, she was just as exquisite as the previous one – and noticed that the dull sound I had perceived was that of my own heartbeat, booming in my ears. My hands felt both cold and clammy.

I looked up to check on Jonathan, and saw him once more transfixed by the inner shell of the third-layer doll. He did not seem distressed by what he was looking at but completely mesmerized instead. Staring unblinking, he seemed to be breathing at a slower rate than usual. Something in there was holding him spellbound, almost roping him in. I had problems this time in looking into the doll’s body, for he was blocking my line of sight and could not be made to move. My brother had almost become made of stone and I was half expecting to catch a glimpse of Medusa’s locks painted inside the casing.

But again, the same constellation was staring back at me, much compacted by the smaller size body it was constrained to. In fact, it looked like somebody had taken the formation and twisted it most violently, as if some powerful astral winds had taken hold and uprooted the stellar bodies from their normal path. Again there was a sense of movement inside the lacquer, bringing a disturbing life into the design. I was getting fascinated as well – I could feel that my eyes had not blinked for what seemed to be ages – but suddenly I heard Jo moan, “It’s coming.” This was enough to jolt me back to attention and I asked him what he meant by that. But he did not reply. He looked straight ahead of him into the box and just repeated – just a hoarse whisper, really – “It’s coming”.

I did not like that. I wrestled the doll’s halves from his hands – I had to actually unpeel his fingers one by one from them – and tossed them aside before shaking him awake. His face looked so drawn suddenly that I again said we should forget the matrioshka for today and that maybe he should take a nap. He refused most violently at first, but then suddenly his face relaxed and, with the strangest smile on his face, he agreed to rest for a while. I was to wake him up in an hour with a cup of warm chocolate. Could I gather the bits of dolls and put them back on his bedside table? He was afraid that they might be crushed underfoot or lost and it would be a shame, for once, that Auntie Alice had brought us something interesting. So, I did chase and pick up the various doll parts from inside his covers and underneath the bed. I attempted to close the bigger dolls again, but the lacquer refused to comply with my wish, so I left them opened, placing them by order of size on his table.

Then I tucked him in, kissed him on the forehead, closed the heavy curtains against the afternoon sun, and went off to watch an episode of “Black Adder” on DVD – another gift that a parent had showered Jonathan with and that he had agreed gracefully to lend me.

After an hour or so, I made some hot chocolate and went to his room to wake him up.

It was…

It was as if his whole bedroom space had been saturated with the static luminous points we used to get on late TV, back in the days when we did not have programs on all the time. The air was buzzing angrily with them. It was so thick that I could not even see the room: it was like entering into another dimension, dark and blinding at the same time and cold, cold beyond winter.

I think I dropped the mug of chocolate and screamed.

Unfortunately, there was nobody else at home, so help was not going to come.

That thing… These blinking light dots were flashing and racing around as the content of a gigantic digital hornet nest, angry after its home has been shattered. It pulsated darkness around its forms as if it could absorb space. I would have turned around and fled, but the thought of my little brother lost somewhere in there with that…thing, rooted me where I was. The dots were becoming smaller and brighter, more aggressive in many ways, but the growing darkness lurking between each one of them was looming, cold and getting stronger, seeping a sinister sense of gloom and loss inside my brain.

I don’t know quite why – it might have been the progress of obscurity inside the room, covering me like a viscous film, that did it – but my hand instinctively jerked in the direction of the light switch, turning the main ceiling lamp on.

There was a tearing noise and the darkness seemed to contract, twisting in the luminous dots in its wake, as if they were fingers that had just been burnt. I started to see a little of the room appear and, diving to the side of the room, switched on the desk lamp as well. The creature started to crackle, hissing in frequencies that hurt my ears, lashing at me with a glowing tentacle. While moving, I caught my feet in the carpet and fell heavily on the ground, but that saved me by an inch from the incandescent whip, which only grazed my arm, sending an arctic frost into the deep of my bones, spurring me further into the room.

I dove under the window, hiding in the folds of the curtains. And then, summoning all my courage and energy to do so, I stood up, tore the drape open, inundating the room with glorious sun-setting light. The creature yowled in fury and made to attack me once more.

At that point, panic got the best of me and I hurled myself through the window, landing on the porch roof, gasping for breath and in pain, incapable of defending myself from the monster anymore. I watched it trying to reach me once more – another lightning tendril slit a frosty scratch into my left leg – but faltering in the pale winter sunlight, gathering its feelers around it, closing unto itself like a centipede, getting smaller, smaller still, and disappearing in a whiff of smoke while the first calls of neighbours rushing in to see what the matter was started to break inside my frantic mind.

I suddenly thought of Jonathan again and rushed back in – limping from the icy contact and cutting myself some more on the glass shards – to find him lying arched and stiff on his bed, his mouth frozen in a silent scream. His body was blue with frost and his eyes were stuck wide open, dry from tears and black, black from an absolute darkness, older than our universe.

In his clutched hands, the fifth doll lay open.

THE END

Nathalie Boisard-Beudin is French yet currently living in Rome, Italy, working by day as in-house lawyer for the European Space Agency and by night scribbling furiously, with results being published in the multinational anthology, Wonderful World of Worders (Guildhall-Press), in 2007, in Sand Magazine (Spring 2009 edition) and, on-line, in Six Sentences, Crime and Suspense, Micro Horror, Pen Pricks Micro Fiction, Qarrtsiluni, Membra Disjecta, The Battered Suitcase, Postcard Shorts, PicFic and Form Reborn.

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