In my house, there is a collection of porcelain dolls that have been painted to appear grotesque, terrifying, or simply creepy. The following stories are inspired by each of these dolls.
“Oh, wasn’t that little clown a riot with her juggling act? A scream for boys and girls of all ages, really! But now, folks, it’s time to welcome our final performance for the evening! This beauty will stop your heart and marvel your senses! She’ll make you fellas feel things you never knew possible, and you girlies will be aching to be her for sure, but whatever you do, do not try this at home. It is a very dangerous act, no matter how talented you are. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the mistress of the tightrope, our very own Simone! Oh, look at her up there, folks! A rare Aphrodite in her element! A swan, soaring above the rest! Watch how graceful she moves, how – oh! Just a slip of the foot there, ladies and gentlemen, nothing to be concerned about. This happens all the time, I assure y- Oh! Oh my god! Oh my god, no! Everyone, get back! Get back! Give her some room! Oh, this is terrible, this is just terrible! Is she still breathing? Oh god… Oh god…”
* * *
Even after all this time, I still made sure to sit with Simone while Dr. Engel worked on her. I don’t think she even knew I was there anymore, but still, I sat with her, clutching her thin and pale hand between my own. She was always so cold now that, really, there was no difference between when she was dead and when she wasn’t.
Dr. Engel snapped the broken bones in Simone’s neck back in place. He straightened out her limbs to make sure that they remained unharmed. There had been a couple times where he neglected that step and her legs had healed all wrong, so that she walked sort of crooked now. It wasn’t noticeable from the audience, but I couldn’t help but see it.
Then, with a few words in German or Latin or whatever language it was Dr. Engel spoke, he brought Simone back to life for the twenty-third time.
The first time, Simone hadn’t meant to fall. She was a talented tight-rope walker – had been learning pretty much from the day we joined the Circus. She had been a young and beautiful girl of twelve then, so full of life and energy that everybody gravitated toward her, and the people that she wanted to get closest to were the ones with talent. The ones who could teach her how to be a star.
I hadn’t felt such an inclination. I was just fine with sinking into the crowd, into being enveloped by the small community of clowns that the Circus harboured. While Simone was learning how to soar above the crowd, I was taught how to paint my face and juggle – but I was satisfied with that. I didn’t need to be special, not like Simone did.
And she did look beautiful on that tight-rope. She always looked beautiful, with her tight, dark ringlets that framed her pale, sweet face, but on the tight-rope, she looked at ease. Comfortable. She was where she belonged, above everyone else while they cheered and applauded her.
I was there when she fell. I was the first one to run to her side, screaming and half-crazed with horror. I took her shattered body into my arms and I rocked her back and forth, smearing white paint across her empty face. I couldn’t lose her. She was everything I had.
Simone and I had left home together when we were eight years old. We were twins, her and I, and we did everything together – everything. So when Simone told me that she was running away to join the Circus, of course I joined her. What else could I do? Stay there with papa, who drank too much, and mama, who made it very clear that she didn’t want us there anyway? No, if she left without me, then she’d be leaving me alone.
And that’s exactly what I thought she was doing that night, when she fell for the first time.
That was, until I met Dr. Engel.
The crowd produced him just as they were filing out the door, everyone with their low gazes filled with guilt and sadness, but Dr. Engel was different. He was smiling, so calm that he couldn’t possibly have realized what had happened, pleasantly requesting to talk to the man in charge.
“Great performance, old chap, great performance!” Dr. Engel greeted Mr. Sauer with a strong handshake. “Truly, I’ve never seen its like in all my days!”
“Sir,” Mr. Sauer spoke in hushed tones with a glance in my direction, as though he worried about what might happen if I overheard them. “I hardly think this is appropriate. We lost a performer tonight.”
“Yes, yes, yes, that was my favourite part!”
“It was everyone else’s too, I swear! That’s the part that they’ll all be talking about tomorrow, just you wait! I’ll bet you’ll even make a bit more money tonight than usual, all those bleeding hearts wanting to help out!”
“Bastard,” I hissed out between my numb teeth. “She was my sister!”
“Is your sister, my dear girl!” Dr. Engel said, turning his attention to me and Simone for the first time since he had made his presence known. “Oh, she’s dead right now, sure, but she doesn’t have to be! I can bring her back if you want!”
Dr. Engel explained everything to us then. Most of it I didn’t understand at the time – I picked up on it later, when my mind was a bit clearer. Apparently, Dr. Engel was famous in whatever country he came from for performing experiments on people. And through these experiments, he had discovered how to bring someone back from the dead, no matter how injured they had been beforehand. He could do it to Simone, he promised, but at a price – and I was willing to pay it, no matter what it was. I couldn’t be without her, after all. I couldn’t be alone.
So he brought her back to life, and the first time, she was just fine. I watched as the blood filled her cheeks once again, and she sucked in a deep breath of air. She laughed when she realized what had happened, making a joke out of her own clumsiness. She was her same old self – no differences at all. I figured that everything would just return to normal after that, and the terrible nightmare of my sister falling from the tightrope would just fade into the background like it had never happened at all.
But Dr. Engel didn’t leave the Circus after that. And the following morning, Mr. Sauer ordered us all to pack up and prepare to leave town. We still had performances scheduled for the next couple of days, but he made no mention of them – we were to leave immediately.
I tried to ignore the oddity. I spent more time with Simone than I ever had before, clinging to her so tight that it made her laugh.
“Really,” she’d say, “I’m alright. Nothing’s going to happen to me. It was all just… a bad dream, or something.”
When we arrived in the new town, everything ran as smoothly as ever. We scheduled performances, strung up posters, prepared for the show. I practiced my juggling act, and Simone walked gingerly across beams kept low to the ground. She claimed otherwise, but I think tightrope walking made her nervous after that first fall, and really, who could blame her? She had actually died. It must have been a truly terrifying experience.
Our first performance was relatively uneventful as well – until Simone’s act, that is. As always, she was the final act, and as always, she stepped out onto that tightrope dressed in her tight-fitting, pink dress. She looked like a dream, like a fairy from a children’s story – one that very quickly became a terror when she fell from the tightrope again.
I couldn’t believe it – not again. I didn’t even run to her side this time. I just stood back and watched in cold, numb horror as the crowd swelled around her, screaming, as Mr. Sauer announced his shock and grief for all to hear, as Simone became limp and empty from where she lay, crooked and broken, several feet below the tightrope. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.
And then, once Mr. Sauer had ushered out every last member of the audience, all of them so eager to offer a bit of extra money as compensation for his loss (his loss), I watched as Dr. Engel swept my sister up in his greedy arms, put her back together, and then brought her back to life.
It was a very simple system, Mr. Sauer told me, one that Dr. Engel had explained quite thoroughly to him the first time he had brought my sister back. People came to watch tightrope walking not because they wanted to see success, but because they wanted to be reminded of the danger. Whether they admitted it or not, they watched Simone in the hopes that she would fall, because there was more thrill in that. And whether I agreed with that or not, I couldn’t possibly deny that we at least made more money when Simone fell from the tightrope. And as long as we had Dr. Engel, she was in no real danger anyway. She could die night after night, and he could bring her back each time. The only thing we needed to be wary of was moving from town-to-town on a regular basis, so that nobody could notice the pattern in our performances.
“And what if Simone refuses to do it?” I asked. “What if she doesn’t fall off your stupid rope?”
“Simone has no choice in the matter,” Mr. Sauer said. “Dr. Engel brought her back to life, so she has to do everything he says. I don’t know how it works for sure, his voodoo or whatever he uses, but it seemed to work tonight, didn’t it?”
I didn’t agree with any of it, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Sauer was right – we did make more money out of those bleeding hearts than we ever got out of wondering eyes, and that was all that mattered to him. He owned us all. He could control our very lives, and so if he decided that our deaths were more profitable to him, then he would take full advantage of it. And all the while, there was Dr. Engel, whispering in his ear and telling him that he was doing right, that none of this hurt Simone in the least.
But it did, and I knew it. As early as the second time he brought her back, I knew that something was wrong with Simone.
It started out subtle – she just became a little bit more absent-minded, a little bit more distant. I knew it was wrong, when Simone had always been so full of life, but Dr. Engel told everyone that it was to be expected. Death put a strain on her mind – it was a lot to come to terms with. Everyone accepted this answer with a nod and a smile, pleased to know that they didn’t have to be concerned about her, but I didn’t believe it for a second. Something was wrong with Simone, and Dr. Engel was only making it worse.
Each time he brought her back, she only got worse. She grew more and more distant, until she no longer spoke to anyone at all, until I didn’t think that it could possibly get any worse, and then it did. Her eyes became vacant and empty, unchanged between when she was dead and when she wasn’t. Her movements became slow and rare, until all she would do was walk the tightrope and fall night after night. She wouldn’t even get up to eat anymore – I had to bring her bowls of soup and feed her myself.
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Dr. Engel told me once when he caught me feeding her. “She doesn’t need to eat anymore.”
I still wanted to do it though. I didn’t trust Dr. Engel enough to know for sure, and if Simone no longer spoke for herself, then who could say that she wasn’t secretly starving, constantly plagued by an intense pain that she couldn’t be rid of without my help? No, I would be there for her. If I couldn’t save her from Dr. Engel, at least I could save her from that.
No one else in the Circus asked about her anymore. We had never been all too successful before Dr. Engel showed up – we were fairly nondescript, lacking even a distinctive name to catch anyone’s attention. Our freaks were fairly standard and run-of-the-mill, our burlesque dancers were getting older and stiff, and nothing that we had done in the past helped us to stand out. But this – this dying act that Simone did, this was big. This may not have gotten our names out there (Mr. Sauer made sure of that), but it did put money in their pockets, money that filled their nights with all sorts of pleasures. And the only thing they needed to do to keep it going was ignore Simone’s pain. That was made easy enough when she didn’t talk much either.
Sometimes the others made their guilty consciences obvious, asking me to take Simone to my caravan so they didn’t have to see her, but I refused to. If they were going to profit off of her death, then the least they could do was know the price they were paying for it.
“Simone was only twenty-three years old,” I told Dr. Engel after he brought her back for the twenty-third time.
“She’s still twenty-three, my dear girl,” he said.
“Peaches were her favourite food. Her and the aerial artist had a flirtation going for many months. She told me all about how they were going to elope someday and settle on a pig farm in Spain.”
Dr. Engel had no condescending word to bid me then. He just fixed a glare in my direction, before slipping out from the caravan.
There was an awful, bitter taste in my mouth as I watched the empty corpse of my sister pull herself upright, sitting on the end of the hard, bare table that Dr. Engel always placed her on. She didn’t look at anything. She hardly even seemed aware of anything. She just sat there, hunched over and glassy-eyed. She looked nothing like Simone.
I got to my feet, slowly making my way toward the spot on the wall where a small, silver hatchet hung from a hook. Am I really doing this, I thought as I took the hatchet into my hand. Am I sure this is what she wants?
I wasn’t, I realized as I turned upon the space where my sister sat, but that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? I didn’t know anything about her anymore. I didn’t even know if she was still somewhere in there, watching her life through dead eyes, screaming for escape but never able to burst through the frozen surface. I didn’t know if she was already long gone, leaving nothing more than the empty shell I saw before me. But either way, this was no way for her to live. And if I left her to it, then Dr. Engel would never let her go. He would only continue to make things worse, to make her suffer more and more every day. She deserved better than that. She deserved her freedom.
I had never struck a person with a hatchet before. I imagined it would be difficult – all of that bone and muscle and tissue to get through. I raised the weapon high over my head, hoping to gain the benefit of momentum, but even though Simone didn’t even raise her eyes to me, I still found myself frozen in place. I stared down at her, at the only person who had always been there for me, and I couldn’t do it. I fell to my knees before her instead and I started to sob.
“Simone…” I breathed out. “I’m so sorry, Simone…”
Never had I been quite so surprised as I was when I felt a cold, dead hand on my cheek, weakly trying to raise my gaze. I complied without hesitation, looking to Simone with new-found hope. What did this mean? I wondered. Was she starting to break out of it?
She had moved, most certainly, and she had even interacted with me, but one look at her was all I needed to know that she wasn’t better. Her eyes were as glassy as ever, her face not even raised to me. Yet, I watched as her gaze rolled laboriously in the direction of the hatchet that I still held in my hand, and slowly, she gave a single, stiff nod as she looked at it.
And so I did it. I gave my sister one last kiss on the forehead, one that I doubt she even felt, and then I chopped her up into pieces so small that not even Dr. Engel could put her back together.
When Mr. Sauer and the doctor found me, I was laughing and crying all at once, covered in my sister’s blood and still chopping at pieces of her, still trying to keep her from their grasp. They had to physically pull me from the caravan, screaming things in my ear, like, “stupid girl! Do you know what you’ve done?”
“I know, I know,” I managed to spit out through maniacal giggles. “I freed her!”
* * *
Nobody alerted the authorities to what I had done. I knew they wouldn’t – Dr. Engel would have done anything to keep them as far away from this as possible, due to the ‘experiments’ that he was famous for in his own country. And, besides, the Circus didn’t need that kind of attention – especially not when so many people had already seen Simone die many times over.
But that didn’t mean I wasn’t punished. The rest of the performers hated me for what I had done, robbing them of their star act. How would they make money now? How could they pay for their whores and their booze and their midnight gambling, if they didn’t have my sister to torture anymore? They spoke to me only to insult me, acknowledging me only to spit on my shoes. Really, I was almost surprised when Mr. Sauer came to my caravan, not to beat me or throw me out of the circus, but to talk to me about my act. The show would go on, he said, but without Simone, I would have to close out with my juggling act – which I agreed to do just fine. As awful as it was to know that she was really, truly gone this time, I was actually kind of relieved too. She wasn’t suffering anymore. No matter where she was, at least it was somewhere where Dr. Engel couldn’t get his hands on her anymore.
The performance began absolutely, marvellously mundane. The crowd was mildly surprised by the fake-bearded lady, and they applauded politely for the kind-of-strongman. I watched it all from the sidelines, delighted by their mild amusement. This was how it should have been all along, I thought. This felt right.
Then, shortly before I was to perform, Mr. Sauer approached me with a wooden chest cradled in his arms.
“It’s sort of last minute, I know,” Mr. Sauer said, “but I wanted to make a small change to your performance. I know you usually juggle balls, and that’s just fine, but now you’re the closing act, and since we don’t have Simone anymore… well, we’re going to have to make it more exciting for the audience, aren’t we? So, instead, I thought you could juggle these.”
He opened the chest for me, and lying on a sheet of red velvet were three shining, recently-polished silver hatchets, just like the one I had used to chop my sister up only last night.
This is a joke, I initially thought, staring into Mr. Sauer’s face to try and gauge how serious he was. He knew that I had never juggled weapons before – he was only doing this to taunt me, to try and make me feel guilty. Well, it wouldn’t work, I told myself resolutely as I took the first hatchet into my hand. I had done the right thing, as awful as I knew it looked, and no matter how hard he tried, Mr. Sauer would never see me regret it. I would perform my act, and it would be my best one yet. Nothing he could possibly do would stop me.
When I stepped out before the crowd, they greeted me with the same polite applause they had given everyone, but their attitude most certainly shifted when they saw the silver hatchets in my hands. This was a different act, they realized then. This was a dangerous one.
I began my performance as I always did – delivering the same jokes, arriving at the same punchlines. I received more groans than I did laughter. But then, one at a time, I started to throw the hatchets into the air, and everyone perked up in their seats, training their eyes on me like they never had before. It was really sort of fun, I realized, being watched by so many people, being enjoyed on such a deep level. I really got into it – my jokes became funnier as I juggled, my pace became quicker.
I got so into it, that I only had time to notice my hand slipping in the briefest of terms before the hatchet came down on my head.
* * *
I was dead. I knew I was dead – that hatchet had gone right through my brain, there was no way I was anything else. So then why was I waking up? How was that even possible?
My newly running blood became cold when my answer came to me in the form of a strangely accented voice: “Hello, my dear girl.”
And there was Dr. Engel, standing over me with a cruel, self-satisfied smile on his greasy face.