It’s the 22nd day of my Season of Cheer blogging challenge and I bid you all a very cheerful welcome. The days surrounding the Solstice have always been regarded as magical and in many cultures, the days are marked with feasting and rituals. Whether they were aiming to entice the sun to return, celebrate renewal or banish evil spirits, the winter solstice is a time that has inspired many authors and stories that feature the darkest days of the year are a bit of an indulgence of mine. I particularly like stories that invoke magic – which is why I’m so chuffed that author Hannah Henry is visiting my blog today.
Hannah Henry writes magical realism, fantasy, and horror, and this story is a fine example of all of these elements woven together. We may think of Paris as the city of love, but when you follow Hannah Henry’s doll maker as she tries to retrieve a doll that’s a little too lively, you’ll discover that Paris is a city of magic, too.
For this story, Hannah Henry has enlisted the help of her friend Lori, who perfectly imagined Iris’s workspace for us, from lavender to crystallised violets to paper birds… I just love how well this fits!
The Doll Maker and the Strange Case of the Missing Doll | A Winter Solstice Story
She looked at the sky and smiled when she caught the moon looking back.
Raising herself on her tiptoes, she pushed open the window and suddenly the calm of her tiny flat under the roof of a Haussmannian building got interrupted by the noises and smells of the street below.
There were bits of fluff and dolls stranded everywhere, button eyes looking at her from under the kitchen cabinet, and crocheted bear claws gathered on her couch.
A true crime scene, if someone was into killing dolls.
Iris didn’t kill them, she made them. She made them and enhanced them with magic, to be exact.
It is time. It is time, the blue and orange birds seemed to sing. They were made of paper, so Iris ignored their singing.
“It isn’t time yet,” she told them firmly.
It was time for a lot of things.
Time to take the bouquet of sage that was hanging from her bedroom doorknob and burn it.
Time to gather all the bits of dolls and cuddly toys and sing while sewing them shut.
Time to add lavender and thyme right at the spot where their hearts should be.
Time to have a walk in the forest.
Time to call her mother, probably.
And time to think about tonight’s dinner.
What it wasn’t time for though, was welcoming the wind into her rooms and thinking about moving to another city.
She still had work to do there.
She took another breath of the icy air; the inside of her nose burning with the winter night and left the window barely opened.
“We don’t need the wind playing here and making a mess again,” she said, knowing full well how she looked, talking to herself in her tiny apartment, dried herbs and candles everywhere.
Winston and Ivan looked at her for a full minute before blowing bubbles in the water.
Goldfish were no help. None at all.
“I know what you did,” Iris told the paper birds before looking for her last assembled doll.
She was almost sure but had no evidence. She never had with the paper birds, but it never hurt to make them think she knew everything. And this time, she was pretty sure the paper birds had let the wind come in so her last doll could become alive.
It was all very simple really.
A bit of moonlight, a bit of sunlight, a song, of course, because music was the most accessible form of poetry, thoughts made of sugar and love and dipped into green as bright as spring grass and blue as calm as summer skies, and—of course—some flowers and herbs.
This was the surest way to make the perfect companion for a child, except for a dog or a cat maybe. But when the wind decided to have some fun, the two magic-danced together and then Iris invariably found herself with a very lively doll.
It wasn’t as creepy as it sounded.
Mainly because she knew her dolls. She had made them from choosing the fabric and spinning the wool to adding buttons and opening their eyes.
She had woven a spell of protection in the centre of each of them, so each child could feel loved and cared for.
Each and every one of these spells was linked to her own heart, running along her veins, beating in rhythm with her blood there.
The pressure eased each time a doll found the child it was destined for, but this one had been childless and now Iris could feel it only faintly.
“What have you been up to?” She whispered, looking into shadows and behind doors, knowing full well the doll had left the apartment because there was no way a child had been able to sneak in and adopt the doll and was now hiding.
Just in case, she looked in the bathtub and under the bed. Fluff bunnies rolled, and snowflakes escaped from the overheated roof to die on her floor.
The elements were mocking her.
She put her hands on her hips and looked very sternly around her. At least, she hoped she looked stern enough. The wind played with a lock of hair that had escaped her bun and she sighed toward the window. She was a hearth witch, which meant the elements only complied when it suited them.
“This has to stop,” she explained, her voice soft but each syllable detached to show that yes, she was annoyed at the wind’s childish play. “We can’t very well have a doll in the wild now, can we?”
There was silence for a minute, as silent as her flat could be with the goldfish blowing bubbles in the water and the paper birds singing to each other.
Then the door of her flat opened and the window closed on an audible puff of air.
Iris rolled her eyes.
“Very well then, but you’re coming with me.”
She put on her boots and wound a scarf around her neck, as high as her ears before putting on her favourite cardigan. It was made of cashmere and as soft as cloud.
She felt the wind humph around her. “Next time, I’ll knit something as light as the wind, so you’ll stop being jealous.”
Another lock of hair slipped from her bun and she smiled.
Her flat was on the sixth and last floor, at the end of the stairs, with old toilets cramped in a tiny space. The wood cracked under her shoes until she reached the red and black carpet nailed to the stairs, but she didn’t bother flicking on the light. This was a mission to find a runaway doll and she trusted the wind to catch her if she fell.
They didn’t have to look for long.
At the end of the flight of stairs, under the space where parents stored trolleys and children stored bikes, she heard giggles that obviously came from a little girl.
Iris allowed herself a sigh of relief. It would have been a tiny bit creepy if it had been her doll giggling. The wind made a noise that sounded a lot like a puff of laughter.
Iris ignored the wind and closed her eyes, brushing two fingers against the inside of her wrist. There, in her veins, she could feel the doll. She was happy, but she was too alive for her well-being.
Iris put the wayward locks of hair behind her ears and finished walking down the stairs, careful to announce herself with the sound of her footsteps without sounding threatening either to the child or the doll.
The giggling stopped, replaced by a whisper and Iris coughed.
“Hi there, I’m the doll maker. I live on the top floor.” It sounded better than being the witch living in the attic, more modern, less madwoman, she guessed.
There was the sound of shoes scuffling on the floor tiles and more whispers. Iris raised an eyebrow at that. Did her doll find two children? That could make things difficult.
“She says you’re safe,” a voice finally said before a child appeared bundled up in a red coat and a purple scarf and hugging her lost doll. Well, she supposed the doll had chosen to be found and kept by all appearance.
“Who said that?” Iris looked around, a suspicious feeling rising inside her.
“The doll, of course.”
No. It was impossible. The dolls never talked, even to her. They merely expressed themselves, giving her the feeling of which child they chose, but never, ever had she heard a doll talking.
It was simply impossible.
“How does she talk to you?”
The little girl looked at her like she had uttered the stupidest question and she supposed she had. If the doll talked to the child, then she just talked.
“She didn’t talk to me before leaving, you see. That makes me curious. My name is Iris,” she added, and the girl nodded.
“I’m Elisa. Did you name her?” Elisa turned the doll, so Iris could see her. The doll’s eyes were closed. Connection with her creations were harder once children and dolls had adopted each other. Iris’ eyes returned to the little girl. “It is not my place to name her. She became yours when you gave her a name.” She could feel it, the power of words linking and imbuing both the child and the doll with love.
Elisa smiled, shy and embarrassed “Yes, I did. She is named Coralie.”
“It’s a lovely name.” From the corner of her eyes, Iris could see the doll shifting. She had heard the approval in her voice.
“Does that mean I can keep her?” Elisa asked, her voice hesitant but hopeful.
“I’m not going to break both your hearts by taking her away from you, but I still need to examine her.”
“Because she talks?”
“And because she is, well, alive.”
All of her dolls shared connections with the children they had adopted, but this was more than mere connection. This was something Iris had never seen. She had vague memories of her mentor mentioning something about dolls occasionally leaving for exceptional children. Not exceptional because of their qualities, but because of their… gifts.
This was definitely not what Iris had planned for her evening.
“Where is your mother?” she asked Elisa. She had seemed wholly unconcerned about the fact her doll wasn’t a simple toy and, once again, Iris appreciated the way children took the abnormal in stride, weaving it into their reality.
“Working. She is a doctor,” Elisa announced proudly, and Iris remembered the golden plate outside announcing a doctor’s office in the building.
“Go tell her you rescued one of my dolls and I invited you for cookies. She can come if she wants to.” The last thing she wanted was someone coming in the middle of the mess the wind had made of her flat, but she didn’t want this mother to think her child was not safe.
She had time to set out the ingredients for the cookies and take the violets and snapdragons hardened with sugar from the fridge before Elisa came up, still clutching the doll. She widened her eyes at the nutcracker’s set scattered on the floor. They were half-dolls, half automatons, with maybe a sprinkle of magic waiting to be activated in them and had been commissioned by the Bastille Opera.
“My mum said she had always liked your scarves when she sees you in the stairwell and that I’m not allowed more than two cookies because it’ll be dinner soon.” She grimaced a bit at that and Iris couldn’t stop herself from laughing.
“What are those for?” The girl asked, showing the flowers Iris had left to dry.
“Candied flowers. We’ll eat them with the cookies.”
The snapdragons weren’t going to add much in term of flavour, but Iris liked their energy and they were useful to crack any veil of deception. Violets were a classic for candied flowers and were quietly thrumming with peacefulness, hope, and harmony.
Elisa pursued her mouth at the idea of eating flowers but washed her hands in the sink and soon enough they had a whole trail of cinnamon cookies. Cinnamon was an excellent medium for focusing and communication, and if it could be enjoyed around a delicious cookie, there was no reason not to do it.
They sat with orange and cinnamon tea while the cookies were in the oven and Iris finally looked at the doll.
The doll didn’t move.
She was sitting on the chair next to Elisa, her unblinking eyes focused on the candied flowers, carefully ignoring her brothers and sisters and avoiding Iris.
“Please try some flowers with your cookies.”
“I thought they were only for decoration.” Elisa reached for the violet and after examining it in the palm of her hand, put it reluctantly in her mouth.
Iris would have felt sorry for forcing a child to eat something, only she needed the girl to eat these flowers. She felt like a forest witch from the Old Tales, tricking a child with food but at least, she didn’t intend to eat her. She was a vegetarian anyway.
Elisa tried the snapdragon flower with enthusiasm, after enjoying the violet and the warm cookie, and Iris had to praise the girl’s mum for her education because she was pretty sure it was the only thing that stopped Elisa from spitting the bitter flower on her plate.
“Yes, I’m sorry about that,” she said, answering Elisa’s reproachful look with a guilty smile. “But, you see, it’s not usual for a doll to act the way she is acting.”
“Yeah, you already said you wanted to look at her,” Elisa was munching on her second cookie but her left hand was clutching the doll. And the right hand of the doll was definitely wrapped around her fingers. Still, the flowers had confirmed Iris’ intuition; there was nothing cunning about this child.
“And the way she is interacting with you.”
There was no good way to say that, she supposed. Hopefully the girl was still young enough to understand.
“She has been attracted to you, to your gift.”
“I don’t have a gift. She is a gift.”
“No, not a gift like that.” She was going all wrong about it. She would have needed advice but there was no time for it and her friends’ situation had been different.
“A gift like yours?”
Iris was at a loss for words and Elisa took the opportunity to slide a third cookie on her plate. Iris acted like she hadn’t noticed.
“You make dolls come alive. You have special powers, like magic or something,” she explained like it was perfectly normal.
Iris smiled. Scepticism hadn’t touched the child yet.
“So about that…”
Elisa looked from Iris to the flowers covered with sugar then to the bits of fluff everywhere, to the paper birds singing softly to each other, and finally to Winston and Ivan blowing bubbles in the shape of the alphabet.
“Ohh, I see. You’re a witch.” Her smile was big, showing two crooked teeth.
Iris groaned, unsure if she should feel relieved or worried. “Hum yes, and I think you’ve potential to be one, too.”
After those last words, the wind became bored with being ignored and hauled the crumbs of cookies and the last candied flowers into a mad dance. It would have been impossible to deny anything in front of such a display.
Iris had to admit she was impressed at the wind’s talents for improvising a contemporary choreography.
Elisa had hopped from her chair at Iris’ strange words, not looking shocked or excited but more with the air of a child trying very hard not to tell a secret.
The little girl played with the wind, laughing and dancing, and Iris had started to feel very foolish.
“Of course, it all had to converge today,” she muttered, looking at her moon calendar hanging on the door.
And Coralie had just sat at the table, staring blankly at a spot next to Iris’ right elbow.
The moon was hanging in the sky, barely visible now between the heavy clouds full of snow. It was definitely time to prepare some food if she didn’t want her guests to be starving.
Tonight was the Winter Solstice and her Coven was coming.
She had planned on tomato soup and fried dandelions flowers. She had made bread with thyme that morning, and her friends had promised a couple of surprise dishes and mouth-watering desserts.
A plate of cheese and three bottles of wine were waiting on the side of her kitchen counter, reminding everyone why they were so happy Iris had called Paris her home for the last couple of years.
After a glance at Elisa and Coralie, Iris sighed and opened the bottle of white wine.
She was no closer to resolving the mystery of the doll, except by removing her heart but that was a sure way to hurt Elisa. Or she could wait and see if the effects would recede after the Winter Solstice.
“Would you like to try one of the Dandelions flowers?” she asked the girl.
Elisa frowned and looked at the oil bubbling in the pan.
“Is it going to be like the snapdragons? Because dragons are awesome, but these flowers are not.”
“No, it’s good. And full of nutrients, but that may not be a great incentive.” They also enhanced psychic abilities, but the girl didn’t need that kind of information right now.
Elisa popped a flower into her mouth, smiling, and Iris turned to observe the doll. She had moved when the girl had chewed, her hands clutching her belly.
This was becoming a problem.
The doorbell rang, and Elisa jumped.
“I should get back home,” she said, and the wind ruffled her hair.
“Or you could see if your mother wants to join us. She is one of us, right?”
Elisa nodded, relief plain on her face at the realisation she hadn’t broken her secret and there was no need to lie.
“She said it’s no good for a witch to be alone.”
“She doesn’t have to be,” Iris answered simply. It was never that easy but maybe tonight it could be.
Laughter and voices floated in the staircase and Elisa bit her lip.
“Maybe she’d like to come up.”
She looked at the doll and Iris shook her head regretfully.
“I’m afraid Coralie has to stay here. It’s …” safer she wanted to say but caught the word before it went out. “ Necessary.”
Elisa gave her a strange look and Iris had the feeling Elisa knew exactly which word Iris had swallowed, but then she ran down the stairs, obviously deciding the conversation was over.
“Who was the little girl on the stairs?” Ruth asked, pushing the door Iris had left open. Snow had caught on the red scarf tying up her curly dark hair and she was pressing food containers against her chest.
“She smelled of magic,” Bea added casually, following close behind.
Out of all her magical friends, Bea would be the first to know.
She had goblin blood, it was a rare thing to have magical folk in your ancestry, and it gave her an acute perception of who had even the slightest ounce of magic, along with pointy ears and a skin edging on grey. Since she was living in London, nobody took it for anything else than surgical enhancements.
“It’s my downstairs neighbour. And I think she bonded with one of my dolls. Did you ditch Ronnie and Elena?” She listened for more noises coming from the stairs but there was only darkness and silence.
“There is no way we are leaving these two by themselves or someone is going to end up tied down and thrown into the Seine. They are just parking the car.”
“Good luck with that,” Iris answered, because living in the Marais had a lot of charm and advantages but parking spaces weren’t among them.
“They have the jackdaw to find them an empty spot.”
“That’s just cheating.”
“That’s Elena for you.” Ruth grinned at Iris, velvet red lipstick striking against her dark skin. Iris gave herself a second of regret for all the things that could have been and then smiled back, turning toward the bottle of white wine.
By the time Elena and Ronnie arrived, the wine had been poured, Bea had lit several of her colourful, handmade candles, and Ruth had set aside the flowers she had gathered during the summer to burn them right before dawn.
“You didn’t bring your flock of youth with you?” Iris asked, only half-joking about the kids her friends were mentoring. She had the feeling she would need to deal with a young witch of her own very soon.
“More like a murder of witches,” Elena answered, rolling her eyes behind her black-rimmed glasses, but unable to hide her fond smile and side-stepped to let her wife put one of her special Indonesian desserts on the counter.
“Blaine would set fire to the Louvre, and Daphne would read him the riot act. Why is a doll glaring at me?” Ronnie asked, staring back at Coralie. Iris sighed, for Veronica was a witch with a special kind of acuity for all things being out of the magical ordinary. It was frankly a bit creepy, even if Ronnie was the nicest person Iris had ever met.
“I think it’s a side effect of the Winter Solstice and, well, I may have a young person with magic potential downstairs and then the wind found it funny to nudge them in the same direction.”
“Winter monsoon,” Ronnie nodded, like it explained everything.
“Jerk,” Bea added, and it did explain everything. Iris was just glad she had closed the window.
“It doesn’t matter. I need to do something about the doll without hurting her or Elisa.” She took Elena and Ronnie’s coats and hung them with Bea and Ruth’s, next to the door, ignoring the lost buttons on the floor and a wandering ball of yarn. Her flat was definitely crowded tonight.
“The time of the year and the presence of wild, unrestrained child magic are the issue, not your use of plants, right?” Ronnie asked thoughtfully, ignoring the snort of Elena at the words ‘wild unrestrained child magic’.
“Lavender and thyme for the heart,” Ruth said with approbation, holding the octopus Iris had been working on. “But nothing for the soul,” she added, pressing the little octopus against her nose.
“Never,” Iris said, a bit shocked at the suggestion. It was never done. There were limits when creating magical items, especially in her line of work, and she scrupulously followed them. Ruth winked at her when she heard the indignation in her voice and she felt herself blushing.
“Accidents happen,” Ruth simply said, her voice devoid of all reproach.
“I’m always…” Wait a minute. There hadn’t been only thyme and lavender added to the core of this particular doll. “Always careful,” she finished lamely, and Bea and Elena groaned in unison.
“What did you do, girl?” Bea asked, sitting down on the couch with her glass of wine in one hand and a plate of canapés in the other.
“Maple tree,” Iris whispered, not daring to look into Ruth’s eyes. Ruth was a green witch after all, and Iris definitely didn’t need her to remark upon her mistakes.
It was no use though. Of course, Ruth caught on what went wrong.
“Maple trees are excellent for purposes of good health and by extension, life. Oh Iris.”
No, Iris definitely didn’t need that.
“I was experimenting with other herbs and plants that could bring love. I didn’t plan for other uses to happen.” She wasn’t up for hearing how a hearth witch would always know less about plants than a green witch. Not tonight. Not from Ruth.
But she knew Ruth, and it wasn’t what came out of her mouth.
“Of course not. It made sense to add tree elements, actually. They are the ones that breathe life into our world. But not that much life,” she added after a look at the doll.
“It’s not unbreakable.” Ronnie said finally, from the spot she had taken next to Bea, Elena perched on the armrest next to her and passing the plate back and forth with Bea. “All you need is a ritual. And since both of you are respectful of the rules between witches’ traditions, both your magic should work together.”
Bea smiled at some inner joke Ronnie’s words seemed to bring out, but Ruth shrugged.
“She is right. At the core, our way of practicing is the same. We could do the ritual and remove the maple bark now if you want.”
“There, problem solved,” Bea said but her words got covered by a knock at the door.
“That should be Elisa and her mum. Soup or soul-removal first?” Iris asked her friends over her shoulder, opening the door.
Elisa’s mum was named Carole and was thrilled to meet a real coven.
“I had a mentor of course, but no women I could call sisters. And then you know it goes, you get a job and a family and there is no time left.”
There should always be time left for magic but then, Iris’s jobs had always been tied to magic.
Nonetheless, Iris liked Carole, especially when once confronted with the issue, her approach was completely no-nonsense.
“Elisa will need to sit with her, so the connection isn’t broken, and they will both feel less afraid. And Coralie will always feel the love, even once the maple tree is taken out.”
And so they sat, with Elisa and Coralie in the middle and Iris and Ruth holding hands with each of them. And each other.
Iris’s hand wasn’t as dry as she would have liked it and the moonlight stroked her face.
She closed her eyes, taking strength from the moon’s love. The wind played with her hair— sneaking up on the heels of her downstairs neighbours, surely—and felt Ruth’s mind brushing against hers, until Iris focused enough to cancel any power coming from the tree.
When she opened her eyes, Ruth was staring at her.
“Well done,” she whispered, and Iris smiled, kneeling to take out the piece of bark.
Coralie’s magic was thrumming faintly along to her own heartbeat, but she wasn’t acting like a creature born of a child’s nightmare anymore.
And when Iris got up to the cheerful noise of the women around her talking, she felt the moon on her face, the wind in her hair, and Ruth’s hand, warm and reassuring, at her back.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did. If you’d like to read more from Hannah Henry, you can check out her website or meet up with her on Twitter. And if you’ve enjoyed Lori’s imagining of Iris’s home, then why not check out Lori’s Etsy store or her images on Instagram?