Maggie Doll

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by Alex Jennings

Alex Jennings is a writer, actor, and teacher. Born in Germany, he was raised in Gaborone, Botswana, Paramaribo, Surinam, Tunis, Tunisia, and the United States. He spends too much time on social media and considers himself an “Afternoon Person.” He lives and works in New Orleans.

~~~

Oni Bean ran from fire. He ran from the sight of doll parts scattered on muddy ground and from the sound of breaking eggs. Black smoke was everywhere, choking Oni and burning his eyes. Mean things chuckled after him, their bodies slick against the grass. After a while, they seemed to lose interest, but Oni kept running.

When the sun came up, Oni dug a hole beneath a deadfall and climbed inside. He laid there, plush arms tucked tight against his body, and shook.

The world looked strange when Oni crawled up into it again. How long had he slept? The sun seemed to have sunk from the sky beneath the forest floor. Patches of light, gold and red, shone upwards from beneath Oni’s feet, fractured by the black silhouettes of leaves.

Oni felt weak, but he could walk. At least he hoped so: he had no choice. Cautiously, he set off through the forest. Without knowing why, he did his best to stay clear of the sunny patches. It turned out to be easy. The trees were tall and old and grew close. There were plenty of shadows.

~~~

Day followed night followed day; Oni kept walking. Nothing looked familiar this far from home, but he tried to move in more or less the same direction.

By the third day Oni had forgotten the acrid scent of burning. Out here, things smelled heavy and green and even the ugly smells seemed somehow correct.

Oni’s head hurt. I wish I could sew, he thought.

He knew he was not very smart but he sensed that in the past his thoughts had been much better organized.

Gingerly, Oni touched his forehead to see whether he’d imagined the sensation of something coming out of it and the world receded in a blinding wash of light.

~~~

Oni started awake and picked himself up from the forest floor. The sense of lost time washed over him. For a moment he hesitated, shifting his weight from foot to foot, then he broke into a dead run. Soon the ground sloped downward and he could hear the sound of the sea.

The new place was nothing like the forest. He stood on the verge of a silver-blue bay. Train tracks painted in bright colors followed the arc of the shore and the sun was back in the sky where it belonged. Oni liked how the sunlight made the water sparkle and the tangy smells that blew in with the waves.

To his left, the train tracks cut back toward high ground, to disappear into a darkened tunnel. It looked like an open, toothless mouth. Oni went the other way, following the tracks. Even though his neck hurt, he looked up from time to time at the finely marbled sky. The sun was brilliant and cold and no birds called or flew.

Don’t play on the tracks.

Oni knew he was being bad, but what else could he do?

“I can sing,” he said aloud. “I can sing and play the ukulele.”

He did not know whether this was true.

~~~

Pretty soon Oni had the feeling he was getting somewhere. The smells of cut grass and baking cookies drifted on the wind. When he squinted, he could make out a pastel green house sitting on a platform beside the tracks and a yellow clock atop a pole beside it. The clock had eyes and a nose and a big smile. Around the house grew trees like giant red and yellow bouquets, crowding close by as if to keep it warm.

Walking was much harder now. The something coming out of Oni’s head hurt even though Oni was careful not to touch it.

From far away behind came a noise; Oni stopped short. The sound grew until it was not just back there, but all around, even beneath Oni’s feet. He looked over his shoulder to see what it was but there was only the slope and the dark blur of the trees.

Again, he hesitated, trying to recall a word he’d forgotten. Giving up, he turned away and ran toward the house. He could not judge the distance to the pastel house. He might not make it there in time.

Blue-white pain cut Oni’s legs out from under him. He fell hard. The sound was very close now. He saw someone moving on the platform and tried to scream for help but The Bad Sound swallowed his cry. It grew and grew until there was nothing else; then it became an awful chugging. Oni could not turn to look.

Unbidden, the forgotten word popped into Oni’s mind and he smiled, relieved.

The word was “train.”

~~~

A shout. Oni opened his eyes. Overhead, the ceiling was lacquered in construction paper stars, yellow and misshapen. Nighttime? No: Sunlight, thick as liquid butter, streamed from a circular window. The shadow of the windowpane lay across Oni’s belly, which was covered by a multicolored patchwork quilt.

Oni’s right mitt flew to his forehead. When he touched it, there was pain, but no light.

I shouted, Oni thought. Me.

The room was painted a soft blue. Bookshelves lined the walls. Oni lay in an enormous bed. To his left was a circular door made from dark wood, to his right stood a gigantic threadbare chair with another window behind it.

Haaah,” Oni breathed, testing his mouth, then called, “Hello!”

Something huge thundered toward the room. Oni could feel its footsteps shudder the floorboards. Then the doorknob rattled in its collar and in walked the biggest girl Oni had ever seen.

Her hair was shaggy and brown and she must have been five or six times Oni’s size. She wore a filthy ballerina’s tutu over dancer’s tights but no blouse: she was naked above the waist and her chest and arms were covered with writing. yel heram, Oni read. holla snuf boat akk. Oni couldn’t understand any of it – they were nonsense words.

For a while they just stared at each other in silence. “What’s your name?” asked the girl finally.

“Oni Bean. What’s yours?”

“I’m Maggie Doll. I sewed your head.”

“You did?” Oni said, then, “Thank you.”

“What happened, Oni Bean? Why were you running?”

Oni Bean’s mouth worked for a moment. “There was fire,” he said, “and sharp things and a sound like something big moving through grass. Glass broke and eggs broke, too.”

“Eggs?” Maggie asked.

Oni nodded solemnly. “Eggs.”

The girl frowned. “Well, that doesn’t sound good.”

Oni shook his head.

“Walk around some and see how you feel.”

~~~

The next day, Oni rested in Maggie’s lap, leaning against her warm belly as she sat on the hardwood floor and wrapped gauze around his head.

“But I don’t need bandages,” Oni complained.

“I want Mayor Poojum to know I took good care of you.”

“You took great care. That’s why I don’t need bandages.”

“Stop squirming.”

“I’m not squirming,” Oni said, but he made an effort to sit quietly. There was something very right about doing as Maggie told him. She smelled like outside – like the sun and, slightly, like a monkey.

“What do you call this place?” Oni asked when Maggie had finished. “What was that house by the train tracks?”

“This is Chimney Valley Depot,” Maggie said. “That was the depot.”

“Is there a train?”

“Who do you think picked you up?”

“May I eat?” Oni said.

“We’ll have tea and cookies before we go.”

Mayor Poojum lived in a cottage near the Town Square. Oni walked part of the way, but after a while Maggie had to carry him because he was too slow. Together, they crossed a brook full of dark, friendly shapes and headed down a stone road lined with pastel houses.

The air smelled of spearmint and freshly cut grass and those fine days just before autumn. Every so often, they would see an animal with a bandage or a bit of stitching. All the animals waved at Maggie and she would smile and wave back.

I know places like this, Oni thought, amazed.

Maggie knocked when they reached the cottage, but there was no answer from inside. She knocked again and there came a call from around back of the house.

“Mr. Mayor is in the garden,” Maggie said, and they went around to find him.

The garden was full of tires and rows of miniature windmills half-buried in sod. Plastic birds and painted metal shards made looping designs whose meanings were a mystery to Oni.

Mayor Poojum knelt before a patch of plastic flowers, digging in the earth with his paws. His fur was a bright orange. Maggie stood politely, waiting to be noticed, and before long, the Mayor rose to greet her. Standing, he was almost as tall as Maggie. He wore a blue bib with a picture of an apple on it, and his button eyes didn’t match.

“Maggie,” he said. “Fine day.”

“You bet,” Maggie said and smiled hard enough to show all her front teeth.

“And this is your new friend?” Poojum asked, taking a moment to examine Oni.

“Yup,” Maggie said. “His name is Oni Bean.”

“Of the Sunnytown Beans?”

“I think so,” Oni said with a nervous smile. “I’m not sure.”

The fabric of Mayor Poojum’s face twisted into a thoughtful expression. Oni thought of Papa Cristobel, the Mayor of Sunnytown. Cristobel had always worn a graduation mortar, and it occurred to Oni that Mayor Poojum would look very fine in one, also.

“Pleased to meet you, Oni Bean,” said the Mayor, offering Oni a paw. “Your arrival has caused considerable excitement.”

“I sewed his head,” Maggie offered.

“Did you?” Mayor Poojum leaned in close to examine Oni’s face. “I can hardly tell. Maggie Doll, your skill grows with each passing day.”

“Thank you, Mayor!” Maggie said, delighted.

“Maggie, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with Mr. Bean in private.” But Maggie had stopped listening.

“A Sunnytown Bean,” Mayor Poojum said softly. “I’m happy to welcome you to our town, sir, but I worry your arrival portends bad times ahead for Chimney Valley.”

“I ran from something bad.” Oni said.

The bear nodded thoughtfully. “Indeed.”

By now, Maggie had wandered off a little ways to splash at the fish living in the birdbath. “Maggie Doll,” Mayor Poojum said, and this time, he raised his voice to attract Maggie’s attention. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with Oni for a while. Run along, and I promise I’ll return him safely to your cottage.”

“Oh.” Oni’s attention was still fixed on the Mayor, but he could hear the frown in Maggie’s voice. “I have to go?”

“Just for now,” said the bear.

The Mayor’s cottage had been made from the bole of a great tree. It smelled of shoe polish and pipe tobacco.

Oni climbed into a stained green wing-back chair as Mayor Poojum headed to the kitchen in search of tea. He returned with a rainbow plastic tea service.

“So what can you tell me about Sunnytown?” he said as he handed Oni a cup. The tea was heavily sugared but still bitter. Oni relished the taste.

“Not much,” he said. “I’ve forgotten lots. My injury.”

“Do you remember how you got it?”

“There was fighting, I think,” Oni said. “And things like snakes.”

“The Licorice Men.”

“Right, right. Big heads on long snake bodies. They looked like they were wet, but they weren’t.”

“How many were there?”

“I don’t know,” Oni said. “There was smoke.”

Mayor Poojum leaned forward to place his teacup on its saucer and sat back again, his bear mouth sagging into a frown. “This could be bad,” he said.

“Have I done something wrong?”

“On the contrary, I’m glad you’ve come to warn us. Otherwise….” The Mayor heaved a sigh. “You see, we don’t fight here in Chimney Valley. If you showed one of our townspeople a slingshot, he’d ask you what it was for. We’ve always counted on Red Rabbit for that. “

“Who is Red Rabbit?”

The Mayor grunted. “Good question,” he said. “I’m beginning to think he’s a necessary evil.”

~~~

“Red Rabbit?” Maggie Doll let out a great rush of air. “Oh boy.”

She sat on the floor beside the bed, picking between her grubby toes. Her hair was beautiful in the failing light – it must have been brushed today.

“He’s one of the oldest,” she said. “He was in the War. He’s mad a lot of the time and keeps to himself. He drinks too much tea.”

“Why did he leave?”

A shadow of sadness passed over Maggie’s face. “I don’t know. He gave me a slingshot for my birthday, but Mayor Poojum took it away. I told Red Rabbit about that, and he got really mad and said he was going to talk to the Mayor. The next day he came by here to say he was leaving and goodbye. I cried.”

“What’s a slingshot?”

“It’s a stick that’s a Y and there’s a rubber band on it and you put rocks in it and shoot things.”

“Shoot them?”

“Yeah. Red Rabbit has one and its name is Beverly and he says it’s a she but he won’t say why.”

“I want one,” said Oni after thinking about it for some time. “I could have used one when I hurt my head.”

Maggie nodded glumly. “Yeah.” She took a breath. “Oni? Do you think Red Rabbit will come back?”

“I don’t know,” Oni said. “I hope so.”

~~~

The next day Oni went out to explore the town. It turned out that Chimney Valley was more a village than a proper town. It only had five streets and they all led to the circular plaza. A statue honoring the town’s founding animal stood on a low dais in the center of the plaza. It had a bulbous head and long arms, but it was so old and weathered that Oni couldn’t tell what it represented.

At the General Store, Oni bought some tea, some cooking eggs and three boxes of cookies, just as Maggie had asked. She was home today, trying to bake bread – she was still no good at it, she’d confided to Oni, and practice was the only thing that would help.

As Oni crossed the square, he noticed a frog sitting outside the tiny cafe near Mayor Poojum’s house, sipping a cup of tea, eyes squinted against the bright sunlight. Oni headed on a few steps before the frog seemed to realize who he was and called to him.

“Hey! Heya!”

Oni approached the frog’s table cautiously. “Hello,” he replied, trying to keep his voice steady. He still didn’t feel quite right calling attention to himself.

“You’re the boy from Sunnytown.”

“Oni Bean.”

“Right, right. Benjy Frog. Siddown, Bean. There’s a lot to talk about.”

Oni took a seat, kicking his legs beneath the chair. Benjy Frog stared at him for a long time, his expression unreadable.

Finally, Oni spoke just to break the silence. “I don’t know much,” he said. “I have a hard time remembering what happened because of my head.”

“Right. Head wound. Billy Engine said ya was looking pretty bad when ya fell on the tracks.”

“I should thank the train. I was scared he’d run over me.”

Benjy shook his head. “Not him. Stops on a dime, our Billy. So. Whaddaya remember, anyhow?”

“Eggs breaking.”

“Ya don’t say. So they was after the eggs?”

Oni shrugged. “Who can say? I wish Red Rabbit were here.”

“You know Red?”

Oni shook his head. “I’ve only heard of him. Mayor Poojum and Maggie Doll are worried he’s the only one who can fight.”

Benjy nodded. “It’s the truth. I’m no good in open combat. I prefer it sneaky. I s’pose you could call me a coward that way.”

Oni didn’t know how to answer.

Benjy sighed and sat back. He fumbled in the front pocket of his yellow and green plaid vest, then pulled out a plastic cigar. He puffed silently for a moment, a halo of dirty blue smoke growing around his head, then sat forward again. “How’s Maggie?”

“I’m sorry?”

“How is Maggie Doll?” Benjy repeated. “I worry about her, living alone on the edge of town like that. Worry she’ll do something crazy.”

“Like what?”

“Like go looking for Red on her own. You know children.”

“I know what?”

“Children,” Benjy said.

“Oh. Yes. Certainly.”

“Hell,” Benjy sighed. “Just keep an eye on her for me, willya? I’d appreciate it, and so would Red if he was here.”

Oni smiled. “Absolutely!” Now he had something to do.

~~~

Oni found Maggie sitting at the pink plastic kitchen table, staring at a deflated loaf of bread. The smell of baking filled the house again but this time Oni noticed that it was a little too sour.

Maggie sat with her shoulders poked up, her chin supported by one gigantic fist. For a moment, Oni just watched her, considering her size. He had seen big dolls before, in Sunnytown, but there was something odd about Maggie. The way she moved…it wasn’t like any doll he had ever seen.

She hadn’t heard Oni come in, so he coughed quietly and shuffled his feet.

Maggie hardly turned. “Hi, Oni,” she said. “Bread’s no good today.”

“Should I have bought some?”

Maggie shrugged. “It wasn’t you who ruined it. I’ll go get some before the bakery closes. “

Oni tugged at the great kitchen chair until he could climb up on it and, standing on tiptoes, look Maggie in the eye. “Maggie?”

Maggie swept her hair out of her face. “Yeah?”

“What’s written on you?”

Maggie didn’t seem to understand the question. She moved back, looked down at herself. “You can’t read?”

“I can read; I just don’t understand.”

Maggie’s puzzlement seemed to deepen as she stared at her naked chest with a furrowed brow. “‘Yola bun yob,’” she read. “‘Poolah subbin pen yao.’”

Oni nodded. “I know, but what do they mean?”

“What do they…” Maggie repeated without comprehension. Then, “Oni Bean! That’s rude!”

“Oh! I – what? I didn’t know,” Oni stammered. “I’m sorry.”

“I accept your apology,” Maggie said, her voice cool and formal. “Do you have any other questions?”

“Just one,” Oni said, glad she’d offered him the chance. “What’s ‘children?’”

“What?”

“What’s ‘children?’ Benjy Frog said, ‘you know children,’ but I didn’t know, so I pretended. What is it?”

Maggie Doll thought hard for a moment, then made a rude noise. She had given up on the question. “I don’t know…a kind of goose, maybe. Benjy says lots of things. He’s almost as old as Red Rabbit.”

~~~

A storm blew up that night. It sounded like an army was marching all through town and the surrounding woods. As Oni lay in bed, the rhythm of the rain and rumbling thunder became the creaking of a boat that sailed him on into sleep.

He smelled mud and something like copper. He heard shouting. Slick bodies whispered through the underbrush.

Later, he was awakened by a sound above the storm. He lay very still, listening, wary after the dream. Wind shook the house and the rain battered the windows.

Gah!”

The clank of cupboard doors from the kitchen.

Oni sat up. Someone was rushing around, maybe even breaking things. Oni was terrified – he wanted to pull the quilt over his head and burrow away into the warm darkness. But his body had its own volition. It rose and went downstairs to see what was the matter.

It was Maggie Doll. She was rummaging through her cookware, opening drawers, knocking aside pots and pans in her haste. Her back was to Oni and he could see the black scrawl of nonsense words stretch and rumple as her shoulder blades rotated.

Maggie yanked open a drawer to the left of the kitchen sink and squealed. “Here,” she said. “Here, here, here, here.

“Maggie!”

Maggie turned – she was holding a knife. Reflexively, Oni raised a mitt to shield his forehead. He did not like Maggie’s expression.

The girl looked from Oni to the knife in her hand, then back to Oni. She seemed to realize she had frightened him. “Oh! Oni, I’m sorry. It’s just – well, I’ve got to go out, and I need something sharp.”

“What? Go out where?”

“I – it’s very important. I have to go. I’ll be back by morning.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Oni, the whole town…I have to find Red Rabbit.”

Something hard and bad wriggled in Oni’s chest.

“Oh no,” he said, shaking his head. “No. Benjy Frog said don’t let her do anything crazy. Benjy Frog said you know children. He said keep an eye on her for me!”

“Benjy Frog doesn’t know anything.”

“What if something happens to you?”

“I don’t care about me. I care about the town.” Maggie and Oni stared at each other for a long time.

“I’ll come with you,” he said finally. “Carry me.”

Standing there in the moonlit dim, knife in hand, Maggie looked less like a girl than a thing congealed from the surrounding darkness. Her eyes were lost in shadow and behind her hair.

I do not know anything, Oni Bean thought suddenly.

“Okay,” Maggie said finally. “I’ll put you in my pack.”

For Oni, the journey unfolded in reverse. From his snug perch in Maggie’s pack, he watched the cottage march away, shrinking steadily until it disappeared into the nighttime blur. Soon, the only thing he could distinguish was the packed dirt path that led to the forest’s edge. But once Maggie was among the trees that vanished, too. What remained was a shifting net of leaves and shadow that vibrated in time with Maggie’s footfalls and, from time to time, a flash of silver amid the denser darkness of the tree trunks. When he heard the sound of rushing water he understood that the silver was the brook; Oni tried to banish visions of licorice men, knives clamped, pirate-style, between their teeth.

All at once Oni realized that he had done the wrong thing. Convincing Maggie Doll to bring him along was no better than letting her go alone. He was small and weak – how could he protect her? The Licorice Men would come for both of them.

He could almost hear them now, slithering wetly from tree to tree, laughing their high, thin laughter. Something splashed down in the creek; Oni wriggled to get a look and caught a glimpse of snake-shapes undulating upstream, of bulging eyes that glittered white in the moonlight.

Maggie said something but her words were devoured by thunder.

“What?” called Oni.

“I see a light!” Maggie shouted, but just then the sky had gone still and her voice seemed much too loud in the new silence.

“Is it moving?”

“No. And it’s square. We’ve found him.”

Oni took a breath. Good. Oh good.

~~~

The shack sat beside the stream. It was built from warped planking and had not been painted at all. Oni noticed a tree stump on the stream bank. Red Rabbit must sit there sometimes, he thought. Maggie Doll paused before the door, breathing hard, then knocked.

For a long time there was no answer. Then, finally, the door creaked open. Oni tried to twist around to look over Maggie’s shoulder, but it was no good. Finally, she made an irritated sound, grabbed him by the head and set him down beside her. He looked up at Red Rabbit.

Red was tall – almost as tall as Maggie if you counted the ears. His squat body was made from apple red terrycloth, but in many places the cloth had worn thin and its color faded. The result was a spatter of red orange mottling that made him look almost like a giraffe.

Red had been mended in so many places that Oni could scarcely identify his original seams. Maggie had said Red Rabbit was very old, and he looked it.

“Red Rabbit.” Maggie’s voice was husky, lingering on the name. At her tone, Oni felt a pang, sweet and terrible, that he would only later recognize as a thrill of jealousy.

“The fuck you doing out here, Maggie Doll? It’s pouring.”

“I had to find you. I had to tell you. The Licorice Men.”

Red watched her for a long time and Oni watched Red. I shouldn’t be here, he thought. This is between them.

“Eh,” the rabbit grunted finally. “Get in here, kid. You look like a drowned rat.”

~~~

The shack smelled of sawdust and machine oil. Oni Bean stood to one side while Maggie Doll sat on one of the plastic crates Red Rabbit used for chairs and talked as fast as she could. It was as if she thought Red Rabbit would be more inclined to agree with her if he didn’t have time to think about what she was saying.

“You gotta come back. Mayor Poojum’s really sorry. He didn’t say so, but I can tell for sure that he is – and besides he knows you’re the only one who can help when the Licorice Men come and if you’ll just come back with us I know he won’t mind because what else can we do?”

“Maggie.”

“When it started raining so hard I thought of you and I knew I had to come here because everyone else is afraid, and I know why, and they should be, but not because you might hurt somebody, but because you know how to hurt people and we need somebody who knows that stuff to help us when there’s trouble, so you see, you shouldn’t have left at all in the first place, and Mayor Poojum was just being stupid!”

Maggie,” Red Rabbit snapped.

“What? Yes?”

“Who’s your friend?”

Maggie looked around the room, her eyes rolling in confusion. Red Rabbit pointed a mitt in Oni’s direction.

“Oh! This is Oni Bean. The Licorice Men almost got him, and I sewed his head.”

“Hello.” Oni wiggled his fingers timidly.

Red Rabbit nodded thoughtfully, his button eyes downcast, then looked back up at Maggie Doll. “I can’t go back,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s more than the sling – it’s the whole world. I don’t like things this way. I don’t like them at all.”

“Then how about we fix it?”

Red shook his head. “Maggie, you know how I feel about you.”

“I do,” she said. “I think I do.”

“Okay. Good. But what you need to understand is that I don’t feel that way about anybody else. I can’t. I can’t go to the Box Social, I can’t have a good time at the café….That town drives me fucking bats, and I’d just as soon it was wiped right off the map.”

“You…what?” Maggie said, wide-eyed.

Red Rabbit stared downward, his ears drooping onto the table. “Tea and fucking cookies.”

“What?” Maggie said again.

“Maggie,” Oni said gently. “Maggie, let’s go.”

“What. What?”

Oni walked over to Maggie and tugged at her arm. After a moment or so, she rose slowly and allowed Oni to lead her to the rickety door. Maggie turned the knob and they stood in the open doorway. Oni looked over his shoulder.

“Red Rabbit,” he said, “You are the worst bunny I have ever met.”

Red Rabbit didn’t look up. “I’m not a bunny.”

~~~

Maggie and Oni stood outside the cabin. The rain had tapered off, but it was colder now and the wind still shook the trees. Overhead, fat silver clouds bustled past the sickly yellow moon.

“Maggie? Maggie, let’s go home,” Oni said. “We’ll think of something.”

“Red,” she said blankly.

“He was only trying to hurt you.”

It took a while to get her to leave. Maggie huddled by the shack, sobbing, her face hidden beneath her grimy hands. When she finally set out, her stride was slow and listless and Oni had no trouble keeping up.

After a time, Oni drifted to the edge of the creek, drawn by its polite burbling. He looked down into the water. Sallow moonlight puddled along the ripples. Gradually, he realized that he was talking to himself.

“You can’t…it’s not…”

Oni could hear the wet squelches of Maggie’s footsteps. He looked up and watched her shuffle indifferently down the path, slump-shouldered, defeated. The way she walked made his chest hurt.

A new feeling woke in Oni’s belly, a cold blue hatred that only Red Rabbit could have understood. For the first time, Oni yelled.

“Stop!” he cried. “Stop, Maggie! I have to – we have to go back so I can talk to him!”

Maggie turned. Even from here, Oni could hear her sobs. They were narrow, brittle things that cut his heart.

“What he said!” she wailed.

Oni went to her, reached up, and caught her hand. “No,” he said. “I won’t let him be like that. Come on.”

For one awful moment Oni thought Maggie would turn away, but then she scooped him up and carried him back to the shack, pressed like a bag of flour against her chest.

“Don’t go anywhere, please,” he said.

“Okay.”

~~~

Red Rabbit had not moved since Oni and Maggie left him sitting at the table.

“What?” he said, button eyes still downcast.

Oni shook. “How could you? The things you said! How can you let Maggie and the others be hurt! The town will burn!”

“You’re a fucking moron, Bean,” Red Rabbit said softly, and now he looked up. “What do you think the Licorice Men want?”

“They want eggs.”

“And what good are the eggs? Let the bastards have them.”

“Let them – They – the townspeople grew them in the patch. The Licorice Men didn’t grow them. For them to…it’s stealing!”

“Let me tell you something about the world. A long time back, there were people –”

“We’re all –”

“No!” snarled the rabbit. “Listen. There were real people. Not just dolls and fucking stuffed animals and toy trains. The people had their wars and hatred and feuds – all kinds of shit that wouldn’t make any sense to you. And they didn’t give a fuck about us.

“But their children – the littler people – loved us. They cared for us, and played with us. When I was young, I used to hate the way they would treat us. Always rough, always grabbing and shaking. But now that they’re gone, all we have is stupid squabbles over fucking eggs. It’s the way we work out our memories of their games.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t remember. But tell me something: Does what I’m saying sound made-up or does it sound like the truth?”

Now Red Rabbit rose and crossed to the shack’s single window. He stared out at Maggie for a time, then, without turning, said, “Maggie Doll is very special to me. I will kill anyone who tries to harm her, but I will not be a part of the madness out there. It’s a fucking farce.”

“But will you fight?” Oni asked.

Red Rabbit turned to glare at Oni. “Have you heard a goddamn word I’ve said?”

“Yes, but –”

“But you don’t understand,” Red Rabbit finished for him.

“Benjy Frog remembers children. He said, ‘you know children.’”

“But you don’t.”

“I pretended.”

Oni wavered for a moment, unsure what else to say. “It hurts you, the way things are, and that’s why you can’t come back to town.”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re not so bad. I’m sorry.”

“So am I. Will you…please. Try to explain things to Maggie for me.”

~~~

Oni walked beside Maggie, thinking hard. How could he convey what he’d learned? Red Rabbit’s story made Oni’s mouth taste bitter and he had the terrible feeling that he was missing something important.

“Maggie, wait,” he said.

The girl stopped and looked down at him. “He said no again, didn’t he?”

“He said – ” Oni began, then something grabbed Maggie and yanked her up into the trees.

Nothing could happen that fast: It was almost as if Oni had imagined it. He smelled the sweet wet aroma of liquorice, gagged. Then laughter rose from all sides, oiled and taunting and fierce, and Oni was too frightened even to tremble.

~~~

Oni Bean. Warn

them. Gotta warn

‘em. Hurry,

Oni! Oh, all those

poor, poor eggs!

Oni touched his forehead. Maggie. Where was Maggie? Something slick slithered through the undergrowth.

“Everybody’s gotta be fucking play-acting all the time.”

Somehow, Red Rabbit was by his side, but Oni couldn’t turn his head to look.

“Whatsamatter, assholes? You forget who lives here? You forget about old Red?”

Red was right next to Oni. Even so, he saw nothing, detected no movement. But something had made a zinging sound; there was a yelp from the greenery. A length of tail dropped from the canopy to hang among the lower branches. Twitching.

Red nudged Oni’s shoulder. “The fuck you waiting for?” he said. “Run.”

Oni ran, his head throbbing. There was no more laughter. All he could hear was the zing of sharp things flying through the air. He kept the sound of fighting at his back and ran without looking where he was going. Then he thought of Maggie and stopped running. He turned and stared, transfixed.

It was something to see. The way Red Rabbit went about his business was almost leisurely. He cleared one tree at a time, stubby arms moving so fast they looked like twirling windmills. Every time they blurred into motion, more Licorice Men fell down from up.

“Son of a bitch,” he heard Red Rabbit say, and there was a louder thump as something heavy fell to the ground. Red Rabbit’s arms dropped to his sides; his body sagged.

Oni wavered, then started back towards the rabbit. At some point – Oni didn’t know when – he broke into a run.

~~~

Maggie Doll lay gasping in the mud. There were red lines all across her chest – so many that Oni couldn’t read the words printed there. There was a thin slit in her belly and her stuffing was coming out.

But it’s all wrong, Oni thought. No stuffing looks like that.

Oni turned on Red Rabbit, his chest heaving in ragged rhythm. All of the sudden – quick cut – he found himself in motion, screaming as he threw himself at Red. They went down together.

Oni tore at Red Rabbit, but his mitts were too weak to part fabric. Red didn’t resist. He just waited for Oni to tire himself out. Finally, they lay still, holding one another, until Oni let go the rabbit to kneel in the mud.

“How could this happen?” he said.

Red didn’t answer right away. Over the long silence, Oni watched the rabbit’s face. He looked out toward the stream, up into the trees. Anywhere but at Maggie Doll.

At last, Red spoke. “They just sort of left. Maggie was the first one I’d seen in a long time.” His voice was calm, but Oni could hear the anguish beneath its surface. “There’s no one left to sew her up.”

He knelt beside Maggie and stroked her muddy hair. She was making small, moist noises.

When he spoke again, his voice had grown distant. “Their…their bodies are full of all sorts of odd things, and all of the parts do something, I think. Their stuffing does more than just fill the space.”

Oni just watched.

“Things were different when they were still around. We didn’t fight each other all the time. The War would never have happened if the people hadn’t gone away.”

Maggie Doll’s gasps came louder, closer together. Oni clapped his mitts over his ears. Something awful would happen if those sounds didn’t stop, but something awful would happen if they did.

After a space, Maggie lay quiet. Oni held his head and felt it expand until he thought it would fall right off his neck to roll in the mud.

Red was still talking, sometimes repeating himself. “For all we know, she’s the last one. It’s been years since I’ve seen another. I’d say she’s eight, maybe nine, but who can tell anymore?”

“You.” It was not an answer to Red Rabbit’s question. It was all Oni could think to say.

“You’d never even seen one before,” Red said and laughed a laugh that was not a laugh at all. “You thought she was one of us.”

Oni stared at Red until he became a series of shapes that could no longer be understood as a rabbit.

~~~

Word must have spread among the Licorice Men. Days passed with their sequence of darkness and light, and no attempt was made on the Valley. Snow came. Some nights, Oni would go walking in the forest. There, the Earth smelled of cold and waiting, and the trees rattled bare in the wind.

Red Rabbit had abandoned his shack by the creek after Maggie Doll died. Oni never encountered him on his walks, never found even a sign of him, but he knew with a certainty he couldn’t explain that Red Rabbit was somewhere near. Someone had to protect the dolls, the bears, the rag men and women. He hoped it was not just wishful thinking.

Oni stayed on in Maggie Doll’s house. Sometimes he smelled her and was comforted by her memory.

One night, after the snows had gone, Benjy Frog came to visit. He’d brought tea and cookies. Oni couldn’t remember when he’d had anything to eat or drink.

Benjy and Oni drank into the night, and as the tea and the lateness of the hour colluded to dull Oni’s thoughts, it became terribly important that he remember Maggie Doll to the frog.

“Do you think she was the last children?” he blurted as they sat at the kitchen table.

Sadness crumpled Benjy’s face and his only answer was a tired shrug.

Oni went on: “Our lives are – nothing’s changed. For – for us. What does that mean?”

“I dunno, kid,” Benjy said. “I guess we just have to get along.”

“Did they make us?”

“I think so, but I gotta say: I’m not so clear on that anymore.”

“I feel cut. I feel like stuffing should be leaking out of me everywhere.”

“I know,” Benjy said quietly. “Have another cup.”

Oni did. “I’m so…I’m so mad. The Licorice Men took something from me, and it was more than Maggie Doll, but I don’t know what it was.”

Benjy shook his head sadly. “Something passed from the world before you had a chance to understand its nature or, or, or, its beauty.”

“Yeah,” Oni agreed bitterly. “Yeah, maybe. More tea, please, Benjy.”

For a long while after their conversation, Oni dreamed Maggie every night, but over time her outline and features became less distinct. The words faded from her chest, arms, and back, and by the time the snows came again, Oni no longer remembered her face.

“Maggie Doll” by Alex Jennings originally appeared in Farthing 5, January 2007.

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