by Olivia Loccisano
The rats were everywhere. Filling the corners. Within the walls. Every crevice and orifice that made up that house was filled with at least one rat or its droppings. Their overpowering presence came about a year before The Mother had gotten sick, like some sort of marsupial foreshadowing. Mousetraps were placed around the house in attempt to exterminate the creatures, but with the breeding practices of rats being as swift as they are, their legacy continued to multiply and thrive parasitically and silently. The Mother had taken care of her precious Hannah since the day she knew the child was inside of her. Now, confined to the parameters of her bed, The Mother was too ill to nurture. Hannah feared the outcome of The Mother’s predicament and to see her so pale and meek. The young girl existed in a dichotomy where she loathed being at home but wanted to be there every time she left. On the one hand, she hated the constant rats by her feet, but on the other, being at home meant that she could be by The Mother’s side. She would play for hours with her greatest treasures, her Pocket Princesses—a collection of toys that were found in the boxes of the sugary crown shaped cereal, Medieval Q’s. There were five Pocket Princesses in total: the beloved Princess herself with long golden tresses that ran down her back; her armoured warrior, the Dame; her literary compatriot, the Scrivener; her loyal servant, the Page; and her cheerful jester, Jane Foole. Each doll was tiny—no taller than Hannah’s nine-year-old index finger.
Every Medieval Q’s cereal box contained one Pocket Princess toy, which would come with the doll’s corresponding room in the castle which was made when you folded the cereal box. Once a child accumulated all five dolls and cereal boxes, they could follow the instructions as to where to fold creases and corners and would have a whole castle in which the Pocket Princesses would live. But, you could not make a full castle until you had all five dolls of the royal court. The hardest Pocket Princess to collect was the Princess, herself, for she was the rarest. When trading her, she was worth all four other toys.
It’s all that sugary cereal that’s causing the rats, The Mother would protest to Hannah, refusing to buy anymore boxes. Hannah and her classmates, who had the characters she did not, would play together in a makeshift castle with pencil cases and desks and go on journeys together. So far, Hannah owned two of the characters—the Dame and the Page. She kept the empty cereal boxes in her room and played. Girls would trade the dolls at school, but no one would trade with Hannah. Everyone already had the Dame and the Page.
Father Gregory was helpful. He was The Mother’s older twin brother by seven minutes, The priest would sit at The Mother’s bedside, playing and singing gentle Christian songs on his guitar for her and Hannah to listen. The Mother told Hannah many times that her illness was caused by God for her sin of having Hannah without a father. When The Mother got sick, Father Gregory would come to the house a few times a week to pray for her, make her food, give her medicine, and clean the house. The sicker The Mother would get; the more visits Father Gregory would make. He had a giant chest filled with concoctions he would use to cure The Mother. Hannah was never allowed in this coffer because it contained his holy instruments. Father Gregory kept the trunk locked. There was a small gap between the lock and the inside of the chest, and Hannah would constantly bend down, wrinkle her curious eye to try to look inside in vain. She liked the chicken soups Father Gregory would make for The Mother, thinking how kind it was of him to ask God to make her better. Hannah liked Father Gregory’s warm smile; it was one she imagined a grandfather might have. She liked his glasses, which were always kind of foggy in one of the lenses. She liked the smell of his cigars, which he would light every night. Hannah loved watching how he would light the tip of his cigar with such ease and precision as though lighting it entailed no separate movements but was one seamless and sweeping motion. She did not like how Father Gregory scowled upon her Pocket Princesses. Hannah became annoyed the more he would come over, whenever he saw her playing with them, telling her that each doll used to be a little girl who committed too many sins that God cursed into a pint-sized toy.
One morning, Hannah heard bells coming from The Mother’s room and Father Gregory calling to her. He sat Hannah down on the bed with The Mother where he took a little container from his trunk that looked like a grenade. He held it over The Mother’s body and waved it up and down from her head to her toes, as steam came out along with a musty smell that hurt Hannah’s nose, and unintelligible chants which hurt Hannah’s ears. The Mother opened her eyelids and moved her nearly translucent arm around Hannah who kept her eyes lowered at the blue veins under The Mother’s skin. Father Gregory is giving me the sacrament of the sick, she said. This is what priests give mommies and daddies when God is ready to take them to Heaven. You are not ready to go to Heaven, Hannah bellowed, and The Mother turned to Hannah in the same countenance she recognized when she was in trouble, so Hannah stopped. When the sacrament was over, in rigid staccato movements, The Mother reached for the shelf above her, her hands stretching higher than Hannah had ever seen them stretch since before she was ill, and from the shelf she presented a cereal box of Medieval Q’s. Mommy, Hannah exclaimed, thanking her in bursts of excitement. Her little hands tore the box apart and she dug her fingers down and searched until she felt a tiny hard piece of plastic. Hannah clutched it tightly, and pulled it out, adrenaline rushing through her body which flatlined when she saw the face of the Dame. What is it, The Mother asked, What’s wrong? Hannah remained quiet, hiding her disappointment from The Mother. Maybe she could trade it with one of the girls at school. Nothing is wrong, Mommy, Hannah said, and The Mother smiled. Hannah appreciated the gesture, but wanted the Scrivener, Jane Foole, and most of all, the Princess. Hannah felt anger with The Mother for not listening to her about which of the characters she had and didn’t have. One week later, The Mother was dead.
The weeks following her death, the rat predicament became worse. Hannah began finding the droppings in sealed bags of bread which would cause her to scream and avert her from eating for the remainder of the day. She would go to school, putting the second Dame in her pocket, hoping someone would trade her for it. No one wanted to trade for the Dame and she felt stupid for even thinking this. One day a new girl from Syria joined her class who many of her classmates made fun of for not speaking English very well. Hannah traded the Dame with her for the Scrivener. When Hannah arrived home, she would be greeted by Father Gregory who was now there every day to take care of Hannah.
The biggest change since The Mother’s death for the girl, other than feeling more alone, was that she had to hide playing with her Pocket Princesses because Father Gregory no longer allowed this. She used to play with them in the kitchen, feeling her stomach twist as she smelled the scent of his post-lunch cigar, a signal that it was time for Hannah to do a guided Bible reading. She knew now to remain playing in her room and to keep the Pocket Princesses under her bed where Father Gregory could not see them. Hannah loved making up and acting out stories with the dolls. They would do going on adventures to save princes and fight malicious people. Hannah’s hands would get clammy whenever she would hear Father say, These idols you play with are nothing but little sinners, Hannah, reminding her over and over that the dolls were real girls who had been frozen forever as toys by God for committing sins. What sins? Hannah asked one time, and Father Gregory said they could have done anything from telling a lie or not listening to their parents.
One night Hannah woke up with scratches on her arms. Little dots all over her belly and body. A gentle tapping on her door, like a fingernail being run up and down porcelain, caused Hannah to sit up. Father Gregory came in and sat on her bedside, looking at her, his left lens half fogged and smelling like cigars. Father, Hannah said, The rats are biting my body. We need to get rid of them. Father Gregory agreed and pulled out a can from inside his cassock. Holding it under Hannah’s nose caused the girl to shriek in disgust, feeling as though she would vomit. It’s rat poison, he said, assuring the fearful child that this would solve the problem. Hannah nodded; the smell still trapped in the hairs of her nose. Father Gregory then told Hannah he would be right back and returned with a chalice that smelled of vinegar. He placed it by Hannah’s lips. It is the blood of Jesus, he said, This is going to heal the bites on your arms and tummy. Hannah took one sip but then gasped back in revulsion at what tasted to her like dark liquified wood. Father Gregory insisted she drink more. For a moment, Hannah thought about what he had said regarding girls who don’t listen to God or their mommies, and to her surprise, this frightened her enough to drink more until the cup was completely empty. Father Gregory melted into a big smile. Hannah watched as the sides of his smile became higher and higher on his face. She felt as though she was under water, but her muscles were relaxed. Hannah felt her eyeballs become dryer and her eyelids become heavier, tilting her head back, seeing shots of black intercut with the ceiling fan spinning above her, until she saw nothingness. She felt Father Gregory’s hands on her belly where the bites were; her arms; her toes, up her legs, her thighs and in between her. Hannah felt his fingers and tongue which was the last thing she remembered before jolting up and puking over the side of the bed. She saw Father Gregory staring at the pile of puke on the floor. She then went into a deep sleep.
Stiffness. Cold. Hard. Plastic. Hannah’s limbs squeak as she wakes in darkness. She opens her eyes wide, and though her pupils are working hard to dilate, she cannot see anything. Frightened, she tries to use her other senses. She smells an intense saccharinity around her, but she cannot bend or move. In this fear, Hannah pushes her body forwards and backwards and thrusts it with force. She feels herself slowly loosening in her surroundings and with the seventh push forward, Hannah falls out of a box of Medieval Q’s and onto the cold kitchen floor where she is ten sizes too small and made of plastic. Hannah loves how shiny her new skin is and how even her pajamas have shrunk with her. The young girl walks to her room and underneath her bed with she fits without the slightest hesitation. This is where she sees the Dame, Scrivener, the Page, who warmly greet her. Even without the complete pack of five, or their castle, the little dolls have the most fun together. The Dame takes Hannah on an adventure to slay a family of rats, while the Page cleans her sword after battle and makes it so shiny, she can see her reflection. Hannah and the Dame tell their tale of battle and bravery to the others while the Scrivener transcribes the story so it will never be forgotten. Hannah’s ecstatic journey ends in the morning when she awakes, no longer as a doll, but as a girl three months shy of her tenth birthday.
Most evenings, Hannah would sip the magic drink from Father Gregory, and each time, she would emerge in the night as a Pocket Princess where her nights would be filled with adventure and fun. One nightfall, Father Gregory said he had another surprise for her. Hannah waited as he put his hand once again beneath his cassock out a clasped hand. Hannah screamed when the priest opened his fist, eyeing the jester’s ball and hat. Jane Foole, Hannah smiled, and embraced Father Gregory and thanked him immensely. Then, as always, she drank the potion, felt Father’s touch, and fell asleep.
That same night, Hannah’s little plastic stomach hurt from laughing so much as the Scrivener read the story of Hannah and the Dame’s battle, and Jane Foole dramatized it into a comedy. Speaking in riddle, Jane Foole told Hannah that it was time for the Princess. We still need the Princess, all of the dolls said to her, We are nothing but a bunch of homeless dolls playing dress-up without her.
It was about a month later, still with no Princess, that Jane Foole brought Hannah to The Mother’s room. She walked her to Father Gregory’s chest which now towered over her in size. Jane Foole pointed to the exposed space between the lock and the inside and smiled at Hannah. Hannah gripped each the ornamentation on the chest to climb up until she reached the little opening and slid inside. Within the chest, she looked at Father’s holy instruments, The Mother’s pill bottles, catheter, and boxes of her favourite chicken soup mix. But it was the smell that caused Hannah’s fury. There was no confusing the distinct, foul smell that encompassed her. It was the smell of the poison she had smelled so many months before. Moving her fixed arms as quickly as she could, she rummaged through the chest’s items and twisted open one of The Mother’s pill bottles. Sticking her head in, she gave a whiff and felt once again as though she would vomit. Clasping a pill capsule in her hand, she opened it in half and watched the greenish specs of obscene-smelling poison fall out of the capsule and onto her bare feet. Rat poison in The Mother’s pills. Hanna’s face grew so hot that she was afraid, now that she was plastic, she would melt. But she continued to open each pill, every tampered capsule waterfalling the vulgar and venomous ingredients. It was before the next morning that Hannah had a plan to poison Father Gregory. She would take some rat poison from the chest every night, hiding under her bed until she had enough to kill him.
Hannah would collect the poison night after night when she was small enough to fit in the chest, clasping the poison by handfuls carrying it under her bed. When the Dame, Scrivener, and Jane Foole decided to help, this made the collection a lot faster and in less than two weeks, Hannah figured she had enough to kill the man. Hannah began to enjoy her time as a human less, and her time as a doll more—so much so that she would sometimes find herself looking forward to Father Gregory visiting her at night where she drank the vinegary red wood liquid. She began to arrange the cereal box pieces to create the castle, even though it would not be completed. The castle contained the Paige’s kitchen where she would cook; the Dame’s stable where she would take care of her horses, the Scrivener’s study where she would write letters, and Jane Foole’s courtyard, where she would entertain. Even without all the pieces of the castle, Hannah felt like she had more feelings of wholeness when she began to make the set. She stopped worrying about finding the cherished Princess and focused more on her plan to kill the priest.
Hannah admired her castle, which housed every doll in her perspective room. Even though she was missing the Princess and her throne room, putting the castle together gave Hannah a new sense of pride in the toys and in herself. Her admiration of the castle was cut short when the child felt a blow to her head as Father Gregory stormed in and began to holler. I told you not to go into my chest, he roared so closely to her that Hannah had to hold her breath from the smell of cigars. In what seamed like a matter of a frenzied second, the priest stepped on her unfinished castle and whipped away each Pocket Princess, swearing to Hannah that she would never lay eyes on any one of the toys again.
He had already locked himself in The Mother’s room when Hannah began pounding on the door, crying an ear-splitting tantrum. When her lungs became sore from not receiving a response, she pressed her back to the door and let her bottom slide down like molasses to the floor where she gently knocked the back of her head on the entrance. She heard the crackling drag of the cigar with the accompanied hazy smell as Father Gregory began to smoke inside the room. Walking to her bedroom, Hannah knelt under her bed and gathered a handful of the poison into a crayon box. She walked to the kitchen stove where Father Gregory kept his match box. She took the box and carried it to The Mother’s locked room where she saw a line of light coming from beneath the door, still sensing Father Gregory’s burning cigar. It took her six tries to light the match, but when it worked, it was remarkable. The luminosity was stronger than any glow Hannah had ever seen. She emptied the contents of the crayon box onto the floor. In one seamless and sweeping motion, the young girl delicately flung the lit match onto the rat poison where the flames instantly erupted and permeated like a cancer.
Hannah ran through the kitchen and out of her house until she was on the road looking directly at it. She watched as the windows filled up with fire and smoke. Even though the crackling was loud, and she was quite far away, she could hear the intermittent painful coughs and aching screams of Father Gregory. She could not find it within herself to take her eyes away off the burning home, even as firemen came to pull her away.
Once the flames have taken the house completely, Hannah feels herself shrinking smaller and smaller. Her skin begins to harden, and her joints tighten. This time, Hannah emerges in the castle, with long golden tresses that run down her back. The coveted and happy Princess panics for a moment. What if, she worries, What if when I wake up I am a girl again? Then, like a current of quietude, a stream of calmness runs through her as she remembers what Father Gregory used to say, realizing that she will never have to worry about being Hannah again. A little girl who did a very bad sin would remain frozen as a doll forever; confined within the cardboard walls of her castle for eternity.
About the Author
Olivia Loccisano is a writer and filmmaker from Toronto, Canada. Her work centers around transformations of the body, specifically through dark fantasy, body horror and magical realism. Through storytelling, she explores how young women and children navigate strange realms of life through their own imagination and rituals.