“The hundred-year old china doll’s head the sea
washes up on its gray beach. One would like to
know the story. One would like to make it up . . .”
— Charles Simic, from The World Doesn’t End
It’s February on the coast of Northwest Oregon. Rocks rise from beyond the surf like giant tumors. The moon is less than a slit in the evening sky’s blue-black fabric, and the clouds have burned away behind the brass horizon.
On the beach, wind pushes the last traces of water into bruise-shaped blotches in the sand. The day’s traffic has been erased. Crow’s feet and kid’s feet and hearts scraped with a stick. All gone. The beach wiped clean, except for one one pair of footprints. Fresh, deep, already filling with water. They begin at the beachgrass and wander south-west toward the fallen remains of a tree, half submerged in the sand. And on the dead tree, a girl. Or a young woman. Pink shoes with lacy socks. Her jeans are wet at the cuffs and sprinkled with sand. From her height, one might say she is sixteen, but from her face she is ageless — no pigtails, no French braid, no tight curls, no hair at all, and the eyebrows have faded into the white backdrop of her forehead.
She sits on the toppled tree, holding a china doll’s head in her hand. She found it caught in the tree’s rotting roots, and sat down to examine its face — a face without a nose, without eyes, and a smile as faint as the first stars at dusk. She looks at the face as if looking into a mirror, her back curved and leaning against the breeze — an invisible stream that has taken warmth from the south and carried it here to the tree and the girl. A wind, unnaturally gentle. Like a hand nudging the girl north, where the coast curves and the outline of beach houses begin to climb the cliffs. Or, she imagines, something similar to mother’s whispering voice tucking her child to bed.
And who would have whispered “goodnight” to this disembodied china doll’s head? It’s face is old but also not old. It has a child’s cheeks, an infant’s double chin. But what happened to the eyes? What happened to the nose? Did the stench of kelp and salt burn them away? And what did this child see in the end, before the eyes dissolved? Gray whales breaching? A school of tuna? And the smell? Snail slime and crab shell, surf and plankton?
The night is aging. Smoke begins to rise from the chimneys. The girl’s body gives itself to the wind, and with the doll’s head pressed close to her chest, she lies down on the waterlogged trunk, and listens to the doll’s head begin its story. One of it’s ten-thousand stories. The girl has time only for one. Just one, and not even to the end, before night overcomes them both and her eyes close and another story begins.