The bestselling author of The Paper Magician Series transports readers to a darkly whimsical world where strange magic threatens a quiet village that only a courageous woman can save.
Matrona lives in an isolated village, where her life is centered on pleasing her parents. She's diligent in her chores and has agreed to marry a man of their choosing. But a visit to Slava, the local tradesman, threatens to upend her entire life.
Entering his empty house, Matrona discovers a strange collection of painted nesting dolls—one for every villager. Fascinated, she can't resist the urge to open the doll with her father's face. But when her father begins acting strangely, she realizes Slava's dolls are much more than they seem.
When he learns what she's done, Slava seizes the opportunity to give Matrona stewardship over the dolls—whether she wants it or not. Forced to open one of her own dolls every three days, she falls deeper into the grim power of Slava's creations. But nothing can prepare her for the profound secret hiding inside the fifth doll.
Release date: July 25, 2017
Print pages: 253
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The Fifth Doll
Charlie N Holmberg
The chest was one of the finer things Matrona’s mother owned. Its sides were sanded and smooth, edges rounded, lid inlaid with an embroidered satin pillow trimmed with yellowing lace. Though the chest had sat, unmoved, at the foot of her parents’ bed all her life, Matrona could almost pretend it was a rescued treasure from a foreign land, owned by a lady who wore pearls, left behind when some great storybook monster kidnapped her from her balcony.
Matrona blinked the fancy away and ran her hand along the lace before opening the lid, selecting the chest’s cherished contents one by one, determining which of them she would make her own.
It was not her mother who knelt beside her on the rag-quilted rug, but her dear friend Roksana, who taught the nursery school near the center of the village. Matrona’s mother had not wanted to be in the room for the opening of the chest. “Too many memories,” she had said, shaking her head and retiring to the front room to sit in the splintering wicker chair.
“What’s that?” Roksana asked, pushing up onto her knees for a better view of the chest’s contents. Her round belly pressed into the corner of the chest, full with a child that would arrive any day now.
Matrona lifted the stretch of white satin from atop the treasures. “Just extra fabric.” She folded it and laid it beside her. Beneath the satin rested the kokoshnik from her mother’s wedding: a crown of stiff fabric with a bronze sheen, dozens of small silver beads stitched into the tall, looping coils. Folds of red satin fell from behind it, trimmed with tiny brown tassels.
Matrona held the kokoshnik in both hands. It was heavier than it looked. She tried to picture her mother young, her hair as dark as Matrona’s and elaborately braided, her cheeks pinched red, and this headdress pressed over her hairline. The image quickly warped to Matrona herself.
I’m getting married, she thought, tucking the ends of her hair behind each ear—the short bits that did not fit into her braid. Marriage was the one thing that would finally mark her as an adult to her parents, as age never had. The ceremony couldn’t come soon enough. Her own father would perform it. There was no priest in the village, but her father was well versed in the Good Book, and under the eyes of God, that was authority enough.
“Oh, try it on!” Roksana urged, and when Matrona hesitated, her friend snatched the kokoshnik from her hands and pushed the headpiece over Matrona’s forehead, arranging it to her liking before sitting back and examining her work.
“Well?” Matrona asked. It fit well, at least.
“The colors are perfect for you.” Roksana’s smile turned sly as she added, “Feodor will think so, too.”
Matrona chuckled and pulled off the kokoshnik, setting it carefully beside her. “I’m sure Feodor doesn’t care what color my headdress is.” Her engagement to the butcher had been settled last week, and her parents couldn’t be more thrilled. Matrona wasn’t sure if the thrill came from Feodor’s family esteem or from the fact that, at twenty-six, Matrona was well past marrying age, as her mother often reminded her. Needless to say, it would be a short engagement.
Roksana’s slender fingers danced along the edge of the chest. “What else?”
Matrona pulled free a twine-wrapped package and carefully loosed its knots, opening the thick paper to reveal her mother’s wedding dress. It was a long, traditional gown of off-white, with bronze stitching trailing from collar to hem to match the headdress. The dress, too, was heavier than expected. Matrona stood and held the gown up to her shoulders, relieved to see it would fit, though she had always pictured herself marrying in a gown trimmed with black and red.
Roksana stood as well. “Oh, it’s so pretty. I wish my mama had kept hers.”
Roksana shrugged. “Even she doesn’t know what became of it. Try on the gown!”
“Not right now. I’ve chores yet to do.” Matrona smoothed out the fabric of the skirt.
Roksana rolled her eyes and took the dress from her, folding it.
Kneeling at the chest, Matrona picked through more items—a pair of shoes that would certainly be too small for her, a christening dress, a silver crucifix on a chain, a small wooden rattle. Near the bottom of the chest, she found a carefully sewn rag doll the length of her forearm, one that matched the style of the doll she had so often played with as a child, though this one had lighter hair and oval eyes instead of round, with a simple brown dress instead of blue.
Matrona lifted the doll and ran her thumb over the embroidered face, identifying it at once as the reason her mother had chosen to stay in the front room.
“Esfir’s.” She combed her nails through the doll’s yarn hair.
Roksana set the folded wedding gown on the bed and sat on the floor. “Your sister?”
Matrona nodded, turning the doll over once, twice, in her hands. The doll had been made for her younger sister. Mother must have finished it just before her sister disappeared, a mystery no one in the village had ever solved. A newborn babe, only three days old, cannot merely walk away or become lost in the wood, and no wrongdoers had stolen her, unless someone had found a way to hide a growing child in their small village, undiscovered for twenty years. Esfir had simply vanished, or so Matrona had been told. She had been six years old at the time.
Matrona studied the doll. Her mother would have put it into the chest when it became clear Esfir wasn’t coming home. The carefully sewn toy had never been used, yet it still showed signs of age—fading in the dress, stiffness to the thread that held the patterned pieces of its body together. Matrona blinked at the sadness of it, this doll that had lived her entire existence inside a wooden box, never to be played with, forced to be content with what destiny her maker had given her.
Lifting her head, Matrona glanced at the wooden walls of her parents’ bedroom, a sluggish thought transforming it. The room itself became a giant chest at the end of a giant bed, the floorboards beneath the rag rug morphed into fingers that held her just as she held this doll.
Your foolish imagination is playing tricks on you again, she thought to herself. It was exactly what her mother would have said to her. She returned the doll to the box.
“I’ve never seen knit socks so small.” Roksana reached into the nearly empty chest to retrieve a pair. Her other hand went to her belly. “Did you wear these?”
Matrona shrugged. “I couldn’t possibly remember if I did.” She gathered her finds, restored the piece of satin to cover the doll and the other remaining contents, and returned the lid to the chest. “I’ll have to be very careful pressing the wrinkles from this dress.”
“I’ll help you when the time comes.” Roksana stood and brushed off the skirt of her sarafan. “But don’t even think of handling it after muddying up with those cows.”
Matrona laughed. “You sound like my mother.”
Roksana sobered. “Not funny.”
Picking up the pile of wedding items, Matrona gestured to the bedroom door with a tilt of her chin, and Roksana hurried ahead to open it for her. Voices ahead drew her attention, though they were too quiet for her to make out. Curiosity beckoned her toward them.
The wooden walls of the modest front room were decorated with a few pieces of framed embroidery and a simple weaving of the Virgin Mary. Her father’s writing table was pushed into the corner, her mother’s old wicker chair near it. The brick stove sat cool in the opposite corner, touched by a glint of late-morning sunlight from the window—sunlight interrupted by the shoulder of their visitor, Feodor Popov.
It was not a childish thrill that filled Matrona at the sight of her betrothed, but rather a wave of self-consciousness, of wondering, Why me? and What will he be like? Theirs would be a slow-burning romance, if there was to be romance at all. Deep down, she prayed there would be.
He was speaking to her father, who looked up and noticed her first, followed by her mother. Realizing she still held the wedding clothes, Matrona flushed and quickly shoved the marriage things into Roksana’s arms. Her friend, God bless her, wordlessly hurried back down the hall to Matrona’s small room to hide the items away.
Again Matrona tucked those short hairs behind her ears and straightened her bodice. Before she could speak, Feodor noticed her parents’ line of sight and turned around. The sunlight made his pale hair appear lighter and slightly red, which made his blue eyes bluer and his dark brows darker. Feodor was tall but slight of frame, and he stood with an erectness that looked almost painful.
“Ah, Matrona.” He gave her a slight smile and stiff nod of his head. It was then that Matrona noticed the ceramic jug in his hand and the weighted satchel in her father’s. Feodor was here for an exchange.
“Three pounds of beef today,” he said in answer to her unspoken question.
“Yes, Matrona.” Her mother’s sharp eyes focused on her. A few wisps of dark hair peeked out from her mother’s head scarf. “Fetch some milk for the Popovs. Don’t leave dear Feodor waiting.” She took the jug from Feodor’s hand and hurried across the room in small steps. “Best of the cream, now,” she said a little quieter as she shoved the vessel into Matrona’s arms. It was unremarkable other than the depiction of a rearing white horse on its front.
“Yes, Mama.” Matrona took the jug and stepped into the small back hallway that opened to the yard where the milk cows were stabled. The door was cracked open to let in the sweet morning air. Two layers of rug covered the floor, their tight braids stained with soil from outside. Multiple shelves lined the hallway, some stacked with tools, some with the barrels that held the milk. In a cellar the milk would last a few days, but there was never a need to store it there. Matrona’s family was the only one in the village that kept milking cows, and these barrels were always empty by sunset, even with the evening milking.
Holding Feodor’s jug against one hip, Matrona tapped the barrel to let the milk flow. It poured so easily, taking the shape of the spout as it would take the shape of the jug, doing as she wanted without complaint, without hiccup. It splattered against the bottom of the jug, wetting her sleeve with a few drops. Less than a mouthful dared to splash away.
Coolness on her hip pulled her attention down to a growing stain on her dress. She pinched her breath against her tongue—the jug was leaking. After fumbling to cork the barrel’s bunghole, she scrambled about the shelves to search for another vessel. She found an empty pail, shook her mother’s charm from it—bad luck to carry an empty pail about—and dumped the collected milk into it. Clicking her tongue, Matrona grabbed a rag and scrubbed her red skirt. It would dry clear, but stiff. She’d need to wash it tonight.
Feeling her parents’ impatience as a worm wriggling against the back of her neck, Matrona filled the milk pail and finished it with cream from the top of the barrel before carrying it with practiced balance back into the front room, the handle of the damaged jug looped through her free fingers.
“My apologies, Feodor,” she said, interrupting whatever conversation the trio had been wrapped in, “but your jug is leaking.”
Feodor sighed. “I’m not surprised. It’s been repaired too many times to count.”
Frowning through his long beard, Matrona’s father folded his arms. “I’m not one to question the work of a Maysak, but it may need to be replaced.”
Her mother’s eyes brightened. “Oh yes, it should be. Look at those cracks! And don’t worry yourself, Feodor. Matrona will see you a new one right away. Won’t you, Matrona? My daughter looks after her own.”
She punctuated the statement with another sharp glare.
Breathing in a sigh that desperately wanted to escape her lips, Matrona set the pail down. “But of course, if you wish it, Feodor.”
A smile spread on Feodor’s mouth, but it did not show his teeth. “That would do well for me. I can see already the dedicated wife you will be.”
Matrona smiled; her mother beamed. With a slight curtsy, Matrona said, “If you’ll excuse me,” and slipped out of the house, the conversation between betrothed and parents resuming before she’d even shut the door. A busy day she’d have, for her father would certainly push her to finish the chores despite the time it would take to procure a new jug. She’d likely be the one to fetch it once it was kilned, as well.
Outside, she allowed a sigh to pass through her lips. It mixed with the warm breeze as she started down the dirt path that wound through the village, making her way to the pottery. The late-morning sun twinkled between the leaves of the oaks and aspens that formed the nearby wood, dotted occasionally with twisting hornbeams and thick linden trees. The wild grasses grew thick between the trees and the other izbas that housed Matrona’s neighbors, scenting the air with green. Roksana’s voice called out her name, and she turned to see her friend taking a fork in the path behind Matrona, heading toward her own home. Matrona offered an apologetic wave. With the distraction of the jug, she’d forgotten Roksana was in her room.
As Matrona passed the cooper and the path that led to the glade where the children so liked to play, she heard faint peals of laughter echoing from the wood. She walked around the Grankins’ small potato farm and the knitting shop owned by the Demidov family. The church bell rang; Alena Zotov, Roksana’s mother-in-law, must have been starting her women’s scripture meeting.
The path stretched long and straight for a ways after that, and Matrona lifted her eyes when the tradesman’s home came into view. Though it had sat in its little nook against the wood all her life, Matrona never tired of admiring it.
Slava Barinov’s home was by far the grandest in the village, and most certainly the brightest. Its yellow siding was heavily trimmed in blue, complemented by blue shutters and blue cornices. Twisting columns of wood held up a small, ornate portico over the door, and the two steps leading to it were vivid red brick, perhaps purchased during one of Slava’s expeditions. The nalichniki around the attic windows, for the home stood two stories, curled about themselves like bubbling candy. Small blue tiles scaled the roof, making it look almost dragon-like. The edges of the tiles glimmered in the sunlight. Matrona almost expected the portico to rise from the earth and turn to look at her, blinking at her with sleepy glass eyes, but the home remained rooted as it was built, and within a few breaths, Matrona had left it behind.
Matrona’s path soon curved around the second half of the village, for Slava’s home sat at its midpoint. It wasn’t until she saw the smoke puffing from the pottery’s chimney that her stomach clenched within her, and her fingers grew clammy around the cracked jug’s handle.
She pressed fingertips into her belly in an attempt to calm it and raised her chin a little higher to convince herself of her nonchalance. The Maysaks were a large family who ran both the brewery and the pottery, and more than one of its sons molded clay for the village. It was frequently Viktor who ran the pottery while his sisters tended to old Mad Olia, their mother. It would be Viktor she’d see, she assured herself, and the exchange would be brief. Before she knew it, she’d be on her way home to do her chores and speak soft words to Feodor in exchange for his—and her mother’s—favor.
The pottery sat behind the Maysak izba, where Afon Maysak, head of the household, sipped at a bottle of some sort of spirits, as he always did. Pulling her eyes from him, Matrona focused on her task. The pottery was built like a barn, with two wide doors that opened into the workshop, not so different from the barn in the cow pasture. As Matrona approached, she could feel the heat of the kiln tickling the air. The scent of clay clung to her nostrils and the back of her throat.
Viktor was there as expected, his hands gloved as he shoved a long-handled paddle into the kiln burning in the back of the shop. Yet so was he. Her eyes easily spotted the youngest Maysak brother, Jaska, closer to the front of the pottery, his hands and arms stained up to his elbows as he separated a mound of gray clay from a bundled chunk and threw it down onto the center of a potter’s wheel. Bits of clay stained his long apron as well, and a smudge traced one side of his shaven jaw. His hair, which always looked unkempt, stuck to his temples with perspiration.
Matrona found her gaze measuring the broadness of his shoulders, and she forced herself to look away, pressing the thoughts back into the dark spots of her mind, calling herself silly and odd, even a little sick in the head. Matrona was an upright woman, and engaged to be married to a fine man. Not only that, but Jaska Maysak was seven years her junior, only nineteen years of age. She needn’t have reminded herself that she used to tend him when he was a child and his mother’s illness had left her bedridden. By all means, Matrona was more an elder sister to him than anything else. It was foolhardy for her to notice him the way she did. The way she had for nearly two years.
He looked up, his dark eyes finding hers, and her stomach rekindled its unease, making her too warm and light-headed.
Jaska wiped his hands off on his apron before approaching. “Matrona! I apologize for not seeing you.”
She smiled—an easy, innocent smile. “I only just arrived.”
He glanced at the jug in her hand. “A repair?”
She hefted the jug. “I was hoping for a remake, actually. I fear this one has been repaired too many times.”
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