Originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue #18, June 2020
*Finalist for the British Science Fiction Association Award, Best Short Fiction
*Finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, Best Short Fiction
“Je m’appelle Ralia,’ said the girl beside Celine for the umpteenth time, “Je suis Nigerianne. Je suis une fille, comme toi.”
Celine ignored her, put a finger to her tongue to wet it and turned over the page she was reading. Of course she wasn’t really reading, but not for lack of trying. Her eyes glazed over the page, the words a blur of black. She wondered why her mother thought she could ever be friends with this girl. This girl who kept introducing herself over and over, undaunted by Celine’s coldness towards her, determined to make her acquaintance. She looked across the park to where her mother sat, chatting animatedly with her friend in rapid Yoruba, and wondered when she would be done. Celine was bored already, and wanted to go home.
“Je m’appelle Ralia –” the girl called Ralia began, but Celine was having none of it.
“Just shut up!” she snapped and stood up to leave.
“Wait!” Ralia cried, gripping Celine’s arm, “don’t leave.”
Celine turned to look at her, eyes flashing with annoyance. “So you speak English.’
“Yes,” said Ralia.
“But you keep speaking French to me,’ said Celine, a little bewildered, “and the same words.”
Ralia shrugged sheepishly. “We’re in Paris,” she mumbled, “If I knew you didn’t understand French –”
“I understand French.” Celine cut in.
“But you don’t reply to me.”
Celine cocked her brows. “That’s because I wasn’t interested in talking to you.”
They stood there in silence for a few moments, and Celine realized with a start that this was the first time she had really looked at Ralia. She had long beautiful lashes, her hair collected in twin braids.
Ralia’s eye lit up. “Do you want to be friends? I can do things. Interesting things. We’ll have so much fu –”
Celine screwed up her nose. “No. I don’t need friends –”
“Yes, you do,” said Ralia, taking Celine’s hands in hers, and there was something about the way their hands fit that was perfect, as though they were made for each other. Celine liked it. She didn’t want to withdraw her hands as she was wont to do when in contact with strangers. Yes, she needed friends. Yes, she was lonely. That was why her mother introduced her to Ralia, a good fine black girl who was Nigerian and would understand her. And there was something about Ralia …
“Ok,” she said finally, “let’s be friends.”
They became fast friends, Ralia and Celine. They became sisters. You could almost always find them hand in hand, skipping down the streets of Paris and singing their favourite song. They wore each other’s clothes, braided each other’s hair and slept in the same bed, hugging each other tightly. Celine’s parents were immensely pleased. Her father (who was French and owned his own bakery) delighted her and Ralia with sweets and other confectionaries whenever he returned from work – much to the chagrin of her mother (who was Nigerian and curated a book salon) who argued that he was spoiling them too much.
“Non, ma cherie,” he would reply, “let them be as happy as they can be.”
One chilly autumn evening, Celine lay in her bed reading her favourite book, while Ralia skipped on the bed until she was exhausted and finally flopped down next to Celine.
“What are you reading?’ she asked, peering over Celine’s shoulder.
“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”
“Oh,” said Ralia, falling back to the bed, “I’ve read that a thousand times.”
Celine grunted in reply, engrossed in the book. She enjoyed the bright illustrations in this edition, and was particularly fascinated with the hideous hump on Quasimodo’s back.
Ralia, seeing that she was being ignored, reached over and snatched the book, jumping off the bed before Celine could snatch it back.
“Give it back!” Celine cried, springing off the bed.
“No,” said Ralia, “it’s a stupid book.”
“It’s NOT a stupid book!” Celine cried in defiance.
“Yes. It. Is,’ said Ralia, sticking out her tongue. “You’ve read it several times already.”
“So have you,” Celine countered.
Ralia gave a sugary smile. “You don’t see me reading it now, do you?”
“I don’t care!” Celine cried, and she lunged for Ralia. But Ralia was faster; she opened the window and threw out the book. They both watched it draw a parabola in the overcast sky, the wind ripping its pages like a savage dog, before it dropped down in bits and pieces to the Parisian streets below.
Celine screamed, a familiar rage rising up in her. She charged at Ralia who was laughing. She scratched her, yanked at her hair, kicked her, and screamed so loudly that both her parents broke into the room, their faces masks of worry.
“Celine – CELINE!”
But there was no reasoning with her. Her father lifted her easily with one arm, and it was not until her mother threatened to smack her to the sky and back that she grew calm and stopped thrashing. Ralia lay on the floor, a battered, trembling heap. She hadn’t protected herself at all, she hadn’t even fought back. Celine hung limply in her father’s hands, coming slowly to her senses, wondering if the book was worth so much that it caused her to violently attack her friend.
Celine watched her mother rush over to Ralia’s aid. She gently guided her into a sitting position and brushed the tangles of her hair away from her face. Ralia’s face was barely recognizable; it was swollen and streaked with blood where Celine had scratched her.
“Jesu Christi,” said her mother.
“Mon Dieu,” echoed her father.
“I’m sorry,” said Celine in a small voice. She wriggled free of her father’s grip and went over to Ralia. She stretched out a hand – to help, to comfort, she didn’t know – but Ralia flinched away, shrinking into the wall and the curtains, and it was a knife through Celine’s heart.
“I want to go home,” sobbed Ralia. “I want to go home.”
Celine did not see Ralia for two weeks and she very nearly went mad. She hung out in their favourite park in the hopes that Ralia would come skipping so she could apologize profusely to her. But Ralia never showed up. It struck Celine as odd that in the several months they had known each other, she had never been to Ralia’s house. She didn’t even know who her parents were, or what school she went to. She begged her mother, who had introduced her to Ralia, for her address. Surely she would know. But her mother merely pursed her lips and shook her head and said, “When Ralia’s ready to see you, she’ll show herself.’
Her father still brought her sweets and cookies every day from work, but now that Ralia was not here to share them with her, Celine had absolutely no appetite for them. Once, as she walked down the street with her mother, she caught sight of Ralia dancing and skipping merrily to the tunes of a street saxophonist. Celine let go of her mother’s hand and raced to her friend, sweeping her up in a crushing hug.
“Oh Ralia, Ralia! I’m so happy to see you! I’m sorry –!”
“Qui es-tu?” asked the girl, flustered, “Qui es Ralia?”
It wasn’t Ralia. The tears came unbidden to her eyes, and Celine stood there in the middle of the street. Her mother’s firm but gentle hand pulled her away from the bewildered girl and saxophonist. She led Celine to the railing overlooking the River Seine below.
“I do believe you’ve learnt your lesson, Celine,” she said softly, wiping the tears that coursed down Celine’s cheeks, “it doesn’t matter what has been done to you – never ever lash out like that. We’re not animals, thank God, so we shouldn’t behave like one.’
“I know, mama,” said Celine, “but where is Ralia? I want to apologize.”
“I will speak to her father,” said her mother, “I’m sure Ralia would love to see you too.”
That night, as Celine rocked herself to sleep, she heard her door open and caught a whiff of Ralia’s familiar scent. She sprang out of the bed and swept Ralia up in a hug. She held her at arm’s length to study her face; the scratch marks were still there, and though they were healing, they would leave black marks across her face once they had healed completely. A wave of guilt washed over Celine.
“I’m sorry, Ralia! I’m so sorry sorry sorry –”
“It’s fine,” said Ralia, “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have thrown out your book. I was stupid –”
“No, I was stupid! I shouldn’t have –”
“No, I was –”
They burst out laughing. A warm feeling of contentment spread over Celine.
“Look, I bought you a new one.” Ralia produced a gift pack from the folds of her skirt and withdrew from it a sparkling new copy of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
They fell asleep in each other’s arms.
By the next morning, under the bright rays of the sun, Celine could see that Ralia was limping. It was a slight limp, barely noticeable, but it was there alright. Celine initially decided to ignore it, but as the day progressed, Ralia’s limp became even more pronounced, so that she was forced, eventually, to voice concern.
“Did I do this to you?” she asked tentatively.
“What?” asked Ralia, a little distracted. She was trying to catch a pigeon.
“Your leg. You’re limping.”
“Oh, this!” said Ralia, laughing. She lunged and closed her hands around the unsuspecting pigeon which promptly gave a loud squawk, struggling to free itself. It soon gave up, realizing the futility of its efforts. “I twisted my ankle when I jumped from the bell tower. I always land in an easy crouch, but this last time I was distracted. So, I twisted my ankle. It’ll be fine.”
Celine wasn’t quite sure she heard correctly. “You jumped from the bell tower?”
Ralia gave her a sly look, a light smile playing on her lips. She reached into her pocket and brought out some bread crumbs which she began to feed to the grateful pigeon. “Yes. I’ve been jumping off the bell tower ever since I read The Hunchback.”
Celine searched Ralia’s face for hints of mischief. There was none. “But … the tower is very high … how haven’t you died?”
“I simply believed,” said Ralia. She crouched and let go of the pigeon. But it had imprinted on her and wouldn’t move no matter how hard she shooed. “It’s like flying, really. The best feeling in the world. You simply climb up there, believe you can do it, and then let go.” She smiled at Celine’s perplexed look. “I told you I can do things. I can show you of course, if you like.”
Yes, she liked. She was curious as to how one could survive a fall of over 300 feet.
“Do you want to hear a story?” Ralia asked.
They were back in Celine’s room. Celine sat between Ralia’s legs, her head tilted backwards as Ralia braided her hair.
“It’s a Nigerian folk tale,” said Ralia, “my father loves to tell me Nigerian tales to remind me of my roots – does your mother tell you folk tales?”
“No,” said Celine. She knew very little about Nigeria, except the fact that it was hot and her relatives were so numerous it was hard to place who was who. She had seen the photo albums. The lot of them – seventy or so – grinning in spite of the sun’s glare.
Ralia gave a dramatic sigh. “You poor thing. Well, it’s lucky you have me. So the tale begins like this:
“In a little village called Esie, there lived a wicked king. He was rich and powerful and very unkind. The villagers feared him. Anyone who tried to stand up to him always disappeared without trace, and so the villagers learned with time not to complain, regardless of the harsh living conditions. There was very little food. The king took it all – and not that there was famine or anything like that – no. He just wanted them to suffer. He liked to watch them suffer.”
“He was very wicked.” Celine remarked.
“Yes,” Ralia agreed, visibly pleased. “He took all the best lands for himself, all the best girls – he had a very large harem of beautiful virgin girls.” (Celine giggled) “Anyway, one day he went about the village as usual, seeking the finest girls to collect for his harem, when he found this girl by the stream. She was singing. Her voice was magic and the king fell in love immediately. He took her and decided to make her his queen, not just place her in the harem like the others. The girl, of course, was upset. She didn’t want to leave her family and friends and spend her days locked up in the palace. But her family begged her not to cause any trouble, because the king always made trouble-makers disappear. Did she want them to disappear? Did she? She answered no and that was that. She was taken to the palace and was made queen.
“The palace was large, and she had thousands of servants who served her and attended to her needs, but she was lonely. Even though this wicked and terrible king did his best to be kind to her, she still felt unhappy. Even though she was generally free to roam the palace, she was never allowed to leave and soon it became clear that she was a prisoner. The only time she was alone was at night, and so in the nights, she started to explore the palace, seeking for an escape.
“That was how she came across the door with no lock.”
“A door with no lock …” Celine repeated in a hushed, dramatic whisper. She tried to envision a door with no lock and the vision of a wall rose in her mind.
“A door with no lock,” Ralia repeated. “It was a magic door and it always changed positions. This night it was here, another night it was there, and the girl enjoyed roaming the palace every night, trying to find where the door would appear. Every night she found it, she grew more and more excited, until she was no longer content with just finding the door. She wanted to open it, to see what was behind it. She was convinced the way to escape and freedom was behind it.”
Celine turned to face Ralia now, her eyes wide with excitement. “Did she open it?”
Ralia smiled. “The door sensed she wanted to enter and spoke to her. It said, ‘I am a door, my name is Door. I am a protector of the secrets within.’ The girl answered, ‘I am a girl, I am the Queen. Open, Door and admit me in!’ and the door swung open.”
Celine clapped and whooped with glee. “And what did she find!” she asked breathlessly.
“Hundreds and hundreds of small stone sculptures,” said Ralia, “the girl realized with horror that they were the villagers who had disappeared, turned to stone sculptures by the king!” (Celine clapped a hand over her mouth) “She ran out of that room and roused the palace, screaming at the top of her voice of the atrocities behind the vanishing Door. The news of what the king had done soon spread around the village and all the villagers, in their fury, marched to the palace to kill the king.”
“Yes!” Celine whooped.
“But the king fled and was never heard from again,” Ralia finished. “Till this day, the Door remains in Esie, changing positions every night, hiding the hundreds of statues behind it.”
“Wow,” Celine breathed. Dusk had fallen; long shadows fell across the room. She could see the Door before her. The door without a lock, hiding humans turned to stone. “But it’s not true, is it? It’s a folk tale.”
Ralia shrugged. Just then, Celine’s mother called from the kitchen. “Dinner, my dears!”
Ralia slapped Celine awake. “Do you want to see me jump?”
“What?” asked Celine, her eyes still groggy with sleep.
“Do you want to see me jump from the bell tower?”
“Oh …” she sat up. “Yeah!”
They got dressed quickly, donning warm coats to protect from the autumn chill. Within minutes, they’d snuck out of the house and were bounding along the street to the bell tower, under the bright glare of a full moon. Celine had the distant feeling that she was in a dream and would wake up soon. She’d never snuck out of the house before, much less at night. And now she was going to watch her best friend jump off a tower to certain death. For surely no living person could survive that fall … without a parachute. Of course that was it! Ralia had a parachute.
“You’re going to use a parachute, aren’t you?” asked Celine excitedly, hoping Ralia’s answer was going to be in the affirmative. Nothing like that. Ralia merely looked at her and shook her head.
Celine was getting scared now. What if Ralia actually jumped? Without a parachute. She was going to die. Was she really just going to stand there and watch her friend die?
“I’m scared, Ralia.”
“Don’t be a scaredy cat,” came the curt reply.
They’d arrived at the foot of the tower. The colossal structure stood stark and forbidding against the night sky.
Ralia took off her bag. “There are three hundred and eighty-seven stairs to the top,” she said, “I’ll try to run as fast as possible. You wait here and watch me as I jump.”
“But –” Celine began, but her friend was gone.
Modupe stood up from the chair in her study and stretched. It had been a long day. Apart from the brief hour or two when she left to make dinner for her daughter Celine and her husband Pierre, she had remained holed up in her study all day, translating the last pages of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives to French for the ladies of her book club. A fine mix of ladies, they were. Immigrants who’d married French. And so, they spent their time reading the literature of their countries, seeking to immerse themselves in each others’ experiences. She cracked her knuckles, removed her glasses and waited for her laptop to shut down before switching off the lights and exiting the study.
It was 2:00 a.m. Her husband was already fast asleep, and so was her daughter. Her beautiful little girl. Raising a child was no small feat, especially one as troubled as her daughter. She had suffered severely from depression, the poor thing. She’d gone through almost four months of not speaking at all, scaring both Pierre and her. All she needed was a companion, the benign psychologist had told her, perhaps a brother or a sister? But she and Pierre had been unable to provide her with a sibling, and it was not for lack of trying. The first time had been easy – she’d gotten pregnant with Celine almost immediately after their marriage. But now, try as they could, she just wasn’t getting pregnant. And Celine was sliding deeper and deeper into herself.
“Buy her a doll,” her friend had advised, “girls are good with dolls. I bought my daughter one – maybe it will help your daughter.”
But Modupe had been skeptical. Teaching a child to enjoy the company of dolls and not real humans? How was that going to help her in the long run? She thought of taking her to Nigeria, maybe a change of scenery would do her good. But she had vowed never to return to Nigeria, never to return to Esie.
She still had nightmares about the disappearing door and the stone sculptures …
And so, she got her daughter a doll. She searched long and hard for a good doll maker who made quality dolls of girls of colour. She didn’t want some random white doll with blue eyes that didn’t look anything like her daughter. Imagine her elation, therefore, when she finally found a Nigerian doll maker in the newspapers based just on the outskirts of Paris, who specialized in quality handcrafted dolls. She called to order instantly, giving specifications as to how it would look from the skin colour, down to the hairstyle, and even the pre-recorded phrases in French: Hi. My name is Ralia. I am Nigerian. I am a little girl, just like you.
The doll came … and it looked uncannily like her daughter. If Modupe was honest, the resemblance unnerved her, tickled at something buried in the deepest recesses of her mind. But Pierre never saw the resemblance, and neither did Celine. And her worries all but vanished when Celine took to the doll with much glee.
Celine loved the doll and both Modupe and Pierre were grateful for it! She went everywhere with the doll, even insisted on feeding it her father’s confectionaries. It was odd, admittedly, but she was a little girl who had found companion in a doll. A doll that helped her out of her depression. So, she and Pierre overlooked it. She would grow out of it eventually –
Until that night when she attacked the doll in a fit of rage. Modupe had been scared to find that her daughter had so much destruction in her; the doll was in a bad shape and had to be shipped back to the doll maker for repairs. She would have driven down to the shop herself to expedite the process, but the dollmaker had insisted she post it instead. She realized then that she had never met the dollmaker, even upon purchase. Odd, but Modupe had dealt with numerous eccentric creatives to know they all had their quirks.
The envelope on the mantelpiece jolted Modupe out of her reverie. How did it get here? Perhaps Pierre had placed it there so he wouldn’t forget to take it to the post in the morning. She took the envelope and saw scrawled across the back a child’s writing:
FROM MY DADDY
A lump appeared in Modupe’s throat. Something wasn’t right. With great trepidation, she ripped open the envelope to find a letter:
I am your husband; I am the king.
Isn’t your daughter such a doll?
She flew from the living room up the stairs and into Celine’s room. Celine was gone.
So was Ralia the doll.
Celine watched as Ralia materialized from behind the large bell, waving down at her. She shouted something, but she was too high up, and the wind carried her words away. Ralia spread out her hands and jumped.
Celine watched in pure terror as Ralia fell … or not. She wasn’t falling; the wind carried her, tossed her about like paper, or a stray autumn leaf. She fell like a leaf. Zig. Zag. Zig. Zag. It was as though she were lighter than the air around her. As though she wasn’t made of bones and blood and sinew –
Ralia dropped to the ground in a perfect crouch. “Well!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands excitedly. “What do you think?”
Celine looked, and looked, and looked … because this was Ralia, but then it wasn’t. This wasn’t the girl she knew … and yet it was.
Here was the truth in front of her, and she had always known it, hadn’t she?
Ralia came over and took Celine’s hand. Her hand was cool and smooth and the hardness of plastic.
“Did you like it?” she said to Celine, “I know you did. You can do it too; all you have to do is believe.”
And then they were atop the bell tower, the beautiful city of Paris spread out before their eyes. And there was the bridge, the River Seine, the Eiffel Tower.
“Do you believe?’ Ralia asked, her plastic eyes hard and unblinking.
“I believe,” said Celine.
“Now look down. Do you see that man?”
Celine looked. Yes, yes, she saw the man. The man hiding in the shadows, he himself a shadow in his long trench coat.
“That is my daddy. He is waiting for us.”
Celine turned to look at Ralia. This wasn’t right. Everything was wrong. Everything! But she was past the point of no return.
“Close your eyes.”
And then she was flying. Flying. Zig. Zag. Zig. Zag. She was lighter than the breeze. Her body was cool and smooth and plastic. But it was alright. Because she was flying.
He placed the two little dolls, the pretty little things, side by side. They were holding hands. That was good. He left it unperturbed and closed the lid of the box.