It was Jenny's tenth birthday. Her parent's small terraced house was filled with family visiting from all over the country and from further away. Grandma Olga had made her yearly trip from cold, dark Siberia to visit her daughter and grand-daughter. Grandma Olga was a tiny woman in decades old clothes, with crooked teeth, wrinkled skin and a hairy mole on her upper lip that Jenny always tried to ignore. Every year she presented Jenny with a different gift from her homeland. In the early years, it was knitted blankets and wooden rattles. In recent years the gifts were getting more interesting. At age eight, Grandma Olga gave Jenny a clown marionette, which she regularly used to chase and scare her younger brother with. At age nine, she received a small, ornate trinket case, which Jenny used to store her favourite necklaces and secret notes she wrote. This year Grandma Olga had promised Jenny something 'very special'.
Jenny's mother announced the start of the present giving ritual by ringing the old bell she had been given as a child in Siberia. Jenny's family gathered in the front room of the house and began to produce gifts of all sizes from bags, pockets and coats. Her eyes widened and her smile beamed as she looked around the room at the many coloured packages, all for her to open and enjoy. One by one she tore through packaging, receiving books, clothes, dolls and many warm embraces. As traditional, Grandma Olga was last. Jenny was disappointed that her favourite part of the day was nearly over, but excited to see what unique present Granma Olga had brought such a distance for her. The family hushed as the old Russian woman opened her battered leather suitcase and produced a brown paper package wrapped in string....
"For my beautiful grand-daughter Jenny, on the occasion of her tenth birthday, I give you something I was given on my tenth birthday, many, many moons ago. My Grandma Maya passed this to me and now I pass it to you...."
Jenny carefully took the package from her Grandma's tiny hands. She pulled at the string bow and the crinkled brown paper and string fell away softly. What remained captured her attention immediately. The blushed, smiling face of a glazed, round but intricate Russian nesting doll stared back at her. The doll was surprisingly weightless and shone with bright colours as Jenny assessed her new prize object. While still transfixed, her mother prodded her and spoke with agitation.
"Jenny! Thank your Grandma Olga immediately for this beautiful gift!"
Jenny was jolted from what felt like a deep sleep. She had forgotten that she was surround by the eager eyes of her family, all awaiting her reaction.
"Sorry Grandma! Thank you so much, I love my present!"
Grandma Olga beamed at Jenny,
"It is a great pleasure my child, I have treasured these dolls for many years and I hope they give you as much pleasure as they have given me."
Her face suddenly darkened and she leaned in closer to Jenny.
"However, you must promise me one thing: always reassemble the dolls when you have finished playing with them! They were made a long time ago and contain the history of our family. If any of the dolls is lost, a part of our family is lost!"
Jenny's mum stepped in.
"Oh mother, why do you have to be so serious?! Jenny, take good care of these dolls! You can play with them later, but now it's time for your birthday cake!"
She took the dolls from Jenny and placed them on the mantelpiece. The lights flicked off and Jenny's dad walked in with her parkin birthday cake (Jenny's favourite), covered in ten bright candles. Grandma Olga backed away into the corner of the room but shot a glance at the dolls. The wooden glaze flickered in the candle light and the shadows cast the usually cheery doll face into an odd grimace...
Jenny wore her new pink bunny pyjamas to bed that night. As her head sank into her pillow, her head buzzed with birthday excitement. Cakes, games, songs, candles, gifts and goodbyes all spun round her head, a kaleidoscope of happy images from her favourite day ever. As she began to drift off in a contented slumber, she heard a strange noise.
It sounded like a slow rattle, coming from the far side of the room. It stopped as quickly as it had started so she ignored it and rolled over.
Closer this time, she sat bolt upright. The room was only lit by a small amount of light coming in from the hall and Jenny strained to see in the darkness. She thought the noise had come from the end of her bed but the shadows in the small room were still. The noise had gone again. She was in a sleepily confused state and after a minute of staring at nothing, decided she must have imagined the rattling noises. She pulled the duvet over her head to block out any further disturbances, yawned and tried her best to fall asleep.
Right next to her head this time! She rolled out of her bed, landed sideways and stumbled in two awkward steps, flinging open the bedroom door, flooding her room with light. All she saw was her tiny bed and a pile of covers from where she has been moments ago. She was wide awake now, her heart beating a little faster than usual. But there was clearly nothing in her room. Jenny decided to abandon sleep for now and sneak downstairs to look at her presents. That would make her feel better.
Being a small house, there was enough light from the upstairs bulb to guide her down the creaky wooden staircase to the front room. Her mother had done a very thorough job of tidying that night and most of her presents were boxed up and stacked either side of the sofa. Her favourite teddy bear, George, sat lonely in the middle of the chair, so she went straight over and gave him a comforting hug.
The noise from the mantelpiece spun her around and she squeezed George a little tighter. The moonlight shining through the front window lit up the fireplace with a grey glow. She ran her eyes quickly along the small shelf above, past neatly lined birthday cards and ornaments to the edge nearest the window, where sat the Russian dolls her Grandma Olga had given her. They seemed brighter than everything else in the room and the black eyes of the outer doll seemed to be staring directly at her. As earlier in the day, she felt entranced by this ancient toy and without thinking, she stepped slowly towards her gift, dropping George into one hand and reaching up to retrieve the doll.
Sat on the old rug by the fire, her old bear next to her, she began to twist the wooden shells apart. One by one she lined up the outer shells in front of her. The black shiny eyes got smaller and smaller until she reached the final tiny doll. It had no eyes. Just a smooth wooden surface. At this point a great wave of tiredness swept over her. Jenny lacked the energy to climb the stair back to bed, so she curled up with George on the rug and pushed the parts of the doll to one side. What had Grandma said about playing with doll? She couldn't remember and as sleep consumed her, she was sure she'd find out tomorrow.
Jenny's mum was up early to prepare breakfast for her two children and passed Jenny's bedroom on the way. The door was wide open and the bed empty. She knew Jenny must have snuck downstairs in the night, despite her warnings. She headed down the stairs, considering a fair punishment for Jenny's misdemeanour. Entering the lounge, she expected to see her daughter sprawled asleep on the sofa, surrounded by toys. But the lounge was as she'd left it the evening before. Except for one thing. The birthday cards were gone and the Russian nesting dolls were lined up along the mantelpiece. Jenny's mum sighed and went to put the dolls back together. When she picked up the smallest doll, she thought it strange that it was painted pink, with rabbits on. The little face still had the shiny black eyes of the other dolls.
Jenny tried to speak when she saw her mother appear at the lounge door, but could not open her mouth. Jenny tried to shout when her mother held her and looked at her oddly, but no sound was made. Jenny tried to scream when her mother put her inside the wooden shell of a Russian nesting doll, but all she heard was each bigger doll being added, as the lounge, house and her mother were obscured by darkness....
CLACK.... Clack.... clack....