Karin Ljusmåne had a dollhouse, but it was an afterthought, not the nursery centerpiece of my previous charges.
What she really had was a doll forest.
The acres of tiny wooden trees dominated her nursery, filling the space where ordinary children rode rocking horses and played blind-man’s-buff. It was remarkably like the forest where I had spent my childhood days, but in miniature. When I saw it, I was at some loss for what I was to do to keep her busy and happy through the long hot hours of a summer afternoon.
I need not have worried.
“Where are the dolls for your dollhouse?” I asked her on the first afternoon, hoping to set her playing some wholesome little game while I caught up on the darning from when she’d been between nannies. The parents liked that, I’d found, when I was keen and caught up quickly.
She shrugged a sturdy little shoulder. “Out in the woods with the wolves and the bears.”
Karin was utterly unconcerned by this fate, but part of me reacted like a child, as though there were real bears putting my young charge’s dolls in real danger. “Should we…try to find them?”
“They’ll turn up,” she said, and picked up a lavishly illustrated book that probably cost a month of my wages, hand-painted in golds and blues.
I knew better than to disturb a quiet, contented child for no reason, so I took the time to settle my things and do the aforementioned darning, dull though it was. My young charge eventually set her book down and peered intently at the doll forest, though she made no attempt that I could see to find or move any tiny figures in its carven depths.
“How many dolls have you in the forest, Karin?” I asked, keeping my voice light and guiding the darning needle steadily.
“Two,” she said, her eyes not moving from it. “Two golden haired girls in cloaks and boots, a family of five bears—”
“Five! I thought the usual number was three.”
Still her level blue gaze did not waver from the tiny spruces. “Mine has five. I don’t know how many wolves or deer—”
“Have you deer also!”
Finally she looked at me. “The bears and wolves must eat, and squirrel and coney alone make light meals for them.”
I could not show myself discomfited on this, my first day with her. She was entirely right, but I had not expected a rich city child to know it, as I had all too vividly at her age. Instead I said, “Well, of course they must eat, and so must you; come and wash your hands and face and let us see what Cook has sent up for your supper.”
That night as I got Karin ready for bed, my eye fell on a gilt-framed daguerreotype of a child—clearly herself—and two young ladies, all with golden hair. She saw me looking at it and said, “That is when I was with my sisters Elin and Albina, on my last birthday but one. We had lingonberries and cream, and Father rowed us in a boat on the river.”
“And very nice too,” I said. Now that she said it, I could see the resemblance. “Are the elder Misses Ljusmåne in residence?”
Karin frowned. “No. They’re not here. They haven’t been here for—why, it’ll be a year and a day come Midsummer. I don’t know where they are.”
“Well, that’s certainly for your Mama to keep track of and not you,” I said briskly. “Into bed, young miss.”
But it gave me a qualm, hearing that her sisters were gone who-knows-where. Karin was quite big enough to puzzle through a story book; she could have read a letter, if the older girls had sent her one, or better still a picture postcard. Surely there was nothing amiss, but I knew what it was to be the forgotten baby, and my heart ached for her.
As I turned down the gas in the main nursery, I thought I saw a flash of yellow among the birches in the doll forest. I leaned over to look closer, and for a moment I felt as though I was surrounded by the smell of fresh leaves, the blooming of spring flowers, evening dew on moss beneath my shoes. I missed it. The darkness did not feel like the darkness of a nursery with the gaslight low, and I was disoriented, caught among reality, dream, and memory; I could not find the window.
I thought I heard a growl, low and distant.
There was another flash of gold.
And then I put my hand down and found a bit of table to steady myself and all was as it ought to be. When I blinked, I couldn’t tell why I had not seen the window, for it was there, and the streetlight beyond it, just lit by the lamplighter, the houses and shops and the mountain looming in the distance.
Karin was a quiet child, easy to care for. She holed her stockings more often than any child I’d ever known, including my own middle brother Karl, but I could not honestly guess how, she was so docile and sweet. Several days into my employment, I began to grow concerned that she was not getting enough activity, though her color was good, so I hustled her out for a walk in the square. It is not well for children to stay inside at all hours; though the city children sometimes have no choice if they are working in a factory, Frøken Karin had no such toils, and so out she would go if I had anything to say of it.
The last chill of spring had left the air, and the common people, my people, were out in the streets about whatever business they had put off in the long cold months. Karin showed no more emotion for them or the lovely day or even the prospect of the park than she had the bears and wolves in her forest. I wondered if I would ever be able to shake an emotion out of her when she suddenly paled and clutched my arm.
“There,” she said, pointing up the mountain.
I looked up its barren peak. “What is it?”
“That house. That’s where the evil sorcerer lives. He puts curses on wicked girls.”
“Who told you that nonsense?”
“It’s not nonsense, it’s true! He could curse anything, the evil sorcerer Blodhuggtand.”
“Who told you that?” I asked again.
Karin shrugged and let go of my arm, and we proceeded on the rest of our promenade in an uncomfortable silence. When we got back to the nursery, she went immediately to the doll forest and whispered intently into the tallest of the spruces.
That night I dreamed of running through the cool, heady nighttime forest, the branches whipping against my face. I heard something pursuing me, not feet but paws. I ran harder. Just before I woke up, I stumbled into a clearing where an ancient red leather book sat open on a stump. I slammed it shut.
When I set the nursery to rights for the day, there was moss growing on the tiny forest floor.
“Karin,” I said, “does one of the maids clean the doll forest, or is that your job?”
She glanced up from her porridge. “It’s mine. The maids know not to touch it, they would never! It was my sisters’ before me.”
Somehow that did not surprise me.
“And my mother’s before her, and my grandmother’s before that, on back through the generations, oh, ever so long.”
That was a trifle more surprising, but I soldiered on. “It’s gotten mossy.”
“Oh, lovely!” she cried, and she wanted to spring up right then and there to look, but I knew my business, I made her finish her porridge and no grumbling.
She spent the morning poking her fingers among the tiny trees, such that I was amazed she didn’t get a splinter. Once or twice I thought she was moving a doll around, but I never saw the doll. It was always clutched carefully into the palm of her hand, tucked where I could not see it. When I asked her to hold out her hands, they were empty. Frustrated, I made her go wash them.
The next night I had my hand wrapped in wolf fur in my dreams. The wolf was not pursuing me but guiding me. There was a key buried in the trunk of an enormous oak tree. I turned it. It turned hard, but I managed, and my friend the wolf stood by me though I heard the snarl of a bear beyond. I thought I caught the glimpse of the golden hair of a girl nearly my own age.
I woke up breathing hard.
Such fanciful dreams were unlike me. I had thought little of such things since I had had to come to the city to earn my keep. It was the influence of the doll forest and my silent little charge, surrounded by her lonely rooms and her strange toy, rather than fresh air and other children.
I tried once more to insist on taking her out into the square, perhaps to a park where we would encounter other children of her class and their nannies and governesses. It was a fine day, they should have been there. But Karin balked at joining them with their hoops and balls.
“The evil sorcerer Blodhuggtand looks down on us all,” she said. “I don’t like to play where he can see, I don’t want to be cursed!”
“Don’t be a naughty girl, then!” I snapped.
She flinched and ran off from me to stand with another child who watched primly rather than playing, and I decided that was good enough for an afternoon. The other child’s governess and I marched them around the thin, manicured ribbon of a pond. When we returned, I noticed that there were tiny leaves on the doll trees that had merely been carven before, little green bits of growth that felt silken soft to my touch.
“Karin, are they supposed to—”
But my young charge was scarlet-faced and sulking. I put a hand to her forehead. She was burning up.
“Off to bed with you, young miss!”
“I told you, I’m cursed! Blodhuggtand the sorcerer has cursed me from his mountain, I told you, I told you!” she cried.
I herded her to her room. It was a house where toys grew of their own volition, so perhaps I should have stopped to find an exorcist, but she was acting exactly like every sick child I’d cared for before, and I had no reason to think it had anything to do with the toy forest or with her feverish rantings about the man on the mountaintop. I left her for only a moment to tell the cook to make broth and toast for her supper, and when I returned she was napping fitfully.
To my great shock, her mother visited the nursery before the toast and broth came.
Some of the parents I had worked for visited my nurseries daily. They came in and kissed their darlings’ heads and sometimes asked questions and looked at messy little paintings and clutched sticky little fingers. Karin’s parents had not done any of this. But when word went through the servants that Karin was ill, Fru Ljusmåne swept in like a thin, blonde thunderstorm.
“My sweet baby,” she murmured. Her fingers swept down like branches into Karin’s bed. Karin woke and clutched them.
“Mama, will I be cursed like Albina?” she whimpered.
“No, no, of course not,” her mother whispered. She peered into Karin’s face and then looked at me.
“She walked quite briskly in the park,” I said. “I believe it to be only a summer cold.”
“And quite right,” said her mother, her voice like a whisper of wind. “Nothing like Albina, nothing, nothing.”
I blinked at her curiously, but she bent to kiss Karin’s forehead, to whisper to her about getting well, and was gone.
She stopped to smile sadly over the doll forest as she went, but not for long enough that I could ask her a question—if I could think of one that would not get me fired for impertinence, or insanity. Nor had I become well enough acquainted with my fellow servants to know how to ask them without it getting back to the mistress.
I could not sleep all that night.
If it had only been the child, I would have been able to put all talk of the curse out of my head. Children came up with games that they threw themselves into wholeheartedly. One of my previous charges, a bright-eyed tyke of four, had made a playmate of the fire tongs, christening them Doktor Klemming and asking their opinion of every entertainment we devised. It did not lead me to wonder, myself, whether a physician inhabited the fire tongs.
But Fru Ljusmåne had not said anything like, “There are no curses,” or, “Albina isn’t cursed.” She had only assured Karin that she would be nothing like Albina. Combined with the strange growth of the doll forest and the dreams I was having, it unsettled me. It made me wonder.
Were the flashes of yellow hair I kept seeing Karin’s sisters?
Could it be that I was breaking their curse, as I closed the book and turned the key?
No, no, it was too ridiculous. I flattered myself—and I a sensible woman too. There was work to do, and encouraging the child in her nonsense would do no one any good. It was the lack of sleep that was making me wonder. But still I yearned for my dreams of the forest.
When I went to wake Karin, she whispered, “I thought it wanted me, but it didn’t want me, it didn’t want me at all.”
“What?” I said stupidly. I had a headache from not sleeping. Karin’s forehead did not feel hot, and I did not look forward to looking after a healthy, energetic child after a day of no sleep, even one as quiet and docile as Karin.
She sat up and hopped out of bed. “Is there breakfast? I feel much better.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said slowly.
She ate her egg without being told, mopping all the yolk up with toast soldiers, and did not go to the doll forest when she was finished. Instead she picked up a book and read quietly. She had not ruined any stockings, and the nursery was in good order. I saw a flash of yellow in the doll forest and thought that finally I had spotted one of the dolls, but when I moved to put it away in the dollhouse, it was a tiny yellow blossom on one of the trees, smaller than the tip of my smallest finger.
I glanced over at Karin. She was watching me. When she saw me looking, she crouched over her book with immediate intent. I stifled a smile. “If you’re feeling better,” I said, unsettled by the toy in bloom, “we shall go out for another walk.”
“Well—” said Karin.
“And no dawdling.”
But we were scarcely out the door when the skies clouded over, and I was forced to hustle her back in again as swiftly as I had hustled her out, lest a soaking send her back to bed with a relapse.
Karin spent the afternoon with her nose pressed to the glass, watching the storm as if it was the most exciting pantomime of her young life. The thunder crackled, the lightning raged, and the rain came down in such sheets that at times we could barely see our own wrought-iron railings, much less the houses across the square.
Though the doll forest should have been completely dry inside, the nursery smelled like wet moss and leaves, like a summer rain in the wilderness. It was nearly overpowering. I wanted to open the window to get the city pavement smell in to combat it, but I did not dare.
At the window young Frøken Karin was in the best position in all the world to see when a carriage pulled up outside the house. I could see that it was a carriage of quality, not a tradesman’s wagon, and the lower servants dithered and swarmed to get it safely under the portico. Karin craned her neck and peered at the two slender, pale figures who emerged, wrapped against the rain.
She let out a shriek like a teakettle.
“Karin! Young ladies most certainly do not—”
“Elin! Albina!” she howled, and took off out of the nursery at an extremely unladylike run.
I followed her at an extremely undignified pace, trying to appear as though I was not running while matching her speed as best I could. It was the worst of both worlds. I arrived in the grand hall too late, as my young charge was flinging herself into her elder sisters and nearly knocking them down like ninepins.
I gabbled apologies, tangling my hands in my skirt, terrified of being fired. But no one was looking at me. Elin, the eldest, held both of her sisters upright while Karin wept unashamedly into her skirts. Albina did not have the strength to do anything but sigh and lean into them both.
If Frøken Albina had been cursed, it was a very familiar curse that had taken hundreds of people in the city, and it was called consumption. It needed no evil sorcerer on the mountain, no connection with a doll forest, just ill luck that could befall any of us. I took Karin back to the nursery, limp with happiness. Her sisters promised that they would come and tell her stories about the sanatorium where Elin had recovered her health. No one quite wanted to break it to her that Albina had not.
But my dreams returned that night all the same, more vivid and more extensive than ever. The forest bloomed around me. There were violets and stonecrop, cress and draba, white and yellow and blue and pink flowers everywhere I stepped, and I could see their colors as clearly as if it was high noon through the shining of the moon above me. The wolves sat patiently in a ring.
“What must I do?” I asked them.
They were wolves and did not answer.
“But what is it, how can this be? Are you just toys, are you the ravings of my mind? Have I caught the child’s cold?”
Rabbits and squirrels joined them, and beyond the circle of the flower-strewn clearing I heard the rumble of the bear I had so feared. I had fled the bear. But the young mistress’s sisters were not cursed at all, but stricken with illness. They were home now, and I was dreaming.
I turned and walked toward the bear instead.
The ring of animals parted for me. The moonlight was steady and clear. I picked a handful of flowers as I went. The bear loomed over me, its breath a carnivorous blast. “None of your nonsense, sir,” I said, and wove the flowers into a crown for its head.
The bear reared back and the dream fell away.
I woke up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes like I was a tiny child. The cunning clock that awakened the servants had not sounded. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept until I had enough sleep. The thought unsettled me. I stood, brushing off my nightdress.
I stopped. My skirts were covered with golden pollen, and now my hands were too.
The narrow bed and rickety table provided me in the Ljusmåne servants’ quarters were still there, but perched on a grassy hillock. I had not realized that I was outside because I was sheltered by a grove of poplars, but a breeze rustled their leaves above me. I arose from my bed, the springy turf and stones unfamiliar under my feet. My boots, my trunk, all of my things were gone but the bed and table.
I climbed a higher hill next to my poplar grove and looked out at the city. It was a riot of trees, the ruins of roofs and railings poking out through their branches. Here and there a twist of what had been a wrought-iron railing poked out of a trunk. Just down the hill, the ripped panel of a carriage door lofted high in the branches of a tree.
Up the mountain, the trees stretched far above the point where they had ended, their massive roots crawling like living things to the house that Karin had pointed out to me, the house she had said was the dwelling of the sorcerer Blodhuggtand.
The roots ripped through its walls like claws. I could not imagine a person surviving, not unless they were mighty in magic—and saw the trees coming. Perhaps a mighty sorcerer could do that.
I could not imagine how.
I heard human voices in what had been the streets below, what were now trees upon trees upon trees. The city folk were calling out to each other.
I had been right that there was a curse in Karin Ljusmåne’s nursery, but I was wrong about whose curse it had been. Her sisters, as I had seen, were alive and well. I had broken the curse on the forest. And now it was free.
I laid a hand on the nearest birch trunk, speckled white and brown and peeling a little in the summer sun. I hoped that the forest would think well of me for returning it to its power.
© 2021 Marissa Lingen