Lana Broodberg looked out her back window and saw the old Widow McDodd in the garden again. She was bent over, digging with that damn trowel. She stopped, pulled something from the freshly dug hole, cradled it in her hands like a religious artifact.
She’d dug up another doll. She bowed her head over it. It looked like she was praying.
As Lana puzzled, the Widow McDodd walked back into the house, carrying the doll and muttering her spells.
What is she up to, Lana asked herself.
Every day the Widow McDodd went out into her garden with her small white spade, and dug up another doll from the exact same spot in the garden. The garden itself was a raised, rectangular portion of earth supported by sturdy planks of wood, located near a line of sight-blocking pines that stood guard at the back of the Widow’s yard. There was no real vegetation in the thing other than a plethora of weeds and wildflowers. The spot where the Widow would dig up the dolls was dead center of the rectangle.
The dolls looked like Barbies, or Bratz. They were about the same size, a little longer than an adult human hand. Plastic female forms with physical proportions impossible to achieve in reality. Long, thick doll hair of all colors. They were usually naked, their plastic skin smeared with dirt.
The Widow McDodd would dig up a doll in her garden in the morning. And then, at the end of that day an innocent-looking young woman would walk out of the her house. Every day. That was the routine.
The Widow would walk inside, stroking the doll’s cheek and smiling down at it and mumbling to herself. Lana never heard what the words were until she made an excuse to go outside one morning and pretend to be watering her flowers which were all dead.
“Babes with the pain, babes with the pain,” the old woman was muttering over and over. “A touch of my hand take away the stain…”
This had been going on for months, probably longer.
The Widow’s backyard wasn’t visible from any other house except Lana’s, and Lana was sure that no one else could see what was going on except her.
How could Lana figure this intriguing mystery out?
She decided to do it the old fashioned way. By being a friendly neighbor.
She baked two pans of her most delicious chocolate chip cookies, the ones that her husband John practically got erections over. She set a plate aside for John, then plated and wrapped the rest for the Widow McDodd.
The Widow McDodd had always been the Widow McDodd to Lana. She’d never been Mrs. McDodd, and she’d lived in the old two-story house by herself longer than any of the neighbors Lana knew about.
Lana took the cookies and walked what seemed like miles down to the sidewalk and across the driveway to the Widow McDodd’s front porch. She felt that strange magnetic push you feel when you’re walking into someone else’s territory uninvited.
The neighborhood was built in the 80s and was just beginning to have that look that realtors call “character” but what really means “getting old”. The houses were all bi-level or tri-level ranches, some with underground garages. Postage stamp backyards, small front yards. Narrow curbed street. The trees were at full maturity. The mailboxes were all rusted and their rails splintery.
Lana rang the widow’s doorbell. No one answered. She rang again. Nothing. She knocked.
Still no one answered. Lana was just about to turn away when she heard shuffling footsteps and the door flew open.
The Widow McDodd’s eyes were tremendously bright up close. Her hair was an electric yowl of gray jutting up from her veined forhead. Her lips were pink and in dire need of chapstick, set between two symmetrical jowls.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi,” said Lana, thrusting the cookies out like a sacrificial offering. “I live next door. I thought I’d bring you some cookies. I always see you by yourself over here and I thought you’d like some cookies.”
For a moment it looked like the widow would turn Lana away, but then she smiled a grey-toothed smile and stepped backwards.
“Well, thank you, sweetie,” said the old woman. “Won’t you come in?”
Lana stepped through the door, expecting to see a pile of dirt-covered dolls in the nearest room.
Instead, the house was as organized as a museum.
The widow led Lana to the kitchen where she unwrapped the cookies. They were still warm and soft.
“How long have you lived here?” she asked Lana.
“My husband and I have been in the neighborhood for eight years now. We never really talk to anyone and I was just thinking what a shame that is. So here I am.”
“Oh, it is a shame,” said the Widow. “I’ve been here nearly thirty years. Used to be kids up and down the block, and everyone knew everyone. Now you never see any kids and truth be told you’re the first person I’ve talked to in years. Please sit down, Lana.”
Lana nodded. She took a seat at a charming little wooden table with a yellow tablecloth. The curtain to the window over the sink were yellow. The walls were sunshine yellow.
The Widow helped herself to a cookie and bit into it.
“These are divine,” she said. “Thank you for thinking of me.”
“My mother’s recipe,” said Lana.
“So what really brings you over here,” said the Widow, side-eying Lana with a look that said, ‘Answer me correctly the first time because I already know’.
“Well, to be honest, I see you out in your garden all the time,” said Lana. “Digging. I’m just curious as to why you do that. Every morning.”
“What do you suppose I’m doing?” said the old woman, licking excess chocolate from her fingertips.
“I hope you don’t mind me imposing,” said Lana. She decided to spill it. “But it seems like you dig up dolls and bring them into the house.”
“And you’ve heard my incantation,” said the Widow McDodd. “Babes with the pain?”
“What I’m doing is delivering spirits from the realm of violence and misery. These are young women who have suffered terrible deaths. They come to me, and I revive them, that they may have a second chance in the light.”
As if on cue, another young woman stepped into the kitchen. She was bright-eyed, like a squirrel. She looked about twenty-four.
“Grandma?” she said. “I think I need another cold washcloth.”
“Of course,” said the Widow. She went to the sink and provided one.
“Hello,” said the young woman. She was dressed like a pilgrim.
“Would you like a cookie, dear? My kind neighbor brought them to us.”
The girl took a cookie and nibbled at it.
“How about some fresh milk?”
The Widow opened the fridge and took out a glass pitcher of milk. She poured three glasses and set them on the table.
Lana accepted her glass of milk and sipped. The young woman put the cold washcloth over her forehead and leaned back and shut her eyes.
“So, I’m sorry, you said you save young women?”
“Yes, who’ve been murdered. They come to me in my garden, and I give them a second chance.”
“How do they get to your garden?”
“The grace of love, I suppose,” said the Widow. “It’s best not to question these things too much.”
“What about men? Do you save men who’ve been murdered, too?”
The widow threw her head back and cackled. For a brief second Lana had a vision of her over a boiling cauldron, using her gnarled old hands to stir.
“Oh, honey,” the Widow wheezed once she finished cackling. “They’re the ones who are sending the dolls here!”
For some reason, in that moment, Lana thought of her husband John, a sweet, large bear of a man who played Xbox and worked as a maintenance service tech down at the Tower auto plant. He put in 12 hour days in summer to pay for their house. He worked so much that Lana was able to pursue her blanket sewing hobby and open a website. He hated his job, but he loved Lana.
“But men are victimized, too — “
“No one cares about what happens to them! Men are disposable, they’re easily replaced. Only women are worthy of redemption.”
The young woman in the pilgrim dress with the washcloth over her eyes spoke softly.
“Men can rot,” she said, her pink lips moving.
Lana sipped the milk again and felt odd. Light-headed. It floated in on her, unexpected.
“Do you like the milk?” the widow grinned. “Lana?”
“It’s very refreshing,” said Lana, hoping she wasn’t sweating too much. “Do you like the cookies?”
“Oh, yes,” said the widow. “How generous of you. But I think it’s time for you to go so I can finish my day’s work.”
“I never told you my name,” Lana whispered. Her world swam in a warm fog.
“You will not remember this conversation, my nosy little neighbor. You will go home and lose all interest in my affairs. You will not watch me from your back window every morning like the little busybody you are. You will sew your blankets and call your mother on her birthday and keep that oaf of a husband of yours in line. Now — “
She waved her hand.
“ — sleep, my child.”
Lana woke up. It was dark.
She was in her bed. Her head ached.
John was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“You were out like a light,” said John. He was eating a cookie. “Thanks for the cookies. You’ve got a milk mustache.”