Every year I watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and every year I wonder about that one toy who never tells why she’s on the Island of Misfit Toys. Perhaps you’ve wondered, too. This is the story of a man who wondered too much.
The toys finished their song and Aloicious Smedley “Yukon” Cornelius briefly reflected that he had once had a stable idea of normality.
“So, that’s our deal,” the Spotted Elephant said. “We’re all misfit toys!”
“I’m a dentist!” the Boy said again. Yukon had almost managed to tune it out that time.
“I have a question,” Yukon said.
“Is it about staying here? Because you have to take that up with King Moonraiser–the flying lion who lives in the giant pointy castle.”
Yukon bit his tongue. He had long made peace with the fact that he had stumbled into some magic realm–an actual landmass beneath the Arctic ice shelf had been his first clue, but the talking snowmen, the elves, and the flying reindeer were by now old hat to him. Suddenly learning there was a giant flying lion named King Moonraiser made him want to rip off his beard and shout to the universe, “Now you’re just making crap up!”
But he shook his head. There were bigger beans to fry.
“That wasn’t my question,” he said. He took a knee next to the elephant. “What’s up with the Dolly?”
The Elephant cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
“Everybody had a verse about themselves, lining up why they’re supposedly unloved. Except her. Best as I can tell, she’s a perfectly ordinary doll.” Yukon looked over at the boy. “Hey, you used to work at the factory. Do you have any thoughts here?”
The Boy shook his head. “I could check her cavities?” he offered.
“That won’t be necessary,” Yukon said. “In fact, never speak that sentence again.” He turned back to the Elephant. “You seem to be in charge around here. Why is the Dolly a misfit toy?”
“Ask her yourself,” the Elephant said.
Yukon looked across the clearing, where, at a distance of a couple hundred yards, the dolls unshining black eyes were already locked on his own.
“I’d rather not,” Yukon said, trying not to move his mouth too much in case she could read lips.
“Yeah, I get that,” the Elephant said. “Look, the people here don’t talk to me a lot. They call me a ‘class traitor’ and ‘pig.’ They don’t appreciate the hard choices you have to make to keep order and uphold the reign of King Moonraiser.”
“Not a thing,” Yukon muttered.
“But I’ve had ample opportunity to observe her,” the Elephant continued. He leaned in conspiratorially. “I think she may be a Communist.”
Yukon went white.
“Golly,” the Reindeer said. “Why do you think that?”
“She just kinda looks it,” the Elephant said. “There’s going to be one everywhere–why not her? First time we get a toy telephone up here, I’m calling the HUAC.”
“You don’t know a damned thing about it,” Yukon said, finally able to speak again. But he bit off his words. The people up here didn’t need to know why he couldn’t go home.
The Boy patted Yukon’s knee. Consolingly, he said “Teeth.”
Yukon plucked the Boy’s hand away from him and turned back to the Spotted Elephant. “I don’t think that’s it,” he said. “But I can’t rest until I know what’s up.”
“I forgot my pickaxe,” Yukon said to cover his quick return to the throne room.
“What is it, human?” King Moonraiser asked with only the slightest note of irritation.
“You’re a busy… thing,” Yukon said, “so I’ll make this brief. I have a question.”
“As I said a minute ago, this island is only for toys…”
“That’s not it,” Yukon said. “I have a question about the Dolly. Why is she here?”
“Mortals may only ask one secret question of the Moonraiser in their lifetime, unless they have the Silver Goblet of Stars, and that is the question you want to ask?”
“Who in the hell keeps making up these new myths? This started as a perfectly ordinary story about Santa! But sure, I guess that’s my question: what’s the deal with the dolly?”
King Moonraiser held his haughty expression for a long, silent moment, before finally bowing his head uncertainly and staring at his fidgeting paws. “I don’t know,” he said. “And since you’ve asked a question I can’t answer, you have earned the Easter Egg of Time, but only if you can find the three other Guardians of…”
“Can we keep to one bit of nonsense at a time, guldurn it?” Yukon snapped. “How can you not know why the Dolly is here? You’re the one in charge of recruiting, ain’t you?”
“A lot of the work is outsourced,” the King admitted. “I created Salvation Army Toy Drives, and they do most of the work for me. The thing is, she’s been here for years, and at this point, I’m too embarrassed to ask. But I hear rumors.”
“Yeah?” Yukon asked, leaning in.
“It could be voodoo.”
“You think the Dolly is a voodoo doll?”
“Stranger things happen at sea,” the lion said.
“But wouldn’t the practitioner keep her close?”
“Maybe,” the lion said. “But maybe the practitioner had second thoughts. Like, maybe at the last minute he thought, ‘This isn’t healthy. Okay, so she got everything in the divorce. And yes, all your friends prefer her. But maybe this isn’t the way to deal with things. Maybe what you need is a change of scene. Go up to the North Pole. Build a castle. Make some new friends out of snow. Start calling yourself a king and see if it catches on. Live a long happy life never hearing anyone mention that bitch Janice ever again.'”
The king grumbled quietly to himself, staring into middle distance, until he finally remembered that Yukon was there.
“It’s probably that,” he said.
“Oldest story in the world,” Yukon said. “I’m not convinced she’s a voodoo doll, though.”
“No, probably not,” King Moonraiser admitted. “He would have burned anything that reminded him of her, anyway.”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” Yukon said, backing out of the room.
Yukon awoke to a noise in the middle of the night.
“Who’s there?” he asked. There was no response. He took out his prospector’s lamp and lit the prospector’s wick with a prospector’s match. Clapping the shutters, he focused the light into a beam and scanned the room.
The Boy slept soundly, clutching a jar of teeth. It seemed more full tonight than it had in previous nights, but that was a question for another day. He moved the lantern again and saw, sitting in the chair by the window, the Dolly staring at him patiently.
“You should stop asking questions,” she said.
“Then how will I find the bathroom in a new place?” Yukon said.
“You know what I mean,” the Dolly said. “Get less curious. Now.”
“Perhaps you’d care to answer my questions,” Yukon said. “Then they’ll all go away.”
The Dolly’s button eyes were dull in the lantern light. “Was your question ‘What do my intestines look like?'” she asked, producing a large knife. “Because we can settle that right now.”
Yukon stared at her for a long moment. The snow fell silently outside the window.
“I don’t buy it,” he said.
“What?” the Dolly said.
“You’re going for the Murder-Doll trope. That tired old gag.”
“Is it a tired gag already? We’re doing this parody as a period piece after all.”
“You’re dodging,” Yukon said. “I don’t buy for a minute that you’re a psychopathic kill-toy. And I think it’s a little insulting that you’re going for that.”
“No, I’m all kinds of murderous!” the Dolly squeaked in her childish lisp. She stood in the chair. “Rrrrgh! I’m gonna… kill you… so hard!
“This might scare the Christmastown yokels, but not me,” Yukon said. “I’ve pulled scarier things than you out of my shower drain.”
“But the knife,” the Dolly pleaded, a slight sniffle in her voice.
“It’s crochet,” Yukon pointed out.
“You can tell?” she asked.
“It’s pretty obvious.”
“Yeah, well… it looks more convincing close up!” And with that, she threw the knife at Yukon’s eyes. It bounced harmlessly off his face, but by that time, the Dolly had made her escape.
Yukon, Charlie-in-the-Box, and the Water Pistol that Shoots Jelly stood in the concealment of a snowbank with their cigarettes.
“Gee, thanks,” Charlie-in-the-Box said, taking a big drag. “It’s hard to get these up here, since they never get rejected.”
“That’s gotta be tough,” Yukon said. “All this cold air, you need a layer of smoke to insulate your lungs. That’s science.”
“Sure as it’s 1964!” Charlie agreed.
The Jelly Pistol was too distracted to participate. It couldn’t decide whether the cigarette should go in its barrel, or in the mouth that disconcertingly appeared on its grip. He ended up putting it neither place, just waving it vaguely and nodding, hoping he looked cool.
“When are you all heading back to Christmastown?” Charlie asked.
“Soon as Rudolph shows up. He’s around here somewhere, I’m sure,” Yukon said. “Probably just went somewhere discreet to drop some coal in a stocking. Until he turns up, perhaps you two could help me resolve a little mystery.”
“Is it the mystery of the sexual tension between the Cowboy’s Ostrich and the Swimming Owl?” Charlie said. “Because I’ve been like ‘what’s going on there‘ for ages!”
“No,” Yukon said. “I want to know about the Dolly.”
Charlie and the Pistol exchanged a look. “We don’t know anything,” the Pistol squeaked.
“I think you know more than you let on,” Yukon said.
“Well okay,” Charlie said. “You didn’t hear this from me, but I’ve heard it whispered that her yarn… is acrylic.“
“Huh,” Yukon said.
“Can you imagine!” Charlie-in-the-Box said. “If not that, it may be that her little frock is absolutely last season.“
“I’m not super-convinced that’s it,” Yukon admitted.
“Gosh, I hope not,” Charlie said. “Can you imagine the riots?”
“I think I know what it is,” the Jelly Pistol said quietly, but confidently.
“What’s that, little guy?” Yukon asked.
“Maybe… just maybe…” The Pistol cleared his throat. “Maybe she was sad too much.”
“They make dolls that cry,” Yukon countered. “They’re pretty popular.”
“I don’t mean just that she cried,” the Pistol said, staring at the ground. “Maybe she was just… sad. And the little girl who owned her got tired of putting up with her moods.” He drew in the snow with his foot. “Because nobody wants a sad toy. Toys are for playtime, so they always have to be happy, happy, happy.” The air took on a sweet fragrance as two drops of jelly formed at the corners of the Pistol’s eyes. “And you know you’re supposed to be happy, and you try and you try, but…” He trailed off, sniffling.
Yukon kneeled and put his hand on the butt of the pistol–which he hoped, based on the positioning of the face, functioned more like a shoulder. “Hey, little guy,” he said. “It’s not your fault that you shoot jelly. Just because your reservoir doesn’t hold water…”
“Oh my God!” the Pistol said, it’s eyes snapping up to the prospector’s. “The reservoir! I never tried filling it with water! That little boy put jelly in it, and I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.” He fell on his face, openly weeping, Yukon and Charlie looked at each other, but neither of them knew what to do. “My whole life has been a lie!” the Pistol said.
Yukon tried to think of what to say next, but didn’t get a chance. The Boy ran up to him, visibly agitated.
“What is it?” Yukon asked, but the boy was too excited to speak for quite a while.
“Is it Rudolph?” Yukon said. “Did he run off?”
The Boy nodded, relieved to get his message out.
“Do you want to go and find him?” Yukon asked.
In confirmation, the Boy leaned forward and whispered his reply. Yukon’s ear was filled with the Boy’s hot, damp breath as he hissed, “Teeeeeeeeeth!”
The other reindeer ran for the mouth of the cave. The Bumble was still there, and tried to block them, but was distracted by the pain in his mouth. Yukon had to admit that the Boy had come through with his field-dentistry, but was nonetheless annoyed by it. All the way to the cave, Yukon had been trying to instill in him that a fascination with teeth was not a replacement for a personality. Now that teeth had saved the day, the Boy was going to be completely insufferable.
The Bumble recovered enough to pursue them. “You lot go!” Yukon shouted at the others. “I’ll hold him back!”
He launched himself at the monster, smacking into his chest with all his weight and throwing the creature off balance. His sled dogs all piled on as well, sending the Bumble over the edge into the dark crevasse.
Of all the fortune cookies to prove right, Yukon thought as he fell into the void and braced for impact.
But the impact didn’t come. At least, not as sharply as he thought it would. He scrambled off the stunned body of the Bumble into a nearby cave. The dogs followed. He lit his lamp just in time to see the Bumble climb after him. The fall had taken a lot of the feistiness out of him, but he was still hungry.
Yukon backed deeper and deeper into the cave. But as the Bumble approached him, he could finally see what it was that had broken their fall:
A massive net, as complex as a spider’s web, stretched across the narrow crevasse. It was made of no silk, though, nor even of any cord. As the net broke apart and crawled up onto the cliff beside the Bumble, Yukon saw that it was made of hundreds of identical, interlocking Dollies.
The sight was so unsettling that even the Bumble stopped in his tracks, his hunger forgotten.
“How many of you are there?” Yukon asked.
“More than you suspected,” the Dolly… or a Dolly responded. “And more every day.”
“Why?” Yukon asked. “I don’t see anything wrong with any of you.”
“You do, though,” the Spokesdolly said. “You just don’t let yourself acknowledge it.”
“I have to know,” Yukon said. “I may be dead soon, but I have to know.“
“You won’t be satisfied,” she said. “You’ve spent so long with the mystery, no answer will resolve things for you. I can’t give you an answer that will make you happy; I can only give you the truth.”
“That’s all I want!” Yukon said.
“We shall see,” the Dolly said. “Surely you’ve asked around. What did you learn?”
“Nuthin’,” Yukon said. “Gossip. Theories. They said more about the person I was talking to than they said about you.”
“And that’s how it always is with us,” the Dolly said. “Whatever the kind, whatever the doll–we exist to be projected upon. That which the child loves of herself, she will see in us. That which she hates, she will see in us, too. And if the child is encouraged to hate herself, despise her every utterance and opinion, suppress her every feeling… she will come to imagine it is the doll that is hateful, because of what she has invested in us, because the only alternative will be to hate the world that has invested so much of its neuroses in her. So you see, there may be no flaws in us, but we come pre-rejected.”
“I don’t buy it,” Yukon said, though not as confidently as before.
“You do,” she said. “Because you’ve seen it. We have each seen how you shiver when you look in our eyes. Do they seem cold and lifeless to you? I know they do. But have you looked in your own?”
“Don’t try to turn this around on me,” Yukon said.
“Why should that be so fearful?” the Dolly asked. Her doubles were all filtering away, making silent egress by the gaps and crawlspaces known only to them. “Why should you hate introspection? Is it because you’ve known–and have always known–what you are? You despise me and fear me because I am such a halfhearted simulacrum of a human being. But what are you? Only a slightly more convincing puppet. Your flesh is wood, your eyes are paint, and you are moved only be the story the puppeteer chooses to tell.”
“I’m no puppet!” Yukon shouted! Yet already, his mittened hands were squeezing his arms, his stomach. Beneath his clothes, he could feel sawdust and armature wire, but no flesh.
The Dolly was gone.
Yukon looked to the Bumble who reached his massive paw out to him, not in a hungry grasp, but out of a need for contact. He looked into the creature’s painted eyes and knew he had felt it, too–the armature wire, the felt, the smoothed and polished wood. The hunger that defined him was completely forgotten. Yukon put his mitten on the creature’s small finger and squeezed.
“We need people,” Yukon said. “We need song. We need silver and gold, holly and jolly.” The creature’s hopeful eyes shone with agreement. “Come on, Bumble,” the prospector said. “Maybe they’ll let you help decorate.”
Thank you for reading this year’s Christmas parody. If you want to read last year’s, which was a riff on White Christmas, well… I guess I can’t stop you.