Babushka dolls are strange things. That’s what Olga thought to herself each time she placed the five almost identical dolls next to each other. Different only in sizes, Olga thought of the round, egg-shaped dolls as quintuplets who weren’t quite ready to say hello to the world when they were born. And that was why she had such great sympathy for each of the unfortunate wooden girls that she proudly displayed on her shelf.
The name of the oldest Babushka doll was Ayona. A young girl so misshapen that people would only laugh at her. None of the other toys saw her as very useful. She didn’t have the graceful, long limbs of the American Barbie dolls, nor was she warm and cuddly like the old and worn out teddy bear that Olga so loved. And so, she stayed far away from the pretend social gatherings that all the other toys went to. And Olga remained oblivious to the doll’s pain.
The second doll in the set was slimmer and shinier than Ayona. Olga christened her Alisha. Standing behind the fragile and extremely white china doll, Alisha rarely ever got her due as a useful doll. Her place among the dolls was like that of salt in food. Important enough to be missed but hardly ever recognized for its necessity. But she was okay with it. She drew strength from the fact that the china doll was so breakable that it had had to be repaired twice already after falling from the shelf. At least, she, like her other sisters was durable. However, sometimes, she envied the attention and adoration the china doll got, despite being so fragile and essentially useless in her eyes.
The third babushka doll was somewhat a child. No rosy paint covered her wooden cheeks. With a name like Tanya, she was adored as the prettiest of the set; not too big, not too tiny. Young, like a budding flower, just waiting to bloom. But as a doll, those anticipations were all pretense and Tanya knew she’d forever be stuck at that threshold. It wasn’t something she was happy about. But she couldn’t go against the dollmaker’s wishes. And Olga was just a child who played with the dolls. There was no way she was going to turn Tanya’s dream of being real into a reality. Nevertheless, she made the best of her situation. She watched the other toys. She never cried when the clockwork mice ran all over her midsection. She didn’t frown at the chipped paint that marred her otherwise exquisite coloring, but she was ashamed of the bare wood that peeked embarrassingly from beneath the paint that had refused to chip off but was continuing to peel slowly.
The toddler among the sisters was Valentina. This was a name Olga had found in a fairy tale book. Valentina would grow up to be a dancer. Olga liked to pretend that she would. She made Valentina prance about the room every now and then and apparently, all the toys admired the little one’s dancing skills. While Valentina had no way of moving herself under her own power, she often dreamt about growing into the ballerina doll that was kept on the opposite shelf. Olga’s mother wouldn’t let her touch the glass doll. Tiny and carved with painstaking detail, she wasn’t a doll to be played with. Valentina knew how Olga complained about it. And she agreed with her. Some day, she would be that precious crystal doll and Olga wouldn’t need the other one. Being a toddler, Valentina hadn’t realized yet that like Tanya, she was but a wooden doll.
The baby of the shelf was Nadia. A tiny bullet-sized doll wrapped in swaddling made of red paint, she was intact and solid, unlike her sisters who were large, hollow and openable. But Nadia didn’t stay on the shelf for long. Her size was such that she got lost. And her uniqueness among the sisters was missed sorely. As empty shells, they rattled when put together again, but without Nadia, they lacked the rhythm and sonority that only a filled out and an uncorrupted doll could bring.
And she was not recognized for her own self wherever she was found. Without the other dolls to contextualize her existence, she was nothing but a tiny piece of painted wood; misshapen, anchorless, and humanoid but not quite human.