A tiny matryoshka doll glides out of her house and onto a broad palm-tree-lined boulevard that stretches along the edge of a white chalk cliff. Hundreds of feet below, an ocean no bigger than a pond slaps again and again into the base of the rock, sending up sweet brackish air that does little to dilute the late afternoon’s collected heat. Crocodiles, giant snakes, kittens, ostriches, and lions dot the distant water like confetti, paddling in loops or floating just below the surface, waiting for someone to fall in. It would be difficult to say exactly where the road is at the moment—it could be Turkey or England or Egypt. California would make the most sense, but it’s not California.
Four larger dolls, painted almost identically to their mother, waddle along behind her in single file, tired and thirsty but too scared to ask for a break. The head matryoshka, they know, has never sweated a drop in her life nor needed a sip of water, and appears unaffected by the damp, worm-growing heat, by the fluorescent orange sunlight assaulting their eyes, or by the wind that buffets them ceaselessly about the ears. As if to declare sovereignty over nature itself, the mother increases her speed, though this means that the others must tip forward, almost to the ground, to follow. Were one of her daughters to embrace the head matryoshka at this moment, she would feel as hot and oily as a running engine, and her painted skin wouldn’t give an inch. Why should it? She is leading her daughters to war.
And yet an impartial eye, observing the mother whirring down the road, couldn’t be blamed if it came away with an impression not of power but of smallness. Usually size does correlate with strength, but this is not the case with matryoshkas—the smaller they are, the more dense and robust their bodies. Another misconception—popular among children in toy shops or tourists in Moscow—is that the biggest, outermost shell of a set of matryoshkas is the mother. This too is wrong. The mother is always the solid, miniscule doll at the center. The largest doll may be the one that holds the rest together, but its presence is actually the least essential—if it were to break, the dolls would still be contained by the next layer.
The outermost doll, the oldest daughter of the set, is already lagging behind the others. Each time the mother has given birth or the matryoshkas have stacked into one, the largest doll has been stretched a little farther, and her skin now, though smooth and brightly painted, has the frailty of a peanut shell. Lately she’s taken to sitting in an oven in the hope of hardening, but it’s still likely that one day she’ll crack and splinter. Studying her sisters’ familiar silhouettes toddling up ahead, so similar to her own, she wonders now whether it might be possible to grow her next oldest sister a little bigger, and so cede to her the duties of containment.
A ball of ice plunges suddenly from the sky and whips around in front of the head matryoshka’s face, missing her by less than an inch. The neighborhood dogs, triggered by the strange, sudden movement, are baying madly, throwing their bodies up and into their owners’ chain link fences, while a flock of domesticated geese run narrow, panicked circles around the dolls, raining shit and speckled under-feathers down upon their shoes. But even before the dogs have stopped barking and the geese stilled their wings, the comet has departed, only the very end of its tail still visible. The dolls have not once looked up at the disturbance.
This comet has always followed the matryoshkas, swinging through the sky in week-long orbits, sometimes close, sometimes galaxies distant, tethered to the mother by a retractable leash. It is unknown whether, when out of sight in the deeper reaches of outer space, the comet remains attached to her or whether it unclips itself, having learned the rhythms of obedience well enough to know when it’s time to return. The matryoshkas do not worry about this very much, though—there is so much else to attend to in the world. For example, this pair of elderly puppets shuffling closer, destined to intersect with their party right at the point where the road narrows sharply before turning inland. Immediately the dolls halt, even the mother, and flatten themselves along the curb so that the old couple may take their time and pass them on wider ground, free from any fear of being jostled off the cliff. The sisters stand frozen, their smiles carefully unthreatening, until the puppets have gone by without incident.
There is an unacknowledged feeling among the matryoshkas that they are responsible for controlling the balance of the universe—for managing the flow of the sidewalk so that no one ever collides, for stacking together on a crowded train, for befriending those who are impossible for others to tolerate. Small kindnesses amass to large consequence. Though their work can be exhausting, in private each doll peacocks like a god on its worship day. The mother especially is confident in her superiority, even if the people she helps don’t always acknowledge her true worth. The daughters defer to her in almost every matter, but whenever she’s out of earshot they discuss her at great length, scrutinize her decisions big and small. Yet this, too, is likely part of the head matryoshka’s plan.
Today, though, the screaming of the wind has made conversation nearly impossible—to speak and be heard while they lumber along, a doll must lean her painted lips close to her sister’s empty head, causing their shells to collide every few minutes with a thought-scattering klock. Without any knowledge of how long the war will take, the daughters are growing bored and restless, anxious to escape the loneliness of walking singly. They decide to stack into two double dolls, which will allow them to speak comfortably and quietly inside each other’s heads. They rarely nest more than two at a time these days, and it’s been over a decade since any of them carried the mother within them. The youngest daughter speculates that this could be because the mother finds containment infantilizing, but the oldest daughter thinks that she may not wish to have her innermost thoughts so accessible to them. It’s difficult to conceal things when the dolls are inside one another.
The nested daughters wish to revisit an old discussion as they walk—the question of why the mother doesn’t have a crack around her waist as they all do, and how then they were born from her. One of them maintains that she is made of solid wood, through and through, but the others suspect that her interior holds folded reams of dark matter, a sea of particles vibrating and spinning. Or dozens of atom-sized matryoshkas might be floating about inside her. Perhaps she has a secret hole in her base from which we all emerged, like coins shaken from a piggy bank, the youngest suggests. The largest doll should be able to explain how her sisters were born, but when they press her for information, she cannot remember anything about their births.
The dolls do know that, though their interiors are more accessible than their mother’s, they too have things within them not visible to the naked eye—from time to time they cough up tumors, embedded with pieces of hair and nail and eyeball. The youngest two have even tried to make new dolls themselves, but so far only more little tumors have emerged. Occasionally they have managed to spit out kittens and small dogs, which they feed at their breasts with pink rubber nipples. Once, one of the kittens transformed into a smooth, lanky baby, but, when they tried to pick it up, it slipped through their polished hands like one of those water-filled balloon tubes awarded at fairs. It wasn’t long before the baby hit a sharp corner of a coffee table and burst.
A bathroom stop has been demanded, finally, by the oldest daughter, but there is only one low-walled stall to be found, in the middle of a vast school gymnasium. The mother waits for them outside while they go in, pointing impatiently to the lowering sun—this is no way to wage a war. The dolls take turns on the toilet, urinating then menstruating then giving birth to tumors, while people wrapped in white linen towels watch without enthusiasm. Two of the dolls look down at their laps in embarrassment, trying to ignore the onlookers, while the other two take Polaroid pictures of their messes, which they scatter behind them when they move on, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
The tropical setting has long since faded to dry prairie, but the dolls are still far from the forest they’re seeking. They have been delayed several times by wayside stations set up along the road, where they are compelled by some unknown force to stop and perform a series of tasks: cook dinner, make up beds with fresh sheets, polish silverware, try to fix their increasingly bedraggled appearances. The hair under their red and green bonnets consists of fine black wires, pushed down into submission by thick layers of paint, but the hairs have been escaping as they’ve traveled, fusing into large tumbleweeds that roll behind them on the desolate plain. They are all of them full of hairs and mutations, clumps of blood, bits of flesh and bone swimming through their bottom halves. Bits of their bodies, it seems, are always getting lost or left behind.
The mother has a sister who married a termite, and ever since the matryoshkas found out that he was a termite, they have been trying to steal the sister back from him. The termite has jagged teeth, razor-sharp fingers, and blond hair. Though he tried to woo all the dolls when they were first acquainted, claiming that he was a solid man, a carpenter, it wasn’t long before he revealed his true nature by biting into one of them, damaging her shell quite badly. The dolls are constructed from a single block of wood, so each one of them felt the bite as it occurred. Since then, they have begged and begged the mother’s sister to leave the termite, knowing that his chewing nature means that he will one day destroy her and her three daughters completely. What they do not know is that the insect has burrowed into the aunt already, crawling in through her opening and upward so that now he speaks through her mouth and can make all her limbs jerk from the inside. If you look into her mouth when she’s speaking you can see him there where her tonsils should be, his black eyes glittering.
Since the biting incident, the dolls have become extremely vigilant about bugs. Every hour of the journey they check their bodies all over for them, to make sure that none could have crept in during the day. Small bugs are eaten as they are found, and all the dolls say, “Ahh,” as they crunch them, “Ahhh.” Yet despite these small victories, none of them has been able to think of how to scare the giant termite away from the aunt for good. They have tried raising their voices and screaming at him separately, but until now he has hidden behind his human mask and wig or crawled into the aunt and used her to speak to the community in his defense. Today, however, the head matryoshka has a new plan.
“Stop!” the mother cries. “What is that?” The other dolls look and see some acorns fallen by the side of the road, no tree in sight. “Gather them up,” the mother says, “and give me my chisel and paint.” Before long, there are two new matryoshkas before them, virtually indistinguishable from their sisters. “Later I will scoop their insides out, and give them a special coating,” the mother says, smiling. “But why are you all just standing about. Hurry!” The dolls whisper furiously over this strange development. Surely this was not how they themselves were made? And if it was, what’s to stop their mother—or any of them—from creating a matryoshka army? Only the oldest daughter remains impassive—just two more heavy bodies to carry, she thinks.
The heat has largely faded by this point, the sun casting no more than a low, milky light, but the wind has still not diminished. Reaching the edge of a great pine forest—the fragrant boughs bending down and then up again like skirts midcurtsey—the dolls stare into it with high-powered binoculars. Once, all of them lived here together with the aunt, lying on thyme beds in dappled glades; now the air is weighted down with mildew and the scent of decaying animals. The dolls’ grandmother still resides somewhere within, on the way to the aunt’s place, and they must be sure to swerve left and travel a wide omega around her, though her house sometimes hops about on meaty frog legs and can turn up where least expected.
Their plan is to confront the termite with all of them stacked together into one, whipping the comet at him like a one-handed flail while shouting out a list of his recorded sins. If they’ve timed things correctly, the comet will swing down at just the right moment and hit him at its maximum speed. If the termite withstands this, their combined weight should be enough to squish him. “Daughters,” the mother calls, “it’s time!” and her children lock around her like tree rings, growing taller and wider with each layer. The two new dolls are wedged within some empty space between the second and third dolls, and the oldest daughter creaks with the added strain, small cracks spreading up her shell. But in the end she holds—perhaps the oven has paid off.
The giant doll waddles slowly along the end of the path like an osmium statue, all of them whispering furiously in one head, the mother bristling electricity at their core. “We are going to steal back our aunt and bring her home!” they chant, heady with the thoughts of vengeance pulsing from deep inside them. And suddenly, there it is, the cabin where the aunt lives, the place where the termite makes his home. In one body, they shudder.
The dolls scream and begin to spin around the house. “Come out, come out,” they say to the aunt, “and bring your small daughters with you. We will take care of you, we will add you to our body.” “But first,” they say, “you must renounce your termite—state clearly for the record that he is a termite, and declare that you were weak and wrong. Your little daughters are growing bigger every day, soon they will wonder why their mother never enfolds herself within the rigid warmth of other matryoshkas. Soon they may be bitten themselves. Speak what he is, and he will be gone.”
The aunt comes out by the front door, thin and brittle shelled, and looking very much older. “Yes,” she says, her three girls peeking out from behind her skirts, “all right, all right. He is a termite. I was wrong.”
“Good,” cry the matryoshkas. “That’s all we’ve been waiting to hear. Let’s go! Before the termite comes outside!” They break apart and jump into the aunt’s car, and they’re driving now at super speeds, hollering out the windows, swerving from side to side. Only the largest doll notices that the road is steadily curving ever so slightly to the left. “Almost home,” the others shout. The comet whips by, whistling merrily with Doppler effect. The oldest matryoshka and her sister are embracing as best they can, lying side by side in the back of the station wagon, holding hands. Everyone is weeping.
But still the car is turning left. It dawns on the oldest daughter that maybe they aren’t on the road home at all, but on a track, orbiting some invisible thing that sits at the center of their universe. And also that the mother’s sister looks fissured and bulging in a way that the oldest daughter knows only too well—the look of someone who is carrying too large a body inside of her. No one has yet thought to peek inside the aunt’s mouth, however, or spied there a set of glittering eyes. But when the largest matryoshka opens her mouth to warn the others, of course she cannot speak.