Matryoshka by Bindia Persaud

Matryoshka by Bindia Persaud

This new fiction is a part of the Women in Horror blog series by Weird Little Worlds Press. Read more entries here. 


The baby shower was finally winding down. Half-eaten canapés lay scattered on
sideboards and end tables, alongside abandoned plastic cups. Women congregated in aimless
knots, talking of nothing in particular. Before long, the guests would start to disperse.

For Katya, the mass exodus couldn’t happen fast enough. She had submitted to all manner
of tomfoolery. She had allowed herself to be festooned in tinsel and hadn’t complained when a
silly hat was placed upon her head. She had cooed dutifully over the proffered gifts and had held
her arms out while her guests wound a tape measure around her belly. Now, she was ready to take
ownership of herself again.

An older woman approached. Katya didn’t know who she was—one of her mother’s
friends, perhaps? Without preamble, the woman thrust a package towards her. Katya didn’t take it;
instead, she gestured towards the mountain of presents.

“Thank you. If you could just put it with the others—“

“No. Open it now.”

The woman’s peremptory tone startled Katya into obedience. As she peeled back the first
layer of wrapping, the woman spoke again. “It’s matryoshki.”

There was a time when Katya would have disdained such a gift. In high school, she had
insisted her name was Katy. She had steered her friends off her doorstep, away from the rich,
heavy smells of her mother’s cooking. She had affected deafness when addressed in her native

As she grew older, all that had fallen away. She went by Katya now, or if she was feeling
queenly, Ekaterina. She had coaxed her mother’s borscht recipe out of her, and she kept a samovar
in her china cabinet. The nesting dolls, quaint wooden figures of rosy-cheeked peasant women,
could sit alongside it.

The matryoshki, once she had freed them from their wrapping paper, resembled none she
had ever seen. The largest doll was like some prehistoric sculpture, stark and white, with billowing
curves to suggest breasts and hips, and the merest suggestion of a face. The middle doll was a
smaller version of the same. The final doll was nothing more than a nub, with squat arms and legs,
and no visage at all.

Katya didn’t know what to make of them. “It’s very modern,” she finally said.

The woman didn’t answer. She shrugged, the same fatalistic gesture that Katya had seen
her mother and aunts perform a thousand times. None of the other guests seemed to have noticed
this interlude, and yet something in the room had shifted. Women started to complain of the
lateness of the hour, of work awaiting them at home, before starting towards the foyer.

The woman hung back as the others shuffled into their shoes and departed. Her gaze didn’t
wander away from Katya’s face. Her eyes were small and black, curiously avid and birdlike.
Discomfited, Katya retreated to the living room. She hoped the woman would leave, but she
followed her, and before Katya knew what was happening, a set of bony fingers were fastened
around her wrist.

The woman leaned in. “If you want to see their faces, bathe them in milk with nail
clippings or a lock of your hair. The little one, she likes to hide. Something stronger might be
needed. You’ll know what to do.”

With that, she turned on her heel and was gone.

If Katya hewed to old-world superstitions, she would have rid herself of the matryoshki.
Water or fire would have served; tossed into the nearest lake, consigned to a bonfire, what harm
could they have done? Katya, though, did no such thing. She took the nesting dolls home and gave
them pride of place on her mantel. Her husband, Jonathan, wrinkled his nose when he saw them.
“They’re creepy,” he said.

“They’re supposed to be,” she replied, as she ran her finger over the empty space where the
smallest doll’s face should have been.

She had no real intention of taking the old woman’s advice. And yet when she sat
enthroned in the middle of her kitchen, her swollen foot in her husband’s hand, she stopped him as
he made to dispose of the toenails he had pared away. “Give me those.”

Jonathan gave her a questioning look, but he tipped the yellowed crescents into her palm
nevertheless. Katya closed her fingers around them and secreted them away.

When the time came, she was abuzz with the same nervous excitement she had felt as a
child when she and her friends had stood in front of the mirror in the school bathroom, trying to
call up Bloody Mary. Even so, she didn’t truly expect anything to happen when she submerged the
matryoshki in a tub of milk and tossed the slivers of nail in. She wasn’t sure how long she should
wait. She settled on fifteen minutes, but barely made it to ten before fishing the dolls out.

At first, she thought nothing had changed. Bodily, the matryoshki were the same crude
female likenesses they had always been. It was only when she turned the largest doll over that she
saw what had been wrought.

The matryoshka wore her mother’s face.

Katya almost dropped the doll. With trembling fingers, she laid it aside and took up the
next one. It bore her features in miniature: her wide-set hazel eyes, the strong nose she had hated
for most of her life and had finally made peace with in her twenty-seventh year. It even had the
mole that adorned her upper lip.

Katya turned both the dolls so they faced the wall. She braced herself before reaching for
the last one, but when she raised it up, its countenance was still blank.

The little one, she likes to hide.

Katya gathered up all the dolls, thrust them into a shoebox, and buried them in the back of
her closet. She buried all thoughts of them too, tamped them down as best she could, although
they would bubble up from time to time.

She had almost succeeded in banishing the matryoshki from her mind when she and
Jonathan had an argument. They were discussing prospective names for the baby. This had once
been a pleasurable exercise, rather like the give-and-take of table tennis. She would suggest Vera,
Sonya, or Elena; he would bat these away and offer up Jennifer, Caroline, or Frances in their
stead. As the birth approached, though, these debates had taken on a harder edge.

Their conversation began innocuously enough. “How about Yulia?” Katya asked.

“Do you mean Julia?”

“No, Yulia.”



The flatness of his refusal was unexpected. When Katya had told him she wouldn’t take his
surname, wouldn’t even consider affixing it to her own with a hyphen, he had assented without
protest. She couldn’t understand his unyieldingness now.

“What’s wrong with Yulia? It’s just one letter difference.”

Jonathan set aside the papers he was shuffling and leaned forward, his hands on his knees.

“Do you know what that one letter difference means? It means her name will always be
misspelled. It means people will constantly be telling her, ‘Oh, you speak English so well.’ It
means any time she sends out a resume, it’ll get shuffled to the bottom of the pack, if not thrown
out altogether. Do you want that for her?”

Katya recoiled as if she had been slapped. Jonathan rarely condescended to her, something
she loved about him, but when he did, she felt like a small girl standing before her father, fingers
knotted behind her back.

The next day, she dug out the matryoshki from their hiding place. She told herself that if
she could just get a glimpse of her child’s face, she would know what sort of name would suit her.

Something stronger might be needed. You’ll know what to do.

She placed the smallest doll in the tub of milk, and, before she could talk herself out of it,
pricked her finger with a needle. The drop of blood beaded on her flesh before its sluggish
descent. Katya forced herself to traverse the entire house, stepping into every room and counting
to a hundred, before returning to the matryoshka.

The most immediate change was to the extremities. The hands and feet, which had once
been crude stumps, now ended in delicately articulated fingers and toes. There was something odd
about them though; they were too long, as if they contained an extra set of joints, and they were
crowned with sharp, curving nails, almost like talons.

As for the face, features had swum to the surface, but they were smudged, indistinct, like
an out-of-focus photograph. Katya would have almost preferred it if the matryoshka had chosen to
show her nothing at all, rather than this half measure. When had she started thinking of it as an
agent with will, rather than a lifeless object?

She sat with the doll clutched in her hand for a quarter of an hour before the answer came
to her. When it did, she almost laughed at the obviousness of it. Her child had more than one
parent, after all.

The next Saturday, she asked, quite casually, whether she could give Jonathan a shave. He
agreed with almost unseemly eagerness. Katya had been cold to him since their contretemps, and
he seemed to take her offer as evidence that he was back in her good graces.

Once he was seated and lathered up, she began. The razor met no resistance as it glided
over his upper lip and the contours of his cheek. When Katya arrived at the tender skin beneath his
earlobe she let her fingers slip, in a way she knew he wouldn’t register as deliberate. As the blood
bloomed, Jonathan manfully tried to remain silent, but he couldn’t suppress a sharp intake of
breath. “Sorry,” Katya murmured, as she dabbed at the cut with a cotton swab.

She waited until she was alone in the house before filling the tub with milk and placing the
smallest matryoshka in it. The plug of cotton impregnated with her husband’s blood followed,
along with a drop of her own for good measure. “Little one, little one, show me your face,” she
crooned as the doll bobbed in the bath. She knew it was time when it turned in the liquid,
seemingly of its own accord. She snatched it up and shook it dry.

All its features were laid bare. The matryoshka had her own hazel eyes, but there was a
hard, avaricious glint to them that Katya’s lacked. If eyes could be said to be hungry, these were.
The full lips curved upwards, revealing long narrow teeth like—

Like fangs. She has claws; why shouldn’t she have fangs?

“So, there you are,” Katya whispered. She pressed the doll against her swollen midriff and
felt a flutter of movement: not a kick, something else. It was almost as if her child was scratching
at the inside of her womb, trying to find its way out.

The feeling subsided. Katya tried to call it up again, but it was gone. That night, she went
to bed early. She lay unmoving, her knees drawn up to her chest, as she waited for her husband to
join her. She had fallen into a gray half-slumber when he finally slipped in beside her and placed a
hand on the mound of her belly.

Katya wasn’t prepared for the tumult that arose within her. At the touch of her father’s
palm, the child seemed to come alive, battering at Katya’s insides with her little fists, drumming at
her with her feet. If Jonathan noticed anything amiss, he didn’t show it. “She’s kicking a lot
tonight,” he said, before turning on his back and dropping into sleep.

The next morning, Katya threw off her nightgown and stood naked in front of the mirror.
There was no change visible to the eye, but she knew something was different. Her flesh had
hardened, had lost its springiness and elasticity. She ran her hands over her stomach and found it:
a seam running across her middle, neatly bisecting her into two halves.

You could take me apart and put me back together again, and I would be none the worse
for it.

Her child had a way out. Her fierce, lovely girl, her Yulia—that was her name, no matter
what Jonathan said—had found her passage into the world. But did the world have a place for her?

There was one more thing to consider. Her father’s blood called to the child. Katya
wondered how much she would require. She tried to tell herself it would only be a pinprick’s
worth, a spoonful, but she knew, in the deepest crevices of her heart, that Yulia would need more.

Two competing claims tugged at her; husband against daughter, old love against new.
Katya didn’t know how to weigh them, but she would have to decide.

Her girl was hungry.