Doll Count is a riveting portrayal of a psychologically, verbally, physically, and sexually abused little girl, the first work in Hungary to break this taboo. The shocking story its twenty-three chapters tells is, however, more than a diagnostic report: its lyrical prose unfolds in an unyielding ballad-like rhythm, making Doll Count a song of endurance, of one young woman’s insistence on the right to go on living. Doll Count takes on a subject rarely treated so unabashedly by works of literary fiction: the rape of children by family members, more succinctly known as incest. It sweeps the reader into the emotionally traumatized world of the victim from her own perspective, even as a young child.
Through the first-person narrative of an abused little girl called Nicolette, we glean information about the reactions of those around her, her attempts to resist, and how the violence she undergoes weaves its way into the fabric of her life, taking shape as her natural medium; a medium in which she somehow learns to live from day to day. Even as she goes to school and seeks to build friendships, though, her deep wounds continually foil her attempts to climb her way into a normal life.
Early on we learn that Nicolette’s parents regularly lock her away. We then learn of the abuse, the humiliation, the emotional blackmail she suffers at their hands, and we learn that the father rapes her daily as the mother looks the other way and the grandparents act as if everything was in order.
Nicolette’s only companions amid her utter vulnerability are her dolls. Again and again she escapes to her personalized dolls from her private hell; her repeated efforts to keep count of them comprise the story’s recurring motif. Her siblings regularly hide or maim the dolls to hurt her. The dolls are used and abused in other respects, too, becoming the objects of bargaining and blackmailing by Nicolette’s own parents.
Nicolette’s age seems to hardly matters after a while, since the same sort of violence keeps recurring. There is no beginning, no end, no way out. It’s as if time is standing still or, rather, as if several different sorts of time existed simultaneously. The narrative proceeds not in chronological order but more so in circles: Nicolette’s passing years come together in a blur, time whirling about virtually in one place from the time she is three years old to the close of her teenage years. Gradually the information comes, building slowly, subtly to the most brutal, most shocking revelations of all.
Veronika Czapáry is the author of two novels, Anya kacag (Mom is Laughing, 2012) and Megszámolt babák (Doll Count, 2013). Her essay “I Am a Woman in Hungary” appeared in A Megaphone, an anthology published in the United States (Chain Links, 2011).
Daddy always says he’ll give me rubbers when I’m big, that that’s the only he’ll let me do it with boys, that I’ve got to pull the rubbers over their weenies to keep from getting too many babies in my belly. Whenever he does so I think that soon I’ll be scared of lying down in bed with Petey, and I can’t stop thinking about Petey being maimed and I can’t stop wondering what will become of us now, Daddy says I’ve got to tell him exactly what I do with boys, how, and when, that I can’t just start things off on my own, that I’ve really got to tell him every time, and that boys can’t go down there, no, not there.
Every night I hold Petey really tight and I can’t stop thinking just how crippled he is, and I keep thinking of Frankie and of everything my little sister is capable of, that she flung him out the window.
My little brother makes fun of me a lot, yes, these days he can hardly stop, saying I always get a little bit hysterical whenever anyone mentions Frankie or Petey. I can’t stand it that this doesn’t mean a thing to him. Anyway, Mommy is a good cook: lunch is always tasty and I can’t wait to eat. The only bad thing is that if I reach out for a second helping, my hand gets whacked. Now Dolly and Lena are missing, too, and there’s no fixing Petey anymore.
All day long I cry. I’m as sad as can be since two of my dolls disappearing. I ask Mommy where they are, but she says I shouldn’t have illusions about the sort of dolls these are. Even the other kids in kindergarten said they haven’t seen them when I went looking out on the field where the boys play King of the Hill, and she says I shouldn’t make a fool of myself by asking them about dolls.
I think of Petey. What will become of him if he loses the rest of his body? What will I do with him then? What will I have in his place? Behind the bushes there’s a spot where everything disappears, in school they say that’s where that man who likes kids a whole lot and takes every one of them away, the “candyman,” hangs out, so we mustn’t go there. He’s like the thing that can appear anytime. Anytime. Sometimes I don’t dare go to sleep alone in my room, because I’m scared of that monster, Freddy Krueger, in the movie I once saw Mommy and Daddy watching on TV. I’m scared Freddy will chop up all my dolls.
My little sister twisted off both of Petey’s feet, completely off. So Petey is now a footless doll, and one of his hands is missing, too. That’s how I fall asleep with him, holding him tight, caressing his body, which now has just one hand and no legs at all, but if I tuck him in under the blanket, it’s as if he does have them. Every day I cry myself to sleep and am really sad about him not having feet and missing a hand. I love him all the same, yes, he’s my little baby, and I’ll never abandon him just because he doesn’t have feet or a hand.
Mommy threw Petey in the trash one day, saying “we don’t need good-for-nothing dolls like that cripple.”
In the bathroom everything is blue and the lights are on. That’s where I run to get away from Mommy. I lock the door, but she just stands there pounding it. “Come on out already!” she yells, “I promise not to go hitting you.” I know that’s not true. I stare at the tiles and wonder how long she’ll stand there. I stare at the bathtub and remember how Dad wacked my head against it one time while I was taking a bath. The tub now seems huge. I climb in, sit inside, and stare at the little rubber ducks, thinking how easy it was to wash the blood off the tub, just like that, as if nothing ever happened.
Mommy says we can’t keep the dolls inside the house, that we’ve got to put them out in the yard to get some sun, because “they take up all the space in here and scum up the whole flat, so it’s for the best that we get rid of Petey, we’ve got to get rid of old odds and ends.”
She doesn’t know where to put “all those grimy dolls, which need a good wash,” but I know the dolls won’t survive being washed, because one time my little sister threw Blue Bunny into the lake, and Blue Bunny’s skin was just awful afterward. Every day I had to check the hamper in case the dolls showed up there.
If one time I really did stay put in the tub, they’d no doubt smash in the door, just like that, and the water would turn red, and they’d have to wash up after me. That’s the problem with me, that I always need to be washed up after, and everyone gets really tired of that.
Whenever I sit in Daddy’s lap, he puts his hand down there. He’s got a huge palm, so he says it’s easiest if I sit on it. This gives me a warm tingly feeling all over, right into my stockings. I feel that way all day long when he fiddles with me like that. I don’t know if he also notices, but I want him, I want him to touch me again, because when I get to feeling that way it can really hurt down there, it just about burns, all day long.
I don’t like it when the three of us go on vacation, Daddy and my little sister and I. It would be better just the two of us, because my little sister is a nasty little wretch who ruins everything, who has a blast all day long acting special, lying and tattletaling in that hooty way of hers, yes, she can’t wait to see Mommy so she can tell her everything, always making fun of me, saying Daddy and I are a “crummy clan,” the “Daddy clan.” During vacation it’s Daddy who washes us, because Mommy’s gone to America for a month, and that month lasts a really long time. He always washes both of us, my little sister too, except we’ve got to take separate baths, even though I really like taking a bath together with my little sister in that little pink plastic tub they make for kids. It’s mainly me that Daddy’s got to wash, because I’m a big girl already and a lot dirtier than my little sister. Whenever I think of my big sister I start crying all of a sudden, since she’s no longer with us on vacation. No, just a couple of dolls are with us, them plus my little sister. Back then my big sister and I used to spend lots of time laughing and playing with dolls that belonged to both of us. We dressed them and undressed them, and everything was always really funny.
I tell my little sister a lot about the “postal princess,” the one who lives in that palace-like post office building that towers over that busy crowded square, Moscow Square, way off in the big city, Budapest. Granny’s flat is right in that very building, so I have lots to say about it to my little sister. The postal princess has red, blue, and green rooms, and sometimes she flies away with a prince who comes to get her. Granny likes living there, because from way up there she can see everything happening on Moscow Square down below.
Daddy really likes to squeeze my bottom and is always rubbing me a lot, because he says I’m beautiful, that he belongs to me most of all and that he’d like to get to know me from the inside, to stay forever inside of me, because being my daddy is a privilege, yes, nothing better can happen to a man than to be someone’s daddy. And if that’s what happened, after all, he’ll check out my vagina to make sure I’m all right, because he feels every bit of me should be checked to be sure there’s nothing wrong, like making sure after my bath that no soap got inside my vagina, because that’s unhealthy, and it’s not good, either, if sand stays in my panties after I’m on the playground, so he checks that, too.
You’ve got chicken pox, says Daddy, and Mommy agrees. There are spots all over me and they need to be looked at and spread with cream, because if any stay in my ears or down there, it will mean big trouble, then you’ll be a retard or a cripple forever, so you really do need to be spread all over with cream.
When I was little and Mommy had to go away, it was always Daddy who changed my diapers, who wiped and spread baby cream on my vagina to make sure it stayed nice and moist and wouldn’t get all chapped up.
Mommy used to travel a lot, since she was taking college classes in another town, but that was no problem, because Daddy was already creaming me up then, too, to make sure your vagina stays a healthy pink, so when you’re big the boys will like you even more.
Daddy always wants what’s best for me.
You’re always pressing your vagina to me and we rub each other a bit whenever we fall asleep, but, hey, don’t go telling the other boys we do that. Your Mommy went away again for a week, but if you nestle your vagina up against my thigh, then it’ll be almost like she’s here, and we can get a good night’s sleep and everything will be okay.
When you use the toilet, little girl, we need to wipe you well down there, and to look to be sure any poo-poo that got in there gets right out, just like when you had the chicken pox—to be sure nothing stays in there, and to do that we’ve got to stretch those two little lips of yours and examine it just like the doctor examined the rest of you. It’s really important to be sure no poo-poo ended up in there, and to do so we’ve got to open up your vagina, just like we’ve done so many times before at night, except it doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, no, now we’ll do it during the day. Imagine that it’s nighttime even during the day. Don’t touch it, please. Don’t pull at your skin there, and don’t rub it, either. Only I can touch you there, little girl, otherwise I’ve got to spread it with that little tube of white cream again so your vagina stays slushy, and Mommy would notice, and we don’t want that.
Don’t rub it, I told you, it’ll bleed, and we don’t want that.
Don’t go hiding behind the door, little girl. You know I’ll find you anyway. This is important for us, like when we checked your chicken pox every single day. We’ve got so many nice pictures of you from when you were a little girl. Your mother’s seen them, too, like the time you were eating cookies and some crumbs fell into your vagina, and we took them out. Mommy likes your vagina a lot, too, so the next time she comes home I’ll just have to protect you from her. I know you’re crazy about me, too, little girl. I can see it from the way you put your legs on me and rub up against me. That speaks for itself. Only big girls do that sort of thing, you know. But you don’t need to feel guilty about loving me a lot more than you love your mother, no, she got used to that a long time ago, though it was a bit strange for her to think that her little Nicolette loves her daddy more.
Even when you were a really little girl you used to listen in on the things Mommy and I did in bed, I know that for sure.
I just love it when you sit in my lap. I can’t keep myself from rubbing you all over, you know. We’ve got something going every night, little girl, and I’ll skin you alive if you go telling anyone.
If only you’d always have the chicken pox, because then it wouldn’t bother your mom that I look over every bit of you. Chicken pox can spread like crazy, that’s for sure. Really pretty little babies got really pretty little faces, feet, nails, and thingies, and you’re a really pretty little girl. Everything on you is so pretty, yes, it’s good that Mommy is away, because I can do what I want with you meanwhile.
I really love your silky skin. How good it would be if you stayed right here with me and never grew up, if you kept on being my little girl, my private entrance little girl.
While your big sister was alive, all three of us slept in one bed. You do remember, huh? Or don’t you remember at all what your big sister was like, that the two of you slept with me whenever Mommy went away? Well, the way you touch me feels just like the way your big sister used to touch me. Sometimes you two are just so alike, little girl.
It’s really upsetting when you resist. It gets me all riled up. Now, it’s no problem if we don’t think about Mommy, no, we can forget all of that.
Believe me, little girl, your temper tantrums won’t get you anywhere—at most you’ll prove that your place is in the hospital, because in the end that’s where you’ll end up, anyway. We’ve got more important games to play than tantrums.
Now that your big sister has died and your mother’s gone away, I’ll be the one giving you a bath every day. Either you get used to it completely, little girl, or else I’ll beat you black and blue. And maybe Mommy won’t even come back from college. Come on, little girl, don’t go crying now. After all, maybe she forgot about you a long time ago already.
I’m your daddy and you’re my little girl. Promise me you’ll be my one and only, private entrance little girl forever, just like your big sister was. That’s how we’ll feel inside and out, yes, that’s how we’ll feel about each other.
You’re so pretty. Just be really careful when you go outside so Freddy and the candyman don’t take you away, and don’t you take a gift from anyone, hear that, little girl?
Veronika Czapáry: Megszámolt babák
Budapest: Scolar, 2013