Useful General Notes for Different Dolls

fiction by Emily Sanford
third place winner of the 2017 Blodwyn Memorial Prize in fiction, sponsored by BookThug

“Combining form, structure, and language—from its narrow margins to its fragmented narrative—’Useful General Notes for Different Dolls’ masters an innovative approach to storytelling that feels like poetry without ever losing its footing as a piece of fiction. Although it provides but a glimpse at its cast, setting, and story, it feels completely whole, and the reader is not left wanting.”

It is essential to observe several rules when sewing doll
figures; flatweave fabric and a sturdy, hard-stuffed body
are crucial. One must use strong fabric with suitable
colour and good hand. Where osnaburg is unavailable,
feed sacking or muslin will stand in good stead.


My grandmother had the correct fabric for flesh—fine
and tight—neatbound stitches, long articulated limbs,
wideblue eyes and tousled hair. The doll had a hospital
gown, knitted lace underwear, a Sunday dress and
matching hat in taffeta. She convalesced in a lidded
breadbasket lined in calico, with the tiniest pillow and
hand-stitched quilt. A modest blush framed her smile—
real rouge on pallid cheeks.


She must have known of the operation weeks before, to
have had time enough to sew the doll. I learned about the
procedure in the tense days just before; my mother
treading the shard-glass line of negotiating contrasting
fears of patient and kin, navigating diagnosis, preparation,
recovery, and the dispatch of details to according bodies.
An emergency nurse, my staid mother was acutely aware
of all risks complications that might arise.


A girl my age was assigned a similar procedure. We played
with the doll together in the hour before being wheeled
into separate theatres. We dressed the doll in the hospital
gown and removed her underwear, as we were instructed
to do ourselves. I never saw the girl again, though asked
about her often. I suspect my mother was protecting me.


One might believe there is little significant difference
between lengthwise and transverse threads in plain
fabric. The length, parallel to selvage, is the direction
the looms are warped when woven; these threads are
taut. The crosswise, or weft, threads are woven over
and under the warp strands and have the tiniest bit of
slack. When pulled across the grain, greater weakness
will happen with wear. It is essential to begin with this
knowledge when constructing durable bodies.


The last moments I spent with my grandmother, she
wasn’t expecting visitors, so reclined in her seersucker
nightie in the overwarm ward. She spoke of my
grandfather visiting her in London on leave from station
in occupied Holland, where he lived with a young family.
They searched the city, hand in hand, for ribbons to give
the family’s two little girls to wear in their hair. She
marvelled with such sadness that there were no ribbons
to be bought in all of London. I hadn’t heard that story
before—nor had my mother, when I recounted it later.


Years after the operation, a school friend stole the doll.
She lived in a fancy house with storebought polyester
drapes; she was often locked out while her mother visited
with a boyfriend. She was instructed to go behind the
shed if she needed the bathroom, where the lilac bush
was thickest so neighbours couldn’t see. She renamed
the doll, and kept her in her underwear drawer. I’m
uncertain where I would keep her if I had her still.

EMILY SANFORD was born in Nova Scotia and holds an MA in Literature and Performance from the University of Guelph. She is the winner of the 2016 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival Literary Award for Poetry, and was shortlisted for the Janice Colbert Poetry Award. One of her recent poems was listed amongst The 10 Best Poems of 2016, by Vancouver Poetry House. Her work appears in Grain Magazine, Minola Review, and Plenitude Magazine. Emily works at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, as the Creative Writing Program Administrator.