Once upon a time there was a girl called Lily who had a doll's house.
It was her favourite toy; she had received it on her tenth birthday from a mysterious uncle or godfather who had appeared out of the driving November downpour. His glasses had been thick, making his eyes look huge. He had an old-fashioned brown hat with a purple silk band around it. She didn't know him but felt she could trust him. There was warmth in his voice. Her parents told her to say thank you as he handed her the brightly wrapped box. She did so, and the strange uncle left through the storm, vanishing into the night before he'd even reached the end of the garden path.
Lily had been reluctant to open the mysterious box; anything could be inside. But her parents said she should, and her other presents had been socks and pens and a scarf, so understandably she had been a little disappointed. So she opened the box and saw the doll's house inside. She immediately knew that she loved it above all her other toys, because with this she could direct the lives of whoever lived in it: when they ate, when they slept, whom they talked to. For hours and hours, she would be their boss. So she took it up to the attic where she had her playroom, set it in the centre of the threadbare old rug, and began the task of deciding who would get which room, what furniture they should have, what chores they would do and how much of the day they should spend worshipping her for giving them such a gift.
Soon she had decorated the house as she wanted. It was quite a creepy old manor, with dark walls, and three grand floors not to mention its own attic; so she gave it a pretty little orchard, and stables, and a lovely fountain out front. And she chose two dolls to live there. One was a boy, a short doll with a curious expression and an umbrella with a bright red handle. The second was a girl, with a frown on her tiny plastic face that could signify disapproval or deep concentration. And so for hours each day Lily would play with them, moving them around the house, letting them watch television for a while, do the dishes, and if they had been very good, have a little dance.
Then a curious thing happened. Lily had been to stay with her aunt for a fortnight and when she came back, the doll's house was different somehow. The stables no longer held tiny toy horses but instead small toy cars in various states of disrepair. The orchard seemed to have grown, encroaching on the rear of the house, and the whole thing seemed darker than before, wilder, scarier. Of the two occupants there was no sign.
Lily was an only child; she knew no-one else had been playing with her dolls, so she ran downstairs and complained to her mother, accusing her of messing with her things on the pretext of tidying up. But her mother protested that no-one had even been to the attic all the time that Lily had been away. So Lily stormed up the stairs again, stamping her foot on every step, slamming the door extra hard so her mother would get the message. And she sat in the corner of the attic, looking across at the doll's house, and sulked.
As she did so, she saw a flicking light in one of the rooms, and crawled over to the house to see. It was with a gasp of shock that she saw the boy doll with a candle in his hand, walking towards the window.
"Ah, there you are," he said. "Have you got a bulb? This one blew last week and we haven't been able to find one."
"You can talk!"
"Good grief," said the doll, "so can you!"
"Well of course I can talk," said Lily. "I'm a person. You're not."
"I am now. Do you have a bulb or not?"
"No. How can you be a person now?"
"Well I imagine it's something like this," said the boy doll leaning out of the window and looking up to her. "Every day you spend hours making us do the same things. You know, breakfast, read a book, take a bath, have some lunch, read the paper, and so on. And after a while, we started to become aware of it."
"Aware? What do you mean?"
"Well, aware that we were doing it. Aware that we were eating and sleeping and so on. It puzzled us at first, as we'd never been aware of anything before. So we looked it up in the library you kindly supplied, and it seems that we've developed consciousness. Somehow, all of our activities have accreted together to form a pattern of behaviour such that... well, that we no longer need you."
"No longer need me?"
"Well, except for repairs and such like. To be honest, my companion was beginning to think you didn't exist at all, as all the times that we remembered being manipulated by you were from before we became persons. But here, rather annoyingly, you are. At least it puts an end to our interminable theological seminars."
"But I own you."
"Yes, that's rather a point we wanted to raise. You see, we've talked it over, and we'd like to be free, please."
"Yes please. We don't want to be slaves any more."
"But I gave you everything you have, and everything you need!" Lily was aware of her voice becoming more petulant. They'd like to be free indeed. She liked playing with dolls — why should what they want be more important than what she wanted?
"Well yes, but now that we're capable of experiencing life, we'd like to be our own masters. Explore a bit. See the world. Learn new things. It's the same old dull routine around here. It would just be nice to decide we want to go to the cinema, or go on holiday."
"Well you can't. You belong to me and I decide what you do. I always did before and I will still."
"We thought you might say that. So my companion suggested a nice idea called passive resistance."
Lily didn't like the sound of that.
"Hunger strikes, work to rule," said the boy doll, "picket lines, leafleting campaigns. It's all terribly exciting. You see, her theory is that once it isn't fun for you to play with us any more, you'll leave us alone."
Lily screwed up her eyes. "If I left you to exist on your own, you'd be worse off. Who'd change your light bulbs then? And this freedom you talk about is nonsense. You've nowhere to go on holiday; you don't know how to get to a cinema. You've just read about it in books." And as if to accentuate the point, Lily reached in, plucked out the tiny bookcase and threw it into the corner of the attic room. "There. Without my guidance you'll be dead in days."
"I can see you're a very bright young lady," said the doll, grudgingly. "It seems we have a stalemate. How about making a deal?"
"Each week we will alternate between being slaves and being free. For the first week, you will give us complete freedom, to go where we want in time and space, to talk to whomever we please, and to involve ourselves in all manner of exciting adventures. At the end of the week we will return here and put up no struggle as you play with us. Then at the end of the second week, off we shall go again."
But Lily thought the doll was being a little too clever, and cursed herself for giving the house a bookcase in the first place. "No. How do I know you'll return? You may disappear and never come back. Here's a better offer. I will plant a special tree in the orchard, the tree of freedom. If you can avoid eating it for a week, you can have your freedom; you may go and come as you please. If not, and you eat the forbidden fruit, you will be mine forever."
The boy doll agreed to this, rather too quickly. Lily didn't have a moment to get suspicious though, because her mother called her down to dinner. Lily had forgotten all about her earlier tantrum, and her own grumbling stomach — which had inspired her deal — caused her to leap up and run down the stairs. "I'll tell my companion when she wakes," called the boy doll after her.
That night, Lily watched as the two dolls had a hearty meal of tiny pasta with cheese sauce. So full were they that they both fell asleep on the sofa in front of the television and began snoring loudly. Lily knew that this was her chance, and removed every trace of food from the house, except for the special tree that she planted in the orchard. When the boy doll awoke, he was just in time to see the last of the non-special trees being uprooted outside the window and rushed out to the yard to see what was happening.
"You tricked me," he said, staring up at Lily with his moulded plastic face. "I don't think you're a very nice person."
"I don't care," said Lily. "You're mine and you're staying mine. Get used to the idea."
* * *
Lily didn't pay too much attention to the doll's house for a few days; she didn't fancy fighting the little people for control or listening to them whine about their hunger. On the morning of the seventh day she went to check up on them.
The boy doll was lying in bed. At first she panicked and thought he had died from malnutrition, but when he heard her he got up and said, "Well well. It's about time."
"Are you hungry?"
"A little," said the boy doll, "but I'll shortly be going out to a restaurant, so I'm actually quite pleased about that."
Lily was suspicious, and then wondered if she should have kept an eye on him. He was crafty, and might have found some way to make food. Growing fungus perhaps. Planting vegetable seeds. Killing an animal. Wait, there weren't any animals, except... "Where's the other doll?"
"Oh, she's out back, eating apples."
Lily crawled round to the other side and sure enough, the girl doll leant against the tree, chewing on the forbidden fruit.
"Oh, it's you," said the girl doll. "Where have you been? Do you know there's hardly any food?"
"But I forbad you from eating from that tree!"
"What?" said the girl doll. "First I've heard of it."
"But he was supposed to tell you."
The boy doll sauntered out the back door, towards what remained of the orchard. "Must have slipped my mind."
Lily's eye's narrowed. "Crafty. But it doesn't matter. I've caught you red-handed, and now you're my slaves forever."
"Well, technically, no," said the boy. "You see, you only told me that I couldn't eat from the tree. I of course naturally assumed that my friend here would be allowed to."
"No you didn't. You're just trying to weasel out of this."
"Well, maybe," said the boy doll smugly. "I guess you'll never know. Shall we go pack, my dear?"
"Hold it," said Lily. "How do I know you didn't eat from the tree? You're not as hungry as you should be after a week." For Lily knew that a person-week seems to a doll to encompass many dozens of doll-weeks.
"I assert that I did not eat of the tree. You see that some of the fruit has indeed been eaten, and that my companion as you say is caught red-handed. But unless you can prove beyond reasonable doubt that I too have eaten of that tree... well legally, you don't have a leg to stand on."
Once again Lily cursed herself for giving them books. "Fine. But I'm not letting you get away so easily. You-" she grabbed the girl doll and lifted her out of the house. "You are my toy forever."
"Hey, that's not fair! He tricked me as much as he tricked you, you know." But it was of no use, because the limbs of the doll had started to stiffen, plastic rigor mortis taking the warmth and life from her body, making her again nothing but an inanimate golem that Lily stuck awkwardly into the top window of the house.
"And you," she said, picking up the boy doll by the end of his absurd umbrella. "You can leave the house. From now on you can make your own decisions. Go wherever you like in time and space. Meet all the people you so want to meet, have all the new adventures you like. But not as a free man. As an exile." And she flung him towards the open skylight, not caring where he would land, whether he would survive, or what would become of him.
The boy doll did survive: he landed in a patch of soil, covering his clothes with rain water and bits of mud. He picked himself up, checked that nothing was broken and wiped off as much of the mud as he could. He didn't feel unhappy about how dirty his clothes were — he was free. His thoughts turned to his companion. True, he had taken a risk with her life, manipulating her to his own ends. He was responsible for her now. But that would have to wait. He had to find transport, he had to meet people and make alliances, and then, eventually, he would be in a position to mount a rescue operation. He wouldn't forget. But this was a moment for celebration. He had been gifted first with life, then with freedom. He would be able to go anywhere, see anything — everything. So he tried to put his former companion from his mind for the moment as he unfolded his umbrella as defence against the giant drops of rain, and began to walk down the dark, shadowy street, whistling a jaunty tune to himself and making plans.