Jimbo here. My Darling Valentine is one of those stories where you’ll replay it in your mind late at night, far after you’ve tried to go to bed. I love it. The pace is spooktacular and the details bring the horror to life…
My Darling Valentine by Brenda Tolian
Mrs.Stalaoski sighed in satisfaction, her hands busy in knotwork and last-minute changes to the thing she called Valentine the doll. The thing’s skin was dry, cracking and peeling back in places. It had become impossible to caress it without cutting one’s fingertips and receiving splinters. Mrs. Stalaoski didn’t mind the effect; in fact, it seemed to add to the ghostly allure of her project. The project had been months in the planning; each detail carried out with expert precision. She liked to think that she could take artifacts and art and combine them in astonishing statements that stood in the representation of the art as a whole.
Mrs. Stalaoski whispered quietly into the ear of the still head.
“Valentine…my love open your eyes.”
It was an absurdly external command, as the eyes were eternally open, glassy, and black. A few hours before, she had injected indigo ink into the filmy green orbs. She had watched as they swirled and filled with the darkest blue then solidified into an opaque black with every new injection of the tiny hypodermic needle.
“I planned a party for us today, invited guests, some you will know, some will be new to both of us.”
Mrs.Stalaoski continued her delicate work, holding up one then the other wrist of the doll placing rough rope beneath, the fibers embedding into rough peeling skin as she continued her knots.
“It will be so much more than last year’s installation. I will stage you at the top of the stairs where everyone will see.” She sighed, running her fingers over the parchment-like cheeks of the doll.
“ Oh, my darling, you will be so beautiful, so much more than last year’s drab art. This year it’s my stage alone.”
The mistress of the house, Mrs.Stalaoski, had counted down till this one day in particular. A year before she had put Valentine in a stone and wood enclosure in preparation. A certain amount of curing had to take place,months of dry mountain air and smoke. It obsessed her so much that at times she thought she could hear her doll’s screams or imagined singing. Mrs. Stalaoski felt the duality in the sound; it was both lovely and distressing.
She looked down upon the face noting that the lips were still nicely sealed shut, sewn with delicate stitches of silver thread months ago. She supposed one could become obsessed with the work as she had quickly done in the capture and execution of the lonely form. It was as natural as falling in love, at least in how she had experienced it.
“Yes, love,” Mrs. Stalaoski said with reverence for the physical abstraction of sensual beauty that lay upon her table.
Today, after all, was the seventh anniversary of the first masquerade and it needed to have the element of perfection. The event was to be entirely under her direction this year with no other planners, and she wanted to prove she was up to the task. She would settle for nothing short of magnificence. Her inspiration was derived from her own interpterion of history and the Chateau of Versailles with over the top decadence and style.
She slipped Valentine’s stiff arms and legs into the white dress she had found in the trash a few months previous in an old crumpled box. Mrs.Stalaoski had asked her husband about it, but he remained mute, only shrugging and slinking off to his study, where he preferred to stay undisturbed. She knew to whom the dress belonged, and this made the use of it even more symbolic to her mind.
Mr. Stalaoski did not like all the unnecessary fuss, nor the disruption of the house with the upcoming festivities. He especially did not look forward to entertaining the huge masculine presence the event would garner. To be truthful, he found it abhorrent to speak to any men outside of work, especially within his home.
He remained sullen and silent, spending his time smoking and drinking in his den, the room below his wife’s studio. He thought of his old love and the dress that he had thrown in the trash, knowing his new wife had adopted it for her creation. This made him feel ill, yet he could not deny his wife in anything. When his wife desired something, he simply fulfilled the request, as he had always done without question. He could hear her music above in the studio intermixed with the sound of power tools. He shied away from her while she worked and always waited until she was ready to present; this instilled a boundary of much-needed separation between them.
Mrs.Stalaoski in the room above shook her head, only slightly annoyed with her husband’s disengagement in her art and life in general. There had been a time when they had done everything together; now, they existed in different rooms as he had become moodier in the days leading up to the event. She had tried to alleviate his dark mood but then gave up pursuing her own interests leaving him to his den and his work. It was remarkable what marriage did over time, thinning into dullness, passion in a state of dying. Mrs. Stalaoski looked down at her work inwardly hoping it would light a fire between them. She pulled pins from the corner of her mouth, one at a time as she hemmed the dress around the silent Valentine. The fabric had to be lifted and draped carefully, and she did this with the steady hands of a surgeon.
“Oh, you shall be stunning!” She exclaimed, sitting back on her heels, surveying the work, feeling the excitement building.
She bent, dutifully pulling the fabric carefully over the curling hard skin. Valentine does not cry out, yet Mrs.Stalaoski imagines that it does. Only now in the imagination of the artist does the doll scream, or sings those old sweet notes. The work pauses from time to time as imagination takes over the mind of the artist with chilling arias of sound that reverberate through the studio with crisp emotion. Mrs.Stalaoski finds herself in a state of delicious unrest.
The doll had been horizontal so long in preparation that it was with great fervor that the artist planned her webbing and wings. Tonight, Valentine would fly above everyone like an angel. Mrs. Stalaoski began to weave even longer ropes placing knots here and there in the sophisticated Oriental style. This form of tying knots was complicated, yet she had been a student of the art for many years and took pride in the deftness of her hands.
Valentine is eternally still, the perfect model for such intricate work. Mrs.Stalaoski wonders if perhaps Valentine could have been a centurion instead of the angel it is becoming, so very disinclined in the ways of static or noise, yet gentle and fierce in its presence. The doll is finally raised on a pulley system until the toes are inches off the ground. Mrs.Stalaoski carefully works Valentine’s arms to more closely resemble the wings of an angel with a slip knot on the lower back. The delicate bones of the thing are snapped carefully to extend the appendages further. The doll’s ribs are pushed forward at strange angles that remind one of the beginnings of a Roman Eagle, white and polished in a way that is alluring to Mrs.Stalaoski sensibilities. She had taken great care in the curing of the neck and head, positioning it with scaffolding that when removed, left it jagged, and obtuse, the jaw more primitive and savage. This leads to further inspiration, and soon, the ribs are physically popped out, and long sweeps of lace fill in where the lungs would have been.
Mrs.Stalaoski had spent the months of planning with the patience of a mother. Time passed frightfully slow while Valentine is shuttered from sight in the preservation and regular smoking. Mrs.Stalaoski thought on the doll obsessively hoping for change that was appealing to the desires and needs of her own mind and body. It was to be a purely organic mode of art that pushed the boundaries of patience, something that the artist struggled with.
After a while when she is satisfied with the tiny details of the doll, she carries the fragile darling whose hesitant body resists the locomotion to the staging area, the long open balcony that ran the entire upper floor of the house. At first, she places the doll at the top of the stairs as she best remembers from the year previous. This ultimately did not satisfy her as the blue, and white lights did not appealingly glimmer off the flesh to the desired effect. She shifted her creation to the right, above where the crowds would gather below. Looking down, she imagines the faces as they look up at her work. She allows herself to feel the pride building in her chest.
Valentine offers no resistance, nor any word of acceptance; neither does the echoing reflection in the eyes show any emotion. Mrs. Stalaoski touches her fingertips to the dry face of Valentine. An odd smile creeps to the edges of her mouth, accentuating the wrinkles of an enflamed sun-kissed face. She had passion in all things, from art to love and even in hate and tonight this would be presented for all to see.
“All was forgiven long ago.”
She leans in her face close to the lips of the doll she had kissed and bitten in its formation. She knew this face intimately, and a flood of emotions washes over her. In fact, she begins to weep as she allows herself to give in to all the emotions of the accumulated years that led to this sweet victory.
“You are at home. Isn’t that right, my sweetest love?”
She spends the next few hours weaving and knotting the ropes to various points of the ceiling, the doll rising higher above in her representation of the state somewhere between life and death. The web upon completion fills an entire full half of the house, some glittering with paint, adding contrast to the installation.
Mrs. Stalaoski is almost breathless with her finished work. She adjusts Valentine’s long black hair that falls forward from the emancipated frame. The eyes are so dark they seem to reflect light rather than gather it in. The mouth glimmers with the silver stitches to keep it closed. An eternal plaything, a display in macabre splendor.
The first guests arrive in various costumes, a play on the theme of Heaven and Hell. They had all received invitations that read like an instruction manual to be explicitly followed. The masquerade was an invite-only event, and guests were to use extreme caution in care of absolute secrecy. The receivers of an invite were to act no different than if they were attending an Illuminati secret meeting.
Regardless of bright or dark, the guests all glittered amongst the flashing lights. It was challenging to decipher faces behind the masks among those who entered, but that was part of the mystery intended. In ambiguous faces, the behavior could be augmented to a different kind of reality. In fact, the hostess desired that the barriers that generally occur in a civilized society would melt with the offered protection of the masks.
Polite laughter and conversation intertwine with the music that created a pallet of sound. Bodies began to move in the steps of the dance; some of the patrons are carefully picked professionals and swing hips with added bells and beads. The house is transformed from the mundane to the exotic. Skirts and veils swirl in fantastic colors as if the patrons had arrived from a Turkish bazaar.
Mr. Stalaoski stands a bit removed from the crowd just inside the door of his study. He is hidden behind eyeliner and a mask with black feathers, but he can see his wife amongst the guests ruling her transformed silken kingdom. He is already slightly drunk, doing anything to avoid raising his eyes. He does not want to confront his wife’s creation that he even now can feel hovering above his head. He had done well in avoiding her studio up till now, and he decided it was far better to drink more than to face what she had made.
He thought on this for one moment and sighed as he was prone to do. With expert precision, he shuts and locks his door with a skeleton key that disappears into his pocket. Reluctantly diving into the increasingly more massive crowd as he seeks to remain invisible. Most of the people he did not know and those he did, he despised. Of course, he would never say this out loud. He rarely said anything aloud, only giving in to emotion in rare moments of screaming erupting from his mouth when he was alone driving.
He notes that there are some beauties among the bodies, and he gravitates in their direction. In the pursuit, he could shake off the feelings of regret and sharp sorrow of things better left unsaid and unremembered.
He regards his wife, who is dressed like a bird of paradise, crossed with a demon. The costume had been designed entirely for this night alone. She was in her element, proud and pointing upward at her creation. He struggled not to follow the tip of her finger with his own eyes. He simply was not in a place to look just yet. Some of the guests were loudly remarking, their faces not horrified but filled with wonder. He was amazed at this since the installations grew more garish and more intricate with every year that passed. He rarely looked, he knew that observation might elicit a reaction that might either kill him or drive him to murder. This feeling was so contrary to how he chose to live his life. He must keep up with the expectations of being higher than the others he interacted with, detached…dead.
The masquerade kicked into high gear with patrons enjoying the various drinks and food provided. Long tables were set with a seemingly never-ending buffet. Many were dancing in celebration of an event that could cut up the dreariness of the long winter months they all endured on the side of the mountain. One man who had overly enjoyed the drinks provided was telling those who would listen, that he was a deity reincarnated. When his obnoxious blather had annoyed enough guests, Mrs. Stalaoski had the man removed, thrown out into the snow-filled night to find his way home or freeze in the attempt. Nothing was going to disrupt the carefully laid out plans of the evening.
Mrs. Stalaoski later found her husband and took him to the small dais erected for the formal introduction of her work. She took his arm, holding him in waiting silence. The anticipation of the guests proved feverish as they moved in a wall of garish color forward surrounding their hosts. Someone quieted the music, and all eyes turned to them standing in contrasting union.
Mrs. Stalaoski gripped her husband’s arm tighter, her face shining in the light, and her skin dewy with sweat. Mrs. Stalaoski smiled under her teal mask, her lips trembling as if she had been weeping.
“Dear friends we want to thank you all for coming to our fifth annual masquerade,” She said breathlessly.
“Tonight is special…the first since we were married last fall.”
The crowd all called out congratulations some applauded. She leaned over and kissed her husband, trying to connect across the vast chasm between them.
Mr. Stalaoski began to perspire under the attention of the guests and beneath the pressure of the suffocating unknown above him. It hovered above, feeling like a poltergeist in the room. If he didn’t look, it would not exist.
“For my Husband, I have done my finest work.”
She turned to him and lifted her face, her eyes full of tears that came too quickly. He was unmoved, but it didn’t show. He felt his discomfort growing in the pit of his stomach. He hated dolls, and he hated her art, truth be told.
“My love, friends, I give you Valentine.” She announced with the sweep of her arms upward.
“Mariners Apartment,” a moody exotic male version of the song, began to play on cue. Mr. Stalaoski couldn’t avert his eyes but delayed the action by looking at his wife’s face as long as could before raising them. The gathered guests swelled in sound, making him feel dizzy and uncomfortable. He saw in their faces that what his wife had done was outside the healthy boundaries of her art. His eyes surveyed the room and then slowly swept upward in calculated measures to the installation above.
The doll was lifelike pale, the full size of a human. Its realistic bones protruded in sharp contrast to the fleshy bodies that surrounded him. It was tied up in a kinbaku fashion, tight lines and sophisticated design, its limbs spread wide like wings. What looked like rib bones were arched out in a fan of lace. The thing was enclosed in his old lover’s dress delicately pinned onto a gaunt frame.
He sucked in his breath as his eyes looked to the web of knots that extended outward suspending the thing above. Its hair fell forward like feathers, well brushed and silky, odd and magical in its grim surroundings. The skin was dried and peeling as one would find on an antique doll from the 1870s, and he wondered how his wife had attained this effect. He was horrified, his feet moving of their own accord as he walked across the hall and slowly took the steps. He stopped halfway when he could see the face of the thing more clearly, the crowd behind him falling away. He could sense his wife behind him but could not shape words, creating a membrane between them in his building distress.
The face was almost recognizable.
No, the face was recognizable.
Heat and icy cold started in his chest, working its way slowly through his body. The hair of his skin stood erect, his hands curling into fists. Sharp bursts of pain erupted as if he was experiencing the first fits of a heart attack.
He knew this face as well as he knew his own. The eyes were dead dark pools, but the mouth he could almost remember the feeling of kissing. The lips glittered with a silver thread as if the artist was trying to give beauty to surgical stitches. This vision was juxtaposed over his carefully curated memory of full rose lips that were once so smooth and hot under his own.
He took the steps now two at a time with urgency. The crowd below was still applauding his wife’s creation; the music was stuck on repeat. This was the nightmare he dreamed so many times, so much so that he often walked the long halls of the house trying to shrug it off. He dreamed of this face every night and practiced what he would say, the questions he would ask if he could see her face one more time.
His heart thundered impossibly hard in his chest as he approached closer. The face, her face, was stiff and dry. With growing panic, he knew beyond a doubt that it was her. He drew closer, noticing her face was left with visible trails of tears upon it, left with the full intention of the artist. Her bones were exposed and porous, and her eyes had indigo injected into them. No longer the green he remembered, he could see nothing speaking of life in their dark surface.
At that moment, he felt the choking realization that his wife’s project was not a doll; it never was a doll. He had ignored her every word, going along as he did in all things. Yet here, suspended in the web of ropes was the one he had loved and tried so hard to forget. He thought she had disappeared intentionally out into the vast West Coast, leaving him when the apparent spider woman had encroached on their home.
A wall of sounds like crashing cars and screaming children filled his head. He put his hands over his ears; he fought a body that shook on the brink of collapse. He resisted the urge to vomit and then did, wracked over until his ribs felt fractured. The gravity of duty and choice hit him; he should have run with her, not stayed here in this tomb.
But here she was, never having run anywhere. He didn’t know the story; he didn’t know if she struggled or if she suffered. He did not know if she had been here the whole time. His imagination painted pictures of her mouth sewn, screaming behind the thread. He wondered where his wife had found her, kept her.
She killed her.
He senses his wife behind him, but still tries to ignore her. Her warm hands are reaching out to touch him as he inwardly shudders. He didn’t know what to do next as he stood next to a killer that he still smelled of. He looked up at Valentine’s dead eyes. Flashes of her smile and voice thundered across his mind reaching icy accusatory fingers into his heart.
He finally took a ragged breath and turned to his wife.
Mrs. Stalaoski had a look of peace on her face. It was as if the work had changed her; her chin proudly extended with the narcissism he had in some ways appreciated until this moment.
He tried to speak, but words didn’t come; they were dammed up in his neck, building in a flood of madness. He closed his eyes as she opened her mouth to speak.
“Now husband we are alone…finally.” She paused, the music swelling with the raucous laughter of the guests.
“You, I and our darling Valentine.”
Brenda Tolian is a graduate of Adams State University and a Graduate Student at Regis University pursuing her MFA in creative writing. She lives with her twins in Alamosa Colorado, where she writes and teaches. Being an LGBTQ author, she loves to be inspired by the duplicity in her surroundings and explores the dark boundaries of law and lawlessness that still exists in the western states. The landscape, folklore, crime, and history of the Southwest drive her creativity when crafting her version of the Western Gothic