Camilla Grudova


The ship swayed back and forth on the sea like a cross between a cradle and a rowdy tavern. The wooden mermaid on its tip was a welcoming sign: gin and hard work for those with feet, death to those with tails.

Among the ship’s catch that afternoon were a magnificent orange octopus, silver and green fish, black eels, seaweed, glass bottles, small turtles, and chunks of red coral and jellyfish. The catch was a multitude of colours and textures, like the thigh of an old debauched prince squished into a stocking, the bulbous head of the octopus a blister ripe with pus.

How delicious it would be roasted, the sailors cried, but the captain stopped them: a zoo in Berlin or Moscow would buy the octopus and they would all be rich. In the zoo, it would wear a bowtie and make love to women pretending to be mermaids, the captain told his crew, redirecting their appetites. They made eel stew for dinner, and put the octopus in a bucket filled with water, with a lid on top.

The fishes disappeared during the night as the sailors, one by one, stole them away to their bunk beds, intoxicated enough that the small, wet creatures were adequate substitutes for women. By morning, scales covered their sheets, and the octopus was gone. After removing itself from the bucket and sliding across the deck, it quickly copulated with the mermaid figurehead on the tip of the ship before diving back into the sea.

The seeds of the octopus were very slowly saturated into the wooden mermaid.

She spent many more years at sea before the ship was taken apart, the wood of its belly turned into houses and bonfires, and the more precious parts, including the mermaid, donated to a museum where she was confined to the darkness of the storage rooms.

The sconce grew out of his mother very slowly, the way a tree grows roots, branches and gnarls, and dropped from her tail like a chestnut onto the shelf. As objects are all born with purposes, this one was born to be a sconce. The sconce had a cherub face surrounded by writhing wooden limbs which ended in two little bowls, too small for eggs, but the perfect fit for candles, which the sconce longed for with mysterious anticipation, to rid himself of the feeling of being empty-handed.

They lived in cool darkness, and sometimes light. His mother, in her silent wooden way, told him about the sea, and fishes, and sailors, and the octopus with orange arms who was his father. Once, they were taken out of the storage rooms for an exhibition on marine culture. The museum staff could find no trace of the sconce in the catalogues, and saw it as an administrative misstep. He was some bit of old ship, a decorative pustule. His mother was very much admired, her paint retouched before she went on view. Everything was so splendid, the sconce almost imagined himself as having been part of the same boat as his mother, an interior adornment illuminating the ship’s intestines.

Many viewers remarked that they could almost smell the sea, the exhibition was so vivid. The smell became stronger as the sconce aged: it was his inheritance from his father. Museum staff scoured the room looking for dead insects and rodents, and secretly accused each other of using the room for romantic meetings and oily snacks of olives and sardines. For a while there was no one. The lights were never turned on. The sconce nibbled on his memories of the exhibition, and his mother told him again and again in her silent wooden way about ships, octopuses and oceans. They had almost forgotten about the rest of the museum above and around them when an emaciated member of staff unlocked the door, sniffed, his nostrils flaring, and grabbed the little sconce. The man licked the sconce’s arms, and rubbed a piece of hard black bread across the sconce’s face, as if it were butter and not wood, before stuffing the bread into his mouth. He was about to put the sconce into a pigskin briefcase he brought with him and —

Boom boom boom!

The top of the museum was blown away, destroyed like a cake eaten by hungry children. Dusty light and scraps of oil paintings poured into the storage room and the staff member was buried underneath an iron anchor. A trail of soldiers dressed in grey marched in, looking for food (someone thought they had smelled salt and fish), jewels, anything. One soldier kissed the mermaid, leaving a rancid spot of spittle glistening on her lips. He had a child at home and the little face of the sconce made him sentimental, so he put it and the mermaid into his rucksack, a little make-believe wife and child to fondle until the war ended. All the soldiers in their makeshift camp admired her – they were starved for women – and a woman made of wood with a fish’s tail would do.

The soldiers came from a land of equality and sharing, and so the mermaid was passed around. Her wooden breasts were sucked and whittled down by the crude teeth and tongues of various soldiers, until there was nothing left but splinters and flakes of pink paint. They ate her lips, her hair, her shoulders, and, using a knife, gave her the anatomy a mermaid does not have, two rather small green legs, that were meant to be a woman’s but resembled a frog’s. They stuck wet rags between them, and it did fine for some.

There was one soldier who became fixated on the sconce, still in fine condition compared to his mother. ‘A nice sweet face, those cheeks, and tiny lips,’ he said, removing it from the other soldier’s rucksack one night, and emptying his desires onto the sconce’s face. He wiped the sconce off with a red hanky, and placed him back among the other soldier’s things. He continued to secretly borrow the sconce until the war was over.

The sconce was brought home from the war and for the first time, he became an actual sconce. The soldier nailed him to the wall, and his wife stuck two dripping candles on his writhing wooden limbs. The candles were more painful than the sconce had imagined them to be, and left black marks on his cheeks.

There was a child in the house, the child for whom the sconce was a substitute during the war. He was a little cruel thing and would take the candles out of their cups and hold the flame directly against the sconce’s eyes.

The child complained that the sconce gave him nightmares. In truth, he was jealous, and did not want another child’s face in the house, even a wooden one. His temper grew as his mother’s stomach rose, and the former soldier took the sconce away so that he could have a good night’s sleep.

He brought the sconce to a small stone house with a high ceiling and a tower. The house belonged to a fat man with a grey beard who wore black dresses. The walls of the house were covered in faces like his own, wooden faces, but also faces of gold, silver, stone and wax. There were candles everywhere, plants and strange ornate metal bottles that released nice smelling smoke. The sconce’s scent became unnoticeable among the many smells of the stone house, wax, smoke and rosemary (which the sconce did not know by name but came to love).

People came in, now and then, to sing unevenly, to kiss each other and to eat little meals – a sip of something, a small piece of bread, an onion. Often, the soldier’s family came, and seemed to be larger each time.

One day the large man in a black dress died and another large man in a black dress came to live in the same house. The new man had a blond beard instead of a grey one, and when no one was visiting, slept on the wooden guest chairs and drank by himself. Once, he ate a crinkled burnt fish while he drank, and left the bones on the floor.

The sconce told the fish bones how his father had come from the sea, and he had heard about fishes, but the fish bones didn’t say anything in return and were carried away by mice. Some of the stone and wooden faces were carried away too, not by mice but by the large man. They didn’t return. The man grew larger and redder and the sconce wondered if he ate them the way he had eaten that fish.

The time came for the sconce to be taken away. He was put in a sack and taken to a shop filled with old things. The bearded man left with a little bag of coins and the sconce was put on a shelf with a clown, a tin dog and a vase.

The shop was teeming with unclean life: moths, spiders, rats, worms, fleas, who gobbled each other and things in the shop which were covered in tasty layers of use: a crumb here, a tea leaf in the bottom of an old kettle, a mutton juice stain on a doll’s dress which still tasted of something when chewed, a chocolate forgotten in a black lacquered box.

The clown was made of cloth and the sconce saw him nibbled on by rats until there was almost nothing left, save for his porcelain hands which the sconce dreamed of placing in his candle-holes to use as his own.

The sconce himself was visited by wood-worms, who tunnelled deep inside him. He could not move his mouth or his cheeks but in his soul giggled at the sensation. Their consumption of him felt tender.

The owner of the shop was covered in fleas. He looked like a very small lamb, with glasses. He reminded the sconce of a painting from the museum, with two little babies and a lamb in it, surrounded by stars. One evening, the little lamb man put on a beret and a little red rucksack and left forever. The store had been sold to a new owner, a little fat man who smelled like perfume and liked to eat tinned oysters with a special little golden fork.

He cleaned the store with a feather duster and mop. He polished all the surfaces. He put traps everywhere for the rodents, and poison for the worms and fleas. After the worms disappeared, the sconce could feel air pass through the hollows where they had lived, and he felt lonely. The store was brightly lit and smelled like lavender and oysters. The fat little man cleaned the sconce with orange oil to hide his scent, which the fat little man rather guiltily blamed on his own oyster breath.

During a busy holiday season, a man wearing a white suit with a fresh red soup stain on it and a woman wearing a hat covered in glass strawberries came in and bought the sconce along with an enamelled copper teapot and an amber brooch with an ugly bug trapped inside. The sconce was put in a trunk with postcards of fancy buildings and seashores, a paper parasol, the teapot and brooch, and taken first on a train, then a boat, the first boat he had ever been on – but of course he didn’t know that because he was locked in the dark.

When they arrived at their destination he was hung on a wall covered in striped pink and gold paper in a dark and narrow house he couldn’t picture from the outside. He was given fresh candles every few days and became very well acquainted with a clock across from him who only knew one word, and a painting of a young woman wearing a yellow dress.

The husband, who no longer wore white suits, but grey ones, often paused in the hall in front of the sconce, flaring his nose and twitching his moustache: ‘The maid, I shall have to talk to the maid, eating sardines and not cleaning her hands again. I can smell traces of sardines on every surface she touches. Her fingers might as well be sardines.’1

When his wife passed by, she touched the seat of her skirt and then pressed her fingers to her nose, saying something odd, such as, ‘It isn’t that time of the month yet,’ or, ‘I thought it had passed.’ She would then look fondly at the sconce, which had the face of a little boy.

He stayed with the husband and wife for many years, and outstayed many maids who were accused of eating too many sardines. When the couple died the sconce was left to one of the maids, who loved it loyally and polished it with caster oil every week until she died. Her own child, a grown man with spider veins covering his nose, sold the sconce to an antique store, as the little face frightened him. He threw the money from the sale into a river. The sconce was displayed on a wall covered in paintings of ladies, oranges and chickens. There were many dolls in the shop with chubby faces like his, and a model of a ship in a glass bottle which reminded him of his mother. The sconce stayed in the shop for a very long time and was marked down again and again. No one knew how old he was, or where he came from.

He was eventually sold to a woman who wore a brocade dress every day with a suit jacket on top, and a gigantic plastic yellow rose in her hair.

She called herself Anastasia, and owned a restaurant. The restaurant was covered in decorative bric-à-brac, and the food was miserable and covered with red sauce, but very popular among bohemian and artistic sorts, including a famous eight-foot tall painter who carried a small tortoise around in his pocket and had, to the pride of the restaurant owner, given her a painting of the tortoise eating a plum. Anastasia felt she had an obligation to keep the eyes of her patrons stimulated. She continually added new things to her restaurant, searching through antique shops, the sales bins of department stores, and garbage bins. She carried a large basket with her everywhere, and a little box of tools including a hammer and a large pair of garden shears. She bought, stole, cut and stripped bits and bobs of the city as if it were her orchard: a forgotten public statue, a cupid on a gravestone rarely visited, a doorknocker shaped like a walrus, curtains in open windows, beautiful plants on windowsills, a bit of arabesque plaster off the façade of a building, the red accordion of a blind street musician, children’s dolls and bears grabbed out of their hands as they napped on the metro, cats and birds which she would have taxidermied by a gentleman who gave her a discount as she brought him more animals than she could use herself.

In her restaurant there were peacock feathers, plastic lilies and flaking mannequin arms in vases, tin toys, devil and maiden marionettes that jiggled when the restaurant became busy, a plaster Venus, a large glass sculpture of a bulldog, a bronze Roman athlete, dented trumpets, a broken imitation Baroque harpsichord painted with pastoral scenes in which many rats lived, clocks, paper lanterns, beads, stuffed birds, cats, small dogs and white mice, parasols, lamps, music boxes and old jars of sausages, beets and pickles that would be lethal if opened. Hanging from the ceiling was a gigantic Harlequin made out of papier-mâché and cloth, and which, if shaken, would sprinkle those below with fleas, centipedes, maggots and ants. Everything was splattered with layers of red sauce and grease, which gave the fabrics, including the tablecloths and puppet clothes, a translucent quality. Anastasia’s objects dutifully appeared in paintings, drawings, poems, films, and while she gave, she also took from her customers, quietly, like a mouse.

The kitchen wasn’t important: an icebox, a filthy stove covered in pots filled with murky water in which everything was boiled, a stockpile of tinned red sauce, tinned duck, veal and pork, spaghetti in plastic packages, condensed milk, bottles of red wine vinegar, an old canvas sack full of yellow bread rolls, and a few mousetraps that hadn’t been cleaned in years. The most important room in her restaurant was the archive, a former pantry filled with drawers and boxes in which she kept her patrons’ paraphernalia. Stained napkins, photographs, broken teeth (she served her yellow bread rolls stale to encourage this), spectacles, hats, bowties, umbrellas, fingernails, earrings and other jewels. She kept a watchful eye, and underneath her dress on a long chain, a tiny pair of scissors she used to cut bits of their hair so slyly they never noticed. She also had a red leather journal for keeping track of who came when, what they ordered, and who they talked to. As she strolled around her restaurant during its busiest hours, kissing cheeks and upsetting plates with her brocaded body, her little hands were busy grabbing, pulling, picking up little treasures. Her prize possession was a mummified finger belonging to a painter who had committed suicide2 and the emerald engagement ring of an opera singer. She sold the odd bit to a Brazilian or Japanese collector to keep herself in comfort, but nurtured the grand ambition of donating her collection to the state, or a museum, and being immortalized as a patron of the arts. Along with her objects, she kept a rotation of serving staff who were all in one way or another, by her own judgement, beautiful, grotesque or exotic. One month she only employed dwarves and the next, only persons over six feet tall. When the sconce was hung in her restaurant, she only had women with facial disfigurements serving. She paid them horribly and pinched them.

Earwigs and cockroaches lived in the glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling of her restaurant and mice chewed on the bread rolls before painters and critics did. The sconce did not mind such creatures and so he was happy, and in the restaurant he was reunited with the smell of his beloved rosemary, which was sprinkled in abundance on everything to hide rancidity.

A woman who hated fish came into the restaurant one night, not many weeks after the sconce arrived. She wore a black tuxedo and a hat shaped like a golden snail. She was accompanied by a young slim man with a drawn-on unibrow3 who wore enormous amounts of perfume to try and drown out any sea smells in their vicinity.

The woman hated fish because her father had drowned in a shipwreck on its way to a far-off metropolis. She had nightmares about her father’s body being eaten by fish and had spent a fortune on opiates, therapists and comforting luxuries to rid herself of it. She was an art critic. No artists had painted the sea, fish, whales, boats, oysters, or even glasses of water since her career had begun. Anastasia followed this rule: there were no signs of marine life, no seafood, no sailors in the restaurant. Talk of sea voyages was strictly forbidden.

When her food came, the critic said, ‘I did not order fish, I ordered pork chops with red sauce as I always do, and yet I smell fish. Did someone sneak fish into this dish?’ She examined her pork chops then got out of her chair and sniffed around under tablecloths, by the tortoise painting, sniffed the other customers, their diseased genitals and legs, their cigarettes, and their meals, sniffed the disfigured faces of the waitresses, the toilets, and the carpets, until her nose landed on the sconce.

She demanded the sconce be taken off the wall.

‘It stinks of the ocean, of fish, I feel seasick just looking at it.’

Anastasia hurriedly threw the sconce out and gave everyone a complimentary glass of red wine vinegar to calm their noses.

One of the waitresses took pity on the sconce and took him home along with her leftovers. She was very squat with a blonde bob and large red warts all over her face, which she covered with make-up when not working at Anastasia’s restaurant. She lived above a shoe shop and had pictures all over her walls of a sad woman with a scar on her face and a little baby that looked like a sick old man.

She kissed the pictures of the scarred woman in the morning when she got home from work, and before bedtime. During the daytime, the sconce observed the pictures of the woman with the scarred face, which were covered in greasy lip prints, and enjoyed the scent of new shoes from the shop below.

The sconce could tell when the waitress started a job at a different restaurant: her smell went from red sauce and rats to clams and tobacco. Besides her leftovers, all she ate was cabbage, tea, and little sausages from a fancy looking tin.4

The waitress didn’t see or talk to anyone. She picked at her warts, washed her clothes in a pot on the stove and listened to the radio. One night, she took the sconce off the wall, put candles in each of his cups, but rather than hanging him up again and lighting the candles, she brought him to bed, kissing his little face. The sconce enjoyed the sensation, and only wished that her mouth tasted like rosemary instead of clams and sausage. She took off her nightie, and tried out each candle, the sconce’s face leaving an imprint on her thigh. The woman was a virgin and the candles were bloody when she pulled them out. She took them out of the sconce’s bowls, and washed them in the bathroom before putting them back again.

The sconce continued to live in her bed. Sometimes mice and cockroaches crawled over him when the waitress wasn’t there. One day, her breath stopped smelling like clams and she stopped leaving the apartment. She held the sconce to her breast. People knocked on her door and she didn’t answer.

She left in the night, leaving all the pictures of the sad woman but one. She tried to fit the sconce into her purse but there wasn’t room for two and she took the picture of the sad woman with scars instead.

Everything left in the apartment was thrown out, including the sconce. I don’t know what will happen to it – it was found by an old man riding slowly around the city past midnight on a giant tricycle.5

This excerpt is reprinted by permission from The Doll’s Alphabet (Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Camilla Grudova.

Camilla Grudova lives in Toronto. She holds a degree in Art History and German from McGill University, Montreal. Her fiction has appeared in the White Review. The Doll’s Alphabet, her debut collection, will be published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, in Canada by Coach House Books, and in the US by Coffee House Press in 2017.


  1. This actually once happened in the city of —, in the year 19—. A boy ate so many tinned sardines, greedily with his hands instead of a fork, that one morning he woke up to discover his fingers had turned into sardines desperately gasping for water. He could feel their tiny hearts throbbing like wounds. He plunged both hands into his nightstand jug of water. He had to keep his sardine-fingers in a bucket of water to keep them alive. A doctor designed two glass mittens for the child but failed to take into account the need not just for water, but for oxygen, and the fish died. Their corpses were removed before they rotted, leaving the boy with fingerless hands. For the rest of his life he kept the fish bones of his fingers in an old cigar box in the bottom of his wardrobe with a note requesting the fish bones be buried with him when he died. As an old man, he would often go into grocery stores, look at sardine in their fancy tins and quietly weep,like a mourner visiting the grave of their beloved.
  2. In the restaurant, the young painter, who was from Moldova, got into an argument with a bald Russian sculptor who cut off the painter’s forefinger with a butter knife. It was a finger on the painter’s left hand, the hand he painted with, and as it was pocketed by Anastasia before it could be found and sewn back on, he went back to his studio in despair, a hanky wrapped around the stump, and said to himself, ‘Without the forefinger of my left hand, I might as well be without my —’ and castrated himself. He bled to death from the wound. The whereabouts of his — was the obsession of Anastasia. It was rumoured to be hidden in an abstract bronze sculpture of a goat made by the Russian sculptor.
  3. Without make-up, he had barely visible blond eyebrows but painted unibrows were very fashionable that season, and were called, for some strange reason, ‘Doll’s Fingers’. They were painted with either black, green or red make-up. The Doll’s Fingers were, the next season, replaced with ‘Doll’s Moles’, a painted dot above each eye rather than an eyebrow.
  4. There once was a woman who opened a tin of the same sausage brand to find a finger with the nail still on it. ‘It can’t be. It just looks like a finger, my eyes are deceptive, such a distinguished trusted brand would not allow fingers in their tins instead of sausages,’ she said. She ate the finger as if it were a sausage and choked on the bone and died.
  5. The old man is missing one of his thumbs. When he was a child, he stuck his hand in the bathtub where his parents were keeping two large carp to eat for Christmas dinner. After getting stitches on the stump of his thumb, the boy’s mother said she wouldn’t cook the carp, they should be killed and buried. The father didn’t want to waste them. When he sliced open their bellies, he removed their guts and the boy’s mother had them buried in the family grave plot as she couldn’t bear to throw chewed up bits of her son into the garbage. They ate the carp for Christmas dinner and the mother wept. The boy, for the rest of his life, could not eat fish without thinking about what those fish had eaten when alive…

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