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The Guardian of Dolls


“The waters of these canals used to be so clear, Senor, you could see the pebbles at the bottom,” Miguel says, rowing his trajinera. I watch the tourist he is addressing, with interest.

Matt looks no different from the folks around here, except for the crisp white shirt he wears.


“And what story do these waters hold?” Matt has an unusually calm voice.

I answer, almost by rote, “One evening, in the 1950s, Juan Machias was sitting by the canal. He was a funny man, yeah, always up to an anecdote. And then, he happened to look down into the clear waters and what does he see?- A little girl’s body!”

Miguel stops paddling, bends forward, and adds in a muffled voice, “Juan was never the same again. He got the girl out; she’d been dead for hours. He found a doll near the spot. And then, he grew quiet. Stared into nothing for hours. Stopped eating. Said he heard the little girl’s voice, “Give me my doll!” He screamed, shivered and slumped on the floor. Over and over. For several months!”

Miguel shudders involuntarily as he resumes, “His crops died. And he walked around like a dead man, clutching that doll all the time. And then one day…,” Miguel quickens the pace of paddling as if recovering himself, “He pinned the doll up the tallest willow on the island. For the little girl’s sad spirit, he said. And he became calmer. The crops returned. He never quite became himself, though. He was always looking for dolls- the ones trampled under feet in crowded fairs, in trash cans, from dumpsters on his occasional trips to the city. And he pinned the dolls on the tree.”

“They say he did it to ward off the spirits that possessed him from time to time…,” I eye Matt. I enjoy making tourists squirm. But he doesn’t seem rattled. Funny guy. Which tourist does not click pictures with his phone?

“They say all kinds of things,” Miguel shrugs, “ And old Pacheco loves scaring people.” He digs his elbow into my belly, and it jiggles with my laughter.

Miguel is my friend and neighbor. Our houses are a few hundred meters apart, on a small chinampa in Xochimilco. I’ve lived all my life here, he shifted here a few years back. And we have been friends ever since, taking lifts in each other’s trajinera, to get supplies from the city.

Miguel moors the boat, as I prepare to alight. “How is Adriana doing?” He asks.

“The girl is fine. She will take her time to recover. I insisted her mother go back to work today, you can not hold back life from going on, can you?” I climb onto the wharf.

“Pacheco’s widowed sister, Maria, lives with him. She lost her elder daughter Sophia last month. Adriana is the younger one,” Miguel elaborates for Matt’s benefit.

I wonder why he has to explain stuff to tourists. I wave as I turn to leave.

“What happened to her?”

I spin around in surprise. Matt looks at us in turns. His gaze is calm too, or is it cold?

“To Adriana’s sister, I mean.” Matt steadies his gaze on me.

“She was a weakling. Limped from birth. She had a fever…” I do not like explaining things to tourists.

Miguel coughs uncomfortably, then stops.

“The weather is chilly, heh?” I cough too.

They drift away. But Matt keeps looking back. Behind where I stand. I look back. I see Adriana standing at the window of my cottage, looking into the water. Fair little Adriana.



“ Strong arms, Senor. Are you a sportsman?”

“I swim,” I say, adding as an afterthought, “A lot.”

“That explains,” Miguel continues as he looks into my eyes, “You are a man of the water. No wonder you understand.”

Whistling, he brings the boat to a halt. “ Welcome to Isla de las Muñecas,” he says with a flourish.

“What happened to Juan Machias?”

“He was found dead, at the same spot he found the girl. They say he had a heart attack,” Miguel turns the boat back.

He hollers after me, “Juan Machias was my grandfather.”



Torn dolls.

Of rags, wool, wires and plastic.

One with a missing eye, one with her arm wrenched from the shoulder socket.

Ones that blink when you move them. And others that stare.

A few have singed hair and charred faces.

There are dolls everywhere – up the willow tree, keeping company with the first doll Grampa Machias had put up at the top. There are others- clipped to clotheslines, mounted on lamp posts, straddling the backrests of benches.

I stare at them because I can not help it. They stare at me, all of them together. It is hushed, like before a tempest. In a moment they will begin talking, and then screaming. Crying and laughing. All at once. I know, because this is not the first time.

I shut my eyes tight, straining till my cheeks hurt. I press my palms over my ears.

Am I trying to shut them out? Could I? Should I?

I see Pacheco waddling up to an elder tree. He is a short man. He barely reaches up to a kneeling branch and ties a doll there. He kisses the doll, his tongue lolling out.

“Pacheco! You madman! You too?” I scream.

He waves at me and totters away like he hasn’t heard me.

I stare at the doll he left behind. She smiles, and then whimpers. And she gets off the branch, on her feet. And she walks towards me, with a limp!

“Look what he did?” She sobs.

 “See what he did?” The dolls close in on me. All in a rush, one of them limping.

I scream in silence and curl up into a ball.

And then, I wake up.



“ The prince decided to stay hidden for one more night. He wanted to reveal himself to the princess, but he feared her witch Godmother…” I keep my impatience from creeping into my voice as I read out a bedtime story to Adriana. I stroke her cheek repeatedly with my thumb, even as she listens with rapt attention.

My face is buried in the book, but my mind wanders. It has been over a month since…Sophia, Adriana’s sister, was soft to the touch. I remember narrating her a bedtime story each night, stroking her cheek, and her hair….licking my lips in the tantalizing memory of the afternoons when I took her for a nap while her mother went to work. Her tender skin turned pink each time I pinched her…the thrill each time she cried in soft protest…

Zzzzz, Zzzzz….

Maria’s loud snoring pulls me ruthlessly out of my fantasies. The woman toils enough to lie dead as a log in the night. I could bite into little Adriana’s soft thigh without waking her…I dismiss the thought with a forceful shrug. Mothers could not be trusted. She could wake any moment. Besides, now that she has gone back to work, it is only a matter of time….

Zz, Zz…

The snores are softer this time. It is Adriana, fast asleep. Fair little Adriana. I reach out to touch her, a tingling warmth enveloping me when I suddenly feel a cold hand on my shoulder.

I turn. Miguel’s eyes bore into me. There is no need to explain. He knows. He plants both his arms on my shoulders, fixing me to the spot with strength I know he does not possess.

I try smiling at him. The muscles of my face are frozen. I try speaking, but my tongue is stuck, pinned in its place by my teeth.

I feel Miguel’s fingers on my throat…Gasp!

My tongue finally becomes free as I gasp for air! I scream, but I hear nothing!

Puto! What are you doing?” I kick frantically. He stands steady as a rock, now clasping my throat with a single hand.

Everything in the room blurs…

“Tio! Stop Tio, you are hurting me!” I hear Sophia whimper.

Zz, Zz…Is that Adriana snoring?

“Ha ha ha!” -Munecas! All of them…torn and mangled and charred! I see all of them. Laughing. Peeping at me from behind Miguel.

And then it strikes me! The several deaths in and around our chinampas through the decades. All were declared natural deaths. I see Sophia limping towards me. I see the dead faces of men from centuries before. I am one of them. The dolls are laughing as I fall.

The last thing I see is Miguel slumping onto the floor, next to me.



The canals come to life on days of the fiesta. There is a pop of colors- Mariachi bands, snack canoes, and Michelada vendors. As if everyone is falling just a little more in love with Xochimilco, all at once.

I wave as Matt gets into my trajinera,Hola Senor! Isn’t it a beautiful day?” It is his last day, and I am dropping him off at the embarcadero after taking him around the fair.

Matt settles on a chair close to where I sit. He nods in response to my greeting but says nothing.

We ride in silence. The cheering and hooting of the fair-goers drown in the waters as we make our way further down the main canal.

“Last night, I saw you at Pacheco’s.” Matt shatters the silence with a quiet declaration.

I am about to mumble an excuse, but he looks me in the eye. He has eyes of the color of the water of these canals…before they began to get polluted. It is like staring into the waters. Your truths confront you.

“I will never utter a word about it. You are safe,” Matt says so quietly, I can barely hear.

Gracias.” I want to say, but I begin babbling instead, “I do not remember what I did. But I know it is me…Ay, mi Madre! Why am I opening up to you…?”

There have been many more before?” Matt asks. He is a man of the water, he knows.

“More victims, you mean? Like Sophia and Adriana? Many. But not all have been avenged, yet,” I look away, but continue, “Senor, our family has been guarding the dolls for over seventy years. We grew up on that island with the dolls- Isla de las Muñecas, but I decided to shift after I married.”


“ I don’t want my kids to know. I don’t think they would want to be a guardian. No, not in these times. And only the guardian can know what it is all about. Grampa Machias and my father, and now me. We have given our consent to be the medium to serve justice. But not my children.” I nod my head vehemently as if trying to convince myself.

“But this place needs a guardian. Every place needs one, perhaps. Who will look after the dolls after you?”

I do not answer.

“I think I will leave it to the dead.” I mumble as I drop Matt off at the embarcadero.

Smiling, he pats my shoulder, “So be it.”



Miguel paddles away, never looking back. Dawn is yet to break, there is no one around.

I jump into the water. And dissolve without a trace. Like salt.

My trip to the mortal world has been successful. I needed to know the guardian’s wish. He wishes for no more mortal guardians. And I, the Water Spirit, respect that.

These canals have had a history many have conveniently forgotten. Over four centuries ago, women and children hid in these canals to escape the conquistadors of Spain. The water knows. The cries, the defeat, the violation. Not much has changed. The faces have altered; the sins remain the same. Dolls, little ones and older, have been abused. Mutilated in more ways than one, by foreigners and family.

The dead will serve justice- just the same.

And the waters will serve the dead, just the same.


Author’s note:

Xochimilco is a borough connected to Mexico City. This canal and chinampa system, as a vestige of the area’s precolonial past, has made Xochimilco a World Heritage Site.

This story is based on the lore of Julian Barrera, I have taken the liberty to change the name. And the island of dolls does exist and is a tourist spot.



The local words used here belong to Mexican Spanish.

Chinampa: Artificial island

Senor: Sir

Tio- Address for Uncle

Trajinera: Gondola-like flatboat, typically with a dinner table and several chairs

Pulque: a Mexican alcoholic drink made by fermenting sap from the maguey plant.

Michelada: a Mexican drink made with beer, lime juice, and assorted sauces

Fiesta: Celebrations, typically on the day of a festival-food, dance, amusing games

Gracias: Thank you

Ay mi madre: Oh God

Embarcadero: Quay, pier, the landing place for an inland waterway

Cortes: Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (c. 1485-1547) is best known for conquering the Aztecs and claiming Mexico on behalf of Spain.

Puto- Faggot, cuss word

Muneca: Doll


This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Deepti Menon

    This is a story that has elements of horror, but sings a poignant song as well. The dolls are pinned on the trees to ward the spirits off, but there are humans who are monstrous and need to be stopped. The guardians play their part magnificently, but sometimes, it is left to the dead to serve justice. The last two lines are haunting, and this tale remains in the mind even after it has been read. A magnificent read! Kudos!

    1. Avatar
      Khushboo Shah

      Thanks a ton mam!

  2. Avatar

    A complex story with a lot of characters well planned out. Enjoyed reading the story. The multiple first person pov’s had a confused a bit though.

  3. Avatar

    Wow that was one complex story but that adds beauty to it and makes it different from all. I will confess that I had to read it twice to understand it fully. There were so many characters that I got confused mid way and had to start again. But the word limit was the culprit here. A unique, well thought and well woven story!

  4. Avatar
    Lakshmi Ajoy

    Hey Khushboo Shah , this was an extremely well executed plot of horror with an eerie element that gave us different POVs. The introduction of ragged dolls truly gave it the Anabelle effect. Creepy and eerie. The start was fresh and a lot of show was seen. The description of scenes were done flawlessly. However, the characters could have been described better. Also, there were multiple characters that created a break to the readings which could otherwise have been smooth.
    However the local Mexican flavour, the scenes, the descriptions and the dolls made it a well executed horror story. Brilliant work my dear.

  5. Avatar
    Arpita Bhattacharya

    A story that starts with reflection. The ending lays bare the reality. The hoice of setting of the plot deserves kudos. The story haunts and the reader is left wondering about the sequence of events.

  6. Avatar
    Ratna Prabha

    Poignancy and horror, a splendid combination and executed very, very well! I’m bowled over, Khushboo!

  7. Avatar
    Monica Singh

    I love it! Love, love, love it! The spook factor is immense—through the description of the dolls, the eerie depths of the canals and through the POV of the 3 characters.
    This line – I do not like explaining things to tourists. And—Fair little Adriana—gave me chills! Excellent foreshadowing. ❤
    For me, it was easy to follow through the narrative and keep track of the characters as well. The narrative was fast-paced and extremely intriguing. The flawless SDT just added so many layers to the horror.
    A couple of sentences need restructuring.
    I think the challenge here is that the characters seem to merge into one another—esp. Miguel and Pacheco. Adding a few physical descriptors for each man would do the trick.
    Pulling off this kind of story in 2k is a tremendous feat! Spooktacular, this was!

  8. Avatar

    What a dark, gripping story. From the very first line, you rope in the readers to the world of trajinera and deep water! The prompt has been brilliantly and sensitively explored. I found the plot a bit over crowded with characters, I had to keep going to and fro to keep track of who’s who and what is happening. But the storytelling is done very well, that makes up for it. Loved how the words flowed. The climax is another well executed element of this story.

  9. Avatar
    Vaijayanti Panchal

    Wow Khushboo, this was a master piece! Each and every aspect in your narrative was very well etched. I was intrigued with your plot which was executed in an excellent fashion! The end was the cherry on top ❤

  10. Avatar
    Preeti Athri

    This story had many layers to it which made it intense. The many first person narratives got me a bit confused. It would have been amazing had it been a novel. However, kudos for use of brilliant language, proper pauses and local terms and flavours. Do explore the idea of making this into a full fledged novel.

  11. Avatar

    I simply love the way you seamlessly wove the all-too-prevalent reality of violence against women and children into a very vivid, captivating Mexican tale of horror. As a lover of the Spanish language and culture, I love how you have blended Spanish words into the English text and evoked the very intriguing myth of the water spirits. And of course, the setting, the Isla de la Munecas, is splendid!

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