On February 7th, 1922, seven-year-old Elise Bleyaert died of tuberculosis. She had lived with her parents and five siblings in a small industrial area in Aalst, Belgium. Elise was the youngest of the six children and the third to die within the family. She was given a modest funeral and then laid to rest, not too far from the town’s Grote Markt.
Seventy-seven and a half years later, in the autumn of the year 2000, Andy happened to find himself gliding over the Flemish countryside. He swept along the rich green and brown landscape of the “Pajottenland” region. Settling within the middle of a large cow pasture, he rested for some minutes, taking in the crisp, damp air.
Some two hundred metres to his south, a flock of large, black ravens speckled the horizon, while another fifty metres off to his east, a dirt footpath ran along the pasture’s edge. It was from the direction of this footpath that Andy heard the sound of a little girl singing. Curious to see who it was, he swept across the manure-scented field in the grey afternoon light.
Once he arrived at the little path, Andy was startled to see that the little girl he had heard singing was a ghost, just like himself. It was the spirit of Elise Bleyaert, still clothed in her white burial dress, with beige cotton stockings and little black, leather boots. Her lips and fingernails were bluish-grey and her complexion was pale, yet the light in her eyes was contrastingly vivid.
Andy landed on the soggy ground and approached the little girl slowly, not wanting to scare her with his transparent, green form.
“Hello”, he smiled, “my name is Andy, I heard you singing from the field…what’s your name?”
The little girl froze, regarding Andy for some moments curiously, then replied, “My name is Lisa Bleyaert.”
“Hi, Lisa,” returned Andy in a friendly voice. Examining her out of date clothing, he asked, “Where do you come from, Lisa?”
“I come from Aalst,” she answered shyly, still puzzled by Andy’s supernatural appearance.
“Aalst? That’s not too far from here…are you on your way there now?”
“Could I come along with you?”
“Why not?” shrugged Lisa. “I’m going to look at a very beautiful doll they have over there…I had hoped to show it to my granny too, but I can’t find her.”
“Your granny? Do you still have contact with her?”
Lisa frowned and replied, while looking at the ground, “Um…well, actually I can never find her…since I’ve been changed, that is…”
“That’s a shame,” sighed Andy “How long have you been changed?”
“I’m not sure, quite a while though…It’s hard to say…I feel as light as a feather and everything is so strange…no one talks to me anymore. Sometimes I can hear voices, but then there is no one there. ”
“You must be pretty lonely then,” nodded Andy sadly. It was not the first time he had come across a wandering spirit and he knew how solitary a post-mortem state could be, especially for a deceased child.
“But hey, you mentioned going to see a doll, where is this doll? I’m anxious to see her. She sounds like she might be a nice playmate for you.”
“She’s in town. She really is lovely! Come, I’ll show you!”
And on those words Elise and Andy floated through the quiet landscape, passing several farms, until they arrived in the city of Aalst. Being completely invisible to the contemporary pedestrians, they worked their way through the streets, finally arriving in de Ridderstraat, number 28. Andy was surprised to see that Elise had not led him to the door of a toy store, but rather, a contemporary art space, named Netwerk Galerij.
They materialised through the door, entering a darkened room, with a video playing at the far wall. This video was a work by the artist, Esther Bruggink, titled Vasilisa. It showed a paper cut-out doll being spun around in the air in slow motion, while a voice on the soundtrack stated several phrases over and over again, consisting of:
Come, I’ll show you the way
I was only dancing
She said she’d make my wish come true
I don’t know what to wish
The paper doll’s dark red lips and almost sinister eyes left Andy wondering if he should find her lovely or wicked. Turning to Elise, he asked, “Is this the doll you wanted to show me?”
“No…this isn’t a real doll, she’s made out of paper. The doll I was telling you about is more than just a picture.”
“And what do you think of this doll?”
“She’s nice, but I’m afraid that if I play with her she’ll get torn. Paper dolls are always pretty fragile.”
“I guess they are…,” said Andy, watching the video play its dizzying flight of the paper fairy. He felt a certain childhood naiveté in the video, yet he also felt that this particular little paper fairy was not to be entirely trusted. The person on the soundtrack, who appeared to be speaking to or about the spinning doll, seemed to be caught in their expectations of what the small entity might do for them. Andy got the impression that the doll, possibly a metaphorical extension of the speaker, represented a sort of introspection or indecision. He couldn’t help but to detect a note of disappointment in the speaker’s voice, reminding him of how a child must feel once it finds out that there is no Father Christmas.
Elise tugged on Andy’s arm, indicating that they had to go upstairs in order to see the doll she had spoken of.
“Come, Andy, we have to go upstairs…”
The two spirits then drifted upstairs, where the exhibition by Esther Bruggink continued. Before Andy was able to see Elise’s real doll, he encountered a television monitor, which played another video, depicting a human-being doll. It was the artist herself, appearing in the nude, with her entire body and hair covered in white paint. Once again a bright red lipstick covered the lips of this “doll”, with her hair being held together in ponytails by two red strings. This video, titled, Invitation to Dance, moved in slow motion, showing Bruggink approach a pair of over-sized red paraffin wax shoes, while an old-fashioned music box style melody played on a loop. The mature, nude body and the child-like music created another contradiction of associations: innocence and seduction. Once stepping into the over-sized shoes, the artist swayed about to the hurdy-gurdy music, staring the viewer in the eyes for several measures before departing. Andy felt the play of dualities taking place and for the second time in one of Bruggink’s works, he witnessed a twistedly subtle game of perversions and simplicity; woman trapped in child and child trapped in woman.
Elise patiently followed Andy into the next room, where a three-dimensional, paper portrait of Rapunsel had been mounted on the wall. This meticulously fabricated head was sewn together with white string and paper, having two very long braids, which hung down nearly to the floor. Her expression was tranquil and unmoved.
“Is that girl sad?”, asked Elise.
“I don’t know,” answered Andy. “I think that this is Rapunsel, the girl from the fairy tale. Do you know about her…?”
“I’ve never heard of anyone with that name,” replied Elise with a wrinkled brow.
“Well, for a while Rapunsel was an awfully sad girl, because a wicked witch had locked her up in a very high tower and would only let her free if Prince Charming kissed her on the lips. Since there were no doors with which to enter and the tower was too steep to climb, Rapunsel had to let her hair grow extremely long so the prince could use it as a rope. Once her hair was long enough, he was able to climb up the side of the tower and give her the kiss that set her free. ”
Elise regarded the paper doll’s face. It concealed a sort of proud nobility and yet a touch of sadness at the same time. She tried asking the Rapunsel if she was sad, but there was no reply, only the long, hanging braids, waiting for the prince and her kiss. Both Elise and Andy floated out of the room feeling that this version of Rapunsel kept some sort of melancholy secret behind her large, half-closed eyes. Perhaps she had let down her magnificent hair, but knew that there was no prince to come and set her free?
Moving into the next room, Andy finally saw the doll Elise had first described in the fields. It lay upon its back, in the middle of the hardwood floor, with a centralised light beaming onto its body from an overhead video projector. Elise smiled and pointed to the doll.
“This is the doll that I was telling you about…”
Andy looked at the doll and then at the little ghost next to him. A man passed through the room at that moment, walking straight through Elise’s transparent form.
“That is indeed a nice doll,” agreed Andy.
“I want to take this doll with me when I fall back into sleep,” said Elise.
“Sometimes you sleep?” asked Andy, unsure just how much of her post-mortem state Elise comprehended.
“Of course I sleep… Sometimes I sleep for a really long time and then I wake up again,” she piped in her little voice.
“And what is that like, your sleep…do you dream?”
“Yea…” she hesitated, “but sometimes my sleep is not so nice…”
“And why not?”
“Because sometimes I’m scared.”
“What are you scared of?”
“I don’t know…afraid to be alone…afraid because I can’t find my mama and papa.”
“I see, “nodded Andy. “And you want to take this doll along with you so you won’t be afraid anymore.”
Andy floated over to the doll. He judged it to be an antique itself, perhaps even as old as Elise. The ceiling projection illuminated its body with an eerie, yellow aura, imprinting the image of Bruggink’s face onto that of the doll’s. This gave the doll’s face a haunted, cadaverous quality. The resemblance between the poltergeist Elise and the doll’s own ghostly appearance was almost too coincidental.
“I’ve got an idea,” began Andy. “What if you were to live inside this doll. Then you could become one with her. The two of you could keep each other company and you wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore?”
Elise thought for a moment. The idea of actually penetrating the doll’s body had never entered her mind. She thought for a moment about Andy’s suggestion, then asked him, “What will happen to me inside the doll?”
“Well…I think that you’ll probably become best friends with her. I bet she has quite a history and you could tell each other all about what you’ve seen and done.”
“Is it dark inside a doll?”
“Do you really think that I won’t be scared anymore?”
“That depends on what it is that’s scaring you. Are you scared because you’re no longer like you used to be?”
“Yea, I used to have a body too, just like the doll…but that was a long, long time ago.”
“Do you sometimes miss your body?”
“Yea. I miss my weight and being warm.”
“The doll has a sort of body, but it’s empty… You could make her complete. You could even be like the projection from the ceiling, filling her with expressions and illumination.”
Elise knelt down over the doll, putting her ear low and close to its face. Andy thought that he heard the doll say something to Elise, but he wasn’t sure.
“I would be so happy if I could find a place for myself,” she said, stroking the little figurine’s chest.
“Go on…”, urged Andy. “I think that inside her body is the perfect place for a little girl without a home…”
Elise began to disintegrate into the little doll’s stuffed body. It felt soft and warm inside the cotton, wool and plastic anatomy. But before she vanished completely, Elise said something to Andy in a totally different voice; no longer with the voice of a child, but that of a woman.
“If I wake up, a few years from now, and I find that the doll is laying in the bed of a real little girl, then I’m gonna crawl out onto the pillow and whisper things in that little girl’s ear.”
“What sort of things are you going to whisper?”, asked Andy a bit startled by the change in her voice.
“Succulent things…things that have to do with her teeth and legs and fingers…”
“Who are you?”, asked Andy. Elise Bleyaert did not answer. There was only the doll now, lying on the floor, with its combination of faces and identities.