Boys are made of slugs and snails and puppy dog tails. Mary has seen boys before in picture books and has read about them, but they rarely mention that fact. Whether the rhyme lies, or if other books do, she can’t tell. She’s a little curious to meet a boy.
Now, Mary has never had any sugar or spice. The only one who eats in the gallery is the mouth, and even then, it hasn’t had any. However, she’s read about all sorts of tasty things in books, things that they say taste sweet, or bitter, or warm, or cold, so she thinks she knows what it’s like. Also, Mary is nice. She treats the gallery as they treat her, and they’re all friends.
Surely, Mary is a little girl too.
“Flesh, blood, and bones that snap. That’s what little girls are made of,” it says with a grin, red paint streaking down its cheeks. When Mary feels her skin, grabbing her own wrist, is it warm? Is it soft? She says it is, but what is warmth? Can she know warmth without knowing fire? The thought scares her, so she doesn’t think about it. Her wooden frame and glass hold her together— is that like bones? And the canvas, maybe that’s her skin. If her paint was a little less dry, it could be her blood. Certainly Mary looks like a little girl. If she had no head, or was simply just a head, it would be much harder for her to exist in the real world when she escaped out into it (or were there headless people in the real world too?). Maybe that’s why everyone is kind to her. She’s the most human out of all of them (painted the best, maybe), and they see that as power . The power to exist.
Mary must be real. She can move and think and dance and read, so she must be real. Mary knows that she exists. Then again, Mary also knows that the outside world is real— so what is this world? If that world is real, what is the world Mary lives in? Is it really a “fabricated world,” as the others have called it? Does it not exist at all? Can a real girl live in a fake world? What is real? This is the only place she’s ever known. The gallery is certainly real to her. If there is a fire, Mary will burn. She can’t die without having lived first.
“You’re real, Mary,” the youth says. “Really annoying.” Mary sticks her tongue out at it.
“I’ll redraw your head funny,” she threatens. The youth grumbles as she stomps off. Left turn, right, left left, right. It doesn’t take long until she’s all the way across the gallery. The lady in red smiles and waves as she passes.
None of the others want to leave like Mary does. They’re happy with wandering the gallery forever, ripping petals off fake roses, chasing after one another, and being lazy. But Mary’s read the same books over a hundred times, played the same games even after she was long since bored with them, talked with the same exhibits until she could predict everything they were going to say. There’s a whole other world out there, one her father lived in and drew and painted about. Why do none of them want to see it? Mary will get out, she swears. She’ll leave this place, and then she’ll eat all the sweets she wants and play a thousand different games and have tons and tons of friends who will all love her, and it will all be real.
Whatever “real” happens to mean.
That is a real girl, Mary knows. She has sleek brown hair, round red eyes, wears nice clean clothing, and best of all, that red rose in her hand is real . Mary can tell from here that the petals are more delicate and fragile than her yellow rose’s. They will rip and tear with ease, and Mary knows that is a sign of being real. If her rose gets damaged, the girl will get hurt. The others don’t chase Mary’s rose as much as they’ve ran after that one. And she smiles at Mary, smiles and says “it’s nice to meet you,” and Mary wants to spin and dance and laugh, because Mary is about to have a real friend, a real little girl,
And doesn’t this prove that Mary is real too? Someone from the other world looks at her and smiles at her and says hello. Mary acts just like this real girl, this Ib. Mary blends in perfectly with their little group. They get along great! Ib even finds the same dolls cute as Mary does.
Garry, though… Garry is different. Garry says he’s an adult, so Mary doesn’t know if that means he’s still made of snails and whatnot. But, Garry is kind to them, and Garry is real, which makes Mary a little happy. He thinks the dolls are creepy, which is weird, but Mary’s read how people can have different interests and that is just fine, so she allows it. After all, she’s grown up here, and they haven’t. It’s something new— Mary has also read that people can be scared of new things. He’ll come to like them, she thinks. He’ll probably be the one staying here in the end, anyway, while Mary and her new real friend Ib go and play in the sun.
“Mary?” Ib says quietly. Mary grins.
“Right behind youuu!”
Oh, and the sun, what will that be like? Mary asks Ib all sorts of questions about the real world. Of course, she’s read about them, but Ib is actually from there and will know better, she decides. The sun, snow, tasty foods, playing games, going to school, parents. Mary asks to prepare herself, and looks forward to experiencing everything even more.
Ib and Mary explore the room, Garry somewhere else. Who knows. Right, right, left, right, up, down, down. An old pattern, Mary thinks.
A voice floats through the air and reaches her ears.
Did she do something bad?
Where did she go wrong?
Was she not real enough?
Garry and Ib are mad at her. They’re taking a lighter to her painting.
What happened? They were friends, just a little ago. They were friends, and then Garry found out she “wasn’t real,” and now they’re mad at her.
Maybe’s it’s because they’re real, Mary thinks, so they work differently. Flesh, and blood, and bones that go snap. Mary’s afraid of fire, but they’re not. Maybe it’s like that. Where Mary’s from, in this fake fake fake world, it’s ok to chase after things that wronged you. If they made one another mad, they knew they would get chased, maybe even hurt, and that was just how it worked. The liars did it all the time. Was… that different from the real world? Sugar and spice and everything nice. Nice. Is that why they were always so afraid, and Mary wasn’t? Ib was nice and Mary was scary. Mary had never read about it. She never heard about it. That’s unfair. How was she supposed to know? How come no one ever told her? Mary knew that she had to hide the fact that she was a painting, but she didn’t know that paintings had different rules to the game than real people did! How come no one ever told her she wasn’t acting like a real girl?
Up up up up up. She runs at them.
She could do it over. She could forgive Garry, and then Ib would forgive her, and then it could all be like a little dream to them because even paintings dream, but they’re setting fire to her. The glass is cracking from the heat— and now she knows heat and she hates it— and all the things she’s made of are burning, her wooden frame, her canvas, she’s burning, burning burning she’s on fire she’ll turn into ash she has no flesh no blood no bones she won’t even leave a body there will be nothing left behind but this fabricated world a gallery with no sun no delicious foods or games no friends no parents. Mary is dying, and that will be it. There is no father to paint her again.
They looked at her. They saw her, and spoke to her. They are killing her. If she is dying, she must have lived. Right?
For a moment, Mary is real.
Crumbling into ash, she wonders if the sun is more gentle than fire.