A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


The Black Doll

NOTE: This post has nothing to do with the usual content on this blog.
This is a personal account of recent events in my life, and since I have
no other medium on which to post it here 'tis.

Post originally written on May17th, 2012

As I have mentioned on this blog, my mother recently passed away. Over the past several weeks, instead of doing the usual game design I do I have spent quite a bit of time dealing with some of her administrative issues, as well as managing all the personal items she left behind in her apartment. And while doing this I have learned a few things about the person that she was, things that we simply didn't talk about because it just didn't come up in conversation.

Before I continue let me state that I'm quite honestly not very religious, and that notion seems to surprise everyone who knows me. "But you went to a Catholic school for six years! How can you not be religious?" Yes, I did go to a world-renown Jesuit high school in Miami for six years, but during those six years the concept of religion was hammered in to our brains so forcefully by the faculty and administration that once I graduated I really didn't want to have any more of that. And during that time I began to think scientifically and logically, which as you can imagine are two concepts that clash with religious doctrine quite often.

While my mother was alive I didn't quite know how religious she was. I know she wasn't devout, but she did go to church every now and then. But after her death, while going through all the personal belongings she had I came across a variety of different religious items. Bibles, rosaries, emblems of saints... It was actually somewhat of a revelation that she kept so many religious symbols so close to her.

But now that she's gone, I didn't know what to do with these items. I might not believe in their significance, but my beliefs are irrelevant at this point. It's not that I didn't believe, it's that she did. So I found myself hesitating to throw certain items away, and in some cases the only rationalization I had for doing so was that, since I failed 9th grade Theology in the aforementioned high school (and went to summer school for it. Boy, was that awkward), I am probably going to burn in hell anyway... It can't get much worse at this point, right?

And then there were the items that, depending on who you ask, may or may not be religious. Cups of water behind furniture, for instance... I wasn't sure whether to categorize this as a religious ritual, a superstition or something of cultural significance. I kept finding items that walked a very fine line between all three of those categories, and without knowing their origins I really couldn't say what the repercussions were in discarding them. But as far as I could remember from Theology (except for 9th grade, that is) they didn't have a religious significance so out they went.

But there was one item that we didn't know what to do with...

The Black Doll

In my mother's living room, sitting on a corner chair surrounded by other dolls, was a black-skinned plastic doll that was about a foot tall and wore a bright blue dress. She had a necklace of red beads strung around her neck, a bonnet on her head and had two small maracas that can be placed in her hands.

The doll has been with us for as long as I can remember, and in every house we've lived in (I can think of eight houses off the top of my head) the doll has always been in a prominent position of high visibility. To the rest of the family we didn't think much of it - the doll didn't really mean much us, and we considered it decoration more than anything  - but we all sensed that it meant much more to her. I honestly thought it was simply a family heirloom, passed down through the generations and dating back to 19th century Cuba.

But it seems that there was more to it than that. Shortly after he death we had a mass and a family get together, and while everyone got together and began to tell stories about her the topic of the doll somehow came up.

"You have to give the doll rum and coffee!" one person said. "You can't just throw that out!" another person said. "What are you doing to do with it?" they asked.

Really? What's the big deal? It's just a plastic doll, right? ... Right?

Maybe it was the mental state I was in at the time, or maybe it was the drinking, but suddenly I was terrified of the repercussions if I mishandled this doll. Again, let me reiterate: I didn't believe a word they said about the doll, but that didn't matter. What mattered is that my mother apparently did.

Professional Help

So I decided to find an "expert", which in Miami means "someone who is *very* Cuban" and is familiar with the cultural beliefs of the island and its people. Suffice to say, I didn't have to look far to find someone to fit that description; they're pretty much everywhere.

First question they ask me: "Is the doll wearing blue?"

How did she know that?!?

"Uh... Yes."

"Oh dear."

There are certain times when the words "Oh dear" can be particularly shattering. Like when a doctor is looking at your MRI, or when a mechanic is looking at your engine... In those situations, you know what comes next can't be good.

This was one of those times.

Mind you I still don't believe in any of this, and if this conversation came up and was not about my own mother I would be laughing about it, but it was now a serious predicament I was in. I was entering uncharted waters and had no idea what to do at this point.

"You need to drop her in the ocean or in the forest."

Wait... What? Back up a second. First of all, this is South Florida... There is no "forest"; there's lots and lots of swamp. Given a choice, the ocean seemed like a better choice. I mean, we're surrounded by ocean!

"OK, I'll take her to the ocean."

The "expert" then began to explain, in vivid detail, the process by which I had to "deal with" the doll so that the doll's spirit (not my mother's spirit, mind you... the doll's spirit) can find peace. It had to be open ocean, so getting rid of her in the Intracoastal Waterway would be bad because the doll would never get to open sea. It had to be deep water and a sharp drop off; it couldn't be beach because the doll would wash up on shore and not go anywhere. And, while doing all this, there were certain things I needed to say for it to all work.

Again, if this was relating to any other person I would have ignored the conversation. But there I was, the unbeliever, taking notes of every single thing that needed to be done. I left that meeting with a very detailed procedure of what needed to be done, and I couldn't honestly believe I was going to actually do it.

"What if I don't do all this?"

"You really don't want to know."

I couldn't help but think "Oh dear..."


For the next two weeks the doll remained seated where it was, in an otherwise empty living room at my mother's house. Everyone who came in and out of the house refused to touch it or even make eye contact with it. When someone came to look at the house to see if they would move in, we would temporarily put the doll in a box so it wouldn't be seen... But as soon as they left, out came the doll and back to its seat it went.

And then the day came when I finally decided I was going to do what needed to be done, but I first needed to decide where to do it. You would think that it'd be easy to find a place to do it in South Florida, but the "expert" was very specific about the need to be (1) open ocean, and (2) not beach. That rules out pretty much everywhere - my original idea of Key Biscayne was out because it's pretty much all beach there, and the only option there would be to toss it off the Rickenbacker Causeway, which is extremely dangerous and highly illegal - so I opened up Google Maps to try and find a place to do it.

My first choice was the waterfront near La Ermita de la Caridad, a breathtakingly beautiful church and national shrine that is at the north end of Biscayne Bay. The choice seemed appropriate; the church is a national shrine to tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants fleeing the island, so it's something my mother could relate to. So I stopped by my mother's house, retrieved the black doll, and began my journey to the shrine.

After a while, I finally reached my destination... and realized I had somewhat of a problem. First of all, they had built a four foot concrete wall on the edge of the bay so I was unable to discretely drop the doll in to the water without making a scene. Secondly, there were two dozen people there, which made it a really bad idea.

Luckily, right next to the shrine is Mercy Hospital, so off I went to scout the area there. Here there was no barrier or people, and the ocean was far more accessible than at the shrine. So I drove around for a while to get a feel for the flow of traffic and to make sure there weren't any police or security guards, then parked at a location fairly close to the waterside to perform my pseudo-ritual.

At this point I was kind of nervous, not because of what the doll symbolized but because of what I was actually trying to do. I began to look around, being absurdly cautious and careful, almost as if I was waiting to make a drug buy. I stood empty-handed at the water's edge and looked around, trying to get a feel for where any potential threats could arise from, and then decided "OK, let's do this."

So I turned back to my car and carefully grabbed the doll, and as I turned to head back to the ocean's edge my eyes met two guys that were drinking beers as they slowly drove by on their fishing boat, no more than ten feet off the water's edge. I was so quick to hide the doll and get back in my car that they must have thought I was about to dump a brick of heroin in to the bay.

After the panic faded and my breathing returned to normal, I decided to try again. With no drunken boaters in sight and the streets clear, I did what I was instructed to do (which I will not elaborate on further) and "dealt with" the doll in the most appropriate way I could think of. After I did what I had to do, I jumped back in my car and sped away as fast as I could.

Hope I did things right, mom. It was the least I could do.