Originally posted April 8, 2022 on my Patreon.
Content warnings: corporate capitalism's cruelty, being mean to dolls, and pet stores.
"I heard that there's a new dollmaker moving into town."
"Yeah, they're setting up at the old mushroom farm. Everyone in the market was buzzing about it."
"One of the big corporate ones, I think—"
Your witch barely reacts, but with her hands inside your open chest the barest reaction is all it takes. A tiny shudder, just enough to turn the tuning probe off course; it hits a taut string and your entire body shakes. It's like licking a power outlet, like holding your hand to a hot stove—
It only lasts a second, and it leaves you laughing, delirious, mainspring racing and witchwork mind undone.
Later, after the repairs, after so much more time than a routine retuning should have taken, your witch doesn't apologize. But she makes a whole miso-caramel pear pie just for you. Not to share with the other dolls or to offer up to the house's spirit: yours.
Such a luxury!
It means more than a spoken apology; it certainly tastes better.
With a full belly and the taste still lingering on your tongue, you feel almost brave enough to mention it again. Almost. Luckily your witch gets to it before you do.
"The new dollmaker, miss?" She nods. "I don't remember their name. It sounded strange, hardly like words at all. I just thought it might be nice to go see—"
She sighs, a long low sound like wolfsong echoing through the woods or the whispering birdghosts that fill the wetlands.
"You've never seen that sort of thing."
"No, miss, that's why—"
"It's my own fault. I hoped they'd never cast their eye this way. There's no reason for them to, there's nothing here they'd want …"
She trails off, lost in whatever unknowable thoughts drift and scream through the empty places behind her mask. Her hair ripples and twitches, hissing with escaping heat, charred ends threatening to blaze into fresh life …
You sit and wait, but after a while it just makes sense to start to clean up. She's still sitting there when you're done, when the plates and pots and cutlery are dried and tucked away, still clutching a knife in a hand that's ever more like a claw.
Dolls aren't meant to know her thoughts. Witchminds are built strangely and subtly, full of strange ecosystems and sunken depths. But you don't need to know her thoughts to know that you should wrap a blanket around her and make her a fresh pot of tea before you slip away to your soft bed.
Your witch is still sitting there when you pad downstairs the next morning, as dawn's curious tendrils slip in through old windows to tangle in her hair—she looks so beautiful like this, limned in sunlight, even with such a grim expression on her face …
She's still sitting there, but the pot of tea is empty and the knife in her hand is little more than a lump of misshapen metal. She doesn't touch her plate of dewy moss, and she doesn't drink her cup of freshly brewed morning tea (not even when you waft a curl of steam towards her face, leaving the dark smell of fruit and earth to linger in the air just before her mask).
A doll is not meant to need to worry about its witch, but you do. It is not like her to sit like this, to let the world run by around her—such things are for Stilled dolls, not for witches!
You're halfway through grinding the tea for a fresh pot (the garden dolls adore its warmth on chilly days) when her hand snaps out, grabs her teacup, and downs the thick oily brew without taking the time to taste it.
Her hair rustles as a hundred tongues taste the air, and finally—finally!—she speaks.
"You're right: we should see it. Go get ready."
"Of course, miss!"
The new store's in a big, blocky building a bit outside of town, just far enough that your legs ache by the time you're there. The road to it isn't really made for people; there was never a need for sidewalks when this area didn't see more traffic than some wide fields and the old mushroom farm's deep cellars could supply, and after the first few inelegant dives you find that it's easier to walk in the shallow ditch beside the road.
Really, you don't understand who's driving so quickly, so incautiously … surely no one in the village would do such a thing? And in such strange new cars, all those bulbous protrusions and streamlined maws and screaming faces …
Your witch doesn't bother to get out of the way.
The world would not dare to let a car hit her.
But she hesitates when the two of you reach the edge of the freshly paved parking lot, pauses to stare at the strangely regular pattern that spreads out over its heat-hazed acres. Her hair wilts the moment she steps onto it, and her mask ripples with an unhealthy sheen: the mushroom farm was always a place of Decay, a temple to its quiet workings, but now …
You can't feel the land dying; what doll could? And what doll could fail to read its witch's discomfort?
"Miss, are you sure …"
She starts walking without replying, and you trail after her, past roving bands of shopping carts and the growls coiling beneath the muzzled maws of restive cars, on through the haze and the heat—
Until finally the two of you see the store rising up out of the wastes, cheerily painted in bright pastels and smiling moons; big and boring with windows painted over and a bright sign rising up above it, an incantation to the gods of property and prosperity—
The name becomes a curse in your witch's mouth, big cheery letters spoken like a slur too vile for any proper doll to be permitted to know. Her hair writhes and something twists in the depths of her sun-dried dress (which, you think, will probably need to be composted when you get back home: the moss and lichen and living bark that you carefully wove to cover her really isn't taking well to the dry heat. It looks nothing like the wet and beautiful garment it was just hours before).
"Miss? Are you—"
"It's fine. Let's get this over with."
There's nothing you can do but nod and trail after her, through the sliding glass doors and a tiny surveilled antechamber (but of course all of this place is watched, and not through the eyes you can see), past the rows of shopping carts and baskets and a set of entirely misplaced vending machines, until—
You've never seen so many dolls in your life, not in one place, not all at once. Smartly uniformed dolls stand in wait at a dozen cash registers, and bright little things perkily pace through the store's aisles, and there's even a tiny doll perched in an elegantly crafted cage right by the door ("Welcome to Still'N'Small," it happily chirps, "we hope you enjoy your visit!"). And the shelves! Hundreds of dolls in perfect little display cases and more stacked underneath, and racks upon racks of doll-sized clothing and every sort of tool a working doll might need to serve its master or mistress …
You're too well made to let your jaw drop, but you want to.
You're about to say something, about to express how wonderful it all seems, but …
While you were staring your witch's hand found your arm, and she's gripping you almost tightly enough to send cracks shooting through your skin—you can tell you'll be bruised the next day. And when you glance up at her …
She was never a creature of war, not the sort of witch to revel in bloodshed; she keeps no combat dolls, and (to your knowledge) has never practiced any of the myriad arts through which witches become weapons. But she is a witch, for all that she's a small one, and a witch's body cannot help but be a tool of its desires.
Her body bristles with unconcealed hatred. Her hair writhes, a forest of screaming snakes baring their teeth at the world; strange sharp things drag against her too-dry dress. With each step she takes a new tear opens, a new cut gapes, and through them you can see things which dolls were never meant to know—
Her mask is perfectly serene, the untouched eye of a gathering storm.
"Come along, dear. I want you to See."
Much of Still'N'Small is set aside for things other than dolls. The overwhelming number that each customer sees when they first step through the door is carefully crafted by far-off psychologist-witches and manipulator-seers.
"Look," the store seems to say, "see how many dolls there are. How many different possibilities (and each at a fairer price point than any independent dollmaker could provide). How can you bear not to have one or two in your life?"
Its argument first comes in a scream, and then fades to whispers as you progress through its winding aisles. "See all the things your doll could do for you! The tools of cooking and cleaning and repairing, the little baskets for their errands."
The store doesn't make a point of the other things you can do with dolls. It wouldn't be family-friendly to openly sell tools of pleasure, but it's perfectly all right to have a wide selection of devices for causing pain, all presented euphemistically under the label of "corrections and discipline". It's perfectly fine if you want to hurt your doll. It's the only way they learn.
There's even a very, very small section with (so the signs say) everything you might need to repair a damaged doll. Bags of growth medium and slabs of uncut mycelia, spools of thread and little bottles of brand-name kintsugi paste, toolboxes full of gleaming knives and needles and tiny-mouthed tweezers …
It's a surprisingly small selection, honestly. Your witch has a far wider array of tools, and shelf upon shelf of books detailing every way they might be used.
There aren't any books here.
("Just buy a new doll," Still'N'Small's voice whispers, "it would be so much easier.")
Your witch leads you past all these things, and as you walk a thousand eyes swivel in their display cases to track your progress. Every face you glance at reflexively smiles; every body is perfectly, beautifully still.
It's strange …
They're nothing like the cheerful dolls at the market, your friends who always adore a chance to gossip or take some tea; they're nothing like the dolls you met when your witch brought you along to meet one of her friends, a dollmaker with a head as large as a room and huge kind hands that drifted about without the need for anything like a body. With their eyes moving like that they must not even be properly Stilled …
With such thoughts filling your mind, it takes you a moment or two to notice that your witch has stopped walking.
You're in a small alcove near the back of the story, a cul-de-sac ringed in shelves. There's a wide table in the center, stacked with glass cubes barely half a foot wide.
"What do you want me to see, miss?"
"Just look at them."
Each cube is set up like a miniature dollhouse, a single room with a little plastic bed and a little plastic mirror and a little plastic plant. Some of them have little lights embedded in their lids; most of them do not.
Inside each cube is a doll.
They'd be tiny if they were out in the world, little things that would easily fit in your hand, but in the cubes they're cramped. Dolls are used to small spaces, of course, to display cases perfectly sized to fit them, but … places like that are meant for Stillness. For silence. For a doll to wait and recharge until it's next needed.
These brightly colored little things are clearly not Stilled. They pace and stretch and spin, dragging vibrant dresses and capes and frills through their tiny little homes; one of them trips on their own fabrics and another quietly sits and tears his clothing into strips barely wider than a strand of thread. Two in adjacent cubes claw at the glass separating them; another pair are collapsed on the floor crying, unable to reach each other. Several are talking to their reflections.
They don't bother to look at you, not like all the other dolls in the store did; they just continue on as they were before you and your (still quite agitated) witch arrived.
"They're supposed to be display dolls. Cute pets you keep on your table. The store makes them in batches. Wherever they get the raw material it's cheap enough that they don't care if they go wrong as long as they sell one or two from each set. They're supposed to be kept in larger cages when they're not on display, but," your witch sighs, "who cares about a few dolls? Who'd bother to enforce that?"
"Oh, but that's so sad …" You stare at the poor little dolls in their little prisons. It's hard to watch them, hard to look, so your next question is just an excuse to look away. "How do you know all this, miss?"
The sigh echoes up her body, a long sad hiss building through her unknowable insides for so, so long before it finally emanates through her hair's fanged mouths and curls around the edges of her mask. It lingers and lingers, but only for so long, for a witch is not a thing which flourishes from putting things off.
"I used to work for them. Back in Never-will-happen, back before I knew any better."
Her hand is so tight on your arm, as steady as ever, but … she's trembling, isn't she? Just the tiniest bit, something that you'd never notice if she wasn't squeezing you so tightly.
"Oh, miss …"
There's not much you can do, but you can certainly reach up to squeeze her arm back and offer what sympathy you can. It really is a treasure that she's told you this, isn't it? Your witch letting herself be vulnerable to you … it would be utterly inappropriate to blush in pleasure. Not here. Not now.
"Is there anything we can …?"
"No. This place is too big, too much, and it's just one of hundreds. If I could I'd burn it to the ground, but …"
"Oh. Could we at least take a few of them with us? So they, so they …"
"NO," she snaps. "I won't give any money to this, this, this place."
You quail beneath her anger, shiver for a moment and then make yourself still: something between a dollish apology and a please-don't-hurt-me-I-didn't-mean-to. She's not even looking at you, and somehow that makes it worse …
But as soon as she does, as soon as she notices, she softens and draws you close to her. She's so soft beneath her tattered dress; none of the blades and claws that were rending it into scraps moments before dare to touch you.
"It's okay, dear. I didn't mean …" She pauses, suddenly thoughtful. "Actually. Which of them would you like?"
"I … oh no, but if I choose then I'm choosing to leave some of them behind, aren't I? And I, I couldn't do that to them …"
"Choose. Just two or three of them."
"Oh …" You don't want to, you really don't, but a doll must obey its witch, mustn't it? Even when it hurts, even when it doesn't want to. In a concession to your feelings you cover your eyes with your hands; in an admission of practicality you widen your fingers enough to peek through.
It's the hardest decision she's ever asked you to make.
When you're done she steps forward, just barely close enough to reach out and tap three of the boxes. Something happens then, something that your eyes don't want to see, something like a string being plucked and stilled before it can start to make a sound or a bell's tongue being torn out as it begins to swing.
Afterwards everything looks exactly the same as it was.
The walk back out of the store is stressful, especially after your witch breezes past the cash registers without so much as a glance at the dolls waiting behind them. She's serene and full of wrath; you're just a bundle of anxiety, not quite sure what you've done but certain that it was Wrong. Dolls aren't supposed to break the rules, right? And taking things without paying must be wrong, even if you think about it as rescuing them …
But your witch knows best. She must. Dolls aren't supposed to worry about ethics; you really must be more rattled than you thought!
You can't wait to be back at home with a nice tall cup of tea; maybe some of the bubbly, bitter stuff that the dolls who run the apple orchard on the other side of town always seem to have on hand, so golden and fragrant …
The two of you are almost out of the store, almost out into the parking lot's dead asphalt and cement, when a sturdy looking doll blocks your path. It's not so gauche as to come out and say it, but its question to your witch runs with menace beneath its cheerful smile. "Did you find everything okay, miss?"
"I did not."
"This one is sorry to hear that! Would you like to share your complaints? We have feedback cards, if you'd just come this way …"
It somehow continues blocking your progress as it tries to usher you away from the exit; it's a clever trick, and certainly one that would work on you. As eager to leave as you are, your legs begin to move to its tune—
But your witch doesn't move an inch, and her hand on your arm keeps you next to her. Whatever this doll is doing cannot touch her, no matter whatever magic or will lurks beneath its neat uniform.
Her glare is frosty; her voice is worse. Her mask is ringed with glaring snakes and dripping fangs, and her words come in a hideous chorus from every mouth her body has.
"No. Get out of my way, little doll."
"T-this one m-must ask y-you—"
The doll stutters and glitches as she pulls you around it, and nothing else impedes your escape; but the moment she steps off the parking lot's final edge your witch stumbles and almost falls, her body shaking with exhausted relief. Her hand on your shoulder is all that lets her stay upright, and as she leans on you you accept her weight with all the love and devotion your little dollish heart can muster.
"I am Never going back there."
"N-no, miss, I don't want to either. But, um."
She looks at you for a second, thoughts not quite connecting, not quite grasping what you mean to ask for. Just for a second, though; your witch knows you so very well.
"Oh, right. Here, you take them."
She produces the three tiny dolls from somewhere deep within her, two of them huddling together in one of her hands and the third sprawled out in a cloud of his shredded finery in another; you take the first two gingerly, scared of hurting them or dropping them, but the third jumps from her hand to your shoulder with a brave (and slightly foolish) squeak. He rides there as you and your witch walk home, glaring out at the world with all the hostility his small size can muster; a tiny beast not yet able to trust that there isn't something worse awaiting it.
But that's okay.
That's to be expected.
There will be time to gain his trust, and to reassure the other two curled up crying in your pocket; time to fit them into your life and make whatever things they'll need and introduce them to your witch's other dolls. Time to do so many things—
But your witch is so unsteady, and your home so far away.
So for now the best thing you can do is focus on getting there.