The Stained Doll in the Window

Originally posted February 22, 2022

Each day you walk past the dollmaker's store, past those wide glass windows full of carefully constructed cages. They almost look like they're not cages at all, just dollhouses, but you know better: you've spent enough time watching to notice the bars.

The dolls gambol and dance, climb their furniture and nestle in little display cases almost like they weren't alive at all; sometimes you even pass by as they're having a tea party, a matched set drinking in unison.

Every few weeks one or two of the cages sit empty.

You've never met the dollmaker, only once seen its huge hands and vast mask moving inside the store. You couldn't help but quiver in fear as it peered into you, as the dolls tried to hide from its attention—

And then it looked away, plucked a doll from a cage, and was gone.

… when you pass by with friends you always talk about how you'd like to have a doll of your very own, a cute little thing to organize your desk and prepare your meals, but you know you'll never be brave enough to go inside.

You know a doll wouldn't fit into your life.

You still dream.

Today, though! There's a fresh batch of dolls in one of the cages (the big one, the one that catches the light just so and has a whole section set aside to show off the wide variety of dollteas that the store sells), and there's this one doll—

Usually they're not very curious about people walking by, not after the first few days. They get used to it.

This one, though!

She's practically pressing herself against the window, head tilted, peering out—trying to see everything that happens, every passing pedestrian.

She stares at you, and you stare at her, and she excitedly returns the small wave you give her, a wide smile breaking out across her delicately painted face; she's such a cheerful little thing! And so pretty, with a big splash of red spiraling up her chest …

You spend quite a while playing with her, as much as you can through the glass; perhaps longer than you should. But you catch your trolley without any trouble, so that's fine, and she's still there when you plod back home in the evening, still excited and watchful.

The next day she seems rather glum, a tiny bit more tired, but she perks up when she sees you. She's such a playful thing …

You miss your trolley.

And so it goes for a week.

You even start getting up a bit earlier to spend more time with the doll.

… and you do your best not to think about how she'll soon be gone.

Each day you wonder whether her cage will be empty; each day you're filled with relief when she's still there. She picks up on your worry; even without hearing your voice your body language is so clear.

The doll does her best to cheer you up, draws flowers and hearts on glass fogged by little puffs of her breath, even pantomimes dances with you across the floor of her cage. It's not enough; it's worse than if she didn't notice at all.

Then, finally, she's gone.

That last day begins like any other, flowing through the motions of your morning routine, slipping out into the chilly dawn and pausing just in front of where the doll should be waiting for you …

And the cage is empty.

And your world comes crashing down about you.

You stand there sniffling to yourself for longer than you'd like to admit, nearly as long as long as you'd usually spend with her. You weren't ready for how empty you'd feel, how lonely …

Something touches your shoulder and you scream, completely startled, caught off guard—

And when you see what it is it just makes you want to scream more, to freeze, to sink into the glass and stop existing: it's the dollmaker's wooden hand, a finger as thick as your neck resting gently on your shoulder.

It beckons you inside, and you can't help but follow.

Inside, past the caged dolls which fill the windows, the store is bright and clean and open. A wide space large enough for the dollmaker's head (a wooden thing with a mouth large enough to swallow you whole) and hands to move freely; if it has a body you can't see it.

There are tables of half-made dolls, and parts, and tools, and a window full of starry darkness, and an incongruously placed card reader just atop an ancient cash register—

And, in a display case with a little carrying handle, there's the still and unmoving doll.

The dollmaker's voice isn't deep or rumbly like you thought it would be; it's a chorus of squeaks, a high-pitched song echoing strangely out of its hardly-moving wooden lips.

"This is the one you want, yes?"

"I, uh. What?"

The dollmaker sighs. "We have seen you playing with it for weeks now, through the glass. Yes?"

"… I mean, yeah, I have, but …"

"So it is the one you want."

"… I don't … my housemates wouldn't want a doll around, and I don't even really have space …"

It waves a hand airily. "It will find a space, and fit into your life. That is what dolls are for. Yes?"

"But …"

"If you do not want it," says the dollmaker, fixing you with a stomach-churning glare, "you will break its heart. It will be of no use to anyone. A waste."

"… oh."

"So you will take it home and it will find a place in your life and a way to serve you. Yes?"

"… yes, okay."

Afterwards, carrying the heavy display case & with your bag full of loose-leaf tea, you'll tell yourself that you only said yes to get away from it. It's a useful lie: it's a lie you'll echo when you have to explain yourself to your housemates, have to justify having this new companion around.

But both you and your doll will always know that it's a lie.

All you needed was a little push.