A Doll Full of Nails
By Ville Meriläinen
“Once upon a time,” the doll began, “there lived a god who feared the dark.
“He cast a shadow over his creations and heard them whisper his doom when he turned away. He feared them so much he stole fire from the other gods and gave it to the tiny creatures, hoping it would take away the dark in their hearts. Instead, they set the god on fire, and that is how the sun was born.”
“Fascinating,” grumbled the doll maker, setting a glass eye into the socket of his latest masterpiece. This one, he hoped, would be as mute as most, unlike the one sitting on his shelf. “And patently untrue. Be quiet, now, or you’re getting another nail.”
The doll sat quiet for a time. It watched the doll maker work—or so it felt—until he was finished and set the new doll upright. This one had bright blue eyes, flaxen hair and a skirt the miller’s wife had made for their daughter’s sixth birthday. On her seventh she disappeared, never to be found, and in place of a gravestone they wanted a doll so lifelike it would be as though she had never left.
The doll maker watched his creation with welling sickness before sealing it in a box. This was good use of his skills, for he had long studied the art of imitating life. If it gave people comfort to have dolls reminding them of their children, how could he say no? Doing so would have made him a hypocrite, after he had given his wife the creature now sitting with its legs dangling off the shelf.
Even so, he dreaded another one of his works would grow a tongue of flesh he did not place, and then do nothing with it but lie.
“Once upon a time,” the doll shaped like his son began, “there lived a warlock who studied children. He lured them into his gingerbread house and broke them into little pieces so he could see how they were made. When he pieced them back together, he never learned how to give them back the spark of life, and that is how dolls came to be.”
“That’s enough,” said the doll maker. He reached for the box of nails on his desk and took one out, lifted down the doll with a little boy’s smile and the fine clothes his wife had made. He pulled its mouth all the way open and yanked out its tongue, drove a nail through and spun it. When the tongue would twist no further, he set the nail sideways and closed the mouth around it. “I’m going to bed now. If you speak during the night, I will throw you away.”
Guilt pricked him even as he said that, and he knew the threat was empty. The doll maker toyed with the thought of leaving the doll downstairs in his workshop, but when he stood, he cradled it in his arms and brought it into his bedroom, where he set it by the foot of his bed before lying down.
Once upon a time, the doll maker dreamed, there lived a little boy who walked in the woods.
He was small and the woods were great, and so every time he went, he got scared and cried for his father.
Every time, his father came, and the weeping boy said a monster had touched his hand.
His father told him there was no such thing as monsters and that he should not come here if he was afraid.
But the boy loved the woods, and so he went, every day, and so he cried, every day.
Until one day, his father was sick of the boy’s lies and did not help him.
The crying went on for a time, but then it stopped,
so suddenly the father’s heart stopped with it.
His heartbeat returned, but the boy never did,
and that is why—
The doll maker awoke with a start.
Pale sunlight filtered in through the curtains, making dust dance. He shoved aside the blanket, found his face streaming with sweat. “Did you speak just then?” he demanded, leaning shaking hands on shaking knees. “Well, did you?”
The doll said nothing, even though the doll maker knew it had removed and swallowed the nail.
“One of these days,” said the doll maker and lifted the replica of his son, “I will cut out that tongue if you don’t keep your mouth shut.” The doll smiled vacuously at the threat, one more nail rattling in its belly as he carried it downstairs.
The miller came by that afternoon. He opened the box and gave a wet groan at the mimicry of his daughter, pressing a fist to his mouth. “You know,” he said, when strength found its way back to his voice, “I thought this would be a horrid idea, but she—it—looks so like her it might just be what we need.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said the doll maker, though it sounded false even to him.
“Tell me, did your talent help you and your wife after your son drowned?”
The doll maker winced. “I don’t much care for what came of it, though the doll was dear to her.”
“Hum. Perhaps you’ll craft one to look like her, if you’ll come to find the house lonely.”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
Now the miller winced. “Forgive me—I shouldn’t say things like that. It’s the sorrow speaking, and I forget not everyone is as dreary as me.”
When the miller left the house on a hill, reached the path and turned towards the town, the doll maker fetched a flower from the kitchen. He went down after the miller, but instead of heading to town, turned towards an orchard at the base of the hill. He removed his hat and held it against his tightening chest as he approached the gravestone surrounded by apple trees.
“Hello, darling,” he said, kneeling to set the flower on the mound. “It’s one of these mornings. You started a trend. I should be grateful, but my purse isn’t the sole thing that’s heavy.” He dusted the stone and sighed. “I know I promised, but I can’t stand the doll any longer. Would I be remiss to throw it out?”
He listened to the wind brushing trees, to the lap of waves on the lakeshore. His wife hadn’t spoken aloud in a long time, but in the wind was a memory of her singing. She’d known a different one for every task: One for planting roses, one for digging weeds; one for gathering apples, one for the honeybees. Now the hives were empty, the patch overrun with daffodils, and around the doll maker were rotten apples he hadn’t bothered to collect.
And so, even though his wife could not speak, he was reminded of all the other promises he’d failed to keep. The doll maker returned to the house and set to working on the order of the mayor, who had finally given up on finding his nephew after weeks of searching.
The doll maker woke up on the sofa, eyes bleary and head aching. He had only meant to rest for a minute, but night had crept in during his nap. The doll sat in the armchair beside him, head lolled to the side. As soon as he sat up, rubbing his temples, it spoke.
“Once upon a time,” the doll began, “there was a corpse who wanted to be a boy again. When it told lies, its arms grew, until it could reach up from the bottom of the lake where it had sunk.”
The doll maker froze, slowly facing the glass stare.
“Every day, a living boy came to the lake, and the corpse whispered it was safe to swim.”
“Be quiet,” the doll maker rasped.
“But when the corpse reached from the depths for the boy’s hand, he was repulsed and cried for his father.”
“Be quiet!” the doll maker snapped, grabbed the doll and threw it at the wall. It fell askew, was silent a moment, then rolled over to face its maker.
“One day,” the doll went on, as the maker ran for the box of nails in his workshop, “his father didn’t come, no matter how much the boy cried. ‘There’s nothing to fear,’ the corpse said, over and over. Every time it did, its arms reached a little further, until its fingers locked with the boy’s.”
The doll maker rushed back, a nail in his hand. He found the doll sitting upright. Before he reached it, it said, “And that is how I came to be.”
He pulled out the doll’s tongue, drove the nail through it and spun until it would turn no further. Even then, he twisted with all his strength in an attempt to pry the tongue loose. When he found the effort fruitless, he set the nail sideways and closed the mouth around it. Then he carried the doll to his workshop.
He set it on its back on the table, took out another nail and his hammer. He placed the nail against the doll’s chin and struck.
The nail scraped along the face without so much as a groove. He tried to bind it with strings, but they slid away as though the doll was oiled. He tried screws, but they dug in no better than the nails. Finally, he smashed its head with the hammer. Even the glass eyes survived the blow without the slightest cracks.
“I’m throwing you away,” he swore. “And I’m never making another doll. Is that what you want? Then be quiet and there will never be more.”
The doll smiled vacuously at the threat.
The doll maker made to lift the miscreation, but when his hand touched its back, he was overwhelmed with a terrible sense of loss. He jumped back as though scorched, steeled his mind and tried again.
Though guilt no longer kept him from discarding it, he was physically unable to lift the doll, even though he had just carried it in. He had accepted the doll’s behaviour as a sign of his own insanity, but now questioned how far even madness could reach.
He staggered away until he bumped against his chair and collapsed into it. Silence fell heavy on the room, as though a noise that belonged there was absent. He wondered if the doll was trying to speak, tongue slowly unfurling until it would swallow the nail.
“I’m throwing you away,” he repeated, with effortful defiance, and was surprised by how quiet the words were. “First thing tomorrow. The mayor gets his doll, but others will have to resort to markers, or find some other way to grieve.”
The doll said nothing. The way it stared at the ceiling now seemed petulant, purposeful ignorance of its creator. The doll maker groaned at the notion. It had no capability for petulance, no matter how near to being alive it seemed. I am a madman, he reminded himself. If I invited someone to lift it, they would do so without trouble. In fact, that is what I’ll do. If I cannot do it myself after a good night’s rest, I will ask the mayor’s servant to dispose of it for me when he comes for the order.
With these thoughts came release that allowed the doll maker to gain his feet. He was calm again, though the doll was still heavy. “Fine, then,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “If I can’t lift you, I can’t bring you upstairs. You can wait here until I get rid of you, for all I care.”
When the third step up creaked under his weight, the clink of a nail against a pile of others petrified the doll maker’s legs.
“Once upon a time,” came the voice of the doll, muffled by distance and a closed door, “there lived a woman with a bright red cloak. It was a gift from an admirer, and she accepted it gratefully.”
“Be quiet,” the doll maker uttered, punching his leg to force feeling back into it.
“The woman was comely but the man was not, and so he knew he needed to find a more substantial way to charm her than the beauty of his face. The man wove her the cloak, and she came to love it more than anything.”
“You wicked liar!” the doll maker screamed. “Be quiet! Do not speak of her!”
“But the cloak was so fine the woman became curious of her lover’s talent, and followed him one night when he left his loom. She saw him skinning animals alive, hands red with the same hue as adorned her shoulders, saw him studying them and piecing them together for the most wondrous of cloaks.
“The woman kept the secret of her lover and stayed with him for the fear of what he might do if she told someone. What if they did not believe her? She would be wholly at his mercy.
“Then, tragedy struck them. Wracked with grief and horrid suspicion, the woman asked her lover to make her another cloak, even finer than the first. He obliged. The new cloak resembled something precious so much it fooled the woman into thinking her husband had taken her treasure and ripped it apart to replicate it, even though it was his first innocent work in years, a testament to the heights his talent had reached.
“The woman could not bear the secret any longer, and that is why no one sings in the house on a hill anymore.”
Regaining control of his legs, the doll maker charged into his workshop. He threw open the door, bellowing with rage, and grabbed the hammer on the desk. The doll sat upright, eyes set forward, and the maker brought his hammer down. He swung in a frenzy and the hammer finally bit, sinking into the doll’s body, caving in its head, sending the eyes rolling along the table until they, too, were smashed. Nails spilled from its eviscerated belly. The doll maker bashed and swung and maimed, until nothing was left of the idol shaped after his son but pieces of painted wood and fabric and a tongue that had never had a right to speak.
He gathered the pieces in a sack and picked up the tongue. He expected it to writhe in his grip, but it was as lifeless as the manmade body it had been a part of. He burned the remains of the doll in a small pyre on the shore and cast the tongue into the lake. Ripples of schooling fish appeared where it sank.
When the pyre died out and the ripples vanished, the doll maker returned inside, fell into his bed, and wept.
Once upon a time, there lived a doll maker who sought to excel in his craft.
He studied his art until he was considered a master, but even masters yearn to improve their skill.
What did artists do when they wanted to get better? Looked at the work of others, dissected them, deconstructed them.
The doll maker went further. He looked at those his own work imitated, dissected them, deconstructed them,
until he was peerless.
Everyone said his dolls were lifelike, but that was untrue; they were deathlike,
for the doll maker studied the fragility of life to mimic it in static form.
How many necks had his fingers crushed?
How many eyes had he plucked?
Not even the doll maker knew anymore.
All he cared about was his art,
and that is why the fish in the lake have grown fat.
The doll maker snapped awake to the pounding of his heart.
The voice of the doll echoed in his thoughts, refusing to recede before waking as dreams were meant to. He pressed his face into his hands and gave a great shudder.
The doll maker rose to open the window. The breeze was too cold for comfort, but he braved it to suck in fresh air. He looked up to the moon for solace from the dark. Even as he did, it clouded over.
“Once upon a time,” came a voice, hoarse and thin, “there never-lived a doll.”
The doll maker spun with fright, but could not locate the sound in the gloom. He scrambled for the door to find it locked from the outside, and gave a startled cry when the window slammed shut.
“All it wanted was to tell stories, so that its maker would think of what he had done, and confess his sins.”
“YOU ARE NOT REAL!” the doll maker screamed. “YOU’RE A FIGMENT OF MY MADNESS!”
“But all he did was call the doll a liar and put nails through its tongue.”
Warmth coursed down his leg when the doll maker slumped against the door. The clouds dispersed, letting moonlight pour in.
The doll sat by the foot of his bed, grinning with a mouth full of nails.
“Until one day,” the doll croaked. Its arms were covered in blue, rotted flesh, face around the glass beads bloated, cheeks fish-nibbled open so he could see the contraption of nails within. “The doll was tired of having nails thrust through its tongue and decided to put one through its maker’s throat.”
Beside his ear, the doll maker heard a whisper: And that is why the doll maker never woke up.
About the Author
Ville Meriläinen is a Finnish university student by day, author of little tragedies by night. His short fiction has appeared in 200 CCs and Mad Scientist Journal’s Fitting In anthology. His long fiction can be found on Amazon.com, with a new musical fantasy adventure, Ghost Notes.
About the Narrator
Riku Kanninen is a Finnish professional translator and linguist, an amateur singer, a mediocre all-around musician and a dabbler in all things, interesting or otherwise.