In the days before the old man Gendel and the old woman Washa became so old, they made dolls for the little town. Gendel gathered wool and tanned the leather, and his wife Washa sewed the pieces into torsos, limbs, and heads.
Most important, however, was the stitching of a name with her magic needle, for these were no ordinary dolls. Once the name was stitched onto a doll’s back, it came to life, and whatever name was given dictated the doll’s task. One was named Egg-gatherer and was given to a farmer. Fox-chaser was another, and had a shorter existence.
The lives of the townsfolk grew a little easier with every doll, and they had hours for reverie and revelry. At one time, Gendel and Washa enjoyed the parties, the dancing, the singing, the sweets and the laughter. Yet as they grew older, their own dolls, such as Wool-gatherer and Cook, had to do more work for them, and one task the dolls could not achieve was to give their makers a peaceful night.
The old couple knew patience. They patiently waited for the dolls to complete their tasks every day. They patiently endured old bones, and chills and pains. They patiently hoped the noise would cease, even for an evening, but it went on over lively spring and long summers, battering their ears and jabbing their nerves.
Eventually, one summer night, their patience snapped.
Gendel and Washa agreed, enough was enough. They understood now why spirits moaned when the living moved into their haunting grounds, and monsters ruined noisy towns dwelling too close to their lairs. The two were too old to move, and felt they had every right to live out their remaining days in peace. They had given the town so much already—now came the time to take.
They needed many dolls for their task, and so Washa set to work sewing hundreds of stuffed limbs, torsos, and heads, while Gendel went to market with dolls named Servant, Carrier, and Lifter to retrieve more leather and wool. They worked for many days and nights, Gendel cutting leather, Washa sewing pieces, and both counting out the townsfolk, even the babies, taking note of those so old that they died first, matching person to doll, until the numbers were the same.
All the dolls had to come alive in a single night, for no one could be allowed to know what was happening and warn anyone else. Washa stitched the names in the dolls’ backs up to the last letter. She taught her husband to stitch the final letter, so they could take turns stitching and keep their work running smoothly and secretly once they were ready. When Soul-take had been sewn into every doll’s back, and the old couple’s hands were good and rested, the night of stitching R’s began.
The first Soul-taker stumbled away swiftly out the door, followed by a swift second and third. A dozen dolls soon poured from the old couple’s doorway, eyes vacant, mouths hanging open and expectant, and they traveled to every house, with a number of dolls clustering at each door to match the number of people inside.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Three gathered together at the house next door to Gendel and Washa’s home, and they all knocked together. The man of the house invited them in as gifts from the old couple, and his wife and daughter were giddy to see what these new wonders would bring to their lives. Then the dolls inhaled like no other dolls had, their gaping mouths sucking in the family’s direction. The glow of the father’s soul flickered away from his body in a sphere of light and dove into one Soul-taker’s mouth, followed quickly by his wife’s and daughter’s souls, drawn into the hollow pits of the accompanying dolls. Man, wife, and daughter all dropped where they’d stood, as if life itself had left them. The dolls’ bellies swelled with light and they left the house of the soulless family, their task completed.
This went on across the town, in families of twos and fours, threes and fives, in the house of a bachelor and at the door a couple who had ten living children. As their dolls marched and souls were stolen, the old couple nodded agreeably to each other, their cracked lips pursed and their minds at ease that this was right, this was what had to be done. If finding peace for their own souls meant taking everyone else’s, they saw no wrong in forcing this peacefulness upon them. Some might say they were as hollow inside as their dolls, marching in legion through the town, and marching back with bellies full of light.
Gendel and Washa listened as the laughter quieted, the music ceased, and the only sound outside their home was the mild patter of leather feet in the dirt. They opened the door, welcoming their creations back inside. The dolls filled the floor and workshop, the countertops and shelves, where all had once laid lifeless before this night.
The old couple sat in their chairs, contented with the soft quiet and the gentle glow of souls surrounding them. These dolls had been their finest, they agreed, and a fitting gift to themselves after so many years of benefitting the town.
The peace was broken in Washa after a few minutes of sitting in her chair when a pounding sensation seemed to hammer through her worn fingers. She tried moving them and found them spry like she could barely remember from her younger days. A tension sprang through Gendel’s legs, not the usual kind that wore coldly into his bones, but a heat that forced him out of his chair. His arms tensed too, strong like he hadn’t known in years. He swept Washa up from her seat, swinging her around, and the two laughed with a sudden light and joy they hadn’t felt in years.
When Gendel set his wife down again, the heat had come over Washa’s legs as well. They sent dolls like Fetcher and Jester to get instruments from houses in the town, and when they returned, the dolls played music and the old couple began to dance like they had at their wedding long ago. Their feet bounced, their heels hammered the floor, and their hands clapped excitedly. They held each other’s hips and shoulders, their hands and faces, filled with peaceful light. They kissed and danced, and Gendel swept Washa up again, off to the bedroom where they made love for the first time in years, and as passionately as on their wedding night. Then they got up and danced again, and danced through the night until the sun cracked over the horizon.
The will of their masters slipped from the dolls in the daylight. Their mouths dropped open and the light of souls fluttered loose like a cloud of fleeing fireflies. Each soul flew out through the old couple’s open doorway, off to other doorways and open windows. They found their owners slumped over tables, lying in beds and on floors, some even draped across each other as if they’d fallen asleep while dancing. Nearly all the townsfolk awoke that morning as if they’d had their first night of peace and rest in a long while—all but those whose souls had left the world already.
Those two lay still on their floor, no souls returning and no will remaining, with blisters on their feet and smiles on their faces.