Stitch the skin. Cut the hair. Polish the eyes.
Her hands echo the precision of a surgeon with each movement. First the scissors, light and silver, plucked from atop a stack of books. She runs her hands through the fibers of hair, cut from an animal long forgotten, and measures an inch between its dried ends and her flattened fingers. The scissors shear through the strands in a clean line. Auburn strands fall like feathers to the desk, where she sweeps them off to a growing pile on the floor.
Cut the hair, polish the eyes.
She selects a small box amidst the open display of other supplies scattered over the worktable: threads of all colors, mismatched cuts of leather, cloth fraying with use or boasting bright patterns gleaming with youth, thin metal pins scattered in tin trays or embedded in pastel pin cushions. Her hands ignore all of this, lifting the box by its base. It is only large enough to carry items the size of fat dollar coins, the kind foreign parents would instruct their children to leave for her after a grandiose show. She sets it beside the plush, stuffed body of the child on her desk. Cotton bursts at its burlap seams, limbs sewed on with dreadful haste. Her pride balks at the production of such crude work, but she knows she does not have the luxury to whittle hours away for the sake of perfection. After all this, all the mannequins, all the lives she has saved with needlework, a promise, and a drop of blood, it was only a matter of time before she was discovered.
That said, she stayed here longer than anywhere else. Perhaps it was her overt kindness to those who called her a friend and those who glimpsed her shows on the street without saying a word. Perhaps it was the stories she told with frolicking marionettes, lifelike and dancing, celebrating a world of their own just a curtain away. Perhaps it was the distraction of the War. Regardless, she had been able to carry on her work here for years, even after her first workshop was bombed to dust and she was forced to break her promise with a hundred lives bribed with immortality. The war provided no shortage of clients, and as it paraded destruction, those who suspected her were either too distracted by the chaos or too enchanted by the escape of her stories to voice accusations.
She plucks a needle among exposed trays of supplies, and threads it with a thin but firm crimson string. A melody pools from her throat as she tugs the scarlet weave through the eye of the needle, vibrating along her lips, a song gentle and ancient and heavy with use.
She has saved hundreds, perhaps thousands if she dares to speculate about the past. It isn’t a bad number, considering how many times she has been forced to flee. This time should be no different; and perhaps it won’t be.
The lid of the box flips open with a simple flick of her finger. Two heavy beads shine from within, reflecting the orange glint of candlelight - electric lights haven’t worked since the raids began. The beads are clear crystal, marked with curious circular discoloration at their center. Without paint or modification, they bear the black pupil and inky irises of a wild gaze, untamed, unknown, and unloved. She hums as she selects one and slips the needle through an otherwise invisible hole in the center of the pupil. Her hands move with the thread as though mere guides; redundant, as the string itself has woven this spell before, and needs no assistance. When the first eye is stitched into the burlap skin, a small crimson cross of thread marring the pupil, she begins the second one.
How long has she been playing this game? It feels like centuries, sometimes millennia. Sometimes she dares to wonder which is true, the former or the latter, but her memory never offers a conclusive answer. Every time she runs, she must begin again. All that she knows upon waking is the spell upon her breath and the knowledge to use it.
The second eye hangs parallel to the first, sewn into the sinews of cloth skin with precision. They watch the woman with wild, animalistic calculation - when she looks back, they cower. The gaze follows her hands, reaching across her trays and alighting upon folds of white cloth engraved with red filigree. She lays a sheet of the cloth flat across the wooden desk, and, wielding her scissors with the solemnity of a sword piercing the heart, shears them into wide strips.
She prefers to add the eyes last, for they embody a spark the other materials only serve to compliment. But this time, she needs their hungry gaze to weigh upon her as she works. She needs to be reminded; work quickly and work diligently, for punishment is looming ever closer towards your doorstep.
The strips lay out in front of her. She takes the first one, lifting her crimson-threaded needle, and begins to sew it along the burlap skin of the doll, piercing and pulling with a rhythm steadier than a heartbeat.
She wonders, as she has many times before, if this was a curse. What else could drive a woman to such a specific occupation, such a unique craft? Why else would she be forced to forget with each escape? She reasons that she may have simply been caught in an inexplicable web of magic. After all, no malice resides in her heart, and if someone had forced her to this with cruel intentions, they are yet to reveal themselves. It seems much more probable that she stumbled upon this magic and, dissatisfied with watching from afar, became ensnared by it.
Footsteps echo along the hallway, heavy and tired. She forces her hands to move more quickly, the melody hastening in tempo. She’s running out of time.
Instincts, born from repetition of this same practice time and time again, carry the doll closer to completion. The creamy filigree cloth adorns it as a second skin. The eyes watch her as she drives her needle into her finger. It comes away wet and dripping with blood. She winds the needle throughout the doll’s skin, forming it’s thin thread lips, securing areas where the fabric has frayed. When the cloth had soaked up all the blood the needle had to offer, she wounds herself again, and continues.
She tells herself that this time is no different, and lets herself believe it in the soft melody still tumbling from her lips, forming syllables and words too old for her to understand. It’s no different from the hospital patients who begged for mercy in pain-induced panics, from the dying who wished for life in their final breaths, from the children who come to watch her shows and told her who they, too, would be heroes, no different from the souls she had listened to and coaxed and bribed into the life of a stuffed puppet blessed with immortality, blessed with imagination, blessed with the ability to forget. It’s no different.
Someone knocks rapidly at the door. “Police!”
“No different,” she whispers, clutching the needle. As she gouges it into her chest, between her ribs, through her heart, and uses her final breath to offer a promise and a drop of blood, she knows that she is lying.
Darkness comes quickly. Death follows.
When she wakes, her workshop has been ransacked. Supplies lay strewn across the floor, threads and cloth and strips of burlap, beads and needles. She watches it with crystal eyes, and calls upon the magic running through her threads to stand on stuffed feet.
It’s time to go.