“Yikes,” said Silence when her partner appeared in the secret library with a dirt-smeared, naked, hairless doll with picture nails through its eyes, hands, feet, and heart. “That’s a poppet!”
“It’s not a puppet, silly,” said Ethan. “It’s a Thoroughly Modular Milly, Springtime Surprise, from 2018. I’m going to fix her up!” He bounced on tiptoe.
“Maybe it was a fashion doll, but now it’s a poppet — a witch’s tool.” Silence set her laptop on a dark oaken sideboard and took a deep breath.
“Here comes a history lecture!” With a grin, Ethan settled in a hobnailed oxblood chair.
“Poppets are tools of sympathetic magic; whatever’s done to the doll also happens to the target,” Silence said. “And witches and dolls go way back in New England. People in Salem were accused of sticking pins into poppets to torment their victims.”
“She was reaching out to me.” Ethan stroked the poppet’s head.
“Where did you find it — underground?”
“Yeah — in your favorite place.”
Silence facepalmed. “You dug up a witch’s torture device from Hardship Common Burial Ground? Ethan! You bury a poppet to neutralize it and cut its power. But you just pulled a Dr. Frankenstein on this one.”
“A torture device? Rude! You just don’t see her potential. Trust the artist!”
“Trust the historian whose best friend is a witch!” Silence called, but Ethan, weaving between peaked Gothic bookcases, swept off to his Dollhouse.
Two days later Silence cornered Ethan in the bungalow where he made his art. “You‘ve got to stop,” she said. “You’re getting injured in every place the poppet had a nail in it.”
Ethan, who had successively poked his left index finger with a needle, sprained his left ankle in his laptop cord, banged his right little toe on his fabric-storage credenza, and nicked his right thumbnail, sighed. He flopped onto a lavender sofa. Piles of half-finished projects cascaded into his lap.
“Yeah,” he said, “and next up is my eyes and my heart, which I’m kind of attached to. I thought that she was getting used to me because the injuries were less and less bad, but—” He sighed again.
Silence contemplated the poppet on the sewing table. Like the many dolls ranked on Ethan’s wall shelves, it was now fantastical and heavily stylized. He had cleaned it and repainted it with winged purple eyeliner, magenta microglitter, and glossy, dark violet lips. The long butterfly sleeves of its handmade wrap dress shone purple in some lights and blue in others. Its gladiator sandals of silver wire matched its twining bracelets. He’d given it everything but hair, and, in doing so, transformed it. No longer a nameless tool, she was a lovely, fey doll called Milly.
“I know she’s a poppet,” Ethan went on, sniffing and wiping his eyes, “but she didn’t ask to be. She’s a doll — meant to be played with and made pretty. I thought if I did that — then she might — Is that stupid of me?”
Silence, clearing a place on the sofa, hugged him. “No,” she said softly. “I love that about you — you see the best in everything, even poppets. I think, though, that Milly might be caught between contradictory impulses.”
“So she did like getting a makeover.” Ethan perked up.
“Yeah — by taking such good care of her, you’re reminding her what it’s like to be a harmless toy. But she’s still a poppet that was made to cause pain.” Silence held her palms out like balancing scales. “She’s having a dilemma.”
Ethan drooped. “Obviously I don’t have enough good — toy — power — things,” he said, flapping his hands as he searched for words, “to stop her from being mean. Am I, like, not a good dollmaker?”
“Aww, you’re a wonderful dollmaker.” Silence squeezed him again. “It’s more like you’ve reached the limit of your abilities. Now it’s time to take her to an expert in magic and dolls—my best friend the witch.”
“You’ve really transfigured her! She’s exquisite!” exclaimed Silence when she and Ethan visited the Magister a few days on.
Milly stood on a turntable at the Magister’s workbench, surrounded by art supplies in precisely labeled drawers. Dark violet hair covered her formerly bare scalp in an elaborate crown of curls and braids.
“Of course she is.” The Magister beamed. “I myself prefer verisimilitude, but I am the master of many styles.” He spread out his arms at his recessed displays. Each clear glass shelf held articulated figures so detailed that some Hardshippers suspected the Magister of owning a shrink ray. “Now that she is complete,” he added, “she is a work of art without any magical power.”
“What did you do?” Ethan asked. “Besides an amazing reroot.”
“Well,” said the Magister, raising his two pointer fingers like the teacher he was, “while your ministrations, my dear Ethan, did mitigate her violent tendencies, there is, in matters of discipline, a phenomenon known as the extinction burst — an expected and intense escalation of the objectionable behavior before it dies out — of which I assumed the brunt.”
“That sentence,” Ethan informed the Magister, “was way too long.”
Silence explained: “I gave Milly to the Magister so she would pitch her final fit at him instead of you.”
Ethan glanced from Silence to the Magister. “Oh! Wow! So — the extinction burst — you two saved me from it.”
“You are most welcome.” The Magister bowed.
“And you’re okay?” Silence asked the Magister.
The Magister unbuttoned his robes, revealing a corset of leather armor. A broken rerooting needle projected from his sternum. “Hm! I appear to have missed one.” Removing the needle with a gloved thumb and forefinger, he flicked it fastidiously into the trash.
“Drama monarch,” Silence muttered, rolling her eyes.
“By the way,” the Magister said to Ethan, “you may be experiencing a headache.”
“Yeah.” Ethan rubbed his forehead. “How did—?”
“The sympathetic link between you and Milly continued while I rerooted her. It is now severed, but you may soon discover yourself with a luxuriant violet mane.”
“Cool!” Ethan clapped. “Purple’s my favorite color.”
“Yes.” The Magister smiled. “I know.”
Elizabeth A. Allen lives and writes in Vermont. Her fiction has been published in Cunning Linguists, We’re the Weird Aliens, and Master Works. Her nonfiction has appeared in Outside In Regenerates, Strange Horizons, Gender Who?, and other venues.