The Toymaker's Grief
by Hal Duncan


Once Far Ago

Once far ago—or maybe twice or three times—there lived a toymaker with a beautiful wife and a charming daughter.  Then there lived a toymaker with a charming daughter.  Then there lived only the toymaker, alone in a quiet house after the funeral, after the mourners had all left, dressed in his finest black suit, sitting motionless on a smooth bed, in a cold room, in an echoless house, simply sitting there, gazing out the window at a sky as blue as the eyes that would never again confirm their love with just the slightest, most momentary, smiling glance.

The Corner of His Vision

He stood then, the toymaker, largely because he didn't know what else to do, and he left the bedroom, closing the door behind him with a soft click.  He walked down the stairs to the ground floor, pausing at the bottom of the steps, where the front door faced him and the doors into the living-room and kitchen waited to his left, in the corner of his vision, on the threshold of his memory, closed and with a thousand joys beyond, those joys and all the sorrow wound within like coiled springs.

The toymaker turned right and entered his workshop.

The Magic of the Workshop

The magic of the workshop was gone for him, of course, every half-built toy upon the shelves and surfaces an image of another, an original built for his girl: a teddy bear of golden fur and black felt eyes; multi-coloured building blocks with letters on each face; a rag-doll in a gingham dress with wool for hair; a wooden marionette in lederhosen, red cone for a nose; a clockwork ballerina in pink silk, wound by a key to turn en pointe and port de bras to tinkling tines, delicate as—

The toymaker leant against a wall and wept a while.

The Single Fibre of a Squirrel-Hair Brush

The doll's house was unfinished, just a painted plywood shell of angled roof and four walls hinged to open out, two floors divided into rooms, a stairway made with matchstick banisters.  It would have been ready for her birthday, wallpaper patterns painted on with the single fibre of a squirrel-hair brush, each room curtained and carpeted in finest fabric, furnished with bed and dresser, or basin and bath, or sink and cooker, or sideboard and suite and television set and coffee table and china dogs upon the mantelpiece.

Largely because he didn't know what else to do, the toymaker began.

As the Toymaker Worked

As the toymaker worked he didn't notice the minutes becoming hours, the hours becoming days, no light of sun or moon to mark time in his windowless workshop filled with every clockwork toy you can imagine but without a clock.  He noticed hunger and he ate, he noticed weariness and slept—at first, at least.  After a while he didn't even notice these.  He didn't notice the days becoming weeks, the weeks becoming months.  The last thing he remembered noticing was the doorbell, a neighbour with concern upon her face, food in her hands.

“You're sure you're coping?” she'd said.

A Door Without a Letter-Box

As the toymaker worked, each time he came close to completion of the doll's house, he found reason to be . . . unconvinced by it.  The painted-on front door seemed cheap, a trick, when it would hardly be impossible to craft a working frame, a door with hinges, and a pin-head for a doorknob.  The windows needed glazed—no, needed to slide open, up and down.  The walls were bare without framed paintings and bronze ducks.  The floors required Persian rugs.  The dresser needed perfume bottles, photographs.  And that front door . . . what was a door without a letter-box?

It wasn't good enough.

Shrunken by Sorrow, Consumed by Work

As the toymaker worked—and how he worked—striving to make the doll's house perfect for a memory, he didn't feel the wasting of the years.  His hands did not seem frail for all the delicacy of their age; if anything they trembled less, trained by this work of such devotion to such exquisite minutiae.  His eyes were sharp as in his youth now, as he worked on tiny letters to sit on the writing bureau in the living-room.

Shrunken by sorrow, consumed by work, he only felt a little weary as he curled up on the stool to sleep.

The New Screwdriver

The doll's house, he decided, needed an extension to the kitchen—no, a garage off to one side.  No.  A workshop.

It didn't take long to build, barely a year.  The hardest task lay in the crafting of the tools to line the racks, and the toymaker had some practice here.  He had long since built new tools to work at the small scale of detail he required for the perfection that he sought: a half-scaled hammer; a hacksaw at half the scale of that; a vice scaled down by half again.

The new screwdriver sat well in his grip.

A Little Something Missing

From inside the doll's house the work was so much easier now.  He only had to stoop a little as he moved from room to room to squeeze himself through the miniature doorways.  He could kneel to paint the skirting boards, or to carve in gaps between the floorboards where he had pulled up the carpet, or to screw in the power sockets for the wiring he had laid.  And the doll's house in the workshop of the doll's house in the workshop was nearly complete, only a little something missing, he thought.

A letterbox for the door, he thought.

And Long Away

Once far ago—or maybe never, maybe never—there lived a toymaker without a beautiful wife and a charming daughter, alone and lost, somewhere in a doll's house within a workshop of a doll's house within a workshop of a doll's house within a workshop, and so on.  And so on.  He had lived there for so many days and weeks, months and years, in the houses of his grief, that he had quite forgotten how far ago and long away the outside world was.

Is this the end of the story?

Let it not be the end.

One day. . . .




About the Author:

Hal Duncan was born in 1971, brought up in a small town in Ayrshire, and now lives in the West End of Glasgow.  A member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, his first novel, Vellum, won the Spectrum Award and was nominated for the Crawford, the BFS Award and the World Fantasy Award.  The sequel, Ink, came out last year, while a novella, Escape from Hell! is due out in 2008 from Monkeybrain Books.  As well as publishing a poetry collection, Sonnets for Orpheus, he collaborated with Scottish band Aereogramme on a song for the Ballads of the Book album from Chemikal Underground, and has had short fiction published in magazines such as Fantasy, Strange Horizons and Interzone and anthologies such as Nova Scotia, Eidolon and Logorrhea.



Story © 2008 Hal Duncan. Photo by Kuebi, 2007.