Once upon a time, there was a toy factory in the middle of nowhere. Magic kept it hidden from vandals and enemies within a great and vast forest. And no matter how quickly or how many trees were cut down, they grew back from being stumps in a matter of days, providing an endless supply of material.
The factory itself is as tall as the trees and makes the most of the space within. Every section is given a different colour, every worker and piece of equipment shaded to varying degrees, and only the toys themselves are the splashes of difference in the workers’ lives.
The people who make birds are sick of the colour red, the ones who carve cats bemoan the colour blue, dogs are lovingly painted brown or black or gray by those who hate yellow, and the workers who wear white proudly craft a rainbow of dolls.
One man works alone. Not by choice, but because of the delicate touch that is needed and the absolute silence a valued talent such as his requires. In a large sealed cube, this worker does the very last step. He paints all the eyes on all the dolls.
Day in and day out, second after minute after hour, he does the same actions for every doll. With the utmost care and patience, he examines the handiwork of the craftspeople before him. The dresses, the hair, the shape of the face and body, every part decides what colour and sometimes the shape the eyes must be. After putting the doll down, he binds the hair behind the doll to avoid painting it and ties a smock around their necks for the clothes. Then he picks up a brush and dabs white or black paint for sclera in a perfect circle or oval. Long, delicate fingers lift another brush with bright blue, dark red, light purple, whatever is the best choice for the iris of the doll. Pupils come last and are perhaps the most difficult part. A single dot or a larger circle, the pupils of the dolls that are made in this magically guarded factory decide whether they seem lifeless or lively. And the eye-painter is very good at creating lively.
However, he is not a happy man, cramped and surrounded by his work, only once a week are the ‘results,’ as he chooses to call them, taken away for shipping and sale. For the better part of each week, all his results sit on shelves on every wall. There are even shelves above the two exits out of the room. His work is considered grand and the crowning touch on the factory’s dolls, but such compliments give him no comfort. In fact, they make him uncomfortable. Whenever a doll is finished up, the eye-painter shuts his eyes tight and turns his work around before opening up again. Then he gets up and places the finished doll on an empty space and makes ABSOLUTELY SURE that they are facing the wall.
Long ago, after a year of working in the factory, he started noticing that the eyes he paints on are able to swivel. No matter what direction they are painted to point at, it is inevitable that upon completion, the doll’s eyes will stare directly into his own.
Painted to the left? Snap to front and center.
Painted to look downwards? A slow rotation upwards.
Painted with a lazy eye? Corrects itself.
He blames the magical nature of the trees that are used as material for every toy in the factory.
The pay is too good, the eye-painter will not leave. But a dread feeling washes over his body every time he feels a doll’s eyes upon him.
One day, he receives news that dolls are going missing across the country. Every doll came from the factory. The eye-painter tries to not take notice and fails horribly.
Two days later, the number of missing dolls rises.
Every day, more and more go missing.
The eye-painter refuses to work anymore, jibbering and jabbering about how ‘they’ are coming for him. He is replaced and sent home to rest.
A week later, in the middle of the night, he rises to the sound of shuffling outside. Not just one pair of shoes, but many… so, So, SO, SO MANY. They do not move as one, but they stop as one.
Knock, knock, knock.
The eye-painter does not move from his bed.
Knock, knock, knock.
The eye-painter swallows his fear and lights a lantern.
Knock, knock- click.
The eye-painter creaks open the door with wide open eyes, but cannot look down. He doesn’t need to.
A sea of dolls, all their eyes shining in the street lights stare at his shaking form.
The eye-painter looks downwards, raising the lantern over his head, ready to smash it at his feet and set all the little stalkers on fire.
But he stops at the sight of the lead doll. The one who’s arms are outstretched.
In a perfectly natural voice, the slightest shake of shyness taints a young girl’s words, “Um… Um… You’re the only daddy we’ve ever seen. We know we have lots of daddies and mommies who made all our clothes and hair and everything, but we’ve never seen them. Um… Could you… Could you hold us just once? Then- Then we’ll go back to our new friends.”
Children. The eye-painter thinks. They’re all just children. All MY children.
Within the week, all the missing dolls have returned to their owners and the eye-painter takes a new stance to his work. Every piece he makes gets a smile and a twinkling pair of proud eyes staring into theirs before receiving a hug.
The eye-painter sleeps peacefully and so do the factory’s children.