The low creaking sounds of wood and the lazy rocking motion tilting the doll’s head side-to-side in a slow, gentle rhythm made for soothing sensations.
At least they did so in a vacuum, and the doll was trying her very best to exist only in that perfect vacuum.
She had been made to know how to empty herself of thought and motion, to separate herself from the now-distant tug of desire and preference, to only be the object she was expected to be.
This journey at sea was just the most recent test of her stillness, not the hardest.
Her witch sent her to visit an associate overseas and retrieve a parcel of some unexplained importance. To fetch and deliver the parcel, none other than a perfect, obedient doll would do.
She was not a passenger, that much was clear. She was cargo, like the rest of it.
But of the cargo, she was special.
Not because of any intrinsic worth or because her witch paid extra for them to treat her well, but in fact because she did quite the opposite. She had negotiated a discount by suggesting they may use her all they like, if it pleased them.
Doing so did seem to please them. She spent not a single night in the hold among the rest of the cargo, but was instead passed around the crew’s quarters as a gift from the captain to help keep their spirits up.
It was fine. She stayed limp and still since the very first day.
Though she tried to ignore most of what the sailors said or did, the doll did pay attention when they discussed the voyage itself, updating her internal estimate of how much longer she would be left among them.
This time they were talking about an unexpected detour.
She did not ask for details, and they did not volunteer more information where she could hear it.
Time passed—the doll did not attempt to track how long—and the crew became increasingly nervous.
Then the day arrived when they started stuffing their ears with wax.
They ignored her, as they always did when there was work to be done, and they proceeded to sail in silence until…
A voice, carried on the wind as though from a great distance, reached the doll’s ears. It sang the most beautiful song she’d ever heard.
The doll perked up in a way she hadn’t at any other point in the journey. The song was so tantalizing and so far away it pained her that she couldn’t hear it more clearly.
She climbed upright from her lonely corner and tilted her head to try to locate the source.
Though she had been carried through it before, she found it challenging to navigate through the ship. She had not been paying attention to her surroundings much until now.
Still, she climbed higher and higher until she found her way up to the main deck.
She could hear that heart-wrenchingly beautiful song more clearly up here, but it was still not enough. Bafflingly, the ship’s course was heading nowhere near the direction of the singing, either.
The doll made her way to the helm—unnoticed, as any good doll is made to be.
She quickly realized the problem. With all that wax in their ears, the crew had no way of knowing they were sailing the wrong way.
With delicate, deft fingers, she plucked the wax from the ears of the helmsman. When the music touched him, he knew what needed to be done.
She moved to the others on the deck, helping them in the same way, ensuring as much of the crew as possible could work together to sail the proper course.
The doll was pleased by how quickly the ship turned toward the music’s source. Porcelain hands clapped in excitement.
Her ears picked it out more clearly with each passing moment. She heard more voices joining the first, building a melody that reached deep inside her and made her feel, for once in her meager existence, that more than just emptiness could fit inside a witch’s doll.
Then the ship splintered, shattered, and broke against rocks that nobody had seen.
The singing stopped.
It was chaos and fear and shouting and men pitching overboard. Something collided with the doll, and she tumbled, losing sight of the horizon, splashing into water.
Debris pulverized both her legs. One arm was half shattered and missing pieces. Something landed on her head and left her face cracked, but mostly intact.
Somehow she made it clear of the worst of the wreckage. Somehow she was still floating.
The waters were churning, red and frothy, while wounded men splashed and floundered for survival.
The doll felt nothing when she saw scaled hands pulling them under the surface, when flashes of sharp teeth offered explanation for the new blooms of crimson in the water.
The doll idly wondered how long before she would also be targeted and claimed by the predators that had lured them here.
There were no regrets. One crystal-clear moment of happiness heralding the end of whatever it was a doll had that substituted for a life? Win-win, right?
At last, cold hands gripped her body, pulling her down, down, down, under the surface and away from the world she knew.
She looked into the great, dark eyes of something almost human, something scaled and grinning with needle-sharp teeth, and the doll smiled back.
“You are as beautiful as your song, Miss,” the doll said, having no lungs to breathe and needing no air to speak. “This one thanks you for the best gift she has ever received.”
The mermaid’s face filled with an expression of excited wonder. “You are no meat thing,” it observed. “Those ones are clumsily flailing and gulping and good only for play and feeding. They do not speak in water-tongues with us! What manner of creature are you?”
“This one is a doll,” she explained. “Made to serve ‘meat things’ and good only to be used and broken and discarded by them when they are done. This one…is at the end of her useful service now, and she is thankful to not have to serve them any longer. She thanks you.”
The doll hesitated a moment before continuing, mustering in her final moments the audacity for a last request. “Before you finish this one, would you please sing for her again? This one will end with a smile if she can hear your song while she goes.”
The sea creature narrows its eyes in an expression of displeasure.
“No,” it said. “No! You are like us! You are better than meat things,” it insisted. “We have magics to heal and magics to fix, and you can stay with us and sing with us and not serve the worthless ones!”
A cold, scaly kiss touched lips of cold, smooth porcelain, and the doll experienced a strangely sparkling, tingling sensation. It was a surge of magic that felt entirely alien to what she remembered being wielded by her witch.
The doll felt the crack running through her face seal itself. She saw the shattered porcelain of her arm pull itself back together again, bearing only a delicate spiderweb of gold lines where it was damaged so recently.
“Don’t end yet,” the mermaid told her, and the doll’s urge to obey compelled her to sharpen her attention toward the command. “I need friends to fix the rest of you. You’ll like them. They will be your friends too!” Its hand tugged the doll along as it swam toward the others.
The mermaid hummed a simple melody to itself while guiding her along, and the doll’s heart remembered how alive she felt when she first heard the singing.
She even began to believe her new friend when it told her they could teach her of her superiority to the meat things.