Story of the Sponge Dolls

By Margot Edwards | Copyright 1994

This is a local legend, created during a Storytelling Festival in Margaret River, Western Australia, from the snippets of stories of others.

It has its genesis in a doll-making workshop, a picnic and a bundle of sponges found on the beach in 1994… it is the first of many!

Back in the old-time, back in old lands, there was a village.

In the village, there had always been a dollmaker.

The dollmaker knew the secrets of the dolls.

As one dollmaker grew old, she would pass her secrets on to the next and so the dolls survived for generation upon generation.

The village community loved the dollmaker, particularly the children, who would ring her door-bell and be welcomed by name.

Together they would make the dolls, each child their own, and the dollmaker would choose the eyes from a huge tray of beads and jewels that she kept. She alone would choose, as she alone could see into the soul of the child.

And so each generation of children in the village had their own doll, and as they grew into adults their dolls would remind them of who they really were.

As the years passed, the village prospered and people came to visit from far and wide, wanting to buy the sacred dolls and take home with them some of the contentment of the people who lived there.

Bribes and temptations were offered, gifts and gold, and eventually one person sold a doll.

When a neighbour saw what could be bought, and another, they too sold their dolls, until only half the villagers’ dolls remained. These people knew that to save the dolls, they had to leave.

Together the men started to build a boat – wood upon wood, fibre upon fibre – and made a sail to catch the winds of a faraway land. The women set about collecting some small comforts and treasures, clothes and bedding, and cartons of food.

The children and the dolls hid in the dollmaker’s house waiting for the boat to be ready.

Now the mayor of the village had sold his doll and spent the money. But he began to get greedy.

He decided to collect and sell all the remaining dolls and keep the money for himself.

And so he set about searching the village. But as he went from house to house, he realised there were none to be found.

And so he came to the dollmaker’s house. He banged on her door until she opened it, barged in and ordered her to give up the dolls.

“I know you’ve got all those dolls,” he yelled.

“Give them to me.”

“I have only this doll,” she said, as she handed her own over to him.

The mayor grumphed and took the doll, but as he turned to leave, he thought he heard a child’s laugh.

“Aha, those blasted children have them. Where are they?” he shouted at the dollmaker.

“There’s no children here, sir. You must be mistaken,” she said.

But the mayor looked under, inside, and behind everything in the tiny house until he came to a little door, and listening closely at the lock he heard the sound of children playing.

He burst into the room and threw himself at the children, trying to grab their dolls. Terrified, they dropped the dolls and ran, out of the house with the dollmaker, and down to the boat by the seashore.

But in their haste, the tray of beads and jewels fell to the floor and scattered to the corners of the room. The greedy mayor grabbed at them in glee, only to realise they were no good to him without the secrets held by the dollmaker herself.

The children and the dollmaker came to the boat, crying out that they must leave, they must go now or the sacred dolls may never be made again.

But the boat was not stocked, the boat was not ready to take all the people – only the empty hull, mast and sail stood ready.

Knowing they must protect the secret of the dolls, the villagers put the children and the dollmaker in the empty hull and pushed them off out to sea, promising to follow behind as soon as they could.

With only the clothes they wore, the food that had been close at hand, and nothing to do besides stare out to the horizon, the children soon became frightened and sad and bored and lonely.

And so the dollmaker started to pick away at the fibre of the boat, rolling it between her hands, into the heads and bodies and legs and arms of the dolls. The children broke splinters of wood from the mast to make needles and pulled the thread from the sail for cotton, and together they all began to sew.

They pulled and rolled and picked and sewed, making their dolls anew.

But as they picked away at the fibres, holes appeared in the hull and the boat slowly began to leak.

“Drip, drip, drip” went the water, and the children sewed their dolls in desperation.

“Splash, splash, splash” went the water, and only the eyes of the dolls remained to be chosen.

“Gush, gush, gush” went the water, and the dollmaker leapt into the surging ocean, searching, searching for something to use as eyes.

As the children looked over the edge of the sinking boat, they saw beneath them the most beautiful collection of jewels and pearls sparkling on the sea floor.

As the water poured into the wooden hull, the children dived, down, down to the sea floor.

And as they dived, the Spirit of the Sea took pity on them and changed them all, one by one, into jellyfish.

The dollmaker swam desperately in the swirling ocean.

“Children!” she cried.

“Where are my children?”

And as she cried and sank beneath the sea, the jellyfish came around her and carried her down to a beautiful cave, covered in jewels and pearls and sparkling sea shells.

And as she went, the Spirit of the Sea transformed her into a beautiful mermaid.

The mermaid and the jellyfish live in her cave beneath the sea, and together they collect the flotsam and jetsom from the ocean depths.

In her hands the mermaid rolls the sponges, in the shapes of heads and bodies and legs and arms.

And the jellyfish carry the sponges out to the currents of the ocean, settling them free, to be washed up on the beaches of the world.

And if ever you find the sponges in the shapes of heads and bodies and legs and arms, and sew them together; be sure to choose carefully the eyes, that the dollmaker would choose for you.

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