The Puppet Show
In his workshop, a lamp gave faint, drunken light. His fingers, swollen by alcohol, searched through the velvet and muslin strewn among buckets. Pieces of wood lay shapeless on the floor, and he picked the precise ones he needed. He set to work. First, a face took shape from layers of papier-mâché. The skin was rough, the nose grew squarely out of the face. Lips turned red under the brush. They were not meant to move. The wide painted eyes stared into the dark.
The body, light. One arm dangled aimlessly, waiting for a string. Hard plastic on the wrists. The fingers stuck tightly together, ready to wave and dangle with modulated pathos. Legs hopped without a body until screws set them in place. Head and body united for the first time, and the shadow of wood and cloth became somewhat human.
The theater itself was old. Italian-style columns, baroque statues, double stairs of marble and gilded cherubs on the ceiling—it had all of that. His workshop was at the back of the building, away from the glamour, yet he did not mind at all. Art in its powdered, vestigial parody, filled with ancient desires, was just another form of denial. He was not there to glorify the empty laughter of swelled corsets and glittering wigs. In the miniature amphitheater hidden past the actors’ dressing rooms, past cold corridors, he put together a story for children. It was a story like no other: it had no end. Child after child returned every week for the free show, and he was certain they were there to know. They did not mind that he was known as a drunkard, because the truth he concocted week by week thrilled them, changed them, filled them with lights and shadows before they returned to their parents.
In the story, Gina was always the main character—a frail, blonde princess that the children adored. The actress had grown up in the city and she wanted to leave it, but having a job was better than having a dream. The puppeteer wanted her to keep her own name in the story, so she accepted. The only other human actor in the show was to be played by one of the puppeteer’s friends. He would always be called Radu, no matter which of his friends he brought there for the role.
The rules to the story were simple: Gina would not ask questions. She would read and rehearse her part for that week, but she was never allowed to know what the puppets were going to do, or what Radu was there for. She’d tell her story to the children, then she would wait. Small animals would gather around her, storms would come and go. She was allowed to move about. And smile. The curtain would fall and stay closed for ten seconds, and she would catch her breath. She would then tell the second story and let the puppets and the strings do the rest. At the end of each performance she was instructed to speak one single word—she could choose any word. It just had to make sense to the children.
* * *
Gina the princess is lost in the woods. She calls for her sisters, and they do not answer. Her face is pale. The light from two reflectors rests on her with longing, on her white dress and her long hair falling on her shoulders like yellow satin. Silk flies across the stage—the wind. She asks the wind to listen to her story, to take pity and find her sisters. The story is sad, for her sisters have gone to the witches’ lair. They have been turned to stone. Gina sings, and the wind of silk wraps around her body. Trees move across the stage, and she falls asleep in the arms of the wind. The curtain falls.
Gina the princess wakes up, and there are three kings hanging on strings. They come from the past. One who founded the country is old as the centuries. One who defended the country has a golden coat and a sword. One who unified the country is solemn and bearded. The princess tells the kings how she lost her sisters, and she sings again. But now her song is different, of sacrifice: for the good of the country, she will not look for her sisters anymore.
Now Radu has come on stage. His eyes are like fire, and he dances with her. The children applaud. She is smiling.
Yet the play is not over. Radu lets go of her hand and runs through the trees. Gina cannot call him back, for she is not allowed to speak. Her face distorts as if she knows something terrible, something that even Radu does not know yet. A cardboard train comes clumsily onstage, with human feet trotting instead of wheels. He jumps in front of it and falls, and the train carries him behind the curtain.
She looks at the children. Holding their breaths, they are waiting for the word.
LOSS, she says. Some children start crying.
* * *
Marcus played the role of Radu this time. He had been playing it for over a month now, though it didn’t pay much.
Marcus had been a long-time friend of the puppeteer, and the two liked to talk over vodka. With low, dreamy voices they would speak of Schopenhauer, misery, the will to live and the lie of love. The Communists were not averse to drunks, and vodka was a cheap import anyway. Marcus knew German words, and the puppeteer laughed and gestured wildly toward an empty sky. Marcus talked of the deception that love is, the emptiness of desire, which he could name in German: Wunsch. Vodka was the drink of the working class, and the two felt raw and free in the dark and smoky taverns, where workers drank and cursed the history to which their misery bound them. After a few drinks, the puppeteer and his philosopher friend tingled with compassion for the workers caught in reality’s dream and sang along when drunken songs burst throughout the tavern. In the morning, the workers would return to their factories.
It was the puppeteer who encouraged Marcus to ask out Gina.
“With her, love is not a lie,” the puppeteer would say. He would grin, his face glistening with sweat.
Mostly, Marcus took her to cafes, buying her cheap cake and coffee.
Just a few days after the last show, Marcus threw himself in front of a train. In a letter to Gina, he was angry and jealous, and she cried until her eyes had no more tears. She did not learn her lines that week and the show was cancelled.
The puppeteer brought her flowers. In her apartment building, everyone knew him. They were surprised he was not staggering this time, and she was surprised he did not ask her for money.
“Drink tea with honey for your voice,” he pleaded.
She wondered who would play Radu now, but he told her she would meet him soon.
The new Radu was named Matei. Also a friend of the puppeteer, Matei had opened his door one day to hear him ask, “Wouldn’t you like to try your hand at acting? Just once a week, and you won’t have many lines. You’ll meet Gina.”
Matei had come from the country. Like many sons of peasants after the great collectivization, he had no ambitions to get noticed on the combine harvester and receive medals for milking cows. He came to the city to study. He wrote, he published, he had expansive plans. He knew French perfectly, and he could recite poems by Paul Verlaine, the absinthe-dream poet whose friend Rimbaud led him to his ruin. He told stories of Verlaine’s wife, a woman with small hands and vast anger.
Matei loved the puppeteer and dragged him along when he and his fellow students gathered to read their stories of robots and other planets. The robots in their stories had grand ideas of uniting all countries and making everyone equal. The other planets looked strangely familiar, except they worked perfectly, until they didn’t work perfectly anymore. Most of the stories ended in great explosions and revolts, fought by people who did not want to be equal.
In a country drowned in secrecy and fear, people loved stories of robots and other planets. Matei tried to convince the puppeteer to make robot marionettes and transform his little stage into another planet.
“Think how much the children would love that,” Matei insisted.
The puppeteer shook his head and told him the actress wanted to be a princess, that the children wouldn’t understand science fiction.
Matei asked about the death of Marcus because the puppeteer had introduced
them vaguely one time. Some people said Marcus’ death had been an accident.
Some said he had been pushed.
“It’s very sad,” the puppeteer shook his head.
When Matei became Radu, Gina let him make her smile on stage, and she even started laughing when he carried her in his arms around the stage. Nobody noticed that the puppeteer had stopped drinking. He went to lunch with the two of them, and he watched avidly, looking deep into their eyes where he could see that, unbeknownst to the actors of the puppet show, their souls were already dancing together. And so Gina was finally able to stop crying.
Spring came, and Gina was in love. She quieted some nameless fear in her and, on stage, she made the children laugh, waiting for Radu.
* * *
Gina the white princess eats peaches. She makes believe the giant peaches are real, even if their color is bright, plastic orange. Hungry, the children imagine the taste as they roll their tongues in their mouths. Gina is not sad anymore. Her song is spring, like outside. Her white dress sparkles with the promise of a happy story, even if she is enclosed in a giant bird cage. She eats peaches with hope. She sings of the land that was frozen by a North Pole sorcerer. Outside her cage, little rabbits and ducks are trapped in ice. She summons warm rains to fight the ice. When her song ends, clouds begin to dance in front of her. It rains, and the rabbits jump out from the ice. The ducks fly. They free her from her cage, and the curtain falls.
In ten seconds, the curtain lifts again.
The children listen to her song, and they are waiting for Radu. For the last few weeks, he has been carrying her in his arms and has been giving her fist-sized rubies and diamonds. Now the children are whispering his name. Surrounded by flying marionettes, slashing the heads off rubber dragons, he moves valiantly towards the princess and her rabbits. She is sitting by a big tree. He sees her, and his face is round and laughing. His eyes are blue in the spotlight. She waves to him, but she cannot talk anymore. He stops. She stands up and lifts her arms.
There is a flash of lightning. He looks up: the tree bursts in flames and falls upon him. The princess screams and rushes forward, but the flames have vanished. So has Radu.
The children gasp. She has to give them a word now, but she is crying again. They are so close that they can see her tears fall on the dusty wooden floor.
DEFEAT, she says, and runs off the stage.
* * *
She became very afraid that day. She tried to talk to the puppeteer after the show, but he was drunk again, and he was asking for money. She pleaded with him.
“Is something going to happen? You have to stop it,” she said.
He stumbled in front of her, and it seemed as if his thoughts also stumbled in the dust of his mind.
“You love him, you love him,” he chanted in his drunkenness. “L’amour toujours!” he sang.
Matei left that week to visit his parents in the country. The weather was capricious, and there were powerful storms in May. Lightning hit a big tree just as he was trying to load wood into a cart, somewhere remote outside the village. He died instantly.
Gina refused to go to work for a month. The puppeteer crawled on his knees at her door, but she would not let him in.
* * *
Then came Laurian. Unlike the one before, he did not care to ask questions. He knew of the deaths. He knew Gina from school. When the puppeteer asked him if he would play Radu, he said yes and that he’d talk to Gina himself.
In her little apartment, Gina was dressed in black. She stared at the man at her door and sudden memories came flooding. She blinked, averted her eyes and waved for him to come inside. He came strolling in, tall and thin and devil-may-care. She just stood there, unable to ask him if he wanted a drink, or what he wanted.
He sat down. His body rigid, a faint smile fluttered across his face. He watched her tremble. Minutes passed before he spoke:
“I’m not afraid, and you need the money. Come play the princess again.”
“Do you remember ...” she began, but then was silent.
“There isn’t much to remember,“ he said. “We never spoke in school.”
“We danced ... once.”
“So we did. I am going to play Radu, with or without you.”
“But the others....”
He stood up and turned to leave. He opened the door.
“Wait!” Her voice resounded in the stairwell. “I will be there ...” she murmured, as in a trance. “You can tell him I’m coming back. But I will never speak to him again.”
It took her a long time before she could make herself go back inside. Standing in the door, her long yellow hair hung like silk.
* * *
Gina the white princess has finished her story. Today, it is about a small boy hiding in a cave as the world is crumbling. The princess is picking a flower. It is a big flower—velvet and rubber on a thick wire stem. She lets the children in the first row touch it. Small fingers caress the large petals. It is dark in the room, and the children are cold. There is no heat so they keep on their worn-out coats.
Gina the white princess waltzes in front of the cardboard castle. She seems to be waiting for someone, and a bird flies past her above the children’s heads. The children chirp. They applaud, and their hands are cold. There is thunder, and the boy-marionette shivers in the cave. Then the boy finds a book under a rock, and the boy falls asleep with his head on the white pages. The curtain falls. Then it opens.
Gina the white princess sings to the children about the spell someone put on her long ago, and now she appears in the dream of a lonely puppet-boy. Strings come down from the ceiling with a witch that dances with jolts, and her orange foam face shines. The children understand evil. Their parents curse and spit, so a boy lets out a crooked word for the crooked witch. Something in the white princess recoils, but she cannot let them know she heard it, for she is ethereal and beautiful. There are footsteps backstage, and the maroon curtain moves. The children can see someone is coming but they pretend to be surprised. The new Radu comes out. He looks like the sleeping boy, except he is tall, his long face defiant. The strong, happy Radu is gone, and for a month there hasn’t been a show at all. This Radu moves slowly, as if the small stage will take forever to cross. He looks the princess in the eye, and the children see her blush in the spotlight. He takes the book from her hand and says thank you. He turns around, and the book bursts into flames. He leaves the stage without a glance back.
Alone, Gina the princess is crying.
NEVER, she tells the children.
* * *
She swore she would never love again. Laurian did not bring her flowers, did not ask her to go for coffee, did not say more than hello and good-bye. The puppeteer invited them both to his house, but she would not speak to either, and she would not go. The puppeteer was drunker than ever. When she came to rehearse, he would tell her stories of his travels with the gypsies. Stories of a secret society. Stories of his two children, one in Russia and one in Poland. She would look at him with wide blue eyes, and she would not answer at all. Sometimes Laurian would come to the rehearsals, just to watch her from the shadows. The puppeteer would take him by the shoulders, push him to where she was sitting and reading. The two refused to look each other in the eye, and the puppeteer would laugh with alcohol breath.
“You are meant to be together! You are made for love!”
It meant nothing.
Outside, in the streets, people mumbled louder, sometimes within earshot of the police. Dirty streets, empty stores. Dubbed movies from the West played in dingy basements.
That was where she saw Laurian by chance, watching a horror movie with rubber monsters killing beautiful actors. It was as if they had no choice but to walk home together, through streets of fall with flying papers and bags. That was when he squeezed her chin with his fingers until it hurt, and he kissed her carelessly, recklessly. Her eyes asked for a sign, but in the cold air his eyes did not speak.
She feared the show the following night. She did not want to go. She put on her boots of fake leather and her coat of fake fur, and she let her feet take her through the streets.
* * *
Her voice is shaking as she tells her first story. The children do not notice. They are hungry when they look at the long table filled with plastic food.
Her fingers shake as she pretends to eat a fat turkey leg that looks more like the leg of an ostrich.
Her hands and her legs are in chains. She stares blankly as the curtain falls, and she counts to ten.
She is still in chains as she begins the second song, the second story. The children cannot hear her, and they ask each other what she said. “Radu! Radu!” they shout, for who else can free her, and who else will share in the plastic feast?
Behind the curtain, the puppeteer watches, and Laurian watches him watch.
“Go onstage!” whispers the puppeteer. “Now!”
Laurian turns in the dark and walks away. The puppeteer is furious, and the children can hear his drunken curses. The puppeteer throws a cloak on and rushes onstage. No one can see his face. He pulls the chains away from the princess, cursing her. Gina the princess is frozen. She cannot move. He slaps her.
“The word, give them the word!” he whispers through the cloak.
“The word!” the children shout.
She stands up.
DEATH, she says loud and clear. She pushes him and runs off the stage.
* * *
Blood flowed in the street that week. The whole country boiled with the anger of many years. That week, a dictator was stunned that people stopped following orders. Even the secret police did not help him. Like puppets with their strings hanging loose, they were just waiting to see where the dice would fall. The dictator was run off his palace, and the palace crumbled.
The puppeteer’s liver was swollen from drinking, and he stopped going to work. He died a few months later. His mother asked relatives to help bury him. She had no money. She had always given him all she had.
Laurian did not die. Like many, he started his own business; like many, he became rich. He sponsored the theater and helped renovate the ancient Italian-style building. Great shows were to follow. Few people could afford them.
The marionettes were all locked up in wooden chests and thrown into the theater’s attic. Like memories, they lived on.
The small amphitheater where puppet shows used to play was turned into offices. There, a new political party gathered weekly, and it brought many young people with many ideas. They drank truth and justice with water. In a year, there were fewer people coming to the meetings, and finally the offices were sold to another political party. This one lasted two years, changing leadership. People felt used. People felt betrayed. The party split into factions.
In the end, the place was fully remodeled to house a private school for actors.
As for Gina, she left the country and became an actress somewhere without puppets.
The story of Gina the princess was never finished. The children did not dare cry or ask if there would ever be another show. Gina the princess lingered like a scar in their memories. They whispered her name to each other for years.
Like their parents, the children did not know what they should or shouldn’t remember.