Night of Cake & Puppets
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The Puppet That Bites
On top of the cabinet in the back of my father’s workshop – which was my grandfather’s workshop and will one day be mine, if I want it – there is a puppet. This is unsurprising, since it’s a puppet workshop. But this puppet, alone of them all, is imprisoned in a glass case, and the thing that’s driven me crazy my whole life is this: The case doesn’t open. It was my job to dust it when I was little, and I can tell you for a certainty: It has no door, no keyhole, no hinges. It’s a solid cube, and was constructed around the puppet.
To get the puppet out – or ‘let it out,’ in my grandfather’s words – you’d have to break the glass.
This has been discouraged.
It’s a nasty-looking little bastard, some kind of undead fox thing in Cossack garb – fur hat, leather boots. Its head is a real fox skull, plain yellowed bone, unadorned except for the eyes in its sockets, which are black glass set in leather eyelids, too realistic for comfort. Its teeth are sharpened to little knifepoints, because whoever made it apparently didn’t think fox teeth were…sharp enough.
‘Sharp enough for what?’ my best friend, Karou, wanted to know, the first time I brought her home to eský Krumlov with me.
‘What do you think?’ I replied with a creepy smile. It was Christmas Eve. We were fifteen, the power was out due to a storm, and my brother, Tomas, and I had led her out to the workshop with only a candle for light. I admit it freely: We were trying to freak her out.
The joke was so going to be on us.
‘Your grandfather didn’t make it?’ she asked, fascinated, putting her face right up to the glass to see the puppet better. It looked even more maniacal than usual by candlelight, with the flickering reflections in its black eyes making it seem to contemplate us.
‘He swears not,’ said Tomas. ‘He says he caught it.’
‘Caught it,’ Karou repeated. ‘And where do grandfathers catch…undead fox Cossacks?’
‘In Russia, of course.’
It’s Deda’s best, most terrifying, and all-time most-requested bedtime story, and that’s saying something, because Deda has a lot of stories, each one absolutely true. ‘If I’m lying, may a lightning bolt slice me in two!’ he always declares, and no lightning bolt has yet obliged him, on top of which, for every story, he furnishes ‘proof.’ Newspaper clippings, artifacts, trinkets. When we were little, Tomas and I believed devoutly that Deda himself ran from the rampaging golem in 1586 (he has a lump of petrified clay in the rough shape of a toe), hunted the witch Baba Yaga across the taiga at the behest of Catherine the Great (who presented him an Order of St. George medal for his troubles), and, yes, cornered a marauding undead fox Cossack in a Sevastopol cellar in the final days of the Crimean War. Proof of that escapade? Well, aside from the puppet itself, there’s the scar tissue furling the knuckles of his left hand.
Because, yeah, that’s the story. The puppet…bites.
‘What do you mean, it bites?’ asked Karou.
‘When you put your hand in its mouth,’ I said, cool, ‘it bites.’
‘And why would you put your hand in its mouth?’
‘Because it doesn’t just bite.’ I dropped my voice to a whisper. ‘It also talks, but only if you let it taste your blood. You can ask it a question, and it will answer.’
‘Any question,’ said Tomas, also whispering. He’s two years older than me, and hadn’t shown this much interest in hanging around with me in more than a decade. It’s possible it had something to do with my stunning new best friend, who he’d been following around like an assigned manservant. He said, ‘But only one question per person per lifetime, so it better be good.’
‘What did your grandfather ask it?’ Karou wanted to know, which is exactly what we wanted her to ask.
‘Let me just put it this way: It’s in the case for a reason.’
The story is elaborate and gruesome. Truly, if I ever turn out to be a murderer or something, the newspapers can pretty much say, She didn’t have a chance to be normal. Her family twisted her from the day she was born. Because what bedtime stories to tell little kids! They’re full of corpses and devils and infestations, unnatural things hatching from your breakfast eggs, and the sounds of bones splintering. I thought everyone was like this, that every family had their secret haruspex uncles, their ventriloquist Resistance fighters, their biting puppets. A normal bedtime, Deda would conclude with something like, ‘And Baba Yaga has been hunting me ever since,’ and then c**k his head to listen at the window. ‘That doesn’t sound like claws on the roof, does it, Podivná? Well, it’s probably just crows. Good night.’ And then he’d kiss me and click out the light, leaving me to fall asleep to the imagined scrape of a child-eating witch scaling the roof.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, who would I be if I’d been raised on milquetoast bedtime stories and not forced to dust the glass prison of a psychotic undead fox Cossack? I shudder to think.
I might wear lace collars and laugh flower petals and pearls. People might try to pat me. I see them think it. My height triggers the puppy-kitten reflex – Must touch – and I’ve found that since you can’t electrify yourself like a fence, the next best thing is to have murderer’s eyes.
The point is, I wouldn’t be ‘rabid fairy,’ which is Karou’s nickname for me, or ‘Podivná,’ either, which is Deda’s. It’s for mucholapka podivná, or Venus flytrap, in honor of my ‘quiet bloodthirst’ and ‘patient cunning’ in my lifelong war with Tomas.
Anyone with an older brother can tell you: Cunning is required. Even if you’re not miniature like me – four foot eleven in a good mood, as little as four foot eight when in despair, which is way too often lately – morphology is on the side of brothers. They’re bigger. Their fists are heavier. Physically, we don’t stand a chance. Hence the evolution of ‘little-sister brain.’
Artful, conniving, pitiless. No doubt about it, being a little sister – emphasis on little – has been formative, though I take pride in knowing that Tomas is more scarred by years of tangling with me than vice versa. But more than anyone or anything else, it’s Deda who is responsible for the landscape of my mind, the mood and scenery, the spires and shadows. When I think about kids (which isn’t often, except to wish them elsewhere and stop just short of deploying them hence with my foot), the main reason I would consider…begetting any (in a theoretical sense, in the far-distant future) is so that I can practice upon small, developing brains the same degree of mind-molding my grandfather has practiced on us.
I want to terrify little kids, too! I want to build spires in their minds and dance shadows through like marionettes, chased by whispers and hints of the unspeakable.
I want to torture future generations with the Puppet That Bites.
‘He asked it how and when he was going to die,’ I told Karou.
‘And what did it say?’ She seemed freaked out, which maybe I should have questioned, because though we’d only been friends for a few months and I knew next to nothing about her, it was clear she was a cool cucumber. The puppet’s a pretty horrible specimen, though, and the storm was loud, the candlelight pale.
The stage was set.
‘It opened its bare-bone jaws,’ I said, mustering my full theatricality, ‘and in a voice like dead leaves blowing down an empty street, it told him, though it had no way of knowing his name, You will die, Karel Novak…WHEN I KILL YOU!’
At that moment, Tomas bumped the glass case so that the puppet seemed to jump, and Karou gasped, and then laughed and punched him in the arm.
‘You two are terrible,’ she said, and that should have been the end of it. That was the extent of our prank – amateur hour, I see that now – but…Karou gasped again. She grabbed my arm. ‘Did you see that?’
‘I swear it just moved.’
And she looked scared. Her breathing went shallow, and she was holding my arm really tight, just staring at the puppet. Tomas and I shared an amused look. ‘Karou,’ I said, ‘it didn’t move—’
‘It did. I saw it. Maybe it’s trying to tell us something. Jesus, it’s probably starving. How long has it been in there, anyway? Don’t you guys ever feed it?’
And the look Tomas and I shared then was more of the um, what? variety, because until that moment, Karou had seemed normal enough. Okay, fine. Karou never seemed normal, with her blue hair and tattoos and drawing monsters all the time, but she did seem mentally sound. But when she started worrying about the skull puppet being hungry, you had to wonder.
‘Karou—’ I started to say.
She cut me off. ‘Wait. It wants to tell us something. I can feel it.’ She was staring at it, and she hesitantly leaned toward it so her face was a foot or so from the glass, and then asked it, in this tentative, gentle voice – like you would a body you found lying in the street and didn’t know if it was drunk or dead – ‘Are you…okay?’
For a second, nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. It was a puppet in a glass case. No one was touching it. Without a doubt, no one was touching it. Karou was clinging to me, Tomas had stepped back from the cabinet, and I know I didn’t do it.
So when all of a sudden it turned its head and snapped its jaws at us, I screamed.
Tomas did, too, and so did Karou. Knowing what I know now, I laud her evil chops for that scream. Not for a second did it occur to me that she might be responsible. I mean, why would it? She clearly hadn’t touched it. All my childhood terror over the Puppet That Bites came flooding instantly back. It was true, it was all freaking true, and if that story was true, maybe all of Deda’s stories were, and oh my god, how many times had I considered breaking the glass, and if I had, would we all be dead?
I don’t even remember running. Just, the next thing I knew, the three of us had crossed the courtyard from the workshop and were slamming through the back door into the kitchen, shrieking. The house was full of a Christmas crowd of aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, all well-acquainted with Deda’s stories, and there were gales of laughter to see us – teenagers! – beside ourselves with terror, babbling that the puppet was alive. ‘No, really, it turned its head. It snapped its jaws!’
No one believed us, and Tomas sealed our fate when, within minutes, he backpedaled and claimed credit for the whole thing. ‘You should have seen your faces,’ he said to Karou and me, as if he could erase his own high, thin shriek from our minds. He put on that smug oh you kids face that is so deeply infuriating in older siblings, made all the worse because he was so absolutely lying.
For this treachery he would pay dearly a couple of days later, but that’s another story.
The point of this story is that I will never forget the sound of those sharpened fox teeth snapping together, three times in rapid succession, and I will never forget the perfect clarity of terror that thrilled through me as, in an instant, my long-dead belief in magic flared back to life.
It wouldn’t last. It would die back down again to a low flicker of uncertainty, but it turns out I was right to believe. It was magic. Just not the kind I thought.
The Puppet That Bites is just a puppet, but…Karou is not just a girl.
That Christmas Eve was my first exposure to scuppies, though I wouldn’t know it for more than two years – two years she let me believe the puppet was hungry, that minx – until a couple of weeks ago, when Kishmish flew on fire into her window and died in her hands.
That was…a shock. Seeing Kishmish die was a shock. Seeing him at all was a shock, and finding out that he’s real – or he was real – and not just some flight of fancy from Karou’s imagination. At a glance he just looked like a crow, but once you focused on him, your brain started to issue error messages: Something wasn’t right, wasn’t normal. And then: Oh, it was his wings. They were bat wings. And his tongue. It was a serpent’s tongue. Interesting, that, and it was just the point of entry.
It wasn’t only Kishmish. Everything in Karou’s sketchbooks was real, and the African trade beads she always wears are actually wishes. ‘Nearly useless wishes,’ that is, since scuppies are the weakest kind. She’s traveling right now, trying to get her hands on more powerful ones, but before she left Prague she gave me a present. I’m looking at them right now.
In the palm of my hand, the size of pearls, no two alike in color or pattern and indistinguishable from African trade beads, are five scuppies. Nearly useless they may be, but even one scuppy would be more magic than I’ve ever held in my hand before, and I have five.
Five tiny secret weapons to add a spice of magic to a certain plan I’m cooking up.
What plan, you ask?
The plan to finally – finally, finally – meet violin boy, and sweep him off his feet.
Me, sweep him off his feet? I know. The laws of the jungle and romance novels would have it the other way around, but I’m not going to wait one more second for that. Milquetoast girls raised on princess stories might sit tight and bat their eyelashes in desperate Morse code – notice me, like me, please – but I am not that girl. Well, to be honest, I’ve been that girl for three months now, and I’ve had enough. What’s happened to me? When Karou talks about butterflies in the belly and invisible lines of energy and all that, I make fun of her for being a hopeless romantic, but DEAR GOD. Butterflies! Invisible lines of energy!
I get it.