Night of Cake & Puppets
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I take my violin case out of my locker and open it, and…there’s something in it. A scroll of some sort, with burned edges like a pirate’s treasure map. Some gimmicky party invitation? I don’t know. I guess I stare at it a second too long, because Cinzia follows my gaze, and what she says next changes the weight of the air.
‘She had this!’ she declares, in a tone of triumphant denouncement. ‘The small girl. She had this when I give her coffee cup.’
What? Zuzana? My brain turns slowly. How could…something that Zuzana was holding…end up in my violin case?
Hope is tentative. The cat does not approach, but it’s possible that it’s regarding my outstretched hand with something like interest.
It’s also possible it’s all just a mistake.
Cinzia reaches for the scroll and, without thinking, I knock her hand away – lightly – and when I look at her face, her nostrils are flared. She’s giving me how dare you eyes, cradling her hand like I just took a hammer to it. I don’t apologize, but lift the scroll out myself, lightly, like a relic. The blackened edges flake under my fingertips.
It doesn’t feel like a mistake. It feels like a door opening, and lungfuls of fresh air rushing in.
‘What is it?’ Cinzia asks.
I don’t know what it is. I very much want to know, but I do not want Cinzia to know, or Radan or George or Ludmilla or anyone else milling around looking mildly interested. ‘Nothing,’ I say, putting my violin and bow away. I don’t set the scroll down while I put on my coat and backpack, but switch it from hand to hand, having no doubt that Cinzia would snatch it and feel entitled to open it. In which case maybe I would take a hammer to her hand. I tuck the scroll into my inside jacket pocket, ignoring Cinzia’s hooded glare.
‘See you tomorrow,’ I say as a general announcement.
Radan is surprised. ‘Not coming to the party?’
‘No,’ I say, because whatever is or isn’t in the scroll, I am done with default Saturday nights, and Stooge’s, and trying to block Cinzia from sitting on my lap, and spending the whole time imagining this alternate reality where a porcelain doll with voodoo eyes might be drinking tea in an oarless boat coursing down the Vltava with a parasol open to keep off the snow.
Or, you know, something slightly more likely than that.
I consider the bathroom for privacy to look at the scroll, but the door’s in view of the lounge and Cinzia is still watching me with narrowed eyes, so I leave the theater. It’s snowing. I pause on the steps to glance at the flyer that caught Zuzana’s eye earlier.
It was a red page with a phone-number fringe at the bottom. Hanging in its place now is a sheet of white paper with one ragged margin. Torn from a notebook? It’s unlined, so: a sketchbook. Something is written in tiny letters right in the center. I have to lean in close and squint to read it. It says:
Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you
because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.
Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
And I know, I know it’s for me. A message. But what am I meant to see? I look out over the street, taking in bent-headed figures hurrying through the snow. No one catches my eye. A slice of river is visible as blackness in a gap between two buildings, and the lights of the castle cast a glow on the underbelly of the crouching sky. The falling snow is light powder spun by gusts, like a dance out of The Nutcracker. If there’s anything specific I’m supposed to see, I don’t know what it is, but I know that my eyes are open, and I’m not sure they’re glittering, but the world is.
I take the page down, careful not to rip it as I unstick the tape and roll it up to join the scroll in my jacket, then rush across the street to a pub, where I don’t even order a drink or sit down at a table. I hope I won’t be lingering. I grab the scroll out of my jacket and slip the black satin ribbon off, and…I unroll it.
And there she is.
A beautiful drawing of a beautiful face. Her big, dark eyes look wide and expectant. She’s not smiling, but she’s not not smiling, either. No voodoo blood-freeze. There’s warmth there, and she’s looking right at me. I mean, it’s a drawing, of course (if she did it, and I assume she did, then she’s really talented), but it’s a drawing for me, and it seems to shoot a spark at me like real eye contact. With eye contact, the intensity of spark is due to…I don’t know, chemistry, whatever that really means. There are degrees of zing and tingle, depending on the eyes in question, and though these are just graphite renderings of eyes, there is zing. There is tingle.
At first the face is all I see, but then I realize what it is I’m looking at. What it is that she’s given me. Her face is in the center, but the whole page is covered in a diagram: streets and landmarks, carefully drawn and labeled. My first thought, seeing the scroll tied with ribbon, had been that it looked like a treasure map, and…it is.
It’s a treasure map. And the treasure? There she is, in the center of the page, the X-marks-the-spot.
Zuzana is the treasure.
I have a dark thought that it’s a joke, that one of my friends has done this, but I dismiss it. None of my friends can draw. Besides, none of them even know I want to know her. I haven’t mentioned her, for fear of pubescent-caliber backstage hijinx, and I don’t think I stare at her. (When anyone’s looking.)
No. It’s got to be real.
So I do that awkward thing you do when you get good news in the company of strangers and you look around at them, grinning like an idiot, and they look back, not grinning like idiots, and you almost have to tell them, to tell someone. You almost hold up your piece of paper and say, ‘The girl I like just gave me a treasure map to herself.’
But you don’t. You just don’t.
So I don’t.
(Okay, so I do, but I immediately want to take it back. The knot of strangers is unmoved by my joy. In fact, I think that guy with the hat is the Enemy of All Happiness and might follow me and try to kill me.)
Pull yourself together, Mik. You have a map to follow.
I turn my back on the Enemy of All Happiness (on the principle that most people who look like they want to kill you probably won’t) and study the map. My map. Because it’s for me. From Zuzana. Nope, not gloating. Just stating the facts in case you tuned out for a minute and missed it. Zuzana made me a map to herself.
And in a little speech balloon emanating from between her lips is written, in tiny letters:
Seize the night.
And I blink and feel a surge of certainty and excitement, because of course that’s what one does when one wants something. One seizes it.
Well, maybe not all things. Cats, for example, do not respond well to seizure. Probably girls don’t, either. So this might not be a good credo in life, but for Saturday nights in general and this one in particular, it works.
My eyes keep returning to Zuzana’s face. There’s a smile pending, I think: the faintest tug at the left corner of her mouth, captured like a smile on pause. I want to unpause it and watch it unfurl. So how do I do that? Where do I go? Words. Places. Focus, Mik. Stop grinning.
I’m in Malá Strana now. The marionette theater is in Little Quarter Square, in the shadow of the Church of St. Nicholas, and the map is of Old Town, so I head across the river.
The Charles Bridge is one of those places that never gets old. Day or night, sun or snow, it’s always different, the view on both banks of the Vltava like something out of a medieval engraving. On second thought, it actually does get old when it’s crammed with tourists, which is pretty much all sunlit hours for most of the year, but it’s quiet now, just a few scattered folk hurrying both ways between the rows of statues, like running a gauntlet of saints. I have this notion that any minute the saints could reach out their great stone arms to swat passing butts, and I realize that I’m giddy.
The map indicates a site in the mazelike heart of Old Town, which I know well but not well enough to remember what this particular place might be. I walk, and the closer I get, the more my nerves tighten like violin strings. Will it be a cafe, maybe, or a pub? Will she be waiting at a table? Somehow I can’t picture her just sitting there. It’s too mundane. The treasure map, the quote, the night of soft snow…it all portends something odder than that. So I’m not really surprised when I get there – pausing before rounding the corner to draw a deep breath – and find…no Zuzana.
The site is not a cafe or a pub. It’s a tourist trinket shop of the sort that is ubiquitous in this quarter, all of them full of the same Mucha prints and cheap marionettes and gaudy Bohemian crystal. It’s closed and dark, as one would expect at this time of evening, and I turn in a circle, looking around.
Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.…
I watch. I see a black cat slip through an open door across the street and have a brief impulse to follow it, as if it might be a feline escort doing Zuzana’s bidding. I smile, glad no one can read my thoughts. Zuzana probably can’t command cats with her mind. Probably.
I keep looking.
There are a couple of posters taped to a door, but they’re for an absinthe tasting already past and a tour of Bohemian castles yet to come. Graffiti on the sidewalk, but it’s just soccer propaganda. Nothing else catches my ‘glittering eyes.’
I examine the map, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read it right.
Is this a joke? Could she be messing with me?
Of course she’s messing with me. The real question is: Is she messing with me for good or evil, and am I a fool for playing along? I could just shrug right now and go meet my friends at Stooge’s.
The thought makes me laugh out loud. As if.
I have an instinct about Zuzana. I think she’s not good or evil, but both – the perfect mixture of the two, a swirled ice-cream cone of good and evil – and she won’t have led me here for no reason. There’s something I’m not seeing.
But what? I’m just standing here with my hands in my pockets, wondering what I’m missing, when I hear a tap. It’s faint, at the glass shop window behind me – the place on the map – and the hair lifts on the back of my neck as I turn toward it.
The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.
And what unfolds after that…well, it makes cat-mind-control seem feasible.
There are marionettes, and there are marionettes. The Czech Republic has a long history of puppetry as art; it’s a part of our national character, and puppets are part of the set-dressing of Prague. They’re everywhere: hanging in shop windows, museums, theaters, street stalls. And most of what you see? By far most of what you see – particularly in shops like this – are not artisanal puppets from masters’ workshops, like the ones at the theater. These are tchotchkes, tourist junk, mass-produced, forgettable. Clowns and princesses and knights, their heads round balls with features painted on. And that’s what these are like.
Except for one.
I didn’t see it before because…I wasn’t really looking. A failure of ‘glittering eyes,’ I’m ashamed to say. The first thing is, it’s not inside the window. It’s outside, in front of the glass, behind which hangs a rack of humdrum tchotchke puppets. I guess I just took it for part of the store’s display. Of course they wouldn’t leave a puppet like this outside to be snowed on or stolen; I see that now. Because this puppet isn’t humdrum. It’s a beauty, of a quality one just does not find in a shop like this.
Oh. And also? It’s kicking at the window with its heel.
So there’s that.
At first, it gives me a start for the reason one might expect: Because if a puppet is moving, then someone is moving it, and I assume that person must be Zuzana, and so I assume that she is here. I flush and feel my pulse stutter, and I try to gather my stammering wits in expectation of finally meeting her. But that’s just the first instant. Because in the second instant, I find the fault in this assumption.
No one is moving this marionette. No one could be. Its crossbar is hooked to the upper window frame in full view, and its strings are slack. Even as its foot taps, its strings are slack, so that it appears to be moving its leg under its own power. Which is absurd, of course, so my mind smoothly transitions to a new assumption: that this puppet is mechanical. Remote-controlled, or something. Which is weird, but, you know, less weird than the alternative.
Well, whatever its method of movement, now that it’s gotten my attention, its leg falls still. I take a step closer, examining it. Examining him. I find myself thinking of the puppet as a ‘him.’ He’s one of the most iconic of Czech characters: none other than the devil himself.
He’s got a polished mahogany look: smooth, dark wood, cunningly carved and splendid, with a goat’s horns and beard, and goat legs tufted with cottony black fur. He’s a St. Nicholas Day cert (devil), to be specific, identifiable by his sack. You see, in the Czech Republic, on December fifth, St. Nicholas goes around bringing candy and small gifts to children, accompanied by an angel and a devil. In a holiday tradition that is the stuff of nightmares, the devil threatens to scoop bad children into his sack and carry them to hell. (And you thought coal in your stocking was harsh?)
It’s not uncommon for actors playing the cert to actually scoop small children into their sacks.
Uh-huh. It happened to me. I couldn’t have been older than four. It may even be my earliest memory. The sack was scratchy and smelled like earth; inside, the darkness was total. I screamed myself hoarse; it probably lasted less than a minute, but I remember the terror as sprawling, unending. The cert was my uncle in coal-face, and my mother was not pleased with him. By way of apology, he gave me my first violin. It was only a toy, but it became my immediate favorite thing in life, and I sawed at it and sawed at it until my father couldn’t take it anymore and bought me a real one, and lessons.