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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Motion of Puppets

A Novel

Keith Donohue




She fell in love with a puppet.

Because he was beautiful, because he was rare, because he could not be hers. Every time she passed the dusty display window of the tiny Quatre Mains storefront, she looked for him. Propped by hidden scaffolding, the puppet stood beneath a bell jar. Two black holes drilled for eyes on just the hint of a face. His smooth blank head was attached by a wooden hinge to his body, which had been hewn from a single piece of poplar, darkened by centuries, and his rudimentary joined limbs had been pierced at the hands and feet. A simple loop, worn and cracked, rose from the crown of his skull. No strings had been threaded through those holes in ages, but he was clearly a primitive marionette carved by an aboriginal Inuit craftsman long ago, the wood now riven by cracks that had opened along the grain. A thin scar ringed his chest, as though once long ago someone had been interrupted in cutting him in two. No bigger than one of her childhood dolls, just over a foot tall. The man out of time waited pensively for someone to rescue him from a glass prison. A skin of dust lay on the curve of the bell, and on a foxed paper label affixed to the bottom lip was inscribed in faded calligraphy: poupée ancienne.

He was the lord of all the other toys in the window, all now familiar as old friends to Kay. Six dolls flanked the man in the jar, three on each side. Brightly painted with frozen smiles and rouged cheeks, their bisque faces shone in the sunshine, and they stared straight ahead, focused on the same eternal spot. They had not been played with for nearly a century, artifacts of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with thick brocaded gowns and traveling suits, fine nests of hair piled upon their heads. Two of them brandished folded parasols, the tips as sharp as spears. A brown bear in a tatted red fez and a vest embroidered in gold filigree balanced on an iron velocipede, the fur at his elbows and knees threadbare. A hand puppet slouched next to the bear, a sad hound she recognized from the early years of children’s television, its extravagantly long ears dangling to the shelf below. A lurid Punch and Judy, their garish faces bleached by the sun, grinned with their hideous mouths. Mr. Punch cocked his slapstick in hand, always ready to strike his wife. At a certain angle, she appeared to be raising her arms in defense. Odds and ends lay scattered in the shadows: a tiny troop of tin soldiers dressed in scarlet coats and bearskin hats, a pair of glass eyes with lapis lazuli irises, a half-size French horn with a lovely green patina winding through the twists and turns in the brass, and an articulated wooden snake poised to strike a heel stumbling through the grass. Behind the hodgepodge of trinkets, four black marionette horses hung from thick cords, disappearing into the rafters. In one corner of the window a cobweb, burdened with dust, stretched from wall to ceiling and below it lay the husks of two honeybees.

By all appearances, the Quatre Mains had been closed and abandoned. The display window never changed, not a thing out of place in the weeks since she and Theo came to Québec City and strolled to her first rehearsal. Stop! Isn’t this adorable, she had said. No one ever entered or left. The door was always locked. No lights shone in the evenings or on those afternoons when thunderclouds rolled in and spat fat drops against the old storefronts lining the street. Giddy with the adventurous spirit of the newly married, Theo had once suggested that they simply break in to explore its hidden recesses. Because he had more time to go wandering away from his solitary work, he discovered that several of the antique and curio boutiques along this edge of the old part of town, the Vieux-Québec, had fallen on hard times and were similarly out of business, but his dire read of the situation did not stop her from dreaming. She wanted to hold the puppet in her hands. She wanted to take it. Not another soul was on the street, so she leaned in to look closer and pressed her hands against the dirty window. Light penetrated so far and no farther. She could only make out shapes and shadows, the promise of more. Her hot breath left a fog upon the glass, and when she saw what she had done, Kay grabbed the hem of her sleeve and wiped the patch of condensation. Ever so slightly, the wooden man in the bell jar turned his head to watch her, but she never saw him move, for she had hurried away, late again.

* * *

Kay had circled behind his desk and leaned over Theo, draping her slender arms over his shoulders, and clasping her hands against his heart, squeezing firmly until he raised his hands to hers. She kissed him lightly on the cheek, her long hair falling in front of his eyes, so that he felt encased by her until the moment he moved his hand and she unfolded herself and was away, always running late, trailing a string of good-byes as she departed the room, and the next sound was the door closing with a bang.

The silence after Kay left disturbed him more than the noise she made in preparing to go. For an hour, Theo had been trying to work on the translation, turning over in his mind the problems abandoned the night before, anxious to get to the solutions but waiting, waiting to be alone in the apartment so he could concentrate. He never began while she was present, not wanting to miss the opportunity to share a few words with her as she dressed or dallied over the eggs and toast they shared at three in the afternoon. Most days, she seemed barely aware that he hesitated for her, that he devoted his attentions, for she was also thinking ahead to her work, anticipating the moves that would be required of her during the show. She stretched her limbs and bent her body, and he watched from his chair, enthralled by her simple grace, turning over in his mind a particular phrase, the mot juste, the sound and sense of the French he struggled to turn into English. His mind in two places at once, with her and without her.

When they first came to this city, they contrived to spend as much time together as possible exploring the old French part of town. Most afternoons he would accompany her like a lovesick schoolboy, leaving their apartment on Dalhousie and winding their way to the warehouse where the company rehearsed, and he would sit with a coffee and the newspaper and watch the acts, week after week. The performers would meet there every afternoon to go over any changes to the show, and then head over to their outdoor performance space. Later, once the run of shows began, Theo would join the parade of visitors to the makeshift theater that had been set up for the season in a vacant lot underneath a highway overpass. It was a wonder to behold, the raised stage surrounded by fences and scaffolding, the arc lights and spots. Ropes hung down from the guardrails, and flying acrobats thrilled the audience by swinging out into the night sky. Small trailers served as dressing rooms, and at the back of the plaza sat a control center for all of the special effects. Most of the crowd would have to stand for the show—like groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre—but there were two portable bleachers for special guests and a small backstage area that was often crowded with performers making their entrances and exits. There he would watch from the wings night after night, anxious as she performed, until at last she excused him from the duty.

“You have work to do,” Kay had told him. “You needn’t make this journey every day. You will grow bored with it. Bored of me—”

“Never,” he said.

She blushed and looked away. “You’re sweet, but honestly. Work to do.”

Theo wondered if she meant more by that, if she was not somehow glad to be gone, happy to be apart for those few hours. He uncapped his pen and laid it atop a blank page and then opened the text he had been engaged to translate. The French swarmed before his eyes like thousands of bees. L’homme en mouvement, a strange story about a very strange man, the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the man who studied the art of motion.

The manuscript was due to the publisher in eleven weeks, on the first of September, but Theo was only a third of the way through the translation, just at the point where Muybridge murders his wife’s lover in a rage of jealousy. Muybridge had learned from their housekeeper that she had gone off to a cabin with her lover, so he loaded a pistol, left his offices in San Francisco, and raced to board the very last ferry north where he caught a train. From the end of the line, he hired a wagon to take him to the cabin far out in the country, goading the poor driver to whip the horses through the darkness. He knew his young wife was there with Harry Larkyns. When his wife’s lover answered the door, Muybridge shot him through the heart. Amour fou. Theo considered the possibilities in English: love insane, fit of passion, fatal desire. What would drive a man to such an extreme act? Since the murder had been planned, could his behavior reasonably be called temporary insanity? If so, would not that be an equal madness guided by the same base emotion, the wayfaring heart, the obsessed mind? Crazy love, he decided, and satisfied with his choice, that was what he wrote: “He was moved by a crazy love for her. He would have done anything.”

Theo well understood how love could sway reason. Kay was just impetuous enough to have raised a doubt or two before they were married, her secret life he could not know, her sudden flights. But she made him crazy for her in the end.

A boat’s horn sounded on the Saint Lawrence just outside his window, and he used the distraction to rise from the desk and check out the scene below. Flying both the maple leaf flag and the provincial fleur-de-lis, the tour boat chugged to the dock, back from Tadoussac he was sure, where the travelers had gone in search of the whales that came down the seaway every summer—the humpbacks and fins, the minkes and even, it is said, the occasional enormous blue whale, to feed on the abundant schools of fishes and krill. He and Kay had made the trip on a rare day off, and she had been entranced by the white belugas moving like ghosts in the water. Settled in by the window, he watched the crew hop out and tie off the boat and then the passengers disembark, little windup dolls finding their legs as they struggled to the gangway. Framed in a Muybridge sequence, a study of the motion of landlubbers. One by one the people down below steadied themselves, and then they escaped the edge of the picture until they were all gone, and he felt uneasy like a god above whose world had been deserted.

In the heart of the Vieux-Québec, church bells rang evensong, and Theo looked at his wristwatch, surprised by how much time had elapsed since he wrote those last sentences. The work on his desk grumbled for attention, but he could not give it any. Maybe after dinner, once he cleared his head. He shoved his papers and books into his briefcase and shouldered it before stepping outside into the twilight. He loved the lonesomeness of the dusky hour when everything changed from brightness into darkness. Along the streets of the lower part of the old city, the Basse-Ville, the cars zipped by on their way home, and the Musée de la Civilisation had closed its doors for the evening. The street was emptied of pedestrians. They were out looking for a place for dinner perhaps, or headed for a drink and a show, and he envied the patterns of their typical days and the standard routine of their hours. Taking a shortcut to his favorite café on rue Saint-Paul, Theo followed the path Kay had just taken, past her favorite shops, slowing his pace to look in their windows, wondering what she might enjoy, calculating how much money he would have to earn to afford such treasures for her.

Across the street, a light snapped on at the Quatre Mains, throwing a rectangle on the sidewalk. He was surprised by the sign of life in the little toy shop. Shrugging the strap on his bag higher on his shoulder, Theo headed across the narrow street to investigate. The dolls and puppets in the display stood out more sharply in the artificial glow, and he could make out the shelves of toys and the marionettes dangling from wires hung in the ceiling and a mélange of hand puppets propped on the hooks of a coatrack. He pressed his nose against the glass, fascinated by what had long been enshadowed. The room seemed alive with promise, and he tore himself away from the window to try the door, only to find it locked as ever. He knocked loudly.

“Hello, hello, anyone there?”

No reply. He banged on the glass and tried in French. “Il y a quelqu’un? Allo.

Nothing stirred inside. He listened for footsteps, made binoculars of his hands, and pressed close but saw nothing. Perhaps there was a back entrance off the alleyway. While he debated whether to check, he rattled the doorknob twice and called out again, his voice echoing off the storefront, embarrassingly strange in the street. A family of five passed by, parents of three small children, turning their heads in unison to the disturbance he was making. The lights inside the store went out suddenly, and he found himself in the dark, pondering his next move. Backing into the street, he looked up to the second story of the building, but the windows were as bare and dusty as ever. There must be a rear door, he concluded, and gathering his wits, he crossed the street again, rueful over the missed opportunity for the gifts he might have bought for her. When he stepped inside the café, the boisterous crowd and sensuous aromas from the kitchen made him forget all else.

* * *

Sarant balanced her hands on the sphere and carefully raised her body, resting her weight on the fulcrum of her wrists and the bent angle of her forearms. The June air was hot and humid in the open plaza where the cirque held their free summer shows, honing them for the performances later that year. A moth fluttered inches from her face, but she did not break her concentration on her internal gyroscope. A bus rumbled along an overpass, but the people in the stands and the groundlings beneath them noticed nothing but the acrobats, the lights buzzing faintly, the swell of music from the hidden orchestra. Sarant pressed forward, arching her back and lifting and curving her legs, and then she pushed her arms against the sphere, extending and raising her whole body so that it appeared as a kind of question mark. Black as holes, her eyes focused on a spot above her forehead where she would soon put her toes, contorting her whole form. A low murmur of unease ran through the people closest to the stage, as they realized that the human body was not meant to bend that way. Her muscles twitched with the strain and she exhaled carefully, since one errant breath could upset her balance and send her tumbling. Out in the dark, weak applause grew into crescendo, and Sarant held the pose for a few moments longer before lowering her torso in one fluid motion. Then she swung her legs and straddled the metal ball, and leapt forward, landing perfectly on the flooring. Stuck it, like the gymnast she was. From her place in the chorus behind the acrobat, Kay could see the line of sweat along Sarant’s backbone darkening her costume like a streak of blood. The applause trailed off, as she smiled and bowed. Kay wanted thunder—didn’t they know how difficult this was? But, no, the audience saved their awe for the fliers who swooped from cabled rope attached to the bottom rails of the overpass, to the daredevils who raced across the ramps on their skates and bicycles and the ringmaster on his unicycle, for the climbers and the risk takers. The delicacy and grace of this interlude paled against the wow of motion that was the signature of the cirque.

Caught up in her grinding resentment, Kay nearly missed her cue. The eight of them, four on each side, rose together and shuffled forward to make the shape of an undulating lotus blossom with Sarant as the radiant center, and closing in on her, she seemed to disappear in their petaled embrace, slipping away through a trapdoor in the stage floor, gone when the flower unfolded. The trick never failed to draw an appreciative gasp from the crowd, the children in particular beholden and amazed. The spotlights snapped off so the petals could escape in darkness, while a new light shone on the group of men teetering on mountain bikes and skateboards on a platform that ran twelve feet overhead along the perimeter of the backstage. Kay had fourteen minutes to make her costume change for the final act.

Crammed together in the dressing room trailer, the acrobats and contortionists stripped off their leotards and found their more fanciful outfits, streaked on their face paint, wriggled into bustiers and headdresses, a riot of feathers and spangles and bared skin. Reance, the master of ceremonies, weaved between the girls in their varied states of dishabille, stopping once to whisper a word in Sarant’s tiny ear, a secret compliment that made her blush through the makeup. Squeezing between two half-naked women, he headed straight for Kay. She looked up at the faintly comical figure in front of her, his makeup craquelled on his skin, his old-fashioned pilot’s cap and goggles perched atop his white hair, dividing it into tufts, his ridiculous sideburns and mustache, his long leather duster festooned with pocket watches and compasses and other dials dangling from chains. A steam punk Father Time, though she could never discern the symbolic importance of his character. The night pilot of all dreams, or some such metaphor. Truth be told, she understood little about the dramaturgy of the show, baroque as an opera, the plot a twist on a lovers’ triangle, and a boy at the center of it all, caught in time, encased inside a dream of his future. To keep her mind on the performance, she rarely thought of the story. Little more than a way to showcase the acrobats and jugglers, the costumes and music and lights and dazzle of motion. Reance watched as Kay buttoned her blouse, and then he leaned in close enough for her to smell the garlic on his breath.

“Dinner?” he asked, lifting one bushy eyebrow, and she could not tell whether he was really flirting or just exaggerating for comic effect. Funny old lech. “Just a small party. Sarant has already said yes, and a select few others. But it wouldn’t be the same without you.”

In all of her weeks with the circus, Kay had been invisible, or perhaps she had not taken the other performers’ notice into account. Every night Theo had been waiting by the dressing room trailer to walk her home, and she had made her good-byes. But now, she had been granted entrée into the inner circle. She pulled up the straps to her camisole and pretended to look for her shoes. “Yes, sounds fun,” she said to the floor.

He laid a hand against her bare shoulder, the fingerless glove as startling as a snake. “I’m so glad you’ve agreed. Now, let’s not miss another cue.”

The crowd roared for the finale, a grand tumbling and vaulting parade of acrobats spilling down the platform thrust into their space, the lot of them, the fliers, contortionists, dancers, and clowns pouring out, an orchestrated boffo curtain call designed for maximum approval. The small boy, dreamer of the extravaganza, hopped from Reance’s shoulder. Then they clasped hands and bowed; and the company bowed together to a chorus of bravos. The people beyond the footlights clapped till their hands hurt. At the peak of the sound, the lights were cut, and all the performers exited in the echoing darkness. She dipped into her locker and found the clothes she had stashed for a special occasion and quickly changed into a yellow sundress and her favorite shoes, a pair of pale blue heels. After the greasepaint had been wiped away, after the boas and spangles had been packed up for the night, Kay found the others queuing near the entrance gate. “Off to dinner with the cast,” she quickly texted her brand-new husband. “Be home late. Don’t wait up.”

Copyright © 2016 by Keith Donohue