Marionettes by Sara Connell

It had rained great gray sheets of rain since they’d arrived in Prague the day before, but now the sun was drying up the puddles on the cobblestone roads.

“My god,” Kate said and pointed. “That’s the third marionette shop we’ve seen since we left the hotel.” She stopped and stared at the witches with hair sprouting from their warts and jesters wearing three-pointed silken hats with little bells on the ends – each of which was at least a foot high and far too frightening for a child’s room. Kate could not imagine who would buy such a thing.

“Rain’s done for today,” Dan said, reading from his phone. “Think it’s safe to venture forth.”

Kate’s chest still burned from the cold cuts and sliced cheese the hotel served for breakfast. Even though she was the one who’d asked to come – the one who’d chosen Prague, everything felt strange and disagreeable here. Dan backed up to stand next to her in front of the shop.

“What do you want to see first?” he asked.

Kate’s college roommate Heather had visited her boyfriend in Prague during their senior year and had returned with pictures of a golden castle with turrets poking a blue sky.

“The castle,” Kate said, but Dan wanted to see the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square.

“The clock is on the way to the castle,” Dan said, thumbing through Google maps on his phone. “We’ll go there first.”

They walked carefully, avoiding the deeper pools of water that rose up over the stones. Dan walked at least three steps ahead of Kate. She had to half-run to keep up and wondered why she’d never noticed this in New York.

When they reached a paved road, Dan read about the clock from his phone, “It’s called the Orloj and was erected in 1410.”

 

The Old Town Square was already full of about 50 people. They moved like a herd close to the base of the clock and looked up. It was as if they were waiting for something to fall out of the sky. The clock was beautiful with golden circles and crescents marking the placement of celestial bodies along with blue sky and stars surrounded by halos. “Praha!” Dan sighed. “It’s called The Golden City.”

Still breathing heavily, Kate tucked her head down between the lapels of her coat. She hoped the people around them didn’t speak English. As if no one else there had ever picked up a guidebook and wouldn’t know what Prague was called, she thought to herself.

The week before the trip, Dan had asked for her ring size. When Kate shared that development with her mother (who stood drinking instant coffee from the same sunflower mug she’d had since Kate was born … the mother who married Kate’s father when she was eighteen and didn’t even have a passport), she took a big gulp of coffee and said, “It’s such a big decision. What’s the rush?”

Back in Prague, the clock tower shuddered to life with a deep chime and carved figures the size of full-grown men rotated out above the crowd on a circular disc.

“It’s the parade of the Apostles,” Dan read from an app on his phone that showed a video of the clock’s performance in real time.

The Apostles looked down on the people, judging, and a woman with silver hair pointed at a figure of Death that was now ringing a bell. “The figures carved into the side represent four evils and four virtues,” Dan said. “The parade happens every hour.”

Kate peered through the crowd where at least 70 had gathered now. Every day, every hour, people were here to experience the majestic gold wheels of the clock and the public condemnation of the Apostles. The four evils bore down on them – vanity, greed, pleasure, and death. Kate wasn’t sure how death was a sin since it happened to everyone.

“Czechoslovakia is a very Catholic country,” Dan said.

 

After the clock, they walked across the Charles Bridge, over the frothing water of the Vltava. Tall lanterns sprouted from the walkway like sepia-toned trees. On the opposite side, the road stretched in a long incline up toward the castle. “I can see it!” Kate exclaimed.

Dan pecked her cheek, and the skin on Kate’s forearms reddened. She didn’t want Dan to think she was one of those girls who spent her childhood cutting out photos of brides and playing Cinderella. She never even played with dolls after she discovered running and the sensation of shape shifting into an antelope, first in the hills behind her house and then later through the mossy woods during a cross-country race. She’d seen a deer the day of her first three miler. She’d won a blue ribbon and regionals and placed at state. Deer were a sign of luck, her mother said, and Kate got a full ride to Eastern Michigan State. She’d been full of luck until she tore her hamstring during her junior year. She stopped seeing deer. She missed the senior team trip to Portugal. The back of her left thigh was still tight in cold weather, ten years later.

 

The castle road was lined with china shops built of stone and old milky-glass windows through which Kate could see claw-footed silver candlesticks and Bohemian crystal. There were no deer, but the sheer fact she made it to Prague, through customs, and finally out of the United States’ vast walls must mean she was lucky. No one in Kate’s family had ever traveled abroad, but Kate wanted to be like the women who did. Her roommate Heather came back from her travels after lots of sex and drinking Absinthe, and she started wearing a dark, chic, lipstick called VAMP. Heather gave Kate one her photos of Prague Castle at graduation. Kate first kept it tacked to her bulletin board, then behind a magnet on her refrigerator, and eventually displayed in a gold-leafed frame above the fake fireplace in her new apartment – the one she moved into when she met Dan. A golden castle was her new luck charm. Somewhere in the shadow of Rudolph I’s alchemists and magicians, Kate thought that perhaps this castle could bestow a benediction – a blessing.

 

“The Castle was built in 880 AD,” Dan said, “By Prince Bořivoj of the house of Premyslides.”

Kate crossed her arms in her coat and stared at the sleeve of Dan’s sweater. It was navy blue and made of thick cabled wool that had started to go bare near the elbows. He wore the sweater constantly on weekends or holidays, paired with khaki pants and a certain kind of luxury loafer shoe favored by every other young man Kate knew who lived in Murray Hill and worked in finance. She liked the clothing she’d seen the local men wear here – wide-legged pants or cigarette-skinny jeans and long scarves wrapped three times around their necks. They looked interesting, artistic … not a copy of every other person in New York.

“Hey, another one of your puppet shops,” Dan pointed to a red awning ahead of them.

The marionettes at this shop were hung on silver hooks that covered an entire open-arched doorway. Sunbeams danced off the dangling limbs of pantalooned clowns with painted faces, red wooden devils with arched eyebrows and long chins, and rosy-cheeked blonde maidens dressed in lederhosen. A woman in a wide, gray linen dress with hair wrapped in a tight bun sat on a folding chair next to the door. Her hands lay slack in her lap, and her eyes flickered open every few seconds, revealing only wet, white eyeballs.

Dan ignored the woman and walked toward the shop. He pulled the leg of a wooden court jester wearing a red and purple hat with tiny bells on the ends.

“They’re kind of fun,” Dan said.

“They look like they would kill you in your sleep,” Kate said.

They lifted a clown in white silk pantaloons from the center of the lattice and pulled the wooden handles to lift its arms and then kick its legs. The clown’s mouth looked like a red hole. The more it moved, the more Kate thought she could see it animating with life. She covered her face with her arm.

Kate waited until Dan hooked the clown’s body back on the frame. The woman snorted and opened both eyes. Her irises had rolled down beneath her eyelids. She said something with lots of consonants. Czech was impossible to understand. “Come,” she said in English.

Dan pushed up behind her. “Don’t be rude,” he said.

Kate gripped her coat sleeves and followed the woman into the store. The air was stale as if water had dripped somewhere in the room for many years. A large wooden table took up the bulk of the space. Wooden legs and arms, bald heads with holes screwed into the scalp for hair, and hats lay strewn across the surface. A male marionette with an Elizabethan ruffled collar and a deep blue satin hat hung closest to Kate’s arm. Kate stared at the doll. His eyes were painted blue, and when she moved to the right and looked back, the doll’s eyes appeared to follow her.

The shopkeeper jabbed Kate’s elbow. She pointed to the blue-hatted marionette and then to Dan and laughed. It was an awful sound that crawled down Kate’s spine. Kate could see the woman’s gray tongue and many silver fillings, and her breath stuck in her throat. She pitched forward and knocked the marionette from his hook.

“Darling,” Dan said. He lifted Kate upright and guided her to the doorway.

The woman followed them into the sunlight as Kate tilted forward so her hands rested on her knees. “I’ll get some water,” Dan said.

Kate grabbed his bicep and pointed up the hill. She could hear the shopkeeper’s asthmatic breathing behind her as she pulled Dan through an opening in the stream of tourists heading toward the castle.

When they’d gone at least 50 feet, Kate looked back toward the shop. The woman was standing next to her chair with her marionette army behind her. When she locked her gaze on Kate’s face, she balled her hand into a fist, kissed the coil of her fingers, and then blew the kiss at Kate.

Kate grabbed a handful of Dan’s sweater and moved like fish through a group of snowy-haired women wearing beige trench coats and scarves tied at their necks.

She replayed the inside of the shop in her mind, and her vision pixelated for a minute. The doll’s face and blue hat turned into kaleidoscopic images, then blackness, and finally oblivion. Her chest tightened again just thinking of it. Her vision was clear now. Even though she could breathe here on the street, she still felt off balance. It took a minute to locate the strangeness. Her left big toe had gone completely numb.

“You’re really afraid of puppets?” Dan asked. He took her hand and guided her to a more open space in the street.

“Marionettes,” Kate replied, “And it was just jet lag. I was lightheaded.” Had the hollowness in the toe started in the shop or after the woman blew the kiss?

Dan waited for her to answer his question about puppets, but she didn’t want to explain about the marionettes. Her father read her a book when she was little. It was his mother’s book, brought over from Germany when she was a girl … an old, oversized, illustrated copy of “Pinocchio.” The book had moldy pages and a sour smell, and Kate found all the pictures absolutely terrifying. The worst page depicted a red-eyed Stromboli, strapping a weeping Pinocchio to a marionette frame and forcing him to dance on a stage in front of a cheering crowd. In this version, Pinocchio was cursed by a black beetle for not being a good son to Geppetto. The curse is what allowed Stromboli to kidnap him and keep him from becoming a real boy.

Kate slept poorly on the Pinocchio nights. “There is no such thing as curses,” Kate’s father said when she begged him not to read the book. Even now more than twenty years later, when something frightened her such as a noise in the apartment late at night or a knock on the apartment door when she wasn’t expecting anyone, the image she saw were those bent wooden limbs, painted faces, and Stromboli making his puppets dance like slaves while he laughed.

 

“It’s not a phobia or anything,” she said.

“Silly girl,” Dan said.

Kate could see the iron gates of the castle clearly now. Velvet ropes held a queue of about 20 people.

“Katie-boo,” Dan said and tickled her hips. Her pinky toe was tingling now. Was her foot falling asleep? She shook her boot. Her pinky toe was numb again.

Maybe she never noticed the nicknames because all the men she dated in New York were like Dan. They called women infantilizing names, drank banana daiquiris, and listened to the Dave Matthews Band. Dan swung his arm and tried to catch her hand. He was a cliché, but an intelligent, above-average looking one.

Dan had introduced her to sushi, ballet at The Lincoln Center, and Indie films at The Angelika. Kate was attractive, yes, but inexperienced and midwestern bland. She worked at a physical therapy practice on the Upper West Side where she lubricated the movements of geriatric hips and pretended to forget about getting her masters in sports medicine so she could work with young girls with track talent. There wasn’t anything special about her either. Thinking about it made her hands sweat.

 

Kate and Dan walked toward the line behind the velvet ropes. A woman in a beige suit held a clipboard. “The castle will be closed for an hour for lunch,” she announced in English.

Kate kicked one of the cobblestones. Still no feeling back in either toe. So strange to not feel anything … no pins … no needles … even when she kicked it.

“Should we wait?” Dan said. Of course they would wait. The castle was the whole point. She could have asked for tickets to “Rigoletto” at the National Opera or the tasting menu at CottoCrudo. The castle would cost them less than $20. Just a little time was all she was asking for. Somewhere inside those walls, she would feel the luck and know her future with Dan … or without.

 

A cluster of tourists moved like an amoeba to the shops on the left side of the street. Next to a postcard stand, a black awning stretched over a stone doorway. A man in a black cape faced the crowd and shouted, “Welcome to the one and only Don Giovanni Marionette Opera.” He reached inside his cape with his free hand and held out a hook-nosed wooden figure in a cape that matched his own. Violins whirred to life from a speaker affixed to the doorway behind him. The marionette flapped his cape over his eyes and opened his mouth to “sing” in time with the music. The sound swept through Kate, and her eyes teared at the corners.

“Incredible!” Dan said.

“Next show two o’clock,” the man called.

“We’ll miss the next castle tour,” Kate said, but Dan was no longer standing next to her. He had rushed to the side of the caped man. Kate watched him pull out his wallet and then jog back over to her on the street.

“You’re mad,” Kate said.

“What’s that saying?” Dan asked, “Do something you’re afraid of every day?” He handed her a rectangular paper ticket. Kate felt loathing and actual contempt at Dan’s sweater, his polished leather loafers, and his khaki pants with a slight pleat at the front. She had been so happy when he asked about the ring.

 

A tall man tapped Dan’s shoulder. “Think you were behind me in the line, mate,” he said. He looked a little older than they were, thirties maybe. A long, willowy woman in a beige trench coat stood next to him. From her eyebrows to her cheeks, her face was covered with enormous cat-eye sunglasses.

“Manchester University?” Dan asked. “I did a spring semester at the London School of Economics.” Dan’s voice began to lift at the end of his sentence. He said university instead of college.

“We live in Islington,” the man said. “North London. Name’s Sean.” Dan shook Sean’s hand.

“This is Annabel.” Annabel bent forward and kissed Dan’s cheeks one at a time.

Sean lifted his hand toward Kate.

“I’m Kate,” she offered.

“Lovely to meet you, Kate,” Sean responded.

“You’re going to the show too then?” Dan asked.

Sean turned his palms upward and replied, “If we don’t see Don Giovanni performed entirely by marionettes, I will leave this life unfulfilled. But we’re off to find a drink first.”

“We may need to join you,” Dan said and pointed at Kate. “This one’s afraid of puppets.”

 

The marionette theater had a tiny bar in the lobby. The interior was covered in black velvet, and fake lanterns stuck out from the walls like arms. The four of them took the only high-top table with four stools. Sean bought them all Pilsners from the caped man who now stood with a towel across his forearm behind the bar. As soon as she sat down, Kate’s buttocks went as hard as her foot. Her breath quickened. What illnesses started with numb extremities? Multiple Sclerosis? Parkinson’s Disease? She thought of Heather’s words about the dark fairy tale … about Rudolph’s magicians. She thought of the shopkeeper’s fist and the blown kiss. She tried to stand and wobbled. She had to hold the lip of the table with her right hand to keep from falling.

“Restroom” she whispered to Dan. She held the edge of the table to pull herself upright. Her left foot and calf were completely numb. It was as if her left leg had been fashioned out of driftwood, like an old pirate story.

She walked through the dozen or so people in the cramped room, putting more weight on her right foot and dragging her left to meet it. The bathroom was a single stall, so Kate slid the lock shut and felt around with her good hand for her phone. No signal. The international plan she’d purchased was bunk. The lightheadedness from the shop was back. Could she be having a stroke? She’d heard of women her age who had strokes from taking the pill. By the time she returned to the table, she had to hop the final three steps.

Annabel had removed her sunglasses, revealing eyes the color of deep ocean blue. Her skin was pristine and bright. She was so striking that Kate forgot the hollow woodenness in her lower limbs and simply stared. Sean kissed her arm then her fingers one by one. He probably didn’t walk three steps ahead of Annabel.

Speakers mounted on the ceiling coughed on and began to play a staticky version of what Kate assumed was the overture of the opera. She didn’t really know the story, but there had been something in the hotel visitor’s guide about the play. “Devils drag Giovani to hell, right?” she asked when Dan stopped talking to swallow his beer.

“He deserved it,” Sean said.

“It premiered here in Prague at the National Theater in 1787,” Dan answered, already on his phone.

Sean had seen the opera several times in London and recounted the plot as Kate grabbed for Dan’s phone. Her right index finger was tingling now. She swallowed air while trying to appear calm. If this spread to her throat, she wouldn’t be able to breathe. She hadn’t learned the emergency number for the Czech Republic. How did one summon an ambulance?

The lanterns began to flick on and off. Sean dumped the remainder of his beer down the back of his throat. “Showtime.”

“I can’t,” she said.

“Katie … Katie-Boo,” Dan said. “We’ll see the castle right after.”

Kate wanted to run into the blunt light of the square. She didn’t care about the castle now. She was convinced she could now feel the hollowness spreading across her pelvis. Her mouth felt strange, and her cheeks were hardening.

The caped man appeared at a narrow door. As he waved the black silk at them, cymbals crashed through the speakers.

Dan helped her up from the stool by her elbow. “I’ll hold your hand the whole time,” he said.

 

Inside the theater, Kate felt as if they’d entered a giant mouth. The seats were cream velvet, and the walls were covered in red velvet. Dan followed Sean and Annabel to seats in the fourth row. The stage was black and set with a painted façade of a staircase next to a building with a white balcony. The lights dimmed, and the violin music from the lobby rose and pitched. The air was cool and dark like they were in a cave. Kate could no longer feel her feet or legs, and her torso was hollow and wooden as a flute. Even her scalp was going numb now. She opened her mouth. She must tell Dan now and get him to call a doctor. Her lips hardened like taffy as she wiggled her neck.

Don Giovani’s servant appeared on the stage, but she couldn’t speak. Couldn’t gesture. The hardening moved one by one down the knobs of her spine while the violins started again, fast as hummingbird wings.

Then Giovani entered at the top of the staircase in pantaloons and a ruffled shirt and cape. Even though he was made of wooden sticks, he gave the appearance of corpulence and wealth. Donna Anna slapped his chest and ran to find her fiancé. Donna Anna’s father, the great Commendatore approached, and Giovani drew a sword. Kate could hardly see the strings moving his arms. Even the violence was floating and lovely, like a ballet. Such tricks of light! Giovani lanced Donna Anna’s father, and a ribbon of silk poured as blood from his abdomen.

Kate could no longer make sound. She realized she had missed her chance of being able to signal Dan of her condition. She was receding into the hollowness. As the Commendatore’s blood pooled on the stage, the thought of other things she couldn’t do cascaded over her. She couldn’t decide if she liked sushi or the West Village. Was she moving back to Minnesota and her mother’s sad house in Saint Paul? Was she going to stay at the physical therapy practice or go back to school?

The slain Commendatore bent at the waist and fell to the ground. He was dying but still lifted his torso to sing his last duet with Giovani. A deliciousness falling sensation moved through her as the hardening moved inside her chest and across her ribs to a small cocoon around her heart. She couldn’t tell Dan she didn’t love him … that she didn’t want to be married.

Kate could no longer turn her head, but she could see, hear, and breathe – at least for now. Donna Anna’s dying father’s voice was more beautiful than any notes he’d sung before. He reached an arm toward the audience and to her in particular, Kate liked to think. The kiss from the woman at the shop … the hardening … it wasn’t so bad really.

She could be hung up for a while on a cross hatch somewhere, on a little silver hook, and wait.

 

 

About the Author: Sara Connell is pursuing an MFA at Northwestern University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tri-Quarterly, Forbes, The Bangelore Review, I.O. Literary Journal and Elle magazine.

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