The Puppet Theater; a story

 

I love it when the lights go down and the marionettes come out to play. The little hands. The little feet. The bright eyes. The little teeth.

The kids all gather on the carpeted floor at the foot of what passes for a stage, a carefully carved, colorfully painted wooden wall with a curtain starting at waist height that hides the inset platform upon which stories play out.

The parents who’d brought their kids usually filled the first few rows of seats, which sat perched on risers placed on the opposite side of the carpeted floor.

The few adults who came alone would take seats in the last couple of rows, near the back, each hoping a favorite marionette or two would be in the day’s performance.

The audience would go silent and I’d calm down. Real or imagined, parental suspicions made me nervous. No more eyes checking me out, whispering about why I’d be there alone. No more making small talk and pretending.

As I did with the woman next to me one day, a suburban mom in jeans with an oversize purse and second bag stuffed with treats and dreams, both for later. The kind of kit I used to carry when I went out for a day with my little girl, way back when.

“Which one’s yours?” she’d asked just before the show began.

“Mine?”

“Your kid,” she smiled, innocently, sweetly. Not even thinking.

“Oh, my daughter. She uh…” How do you say it really, to be safe and not offend. “She’s not with me anymore.”

And then the prying eyes. Say too little and she’d think I’m a creep. Say too much and they might not let me come back. So be shocking. “We lost her a couple of years ago. But she loved this place. Sometimes I can imagine she’s here with me.”

More than imagine. Imagination is light and hope, even in the midst of a scary dream. But I’d agreed not to say anything more.

Then the lights lowered and the curtains covering the recess in the wooden wall opened, and the first puppet came out. Judy, for a session of Punch and Judy. Wooden marionettes, loving carved and painted, each half the size of a 10-year-old. Each with a unique personality.

One I particularly loved, blonde, exuberant, pigtails. My daughter had always loved it when I tied her hair up in those pigtails.

Quietly I finish. I might have been talking to myself by then. “When I come here it’s like I can see her again.”

 

Took my daughter to the puppet theater the first time when she was three. She got a little spooked, to be honest.

But at the end Gustav came out, an old Slavian entertainer with a broad smile and wide eyes. Dressed in a cobbler’s apron and a stocking cap. Like a marionette or a devilish elf.

He was carrying a couple of the puppets, or rather, walking them across the floor by their strings. He saw she was skittish; she might have shed a tear. I introduced her to him.

“No, no worry,” he told her. “Here, Camille Rose, this is Rebecca. She smiles for you.”

The puppet run by his right hand smiled up at my daughter. Meant to be a young teen, I guess. She had taken the role of Judy that day, but his marionettes all had their own names apart from the plays.

The puppet did a little jig in her lederhosen. Looked up with bright eyes and cheeks painted rose. I swear she smiled. Some of them have faces that move. Amazing how he can work that while walking them around and making them wave.

“My girls are all happy, except when they’re playing sad in a show,” he smiled. “They may come to me sad, but I make them happy.”

The puppet held out a hand, and there was an awkward handshake. Three-year-olds aren’t all that coordinated.

But the fear was gone. “She’s magic,” my daughter said, or magical. Something like that.

“Camille, Rebecca likes you,” he said. “Maybe you come back to see her. Stay longer. Do you like the magic?”

 

We did go back. A time or two when Camille was four, several times when she was five. Then we skipped because we didn’t go out much for a while.

Camille was six when her mom died. I don’t want to dwell on that here. Losing a wife is bad enough, but watching your girl lose her mom – that rips your hearts to bits. She was never going to get over it, not really. And we were never the same as just the two of us.

But that was a long time ago, and one big loss per story is enough.

I don’t know when we decided not to dwell on it, talked about not dwelling on it, or actually stopped dwelling on it. Those were decisions we made, anyway.

She was much too young to live with that every day. Life goes on as surely as kids grow up. Most kids, anyway.

I think we went back on her eighth birthday. The puppet museum was in an old Victorian home maybe 10 blocks away from our house, in our extended Portland neighborhood. The bottom floor had been turned into the theater, seats and a comfy floor in front of that carved wall. Behind it, the puppeteer kept his characters and props.

Behind that were the steps to his basement and his workshop, I found out later, during one of the police searches.

We had cake and candles on one of the picnic tables he kept outside, near the front door and the window next to it, where he sold tickets. Or usually, it was his daughter selling tickets. She was middle-aged like me, a plain looking woman who never showed much emotion.

She helped him, but never showed a sign she enjoyed it. Helped him with sales and prep. She must have helped backstage, too. I was never sure how they had enough hands to do all they did with the marionettes. Perhaps there were other helpers, unseen, part of the mystique.

You’d think we’d have seen them coming and going, though. We were neighbors. But no. It was part of the magic.

The show that day featured princesses and dragons, and I think it was about a princess who defeated and then befriended a dragon, and then saved a village from human blight. A sad story with a happy ending. Gustav had some darkness in his background, to write that.

My girl was transported. She’d always been a bright girl, and loved books, reading way above her age level. Fantastical stories can seem almost too real to kids when they’re at an age when they can still blur reality with imagination. I miss that. The world beats the reality into you, and most of magic is gone by the time you’re an adult. And if there’s no magic in the world, what’s the point?

After the show, Gustav came out. He may have been carrying the same puppet Camille had first met. His Rebecca. He remembered Camille, or he’d heard us sing happy birthday outside. “Ah Camille, you have a happy birthday, eh? You wish to be a princess and ride dragons.”

She smiled and laughed. He turned to greet other children. But he turned back, briefly, and caught her attention.

“But still sad?” he asked. “Rebecca, she tells me you are, deep inside, sadder than ever. What makes you so sad?”

A-hole. Everyone deserves a few hours without someone reminding us to be sad. Especially kids. Especially on their birthday. Especially a kid who lost her mom.

But we went back a few times after, first because Camille loved it and felt transported. Later just to be silly. As she got older, we watched each show with a tad more irony. Kids today learn cynicism the way we used to learn the stats on baseball cards.

After a while, by the time she was 12, I sometimes let her walk over there without me. It was in the neighborhood, she knew the way, she always had a friend with her, and kids need some independence.

All that’s by way of explaining why, on that day, I felt OK dropping Camille and her friend Terry off a couple blocks shy of the place, cash in hand. I zipped over to the neighborhood coffee shop for a latte and the free wifi. Filed a few things, checked email, answered a few pressing ones.

But I was there within a minute or two of the show’s end. I told the cops that, several times. Parents are always the first suspects.

And we always know we’re guilty whenever something bad happens, whether or not what happened was within our control.

 

People were still coming out the door. Kids laughing, parents shaking off boredom. Except that Camille and her pal never came out. I watched, waiting, while the audience dispersed.

Parked, crookedly. Half slammed the door. Half ran, half stumbled, looking around frantically. I can’t tell you all that goes through your head.

Called their names. Looked closely at each child, as if I might miss my own.

Gustav was watching the door, and the heavy curtain just inside it, ready to close down. “Wait, my girl and her friend. They aren’t out here.”

He looked at me blankly, like he didn’t speak English. Of course, I knew he did. “They came to the show,” I told him. “They were supposed to wait here.”

“I don’t know, sir,” he told me. “The theater is empty.”

He looked in again, looked back at me. Held the door open, and then the curtain, so I could see the room. Empty.

“Maybe they’re off somewhere inside the house,” I told him. “They wouldn’t leave without me.”

“And you’re sure they were here?” he asked. Did I detect a bit of interrogation? Did he know they’d walked the last bit alone?

Or was I just losing it?

“They certainly were here,” I demanded.

“The only other exit from the showroom is to backstage. I always lock it when I’m not there,” he told me. But he kept the way inside open. Up to me to call it good.

Instead I called, listened, called again. Then turned back, yelling their names now. Two or three parents were still there, and they asked what was wrong. I found a photo on my phone. Have you seen this girl?

No. Just no.

 

“They definitely aren’t inside,” the officer told me. The search had taken a while. They promised they had gone through every room, every opening, every space.

He said it firmly. Officer Davis. Experienced, black, maybe 45. He’d been first on the scene. There were four cars there at the time, and three other officers in on the search. Then he said quietly to me alone, “kind of a freaky place. Puppets all over backstage, and parts of them in the basement where he works on them. Little wooden limbs. Painted eyes. Freaked me out.”

Then he snapped back to his official role. “You’re sure they wouldn’t have gone off somewhere? You did let them walk here.”

“Part of the way,” I responded, more snappish than I needed to be. There it was again, the accusation. The guilt.

“I’m just saying.” Davis tried to sound sympathetic. “I have kids, they have minds of their own. And single father, busy working, you must lose track sometimes.”

“I do not,” I said, now trying to sound annoyed. How dare he. But sure, sometimes I did. No one can be perfect.

He gave a huff. I knew he was thinking I might be the guy. I might have done something. Then he went back to sympathy. “You are sure they didn’t get home, right?”

The answer came walking up just then. Tami, Terry’s mom, 5 feet of redhead fury. The girls weren’t at her house. She’d gone by mine; no. “Michael, where the hell is my daughter?”

I turned but had nothing to say to her. Davis started. “They were supposed to see the show, then wait outside. He ran late and…”

“I was within two minutes of the end.”

Davis just shrugged. “Didn’t see them come out. Didn’t see them go in.”

“They must have been inside,” I insisted.

The officer barely changed his tone through all this. “We’ve searched. They aren’t inside now. We are canvassing the area.”

“My God,” she said, and thankfully not much else. She was divorced, worked two jobs, and didn’t need any of this. Her kid often seemed sadder than mine, and Tami seemed sadder still. “I knew I shouldn’t have let her….”

Go with me? Trusted me to mind her? I’m sure it was something like that. Not that I could have expected any of this, but it is on me. To this day.

Davis tried comfort; he was bad at it. He raised the possibility even as he tried to discount it. “This is a safe neighborhood. Only know of one child gone missing in the last 15 years; right around here, by the theater. But she was alone, and it was a domestic thing. This doesn’t fit.”

Her anger turned on him now, so at least I got to share. “Just find them.”

An hour missing at that point, and what did the cop think was possible? Why did he go to an old missing kid case?

 

I don’t know how many hours I spent with Davis, and then a couple of detectives I didn’t like half as well. Bad coffee and lots of questions at the station. More at home, as I dragged out bank statements and bills to justify my existence. On and off, for days.

Yes, I loved being a parent. No, this would not be easier. “How dare you?” was as close as I came to cursing them out. That would have just made them more suspicious. And the closer they looked at me, the less they’d look elsewhere.

At home I could look out my windows, at least. Hope to see her coming up the walk. I saw police cars cruising by quite often. They were looking, at least.

When the cops weren’t visiting me over the next few weeks, I pretty much sat at home or walked the neighborhood. Tami lived across the street and five homes away, so I crossed paths with her often. She’d glare at me. Sometimes she glared at the house, too, when I hid behind my windows.

 

I haven’t told you what I do, but I work online. Build Web pages, a vocation I picked up as a hobby. I was a news reporter before that, for several local papers. Those jobs are few these days.

Plus, online work meant I could be home as a single parent. Couldn’t afford many toys or trips, but I was there. I tried. With two of us, we would have been great parents. But some losses just run too deep.

I still had the reporter’s know-how. A week, then two, and I put it to use. Turned my laptop on and ignored my email.

Checked the police reports that had gone online. Checked the online blotter for any issues in the neighborhood. Didn’t find much. The initial incident reports were filed day one and didn’t have any later details. The updates wouldn’t be public until the investigations were done.

Our neighborhood was usually a quiet one. There weren’t many other recent reports; a couple of calls about car backfires, and a missing cat.

But what had Davis said? One previous incident in the neighborhood, 15 years before.

I did some searching. Colleen was the name, just 10 when it happened. The parents were young, mid-20s.  It was suspected as a domestic dispute leading to a kidnapping. But the girl was never found, and no one was prosecuted.

The girl had been living with the mother, the father gone in a nasty split. His mother, the grandmother, had been their care-person. Marge Green, plain name for a plain woman then in her 50s. When they split, she got cut off.

And I recognized the grandmother. I’d seen her on occasion. Sitting in one of the back rows, watching the marionettes.

 

I guess I should have called the police first. Instead I found her place, a small accessory apartment – a converted garage – behind a 20s Craftsman a few blocks from the puppet theater.

Knocked on the door too loudly. You can guess what I feared. But I also knew she was an aging woman, at least 70 now, and it was hard to see how she could have done it. How she could corral two preteens, spirit them out of the puppet show without anyone noticing, and then do whatever… whatever was done.

I heard shuffling behind the door. Knocked again. Spoke loudly. “Ms. Green, I need to talk to you.”

I knocked again after a too-short pause. Yelled this time.

She finally opened it, just a bit. My doubts that what I feared was even physically possible crystallized. She was a short woman, maybe 5’5, shorter since she walked hunched over with help from a walker. There was a tube at her nose, from a small O2 bottle.

“Yes.” She spoke faintly from behind a half-opened door with fading paint, and a screen door. Both seemed makeshift, as garage conversions do.

“Ms. Green, I…” My doubts left me tongue-tied.

“What is it?” she asked. She sounded either annoyed or winded. I was stuck on pause. She started to shut the portal. I finally got it out.

“It’s my daughter. She disappeared. At the puppet theater. I know you know the place.”

“Lord,” she huffed. Her door kept swinging. The opening was closing.

“Please,” I quivered in her direction. “It’s my daughter and her friend. Two girls. About the same age your granddaughter was.”

Asked it more like a lawyer would ask a witness. She seemed less a villain now. It just wasn’t possible.

“I don’t want to talk about that place.”

“Please. I think you know something.

She opened the door wide now. Came closer though remaining on her side. Seemed stronger as she found a very old rage. “You think I did something.”

For a moment, it again seemed possible. But only a moment. She continued. “I read about what happened. You can search my place. I don’t have the strength to do such things. Maybe I did back then. But not now.”

“I’ve seen you inside the theater, though. You’ve been there. You go there. You know something.”

“They blamed me. No one believed me.”

“Tell me what happened. I might.”

I could tell she wanted to talk. Door opened. Tea was made. There was a little bed in the single room beyond the door. Lots of shelves and knickknacks. Lots of photos of a tiny girl, long black hair, eyes nearly as dark. Haunted even then.

“My granddaughter. I watched her. I loved her. I had time for her, more than her parents. When her mother cut me off, I couldn’t stand it. So yes, I took her out a few times without asking. She was latchkey, alone, many days.

“Then one day I dropped her off at the show. Came here to make cookies. Went back. Couldn’t find her.

“It was like you, from what I read. They searched the museum, that big house. I saw part of it, the room behind the stage where he displays his puppets. A few in the works down in the basement, one in particular with dark hair and eyes.

“But I didn’t get to really look. The police, they were focused on me. Because I’d taken her without permission. They wouldn’t let it go. Even jailed me once, for about two weeks. By the time they gave up on me, it was too late to find any other threads. If they looked. I think they always thought it was me.”

Her head was slumped. A cat jumped into her lap; animals can sense pain. I shared in her sadness, though I still couldn’t help but think maybe. After a few years, felons can really believe their made-up alibis.

“Terrible,” I said even though I wasn’t entirely sure. “But when things happened to kids it is usually family. And this is a safe neighborhood. The police say rgere was just this one other incident.”

“Just one? Ha.” She looked up. “You found me. You should look for others. I don’t know why no one remembers, but there are others.”

She stopped. I didn’t know what to think about that. Sipped now-lukewarm tea.

“Have you been to a show since this happened?” she asked me.

That snapped me out of the funk. Why would I?

“I know. But I went back after a few months,” she said. “I don’t know why. But there was a new puppet when I went, the paint bright and the eyes and hair so fresh. Black hair. Dark eyes. Like a twin. She even looked at me, with those sharp but wooden eyes. I swear it was like that marionette knew me.

“That’s why I keep going back after all these years, whenever I feel up to it. Because that one, I swear, she knows me. The way she moves, I just know. She plays happy, the way my granddaughter did when she was very young. Before the family split. Makes things a little better.

“You should go. You might see.”

 

I did as she said. I checked the Internet and found what she’d meant. It made no sense, but it was there.

And I went, the next afternoon. Sat in the back, where I’d seen the old woman more than a few times. Laughing only politely. Often tearing up.

There was a knight, a quest, a dragon. And two princesses who would vie for a knight’s affection. I don’t think I’d seen them in shows before, and the paint was bright and crisp. They looked new.

One with brown hair and dark eyes, a bit shy and reserved. Long eyelashes. I guess it could have been little Terry. Hard to tell. Mouth too square; the hinged jaws made them all look a bit that way. A long green ball gown, so she looked too old.

I didn’t know her all that well, I guess; I knew her laugh and her exuberance, but not really her look. Modeled as a puppet, I couldn’t be sure.

The other, though. Bright blue eyes with long lashes. Blond hair, falling to each side, a little kinked, like pigtails had just unraveled as she tried to look more grown up. Something little girls try sometimes. A wide mouth, for a big smile. In a dress of blue. Her favorite color.

“It’s her,” I mouthed, then said to myself loud enough to turn heads. No, what was I thinking?

I held my tongue. As I watched, as I stared. She seemed to catch my eyes a time or two, as her lashes blinked and eyes moved from side to side.

No. The thought was mad. At least I still recognized madness, back then.

I held onto the rage until most of the audience had left. But he came out his backstage door and I was on him. Too close. Not touching but too close.

“I want to see them,” I demanded, not yelling but as intense as if I was.

He bobbed left then right, trying to pass. “Sir. Please.”

I was not letting him get by. I’m sure some of the other adults noticed.

“The new marionettes. The princesses. They are…” What to say? I didn’t. “I want to see them.”

“Sir, I do recognize you. I’m sorry for your loss. But I cannot help.”

People were staring. I looked around for help. The woman who sold tickets, his daughter by my guess, was near now. “Someone has to,” I said, and then focused on her. “You… you can help.”

She nodded. I think she felt for me. She’d called help, but not for me.

 

Officer Davis was first to arrive.

“You’re causing a scene. I know… I mean, I can’t imagine. But you can’t act like this.”

Why wouldn’t he get it? “But the girls… they were here. In the show. They…”

Gustav was with us, standing near the door as well. “There are new puppets in the show. That’s all. The sad man is confused.”

“No,” I insisted. “I mean I don’t know how but…” Again, I ran out of words. A different tactic. “Officer, you told me this neighborhood was safe. Just one incident. But there are more. At least seven kids over 25 years.”

He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not that I’ve heard of. Not on my watch. We researched it the last time – that was 15 years ago.”

“There have been three others since. Before my daughter and Terry. I printed the stories out. I can show you.”

Was he starting to believe, or trying to? “Why wouldn’t anyone remember?”

That stumped me. That thread was at an impasse. Finally, he turned to Gustav. “Can you just show us the backroom?”

The puppeteer shrugged. He opened this door.

This was the actual museum; he sometimes gave tours. Just inside the door was a hallway leading behind the stage. Shelves lined the opposite wall. First were a dozen or so puppets with children’s faces, but with weathered paint and sagging eyes and jaws.

Many wore aged outfits that could have been out of Fiddler on the Roof, or a Bavarian celebration. “Some of the oldest ones I have,” Gustav said, almost out of habit. “My great-grandfather’s work.”

Just around the corner, right behind the stage, the day’s characters sat on the floor, others hanging off hooks behind.

And they were there. The brunette princess, the blonde in blue. They still seemed oddly familiar to me. But they hung limp, limbs slack. They didn’t seem so exuberant, so real.

“You see,” Gustav said. “Marionettes. Perhaps they look like girls I’ve seen; I do study such things. But I made these with my daughter’s help, like the rest.”

“They’re new,” I insisted. “The paint is new. Clean.”

Davis gave me an odd look. No, I didn’t know why that mattered.

Gustav reached for one, held up a foot, took off the shoes so we could see the bottom of the sole. March, I think it said, and a year. Two or three back. “I date them all when done. Not that new. Some I have repainted”

Another dead spot of silence. Then David asked, “where do you make them?”

“Downstairs. My workshop. You were there.”

“Can we see it again?”

He paused but eventually led us to an old stairwell, and down. more shelving, a wall covered with woodworking tools held by hooks, two large tables.

And parts. Heads, half heads, limbs. Some children half-assembled, some parts hung on strings. All wooden, of course.

Davis poked around, lifting one, studying another. I did the same, but more and more frantically. Then opening drawers, looking in boxes. I didn’t realize how intense I was getting. “Sir, I must insist.” I heard Gustav say from somewhere.

“Something must be here,” I shot back. “Something…”

Then Davis was grabbing my shoulders and insisting I go upstairs. Outside. Don’t even be tempted. He’d look.

I went up the stairs alone. I paused on the way to spend time with that blonde child hung on strings, smiling. Happy.

 

He met me outside. I’d retreated to my car, out of earshot. Gustav lurked inside the main door, leaving us alone but keeping watch.

“Are you satisfied?” Davis asked me. “Marionettes. A little freaky to be there, but it’s all wood. It’s his art.”

“There’s more,” I insisted.

“Where?”

And I had no idea. “Check for yourself. Here.” I handed them the copies of news articles. I’d had them in my car. All those incidents, most getting little more notice than a few police blotter entries.

“This is crazy,” he told me. “I don’t know why the cases were dropped.”

But he was a cop. He got defensive of his department’s performance. And maybe his, as he hadn’t known about these.

“But what do these have to do with this place? And what do you think he’s done to… the puppets.”

Of course, I didn’t know. Not what he might have done. Not how. “But why didn’t you even turn these up when you were investigating? Why does no one remember?”

“So, he’s done something to all of us? Not just these kids? You think he’s what, magic?” The officer stared at me, exasperated. But also thinking maybe.

But his job was to warn me off. Leave the investigating to the cops and don’t create any more trouble. “Thing is, you can’t keep coming here. We’ve searched thoroughly. You can’t make scenes around kids. This is someone’s business; someone’s livelihood.

“As of tomorrow, there will be a restraining order in place. Please don’t violate it. You’ve been through a lot. Don’t make me arrest you.”

“Please, just… The old woman. Grandmother of Colleen. The one arrested, years ago. Talk to her. Listen to her. She knows something.”

He made notes on it. Promised he would, “if you will agree to stay away from here.”

I think he meant it at the time. So did I.

 

I stayed away. Well, I tried. A month or two. Then I started driving by, but only once and a while. Then parking. Waiting. Sometimes I watched kids go in. Sometimes watched them leave. Looked for any sign they didn’t all leave.

I parked closer and closer as the weeks went. One day the place was entirely dark, looking empty. I thought about it a while, then I got out of the car.

Converted home, Victorian, the windows were high, with shutters drawn on the lower floors. Couldn’t see anything through them, at least not from my car. Turned out, the view from the sidewalk wasn’t any better.

So I got closer. The windows were too high. Maybe the porch. I started to step up.

“Sir, you should not be here.”

I jumped and backed down. I didn’t want to threaten him anymore. He was with the woman, his daughter. A couple of bags from Safeway. I mumbled sorry.

“We have a restraining order,” Gustav said. “You should not be here.”

“I just… I just want answers. I want to know about this. You. Your place.”

“I love children,” he said in his thick accent. “I do not hurt them. I help those that hurt. I make them happy.”

“I wish I could believe that.”

“You must know that.”

And then the woman spoke, his daughter, who remember was in her 40s. “Father, we should tell what we can. He needs sympathy.”

He looked at her, then me again. “You will not do violence.” A statement, or a question? I agreed. I just wanted to know.

He walked up the steps and unlocked the door. Chairs around a table, behind the seats that faced the stage. She brought tea at one point.

“My grandfather, he was a traveling entertainer, a Czech puppet man. Learned his crafts as a young man in Eastern Europe, as he steered clear of the Great War. A gypsy by trade, if not by blood. A citizen of no nation. He was good at the voices, and funny, or so he said. I was tiny when he passed; I barely remember him.

“They say it was when he married that he started drawing crowds. My grandmother, she knew many arts. Magical arts, some said. She painted the dolls, changed how they moved. Soon children were dancing when their wagon rolled into town, and then along with the puppets at show after show.

“But then the fascists began to take control. You know they hated those they considered the others, but also anyone odd, gypsies, whatever. Traveling grew unsafe.

“He settled in a tiny town you wouldn’t know, a ghetto full of outsiders. The people there were wary. They liked the shows, but there were stories. That his marionettes were perhaps more. That my grandmother had done things to sad, stray children and dogs. The years after the Great War had been hard and there were many of both.

“My grandparents protested, of course. The fascists say things about you, too, he reminded them.

“And they and their neighbors, their audience, were happy. Until it began. Until the camps opened. Until the killing began.

“The parents then, one night, they’d heard they were being moved. The whole town, all the families. They came with their children. They came about the stories. Much said without saying.

“If the stories are true then, help us. Do what you did if you remember how. Make your marionettes, make them with the faces of our children. Keep them safe. Keep their memories happy. Keep them free of terrors and camps. And make us forget if you can, until we return. Keep them safe until we return.

“But of course, no one returned. Not ever.

“My grandparents, they fled. Traveled east and hid. Came back after the war and stayed until they died. They had a mission. Keep those dolls safe. Keep them as children, dancing and happy. For parents who would never return.

“My father grew up during the war, and he was with them, and he came back to that town with them. Stayed, married my mother who helped with the shows, kept those marionettes painted and clean and happy. Learned how it all worked.

“But eventually, my parents migrated to America, with me. I learned the crafts. I learned to make children safe and happy. My wife helped me, and now my daughter. We make marionettes dance and make children happy.”

He paused. Was that it? I wasn’t satisfied.

“Children these days, many are not happy as they should be,” Gustav said. “Your daughter? No mother. Such loss. Her friend, with no father and a mother who felt it as a burden. My puppetry can take the saddest children and make them happy.”

I rejected it. “My daughter, she… we were happy.”

“Were you?” he asked. “Did you not think, at times, what if? What if you were free, or how hard it was? Or that she’d have been better with you gone and her mother here?”

Well of course, but those were the stray thoughts of doubt we all have. The ones we feel guilty for. Outweighed by the joy of things. “I… you can’t do this. People will know.”

“People know. But I make parents happy, too. And my daughter, she has the skill to make adults forget. Can you not get past it and let my dolls be happy?”

No, I stammered. I stood to leave. “I have to tell someone.”

He stood but didn’t pursue me. Instead he pointed to the stage.

His daughter had a half-dozen marionettes on stage, combing their hair, ruffling clothes. Preparing for the next show.

One was that blonde princess in blue, on strings.

“I think instead,” he said, “you should decide to enjoy our show. That one you think seems your daughter – do you never wish to never see it again? Can’t our fictions help make you happy for at least a bit? Help you remember?

“You can come if you cause no trouble, and do not talk about this. Because no one will believe this story. No one.”

 

A month later. An afternoon show. I was rushing in, running late. They were doing the one about the princesses and the dragon.

“Wait. You shouldn’t be here.”

Officer Davis. I turned to him. “It’s OK. Gustav and I worked it out. He lets me come to see my daughter… well, her favorite show.”

Davis was clearly puzzled. I shrugged. “You take what you can get.”

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said. “The woman you pointed me to. The one who lost her granddaughter. I finally got there. Took too long.”

I kept eyeing the door. Trying to get inside before it closed and the show began. He insisted. “She’s dead. She’d been dead a while. Heart attack; she might have died of fright.”

“Of what?”

“I don’t know. But there were bite marks all over her.”

“She had a cat. Maybe more than one.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said, disgust on his face.

“But I went to the autopsy,” he continued. “Not cat bites. No saliva. Just shards. Little shards of wood. As if they were from, God help me, little wooden teeth.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Poor woman, but at least she was past it all. She shouldn’t have talked about it anyway.

I just left him and went inside.

 

There’s a group of a half dozen of us now, at each show. For some reason, no one out there remembers what we’ve lost. They’d never believe us if we tried to remind them. That’s the way of our world. No one cares very long what someone else suffers. We all suffer enough on our own.

But we parents never forget.

We watch the dances, listen to the songs. The smiles are painted on. But the faces seem happy. And when an illusion is all the hope you have, you have to act like it’s enough.

And of course it’s all illusion. I must believe it’s nothing more. Just a way to remember a face I’d rather not forget. And see that face, happy, forever.