written by: Viviana Benfenati
I watched our little Greek town get painted with the colors of a new day, as dawn poured over the sky. I was upstairs, peeking out of the window in your workshop, as I waited.
During that time, I thought about our story and our many memories together. A strong bolt of energy grew inside my chest, flooding me with an intense need to make them immortal. Somehow, I felt like writing was the only certain way I had to keep you alive forever.
I turned my head and searched over your always messy desk and picked a piece of paper and one of your charcoal pencils.
Whatever happens, I said to myself, I will always have these lines.
You have always been a man who lived in a world crafted by his imagination. The most famous puppeteer in town, a title you wore with pride, because there was nothing you enjoyed more in life than crafting marionettes. It is not a hobby, you said, it is magic coming to life!
And so, through carefully polished blocks of wood and countless strings of nylon, you created your own world of magic. A ballerina, a gossipy lady, a ruthless pirate, the monster under the bed, a grumpy elf and a disheveled cat with crooked teeth were the first members of your collection and the first inhabitants of your workshop.
But the place where all the action happened was on that fantastic stage you designed for your weekly shows down at the main square. With varnished wood, wall paste and acrylic paint, you recreated the main square itself and all the little houses around it. You even carved the stones on the ground and made a mini version of the fountain, which ran on real water.
And every Friday night you decorated the face of every villager with a warm smile and every corner of the main square with roars of laughter. Your favorite scenarists were the kids in town: “what do you want the next story to be about?” You asked them after every show. “Come to my house and leave your story in my mailbox! I’ll discuss it with the puppets”, you told them.
However, puppeteering, despite being your biggest passion, was only a part of your life, because during the day you worked as a watchmaker. Whenever you were not designing another character for your collection, you were working on watches.
-I am not a watchmaker, I am a time crafter! – You corrected me one day, before throwing a witty laugh.
You were a watch specialist; you made, sold, and repaired watches, although you preferred the phrase “brought them back to life”.
You taught me about both, your passion and your job. At first, you introduced me to the world of reading and writing. And then, over the years, you taught me about each of your masterly crafts, one week at a time, until I became quite the expert. You always made me a part of both your worlds.
You also told me the story of the day you made me, and I remember it vividly, in your raspy voice.
I woke up in the middle of the night after having the strangest dream. In my dream, I was watering the plants next to the window when I heard someone opening my mailbox. I looked outside and found it was my ten-year-old son. My boy was alive again, standing in front of me, on my front porch. I remained there, petrified, as a beaming smile appeared on his face. Suddenly, he ran away and disappeared before I could chase him. I ran all the way down the empty street but couldn’t find him.
When I got back home, I went straight to the mailbox. He had placed an envelope inside. “How about this for your next marionette?” was written on the back. Then I opened it.
A tight knot was made in my throat as I, with deep astonishment, stared at a picture of my boy.
-What is this? – I asked, confused – Am I supposed to make a lifeless marionette of my lost boy?
I held on to the picture and was ready to crumple the envelope just before I saw there was something else inside. It was the photograph of a heart shaped watch.
The hardest story you ever told me was the one about your son. A heart murmur, soft as a whisper of the wind, yet powerful as the trigger of a gun, took him away a few weeks after his tenth birthday.
Some months after he passed away you began to make marionettes, your ever-lasting companions, who welcomed you to the world of no goodbyes. However, their lifeless gazes and motionless bodies left in you a void that survived in your chest throughout the years.
In my dream, I held the heart shaped picture of the watch in my hands and remained there, thinking. Then I ran back inside, slammed the door, and woke up.
I remember lying in bed wide awake, in the middle of the night, and knew I couldn’t sleep anymore. I went upstairs, to my workshop, and picked the best pieces of linen wood in storage. I polished them carefully, sculpted the details, the ears, the lips, and the sockets for the eyes, big and round like those of my boy’s.
This was going to be the first realistic marionette I ever made, I thought, while my heart pounded hard as I opened the paint cupboard. I stared blankly at the shelves as my eyes rested on the empty bucket of skin colored paint.
So instead, I grabbed white, yellow, red and blue.
I mixed all three colors first, and then, slowly, blended in the white. I kept painting my wrist with countless brush strokes, searching for the right shade. I lost track of time until my arm seemed like an abstract painting. I kept sandwiching those colors, one over the other, pouring into the mix not only my expertise but especially my intuition, until I finally got it: the exact matching tone.
The brush danced to the rhythm of an emotion that clogged my throat, as I covered your wooden body with the paint I just created. I amused myself by thinking of every drop as an elixir of life, and of every brushstroke as a flick of magic.
Finally, I sat you leaning on the wall and left you to dry on the table. Then I turned around, as my eyes met the white grandfather clock in the corner of the room, and felt my heart beating in unison with its second hand.
I walked towards the opposite end of my workshop, to the table I use to work on watches. Little bolts, screws, dials, lugs and crowns were spread all over it, forming a galaxy of time.
My eyes travelled to the wall where I stored tens of watches of all sorts and sizes in little wooden boxes. No, none of these, I said to myself.
I went downstairs to my nightstand and came back with a very special watch, the one given to me by my father. I carefully took off the bracelet and the lugs and held the watch in my hand.
Then I walked towards you. With a fine knife, I carved a square box on your chest, where the heart is. I placed the still ticking watch inside and closed it.
I smiled and bid you goodnight.
I remember waking up on your workshop table the next day, under a powerful ray of sunshine that sneaked through the window. Then I heard your steps up the staircase.
You stood like a statue by the studio door. Who is this old man and why is he not moving, I wondered. We stared at each other for a while, motionless, like two wooden marionettes.
I was never scared of you, not even when I didn’t know you. I decided to sit more comfortably on the table with my legs hanging from the side.
Your howl of happiness and amazement scared all the pigeons in the balcony. You ran towards me, picked me up, and inspected me closely.
-How can this be?! How can this be?! – You kept saying.
Then you put me back on the table and gave me what I later learned was a deeply affectionate hug.
-My boy… You are my boy.
I remember getting very curious about the drops of water that started falling down your cheeks.
-This is a moment for music!!! – You said, as you ran towards your gramophone.
You dressed me in a blue and white striped t-shirt, red pants that went with a shiny brown belt and neatly polished brown saddle shoes.
Only one more thing was missing.
-Your name is Athan – You said, pointing your finger at me – Short for Athanasios, which in Greek means immortal.
Your warm smile and playful wink sealed my baptism.
From that day on, I became your travel companion in the journey of making marionettes. You taught me the craft and also explained how the hand of the artisan can only dance in the realms of esthetics, of that which can be seen with the naked eye, but that every marionette gets to pick a personality of their own once finished.
You also taught me how to fix watches. The miniature world of time; a place that can only be handled with tweezers and entered through thick, round gates called spectacles. I remember the day you gave me my first one, as a reward for being the first I mended on my own.
We had to be careful, though, every time a visitor came to the house, for I could not be seen by the townspeople.
-Quick, shelf time!!! – You exclaimed every time we were alerted by the doorbell.
You sat me on a green satin couch you made for the times when I had to pretend to be a regular marionette.
Yet, everyone who visited your house could never leave without granting me a handful of minutes.
-This puppet is so realistic, Mr. Doukas, only you can surpass yourself.
As they immortalized me in their minds, a burning feeling grew inside my chest, as I was enveloped by the impulse to suddenly jump and scare them. Then it would be me who immortalized their startled faces forever in my mind, I thought, containing the urge to laugh. But the fear of being discovered and taken away from you always won the battle against my restrained antics.
Of course, it was not long before you gave me a part in your weekly puppet show. I became the lead in the play and also your assistant on those magic tricks you sometimes ventured to perform.
The expression of the audience was priceless. Their faces, always shifting between wonder and confusion after being unable to explain some of my movements. I tried to behave like a regular marionette and stick to the script. Yet, sometimes, for a split of a second, we agreed on me breaking up character a little, and letting our spectators in on some of my magic.
“Was that real?”, they asked themselves. “How does Mr. Doukas do it?”
They doubted their eyes at first, but then, amidst a sound roar of applause, ended up believing you really were a true magician. And they were not wrong.
Truth is our little family created a world of entertainment for our town. Both, grownups and kids, were thrilled to visit our house to see your latest marionette and never got tired of seeing your magical characters, over and over again.
Soon, we turned the living room into a small museum. You made several wooden shelves and placed every marionette in a particular pose depending on their character. You also made different props for them.
Of course, I got my very own spot, right over the shelf on the chimney. I changed positions when visitors were not looking, and none of them ever noticed. I learned that people sometimes are not really that observative, or maybe they don’t see things that they don’t expect to see.
Our museum kept growing, and soon became a must-see in town.
Every night, when everybody was gone, we sat in the kitchen and talked about our day over the delightful smell of dinner in the oven.
One time, while we were at the table after a long day, I saw something that caught my attention. Some of the hairs over your temples had lost their familiar deep ebony tone and were now coated in bright white.
-Why is your hair changing color? – I asked.
-These are the hairs of wisdom; they appear once you have enough experience in life – You told me.
-Like a prize?
-Yes, like that.
I felt really proud of you that day, and even prouder in time, as you only got more and more of them.
However, soon I noticed that your hair was not the only thing that was changing. It began with your watch business. You found the assembling process far more complicated than it was or took a long time to find what needed to be fixed.
The new marionettes you made were also different. Their faces were not as symmetrical anymore, and their features were not so carefully carved or polished as before. You got frustrated because you were putting in as much effort as always, but for some reason the results were not the same.
And then you began to forget some things. It began with the names of the parts of watches and some stuff around the house, and then extended to events, like the time when you forgot about our weekly show.
-Late? For what? – You asked me one evening, as the main square was filling up with people.
We arrived forty minutes late, and your mind wandered off in the middle of the play. I couldn’t move or remind you of the lines. I tried whispering but you didn’t hear me. That day we performed our very last show.
I didn’t understand what was going on. A dark coat of sadness and concern fell over me as the curtain dropped on the stage for the last time. By then I already knew you were lying about those white prizes on your head. Maybe whatever was wrong with your mind was also altering the color of your hair.
Mrs. Dimitra, our neighbor, came in with a huge bag and a basket filled with food one Sunday morning. I jumped off your bed and hid behind the curtain. From there, I learned that she was going to stay and take care of you.
She installed a mattress in your workshop. She cleaned, cooked and did the shopping. She became your hands and your legs and made sure the doctor visited you regularly.
But every night, when Mrs. Dimitra went to sleep, I climbed on your bed. You asked me a lot of questions and repeated the same things over and over again. I gave the same answers and narrated the same events every time. I never got tired of hearing your voice, even if it was not possible for us to have a conversation anymore.
You loved my stories. I made up stories of every marionette you made in your life and had a different one every night.
Then you started speaking to me during the day as well. You called me, asked where I was and wanted me to tell you another story. Mrs. Dimitra thought it was all a product of your mind and the tricks it was playing on you. She brought me to your bed, and from that day on, we spent every day together.
People continued to visit the house constantly, but they were no longer interested in the marionettes, they went straight to your room, and always brought flowers or chocolates.
-You will soon be with your son – They said.
I didn’t understand what they meant. Where were you going?
One afternoon, I dared to ask you that question.
-Where are you going, Mr. Doukas? – I whispered.
You turned your head slowly until you met my eyes.
-To be with you – You said, and once again showed me your warm smile, which never abandoned you.
I spent that night back on the shelf over the chimney. The doctor, Mrs. Dimitra and some nurses came in and out of your room. I didn’t understand anything and couldn’t ask any of them, which only scared me more.
Out the window, little flickering lights approached the house, and they kept growing as the hours went by. It was the townspeople, who had come to our lawn holding candles.
As the clock struck midnight, the door to your room flew open. Mrs. Dimitra came out first, sobbing on a handkerchief. She opened the front door, stared at the people, and then slowly shook her head.
-He is gone – She said.
Some people took out their handkerchiefs as well and went sobbing back to their homes, while others sat on our lawn and held hands.
A couple of men came and took you out covered in a white blanket like a ghost. Then everyone left, leaving the house in darkness and silence as my only companion.
I remained there, staring at the marionette museum in the living room. Shelves that covered the walls from floor to ceiling were filled with happy marionettes.
I climbed off the chimney and rushed over to your now empty room.
-You said you were going to be with me.
I stood by the door while remembering the tears that poured down Mrs. Dimitra’s eyes and thought that, if they could, mine would do the same.
From the distance, a sound that I knew very well reached my ears: it was laughter. I walked back to the living room and peaked out the window. People were still outside, sitting on our lawn, but now, they were laughing. They talked about your shows, remembered their favorite sketches, the funniest characters, and your unique jokes.
Then the clock struck again, making me jump back and fall off the window ledge. I remained laying on the living room carpet. My eyes wandered along the faces of the marionettes as the laughter of people continued to sneak into the house.
-It is impossible for someone like you to disappear – I said.
At that moment, for the first time, I felt like a real marionette. A greater force, like a hand pulling on my strings, got me up from the floor and took me upstairs to your workshop.
I picked up the finest pieces of wood, then grabbed the necessary tools and finally climbed on the table.
I worked until my mind forgot about the existence of time. As I went on, my memory kept playing scenes from the past days.
-Where are you going, Mr. Doukas? – I remembered asking.
I carefully polished the wood and joined the pieces together. Then I went over to the painting shelf and grabbed the white, yellow, red, and blue buckets.
The brush danced to the rhythm of an emotion that was new to me. For the first time, I was acting entirely motivated by the commands of a wish, powerful enough to determine my actions despite being completely blind as to what the result would be. I heard humans call it hope.
-To be with you – Your reply sounded vividly in my memory.
After I was done painting, the sun was already approaching the sea. Only half the job had been done; the most important part was yet to be completed.
I went downstairs to the marionette cupboard and came back with my very first watch, the one you gave me as a reward for being the first one I successfully mended on my own.
With a fine knife, I carved a square box on your chest, where the heart is. I placed the still ticking watch inside and closed it.
Then I took you downstairs to your room and laid you on the bed.
I stared back at you before exiting the room, smiled and bid you goodnight. Then I closed the door and headed back up to the workshop.
So here I’ve come to the ending of our story. I can’t write anymore because I don’t know what happens next.
I still have to gather enough courage to go downstairs and see.
Little wooden steps were heard down the stairs in Mr. Doukas’ home, as Athan walked slowly towards the bedroom.
His trembling hand grabbed the doorknob but didn’t turn it. “What would happen if the mission had failed?”, he asked himself.
He turned around and let his gaze travel along the faces of the marionettes sitting on the shelves in the living room. For the first time, he felt a little envious of his wooden brothers and sisters, for they would never know about loss or grief or the fear to be left alone.
For a second, he even felt like wanting to become one of them, sitting undisturbed on their shelf without having to deal with what was on the other side of that door, and the consequences of time.
But it was Mr. Doukas who had given him his life, why would he want to take it away? He was, after all, the liveliest of all his creations.
“As long as I live, I will remember him. And through my memories he will live too”, Athan thought. His name was, indeed, short for immortal.
He closed his eyes and focused all his energy on the happiest memories they shared. The rehearsals, the script writing, the museum visitors, the laughter of the audience, and their own.
And, as he remembered, he slowly pushed the bedroom door open. Then, very slowly, turned his head towards the bed. And remained there, staring at it.
Mr. Doukas’ home became the most visited museum in town. Soon, many people from other towns came to visit the home of the most famous puppeteer in the country. Everyone wanted to know the story of the man who, every Friday night, took the audience travelling through a world created by magical characters.
Both him and his marionettes became a legend. It was not long before people began to make up stories of their own, about the marionettes, and also about his house.
Legend says that when one walks by the front porch late at night you can sometimes hear people talking from the inside. Some villagers say they can hear the sound of wood being carved. Others say they have seen the lights turning on.
And others assure they have heard laughter, a raspy voice together with one of a boy.
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