The Puppet That Bites
On top of the cabinet in the back of my father’s workshop – which was my grandfather’s workshop and will one day be mine, if I want it – there is a puppet. This is unsurprising, since it’s a puppet workshop. But this puppet, alone of them all, is imprisoned in a glass case, and the thing that’s driven me crazy my whole life is this: The case doesn’t open. It was my job to dust it when I was little, and I can tell you for a certainty: It has no door, no keyhole, no hinges. It’s a solid cube, and was constructed around the puppet.
To get the puppet out – or ‘let it out,’ in my grandfather’s words – you’d have to break the glass.
This has been discouraged.
It’s a nasty-looking little bastard, some kind of undead fox thing in Cossack garb – fur hat, leather boots. Its head is a real fox skull, plain yellowed bone, unadorned except for the eyes in its sockets, which are black glass set in leather eyelids, too realistic for comfort. Its teeth are sharpened to little knifepoints, because whoever made it apparently didn’t think fox teeth were…sharp enough.
‘Sharp enough for what?’ my best friend, Karou, wanted to know, the first time I brought her home to Český Krumlov with me.
‘What do you think?’ I replied with a creepy smile. It was Christmas Eve. We were fifteen, the power was out due to a storm, and my brother, Tomas, and I had led her out to the workshop with only a candle for light. I admit it freely: We were trying to freak her out.
The joke was so going to be on us.
‘Your grandfather didn’t make it?’ she asked, fascinated, putting her face right up to the glass to see the puppet better. It looked even more maniacal than usual by candlelight, with the flickering reflections in its black eyes making it seem to contemplate us.
‘He swears not,’ said Tomas. ‘He says he caught it.’
‘Caught it,’ Karou repeated. ‘And where do grandfathers catch…undead fox Cossacks?’
‘In Russia, of course.’
It’s Deda’s best, most terrifying, and all-time most-requested bedtime story, and that’s saying something, because Deda has a lot of stories, each one absolutely true. ‘If I’m lying, may a lightning bolt slice me in two!’ he always declares, and no lightning bolt has yet obliged him, on top of which, for every story, he furnishes ‘proof.’ Newspaper clippings, artifacts, trinkets. When we were little, Tomas and I believed devoutly that Deda himself ran from the rampaging golem in 1586 (he has a lump of petrified clay in the rough shape of a toe), hunted the witch Baba Yaga across the taiga at the behest of Catherine the Great (who presented him an Order of St. George medal for his troubles), and, yes, cornered a marauding undead fox Cossack in a Sevastopol cellar in the final days of the Crimean War. Proof of that escapade? Well, aside from the puppet itself, there’s the scar tissue furling the knuckles of his left hand.
Because, yeah, that’s the story. The puppet…bites.
‘What do you mean, it bites?’ asked Karou.
‘When you put your hand in its mouth,’ I said, cool, ‘it bites.’
‘And why would you put your hand in its mouth?’
‘Because it doesn’t just bite.’ I dropped my voice to a whisper. ‘It also talks, but only if you let it taste your blood. You can ask it a question, and it will answer.’
‘Any question,’ said Tomas, also whispering. He’s two years older than me, and hadn’t shown this much interest in hanging around with me in more than a decade. It’s possible it had something to do with my stunning new best friend, who he’d been following around like an assigned manservant. He said, ‘But only one question per person per lifetime, so it better be good.’
‘What did your grandfather ask it?’ Karou wanted to know, which is exactly what we wanted her to ask.
‘Let me just put it this way: It’s in the case for a reason.’
The story is elaborate and gruesome. Truly, if I ever turn out to be a murderer or something, the newspapers can pretty much say, She didn’t have a chance to be normal. Her family twisted her from the day she was born. Because what bedtime stories to tell little kids! They’re full of corpses and devils and infestations, unnatural things hatching from your breakfast eggs, and the sounds of bones splintering. I thought everyone was like this, that every family had their secret haruspex uncles, their ventriloquist Resistance fighters, their biting puppets. A normal bedtime, Deda would conclude with something like, ‘And Baba Yaga has been hunting me ever since,’ and then c**k his head to listen at the window. ‘That doesn’t sound like claws on the roof, does it, Podivná? Well, it’s probably just crows. Good night.’ And then he’d kiss me and click out the light, leaving me to fall asleep to the imagined scrape of a child-eating witch scaling the roof.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, who would I be if I’d been raised on milquetoast bedtime stories and not forced to dust the glass prison of a psychotic undead fox Cossack? I shudder to think.
I might wear lace collars and laugh flower petals and pearls. People might try to pat me. I see them think it. My height triggers the puppy-kitten reflex – Must touch – and I’ve found that since you can’t electrify yourself like a fence, the next best thing is to have murderer’s eyes.
The point is, I wouldn’t be ‘rabid fairy,’ which is Karou’s nickname for me, or ‘Podivná,’ either, which is Deda’s. It’s for mucholapka podivná, or Venus flytrap, in honor of my ‘quiet bloodthirst’ and ‘patient cunning’ in my lifelong war with Tomas.
Anyone with an older brother can tell you: Cunning is required. Even if you’re not miniature like me – four foot eleven in a good mood, as little as four foot eight when in despair, which is way too often lately – morphology is on the side of brothers. They’re bigger. Their fists are heavier. Physically, we don’t stand a chance. Hence the evolution of ‘little-sister brain.’
Artful, conniving, pitiless. No doubt about it, being a little sister – emphasis on little – has been formative, though I take pride in knowing that Tomas is more scarred by years of tangling with me than vice versa. But more than anyone or anything else, it’s Deda who is responsible for the landscape of my mind, the mood and scenery, the spires and shadows. When I think about kids (which isn’t often, except to wish them elsewhere and stop just short of deploying them hence with my foot), the main reason I would consider…begetting any (in a theoretical sense, in the far-distant future) is so that I can practice upon small, developing brains the same degree of mind-molding my grandfather has practiced on us.