Strings snap when they’re tangled, like a finger stuck inside a car door. My fingers are bent and gnarled: I’ve snapped too many strings since I was a boy. The puppets each have perfect fingers, straight and strong. They don’t crack, even when I jerk their porcelain hands.
Jonny, my assistant, slips in from the kitchen and settles in the shadows, looking at the table full of dolls. Boys don’t play with dolls; they don’t make puppets, but the two of us are different. Jonny’s parents never understood the craft or the love. I think that’s why he moved out when I offered. I needed an assistant, I said then; he needed a friend.
“Walt?” He asks after a moment.
He asks, “You have the string?”
Offer him a spool of white, the string I use for puppets, and he shakes his head and gestures to the basket where I keep the other spools. I don’t use red, if I can help it, and I can. Dolls don’t need fire or ash, horns of a puppet-master. Jonny takes the rusted spool and disappears before I catch his arm. A shame, but he can do no harm. Not really.
Pull a girl from her case and rub her soft, blue dress beneath a wooden head. The puppet, Lilia, is almost real. She was my first, and I have yet to carve another like her. Blonde, thin hair; eyes as gray as mist, a paint they’ve discontinued now. I like to think they’re seagull’s eyes, flying high above the ocean.
I twist slowly, dropping Lilia onto the table. Thin wood beams control her joints; I jerk her elbows, drop the strings to make her sit. She dances, moves for the music of Beethoven, for Brahms and Handel. Hear the music whisper as we dance our way to happy Ever After.
It’s power, the way Lilia moves with my thoughts. Jonny needs to make a puppet so he’ll hold strings of his own. He steps back into the room. “Give me Lilia?” he asks.
“No, Jonny.” Lilia is always with me, sharing my hands, my house, my bed.
“Give me Lilia?” He reaches out and takes my arm to prick my skin until my eyelids flutter. Can’t move; feel nothing. He pulls my chair into a corner. Barely see his hands. All I see is red, the master’s string strung taught across his palms. He takes Lilia, and prickles run across my arms. He plucks a piece of yellow yarn from just above her brow. One quick jerk and then he winds it on his finger.
Jonny’s fingers are perfect, like the puppet hands. He snips another string, and another. Try to purse my lips or twitch my toes. Jonny just keeps smiling. Soon Lilia’s white strings will tangle; then, they’ll break, and he will need me. Haven’t given all my secrets, not to Jonny. He takes her arms and moves them slowly, back and forth with scissors in his hand. He smiles as he cuts her largest string and leaves her crumpled on the tabletop.
It takes long minutes before her body mutates to a pile of dismembered limbs. He pries her head apart from frame and lets it roll beneath the table where I cannot even see her beautiful gray eyes. He pulls more hairs and wraps them on his fingers. I try, but I can’t move. Lilia is gone, and I am glass. He takes a crude ball from his pocket and places it atop her neck.
Jonny takes the new doll by a set of crimson strings and dances it across the table. It isn’t Lilia. He whispers, “Lili… Lydi… Lydia…” Says it slowly. “Ly-di-a.” Moves its hand and lifts its arm; shakes its head, twists its neck. It glares at me from bright green eyes. The face is something from a nightmare, the reason kids hate clowns and dolls and puppets. The strings tangle, but they don’t snap: red strings never snap.
I thought I’d rid myself of red. Lilia was safe with white. She could break those strings. Jonny jerks her body to and fro. He grins. His face grows in my eyes, but I can’t look away.
Jonny takes the doll again; again, I only watch. He dances her across the table, dances with my arms and my creation, dances with the music only he can hear.
I hear the red strings laughing, crackling inside my head. The puppet-master waits, tangling Jonny. Jonny drops the doll onto the table and turns, holding a knife, looking to the corner where I sit. I see the master lift up Jonny’s arm and move his leg joints, step by step into the corner. He lifts the knife, and finally I close my eyes.
I know how it will end. The red strings never break.