by Cordelia Harrison
As the snow and biting frost consumed the vast countryside, covering the fields and forest in a sheen of whiteness, the ancient village was completely silent. No one stirred from the dwellings, for the sun had disappeared into the storm clouds long ago and the remaining light was hazy and wraithlike. This made it almost impossible to see. The lone cottage that stood on the edge of the village seemed to suffer the most from the abominable weather. It was attacked from all sides by the violent winds. Inside, a master worked.
The old man sat hunched over a large wooden desk, his slight form crippled and bent with age. A burning candle dripped hot wax nearby and his eyes were strained as if he desired more light. His white hair was long and unkempt, matted horribly, as if it hadn’t been brushed in years. Strangely his chin was clean shaven, as if he took great pride in keeping this single feature of his appearance tidy. Though his body trembled unceasingly, his hands were steady. In his withered grasp lay a limp wooden form, which he continued to meld and chip at with his knife. This was his craft, because he was of all things, a puppeteer. If one were to enter the cottage where he worked, they would see this immediately, for the small room was filled entirely with puppets. They crowded the tiny space, vast numbers of them placed lovingly upon a variety of high shelves. Each was painted and sculpted exquisitely, and many of them were propped up, made to pose in different positions. Some were very large, almost life-size, whilst others were tiny, absolutely miniature in scale. They were all given different characters; on one shelf, a beautifully-rendered ballerina sat next to a fierce - looking admiral puppet that wielded a large sword. In the corner of the room, a big wooden sign was propped up against the wall. Painted extravagantly in faded red and gold lettering, it clearly read ‘The Aristocrats’ Masquerade.’
The old man’s puppet shows had been famous, renowned throughout Russia. People would travel for miles to see his wooden troupe perform. Because of him, the ancient village now had an illustrious reputation. No one seemed to care that the old man had a sour temper and notoriously hated children, for his craftsmanship was magnificent. In the past, others had tried to urge him to bring his puppet troupe outside the village, he refused harshly. The exquisitely detailed theatre he had crafted for the puppets was operated only by him and his assistant, an old deaf woman to whom he had painstakingly taught the craft. Some had wondered at the strangeness of choosing her as his subordinate, whilst others merely saw it as a facet of his eccentric personality.
Still concentrating hard on the puppet body he was whittling, the old man spoke aloud to the puppets surrounding him. He addressed them by name and talked to them fondly, in a cloyingly sentimental voice. As he continued to chatter to each of them, one of the puppets on the other side of the room abruptly slipped off the shelf .The old man did not seem startled, but his features changed erratically, and he thrust aside the puppet he was working on. Staggering upright from his seat, he reached for his cane and hastened towards the fallen puppet. It was a large, princely - looking thing, dressed in noble clothes with a bronze crown fastened to its head.
“How many times have I told you, Lord Afanasy?” the old man shouted, his raspy voice furious. ‘Your place is here!” Snatching the puppet up from the ground, he berated it harshly as if it were alive. Muttering angrily and shooting it a look of belligerent disdain, he placed it back on the shelf, and stamped back towards his desk in annoyance. He began working once more on the unfinished puppet body, though now his features twisted with thinly veiled irritation.
Hours later, he held the puppet aloft with a look of pride upon his old features. Though it had only been carved and did not yet possess any hint of colour, anyone would be able to see that he had crafted a noble soldier. Its handsome chiselled face was wonderful to view. Nodding in satisfaction, the elderly man was just about to reach for the bright tubes of paint which rested on a small palette nearby - when a frantic hammering sounded at his door. Scowling in irritation, he pulled himself upright with a wince. Stepping over to the heavy wooden frame and slowly undoing the many latches, he opened the door very slightly. Outside, the abominable storm still raged. The snow was coming down even heavier than before, and darkness was beginning to sweep over the icy landscape. Two very windswept young men stood shivering and cringing on the doorstep, feebly clutching their furs. They weren’t villagers, he knew that immediately.
“Go away!” The old man hissed, flapping at them with his wrinkled hands. ‘The puppet theatre is not open today, and I am not exhibiting it to tourists!”
The elder and bearded member of the two spoke to him beseechingly, in halting strongly accented Russian.
“Please help us, old master! We are travelling across the land to a delegation held by the emperor in St Petersburg, and we got lost in the snow. Your village is the first we have seen in miles. Please give us shelter until the snow storm passes, else we shall surely perish!” His companion nodded desperately, hands and body trembling.
The old man looked rather interested and his unfriendliness seemed to vanish, for his scowl disappeared entirely. However, his eyes remained cold.
“A delegation held by the emperor, you say? My oh my, isn’t that intriguing. Of course you may come in. Follow me.” He smiled falsely, displaying decaying yellow teeth. He opened the heavy door fully and the two travellers eagerly moved inside.
As the door closed behind them, the two men started in amazement. The old man’s house was very different from what they had imagined. The astonishing array of beautifully painted puppets bewildered and enthralled them. They gazed at the many shelves, speechless, as the old man ushered them towards the small hearth, where a fire smouldered.
“You’ll have to forgive my manners. Not many come to see old Zakhar without wanting to gawp at my many friends.” He gestured to the puppet shelves with a large sense of pride. ‘I have no chairs, I’m afraid.’
The two travellers protested that seats were not needed and settled down before the burning grate, warming their hands by the fire and grasping their furs. The old man shuffled back to his desk and seated himself with a wince. He idly picked up the soldier puppet he had been working on and studied it with a critical eye.
“I cannot place your accents. What country do you come from?”
The two men immediately introduced themselves. The bearded one was again the first to speak.
“We are delegates from England. I am Lord Sebastian Eckhard.”
“And I am Sir John Jury,” the other said politely.
The old man nodded to each of them in greeting, his cold eyes filled with unhidden interest..
“You speak Russian well, I am impressed. I myself am called Zakhar. As you can see, I am something of a puppeteer.” He nodded at his many creations. “They call me the puppet master around about these parts.” He clasped his wizened hands together and pressed them to his chest.
“If you were from this country, you would no doubt have heard my name. My puppet shows are wonderful things.” The two men nodded in genuine interest. Both were still taken aback by what they could see, and were still inwardly admiring the masterful craftsmanship. Lord Sebastian particularly favoured a very beautiful queen puppet, sitting on a low shelf near to him. Her porcelain features were rendered with an ethereal delicacy, and her deep red gown was sewn with astonishing detail.
“You are admiring the Lady Valentina,” the old man noted.
Lord Sebastian jumped, but smiled a little. “Yes. She is very beautiful.”
The other laughed with a strange hint of bitterness in his voice.
“Ah, beautiful she was. So many used to lust after her! But she had a cold, vicious heart that not many people were aware of.”
The bearded man tilted his head in surprise, not able to understand such a strange remark. The old man smiled grimly, then continued.
“She was the king’s mistress, you know.”
The two ambassadors exchanged dubious glances with one another, unsure how to reply. Burrowing into their furs, they nudged closer to the fire and grew silent.
Zakhar leaned forward on his chair, and crossed his arms upon his chest. His aged unfriendly eyes wandered about the room, proudly taking in the sights of his magnificent craftsmanship. He cleared his throat noisily.
“Who is your favorite, friend?” he asked, addressing Sir John with interest.
The traveler rested one hand upon his chin, contemplating the marionettes carefully. Making his choice, he pointed to a massive puppet dressed up in the finely woven garb of an imperial soldier.
The old man chuckled.
“That is Vladimir. Not one of my most beloved puppets, to be sure. He is a sly one, well versed in trickery and deceit. You would be wise not to trust him.”
Sir John frowned in slight bewilderment but then nodded reassuringly at the other, feeling rather ashamed of himself. Their elderly host was undoubtedly old and senile; it was nothing to fret about. He had been kind enough to grant them shelter and it would be cruel to make light of his delusions.
A particularly loud gust of wind howled outside and the two travelers jumped at the noise. The snow storm that had driven them to this strange village did not seem to be settling, and, shivering, they moved closer to the fire. The aged puppeteer seemed to have realized the storm had worsened, but he did not seem overtly perturbed by it.
“As it seems that you are to remain here for some time, I hope it won’t be impertinent if I ask you some questions?’ The old man’s eyes were slyly alert, as if he had wanted to do this from the beginning. Both the ambassadors were surprised by the sudden change in topic but shook their heads, giving their assent. Zakhar grinned and grasped the soldier puppet he had
been crafting earlier tightly in his hands.
“Tell me, have either of you met the Russian emperor before?”
“No, we haven’t,” Lord Sebastian said. The old man seemed disappointed at this.
“Ah. So then you aren’t aware of the current political state at his court? You don’t know the leading noble houses?” Both shook their heads again. Zakhar sighed in dissatisfaction and his ancient form seemed to tremble more than before.
“This saddens me. I was hoping the two of you had news you could impart to me. But alas! If it is not to be, it is not to be. You see, a very long time ago when the previous emperor was still alive, I resided at the royal court. It would bring me some happiness to know how his beloved son was faring.”
The two Englishmen were very surprised to hear this information and Lord Sebastian again spoke in bewilderment.
“Sir, were you his puppeteer?”
Zakhar dropped the soldier puppet he was holding back onto the table and laughed harshly.
“I was nothing of the sort. In fact, I was one of his most esteemed advisors. But my name was different then.” His old face seemed rather bleak, as he notably ground his teeth, recalling old injustices.
“The advice I gave the emperor was very valuable and he trusted me implicitly. I lived a charmed life. But then it all changed. They ruined it all.”
“They?” Sir John queried.
“The aristocrats at his court! The scheming treacherous fools turned the emperor against me! Lord Afanasy was the ring leader. He and his vile comrades made a series of ridiculous accusations, befouling my reputation.’ The old man shook with barely controlled rage. ‘They claimed I was dabbling in black magic and doing away with my political competitors by using the dark arts!’ He slammed his fist on the wooden table so hard that it shook, and forcibly gritted his teeth.
“Thanks to their slanderous lies, I lost everything. My wealth, my position, and at one point my sanity were gone because of their jealousy. I was sent here in exile many years ago, and forbidden to ever return.” Zakhar spat out the words and scowled horribly, his visage severe. Standing up with some difficulty, he began to pace about the tiny room, twisting his hands about in agitation.
The two Englishmen were overwhelmed to hear the story, and despite themselves felt sympathy for the old puppeteer. To have one’s character and reputation destroyed because of some corrupt politician’s jealousy was a terrible thing. And over something so ludicrous, too! The former emperor of Russia must have been a superstitious man indeed to believe such nonsense. Exchanging knowing glances with his friend, Lord Sebastian looked up from the fireplace.
“We are sorry to hear you were treated so ill,” he murmured, honestly meaning the words.
The old man turned around sharply and his eyes expressed a cold triumph. “Don’t be. Everything worked to my benefit in the end.” He spread his hands out in the air, indicating the puppets. “They were fools to cross me. I used the arts my grandmother had taught me in childhood and harnessed their souls in wood. Their physical bodies were destroyed in the effort.” Leaning towards the very faint candlelight, the aged man’s grinning face looked skull-like and grotesque.
“They were especially stupid to think that I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on them after
I was exiled here. And now they have paid the price. They dance forever for me now, and suffer undying torments!” Zakhar began to cackle so hard he had to grip a nearby shelf top for support. The two travellers stared at him in shock, utterly bewildered by the sudden change. It seemed in hindsight that they had been unutterably foolish to believe his story. Their host was not just some harmless old eccentric, as they had first thought. He was obviously mad! Both stood abruptly. It didn’t matter if it was still snowing, they could find shelter elsewhere. Sir John moved suddenly towards the door, and his companion followed.
“We are sorry to have trespassed upon your hospitality for so long. Please forgive us!” As the two men were quickly trying to usher themselves out of the puppeteer’s house, the old man turned towards them and grinned maliciously.
“No, no. Don’t go. My prisoners haven’t greeted you yet.” He looked at the heavy shelves filled with countless marionettes. “Come now, where are your manners?”
Lord Sebastian was shaking his head at the crazed old lunatic as his friend was hastening to open the door. But then suddenly, the bearded man froze.
Zakhar was standing still in the centre of the room, his old body framed by the fading candlelight. He was smiling and his smile was grim and horrible. But the puppets! They were moving! All of them were slowly turning around to face the Englishmen, their wooden heads revolving with a stiff sobriety. Their beaded eyes were blinking in a firm unhurried manner, and their wooden fingers were flexing in a solemn way. As they shifted about, their thin strings became tangled and some were unable to fully look at the travellers. This was horrific enough; but what was most terrible were the expressions upon their crafted faces. They seemed heinously pathetic. Each wore an expression of dreadful anguish. Tortured and trapped within their wooden bodies all obviously felt pain beyond their very being. In hoarse, agonized voices, all of them whispered strangled greetings. The two men let out screams of absolute terror and fled from the accursed cottage into the snow storm, sprinting away as fast as their legs could carry them.
The puppet master was still smiling. His captives were awake, which meant that he could enjoy their torment some more. All was well.
Cordelia Harrison has a BA honours in Classical Civilisation from Warwick University and is currently studying for an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She has a love of ancient mythology, and a fascination for all things gothic and macabre. She primarily writes dark fantasy. This is her first published work of fiction.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
My ideas and inspirations come first and foremost from fiction. However, sometimes fragmented images will come into my head, when I see an unusual painting or a film.
When writing "The Puppeteer," I was massively inspired by Russian literature. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was a vast influence on me, as was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I also took inspiration from Angela Carter. I have always been morbidly fascinated by marionettes and dolls. I thought about how they could be vessels for mortal souls and the story simply went from there.