Today’s Guest Author is Jaycee, who phoned me yesterday afternoon concerned that his latest contribution was somewhat long (at a bit over 3000 words) for a comment. He was also concerned about the subject matter. I asked him to send it to me. My decision was that it was eminently publishable as a thread-starter. So, here it is, and thank you, Jaycee.
Warning: This is a SERIOUSLY dark tale.
We all, at some point in our lives become witness to another’s situation. In my first marriage, we sent the children to an “alternative” school and I have to say that while it was alright for the children, my growing involvement through my trade brought me into contact with many parents at that school. I have to say that there were a number that would raise the eyebrows of a rational person. Maybe no more than other “private” schools, but this was my first contact with such personalities. Later, I came to know the type and would assiduously avoid them if I could.
I cannot say that the situation described in the story belongs to any one person: it is a blend of several. At the school there was a puppet group, and even I was called upon to speak a small part in one show. But of the others I have only this anecdote.
It went like this:
The Puppets of Margie Meagher
If you could imagine us all walking side by side toward a sunset, with our lives trailing away behind; a shadow drawn in perspective from the point of our birth. We are all facing the front so none of us really knows the substance of our neighbor’s ‘shadow’, and we can only make calculated guesses from facial expressions and mumbled half truths.
(From The Last Writings of Carl Jung)
It seems to be always some physical event that motivates humans to get up and do something constructive. Such events have a propensity to the catastrophic, like a sharp jab in the collective ribs of humanity, otherwise we’d probably just lie prostrate in the dirt like a contented sow with half a dozen piglets suckling on her teats! So it was not long after her husband left her that Margie joined the puppet group at the school. She joined to break that cycle of thought that possesses and locks one into a cycle of hate – contrition. She had read that in a therapy pamphlet and, nodding in agreement, decided to join the puppet group.
They met once a week at Maeve’s house; this group of parents from the school. They met at eleven o’clock every Thursday to encourage and assist each other with their dolls. They made soft-bodied hand-puppets for the little plays they would perform for the younger children every month or so and at festivals through the year. When she joined, Margie did not know how to make a puppet in a pink fit. But, with the sympathetic encouragement from the other mothers (sympathetic to her marital situation, that is), she soon got the hang of it, and by and by the materials became putty in her hands. In fact, it wasn’t long before she was producing puppets with such beautiful and tender features that one of the women, Pamela, was moved to say that “It’s a gift – pure and simple – a gift,” and Margie blushed and said, “Oh surely not,” and went on to explain that she had always been good at crafts. “From me mother, I ‘spect.”
“Oh no,” said Pamela, shocked, “It’s a gift, a real gift,” and Margie blushed again and said, “Oh well.”
The first play that they put on for the year was Hansel and Gretel. Margie was given the job of making Hansel. The finished product was so good, so fine, that the other women gazed upon him open-mouthed. He had a soul almost, behind those eyes, and what eyes! – as crisp as a summer dawn, the left hand of God – and his costume and the cut of the cloth made his shape, his proportions seem so natural, uncannily so. Next to him poor Gretel looked like a cheap tart. Margie was asked, nay, implored, to take Gretel home and to fix her up, and gosh, did Gretel ever look so beautiful, so innocent! Together, Hansel and Gretel as puppets matched the immortality, almost, of the classical tale.
After that performance, Margie was given the job of making the star puppets. And didn’t she fulfill that task admirably.
“It’s a gift, a real gift,” Pam would repeat in her parroting voice.
“I’d say it was a release from the stress,” Maeve would comment with a nod of the head then pinch her lips together.
Maeve was the expert on stress. “Yes, you’re stressed,” was her usual prognosis whenever someone expressed weariness. Yet another, Jocelyn, who held a degree in humanities and had studied a year of psychology, would pronounce in dry, measured tones (not for psychologists the heady passions of mankind!) that the beauty of the dolls was:
“Quite naturally an acceptance, a bringing to the front, the beauty of self, the awakening, so to speak, of respect for self and realization of self after the defeat, so to speak, of the broken relationship, you understand?”
Others added their opinions to the pot also, but all were equal in their admiration of the puppets. And Margie basked in their praise, though her big, round face would colour in a blush. She would smile and finger the dolls tenderly and say:
“Well, yes, it does bring me out of myself, helps me to distance myself from me troubles.” And she’d bend to her work, her clumsy-looking fingers deftly sewing a smock or line stitching a vest for the prince.
So it went on, story after story: Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, all perfect joys and didn’t the children’s ahhs and the parents’ ohhs and the applause after each show witness their appreciation, and Margie’s puppets were eagerly touched and stroked by the children as if they were exotic talismans.
“It’s a gift,” Pamela could be heard telling a parent, “It’s a real gift.”
One woman – Bea – started to notice a certain similarity about the puppets, an air of something familiar about them but, not having them all side by side (like a police line-up, she would later say), could not be certain of her memory. But she had a feeling that behind those fabric faces, those carefully stitched costumes, deeper than the wool fibre stuffing in those familiar shaped heads, was the raison d’etre for their very being.
For, having once cast off all the shrouds of resistance, each of us enters the creative obligations of the psyche, whether we succeed or fail in these pursuits of desire depends on the depths of the individual’s well springs of courage, of the risk of surrendering to the will of the muse.
Bea, of all the women, was wary of Margie’s seeming fatalistic acceptance of the breakdown of her relationship, and though she had never met Margie’s husband, she, like any group of school parents, still felt on common ground with the family. But now the family was broken, and Bea worried less the disappointment was too much for someone as exacting as Margie to bear, so she studied Margie, looking for cracks in the facade much as we all study people under trauma with that guilty morbidity of wondering if and when they will crack. Pondering on this, Bea decided to pay Margie a home visit.
As she knocked on the front door, she heard a raised voice emanating from within the house. It was the middle of the day, so the children were at school and although the voice was muffled, it nonetheless was quite tense. Bea knocked louder and the voice stopped, there was a hiatus and then the door was gingerly opened. Margie’s face appeared, flushed and wary in the opening.
“Bea?” she raised an eyebrow.
“Just popped round to say hello.”
“Well, come in then.” Margie eased the door open, Bea hesitated with one hand raised in gesticulation: But do you have visitors, I thought I heard . . . ?” Margie glanced furtively to one side.
“Oh, no, no, it was just the cat,” and she stood clumsily to one side so Bea could enter. A pot of tea was suggested and accepted so Margie adjourned to the kitchen while Bea sat on the edge of the lounge sofa and let her eyes wander around the the room.
A photograph on a side table caught her eye, something familiar . . . the slope of the eyebrows? the cheeks? Or maybe the soft contour of the face?
“Your, your husband?” she enquired. Margie popped her head through the door.
“Oh, yes, ex-husband,” and she came into the room and took up the framed photograph listlessly.
“Richard, ‘the rat’; sometimes I call him ‘Dick’, short for, well, you know what.” She dusted the glass with her T-shirt and replaced it on the table.
There, Bea realized, was the similarity between the male puppets: Richard Meagher with one ‘sleepy’ eye and the brows sloping away just so, and those boyish cheeks that Margie had captured somehow in an abstract way in all the male puppets.
It’s a gift, a real gift.
Pam’s voice resonated in Bea’s mind. Curious, the flow of mood from mind to hand in a clever person – again, that artistic interpretation of psyche. Bea gazed – almost hypnotised – at the photograph, and wondered about the other woman, but discretion forbade mention of so delicate and wounding a subject. Having solved one of her curiosities, she was satisfied she would soon find the other elsewhere so she settled down for smalltalk and tea.
“Who did Margie’s husband clear off with?” Bea asked Maeve one day.
“No-one I know, but I’ll tell you who does.”
So, with a little discreet enquiry and conversation Bea was able to see a photograph (thank heaven for that invention that fixes time and place to deed) of the woman in that duet of complicity. Bea came away from that visit with the second mystery solved: that of the similarity between the female puppets. And, also, the knowledge that Margie’s husband had left with Margie’s own sister – a double blow – betrayal and treachery! Oh woe is the bearer of a broken heart, but even more vexed is the spirit betrayed, especially by one’s own kin.
Bea went quiet after finding out the background of Margie’s domestic life. Sometimes enough is enough when it comes to insights into others tragedies – after all, one’s own life has to be journeyed, eh?
Then the time came for a production of that immortal theme of love and betrayal – Rapunzel. Once again the little group fell to making miniature props and scenarios and puppets for this, the end of year show and it was to be a real bang-up affair. Margie seemed to put all her efforts into the two main puppets.
Rapunzel was beautiful: her eyes glowed with an innocence enchanting and childlike, her body lithe and well proportioned as one could imagine in such a waif, yet with maidenly allure. Like the eyes of a portrait that seem to follow you around the room, so in reverse were one’s eyes attracted to that doll, and then the hair, such golden bounty was unnatural, uncanny, it flowed (can that be the word?), flowed, like some mythical fall of golden fibres, so long, so silky, not a hand could resist trailing it through the fingers, ah!, And the prince, too, such were Margie’s skills that he complemented Rapunzel impeccably, equally without over-shadowing each other, like a matched pair of flamenco dancers, each a part of the other. You can imagine the complimentary ohhs and ahhs Margie received for these puppets. Even Bea, wary of over-reaction now she knew the hurt behind these marionettes, could not but help admire sighingly the aura of that duet of complicity.
“It’s a gift, a real gift,” Pamela said, and they all laughed at the familiar refrain.
Around the middle of rehearsals for this play Bea, returning home from the city one evening, remembered a bolt of cloth she had to pick up from Margie, and as it was not too late, decided to turn down the street to Margie’s house on her way home. It was late spring and the wind rippled freshly through the new-leafed trees, almost like the tittering giggles of youngsters at play, such is spring when the waking of nature seems to bring a friskiness even to the breezes. And the flowers, like the halting twirls of a carnival calliope their petals would duck and sway while overhead a mellow darkness swept upward through the trees into the night.
An old place was Margie’s, with a laced wire gate sprung on squeaky hinges. The path led straight off the street to a flight of three steps to a verandah. Bea knocked gently on the front door, being careful not to knock too loudly as to wake the children. On receiving no acknowledgement from her gentle knocking, she gazed around. perplexed as to her next move. A glow of light brushed silver over the flickering leaves of a rain-washed tree, a light from down the side of the house. Bea stepped off the verandah and made her way quietly down the side path. The light from a nearby window was enough to show the precise, ordered garden beds between the fence and the path that, like the front yard, reflected the meticulous discipline of Margie’s personality.
Bea came abreast of the lighted window and through a small gap in the damask curtains could see a figure bent over a table. It was Margie, her large body adorned in the heavy woven cloth she used to make her dresses, her hair pulled back in a wispy roll on the back of her head. A soft overhead lamp threw its light onto the work bench. Margie’s face was intent on the two puppets she was arranging in front of her on the table; her lips moved in a tight, then relaxing, pout as she sat the two dolls facing her. A slight musical hum in three notes of a descending order issued from her lips at intervals of a few second each. She sat back, crossed her arms and stared at the two puppets. They were Rapunzel and the Prince.
“Well now, there yer be,” Margie sat back and put her hands on her knees.
“And now, me dear Sheila, what would ye be havin’ to say for yourself?” This wasn’t Margie’s usual voice. She spoke a curious softened Irish brogue in a different pitch than her usual voice.
“Will ye not answer your own mother?” the voice more tense, “Just to be a sittin’ there dumb as pots!”
“I told her, Sheila,” (this was the old Margie’s voice), “I told mother what you did.”
Bea frowned, for indeed this was something new to her, this behaviour. For with just a slight change of inflection in her voice, Margie had conjured up an entirely new personality – her mother, a person long deceased – a sudden split in personality, then just as swiftly a return to herself, like an actor playing two roles at the same time on the one stage.
“Hush now, Marg!” the ‘mother’ interrupted, “Ye’ll not be interrupting me.” The puppet fell to one side and Margie leant to gently prop it up again, her tongue pinched between her lips in concentration. She sat back again.
“So ye’ll cower in silence before me, daughter. Not answer to me accusation, ye’d be stealin’ your own kin’s spouse while all the time shelterin’ under her roof, while eatin’ at the same table, exchangin’ glances of wicked delight all the while I’ll surmise, and there, in golden innocence your own sister ignorant of the treachery you and your lover conspire,” Her voice rose in intensity as she went on.
Margie jumped up excitedly:
“They did, they did, Mother, Oh, the sin of it, all the while I worked, all the while I looked after the house they were scheming and smiling and I was the fool, the silly, silly fool for all their wicked coupling, and under my very nose.” She shook her fist at the puppet’s face.
“Well, I’ve got the thing to pay you for your treachery, my sweet,” and Margie swiftly took up a large darning needle and raked it again and again across Rapunzel’s face so the cloth fretted and shredded in its wake.
Bea put her hand to her mouth to stifle a cry, but still she watched. “What sort of madness was this?” she was thinking. Margie paused, put her needle down and took up another with red thread in it and, without, a word set to swiftly and deftly line stitch red marks across the puppet’s face so it looked as if it had been raked by a claw. She completed this morbid make-up with little dots of red ink to simulate blood. All this was done so swiftly that Bea still had her hand to her mouth.
Margie then turned her narrowed eyes upon the Prince.
“And you, Richard,” (the ‘mother’ again), “could ye be so vulgar, so underhand, to your own wife?”
Margie stood and turned side on to talk out of the corner of her mouth.
“Yes, why Richard, why would you betray me so, was it for a bit of skirt? An easy conquest?” Margie sneered the last sentence, “Or would you just be a sheddin’ and avoidin’ your responsibilities, hmm?”
“Richard!!” the ‘mother’ yelled. “Answer your wife! A coward’s life for a coward’s courage, and the devil take your soul,” she hissed, while Margie turned slowly and leant to pick up a Stanley knife lying on the bench. Slowly she moved her left arm and grasped the puppet, raised him toward her, and then, with an angry gesture, swiftly lifted her arm with the knife.
“This for your betrayal!” she cried hoarsely and swung her arm wildly to slash the puppet’s face from forehead to cheek so the tight-packed wool stuffing burst proud from the cut, and there, in jangling craziness of the light awry which she knocked in her violence, each in its own pigeon-hole shelved on the wall, leered and stared the other puppets made by Margie during the year.
But – there were twins of each puppet. Twins of Cinderella, Prince Charming, Hansel, Gretel, and the rest, identically clothed and painted, doppelgängers in shape and face, except – weirdly – while one would be whole and untouched, its twin was gashed, torn or mutilated this way or that. Hansel’s eye torn from a gaping socket and left hanging down by a thread, Prince Charming’s face too was slashed, Cinderella’s hair was almost scalped from her head and so on, all of them sitting squat in their respective pigeon-holes and appearing to gaze interestedly down on this grotesque theatre of tortured souls. Bea looked back to Margie and saw that she was intently touching the lips of the slashed face with red dye on her fingertip so they bloodied with the ink, all the while humming that same three descending notes of sound in short intervals.
Bea’s eyes opened wider and a silent scream choked in her throat as there, in the flickering light, rack upon rack, stood the only witness to Margie’s despair, all those compliments she received must have driven her grief ever deeper into her soul – every “It’s a gift,” a nail into her heart. So this charnel house of thread and cloth and dye grew out of the tempest of her hatred, this was the theatre of shadows that lurked behind her fatalistic psyche. And yes, there too in the recesses of that table, beyond the mutilated bodies of Rapunzel and the Prince stood their twins, gazing on in mute innocence with Margie busy putting the finishing touches to her macabre cosmetics while soft tears edged down her rouged cheeks and saying over and over with childlike hurt:
“You broke my heart, you broke my heart!”
Bea turned away shamefaced from the window, her curiosity satiated, her emotions wretched. For here in the silence of another’s despair she had gazed into the forbidden abyss and, in doing so, was she not edged just that little bit closer to her own?