The Shadow Puppets, by Leah Mueller


Punch rested sideways in the closet, wooden head pressed against the floor. Judy’s body lay spread-eagled on top of his-not provocatively, but in a martial manner, holding him in check. Punch’s stage persona was the epitome of stick-wielding, macho violence, but that was all show. Judy was the stronger one, at least on the surface.

“I’m getting up,” he said. Sighing, Judy rolled to one side and allowed him to stand. Punch wobbled to his feet, but toppled over immediately. “You’ve been drinking again,” Judy said sharply.

“It’s my day off,” Punch protested. His head felt heavier than usual, like someone had tied a bag of sand to the top of his neck. He clutched the wall and staggered upright, as Judy watched, sneering. “Getting up implies actual work,” she snapped.

Punch’s eyes swept the room, taking in the other puppets. All of them lay in various sprawled positions on the pockmarked linoleum. Why was Judy picking on him, but not the others? Oh yes, because of love. He sighed. “I’ll do whatever you ask, darling.”

This statement always disarmed Judy instantly. “I’m sorry,” she said, hanging her head. “My week was rough. I shouldn’t take it out on you, however.”

“No problem, dear,” Punch replied. He smiled, knowing he had regained the upper hand with little effort. Punch reached down, picked up a jug of mead from the floor. He took a huge gulp and pushed the jug towards Judy. “Want some?” he asked.

Judy hesitated, but not for long. She took a defiant swallow from the bottle, then wiped her mouth with the tattered fabric of her right arm. As soon as she set the container on the floor, the other puppets awakened. They crowded towards her like predators, smiling gleefully.

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the Doctor. He was always the first to go for the booze. Judy could do nothing, since it was Punch’s jug, and Punch loved to share. The Doctor positioned himself, legs wide apart, and held the bottle above his head. He upended it, and began to pour the contents directly into his mouth.

It was painful to watch, and both Punch and Judy looked away. They knew what would happen next. The Doctor always set the pace, and the others followed like wooden lemmings.

One by one, the puppets approached the jug. The Skeleton was eager, but couldn’t hold much liquor, and was only able to take small sips. The Baby wasn’t allowed even a drop, and, though this exclusion made him cry, he stopped after a minute of shushing. The Constable was as greedy as the Doctor, and the jug had to be wrested from his hands.

Two jugs later, the entire crew was drunker than they had ever been. “I propose a toast!” said the Crocodile, but his tongue slipped and he said “taste” instead. The others moved away, and the Crocodile grinned. “A TOAST,” he repeated, enunciating with exaggerated clarity. He clutched the jug with one claw, raised it into the air. “To the Renaissance!”

Punch groaned. He was sick of the Renaissance, sick of the tourists that came to the fair dressed in satin pantaloons and lace bodices, trying to relive an era that hadn’t been that great to begin with. He shifted uncomfortably, and his head struck the side of one of the bookcases. With an enormous crash, the case toppled and fell to the floor, crushing the puppets underneath.

Hours later, Punch awakened with a terrible headache. The bookcase had vanished. This baffled Punch, since the impact had knocked him unconscious, and there was no reason to believe such a heavy obect would disappear afterward. He had landed in a vast, open field, surrounded by the other puppets. All of them appeared unscathed, yet dazed.

The Doctor rose unsteadily to his feet, clutching his head with both hands. “Where the hell are we?” he asked irritably. Punch’s eyes scanned the horizon. In the distance, a clock tower was striking eleven. Its ominous peals echoed across the field, then abated. The Baby instantly burst into tears. This was typical of him, but the Constable was having none of it today. “Be QUIET!” he snapped, and the Baby’s sobs subsided instantly.

The puppets were on the periphery of a tiny hamlet. They wandered into the town’s center, moving slowly as they took in the scene before them. A group of women stood in a cluster, stirring something disgusting in a large kettle. The stench was overpowering, and Punch steered the group in the opposite direction-past scores of horses, men dressed in tights and doublets, women in high-necked dresses, quaint shops offering candles and shoes.

It was a familiar scene, but different somehow. The town had an air of authenticity, unlike the contrived atmosphere of Punch’s usual environment. The group continued to wander, until Punch finally spotted a makeshift stage in the distance. Its platform was rectangular and wooden, with a set of curtains that had been pulled back and secured with a golden tassel. Within the stage’s confines, a cadre of puppets moved about spasmodically.

One of the puppets was disconcertingly familiar–hook-nosed and hunch-backed, with a filthy green gown and a fierce expression that made him look perpetually angry. He threatened the others with an enormous stick, and they cowered in fear at his approach. Their terror seemed to embolden him, and when he swung his stick higher, the group scattered like insects.

Punch sank to the ground and stared at the scene with horror. It wasn’t often that an individual had a chance to observe himself from a distance. Onstage Punch continued to hustle furiously about the stage, brandishing his weapon. Offstage Punch covered his eyes and trembled. This glimpse into his own persona was more pain than he could bear, and he longed to return to the closet, where at least he was safe.

After several minutes, Punch uncovered his face and stared at his hands. He was amazed to discover that they were no longer made of wood, but of a strange, flexible pink substance. For the first time, he could feel his fingers. He wiggled them in the breeze, then carefully placed them across his thighs. His new body was pliable, and gave way slightly when touched. Punch stroked his cheeks, amazed by their softness. There was a slight moistness underneath his eyes, which was puzzling but not entirely unpleasant.

Punch turned to Judy and smiled for the first time. With no effort whatsoever, Judy smiled back. Her face was supple and unexpectedly radiant, and Punch realized she was experiencing a similar phenomenon. She drew closer to him on the grass, then finally stretched her hand in his direction. In a daze, Punch intertwined his fingers with hers. “Welcome home,” Judy said.

Leah MuellerLeah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks, “Queen of Dorksville” (Crisis Chronicles Press) and “Political Apnea” (Locofo Chaps) and two books, “Allergic to Everything” (Writing Knights Press) and “The Underside of the Snake” (Red Ferret Press). Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Origins Journal, Your Impossible Voice, Remixt, and many anthologies. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.

Posted on September 3, 2017, in Issue 21: PhotoFlash 1--11 Visions and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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