THE SHADOW PUPPETS

When I was six my father was decapitated at the meat processing factory that he owned. They only discovered him that evening as the night shift came on, but they said later that the accident occurred sometime during the morning, so there was a real chance that his head had been incorporated into the factory’s output that day. As a consequence I’ve never since eaten sausages.

As I lay in bed that night, listening to my mother’s sorrow from the next room, I did my best to sleep. I stared at the wall, noticing the shadows cast from the nightlight that glowed behind me, sore eyes tracing the contours of my own shivering shape.

That’s when I first saw the shadow puppets.

They danced into view, capering across the black stage of my own body. I turned in surprise but saw only the dimness of the bedroom. In my head I heard playful laughter. My eyes returned to the wall and I was relieved to see that the shapes remained, their outline stark and distinct even though the nightlight was nothing more than a meagre glow.

I did eventually drift off to sleep, but it was after many performances by the shadow puppets. They re-enacted memories of my father. They eased my loss with their impression of what had happened. The shadow puppets helped me understand that the accident had been painless and swift. They showed me that the end was unimportant; it was the love we’d shared that would endure.

The shadow puppets were my secret. I was afraid to tell anyone, fearing that to speak about them would be to betray their presence, to offend their intervention.

My aunt died of cancer when she was 60 years old. Months before she finally succumbed, the shadow puppets predicted her fate on the wall of my bedroom. Grotesque black shapes hunched and shuddered, moans of pain rumbling inside my head. I watched her silhouette spew up black liquid, saw with horror that her spindly limbs shivered with the ravages of cancer.

Not ten weeks later, my aunt died. She was a spinster, seeing nothing of the rest of our family. My mother, driven to indifference by time and the tragedies of her own life, knew nothing of the illness; my aunt had hidden her pain well. I kept reminding myself that nobody knew, that I mustn’t give away the knowledge that the shadow puppets had secretly imparted to me.

That was the first instance that they foretold the future.

After that, their little night-time performances offered a small glimpse of what was to come. I saw explosions and debris falling from skyscrapers a week before the terrorist attack. I shuddered as the shadow puppets re-enacted a frenzied high-school massacre days before the ashen-faced newsreader announced events to a shocked public. Through tear-filled eyes I watched the black snake that represented a train move across the wall before buckling violently into a tangled wreck, countless shrieks haunting my mind. The actual photographs of the aftermath, days later in the newspaper, did nothing to convey the true horror of the accident.

My mother never fully recovered from my father’s death. We sold the meat factory and moved to a smaller house on the far side of the village. The medication that the doctors prescribed, initially just to ease her through the difficult time, eventually took hold of her resolution. Her remaining years were spent in a fugue of chemicals. When I think of her now, my mind conjures a slack face framed by unkempt hair; dilated pupils gazing listlessly into the middle distance. By the time she’d died, she resembled nothing of the woman that had been my childhood mother. I had come to think of her as an empty vessel, almost a shell that held the vague resemblance of someone I once loved.

The shadow puppets kept her memory alive. Over the years they remained my constant companion. Their nocturnal visits eased me towards sleep with images from my infancy, warm recollections of better times. The black shapes on the wall – intricate in detail and nuanced with telling honesty – helped me reconcile my life’s desolation. They helped me put the events into perspective.

In a way I was living my life in the past. As I grew into adulthood the shadow puppets showed no signs of deserting. After my mother’s death, I inherited the house. Sometimes at night I would walk to the other side of town to stand at the gates of the meat factory, watching the lorries rumble in and out, imagining the exact spot where my father’s twitching body fell gushing onto the metal walkway.

Eventually my life became inverted. It felt like I was existing in a dream during the day, moving with the sluggish action of an automaton, only really feeling alive when I was staring at my bedroom wall in the dark, watching the nightly performances of the shadow puppets. Only then did I truly feel that things were okay, that maybe my life wasn’t predetermined and inevitable, that perhaps eventually I would have guidance in my actions.

This went on for many years.

Several months ago I was captivated by scenes upon my bedroom wall, depicting events that occurred before my birth. I saw the moment my parents met. I witnessed the tentative blossoming of their romance, watched with surging heart how their relationship evolved. It was beautiful to enjoy such a privileged insight into their intimacy. My mind was able to conjure the parts that the shadow puppets merely hinted at.

The news lately has been filled with bad omens. Children are vanishing from our streets, lost into the ether that is dreamlike and insubstantial. The news-reader’s eyes seem to betray the suspicion he probably feels. There will not be a happy ending.

The shadow puppets spoke again several nights ago. I watched their performance with a mounting sense of unease as another child capered into view. A larger figure approached, moving with dark intent. The smaller shape was bundled up, screams muffled, as the bigger shadow dragged it from view.

Last night I viewed the puppets’ fragmented actions through eyes that glittered with tears. The child’s final cries of mercy were mournful, as if the poor creature understood its own fate. As the larger shape choked the life from the child, its inert body was absorbed into the darkness of my torso, lost to my own silhouette. Fragments of the scenery appeared strangely familiar.

I was left with an unsettled feeling; perhaps I had been wrong about the shadow puppets’ ability to predict the future? Looking back, maybe I had misunderstood things – were they merely recreating events that had already occurred?  Time can play tricks on the mind.

The news today showed the poor kid’s face; a golden-haired teenager dressed in his school uniform, smiling brightly at the screen, eyes glowing with the promise of an endless future.

Those eyes bother me.

There’s something familiar in their shine. As I watch the news I’m struggling with the uncertainty of what has happened. Why have I run out of bin-bags? The school badge on the kid’s jumper stirs fogged memories, and for some reason I’m desperately worried about going to the bottom of the garden where the shed is.

I’m thinking about the hacksaws that line the rack of the workbench, and wondering why I’m aware that one of them needs the blade replacing.

Maybe the shadow puppets can tell me.

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2 Responses to THE SHADOW PUPPETS

  1. Mark says:

    Hi Steve

    Came here via the TTA Advent calendar – cracking stuff, good sir, as always! Well done!

  2. Quite surprised by how the puppets were not all bad, but showed you some nice stuff too.

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