“She had got out of the way of being treated pleasantly, and of being pleasant in return, in the ordinary human fashion.”
Mrs. Osmond, John Banville
Hand crafted, hand painted marionettes kick at their taped cardboard coffins during the day, while the old woman sleeps, collaborating, frolicking, and quarreling among themselves, as they used to do at night when the mother and daughter slept and woke like normal people. Sinews, wires cramped, they remember bending and bowing stiffly, scouring corners, under beds for the whimsical dust bunnies that used to ball, puff, and banter, airy versions of their collections of the stories the women used to tell each other animatedly, interspersed with falling stars of laughter. There were also the serious wee hour tales that spun like tops, wearing themselves out, toppling at last, dizzy.
Halcyon times before the unbathed, raving false prophet invaded with his trailing wife and owlish, wide-eyed, snub-nosed, rackety boy, who cruelly, wantonly chipped, snapped, defaced, and dismembered the corps de poupées. They had requisitioned the old woman’s house, which was temporarily closed and empty. A gesture of mercy for friends of her daughter in need of shelter, unaware of their true nature, she had passed keys to them. These wicked itinerants won a small following among the simple folk of the village, as often happens, by pretending to spread love and goodwill. Some more enlightened folk were not hoodwinked, tracking their raucous parade from upper windows. Still, they did nothing to impede the newcomers’ foothold, as also happens, because these were seen as costumed fools, harmless entertainment. And a foreigner’s problem. The clownish, barrel-chested exploiter, sometimes with long, lank, greasy hair flowing down his shoulders, sometimes sloppily turbaned, with thick, piraty hoops in his ears, preached a false, silly, unoriginal mishmash of philosophical snippets cut from older, reputable, sadly forgotten masters, and repackaged for the present world. The false prophet also painted shallow, garish paintings derivative of 1970s hippies and their Indian crusade. In backwater villages such as this, some locals assumed it was a novel, international resurgence, especially a younger generation ignorant of history, or an older one, disaffected nostalgics. Because the charlatan loudly proclaimed himself an Artist, some believed him, even buying his poorly executed, but decorative paintings, which he had damaged the woman’s fine, chestnut doors with nails in order to display as advertisement.
One fine day, our rightful owner, the old woman, returned to find that the imposters had stolen, vandalized, or defiled all she had bought, made, and lovingly restored. Her heart was as broken as the damaged wizards, witch, violinist, and composer in her marionette troupe. Unable to look fondly at them anymore, as they reminded her of all she had lost, she shrouded them, wept over them, said a few words of comfort, and entombed them in boxes. The marauding criminals were banished from her house, but far worse befell her family. Her daughter, weakly recovering from a long illness, fell under the evil preacher’s spell. A former puppet maker, actor, and singer of some renown, the young woman sat chain-smoking in her former studio, vacant eyed, addle headed from drink and drugs, utterly in thrall to the cunning trespassers.
The ancient one wept copious tears, ceased sleeping, wailed day and night, and tried to scrub away the encroachers’ foul taint and stink of barbarism from their once magical home. Hoping to cleanse her debased surroundings, as well as her contaminated memory, she labored madly, soon becoming bent, shrill, lacerated by grief, beset by malady. Returning precious souvenirs to their former pleasant ambience did not dispel the corruption that had been wreaked. Her beloved family had been ravaged, torn asunder. Now she was utterly alone and abandoned, bereft even of the comfort of storytelling, for she and her daughter no longer spoke together. Locking her house, the flayed old woman went far away to a chilling, dreaded land of tyrants in search of doctors for her body, though not for her soul. There was no help for it.
Meanwhile, the fraudulent prophet shrewdly gathered disciples, parading them before the once beautiful daughter, who also had departed, shortly to be cast back in disgrace by ruthless border guards. As she possessed keys, she once more took up residence in the cold, damp, moldy house of her mother. Lonely, confused, and penniless, she chose one who rode up on a shiny red scooter. Although he was thoroughly ordinary, not even handsome, she mythologized him into a warrior who would protect her, do battle for her, fancying herself in love with a prince. When his lust was sated, he mounted his scooter, and retired to his domicile, picking up his former life without a blink of his dry eye. Mutilated by obsession, which the young woman had dressed in the tattered rags of epic, abiding love, she sat, shivering, starving, and demented, in what the family had used to call the puppet theater, the art studio a different, genuine, worthy suitor had fashioned for their creative pursuits with love, in hopes of winning her.
The timeworn house made new again became old again. It was weathered, freezing, its plaster cracking, falling. It gathered mold instead of poems and stories for the dust balls that had become gray and comatose. Without their audience of ingenious puppets, now crippled and demoralized, the playful will-o-the wisps no longer danced, somersaulted, or did acrobatic tricks. They merely collected dirt, dead insects, and detritus. Moreover, the erstwhile home was now merely stone and mortar.
At last, the young woman stole enough money to move on, leaving her mother’s house sullied, unlocked, open to black wind and burglars. The mother, become a haggard crone, made her way back home across hostile countries. Today she drags mop and bucket, into which she continues to weep. Tantalizing, delicious smells no longer waft from the kitchen. The daughter’s fine violin, with which she had used to embrace them with melodies of mysterious grace and promise, has gone to the enemy, as well. They were not called charlatans for nothing.
Diane G. Martin, disabled Russian literature specialist, translator, photographer, Willamette University graduate, winner of the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, and runner-up for the Princemere Poetry Prize, has published poetry, prose, translations, and photography in numerous literary journals from the US to the West Indies. Her poetry collection A Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 2020. She was commissioned to judge a poetry translation contest in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2021, and has published translations of three Akhmatova poems at Litera Globus, where she was interviewed for a podcast. Long-time resident of Nevada, Oregon, San Francisco, California, Maine; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Sansepolcro, Italy, she has one daughter. Themes of exile, disability, and displacement pervade her work, which includes several collections of poetry, another of creative nonfiction, and a multi-genre memoir. Diane is working on a novel set during the Siege of Leningrad.