Glazed Eyes by Brian Ennis
He awoke that morning in another man’s bed, entangled with another man’s wife. She begged him to stay, but he couldn’t; to stay was to invite scrutiny and that way lay the hangman’s noose. She settled for quizzing him over breakfast, probing for his secrets, questioning why he wasn’t performing for kings and queens rather than traveling the countryside in a rickety wooden cart. He told her that he had sold his soul to the devil in order to be the best entertainer in all the world, and the traveling life was God’s punishment. She laughed, pleasantly shocked by his blasphemy, and fed him another apricot. When she asked his name, having not bothered in the heat of the night before, he told her he was the Marionettist—his art was his life, and he was his art. He never told anyone his real name; there was power in names, and the profligacy with which others shared theirs shocked him.
He left the village a hero, children running alongside his cart like sheepdogs, adults cheering and clapping as if his show was still in progress. It was ever thus; he arrived a curiosity, promising entertainment, and left a legend. They would speak of him in whispers for years to come: the power of his performance, his great dramatic range, and more than anything the grace of his marionettes, his fingers dextrous on their controls, teasing movements from them that were elegant and almost human. How he was able to convey such a variety of emotion with wooden puppets was nothing short of miraculous.
He charted a course for the nearest town, hoping to reach it before nightfall. The village was barely out of sight when a small wooden head poked through the curtain that closed off the cart’s interior. Its eyes were glittering beads beneath its extravagantly-plumed helmet, and its hinged jaw moved of its own accord, producing a surprisingly deep voice.
“Sir.” It snapped a salute, its hinged arm moving independently, devoid of string. “The troops wish to know our destination.”
“Get back in there. You’ll be seen.” The Marionettist grabbed St George by the face and thrust him back into the cart. “We’re going to market. I need materials for our new arrival.”
From inside the cart came a clatter, like a week’s firewood being dropped down the stairs. “Quiet back there,” the Marionettist hissed, “what if someone’s followed us? You know the rules.”
Another marionette poked its head out, this one wearing a gaudy crown. “Sorry boss,” it stage-whispered, louder than most shouts, “we were hoping we could go to the village instead and…”
It shot backward, cut off mid-sentence. The Milkmaid separated the curtains daintily.
“What the Foolish King meant to say,” she said, fluttering her horse-hair eyelashes, “is that we were not happy with the performance last night. We would like to try some improvements in front of a smaller audience before a big show at a market town.” She fluttered some more. “If you would be so kind, master.”
“Bollocks will I. We are going to town, and that’s that. Now, all of you, shut up before I string you up.”
“Do you need a new apprentice? Villagers are keener to share their children. I remember…”
He pushed her back into the cart.
They rumbled along in blessed silence, the Marionettist daydreaming about his latest project and what kind of apprentice would suit it best. A crack and a jolt broke his reverie. His donkey brayed in protest and stopped in the road. Swearing, he hopped out and immediately saw the problem: a cartwheel was broken.
Jack Ketch jumped down next to him, collapsing in a boneless heap before straightening up.
“Looks bad,” Ketch said, as if the whole matter was hilarious. “We’re gonna be stuck here a while.”
“Fix it,” the Marionettist told him. “All of you!”
A dozen marionettes jumped down onto the road.
“You didn’t want us to be seen,” the Foolish King said, scratching beneath the band of his crown. “Surely you should do it?”
“Hush now, my liege.” St George knelt before the King. “We have our creator’s orders. It is not our place to question God.”
“Of course!,” the Foolish King said, as if it had been obvious all along, and moved into place.
“Stand watch,” the Marionettist told Punchinello. “Your voice is enough to wake the dead.” Punchinello gave a high-pitched cackle and leaped to the top of the cart.
The Marionettist climbed into the cart’s cool interior and dozed until Ketch shook him awake.
“We’re done,” Ketch said. “Won’t make the town tonight, though. Shame.” The paint around his face and hands was badly chipped, and he had grass stains on his legs. The Marionettist sighed; he would have to waste time he could have spent on the new addition tidying Ketch up before the next performance.
The repair looked good, but Ketch was right: it would grow dark soon. The Marionettist’s map showed a village a mile or so away, unnamed, marked only with a shaky, hand-drawn cross.
Perhaps the Milkmaid was right; he might find a new apprentice at a village, a callow youth eager to please, easily tricked. It would be pleasing to arrive in town with a new player.
“Looks like you’ll get your practice show after all,” he said, and urged his donkey on.
The Marionettist was used to arriving at a new town or village with a fanfare: children calling out requests for their favorite stories, women in windows watching him pass, village elders competing for the honor of housing him beneath their roof.
This village was different.
It was so small as to be churchless, a true rarity, its godlessness seemingly punished with abject poverty. Hovels lined its single pitiful road, roof beams bowed and collapsing under rotten thatches, walls stained yellow and brown like smokers’ teeth. At first he thought the village was deserted, but in amongst the animal pens he spotted children, gaunt and hollow-eyed, staring at his passing as blankly as the cows and sheep in whose excrement they squatted. None ran to join him.
At its center, an ancient stone fountain thrust up from the ground at a drunken angle, topped with a worn and faceless cherub, its fingers crumbled to ineffectual stubs, its bulbous wings more like cancerous growths than delicate instruments of flight. Beneath it a brass plaque hung on for grim life, whatever words once written there long eroded.
A group of locals came to meet him, four men carrying tools, fresh from tilling the lifeless local fields, and two women dressed in long puritanical dresses that fastened tight around the neck and hung down shapelessly, tattered hems scuffing the ground with every step.
The Marionettist smiled and opened his arms. “Good evening!” he cried. “I hereby invite you all to attend the greatest puppet show you will ever see. In exchange, I ask only room, board, and a hot meal.”
The six villagers watched him, saying nothing. He grinned at them until it hurt, suddenly aware of the damage a well-swung hoe or scythe could do to a human body. Eventually one of the women stepped forward, the movement so unexpected as to make him flinch. She looked familiar, but then again, the hard life of a peasant woman ground them down until they all looked the same. She gestured for him to follow.
The Marionettist shivered. He should leave, sleep in the cart and set the marionettes to watch out for thieves and bandits. A night at risk of murder would surely be better than whatever this God-forsaken place could muster in the way of hospitality. Of course, if he tried to flee they might take exception to his rudeness.
He had no choice but to follow her to a ramshackle barn. The stench of rotting straw and rat shit was thick enough to make his eyes water, and the donkey had to be thoroughly whipped to force it inside. The peasant woman left without a word, and he wedged the door shut behind her with a block of wood.
“Is she gone?” Ketch called out.
“Hush yourself!” the Marionettist hissed. The donkey brayed with fear. “They may be stupid, but they’re not deaf.”
The marionettes tumbled out of the cart. “I like it here,” the Foolish King decreed, to which Punchinello blew a raspberry. St George chased the Dragon while the Milkmaid smoothed out her skirts, watched by a pair of somber cardinals in dusty robes.
“Get the stage up quickly,” he said. They looked at him, their glazed eyes so like the villagers’ that he lost his line of thought for a moment. “The sooner we perform, the sooner we can leave.”
“I still like it here,” the Foolish King grumbled. “The people seem nice.”
While the marionettes assembled the wooden stage, the Marionettist climbed into the back of the cart. Jack Ketch had laid out the parts of an unfinished marionette, its base wood raw, grainy and unsanded, its limbs lying in a separate heap.
“Nearly ready?” Ketch asked.
“So close, yet so far,” the Marionettist replied. “We won’t be picking up an apprentice here, that’s for certain.”
“Perhaps a girl, from town?”
The Marionettist had done it before, but it was far riskier taking girls, and no one gave him any money for them. “Perhaps,” he said. “Now go and help. There’s something wrong about this place.”
“Bit unnatural, ain’t it?” Ketch twisted his hangman’s rope in his wooden hands like he was wringing its neck, and laughed.
The marionettes had the stage up and lit in double time. They were unusually excited, stage-whispering amongst themselves and causing a racket, and he had to hush them several times before he could throw open the barn doors.
Outside a couple of dozen villagers huddled together, like sheep in winter. They turned their heads to him as one, and he shivered.
“Come, one and all,” the Marionettist cried. “Come and be entertained!”
He retreated behind the stage. The crowd filed in and sat down in the muck, oblivious to the filth. No one spoke.
He whispered his commands and the performance began, the marionettes leaping and dancing beneath his hands, the strings tied to his fingers giving the illusion that they were normal puppets. He started with a satire; the lower the man, the more joy he took in scorning his betters, and these villagers looked to be the lowest of the low. The Foolish King performed admirably as an idiot ruler repeatedly changing his faith for political gain, in fine comic form.No one laughed.
No one moved.
No one spoke a word.
Perhaps the women’s puritan dresses indicated godliness: in his experience, the godly rarely laughed. He hissed his orders and the players and scenery changed to tell the tale of Jonah and the Whale.
The villagers watched on like an unwilling congregation enduring a terrible sermon for the sake of their souls.
Perhaps this was all too intellectual. He changed tack again, sending out the Old Man and the Milkmaid to perform a crude, lecherous comedy. One boy, caked in mud and what looked suspiciously like shit, poked a finger into a nostril and began to root around.
Cold panic sweat dripped down the Marionettist’s back. He tried another tale, and another, and another. Punchinello failed to amuse them, as did St George and the Dragon, Three Blind Mice, and the Song of Roland. Soon all the marionettes were out, either on stage or lying behind the curtain, staring at him as if this was his fault.
Soaked through, arms aching from the pretense of performance, he stopped.
Nothing. No reaction, no applause, not even a boo or a hiss.
He stepped out from behind the curtain and gave a stiff, awkward bow.
The crowd rose as one, as if in standing ovation, but there was no pleasure in their eyes. Still bowed, he peered up at them.
Still expressionless, they charged.
Sudden desperation made him flee to the back of the barn. He threw himself against the back door, its rusted hinges shrieking in protest. The crowd moved in, slow but unstoppable, and seized him, their ragged nails clawing his flesh as they dragged him to the ground.
They beat him as they had watched his show: silent, sombre, as if performing a necessary but immeasurably dull chore. The only sounds were their grunts of exertion, the Marionettist’s cries, and the braying of his fearful donkey.
The beating stopped as suddenly as it began. Through a forest of legs, he saw his creations, his beautiful children, pulling themselves from the wreckage of the stage. “Help me!” he cried out to them. “Help me!”
The crowd parted, leaving a clear path through the fetid hay for his marionettes to follow. Jack Ketch led the way, skipping and swinging his hangman’s noose, followed by the Milkmaid, Punchinello, and the rest. The Foolish King looked around and asked what was happening; the others shushed him. The villagers reacted to living, talking puppets the way they reacted to everything, with dull disinterest, like cows watching a massacre.
“Help me,” the Marionettist whispered.
Ketch shook his head. He slipped his noose over the Marionettist’s head, and pulled.
The world turned red and black as he was dragged through the filth and out into the center of the village. Candles had been laid in the grass, lighting up the drunken fountain and the hideous, deformed cherub. More rope was looped around his wrists and ankles. Following Ketch’s orders, the villagers hauled him up to hang from the fountain. St George waved his little wooden sword like a conductor’s baton, directing the villagers to pull him this way and that, twisting him into unnatural shapes that tore and dislocated his joints. He didn’t have the breath to scream.
An eternity later they stopped, leaving him crucified against the cherub’s wings, arms outstretched, the noose around his neck loosened just enough to allow him to breathe.
“Why?” the Marionettist sobbed.
Jack Ketch climbed up to sit on the Marionettist’s shoulder. “We yearn,” Ketch said. “We yearn for flesh.”
“Why are these bastards helping you? What have I ever done to them and their God-forsaken village?”
“For the dispossessed, the flesh yearns for spirit.” Ketch shrugged. “We have what they lack, too. An ideal match, don’t ya think?”
“I never knew. I thought you were happy, I swear.”
The marionettes laughed.
“You think we want this?” Ketch said, and rapped his head with his wooden fist. “That we wish to be cold and unfeeling, while you revel in earthly pleasures?”
“I wanted you to be my children.” The Marionettist swallowed; talking hurt. “Forever.”
“Undo it, you bastard.”
The Marionettist nodded as best he could. “I need the book.”
Punchinello and his wife scampered off. They returned carrying a worn and cracked leather-bound tome, its cover emblazoned with a two-headed crow, wings spread wide. It took both of them to open it.
“Tell me how,” Ketch demanded.
“Let me down and I will,” the Marionettist said.
St George waved his sword again and the villagers hauled on the ropes, sending fresh waves of agony through the Marionettist’s wracked body.
“We don’t dance to your tune anymore,” St George declared. “You dance for us now.”
“I’m sorry,” the Marionettist whimpered.
“Tell me, Gregor,” Ketch said.
The Marionettist had thought it impossible to be any more terrified, but he had been wrong. “How do you know my name?”
Ketch’s dull eyes glimmered black in the moonlight. “Is it so strange for a child to know the name of God?”
Once Gregor had whispered all his secrets to Ketch he was released, crashing into the brackish water at the base of the fountain. Two villagers hauled him out before he could drown and dumped him in the mud. They were, he thought, either heroes for saving his life or monsters for prolonging his suffering.
The marionettes formed a circle, while the villagers gathered round and watched, dead-eyed, like sheep clustering for warmth. They read together from the book, voices growing louder and louder. The Milkmaid led a villager into the center of the circle: the woman who had shown Gregor to the barn. The villager knelt and the Milkmaid reached up a wooden hand to caress her cheek.
Twenty years had passed but the Marionettist had never forgotten the smile that now bloomed on the villager’s face, a smile that had once belonged to a child, a child he had abandoned, standing empty on the side of the road. So, this was where they went, the empty vessels he and his kind left behind.
He knew then that there would be no mercy.
The marionettes began to chant, repeating the Milkmaid’s name, her real name, the name of the girl she had once been. The Milkmaid collapsed to the floor and the chanting stopped.
The woman blinked and looked around her, as if waking from sleepwalking. That grin spread across her face once more and she looked suddenly alive, as if some vital missing component had been restored. “It worked!” she cried in the Milkmaid’s voice. The voices rose again. In turn, each marionette picked a villager and led them into the circle, like children eager to show off something new.
One by one, the marionettes fell, lifeless, to the floor.
One by one, the villagers straightened, blinked, gazed around.
Soon, only the Foolish King remained. “I’m happy as I am!” he cried and raced off. They let him go.
The girl who had been Jack Ketch stood over the Marionettist. “As for you,” she said, her new eyes glittering, “you’re not the only one who can be creative.”
The next day the Foolish King, resplendent in his wooden sovereignty, stood atop the fountain to wave the others off, the remaining villagers forming a silent, hollow-eyed guard of honor. A dozen men and women sat on or followed the cart, their movements clumsy, still adjusting to their new forms. Jack Ketch, always good with ropes, took the reins. That so many villagers remained meant that there were more troupes out there, more blasphemies to be undone.
One villager, however, would always remain.
“Gee up, Gregor,” she cried. The donkey brayed and twisted its head; a quick lash from Ketch’s switch chastened him, and he led them out into the sunshine, dragging his burden behind him.
Gregor’s old form watched them go, eyes glazed.
Brian Ennis is an ex-teacher, writer, gamer, and geek from Peterborough, England who now works in the higher education sector. His fiction has been published in magazines such as The Colored Lens, Niteblade Magazine, and Theme of Absence; and in the anthologies Commute: Short Bursts of Terror (Sanitarium Magazine) and What Haunts The Heart (Mantle Lane Press). He has written non-fiction for the British Fantasy Society, Dirge Magazine, and Grimdark Magazine. He can be found online at his website and on Twitter.