In the town where I was born, in a street just off the main one, lived and worked a puppeteer renowned for her skill. Her name, they tell me, was Malvina. Malvina was not a young woman any longer, having spent her youth learning her trade and honing her mastery. In her ripe age, however, she had many friends and even more clients.
They came to buy her dolls and puppets, which her apprentices made and she perfected. They were all made of the finest wood, brightly painted and dressed in clothes which not even some of their fellow citizens could afford. These creations lined the walls of her shop, sat on chairs and hanged from the ceiling on their wires. They were not for everyone to buy, but those that did buy her puppets, kept them as treasures that they were.
One day, when the apprentices had gone and the puppeteer was just closing her shop, there came to Malvina’s doorstep a man hooded from head to toe. He asked to see her puppets, and she did not think it wise to refuse. She let the man in, but closed the shutters on the windows, and lit only the smallest of the lights.
Without removing the hood, the man inspected every single doll and mannequin, until he seemed satisfied with what he observed.
“How may I be of help to you, sir?” Malvina asked.
He told her, “I come to you, master puppeteer, with an order from the Domina herself. She wants you to personally make ten life-sized puppets, of the description she is sending with me. You will be equipped with all the material you need but may not take any other orders until this one is completed. When the puppets are made according to the Domina’s wishes, you will be sumptuously rewarded.”
How gladly she would have refused! But to the Domina’s courier only one answer could be given, and the puppeteer gave it, “I am the Domina’s servant and I shall do as I am asked.”
When Malvina she closed the door behind the hooded visitor, she cried. She had never received such a grand order, and probably never would. And yet, to work only by the whims of another, and never on anything else was not what Malvina would have chosen for herself. For years she had only worked on her own designs, and left orders to her apprentices.
“If only I had not become such a good puppeteer,” she thought, but because there was no use in such thinking, the next day she closed her shop to any other work and began the first of the ten puppets.
Her apprentices wondered that mistress Malvina did not improve on their work any longer, and instead kept to herself in a separate part of the workshop. Sometimes she forgot to eat or drink, but did not allow anyone to enter. It was only natural that they would speculate on the commission that she had received. However, because she did not speak of it to anyone, they finally left her alone and began to behave as if they now owned the shop.
Malvina was unaware of any of this. She was not only engrossed in her work but also in something that kept happening as she worked on the puppets. There constantly appeared bits that would not fit anywhere – a log here, a smaller piece of wood there, a wire, or a screw she could not use. She put all of these in a corner so they would not draw her attention away from her work, but could not help glancing at them from time to time.
As she made more and more puppets, and the pile in the corner grew, Malvina noticed a pattern. There were never two exactly the same parts, except when they resembled two hands or two feet. There was one just like a head, though a bit longish for her taste. There was a crooked piece for the torso, strong but knotty, which she almost ruined trying to fit for the sixth puppet. It was so obviously meant for the one in the corner that she gave up and let it rest with the other rejects.
By this time, she knew it was a not-designed, unexpected puppet that was forming in the corner. Malvina decided she would not think about it until she had completed the Domina’s order; she was forbidden to, anyhow. She could not, however, keep entirely away from it. When her work for the day was done, she would come to the corner, take a rejected piece of wood, and carve it slightly before retiring.
Still, even such random work was enough for a puppet’s form to emerge. It was as if he had always been there and was finding a way to get out into the world from the materials that were left over. Being so patched from whatever did not fit the others, though, he was not among her most beautiful pieces.
“But there is character in you,” Malvina told the puppet, holding its head. The head looked back at her. She carefully put her lips against the puppet’s and kissed it. “And I think I love you,” she also said, “and will call you Tilian because you are mostly made of the linden tree.”
At these words, there was a shudder – a tinkle – a wave through the puppet and it suddenly returned her gaze and answered, “As much as I appreciate it, mistress, I am afraid I cannot return your feelings. You see, you have made me without the limb to hanker for you, the heart to love you, or even the brain to understand you.”
“If you can speak, can you not also guess at the pain of being alone in the world?” she asked.
“You are not alone,” the puppet said with a cocked head. “I can see so many of your creations lying around. Do they not make you company? Do you not love them?”
“I do not; none of these is even close to you,” Malvina said and allowed, “even though they might seem lovelier to the eye.”
It was true – the puppets she was carving for the Domina had a smoother look than the one she had just called Tilian. She made each according to a list brought by the hooded man, as well as she could, which was nearly perfect. And yet, they lacked those little inconsistencies, those strange angles where the light slants, those peculiarities of form that would make them alive – all of which Tilian possessed.
“Perhaps the Domina does not care for such things,” Malvina thought, and knew she was wrong, so she covered the Tilian puppet with a blanket and told it to be quiet when the hooded man came.
On the day the car arrived to take her and the puppets to the Domina’s residence, there was fierce rain. First the ten commissioned puppets were loaded on the trailer, but then the hooded man looked about the shop and saw a heel sticking from under a blanket. He said nothing when he uncovered the eleventh puppet, but ordered it to be taken into the trailer as well.
Because there was no room for the extra one – which was not supposed to have been there – they put it on the seat next to Malvina. When the car set off, she wrapped her arms around Tilian’s neck and cried so that her tears were mixed with raindrops.
“I do not want to be separated from you,” she told him.
“Do not worry, mistress,” Tilian said, not knowing she needed his hand about her. She had to place it there herself and he did not remove it. “I will return to you one day, and I will find everything I now lack, so I can love you the way you want to be loved. After all, you have named me for the one that strives.”
She embraced him tighter and put his words to her heart – if he could give it, perhaps he could keep his promise as well. Therefore, she said nothing when the Domina asked to be given all eleven puppets for the price of ten, and admonished her for being disobedient. Malvina accepted both her reward and her rebuke in silence and went back to her house. From that day on she did not work on puppets any longer.
She did get angry at how her apprentices had come to call themselves masters, and strutted around, living at her expense. Malvina sent all of them away, except the youngest, who was a boy of barely two digits to his years and was called Peppe. The others went off to open their own shops and hire their own apprentices who they could abuse, or be abused by.
Malvina and Peppe lived together like a mother and son, working about the house and the garden, but avoiding the workshop for as long as the Domina’s money lasted. In the evenings, they sat beside the fire and read, sang or talked, and it was then Peppe would see her eyes turn sad.
“Are you thinking of the eleventh puppet, mam?” he would ask, and she did not ask how he knew about the puppet but nodded her head, “I would dearly know where he is and if he is well.”
In fact, Tilian was well. He was, in the beginning at least, put with the other ten puppets into a large hall in the Domina’s residence. There he was dressed and undressed every day by the Domina’s son, who had requested the puppets for his birthday. He used them to stage battles and sometimes to decide what he and his servants would wear. He also threw them about in his tantrums.
One night, Tilian came to the boy’s bed in the middle of the night, woke him up and demanded to have a brain. The boy would have screamed if the puppet had not put a wooden hand over his mouth. Yet, since he could be induced to any imaginable work of corruption, the boy made a hole in Tilian’s head, stuffed it with a walnut, and sent him away.
The next day, the Domina’s son said, “I do not want to see the eleventh puppet ever again. It should be burned so that nothing remains of it.”
Because the Domina always fulfilled his wishes, she told him, “It will be as you please,” but because she was also a thrifty woman who did not like to see her investment go down the drain, she sold it to a madam who ran a theatre.
While Malvina and Peppe were wondering what Tilian was up to, he was strung on wires, made to dance, clap and bow. Because he owned a brain, even though it was only a walnut-sized one, Tilian thought he owed the madam at least the sum she paid to save him from burning, and did not try to run away. Instead, he looked around and thought about the things he saw.
When the lights were turned on and there were claps from the audience Tilian could not see much further than his hand, though he knew he was well-loved on the stage. He was large and finely made, and became famous for the expression in his face that seemed life-like. Also, his movements were smoother than those of any other puppet, almost as if he was moving independently from the strings.
What he saw once the lights went out and the audience went home was that the theatre was not a glamorous place, or one in which to look for love. Make-up and costumes removed, there only remained naked people. They bickered among themselves, tried to get the bigger piece of profits, and suffered either the madam’s attention or her wrath – both of which were equally difficult to bear. Also, there was no other puppet that he could talk to once everybody went home.
If Malvina had heard about the new puppet in the theatre, she never said a word about it, but Peppe could not contain his curiosity. He took some money from her purse when she was not looking and went to see a show. How surprised and shocked he was to see mistress Malvina’s eleventh puppet on strings!
“He plays well,” Peppe thought while rewarding him with applause, “but his eyes are far away.”
He therefore sneaked backstage, which was not difficult for a boy his size and agility. Hidden in a closet, he waited for everyone to remove the paint and frills and become human once again. When they left the place to sleep in real beds, with dreams that were not illuminated by hundreds of lights, he came out and cut Tilian’s wires.
“We need to get home, or mistress Malvina will never make another puppet again,” Peppe told him. “Her eyes can’t see the wood, and her hands refuse to touch it.”
“I am sorry,” Tilian said. “I cannot return with you. I promised the mistress I will get a brain, a heart, and a man’s organ, so that I can care for her properly, and I will not return without these.”
“How will you manage when you can’t even walk?” Peppe asked.
And, indeed, Tilian was unable to make a single step on his own, and depended on others to move him around, which he had forgot while dangling from the wires. Peppe helped him up and they walked away from the theatre and down the street. Because the puppet was heavy and the boy young, Peppe got tired soon, and asked Tilian to sit down on a bench next to a house, while he brought mistress Malvina.
“You two can talk and decide what the best place is to get whatever you need,” he said.
But Tilian was a stubborn thing, and as soon as Peppe ran off, he stretched his hand and knocked on the window shutters of the house in front of which he was sitting.
A man looked out, his eyes full of wonder when he saw it was a wooden puppet that had knocked in the night. He took Tilian inside, so by the time Peppe and Malvina returned, there was not a trace of either of them. No matter how much the woman cried, and the boy knocked on the house door, they were left in the street until both got exhausted and went back home.
In the meantime, Tilian found himself in a strange place, the likes of which he had not seen before. He had lived in a shop, where there were different tools and aids; he had lived in a mansion, with clothes and various paraphernalia; he had even spent some of his life in a theatre, surrounded by props, paint and costumes.
Nevertheless, he had never seen a book before, much less a library. And it was where he was now brought – to the library of the man who had opened the window. The man happened to be a highly learned person, and made his living teaching obscure knowledge to those who could pay his fee. He told Tilian to call him the Reader, and inquired after the puppet’s name.
“Well, well,” the Reader then said, looking at Tilian, who was sprawled in a chair, “Tilian. What an interesting name. Still, what are you exactly? Not a golem, as you are made of wood; not a homunculus, as you are too large; and not an automaton, as there is no machine in you.”
“I am a puppet, sir Reader,” Tilian said, and remembered his manners, “at your service.”
“Are you indeed?” the Reader asked. “And would you like to actually enter my service? But I warn you – it is not an easy one.”
And because Tilian could not think of another place to go, he agreed. The Reader then applied some of his knowledge to Tilian, so that he could move around on his own, when the switch was turned on. When he was not needed, the Reader would switch him off. Tilian brought the man books, served his lunch, helped with and cleaned up after dangerous experiments the man would not do by himself.
There were many of these, and not all went quite the way the Reader had envisioned. One day, therefore, nothing happened when Tilian did his part of the work, but when the man sent him away to see what was wrong, it all exploded in his face. When the doctors came to take him to hospital, the Reader refused to go if Tilian was not also brought and checked, and they complied because they would not fight with the man who had suffered such severe trauma.
The doctors managed to patch the Reader up, though he would never do his experiments or read again. His eyes and hands were largely incapacitated, along with certain other functions. As he left the hospital, he thought how he would now have to get a servant, or, even worse, a wife – neither of which options included a switch for when he was stuffed.
Tilian had to be left at the hospital because of a worldly reason of the Reader not being as well-to-do as to be able to pay for the extensive health care received. Even the puppet was not gladly accepted, but only after an elderly nurse asked around and discovered he was worth a fortune. The puppet, that is, not the master.
She looked at him with her hands on her hips and said, “We can at least use you for practice.”
Tilian was so afraid of her serious face and sturdy limbs that he did not utter a sound and instead pretended he was an ordinary piece of wood. He let the many students handle him, learning how to apply bandages and splints, how to turn a person around if they are hurt, how to resuscitate them, and even how to hold people over the toilet or when they are giving birth.
Most did not appreciate the practice and complained, “Why can we not just learn this on our patients?”
“Is he a man doll or a woman doll?” one of the students asked pointing at his crotch and snickering, as the other one joined, “Are you sure he would push babies out and not in?”
The elderly nurse concluded he ought to be made more similar to a real body her students would come across in their line of work. She stood a good long while in front of him and decided, from the carving of his face, that he was a male doll. She asked the only wood carver she knew to come to the hospital and complete him.
But Malvina told her, “I do not do this kind of work any longer, though one of my former apprentices might.” She sent Peppe to find one who did not hold grudges long, never knowing which of the puppets she was asked to work on.
When the master puppeteer came to the hospital and heard which kind of job he was called to do, he laughed heartily. Having inspected the puppet, he said, “A puppet as well made as this one, which looks like those my own teacher used to carve, deserves only the very best.”
So he set himself to work and it was not long before he fitted Tilian with a proper organ that the puppet had been missing, made of smooth, creamy ivory. The puppeteer even equipped him with a spring so it could imitate the real thing, and at first there were many jokes at Tilian’s expense. However, most of the students remained unimpressed.
“He is so stiff! And too hard! And that switch is broken! And his face is repulsive! He is ridiculous!”
So, after a while, they used him less and less, until he ended up forgotten in one of the hospital’s corners. Then the old nurse said it would not do, as he would only collect mould and dirt, which was unacceptable in a health institution. She gave it to one of the younger colleagues, saying, “Your man is a tailor, is he not? Perhaps he can do with a mannequin when he makes the suits.”
The young nurse laboured to get him away, but as she dragged him in the street, Tilian apologized and said, “If you turn the switch on, I can get myself to your house.”
Despite her shock at hearing him speak, she asked no further questions, but did as she was told and the two walked together to the tailor’s shop. The tailor was a sprightly fellow who did not mind in the least that Tilian talked and moved occasionally. He used him as a mannequin for a while, but soon discovered the puppet was not a good choice of a help.
“Some of my customers are shorter than you, and some are wider,” the tailor explained. “Also, not all of them are men, and you being so endowed makes women’s clothing not fit as well as it should.”
So he switched Tilian off and put him in a window shop, in one of the suits that fit him. It was the most boring jobs of all, and the puppet dreamed day in and day out of something better to do with his life. Still, who could tell how long he would have stood there if one day a familiar face had not walked past the tailor’s shop.
“Master Peppe!” Tilian exclaimed and attracted his attention.
The boy had recently begun to grow limbs in all directions and liked to be addressed as master, although he was far from it. He stopped and looked into the shop window, and was more shocked to see Tilian in there than the puppet had been to see him in the street.
Peppe quickly came in, shook hands with the tailor and asked if he could be permitted a couple of words with his mannequin. The tailor waved his hand and retreated so as not to disturb old acquaintances.
“I am glad to see you, master Peppe,” Tilian said. “How is mistress Malvina?”
“I am glad to see you, too, for didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Peppe admitted. “Mistress Malvina is better than she has been for many years. She has turned to making weaponry, for there is much talk of a war now that the Domina has passed away, and also crutches for when the soldiers get back home. She has forgotten all about making puppets, and is finally making a fortune for herself. I have also decided to get some fame for myself, and am therefore going to war.”
Tilian nodded and, if he could, he would have cried. Since he could not, he listened to the rest of Peppe’s story, thanked him for the news and saw him off. Then he went to the tailor and thanked the man for letting him stay in the shop window for so long.
“I have to be on my way now, though,” Tilian said.
“Alright,” the tailor said and let him keep the good suit, “I won’t be needing the likes of this one much longer. I suppose I will have to start making uniforms before long. I wish you safe travels and good luck in whatever it is you are planning to do next.”
There was, however, nothing much Tilian planned any more. He only knew he was sick of loneliness and quiet, so he went to the noisiest and most crowded of the places he could find. He sat there all day and all night long, and he looked at the people coming and going, and wondered how different they were. Some were having fun and others fits; some were laughing and others crying; some were in large crowds and others sat alone, just like him.
For a moment he thought he saw Malvina’s face among the others in the room, but then he remembered that Peppe said she had moved from the town to a house in the country and did not attend parties any longer. This was only another woman who was not having fun, and instead sat on her own, with tears in her eyes and a drink in her hand. He came closer to ask what the matter was.
“My sister brought me along so I would not sit idly at home,” she said. “So I am sitting idly here, and without the peace and quiet I am used to.”
Then she pointed to her sister, who was one of those having fun and laughing in the middle of a large circle of people. As soon as the happy sister noticed her sad sibling was turned in her direction, and was, moreover, showing her to an unfamiliar guest, she fluttered closer to have a look. The happy sister immediately loved Tilian, who was strangest and fascinating.
“Let us take him home,” the happy sister said, and took Tilian by the hand. “I can think of so many ways he can be useful.”
Neither Tilian nor the sad sister objected, but went along with the happy sister’s suggestion. Tilian was brought to their house, which had been left to them, along with a significant sum of money, by an elderly relative, so they could live without a worry in the world. The happy sister took this gift seriously and used it well every day, but the sad one thought too much about what to do with her fortune and was unable to enjoy it.
She was also not able to enjoy Tilian as much as her happy sister did, because she thought about him too much as well, and it made her feelings contradictory. Sometimes she would spend the entire day with him and at other times she left him switched off in his chair and never even looked at him. The happy sister did not only use him regularly and in more imaginative ways, but also introduced him to her many friends.
“Their husbands have been called to war,” she explained, “and they are lonely. I thought it was not fair to keep you just for ourselves, when so many could be helped in their dire need.”
Tilian asked no questions, but dutifully serviced both sisters and the happy one’s friends. Unfortunately, the sad one did not appreciate this at all and one night, when it was her needs he came to fulfil, she put a knife through his chest instead. He looked at it and wondered why she had done such a thing.
“I do not want to share you with anyone else,” the sad sister said. “I would rather you died than see you so prostituted. I love you too much.”
“But, you cannot kill me this way,” the puppet said. “I do not have a heart, you know. It is also the reason I do not mind being with one or twenty-one of you. I love all of you equally; that is, not at all.”
The sad sister did not understand the logic of this, however, and the following night she tried to burn him in the chair where he had been left. If his switch had not accidentally been left on, he would have perished. This way, only the sisters’ house burned down, which Tilian did not see since he ran out of it and into the night. He hid and waited until the bustle died down, and then he began to consider where to go next.
It seemed the main problem he had with the two sisters lay in him not having a heart. He remembered how he had promised Malvina to return once he got all three of his missing parts, and began to plan how to get the last one, even if she did not want him any longer.
“After all,” he thought, “sometimes a promise we give is for our own sake, and not for one to whom we give it.”
He went around town, listening in to conversations, and asking over a glass of beer or a cup of tea who could be trusted with the making of a heart. Many looked at him oddly, but nobody could answer his question until, finally, a very drunk young man told Tilian of an old clock maker.
“He can make anything tick, though I have heard he only works on special commissions these days,” Peppe said while drowning in drink his fear of going back to the trenches.
At the time, Peppe was so little conscious that he did not know to whom he was giving this advice, and Tilian did not consider it wise to remind him. Instead, he left the young man at the inn, to be collected by Malvina the following morning, while he himself went to the house of the clock maker. When the old man heard his story, he nodded and said he might try to do something about it.
“It will be expensive, though,” he warned Tilian, “and from your own countenance I conclude you cannot pay me the way people usually do. So I will ask you for another means of payment, the one I usually do not ask from people. Will you stay and keep me company for the remainder of my days? I do not expect these to be too numerous any longer.”
Tilian agreed to this exchange and was equipped with a clock-mechanism heart, which he was able to wind himself, so he would never again have to depend on others to turn him on and off. The little clock heart fit snugly in the place where he had been stabbed and, as soon as it began ticking, Tilian felt the dread of passing time, and loved whatever was around him.
He stayed with the clock maker and they became fast friends, walking alongside the river and telling one another stories of their lives. Tilian now saw everything with new eyes – the water, the fish, the trees, the people walking and the old man talking – and sometimes thought his heart beat faster as he looked at them.
The clock ticked and the time passed, bringing the war tide ever closer. It was not long before it overwhelmed them, and the old clock maker was drowned in it, while Tilian was swept away.
One of the armies came and hacked down the old man at the river where he was walking, and took Tilian with them. He decided not to wind his clock heart up any more and closed his eyes so as not to see what else they did. The soldiers thought he would make a fun targeting practice, but just as they put him up in a field, they were attacked by the other army and Tilian ended up lying in mud.
He was found much later, by a woman who owned the field and came to see what could be made of it after the passing of armies. She decided he was too heavy to carry around, so she hoisted him up on stakes, to stand as a scarecrow for when there were crops.
Tilian stayed there, and he looked at the sky above, as his head was so positioned, and observed how the clouds passed, the sun travelled, and the stars turned. If he ever thought about anything anymore it was whether mistress Malvina is alright, and whether Peppe was still alive.
She was alright, and Peppe was alive – though each barely so.
As he was going home, with broken bones, hollow lungs and a head full of nightmares, he passed by the field where Tilian stood and recognized him, though with much difficulty. The puppet also did not look his old self anymore, so scorched, muddied and ragged he was from everything that had happened to him. Peppe paused in thought and finally left his things by the side of the road to take Tilian down.
He found the clock mechanism and wound Tilian up, at which the puppet could stand on his own, but was not grateful at all.
“You should have left me there, master Peppe,” he said, “so I could forget everything.”
“But we could not forget you,” Peppe said. “Will you not come home with me now?”
And Tilian thought and said, “I will.”
So it was they went along the road together, although they did not talk or look at anything, and whoever saw them – a discharged soldier and a wooden puppet that walked – got out of their way. They advanced slowly and Tilian often helped the young man not to give up or take the wrong turn. If Peppe had not earned some pay in the war, they would not have been able to get a bed to sleep, or food to eat, or the transport they needed for the final leg of their journey.
Malvina’s house was now far in the country, across a bay, which they decided to cross in a ship. There was such a bad storm right when they were half way across that the ship leaked, and the passengers went into boats to save their lives if they may. In none of the boats, however, was there any room for the two.
Tilian therefore said, “You can use me as a buoy, master Peppe, and if you should ever see mistress Malvina again, tell her I got everything I went to seek in the world.”
Then Peppe cried, but Tilian, who could not, was adamant and held him fast as they drifted in the sea. By some fortune or other, they were not eaten by sharks or drowned by whirlpools, and instead floated to a strand dotted with pebbles. Peppe’s teeth could not stop chattering and his body shivering for days, but Tilian just lay without a twitch or wince.
Peppe knew nothing about the mechanisms that were built into him and whether they could work once they were soaked in saline. He therefore decided to go and ask Malvina, who might know such things. Peppe made a litter, hauled Tilian onto it, and step by heavy step made his way to his former mistress’s house.
Malvina was just putting the bread to bake when her knees gave way and her hands got burned. She rushed outside to put them under cold water and so observed the unlikely pair going up the walkway. Though her hands could barely stand it, she wrapped them about Peppe and Tilian, and shed many bitter tears over the state of both of them.
When her tears had evaporated, Malvina took them inside, washed them and dried them, and put each to one of the beds. As Peppe drifted off and let go of her burned hand, she came to the side of Tilian’s bed, wrapped an arm around him, and told him everything that had happened to her since the day she had allowed the Domina to have him. And if he was able to listen, he listened for as long as she talked, and then he listened to her breath, for exhaustion took her and she slept at his side all night long, until the first light was in the window.
In the morning, Malvina opened her eyes to look at Tilian, wondering whether he could die, and whether he was dead if he could. Just before she came to her conclusion, Tilian looked at her, and said, “Well, I’m back,” and when he put his arm around her, it was warm and comforting.