Over two decades ago, when I was ten years old, I saw Alexander the Magnificent’s magnificent puppet show. What happened back then still haunts me to this day.
It was summer break, and I was as typical as a ten-year-old boy could’ve been. Ever since I was in second grade, I spent many of the warm summer months at my friend Martin’s house. We were in the same grade, but he was almost a year older than me. He was my best friend and you could say I was looking up to him a little. Well, not just a little, if I’m honest.
Martin was the popular type and had many friends in town. I on the other hand was a shy, reversed type. His friends, most of which I knew from school, accepted me well enough, but I still felt I didn’t belong to their group.
We spent most of our days on the town’s vast soccer field.
It was there that we first noticed Little Tony. The small boy, who couldn’t have been older than six, was eying us from afar curiously.
It took him a while to approach us and it was already evening when he asked if he could play with us. We all laughed at the little, awkward boy, but eventually, we let him join us.
While we played, Little Tony would go on and on about how amazing his dad was.
“My dad is the best dad in the world!” he’d say smiling brightly or “No one’s as amazing as my dad!”
It was comical, to be honest, and even as a ten-year-old, I found his behavior erratic.
“What about your mom? Is she awesome too?” one of the others teased him.
Little Tony shook his head, but his smile didn’t waver.
Then, out of nowhere, he stopped and raised his arms to get our attention.
“Why don’t we all go to my place? My dad’s cool and I have all the toys in the world and we can play together and hang out and have fun!”
He babbled on like this but none, but soon our attention turned back to our game. We didn’t care about his toys or his dad for that matter.
Right at this point, he said something different though.
“Oh,” he exclaimed suddenly, “you could watch the puppet show!”
I stopped in my track and turned towards him. Others did the same thing.
“What puppet show?”
“My dad’s puppet show,” he answered matter-of-factly.
Little Tony kept talking about it and we learned that his father was a famous puppeteer. He’d come to our small town to perform his puppet show. If we came with him now, we could watch his rehearsal of tomorrow’s show. He said his dad was known far and wide and was one of the best puppeteers in the whole wide world.
We were sure he was exaggerating, but the prospect of getting to see a free puppet show convinced us in the end.
Puppet shows were popular in the area I’m from. You could say they are an enormous part of our cultural landscape. Most of the kids in the area grew up watching them and loved them ever since. There were many types. Some were more tailored to adults. Others told adventurous tales and local legends to the delight of children.
Some of Martin’s older friends rolled their eyes, pretending not to care, but I could tell they were as excited about it as I was.
So soon enough we all joined in and went on our way, Little Tony in the lead.
Unfortunately, the small boy didn’t have a bike, so we were forced to walk and push our bikes along with us.
His father stayed at a small, old cottage outside of town. I think these cottages were once a popular holiday attraction aimed at city folks. Even when I was a kid though, many of them were in disuse and some of them were run down or completely abandoned.
There weren’t just the two of them though, Little Tony said, there were all his siblings, so it was never boring.
The walk there was annoying enough, but Little Tony made it even worse. He kept going on and on about his dad and how great the puppet show would be. It got on my nerves, and many others seemed as annoyed as I was. No matter how often we told him to be quiet though, he rambled on, almost mechanically.
The moment we made it to the cottage, a middle-aged man sprouting the biggest mustache I’d ever seen welcomed us. He ignored Little Tony, who walked on, past his father without so much as saying a word.
The man introduced himself as Alexander the Magnificent. With his flaming red robes and his black cylinder, he gave off the impression of a magician and not a puppeteer.
“Ah, I bet you’re here to see the puppet show,” he said in a loud booming voice and snapped his fingers. A tiny firework shot out from between them. We were all impressed by this.
From a distance, we could see a few other kids, which we assumed to be Little Tony’s siblings. None of them gave us any attention as Alexander let us to an enormous stage next to the small cottage he lived in.
We all oohed and aahed when we saw the impressive construction. He spread out his arms in a grand gesture and pointed at a row of seats in front of it.
“The show will begin in but a few moments, my dear guests,” he said in the same booming voice.
He bowed again before he hurried towards the stage.
As we waited for the show to begin, we noticed that the sun had started setting. One of the younger kids in our group complained. It was late, and he had to get home or he’d be in trouble with his parents. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, especially between kids, so it took only a few words to shut him up.
It wasn’t long before the curtains opened. Pompous music played, and light flooded the stage.
Alexander stepped forward to greet us again.
“Welcome to Alexander the Magnificent’s magnificent puppet show, the most amazing puppet show in the whole wide world! You will see and experience unbelievable things tonight!”
The man’s entire demeanor was one of pomp and grandeur and again I couldn’t imagine him to be a puppeteer.
He threw his head back, lifted his arms high into the air, and once more fireworks went off above him. The curtains fell shut again and a moment later the music cut out.
For a few seconds, everything was quiet before a happy and fun melody started to play.
When the curtains opened again, the stage’s background had changed. There was now a canvas showing a green hill with a tiny house on it.
“There was once a boy named Jack,” Alexander narrated.
I was psyched to see the puppets, squirming on my chair, but to my surprise, a little boy around my age entered the stage. This was supposed to be a puppet show, right? Weird, I thought, but kept watching.
The little boy made his way to the center of the stage and I noticed right away how weird and stiff his movements were.
“Jack wanted nothing more than to marry Jane.”
With that, a little girl entered from the other side of the stage. She almost skipped to the middle, but her way of moving was similarly stiff.
“When Jack told her though,” Alexander continued in a tragic tone. “Jane wasn’t interested.”
On the stage, the little boy moved towards the girl, but she shook her head and turned away from him. The little boy gasped before he turned to the audience, an expression of misery on his face.
“Now what could Jack do to get Jane’s attention? Could he win her heart over with a present?”
The little boy looked around before he plucked a flower from the scenery and gave it to the little girl. She looked at it before she shook her head again and threw the flower away.
The boy reacted in abject misery again.
The entire ordeal repeated for a few more times, getting more comical as it went on.
“Finally,” Alexander narrated, “our hero Jack set out on an adventure to find a present worthy of her love.”
With that, the first act ended, and the curtains fell shut.
I wasn’t the only one who’d enjoyed the show so far. Some other kids seemed to be as excited as me. Martin and two of his older friends seemed to be bored, rolling their eyes at the play, and I was embarrassed about my excitement.
It was only a minute before the curtain opened again. Eerie music was playing, and the scenery had changed to that of a dark forest.
“Jack had traveled far and wide, but eventually he found himself trapped in a thick, old forest.”
With that, the little boy entered the stage again.
“He didn’t know,” Alexander said in a gloomy, foreboding voice, “that he was being watched the entire time.”
At this point, I made out the lurking ominous figures behind some trees on stage. The music got creepier and now all of us were hooked. As if on cue, the sun behind us vanished and twilight arrived.
First, the lurking figures only watched the boy, but soon they reached out for him and followed him from tree to tree. Finally, one of them jumped out and landed right in front of him. It was another little boy, dressed up as a wolf.
I looked up, but not in shock at the wolf’s sudden appearance. The way he’d jumped out had been unnatural. It wasn’t so much a jump, but it seemed more as if he’d been yanked forward. It reminded me of a puppet being moved on strings and as I watched him I noticed he was moving in the same stiff manner.
I looked over to my friends, but it seemed I was the only one who’d noticed or was bothered by it. I wanted to say something to Martin next to me, but I was too afraid he’d be mad at me for something as silly as that.
As the act went on, it was revealed that all the lurking figures were forest animals. One after another they jumped out from behind the trees and soon the boy was captured and brought to the king of animals.
The king was a bizarre mixture of various animals. He was covered in a mixture of fur and feathers and might antlers seemed to protrude from his head.
“The king of animals demanded to know what brought Jack to their forest.”
“Jack, courageously, told him he was out to seek a present for the one he loved.”
“The king thought about Jack’s word for a moment before he made him an offer. If Jack was to help them get rid of the evil hunters, he’d reward him with a magic crystal. A crystal that would grant him anything he desired.”
The little boy nodded a few times and soon enough he went on his way with some animals in tow.
With that the curtains fell, and the second act ended.
The third act was set at the edge of the forest. The boy and his new animal friends were hiding between a few trees on the right side of the stage.
In the center, three figures, dressed up as hunters, set around a campfire.
“Finally our hero Jack and his friends found the evil hunters!”
As the boy and the animals watched, the three hunters laid down to sleep. Soon after, the boy and the animals set out into their direction.
Alexander’s voice became a whisper and the music too turned quiet, becoming almost inaudible.
“They inched closer and closer, but the hunters were not only evil, they were also prepared.”
With that one of the animals was caught in a trap and in an instant, the three hunters jumped back to their feet.
The music turned into a loud crescendo as a battle emerged on the stage.
It was portrayed in an over the top, comical way. The animals clawed and bit the hunters, who in turn beat them with their clubs.
They all moved in the same stiff way, making the entire battle look unnatural. What was even weirder were the sounds. When the kids hit each other, the sounds were too loud, almost wooden, reminding me of old superhero movies. My friends laughed at the goofiness of it all, but I sat there awkwardly.
Soon the first hunter fell to the ground. He didn’t stagger, he just went limp and crashed to the floor, his arms and legs spread out in weird angles. The same happened to other participants who were defeated. All of them fell to the ground in a way that reminded me of real puppets being dropped to the floor. It was bizarre and even as a kid, I realized something was wrong about this situation.
I looked away from the ruckus on the stage for a moment, my eyes wandering upwards. There he was. Alexander was atop the stage, leaning over it as a puppeteer would. As the battle on the stage raged on, I could see his hands moving frantically, as if he was a real puppeteer.
Had he been up there the entire time?
As I watched, I didn’t understand what he was doing. Was he pretending to be a real puppeteer to make it sound like this was an actual puppet show? Was this way all the kids moved in this stiff, wooden way?
It was such a strange idea.
And then I saw something shimmering in the air. I could only make them out for a moment, the countless strings that came from Alexander’s hands, and were connected to the kids on stage. I saw how he moved two of his fingers upwards and the boy jumped, no was yanked forward, to attack the last of the hunters.
When the hunter dropped to the floor, the strings were already gone, invisible to my eyes yet again.
I didn’t understand what I’d seen. I poked Martin next to me again and again to get his attention, but his eyes stayed on the stage before he finally glared at me.
“What’s your problem?” he demanded.
“Something’s wrong! He’s controlling them,” I tried to explain, but broke up when Alexander’s loud thunderous voice announced the end of the act. When I pointed to the top of the stage however, the curtain had already fallen and the man was nowhere to be seen.
Martin turned away again, calling me a weird, and I was left sitting there, confused.
As the fourth act started I saw him up there again, moving and weaving his hands through the air to move the kids on stage. I poked Martin again, but instead of turning to me, he poked me back. Finally, I yanked at his arm and pointed to the top of the stage.
“Look!” I whispered into his ear.
Martin tried to shake me off before he saw the man up there. He watched him for a second before he glared at me once more.
“What’s your problem? Stop being so weird!”
With that, he yanked his arm free and before I could continue talking to him Little Tony walked up to me.
“Isn’t the show just the greatest thing ever?”
I tried to ignore him, telling him to get lost, but he’d stay right where he was, all the while smiling at me.
“I can’t wait for the ending,” he went on.
“I don’t care about the ending!” I shushed him and tried Martin to listen to me again, but Little Tony wouldn’t leave me alone.
“It’s the best part of the play. I’m so excited!” he chirped on.
“Leave me alone,” I yelled back at him once more.
“Martin,” I started, but he shushed me to keep quiet and soon a few of his friends joined in.
I hate to say it, but I was never one to put up a fight.
So I sat there and turned back to the stage. I saw that the little boy was back on his way home, the magical crystal in hand.
The back of the stage was moving as he walked on, changing from the forest to a grassy plain before he returned to the green hill. I noticed that the tiny house on the mountain was now destroyed. The little boy looked around before he found another kid, dressed as an old man, lying on the floor.
Alexander began narrating the end of the play.
“The moment Jack returned home, he learned from the old man that the hunters had been protecting the village. Now that they were gone, the wild animals had eaten all the villagers, leaving only the old man to tell the tale.”
The boy on the stage started crying, but then he looked at the crystal in his hand.
“So Jack held up the magical crystal, whispering his solitary wish. ‘I wish everyone was brought back to life.’ There was one thing the crystal couldn’t do though, it could never bring the dead back to life. And so Jack learned that he’d been tricked, had been used by the animals and become nothing but their puppet.”
With that, the curtains closed and fireworks went off once more. The so-called puppet show was over.
On the stage, the curtain opened again and all the kids were there. The boy named Jack, the girl named Jane, the animals, the hunters and the old man. On top of the stage, a light went on, and finally, everyone could make out Alexander.
The kids on stage all came forward and bowed to the audience, moving in the same wooden way.
My eyes went up to Alexander’s hands. I’d hoped they’d be resting on top of the stage, that what I’d seen before had been nothing but my imagination.
But it wasn’t.
Moving his hands gracefully, he controlled every one of the kids and once more the shimmering threads were visible. Martin was watching it now too and I could see that he didn’t understand what he was seeing either. I saw another one of my friends raise his arm, pointing at Alexander.
Finally, all the kids bowed for the last time. Two of my friends were clapping excitedly, some only a little, unnerved by what they’d seen.
Martin and I were quiet. By now I wanted nothing more but to get out of there.
“Let’s go,” I whispered to Martin who seemed to be frozen in his seat next to me. Before he could answer Alexander spoke up again.
“Well, it seems some of you,” he started, eying me and Martin, “didn’t quite enjoy our little puppet show. This makes me very sad because we performed it just for you. Perhaps some of you are interested in giving us a little feedback? Or maybe,” he paused, his mouth twisting into a grin, “would like to join us and help improve it?”
I started shaking my head vehemently.
“I just want to go home,” I mumbled.
“You should join. It’s so much fun!” he piped up.
All the kids on stage were just standing there, their heads resting on their chests and their arms hanging at their sides.
“It seems we have to insist.”
And right then he yanked his hands upwards and the kids on stage sprang to life again. With another jerk of his hands, they all jumped from the stage in unison, landing right in front of us. As they took another leap towards us, I stumbled over my chair screaming in terror. I got back up, turned away from them, and ran. After only a few meters though, my arm was caught, and I was yanked backward. I crashed to the ground and saw Little Tony hanging on to it. He was still smiling as he held on to me with an iron grip.
“You can’t leave yet,” he said in his happy little voice.
I tried to yank my arm free, but that didn’t do a thing. All it did was to make his grip tighten and his smile going ever brighter.
As I watched, I saw that the other kids had reached my friends now.
I struggled against Little Tony’s grip, tried to get free, but to no avail.
Finally, in a sudden flash of inspiration, I raised my arm above the little boy’s head. Even if I couldn’t see them, I felt the invisible strings. I yanked at them as hard as I could and felt them snap. Little Tony’s body became powerless in an instant.
What happened next though still makes me shudder in utter despair.
Do you know what happens when you remove the strings from a wooden puppet? It falls apart. That’s what happened with Little Tony.
His arms and legs fell off his torso and his little head rolled a few feet away. There was no blood, no wounds. His body simply separated into its various parts. There was still skin though, the places where his body parts had been fused moments ago were all covered in normal skin.
Each part of him seemed to be his own, distinct… thing, made of flesh and bone and covered in skin.
I stood there for a second, staring at the pieces that had once been Little Tony. His face still wore the same joyful smile as before.
When I looked up, I saw Martin. He was being held down by another puppet. He was squirming and crying, trying to get free. For a moment he stared at me, his face a mask of confusion and terror.
I stood there, confused, took one step forward, but I couldn’t seem to move any further. Then something shimmered in the air and moved towards his body. The strings made contact, seemed to dig into him. His eyes grew wide, his mouth opened and his entire body shook before it went limp.
By now Alexander had noticed that I’d destroyed one of his puppets and the one that had held down Martin came for me. It jumped high, flew right towards me and I barely avoided it from landing on top of me.
I ran and rushed from the stage. For a moment I saw another one of them out of the corner of my eye. It was gliding next to me, inches above the ground, its arms stretched out trying to get to me. For a moment I felt his cold, stiff fingers brush over my shoulder before it was yanked backward.
Alexander’s strings, I realized. They couldn’t reach any further!
I don’t know what happened afterward. I must’ve taken my bike and drove right home as fast as I could. Not to Martin’s home, but all the way to my parents’. They were confused when they found me outside, more so when they saw the state I was in.
I learned later that it had been long past midnight. I’d arrived crying and shaking, hitting the door and screaming for them to protect me from the puppets.
My friends went missing that summer. Seven kids, including Martin, were never seen again. I was questioned countless times and needless to say they didn’t believe a thing I told them. They probably thought I was too shocked, or worse, that I was downright lying.
They still checked the cottage, but they found no trace of anything I’d described. No Alexander, no puppets, and no stage.
I told them that everything must’ve been hidden away. Alexander the Magnificent must’ve left, but no one had heard about a man like that or his infamous puppet show.
In the end, my friends stayed missing. They still are to this day.
As the years passed, I put this story away, hid it in the depth of my mind, telling myself it was nothing but a terrible dream.
A week ago though, I saw something on my way through town. It was a little boy, approaching a group of kids on the soccer field.
“Hey there,” I heard him pipe up to them. “I’m Little Martin. You should all come to our puppet show this evening!”
When I turned over and saw his face, I froze in terror. It was Martin’s face. He looked exactly like he had over two decades ago and was smiling as brightly as Little Tony had.