The story I am about to tell you happened when I was no more than ten years old. It means that it all happened more than two decades ago. What I saw still haunts me to this day. I don’t sleep often, I simply can’t anymore.
It was a nice day during summer break and I was a typical ten year old kid. Ever since I was in second grade, I spent the summer staying over at my friend Martin’s house. We were in the same grade, but he was almost a year old than me. He was my best friend and I looked up to him. More than a little.
Martin had many friends in town. I knew most of them from school. They weren’t exactly my friends though. I think I was more or less tolerated in their group.
Most of our days were spent exploring the town on our bikes or playing soccer. I enjoyed those times a lot.
On this day we were at the soccer field, playing ball in the early evening. Martin’s parents didn’t mind if we stayed out till dusk. To ten year old me they were the coolest parents in the world, since my mother usually demanded that I was home right at dinner and wasn’t allowed to go out anymore after that.
It was this evening that we met little Tony. We had never seen him before and he was probably no older than six. He simply walked up to us and asked if he could play with us. We nodded and let him join in.
While we played soccer little Tony went on and on about how amazing his dad was and about his siblings.
“My dad is the best in the world!” he would say or “No one is as amazing as my dad.”
All the while trying his best to keep up with us in soccer, but he was simply a little too slow.
“What about your mom? Is she awesome too?” one of the others teased him.
Little Tony simply shock his head without saying anything, but the big smile on his face didn’t falter.
Then he suddenly stopped and raised his arm to get our attention.
“Why don’t we all go over to my place? My dad is great and I have all the toys and we can all play together and hang out and have fun.”
He simply babble on without giving us much attention. We didn’t really care about his dad or his toys and kept playing ball. Then he said something different.
“Oh!” he exclaimed suddenly “You could watch the puppet show.”
I stopped in my track and turned around towards him.
“What puppet show?”
“My dad’s puppet show.” he said simply.
In the end little Tony kept talking about it and we soon found out that his father was apparently a puppeteer who had come to town to perform his puppet show. If we came with him, we could see the rehearsal of tomorrows show. The prospect of seeing a free puppet show was what convinced us in the end.
Now some of you might be wondering what the big deal about a puppet show is. It is just a pretty common thing in the area I grew up in and me and many of my friends loved them ever since were little. There are many different ones, but in the most popular ones a puppeteer is controlling multiple puppets, telling tales of adventures or local legends to the delight of children.
We were excited and all joined in. Little Tony didn’t have a bike like us so we were forced to walk. He and his father were staying at a small, old cottages. They were located a little outside of town. I think it was once a popular holiday attraction, aimed at people from the city, but even when I was kid not many people used them anymore. I think most of the cottages were either used by the townspeople, run down or completely abandoned. I was a little surprised to hear that someone from outside was staying there.
The walk there was annoying enough, because it wouldn’t have been more than five minutes on our bikes. What made it worse was little Tony. He kept going on and on about how amazing his dad was and how fun the puppet show would be. It started to really get on our nerves, but even after we told him so, he simply talked on and on, almost mechanically.
As we approached the cottages we were welcomed by a middle aged man with what must have been the biggest smile and mustache I have ever seen. He didn’t say anything to little Tony who simply marched on past his father.
“I bet you are here to see the puppet show!” he said in a loud booming voice and snapped his finger. A tiny firework came from the snip and impressed all of us.
“Well then come in, come in young sirs.” he continued and led us to a stage behind the cottage. Now we were really impressed. Most puppet shows I had seen until then were done in tiny portable stages, this one here was huge though.
We saw a couple of other kids as well and we assumed it must be little Tony’s siblings. They didn’t give us any attention or spoke to us, but we didn’t mind and were way too excited about the puppet show.
Alexander the Magnificent brought us over to a row of chairs and motioned for us to take our seats in a grand gesture.
“The show will but begin in only a few moments my dear guests.” he said in the same booming voice.
As we waited for the show to begin we noticed that the sun would soon be setting. One of the other kids started to complain and said we should go home. He’d get in trouble with his parents. We yelled at him to be quiet and to stop being a wimp.
It wasn’t long before the curtain on the stage opened. Music started to play and the stage lights went on. Alexander stepped forward on the stage and greeted us:
“Welcome to Alexander the Magnificent’s magnificent puppet show. The most amazing puppet show in the whole wild world! You will see and experience unbelievable things tonight!”
The man and his whole behavior was so over the top that he reminded me even more of a circus director and not puppeteer. Again some fireworks went off and with that the curtain closed.
We soon heard Alexander’s voice again, telling us to get ready for the first act of the show.
The music changed as the curtain opened. The stage’s background was now a canvas showing a green hill with a little house and a tree next to it.
“There once was a young boy whose name was Jack.” began Alexander who had taken the role of the narrator. I was psyched to see the puppets, squirming around on my chair.
To my surprise it was a little boy who entered the stage. Wasn’t this supposed to be a puppet show and not a play? Maybe it was going to be a mix of the two? I was soon torn from my thoughts as the show started.
The little boy walked to the center of the stage, moving in a somewhat stiff way. It was a little weird, but I watched on intently.
“Jack wanted nothing more than to marry Jane.”
With that a little girl entered the stage from the other side. She almost skipped towards the middle, but her way of moving was a too stiff as well to call it that.
“When Jack told her though”, and Alexander’s voice changed into an overly tragic tone, “Jane wasn’t interested at all.”
On the stage the little boy moved over to the girl, but she soon shock her head, turned around and walked away from him. The boy looked after her for a moment, then at the audience and then seemingly started to cry.
“Now what could Jack do to get Jane’s attention? Maybe he could win her heart with a present?”
We saw the little boy look around, then plug a flower form the scenery and bring it to the girl. She took it, shock her head and threw the flower away, before turning around again. The boy reacted in much the same sad way. The whole ordeal did repeat for a few times and I thought it was pretty hilarious. In the end the boy decided to set out on an adventure to find something that would make the girl fall in love with him. With that the first act ended.
Some of the other kids enjoyed it too, even without the appearance of any puppets yet. Martin and two of his older friends seemed to be bored though and I felt a little embarrassed.
The curtain soon opened again. An eerie theme was playing and the scenery had changed. The boy was now in a dark forest. The sudden shift in mood surprised me.
This was the beginning of the second act Alexander announced. The boy had been traveling for a long time and soon found himself in a thick old forest.
With that the little boy entered the stage again. What he didn’t know, the narrator went on, was that he was being watched.
At this point we were able to make out the lurking figures behind or atop some of the trees. Now all of us were hooked. The sun was setting by now and it started to get darker. First the lurking figures only watched the boy, but soon they started to reach out for him from behind and follow him from tree to tree. Finally one of them jumped out from behind a tree and landed in front of him. It was another boy, dressed up as a wolf.
For a moment the movements of the wolf seemed strange to me. The way he jumped out was unnatural. It was more as if he had been yanked upward. It reminded me of a puppet on strings. I could see the wolf too had the same stiffness as the boy and the girl. I quickly looked at my friends, but it seemed like I was the only one who was bothered by it. I wanted to say something to Martin who set next to me, but I didn’t want to annoy him, so I continued to watch on.
As the act went on it was revealed that all the lurking figures were the animals of the forest. One after another they jumped out in front of the boy and soon he was brought before the king of animals. I still don’t know what the king was supposed to be. He was covered in a mixture of fur and feathers, had antlers, but he also had human features. It was a bizarre mixture. Resting on his head was a golden crown, showing his status.
The king questioned the little boy what he was doing in the forest, to which the boy answered that he was in search for a present to give to his love, Alexander narrated. The king thought about it and finally told him, that if the boy were to help the animals to get rid of the evil hunters, he’d give him a magical crystal, which would grant him one wish.
So the boy agreed and set out with some of his new animal friends to confront the hunters. With that the act ended.
Soon the beginning of act three was announced. This time we were greeted with what seemed to be the forest’s edge. In the midst of some trees we could see the boy and the animals in hiding. On the other side of the stage was a campfire. Next to it were three kids, dressed up as what was supposed to be the hunters.
Two were sitting next to the fire and one was sleeping. Alexander explained that the boy and his friends had finally found the evil hunters.
As the boy and the animals watched on, the other two hunters went to lay down as well. Soon after that the boy and the animals started to move. The narrator’s voice had become a whisper now, as if not to wake the hunters. The music too went lower and was almost inaudible as the animals approached.
As they were almost there though, one of the animals activated a trap and the three hunters awoke and jumped up.
What followed was a battle that emerged on the stage. It was portrayed in an over the top, almost comical way. The animals clawed and bit at the hunters, who in turn hit the animals with their clubs.
All of them still moved in the same stiff way which made the whole thing look somewhat unnatural. What was weirder though were the sounds. When the kids hit each other, the sounds were too loud, sounding wooden, reminding one of those old superhero movies. My friends laughed at the goofiness of it, but I felt uncomfortable watching it. Now it was not the violence, there was no blood or anything, but the way how they all moved. Soon the first hunter fell to the ground. He simply went limp and he hit the ground in a completely weird angle, his limbs twisted. The same happened to other participants who were defeated. All of them fell on the ground lifeless in a rag tack sort of way that reminded me of real puppets. It was bizarre and even as a kid it felt wrong to me.
I looked away from the ruckus on the stage and that was when I saw him. Alexander the Magnificent, atop the stage leaning over it like a puppeteer would. As the hunters and the animals were battling below I could see his hands move like those of a real puppeteer. It seemed as if I was the only one who had noticed him. Had he been up there all the time? All my friends were still watching the action on the stage. It was hard to even make him out up there, since by now it had almost gotten dark. I didn’t understand what the man was doing. Was he pretending to be a puppeteer? Was that why the kids moved in the stiff, wooden way? Did they pretend to be real puppets? Was that why he called it a puppet show? I thought it was a dumb idea.
Then I saw something shimmering. I could make them out only for a second: The countless strings that went from the hands and fingers of Alexander the Magnificent and that led down to the kids on the stage. Only for a brief moment did I see how he moved two of his fingers upwards and the boy moved, or better jumped forward against the last hunter. Then the strings were invisible to my eyes again. I didn’t understand what it was I had just seen. I pocked Martin with my elbow a few times, but his eyes stayed on the stage, before he looked at me angrily.
“What’s your problem?” he asked me.
“Something is wrong! He is controlling them” I tried to explain to him, but due to Alexander’s loud, thunderous voice narrating the end of the act he wasn’t able to understand me. When I pointed up to the top of the stage the curtain had closed already and the man was nowhere to be seen.
I was sitting there confused. I had no idea what had just happened. It was simply too much for me.
I looked up again and saw him there. It was Alexander again, moving and weaving his hand through the air to move the kids on stage. I poked Martin again, who in turn started to poke me back. I yanked at his arm and pointed to the top of the stage again.
“Look!” I said into his ear.
Martin tried to get me of his arm before he saw the man up there. He watched for a second, before he looked back at me again.
“What’s your problem? Stop being weird.” he yanked his arm free. Before I could tell him what I wanted him to see, little Tony came back to us. He smiled right at me.
“Isn’t the show the greatest thing ever?”
I tried to ignore him and push him aside, but he stayed right where he was. “I can’t wait for the ending!” he went on.
”I don’t care about the ending.” I yelled at him and tried to get Martin to listen to me.
“It is the best part of the play. I am so excited!” the little boy in front of me said happily.
“Leave me alone.” I yelled back at him once more.
“Martin”, I started but he shushed me to keep quiet and a few of his friends joined in, telling me the same.
I hate to say it but I was always the type who gave into pressure easily and could be guilt tripped into doing things.
I looked at the stage and could see that the boy was now on his way home with the magical crystal in his hand.
The back of the stage was no moving and changed from the forest to the grassy field with the mountain. Soon we saw that the little house on the mountain had been destroyed. On his way back the boy was approached by another kid dressed as an old man. Alexander narrated the end to us.
As the boy returned home, he found out that, because the hunters weren’t protecting the village anymore, the wild animals had come and eaten all of the villagers. Only the boy and the old man were left now. The boy on the stage cried again. Then remembered the crystal and tried to wish everyone back to life. Unfortunately, Alexander narrated, the crystal couldn’t do one thing: bringing the dead back to life.
With that the curtain closed and a new bunch of fireworks went off. The so called puppet show was apparently over.
On the stage the curtain opened again and all the kids were there. The boy, the girl, the animals, the hunters and the old man. On top of the stage a light went on and finally everyone was able to make out Alexander the Magnificent on top. I could see the kids on the stage. They were still moving in the same wooden way. Each one came forward and bowed in front of the audience.
I only had eyes for the man’s hands. It was the same again. I had hoped to see that his hands would only be resting on top of the stage. That I had imagined things or that my eyes had played tricks on me. It wasn’t the case. Gracefully his hands were moving and controlling the kids. Martin was watching it now too and I could see that he didn’t understand what was going on either. I saw another one of my friends raise his arm and pointed at Alexander the Magnificent.
Finally all the kids bowed for a last time. Two of my friends were clapping excitedly, some only a little, probably unnerved by what they were seeing. Martin and I stayed quiet. I was seriously scared and just wanted to leave already.
“Let’s just go.” I said to Martin who seemed to be frozen, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Before he could say something Alexander started to speak again.
“Well it seems some of you” I could see his eyes focus on me and Martin “didn’t quite enjoy our little puppet show. This makes me very sad young sirs, because it was performed only for you. Perhaps some of you are interested in giving us some feedback? Or maybe even” he paused for a moment his mouth changing into a too wide grin “would like to join us and help improve it?”
I started shaking my head vehemently.
“I just want to go home.”
My friends looked over at me and Martin, not understanding what was happening.
Little Tony was still next to me.
“You really should join. It is fun!” he almost yelled at me.
All of the kids on stage were now simply just standing there, their heads resting on their chest and their arms hanging down at their sides. Alexander’s hands were now resting on top of the stage. Then, with laughter, he said:
“It seems we kindly have to decide for you, my young sirs.”
And right then I saw his hands move up again and all the kids on stage came back to life and with another yank of his hands, they all jumped from the stage into the air in unison, landing right in front of us. I stumbled over my chair, screaming as they took another leap towards us. I got back, turned around and started to run. After only a few meters, my arm was caught in a strong grip. I freaked out and looked back to see little Tony hanging on to my arm. He was still smiling, standing there looking at me.
“You can’t leave just yet.” he said in his happy little voice.
I tried to yank my arm away, but that only got the little boy to take a step backward, holding me in an even tighter grip.
I saw how the other kids had now reached my friends. Another one of them was walking, or better gliding towards me, his feet not touching the ground as he moved into my direction.
I screamed, mustered up all my strength and yanked little Tony from the ground against the other kid. I heard the sound of wood hitting against wood when little Tony’s body that of the other kid, who fell to the ground, his limbs twisted in various, unnatural ways.
Little Tony was still there. As I tried to get up he held onto my body, trying to pin me to the ground. I tried pushing him off, but wasn’t able to move him. With a sudden flash of inspiration I raised my arms above the little boys head. Even if I couldn’t see them, I felt the invisible strings. Then I yanked at them. Once, twice, then they ripped apart. Tony’s body became powerless. Without any resistance I was able to push him away from me.
Thinking back at what happened next makes me shudder in utter despair, even now. You know what happens when you take away the strings form a wooden puppet? It falls apart. That’s exactly what happened to little Tony. His arms and legs fell of the torso and the little head rolled a few steps away. There was no blood. No wounds. The end of the neck as well as the bottom of the separated head were all covered in normal skin where they had been fused together just a moment ago. It was exactly the same for the limbs. They were simply just long masses of bone and flesh covered in skin.
I stood there for just second, simply staring at the pieces of little Tony.
I looked up and saw how Martin was held up by the puppets. He was crying and squirming in their grip, trying to free himself. For a moment he saw me and looked right at me. Then again, for only a moment I saw something shimmering in the air and moving towards his body. I saw his eyes go wide, his mouth open and his whole body stiffen, shake violently and soon after going limp. As the puppets let go of him he just fell to the ground in similar fashion as they did. Landing in a lifeless, twisted mess.
By now Alexander had noticed that I had destroyed two of his puppets and another one was already jumping towards me. I barely avoided the boy dressed as a hunter landing on top of me. I started running. I simply ran and ran. I could see another puppet out of the corner of my eye. A boy, gliding next to me in the air, almost a meter above ground, arms stretched forward, trying to get me. I could feel his fingers almost getting a hold of my shoulder, but slipping off. Suddenly the boy was yanked backwards as Alexander’s strings seemed to have reached their maximum length.
I don’t know exactly what happened afterwards. I must have gotten my bike and then drove home as fast as I could. Not to my friend Martin’s house, but all the way home to my parent’s. I can’t tell you how my parents reacted to finding me at home. I heard later that when I got home it was already past midnight and I had woken them up. I had been a crying mess, hitting the door, screaming when no one opened. I was pleading to them to protect me form the puppets and to make them get away.
My friends went missing that summer. Seven kids, including Martin, that were never seen again. I was questioned by the police countless times. I knew they didn’t believe my story. They probably thought it was just a bullshit tale of a confused kid.
They still checked the old holiday area and the cottages, but there was no trace of anyone, especially not a stage. I told them that everything must be hidden and that Alexander the Magnificent must have left and be on his way to a new town.
The problem was that no one had ever heard of the man or his puppet show. Even when they looked for a man of my description, as vague as it was, they never got any serious leads. In the end my friends stayed missing to this day. No trace of them was ever found, not even their bodies.
To this day I still have no idea what it was that happened that evening or what happened to my friends. I don’t want to think about it anymore. The problem is that it is constantly lingering on my mind.
I can’t watch anything with puppets in it.
I am in my early thirties, but I am still haunted by dreams of little wooden boys trying to catch me and make me into one of their own.