The Winning Entry.
“Marionettes during dinner party meeting and kissing.”
It is late when the child comes to get me. As he opens my case, warm light slips across the velvet lined lid, and I can smell smoke. The adults are there, sitting in armchairs, and I see that not all the smoke is from the fireplace. A man with a sharp-trimmed beard and light grey eyebrows blows clouds from his mouth. He is sitting too close to the fire, and he is burning from the inside. But his face does not change, and I am struck by the way that, though they have more moving parts than I, these people don’t show pain.
“Best thing in the world for a boy,” one of the adults says. She is painted mostly in greens, and her hair is finely pitted—teak perhaps, stained and weathered for years. They call her Rose when they speak to her, and the child is hers, for I have seen her fix his leaking eyes. He runs to her, and she puts her arms around him, and they are immobile for a long time, as though their strings have gotten tangled. And the child shudders with creaking sounds as his head moves until he is finally pulled free. “Does wonders for the imagination,” Rose says, turning to the burning man. “Why, just the other day, Tommy put on an entire show for us. There was a story and jokes, and he’s gotten so good at making it dance, you wouldn’t believe it. Show Mr. Torez how Chuck dances, Tommy.”
I am pulled up and out of the box until only my feet scrape the velvet. Then I am free, and I dangle in the air. My wires are tangled though, and my head twists slowly until I’m looking at the child. I see his slender hands and fingers weaving between my wires, his tongue at the side of his lips, and his eyes locked onto me.
“Here, let me see him,” another of the adults pipes up. This one owns the child with Rose, and he is the one that always fixes me. He is made of pine I think, and parts of his face and the front of his head have been lacquered so they shine when light comes in from outside. The others call him Frank when they speak to him. Frank is gentle with me, and my limbs raise and lower, one over another, until shortly I hang as I should. “Every time,” he tells the child. “He must toss in his sleep.” As Frank says this, his lips rise in the corners, and holly teeth slip out from under them.
He is wrong though. I don’t toss. While I’m in my box, I watch things. My eyes don’t close like theirs do, and though the velvet turns black as soon as the lid is shut, I see those images I’ve watched outside. The past few nights, I’ve been watching the movie. I see the way the people in the movie, the man and the woman, the way their legs and arms move. Mine don’t move as well as theirs. They must have more wires, I know, but still, I’m getting better.
The man, he’s painted like I am, black and white, and his hair is stiff and dark like mine. But he spins and twirls in ways I can’t, ways my wires won’t allow. He and the woman clasp onto one another, not quite like Rose and the child, and they spin quick then slow, quick then slow. The woman’s dress, in streaming reds, flows sharp behind them, bending and twisting as though pulled by a thousand tiny threads. As I lie in my box and feel the soft velvet, that is what I see.
The child holds me again now, and he starts to pull at my strings. My feet touch the ground and then kick. My arms brush my sides and fly up and away. Every joint in my body loosens, and I start to chant in my head, Like the movie, like the movie. The dance is fast. I lose count of the beats, but I know I’m hitting them, every one. The adults look on with their teeth full showing, and when I finish, their hands slap together and I bow. The child bows too, and I slump to the ground as my wires go lax.
“Very good. Very good,” says the burning man as smoke slips from his mouth. “Your parents told me you were good at this, but I must say I’m impressed.”
“Well, he ought to be good by now,” says Frank with a grin. “He plays with that thing enough. I swear, there’s no point in buying him other toys. All he wants is Chuck there.”
“Is that true, Tommy?” The burning man’s lips curl down, and I think perhaps he has just started to feel the fire. Tommy doesn’t say anything, but I can feel him shrug as I lift and fall. Then the burning man gets close, and his eyebrows slip down his forehead. “Well, that is quite a shame. You see, I brought a present with me, and I can’t possibly return it. Do you think perhaps you could take it anyway?”
My wires jump, and my right arm shakes.
“Good,” says the burning man.
The burning man reaches beneath his chair, and Rose speaks. “You really didn’t have to, John.”
“It’s the least I could do. Consider us even for the dinner.”
“But you already brought that lovely wine.”
“Then this will be for the dancing.” The burning man winks at the child and hands him a long black box. “This,” he says, “is from Seville, in Spain. Do you know where that is?”
The child shakes his head.
“Well, it’s a long way from here, across the ocean. I saw this in a market, and I asked the shopkeeper about it. She said she makes them all by hand, and she dresses them in traditional flamenco gowns.”
The boy sets my wires down, and opens the box. I can see a cross and strings and flashes of orange, and then he lifts her out, and I watch her dangle in the air. She is carved of darkened cherry, and light pink stains her cheeks. Her limbs are stiff, her wires tangled, and it takes Frank and the child a couple of minutes to set her loose. Her dress flows down beside her in layers of orange and black, covering all but her ankles and red heel shoes. As her body turns, it crumples and moves.
“What is her name?” asks the child, looking at the burning man.
He smiles and leans back into his chair. “Why don’t you give her one?”
“I can’t” says the child as he runs his fingers along her face. “She has one already. I know it. I can’t just make one up.”
The burning man looks at Frank and Rose, and Frank shrugs. “Oh, yes, of course,” the burning man tells the boy, “I forgot. The shopkeeper did say her name. Let me see if I can remember.”
But I know her name already. It is written in every grain of her face and in the pale paint on her lips. Her eyes, dark brown like Brazil nut shells, reach to me. She is beauty. She is grace. She is that dark something that fills my box as I lie and watch the outside world. And from now on, I know that this is the moment I will see again and again.
“Carmelita, I think. Yes, that was it,” the burning man says with an air of triumph. And I do not begrudge him the name, though it is only a piece of her.
The child runs his fingers once more across her face, and he says the name again to himself in a stumbling way. He sees her truly, as I do. Then he smiles to the burning man and says thank you very much, and he pulls at her wires.
Her joints are the same as mine. They move just like mine. At first, the child makes her dance as I do, and what I had always thought graceful and poised looks messy and frail. Then the child realizes that she is more than that, more than me, and he begins to turn her as her legs rise and fall. Her dress slaps against the wind, ruffles and folds—as though pulled by a thousand threads.
When she is done, she lowers slightly to the ground, the child bows, and the adults slap their palms once more. Then I rise with the child, and Carmelita and I are looking at each other. She steps slowly to me, and I to her. I want to put my arms around her like Rose with the child. I want for us to tangle to the point where Frank cannot pull us free. I’m close to her now, and I reach, my arms lifting from my sides and spreading out before me. But they stop. They knock against her wires, and I cannot reach her. I try to hold her from further away, like the man and woman in the movie, but even that is too close.
My strings go lax, and my head hangs loose. The man and woman from the movie come back to me, and I see them spin around each other, quick then slow. And I know that’s something I will never do.
But then her strings go lax as well, and she bows down low to put her face near mine. Her lips touch my cheek and then my lips. I spin back and forth against my wires, then slump to the ground. And I can hear my audience, clapping loud and strong.