The audience cheer as the curtain falls. Guido and Marco step out from behind the curtains with a marionette in each hand. The four stars of the show, Pierrot, Colombina, Pantalone and Il Generalissimo miraculously step forward and bow. The puppeteers make them turn and blow kisses to the adoring crowd. Marco makes Pierrot turn and expose his rear end and blow something quite different. All the children laugh. The puppeteers milk it for all it’s worth and then lead the puppets back off stage to the sound of wild applause.
Backstage, I rush to take the marionettes and pack them away. Guido hangs Pierrot and Pantalone on the peg, I’ll pack them latter, but Marco drops his puppets to the floor and walks away leaving a tangle of strings and puppet for me to unravel. Guido slaps Marco on the arm.
“Treat them with respect.” But Marco just shrugs and lights a cigarette on his way out the theatre. Guido looks at me for only a moment.
“Clear them away,” he calls as he rushes after Marco.
Colombina and Il Generalissimo are slumped together. I pick them up and carry them to the workbench. It will take me hours to separate them and fix their strings. Colombina will need some touching up to her face; there is a little chip on her perfect, papier-Mache check.
I turn the strings this way and that, maneuvering limbs and joints to unwrap the tangle. The unblinking eyes of the puppets stare at me. Eventually, I separate the puppets. I take Il Generalissimo and straighten his uniform. His sword is a little bent, so I straighten it out. Then I spin him around to twist the strings into a single cord, so they don’t tangle and place him in his box. In there, the light and moths won’t spoil his uniform. He scowls fiercely at me as I close the lid.
Now I turn to Colombina. I lay her on the bench and look for the right shade of paint to match her perfect skin. Mixing the paint with a sable brush, I take her fragile, shell-like face in my hand.
“He should not be so rough with you,” I say, and her delicate blue eyes look back at me in agreement.
I gently brush over the tiny chip. “Good as new,” I tell her, and start to pack her away safely.
But Colombina does not want to go; she wants to stay with me.
“Do I look so old that you want to pack me in that coffin?”
“Of course not, you look like perfect.” And then I wonder how old Colombina is, how many years since she was made in a workshop in Italy. How many hands have held her strings, or repainted her face or sewed her dress?
“You are still beautiful,” I say.
Colombina keeps looking at me. “Am I really?”
“Yes, look at your skin, it is like porcelain, your eyes are blue as sapphires and your hair as dark as a raven’s wing.”
“I’m not too old?”
“No never, and each year only makes you more precious.”
“Say it,” Colombina whispers.
“I love you.”
I press my lips to her red painted mouth and taste the coolness of her. Her small delicate hand brushes against my hand. Her bosom slips out of her taffeta dress and a white breast tipped with pink paint is exposed.
“Do you want me?” She asks.
Before I can answer, I am interrupted by shouts from the peg shelf.
“Unhand my wife,” calls Pierrot.
Colombina turns towards Pierrot. “What kind of a husband are you? One that does not love me. I have given you everything, and in return, you give me nothing.”
Pierrot protests and turns to Pantalone for support but Pantalone will not get mixed up in their lover’s quarrel.
I am in the most awkward position. Colombina and Pierrot shout insults at each other.
“Hush,” I cry. “People will hear you. I am sorry I kissed your wife,” I tell Pierrot.
Pierrot is calm but not satisfied. “If you were not a young boy I would beat you with my stick, and her, Colombina the harlot.”
I worry that this will set them off again, but Colombina does not reply.
“Put me in my box,” she demands. “Put me away where I do not have to see this cold husband of mine.”
I take Colombina and do as she commands. Then I pack away Pierrot and Pantalone.
The next evening is a triumph for the marionettes, Pierrot and Colombina dance wildly, twirling backwards and forwards while the crowd cheer with delight. At the encore, Guido and Marco ham it up, but everyone knows who the real stars are. Colombina blushes modestly and hides behind a fan while she flutters her eyes coyly. Pierrot stands tall and bows dramatically then presents flowers to Colombina. It appears they are lovers again.
Guido and Marco march the puppets off stage to raucous applause. Backstage, Guido hangs Pierrot and Pantalone on the pegs, but Marco is furious. He throws Colombina to the ground.
“Do not try to upstage me again,” he says. Then he and Guido storm out. Pierrot slips from his peg and comes running over to Colombina.
“That brute,” he declares.
“I should run him through,” says Il Generalissimo brandishing his gold foil sabre.
Pierrot holds Colombina in his arms as she weeps uncontrollably. She holds up an arm and there for all to see is a crack running along her porcelain hand.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I can repair that, or replace it if I have to.”
“You are such a kind boy,” Colombina replies. “But it’s no use, one day that man will kill me. If only you were not so young.”
“I’m not a child,” I say.
“Do not be angry,” says Colombina. “It is not your fault that he is a pig.”
“I will save you; I will protect you,” I protest.
“How, how can you do this,” says Colombina.
“I will kill him,” I say.
The four marionettes fall silent.
“You will,” asks Pierott? “How will you do this?”
“I don’t know,” I admit.
“See,” says Colombina. “It is useless; he is only a child.”
“If only I had a weapon,” I say, and here Il Generalissimo hands me his sabre. It grows cold and deadly in my hand.
“You know what you have to do.” Four pairs of painted eyes look at me, and I nod.
The next night the marionettes perform like stiff wooden puppets. Neither Guido nor Marco seem to notice the tension in the air. The applause is muted, and no encore is asked for or given. When the puppeteers come backstage, both Guido and Marco hang the marionettes on their pegs and leave without a word.
“He’ll be back,” I tell Colombina, and from my pocket, I withdraw the packet of cigarettes I took from Marco’s coat.
“Best get ready then,” she says. And Il Generalissimo hands me the sabre. I wipe it on my sleeve even though it is bright and clean. I finger the edge of the sabre; sharp as a razor.
“Quick,” calls Pierrot. “Behind the door, I can hear him coming.”
Sure enough, I hear Marco coming up from the back entrance stomping on the stairs. I slide behind the door and wait.
When Marco comes in, he starts shouting, “Hey boy, where are my cigarettes? Bring them now.”
I close the door and step out into the light holding the sabre. Marco looks surprised then he starts laughing.
“What’s all this,” he says. “Why are you waving that toy around?”
“I’m not a boy,” I say. “You have disrespected Colombina for too long. Now you will pay.”
“What are you talking about, they are puppets.”
I look at Colombina.
“If you love me, do it,” she calls.
Marco spins around and stares at Colombina. “I should smash you into a million pieces,” he shouts.
“Now,” shouts Pierrot. “While his back is turned.”
I close my eyes and swing the sabre wildly. I have no idea how to fight with a sword. I feel the blade jar against Marco’s skull, and a wet splatter covers my face. I open my eyes and watch Marco slump to the floor. Blood and brains spill from a gaping wound in his head, a wound I gave him. His lifeless eyes stare at me like a puppet’s.
“There, I’ve done it,” I say. “I’ve killed him as you wanted.”
But Colombina does not answer, nor Pierrot, nor Il Generalissimo nor Pantalone. They hang from their pegs lifeless and still. Only then do I realise who is pulling the strings.