Fists of Felt
It had been a good show despite everything that could have gone wrong. Farmer Bob and the rest of the Golden Sun Farm cast had taught a valuable lesson about sharing and Penelope the Dun Cow had managed to learn Peep’s song in time without dropping too many notes. He doubted that their young demographic noticed the nervous cow puppet fall out of tune. But there was no way they hadn’t missed Peep. The precocious chicken had been his partner on Golden Sun Farm ever since the beginning. Her absence was missed by every member of the cast, from the foam and felt puppets of the farm animals, to the wooden, hinged-jaw Mailman Pete. The stick-puppet mice and chicks in the barn missed her most of all, sometimes breaking down in tears during rehearsals.
There wasn’t anything Farmer Bob could do about it. Sometimes these things didn’t work out. He and Peep had a lot of history, but sometimes a silence built up between two puppets that all the time and love in the world just couldn’t fix. He hadn’t wanted her to leave the show, though. He was willing to be cordial, a professional to the end. But it was too much for the big-hearted chicken. Prone to histrionics as she was, she stormed off set three weeks ago after a disagreement over blocking for a dance in rehearsal. No one in the cast had seen her since, and Bob had started to get worried.
But the show must go on, and he kept the cast together, moving forward from one televised performance to the next. It was harder some days than others. He kept them drilling on the dances and songs, and tried to make sure that there were only smiles down on the Farm. The audience deserved no less.
When the white-hot glare of the stage lights shut off, the last of the studio audience had already left, their small voices and innocent laughter echoing down the hallways on the way to the Studio 23 parking lot. From backstage, Farmer Bob heard them. Laughing children. It was the lifeblood to a puppet like him.
Penelope eased past him on her way back to her dressing room. Bob gave her a smile and a nod of his round, blue head. “Good job out there, Pen. We’ll make a scene stealer out of you yet.”
The simple words of encouragement put some spring in the young cow puppet’s step. “Thanks, Farmer Bob. That means a lot.”
Bob smiled and watched her go. It’s the little things that make all the difference, he thought. He took another sip of his coffee, the mug tight in his soft hand, careful not to spill any. Nothing stained his felt like coffee, but he couldn’t give it up, no matter how many times he had Lucy in wardrobe painfully bleach out the stain. One particularly nasty spill from a chilidog had required surgery to remove the dark spot on his chest. They had done a great job down at Puppet General Hospital – the stitches were hardly visible against the blue felt of his torso unless you looked closely, and most of the time, his overalls covered what scar there was.
Peep had looked closely. They had been in love once, after all. She had looked closely and had grown cold towards him. Maybe the scars reminded her of her own fragility. Maybe it was just one more instance of her cautioning Farmer Bob about something while he wasn’t listening. He didn’t know. All he knew was that she was gone. Bob spoke to mutual friends about her from time to time. It was hard to keep tabs on a foam chicken when she didn’t want to be disturbed. He didn’t want to seem obsessive. At the same time, he wanted to protect her even though she didn’t want that protection. This was a tough town. A puppet could fall through the cracks and never be seen again. It had happened to Fantastic Filbert and Mean Gene. It sure as hell could happen to a sweet chicken puppet right off the farm.
Bob saw Gary the Squirrel lurking deep in the shadows near the prop table in the wings. Bob figured that he must be waiting to talk to him by the way he worried his faux fur tail between his cheap, plastic claws. Gary was a gutter-level puppet if ever there was one, but sometimes there was information to be gleaned from those mean streets. When Bob cast his net to find word on Peep, he had cast his net wide. And unless he missed his guess, he had caught something. After making sure they were alone, Bob waved the nervous squirrel over from the shadows. “What’s the word, Gary?”
The squirrel’s red, felt-lined mouth shot open and his words tumbled out like candy from a piñata. “Yeah, Bob, it isn’t good. It isn’t good at all. She’s in a bad way, with a bad crowd. Just bad, Bob. Bad.”
The news didn’t surprise Farmer Bob that much. If she had fallen off his radar, then she had to have sunk pretty far indeed. He clenched and unclenched his blue felt fists, prepared for the worst. “Well, don’t sugar coat it for me, Gary. What is she into? Hot glue clubs? Hand jobs down at Storytime Junction? Tell it to me straight.”
A stunned silence enveloped the two puppets. Even at his coldest, Bob never suspected she would have fallen in with the secretive cult of Indonesian shadow puppets known as the Wayang Kulit. They weren’t like the other shows in Puppetropolis. They were clannish, made from leather and bone. All in all, the Wayang Kulit was a tight-knit family suspected of all manner of dark rituals and suspicious deeds. The father, Semar, and his three sons, Gareng, Petruk, and Bagong, performed a kind of political cabaret down at their pavilion, and seemed more concerned with gossip and current affairs than entertaining children. Being firmly entrenched as one of the primary entertainments in Bali, Java, and most parts of Indonesia hadn’t been good enough for them. Hell, rumors said that sometimes their shows ran until dawn, and in Farmer Bob’s estimation, you didn’t get that kind of crowd without doing something underhanded.
Farmer Bob knew that it was easy for people to fear what they didn’t understand. And with Wayang Kult, there was a lot to not understand. Semar and his kin seemed to like it that way. They started off telling religious stories to the masses as a way to educate them in Hinduism, and the whole tradition quickly became shrouded in secrecy and deliberate obfuscation of the visible. When Islam spread to the islands, the Hindi religion stories the puppets told became Islamic stories. But since Islam forbid showing God or gods in human form, a compromise had to be found. The puppets themselves were forbidden – the shows pushed underground. Only by backlighting the figures against a screen and turning them into shadow plays were they allowed to go on.
Wayang Kulit had grown up far from the prying eyes of the west, their secrets closely guarded while they distracted with lighter fare. There could be nothing good coming out of Peep getting caught up in their circle. Farmer Bob figured it had to be too incredible of a lie for the gutter puppet to make up, and also, he had nothing to gain by a falsehood. But still, it was hard to believe. “You have proof she’s with them?”
The idea of proof made the already shaken squirrel up even more nervous. He worried his tail with such intensity that strands of shredded faux fur drifted towards the floor in the dim light. “Proof? I don’t have proof. How am I going to get proof? I don’t have a camera. But Twinkle-Toes was with me when I saw Peep head into the show tent. Ask her. She’s opening for the Punch and Judy show on the pier. You can find her there.”
Farmer Bob clenched and unclenched his felt fists, his mouth drier than usual. “And where is Peep now?”
“She went into the show tent with two of the Wayang sons. I don’t know which ones… I couldn’t get a good look at them.”
“But you know they were Wayang?”
“I’m not stupid. I might have my problems, but I’m not stupid. The way the shadows bent around them, the clickety-clack of their control rods, yeah, they’re Wayang. If you doubt me, ask Twinkle-Toes. She may be a marionette, but she has some good eyes in that wooden head of hers. She saw it all. She’ll back me up.”
Paying a visit to the Wayang pavilion was a delicate proposition. It wouldn’t do to stop by without just cause. Casting suspicion on them when he had nothing but Gary’s word to back him up could cause trouble in already tense international circles. But Twinkle-Toes, while she was a bit frayed and her paint a bit chipped, was still credible. With her endorsement, it would be worth the risk of stirring up the shadow puppet pavilion. Farmer Bob heaved an exaggerated sigh and realized that there was no recourse but to pay a visit to Twinkle-Toes at the Punch and Judy hall down at the pier.
He caught a ride on the trolley, almost missing the 3:15 as it sped through the foggy streets. By the time he got to the pier, it was all but deserted, which didn’t surprise Farmer Bob. A pair of weathered, foam-headed judges hunkered over their fishing poles, barely giving up a nod of recognition as he walked past. Now retired from a televised sketch comedy show, both judges had worked at Studio 23 when Bob got his start, but time and bitterness had taken its toll, and he was a non-entity to them now. He didn’t linger, driven on by the desire to get in from the cold, gray light that came from everywhere and nowhere all at once. It provided bleak comfort this time of year. Even the sound of the waves against the concrete pilings seemed dispirited, and the ramshackle performance hall at the end of the pier needed a fresh coat of paint, its once gaudy reds, blues, and gold a faded reminder of free wheeling summers and lost glory.
Pushing his way inside the cavernous space of the performing hall, Farmer Bob felt overwhelmed by a sense of history. These were his roots, he knew. Before the age of television, this was a dream venue for a puppet. A regular audience and their own performance space, free from the ravages of the elements. Those were heady times, and it almost made him long for a bygone age. Almost.
Twinkle-Toes was in the middle of her routine, a loose-jointed soft shoe number which was every bit as entertaining as it was when Farmer Bob saw it for the first time too many decades ago. But no one wanted novelty acts anymore, and even talented dancers like Twinkle-Toes found themselves marginalized, forced to work out on the fringes of what was already a fringe medium.
A jaded, feminine voice from the shadowed seats at his elbow startled him. “She’s still got it, don’t she, pet? Just a beauty to watch, makes a puppet feel glad to be alive.”
“I’m surprised to see you out in the gallery like this, Judy. I figured you would be back stage by now. How are things?” But as Farmer Bob turned his blue felt head to look at the veteran puppet, he regretted asking. There was a significant crack below her left eye that was painful to look at. Judy needed to have it looked at down at Puppet General, but Bob knew that if she could have – if Punch would allow it — the damage would have been fixed by now. It was not a recent injury. Paint flaked from the edges, showing the wound to be aggravated by each performance she did, each stage beating she endured.
Judy acknowledged the wound with a wry smile, knowing that he had seen it (for how could he miss it?) “Been better, pet, been better. But dying on stage every night of my life, while Punch gets off scot-free makes a girl philosophical. Just our lot in life, innit? The Professor gives and the Professor takes away.”
It was best not to engage the Punch and Judy crowd in conversation about the Professor. Their religious fervor had been known to spill out into real violence, and Farmer Bob was not a believer. He let them believe their strange creation mythology as long as it didn’t interfere with him, and that was generally enough for them. Live and let live. It was a simple credo that served the puppet community well.
The horrible buzzing voice of Punch cut through the shadows before Bob could even think of a response to Judy. “His lordship dint drag his self here to listen to you prattle on, slag. Git backstage and fix that ‘orrible mug you call a face, else I git it in me head to kills you fer good an always t’night!”
Twinkle-Toes stopped dancing, but the music still played, the hiss and pop of the old phonograph needle no longer masked by the sound of her wooden shoes. Judy, who had leapt to her feet at the sound of Punch’s voice, headed backstage at what she hoped was a dignified pace, but fear put some haste in her step, and she was gone into the shadows within seconds. Punch walked down the aisle, his hooked nose almost reaching his jutting chin. His whacking stick was affixed to his hand as always, but at least it was down by his side and not waving around. “My apologies, Punch. I didn’t mean to interrupt the show.”
“Well, if wishes were ‘orses, ‘n all that. You dint comes ta see me, an’ I knows you dint come ta see tha’ cow Judy. So git yur talkin’ done wit an git the bloody ‘ell out.”
Bob turned to the stage where Twinkle-Toes was frozen with apprehension. “Did you see Peep earlier?” She nodded yes with a frantic bobbing of her painted wooden head. “With two of the Wayang brothers, going into their pavilion?” More frantic nodding confirmed his fears. Farmer Bob turned to make his exit and found the hunchbacked Punch blocking his path, so close that his hooked nose poked into Bob’s overalls.
“Tha’s it? Your feathery bint paintin’ the town red wit ‘em shadow bastards? Good luck dealin’ wit ‘em, Bob. Now git out. Yer gonna upset the audience.”
Looking around the seats filled with nothing but shadows and dust, Bob had a hard time hiding his smile. “I don’t know what audience you’re talking about, Punch, but I’m leaving.”
The spiritual grandfather of western puppets was on Bob like a flash, his whacking-stick under Bob’s bulbous head, pushing into his throat. The blue felt entertainer found himself forced back into one of the seats, struggling for balance. “You listen and listen good, you sod. Jus ‘cause you don see ‘em don’ mean they ain’t there. You slander me or you slander the almighty ‘gain, and I’ll ‘ave your ‘ed, Sunny Jim.”
“Sorry,” Bob gasped around the threatening stick poking into his throat. “So sorry. I didn’t mean anything. I’ll be going now.”
“See that you do. See that you do. An’ watch your tongue ‘round them Wayang bastards, too. Jus’ cause you don unnerstand ‘em don make ‘em wrong.”
Farmer Bob kept that grim warning with him as he made his way to the Wayang pavilion. He found it impossible to get the hideous, buzzing voice of Punch out of his head, and the more it haunted him, the more it started to resonate with other, unspoken fears.
Where was the audience Punch had spoken of, he wondered? He tried to comfort himself with the faces of his own audience back at Studio 23. But found it difficult, if not impossible to remember any faces – could not even picture their shapes. The laughter, yes, the laughter was there. The whispers of anticipation, the shuffle of feet as they left, but beyond the stage lights there was only darkness and sound – shadows in shadows. He had never questioned that he had an audience. But he had never seen his own show from the seats. How could he? How could anyone?
And that more than anything made him nervous about entering the Wayang pavilion. The shadows were the place of the audience, the comforting beyond. And for the likes of Punch and Judy, it was the domain of their mythical “Professor,” at least as far as Bob understood it. But the Wayang Kulit lived in the shadows. It was their world, and they spoke from it. And that filled him with a strange disquiet.
The Wayang pavilion was well lit from outside, festooned with brightly colored banners and ribbons and a kaleidoscope of flags. He made his way through the entrance with trepidation, but once inside found nothing sinister. There were no seats to speak of inside the pavilion, but brightly-colored pillows littered the floor, providing a surprisingly comfortable place to watch the stage. The lights were low as suited a shadow puppet show. The only light came from a backlit cloth screen on the stage. There was no one in the audience, but Farmer Bob felt an unusual tingle of anticipation. The air inside the pavilion was electric. A hum just at the edges of his perception filtered through into his consciousness. There was something in the air — something ancient and magical, and as much as he wanted to be a part of it, it still frightened him.
He tried to get comfortable and wait for the show, opening his mind as much as he could, trying to be aware of everything around him as much as possible. That hum of anticipation, where was it from? he wondered. He focused on the sound, looking for something he could single out, and slowly he began to pick out what could only be bits of conversation coming from everywhere around him. Where was the audience, he wondered? Was it possible that this shadowy show had an audience of shades and ghosts? He felt a tremble of fear at the thought but remained riveted to his seat.
Every fiber of his being told Bob that he was surrounded — that this audience of spirits was all around him. He made out words here and there, and told himself that somehow this audience was real and that they were very much alive, but even in the shadows of the audience, he was blind to their presence.
This was a mistake, Bob thought. I was wrong to intrude here, and perhaps if I come back later, after the show, it would be for the best. But he found that he could not move, unable to get up and flee the buzzing and humming mystery of the Wayang pavilion. He was trapped, and cursed this body that had betrayed him with this resistance to flight.
The lights dimmed further and he could sense that the show was about to start. Intricately shaped forms appeared in silhouette against the screen, and he knew the larger one to be Semar, the father. He had his three sons with him, and detailed props of silhouette skyscrapers and silhouette airplanes appeared around them as they launched into a story that Bob couldn’t understand. It had never occurred to him that the show wouldn’t be in English, and he quickly found himself struggling to keep track of what was happening. At one point, it was a travel story, at others, maybe more of a slapstick. Around him, the shadows erupted in a low rumble that shook him to his core. It was only after several long seconds that Bob realized it was laughter.
The shadows around him were laughing!
It was a somewhat reassuring sound once he made the realization. It humanized the figures he could not see, took the edge off the fear, and it allowed him to relax into the show even more. The silhouettes of the three sons appeared to be tending to Semar as though he were ill. Bob strained to make sense of the musical tones of the Wayang actors. It did no good – the story was still impossibly difficult to follow, leaving him in the dark.
“Semar is telling his eldest son, Gareng, that he is sick and going to die, and Gareng and his brothers, Petruk and Bagong, need to be prepared for his death. Gareng says he needs to prepare to send his father’s spirit to the beyond, free of corruption from evil spirits.”
The voice came from somewhere behind Bob, but when he turned, he saw only shadows. It was the tone of a mother explaining something to her child, and when he looked closely he thought he saw, for just the briefest of seconds, a small shadow seated on the cushions behind him, and a larger shadow bending close. The vision was gone almost before it started, but out of the corner of his eyes, he could sense their presence. The audience was there. No, he could not see them, but they were there. Punch, for all his insanity, might have been right about something for a change. But while the knowledge was somewhat comforting, an uneasy sense of dread still filled the room. Farmer Bob found his desire to flee stronger than ever, but his ability to move was still beyond him. He turned his eyes back to the stage, trying to avoid thinking about the increasingly sharper images in the periphery of his vision.
The story unfolded on the backlit screen, and Farmer Bob found that in his terror he had lost track of the narrative. Then he saw the familiar silhouette of Peep on the screen before him. She was talking to the shadow of Petruk or Bagong… he could not be certain which. As much as he dreaded the necessity, he focused his ears on the translation and explanation going on behind him, rather than on the seductive gibber-jabber of the foreign tongue coming from beyond the screen.
According to the motherly voice, the Wayang son was explaining to Peep that his father was in danger from evil spirits and that only she could help lure out this spirit and protect their father. Bob had known Peep long enough to tell that she was confused and uncomfortable merely by her body language, but she said nothing. He wondered briefly if the brothers had somehow rendered her mute, or if she, being the consummate performer, knew well enough not to deviate from script. She had always been sweet, but she was simple and far too trusting for her own good. If Peep had no lines in this performance, she would say nothing. It would be easy for an unscrupulous puppet to take advantage of her naiveté.
The shadow shapes grew stronger around him, their features coalescing sharper by the moment. And they were alien to him. How could they be so strange to him? The audience had always been there! Yes, some uneasy part of his mind whispered, they had always been there, but always beyond the lights. He was beginning to realize he had never truly seen his audience.
On the screen, the silhouettes of the Wayang Kulit and Peep performed their shadow play. Peep was now tethered near Semar’s face as he old puppet lay upon the ground. The mother’s voice behind Bob patiently explained that Semar is dead now and is going to be cremated. An elaborate shadow of a flame appeared to mask Semar’s body. It was a prop, Bob realized, but as a shadow, it was as real as the puppets and that somehow made it more powerful. Fire is death to a puppet, and instinct told him to flee, but he could not. Instead he sat, transfixed while smoky tendrils too ephemeral to be puppets or props or anything other than pure shadow rose from the flames and entered the silhouette of Peep. Like oil on water, these shadows curled and danced, alive in a way no prop could mimic, and with sinister contortions, they wound their way into the bound chicken puppet.
“And now all the evil spirits have been drawn from the flame into the chicken instead of into any of the family members,” the matronly voice intoned gravely.
Enough is enough, Bob thought. It was time to go. The shadows around him had taken on alarming clarity, and they towered above him in the darkness. Looking down at his legs, willing them to move, he instead saw something else that turned his heart to cold and heavy stone.
He had no legs.
Bob swallowed a hysterical laugh.
How could he not have legs? Hadn’t he always had legs? The distressed puppet cast his mind back despairingly. He had never given it a thought, taking it as a given. When he wanted to go somewhere, he merely went. But looking down, he saw his blue torso terminate below the waist in a skirt-like drape of felt. And below the felt, something pale and covered with coarse black hairs was visible, like a horrible serpent. He could vaguely sense this serpent as it thrust beneath his felt, undulating beneath his skin, controlling his every movement.
Beyond the screen, Peep was filled with evil spirits, but amid the shadows of the audience Bob no longer cared for her safety. There were worse things in the shadows than spirits, he realized. There was truth, “Professors,” and possibly worse. He found himself staggering, no, It staggering out into the street, with him its unwilling passenger. He begged the forms to fade back into the shadows of shadows, but the audience remained ignorant of his distress. He tried to close his googly eyes to the giant shapes of the “audience” all around him. They were everywhere, horrible and ugly and fleshy and sneering and hateful and laughing and mocking and cruel.
He tried to block it out, to beg for release from the truth. But he was no longer in control. He knew then that he had never been in control. With each staggering step, the pain and his sense of self faded into the shadows – shadows he once felt reserved for the audience, his lifeblood. They rose up to meet him, and too shocked to fight back, he let them claim him, leaving him void and hollow.
When he passed Peep in the street later, she was heaving a viscous black shadow into the gutter, only to have it crawl and claw it’s way back in to her through her beak. But if he recognized her, he did not show it – did not even glance down at her imploring eyes as he passed by, impossibly high, his heart turned to stone, his felt hands forever more clenched into fists.