Inktober52 2023: Puppet

This drabble kind of ran away from me and the focus (puppet), but I’m okay with it because it’s helping me understand my characters and their world better.

“Wren?” a voice piped up from beyond the tent flaps. A voice of honey and sugar and all things sweet. Eliza. With the golden curls that Wren always so desperately wanted to reach out and pull.

“Yes?” Wren said, sitting up from the pile of quilts shoved into the corner of the otherwise darkened tent. Even though there was no light, Wren could still see the shadows shifting and moaning. Northern Point may look like a place of friendly faces and upbeat optimism, but the cold had its claws sunk deep into the land, the people, the soul of the port city.

“Crick is starting a story soon, if you’re interested.” Eliza’s voice was small, almost unsure. Wren wasn’t sure why Eliza of all people bothered to include her when the other children usually ignored her or played tricks on her. Not that they could really get away with most of their tricks since Wren could see what they were up to, even if she wasn’t standing right next to them.

She could always see in their colors when they were up to some kind of mischief. The auras flickering with strains of impish greens and ballooning yellows and scratches of red.

But still, she was grateful that Eliza tried. Eliza with the happy yellow of sunflowers and honeybees, the fluffy white of sugar and flour, and a touch of blush red to match her freckled cheeks and red curls.

“Thank you. I’ll come,” Wren replied, wishing her voice didn’t come out so gloomy. She was excited whenever Crick decided to tell a story. But somehow the darkness surrounding her made it much too hard for her to get the words out like she wanted. It was as if they started up her throat and into her mouth and the moment they reached the darkness outside of her body, they transformed. Elongated, lowered, flattened.

“I’ll save you a seat, then.” Eliza replied before she walked away, taking all of her warm, syrupiness with her.

Wren felt so alone. So cold. She shivered as she gathered an extra sweater from the pile of clothes in the other corner of the tent and searched for something else to give her outfit the right touch. But Ryker had taken his scarf with him, and there was nothing quite like it as a substitute.

Making do with what she had, Wren crept out of her tent and headed toward the large bonfire in the center of the market plaza of Northern Point. Gray’s traveling circus had arrived early afternoon to set up for tomorrow’s Market Day entertainment. She and Ryker had spent most of the day organizing their tent and planning their performance for tomorrow.

Now, the plaza was cast in more groaning shadows, only dissipated by the few fires and lamps that lit up the caravans and tents.

Crick already sat on a stool by the fire. A ring of children surrounded him, eager faces lit up by the flames. Eliza was passing out something to each child, probably some kind of dessert she had baked that afternoon. Wren’s mouth watered at the thought, and she fluttered over to the group, finding an empty spot on the ground.

“Who’s ready for a story?” Crick said, lifting his hands and waggling his fingers.
“Me! Me! Me!” The crowd of children cheered as they wiggled and nudged elbows and stuffed honey cakes into their mouths.
Eliza glanced up from a trio of boys near the front of the group and smiled at Wren. One of the boys, Pugsley, turned around to see what Eliza was staring at and stuck out his tongue when he saw it was Wren. She glanced away from him and his puke green, sallow yellow shades.

Wren’s gaze flitted across the crowd of children, all their colors swirling and twirling together, intermingling in a way that made it hard for Wren to tell everything apart. Sometimes, Wren was content when this happened. It made it easier for her to concentrate on what was important. Such as Crick’s story.

“Once upon a time,” Crick began. Without lifting his hands, shadow sprang upon the tent behind him and formed into moving shapes. Crick’s favorite form of storytelling always involved the way he manipulated shadow and light. These shadows, Wren noted, were not suffocating or chilled. They were free and nimble, full of a bright warmth that mirrored the fire at her back.

“There was a princess of fair delight. Every morning, she would awaken the world by singing out her window and the entire kingdom loved her so.” The shadows shifted, showing a figure with long hair and a crown singing music notes out an open window. Below, shadowed people bubbled with hearts and sighs.

Off to the side, Pugsley was yanking at something in Eliza’s hands. Eliza pulled back, a hiss on her lips that Wren couldn’t hear over the crackling fire and Crick’s steady voice. Cheeks blooming red to match her hair, Eliza stamped her foot on Pugsley’s.

“But there was a cruel ogre who lived in a mountain not too far away, who had no love because he had no heart.” A hulking shadow figure with large limbs and a crooked snarl lumbered out of a mountain cave. The center of his chest was exposed, empty of a heart.

Puglsey shoved Eliza back and snatched up whatever she had been holding. He grinned back at Wren, eyes glittering with firelight, before shoving a honey cake into his mouth. Wren didn’t need to see Eliza’s empty hands to know it was the last honey cake. The one Eliza had been saving for her.

“One morning when the cruel ogre emerged from his mountain to hunt for hearts, he heard the princess’s bright voice ring out across the entire kingdom. He stopped to listen, his ugly yellow eyes searching for the source of the voice.” Both shadows sprang to life on the tent cloth. The princess in her tower, music notes floating above the kingdom. The ogre on his mountain, listening.

Eliza slapped Pugsley hard in the cheek and marched away. Fire and water fought in her bright gaze, but the tears won out. They drowned her eyes as she weaved through the children toward Wren.

“The ogre decided that he needed the princess’s heart. That maybe someone with a heart so bright and so loving would ease the insatiable hunger the ogre always felt. So he headed toward the kingdom to kidnap the princess.”

Eliza plopped on the ground next to Wren and pulled her knees to her chest, burying her wet face in her lap. Wren didn’t know what to do. Her stomach felt as empty as the ogre’s chest was empty of a heart.

“In the dead of night, when all dark things slither in and out, the ogre stole into the castle and plucked the princess straight out of her bed and took her all the way back to his cave in the mountain.” The shadows mirrored Crick’s words, depicting the story. But Wren was barely paying attention.

Next to her, Eliza cried. All her sweetness melting into a pile of sugary goop. Eliza wasn’t a pretty crier. Her cheeks became blotchy, her eyes puffy. But it didn’t matter because Wren could see beyond her physical appearance and she could see that Eliza was good and warm and beautiful. She just didn’t know how to tell her.

“When the kingdom awoke the next morning, there was no princess at the castle window. There was no singing. The people were shocked, angry, upset. Where had their princess gone?”

Most times when Wren expressed what she felt or saw, people gave her strange looks or told Ryker to keep her under control. Seen but not heard. There but forgotten.

“Up in the mountain, the princess awoke in a strange place. At first, she was afraid. Where was she? What had happened in the night? But then, she resolved not to be afraid, but to find the answers for herself.”

Wren reached out and placed a hand on Eliza’s shaking shoulder.

“The princess explored the mountain cave, for the ogre had left to gather some wood to make a fire. He thought roasting the princess would be the easiest way to cook her heart for a fine meal.”

Eliza stopped sobbing and glanced up at Wren through watery eyes.

“In the cave, the princess found an assortment of bones and scraps of what looked to be clothing. She knew she could not stay here but she could not let this creature roam free either. She had a kingdom to protect, after all.”

Wren smiled at Eliza and Eliza smiled back. The warm honey sparked again.

“The princess made a plan and waited for the ogre to return.”

Wren reached into one of the pockets of the various pieces of clothing she wore and pulled out a lumpy biscuit leftover from last night’s meal. Ryker always portioned their food so they would have something to eat since they were never sure when Gray would pay them or someone would stop by with food to share. Wren held up the biscuit to Eliza.

“When the ogre returned, carrying an armful of wood, the princess surprised him. She had found an old rusted sword among the pile of clothing scraps. It was old and dull, but it did the trick. She bashed the ogre upon the head and raced out of the mountain cave.”

Eliza took the biscuit from Wren. She stared at the small lump of dough. It wasn’t sweet or filled with honey. It hadn’t been made with a baker’s careful love and sprinkled with generosity. It probably didn’t even taste better than a handful of sand. But Eliza took a bite of it anyway.

“The princess ran all the way back to her kingdom, carrying the rusted sword. When she reached the castle, the people cheered. She told them all about the ogre with no heart in the mountain. The people formed a group to chase the ogre away.”

Eliza chewed and swallowed, nodding her thanks. She did not betray at all whether it tasted good. Then, she ripped the rest of the biscuit in half and handed one half back to Wren. The girls ate their biscuit quietly as they listened to the end of Crick’s story.

“But when they reached the mountain cave, the ogre was already dead. When the princess hit him with the sword, he had fallen to the ground and he did not get back up for the weight of the princess’s love for her kingdom had been too much for his empty heart.”

Thanks, Eliza mouthed as they finished the biscuit. Wren smiled and mouthed back, Thank you.

The crowd of children cheered as Crick finished his story and the shadows vanished off the tent. Pugsley stood up and wiggled his hips back and forth, making his friends laugh. Crick gave a dramatic bow, and with a snap of his fingers, the bonfire went out.

The plaza was immediately shrouded in darkness. A few of the younger kids screamed before being hushed by older siblings. One by one, group by group, the children picked themselves up and headed back through the maze of tents and wagons to their families. Eliza reached over, giving Wren’s hand a squeeze, before she stood and disappeared into the night.

Wren waited until all the other children left before she stood up, brushed off her layers of clothing, and headed back to her cold, empty tent. But inside, she felt a smear of honey warming through her. Something sugary and sweet. Something that made her think of Eliza. Of the kindness in Eliza’s smile and in her generosity to share what little she had with the other children. Of the bright spark among the overwhelming, bitter darkness of Northern Point’s shadows. Of hope.


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