There is a little marionette that wears a dress and sits in a house in the garden, next to the porch. It’s a very fancy house, the frame is real gold, twisty and delicate like vines, glinting in the sunlight. It shines even when it’s cloudy. The walls and roof are clear glass, brought from Murano, near Venice. It’s where she lives — in this beautiful house that was gifted to her the day she was brought here. It’s not very big, her house, but then neither is she. She doesn’t have any furniture, or a carpet, but the gold floor is pretty enough that she doesn’t need one. And she doesn’t mind sitting on the floor.
Her dress is pretty too, deep blue velvet, with sleeves that reach her elbow and have delicate wisps of gossamer on the ends. She wears lace gloves, patterned so it looks like flowers are blooming from her hands. The skirt part is long as well, dotted with clear beads, like she’s wearing a piece of the evening sky. It pools around her on the gold floor as she sits, like she’s resting among the stars themselves. Some say the beads are Murano glass as well. Others say they’re crystal. But with a house so grand, they could be nothing but tiny diamonds scattered across the rich fabric.
Her hair is beautiful and thick, ebony black ringlets piled on her head. She wears a sparkling crown, but even without it you’d know that she’s a princess. Her face is the most interesting, for nobody has seen it. Not even the marionette herself, because she doesn’t have a mirror. But the mask she holds is more than enough. It’s ceramic, mounted on a gold stick, and the face painted on it is lovely. Her eyes are blue, like tiny sapphires, with real lashes. Her mouth is a painted rosebud, and her cheeks are pink.
Her strings are made of the finest silk, and once they’re set up, they go through the roof of the house, barely visible. If you know how to work them right, she will dance the most beautiful dance anyone has ever seen. She doesn’t need the music, and neither do you. She dances the dance of life, of joy, of warmth and love. They say she can make the breeze whisper and flowers bloom. They say birds fall silent to watch her dance. But only if you can pull the strings the right way.
So you watch her dance everyday, while they carry her from place to place pulling the strings, because you haven’t learnt the right way yet. You watch her twirl and spin and leap, and she never gets tired, and she never stops being beautiful. And every night you clap and cheer with the rest of the watchers, and she bows for you, because she loves to dance for you. You wait for the next night, and the next and the next. Because one day you will make her dance like that. You will take her to towns and cities, and hidden places in the woods for the foxes and rabbits to see, because you’ll make her dance for anyone, not just people.
The years pass, and you never get to touch the strings. She still dances wonderfully, and the crowds cheer, but you see that it’s not as beautiful as it used to be. It’s going to be your turn soon. And you can’t bear to wait any longer. So one night, when the world sleeps, even the badgers and the squirrels, you decide not to.
There is a hidden latch in her little house, and you know where it is. If it wasn’t hidden, someone would steal her away, that’s what they say. But you’re not just someone. You’ve been waiting to be a part of her dance since before the hedges became overgrown and the brambles took over the flower patch. You are ready.
So you undo the latch, and you touch her for the first time, searching for her fine, silken strings. There is a small bump on her back, and you pull your hand out quickly, concerned. The garden is quiet still, and not a blade of glass stirs as you grab her by the waist and slowly pull her out.
Her sapphire eyes stare into yours, and you turn her over gently, feeling for the knob you found before. She lies limply in your hand, allowing you to search and probe, like she doesn’t even care. Like she’s dead. You whisper your apologies as you reach under her dress (the velvet isn’t as soft as you thought it’d be, it scratches your skin) and feel along her back, your fingers bumping against a piece of cold metal. The metal’s surface is rough, and you can feel some of it flaking off. When you look at your finger, it’s stained reddish-brown, like you’d smeared it in blood.
You ask the marionette for forgiveness as you hold her with trembling hands, pulling her dress off. Maybe she’s relieved to be free of the itchy material, and you’re careful enough to not tangle her strings. Her mask falls to the ground as well, clinking against a pebble, and you don’t have the time to feel guilty about that because there are more things to focus on.
The marionette is made of wood underneath her dress. The parts don’t match, and the screws that hold her joints together are rusted. The metal bump you felt was a hole, with grooves inside it, corroded as well. She used to be clockwork, this dancing marionette. Did she dance before? Or does she only dance because of the strings? You wish you had the key so you could find out.
You trail your fingertips down her back, down her legs to her feet. The joints at her ankles are loose, and her mangled feet hang askew. You reach out to touch them, swallowing a gasp of pain as a splinter sinks into your finger, drawing blood. The breeze stirs, and you shiver, suddenly afraid of what you would see in her eyes if you turned her over. Something compels you to do it anyway.
You grasp her tightly and look at what used to be her face. There’s barely any paint left, but you can almost make out her carved features, worn smooth over the years under the mask. Her mouth is hinged, tightly closed. Her eyes are the only thing left, dark and haunted. It’s a bizarre contrast to her princess hair and crown, still in place on top of her head. You tug at the ringlets, morbidly curious, and the wig slips away. Her dark hair is sparse and unevenly shorn underneath, like someone had hacked it away with a knife. The marionette continues to stare at you with those awful eyes.
“Let me go.” she seems to say, and you swear she blinks.
A tickling sensation spreads across your hands, and you glance down as termites crawl on your skin. You cry out, flinging the marionette away, brushing the insects off, your hands agitated. You step back, knocking the house over. Your skin crawls with disgust, and you take a few breaths to compose yourself. You turn to set the house upright, checking the glass for breaks, and hear a clatter. A dull metal key slides into view when you tilt it, and you reach for it with shaking hands.
You look over to where the marionette landed on a stone. Her body has split open at the torso, a jagged crack appearing against the dark wood, extending diagonally across from shoulder to hip. It’s not very wide, but the darkness between the sharp edges seem like a tear in the very fabric of the universe. The termites continue to emerge from her joints and the crack itself. They crawl over each other, fleeing into the tall grass. The silk threads shine silver in the moonlight. You look down at the key in your hand. You already know it will fit. You wait long moments for the termites to cease their escape, and all the while her empty eyes bore into you.
Finally, you’re able to swallow your revulsion and pick her up again. She’s spattered with mud, but that no longer matters. You brush off the last of the insects, insert the key and wind her up. For a minute, nothing happens.
Then her joints rattle to life, the movements of her limbs grotesque and jerky. You feel the tick of her clockwork machinery against your fingertips, like a tiny beating heart. Her hinged mouth opens, and she looks around. Her voice is broken, a few notes standing out clearly, but otherwise the only sound she makes is a mechanical whine, like she’s screaming. Her ruined ankles barely even move. It’s almost pitiful. You can’t bear to hear or see any more, so you yank the key out. The marionette falls limp.
The dances no longer seem beautiful. You don’t want to make her dance anymore. She’s just a hollow piece of wood now. That’s all she’s been for years. Later, they’ll ask what happened to her, and you’ll tell them she was rotten, that you’d burned her. They’ll nod slowly, and continue eating breakfast. They’ll hold a funeral for their little dancing princess, and the people from the town would grieve. They’ll give away the house, because they wouldn’t feel right about getting a new marionette, and the empty house makes them sad. You’ll be relieved, and you’ll think about wearing her key on her strings, but you’ll never get around to it.
But for tonight, you’ll take her to the woods and cut her strings. You can’t bear to burn her, so you leave her in a hollow tree to decay slowly and be forgotten. She lies in the dark, and waits for your memories to fade away. She will never be found.