In the Old City of Québec, Kay Harper falls in love with a puppet in the window of the Quatre Mains, a toy shop that is never open. She is spending her summer working as an acrobat with the cirque while her husband, Theo, is translating a biography of the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Late one night, Kay fears someone is following her home. Surprised to see that the lights of the toy shop are on and the door is open, she takes shelter inside.
The next morning Theo wakes up to discover his wife is missing. Under police suspicion and frantic at her disappearance, he obsessively searches the streets of the Old City. Meanwhile, Kay has been transformed into a puppet, and is now a prisoner of the back room of the Quatre Mains, trapped with an odd assemblage of puppets from all over the world who can only come alive between the hours of midnight and dawn. The only way she can return to the human world is if Theo can find her and recognize her in her new form.
From the bestselling author of The Boy Who Drew Monsters and The Stolen Child comes a modern take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth—Keith Donohue’s The Motion of Puppets, available October 4th from Picador.
She was made of coiled wire under the skin, her limbs wound taut, as if one touch would spring the tensile energy of her body. Even her long dark hair was pulled back against her scalp, barely constrained. Only her face remained placid, expressionless, her eyes as still and black as a doll’s. She tapped her foot as he spoke and rolled her wrists in intricate waves. Egon had detained her on the way into the warehouse, introducing her as Sarant, the Tibetan Knot.
“I’m worried,” Theo said. “I haven’t heard from her all day and that’s so unlike Kay. I thought perhaps you could help me figure out what happened last night.”
Sarant spoke with the disdain of a true star. “We went to dinner after the show, that’s all. Don’t ask me where. I cannot keep the names straight in this labyrinth of streets. Seven of us. Some drinks. Closed the place as a matter of fact, and then we each went our separate ways.”
“But where did Kay go? She never came back to the apartment.” Biting her bottom lip, Sarant looked anxious to make her escape.
“Look—Theo, is it? I don’t know what happened to your wife. Those of us who don’t live in the Basse-Ville called for a cab, and while we were waiting for it to arrive, she said she wanted to walk home. So she did.”
“Nobody saw her home?”
“She’s a big girl and said it wasn’t far.”
“All by herself?”
“At first, yes, but then Reance seemed worried about her walking alone in the middle of the night, so he took off after her. To catch her.”
Popping between them, Egon rubbed his hands together. “So, your mystery is solved, monsieur, a tale old as the Neanderthal dragging a girl by the hair—”
The spring uncoiled and Sarant slapped him lightly on the crown of his head. “Va chier. Pay no attention to the little man, Theo. He is osti d’épais and knows nothing. None of us knows anything at all. I’m sure this will all be made clear when they show up. A logical explanation.”
Before she could step away, she felt Theo’s hand grasp her arm. “But you don’t suspect,” he asked, “you have no reason to believe that there was anything between them?”
With the slightest twist of her wrist, Sarant freed herself. A wry smile creased her face, as if she was remembering some long-ago tryst. “In the history of men and women, anything is possible, as you are surely aware. But, that said, I don’t remember your wife slobbering over Reance, if that’s what you mean. Although he is a notorious roué and a sweettalking man, and she was well in her cups. Maybe she just slept it off and has been nursing a hangover all day. You’ll have to ask him. Or better yet, her.” A fellow acrobat appeared at her side and rescued her, and they walked off, whispering and giggling, like two middle school gossips.
Egon pulled at Theo’s shirtsleeve. An unlit cheroot hung from his lip. “Come, let us ambush the swain.”
On the street in front of the warehouse with the smokers, they watched the others arrive from all directions. Puffing away on his little cigar, Egon nodded to the actors and crew while Theo scanned the faces in the crowd. They bore a playfulness and light, each and every one, as if painted by a single hand. Theo waited for Kay to show up and pour out her explanations, but he did not care where she had been. He just wanted to see her again, safe and sound. Where are you? Are you coming home?
Exhausted by his long journey, Muybridge had composed himself, walked to the back entrance, and knocked on the door. He said, “I have a message for you from my wife” and then shot the man dead as soon as he opened his mouth. Theo wished he had a pistol in his belt. He pictured Kay and Reance innocently approaching, chatting intimately of the night before, without a clue, and he would take out the revolver and say “I have a message for you about my wife” and fire a bullet into the bastard’s black heart.
The few show people Theo recognized as Kay’s friends he stopped on the way in and asked if they had seen or heard from her, but each one seemed baffled by the question. His comrade Egon pressed the case, asking if they had seen Reance, had he said anything about coming in late? The clock sped past four, and neither one had shown up. Egon lit another cigar and sat on the stoop. In a little while, worn out from pacing the pavement, Theo joined him in the vigil.
“Women,” Egon said, shaking his head. “Am I right? I wish I had a woman to help me take care of the women in my life. A woman who understands women, a woman to explain women to me.”
“But who would help you understand that woman?”
Pulling the cigar from his mouth, Egon considered the ash and the wet end. “I’m beginning to have serious misgivings about my whole plan.”
“Do you really think she spent the night with Reance?”
A body threw its shadow across the place where they were sitting. “And who am I supposed to have slept with now?”
Squinting into the sunshine, Theo looked up to see a tall man above them, nattily dressed, a tweed coat and vest, a fob and watch chain disappearing into a small pocket. Theo struggled to his feet to confront him. “Reance?”
“At your service.” He clicked his heels like a soldier and bowed his head. His face pinkened as he rose. His thin white hair had retreated toward the back of his scalp, and he wore a crazed mustache joined by two busy sideburns, giving the impression of a refugee from the Victorian era, a raja from the heyday of British East India.
On his feet, Egon spoke for his tongue-tied friend. “This man is making inquiries about a member of the company. Madam Harper, Kay Harper. And we have reason to believe that you were with her last night.”
Through the white snake of his facial hair, Reance grinned at them. “It depends on what you mean by with her.”
“What I’d like you to tell us,” Theo said, “is if you know where she is right now.”
“Good heavens. Why would I know such a thing? I just got here myself.”
“You’re late,” Egon said. “And you needn’t pretend. We have several witnesses who will swear that you were both at a dinner party together and that you followed her home last night.”
Bending at the waist, Reance eased himself down so that he could be face-to-face with the little man. “Who may I ask is asking? Is this a detective?”
“Kay is my wife,” Theo blurted out. “And I’d like to find out just where she is.”
“Good sir, kind sir, I do not know anything at all about Kay’s whereabouts. True, she was with a small party of lovelies that dined with me last night, but I assure you there was nothing improper, not a jot. You may ask Sarant or any of the others. Just a treat for the hardworking and unsung members of the company. And it is true, as well, that our libations extended to the wee hours of the morn, but unfortunately there was never a moment when I was alone with any of the fair sex. After the party broke up, the women hopped in a taxi, and your wife, quite stubbornly and quite against my better judgment, decided to walk home, the night being fair and dry. She departed us, and my upbringing as a gentleman—call me old-fashioned—persuaded me otherwise. That is to say, she should not be unescorted at such a late hour. Sadly, however, I had waited too long to accompany her. She had mentioned a flat on Dalhousie, and so I set off, but could not find her. She had simply disappeared. And I have neither seen nor heard from her from that moment to this.”
The thoroughness of his explanation silenced them. He was very good, this actor.
“And furthermore, I wandered about the Basse-Ville for a long while looking for Kay, until I myself was nearly lost, but then headed home for the night. Alone. My cats will verify. And because I was so worried, I could not sleep a wink till dawn and then woke late and am now tardy for the run-through of changes for tonight’s show; and the director will have my hide. I’m sorry, Mr. Harper, about your wife, and I do hope you’ll tell me what happened, or she will, when she shows up, but I really must be going. And as for you, Egon, my fine friend, we shall discuss your impertinence in private.”
For a fleeting moment, Theo wished that Kay had been with Reance, so that at least she could be situated at a particular place in the world, but now she was adrift again, lost in the night. He checked his phone for the hundredth time that afternoon. He called her mother in Vermont and left a message asking her to call if she should hear from Kay, not to worry, just a miscommunication. He sent a mass text to all their mutual friends back in New York.
“I’ve got to get going,” Egon said. “The show.”
“Do you believe him?”
“He’s an actor.” He shrugged and showed him his palms. “That said, we’re no closer to finding your wife than when you arrived. Perhaps you should think about contacting the police.”
* * *
First, they took off her head. The big woman laid it out upon the table, where it rolled and wobbled before coming to a complete rest. Kay could see the rest of her body, straight as a corpse in a coffin, her slender hands folded neatly across her chest. She was surprised by how small she had become. The big man above her grasped a long thin tool resembling a crochet hook and poked through the hole at the base of her cranium, but she did not feel any pain, only the sensation of discomfort she associated with a root canal. Instead of one tooth, it was her whole head. A whispering moan passed his lips as he gripped hold and tugged, pulling out a wad of cotton, and she felt a sudden rush of emptiness, a void where her brain had been. Taking a dollop of fine sawdust in his right hand, he held her empty skull upside down in the fingers of his left hand and filled the hollow to the brim. The giant then took kitchen shears and cut the length of her trunk from neck to navel and, reaching in with a forceps, removed what had become of her insides. He snipped her arms at the shoulders and her legs at the hips, sliced them lengthwise, and emptied those as well. Unstuffed, she thought of her wire-frame body as an empty suit of clothes, her arms and legs flat as pillowcases. It didn’t hurt but was curiously fascinating. Using a small metal funnel, the hands poured more of the same sawdust into her hands and feet, and stuffed her torso with batting, pressing deep into the corners and curves. Then, suddenly, he left, interrupted in his work. The lights in the workshop were turned off, and she was alone in five pieces with her head stuck on its side.
Ordinary time had no bearing in her state. She lay there for hours, days, perhaps longer, she could not tell. The room remained dark. The big hands did not come back. Disassembled, she had time to think. That she was missing from her job and home produced no anxiety, which is not to say that in her idleness she did not think of her husband, her poor mother. No, they occupied her mind for considerable stretches, but rather than worry over them or wonder what they must be thinking of her absence, she dwelt instead on the pleasant memories. With nothing better to do, with nothing at all to do, Kay flipped through her reminiscences like an old photograph album. Mother teaching her to tumble as a child. Mother in the morning come in from milking the cows, the sweet smell of hay and manure clinging to her clothes, the milk still warm from the udder. Mother’s accident that left her in the wheelchair. Her father always with a pipe in hand in the short hours between supper and bed. Then her father gone for good, a grave, a headstone with his name. A boy she knew in Vermont, hair red as copper, who showed her how to hide behind a waterfall and sought to kiss her, but she wouldn’t have him. Then a handsome man— her husband?—trying to teach her irregular verbs in French when she wanted nothing more than to go to bed with him and stay there. She did not miss these things. The thought did not make her sad. They were simply pages in a book that helped pass the hours or whatever it was that spun her world.
When the giants finally returned, it was a welcome relief. Had she eyelids, she would have blinked out of habit at the brightness, but the light felt good and warm. The big woman picked up her head and fitted it loosely to the trunk of her body, tacking the cloth in place on Kay’s neck. Then, taking a heavy needle and braid of thread, she began to sew the pieces back together. After she had finished the arms and the legs and dressed her in a white blouse and simple jumper, the woman took two wooden dowels and attached them with loops of Velcro to Kay’s wrists. The giantess picked her up with one hand circled completely around her waist and held her upright, her bare feet not quite touching the surface of the table. Kay had not stood in ages, and the change in perspective dizzied her and made her uneasy. Using the rods, the woman moved Kay’s arms up and down, back and forth, and then rocked her hips so that she moved, she danced, she leapt for joy. Across the room, the male giant laughed and clapped his hands with delight, but his voice boomed like thunder, too loud to be understood. Both the man and woman were too big to take in fully. Like being too close to a mountain. Just their hands, larger than she, lined like maps of the planets, fingers as big as trees, nails as hard as antlers and horns. They played this way for a few moments, and Kay felt such unbridled exhilaration that she wanted to laugh, to shout, to sing, but she was mute as a stone. The giantess set her down gently on a different, smaller table, and in due course the lights went out again, and Kay waited. This time with less patience and more anticipation for them to come again.
Now that she was put back together, so to speak, Kay began to feel more like her old self. Old self in a new body. She reckoned her relative size from her surroundings. She judged her height as not more than twelve inches, her weight a few ounces, perhaps half a pound. At first her smallness startled her, but, like all change, she grew accustomed to it. Her head was made of wood and the rest of her was stuffed cloth. Her senses seemed intact, and she could hear her own words in her head, not just her thoughts but the sound of sentences and paragraphs, the very music of language, remembered songs and poems, the percussive surprise of laughter. But she could not speak. Her mouth was but a slash of paint.
There were others like her in the room. After a time she became acclimated to the darkness and could see the shapes around her. A pair of feet, the perfect globe of someone else’s head. Once in a while, a stray sound broke the quiet, nothing more than a sigh from a dreamer anxious in her sleep, the drum of bored fingers, the creak of a stiff wooden joint. At regular intervals, she could smell food cooking and deduced the pattern of the days by the aromas. Eggs and coffee meant morning. Soup and cheese at midday, the richness of full dinners. She never felt the slightest hunger and was glad for the lack of appetite. Mostly the sameness of the days filled her with ennui. She longed for company, for the giants, not out of any lonesomeness but for the chance to play again, to feel the joy in movement. She was built for motion, and the stillness was the most difficult part of waiting for her life to begin again. When the overhead light came on in the middle of the night, suddenly and without warning, she felt the joy leap in the place where her heart used to be.
Excerpted from The Motion of Puppets © Keith Donohue, 2016