Breath of Life

August 28, 2012
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The shadows of the hanging puppets spread like ink across the wooden floor. As the sun rose lazily into the pink sky, its newborn beams slunk their way through the windowpanes and splashed across the man’s workshop. The puppets on the ceiling remained unfinished; he was too eager to complete one at a time, choosing instead to leave half-clothed and unpainted wooden men dripping from the ceiling like flies caught in a spiderweb, waiting to be devoured.

Not all met such a fateful end. He had completed hundreds, if not thousands of puppets over the course of his lifetime. Naturally he favored some over others, their eyes twinkling brighter and their limbs moving more fluidly as they danced between their strings. He had grown careless with a few of them, though, and this pained him still today when his eyes found them in the crowds of the wooden men. Beautiful, but crippled with missing limbs or cracked bodies that the man felt were not worth repairing.

But today he focused his attention on one specific puppet - a small boy whose arms hung too long for his body. He cradled the plain wood in his hand, his fingers gently cupping the boy and surrounding him with the warmth of his skin. Marveling at the sturdiness of the torso and the gentle curve of the joints in the arms, the man allowed himself a few moments of wonder, running the pad of his finger along the pale moon face. Moments like these still caught him by surprise even after years upon years of perfecting his craft. It was this rush of appreciation, bringing a leap to his old heart, that dragged him from his sunken bed with the dawn each morning. After composing himself, the man reached for his worn paintbrush and the bottle of paint at his elbow. Dipping the bristles into the deep black pool, he began the arduous process of bringing the boy into being.

He chose to create the eyes first, believing that their brightness would inspire him to create every aspect of the doll with as much shocking beauty. Two black dots broke apart the paleness of the face, and from those dots blossomed streaks of blues and yellows edged with white. The eyes seemed to glisten as the light from the morning sun danced across their glossy surface. The rest of the face was constructed with as much care and attention, from the downy eyebrows to the splashes of pink that stained the puppet’s rounded cheeks. A light brown tunic adorned the sloping shoulders, hanging loosely around the wooden body and fluttering slightly with each sigh from the old man’s open lips. He covered the smooth head of the puppet with a mop of brown hair; it curled slightly under the weight of the sun’s warmth, framing the face in a halo. The old man leaned back into his chair, the low creaking serving as the bell to signal that his work was done. Or nearly done. Now came the crucial moment, the one that the man anticipated the most throughout the construction of the men.

He brought the painted face to his lips. The fumes drifted into his nose and mixed with the earthy smell of the wooden body. The smell was like an old friend, familiar and welcome in the stillness of the shop. Inspired by this calmness, the man closed his eyes and slowly breathed in the musty air and sunbeams that hovered between the boy’s face and his own. With this breath, he drew in every ounce of happiness, beauty, sorrow, peace, wonder, and passion that he could muster. At last, the breath of life flowed from his lips and wrapped around the unfeeling face of the puppet boy in his hand.

The eyes no longer glistened - they burned. The flush of color in the cheeks became more than paint, blood blossoming beneath the surface of the rounded cheeks. The limbs bent, the chest throbbed with life, the chin raised itself so the eyes could meet their maker. As the puppet began to explore the movement of his small body, the man threaded firm knots of string through the arms and shoulders, anchoring the boy to a wooden beam. The man allowed himself a few precious moments of that fleeting sense of wonder. His own eyes soaked in the blueness of the puppet’s. The corners of his mouth curled as he gazed upon his creation, and in turn, the puppet gazed upon the withered face of the man, grey with age and exhaustion. Dreading what must come next, the man lifted the boy from the table and carried him gently into the back of the shop until they reached a door. The door itself was nothing remarkable - simple oak, a brass handle in need of polishing. Pushing open the door, the man guided the puppet into the candlelight that illuminated the vast space.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of puppets spread across the room, each moving on strings of their own accord. Dancing, walking, talking, playing, living were the puppets, each one unique in a testament to the man’s dedication to his craft. With only the slightest amount of hesitation, the man placed the boy upon the closest shelf, nudging him towards the bustling in the center of the room. Slowly, wobbling on his wooden feet like a newborn doe, he gave the man a single glance before he disappeared into the crowds, never stopping to look back.

He knew to expect this. They never looked back. Their tender eyes, once seeing only him, grew drunk on the sights and sounds of their own kind. He thought by now that letting them go might become easier, but a small whisper in his mind always hoped for recognition in their eyes; a sense of validation. He wanted to know that they remembered him and his rough hands, cradling them as they woke from their slumber into this world. But if they did, they never showed him, growing so accustomed to the opening and closing of the doors that they never even noticed his presence in the room.

Just like every night before this, he allowed the smile to fall from his face before he closed the oak door. Any sounds from their world were quieted, and he was once again alone, though each night felt lonelier than the one before. He returned to his table and closed his paints, rinsed his brush, and blew out the dying flame of his candle. Suddenly overtaken by a quiet so heavy that it hung on his very shoulders, he locked the door to the shop and climbed into his sunken bed, waiting for the dawn to seek him out from the darkness.

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