Puppet Dancers Extract
Flashing, bright, colored lights that travel over and reflect
off a polished dance floor, in an otherwise dark room. If Fidiory
were to propose a metaphor for the world’s beginning, this would be
it. It implies that the world was made to show off for an audience:
a hypothetical that heightens the metaphor’s beauty and power.
He feels harmonious on a dance floor. He feels timeless,
removed from the universe’s eddies. When he dances alone, he
imagines being watched: it makes him perform at a higher level. In
such moments, he believes in free agency, convinced that his actions
are more than the mere implementation of prerecorded reflexes and
This is a universal scene to him. It evokes ancestral memories
that go beyond humankind’s sole focus for millennia, the struggle
Plunged in a vast darkness.
It speaks of a distant past. It doesn’t just remind: it
re-embodies, by touching on a time before mind, before brain, before
awareness and sentient thought. It points to the stage that is space
and the dancer that is planet Earth, engulfed in the surrounding
void, spinning under the glare of the sun and the stars, twirling
around its lone satellite the moon, like a prop on an invisible
gravitational tether. This is the first dance: the astral dance.
Though no one really remembers it, people replay it, injecting it
with the specifics of their physique, with their histories, and
above all their music, that hauntingly inexplicable, rhythmic,
Fidiory takes the stage first in the robotic swerve. His
forearms are rigidly set at right angles to his upper arms. His
hands are open and his fingers splayed out.
His shoulders rise and fall. They pump, synchronized to the
surges blaring from loudspeakers just off the stage. His feet glide
over the floor, mimicking the way a robot walks, the way it will
advance by minute firings of hidden pistons that jerk the body
onward. His chest suddenly decelerates and his head flops forward, a
delayed wave that shoots up from his feet up to his hands.
This is the irony of the robotic swerve. It is the
purposefully fake action of a human imitating a robot imitating a
human. Fidiory had to work at it for years to get it right, to
perfect the closest, most stilted imitation possible of a mechanical
behavior that is in itself a bad emulation of what his own body can
naturally do effortlessly, organically: execute those fluid human
movements that he was born to do, the mode of operation inscribed in
his genetic code, perfected by millions of years of evolution, that
somehow culminates by paradoxically setting itself aside to
resemble, as closely as possible and for the duration of the dance,
the way a robot moves.
After a few moments of thrusting his hips mechanically upwards
to each side, he is joined onstage by Xan, whose movements are his
mirror image. Though their physical attributes are fairly different,
the symmetry of their movement suffices to uphold the illusion of a
mirror reflection, this one not ironic so much as self-deprecating:
a conscious, directed effort at silliness that forces respect by the
weight of its apparent preparation and the simple fact of doing it
The music picks up a notch, both accelerating and increasing
in volume. The onstage lights brighten. In the initial astral
metaphor this evokes a phase change: the planet’s trajectory is
locked into some larger satellite that will inexorably draw it
spiraling into its heat and light, the swallowing of a celestial
body promising a bang and fireworks. Fidiory and Xan, side by side,
transition from symmetric to identical movements. The music winds
down and launches into one last tunnel of tightly-looped percussion
and frenetically wailing high notes, then ends. Fidiory and Xan
assume an ending pose: a portrait hinting at complex relations
subtending their bond, a snapshot of unexpressed dissent, of
opportunities regretfully set aside and forgotten in order to
establish their partnership and allow it to blossom.
The audience applauds. Scattered at first then swelling, but
politely so. Fidiory glances in the judges’ direction, hoping to get
a live reaction, but their eyes are tactfully downcast. In any case,
he needs no assistance in gauging their performance: above average
but not stellar, maybe top twenty-two percent. Fidiory and Xan leave
the stage, making room for the competition’s next performance.
Unshowered, still a little sweaty, they sit in the audience,
watching the other entries from seats reserved for the contestants.
A man and a woman executing an energetic couple’s dance, gliding and
spinning, somersaulting over one another. Fidiory fails to see what
is ironic about their dance and looks down at his copy of the
contest program to read the corresponding description. Xan is
sighing throughout, reacting to some implied message that doesn’t
register for Fidiory. There are knowing, supercilious smiles on the
faces of people in the audience, so he supposes it makes some kind
of reference that he can’t find in the program description.
The next performance consists of a line of men dressed up in
armor, doing a traditional battle dance. They dance with stern
discipline, showing no facial emotion at all. The typical demeanor
of folk dancers, people who are steeped in a tradition that they
have promised to uphold and are now demonstrating onstage, deeply
investing it with the sentiments that befit ambassadors of their
country and culture.
For all the complexity of their contortions and the acrobatic
efficiency with which they interweave, fall and jump over one
another, their gestures are stilted, wooden. “They don’t own
this dance”, muses Fidiory as he observes their intricate patterns
and focuses on one face in particular: an older man whose movement
is listless, though he is hopping and contorting as energetically as
the rest of them.
“I’ve had enough of this,” whispers Xan, before getting up and
executing a bashful bow/walk as he shuffles toward the aisle,
hunched over and trying not to bump too many knees. Xan reaches the
aisle, then straightens up and walks out of the hall. Fidiory
remains slouched down in his seat and watches to the end of the war
dance, taking note of how complex the dancers’ armor is, the
patterns, plates and clasps a mixture of martial pragmatism and
artisan showmanship, still fabricated to this day in the name of
pride and tradition. He leaves after that, looking for Xan at the
The bar is huge, as big if not bigger than the show hall.
Fidiory spots Xan at a table by a wall whose windows overlook lake
waters below, nearby the hotel. Xan is sitting very straight, turned
toward the windows, his face illuminated by the pale light that
drifts in through them.
“Battle dance got you scared?” asks Fidiory as he pulls a
Xan stirs but doesn’t immediately answer.
“This is a nice resort” he replies in a quiet voice. “Did you
notice there are people swimming?”
Fidiory squints and looks out the window at the lake. “It does
seem like some bathers have waded out pretty far into the waters,”
“No,” answers Xan. “They’re swimming. Actually floating and
moving through the water. And they’re not touching the bottom.”
“Wow. Really? Some people have no fear.”
Seen from this far up, from the tenth floor of the hotel
resort, the swimmers/bathers are difficult to focus on, but they do
seem horizontal in the water and moving along the placid lake
surface. The two dance partners watch them, transfixed, fascinated.
“How is such a thing possible?” whispers Xan. His voice is
inflected with awe. Fidiory shakes his head, clinging to the notion
that no one is swimming, it just looks that way. Xan abandons
himself to the sudden sensation of lightness that has engulfed and
transported him since he sat at the table and looked out the window.
“They’re like birds in the water.”
“You mean fish.”
Birds in the water. Semantically, it’s unsound, but it gets
the job done conveying Xan’s sense of inspiration. Fidiory glances
at his watch.
“They’ll be announcing the winners in another hour,” he says.
Xan shrugs, still looking out the window.
“Who knows, maybe we did better than we think we did.”
“We did exactly as well as we think we did. It doesn’t matter
how well we placed.”
“Well... I’d be happy to place anyway. I don’t know why. I
guess I just want a prize.”
“What for? To hang it on your apartment wall? To show your
A pause, during which Fidiory nods at Xan’s acidic tone,
noting the menacing undercurrent.
“No, just to remember that, at this point in space and time,
we were among the best dancers – “
“Best ironic dancers …”
“Whatever, among the best -”
“Well, it’s not whatever, it’s ironic”
“OK, what’s your point, Xan?”
“I don’t have a point. You’re the one making a point. I’m just
pointing out the flaws in your reasoning process.”
Fidiory remains at the table and orders a drink. He is miffed
and glowers at his surroundings. He doesn’t know what to do with his
hands, so he lays them on the table in front of him and drums his
fingers on it. He hates to appear inactive or unoccupied.
Looking out the window, shortly, he spots Xan on the slim crescent
of beach pressed against the lake below. Seen from this far up, Xan
is so small that he is recognizable from the color of his clothes
rather than posture or physiology. Xan has approached the water and
appears to be addressing the other bathers. “That’s it,”
thinks Fidiory, “just like that. He’s found himself a new
activity.” He tries, from this distance, to guess at what’s being
said, information exchanges, hints at their partnership’s breaking
I can pinpoint with laser accuracy (fact : a laser isn’t
actually accurate, or rather precise, as its ray necessarily
diverges even at its narrowest - this is the uncertainty principle)
to the exact moment my partnership with Xan came to an abrupt end
and he began his long, unnatural obsession with swimming.
Xan ended it that day, and I hadn’t expected it. In
retrospect, he had never shown himself to be a passive or overly
conciliatory person, but I’d come to expect that of him because it
was somehow easier that way. When people follow you into places you
don’t imagine them going otherwise, you project motivations onto
them that are all your own. I admire Xan for proving me wrong and
leaving. There’s power in that, in being the one who calls an end to
a common adventure.
From the bar with the window overlooking the lake at Fandoun
resort I watched him, a barely recognizable speck down below
approaching the water and speaking to another speck, a female speck,
the speck that would eventually become his wife and bear his
Xan’s attachment to the puppet dance came from a different
place than mine. To Xan, first and foremost, the puppet dance was
not at all ironic. It wasn’t a way of being clever, it wasn’t a
wink; it held no humorous component at all. Rather, it was a
transposition of an old Margolian thing, a ritual that Margolians
execute by the light of campfires, a reenactment of an ancient
legend. He had told me about this legend in the middle of a
conversation we’d been having about universal gestures and forms at
a time when he was a friendlier version of himself, curious and
Men like Xan have a switch, a kind of trigger that gets pulled
and they retract into a radically individualistic worldview. It
happens very suddenly and then they no longer recognize their
friends. They then focus on their differences, their divergence from
what they see as their own personal normalcy, and they pull away
from people and habits and look for some new, all-encompassing
mission with which to invest their life.
Men like Xan will, in the space of an instant, go from being a
good friend to looking upon you as a total stranger. That’s what
happened. We had just gotten off the stage following a performance
of our robotic swerve/puppet dance interpretation. We hadn’t been
particularly good and our choreography wasn’t too inspired, but we
weren’t bad either and at that stage we were still improving. Xan,
however, felt ridiculous after that performance and no longer had to
will to sustain the endeavor, so he quit. He just got up from the
table where we were having a pleasant post-performance drink and
left, heading straight to the elevator, down to the ground floor,
out the back door, toward the lake where he was drawn to the
bathers, those whom we had just witnessed from the tenth story bar
window, who appeared to be swimming.
Xan comes from a land without lakes or ocean. Of one those
countries that have always depended on trading with neighbor
countries that have sea access. The very idea of swimming struck him
as scary, awesome, and probably magical.
In his native Margolia, the puppet dance has existed for centuries.
Margolians call it the dance of pleading warriors and the only thing
ironic about it is its name (pleading warriors).
Margolian legend has it that once upon a time, some mythical
monster, a hybrid creature mixing elements of snake, slug, horse,
and miscellaneous, all blown up to gigantic proportion in blatant
disregard of the principles of evolution, (as in, how would such a
creature feed itself?), also sentient, very mean, having an eerily
logical mind combined with a warped sense of humor, and to top it
all off an unpronounceable name that is conveniently pronounceable
So this creature, let’s call it creature X, was threatening
the kingdom and demanded payment of a tribute in the form of the
emperor’s daughter. What creature X could possibly want of a human
girl of imperial descent is not specified and I’m not sure anyone
would buy the reason if it were. Nevertheless, creature X demanded
that the emperor give up his only daughter and deliver her to him.
It furthermore indicated, in no uncertain terms, that it would
negotiate only with the emperor himself. So here lies the dilemma,
and in the dilemma the opportunity for the Margolian emperor to show
his mettle, his character, his ruse and cunning, because sending the
emperor to negotiate with creature X is, of course, a great risk of
him not coming back and leaving the empire essentially headless.
Creature X, of course, like all mythical monsters, is fickle
as well as logical and is known to impose cruel conditions solely
for its personal, unpredictable amusement. So the emperor is loath
to go himself, or in any case his counselors advise against it and
admonish him to send someone in his stead, like a counselor or a
general. These men are discarded out of hand though, because none of
them could pass themselves off as an emperor. Who then? Some skilled
diplomat? Perhaps an ambassador? No. In the process of finding a
body double for the emperor, to go face a monster born of a time
long, long before man, capable of effortlessly discerning tricks and
traps tended by primitive human minds, bearing the wisdom of eons, a
timeless, immortal creature, one thing becomes patently obvious:
even if one could find a suitable replacement for the emperor in his
mission to negotiate for the life of his daughter, it would be
simply impossible to admit that such a replacement were even
It would be admitting that the emperor is replaceable, which
can’t even be conceptually played with. One does not simply replace
What, then? How to face creature X and exchange information
enough to agree, if any agreement is even in the cards, on a course
If the answer was staring anyone in the face, that person
didn’t come forward in any capacity. The Margolian empire, much like
any other empire, has an emperor who enjoys power, and by extension:
inflicting the consequences of that power on his subjects. It never
hurts an emperor, after all, to have a reputation for
blood-thirstiness. So people in his vicinity aren’t the most
proactive and for the most part invest the lump of their efforts
into not getting noticed.
The counselors, on the other hand, don’t have this option, and
as the appointed time for facing creature X draws closer, the
Margolian people resign themselves to the notion that they are in
for some kind of fight, against a foe that is imbued with godlike
capacities, and the outcome doesn’t appear favorable at all.
The counselors grasp at straws. One such straw that they can
all agree upon is sorcery. The only way to beat a godlike foe, they
reason, is by harnessing supernatural forces.
A powerful sorcerer of one of the peripheral kingdoms of the
empire, let’s call him Sorcerer Y, has had his name mentioned in
high circles, the circular amplification effect of which has brought
his name to the emperor’s ears, a few times over, enough to grab his
The emperor decides to seek out this sorcerer and have him
brought to the court to provide possibilities of solving the
situation with the aid of sorcery, Sorcerer Y’s cumulative lore
having been handed down through generations of sorcerers, not
necessarily through parental links but often so, all this wisdom and
knowledge intimately bound to the geological and ecological history
of that far-flung kingdom from which he hails, which has been a
component of the Margolian empire since the conquests of the current
Margolian emperor’s great-grandfather brought it into the fold. The
emperor is showing the imperial mark of wisdom that is a strong
character trait of the Margolian people and consists of using any
and every resource at one’s disposal to reach the ends that one has
set for oneself.
The emperor thus dispatches a small group of loyal subjects: a
few soldiers, a diplomat or two, translators maybe, and lesser
sorcerers, to meet sorcerer Y and escort him back to the imperial
court so as to reap his advice on the grievous situation with
Only, sorcerer Y doesn’t feel like coming to Margolia.
Sorcerers have a long, detailed, ancestral memory, and this one
harbors bitter, resentful memories of the Margolian conquest.
It’s not that other inhabitants of the kingdom have forgotten,
it’s just that the sorcerers are the heirs of the code, the set of
beliefs, understandings, models and mindsets that have nourished and
honed their art since the birth of the kingdom. It comes with a
burden of (nationalistic, nativist) pride and a profound attachment
to origins, of which Margolia is not considered a part and must
therefore, somewhere down the line of time, be expelled once and for
The name of the kingdom from which hailed Sorcerer Y is left
out of the story. The Margolian Empire was a historically brief and
small affair and what counted as a ‘kingdom’ back then would
arguably be considered a province today, maybe even a province of
Sorcerer Y violently declines the offer to come back to
Margolia and help the emperor out of his predicament. He basically
tells the envoys to go to hell. The envoys aren’t exactly surprised,
they know the historical score, and moreover they expect sorcerers
to act entitled whenever something important is asked of them. So
when Sorcerer Y spits and curses at them, they smile and shrug, and
through their polite smiles and clenched teeth they tell the
sorcerer: of course, we understand, you don’t like us, but you will
come with us anyway, so if you’re going to pack anything you’d
better do it quickly, before we stick you in that cage you see
mounted on a trailer behind that set of horses we pulled in on which
no one was riding. They tell him: you choose, either come with us on
a horse or in the cage.
Sorcerer Y chooses the cage. Or rather: it is chosen for him
and he is unceremoniously packed into it. As they travel back to
Margolia, he is sullenly silent.
In the imperial court, the emperor is eagerly expecting them,
surrounded by his most trusted counselors, his generals, various
high officials, and of course his family, including a beautiful and
neurotic daughter whose natural tendency toward anxiety has only
been heightened by fate singling her out for (what people are
whispering will most probably be) a bloody and horrible end.
The sorcerer is led in, in chains. Only: big surprise! He’s
This is not meant metaphorically, not a suggestion that
sorcerer Y is there in body but mentally wandering in a parallel
universe of his own making in which Margolia never invaded his
native kingdom. He is truly absent.
The thing that is led before the emperor, the bodily presence
rattling chains, exuding a strong, unwashed stench, emitting a
rasping breathing sound, is a clothed, booted, but empty skin.
It moves, it reacts to stimuli. When questioned, it emits
talking noises from the vicinity of its dry, wrinkled throat, but it
is not human, not truly alive. The emperor realizes this at the same
time as all of the other people present in his court, and when he
orders the sorcerer’s hat to be removed, under the sun’s glare the
imitation human shrivels at the surface, acquires a hideous,
mummified appearance with bulging eyeballs that elicit a shocked
intake of breath from the assembly. Then, the rasping voice
emanating from its throat shocks them even more by addressing the
emperor with familiarity, in a way no emperor has been addressed in
a good few generations. The voice is mechanical and inhuman, but the
words are those that one might use to insult a neighbor whose
property has encroached on one’s own.
The emperor, unfazed, questions the creature, whose answers
indicate that it shares the intelligence of Sorcerer Y and speaks on
If electronics had existed in ancient Margolia one might say
that the creature is remotely controlled, that there is some kind of
spatial relay that sends the creature’s perceptions from far away to
Sorcerer Y in his peripheral kingdom and simultaneously receives
instructions on what to say and how to move.
The emperor expresses his anger. He threatens to annihilate
the small kingdom, and as he roars, he realizes that this remotely
controlled, humanlike puppet is the beginning of a solution to his
problem. Give me the secret to this distant voice, he tells the
creature. Teach it to my sorcerers, and you will be richly rewarded.
A sorcerer has no need of riches, the creature rasps. A
sorcerer wants freedom for his people.
An impromptu negotiation then takes place, at the end of which
the sorcerer’s kingdom is promised certain tokens of autonomy, and
the emperor is promised the gift of Distant Voice, which should
allow him to face the ancient beast stirring in some somber cavern
not far from the imperial fortress, fidgeting impatiently but
nevertheless respecting the delay it has granted the emperor for the
delivery of his daughter.
There’s a catch: Sorcerer Y will deliver the secret to one
person and one person only: to the emperor himself. The emperor is
given the opportunity to learn the Distant Voice, but for that he
must go to sorcerer Y. Alone. The counselors, of course, vehemently
oppose the idea on grounds that the emperor’s going out there
represents a prime risk of getting assassinated, and as the voices
echo and amplify the wise, worried outbursts of the most esteemed
thinkers of the empire, an odd sense of déjà-vu descends on the
assembly. The emperor, going alone to face sorcerer Y? How is that
better than going to face creature X? If anything, it’s worse.
Creature X, after all, for reasons all its own (and go figure what
can possibly go through the reasoning processes of an organism so
ancient that it may or may not have a brain, maybe some kind of
distributed mind), doesn’t care about the emperor at all. It just
wants his daughter.
The emperor, oblivious to the swarm of protests from his
counselors, chooses to go. Has he come to trust sorcerer Y after
just a short conversation? Is he purposefully putting himself in
danger to expiate some ancestral fault, to express regret for the
way the people of Sorcerer Y’s small kingdom were treated? Or is he
fascinated by this strange phenomenon, this projected specter of a
human mind, this remote representation with supernatural overtones?
Whatever his motive may be, he goes, giving the order to all, in
front of the magical and scary-looking ambassador, that he is not to
be followed in any way, nor should any action be engaged against the
people of the small kingdom, but all must await his return. He calls
for a horse and supplies, then takes off, following the strange
creature out of the imperial fortress.
In the court, the people wait. The imperial princess counts
the days left in the projected showdown with creature X, and frets.
An entire empire sits headless, rudderless until the return of its
leader. Days turn into weeks, and the empire grows restless. Voices
begin to whisper that the emperor may not return. The princesses’
fate is debated, most people simply writing her off.
And then, the night before the scheduled meet with creature X,
a weary emperor rides back into the imperial fortress. He is alone,
accompanied by no creature other than his own trusted horse. This is
the point that those who doubt his acquisition of the Distant Voice
make when they shake their heads gravely and assert that the emperor
will just have to get up and go himself if he wants to save his
daughter. But they are wrong.
The morning of the meet, a creature sidles out of the emperor’s
chambers. It gives orders, in the same rasping voice that the court
heard some weeks before, to be clothed. Its appearance is mostly
human, but with something altogether inhuman in its eyes and
The servants clothe it from head to foot, taking special care
to cover it so as to let no sunlight attain the skin and wrinkle it
as happened to the sorcerer’s puppet in the imperial court.
The puppet walks out of the fortress under the silently awed,
fearful gazes of its inhabitants, with an assured, if somewhat
mechanical, stride. It looks straight ahead. It moves with
economical gestures, a calculated efficiency that calls attention to
the way regular humans don’t walk.
A normal person, if watched, will walk with the consciousness
of it. He or she will fill his or her walk with subtext, hints and
messages in the way the arms swing (or are stuffed into pockets),
how shoulders are held high or stooped, head: bobbing or shifting,
hands: clasped, or fingers splayed, or slightly open, back: arched
or stooped, legs: swallowing long strides or small, diffident steps,
or equally small nimble ones, etc. A person walking is a rich
monologue that conveys various degrees of social status, outlook,
potential to menace, invitation to friendliness, and so many other
indicators of character that are totally absent from this puppet
that only walks to move forward, the complex rhythmic
synchronization of members serving one purpose and one purpose only:
to propel the body and get it from point A to point B.
It occurs to the counselors, who watch the creature walk up to
the fortress doors and down the road leading out of it, that a
puppet body is, in many respects, the finest vessel one could expect
of a negotiator: it betrays no emotion, no intention, it allows the
negotiator to coolly engage in a discussion that rests on logic
It is an ancient equivalent to wearing sunglasses.
Out it goes, sent by a man on a mission to save his family
from a force both bewildering and supernatural. It walks over hills,
through rivers, across forests. It is being guided from afar by the
emperor who knows the route because, long ago, as a child with his
siblings, he traveled this same path in exploring the world he was
later to inherit. Creature X is waiting in a cavern he himself
explored with a brother on a bold, adventurous day long ago.
In a sense, creature X is a metaphorical embodiment of
unresolved childhood issues that have surfaced in the life of a
grown man who has reached a sort of crossroads.
The emperor’s puppet reaches creature X’s lair, and is greeted
by a thunderous voice, like great rocks being crushed, that
challenges the puppet by asking that ageless question: “who are
The puppet, in its rasping, scrissorlike voice devoid of any
discernible undertone, simply answers: “I am emperor, child of
Margolia and ruler over all worlds known and as yet unknown.”
The arrogant answer of a ruler of men who knows no other way
of addressing anyone.
Creature X answers by descending on the puppet and ripping it
to shreds. Not far away, on the imperial fortress, the emperor
breathes a sigh of relief at being still alive and silently
congratulates himself for finding this indirect means of facing his
supernatural foe. The day passes, the emperor does not leave his
chambers and receives no one save his worried daughter who needs to
be reassured multiple times during the day that she will indeed not
be given out to creature X.
No one in the imperial court has any knowledge of what has
transpired between the puppet and creature X. They wait anxiously
for a debrief session that does not take place. Day turns into
night, and then morning. The sun rises over Margolia and a second
puppet emerges from the imperial chambers, heads for the fortress
gates in front of staring people frozen in their tracks, and leaves
the fortress through the same route as the one used by the other
puppet the day before. It traverses hills, rivers, forests,
whatever, and comes to the lair where creature X booms at it: “who
Such a pregnant question, with so many different possible
answers. Is it about identity? Is it a question about origins, or
destiny? Is it an investigation into one’s nature, or a call to list
one’s socio-cultural composition? In this case, of course, there is
an element of menace, an unspoken threat that hinges on the
ignominious fate suffered by yesterday’s puppet, the notion that
there is a right or wrong answer, and that if you give the wrong
answer, you die.
The puppet answers: “I am he who was here before you
yesterday, he who cannot be killed by one such as you, one who would
know what you want with my daughter.”
It’s the wrong answer once again, and creature X throws itself
on the puppet and rips it to shreds, even more violently than the
day before. More violently, perhaps, because today the puppet has
succeeded in making creature X doubt its strength, as it sees that
the puppet is the perfect copy of yesterday’s puppet, so perhaps it
is the same, raised from the dead by magical means? Does the emperor
command some power that is superior to that of creature X?
Of course, it doesn’t prevent creature X from ripping
furiously into the hapless puppet, with fangs, talons, and spiked
tail. All the killing implements that nature stumbled upon during
the long climb of evolution, creature X had found first. Creature X
was tearing into and through living organisms entire geological eras
before it became cool to do so. It is a salient point made in
Margolian legend, that creature X was interested in a Margolian
princess, that in one form or another, somehow, its happiness and
prosperity depended on this human life of Margolian origin.
The day passes, but this time, before night has arrived, as
the sun sets forebodingly over the edge of the Margolian mountain
chain that faces the imperial fortress, over a vast expanse of
desert rock and sparse bush (there are forests at lower altitudes
not far from the fortress, but the higher altitudes are basically
desert), a third puppet appears from the imperial chambers. The
emperor has received no one all day, not even his daughter, whose
anxiety is muffled by what is now pure and paralyzing fear, and who
keeps herself shut up in her own chambers in the rather vain hope
that everyone will just forget about her. Her thought pattern
involves a good deal of self-pity and she quite mistakenly thinks
that her life would have been much better had she been born a simple
The puppet goes, watched by the gathered people of the
fortress, who in this very short period of time have developed a
system of alerts and relays so that mostly everyone is warned of its
passage. It goes with its mechanical cool, its insectlike drive, out
the fortress gates and down the road. It reaches the cavern.
“Who are you?” booms the voice of creature X as the puppet
enters at its unhurried, unworried pace.
“A voice of Margolia, eternally standing, and I should be the
one asking the questions.”
Wrong answer. Shoot. Rip/stab/gnaw.
This time, the puppet tries to defend itself. It draws two
swords, one for each hand, and aims for the countless eyes of
creature X as its multiple heads descend upon it from wildly
different directions. It lasts out all of a few fractions of a
second before succumbing to the formidable, ancient predator.
Back in the fortress, the emperor calls his aides into his
chambers. He is exhausted, haggard, his face fraught with tired
strain. He gives instructions to round up a group of Margolia’s
fittest men: the wrestling champions, the strongest archers, the
fleetest runners. He has them led to his chambers for a lightning
training session. The men arrive shortly thereafter, and behind the
closed doors of the imperial chambers, they are soon trained in the
strange dance of the Distant Voice.
The emperor doesn’t know how much time he has before creature
X will decide to leave its lair and descend in fury on the fortress.
No one knows why it hasn’t already done so. The thing is invincible,
isn’t it? That being the case, it could take the princess by brute
force if it wanted to. The fact that it hasn’t done so hints that it
isn’t totally invincible, even if it is remarkably powerful, and
that some final bluff could arguably work to allay it indefinitely.
But time is running out, however much of it there may be left. So
the training session is short, sweet, and pretty ineffective.
The diminutive puppet army, a ragtag band of fifty or so
creatures, emerges from the imperial chambers a few short days
later. Mixed in with the puppets are actual soldiers, those who
failed so thoroughly at building or guiding their puppet that their
punishment consists of acting as the puppet.
The people gathered to watch the procession of puppets from
inner chamber to fortress gates wonder aloud why the emperor is
sending puppets instead of his real army. It was one thing to dupe
creature X with a puppet representing the emperor; it is quite
another to send (mostly) puppets instead of men.
For one, the puppets aren’t there for representation purposes:
creature X is expecting the emperor, not a band of soldiers. Also,
and just as obviously, the emperor doesn’t and shouldn’t care about
expending soldiers, because that is their purpose, and going to
battle with little or no hope of return is what they do.
The people wonder this alongside another glaringly obvious
assessment: that this is the ugliest procession of puppets they
could ever have imagined. The emperor’s puppets had weird eyes and a
mechanical gait as sole differentiating factors from a real human
body. These puppets, though, are clearly the work of amateurs. The
bodies are lopsided, misshapen, half finished. They are missing
mouths, have miniature cylinders for fingers. They look like real
live implementations of children’s drawings. The actual soldiers
interspersed in their midst look like gods in comparison.
Even more glaring is their gait. They stumble, they walk
stiffly on unbending joints, they swing left and right, awkwardly
balancing themselves with arms jutted out at almost right angles.
Frequently, they fall forward and sprawl out heavily over their
whole length. Those that fall bring down one or two others with them
as their panicked limbs strike out blindly and flail at any standing
object that might prevent their fall. Once down, they precipitate
the fall of those behind them that step over them unaware and trip,
or attempt to swerve too abruptly and lose their footing, sending
ripples of instability through the entire collective moving
Once down, their efforts to get up are pitiful to watch. They
start by maneuvering onto an all-fours stance, then put down a knee
and try to push off the ground with their hands while extending the
legs. Often they fall right back down again, putting all others in
their vicinity at risk of falling, too. If they don’t fall outright,
they spend a few moments swaying back and forth, left-right and
front-back, and only when the pendulum motion abates and ceases do
they begin to move again.
Those watching are cringing from this pathetic display. Some,
too, are laughing. As it turns out, the cringe sentiment is prime
material for transitioning to laughter in turn, because the laughter
catches and spreads like wildfire, rapidly propagating through the
onlooking crowd. The roar of snorts and guffaws accompanies the
motley gathering of make-believe soldiers as they stumble and trip
their way to the fortress gates and through, making the slowest of
progress on the road leading away toward the hills and forests. They
pick up a little speed on the way but not enough to reach the
creature’s lair before creature X itself has left the lair on its
own way to the fortress. No one can know creature X’s mind, but
suffice to acknowledge that a) it demanded a sacrifice of the
Margolian people, one that would cost them where it hurt and b) it
offered some sort of respite should the emperor offer a valid answer
to the “who are you” question about his identity, and by extension
that of the Margolian people.
That a stumbling bunch of mock-marching dolls is on its way to
meet this formidable creature is evidence that the emperor has
probably screwed up, and though back at the fortress people are
still joking about the puppet procession, the laughter masks a
sentiment of real fear, borne by the apprehension that creature X is
probably by now descending on the fortress, which is powerless to
Somewhere between the fortress and the cavern, creature X
meets the puppet army. Creature X advances by leaps measuring a
Margolian land unit.
A Margolian land unit is the distance that a man will walk
while breathing in and out thirty times. This is recalibrated each
time there is a newly crowned emperor, whose first walk out of the
palace would traditionally be measured by scribes listening intently
to the emperor’s breath and then measuring the thirty breath’s
distance on a length of silk cord. The cord is held in safekeeping
and is be upheld as the standard according to which all distances in
the empire are registered. Each time an emperor is crowned then, the
whole measurement system changes. The Margolian word for ‘old’ is a
short one with a clipped final consonant that can be repeated
multiple times to staccato effect. Measures dating back to previous
generations would be labeled ‘old-measure’, ‘old-old-measure’,
‘old-old-old-measure’ and so on, leaving cartographers and land
surveyors to execute (what to them are) complicated acrobatic feats
of mathematics converting between the land units of different
generations, if they bother to convert at all (given that the
measures are all approximately the same anyway).
Big leaps by creature X, then. Big, powerful, hungry lunges
that would have sailed it straight over the puppet’s heads had it
not seen them first. It lands in front of the first of them and
booms, “Who are you?”
This creature was born before man walked the land of Margolia.
It took no notice of such paltry creatures for ages and saw no
intelligence in these primates worthy of any interest. It surpassed
them in every way imaginable. And yet, to the ears of these puppets
who are transmitting their perceptions to their controlling human
counterparts holed up in the fortress, and to the ears of the
unlucky, underqualified soldiers that accompany them, creature X’s
voice sounds petulant. It sounds like it doesn’t understand why no
one will answer such a simple question.
The puppets and soldiers look at one another, only realizing
at this very instant that they have no appointed leader. If they
did, it certainly wouldn’t be one of the soldiers, who are present
by sole virtue of their incompetence, and as for the puppets: none
of them have mastered the Distant Voice enough to control their
puppet’s actual, physical voice. Talking is difficult. So no one
Creature X, flustered, clearly expecting some specific answer
to its repeated question, trying to make some kind of philosophical
point and teach the humans something that transcends their
worldview, reacts to their silence exactly as it did to the
emperor’s puppets beforehand: through gross inflicted violence. The
puppets defend themselves as best they can, with their clumsy
gestures and erratic, sudden movements devoid of grace or focused
intent. The soldiers do a little better, managing a sword swipe here
and there and a few shot off arrows that graze the surface of
creature X’s rough hide. One by one though, they are torn apart,
dismembered between powerful jaws that bite through flesh and bone
as easily as through water. After the first few fall, they attempt
to scatter, banking on creature X losing interest in them
individually, but creature X bounds upon them in rapid succession,
tearing into them and leaving them no chance of escape.
When the last of the puppets and soldiers lies in bloody
tatters at its feet, creature X sinks down and squats, seething in
frustration. It experiences a bitter sensation in its stomach that
it initially identifies as existential angst, then hones it further
and guesses it might be indigestion. As another puppet appears over
the edge of the rise ahead, and its graceful gait and self-assured
stance signal that it is the emperor’s, creature X understands
exactly what the sensation in its stomach represents: it has been
The emperor’s puppet walks up to creature X and stands there
silently. Creature X, already mourning the loss to the universe of
such a highly evolved organism such as itself, voices its anguish at
a strong volume that bellies its dying state. “Why...how?”
The emperor explains, “By accident. When you ate the first of
my puppets, I felt your insides cringe, fleetingly as the puppet was
digested in your insides, but enough to perceive that something in
the composition of the puppet was thoroughly indigestible to you.”
A pause, then: “who am I? I am your end, ancient creature, as
you in a sense have been my beginning.”
Creature X dies.
Since then, Margolians have enacted the puppet dance to
reminisce on the beginnings of their greatest emperor, their most
enduring legend. To them, there is nothing ironic about the puppet
The story is supposed to illustrate the essence of what it
means to be Margolian. It’s unclear if this essence is that
Margolians are wise, tricky, lucky, persistent, or just
Following our last performance, as we sat in the audience
watching the other dancers, when the folk dancers in battle dress
appeared on the stage, my guess is that Xan took one look at those
battle dresses and immediately felt like a fraud and a traitor to
his people’s longstanding tradition.