It was the summer before my last year of college, and I ended up traveling south with a friend I knew from the university environmental club. We made our way through Mexico and Central America and farther south still, almost making it to the end of the continent before our time and money ran out. We only spent a few days in the village where I met the puppeteer, but that is the encounter that most affected me, the encounter I still remember as vividly as yesterday, the encounter that led me to here and to now.
The puppeteer was a tall man, unhealthily thin, his age difficult to settle on because he only had wisps of hair on his head, and his skin seemed naturally leathery. I first assumed he was ancient, but he had no trouble getting around, no trouble with arthritis or other ailments, so I soon suspected he was merely middle aged. In those years of my youth, middle age and senesence seemed roughly equivalent.
We met him because he was performing a little show in the cantina where we stopped to get refreshments and to ask about the locale. He sat at a table near the door and manuevered two hand puppets while a man sitting behind him played a melody on a guitar. The puppets had carved wooden heads with cloth bodies, and one wore a little jester’s cap. The routine was a simple and beguiling vignette of two people encountering each other, mirroring each other’s movements, then drifting apart. My friend and I were quickly enchanted. Though the puppeteer made no attempt to hide his hands, we hardly noticed the manipulation. The puppets danced with extraordinary delicacy and grace. After he finished this brief demonstration of his skills, the puppeteer placed his puppets into a wooden case and then accepted a glass of beer that the owner of the cantina placed on the table.
My friend and I approached and, in our clumsy Spanish, told him that we were impressed and moved by his performance. We asked if he had other puppets. He smiled at us and nodded thank you.
“No speak,” the owner of the cantina said. “He no speak.” She stuck out her tongue and mimed scissors. “Soldiers in past cut out. La lengua.”
“El entiende inglés,” the man with the guitar said.
“You understand us?” my friend asked. The puppeteer nodded. He gestured for us to sit down and join him. The guitarist began strumming and the puppeteer opened the box that held his puppets and removed them again. He made his puppets dance for us. We laughed and smiled, spellbound, and we applauded sincerely when he finished. We gave him some coins. He smiled, put the puppets away again, then gestured for us to follow him.
The guitarist joined us as we all made our way through the dirt streets of the village to a little hut on the edge of a forest. Though small and built from cast-off materials likely scrounged from the area, the hut was cozy and felt larger inside than I had expected when I first saw it from the road.
“Do you live near here?” I asked the guitarist, speaking slowly and deliberately so that he might understand me.
“Oh yes,” he said in an accent that sounded Scottish to me. “We met when we were young and Juan was traveling the world.”
“English is your native language?” my friend asked.
“Indeed,” he said. “I just don’t use it in town because people are suspicious. I told them my accent is Mexican. They think I grew up in Mexico City and once played guitar for bullfights.”
The puppeteer smiled.
“He is Juan Alfredo García Matarón, and I am Malcolm Laird, though hereabouts I am known as Miguel López, the Mexicano guitarista, a gentle lie, though I suppose I strum the guitar without too much offense to the ears. In any case, Juan and I are lovers, which is why the soldiers cut out his tongue.”
“And you?” my friend asked. “Why do you have your tongue?”
“I had gone off to paint the sea. In those days I fancied myself a painter. We were living in a lovely villa, because we had money then, both of us. We were confident, young, and in love. But we had been indiscreet. Rumors spread. Soldiers arrived. They smashed what could be smashed, they tore what could be torn, they pissed on the furniture and shat on the floor. And then they bound Juan, stripped him, did what they did. I got home a few hours later, and by then the soldiers were gone. They had had enough fun for the day. They came back later, after I had fled with Juan into the forest. They brought a priest with them. They sang hymns and offered prayers and burned the villa to the ground.”
We sat in uncomfortable silence until Juan brought us a plate of chopped mango, papaya, and melons. We nibbled pensively as twilight drifted into night. Juan gestured for us to follow him out a back door, which we did, and then through a little garden and into the forest, where a stone building waited, square and squat, a building about the size of Juan and Malcolm’s hut, but more solid, less likely to blow away in the wind. Juan unlocked the door, lit a kerosene lantern, and we entered his workshop.
As Juan wandered through the workshop, lighting candles, my friend and I marveled at the array of marionettes, handpuppets, carved figures, and sculptures crowded on shelves, on the floor, and suspended from the ceiling. The flicker of candlelight animated the room, with every carved face seeming to glance in our direction and away, every marionette body darting into dance.
My friend found the candlelit workshop strange and creepy, so soon returned with Malcolm to the hut, but I remained with Juan late into the night, looking at each exquisite item, captivated especially by the marionettes, the most wondrous of which were monstrous creatures with numerous legs and arms, fanged mouths, bodies of fur and scales. The marionettes came alive via threads attached to rings that Juan slid onto the tips of his fingers and thumbs. He placed the most hideous of the monsters on the floor, a creature that looked like a wild boar with a man’s body parts sprouting tumorously from its hide, a man’s face shadowed in its own. I watched the creature stomp and hunker and writhe, watched Juan’s hands move like an orchestra conductor’s — and in that moment I knew only that I must find such power myself, such control, such terrible beauty.
Late that night, my friend and I wandered to a hostel in the next town, then returned for breakfast with Malcolm and Juan in the morning. We could not linger, we had to run to catch a bus. We promised to write, promised to return someday, but though I thought many times of sending them a letter, sending them pictures of my own creations or flyers from my performances, I was careless and let life carry me on, away from the people we met, away from all my college friends, away.
I first met Tanner Ross at the wrap party of an indie film I was doing some puppetry for and Tanner had an executive producer credit on. “So,” I said to him after perhaps one too many glasses of achingly cheap champagne, “what exactly does one do to get an executive producer credit?”
“One loses money,” he replied.
“That suggests one has money to lose,” I said.
“Or is a fool.”
“Which are you?”
“Why choose?” He smiled the famous smile, the smile that launched a thousand venture capital investments.
We chatted a bit more, and then he said, “What do you say we ditch this place and go to a real bar?”
I am not always, or even often, a devil-may-care kind of gal, but I had recently broken up with yet another shallow boyfriend; I’d had tantalizing career successes and a brief boost in income but had not yet broken through to regular work or anything like a meaningful reputation; I was regretting moving to Los Angeles, a city for which the best tourist guidebook would be Dante’s Purgatorio; my parents had both recently moved into a nursing home in Florida and were not long for this world, which didn’t bother me (they were not people I’d had much relationship with after I left for college) except to make me feel old and adrift at age 34; I lived in a run-down apartment with two roommates, three cats, and a senile dog with incontinence — and so I didn’t really care what happened with Tanner Ross, I just hoped it would be briefly diverting and maybe give me some fodder for future cocktail party conversations, if there were cocktail parties in the future, which I rather doubted.
He led me to a large black SUV, where a driver opened a back door for us. I asked Tanner if he worked for the government on the side, since this was the sort of vehicle I expected to show up during FBI raids and CIA extractions. “No such luck,” he said. “It’s roomy inside and has a high safety rating. I’m past the age of needing to drive a Porsche everywhere to prove I have a penis.”
As we made our way toward our destination, I let my hands and mouth discover that he did, indeed, have a penis. I could make all sorts of excuses for this unbridled behavior, from the champagne to being intrigued by somebody who could afford a vehicle like this and a driver and who knew what else (so much else). But in truth I wanted to surprise him, wanted to see how he reacted to surprise. He reacted well.
We ended up at a nondescript building not far from downtown, and we made our way to a restaurant set in the middle of the building’s basement. There were no signs of any sort; it was a place you needed to know to look for, and a place where, to gain entrance, you needed to be known. The restaurant’s tables were spaced far enough apart to allow conversation, the lighting tasteful but dim, the atmosphere reeking of privacy. A jazz trio played quietly at a far end.
It was a type of place I would grow accustomed to in the next few months, one of a surprising number of restaurants, lounges, and clubs that need no advertising budget, that exist for the comfort of people who prefer to be seen only when they can control the environment, people who seek safe spaces in which to escape the gaze of the rest of us.
After a meal that made everything else I’d ever eaten in my life seem like mud (a meal whose cost likely could have paid off a healthy chunk of my college loans), Tanner drove me to his house in the hills, a large house but not an ostentatious one. “Hardly a mansion,” I said as we climbed out of the SUV.
“True,” Tanner said. “Who needs a mansion? I mean, I have a couple, but they’re just to impress people I need to impress. This is more of a home. Its best feature is its ten acres of land. Not common in this city, and worth at least as much as a mansion. The view’s pretty good, too.”
Indeed, it was. The acres allowed seclusion, the view spectacle. A large patio and pool stretched to the edge of the hill, and from there the city spread out beneath us like a circuit board. We sat on the patio for a while in silence, leaning against each other, listening to our breaths and heartbeats. Then I stripped and jumped in the starlit pool and he followed. We swam together like dolphins. Out of the pool, he produced towels and we dried off. Then, still naked, we made our way inside, where he began to show me the house but I pulled him down to a softly carpeted floor and we stayed there until dawn, when he carried me upstairs and I slept till noon, then the rest of my life began.
In every minute of our time together, Tanner Ross was gentle with me. Too gentle, I sometimes thought. Where was the vicious capitalist who bought up companies and fired swaths of people? Where was the man who excoriated executives with the facts of their failures? How could someone spend his days slashing proposals, goring budgets, beating back competitors … and then come home calm, happy, smiling, and seemingly truly interested in my trivial attempts at merging art and showbiz? I wanted more conflict from him, more tension, more struggle for dominance.
“I’m sure you yell at people all day,” I said as we sat down for dinner at his Montana estate, where we had decamped for a corporate retreat. “Why don’t you ever yell at me?”
“I don’t yell much,” he said. “I don’t need to. And I wouldn’t want to yell at you. Why would I do that?”
“You can’t like me all the time. Nobody likes anybody all the time, and certainly most people have never liked me even most of the time.”
“I don’t think that’s true. You put on a good show, but you’re pretty sweet at heart.”
“I might have to break up with you for calling me sweet.”
His face fell into an expression I had never seen before, something like terror. “Don’t ever say that,” he said.
“I know you were joking, but don’t joke about breaking up.”
I had found a pressure point. Every part of me wanted to push it, every part of me wanted to see what new emotions I might mine from him, but I knew better.
Our first trip abroad was to Barcelona, which Tanner said was his favorite city. He had a house there larger than any of his California houses. His maternal grandparents had been born in a little town not far outside the city, and he still had relatives there, relatives he let use the house whenever they wanted, and so some had moved in, which was probably for the best, providing good maintenance and discouraging thieves.
While lying in bed one morning in Barcelona, for some reason I thought to ask a question I should have asked Tanner months before: “Why me? You struck up a conversation with me at that shitty party for that even shittier movie and we’ve hardly been apart since. If I didn’t like you so much, I’d say it’s pretty weird.”
“I did my research,” Tanner said.
“Your research? What, you mean you knew who I was when you started talking with me?”
“Of course. I may be impulsive, but I wouldn’t just take some random woman home.”
“So what did you do to make me not random?”
“I was first intrigued by your New York show, Night of Atonement. A friend told me about it, so I got a ticket and saw it and was impressed. I wanted to know more about the person who created it. I saw some of your YouTube videos. I had a producer friend tell another producer friend to encourage you to come out to L.A. They were the producer for your show Nocturnal Products, which I didn’t get to see because I was in Hong Kong, but I saw Pools of Night. Amazing work. I followed all your social media with some disguised accounts I have. I tried to locate the men in South America you talked about in your interview in ArtForum, the tongueless puppeteer and the Scottish guitarist, but despite quite a bit of effort, we haven’t found a trace of them. I would love to see that workshop you described. Anyway, I got you hired for that shitty movie because I wanted you to have more work, and I also wanted to meet you and I thought we would hit it off. I didn’t expect to like you as much as I did. And do.”
“This is really fucking creepy.”
“I know. I should have told you earlier. But I hope you can understand. I wasn’t stalking you, I just needed to know you weren’t going to exploit me. And I was legitimately intrigued. Night of Atonement in particular. Few things have ever resonated so deeply for me.”
“It’s a puppet show about a serial killer. That resonated?”
“In its own way.”
For a few days, I was wary of Tanner. Paranoia slipped into my interactions with him. I got impatient with everything he said, certain his words hid something, certain he knew more than he said. What else had he not told me? How much did he know about my life? Had his goons looked at my bank accounts, my financial history? Had they checked up on my friends, my family? Not that they would find much of anything other than a financial history full of overdraft fees and threats of legal action, family and friends often exasperated with my moods and demands. I truly had nothing to hide, my work was public, and yet I felt violated, not so much by his looking into my life as by the sustained determination of his search. He treated me like any other commodity he considered acquiring.
Though I am skilled at the art of holding a grudge, my skills failed with him. He was right: he had interests to look out for. I realized that if I’d had his resources, I would have done at least as much as he did before I ever talked to anybody. I would happily create a research team devoted to digging deep intel on every person I ever encountered. I began to admire his restraint. Within a few days, my appreciation for paranoia transmuted my annoyance into new respect.
It probably helped that Tanner was doing things for my career that I previously could only have dreamed about. Once we emerged from the clandestine shelters of the ruling class and started appearing together in public, the paparazzi shot a thousand pictures a day, tabloids clamored for interviews, columnists gossipped, social media hashtagged, and suddenly I had a new agent, a personal assistant, a publicist, workshop space in a building Tanner happened to own, inquiries from movie producers, and offers to perform in L.A., New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Cape Town, Nairobi, Lagos, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and a long list of others.
Overwhelmed one day when cornered by quoteseekers, I said, “I’m just a puppeteer,” and suddenly that was a headline around the globe.
“See?” Tanner said. “I told you you’re interesting. The world agrees.”
We spent considerably less time together as his work took him in a dozen various directions and mine in a dozen others. My name appeared on billboards and in magazines and on television shows, but the world’s attention is short, and I was, after all, just the girlfriend, so inevitably I fell out of favor, then out of sight. Interview questions devolved from “Tell us about yourself and how you met Tanner Ross” to “Aren’t puppets children’s toys?” to “Why’s a nice girl like you making such dark and disturbing so-called ‘art’?” to “Do you think you would have a career if Tanner Ross wasn’t bankrolling you?” to no questions at all.
Against Tanner’s advice, I fired the publicist. “I don’t want publicity,” I said. How could I not want publicity? Tanner asked. How could I make art if nobody knew about it?
I didn’t expect him to understand. His life was lived by profit and loss. For all his pretense of reclusivity, he loved the spotlight. All he ever wanted was people to pay attention to him, but he wanted it in his own way, a dance of withholding and revelation, of innuendo and speculation. He yearned to be a recluse, but not forgotten — the hermit nobody could stop thinking about. Staying hidden when you are rich and famous is a feat of power, and he reveled in that power.
I started canceling appearances. I let contracts expire. I lived in the workshop, puttering away at intricate little hand puppets, and for two months barred all visitors.
Tanner mistook my exhaustion for depression, but the effect was a good one. He cleared his calendar for five days and whisked me off to Montana, where a skeleton crew staff took care of us while also, masterfully, remaining nearly invisible.
“This is the first place I bought,” he said as we sat on the veranda and stared out at a hundred miles of landscape, mountains guarding the horizon, sky the size of the universe. “After the Thoth app went big. I needed somewhere to get away. Yaz and I, we’d just been kids at a community college in Oregon, what did we know about suddenly pulling in a million bucks a day? Then he died. I wasn’t the programmer, I was just a dumb guy who liked playing with electronics and wasn’t bad at talking to tech journalists and I was lucky enough to become friends with a genius who was generous to a fault. But he jumped off a fucking bridge. He jumped off a bridge. So then it was just me. It was awful. All those first years were lonely and terrifying. This place was my refuge.” He kissed my cheek. “Now it’s your refuge, too.”
Tanner probably expected me to stay in Montana for a while, but I was not a country girl. I didn’t want to go back to L.A. just yet, didn’t want to get stuck in the workshop again, so I headed to New York, let my hair grow long, filled my wardrobe with ordinary, cheap clothes, and moved out of Tanner’s Central Park West penthouse and into a two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, the kind of place I had actually dreamed of living in back when I was stuck in rat-infested glory with roommates. At first, Tanner thought I was trying to tell him I wanted to end things, but after we spent a weekend together, he came to like the place, too.
“The French nobility used to dress up like peasants for fun,” he said. “I can see the appeal.”
I almost slapped him. “I am not dressing up,” I said. “I’m just being who I’ve always been. Dressing up was what I was doing when everything went to shit.”
“I’m skeptical,” he said. He was right to be. I had said it as much to convince myself as him.
But Tanner didn’t have time to pay close attention to my identity crisis. He was in the midst of a hostile takeover bid of another company that did something more complex than the complex things one of his other companies did, and I didn’t really know (or particularly care) about any of it. All I knew was that he spent a lot of time on his jet flying back and forth to China.
For me, though, time began to unravel. Under the spotlight our relationship brought my way, I had created soulless work, but now, having been a target of sneering art critics, a punchline on late-night TV, and, for all I could tell, a disappointment to the entire world — now, I needed to find my inspiration again. I felt the need as deep as nausea. But I had no idea what to do. Working brought no pleasure, my imagination stood impregnable, my hands might as well have been chopped off and tossed in a landfill.
I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I began to spend my days at museums, my nights at weird off-off-Broadway plays. Sometimes people recognized me, but less than might be expected (and less, perhaps, than I hoped). I met some new people, began to hang out at bars now and then, drank too much, cultivated sources for pills and coke, and somehow months floated by and I began to look like a banshee. Inevitably, one December night I OD’d and ended up in an emergency room. Tanner called in some favors to keep it out of the news. He took me back to Montana, this time with my own personal medical team as a Christmas present.
He kissed me on the forehead. “This was a cry for help,” he said. “I should have been paying better attention. I’m sorry I got so distracted.”
“It’s just life,” I said.
Winter made Montana feel even more isolating than it usually does. Snow, ice, and arctic cold trapped us. I told Tanner I was bored and feeling stuck, like he’d parked me, like I was his 1965 Porsche, the one that stayed in a garage in Malibu and he had only ever visited once after buying it.
“I love you,” he said. “Take the time you need to get better.”
But what would better even be? I had no idea.
I yearned for a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of vodka, but the nutritionist gave me a green smoothie and some organic chocolate. Day after day and night after night I had meals cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, but every bite tasted the same to me.
His various mergers and acquisitions finally calming down, Tanner returned to Montana and told me we were going to take a trip, a journey to cheer me up and get me inspired again. A little project, he said, he had been working on in his spare time.
We got on one of his jets and made our way south. We flew over Texas and Mexico, over Central America and down into the heart of South America, landing on a private runway in a forested valley where a black Hummer welcomed us and drove us up the side of a small mountain to a villa that seemed to have been carved around a cave. The central atrium had been built to highlight a natural waterfall at its center. The primary living room’s vast windows made it feel like an extension of the rainforest’s canopy. The master bedroom suite sat atop the summit of the mountain like a crown. Windows wrapped around the octagonal bedroom, each offering a view of hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles of treetops, mountains, clouds, sky, and, in the far distance, ocean.
“Like it?” Tanner asked.
My mouth did not want to form words. Tears welled in my eyes. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” I whispered.
“This is the fortress of solitude,” Tanner said. “A bug-out palace. The place to go when shit hits the fan. There’s a whole wing built into the mountain. Most of it would survive a nuclear blast. There’s food and provisions here for many people for many years. There’s geothermal, hydroelectric, solar, you name it. Totally self-sufficient.”
“Why haven’t you mentioned it before?”
“I like surprises.”
He led me down a staircase that wrapped around a massive pillar and into a storage area the size of a major airport where, in one corner, he had replicated my workshop. “It’s as perfect a copy as we could make it,” he said. “I didn’t want to take anything from L.A. in case you decide to return there, but I thought you might like to have the same stuff here, in case you get inspired.”
“It’s a lovely thought,” I said.
We spent time settling in, and I tried to rest for a while, but despite all the comfort and beauty, or perhaps because of them, I was overstimulated, jittery. Tanner and I ate a snack of fruits and pastries, and as we finished he said, “Perhaps it’s a good time to show you what I’ve been working on.”
We descended the staircase around the pillar again, but stopped halfway at a kind of mezzanine I had not noticed before. Tanner fiddled with a heavy old padlock on a steel door. Inside, a hallway dimly lit with halfhearted lightbulbs in iron sconces ended at another door, small and antique and unlocked, through which we entered a theatre with a few hundred seats, a balcony above, and a stage with a heavy red curtain. Brass ornaments and gold filigree throughout the theatre lent a glow to the light provided by a silver and crystal chandelier.
“Welcome,” Tanner said, “to the oldest part of the house. Built in 1871 by an opera-loving general who diverted a lot of slave labor that was supposed to be building railroads and had them make a little place to which he could invite his fellow connoisseurs of culture. He was obsessed with the idea of building a theatre in a mountain. They say ultimately a few hundred people died to make this room. Far fewer sacrifices than the pyramids required, but impressive nonetheless. There were only a couple performances here before the general was called back home to answer for delays in the building of the railroad. And then he had a heart attack and never got to see his theatre again. It was sealed up for a long time, opened briefly in the 1950s when an American tycoon thought maybe he could turn it into a tourist attraction, but that didn’t go anywhere, and eventually it became the property of a drug dealer who stored cocaine here and built a lot of the house. Then, as often happens in that business, he got shot down at a very nice restaurant over on the Pacific shore. The rivals who killed him emptied this place of drugs, then the government came in, and eventually I bought it from them for cheap. Not bad, eh?”
I wandered through the theatre looking at its strange and ornate decorations. Everything seemed to be original to 1871 except for speakers hung in the corners and above the stage and a rack of stage lights attached to the balcony.
“Are you ready for the show?” Tanner said.
“I’ve made something for you. Have a seat.” I found my way to the center of the audience, assuming he would follow and join in watching whatever performers he had hired to welcome and cheer me, but instead of sitting beside me, he climbed onto the stage and disappeared behind the curtain.
Music rose from the speakers, a gentle guitar melody. Over the music, Tanner’s voice: “Welcome, my beloved. From the day I saw your first performance, you have inspired me. My life was consumed by business, by the petty world of contracts and balance sheets. I had lost my soul. You reminded me what matters. You reminded me that we were put on this earth to create. I want to inspire you now. Here, then, is my own puppet show, a pale shadow of yours, but a true expression of my soul. And a true expression of my love.”
The curtain opened slowly. The music faded into a whirling dance of piano, violin, guitar, flute, oboe. Lights rose on a wooden scaffold from which a network of strings descended onto figures that at first, in silhouette, appeared to be five large potato sacks, but as the lights continued to rise I saw that they were in the shape of people hung by harness to the scaffold. The people’s heads were covered with white cloth bags on which had been painted faces that a child might have drawn. Each of the figures was dressed in stained clothing, and once the lights had fully risen, I saw the stains were blood. The strings from the scaffold pierced the figures’ hands and feet. A hole in the cloth over their heads revealed a metal loop sunk in their skulls and each loop held a string to the top of each head. Other strings lanced eyelids and threaded through jaws.
At stage left, Tanner stood in a newly-donned tuxedo. He bowed deeply, then moved to the side of the scaffold, where a rigging system allowed him to manipulate each string, pulling the figures’ arms and legs up and down, bobbing their heads. A flourish of trumpets blared from the speakers, spotlights blasted the figures, and the cloth hoods flew off their heads, revealing slack, doughy faces that suddenly, as Tanner fluttered strings, flickered their eyelids and flapped their jaws.
“We are puppet people!” Tanner’s recorded voice announced. “Welcome to our puppet palace!”
Only then, as the figures eupted in stiff and jerky motion, like a hanged man after the drop, did it occur to me that these were not mannequins or creatures stuffed with cotton. These were human beings. People whose bodies had been strung to the scaffold, whose fingers and arms and legs and heads and mouths and eyes were all animated by Tanner’s manipulations.
He pulled a lever and an arm with a string sutured to its wrist rose; he pressed piano-key hammers to make fingers, pierced with little strings of their own, wave. Legs lashed at knees and feet danced, jig-like, almost in sync with the music.
“Once upon a time,” Tanner’s recorded voice said, “there lived a lonely puppeteer in a mountain house. Who will see my puppets? the puppeteer wondered. He built the most beautiful puppets imaginable, but there was no-one around for miles and miles, and so all he could do was tell stories to himself. But soon he realized that this was all he wanted, all he needed. The outside world did not matter. He had himself and his puppets. But he wished he might be allowed one great love, a woman who would appreciate him for who he was, just as he would appreciate her for who she was. It was a beautiful dream.”
The figures continued to dance in their haphazard ways, and I could not tell if Tanner thought their movements were somehow illustrating a story or if the little story his recorded voice narrated was unrelated to the twitching, swaying figures suspended from the scaffold.
My mind did not want to admit the scene in front of me. I could see strings, movement, figures, but what they were and how they might have come to be here in front of me were not questions my brain could formulate. I saw Tanner over at the side, his face radiant with delight, his arms moving with impressive speed and skill to keep his creation in motion, but it did not yet seem possible to me that Tanner had done this, made this. How could what I saw here be Tanner’s own dream and creation?
The music swelled and the dance reached a climax of spasms and twitches, the bodies’ arms almost clapping, the legs stomping without any reference to the rhythms pouring from the speakers. Finally, it ended. The bodies all bowed.
When they finished their bows, the bodies’ mouths went slack, and now, in brighter light than before, I could see that each was missing its tongue.
In the silence, I heard one of the bodies moan, and then another, and another.
Though Tanner wanted my approval and love, I could offer him nothing. Shock had hollowed me out.
“I know I’m not a skilled puppeteer such as yourself,” he said with a tone of scorn I had never heard from him before, “but you could at least offer some applause. I dared to hope you would appreciate my effort. This was all for you, after all. I did this for you because I love you.”
My stunned expression, my silence and immobility, infuriated him.
He went to one of the people strung to the scaffold and began tearing the strings out. Blood dribbled from perforations as the body slumped to the ground. Tanner kicked it. The body moaned quietly. “This is just some piece of shit peasant,” Tanner said, “and I gave him meaning. He was a scrap of useless meat living day to day when I got him, and look, here, see — now he has tasted glory. But do you care? You don’t understand anything, do you? You just made what you made, la la la, nothing special, la la la, candy for the masses, while I — I had the vision, I have the vision — and you just sit there, judging me. You have no right to judge me.”
He tore at the strings of another body, and in his ferocity the strings sliced flesh and brought forth blood.
I screamed out for Tanner to stop, but he would not. He paid no attention to me as he hacked at the strings, shredding his own hands and arms, his blood mingling with that of the bodies that slowly, desperately, mutely writhed on the stage.
Weakened by the wounds he had given himself, Tanner wept. He collapsed to his knees. One of the bodies pawed at him.
Over the next few weeks, I nursed the bodies back to something resembling life.
The storage area was not far from the theatre and it was filled with medical supplies. The staff at the house seemed unbothered by the task of feeding and looking after these wounded people, and I wondered what other horrors they might have witnessed, either here, under Tanner’s reign, or elsewhere. Life offers many opportunities to witness butchery.
Always calm and matter-of-fact, the staff showed no concern when, after I bandaged Tanner’s wounds, I took him to the workshop he had built for me and found, as he had hoped, a new inspiration.
Tanner was exhausted and compliant. I filled him with opiates and analgesics, then laid him on the floor of the workshop, opened his mouth (he giggled dreamily), took hold of his tongue with pliers, and sliced the tongue out with a scalpel. Using a torch, I quickly heated a knife blade and cauterized the wound as best I could. I filled Tanner’s mouth with gauze and pressed on it, nearly suffocating him, but eventually it slowed the bleeding. I remembered something a nurse friend of mine once said back in New York while telling me about a woman who got tired of her boyfriend French kissing her: “Tongues bleed. A lot.”
Tanner took longer to heal than I expected, but the people he had tortured progressed well under our care. With their basic English and my rusty, halting Spanish, I found myself able to communicate with the staff without too much misunderstanding. Once they knew I was not going to kick them out of the house (or maybe even kill them), they were happy to work with me to heal the mutilated, and they seemed to enjoy what had become of Tanner, who, I understood from them, was hardly the kindest or most patient employer. We could monitor communications enough to know that Tanner’s companies and colleagues were looking for him, but he had hidden the existence of this house from almost everyone, and once I had looked through the records, I was confident that the last trace of us was a flight log that did not list our destination. Soon enough, the world’s news media were reporting that our plane had disappeared and was suspected lost.
Tanner had set up the mountain villa for the end of the world, and here we were.
It took me a week to get a basic sense of what was in the storage areas, everything from suitcases filled with gold coins to cases of fine art to a wine cellar large enough to keep us all drunk for years. I paid the staff in gold and they were happy to continue, seeming to find comfort in this place, refuge from whatever it was beyond its walls that threatened them. A few of them brought their families to the mountain, and we created something of a commune of people who sought no return to the world.
The villa had a substantial medical library and I studied hard. Whenever I got tired of the workshop, I would read about wounds and surgery, then return to my work with new inspiration.
One of the people Tanner had tortured, Ramón, had a bit of medical experience. From what I could understand, he had been a pharmacist but had also done a year or so of medical school. He helped me figure out the best medications to keep Tanner quiet, then we strategized the next steps together.
I pieced together some of what the staff said and realized that Tanner had relied on a doctor to help him order medical supplies and to help with his puppets. I wanted to find this doctor and talk with him, but the staff could not help me even with a name, and a few times they said he was something like “bajo la montaña” or “debajo la montaña” — under the mountain. I thought this meant he was in a town in the foothills, but then I found a small door in a far corner of the storage areas and a metal staircase leading down to a place with no apparent lighting. I grabbed a flashlight and descended.
The staircase was long and switched back on itself many times. I wondered if this might be an old mine shaft. The walls at the top were constructed from steel plates, but as I climbed farther and farther down, the steel eventually stopped, replaced by the naked rock of the mountain itself. The air began to feel heavy and humid; it smelled like a wet dog and old socks and things forgotten at the back of a refrigerator.
Finally, the stairs ended. I stepped onto dirt, gravel, rock. I stood still and listened to water drip into water. I shined the flashlight at a tunnel slightly to my right.
A shallow pool reflected the light, and as I walked toward it, I saw shapes there, shapes I first assumed were stalagmites or mounds of rock and dirt, but as I got closer and the light shined on them, I saw they were bodies, dozens of them, some floating in the pool, others strewn around it. Decomposition had set in, the bodies were bloated and seemed grey and green under my light.
The smell and the sight nauseated me; I nearly vomited into the pool. But I was also fascinated, because all of these people had been mutilated — punctured, chopped, sawed. Some had eyes cut out, some had jaws removed, many were missing digits and limbs. Here and there, body parts lay scattered among the corpses: fingers, hands, arms, feet, legs.
These were the failed experiments, the rough drafts, the people who had not survived the transition to puppetry. Perhaps their lungs had collapsed, or they had heart attacks, or they bled out. Whatever the cause, the result was the same. They became refuse.
Only one body I could see remained intact, a man I suspected was the doctor. He seemed (to my untrained, inexperienced eye) to have been shot in the back of the head.
My stomach continued to threaten to pour out of me. I made my way back up the stairs, which felt like they had doubled in number since I had come down them. I finally reached the top and crossed through the vast storage area and up to the master bedroom, where I tore off my rank clothes and sat weeping in the bathroom’s shower, letting hot water wash over me, drowning my tears.
The silent crew and I disassembled Tanner’s scaffolding. Clever as it was, it was clunky for our purposes. Just as his attempt at a performance was crude and hardly coherent, his machinery was an amateur engineer’s idea. It lacked art.
In the workshop, I built marionettes and hand puppets for Tanner’s victims. It was sacred work, and I allowed it all the time it needed. For the first time, I felt I was creating puppets that might honor the simple, perfect beauty Juan Alfredo García Matarón had shown me so many years ago. In his honor, I would give what art I could to these people who had suffered a similar horror to his, and whose own suffering had been, I feared, inspired by my sharing of Juan’s story, a story I now remembered that Tanner had asked me to tell him again and again, like a child with a favorite storybook.
I did not force the mutilated people to become puppeteers, and I feared, after their ordeals, that they might be repelled by the idea, but they each smiled at my puppets, played with them, even hugged them to their chests. We went to the theatre together and I demonstrated ways to bring the puppets to life. It took some practice, but the practice was enjoyable, and within a few days we had worked up a simple but elegant puppet pantomime show. We performed for each other and for the staff of the villa, to much delight.
Joyful as it was, this work primarily served as practice and prelude. I had a grand finale in mind.
The villa’s staff fell silent when we opened the curtain and the lights rose to reveal a balcony where the five silent puppeteers stood, each holding a marionette crossbar with strings leading down to Tanner, his hands and feet now replaced with wood, a jester’s hat stapled to his skull, his lips sewn together in a smile. He wore a classic motley costume one of the puppeteers had made, inspired by pictures in a book of old paintings, and the wooden feet screwed into his ankles were carved in the shape of slippers with curled toes, each with a bell on the end that jingled whenever the puppeteers made Tanner dance.
Through the speakers, we played simple guitar music, and the puppeteers transformed Tanner from a jester to something closer to a ballet dancer, a performance of true beauty that soon had the entire audience on their feet, clapping, weeping, and, as it ended, screaming out, “Bravo! Bravo!”
I had dreamed of tossing Tanner down the stairs into the charnel pit with his own creations after this performance, but Ramón convinced me otherwise. Tanner had hurt us all, yes, but we had also shaped him to our desires, and he was our responsibility now. Through his halting English and my halting Spanish, we hatched a plan, and once we were settled on it, he communicated our idea to the other puppeteers and to the villa’s staff.
We would go out into the countryside, we said, and live, for a little while, without identities as anything other than itinerant performers, giving our simple puppet shows where we could. Now and then, as whim and will moved us, we would bring out our human puppet, Tanner Ross, though like us he would not have a name. We would live only for our art, and for the humble pleasures it might provide to people who lived simply and often with much suffering. We, too, had suffered, we would say. Suffering is the common experience of life. But from our suffering we had rendered what we could, and now we would share it, the minor wonder, joy, or insight offered by our art.
The staff and puppeteers were moved by this plan, and all in favor of it. We began to make preparations, to gather materials and vehicles and provisions. I decided to call myself Juanita, the Mexican puppeteer. A gentle lie.
I had one final preparation to make, myself, before we could go, and I asked the puppeteers to help me. It was a cold night, I remember, or perhaps I was afraid. For whatever reason, I shivered. The hands of the puppeteers steadied me. Together, they held me down, their clear-eyed commitment offering comfort as Ramón, his face radiant with love, took a scalpel to my tongue.