Since I was a little child I was fascinated with "old-school" entertainment. Ventriloquists, Magicians, Circus performers, puppeteers or mimes. With very little effort they were able to open up the doors of my imagination and put me under their spell. Over time I too lost my interest in that kind of entertainment and turned more and more to entertainment electronics, but I never really forgot about my childhood heroes who I never stopped to admire. But one evening my admittedly nostalgic fascination with these old arts of entertainment came to a sudden and undeniably disturbing end.
I decided to visit one of the last plays of The fearless Vampire Killers or Dance of the Vampires if you want to call it that. I always wanted to watch it but only found the motivation when I heard that the musical would stop being played in Germany. After an amazing show I walked the streets of Berlin. Fitting the plan I had for the evening I was dressed in a wine red velvet coat and a brocade shirt. I headed for an underground gothic bar I am a regular in. I just wanted to finish the day with some beers and in company of like-minded people.
Taking the main streets or public transportation did not seem to be the right choice for that evening. Weather was fine, not too cold and the sun still stood high enough to color the sky fittingly blood-red. In one of the back alleys I noticed a bunch of teenagers standing around an old man giggling. I am a little paranoid in these kinds of situations, so I prepared to intervene if it would have come to show that the old man was being picked on or harrassed.
I slowly walked towards the group and to my amazement found that there was no kind of harrassment at all, but entertainment by the old man. The guy swaved around a wooden puppet on strings, let her do some tricks and told dirty jokes through the wooden doll.
I just couldn't bring myself to walk away. I waited and watched the performance for several minutes fascinated by the dexterity and precision of the old man handling the puppet. Besides his enormous talent, the old man seemed to be distant. He did not seem to pay any attention at all and his expressionless face stared into space all the time. I figured that to be that good with the puppet and ventriloquism he must have been doing it for decades now – so it was nothing special to him anymore and he really didn't not need to pay any attention at all. Routine and organisational blindness set in and the repetition of the same things every day all day long surely had him numbed by then.
Even though I kind of felt sad for the old man, I grinned broadly all the time. The jokes often were pretty inappropriate but consisted of really accurate observations of society which may have been his way to show his discontent for the people he met as a street performer over all these years.
The tricks and stunts continued for around ten more minutes until the puppet grabbed a handkerchief out of the old mans pocket, spread it out in front of itself took a bow and thanked the people for the attention before wishing a good evening to everyone.
Some of the teenagers grabbed some change from their pockets and placed the money on the handkerchief while laughingly complimenting the old man. I too wanted to pay the puppeteer In my eyes that much talent and dexterity must not go unseen and unrewarded.
While I was rummaging through my change the pupped watched the teenagers carry on their way.
"I didn't think they would give some money for real. Normally these pricks are not good for anything besides ridicule and malice."
I lifted my head, looked at the puppet and then watched the teenagers as well. "Yeah...sometimes miracles really seem to happen. And I prefer being suprised positively rather than the other way."
I laid my eyes on the puppet again, squat down and looked at her workmanship. It was clearly very old – maybe even to be considered antique. The wood was split up on many parts and the paint was chipped everywhere too. It really looked the worse for wear.
"You are immensely talented, you know that right?", I asked and - out of curiosity - tried to touch the puppets hand. Immediately I got slapped by the wooden doll. "Hands off buddy! Who told you you may touch me huh?", the puppet snarled. I didn't think much of it. The puppet was old and the old mans subsistence seemed to depend on it. I apologized and put three euros on the handkerchief. "Why are you sitting in the streets? With that talent of yours you could easily perform at theatres or in entertainment in general." "I like it here. The streets show me the real people, not the all dressed up snobs with their fancy warderobe and opera tickets thinking they are better than everybody else." "I...see. Nevertheless you are very talented. My compliments" At this moment I realized that I talked to the doll all the time instead of the old man. But the old man did not communicate directly to me as well. "You can talk to me without that doll.", I offered politely, "Or don't you want to break character?" "No he can't", the puppet replied. "But why?" "That's none of your goddamn business buddy."
I really had problems not to get angry. The puppets answer was as rude as the jokes it told some minutes ago. I decided to carry on my way, bowed down, wished a good evening and went on without shedding any further thought about the puppeteer.
Some hundred meters away I came to an intersection and as I looked left and right to be sure about the traffic my heart took a dive. On the opposite side of the street, on the left stood the old puppeteer. Again he showed the same tricks and stunts, told the same jokes but how on earth did he get there before I could? I may just have been walking slowly but the old man did not seem to be light on his feet. I just couldn't take my eyes off him and his puppet as I was walking slowly further. Even though we were at least 40 to 50 metres apart, I wanted to get as far away as fast as possible. At the exact moment I was to walk around a corner and lose sight of the old puppeteer his dolls head turned right at me. While the old man still had that absent expressionless look on his face, his puppet seemed to stare me down. My breath stopped for a moment due to the startle. For the fraction of a second I was petrified.
Over the remainder of my way I turned around all the time, always on high alert. I had the feeling of the puppets eyes lying on me all the time but no matter how many times I looked around, how much my head was turning in every direction and how much I tried to register anything and everything around me, I did not see the puppeteer again. It was only at the club where I was able to shut down and tried to lay down that event as a simple Deja-vu. But my shivering hands told a very different story.
The barkeeper asked several times if I was alright, since she thought I looked pretty shaken but she took my word for it as I told her I just had a very stressful day. Slowly but surely the incident with the old man fell off me. The later it got, the more relaxed I became and in the end I was able to enjoy music, drinks and company as if nothing ever happened. At around 4am I went on my way home. Being in a good mood again I strolled through the Streets of Berlin heading for the central station. The temperatures had fallen low enough to make breathing visible, not many people were still around and the city itself seemed pretty quiet.
Not far away from central station however I got that feeling of being watched again. I turned to all sides, nearly panicking. I wanted to ensure myself that it was just a trick played by my subconscious, but behind a tree somewhere around 100 metres in the distance someone was standing. I couldn't make out for sure who or what was standing there without any movement at all, but I knew it was the puppeteer. And he was standing directly in my way.
No chance I meet that creep again, I thought to myself and turned into a back-alley to get around the old man and return to my route behind him. My legs were shaking due to more than just the cold air and I had trouble keeping up my pace. Some hundred meters later I wanted to turn again towards central station, as I again found myself standing right in front of the old man. Standing only 10 metres away his puppets eyes were staring again right at me. My breath stopped. All my senses screamed havoc, I wanted to run and scream, every muscle in my body was tensed up and shivered. My heart beat faster than I ever thought it could. It was pounding so hard against my chest that I feared it might jump out of my body at any moment.
"Good evening, buddy", the puppet said. I only nodded shivering. Would I have tried to say something I would not have been able to get out a single proper word. "Are you cold? You tremble like an aspen leaf." I didn't know what that was all about. Was that supposed to be a serious question or was it part of a disgusting kind of game? The whole thing stank to high heaven. Carefully I tried to make my body move slowly and ordinary. My hands and arms reluctantly followed, but after all I was able to grab the knife at my belt. "Oh look, you were pretty talkative back then....what is it that left you that speechless now?"
It really started to annoy me that the old man only talked trough the puppet. Having a distinctive style is one thing but that made the whole situation only a thousand times more menacing. My body started to prepare for a fight. I did not seem to be able to escape him and with flight being no option, confrontation was all that's left. I took a deep breath and as I was about to say something, the puppet cut me off right away "Don't even try buddy. You would not sound threatening at all right now. You shiver way to much for that." The old man let the puppet walk up and down in front of me like a CEO at a presentation of sorts, still staring into space. "What the fuck do you want from me?!" "Nothing at all, buddy...I just want to talk." "Well talk to me yourself then instead of using that damn puppet" Of course the puppet replied "I already do."
"Or who do you think the puppet is?"
I swear my heart skipped several beats. My breath stopped and I felt a sudden weakness running trough me, just as if every muscle in my body stopped working. My eyes widened and for the first time I looked close enough to see the visible breath streaming into the cold air from the puppets mouth. Not the old puppeteer, but the puppet itself was breathing. Laughing, it pulled down its strings from the old mans hands who sunk to the ground like a towel or bedsheet. He inflated like he had not a single muscle or bone in his body. My legs gave up and I fell to the ground unable to scream due to sheer terror. Hitting the asphalt must have sent an adrenalin rush trough my body. I jumped back up, ripped apart my coat in the process since my feet were rested on it and ran - or more honestly stumbled at least the first couple of metres - as fast as I possibly could.
My lungs hurt my legs were shivering and weak, giving in every couple of steps but as long as I was able to hear that puppets laugh I did not stop or let alone turn around. Everything I could think of was getting to the central station, into the light and into the line of sight of the police stations security cams. I threw myself into a corner huddled with my knife in my hand which I held so tight that my muscles cramped and I had problems letting it go when the sun rose and more and more people arrived at the station. On the platform I always stood next to other people, never by myself and even in the train itself I preferred the more crowded floor. It was only as my train finally left central station that I got a little more calm and watched the puppeteer entertaining others with the same tricks and the same jokes trough the window. And I stared into the wooden puppets eyes for the last time.
I never went to Berlin again since.