No Strings Attached by Nina Shepardson

Bhima was gone.

He was right here! I remember setting him down after the last performance. I’m sure of it! Adi took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. He had misremembered, that was all. He searched behind crates and lighting fixtures, lifted drapes of cloth, and even peered into the orchestra pit. There was no sign of Bhima anywhere.

Adi sat down shakily on one of the musicians’ chairs. This is terrible. I can’t tell the story without Bhima! He shook his head. And Grandfather entrusted him to me. I could make another Bhima puppet if I had to, but it could never replace Grandfather’s. The audience might never notice, but I would know.

#

“Ooh, that’s pretty! Can I play with it, Grandfather?”

Adi’s grandfather turned toward him, fixing the young boy with a stern gaze. “This is not a toy, Adi. This is one of the puppets we use to tell the ancient story of the Mahabharata. It represents Bhima, the great hero, and it took weeks to make.”

“Really?” Adi examined the puppet with new appreciation.

His grandfather nodded. “Not only that, but performing the shadow theater, the wayang kulit, is an art that one must practice hard to master. The puppeteer controls the puppets, of course, but he also narrates the story and signals the orchestra when to play their music.”

“You do all that, Grandfather?”

“I do.”

“Can I learn to do it too?”

The corners of his grandfather’s eyes crinkled as he smiled, and he reached down to ruffle Adi’s hair. “Yes, if you’re willing to work hard and pay attention to what I say.”

#

Adi stared at his remaining puppets. They were serviceable enough, made of leather and carefully painted in tones of ocher and gold, but Adi had always considered the Bhima puppet the most precious. This was mostly because his grandfather had crafted it, but he wasn’t ignorant of its intrinsic value. Unlike newer ones, it was made of buffalo hide, and the sticks that moved it weren’t cut from lengths of bamboo, but from buffalo horns.

Adi closed his eyes, playing back in his mind everything he’d done since arriving at the theater. He had greeted the owner and the director of the orchestra, set up the screen and the lamp that would project the puppets’ images onto it, and laid out the puppets in a row in front of him. From the other side of the screen, he heard the sounds of chatter as the theater filled up.

The lights fell, the music began, and he picked up the first puppet: Bhima, setting out to conquer the eastern kingdom of Jarasandha. The lamplight projected Bhima’s shadow onto the cloth screen, with delicate holes pierced in the hide highlighting the hero’s facial features and elaborate jewelry. The audience was appreciative of the performance, cheering when Bhima won a victory, stamping their feet in anger when he was forced into exile, and groaning at his eventual death.

There was enthusiastic applause at the end of the show, and all the musicians grinned as they got up from their seats. A few of them approached Adi to offer congratulations on a job well done, as did Harta, the theater owner. Then the backstage area filled with the usual bustle of people packing up their equipment and greeting family and friends who’d come to see their performance. Adi began to gather his own things, tucking the puppets back into their cases so they wouldn’t be damaged on the trip home. After getting the lesser puppets squared away, he turned to Bhima… only to find him absent.

None of his recollections about the evening suggested any explanations for Bhima’s disappearance. The puppets were so distinctive that it seemed impossible for anyone to have mistaken one of them for his own, and the crate he’d propped the Bhima puppet against hadn’t been moved. Adi glanced around at the few people who were still here: the janitorial staff and one straggling musician. None of them seemed reluctant to meet his gaze, and the musician even flashed him a friendly smile.

One of the janitors must have noticed the look of consternation on Adi’s face, because he came over. “Anything wrong?”

“Actually, I seem to have misplaced one of my puppets.” Adi didn’t say which one he’d lost. It was a dalangs job to take proper care of his puppets, avoiding any damage to them and making prompt repairs if something did happen. This was particularly true for one as old and rare as the Bhima puppet. Adi wasn’t about to go telling people he’d somehow lost track of it.

“Well, I haven’t seen one lying around anywhere, but if I do, I’ll let you know.”

#

“Grandfather, why does it look so weird? Look how long its arms are, and they have claws on the ends instead of real hands! It doesn’t look like a person at all!”

“That’s because the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, say we aren’t supposed to make images of human beings. When our country became Muslim, at first it seemed like we’d have to give up the wayang kulit.” The old man raised one spindly finger. “But then the wise man Sunan Giri came up with an idea. ‘Stretch out the nose,’ he said, ‘and curve the fingers into claws.'” As he spoke, he mirrored the changes with gestures, pinching the end of Adi’s nose and then pulling back as if extending it into space. “He realized that if we changed the way the puppets looked so they no longer closely resembled a human, that prohibition wouldn’t apply, and so the wayang kulit could continue. As it has continued, telling us the story of Bhima and his brothers up to today. And as it will continue in the future, if you’re really serious about becoming a dalang.”

#

Adi collapsed onto the couch with a can of soda in his hand. I was supposed to be part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. I was supposed to preserve this piece of our past, maybe even pass it on to my children one day. And look what I’ve done! Just a moment of inattention, and I’ve lost it forever. Grandfather, you would have been better off never giving Bhima to me in the first place.

Adi’s sorrowful musings were interrupted by a soft clattering sound. Had he forgotten to fill the cat’s food dish? Sorry about that, Melati. He pushed himself up off the couch and took a few steps toward the kitchen.  Then he heard the sound again. It was different now, louder, as if the clacking was emanating from more than one source. And instead of coming from the kitchen, it was echoing down the hall from his bedroom.

Taking a swig of his cola, Adi trudged down the darkened hallway. There was a rustle, then a thump, and as he reached the doorway of his room, he saw something moving inside.

“Melati?” The light was off, but the room was illuminated by the pink and blue light of neon signs filtering in through the window. A shadow moved across the wall next to his bed: too large to be Melati, but too small to be a person.

The rattling noise repeated itself, and this time Adi saw the movement that accompanied it. Over in the corner where he’d stacked the puppets’ containers, one had fallen over, dumping its contents onto the floor.

The newly freed puppet was moving.

Adi stumbled back a few steps and leaned against the doorframe. His fingers clenched, and the thin metal of the soda can started to buckle.

The boxes were on the floor in a jumble now, and four of the puppets were sitting up: the other Pandava, Bhima’s brothers. There was a ripping sound, and the shadows they cast on the wall behind them stood up, while the puppets themselves remained seated.

“This is…this is impossible…” The shadows were advancing across the wall toward the window. They looked just as they did when projected onto the cloth screen, their spindly arms swinging as they walked, the holes punched in the surfaces of the puppets mimicking shining necklaces and bracelets. Arjuna, who was in the lead, reached the window and pushed it open, climbing out onto the fire escape. The other three shadows followed, leaving Adi alone in the room.

I must be dreaming. Adi stumbled over to the window. He could feel the cool breeze coming in, and see it ruffling the curtains. There was no doubt the window was open, but he hadn’t done it. He shivered, and the fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. What was going on here? Had his grandfather’s spirit laid a curse on him for losing the Bhima puppet? But no, the animated shadows hadn’t attacked him.

A thought popped up in the back of his mind, one that seemed both crazy and logical. In the stories of the Mahabharata, the Pandava always fought together, facing uncountable dangers side by side. Now one of the brothers had disappeared. What if the other four were going to rescue him?

He wouldn’t need to be rescued at all if it weren’t for me. If they’re going to get him back, I have a duty to help! Swallowing his fear, Adi climbed over the windowsill and hurried down the fire escape.

The night was pleasant and clear. Despite the late hour, the profusion of shops and restaurants meant that there was plenty of light to see by, and music drifted out from homes and nightclubs. Adi followed the shadows down the street toward the district where numerous theaters, concert halls, and other performance venues were located. They passed the very theater where he’d given his ill-fated show just a few hours ago. There were other people out on the streets, but none of them seemed to notice Adi’s strange companions.

A little way past the wayang kulit theater, the shadows turned off the main thoroughfare and into a warren of narrow side streets. Although Adi could judge the approximate direction of their travel from the brightly lit sky-blue pillar of the National Monument, he soon lost all sense of their precise location.

In a quiet street where all the houses were dark, the shadows stopped. They were gathered outside the front gate of a small beige house with white shutters. Wind shook the branches of the tree in the front yard, making it sound as if the puppet shadows were whispering to each other. Adi scratched his head; why did this house look so familiar? He recalled seeing it in bright daylight, when small birds perched in the branches of the tree and filled the air with their song.

Adi looked along the fence until he found the mailbox, and leaned closer to examine the name written on it. Harta? I know that name! Harta’s the man who owns the theater I performed at tonight. Why are we here?

Arjuna eased the gate open, taking care not to let it squeak. The other shadows slipped through after him, and Adi followed. What are they intending to do? Steal the puppet back? What if we get caught? What am I supposed to say—”Sorry, I just followed these magical shadows here”? He thought about calling the police, but he had no proof so far that Harta had actually stolen the Bhima puppet. The only evidence he had would sound insane.

The group now stood before Harta’s house, and at first Adi thought they would be stymied by the locked front door. But Arjuna bent down and slipped underneath it like the shadow he was. There was a faint click, and the door swung open, revealing a dark hallway.

If anything, following the shadows through the interior of Harta’s house was even creepier than accompanying them through the streets of Jakarta. There was much less light here, so Adi only caught brief, partial glimpses of the shadows. They seemed to merge into and out of the native shadows of the house, and he was reminded of the ghost stories he and his friends had scared each other with as children. The absolute silence with which the shadows moved only enhanced the surreal atmosphere. Adi walked on tiptoes, ears straining to hear any sound that might indicate their presence had been detected. A faint buzz from somewhere deeper in the house made him tense his shoulders, preparing for flight, but when no one appeared to confront him, he assumed it had only been the hum of some appliance.

Harta’s house was the quintessential middle-class domicile: a plasma-screen television in the living room, a bicycle propped against the wall in the entryway, a self-help book on the coffee table. The shadows ignored all this, gliding without hesitation up the stairs and onto the second floor. Adi was even more nervous now, because this floor was clearly where the bedrooms were. Harta was probably asleep in one of those rooms, and the slightest noise might wake him. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the shadows gathering by a door that was far too narrow to lead to a room. Once again, Arjuna took the lead, easing the door open to reveal a linen closet. On the top shelf, cushioned by a stack of bath towels, was a dark, flat shape. Bhima!

There was no mistaking it. Even in the dark, Adi could make out the distinctive shape of the puppet, with its elongated limbs, hunched back, and protruding nose. The four shadows stood atop one another’s shoulders, and Arjuna lifted his brother gently down.

Adi reached out for the puppet, but drew his hand back at the last second. Will they even allow me to touch it, when I’m the one who let it get stolen in the first place? He needn’t have worried. Arjuna extended his stick-thin arms toward Adi, holding out the Bhima puppet. Adi cradled it like a mother holding her baby, meeting the blank holes that represented the shadow’s eyes with his own gaze. Thank you. I promise to take better care of him from now on.

They crept back down the stairs and made for the still-open front door. As they passed the entrance to the living room, a light went on.

Harta stood in the middle of the room. “So, you figured out I was the one who took it. I’m surprised, Adi. Actually, I’m even more surprised you had the balls to break into my house to get it back.”

“You had no right to take this!” Adi exploded. “My grandfather made this puppet! It’s been in my family since his time, and it’s an integral part of my performances.”

“Oh, come off it. Don’t you have any clue how much something like that is worth? You wouldn’t be living in that tiny apartment of yours if you sold it.”

“I’d never sell this! It’s—”

“Yes, yes, a family heirloom, a priceless reminder of our shared cultural heritage as Indonesians, blah blah blah. Look, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ve already got a buyer, a man who’s interested in Southeast Asian folk art. I’ll cut you in on the sale.”

Adi began edging back down the hall, in the direction of the kitchen and perhaps a back door. He hadn’t been able to tell whether Harta had a weapon or not, so withdrawing further into the dark hallway was probably a good idea anyway.

“Hey, come back here!” Heavy footsteps thudded as Harta made to pursue him.

Now Harta was silhouetted in the doorway to the living room. He cast a broad shadow on the opposite wall.

With a start, Adi realized that there was a second shadow beside Harta’s. It was crouched on the stairs, its elongated arms raised menacingly.

Harta saw it too. “Who’s that?” he called out, and for the first time there was worry in his voice.

Adi, of course, was in no doubt as to the identity of the shadow. He would have recognized it anywhere. It was Arjuna.

The buffalo-horn control rods shook in Adi’s hands, but not from fear. They were moving on their own, as the other Pandava puppets had before their shadows had torn themselves loose. The shaking felt insistent to Adi. Bhima? Do you want me to do something? What? He wasn’t a fighter, nor a thief. Driving off hostile persons or sneaking unseen out of a house weren’t his strengths. What he was was a dalang, a puppeteer. And what good was that now?

The Bhima puppet’s clawed hands flopped open in what seemed to be an exasperated gesture. Of course!

With practiced movements, Adi flipped the Bhima puppet upright. Its shadow appeared on the wall of the corridor, advancing inexorably toward Harta. To Adi’s shock, it wasn’t a mere foot or two high as it should be. The Bhima shadow was huge and hulking, having to stoop to avoid spilling onto the ceiling. He flicked one of the rods, and the shadow extended a hand outward, the sharp claw inching in Harta’s direction.

“Gah!” Harta jumped backward into the living room and slammed the door. Adi lost no time in gathering up the Bhima puppet and sprinting into the kitchen. Sure enough, a plain back door stood next to the sink. He unlocked it, flung it open, and dashed around to the front of the house. Running back up the path he’d traversed before, he got out onto the street, then stopped short. His memory of the route home was hazy, and he was pretty sure the shadows had brought him here by a different path than the one he’d taken when he came here alone.

He felt a tug on his sleeve and looked down to see Arjuna standing beside him. The other three Pandava shadows were there too, and they beckoned to him as they proceeded down the street.

Adi frequently glanced over his shoulder as they made their way home, fearing that Harta might have overcome his fear and come after them. But they made it back to his apartment unmolested, and after examining the Bhima puppet to make sure that it hadn’t been damaged by its adventure, he set it reverently in its case.

The Pandava shadows lost no time in slinking back to their corresponding puppets and reattaching themselves. Adi returned them to their cases and stacked them carefully. “You can rest now,” he whispered. “You’re together again, as it should be, and from now on, I’ll make sure you stay that way.”


Nina Shepardson is a biologist living in the northeastern US with her husband. She’s a staff reader for Spark: A Creative Anthology, and her work appears in Allegory, Electric Spec, and Page & Spine, among others. She also writes book reviews at ninashepardson.wordpress.com.

Poetry                                                                            Issue Seventeen                                                                            Next

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