by Philip Meeks
A war had ravaged the city where Little Tear danced for strangers.
In her gilt cage at night she’d hear the sounds of sirens, crumbling stone and worse. Feel the shudder and cracking of timbers beneath the shelf where she was stored. The fall of dust like kisses from the dead followed by a silence so deep and terrifying you could almost hear it.
Some nights, after raid time, Little Tear would hear one of her many sisters sob. Squilly with the sewn on beak perhaps. Zarilla with the purple plumes. Or Moya, the one with the missing arm. Little Tear’s three special favourites. The most damaged. Tucked away in their own cages elsewhere on the shelf they’d shed their sorrows whilst shivering from their fears and there was nothing Little Tear could do to comfort them but call out a soothing word or few, or coo. But mostly she chose not to. And she never cried. Not even when buildings nearby succumbed to the sky bird’s heinous deliveries.
Instead she chose to clasp her eyes and concentrated on her thinkings. Those that would lull her to a shallow slumber. The ones she only ever dared remember when she was betwixt the world of awake and not.
Her thinkings at the moment largely concerned dancing for the boy with the half lip. The boy who kept coming back to see her and only her. Who told her through his glances that he would return to help her. Take her away. Make her free. Sometimes she believed this so much her tiny toy heart became fit to unstitch itself.
Worse than the sobbing of her sisters on these dreaded nights however, far worse, where the times Bucola shifted herself from her nest at the heart of the house. Shuffled, crawled and grunted her way to where her cherubs were kept. There she’d hush the sobbing as kindly as she could and set about singing them back to sleep, in an ugly clacking language unheard for centuries the songs of the long forgotten. A mournful sound meant to comfort, but which could only ever disturb. And after Bucola’s rattling noise stopped echoing around the cage chamber her past midnight unwashed odour lingered until the first hiss of dawn.
Little Tear hated Bucola.
In times now forgotten there would have been a word for Bucola. A word uttered at night to keep children from straying off the path to pick up windfalls. From wandering unwittingly into harm’s way. A word whispered in the light of an open flame. Muttered in hushed tones when the cattle went ill or their udders dried and the crops rent bad in the ground or wouldn’t grow. Witch.
But witches didn’t exist. They never had.
Bucola was far worse than anything ever described as a witch. She was one of the last of her kind. An ancient cursed breed who siphoned souls in times of strife to feed and survive. She was a massive beast struggling in the face of her girth and oozing masses, to hold on to something resembling femininity.
At all times she was clad in exotic furs belonging to varieties of mammal, many long extinct. The curls on her monstrous head, a variety of shades of red and gold, were rank with distemper, fashioned with wax made from human blubber and fused to her skull. Her skin, gnarled and knotted was smeared in glowing grease rendered from wild boars and coloured by the blood of dung beetles and petals plucked from poisoned blooms. The layers of this were never removed but simply applied on top of each other. At least they hid the scars of the smallpox and the rot.
Bucola’s one appealing feature was her shimmering right blue eye. The left was a blackened socket she used to cover with a glistening patch made of eel scales. The right blue eye was false. Unnatural. But it saw everything. Little Tear and her sisters would chatter about it before lights out. Tell the tale of how it came to be. How Bucola found an alchemist at the dawn of time to fashion it for out of crystals plundered from centre of the earth.
At night Bucola took her eye out. Kept it safe in the music box by the side of the vast plinth she used for a bed. Little Tear dreamed of the time when she’d have the eye in her grasp. To do with what she would. For she and her sisters felt without it Bucola would be powerless. And she could be free.
Dawn was stirring. The start of another day. The customers would soon start finding their way to Bucola’s house down its grim little alley in a part of the city considered dangerous long before the bombs started falling. They found it through hearsay. Hand drawn maps. Rumour, code and whisper. But find it they did. For the dancing delights within were hard to resist in such dark days.
Little Tear and her sisters were what Bucola called puppetoons. Tiny living dolls, pretty and precious, who once wound up, for a hefty price, would leave their cages and dance to tunes filled with sorrow. For an extra shilling or two they would blow a kiss in your direction. But never more than one.
Since we know she never cried, Little Tear was named because of the oval emerald embedded into her porcelain cheek. Sometimes when she danced her golden locks would cover it. Customers always paid more waiting for it to be revealed. She danced in a dress made of rare Arabic silk that had been stitched onto her body by Bucola herself. The monstrous creature was capable of creating surprisingly delicate treasures.
Today there was something in the air. As she stretched and prepared in the confines of her dwelling Little Tear heard her sister’s chatter and chunter.
“I awoke early and heard Bucola declare it” cried Trildy the puppetoon who lived closest to the door. “The Sky Birds will stay away. The war is done.”
This caused worry amongst the pretty beings. If the war ended Bucola would move. There wouldn’t be enough to feed her. None of the puppetoons quite remembered the last move. But they were all certain it wasn’t a joyous experience. Squilly began to sob and rattled the bars of the cage with her beak until she was covered in gold flakes.
Little Tear took no notice of the noisy panic and refrained, as was her way, of joining in. She finished her last stretch and the great double doors to their chamber creaked opened. Bucola shuffled forth rasping and giving vent to the putrid wind stored by her bulging body during a long night.
“My pretties. Sing for me,” she cried and cackled as the puppetoons chirruped obediently, many with love in their souls.
Bucola then grabbed Little Tear and Squilly’s cages. Squilly cheeped as she was swept out into the candle lit hallway.
Bucola entertained her guests in her quarters. The pair of puppetoons waited behind a curtain near the dancing table. Bucola had gone to fetch the first customer. And Little Tear knew. The half lipped boy was back. Back for her. This was the day she’d be free. Somehow.
She could smell him the instant Bucola showed him into her room. His honesty. The odour of it could be detected even underneath Bucola’s suffocating all pervading musk. She ladled this on in vast quantities to disguise the stench of her festering body and its maggoty folds.
“Today’s a day of celebration I hear. For some.” Bucola griped. “Who can blame a boy wanting a dose of prettiness to enhance his cheer?”
The boy never spoke. Little Tear heard a clink. Clink, clink. An exchange of coinage.
“I understand your shyness boy,” Bucola’s voice had become conspiratorial. “Hard as it may seem to believe but beneath my glamour, I too have my physical deficiencies. Some from birth. Like your poor young tender lips.”
Little Tear cringed as she imagined Bucola getting close to her boy. Trying to kiss what wasn’t there.
“An extra shilling.” A stammered breathless lispy sound. The boy spoke.
“Enough for a double dance and a glass of glug.” Spluttered Bucola.
“Two” said the boy. “I’d like you to join me.”
“I can’t dance twice” squeaked Squilly. “I’m too tired. The sky birds keeped me up.”
Little Tear hushed her. She heard a gasp of steam. The slurping of the hot glug into Bucola’s beakers for best.
“To happier times” crowed Bucola not even remotely meaning it.
Then her hand shot behind the curtain grabbing Squilly’s cage so clumsily she toppled from her perch.
“I selected something new for you today. Took the liberty since you’re a regular. This precious puppetoon dances with such vigour, such vivacity you almost see her fly.”
Silence. A long silence filled only by the ruffling of Squilly’s feathers.
“Little Tear.” Said the boy defiantly. “I want Little Tear.”
“What is it about her?” a tone of danger trickled into Bucola’s voice. “What’s your fascination with her?”
“She makes me cry inside,” he said.
And of course nothing made Bucola more gleeful than even a whiff of some other living things misery. So once again Little Tear would dance for her beloved.
“I brung her down too,” snorted Bucola. “Just in case.”
As Little Tear stepped from her cage she was at her most graceful. She could feel Squilly watching her jealously. The silk of her tresses started to sway to the music cranked out through Bucola’s gramophone and as she took her first simple steps she looked into her boy’s face.
He was very young. But she was too, wasn’t she? His eyes were almond-shaped and velvety brown. His straw blond hair cropped but covering his brow. His round ruddy cheeks aglow at the sight of Little Tear, her locks pulled back, her emerald on show. Only the boy’s mouth was startling. Where his perfectly formed nose ended his gums began. Red and angry above his yellowed teeth exposed in a permanent jagged grin. But to Little Tear it was a smile that made her stuffed heart quiver and melt.
Her gentle steps became more intricate, frenetic and rigorous as she began to spin and turn. Every fabric particle yearned to please and strove to do more than dance to the music. To become part of it. Get inside of it. She danced so hard she felt that her feet were bleeding. But of course they weren’t. She had no blood.
Suddenly a loud sharp scratch ricocheted round the walls of Bucola’s room. The gramophone had stuck. One note of solemn music echoed and repeated. A single twang of violin. Little Tear halted her movements as her captor heaved her buttocks up and set about dealing with the delay.
In that instant Little Tear saw her boy slip a glass phial from his shirt sleeve and tip the powder it contained into Bucola’s glug. It sizzled for a second. Then the music resumed and Little Tear’s dancing became filled with more joy than she’d ever known. Her senses hadn’t lied. The boy was here for her.
A few seconds after draining her glug Bucola started to fail.
“What’s come over me?” She stifled a large yawn. “Dance on my pretty. He’s paid for two. I must…”
It was all she could do to stagger to her repugnant pit. The bed in the corner hidden by a screen. But before giving up to the sleeping draught Little Tear heard an audible suck and the crack of a wooden lid. Bucola never forgot to take out her eye and store it away.
“What’s he done, what’s he done! Ma-ma Ma-ma…” Squilly cried with all her might.
“She’s sleeping that’s all, I’d never hurt a thing,” the boy explained. And from behind the screen Bucola’s throaty snores concurred.
But Squilly got hysterical as puppetoons are wont to do and despite Little Tear’s warnings would not calm down. There was no other choice. Little Tear reached into Squilly’s cage and snapped off her beak.
“And now you’re mine all mine Little Tear,” the boy lisped loud and proud.
“I can’t be. Not while Bucola has her powers”
With a hop she leapt onto the boy’s open palm. Soaked in his smell. Relished his warmth and the sound of his chuckle as her feet tickled him. But there was time for joy later. She instructed her half-lipped loved one to venture with her behind the screen to the most sacred part of Bucola’s lair. There they located the music box and opened it.
Little Tear looked at the eye as the music box started to play its eerie jingle. But worse than that. From its lid sprang the tiniest puppetoon imaginable. A little ballerina up on point and bleating a warning.
“Bucola, Bucola. Awaken Bucola”
Bucola stirred despite the severity of the drug she’d been given. The boy put his hand on the sticky glass eye and the guardian of the music box was upon him. Despite her size the ballerina had razor sharp teeth made of metal shards. They gnawed away through flesh and bone as the boy screamed.
And that was it. Bucola was fully awake and enraged. She let out an anguished yell. Despite being blind she knew what was happening.
Little Tear had wasted no time. She’d taken the eye from its case and was rolling it near the edge of the dressing table.
“Be warned Little Tear. Be warned! No!” Bucola was quaking. “You do not know what you are doing.”
And then she gasped. The eye tumbled over the edge, fell heavily to the ground and shattered. The echoes of tinkling crystal chimed out. The whole house shook and elsewhere, in their chamber Little Tear could hear the puppetoons cry and rattle their cages.
“I’ve done it sisters. We are free!” Little Tear wanted to dance again. But she didn’t. In fact if she so wished she never had to dance again.
She turned to see her boy who was white with shock but had managed to throw the murderous little puppetoon to the ground and stamp her to fluff.
“We can be together now my beautiful half lip.” Little Tear stopped. She’d spoken. But not in her own voice. It was deep, gruff. Raddled with phlegm.
Then she felt a tremor ripping through her and a sharp pain across her face. Her porcelain. It was cracking. As the pieces fell away she felt her stitching rupture. Somehow she was growing. She looked in desperation at her boy who was looking back in terror.
“No my boy, no. It’s me!”
Now the boy was cowering in a corner hiding his face with his hands screaming and crying for his mother as Little Tear grew and grew and grew.
When the shaking stopped she looked in the mirror. Looked hard and long as her heart, which now thumped heavily in her chest, broke. She was tall and broad and hunched. As ugly as sin. Her skin old and parched, her scalp bald, scabby and red with running sores. Her hands contorted into meaty claws. Her feet grizzled stumps.
“I protected you my Little Tear,” Bucola’s voice was filled with sorrow. “My little girl. I stayed like this so you could be beautiful.”
And for the first time in centuries Little Tear cried.
About the Author
This week’s story is from Philip Meeks. Philip has only recently started writing fiction after spending most of his writing life working in theatre and television. He’s written for Emmerdale and Doctors and had plays produced around the UK. Hes also an actor of sorts and can be found at Christmas playing panto Dame for QDOS, Britain’s top pantomime producers.
Philip’s latest play “Murder, Marple and Me” is a mystery featuring Agatha Christie and the English actress Margaret Rutherford, who was the first person to play Miss Marple on screen. It’s playing in London at the Ambassadors Theatre in June for a few special performances. It’s part of the celebrations for the 60th Anniversary of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap.
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.