The Puppet Theatre


Photo: Anna Costa

The Puppet Theatre

By E. C. Messer


To the right, the moon was still visible and Reb Mordecai Meir looked up at it, the lesser light which, according to the Talmud, begrudged the greater light, and as compensation was given the stars.
     - Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grandfather and Grandson
Hershel Lévi left Warsaw for Paris in the summer of 1935, taking with him only his miniature theatre, its troupe of carefully hand-crafted puppets, and the small cart on which it traveled. He spoke almost no French, and at first he performed his puppet shows in Yiddish—assuming, mistakenly, that this linguistic passport would lead him deep into the ghettoes of the French capital. When he realized that nobody could understand him and that he was as far away from his community as ever, he developed an imaginary language for the puppets to obscure his lack of fluency. It was a singsong, nonsense tongue with a rich emotional vocabulary, accepted immediately and without question by the children in his audience. In fact, they delighted in this grammelot that was so much stranger and more permissive than the state-regulated French of their school workbooks. He easily slipped his own kind of irony, some light violence, and even a little harmless carnality into this made-up language. The adults—parents, nursemaids, and minders of the young insurgents in his audience—simply ignored what they presumed was a sort of baby-talk, unworthy of mature attention. Hershel found that here, as at home, it was far easier to peddle nonsense than truth.
During the occupation, Hershel hid out in the countryside and played puppet shows for the children of farmers. In the smaller hamlets and villages, even the adults had come to watch with interest. They were more accepting of his sly backtalk than the urbane Parisians, resembling as it did their own folk tales and tavern songs, even approaching the singsong, clever Occitan of their ancient troubadours. Beloved by the Resistance—a Jew, and an artist! and a friend of children!—he never went without a place to sleep and something to eat. Most nights he managed to get a mug of country wine with his meal, which he thickened with raw honey.
He began calling himself “Lévi,” so much easier for the French to pronounce than his original surname. He became friendly with Francis Ponge, the great poet of quotidian objects, and had once been ceremoniously presented to Jacques Prévert. He was hired for a party at the country retreat of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, where someone attempted to explain to him that these two American women were both Jewish and spouses—the subtleties of which his poor language skills prevented him from appreciating. By the time he was finally able to return to Paris, he had gained a kind of underground notoriety, carting his puppet show back and forth across the arrondissementsto perform by invitation for the children of writers and artists. 
But the moment of his fame faded quickly in a city eager to forget the war, and the police began to hassle him for performing in the more crowded upscale shopping districts without permission. Finally, he settled into a small park in the 14th arrondissement. There were plenty of children in the neighborhood, poor enough not to have anything fancier than his puppets at home and to spend most of their free time outside. They brought him the occasional coin, but more often they came with bread and cakes and other little bits from their kitchens—most of whose mistresses were glad to feed the puppeteer who kept the children so happy and out from underneath their feet in the afternoons. During the summers and even into the lovely fall, this arrangement suited him perfectly. But when the weather began to turn, Hershel’s mood turned with it.
Hershel did not have a home exactly, but on very cold nights he slept in the kitchen of a cheap brasserie, Gorot’s, next to the park in which he performed. For years, when he was a little younger, he took a lover in the winters and spent the nights in her flat, or else he would nestle into a pew at the back of one of the larger churches and breathe the incense for six or seven hours. The Catholic sisters recognized him as a refugee and left him alone, as long as he was gone before any of their regular parishioners arrived. He always made sure to have a coin or two on hand for these nights, enough to leave one in the collection box and still buy an espresso and sweet roll to clear the smell of sandalwood from his head the next morning. For several seasons a concierge in Montmartre, whose children attended the puppet show daily, had allowed him to sleep in her building’s unheated maid’s quarters. The maid had been fired after it was discovered that she had been entertaining “clients” in this inhospitable chill, and the building’s tenants lacked the means to replace her. But when the concierge’s children outgrew these performances, Hershel found himself no longer welcome.
Jean Gorot was just as small and ugly as the restaurant that bore his name, but his daughter loved the puppet show and had somehow convinced her father to allow Hershel, whom she lovingly called Père Lévi, to share the warmth of their kitchen. At eight years old, Anouk worked harder than most grown women. Her mother was gone—whether dead or simply run off, Hershel did not know—and her father had set her up in the kitchen as soon as she was old enough to reach the sink. She kept her dark curls pinned down under a kerchief that reminded Hershel of his native land, and her little wrists bore faint red rings where her father grabbed them and thrust them under the scalding water when she slipped or made a mistake in her work. Technically the brasserie did have a cook, Michel, a friend of Gorot’s who spent most of his time nipping from the large carafe of table wine. Gorot waited on his few customers and tended bar, mixing drinks for himself and Michel when the place was empty. Anouk did all the prep-work and scullery. As far as Hershel knew she did not go to school, but when business was slow she was able to slip out and watch the puppet show. 
Hershel had picked her out of the audience the very first time she had come to see him; there was a seriousness to her expression that was more Warsaw than Paris. He selected her to volunteer time and time again, and eventually he allowed her to stay afterward and see how the puppet show worked. He let her slip her rough little hands—as rough as those of any old housewife in the neighborhood—under the fine petticoats and fancy tails of the puppets’ costumes, and showed her how to bring them to life. Hershel found she understood, and could imitate, his invented language perfectly.
Halfway through Hershel’s second long winter in the park, Anouk had managed to convince old Gorot to let him stay in the kitchen of the brasserie. It opened onto an alley, so Hershel would not have to traipse through the dining room, and he could leave his cart with the puppet theatre just outside the kitchen door. On very cold nights, Anouk also slept in the kitchen—her tiny closet upstairs was not heated. She would make up both of their pallet beds on the warm kitchen floor, content as a mother hen—always giving Hershel the heavy afghan quilt in spite of his most vehement protests.
By now, he had spent several warm winters in the shelter of Gorot’s kitchen, whispering nonsense stories to Anouk in the semi-darkness on the nights when she could not sleep. She tutored him in French, and he taught her a few choice Yiddish words and phrases to use in times of anxiety or distress. Hershel found that the girl could explain to him exactly how his imaginary puppet language worked, a thing that even he did not fully understand. He spent the temperate months sleeping outside in the park, and even then Anouk would sneak him a plate of something in the morning when she could. He met the occasional woman—usually a housewife from the neighborhood whose husband had abandoned her, or died in the war. On his small coinage, he drank at a little bar-tabac  with outdoor tables on the opposite side of the park from Gorot’s. The woman there always had a little sandwich or some other morsel for him to eat with his wine.
Still, Hershel had grown tired of his itinerate and uncomfortable existence. Sleeping on Gorot’s floor made him feel beholden to a man he hated, and every year the children seemed less and less convinced that a puppet show was better than a cartoon in the cinema, a serial on the radio, or some other more modern form of entertainment. Increasingly, he doubted whether he could face another summer on the grass or another winter on the kitchen floor. He was tired of Paris, tired of pretending he understood the language and tired of pretending the people around him didn’t hate the two “types” of which he was a prime example—the wanderer, and the Jew. He had abstained from wine for months, stockpiling his meager earnings until he had enough to buy the cheapest train ticket from Paris to Calais. There he planned to talk or sneak his way onto a ship bound for the Americas. He would leave right away, the following morning, before the weather really turned. He was tired, so tired, of the Paris cold.
He was tired, too, of playing puppet shows for children who were not his own little daughter—who had loved the puppets and who had surely died with his wife in the death camps that even he, cut off as he was from the news of the world, had heard about. He had planned to send for them as soon as he had a little money, but then the war had come and it was all he could do to get himself and his cart out of Paris in one piece. Why had he gone to France in the first place? Why had they not all left for America together, where they could have stayed with a cousin of Hershel’s wife until he found work? Because he had heard that American children all had their own radios, and he knew that the children of France still loved old-fashioned puppet shows. He had been selfish and shortsighted and, because of this, his family had perished. 
One by one, Hershel laid the puppets out along the alley behind Gorot’s. He removed the ball-peen hammer from the set of tools he kept in the cart under the puppet theatre, for its repair. With wild satisfaction he began to smash the brittle papier mâché heads of the puppets where they lay. He smashed the loving eyes of Colombina and the jeering smile of the clown, who was called Pim Pom in the made-up language. He smashed the fine muzzle with real whiskers of the great gray Wolf, who always played the gentleman. He smashed the giant head of the Bird with its quizzical expression, who was their Scholar and Professor. He smashed the snout of the Clever Ox, who usually played a servant. He smashed the beak and tore the feathers off the Raven, the largest of all the puppets and always the villain. He smashed the white head, covered in dyed-white horsehair, of the puppet that Anouk had nicknamed the Béchamel Fairy, after the creamy sauce it was among her many jobs to mix. He tore their clothing and crushed their wooden hands beneath the heel of his boot. Those supported by sticks he snapped across his knee, those hung from strings he cut with the knife he kept in his back pocket. Hershel was amazed at how easily they crumbled, these dozen or so puppets he had made and repaired over the years with such care and concern.
Hershel paused in his frenzy, surveying the damage, wanting to be sure he had destroyed them all. One delicate snout still stuck out at him intact. He dropped the ball-peen hammer and picked up the last of the puppets, an elegant lady Fox who had most often played the wife of the great gray Wolf. He crushed her head between his knobby fingers. He realized he was damp with sweat on this chilly night. A shaft of light cut across the alley from the kitchen door, and in its center stood small Anouk, her eyes wide. The crash of the hammer against the cobbled alley must have woken her. 
“Père Lévi, what are you doing!
“Oh! Oh, well, you see, Anouk…” Hershel faltered in his still-poor French. Anouk was a patient and thoughtful tutor, but he was a slow study. She was always asking him questions and inventing games to practice his verb tenses and increase his vocabulary. But he had no words to explain to her what he had just done, not even in Yiddish, not in any human language. “You see, Anouk… these puppets, they are criminals. They have done terrible bad things. Terrible crimes. And so I had to destroy them.”
“Oh,” she said. And again, more quietly, “Oh.”
 He had expected her to challenge this strange explanation, but she accepted the idea of unconscious offence and harsh punishment without question, as something inevitable.
After a moment she asked, “Then who will live in the puppet theatre?”
“No one will live in the puppet theatre.” He sounded harsher than he had intended. Hershel stared down at the broken skull in his hands. The white robe of the Béchamel Fairy, he realized, lay lifeless at his feet, full of shards.
“Oh,” she said again, so softly it was more a breath of air than an actual word. For a time she stood silent and unmoving in the doorway, her eyes moist but her mouth set in a tight, stoic line. Finally she turned and disappeared back into the kitchen, shutting the door behind her to keep in the heat.
Curse that little girl, Hershel thought. A week after I’m gone, she won’t even remember I was here. He patted the train ticket in his breast pocket. Tomorrow he would be on his way to Calais, on his way to escaping this dying continent. Bitterly he swept the fragments of papier mâché out of the alley and into the gutter in the street. He picked up the ball-peen hammer and placed it back inside the tool box, which he then restored to its place in his cart. The tool box might prove useful—perhaps it was small enough to take with him when he left. 
Unable to enter the kitchen where Anouk might be waiting for him, Hershel left the alley and turned towards the park. Above the brasserie he could see a light in the upstairs window, where old Gorot was probably still awake drinking. Anouk and Michel would oversee the breakfast, if Michel arrived early enough. On the days when Gorot came down to lunch to find that the breakfast had not been served, he would lay into Anouk with such force that she would miss the puppet show, hardly recovering in time to assist with the dinner. Hershel turned his back on the brasserie and headed into the park. He passed the prostitute known to the neighborhood as Mme Pierrette, who had confessed to him one drunken night that she was Anouk’s mother, though Hershel did not believe her. He passed a café and a creperie that were both still open, buzzing with talk Hershel could not hear, and would not have understood if he had. He avoided the bar-tabac where he had taken several glasses of wine and an omelette earlier that evening, steeling himself for the destruction of the puppets. He walked without aim, growing increasingly cold in the nighttime air. When he felt he could walk no more, he turned back in the direction of the brasserie.
He opened the kitchen door slowly, softly, hoping not to disturb Anouk. Inside the stove the brioche dough was rising—Gorot was too cheap even to send out for bread from the bakery, and the girl would be up at dawn to knead and bake it. She had made up his pallet by the stove, nearer to the heat than her own. Curled up in a shabby rug against the opposite wall, he could tell by her perfect stillness that she was wide awake. 
Carefully, he crawled under the heavy afghan, which he pulled all the way up to his neck. The walk had chilled him and his limbs ached from his earlier outburst. The sweat on his clothes had grown cold before drying, leaving the impression of fever. He did not count the silent minutes lying in the warm kitchen without moving, but when he finally found the words, he propped himself up on his elbows and spoke across the stove-lit room.
“Anouk, I think you are probably sleeping,” Hershel began, “but I forgot to explain that there is a new troupe of puppets with perfect behavior and spotless good characters coming now across the Channel from Dover. They will then have to take the train from Calais, a very long journey, so it may be a couple of weeks before they arrive. But when they do, the puppet theatre will not be homeless any longer.”


Hershel listened for the rasp of her wakeful breathing before closing his eyes and relaxing his tired body. Tomorrow he would go to the station early and get whatever refund he could for the Calais ticket, and then he would begin the hunt for scrap wood and fabric. There was an Ashkenazi tailor, an immigrant like himself, who kept a shop not far from the brasserie, and who might be willing to give him a few spare swatches and cuttings. He was already friendly with the scrap wood man who lived in a shack at the edge of the river. It was only late October, and Hershel thought he could probably have a working puppet show again by Christmastime when, as always, Anouk would call him—supposedly by accident—not Père Lévi, but Père Noël.



 Copyright © E.C. Messer 2019

E.C. Messer lives by the Pacific Ocean with her husband and four cats, one of whom has a bionic heart. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ecmesser. She would like very much to know you.

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