The Puppet Tree

by Andrew J. West

Illustrsation for The Puppet Tree. This picture is by Vasan Sitthiket a renowned Thai artist. Eastlit October 2013.Teptida accelerates as the car approaches the bend in the road, stamping her foot on the pedal, pressing it flat to the floor. Tightening her grip on the steering wheel, she makes sure the beams of the headlights squarely illuminate the fast approaching tree—with trunk and branches seemingly stretching from here on earth all the way to the heavens—directly in front.

With only a matter of seconds left before crashing, she looks over at Chai sitting in the passenger seat. She gazes at him with eyes which glisten with so much love as to make the love of life itself seem insignificant, not if that life can’t be lived together. The star-crossed lovers kiss in this final moment, sharing a lifetime’s worth of passion compressed between their youthful lips, as the car jumps the gutter and slams into the pillar of the tree trunk, sending both the unbelted occupants flying through the shattered windscreen at a hundred miles an hour.

Teptida and Chai embrace as they soar through space on a cloud of white light, as weightless as the love between them. The bliss they now feel is even greater than the most intense moments of their physical bonding. In this instant they are bound together not just physically, but spiritually, for all eternity, as they had vowed they would forever be.

Then the instant they thought would last for eternity comes to an abrupt end. Instead of flying together forever through the afterlife, Chai is wrenched out from Teptida’s arms. He finds himself tumbling through the air alone, landing not upon a pillow of billowing clouds in heaven, but sliding to a stop in a muddy rice-paddy. At first he’s dazed and confused. He soon comes to his senses and tries to get to his feet, but both his legs are broken.

“Teptida!” he shouts.

He turns onto his stomach and drags himself back toward the car. Despite the surges of pain up his arms as he pulls himself forward inch by inch, he makes it to the wreck just as the first emergency vehicles are approaching, lights flashing and sirens blazing. At the tree, semi-uprooted and knocked half-over by the car’s massive impact, he finds Teptida’s mangled body wrapped around the trunk.

“Teptida,” he cries, stroking her cracked skull in shock. Staring into her lifeless eyes, he’s overcome by despair. The pain of his broken heart is too much to bear and, combined with the agony of his injuries, drags him deep within himself, sinking to the depths of unconsciousness like a ship sunk far out at sea.

The next thing he knows he’s lying in a hospital bed. His arms and legs are in traction and his mother and father are leaning over him.

“Chai, what happened?” asks his mother. “Was it an accident?”

“Teptida?” asks Chai. “Is she…?”

His mother wipes the tears from her eyes with a handkerchief and slowly shakes her head. “She was such a lovely girl.”

“The police say it’s an accident,” says his father. “But we all know it wasn’t. Teptida’s father paid off the police to avoid a scandal.”

“It’s so sad,” sobs her mother. “If only he and Teptida’s mother would let you be together, this would never have happened.”

“They would do anything to keep us apart, and we would do anything to be together,” says Chai.

“Please, son, we love you so much,” pleads his mother. “Please don’t try and do anything like that again, if only for the sake of your father and I. Promise me you won’t.” Unable to deny his mother, Chai relents and gives his promise. She looks left and right at his suspended limbs. “You may have broken both arms and legs, but you didn’t scratch your handsome face,” she says, smiling hopefully through her tears. “Another girl just as wonderful will fall in love with you sooner than you think.”

“You’re just like one of the marionettes you make in your workshop, strung together with strings,” jokes his father, trying to break the tension.

“If only I’d been something else, someone else, Teptida’s parents might have accepted me as their son-in-law.”

“That’s nonsense,” replies his father indignantly. “You’re the son of a cabinetmaker and I’m as proud of what you do as I am of what I do. The marionettes you make for the hun lakhon lek theatre are essential for the continuation of an important Thai cultural tradition. If we’re not good enough for their family because they are so rich, with cold blue blood flowing through their veins—not warm red blood as shared by the rest of us—then their daughter’s death is on their hands, not yours, no matter what foolish act your blind love drove you to do.”

Chai’s friends from Silpakorn University, where he’s an art student, come to keep him company, trying to cheer him up and take his mind off Teptida. His best friend, Tor, spends more time with him than anyone else, reading to him his favourite anime and manga comics, until Chai’s arms and legs come out of their casts and he’s able to hold a comic book for himself. When he’s released from hospital, he stays with his parents for only a couple of weeks before going back to the student residence on campus, where he has a room, just in time for the beginning of the final year of his Master of Fine Arts degree.

On the first day, Chai says to Tor, “I need your help. Can you borrow your father’s pickup?”

Tor’s not sure what Chai has in mind, but does as he asks, driving him in his father’s pickup with a chainsaw to the scene of the “accident”. The tree is as he remembered it that night, half-fallen over with roots still sticking up out of the ground—only now it has been wrapped in strips of green, yellow and red cloth and statues of the Buddha have been placed at the base—symbols that a spirit now resides within it. Chai and Tor are solemn, kneeling down and muttering Buddhist prayers for the dead they’d been taught by the monks when they were children.

Tor asks, “What are we doing here?”

“I want this wood,” says Chai.

“What? Why?”

“We promised we’d be together forever.”

Chai takes the chainsaw and cuts down the tree, carving the trunk into chunks just light enough for two people to carry. They pile the pieces onto the back of the vehicle, and Chai takes the cloth.

“What do you want this for?” asks Tor as they drive away.

Chai, who’s lost in the tortured tunnels of his own thoughts, doesn’t hear the question. Tor repeats it and Chai finally replies, “Teptida is in this wood.”

After unloading it at Chai’s woodworking studio on campus, he thanks his friend, locks the door and immediately gets to work.

Only after several days, with Tor banging on his locked door, does Chai emerge from his studio. Under his arm he’s carrying a life-size simulacrum of Teptida, dressed in the white blouse and short black skirt of a Thai university student, as Teptida herself had worn, only now accessorised with a colourful sash and scarf made from the cloth that was tied around the tree.

Tor stands back not only in surprise, but awe.

Chai’s marionettes were always so expertly crafted, strictly following traditional woodworking techniques, they had already become—even at this early stage in his career—the puppets of choice used in hun lakhon lek performances by the country’s top puppeteers. Chai’s colourfully costumed marionettes had been praised for their craftsmanship, flexibility and human-like movement as well as for their elegant and detailed beauty. But in recreating the love of his life, Chai had surpassed himself.

Teptida does not remotely resemble the marionettes Chai had created in the past. The texture of this puppet is an exact match to the golden hues of Teptida’s lustrous complexion, right down to the light purple veining. And every visible aspect of Teptida is perfectly recreated right down from the tips of her false eyelashes to her painted toes and fingernails.

“Hello, Tor. How are you?” asks the marionette, its lips moving as if speaking.

Tor, who’d known Chai since their first year as undergraduates together, had no idea he was also a ventriloquist. “What the—. Chai, what have you done?”

“Are you always so rude, Tor. Aren’t you going to answer Teptida’s question?” says Chai.

Tor is perturbed, but takes a breath and plays along. “Oh, sorry. I’m fine thank you. And how are you, errr, Teptida?”

“I’m very well too, thanks for asking,” the marionette apparently replies.

“I could do with a coffee. Shall we go to the café?” asks Chai, smiling.

“Yes, my love,” replies the marionette.

Chai, with “Teptida” under his arm, heads to the campus café. As they proceed, Tor is astonished, not a string, wire or joint is in sight to animate its fluid pacing. It seems able to walk on its own two feet with minimal manipulation by Chai.

When Chai and Teptida—who had made the front cover of Student Weekly newspaper after the crash—sit at the café in the campus courtyard, they quickly become the centre of attention of students and teachers alike. While the students gawk, the teachers urge everyone to act as though everything is normal. They monitor Chai’s unusual behaviour patiently from a distance in consultation with Tor, watching closely for overt or obvious signs of suicidal tendencies or any further developments in his seemingly delusional conduct. Tor decides to hold his tongue about the origin of the wood, thinking any talk of a phii ton nong mai—an evil female ghost that resides in trees—now being in the wood of the marionette would only make matters far worse than they already are.

Over the coming days, while most of the student body keep a distance from their evidently disturbed fellow, Chai’s circle of close-knit friends remain close at hand. They humour him, fearing the worst, such as a mental breakdown or another suicide attempt, but hoping for the best, that he might regain his senses. After a week of keeping Chai with his ever-present companion beside him on campus, Tor decides it might be beneficial to expose him to the world outside the university, taking him to a local bar-cum-restaurant where students congregate.

Surrounded by his friends, Chai escorts Teptida to a vacant table. While the company fill their glasses from a tower of Singha beer and share plates of food, Chai can’t help but notice a flawless face framed in flowing dark brown hair entering the bar, whose chestnut eyes immediately meet his own, before reluctantly turning to Tor and waving as she approaches their table.

“Sorry I’m late, I had a terrible time parking,” she says.

“No problem. Please sit down,” replies Tor, moving over and letting her sit in between himself and Chai. “Grace, this is Chai.”

“Hello, Chai.”

“Hello, Grace.”

“And errr,” says Tor, motioning towards the puppet, “this is Teptida.”

“We already know each other,” says Teptida, her eyes seeming to dilate as they somehow glower at the newcomer. “We were in English class together at Chulalongkorn University.”

“Is that right, Grace?” asks Chai, apparently switching voices back to his own.

Grace moves uncomfortably, uncertain how to react, wondering how Chai had thrown his voice with the virtuosity of a ventriloquist with years of experience and how he’d known about them having been in the same class. In the end, she rests her gaze on Chai, avoiding eye contact with Teptida’s speaking simulacrum despite herself. “Yes, Chai, we were,” she says finally. “I finished a B.A. majoring in journalism at Chula last year. Now I’m studying theatre for my M.A.”

“Theatre? How interesting,” says Chai. “And how do you know Tor?”

Grace glances reluctantly at the marionette and says, “I met Tor after the, um, accident. I interviewed him about you and Teptida. I was the one who wrote the article about it for Student Weekly.”

“Really? And are you here to write another story?”

“I invited her,” answers Tor. He passes Grace a glass of beer and she joins in the general conversation, discussing theatre with Chai as the mood grows more and more relaxed. She’s careful to avoid staring at “Teptida”, but is nevertheless unable to shake the disturbing feeling that the dummy is resting its none too friendly gaze upon her.

As they leave the restaurant, Tor—who had orchestrated the entire evening—and Chai’s other friends say their goodnights, leaving Grace and Chai alone on the sidewalk with the marionette.

“I’d really like to visit your workshop,” says Grace. “I’d love to see your marionettes and how you make them. You know, I’ve held one of your marionettes before, as part of my theatre studies.”

“Sure,” agrees Chai.

As they stroll the short distance to the campus, Grace is amazed at how the marionette can walk, almost as if by itself. Chai, who hadn’t taken his arm from across its shoulders or from around its waist the whole night, doesn’t appear to be pulling any strings for it to place one foot in front of the other. Once at the workshop, Chai shows Grace the latest marionette he’d been crafting which, when finished, will stand almost a metre tall.

“I’ve had a wonderful time talking with you, Chai,” says Grace. She passes him a card, allowing the tips of her fingers to linger upon his. “Here’s my number. Maybe we can meet again for dinner. I’m free tomorrow night.”

The puppet’s response is immediate, snatching up a bottle of nails from the workbench and smashing it furiously on the floor. “That’s enough!” shouts Teptida spitefully. “You think you can come in here and steal my man right from under my nose? You get your bitch face away from him right now and don’t ever put your hands on him again or I swear I’ll tear your heart out!”

Teptida swings a punch, glancing Grace’s cheek. She steps away, but Teptida steps forward—almost out of Chai’s reach—swinging left and right, until Grace finally escapes, running out of the studio with Chai calling after her, “Grace! Grace! Grace! I’m sorry!”

Early the next morning Tor comes looking for Chai at his studio, listening at the door when he hears two voices arguing on the other side. Unable to make out what’s being argued about by whom, he bangs on the door. At length, Chai unlocks the door and lets him in. Broken glass and nails are scattered everywhere. He looks over at the marionette sitting on a chair by itself next to the workbench.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Tor demands to know. “Grace told me what happened last night.”

“I swear, Tor, it wasn’t me, it was Teptida. She hit her! She’s a phii ton nong mai!”

“I know that because we are Thai we are brought up to believe in Buddhism. I know that because we are Thai we are brought up to believe in ghosts. But I don’t believe that that dummy is a phii ton nong mai. And you believing it, Chai, is too much. I’m calling your parents to take you for treatment, something I should have done a week ago.” He takes out his mobile phone and flips it open.

Chai addresses the marionette. “Teptida, tell Tor the truth. Tell him you’re a phii ton nong mai or he’ll tell my parents and they’ll keep us apart, just like your parents did.”

“No more words from Teptida, Chai.” Tor advances and focuses his attention squarely on his friend. “That thing is not a phii ton nong mai. That thing is not Teptida. Teptida died when you crashed your car into a tree. She’s gone, Chai. Face facts: she’s gone.”

“That’s not true, Teptida is my soul mate. We vowed we’d stay together forever, in life and after death.”

“I too believe in soul mates, Chai. But there’s no such thing as only one. You know, Grace didn’t come here with you for a newspaper article. She came here because she really likes you. She knows almost everything about you and your work. She’s as perfect for you as Teptida was.”

He starts to dial.

“Please, Tor, it’s too soon!” urges Chai with an anxiety, even desperation, in his voice.

“No, Chai, you need to move on before it’s too late.” He puts the phone to his ear, listening as it rings on the other end of the line.

“Okay! If you promise not to speak to my parents, I promise I’ll see her.”

“You’ll go by yourself, without the dummy?”

“Yes, tonight, I promise. I know I need to move on, Chai. Just promise me, please, you’ll put the phone away.”

Tor closes and pockets the phone. “Okay. I promise.”

There’s a noise behind him and he turns toward the marionette, catching a glimpse of motion out the corner of his eye. He notices it may have somehow changed position, but he’s not sure. Taking a closer look he observes a shard of glass clenched in its grip and wonders if it was there before, but turns his attention back to Chai when he asks him to call Grace. Tor calls her and passes Chai the phone. He apologizes profusely to her, promising to make up for it if she’ll see him for dinner.

That night, Chai catches a taxi without the marionette to the restaurant Grace said was her favourite and finds her waiting at a table for two. He pauses in the doorway and, when their eyes meet, they’re both set on fire with desire just as they’d been the night before.

Chai sits down and examines her face. There is only a slight bruise. “I’m so sorry,” he says.

“I have to be honest with you, Chai, it was me who called Tor when I heard about you and the marionette. You know everybody’s talking about it. But Tor said he’d invite me to meet you on the condition I didn’t write about it. Well, I didn’t want to anyway. I just wanted to meet you. He told me the truth about the accident. At the time, I believed the lie the police had told. What really happened?”

“Teptida and I really loved each other. We weren’t just in love with being in love like so many of the boyfriends and girlfriends you see holding hands around here. We were entwined with every fibre of our bodies, minds and spirits. We wanted to marry, but her parents, who you know of course are among the country’s richest people, wouldn’t allow it. She was nothing like them: she was an angel.”

“Yes, she was an angel, just like her name, Teptida, means.”

“She would do anything for anybody. Well, we vowed if we couldn’t live together, then we’d rather die together. So, when she drove the car into the tree, it was deliberate. Our fate was to die together.”

“She was driving? Everybody assumes it was you behind the wheel.”

“It was her. The whole thing was her idea, but I agreed to it.”

“And now you are living on. It wasn’t your fate to die, only hers.”

“Yes, but you don’t understand, Grace. She lives on too, but she’s no longer an angel. Death can turn even the most angelic person into an evil spirit.”

“You mean the marionette? That was you, last night, making it hit me, though you might not have known what you were doing. You’re just confused because you still love her so much and she’s gone.”

“No, listen, that marionette is made out of the wood from the tree where she died. Her spirit is inside it, giving it life. She’s a phii ton nong mai.”

Grace caresses Chai’s hands between her own. “When I was working with the marionette you’d made, I could feel a spirit inside it too, but it was your spirit, the spirit of the loving man who made it. When I came to meet you last night and saw you from the doorway, my heart skipped a beat. Just like it did again tonight. I know you feel it too. These hands made that marionette with a heart broken by tragedy. That sadness—even anger—lives on in the marionette, that’s all.” She places his palm against her breasts as her chest heaves. “But these hands are now free to fashion happiness in my heart.” She reaches across the table and places a palm upon his chest, feeling the blood pulsing inside. “And I can mend this broken heart.”

They leave the restaurant without ordering, driving back to the campus in Grace’s car and going up to Chai’s room. Unable to suppress the powerful emotion that had been rising ever since they laid eyes on each other, their maddening passion drives their bodies together. He fumbles for the keys as they kiss, stabbing for the keyhole, shouldering open the door and stumbling inside, arms and legs entangled until falling on the bed.

In the shadows of the darkened room, Chai and Grace explore each other through the fabric of their clothing, eager to remove the awkward garments keeping their flesh apart. When the bedside lamp is switched on, Grace reluctantly slips her lips away from Chai’s and, opening her eyes, is horrified to see someone’s silhouette looming over them.

“I told you to keep your filthy hands off my man or I’d tear your stinking heart out, bitch face!”

Grace shrieks and Chai rolls off her as Teptida lashes out. Chai crosses his arms above them just in time to block the blow, which lands with the force of a baseball bat being swung. “Teptida! No!”

“‘We’ll love each other forever. I’ll be yours alone for eternity,’ you told me!’”

“Let me explain, Teptida, we fell in love,” implores Chai, as Grace realises that she’s not hallucinating—the marionette of Teptida is a phii ton nong mai—a malevolent tree spirit filled with a jealous rage.

“Love? You only just met the slut!” she hisses.

“Like with us, it was love at first sight.”

“I died for you! Now it’s time for you to keep your part of the bargain.” She raises a wooden arm over her head and brings it crashing down with the fury of a scorned lover. Again, Chai blocks it with his forearm, but this time the impact breaks bone.

As Teptida comes in for a third strike, Grace reacts, using her feet to trip the marionette, sending it crashing to the floor. She instantly seizes the opportunity to grab Chai by his unbroken arm and rush with him out the door. Seconds later, as they reach the end of the hallway, the marionette comes running out of the room chasing after them. Once outside the building, Chai and Grace have very little time to decide what to do. There is an unarmed guard snoring at the gate and a group of students sitting around one of the picnic tables across the courtyard drinking beer and singing songs, but nobody else.

“This way,” says Grace, bolting off past her own vehicle and around the side of the building, hiding behind a parked car.

They soon hear footsteps and Teptida’s frightening voice teasing them. “Come out, come out wherever you are. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise, oh love of my life. I can’t say the same for that backstabbing bitch, though.”

With the wooden footsteps having passed them by, Grace holds up the key to her sedan and points back in the direction they’d come from. Keeping low and behind the line of cars, they double back to Grace’s car and quickly get inside.

Grace turns the key in the ignition. The engine turns over but fails to start, bringing both Grace and Chai to the verge of sheer panic. She tries again. Again it doesn’t start. Finally, with the third try, the engine roars. Grace throws it into gear and steps on the gas, careening around the courtyard and past the still sleeping guard, nearly crashing into two cars as they speed off the campus and down the road outside.

“Do you believe me now?” asks Chai, slumping with relief into the passenger seat.

“Yes, but I still can’t believe it. There is one thing I do believe, though.”

“What’s that?”

“I believe in us. Nothing will ever keep us apart.”

Just as she’s manoeuvring the speeding car around a bend in the road, a wooden arm reaches over from the backseat and grabs hold of the steering wheel.

“If you love him so much, then you can join me in his theatre of puppets!”

Teptida rips the steering wheel hard to the right while wrapping her left arm protectively around Chai’s chest. The car, hurtling out of Grace’s control, rams into a tree at tremendous speed, launching her through the windscreen. After coming to a stop, the phii ton nong mai releases Chai from its restraint. He rushes to Grace, finding her bloody body lying smashed against the broken trunk. He touches her beautiful hair, turns her head and stares into her open, inanimate eyes.

He looks over at Teptida, sitting motionless in the backseat, smiling. He thinks he sees her lips move ever so slightly and hears her whisper, “We will love you forever. We’ll be yours for eternity.” But he’s not sure. He wonders, in a strange moment of lucidity, if the voice he’s hearing isn’t only in his head.


Editor’s Note:

You can view a larger picture of the drawing for this story by clicking on the picture at the top or going to the Vasan Sitthiket Artwork for The Puppet Tree.

Note on Author’s Work:

The Puppet Tree is not Andrew J. West’s first story in Eastlit. He also had The Mansion published in the June issue of Eastlit and Art of Evil in the August issue.

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