The Puppeteer

A slightly edited version of the short story that came second in the recent competition.

They said that Phan Thi Chu created magic with his fingertips, but he dismissed their praise. Still, it pleased him to hear the gasps of the crowd as they watched his creations in action.
Years ago, his grandfather had given him the secret of success.
His cruel grandfather had taken in the orphaned boy and taught him how to bring the puppets to life and make their water theatre something special.
For years, Phan Thi Chu had slaved under the old man’s cruel regime, getting paid a pittance as he served his apprenticeship. It probably would have stayed that way had the old man not stood on an old landmine.
His grandfather had survived, though he could no longer perform. As the water theatre was their only means of income, he reluctantly told Phan Thi Chu the final secret that would bring their puppets to life.
“Each new moon,” he instructed, “You must sneak into the temple and bath the dolls in the Pool of Life.”
“But why, Grandfather?” Phan Thi Chu asked, astonished.
“Don’t ask stupid questions, boy, just do what you’re told,” his grandfather scolded. “You must do it while the monks are asleep. They’ll be furious if they catch you desecrating their sacred pool.
“Is that it?”
“No,” he advised. “You must repeat the following prayer.”
Handing Phan Thi Chu an ancient scroll, he forced his grandson to read and re-read the words until they were memorised.
Finally, the boy could recite them accurately, and the new moon approached.
“Tonight is the night of the new moon, Grandfather,” he announced. “I will perform the ceremony after this evening’s show.”
“Very well,” his grandfather grunted. “In that case, you must go to the market and buy a chicken; a fat healthy one. You’ll need to bring that with you.”
“Why, Grandfather?”
“You’ll need to slit the bird’s throat, and drain the blood into the pool. The better the sacrifice, the more lifelike the puppets will become, so don’t skimp on the Dong for the chicken. Pick a healthy bird.”
“Does it have to be a chicken, Grandfather?”
“No. Usually I buy a goose, but we cannot afford that at the moment. Our takings have been poor recently. When things improve, you can buy a better gift for the gods, but for now a chicken will have to suffice.”
That night, the boy crept into the temple, carrying my blood sacrifice over my shoulder. Laying the bound and gagged sacrifice beside the pool, he whispered the prayer that he’d been taught, and then slit the throat. Phan Thi Chu gave thanks that the loss of his grandfather’s legs to the landmine had made the old man easier to carry up the hill.
The puppets glowed with life after the ceremony, and Phan Thi Chu’s fortunes increased rapidly as word spread of his magnificent water theatre.
Once a month, he would stalk the back alleys of the city, looking for his next sacrifice before the new moon.

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