Shadow puppetry has existed since man's most savage moments, since fire could reflect off the walls of a cave. The earliest shadow puppetry was a ritual preformed by the nomads who existed before countries or continents. These nomads would burn the old, weak, and sick on a fire twice every year as a sacrifice and a means to keep pace with their prey.
They would bound their sacrifices to shafts of wood and set them ablaze. Then, the tribes would turn their backs to their burning companions and watch the shadows that the blazing bodies formed on the trees and rocks around them. They claimed that the dead's souls danced as they left the body—that they told a story.
They were fire puppets.
The lights come off in our room, all black, just the circle of a flashlight shining against the wall. There's a dog where we're looking, my mother, brother, sister and myself, all watching Dad tell his story. "Now, Marvin had no idea his owners were gone, so he returned to his home."
The way he moves his hands is deft and fluid. The door opens to the dog's head, then folds away as Marvin gains a body. We don't have time to notice that the door is gone, before the dog's already walked through. It's art.
My father learned the trade from our grandfather, who worked as a shadow puppeteer for a traveling carnival. We never met our grandfather. He fell off a bridge one night, drunk, in the Seventies.
"And Marvin dug up his favorite bone from the backyard. This bone was all he needed, and he knew that. And he was a happier dog for it." My father wags his pinky as a tail, finishing the story before the lights come on. We all clap. Then it's off to bed.
The next day our father, putting on his hat and with our mother sliding on her coat, both surrounded by luggage, tells us to dig up our own bones, and he wags his pinky at us. It's not as amusing in the light.
I'm running through the woods, now. I'm hurtling myself tree-to-tree. I can barely see. I can barely think to look. There's no moon and only a dim light coming from my hands—which are on fire.
My brother, as the oldest, starts running the house. He's the only one of us who works. He takes the master bedroom. My sister and I try to stop him. Maybe Mom and Dad will come back. But he knows better, and we learn he's right.
Quickly, we lose cable and internet, cell phones and even electricity, so we can afford the meager food we have. The strange thing is that, with so little to eat and with our grieving, we barely notice.
Time passes, and we still aren't eating well. We aren't sleeping well. We're poor. We're all burnt out.
My brother is in my room. It's late. The moonlight through the window shines against his skin, naked. He's holding the portrait of our grandfather that hangs in the master bedroom in front of himself. "It's him," he's panting.
"He's doing this to me!" my brother yells and drops the portrait. He's shaking his penis at me. It's hard. "He's doing this! How? How! How is he—He's making me gay!"
I always wanted to learn shadow puppetry, but my father never taught me. He'd tell me the stories about the nomads and tell me that, "For shadow puppetry to come alive, you have to be a puppet first, have it burn inside you." I never understood what that meant. He'd look far off then and say, "My father made me a puppeteer."
His eyes would smolder.
Since that picture changed him, my brother's been bringing other men home—guys from work. They go into the master bedroom and have sex. There's never any noise in the house, so the sounds ring through clearly. It happens every night. It wakes me up. My sister hates it. She'll scream at his door from the moment it starts to the moment it finishes. It's worst when they decide to use the bathroom. She'll scream and rave that she has to go, that she'll use the floor and they'll have to walk through it, if they don't leave. It never seems to bother him, though. Maybe he's into that. Maybe it helps.
I start forcing my sister to go on walks with me every night. I take her by the wrist at first, pulling while she yells, "No! No! Those assholes don't deserve the house! Let them fuck in the woods!" We get away, and the fresh air is good, and the quiet is nice, and she relaxes.
One night, in the woods behind our house, we discover a shovel buried half into the ground. It reminds me of the dog from our father's story.
"And Marvin dug up his favorite bone from the backyard."
We're the dog in this story. My sister crouches next to the shovel. "Do you think there's something down there?" she asks. I nod. We start digging.
For a week of nights, while my brother is having sex, my sister and I are skipping sleep to dig in the backyard. We dig down eight, nine feet and, at last, we hit something. We're tired and delirious, but we push the dust and rock away and what we have before us is a large chest. It's locked, and there's no key.
We bring the chest home.
I hit a tree and stumble across its roots. My brother is calling after me. Can he see my hands? Can he see them coming to life?
They burn their sacrifices.
"You have to be a puppet first, have it burn inside you."
My sister's pregnant. It's been two months and she hasn't had a period. Her stomach is growing, which is strange, since we don't eat. "That fucking toilet," she curses with her head in her hands, sitting on my bed. "It was the toilet—it had to be. I—I sat on it, and it got me pregnant!"
Gay by painting, pregnant by toilet—maybe there's a reason we've been left here. I wonder what will happen to me.
Now, it's all clear, running through the forest with my flaming hands dancing in front of me, fire puppets telling my story. I see it, and I get it.
My brother gets a sledgehammer from the shed and smashes it against the lock. His hit glances. He's been fucking every night, and it's been too long since any of us have slept. He swings again and again, and soon the rusted lock crumbles.
The lid creeks on its hinges, and we look in. We're disappointed. It's just cash. "What the fuck?" my sister asks no one in particular. "What is this?"
"It's just money," my brother says.
"That's shitty," my sister complains. "They could have at least given us food or something."
We don't know what else to do, and we're cold, so we set the money on fire. It's big, it's roaring, and it works. It warms us up.
It isn't until that night that I remember what money does.
I think that's what brought me downstairs, but I can't really remember. I was lying down for a second—my sister is too weak to walk right now—and I thought I could get some sleep. Then, there's a flash and my hands are in the blazing chest with the burning money, and they're on fire. Shreds of cash fly here and there, catching on this and that and burning the house down.
And it's hilarious.
We, all of us, we're just puppets. Not shadow puppets, though, fire puppets. We're the sacrifices of those who left, who died, who made us their puppets. We're all fire puppets, just balls of flame, dancing shadows, telling our stories.
And we're all burnt out.
Marvin, the dog needed more than a bone. He dug and found something that he only loved when he wasn't starving. He couldn't survive on bones. It's what the puppet master likes to say, but that's not what happened. He stayed in that house, went insane and died. That's what Marvin did. That's the story.
It's great. It's funny.
I'm collapsing on the ground outside, and my hands are smoldering, now. I'm on my back. I can see the smoke from our house climbing across the sky, telling its story. My gay brother and pregnant sister rush out and are standing over me, their mutilated sibling. I can't feel my fingers. The fire's out. I have no fingers.
My siblings help me to my feet and we turn our backs to our burning house. We watch the story its soul has to tell with its dancing shadows on the trees and ground.
We're all just fire puppets, and we're all burnt out.
Voodoo, sideshows, and a good ghost story—if it's outside of the everyday, Kyle Yadlosky revels in it. He lives in-between corn fields in Pennsylvania.