One chilly spring morning, while Hal was aimlessly wandering around Prague counting cobblestones, he met a puppet maker. His street performance caught Hal’s eye: the music was bewilderingly artless and the strange strung up toys twitched with no rhyme or reason.
At the time Hal had the bearing and the attire of nobility, therefore he was treated as such. The old man appreciated Hal’s attention and, more importantly, his coin. He led Hal into his cramped workshop to demonstrate the intricacies of his craft. For hours, with still deft hands and already weak-sighted eyes, he painstakingly carved faces from wood and talked about his performances, local traditions and old fairy tales.
Hal can almost remember dust motes dancing in the air and the desolate eyes of a forever incomplete princess.
The old man had stakes hidden in his puppets.
“How did you know?” Hal asked before snapping his neck -- he wouldn’t lower himself to a blood so old and stale when fresh bints in the prime of life were in abundance.
“Your kind has a stench,” the old man spat out and his eyes were something fierce, like he’d come out of a Hemingway’s book. Hal never wondered why nor was a giant marlin.The old man had twenty-one puppets in total, and Hal smoothed out the wrinkles on their clothing and put them back in order before leaving.
The old man’s name was Milan. Hal has learned a little something from him.
Eventually Hal has also made a habit of cutting out his very own Pinocchios, chipping away the unnecessary parts. He has standards: not only must they show some promise and be functional and well-equipped to perform tedious chores like cleaning up after him or accounting, but also interesting.
Some of them lasted longer than others, many he’s killed himself once they outlived their usefulness and no one has ever been irreplaceable. They were never meant to be his equals.
But at times Hal feels like he’s a toy himself.
The hunger is larger than Hal -- a massive beast within a beast. It threatens to swallow him whole, in a sinister semblance of Russian nesting dolls. Inside and outside there are wild things, and he’s the borderline and the worst of them. It makes him toss his head and laugh silently.
It amuses Hal to put their need to appease to a test, to see how deep it runs. Cutler is caught between putting on his pants before scurrying out of the bedroom and lying down beside Hal. There’s no established protocol for this -- it depends solely on Hal’s disposition.
“Come here,” Hal murmurs, beckoning Cutler with his index finger. Nick’s full lips are already forming a silent ‘o’ so Hal sticks a cigarette in. Cutler glances at him quizzically but doesn’t spit it out. He can be such a child.
Hal lights his own and leans forward until the tips of their cigarettes are touching.
Cutler exhales too much too fast and breaks into an coughing fit.
“You can’t even smoke properly,” Hal observes disdainfully. “You’re not a man, you’re a--” whore. “Oh, fucking get out.”
A puppet maker is the loneliest of them all.
Nick moans wantonly, shamelessly, writhing under him. All the funeral pyres that burn and Hal can feel only nothing nothing nothing, so he punishes Nick by crushing the smoldering end of his cigarette against Nick’s nipple. Nick spasms around him and doesn’t look punished.
“I’ve razed villages to the ground and desecrated temples -- my body decidedly isn’t one, Nick.” Hal feels old and Cutler’s reverent awe is doing nothing for Hal’s foul mood. “Just fuck me.”
Nick’s face lights up with something stupid, making Hal chuckle humorlessly. “We’ll see what you’ll be thinking in a few decades.”
“Now pay attention, Cutler, because my example might be of use to you someday.”
It’s not that Hal particularly enjoys retelling the story of his solitary confinement in Budapest -- it’s that Cutler’s survival skills leave much to be desired and occasionally Hal gets this urge to rectify.
“What were you doing there?” Cutler immediately cuts in. “Paying visit to Count Dracula?”
Hal pins him with a withering look. “Can’t you tell Hungary from Romania? And there I thought you were educated.”
“Count Dracula is but a myth created by the ignorant,” Hal declares, pursing his lips.
Cutler opens his mouth again and Hal snaps, “Stop interrupting me! … Where was I? Oh, yes, it was a small Orthodox monastery -- more of a skeet, really -- named after a local saint--” The name is etched into Hal’s memory but he pretends he doesn’t remember it. “--standing where the wilderness bled into a thriving city.”
Although Hal had spent the summer playing Robin Hood with a gang of bandits, he had no desire to stay in the mountains until the cold season, so he got rid of them and made his way towards the capital.
“The abbot was rumored to heal people with his hands. You could say I was intrigued: I’ve never seen a miracle without a price tag.” Hal made a pause to let the lesson think in. “They gave me a tour around the grounds before showing their true colors.”
As Hal continued narrating the condensed version, the real memories resurfaced unbidden. One of the acolytes had deer eyes, wide and naive. Curiosity kills any animal.
Cutler’s look is sharp and inquisitive. “But how did they manage to trap you?”
Too late, Hal heard the scrape of the lock being drawn and dashed for the door, but the abbot pulled on some kind of lever -- a clever trick, that -- revealing four crosses. At the time Hal wasn’t an Old One yet.
“Did you think I didn’t know who you were? ” The abbot’s voice boomed through the door. “A vampire, a child of darkness. With God’s help I will purify your blackened soul.”
In wild frenzy, Hal pounded on, threw himself and scratched at the door ceaselessly, his hands turning into a bloody, battered mess, caked blood and broken nails. He shouted curses and demands until his parched throat could handle no more of it. Then he sank onto the ground and curled up into the fetal position.
They came every day -- that was how Hal counted days, because his internal clock broke down in his hunger-induced haze.They prayed and preached and read from the Bible. Hal wanted to crawl out of his skin, could feel himself being wrung out like linen during laundry.
“Why would you do this?” Hal slurred numbly, his tongue swollen and refusing to obey him. His eyes were filled with grains of sand, just like that time in the desert. Stubborn camels should be considered a form of torture.
“God loves all his creatures, even ones as depraved as you. No one is beyond salvation.”
When they left, it didn’t bring any relief. Empty cell didn’t mean silence -- the noise only grew louder and was slowly drilling into Hal’s skull, driving him even more insane. Their feet shuffled, they raked leaves, scrubbed floors, chomped on their food and sneaked out to fuck. Sweat dribbled down their necks and their hearts pounded without reprieve.
Hal begged and pleaded, but it did him little good.
There was a reasonable one in their midst who simply wanted to kill Hal, but as soon as he made his intentions clear, the abbot had him locked up.
Everything decayed around Hal. They guarded their secret zealously -- a perfect soil for power games. The abbot was poisoned, but his death brought Hal no closer to his freedom.
Cuter comments, “How did you get the monk to enter, Monte Cristo?”
Hal draws his finger quirked lips. “And that, my friend, is a secret.”
Cutler glances at him in mild disappointment.
Deer Eyes was different: he wanted to know more about the creature they’d caught. Fuelled by desperation, Hal started talking back. Whispers of an ancient secret and promises of a private confession.
“Are you ready to repent of all your sins?” the boy asked in all seriousness.
Hal kissed him on the mouth, condemning him, and sent him to his Hell. The first taste of blood after nine months of abstinence was sweet.