Last time, before my hard drive crashed, we left our hero Intaglio, aspiring writer and magically-vivified marionette, unconscious in a grimy alley adjoining the town plaza on Total Freedom Island, where writers are free, free, free to write, write, write whatever they want, want, want and get paid, paid, paid for it. His friend Marge had perceived something amiss in this literary paradise and was trying to convince Intaglio to depart with her, but he’d been overindulging in ginger beer and collapsed mid-conversation into an inebriated coma. If you’re thoroughly confused, begin your foray into this small madness at Part 1. Otherwise, intrepid reader, on to Part 5 and the thrilling conclusion of The Legend of Intaglio…
It was still dark when Intaglio regained consciousness, and the air was damp and chill. Marge was gone. His joints protested as he struggled to his feet; every movement was squeaky and stiff. He took some small consolation in the fact his trousers were dry.
“You look like five miles of bad road, kid.”
Intaglio cast about for the source of the thin, chirpy voice, but the narrow alley was empty, so far as he could tell.
“Up here, on the windowsill.”
It made his neck twinge painfully to scan the wall above, but Intaglio could just make out a little square window overhead with a large black insect perched on a thin ledge at its base. The creature waved a foreleg at him, and he gasped. “Mister Cricket? What are you doing here?”
“I’m an agricultural pest. I get around. A better question is what you’re doing here. This island isn’t safe. Your lady friend was smart to shove off when she did. Of course, she’s gotta get past the monster guarding the harbor, but she seems pretty resourceful.”
“Monster? What monster?”
“That’s not important right now. You need to leave.”
“I can’t leave yet. I’m finally beginning to make money here with my writing, and I have to earn enough ducats to set myself up with a place of my own on the mainland.”
“Here’s an idea. How about you just go back home to your father?”
“I ran away and left Giuseppe with the bill for a college education that I skipped out on. I can’t face him again. He could never forgive me.”
“Oh, I doubt that. I heard he’s been scouring the countryside for you ever since you went missing.”
“What do you know? You’re just a bug.”
The cricket fluttered his wings. “You’re right. I’m nothing but a lowly cricket. I could never match wits with a juvenile-delinquent puppet who works like a slave polishing furniture when he isn’t writing fractured fairy-tale romances or drowning his sorrows in ginger ale.”
“How did you find out about that?”
“I told you. I get around. This is your last warning, woodenhead. Get off this island now, before HE catches you.”
“What do I know? I’m just a bug. See ya.” The cricket hopped through a hole in the window, and Intaglio was alone again, save for the company of some very disturbing thoughts. He staggered along the alley toward the town plaza. There was a can of lemon oil in his room. Maybe he could smooth the friction in his joints before the sun came up–the walnut paneling in the Mayor’s office was due for varnishing, and that job would stretch into the next evening if he wasn’t 100-percent.
There was an odd squealing noise coming from somewhere across the plaza. As Intaglio emerged from the alley, flickering gaslights illuminated a portly man in a long overcoat wrestling with something round and furry. The man dropped the struggling thing into a cage strapped to a small wheeled cart nearby. He locked the cage, then bent down to collect a pile of clothing and a tall silk hat from the cobblestones. He stuffed the garments into a sack beside the cage.
The man stretched and arched his back, which cracked like a rifle shot. “Heigh-ho, time for another election, eh, Bill, m’lad?” He rattled the cage, which elicited a chorus of wails and whimpers from the animals within.
Then he saw Intaglio. He smiled, and even in the dim lantern glow, a gold tooth sparkled there. It was the Coachman who’d given Intaglio and Marge a ride to the port of Lucretia in his wombat-drawn carriage. “Ah, it’s the puppet boy. So happy to see you again. Have you enjoyed my cozy little island?”
“What do you mean, your island? Total Freedom Island is owned by everyone who lives here.”
The Coachman guffawed. “Still as dense as the day I met you. This island exists solely for my enrichment. I collect naive children with visions of fame and fortune, and I set them to work writing stories for my customers, a community of gold miners in Sardinia with very particular tastes in literature. They pay handsomely for comforting little yarns that remind them of their childhood.”
“I don’t get it. We’re paid for the stories we write here. It’s not a lot, but I figure I can save up a decent bundle of money if I’m patient and careful.”
“That’s the beauty of this arrangement. You all think you’re profiting, and even better, you think it’s your idea. But, my little marionette, the money never leaves the island, because none of you ever leave the island.” He jerked a thumb at the cage behind him. “Until you leave my way. You see, no human being can tolerate writing such drivel for very long. It saps their spirit and drains their intellect. They become empty shells, void of all inspiration and creativity. Soon, they can’t even muster the energy to copy the mindless fairy tales I require, so I have to find another use for them.”
If Intaglio had had any veins, his blood would have turned to ice water. “You can’t mean…”
“Yes! I mingle an exotic herbal concoction, which I bought in Australia from a wandering Bushman, into the community well. The proper dosage transforms the residents of my island into wombats at exactly the same time they cease to be useful to me as writers. I’ve discovered there’s a healthy demand for wombats among the zoological gardens of Europe, and my Sardinian gold miners even find them to be passable draft animals. They fit quite well into dark, narrow tunnels. The ones I can’t sell pull my coach and help me collect more dull-witted children to replace them on the island.”
“You heartless cad! I won’t let you get away with this!” Intaglio didn’t feel nearly as confident as he was trying to sound.
“How do you propose to stop me? I confess I was in a bit of a quandary over you at the beginning, since you’re made of wood and thus immune to the wombat drug. But then, I heard about a carnival in Sicily which has a room full of puppets that do nothing but sing the Italian National Anthem all day long for the entertainment of tourists. It employs a devilishly clever contraption that pipes hot air into the puppets’ bodies to make their mouths flap open and shut in time to the music. It seems the exhibition has a broken puppet, and is closed pending its replacement. Handcrafting one would take months under normal circumstances, but I’ve sent word to the very generous owners that I have an immediate solution to their problem. You’re just the right size. Think of it. You’ll never be at a loss for words again.”
The Coachman retrieved a net from his cart. “You may not be changing into a wombat, but the spark of life is nearly extinguished in you. Are your joints stiff? Your thoughts sluggish? His voice slid into an oily hiss. “Can you still remember how to conjugate the verb, ‘to be?'”
Intaglio began edging to his left, toward the path that led to the harbor. “I am…you was…they…is? No, that’s not right. Oh, frittata. Wait a minute, I know this. I were…”
The Coachman drew nearer, net at the ready, grinning from ear to ear.
Ear. To. Ear. I defy you to imagine that without your knees knocking. Intaglio was a one-puppet percussion section.
Now the Coachman’s voice was the howling of a frozen north wind in the dead of winter with no Christmas in sight: “How long have you been writing stories like ‘The Country Mouse Who Laid the Golden Egg?’ Oh, I checked the records, manikin. You’ve gathered a ponderous stack of five-star reviews from your slack-jawed neighbors in the past few days, all the while protesting to anyone who will listen that you won’t sacrifice your integrity and are suffering the torments of Hades for your art. Fool. Your integrity is dead and buried, and your suffering has only begun. Your time has come, Intaglio. You’re mine.”
Intaglio bolted. He nearly fell on his face when his knees wouldn’t flex properly, but he somehow managed to recover his balance and hobble forward in a jolting hop that he knew was far, far too slow.
He risked a glance over his shoulder, though the movement sent a lance of pain through his neck and into his shoulders. The Coachman was gaining on him, all red eyes, maniacal grin, wobbling belly, and flapping coat, his net swinging down from high overhead.
“Now I have you!”
Okay, I lied. This isn’t the conclusion. Cut me some slack–I’m making this up as I go. Besides, we still have to find out what happened to Marge. Is she modeling a new fur coat in the wombat cage? And what’s up with the monster the cricket was talking about? Is there really enough gold in Sardinia to support a community of miners with no taste in literature? Is there any gold in Sardinia? And another thing–does the Italian National Anthem stick in your head all day long if you listen to a roomful of pneumatically-driven puppets sing it over and over again?
These and other pressing questions will be answered, or not, in next week’s thrilling conclusion, or not, to The Legend of Intaglio.