Puppeteer lived with his grandmother in a house that smelled of mold and incense, a house known in the barrio as La Casa del Humo. Clients would sit in the living room couch waiting to be called into a dark room. The grandmother would hand them a lighted cigarette they’d pinch lightly between their fingers. They’d smoke in intervals, and the grandmother would read in the resulting ashes all the drama they’d have in their lives.
This was how she made a living. This was how she managed to raise Puppeteer.
Puppeteer’s parents burned to death when he was so little he didn’t even know how to talk. An explosion in the fabric factory where they worked killed them. The grandmother took him to live with her, reopened her fortune-telling business.
Her clients returned with their children, the children returned with their friends, and the grandmother earned enough money to buy anything her orphan grandchild wanted.
She bought him a bicycle. He learned how to ride without hands, how to do wheelies, how to race downstairs. The grandmother didn’t like to let him out of the house where he could get hurt, but she had no choice: puppeteer couldn’t ride his bicycle indoors.
Puppeteer was eleven when he met María. She wanted to learn to do tricks on her bike. He hung out with her every day as soon as he got home from school. His bike rolled to all the places María’s bike rolled.
The grandmother sensed that Puppeteer was falling in love.
She knew this kind of pain was the last thing her orphaned grandchild needed, so she collected ashes from the cigarettes her clients had smoked, opened the client room window and prayed.
A few minutes later a gray pigeon responded to her summons. It pecked at the ashes until the floor was clean. The pigeon flew to the back of the chair where the grandmother sat. The grandmother wrapped an entire spool of thread around the pigeon’s body, and when she started sewing threads of blood flowed out the reel.
When Puppeteer got home, the grandmother had already finished. She sat on the living room couch, wearing her long black and white braids and holding two puppets.
“You like María, don’t you?” the girl puppet said. The puppet’s eyes, lips and hair were sewn with colorful threads.
“She’s so pretty,” the boy puppet said, “but you must be careful. A girl like that can hurt you.”
Puppeteer had never heard his grandmother make these voices. He had never seen her with her eyes hidden behind trembling eyelids. “María can’t hurt me,” Puppeteer said. “I’m a boy and I’m stronger.”
“That’s right,” the girl puppet said. “But there are other ways of hurting someone. I have a pocket in the back of my dress,” the grandmother turned her hand to show him, “and if you use the boy puppet to tuck a woman’s hair or nail in there, we will show you the moment in which she’ll hurt you.”
“She’s my friend, grandma,” Puppeteer said. “She’s not gonna hurt me.”
The grandmother opened her eyes, put the puppets down. “I don’t know,” she said, handing them over to him. “Why don’t you figure it out?”
Puppeteer gave María his helmet. Although he had never used it, he told her she had to wear it if she wanted to learn tricks. María tried to do a wheelie. She almost got one on the last try but then she got tired. She took the helmet off.
Puppeteer said she had done a great job. He got closer to her. He tried to kiss her on the lips, but she ducked into a hug.
María said she had to do her homework. She said goodbye.
A few hairs had gotten trapped in the helmet. The plan had worked. Puppeteer took the puppets from his backpack, grabbed María’s hair with the boy puppet’s hand and tucked it in the girl puppet’s pocket.
He closed his eyes. Let his head fall.
“I tried to give you a kiss,” the boy puppet said.
“I don’t like you like that,” the girl puppet said. “Okay?”
Puppeteer opened his eyes again. He took the puppets off. He was confused as he rode towards María’s house.
That couldn’t be the truth. He and María were going to be a couple. They were going to grow up and get married.
But in a park nearby, María was teaching a different boy how to do tricks on his bike. And when the boy managed to do a wheelie, she kissed him on the lips.
María waved the boy goodbye, walked towards her house.
Puppeteer swerved in front of her, jammed on the brakes. He asked her why she had kissed that boy.
“Because I like him,” María said.
“I tried to give you a kiss,” Puppeteer said.
“I don’t like you like that,” María said. “Okay?”
When he was in junior high, after the class bell, Puppeteer would sneak into the women’s bathroom to pick up hair and nails from the girls he liked. Time and again, the puppets showed him the moment in which one girl was moving to another city, or another girl was using him for homework, or another girl was laughing at him with her friends.
During college, while studying at girls’ houses, Puppeteer asked to use their bathrooms. It was easy to collect hairs from the hairbrush, the floor, the bathtub drain. He also looked for nail-biting classmates. The puppets showed the moment in which a girl was replacing him for her ex-boyfriend’s cat, or another girl was hiring a service to outsource her breakup, or another one was telling him, in a final phone call, that their relationship couldn’t survive the long distance–even though she only lived across town.
Through it all, Puppeteer remained thankful for his grandmother’s gift. He loved her, despite her sudden whims, which were growing worse as she got older. He felt lucky to be living with her—the woman who gave him everything he needed, who knew how to make money from the people waiting in the living room.
One day the living room was empty. The grandmother didn’t leave her room. “I can’t work today,” she said with a smile. She wasn’t wearing her black and white braids. Her hair fell over her face, disheveled. A big bag leaned against the wall. “There’s money in the night stand drawer.”
“Are you okay, grandma?” Puppeteer said.
“I left you a note with the finca address I’ll be staying at, just in case you need me,” the grandmother said. “But you know what? I don’t think you will. Look at you, son: you’re a man now. You can live on your own.”
The grandmother left the house. The mold overwhelmed the incense smell and La Casa del Humo became just another old, dusty house.
The grandmother had gone but that day the door bell still rang and rang and rang.
Puppeteer grew angry at his grandmother: she hadn’t told her clients she was going to be away.
Puppeteer shouted that his grandmother wasn’t there, but when he looked through the peephole he could see the black and shiny hair of a girl.
Puppeteer opened the door. The girl turned to look at him. At college, he had seen many beautiful women, but this one had a beauty that not many people could see: the beauty of broken nails, the beauty of tattooed eyebrows, the beauty of dark rings around the eyes.
“Is this La Casa del Humo?”
“Yes,” Puppeteer said. “Kind of. My grandmother is not here at the moment. What do you need?”
“I need to know when I’m gonna die.”
Puppeteer thought it was a joke. “Can’t help you with that,” he said, “but please let’s go out before that happens.”
The girl didn’t take Puppeteer’s comment seriously. She walked off with a smile. A week later, she returned, asking again for his grandmother. Puppeteer suggested she check back the following week. The girl kept coming back to La Casa del Humo. They went from talking near the front door to lying on Puppeteer’s bed.
The girl’s name was Violeta. Every Wednesday night she’d bring empanadas, a bottle of Coca-Cola and a movie she liked: Wizard of Oz, Edward Scissorhands, Pan’s Labyrinth. Puppeteer never told her when she was going to die (he hadn’t inherited his grandmother skill) but they talked a lot about death. Violeta’s eyes became glossy and misty when she thought about everything she still wanted to do in her life. One time, while lying naked with Puppeteer, she said: “I’ve never been in love.”
“Welcome to the club,” Puppeteer said, and tucked her black and shiny hair behind her ear. “Why is it so hard?”
“I wish I knew,” Violeta said in a sleepy tone, turning onto her side. “But I’d like to know how it feels.”
“Are you staying the night?” Puppeteer said, although he didn’t need an answer: Violeta was already sleeping.
Puppeteer crawled out of bed, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut a small lock of hair. He left the room, carrying the puppet’s backpack.
Puppeteer grabbed Violeta’s hair with the boy puppet and tucked it in the girl puppet’s pocket.
Puppeteer closed his eyes. Let his head fall down.
The puppets were not showing the moment in which she would hurt him. Violeta would not hurt him. Puppeteer cheered silently among the shadows, with no one around to share his great news.
One Thursday morning Puppeteer woke up to the sound of running water. On a chair with Violeta’s clothes, there was a wig, black and shiny.
Puppeteer entered the bathroom and opened the shower curtain. Hot water streamed down Violeta’s bald head. Without make-up, the rings around her eyes were darker.
“The doctors told me when I’m gonna die,” she said, her words muffled by the pouring water. Steam floated around her body. “But you know what? I don’t care anymore. I’m not even ashamed of my hairless head. I’m in love,” Violeta said.
“Me too,” Puppeteer said. But it wasn’t true. As he spoke the words, he wondered about the mysterious woman who sold that black and shiny hair. The woman who would never hurt him.
Hernán Ortiz is a writer and publisher who lives on the 14th floor of a building in Medellín, Colombia. He has published the books Agua/Cero (an anthology of weird short stories), Chicas Míticas (an interdisciplinary experimental book) and Memorias del Futuro (a design fiction book). He’s also the co-founder of Fractal, an annual community engagement event for thinking and imagine the future of emerging technologies. His fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in publications such as The Barcelona Review, Lazy Fascist Review, Rolling Stone, Arcadia and OMNI Reboot. You can visit his website here.