Anna Marie skipped along the cobbled street. She had become adept at skipping from stone to stone, across the grooves in between, to land on just the smooth places that would keep her from wobbling.
At age twelve she was just at the budding edge of becoming a teenager, and all of her being exulted in the joy of growing. Still, there was in her that tension of looking to the future while wanting to remain in her safe place, home and secure. She was tiny in stature, of petite frame, so skipping and acting childlike was totally acceptable. For in fact, though the world bid her grow up fast, she was still a child.
The streets of the medieval city of Laon, France were the essence of charming. Old stone buildings several stories high crowded the narrow streets, most allowing one car at a time to traverse. Presiding over all was the great gothic cathedral Notre Dame de Laon. It’s majestic bells rang throughout the day, as they had for eons. Since the eleventh and twelfth centuries when it was built on a fortressed hilltop, it’s presence not only presided over the medieval city, but also over the modern city of Laon that spread like a glittering garment throughout the valley below. High above the miles of fertile plains surrounding it, the cathedral and medieval city bid bienvenue, welcome, from afar to travelers approaching, and au revoir, goodbye, to those departing.
“Grand-mere, I am here!” Anna Marie announced as she bounced into her grandmother’s toy shop. Nestled among the many artisan, bakery, and flower shops along this street, her grandmother’s cozy shop was Anna’s favorite. Local artists displayed and sold handmade wooden toys here, from cars with moving wheels and opening doors, to boats complete with rigged sails that could be furled and unfurled, to trains that whistled and chugged as great wheels turned along a track. Intricate tabletop, mystery, and box puzzles of all kinds enticed children and adults alike. Toys of every type could be found, as well as children’s books. And for tourists who wanted a bit of Laon to take home, hand carved replicas of the Laon Cathedral, for a pretty price. But for Anna these all paled next to the marionettes. Dolls, soldiers, bears, rabbits, fairies, elves, cats, dogs, a plethora of marionettes covered one wall of the shop.
“Bonjour, ma cherie!” Grand-mere called from the rear of the store. “How are you today, darling?”
“I have finally saved enough francs to purchase Pierre today! Is he still waiting for me to rescue him from the deep, dark closet of the storeroom?”
“Oui! Of course he is. Shall we fetch him now?”
“Oh, oui! Please!” Anna Marie exclaimed as she handed over her well earned francs.
After depositing her payment and giving her a receipt, Grand-mere led Anna Marie to the storeroom and unlocked the small closet where were stored special purchases, and items held by special request. Grand-mere had been known to never allow anyone into the storeroom closet without her accompanying them, for it was also her special place to secret away gifts. Creak! The door always squeaked on its rusty hinges. No wonder, the shop had stood here for hundreds of years. “I must oil those hinges again,” muttered Grand-mere as she lifted out a three-foot long box. “Let’s take this to the work table up front,” she directed Anna Marie.
Carefully lifting the lid of the box, Grand-mere deferred to Anna. “You may lift your prince from his resting place, ma cherie.” With longing gaze Anna reached in and carefully lifted Pierre.
Pierre had been waiting since his creation for this moment. His strings were neatly wound round and round connecting him to the the wooden cross-bar controller Anna would hold. Intricately carved by a well know artist, his eyes and jaw were movable as well. His arms and legs, every part of him anticipated the freedom of movement he would finally enjoy. He longed to dance. As Anna held the controller high above his head and gently lowered his feet towards the floor, suddenly he began whirling as his strings unwound. Oh! What a way to spin into life! It was exhilarating! And Pierre could hardly wait for more.
“Oh, Grand-mere! He is more handsome, more beautiful than I remembered!” exclaimed Anna. His suit was of royal blue, with gold buttons, and a red cross sash. Gold outlining the crest on his feathered hat gave him a jaunty, yet imperial air. “Look! There are even buckles on his black boots! And gold stripes down the sides of his pants!”
“Oui, ma cherie, he is truly a most magnificent marionette,” Grand-mere confirmed. “And I know you are just the right person to care for him. I am so proud of you, how you have worked to save to buy Pierre. Now, I think you and Pierre should have a little time together to dance, n’est-ce pa?”
“Oui! Oui! I think so, too!” Anna Marie gushed. And with that she carefully began to walk Pierre one step at a time over to the shop’s full-length antique mirror. She wanted to see Pierre dance.
Anna had been a marionettist for four years, enchanted with the wooden puppets on strings since that Christmas she had received her first marionette from Grand-mere. Her silent childhood companions had opened a world of story and imagination, and in her school Anna Marie had inspired a club to be started to bring marionette plays to the town. The club had grown, teachers, parents and other adults joining with the children to form a community marionette theatre. This year would be their first presentation of The Nutcracker. The residents of Laon looked forward eagerly to this Christmas presentation, marionettes and the famous ballet story so dear to their hearts.
As Grand-mere turned on a recoding of music from The Nutcracker, Anna Marie watched in wonder as she and Pierre began to move together to the lilting music. Suddenly the toy shop faded away as the two danced on and on. Anna beamed with joy as she infused life into the wooden face and limbs of Pierre. They swayed and twirled, Anna near breathless as she moved them back in forth in front of the mirror. After a prolonged concert Anna and Pierre took a deep bow.
Grand-mere began to clap enthusiastically. “Oh, ma cherie! That was magnificent! Pierre is the perfect marionette to be the Nutcracker this year. Just perfect!”
Anna and Pierre bowed again, Anna grinning from ear to ear. Suddenly her breathe caught. “Grand-mere! Did you see that? Pierre just winked at me!”
“Oui! Oui! I believe I did. You indeed have brought this handsome wooden one to life, ma cherie!”
Pierre winked again and chuckled deep inside. He had never been more alive.