I once read that to be a great puppeteer you have to fake the puppet’s weight and breath.
The first part is easy. My legs are made of concrete. The second part requires years of practice. You have to anker the fake breathing to something real, otherwise it won’t work. Two of my own heartbeats equal one rise of the chest, three of my heartbeats equal one fall of the chest. Add one beat to that when it gets tense.
Two. Rise.
Three. Fall.
I am a master puppeteer. The frozen body is alive!
Mama likes us. But she doesn’t like theatre. She reads non-fiction about American presidents and healthy vegetables and self-care books about how if you work hard, you don’t need to believe in yourself because others will believe in you for you.
‘Pip,’ Tanne whispers. ‘Pip.’
I don’t respond, I have to keep counting. My eyes are fixed on grandma in the sofa. She seems asleep. But maybe she is a puppeteer too.
Tanne likes theatre. But she isn’t a very good puppeteer. Whenever she gets upset her face gets all puffy and red and she forgets to count her heartbeats. When I feel particularly brave I try to count hers too, but it’s difficult counting when somebody is towering over you.
‘She is asleep,’ Tanne whispers again. ‘Come on.’
I quickly glance at her. Her face does that thing when she tries to be the big sister. But her eyes are beaming: she is the big sister today. I take her hand. She pulls me out of the room, out of grandma’s house, into the meadow. My body goes with Tanne, but my eyes are transfixed on the body on the sofa, until the willows shield us from view.
Tanne looks at me and waits for me to go first. I reach for the branches and pull myself up. From under me I hear Tanne breathing hard. She is a bit chubby. Once I’m up I wiggle around until I can wrap my torso around the tree trunk. With one arm I pull Tanne up by her T-shirt. She can never make the last part on her own, her arms are shorter than mine.
The tree looks nothing like the house. Up here it’s all wobbly and green. It smells like rainstorm.
Tanne says: ‘It smells like farts.’
I cannot help but laugh. Our shoulders are touching. I let go of the trunk and wrap my arms around Tanne, so tight. She wraps me back.
After a while, I say: ‘Do you think she’ll wake up soon?’
‘Never,’ Tanne’s voice shouts in my head, her mouth is right next to my ear. ‘She ate poisoned fish and then her face turns purple and her toenails fall off and she dies gurgling in her spit and we can live in the tree.’
I laugh some more. ‘We cannot live here,’ I say. ‘We can’t be found at the crime scene. I saw that on TV. They’ll ask about our alibi and we’ll have to change our name and dye our hair and flee the country.’
‘We’ll be like Gyulim.’ Tanne’s face glows with excitement. ‘Her mama sings alibis to her every night. Gyulim says no one can sing alibis like her mama.’
She wipes the hair out of her face. A few of her thick brown curls stubbornly bounce back.
‘Lullabies,’ I say. I hang upside down on the branch like a gymnast. My face slowly turns red.
‘She singed it to me yesterday. It sounds like sahara mufasa and sharif and shalom and stuff.’
Tanne’s leg presses warmly against mine.
‘We will live in America,’ I say, ‘where the presidents live and where the vegetables are healthy.’
With some effort I scramble back next to her. Tanne looks straight ahead, even though there’s nothing to see but leaves. No one ever finds us here.
She stares at her hands, absentmindedly suckles the moon-shaped hanger of her necklace. ‘I don’t like vegetables.’
‘And mama can come too. She’ll drive us all the way to America. It will be like a road trip movie. We can listen to all the lullabies in the world.’
Tanne’s face turns red. She says nothing.
I poke her with a finger and smile. ‘What’s up, baby carrot?’
‘I don’t want to go to America!’ Tanne shouts. Her eyes glaze over. She doesn’t look at me.
We sit in the tree quietly. After a long time a bird somewhere near begins whistling. The air smells like fresh things, and suddenly, as if someone pressed a button, rain starts pouring down from the sky. Under the canopy we get only a little wet.
I feel smaller than ever. Tanne snuggles up against me, and we sit there some more. Together we grow damp.

When it’s so late that the thunder is tired and the poison must have worn out, I can’t help but wonder when mama comes back. An hour ago we crept back into the house. Grandma was still sleeping. We sat back on the couch, like nothing happened here. No crime scene. Tanne is falling asleep against my shoulder, her hair still a bit rainy, her breaths light and even.
If you miss mama already, I tell myself, the next days are sure gonna be awful. So I decide to stop missing her for a bit. I think of why I love thunderstorms so much (because it makes me feel tiny, because it smells like fresh things, because Tanne calls it curly weather), I think of California (where the presidents live, where the cars have no roofs because it never rains, where all the women have curly hair like mama and Tanne), I think of Gyulims mama singing bedtime songs---and then I suddenly miss mama so much that my heart aches from all the missing.
Suddenly, with a rumbling growl somewhere from inside her flowery yellow dress, grandma wakes up. She must’ve started counting, I think. Two.
‘Goodness...’ grandma says, reaching for her glasses. ‘What time is it, Pippa?’
‘It’s six thirty-three,’ I say.
She stands up, moans in disappointment. ‘Have you left the door open?’ I cannot help but peek at her toenails as she walks away, but her feet are hidden within her hairy slippers. Her old bones creak under her nimble frame. Concrete like me, I think.
‘Look at this,’ she says, gesturing towards the carpet on the floor, then turning around. ‘All soggy.’ My breath stops. Three. Two. Three.
But she sighs deeply, and scratches her arms, where the bandages were, and shuffles towards the kitchen. She doesn’t meet my gaze. Clanging metal and the sound of wooden drawers drift towards me. I stop counting. With my hand I nudge Tanne awake.
Then grandma shuffles back.
She glances at Tanne, ruffles my hair and touches my cheek with one ripply hand. The corners of my mouth move up. Then she shuffles away again. Tanne and me sneak upstairs, quietly.

That night I hear a thousand cars make the sound that mama’s car makes, and they pick up people from all around the neighborhood. Almost every minute one or two of them stop in front of grandma’s house and ask if this is the address where two kids are staying that need picking up, but they always mean two different kids, and they drive off. I hear the bird from outside singing alibis and tapping on our window, convincing us to sneak away, wondering where we’ve been. I hear cars without roofs speeding past us, a thousand miles onward, on their way to America.
I hear grandma shuffle up the stairs, the house creaks and moans. I don’t dare to move.
The ceiling looks blue because of the faint bit of moonlight that peeps from above the curtain rails into the room.
I look at Tanne in the bed across the room. She sleeps quietly.
I try to stay alert, try to stay awake, but I fall away, deadly tired. I hear horns honking and engines roaring, and the cries of a thousand weeping voices, and suddenly there’s fire everywhere, and me and Tanne sit in the back seat of a car and stare out at a forest made of fire, and the air is thick with black, pulsating smoke, and the car radio plays that song they always play in the supermarket, the you’re a shadow woman, shadow of a dragon, oh baby, shadow of a woman song but it feels terribly inappropriate and wrong.
Bathing in sweat I wake up. My body heat creeps back into my body as if it tried to leave me behind. I feel feverish.
Then a cool hand touches my shoulder. Tanne lies down next to me in the bed, and she wipes the hair out of my face, and dries my cheeks with the sleeves of her pyjama. She holds me until I fall asleep.

When I see that it is twelve o’clock, I rush to the hallway and sit in front of the door. The afternoon starts. Tanne wants me to go away from the door, but I refuse to leave. She is afraid of something but I don’t know what. ‘Stop it,’ I say when she pulls the hem of my sweater again. ‘Go away.’
‘Pip,’ she keeps saying, ‘Pip.’ Her eyes shift and wander.
Through the small stained glass window I peer outside and look for a blue car. A small one in the shape of an upside-down muffin, with a dent in the backdoor and a white plastic ribbon attached to the antenna.
‘Pip,’ Tanne says.
The road is boring and grassy. The air trembles from the heat. My mouth tastes like sleep. I try to stop my eyes from becoming dry.
Tanne pulls my sweater again.
‘Tanne, what is it?’
Tanne’s eyes look horrified.
‘Pippa, Tanne—come here at once, help your grandma out for a second.’
Tanne says nothing, turns around and walks to the kitchen. I try so hard to be concrete, I try to peer out and stubbornly wait for mama, but my muscles react to grandma’s voice like a magnet and I pull away.

The entire afternoon we bake pies, apple cinnamon pie and blueberry pie and carrot cake. The powdered sugar goes all over the floor, when I accidentally hit the bowl of ingredients, but Tanne vacuums the floor.
The blueberry pie burns, but grandma cuts away the black bits as if nothing happened. No crime scene. I try not to think about the blue car in the shape of a muffin with a dent, that perhaps is waiting for us right now, or worse: driving off because no one answers the door.
I try not to think of grandma scratching her arms every now and then.
When the sun starts to seep back into the earth, I go sit outside with Tanne at the creek. The frogs ribbit, the insects chirp and buzz, the stream smells of algae and rot. Tanne makes mud castles that droop down into the swamp. She sinks knee high into the drab. I sit on a fallen tree trunk.
‘Your kingdom is soggy,’ I say.
Tanne looks at me. She throws some mud in my hair. ‘You’re soggy.’
I laugh. ‘Curly weather.’
Tanne smiles. Her eyes light up her face as if she’s never been happier in her life.

© Merle Findhammer.