The master of the puppets or: A voluntary nightmare

The idea came upon me suddenly, like a force of nature, a lightening strike electrifying my neural system and setting my numb brain ablaze. What impact did it have on me! To study at this high and noble faculty could put an end to all my sufferings …. I would become an artist … drink champagne straight from the bottle … be caressed by lovely women … celebrated by the critics … good lord! Immediately, I jumped up from my bed, threw away the filthy blanket and exclaimed loudly: “I will be the master of the puppets!”  That’s how everything started.

The official invitation to the exam, which I had immediately ordered, arrived two days later, along with a detailed description of the tasks I would have to perform in front of the entrance commission. They did not appear to be complicated. In a rush of euphoria I prepared myself. Soon, I could recite a poem, sing a song and, most important, dance along with some puppets in a self-composed marvelously subtle and delicate dramatic sequence.  

At last, the day of the exam was approaching. I was of sure of myself. My texts, I knew them by heart. A first attempt at performing with the puppets had been a success. The friends I had invited to see me display my composition were overwhelmed … they carried me around the room on their shoulders, shouting hoorays.

The other morning I left for the exams, exhilarated by the idea of my upcoming triumphant performance before the commission. It was 7 a.m. The street was still empty. High above me some swifts were darting through the air in adventurous flight. Apparently, it would be a beautiful day. Yet, as soon as I had walked a couple of blocks towards the metro, I felt a mounting uneasiness creeping up my spine. This feeling took me by complete surprise. It came out of the blue … I reached the metro station … the train arrived .. mechanically I entered …

I took a seat and snuggled up to the window. Heavy drops of sweat were running down my back and I felt an increasing need to urinate.  All of a sudden, my mood had changed dramatically. For the first time since my application, I sensed that I might fail. I pictured the commission debating my performance, their haughty voices rang in my head: “As an actor, young man, you are a complete failure.” But, how could I even live on, if I failed? A never before felt fear darkened my senses and paralysed my limbs. I started to cry.

Finally, I reached my destination. Like a drunk I stumbled out of the carriage onto the platform. On shaky legs I made my way to the university. It was a quarter to nine. With a sense of relief I realised that I was on time … I would not be late ..?. What a comforting thought … besides, there was no need to be nervous … Everything would turn out fine … Soon, the way I had just come would be my daily journey to work ….

The university building was something of a castle. Immediately adjoining the building, there was a huge park which made an unusual cultivated impression. The gravel walks had been carefully raked. On the English lawn some blackbirds were in joyful commotion. A mild breeze was gently moving the leaves of the old chestnut trees and in the air there was a tender waft of spring, the harbinger of upcoming joys. These images caressed my eyes and put me in a cosy mood. The fear ravaging inside me just some minutes ago had abruptly vanished. The requisites placed safely in my arms I was proceeding towards the heavy door of the university building, which I could open only with some difficulties.

Complete darkness embraced me … I was stumbling along the walls fumbling for a switch. Yet, before I managed to find one, the entrance hall lit up all by itself. I was dazzled. Not a single person was to be seen. I turned towards a massively looking flight of steps and began to climb up to the second floor. A short glance at my invitation assured me that I had to find room 217. The hallway seemed to be never ending, and after a ten minute walk I felt a slight panic and took up running …222 …221 …218 …217..finally!

The room was packed with folk. Approximately a hundred people were squeezed inside the place … there was obviously a lack of seats … some of the guests were sitting on the window-sills, some even on the floor ….I was surprised by the mere quantity of people … after all, apart from me there should be only five more candidates examined today … apparently these morons had brought along their friends and relatives …the sheer amount of people bred my ill-humour. What in hell where all these bunglers here for?

Besides, the mob was kicking up a deafening din. Everybody was shouting and screaming. Much to my amazement some people were smoking … Nobody seemed to have thought of opening the windows, even though the place had heated up considerably …  an unpleasant tropical heat took a hold of everything … as refreshment giant beer bottles were passed from one to the other …. hell, some were even throwing paper balls at their neighbours …. it was like inside a madhouse… I was carefully peering around vsuch conditions could impossibly be approved by the commission! v where in hell were the professors?

Finally I noticed them. They were seated in the first row, somewhat apart from the rest of the chairs just in front of the stage. Weirdly, they did not pay any attention to the racket around them. None of them seemed to be interested in appeasing the mob. Anxiously, I examined the commission. It consisted of five professors, three elderly, bald and bearded gentlemen and two women v. The younger of the two was of such overwhelming beauty that I hardly dared to look at her …. my nervousness and insecurity grew by the second … all of a sudden someone was rudely grasping me at the arm and violently moved me onto the empty seat next to him … I was just about to complain to the rascal for this treatment as suddenly the first candidate entered the stage …

I could not believe my eyes … the candidate was wearing a G-string and black nylon stockings, along with heavy black boots reaching up to her knees …. She wore a black leather jacket that reminded me of a Wehrmacht uniform ….. this jacket was unzipped …. Underneath she was naked …. I could see her bare breasts …she shook her head, so that her long blond hair was floating through the air … it was filling the room with its silky beauty …

With an imperious gesture she signalled to one of the bald professors. Eagerly he jumped upon the stage and willingly seated himself on an office chair, the only requisite that was placed at the centre of the stage. The candidate walked towards him, seductively shaking her behind. Directly in front of the professor she halted. With a rapid movement she took the chair at its arms and gave it a massive swing …. The professor, seated on the chair flung around his axis at neck-breaking speed …  He looked like a helpless child on the back of a too fast moving roundabout …. The mob took up cheering and shouting again ….. after the movement of the chair had finally ceased the candidate placed one leg on the left arm of the chair …. Then she bent over towards the professor so that their faces were almost touching each other …

I was peering around me … A heavy excitement had taken hold of me … I felt the sweat on my forehead … I turned back to the stage.

Both actors remained in that pose for about half a minute. Finally the candidate straightened herself and derisively examined the audience …. Every once in a while she sharply focused upon one of the guests so as to make sure that all eyes were fixed on her and that she was standing at the undivided centre of common attention.  Then she turned back to the professor. He had crossed his legs and seemed to be perfectly at ease, apparently enjoying his little performance.

“When will you hire me?”, she asked the professor.
“As you seem to be a critic of our civilisation, soon, young lady, very soon”, he replied.
What kind of play is that! Why does she not perform with puppets! How in hell does the professor know the lines of the dialogue ?.. what kind of mock exam I have I gotten into … such were the thoughts running through my head.

Both actors were now leaving the stage, followed by an enormous, vulgar applause. Simultaneously, the beautiful professor arose and entered the stage. She smiled lovely and with a charming gesture silenced the audience.  

Illustration by Miklos Sved, Budapest

“My dear candidates, dear friends and relatives”, she began, “I am glad that you are all with us today. As you all know the outcome of this entrance exam will be joy and justified pride for some of you, sadness and humiliation for the others. We may not like it, but this fact is true for every selection. As head of the commission I would like to stress that we are grateful for every performance, just as we are grateful for the interest of our guests as well, who by their large numbers have shown their support for our beloved puppet theatre studies.

Unfortunately, our faculty is still the subject of mockery and hostility and only a broad support may alter these prejudices and prove our importance.
I would also like to stress that we, as a commission, will also have to ensure that only the most talented actors will find admission to our faculty. Noblesse oblige, dear friends. The more I am happy to say that our first candidate has already shown considerable skills, an ironical sketch that with just a few words and gestures catches the essence of the theory of our great contemporary sociologist B.L.J. Thank you very much young lady. I am excited to see what’s next. Enjoy!”

Applause … obscene comments …. screaming and laughter …. Only vaguely I noticed what was going on around me …. Too strong was the spell that had cast itself upon me by what I  just witnessed … in search for an explanation I turned to my neighbour ….. he grimaced maliciously and blew a heavy cloud of smoke straight into my face … I started coughing … it was getting hotter and hotter … the beautiful professor was floating upon the stage … a fateful fatamorgana …

A new wave of applause indicated the coming of the next candidate … another girl … she was incredibly small  …. Somehow, she looked like a puppet herself …. she was on stilts performing unbelievable artistic movements thereby catapulting herself up to the ceiling …. The stilts fell to the floor …. somehow she managed to stay up there and kept performing summersaults and other strange movements …. I won’t pass, I instantly realised, the competition is too strong …. Then, there was music …  a lively Dixieland tune ….. and the candidate started to sing:

I am the hammer
I am the hammer
I am the hammer
I am the nail

Soon after this, the mob joined her bawling and chanting along the lines. The party had apparently reached its climax.  The people were violently swaying their bodies to the music. Chairs fell. A few had jumped up and grotesquely waved their arms so as if they were dealing out mighty strokes with imaginary hammers … others, who had also jumped up, jocularly ducked to ward off the pretend blows. More chairs fell thereby taking their loads to the ground. The bustle was getting even wilder and more frolicsome … after a while I saw the beautiful professor entering the stage. Immediately the music faded and the audience was silenced. She spoke again:

“My dear candidates, dear friends and relatives. I am delighted to say that this second of today’s performances is also apt to fill a professor’s heart with joy. What an enormous artistic talent and potential you have displayed, young lady! I am sure that the commission will acknowledge these unusual skills in its final assessment.  Personally, I also think that your musical interpretation of a Nietzschean aphorism was of refreshing originality. We will now interrupt the exam for a short break of fifteen minutes and then go on with our male candidates.”

She is mistaken, that was none of Nietzsche’s aphorisms! I wanted to jump up and protest yet I was lacking the courage …. Limply I applauded along with the others. Because of the professor’s announcement the mob had started to rise from their seats and moved towards the door, thereby producing considerable noise. Stunned, I also rose and stumbled outside into the wide labyrinth of the corridor. Suspiciously, I monitored my surrounding. Maybe I could find someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on here. The two candidates were standing amidst a group of friends and groupies … I did not want to be obtrusive there … others were also standing around in groups apparently discussing the course of the exam … I did not really dare to accompany them and hence marched up and down the corridor trying to make an unembarrassed and indifferent impression …  I listened as hard as I could.

“The competition seems to be especially strong this year.”
“Yes, but last year it was about the same.”
“No wonder. It’s an Ivy League School.”
“Did You see the new play of the N. Puppet Theatre?”
“No. Unfortunately not yet.”
“How was Alex’s party on Saturday?”

The conversations were not very revealing. Much to my surprise all those who had just behaved like fanatic scatter-brains and loonies were now acting as if nothing strange had happened. They were completely normal students. There was nothing uncommon or obscene in their behaviour. How could I make sense of all that? Darkly I brooded over this perplexing puzzle. “Excuse me, You are Mr. Quiering, aren’t You?” I looked up. The beautiful professor had addressed me. She was standing directly in front of me ….

Instantly I blushed …. I had not yet seen her from that close …. if I had wanted to, I could have touched her …. Her face displayed an almost monstrous symmetry … Her eyes were of a strange, intense blue  … I could have dived into them like into a well … I was hypnotised …. Everything in the world I would have done for her …”Well, yes, who else”, I stammered staring at her mouth. “Very well. I just wanted to inform you that you will be the first candidate after the break. If you need to do so, please prepare your stage scenario now. Do you have any questions?” “Well …n-no thank you”, I murmured, incapable of keeping the conversation going, even though I felt a painful maddening desire to do so. “Very well. I am looking forward to your performance.”

Her smile put my teethe on the edge. Without any further remarks she turned around and all of a sudden I realised that she had male company. A young burly looking fellow had taken her arm and walked her down the corridor. I held my breath …. It was the violent rascal who had been sitting next to me!

I had to prop myself against the wall … otherwise I would have collapsed ….fainted on the spot …I stood there for some minutes shivering …. Then a violent dislike towards the professor started to rage inside me ….. how could she possibly walk around with such a creature ….and then, wasn’t she obviously a bit mentally deranged as well? …. Did she not praise that stupid singing of the second candidate …. And had she not claimed that the idiotic lyrics were Nietzsche’s, the great master’s words ?..  yeah right!!

I burst out laughing …I would teach them a lesson ….and all of a sudden it was beginning to dawn on me ….the mob was part of the house ….they had arranged this whole bizarre set-up to test the mental strength of the candidates … their ability to act under pressure ….I had heard of these kind of methods before … and of course all the other candidates were mock candidates ….the whole costly and large-scale event had been staged just for me! I slapped my forehead ….now I had no time to waste ….

I went back to the room. With a couple of experienced movements I prepared the stage. All the practice was paying off. I grew calmer every minute. The room started to fill up again.

I had already reached for my puppet and was about to start acting as I accidentally caught a glance of the beautiful professor who had taken her seat in the first row. She had bend over a bit to arrange her robe …. Here and there some long streaks of black hair had gotten loose from her ponytail … the dress she was wearing had a low neck-line ….her changed position enabled me to catch sight of her breasts ….that was too much … a violently deep desire cut through my heart … before I knew what was happening I felt a desperate loneliness and the painful need of being comforted by her …. 

With the puppet still in my hands I took a mighty jump down from the stage and fell on my knees in front of her …. A surprised murmur rang through the room …  the professor had startled at my movement and was now sizing me up with cold suspicious eyes ….before I had realised what I was doing I began to wave the arm of my puppet … somehow it made the impression as if the puppet wanted to introduce itself to the audience ….they will think this is part of my choreography …. keep calm, I assured myself while continuing to shake the puppet’s arm and move along the chairs of the first row on my knees.

I felt a sharp violent pain … something struck my left temple … I dropped my puppet … it fell to the floor … something warm was dripping down my face …blood…. blankly I stared into the audience … the spectators had jumped up from their seats, they were furiously enraged and shouting … they were full of hatred …. the members of the commission had also risen from their seats and stared at me reproachfully … “The puppets are not allowed to leave the sphere assigned to them!”, “They have left the sphere assigned to them!” shouted the mob …more things were thrown at me …. I fainted.

An exotic scent caressed my nose and carried me away on angel’s wings … away through the endless space ….far below me there was an oasis…….the palm trees were gently swinging in the mild evening wind  …. they gaily waved farewell to me with their green fans ….the fire of the Bedouins glowed through the darkness …. its flames raging against the black skies …. I lay cosily bedded, sinking away into thousands of warm, comforting cushions ….while I was flying through the calm night ….it carried me away ….. the celestial scent was everywhere, like a divine promise it filled the atmosphere …. it drowned me with grace and confidence …I wanted to sing and dance again … sandal wood …jasmine …roses ….cloves and

I opened my eyes …. above me, far away I recognised the face of the beautiful professor … it seemed as if she was speaking …. but to whom… Through a veil of scent some words were drizzling down to me …. like falling blooms …  then, her face withdrew …. I was alone …. 


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