He sits alone in a dark room, the only light coming from the single bulb above his worktable.
On the table sits a head. It was with great care that he had removed it from the body’s neck, making sure not to cause any damage to it. The skin and muscle had put up little resistance against the knife. It had been the bone that had slowed the work. It would have been so much simpler to saw through the spine, but he isn’t interested in simplicity. It is precision and, yes, perfection that he is after. There can be no flaws in his art.
He had used a small pick and chisel to disconnect the skull from the spine. The process had been agonizingly slow, but it had been worth it. The head that sits on his worktable is pristine.
Plucking a scalpel from a small glass jar filled halfway with fluid, he carefully examines it to make sure that the blade is sharp enough to meet his standards. He nods to himself in satisfaction. He always makes it a point to keep his instruments in working order, but it never hurts to make a final check before beginning the more delicate steps of the process.
Placing the tip of the scalpel at the very edge of the hairline, he pushes just hard enough for the blade to penetrate through the skin. There was a time that he would have likely scraped the bone underneath, but he has come a long way since those early days and he knows exactly how much pressure to apply. With a steady hand he cuts an incision that follows along the hairline. He stops to rotate the head slightly after every inch to ensure the line is as accurate as possible.
The scalpel finally reaches the point he had started at. He places the instrument back into the jar. The drops of blood that had formed on it swirl throughout the fluid, turning the clear liquid a light pink. He uses a clean rag to dab away the small amount of blood around the incision. He had drained most of it out of the body before he had begun, but it’s impossible to get all of it.
He takes a tuft of hair in each hand and carefully pulls up. The disconnected portion of skin slides away from the rest of the face with a sucking sound, exposing the top of the skull. He places the scalp into a plastic tray before picking up a drill.
The bit at the end of the drill is extremely fine; the holes it makes as it bores into the skull are barely visible. He drills a dozen of the holes around the exposed bone before setting the tool back down. He leans in and examines his work to make sure that each hole is right where it needs to be.
He opens a small box at the edge of the worktable and takes out a long wire with a loop at each end. The wire is jagged, with hundreds of razor-like points across its length. The tool is a Gigli saw, a surgical instrument designed to cut through bone with extreme precision. He slips the wire through the holes and moves it back and forth, pulling just hard enough for it to penetrate and tear at the bone. The cuts are smooth and straight as they connect the holes together. Finishing the task, he returns the saw to its case and closes the lid.
The top of the skull comes off without any resistance. A few quick cuts with a knife shears away the three layers of tissue below the bone level. The brain is now exposed, and he stares at it in disgust. Like the other body organs, he considers it to be useless. It is merely a lump of tissue. It cannot be carved or repurposed, and it only gets in the way of his work. Using the scalpel, he severs the nerve fibers attaching it to the eyes. He once again places the tool in the jar before lifting the brain and the attached brainstem out of the cranial cavity. He drops the organ into a trash bag without giving it a second thought before sliding the eyes out of the sockets.
It takes a few minutes for him to clear out the fluid from inside the cavity. He uses a small cotton pad to wipe the bone clean, making sure to get it completely dry. He always finds this part of the process to be relaxing, even soothing. He often wonders if other artists feel the same way as they set up a new canvas on an easel or clear debris off of a fresh block of stone. It’s ritualistic, and there is comfort in that ritual.
Using a tiny chisel and hammer, he begins the long process of carving an intricate series of symbols and designs on the inside of the skull. He is not naturally gifted as a scrimshander, and it has only been through intense practice over many years that he has been able to get his skills up to a level that he is satisfied with. Still, this is the only part of the process that he dislikes. If his hands slip even a fraction of a centimeter, the entire project will be ruined and he will have to start again with a new subject.
His fingers are throbbing as he finishes connecting the lines of the final design. Bringing the head up closer to his face, he lightly blows away the flakes of bone that have gathered at the bottom of the skull. He plucks a jeweler’s loop off of a hook on the pegboard hanging beyond the worktable and holds it up to his right eye. He examines every single line that he has carved to ensure that they are perfect.
The work is satisfactory.
Using a strong adhesive from a tiny white bottle, he reattaches the top of the skull to the head. He waits patiently as the adhesive dries. With the bone locked once again in place, he uses the same substance to glue the removed scalp back over it, making sure to return it to the exact position it had been in when he had cut it off.
He lays the head down on the worktable so that the face is pointed up towards the light. Now that it has been prepared, the real work can begin. For a third time, he picks up the scalpel, the tip gleaming in the light. Using the point, he cuts a line from the right corner of the mouth. It runs down over the edges of the chin and across the underside of the jaw. When he reaches the section where the neck had originally been attached, he goes back to the lips and does the same thing down the left side.
With the guidelines cut, he exchanges the scalpel for a saw. It is roughly the length of his forearm, and the teeth are straight and sharp. He follows the lines that he cut, being sure to apply enough pressure for the saw to grind through the jawbone. The trickiest part, as always, is getting it past the gums in such a way as to not damage the teeth outside of the cutting area.
One final push of the saw moves it through the flesh and bone and into the neck hole. Keeping one hand on the forehead, he grips the detached section of face with the other and pulls. It breaks free of the skull with a sound like twigs snapping. The tongue flops down through the new opening and onto the worktable with a wet thump. He puts the rectangular portion of removed face into a bucket before cutting the tongue free from the hyoid bone and placing it into the same trash bag he had used for the brain.
He clears the tools he had been using from the worktable and stands up from his stool. The room is dark, but he knows exactly where each item he needs is located. He shuffles away from the light on his long thin legs and disappears into the gloom. When he returns a few minutes later, he places four items on the side of the worktable: a jar filled with grayish white orbs floating in sickly brown fluid, a shoebox, a cup holding thick bolts and nuts, and a heavy hand crank drill. He sits back down on the stool with a sigh.
He removes the lid of the shoebox and pulls it towards him. Inside the box is a large block of wood. It is solid oak, and it feels smooth to the touch as he removes it from the cardboard box. Setting it down on the worktable, he takes a black case off of the pegboard and opens it. Inside are a wide variety of woodworking tools. He lays them out one at a time in a neat line in front of him.
Over the next hour, he skillfully carves the block of wood. He works very quickly as he cuts and shapes the oak. He doesn’t take his eyes off of it even when he switches tools. There’s no need.
The frenzy of activity finally slows before eventually stopping. In his hands is a perfect wooden replica of the section of head that he had removed. Every detail is exact, right down to the chip in the lower right cuspid tooth and the small scar on the chin. Nodding to himself, he rubs down the finished work with a piece of sandpaper to remove any remaining shards or splinters.
He inserts the wooden replica into the hole in the bottom of the head and aligns it properly. The next step is to drill two bolts into the head through the cheeks, one on each side. The old hand crank drill squeaks as he applies pressure and turns it. The bolt turns clockwise as it cuts down through the layers of skin, then into the muscle. There’s a loud crack as it pushes through the bone. There’s more resistance now as it presses into the wooden replica, but soon he has the bolt in place. He repeats the process on the other side of the face.
He is almost finished. He unscrews the lid of the jar and takes one of the orbs out of the thick liquid. He holds the preserved eye in his palm and examines it. Normally when a person dies, the cornea of the eye clouds over after an hour or two, taking away that spark of life that not even the best artificial eyes can duplicate. The eye then becomes flaccid before eventually decaying away.
Using just the right chemical mixture, however, he is able to preserve the eyes. The solution he has created hardens them into a rock-like consistency while never allowing them to lose that spark, that indescribable something that makes them seem alive. It had taken him a long time to work out the mixture, but the end result is worth it.
Being careful not to scratch the preserved eye, he places it into the head’s open right socket. He makes sure that it’s facing straight ahead before taking another one out of the jar and pushing it into the left socket. The head is finished. He feels a sense of satisfaction as he sits up and looks down at the result of his efforts.
He reaches out into the darkness behind him and pulls on a beaded chain. A second light bulb hanging from the ceiling comes to life, illuminating another section of the room. There is one last task to perform.
In the center of the light, supported by a tall metal pole, is the body the head was originally attached to. He has already taken care of the necessary alterations. The body is now a combination of biological and wooden parts. The hands and feet are flesh and bone, but the fingers and toes are the same oak as the lower mouth and jaw. The elbows and knees have been replaced by wooden counterparts. The connection between the waist and spine has been completely rebuilt. Every joint is replaced with bolts and hinges.
The result is that every moveable part of the body can now swing in any direction. He has, in essence, created a human marionette. It is dressed in a fine Italian suit with a small red flower in the coat lapel.
He slides the head onto the top of the spine and bolts it on. There is a loud click as it locks in place. He brushes a stray bit of string off of the shoulder before narrowing his eyes.
“Live,” he says in a voice that sounds like he’s breathing the word instead of speaking it.
The eyes turn slowly in their sockets and focus on him. The new wooden mouth opens and closes on its hinges, as if the creature is trying to speak but cannot. He reaches around the body and releases the hooks attaching it to the metal pole. It remains silent as it watches him.
Almost before he is able to release the final hook, the door to the room opens. Warm yellow light from the hallway streams in, and he turns towards it. A short silhouette stands in the doorway, one hand on the frame.
“Is my new doll ready, Papa?” the girl asks politely.
“It is indeed,” he replies with a wide smile. “I just finished. What do you think of it, child?”
“Oh, it’s wonderful!” she exclaims, coming into the room to get a better look. “I love it. Thank you, Papa.”
“You are very welcome. What will you name him?”
“I think I’ll call him Mr. Dobbs. Is that a good name?”
“It is a splendid one. Why don’t you take him to meet the others?”
“Yes, Papa. We were just about to have a tea party. Come along, Mr. Dobbs.”
The creature takes a step towards the girl obediently. It walks oddly on its hinged legs, like a figure from an old stop motion animation film. She holds out her hand to it, and it gently takes it. They start to leave the room when the girl looks back over her shoulder.
“Papa?” she asks.
“Yes, child?” he answers.
“If you make me another doll, can it be a girl? I’ve only got one of those, and quite a few boys.”
The Puppeteer nods, his grin widening. “Of course. I know just the one.”