The Toymaker: Part Six

white and brown concrete building
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

A sudden chill ran through the drummer and he spun around on the spot, just in time to see a stream of metal sheaves flowing through the center of the doorway and straight into him. He didn’t even hear the impact as he was flung him across the room and slammed into the wall. Still the shafts kept pressing forward, skewering through his chest and pinning him to the spot. The metal blades that weren’t pinning him began to spin and slide, morphing into an erratic form, somewhat like a metal hand, walking on its fingers.

Wincing through the pain the drummer gripped his hammer tightly and swung it in a wide arc. Or at least he tried to. He barely got it more than an inch before one of those metal fingers snapped out, bursting the hammer into a thousand pieces. The blades piercing the drummer’s chest drove in deeper. A humming sound came from inside the metal demon, and now the skewers began to push out in each direction, straining against the drummer’s core, trying to burst his whole body apart.

“What do you–? Why–?” the drummer’s voice came out strained and weak. He was vaguely aware of another of these strange demons bursting into the room and charging down the squealing teddy bear.

The drummer’s eyes fluttered rapidly, his vision floated in and out of focus. “I’m the maker,” he mouthed. Cracks were widening in his chest, snapping up his body, splitting across his lips. “I made every toy.” His body made a loud popping noise and the metal blades sprung partway open. The drummer’s few remaining fibers began to twist and divide. “I made the hands that made you,” the two separate halves of his mouth motioned. “I am you.”

There was a tremendous snap and the drummer’s body burst apart, his entire torso exploding into a cloud of splinters. All thoughts ceased within his mind, and what chunks of body still remained collapsed lifelessly to the floor.

And yet. With that snapping of his body, all of his silent words suddenly reverberated off the walls like a great, rushing wind. It pounded through the space and quaked through the core of the scowlie. Though it had not been fashioned with any ears, it heard it all, and the fingers it walked upon flailed about wildly. A spasmodic shriek emanated from its rubbing sheaves, and the blades started folding and turning, reassembling, fusing together in fervent heat. The edges became less sharp, the pallor less cold, the features less random. The whole being glowed bright yellow, lost entirely from view as it shone like a mortal star!

Sparks rained off of the fusing metal, and as they showered downwards they landed on the boots of a new, metal drummer. It was not merely similar to the wooden version that had just been destroyed, it was the exact image, fresh as the day the drummer had first created. Even his original coloring had somehow been baked into the steel. Though this new version stood in this room, still there also lay the broken and lifeless version of the drummer on the floor. The one that was crafted of cheap wood, stained black by soot, and cracked by heat. The one that still held the handle of the hammer in its glove.

The second scowlie, which had finished with the bear, turned and shrieked at the metal drummer, trying to discern if this was another target or not. The drummer turned and faced it back, unflinching.

“I am you, too,” he said confidently, then raised his baton and brought it down on the drum. It’s metal top resonated much more brightly than when it had been made of wood, and a spasm rippled through the scowlie. It gave one more shriek, then dashed out of the room.

The drummer nodded approvingly, then exited the room himself. He walked back to the hole that had once been a window. He ignored the ladder-bridge, and instead leaped out, falling the full four stories to the ground. He landed gingerly on his boots, then marched off down the street, heading in the direction that the knight had led the guards down.

It did not take him long to find them, the clatter of metal and wood soon echoed to him from a side-alley. There, at its end, he found the knight laughing in combat with the guards. He was outnumbered 20-to-1, but he was a well-made figure, cast from solid pewter. The guard’s thin blades were simply too weak to do more than scratch his armor, and so he danced about, systematically cleaving their spears in two.

“Charge him!” the Guard-Sergeant shouted. “Your weapons are useless, grab him with your arms!”

His weapon isn’t useless!” one of the guards returned, not wanting to put his own, wooden neck anywhere near the knight’s sword.

“Cowards!” the Sergeant charged forward himself. The knight spun quickly and put a well-placed kick in the assailant’s chest, knocking him back to the ground.

“Haven’t we done enough of this?” the knight chortled.

“The scowlies will get you!” the Sergeant spat, slinking away while rubbing his chest.

Immediately the knight’s jovial nature turned dark. “What’s that?!” he demanded.

“Knight, don’t worry,” the drummer said, rushing to his side.

“I leave you toys alive and you’ll send scowlies after me next, is that about right?!” the knight continued after the Sergeant, pointing his sword at the toy’s chest.

“Knight, the scowlies aren’t a problem.”

“No drummer, you haven’t seen them. They absolutely are a problem. I know you won’t like this, but we have to break these toys now.”

“I have seen them. In fact, I am one of them.”

If the knight’s helm could have opened his jaw would have been agape. Instead he just cocked his head in a strange away, unable to fathom why the drummer would even say something like that. Even the guards cowering against the back wall stared to the drummer in bewilderment.

“You don’t know what you’re saying–” the knight began slowly.

Before he could continue the drummer closed his eyes, then his face split and his metal sheaves began to unfold, twisting and re-forming back into the shape of a scowlie.

“A trap!” the knight cried, driving his sword into the heart of the creature. The scowlie grabbed the sword lazily, and yanked it out of the knight’s grip. Then it shuffled again, reforming back into the drummer, holding the sword aloft in his hand.

“No, knight. It’s still me.”

The knight made a strange, flustered noise, and flailed his arms like he was in danger of losing his balance. “But–but all this time?”

“No, just now. When the scowlie killed my old body up in the Administration Building.”

“A scowlie…killed you…?”

“Killed the body. But I was in the scowlie, just as much as I was in that old body. Just as much as I’m in you. Just as much as I’m in them,” he nodded his head towards the still-cowering guards.

“You mean–wait, just what are you trying to say?…Surely not…the Maker?”

The drummer cocked his head in amusement. “Didn’t you say that the Maker put part of himself into each toy?”

“Did I? I think that’s what they say, yes.”

“I liked that part. So I decided that that was who I was. So I don’t think it’s just me who is the Maker. So are you, if you to decide to be. So is everyone. And if everyone decides to be the Maker, and brings their part together, we’ll finally be able to make him again.”

The knight didn’t respond. He took a few shaky steps over to the guards he had just been fighting, and sat down among them. All the toys stared at the drummer in a silent stupor.

“I thought you’d be happy,” the drummer frowned.

“I–I’m overwhelmed,” the knight’s voice was hollow.

“Why?”

“Because it…it…well it breaks everything I thought I knew.”

“So? Isn’t this better?”

“Yes, I suppose…if…”

“If what?”

“If it’s true.”

“So you don’t believe me?” the drummer sounded hurt.

“I don’t know. Really I’m not saying that. Just that it’s–overwhelming. You figured all of this out while you were up with the bear, did you?”

“Yes.”

“See, it doesn’t come that easily for the rest of us.”

“It wasn’t so easy. I had to die to figure it out.”

“Oh,” the knight said stupidly, really not sure how to properly respond to that. “Little drummer, please don’t be offended. But it’s really going to take some time before I even know what I think about what you’re saying.”

“Oh…okay, I guess. We can talk about something else if you’d like.”

“Um, sure. Uh, did you find out where the dancer was?”

“No, I didn’t,” the drummer’s face looked troubled, then almost instantly brightened. “But I’ve just thought of a way to find her.”

“I’m sure you have. Why don’t we go find her, and maybe–maybe that’ll give me some time to just think about everything you’ve said along the way?”

“Alright.”

“What about us?” one of the guard’s piped up.

“What about you?” the knight returned. “You’re free to go if you’ve had enough.”

“Or free to come with us if you want more,” the drummer added enthusiastically.

The Sergeant frowned at that, rose to his feet, and ducked down the alley with his head bowed. One-by-one the other guards followed until only two remained. Each of them looked to one another, and then back to the drummer.

“We’d rather come with you. Come and see–whatever it is you’re doing. Looking for a dancer, you said?”

“Yes,” the drummer nodded. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but she and I came up with a dance, and when I played the music for it we always knew just how to move together.”

“So…?”

“So follow me.” And with that the drummer whisked out his baton and brought it back down on his drum. Rump-a-dum-a-dum-a-dum! And as he struck out his old, familiar tune, his legs snapped to attention and whisked him down the alley. His rhythm reverberated loudly off the walls, and the knight and two guards fell into step behind him.

They marched out into the street, then made a turn and were off on their way. One street, then another, then another. The whole area was still reeling from the attack on the Administration Building, but whatever toys recognized the drummer and the knight were much too frightened to approach them. Instead crowds parted and stared wide-eyed at them as they passed. After a little while the marchers were past the heart of the city, and on their way into the next district.

Here the houses were more modest, and had wide spaces between them for growing groves of trees. The ground hadn’t been leveled here, and naturally rose and fell in little hills and dells. As more and more of the city-proper fell behind them, it became clear that the drummer’s dance was leading them in a straight line for the gutted remnants of an old town in the distance.

It was perched atop a steep rise in the land, an old suburb of the city that had been almost entirely consumed in a terrible fire long ago. There was no official community there now, only vagrants and gangs of criminals, competing with the local wildlife for a hole to sleep in. Of course the knight with his sword and the guards with their half-spears were already better armed than any peasant that they might find, and so the party wasn’t too worried as they followed the slope of the land into its blackened ruins.

No one tried to molest them anyhow. Indeed, they didn’t even see any of the toys, only the ratty bedrolls and smoldering fires of their camps. So strange in this place was the sight of the visitors, that the inhabitants had scurried for cover, and now peeped out at them in awe from their hiding places.

The journeyers marched straight down the central street, old rubble crumbling into dust beneath their feet. The drummer’s beat echoed unnaturally off the half-toppled buildings, as if it had been so long since those old walls reverberated sound, that now they didn’t quite remember how.

All at once the drummer felt his feet turning, taking him off the central road. He quickened his rhythm, beating a trail down a nearby alley. Over the moldy frames fallen out of the windows, and across the crunching beads of shattered glass. His feet began to slow, and presently he came face-to-face with a small apartment, its door hanging on just one hinge, yellow paint peeling off in chunks.

The drummer stilled his batons, then looked back to his accompaniment, they looked back at him, eyes unblinking. He turned back, swallowed, and pushed his way through the creaky door. The knight and the guards waited respectfully outside.

 

This last Monday I discussed the importance of self-reflection in a character, and how it is most often used to signal a fundamental change within them. I took a very literal route with that in today’s post! Previously the drummer chose to spare the bear, only doing so after he took a little look inside of himself and decided what he wanted to be.

Of course even though he had made that choice, he had still betrayed the fact that his heart was quite changed from what it once had been. Yes, this time he managed to restrain himself, but what about next time? I felt it was essential for him to have a token of grace, a chance to be reborn entirely. It was then that I decided his old, tortured husk had to die, and he would be remade, as clean and pristine as at the very start of his tale.

Now, having been restored, he is at last ready to rejoin the dancer. As I reread this segment I realized that I rushed things quite a good deal here at the end. I’m sorry about that, unfortunately I did not have time to correct this imbalance. At the very least I can pause here, and take the time to give our penultimate scene between the drummer and the dancer some proper breathing space. As such, the conclusion of this story is going to come next Thursday.

Before we get to that, though, I want to take a moment to talk a bit more in-depth about how my vision for this story shifted while writing this tale. I actually had a pretty clear idea of where I wanted it to go when I began, and then it got off the rails quite quickly! On Monday I’ll pull back the curtain on what my original intent was, how and why it changed, and how it then proceeded to change again and again several times throughout. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Journeys and Detours

aerial photo of winding road
Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

The Journeyman’s Questions)

When we are children, we tend to set our hopes and dreams on moments that are in the immediate future. We long for a birthday that is only a few weeks away, and then enjoy the fulfillment of that desire quickly.

Later, though, our imagination grows deeper, and we crave for things that are further out-of-reach. Some things can only be attained after years of effort, such as a higher degree, retirement, or notoriety in a particular field. Some things might never be attained at all, such as complete peace and happiness. In either case, we set our sights on shores far distant, so far that the path to them is sure to be unstable; for it seems a truth of life that a road cannot extend past a certain length without being broken up by detours, stray turns, and unexpected obstacles. There is no straightforward route to anything of substance.

It isn’t just the road that turns and changes, though, it is also those who take them. Whenever people pursue life’s greatest quests, not a one of them ever meets their destination. For many are forever lost in diversions and pitfalls along the way, while those that overcome these obstacles and reach their destination, are so changed as to be unrecognizable from the individuals that first began the journey.

Two great questions arise in us then. Am I the sort of journeyer that can make it through to the end? And if I am, who will I be at the end of it?

Questions Into Stories)

And as with all of life’s greatest questions, our race has learned to turn them into stories. We take the soul’s deepest pondering, and make it into a narrative thought-experiment.

Let us consider first the story of Dorothy who is seeking a way back home to Kansas. She is brought to a yellow, brick road that leads straight to a Wizard, which Wizard she is told will be able to help her return home. Though the path seems straightforward at first, she encounters many surprises along the way. She also meets some kindred spirits that need rescuing and finds an enemy in a frightful witch.
Then, upon reaching her destination, Dorothy is given a new quest, to retrieve the broomstick from that evil witch. This journey does not have a clear-cut road to follow. Dorothy and her friends must forge their own way from here on.

Finally, after this new set of hurdles have been cleared, it is revealed that Dorothy actually had the power to return home all along. Although…really she didn’t. Yes, maybe she had the magical shoes that could transport her back to Kansas, but she was not ready to go home until this final moment. Because really the journey has been one of emotional maturity. There was a reason Dorothy came here: to make her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Only now, at the end of her long and winding path, is she prepared to stand on her own. And with that, her inner change is complete and she goes home.

This same basic outline is repeated in The Way, a 2010 film starring Martin Sheen. In this story a father decides to undertake a pilgrimage that his own son perished along. The man has felt that he never really understood his son, and hopes to fill that void with this journey.

Along the way he meets a few friends, each of which have similarly come on this pilgrimage to find something better in life. By the end, most of them have not obtained what they intended, but have instead found that which they needed. The man who wanted to lose weight, for example, has instead found something to believe in.

Why was there a disconnect between what these pilgrims wanted and what they actually needed? Generally it is because what they think they need is in the past. The man who wants to lose weight, for example, wishes to do so to regain the affection of his wife. But like Dorothy, the wish to “go back home” is insufficient. Journey’s are not about getting back to where you were, they are about going somewhere different.

Less Direct Routes)

The Lord of the Rings is a famous “journey” story, and one where the hero is certainly changed by the voyage. Frodo leaves the Shire and returns to it…but also he never does return. The Frodo that left his home naive and unscathed is markedly different from the warrior who returns. He is discontent with the smallness of hobbit-life now, and in the end he decides that he must leave.

But I would like to draw attention to the story’s use of detours in its epic adventure. Frodo’s path is defined for him in only the vaguest of terms: get to Bree, now on to Rivendell, then all the way to Mount Doom. But the roads to each of these places are far from clear. On every leg of the journey things go awry and the adventurers have to find their own path forward.

For example, on the way to Bree two of the hobbits become trapped by Old Man Willow and the party have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil. They spend two nights in his home, where they enjoy a brief respite, free from all their cares. It would be nice to stay here longer, but the world outside still needs saving. Ultimately the heroes have to reject the sanctuary and move back into danger, so that they can go on to do greater deeds.

Another detour takes place later when Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through a side-passage into Mordor. This route takes them into Shelob’s Lair, where disaster strikes and Frodo is seemingly killed. Sam grieves for the loss of the friend, but ultimately claims the burden of the ring for himself, resolute to see the mission through.

In each of these examples we see distractions and obstacles to the way forward. When a story features detours they provide the characters a chance to throw in the towel. They are inflection points where the entire journey could theoretically come to an end. When the heroes resolve to move forward, then, they do so all the more committed. If journeys are about characters changing and growing, detours are the catalysts to speed up that process. All good detours will not slow a story down, then, they will actually speed it up.

That was my intention with my drummer’s detour in the last section of The Toymaker. Getting waylaid at the factory took him off the path of rescuing the dancer, but he overcame the distractions here, put his head down to work, and earned his way back to freedom. Thus he was delayed in his quest, but the narrative was continuing to progress. He was still journeying forward, if only on the inside.

In my next story post we’ll set things up for the next switchback on his journey. It’s not going to be an easy quest, and there will be more detours along the way.

When the dancer and drummer do finally have their reunion, I will display another application of journeys in story-telling: usually you are only seeing one of several journeys happening at the same time. All this while that the drummer has been growing and changing, so too has the dancer. When they finally do reunite we will be able to see how their separate paths compare and contrast to one another. They will have been made unrecognizable to the innocent, carefree toys that began their journey together, and they will have to ask whether they can still make their trek together or not.