Finger Puppet


Late one evening, some indeterminate time ago, a disaster occurred and an otherwise ordinary child, then barely four, perhaps five years old, had their little finger severed clean off in an ambulance crash. The specifics of the tragedy are both complex and irrelevant; the child scarcely remembers, beyond the searing sound made by the sirens and the crunch of machinery and bone. Their parents are long passed, at the time of this telling the child has no relatives. But it happened, somehow, someway, and fatefully it became the way in which this child became abnormal, different and broken.

Though initially deterred, the child underwent existence as we all do, as we all must. The nothingness where their smallest digit used to be was often covered over with woolly gloves or some other means to camouflage the stub. The little finger, contrary to popular belief, is an important limb in contributing towards the usefulness of our opposable thumbs; without it, the child was forced to learn in their own way how to manipulate the world around them. This took time, but they found their way eventually. Beyond this they went about normally, as normally as one can with one less finger, making other adjustments where necessary. Friends were still made, relationships formed, mistakes made, lessons learned, life going on and on. They blossomed like a mushroom cloud, enthusiastic smile steadily worn away, Pygmalion scrimshawing his statue, evolving. This was until they were bestowed an ethereal light-bulb moment of realisation; the child wanted to be an artist.

Not the painter kind since art classes were drab and dull for them, too routine and structured. Yes, these lessons were still appreciated; Van Gogh could grow a magnificent sunflower, but the child didn’t have his sleight of hand nor Picasso’s intuition. The beauty of art though, thankfully, is that it’s so very much more than art. Theirs was obscure, certainly not as well-explored through history, though there were individuals who’d given their lives to the particular performance. The child from the ambulance crash gravitated, for reasons unknown to anyone, towards a niche subgenre of the performative arts, the wondrous world of puppetry. This was born from an inexplicable desire that bubbled around their innards, to make something, to forge stratospheres the only way they felt they knew how.

So it began, the toil of experience. It took a great many attempts for them to conjure anything close to right, as it does. They began by focusing on finger puppets, perhaps due to a continued connection with the fallen pinkie finger worm still scuttling on the tarmac, trying to split apart and multiply. Worms can’t actually do that, they’d learned. Mother had taught them to knit, some no-name time ago, so that was where their minions were birthed. Small puppy dogs, a little girl in a polka dot skirt, a policeman with a baton superglued to his right hand. All of these attempts failed to live up to expectation or were in other ways overly contrived; they functioned, but none of them quite fit. This changed when the child reached their fifth attempt, the one to cover the absence. Technique had to be altered, made far more intricate, much larger to shroud the space where an appendage should have been.

The resulting woven character was a young genderless figure, stuck smiling and clothed not unlike a clown, a long corkscrewed bobble hat reaching down half the length of its back, the rest of its haphazard attire bound by a multitude of colours and threads. It seemed inspired by a Punch and Judy show they had seen, or remembered seeing, sometime before. It became the favourite because it filled the void, at least as well as anything can. This finger puppet was later named Sammy Turntable, in keeping with jovial pantomime themes. Presentations were initially very basic, given limited materials; an uneven, handmade cardboard stage covered by a tattered red cloth posed as their multiverse, whilst props were enlivened by bright felt-tip pens and sprinkling glitter. Scripts and stories were at this early phase entirely improvised. Sammy was the star attraction, the cheeky protagonist who told jokes and saved the day from the evil green alligator. These stories would grow in time, accruing new characters like Tilly the butcher’s daughter, Brenda the butcher herself, Alistair the incredible acrobat to name but a few. These early efforts were the practice period, mostly scrapped. Nothing ever stuck, except for Sammy Turntable.

The child continued these plays after finishing school. They performed amicably throughout their brief stint in academia, better in the subjects that fit them; arts and drama and the class they took on ancient history. These results did little to quell their aspirations; it remained their grown-up dream to pay their way through finger puppet pantomimes, to succeed and thrive solely off the back of their art. This initially failed. Nobody pays for finger puppets, certainly not those of this still amateurish and highly experimental calibre. Instead each attempt was taken as a stepping stone, where no matter how many times they slipped and fell and nearly drowned in the white-water rapid rides of the world they could pull themselves back up onto a steadfast rock and attempt the crossing anew.  Attempt they did, again and again. They died a thousand times before anything would come of anything.

Miraculously fortune did come, not quite to the levels guarded by dragons in a secret keep at first, but slowly the young artist managed to find their own voice in the cavernous vacuum of creative expression. Transitions between scenes were enhanced instead of ignored, different flourishes for the draperies, musical accompaniments written scene by scene. Newer characters relied less on prior inspirations, instead birthed as elaborate, backstory-driven dream weavers in their own right. People began talking about the strange young silhouetted figure behind velvet red curtains, parading fully-formed fake people on their fingers and bringing their inanimate beginnings to life. Crowds grew, word spread and the ambulance adult, still chipping away, became the talk of their small town. Eventually the act was forced to evolve, as the child had, to accompany these newfound fervours. This is how Sammy Turntable slid their way up from missing finger to hand.

Proceedings jolted quickly from this point; as is often taught it takes only the one well-placed match to incite a forest fire. The staging expanded, carved cautiously from wood to allow for a person’s entire body to comfortably act standing behind it, where previously the artist was forced to hunch down in a crumpled, foetal ball. Even more new caricatures were made, the transition from finger to hand allowing for a heightened level of detail and potential realism. Every performing part had their own arms with which to postulate; emotions, though still mostly singular, were freer to express than had ever been previously imagined. Thanks to an improved income the owner could now employ a second helper, should two or more of their creations be needed at any one time, and soon the one-person endeavour would become a touring ensemble. What was once a small and simple show had grown to incorporate a myriad of genres and themes: romances, murder mysteries, melancholies and every variant in between would at one time or another be adapted by the Turntable troupe. A vision had been fulfilled, but the victim of that fabled ambulance collision still felt an inescapable emptiness, a craving for more, for greater than what was.

They were forced to keep developing, partly for supply and demand but mostly to slake this unending thirst. The hand puppets soon grew to fully poseable anthropomorphic wooden figurines, strings tied to their hands and feet as a puppet master conducted from above the stage, leering down over the universe they’d built. Each creation would spin and twirl independently, almost wholly separate from their puppeteer, connected solely by these almost invisible threads. Still this wasn’t quite enough. The lead orchestrator of the troupe was dissatisfied with dominating the proceedings; they wanted to live it, be swallowed by their art and make it everything and more. Only then, did the four fingered artist feel, would they be fulfilling their true potential. It was around this time, during a conversation with the troupe, that the originator of Sammy Turntable’s show had another epiphany.

The show was put on temporary hold as its leader retreated into solitude to craft the future of the act. Nobody heard from them for weeks on end, some speculating they’d ran away to another country, returning to their solo street act roots, wedding and settling down on a mountaintop littered with goats. Others swore that they’d met a more macabre end, mafia run-ins resulting in the chopping of even more fingers, maimed and left for dead. In reality they remained locked away, workshop-hidden; decades later it’s still unclear how they ate, where they slept, if at all. It was known that they’d never once bathed. The wooden version of Sammy Turntable stuck with them, legs dangling from a heightened shelf in the darkened and lonely studio, surveying the chaotic scene.

What resulted, from these hours of introspection and labour, was a makeshift costume, full body, all-encompassing. It was stained a lightened maroon, zigzagged with spots and stripes.

Thin black gloves like those of a theatrical hitman veiled the hands, bright spangled shoes covering the feet. Air holes were poked in the mouth and nose of the face-hugging section, then zippers and clamps made to secure the wearer and allow for complete articulation. To complete the outfit a removable version of Turntable’s now iconic, overstretched, spiralled hat was spun as regalia. It wasn’t quite the spitting image just yet, this lavish morphsuit of sorts being merely the prototype; once again this stage of artistic growth continued shifting with every passing performance. Finer fabrics, fewer wires to allow for greater movement, more fastenings to tighten the cloth to the body it housed. Everything could be improved or furthered in some way, the endless strive for perfection on defective terms.

Eventually Sammy Turntable was a living being in its own right, and the act became a complete theatre-in-the-round performance. Every expressive disposition could now be captured, no longer bound by a presented form. Sammy could be part Pulcinella and Pierrot, play Columbina, Harlequin or Pantelone all on request. The mask clung itself perfectly trimmed to the contours of a prior face. The only downside to this was that the further this costume went, the more advanced its features and the more realistic its tone, the longer it took the wearer to clothe and disrobe. More decorative layers were consistently added, new voice changing equipment, interchangeable drapery, skin coloured material that felt and functioned like skin itself. Slipping into Sammy Turntable soon meant transmogrifying into an entirely separate entity.

This constant changeover grew tiresome for the artist, so much so that they made the conscious decision to cease the repeated chrysalis process entirely. The suit couldn’t be completely removed, that would be career suicide; it was more successful now than it had ever been before. It’d finally given them ways and means to express themselves and an audience who were eager to accept it in kind. So they edited the sartorial aspects further, a final more practical arrangement. First they wired the mouth of the costume into their jaw, to better assist with eating and drinking, before carving a carefully slit hole between their legs for their genitalia, designing a sophisticated flap mechanism of zips and clip buttons for easy accessibility. The cloth of the costume was then intertwined head to toe with their own flesh, athwart Langer’s lines, woven together immortally. An epidermis layer was added atop this base to cover the stitches and better shield the encased wearer from the elements. Lastly several fine cut spikes were layered onto the rim of the heavy cloth hat, measured and re-measured then squeezed around the actor’s head, fluids dripping down their face until the jagged incisors curled inwards and plugged forever in place. It was a bloody, surgical procedure. By the time they’d finished the only part of their body not conjoined with the suit was their eyes, beady and swollen from two perfect holes in the head.

Critics showered Sammy Turntable with praise from this point onwards. It became a presentation so real, raw and anthropoid, cutting deep into the great turmoil of the human condition with a masterful tragicomic flair. One such critic labelled it ‘a triumph, the truest embodiment of humanity.’ Everybody loved it, children for the slapstick jokes and colourful garments, parents for the scathing commentary on a lifetime screaming at an uncaring and reflective abyss. Crowds were amazed at how involved the nameless actor beneath Sammy had become, how far they were willing to submerge for their tortuous ability to entertain. It was as if they were never even there, though of course they were, must have been, buried deep beneath those dazzling layers. There were still other performers among them, Sammy Turntable couldn’t carry the show alone, but none performed with the same tenacity as the titular star, all shredding their spot-lit symbionts once retreating from the gladiatorial setting of the crowd. Sammy was different, Sammy lived the art.

One might think this permanent embrace of a fictitious character problematic, but in truth throughout all walks of life they found scarce practical difficulty. The banal repetitiveness of being, eating and drinking, sleeping and defecating, had all been sufficiently solved thanks to their prior modifications. Social endeavours were easier than ever before; everybody knew their name, who they were, the nature of today’s daily grievance, where they would be in two weeks and five days’ time. They were adored and showered with attention, friends in every city, sexual partners on every street. In truth Sammy had very few flaws to mention, beyond the intentional, those conjured for the purposes of their show. That is unless you were to focus your sights on the smallest finger of their left hand, protruding strangely and falling limp like a carcass from a noose. Forever unmoving, save for momentum waves.

The majesty was scarcely shattered, though it undeniably faltered from time to time. Thankfully this never happened on stage, though Sammy insisted they keep a bear-suited figure primed at all times away from the audience’s gaze, were they forced by a disastrous wardrobe malfunction to make a swift and untimely exit. Things were different when they were alone. There were mornings when departing from bed a stitch would loosen or a pocket would tear and where once flowed a proud, seamless and fully realised exoskeleton the susceptible being beneath would rear, yellow and peeling from the rejection of sunlight. When exiting the shower, in suit, and approaching the bathroom mirror the same blazing two eyes would solemnly gaze out from their cubbyholes. Sometimes they were weeping. This was everything the artist had ever wanted.

Sammy Turntable was buried in a Parisian cemetery, a grand and laboriously crafted tomb. The world was at a loss, but consoled with the idea that the afterlife was now a greater place. There are rumours, from those who visit the grave, scaremonger stories and nothing more, of a ghostly apparition who emerges on nights where there has passed an ambulance siren. They say there walks a skeleton within a skeleton.


Samuel Kendall