The candle in the sky warmed their skin, making their vellum bones all too crisp . These were the Water Colored Tropics, far south from the harsh and acrylic snowlands that her Jotuns called home. Petal liked it here, this land of single hatch beaches and pop-up book natives in grass skirts.
The papier-mâché Jotuns were grumpy and tired and sick. They did not like the heat, did not like being so close to the candle sun. They were afraid of burning up, of their paperthin clothes curling black and catching flame, scattering the ash of their corpses in the static waves of the painted sea.
They whispered behind Petal’s back. Talked of mutiny, written down in hidden parts of the ship. They made no secret of their disgust. When the Jotuns came brandishing clumsily-drawn chains Petal had already stowed away on a brown cardboard boat, peddling straight towards a distant shore. She had copied the map on her flesh, inking the memory of the treasure she searched for into her skin with a large silver-point pen.
That evening the candle of the sun was extinguished, splattering wax across the landscape. Petal rowed herself to the beach, the land rising before her in large cliffs and dangerous volcanoes that coughed cross hatched smoke. In the trees she saw scurry many crudely drawn creatures.
Orange crayon monkeys. Yellow squiggles of finger paints with faces penciled in. Photographic marmosets cut out from National Geographic magazines. Intensely detailed lions prowling on the edges of her vision.
Carefully Petal pulled down pieces of trees, ripping the parts she needed from the trunk. She then carved out a pit into the speckled sand and drew a flame on top of the torn pieces of bark. She colored it in with a yellow marker, sending a flickering light of fire across the beach. The animals scurried deeper into the forest, frightened from her fire.
Petal awoke to popsicle-stick bodies surrounding her in a circle, their whiteout skull faces cracked and peeling in the candle sun. Cannibals, Petal thought. I have heard of them. Wandering the tropical islands, devouring anyone or anything they come across. Their infinitely-empty stomachs craved the taste of paper and ink, of balsa wood and paint.
She stood up slowly as they crowded around her, closing the circle with their bodies. She felt the wood brush up against her paper skin and a moment of fear overcame her.
One screamed at her in a language she could not understand. The crowd rushed closer together in that instant. She curtsied as well as she could, her paper dress almost tearing beneath her hands. “I am Petal. I have come searching for the golden heart. The treasure that lay under the spilled wax of the sun.”
A grunt. A balsa wood stick with the top half bitten off and a face ruined with an orange stain came forward. He looked mean and broken down, like he lived a life of pain and misery. He looked her over, smiled and motioned towards the oily blue sky.
They surrounded her, their bodies tying her with satin string and decorating her skin with glue and glitter. They lifted her up onto their heads and carried her through the cardboard trees and the green felt leaves.
Closer and closer to the candle sun they crawled, the air hotter and the ground splattered with sticky orange wax. Ancient ruins made of half eaten paper towel rolls and decorated with finger paints and glitter stuck out from the ground in random sinking circles.
Petal heard the howl of hungry coffee stains on the prowl, and the juttering cry of origami birds as they hopped about picking scribbled fruit from the felt trees. Her body shivered, the paper flapping in the unfurling wind as the cannibals led her deeper and deeper into the jungle.
I am lost now, she thought. I have no idea where we are on the map. She only knew that they moved east, towards the candle sun, the wings of her butterfly heart vibrating against her skin.
At dusk, when the candle sun sputtered low to the ground, Petal saw a large monument towards the top of a hill. It was made from old shoe boxes with plastic tubes connecting each building. The shoe box buildings were decorated with Christmas lights and stickers of pop culture icons. At the very top of the structure a pipe cleaner statue stood astride two buildings, looking down on the island with a blank and empty face.
They led her towards it, closer and closer. To the right and left of her she saw hand-painted lead skeletons on the ground with arms and legs missing. She saw that the first building that they were leading her towards was lined with hand-painted lead skulls. She wondered if these were trophies of the dead, trophies of those sacrificed.
The cannibals chanted around her, carrying her into the structure. Arches of Styrofoam glided over her head as they carried her deeper and deeper into the temple. Other cannibals came out of the shadows to stare at her in awe. Tooth pick cannibal children hopped up and down and cheered, broken balsa wood cannibal mothers jeered and looked hungrily at her paper skin.
Am I going to be enough, she thought, will I be enough to feed all of these cannibals? What are they doing with me? Where are they taking me? She only wished that she could understand their language and somehow know of her twisted fate.
They led her to a cell in the highest section of the temple. It had holes eaten into the side, overlooking the island in a giant honeycomb. Waiting in the cell was another paper doll like herself, her brown painted eyes staring out and across the island. Her cellmate was naked, the tabs on her shoulders awaiting the purpose of paper princess dresses and punched out too-short skirts.
The cannibals ripped off Petal’s clothing, nearly tearing the tabs on her shoulders and waist. She screamed in horror as they tore her dress apart and devoured it, their appetite for all things artistic never-ending. Satiated, they left the room, the remaining confetti gore leaving an empty feeling in Petal’s stomach.
The girl turned and looked at her. She studied Petal’s body and saw a map inked onto her chest. She smiled, turned and looked out over the island beyond. “So you are looking for the treasure as well?”
Petal nodded, wondering who this paperdoll was. “Yes, yes I am. Do you know what will happen to us?”
The girl sighed. It sounded like reeds in the wind. “Exactly what you think will happen to us. Which is why I have a plan. They took my map away from me and ate it. But if we worked together we should be able to find the treasure without any problems.”
Petal sat on the floor, picking up the remains of her paper garment. “Oh.” She did not want to share the treasure, she had wanted it all for herself. Petal had even planned on ditching the Jotuns somewhere before they discovered the real thing, just so she could keep it all to herself.
The paper girl turned and looked at her. The pinhole stars of night made a halo of white and blue light around her head. “Oh? You sound disappointed. Would you rather be eaten? Do I need to remind you what happened to your clothes?”
Petal looked up and saw the constellations she had memorized so long ago when she was a child, living in a pop-up book castle far to the north. The stars themselves were outlined in a glowing green with the pictures of gods and goddesses, illustrating the vast jumble of mythology that was contained in their world.
“No,” Petal said. “No, you do not need to remind me.”
“Ok then,” the girl said. “Can I assume that you’re with me?”
Petal shrugged. “I don’t even know your name.”
“String,” the girl said, holding out her thin and fragile hand.
Petal walked up to her, stared at her hand and shook it. She saw small cuts along String’s fingers. “Ok, I’m Petal. And yes, you can count me in. On one condition.”
String pulled her hand back, recoiling as if Petal’s words had sliced her paper skin to ribbons. “Condition? Condition? I’m offering you a way out of here, a way to get what we both dream of every night—and you are giving me conditions?”
Petal turned, hiding the smirk that painted itself across her face. She wandered aimlessly, kicking pebbles, acting like she had done nothing wrong.
“Well, if you don’t want to use my map, I understand.”
String vibrated in rage as she stomped her foot. “Your map? Your map? Your map is plain to see. I could copy it right now. Or even tear it from you when you sleep. How I get the map is unimportant to me. But I will have it. If you cooperate with me, it will be easiest on both of us.”
Petal turned and looked at String. “So be it,” she said, “But I would like to see you copy it without a pen.”
Resigned, String slumped to the floor. “What is your condition?”
Outside the light of torches swayed and chanting corrupted the air. A procession of cannibals could be seen out of the window, a tail of fire like a spiral snake as they walked towards the beach of the island. Petal saw a ship stranded there, her ship stranded there. Tossed over on the side and with holes ripped in the paper stern.
Petal saw the distorted heads of the Jotuns as they stumbled about on the land, tearing off sections of paper from the trees and trying to repair the ship with tape. “My condition,” Petal said, realizing the time to escape was now, “is that I get to keep Her pictures.”
String looked out and saw the same sight that Petal saw and came to the same conclusion. “I accept. We should leave now, while they are preoccupied with the shipwreck.”
Petal nodded, understanding completely.
Petal and String ripped parts of cardboard from the honeycomb of the walls and strung them together to make a makeshift ladder. They slid the ladder over the side, and scaled down to the felt jungle below, the Christmas decorations lighting their descent in orange and blue hues.
In the distance they heard the solitary sounds of a music box tinkling. Petal felt her skin shudder, a memory lodged deep within her mind coming hazily into a view. A giant, with pen and paper. A girl. The owner of the treasure. I must move on, Petal thought. To honor her, to keep her memory alive.
On the ground they consulted Petal’s skin and followed the map closer to the land of the stars, the cusp of this reality itself. They traipsed over hills and underneath waterfalls, resting in the odd moments in the ruins of Styrofoam shells and discarded toy boxes.
The closer they came to the location, the louder the music box and the hotter the candle sun. They smelled the candle scent waft through the trees, tainting their leaves with the smell of lilacs and jasmine.
The forest changed around them. It was no longer predictable, it became muddled and without art. Trees rearranged into chaotic fractal shapes, hills and bushes torn apart into confetti vines hung from the sky. The sparkle and stick of glitter and glue abounded, and the bodies of rearranged animals hopped to and fro, strange squiggles lacing across their backs and front.
“This isn’t right,” said String.
Petal shrugged and moved onwards. “How do we know that? The map has not been wrong so far.”
String stopped and touched a broken bedlam tree, sharp points of paper sticking out from it in half mad juxtapositions. “No, no, I mean this place feels wrong. Like it’s been ruined, or destroyed.”
Petal looked around and saw what String meant, felt the realization inside of her own mind. “You are right—something is off here. She would never make a place like this. It feels—”
String stopped and felt the ground. Astroturf in random patches covered up chicken wire, exposing a glowing golden ball far beneath them. “Broken. Deteriorated.”
“Like someone rearranged it.”
String stood back up and wiped the plastic faux grass from her hands. It felt contaminated. “Right. Like someone had come through and torn it all apart, piecing it back together into a morbid collage.”
A clicking noise in the distance. Like a rusted machine. And then a slicing sound, and the sound of pulling tape and laughter. “What the hell was that noise?”
Petal peered through the chaos. She saw figures dancing, figures coming towards them. Sharp black outlines with strings rising up from the shadows and into the oil painted sky. “I don’t know. But they are coming this way.”
Over the bric-a-brac landscape they came, marionettes the size of houses wearing paper plate masks. In their hands they wielded large scissors that they snipped into the landscape, shearing off pieces of plant and animal. On their back they carried large circular rolls of tape.
With tape and scissors they pieced the world together to their own liking, sprinkling each abomination with glitter and glue when they were finished. They laughed with joy at each destruction of Her world, dancing and playing as they remade each and everything they came into contact with.
They marionettes looked down. Glass eyes peered out from behind holes cut into masks, decorated with elaborate red and black marker curlicues. “What have we here? My brothers, my sisters, come and see these pretty little things.”
They circled round String and Petal, rusted scissors snipping the air, hungry for the paper of skin and tree. Starved and ready to rearrange the world. “My, my. Two paperdolls, so far south. Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Another pointed its scissors at String. “I say we remake them. We cut them up and put a dogs head on that one and a lion’s tail on the other. And Wings! And leaves! And glitter! I love glitter. So pretty, so sparkly, so nice.”
“Oh yes, Oh yes. Let us remake them, Note. Let us take them into our creative hands and turn them into something new and beautiful. It’s what She would have wanted. It’s what She made us in the first place. To recreate the world, one piece at a time until it is beautiful and chaotic.”
“Wait, wait,” one said in a squeaky voice, “We cannot touch them if they have the map. And surely they do, look at her skin.”
“Oh the map! The map! That goddamn thing. We should do it anyway. It wouldn’t be the map anymore when I’m done with it. It’ll be confetti locations strewn close to the sun, a cloud of paper skin in a mist. Just some snip-snip-snip. Come on Note. Let me have my fun.”
The one known as Note walked forward, taking sharp and jerky marionette strides. “No. We will let them pass. Someone must find the treasure. It was Her law. We cannot touch it, and we cannot touch them. She feared that without the treasure this would all be lost.”
“Pfah. It is already lost. Just a matter of time. We will come for you eventually. Once you go back home. Treasure or not we will find you. This whole world will be rebuilt, and you will go with it.”
Snip, snip. Note stepped aside as the other puppets snipped their scissors in the air as a warning cry to them. String and Petal rushed passed, not sure if Note could change its mind and let the others tear them apart and reconstruct them in a disturbing puzzle of limbs and landscape.
Nothing more than chicken wire now, with the candle sun resting on top and a splatters of wax across the ground. Even the sky was gone. No more pinhole stars, no more oil painted clouds. Just a series of wood panel shelves and countless book on art and architecture.
Petal and String walked carefully across the metal wires, their every step filled with holes and pitfalls that could plummet them into the glowing golden ball that lay so far beneath them in the center of the world.
“Not much farther,” String looked at Petal’s chest, “Just past the candle sun. Then we will find it.”
Petal was overcome with longing. She longed to see the treasure, to find Her pictures and whatever else She had left for them. A letter explaining everything maybe, another map giving Her location so that Petal could come and help Her. Petal knew that the world was changing, and it was all due to the fact She was missing.
Closer to the sun. They walked carefully, wax flying towards them, trying to coat them and burn them alive. Fire above, roaring hot. Tasting the air with tongues of orange and yellow. Still they pressed on, Petal and String, past the edge of the universe and into the study beyond.
At the end of the wire mesh was an oak table, and sitting on top of that was a highschool hope chest, locked with brass lock and key sticking still out and ready to be turned. String rushed forward, eager to turn and see what lay at the end of the journey. Petal stayed behind.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I don’t know. I- I’m afraid of what we’ll find. What if it’s empty?”
String shrugged. “Then it’s empty. Come on.”
Petal rushed forward. The two of them leapt up and grasped onto the key, turning it clockwise. The sound of metal tumblers clicking into place as top of the chest sprung open and coated the air with the fresh smell of cedar.
Inside were some diagrams, some scissors. Paper and maps, glue and paint. A listing of every continent Petal had visited, a map of the entire world. And a diary filled with graph paper illustrations and an account of how She had built the world. Including a list of ways to improve it. At the end the book trailed off, describing the making of the puppets and a general ennui and creative block that had overcome Her.
“What is this?” Petal said.
“It is who we are. It is the making of our world. I’m going to take it back, and show the people. And prepare them for the coming of the marionettes.”
Petal dried a tear from her eyes, rifling through the papers, looking for a map, a note a something or anything that could explain where She had gone, who She was and why She had left them. She found nothing. Just more diagrams, more pieces of paper, more notes, more ripped pages from the diary.
“I-I, I don’t understand. I’ve come all this way to find Her…and all I have is this. Nothing. This is nothing!”
String put an arm around Petal and smiled. “It’s not all loss. Look, I’ll keep my promise. Take this, I found it in the diary.”
She handed Petal a picture on glossy paper. It was Her all right. And some greasy boy with his arm around Her. Petal felt the world drop out form underneath her as she turned the picture over. On the back was a phone number.
“Thank you,” she said to String, “This is a start, if anything.” Petal hopped over the side of the table and entered a new world.
Spread the word!