“I have aged out of love,” Geppetto told the mirror. His wife had left him, and no one falls in love with old men. Mind you, he didn’t feel old–he could work as hard as ever and drink just as much, he got in just as many fistfights, and was saluted every morning with a Tower of Pisa erection. But he looked old, and for the world that is enough. The skin of his neck draped like an opera house curtain; his face looked like a melted-wax caricature of youth; and he was bald.
Baldness pained him most of all. Once upon a time he sported golden curls that cavorted like a litter of puppies as he walked. Back then they called him “Medusuccio,” for his handsome locks petrified anyone he passed with their beauty. It’s what first attracted his former wife to him.
She left him the very day his last curl fell like a dead branch from his head.
He was hand-to-mouth poor (the villagers found his marionettes frightening and full of the woes of life, hardly toys at all) but he spent what he could on a wig. His mirror told him it looked not-half-bad. More true to how he felt on the inside. Maybe it would be enough, and someone would love him.
How wrong he was. The villagers started calling him “Polendina,” for they said his wig looked like cornmeal mush. He’d beat any child who called him that, fistfight any grownup, man or woman. But the insult stuck and pretty soon everyone forgot he’d ever had a Christian name.
No one could love a “Polendina,” of course. But how he wanted love. He and his wife had no children, and too late he realized that an unspoken reason to have children was so that someone would love you once you grew ugly.
He did his best to comfort himself. As a young man he had toured Europe’s great museums–this was back when he thought he would be a famous sculptor–to study the masters. At night now, in bed, he would recall the women of Ingres and the men of Titian, the nymphs pursued by satyrs, the million Aphrodites with their circular unnatural breasts and, especially, all those the chaste Madonnas, expressionless, demurring. Masturbation made his loneliness worse, but also better.
But also worse. He needed another option.
And then it came to him. Though his art paid him poorly, it could at least bring him solace. He would make a marionette just for himself.
He got wood from the carpenter Master Cherry. Master Cherry’s Christian name was Maria, but no one remembered that; all anyone saw anymore was her fruit-bright nose. She was just as old and alone as Geppetto, so naturally the two of them hated each other and loved each other. They exchanged insults for an hour and got in two separate fistfights, in which each ended up with the other’s wig.
But in the end they swore to love each other like family, and Master Cherry gave Geppetto an unusually fine log. Master Cherry thought that particular wood was cursed; it had nearly driven her mad with its jeering. She rubbed the scratches Geppetto had dug into her cheek and said “Enjoy the wood, Polendina!” as Geppetto left.
Back at home, Geppetto sat down, set the log on his lap, and began to carve. As the long, curled shavings piled up around him, he grew increasingly aware he was making the work of a lifetime. Never had the wood’s grain so aligned with his desire; never had the medium so eagerly acquiesced to his technique. By the time he was halfway done he was certain he would end up making the most perfect simulacrum of a boy that ever a woodcarver carved.
Perhaps too perfect. For as soon as he had carved a mouth on the emerging boy’s face, it opened. Out of it popped a mocking wooden tongue he had not carved. Then the mouth yelled, with pitch-perfect schoolyard cruelty, “Polendina!”
Geppetto dropped the knife, drew breath. The fever of creation was broken. He looked around.
Now, one doesn’t work as a woodcutter for more than half a century without learning to read wood shavings. From the curls of wood on the floor, so like his former hair, he saw his future.
The marionette would come to life! He would have a son!
But the boy would treat him horribly. His antics would get Geppetto arrested. A great fish would swallow them both. Geppetto would grow ill; Death would grip his neck with its skinless hand. Through all these misadventures, the boy would make a fool of him, and do him real harm, and worst of all run off, again and again. And Geppetto would sacrifice everything to chase after him.
“Because I have aged out of love,” thought Geppetto. No one young and new to life could love him. Not for free, anyway. All he could do now was offer adulation, and gifts, and servitude, all in the vain hope that some scrap of his affection might be requited.
Geppetto spent a long, motionless hour just thinking, the half-finished log-boy giggling like an imp on his lap. For a long time he stared at the hungry, hungry fireplace.
Then, unsmiling, he picked up the knife. It took him the rest of the night, but by morning he had transformed the log into a living person, his son, who would be the source of all his future woes and, he prayed hopelessly, some meager joy.