Dr Daidalo’s Kouklotheatron

There is a little alleyway that hooks off İstiklal Caddesi known only to the children of Karaköy. On summer nights they spill through the dim doorway at arcade’s end, under the sign that spells “Dr Daidalo and Son”. The little theatre is cramped, its wooden benches bare. They squabble and cuss in their seats, elbowing for room, until Dr Daidalo himself steps out to welcome them, clever knobbled fingers tugging at grey whiskers.

‘Kouklo, we want Kouklo!’ the children cry, and stamp their feet.

It is their ritual, but tonight something catches in their voices.

Dr Daidalo forces a smile. He too has cowered from the angry-eyed men in the trucks, their banners bearing hateful slogans, while the acrid scent of burning paper wafts from Taksim Square. Still he takes up his lyra, strums the calling chord.

From stage left appears the Karaköy miracle—Kouklo the clockboy with the hundred dances, his carven lips a rosebud smile.

Spry as a mountain goat, Dr Daidalo tears into a thundering five-step and Kouklo follows, kicking dust from the boards with wooden feet. As he dances, Dr Daidalo sings in a soaring voice, a voice like the wind on the Madares mountains across the sea. His songs will follow the children home. The tunes will nestle into their tongues, ready to be hummed under-breath, and the children will wonder at the tears that sting their eyes unbidden.

Had Kouklo a tongue, he would sing too. His father has tried to carve him one out of cherrywood, so his voice will be sweet as a Thracian nightingale’s. A dozen perfect wooden tongues Dr Daidalo has made, yet fearing to mar where he would mend, he dares not take knife to his son’s elegantly sculpted lips. Kouklo loves him still, loves him true, truer than clockwork.

Together, father and son wheel in the scrim for the shadow show. Knights and princes joust and bluster. Wizards brood and dragons plunder while Karagöz and Hacivat hatch harebrained plots to gull the sultan. When the vizier’s guards catch Karagöz, only Osman, the constable’s boy, laughs at the peasant’s plight. The other children squirm, unhappily remembering the promise of violence hanging heavy in the September sky.

Comes time then for the clockshow. The scrim and lantern are packed away.

Dr Daidalo and Kouklo hide behind the tattered curtain that cloaks the stage. A breathless drumroll. The children sit up straighter, silent as their parents in shul, ecclesia or jami. The curtain parts. A domed edifice dominates, Hagia Triada in miniature. Wooden monks climb her towers to ring tin bells. Wooden deacons peer from her windows and a wooden bishop clasps hands in prayer. A crone with a boilerplate face bends over a toothless laterna. Her iron boot knocks tak-tak against the boards, crooked fingers pluck the keys. A carousel of rust-red rats whirls all a-creak to spill long-tailed shadows upon the walls.

Curtain-fall breaks the spell; the children sigh and rise to leave, drop brass grosha into Kouklo’s cap. Dr Daidalo marks how some hold themselves apart. How Vasia the baker’s daughter links arms with another Greek girl and ducks out the door, refusing to meet her friend Haleh’s eye. How Osman walks alone, fists balled in his pockets.

Dr Daidalo grips Kouklo’s shoulder tight as Karaköy’s children vanish into the dark.

* * *

Dr Daidalo awakens to Kouklo shaking him, blinks sleep from his eyes, hears fists pounding at the door.

‘Come out, giaour!’ From the alley, men’s voices jeer, young and clarion-clear but shrilling with vicious glee. ‘Come and die clean, or burn!’

Dr Daidalo smells gasoline and something else, a sick-sweet stink. Then the wind carries another horror to his ears. The agonies that can twist such howls from human mouths play stark upon the scrim of his mind.

Dr Daidalo fights to rise. Swallows smoke. Doubles over coughing. He thinks of the children, his faithful audience. Out in the city their parents will be hanging flags at the doors, bone-white moons and stars on a bloody field, hoping to weather the storm. He prays better luck for them.

For himself, Dr Daidalo cares nothing. But the hateful fire cannot destroy his miracle, the spark of life unlooked-for in his clockwork son. ‘You must run,’ he croaks.

Kouklo shakes his head.

‘You must!’ Dr Daidalo insists. ‘Out through the boarded window at the back, they’ll miss you in the shadows. I will hold them at the door as long as I—’

But Kouklo won’t stop shaking his head.

Dr Daidalo seizes his clockwork son by the shoulders. ‘Run, damn you!’ he screams. ‘I couldn’t give you a tongue, but by God and all His saints I gave you legs!’ Legs, yes, legs to dance and jump and run, to the ends of the earth if needs be. There lies Dr Daidalo’s hope, if he can get his son to understand

Kouklo is much too light in his hands.

Dr Daidalo’s breath stops. A black trail marks where Kouklo has crawled to his father’s bed.

His son’s legs are burned away.

Thin and keening, an animal sound breaks from Dr Daidalo’s throat.

Kouklo has no tongue to speak his heart. But the wooden arms that wind around his father’s neck say Kouklo would not run even if he could. Clutching his child to his chest, Dr Daidalo weeps for them both.

* * *

The theatre in the narrow alleyway off İstiklal Caddesi stands hollow and gutted now, a mausoleum of fire-blackened wood and twisted metal. The four winds have scattered Karaköy’s children. Exile’s bitter paths have taken them to Athens and Salonica, further yet to London, Boston, Astoria.

But still they carry Dr Daidalo’s songs under their tongues. To those who do not scoff at their tales, Kouklo’s children tell of wooden feet on dusty boards, and how on balmy summer nights when the wind is in the east, they hear those wooden feet dancing a five-step.