Hettie was twelve when she received the hand-made, fake-furred rod puppet as her birthday gift; her parents loved the Renaissance faires that blossomed like water lilies near the metropolitan oasis of Dallas, and one of the many merchant booths at the Scarborough Faire sold the quirky little creatures as toys.
But Hettie treated her puppet, her woodbaby, as a pet, not a toy. She wore it perched on her shoulder, the long rod that controlled its movements swinging down to waist level, and she practiced being nonchalant and subtle in manipulating the simple knob that made the woodbaby look up, down, and tilt its head charmingly at onlookers.
Over the years, the woodbaby lost patches of fur, got wet, got scratched, got matted, and got chewed on. Faithfully, Hettie repaired the puppet, repainting its carved wooden face and gluing on fresh fur over the bare spots. Her golden-pelted pet had become a calico by the time she graduated high school, and she was bold enough about her love of her woodbaby that she wore it on her shoulder in the procession. Her teachers had long ago given up hope of persuading her to not wear it, and banning her from the toy had surprisingly little effect. Hettie was an expect in manipulating the puppet and the consequential reactions of those watching its soulful pearlescent eyes and tuft of blond forelock-fur.
To relieve the stress of college, Hettie took up beadwork, making herself and her woodbaby matching sets of necklaces. She went on blind dates with the woodbaby comfortably draped over her shoulder and charmed all the boys and girls who saw movies and had dinners with her. More than one quickly acquired their own woodbabies from the original maker, and Hettie gave them tips on being the puppeteer of their new companions. She never once called them toys.
After college, where she majored in business administration, she got a just-for-now job in a shopping mall, working retail. Her woodbaby came to work with her every day and attracted enough attention that her commission-based paycheck was pleasantly round after a few months of learning the merchandise. Her coworkers, happily geeky enough to jump on a good idea, got themselves woodbabies of their own, and their fine jewelry booth in the middle of the mall became one of the most visited in the entire complex.
Hettie came home from one Saturday evening of work to her apartment and her cat, footsore and quietly content. She didn’t have a glamorous life, or a particularly wealthy one, but she had a few good friends, a cozy home, a reliable car, and enough money to continue investing in her beadwork. The degree she had so fervently pursued seemed less important after she realized, a few months ago, that she wasn’t using it at all and yet was still quite happy with her life and herself.
She shut the door behind her, shrugged off her jacket, and carefully pulled her woodbaby from her shoulder. “Time for Whose Line reruns!” she told her puppet cheerfully as she set it on the overstuffed arm of her couch. Her cat gave a Siamese-esque squawk and twined around her ankles as she wandered into the kitchen to brew some fresh tea.
A sudden violent hiss from the cat brought Hettie darting back into her living room, fearing her woodbaby had lost another patch of fur to a feline flip-out. But her cat, tail poofed in alarm, was a full five feet away from the woodbaby on the couch, hissing and bristling at the puppet.
As Hettie walked forward, the woodbaby turned its head to look at her with glistening, pearl-blue eyes.
She swallowed a startled scream and stared. Her cat gave a yowl and fled the room.
The woodbaby blinked slowly, its eyes almost luminous, and curved its pale muzzle in an impish grin. Hettie kept staring for a long moment and ran through all the motions of a disbelieving woman: she rubbed her eyes, blinked several times, tilted her head, and finally concluded that, yes, her woodbaby was blinking and breathing without anyone touching it. The rod that ran the length of its spine and tail was mysteriously absent; the woodbaby had curled its fluffy tail against its haunch.
Hettie knelt near the couch, out of reach of the woodbaby’s paws; she’d approached a half-feral stray cat a little too close once and nearly lost the tip of her nose for her friendliness. Ever since, she had avoided sticking her face close to unknown animals, and for all that she knew her woodbaby, she wasn’t quite sure how it might react now that it could, apparently, move on its own. The woodbaby gave her a smile that revealed two tiny fangs and flicked the tip of its tail. Hettie heard a strange noise that sounded suspiciously like purring.
Defying her common sense, Hettie extended a hand towards the woodbaby’s familiar, disconcertingly animated face. She’d caressed its muzzle and its ears for years, kissed the paint right off its nose, and here it was, tiny nostrils flaring, muzzle made of velvet-soft skin instead of hand-carved wood. “Am I going crazy?” she asked the woodbaby as it sniffed her fingertips.
The former puppet winked one beautiful eye at her and licked her finger with a tiny, raspy tongue. It tickled.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Hettie murmured, allowing herself to feel more amazed than unnerved. She scooted closer and offered her shoulder, and the woodbaby stood under its own power, its legs lean and strong and perfectly shaped, no longer frozen in the ‘sprawl’ position it had been made in. Without hesitation, the woodbaby stepped from the couch arm to Hettie’s shoulder, curled its glossy-furred tail around the back of her neck, and balanced easily on her shoulder.
Hettie studied her woodbaby out of the corner of her eye, then smiled as it nuzzled her cheek with its own. “I think I might be crazy,” she murmured, giving the little creature a soft scritch behind its cat-like ears, “but if this is crazy, I kinda like it.”
No one else ever saw the woodbaby move, and Hettie kept taking it with her to work and to run errands; it only animated when they were alone. But friends commented about the different positions it would leave its legs and tail in, the varying expressions on its carven face, and Hettie knew, as much as anyone can really know, that her woodbaby was alive in some way.
Of course, she’d known that since she was twelve, and it really shouldn’t have surprised her, but she was still a little bit delighted to be proven right after so many years of child-pure faith.