8 minute read.

Daniel first spots Saori near the giant salamanders. She stands at the creatures’ false swamp, her narrow silhouette stark against the luminous shark tank. The aquarium, newly refurbished, has just reopened. Placards out front promised larger, more impressive beasts in larger, more impressive tanks, but the place is nearly devoid of people. Daniel circles the rock pools twice before approaching.

“Amazing, aren’t they?” he says at the railing.

Saori’s eyes remain on the absurdly large amphibians. “It’s the scale of them. Scale is everything.”

“Is it?”

She nods. “I’m a miniaturist.”

The answer takes Daniel a moment to process. He has only read of miniaturists in airline magazines, glossy profiles of prim craftspeople with miraculous abilities.

“Miniature, as in small things?”

“Is there another meaning?”

“So you collect them, or –”

“I make them. Maquettes.” She bites the word, sharpening its ts. “I contract mostly with architects, but of course that’s for the money. I prefer working in theatre, telling stories for the stage.” A shiver of marlins slides behind the glass and her face splashes with light.

Later, thinking of how he had once been a great fan of Shakespeare and Ibsen, Daniel will find the word in his phone’s dictionary. Maquette, n. /maˈkɛt/: a scale model or rough draft for an unfinished sculpture.


On their first date, Saori invites him to the National Opera. They are staging an update of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. Following the performance, she offers him a tour, revealing a windowless warren of passages hidden behind the airy opulence of the auditorium.

Saori unlocks the door to a cluttered workshop. Hunched in the corner amid discarded props and tools in need of repair is the model box. It is grey, a pressboard cube the size and shape of a microwave. At first, Daniel is unimpressed, but then she swivels the thing and – he is astonished.

Inside is a perfect miniature of the set, reproduced with assiduous realism. Having just seen the opera, Daniel recognizes the room at the inn, the pitched floor and foreshortened walls, the impossible illusion of depth. The sudden loss of proportion leaves him lightheaded, but most bewildering of all are the figures themselves, the maquettes.

Pacing the tiny stage are two speckled-grey golems. Their features lack detail, but their identities are unquestionable. Marietta’s throat, for instance, is wrapped in the fateful red scarf (now a torn strip of crepe). Opposite her is a plodding Paul, stooped in his tight suit, arms imploring her to sing the Lute Song. And she does. A slit above the figure’s chin opens and shuts. There is no sound but every syllable is perfectly shaped.

Daniel is transfixed. “How do you make them move like this?”

Saori smiles. “Trade secret.”

Daniel watches them a long time. Until the song ends. Until Marietta and Paul return to their marks. Until the scene begins again.

Later, and for the rest of his life, Daniel will remember the play not as featuring human actors, but rather like this, as a brief scene performed by maquettes, each chorusing in silence, over and over and over.


Like all of us, Daniel once dreamed of becoming an actor, or a musician, or a novelist, or an athlete. Instead, in a broad brick building with elegant, iron-grid windows, he works as a Senior Database Manager.

His database (he regards it as his, inwardly defining himself not as manager, but proprietor) is an expansive compendium of names and addresses. Of telephone numbers. Email addresses. Occupations and salary bands. Wine preferences and political affiliations. Insurance premiums and browsing histories. Dietary restrictions and credit card debts and online personality quiz results and et cetera, et cetera.

His clients are market research firms with their own narrower, less robust collections of data. If one of them wish to gauge the projected popularity of an anti-inflammatory medication, a two-hour documentary about the genocidal colonization of New Zealand, or a brick of dark chocolate cast in the shape of a Shetland pony, they contact Daniel. His database reveals all. It is infallible.

Sometimes, he notes patterns in the results of his queries. He perceives gentle loops of information. He understands these are illusions, coincidental quirks of data, but still, they do not go unnoticed.

The morning after his evening at the opera, he queries the sub-field for Occupation. He finds “Miniaturist” between “Mineralogist” and “Mining Engineer”. Although he runs the query several times, the database always returns the same answer: No results found.


Saori’s studio is in the East End, a neighbourhood unfamiliar to Daniel. Only after existing as a couple for a year does she bring him to see it. The building, a converted warehouse, was once a textile factory only employing women. Before that only children.

“Surely it’s haunted,” Daniel says, standing in the lobby.

“You’re not wrong,” Saori tells him. “One of the receptionists quit after seeing children in the boiler room. But that’s all done with now.”

“What’s done?”

“The ghosts. We exorcised them.”

“We, who?”

“The miniaturists. Once they began renting studio space to us, the knocks and creaks stopped knocking and creaking. We think it’s why they keep us around.”

The building’s five floors are carved with accents of pine and pipes and exposed brick. Several walls feature glass cut-outs, allowing anyone in the corridor to peer inside. Daniel notes the cut-outs are reserved for the larger firms, the architects and interior design houses. All of the miniaturists, so far as he can see, work in private.

When he mentions this, Saori says, “We’re not beasts in a zoo. Doing what we do requires –”



Saori’s studio is a cramped space on the top floor. Mismatched chests of drawers rise and fall between intrusive ventilation shafts. Strange tools crowd the walls, slung upon uncountable hooks. Daniel is surprised. He expected a room alive with maquettes. He imagined shelves quivering with tiny Cordelias and Macbeths, Carmens and Figaros, Uncle Vanyas and Hedda Gablers. But everything he sees is unmade, unfinished, inert.

In the far corner, a cable drum serves as a makeshift worktop. The room’s only completed model box sits atop it. Inside is a meticulously rendered model of the Uffizi’s Loggiato, walls tessellating with pressboard corbels, fountains foaming with paper spindrift. Saori explains it was used in preparation for a New York production of Light in the Piazza. Daniel vaguely recalls a filmed version: a mother’s effort to prevent her injured daughter from rushing into marriage.

“What happened to them,” he asks, “to the maquettes?”

“Everything I do is a commission. It belongs to the theatres. If they return a model, it’s usually empty.”

“What about the one we saw, the German opera?”

Die Tote Stadt?”

“It was just lying in that workshop. Surely they could let you have it. It’s your own work.”

Saori waves her arm in a constrained flourish. “Where would I put them?”

Daniel imagines her maquettes, vampire-like, slumbering in jewel-encrusted minaudières. He wonders how they are born. He wonders what becomes of them. Do they wind down like old clockworks? Do they die? Can they die?

He notes the studio’s only windows are a pair of port-hole skylights, offset in a canted ceiling. Two pigeons stutter through the air above. They alone have a view of Saori at work.

“I thought you’d have more space,” he says.

Saori’s nose crinkles. “Why?”

“I’ve always thought miniaturists were special.”

“How so?”

“I thought you’d be well-paid at least, well taken care of.”

Saori shows him a thin smile. “What does being special have to do with being wealthy?”

Daniel considers this a moment before making a decision. “I can offer you more than this.”

“You want to commission me?”

“I’m mean a place to work, a studio.”

“What studio?”

In his mind, Daniel flies through his own private database of ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends. He alights on the notion that, for him, admiration is the better part of love.

“Move in with me,” he says. “My spare room is triple the size of this. If you like, it’s all yours.”


Saori vacates her East End apartment on a Thursday. The following Monday Daniel buys coffee for the entire Data Management department. His colleagues are nonplussed. They perceive him as aloof, his loose wardrobe and languid body belying inner stiffness. He knows the coffee is a ludicrous kindness, but he can’t help himself. Even though he has never shared a jot of his personal life with any of them, for the first time he feels compelled to divulge.

“Oh, well then,” says Nancy from payroll, “you’ll have to bring her to Karim from HR’s Christmas party.”

“Phenomenal,” says Karim from HR. “Just phenomenal.”

“Maybe I’ll start hanging around aquariums,” says Hong, VP of Operations.

“I didn’t know we still had miniaturists living here,” says Maisie, Daniel’s line manager. “I thought they all moved to New York and Singapore. Maybe to Dubai.”

“They’re everywhere,” Hong tells her. “You just never see them.”

By the end of the week, Saori has filled Daniel’s guest room with sawdust and the tang of fresh paint. She fits the walls with bespoke storage units constructed herself, stocking them with innumerable tools. The handles are worn but every point and blade is deathly sharp: wax carvers, snipe-nosed pliers, stitching awls, wire cutters, and other, far more arcane items for which Daniel has no name.

He offers to help her unpack but Saori declines. “The proper preparation of the space is essential to my process. If I don’t do this myself, nothing works.”

Daniel watches her a while before, discomfited and feeling a nuisance, he leaves her to it. He shuts the door and, hours later and for the rest of the day, it remains shut.


On Daniel’s birthday, a package appears on the kitchen table. The wrap is rich sumac red, dancing with white magnolias. The two colours are so vivid it is not until he carefully picks away the paper that he notes the package’s conspicuous dimensions: precisely the size and shape of a microwave.

“Are you serious? I can have this?”

Inside is the original model box he first saw backstage at the opera house. Saori swivels it and, once again, Daniel is astonished. The maquettes of Paul and Marietta remain rooted to their marks. Paul still implores her to sing and Marietta still mouths the words – so convincingly the melody echoes in Daniel’s ears.

“They were clearing away old props,” Saori tells him. “I was in on tech that day, so they asked if I wanted it.”

Daniel watches the maquettes play through several renditions. Each one is identical – the same looks, the same gestures, the same song – over and over. Only briefly, when the figures reset themselves, do they deviate from the sequence. Paul rolls his shoulders, perhaps, limbering up as he returns to his mark. Marietta might swivel her neck or stretch her tiny jaw. Then it all begins again.

Wanting desperately to touch them, Daniel reaches out.

“You mustn’t,” Saori says.


“You can touch them but, once you do…” Saori trails off, uncertain.

“It breaks the spell?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Recalling the dimness of the prop room, Daniel wishes for the pair to see the full brightness of day. He sets the model box on the ledge of the big picture window and for weeks he lingers nearby. He even loses interest in understanding Saori’s work, her process. Instead, he is content to watch the couple go through their motions, over and over and over.


By Christmas, the box has accumulated a stubborn skein of dust. Daniel has not peered inside for months. With the end of year party approaching, his interest rekindles. He wipes the box clean and peeks inside. Paul and Marietta continue, tirelessly, to dance their rehearsal for a performance that has come and gone.

In the bathroom, he says, “Maybe we could bring it to the party.”

“Bring what?”

“They’re all very interested in what you do.”

“It’s a party, not an job interview.”

“They’ve only ever seen this stuff in documentaries, did I tell you that?”

“You did.”

“Nancy from payroll doesn’t believe they’re real. She says it’s all special effects.”

“We’re not taking a model box to a party.”

“We could leave it in the car, in the trunk, and if –”

“The trunk?”

“We’ll tell them it’s something you’re working on. That’s why it’s in the car and –”

“You want to lie to your work-friends?”

“If they think it’s something current, upcoming, they’ll get a kick out of it.”

“Only it’s not.” Saori drops the last of her clothes and steps into the shower. She pauses before turning on the water. “Why are you pushing this?”


Karim lives in a long one-floor bungalow in the suburbs. He beams at them from the front door.

“You came! Phenomenal!”

Everyone from the office is already in the dining room.

“So this is the miniaturist,” says Maisie. 

Daniel takes Saori’s elbow, proffering her to Nancy like a debutante at a springtime cotillion.

“See?” he says, trying to make it a joke. “She’s real.”

Nancy waves a nearly empty glass. “I can see that.”

Saori wrests herself gently from Daniel’s grip and the two of them take seats at the table.

“I never said you didn’t exist,” Nancy says. “I only tried to explain to Dan here how you do it.”

Saori seems genuinely perplexed. “How I do what?”

“Produce your little beasties.”

“You know how I work?”

Nancy winks. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Phenomenal Riesling,” Karim informs the table.

The others agree and, for a time, they take turns complimenting the wine. Daniel is relieved for the distraction, but it is brief.

“I have access to the work database, you know,” Nancy declares.

“Don’t we all?” says Hong.

“I mean the big one,” Nancy says. “Dan’s one.”

Daniel reaches for Saori’s hand. It is cool beneath his own. “You wouldn’t see everything. Only Maisy and I see it all.”

“I’ve seen enough,” Nancy says.

Karim smiles as if searching for humour in a half-heard joke. “Enough of what now?”

“Enough to know there aren’t any miniaturists in there.” Nancy’s eyes, glossy and unfocused, jump between Daniel and Saori. “Not a one.”

Maisy grimaces. “I thought we agreed –”

“Let’s have a little demo.” Nancy places her wine on the table and addresses Saori. “Make my glass do a little dance.”

Daniel shakes his head. “That’s not how it works.”

“I’m sure she can speak for herself.”

Daniel looks to Saori, who remains still, implacable. She puts her glass of Karim’s phenomenal Riesling to her lips for a long sip. “I only work with my own materials,” she says. “Every figure must be from scratch. Your glass is already finished, so it’s too late.”

Nancy scoffs. “What does that even mean?”

Daniel wonders himself. “It means,” he says, “it takes time to do what she does. Concentration.”

Nancy’s face is flushed with wine. She anoints her words with spit. “I just want to see one them, live and in person, you know? In front of me.”

“I thought you might say that.” Daniel feels Saori’s hand go rigid, pressing hard against the table. “Maybe we could show you.”

Nancy scowls. “How?”

“Saori gave me one of her model boxes as a gift. I brought it to show you.”

Saori withdraws her hand. She folds it in her lap like a bruised bird.

“It’ll only take a second,” Daniel says, rising. While Saori showered, he put the box in the trunk of his car – just in case, he told himself.

Outside, he shudders at the Christmas cold, but when he opens the trunk the maquettes are in their places, unaffected. It is only when he’s back indoors, setting it on the table for all to see, that he notices Paul and Marietta shivering. The others interpret the trembles as intentional, Saori’s signature style, an effort at vulnerability. As the scene begins, Nancy is spellbound. In her rapt expression Daniel is ashamed to see a reflection of his own enchantment.

“Phenomenal,” whispers Karim.

Nancy leans closer, gripping Daniel’s arm as if she were drowning. “I don’t believe it,” she says, gasping in a way that implies the opposite.

Saori, meanwhile, is silent. She rises from the table, gently gathers up the model box, and carries it back to the car.

Daniel follows her out.

“Am I not enough on my own?” she asks him. “Just me?”

He has no answer.

Later, he will recall this as the last time she speaks to him, the last time he hears her voice.


Daniel has no idea if Saori came to bed that night. Arriving home, she replaced the model box on the ledge of the big picture window and retreated to her studio. Late into the night he stood at the door, reiterating his apologies.

In the morning, there is a sense of warmth on the bed beside him. Or perhaps it is only a memory, a lingering sense of heat to which he has grown accustomed and now craves. He waits the rest of the weekend for her to emerge. She does not. On Monday he calls in sick, feigning illness to continue his vigil.

On Tuesday morning the bed is cold. At the studio door, Daniel presses his ear to the wood. He thinks he hears a melody, a faraway song he may or may not recognise as the one from Korngold’s opera, but he is uncertain. His memory is foggy and the maquettes have only ever performed it in silence. In his mind, it is less a sound and more a series of fleeting gestures and figurations.

Yet still, he strains to hear. In doing so he convinces himself Saori may be hurt. He pictures the studio walls, bristling with their countless points and edges.

So he opens the door.

The room is empty. Gone are the bespoke storage units, the awls and pliers, the cutters and carvers, and all the items he never put a name to. Everything is wiped clean and bare.

Only the model box remains.

In Saori’s absence, the way the scene plays out begins to differ. It happens in the merest ways – an unfinished lyric, an errant gesture, a faint shrug that had once been the full sweep of an arm – but the routine is too solid in Daniel’s mind for him not to notice. Soon the sum of errors coalesces into something more.

It is Marietta. She is no longer committed to the role. Each day, she takes longer and longer to return to her mark. She loiters instead near the edges, peering curiously into the wings. When Daniel swivels the box he finds her drifting towards him, standing downstage, picking idly at the clay skin of her elbow. The shallow depressions of her eyes gaze up at him as if to break the theatre’s fourth wall.

Paul seems not to notice. He remains on his mark, unperturbed by his partner’s absence. By spring, Marietta no longer participates at all. She sits on the edge of the stage, legs dangling, waiting for Daniel.

One day, she reaches out to him.

Saori’s warning not to touch the maquettes echoes in Daniel’s memory, but he cannot resist. He extends a finger and touches hers.

An almost imperceptible spark travels between them and Marietta stands, imbued with new energy. She climbs down from the stage – something she has never done – crosses the broad expanse of the window sill and leaps through the gap of the open window. Daniel is too astonished to shut it in time. He can only watch as she races across the courtyard. Her crepe paper scarf flutters behind her, a thin crimson cloud. A moment later she darts around the corner of the building and vanishes forever.

Later, Daniel touches Paul many times but he never acquires Marietta’s energy. He merely pauses, tilts his head as if in thought, and trudges back to his mark to await the beginning of the scene. With no one to play it out, however, he is always waiting, always alone.

But then, on a humid morning in late summer, Daniel awakes to find the model box empty. The same window is open and Paul too has vanished.


Many years later, older and alone, Daniel will travel to work on the city’s new double-decker commuter trains. He will always sit on the lower level because the sway of the upper makes him seasick.

In the midst of a long stretch of forest, the train will pause briefly at a signal. Through the trees, in a small clearing, Daniel will see something he will not expect: a bustling village of maquettes. It will be as he imagined when first visiting Saori’s studio. He will see all of them, Cordelias and Macbeths, Carmens and Figaros, Uncle Vanyas and Hedda Gablers. There will be many more he will not recognize and then he will spot them – a tiny Marietta, a tiny Paul – strolling over mossy soil, though not hand-in-hand, not as a couple.

The train will strike up again and the forest’s hand-like branches will close around the village, clasping it in rigid, opaque fingers.

He will pass this stretch of forest many times, always searching, but he will never see them again. Eventually, he will wonder if he ever saw them at all, and he will be struck by a powerful sense that this is it. All the magic in his life is behind him.

About Robert Paul Weston

Robert Paul Weston's fiction has been heard on the New Yorker Radio Hour and has appeared, or will soon appear, in the Normal School, the New Orleans Review, the Raleigh Review, Postscripts, Eastlit, and others. His stories have been nominated for the Journey Prize in Canada and the Fountain Award for Speculative Literature in the United States. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln, where he is Faculty Fiction Editor of the Lincoln Review. He is also an award-winning author of novels for children and young adults.

Robert Paul Weston's fiction has been heard on the New Yorker Radio Hour and has appeared, or will soon appear, in the Normal School, the New Orleans Review, the Raleigh Review, Postscripts, Eastlit, and others. His stories have been nominated for the Journey Prize in Canada and the Fountain Award for Speculative Literature in the United States. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln, where he is Faculty Fiction Editor of the Lincoln Review. He is also an award-winning author of novels for children and young adults.

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