‘Hypnotica’ (Part Three) by Chris Mahon
‘Hypnotica’ is a story about dreamwrights, mage-musicians who travel across the dreamscape at night to hijack dreams and turn them into mind-bending concerts. The story focuses on two dreamwrights, GRIN and NO-FOOT, who are left picking up the pieces of their lives after one of their shows turns into a nightmare.
Only ghosts remember how Senkaku used to be, how it grew, when the aqueducts were built, and when the concentric rings of streets were cut into the peaks of the mountains. Each ring was built like an amphitheater, with buildings descending in steps to tiled lakes at the center. The summer parties in Senkaku had been legendary, with jets of water arcing through the sky from ring to ring, crisscrossing the mountain with rainbows reflected on the glaciers. I remember the tall white cranes with black wings and red crowns that used to fly over the city. I loved those cranes the most.
That Senkaku vanished in a hurricane of ash that swept across the continent, filling people’s lungs with burning dust. The Yoshira is a dream of Senkaku from before that time, kept alive in the eternal memories of its ghosts.
The Senkaku of this age was dug out of the ash and explored like the tomb of a god. The gangs took over the ash-filled districts, but it was the masons and the drug smugglers who became the lords of the city. Tower by tower, street by street, the ribs of the city were excavated, repainted and repaired, and its lungs breathed gold, silk, and sugar again. Parades returned and strange fashions began to blossom, but there are still quarters of the city that are abandoned—ruined parlors and bathhouses half-buried in drifts of ash and crushed timbers, with dead towers still standing against the sky. Those houses and streets are the abodes of ghosts, where we sleep like paupers in the land of the living.
But in the Yoshira we are the lords of our own court, hunting lovers, weaving intrigue, and waging elegant vendettas against each other for sport. And the dreamwrights play for us, and remind us of how it used to be.
And every now and then, we choose dreamwrights that we wish to keep.
It was a cold, wet afternoon in the circular streets of Senkaku, where rain runs off rooftops and soaks into people’s skin. NO-FOOT stumbled down the street with GRIN, their clothes still soaked in sweat. They were huddled under one umbrella, and NO-FOOT held onto GRIN’s shoulder to keep his metal prong-legs from slipping on the wet paving stones. Both their eyes were hidden behind dark glasses to keep the daylight from disturbing their migraines, and their mouths and noses were covered by blue bandanas. Every now and then they lifted the bottom folds and spat out the blood pooling in their mouths. Behind their lips, their teeth were black and their gums were oozing blood—the fruit of sezumi addiction.
GRIN had a narrow, sallow face, a curly red beard and ginger hair pulled back in a ponytail. NO-FOOT could hear his last wages jingling around in his pocket, and he prayed that they wouldn’t be robbed. They made their way down a long, narrow street that sloped down into the Kaozaru, Senkaku’s body district.
Three years earlier, NO-FOOT had been dragged down this same street by two fellow dreamwrights after breaking both his legs leaping buildings in the Yoshira. They’d pulled him to the door of Jin the physiomancer and shouted that he couldn’t walk anymore. NO-FOOT had just lain there, screaming from the pain of thousands of needles undulating across his skin. Underneath his flesh, his legs were intact—there was nothing wrong with the bones or muscles, but he could still feel the fractures. By the end of the night, he was carrying the bloody stumps of his feet in a burlap bag and trying to stumble home alone on curling metal legs. Psychosomatic, they called it. Phantom limb pain. That night, he dreamed he could walk, but his feet were gone.
Now he was going back to Jin to see if he had a trick to replace GRIN’s eardrums, and if six gold pieces would be enough to pay for an examination. There was the hope that GRIN’s deafness was only physical, that he had ruptured his eardrums by screaming in his sleep. That could be fixed. But if it was psychosomatic, GRIN would be whole only in his dreams. NO-FOOT’s right prong slid across a cobblestone, and he braced himself against GRIN’s shoulder. He spat in frustration, but hit his own knee.
The bright red gates of the body district loomed ahead. NO-FOOT squinted at the people passing by, carrying tubs of pig blood and iron nails, trying to find someone to ask for directions. After almost an hour of wandering, they found their way to Jin’s place.
Jin was a muscled, middle-aged man with mismatched eyes, a graying beard, and hands whose veins were as thick as bootlaces. He was shirtless, though he wore a gray apron wrapped around his chest that was spattered with stains faded by a thousand washings. He recognized NO-FOOT instantly.
“Did you break your knees this time?” he asked, watching NO-FOOT lean on GRIN. He smiled at both of them. It was strange to see such a jolly face in the Kaozaru.
“Nothing wrong with me. It’s him,” NO-FOOT said, pointing at GRIN. “Eardrums are burst.”
Jin’s hands fell to his baggy black trousers, which were stitched with dozens of pockets. His fingers began to search for the right ones. “It’ll cost you for an exam. More if he needs surgery.”
‘We can pay it.”
Jin motioned for GRIN to sit on the heavy table in the center of the room, then began peering into his ears with a headset of magnifying glasses, using a match for light.
“It’s been a few years since I saw you last,” Jin said. “What have you been up to?”
“Same old things.”
“So you don’t learn. Can’t you make a decent living? Sweeping streets or something…” Jin muttered. “I see too many of you people now. Nine out of ten times, I can’t do anything. They pay the exam fee and leave.”
NO-FOOT didn’t say anything. Jin looked over at him. “How old are you two? Late twenties?”
“Twenty-eight. I don’t know how old he is.”
“You should have stopped when you lost your shins. Is this your partner?”
Jin shook his head and picked up a sweet-smelling cedar box, which contained long tweezers and a strange, bent piece of metal that looked like a lock pick. One after another, he threaded the tips of the tools into GRIN’s ear canals, gently prodding the inside. NO-FOOT watched him doggedly, looking for a sign of hope. After half an hour, Jin nodded slowly. He set his tools down, wiped them off, and set them carefully back in their box.
“I can’t see anything wrong with his eardrums. There’s no damage, no blood or fluid. The internal structures all feel fine, which makes me think it’s psychosomatic. I could try replacing the eardrums, but it would cost more than a heart would.”
NO-FOOT put one hand on his face and took a deep breath. “Thanks.”
Jin walked over to him, wiping his hands on his apron. “Your friend’s crippled for life. You’re crippled for life. Two crippled dreamwrights barely adds up to one. I’ve been here thirty years, and if you haven’t made it by now, you’re not going to make it. Take my word.”
Jin clapped NO-FOOT on the shoulder, then turned to GRIN. Using his hands, he explained that he would never hear anything in the waking world again.
When NO-FOOT led them back out of the Kaozaru, they were soaked to the bone and reeking of rotting meat from the runoff in the streets. Jin had taken a chunk of their money for the examination, and their umbrella had ripped a hole when they passed too close to a fence.
NO-FOOT took GRIN to a soup shop outside the Kaozaru to think things over, but they were immediately pushed back out into the rain by the owners on account of their smell and the blood on their sandals. They wandered around in the rain for a while under their umbrella, heading into the lower districts. Between them they had fifty-two silver pieces, enough for two nights in a bad inn for both of them if they ate once a day. They stole new clothes from a clothesline left out in the rain and took turns dressing while the other held the umbrella. Shivering, they made their way to a tea shop in the Izo district, slipping in the front door and sitting by the stove for a while to dry their robes.
Soon, one of the servers came over to them—a young woman with black hair pulled back in a bun and a robe patterned with the orange and white splashes of a koi fish.
“You have to order something if you come in,” she said quietly but firmly. NO-FOOT knew what she was really saying: no vagrants.
“We’ll get a table,” NO-FOOT muttered.
As they sat down at one of the little wooden tables, NO-FOOT caught the server staring at his metal prong-legs. In that moment, he saw a red birthmark on her throat. The memory of a monkey mask flashed up in his mind. She caught his eyes, and covered the mark.
“My name is Mono,” she said. “Call me if you need anything.”
“We’ve met before,” NO-FOOT said.
He lifted a cold hand to point across the table. “GRIN.”
He slowly turned his arm around and pointed at himself. “NO-FOOT. Now we’re all introduced.”
“Are you ready to order?” she said flatly.
GRIN wrote “GREEN TEA” on a piece of scrap paper and handed it to her. She took it from him warily and walked back to the kitchen. NO-FOOT let his head hang. She hadn’t recognized them from last night. Or she just didn’t care.
There were three girls at the next table over folding paper, and GRIN walked over to motion that he’d like a piece. He came back with a little square and NO-FOOT watched as he began folding and unfolding it. His eyes were blank, and NO-FOOT could tell his mind was somewhere else. NO-FOOT took out a knife and began carving something into the table.
When the tea came, it burned their tongues and hurt their gums, but it was warm. After they drained their cups, they got up and headed back out into the rain without paying. As he closed the door behind them, NO-FOOT saw Mono running her hand over the new names carved into the table. Her head jerked up as she realized there was no money, and caught a glimpse of them before the door closed. NO-FOOT held up three fingers to his head in a salute.
When sunset came, NO-FOOT and GRIN were sitting together on the edge of a dirty reservoir at the bottom of the abandoned Oto district, their feet hanging low enough to almost touch the water. The rain dotted the surface of the water with a million expanding circles, distorting their reflections. It was still bitterly cold, but GRIN didn’t want to turn in yet. NO-FOOT looked blankly at the water. He was still hungry, his wet clothes were stuck to his skin, and his head felt like a hot, broken tea kettle leaking water through the cracks. Tears began to well up in the corners of his eyes.
“God, I hate all this,” he mumbled.
No matter how he added it up, it all came out to nothing. He had maybe two or three years left before the real world ate him alive. Between alcohol, sezumi, and muscle atrophy, both his body and GRIN’s were already husks. One day he just wouldn’t wake up. He remembered the first morning after going to Jin’s, waking up and realizing that this was real, that he was a cripple forever. NO-FOOT glanced over at GRIN. He was folding something new, but figuring it out as he went along, folding and unfolding the paper. His lips were pursed, whistling faint notes. He wouldn’t survive three months in Senkaku without money, not as a deaf man. And after he was dead, no one would remember him at all.
Out on the horizon, the sunlight was dying. Time was already marching on. It made him want to scream, the way GRIN had during that last awful show. There had to be a way out of all this, a way to wake up from their lives. NO-FOOT stared at the ripples in the water.
He blinked and stared again. One by one, the ripples were disappearing, but the rain was still tapping on his shoulders. There was a ringing in his ears, like a finger on the rim of a wineglass, and then something passed over their heads. He saw GRIN’s head jerk up and followed his gaze. There was a childlike eagerness on his ginger-bearded face.
Across the reservoir, a white and black crane was walking toward them on long, thin legs, growing taller as it came, changing its shape, until it was a woman with long dark hair and a robe made of feathers, holding a lacquered blue umbrella on her shoulder. GRIN rose slowly, smoothing out his wet robes. With a rain-soaked palm, he stood at the edge of the reservoir and offered her what he had been folding: a paper crane.
NO-FOOT watched as she stepped forward, her white feet flashing out from beneath her robes like ivory, making single ripples on the water. She wore a blindfold with prints of lotuses, keeping the rays of the sun from touching her eyes. Slowly, she uncurled her delicate fingers and closed them lightly around the paper crane. She smiled, her little white teeth shining. Her blind gaze rose to look at them and her lips moved, but only echoes came out.
Come with me.
She stepped out of the reservoir and walked up the street, floating six inches above the paving stones.
END OF PART 3
Read part 4 here