‘Hypnotica’ (Part Two) 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.
Read part one here.
Each night, the flesh-and-blood bodies of dreamwrights fill the coma houses in Senkaku like stacks of wood, and their sleep-selves find their way to the other Senkaku, the one that exists in dreams. That mirror-city is the Yoshira, whose streets and buildings match the waking Senkaku only loosely. The Yoshira is where they make names for themselves.
These days in Senkaku, shrines and cults spring up around the celebrities, the dancers and the artists, and for a while their autographs are exchanged like gold for anything and everything. Invitations from the courts of the drug lords and architects flood in, and gold flows as freely as the liquor when they go out.
But standing over all the petty celebrities, towering like the ruined buildings of Senkaku, are the names of the dreamwrights. DEKAY. OZO. ENAF. Their fans paint the sides of buildings with those names in the middle of the night, writing love notes in twenty-foot-tall letters. Their fans carve their names onto tables, wooden joists, scaffolding, tattoo them across the skin, weave them into robes and scrawl them onto the margins of menus in tea houses. The popularity of dreamwrights is measured by the ubiquity of their name. But for every one that makes a name, a hundred wither away into addiction, and no one remembers them.
For the living, the bridge between Senkaku and the Yoshira is the blood of the poppy flower, distilled, purified, and dripped onto the tongue. The drug, sezumi, is the gateway to lucid dreaming, and it was the sezumi addicts who found the way to the Yoshira first. Rumors spread about the dream city, where doors led into nightmares and ghosts held snaking parades across a city that never slept. Soon coma houses were built and people who had no homes could spend the days and nights stuffed onto a shelf, travelling the Yoshira.
But the Yoshira is our place, a place for ghosts. I remember the first dreamwrights, the crude ones without masks who played simple songs. We laughed and took turns stealing their faces. They learned to wear masks to keep safe from us, but sleepwalking and insomnia still haunted the ones who stayed too long. Phantom limbs crippled the ones who broke bones in the Yoshira, and wasting hunger starved out the ones who tried to eat the chocolate in the shops. Then there were others who just never woke up. But the danger was all part of the allure for them, mixed in with the music that played at the parties that had become a legend in the waking world.
Senkaku’s first celebrity was COKOLO, their favored son, poet and dreamwright. After four years of living on the line between waking and dreaming, drowning in sezumi and liquor and an endless stream of fans, he leapt off a building in Senkaku and burst his head open like a melon. The spot where his head hit the street is now a stone pillar of roses, his favorite flower, and the pillar is covered with the kisses of his worshippers.
Deep inside a twisting metal womb of steel pipes, surrounded by handles, pull-stops, and slides, GRIN lay perfectly still in a cradle of leather, his eyes gazing up at the tubes above his head. It was a giant pipe-organ, six stories tall, and he lay deep within it. It was silent where he was, utterly silent and cold. Besides his eyes, he couldn’t move a muscle.
The calm part of his mind knew what was happening. His eyes were open, but his soul was caught somewhere between waking and sleeping. Until he fully woke up, he was paralyzed. It was how a lot dreamwrights died—they woke up trapped in their own bodies, silently feeling themselves die of thirst. Sometimes their own nightmares could kill them. But even worse than knowing that was the silence. With the certainty of a dead man, he knew the blood trickling out of his ears meant he’d screamed himself stone deaf.
Above his head, deep within the maze of pipes, blood began to silently trickle down to him, dropping onto his mask, still strapped to his face. After a while the pipes started to fill with blood until it came dribbling out of the stops and ventilation holes. Soon, he was lying in a slowly rising pool of it. His lungs began to pump faster as the metallic smell stuck in the back of his throat.
GRIN closed his eyes. The blood wasn’t real. It was a nightmare. The organ was real. He spent his days repairing and playing it for the Izashi family, and he spent his nights sleeping in it. That he knew. But as he glanced around the gleaming metal tubes in the dark, watching the flow of blood streaming in through the spaces, he knew that his body wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He would drown in air.
As he clenched his eyes and took deep breaths, he could feel faint vibrations coming through the pipes, tingling against his skin. He couldn’t hear it, but he could feel it.
Someone was singing to him.
Overhead, one of the pipes cracked open soundlessly and a woman unfolded herself from the hole like a blooming flower. She enveloped him in her wings and then leaned down to look into his eyes. She had the ice-blue eyes of a crane, and a face that was bone-white. Her irises were striated sheets of ice, with sheer, pin-prick pupils in each. She sang to him, making his body resonate like a bell, and she ran one fingertip over his mask, as if she were touching the face of a sculpture. He could almost hear the song she was singing, vibrating in his bones.
This is a dream, he said, but his mouth wouldn’t move. You’re a ghost.
Then she was gone.
Instead, there were bony hands on his mask, and clammy fingers slapping his head. A man with green, sunken raccoon eyes, hollow cheeks, and a shaved head was leaning over him, cramming himself into the cradle of the pipe organ to reach him. His mouth was moving and something metal was clanging against the pipes, creating strange vibrations. GRIN looked past him and saw curling metal prongs below the man’s knees where his shins should be. The pool of blood was gone.
The man was mouthing a word, his teeth flashing: GRIN.
NO-FOOT? GRIN said soundlessly, pushing his mask up onto his forehead. The man nodded vigorously, breaking into a smile. He held up a mask that glimmered faintly in the dark.
GRIN reached up with both his arms and wrapped them around NO-FOOT’s shoulders. They’d been playing music together for years, but always in dreams. He’d never seen NO-FOOT’s face, or met him in the flesh, and now he was laughing silently. They were both here together. NO-FOOT had found him.
NO-FOOT tapped the tops of GRIN’s ears, mouthing Are they okay?
GRIN smiled grimly and shook his head. No, he mouthed.
All at once, GRIN pulled his face away and stared at NO-FOOT with wide eyes. There was a song in his head.
An hour later, he was still writing.
B flat, F, G minor, D minor, E flat…
C minor, F with a suspended seventh…
The notes were in his mind, as clear as the ringing of individual bells, stretching out to eternity. NO-FOOT was standing by his side, watching. He wouldn’t understand until he saw the whole thing, then he could write the words and make the sensations. This was the song the crane woman had been singing to him.
Finally, he set down his pen and handed the staff paper over to NO-FOOT. He watched the frown slowly grow on his friend’s face.
Death waltz? NO-FOOT testily wrote on a piece of paper.
GRIN smiled. A death waltz was a derogatory dreamwright term for a piece that was impossibly complicated. Playing music in dreams was being a conductor, synching hundreds of instruments to play together, even if the instruments were screams and shouts, and anything more complicated than a melody and harmony was pushing the boundaries.
He pushed more of the pages into NO-FOOT’s hands and pointed at his open mouth, then traced invisible shapes in the air.
The words. The visuals.
NO-FOOT leaned against the table and picked up a pen. He was holding the first sheet, tapping his finger on the table. GRIN could tell he was humming it. NO-FOOT began to draw on a blank piece of paper with his eyes closed, with one hand holding it in place. GRIN leaned closer. This was automatic drawing, an art grounded in the same state of mind that came before sleep. He had suspected NO-FOOT had synesthesia, but now he was seeing it in action—NO-FOOT was turning the notes into images.
GRIN watched as the drawings developed from circles and ovals into rough concentric circles, then little details. NO-FOOT’s strokes became eyes, then eyelashes and irises. He kept humming the song and started to draw flashes: half a woman’s face and a silhouette composed of rough lines. At the edges, her profile dissolved into lighter strokes. Feathers. GRIN’s heart swelled as he recognized the sketches. It was the crane-woman.
GRIN’s eyes ran over the other pages, excited. He gathered them up, ready to start playing the song for himself and hear it echoing in the organ’s huge pipes. Two steps from the table, he stopped. His heart sank and the excitement evaporated from his limbs as he remembered he was deaf.
For the first time since he’d woken up, GRIN smelled the sweat soaked into his clothes and tasted the blood coming out of his gums. He hadn’t been outside in weeks. He couldn’t play the organ anymore, or tune it, or repair it. Except for his last wage from the Izashi family when he was dismissed, he had no money.
This was the new reality.
He went back to his table and set down his pages again. He picked up NO-FOOT’s smooth, conch-like mask from the table, then looked again at the sunken-eyed, wasted man sketching on his table. NO-FOOT was drawing something new, lost in another world.
GRIN walked closer and knelt down so his eyes were level with the surface of the table, looking up at his partner. This was the man who danced on phantom limbs in dreams, but here, in this basement in Senkaku, he was just a pile of meat.
END OF PART 2
Read part three here