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bob fish

In the Kingdom of the Shadows

part 0 of Wrong Turn Universe

Last evening, I was in the Kingdom of the Shadows. If one could only convey the strangeness of this world ... Grey rays of sunlight in a grey sky, grey eyes in a grey face, leaves as grey as cider. Not life, but the shadow of life. Not life's movement, but a sort of mute spectre.—Maxim Gorky, on visiting the cinema for the first time

The new music is improvised, yet so complex. It reminds him of fighting, of debate. The sax player competes with the trumpeter, the pianist picks up their argument, elaborates it, and the singer leads them all and binds their marvellous disputes into a purposeful melody —

But it gets to be too much, sometimes. The sound and the sight of the band fill up his whole mind. He doesn't have room for the thick nicotine smoke, the hot press of bodies in the room, the ringing in his ears, the sweat pricking on his back, the click of his front teeth on the icy bottle of beer he drinks to cool down.

Al tries. He tries, and it's definitely getting easier. But when it gets too bad, he goes home early. Sometimes Ed comes with him, but Al always tries to persuade him to stay out, because it's just the best, seeing Ed like that, relaxed and drinking in the world, tapping his fingers percussively on the table, snorting with laughter at the saxophonist's moves, drawn in by the unravelling spiral of the tune. Al loves the world just as much as his brother does. It's just that loving it is hard work.

But that's okay, really, because when the world's chaos drowns out its music, he can always find it again in the cinema.

The first time he saw a talking picture, he was twelve. Winry took him. The movie was a musical, a real tearjerker: about an aging cabaret singer who sacrifices her happiness for her daughter's. Still, as they sat under the awnings of a street cafe afterwards, Winry was humming in delight over the new trick. There was no cinema in Rizembool, let alone talkies, just silent films played on the wall of the village hall on Saturday mornings, with the old wood-and-rush chairs set out in rows. Winry explained to him excitedly how they recorded the music and speech on big microphones next to the camera; how they translated the sound into a photograph of electrical waveforms that lay side by side with the images on the coil of film; how they translated it back into soundwaves to play it back, like a telephone call. She thought she'd found something they could appreciate as equals, an art and science that only took two senses. He'd tried to hide the truth: the experience had scared him. The machine of cinema had caught him up; when would it surpass him? Winry ordered a milkshake. He ordered a glass of water, to have something to do with his hands.

These days, he loves the movies. When someone smokes in a film, it's the way he remembers cigarettes: a glowing tip, and a curling silver cloud marbling the air. No stink of nicotine or burn inside his nostrils. If he sits up at the front of the gallery, with nothing but air between him and the screen, he can hardly smell the real cigarette smoke wafting up from the stalls. But it's not nostalgia, thank God, that draws him here.

Music in the cinema is always high in the mix, clear as a bell. The editing room in Al's own brain is not at all as good at turning down the random background noise. He's working on it. But one of the first things he rediscovered about living in a body was that sometimes, you need to take a rest.

There's a cartoon playing right now. Like most cartoons, it's all about the music. A girl with shiny eyelids and a charcoal pout wanders lost through a deep cave. Ghosts pop up from the ground, one, two, three. First they scare her, then they serenade her. There's a saxophonist, a trumpeter, a little round ghost singing scat.

These are traditional ghosts: draped white sheets outlining the curves of a body, with nothing under them. But then, this is the cinema: the sheets themselves don't exist, nor does the cave, nor the girl. They're only light and sound. Films are a ghost of something that used to be real and solid; cartoons, even better, never existed in the real world at all.

The ghost with the saxophone bows to the ghost with the trumpet, and the girl turns her shiver into a shimmy and dances around them. At the end of the dance she reaches up and kisses the ghost sax player on the forehead. Because this is the cinema, no one feels the kiss. It's just a funny sucking sound with a little pop at the end, like the cork coming out of a bottle. The ghost doesn't have a mouth to smile with, so he shows his appreciation by wiggling the bump in the sheet where his butt ought to be. The non-existent sheet over his non-existent face blushes a deep grey.

As the ghosts lead the girl to the mouth of the cave, like a marching band, Al realises something. The saxophonist is real. He has seen and heard him in the world outside, playing in the Orange Grove Ballrooms on a Friday and dancing while he plays, sweating from effort and from the hot lights, cheeks red and puffed out. The animators have copied his motions so carefully. It's funny.

Next time his band plays there, next Friday maybe, Al is going to stick it out and enjoy them properly, work again at tuning out the earache and the thousand smells and the prickly heat. And when they've finished playing, Al's going to go up to the saxophonist and say you know what, you made a really good ghost.