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NIGHT WALKS IN A SILENT CITY
NIGHT WALKS IN A SILENT CITY
James George Stewart
Published by UG Swoons
04-25-2011
NIGHT WALKS IN A SILENT CITY

There was the tinkle of a bell and the door clicked shut behind him. In the gloom of the shop strange shapes emerged, bulbous and bunched-up, dangling and swaying. A shaft of morning sunlight showed jerky little dust specks, disturbed by his presence. Everything smelt of old paper.
One of the shapes moved into the light, squinting as it did so. “May I help you?” it said.
“I'd like to recall a dream,” said Kessler.
The shopkeeper tilted his head up at Kessler, his spectacles two bright white circles. “You are aware,” he said, “of what you ask?”
After a moment Kessler said, “Yes.”
“If you're sure…”
He shrugged and turned away. Kessler heard a draw open and various clunky sounding objects moving about. “Ah,” sighed the shopkeeper and shuffled toward him again. “Here are the papers. You must answer them before I let you proceed further. Take a seat.”
Kessler was led to a small cubicle in the corner of the room, next to several of the head poles. They'd been propped in a bunch by the wall so that he was forced to push them aside in order to sit at the desk. He coughed once and scanned the faded text of the form. The questions were of an unusual sort, apparently unrelated to each other and tending toward the rather personal. Nonetheless, he answered each to the best of his ability.
“Hmm,” said the shopkeeper when he'd passed it back. “I think we can find what you're looking for. Follow me please.”
They proceeded into the back room. It was much bigger than the first, and the smell of old paper was stronger here. Small lightbulbs hung down from the ceiling at short intervals stretching away into the haze. Beneath them the papier-mache heads he'd seen in the front of the shop were sowed in their thousands, row after row of solemn, sleeping faces swaying gently on sticks that had been rammed into the naked earth of the floor. Between each row ran a wooden walkway.
“Where are the bodies?” remarked Kessler.
“Elsewhere,” said the shopkeeper.
They went along one walkway, and Kessler noted that not all the heads were the same. Some bore the most horrific grimaces on their closed-lidded faces, some looked bored, others appalled. A few grinned, and Kessler wondered, shudderingly, of what they dreamt. After about ten minutes they came to a head with short brown hair. The eyelids of this one were tightly closed as if in concentration or pain (the crudity of the workmanship made it hard to tell which), but even so the look of hopelessness and despair that it bore on its greyish visage was hard to mistake. The shopkeeper took hold of its straggly pate and twisted. The top of the head came off.
“Reach inside,” he said, “and fish out whatever comes first into your hand. That is important.”
Kessler tried to peer into the dark cavity, but the lightbulb which hung almost exactly above them seemed powerless to penetrate its depths. Tentatively, he reached in. He felt something like papery eels on his flesh. Then one of them wriggled into his palm. He grabbed it and drew it out.
“Good,” said the shopkeeper and replaced the top of the head. “If you have followed my instructions and answered my questions to the letter then you should now hold in your hand your lost dream. Do not open it! It must be placed beneath your pillow before you go to sleep. You shall dream the dream where it last left off, and experience it to its conclusion, whatever that may—or may not—be. Now, about my payment…”
They returned to the front room. Kessler handed over the notes of cash and, the slip of dream folded up in his coat pocket, left the shop.
~
It was night. Kessler placed the dream slip beneath his pillow, then lay on his mattress and tried to go to sleep. The room was hot and stifling; from somewhere outside the thump of music came faintly to his ears. He tossed and turned and tried to clear his mind of everything. But the more he tried the more his thoughts began to race, darting and connecting in meaningless configurations.
Eventually he got up. He sat on the edge of the bed and lit a cigarette. Why did he think to go to that dream dealer today? What had he hoped to know? Some sort of truth – an existential truth perhaps. The dream had been the conduit to that truth; that was all he could recall. But what that actual truth was, in concrete terms, he couldn't be sure. He could only reach for it, groping madly as it teased and plucked at his mind, before dancing away.
He put his hand under the pillow and removed the dream slip. It fluttered gently in the warm breeze coming from his window. For a fleeting moment Kessler entertained the thought of opening it…
Then he stuffed the slip once more into his coat pocket and got up. He had decided to go for a stroll.
~
Moonlight shone down from a starry sky. The streets were grey and empty. Kessler wandered past endless rows of houses, letting his eyes take in the stillness around him, the stark shadows, the cold white glare of the streetlights. Yet what should have been a still and silent scene was periodically marred by the faint thump of music that invaded his thoughts like a child continually dipping his fingers into a placid pool.
“Why can't people have more respect?” he thought, and walked on.
Yet as he walked he found his thoughts so disturbed by the music that it was the greatest of efforts just to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. When at last he regained his composure, it was to find the music louder than before, as though his body had subconsciously been steering him toward it… And a curious feeling began to war in his breast. It was not quite terror, nor exhilaration, yet had the qualities of both. He found himself wanting to come upon the source of the music and simultaneously wanting to be left alone to wander the streets in silence. Gradually the feeling began to tip in one direction… and at that moment Kessler found that he had left the streets behind and was now standing at the edge of a large park.
Up ahead came lights, sounds and movement. A crowd of people seemed to be dancing before a lighted gazebo, though the trees that dotted the place made it hard to make out the scene in its entirety. Music was playing. Kessler noted that it was the same music he had heard from his apartment, thumping across the grass and flying up into the night.
Slowly he approached the crowd. The uncertain feeling of before fluttered up in a warm and humid breeze. Several times he hesitated. Then, haltingly, his feet began to move again. He was near to the edge of the crowd now, yet not close enough to make out anyone's face. Everywhere he looked, the dancing people had their backs to him. The music boomed out. Kessler felt himself on the edge of a momentous decision.
Then a man ahead of him, his hair strangely ragged, began to shimmy toward Kessler. Instinctively Kessler put out his hands and touched the man's back. There was the feeling of soft clay. The man turned, and Kessler saw that his head was made of papier-mache. The crudely painted eyes were open, like the eyes of a fish… all of their faces were the same, eyes open like fish as they stared at Kessler, their ragged limbs still dancing to the beat of the music. The man he had touched reached out toward him, his head bobbing on his shoulders. Kessler turned and fled.
~
The music faded and died away. Soon enough Kessler found himself lost again in the endless streets. This time there was silence. The sweat on his body cooled and the beating of his heart became imperceptible. He wandered on. The city seemed so cold and empty. The uncertain feeling of before had now resolved itself, undoubtedly, into a feeling of longing. He knew he longed to join them. He longed to retrace his way back to the park, to dance with the others, no matter that it was to a beat that they did not understand, no matter that their heads were made of papier-mache and filled with meaningless dreams. But he was hopelessly lost.
Suddenly he stopped. There seemed no point in continuing. In all directions lay nothing but endless houses, row after row stretching out beneath the moonlight. Which house was his? He didn't know. He began to walk again, if only to keep warm in the now freezing night.
When he stopped for the second time he couldn't recall how far, or for how long, he had walked. A deep unease settled on him. The memory of the dancing people now seemed irretrievably far away, and hazy like a pastel drawing.
At last he took the dream slip out of his coat pocket. The warning of the shopkeeper rustled faintly into his mind…
He opened the slip. Drawn on its yellowed paper in crude black ink was a single line:
“This was all there is.”
He closed it again and placed it back into his coat pocket. A man should never know the truth of the dream he's in. Kessler now knew that he was trapped in the dream he'd longed to escape from, a dream in which he wandered endlessly through empty streets, longing to come across another night walker, for anything, anything, was better than being alone and knowing that you are alone.
A cold wind made him shiver. To the east the stars were fading. After a moment a thin sliver of light peered above the rooftops; then a feeble and sputtering sun lurched into the sky.
In the orange light of dawn Kessler saw that he had retraced his steps to the dream dealer's shop. It sat across from him on the other side of the street, the glass shopfront dirty and drab beneath a faded green sign. How long ago had it been since he was last here? Months? Years? Or had he only dreamed it? Peering at the sign in the door he saw that it said “Open.”
Kessler entered the shop.
There was the tinkle of a bell and the door clicked shut behind him. In the gloom of the shop strange shapes emerged, bulbous and bunched-up, dangling and swaying. A shaft of morning sunlight showed jerky little dust specks, disturbed by his presence. Everything smelt of old paper.
One of the shapes moved into the light, squinting as it did so. “May I help you?” it said.
“I'd like to forget a dream,” said Kessler.
The shopkeeper tilted his head up at Kessler, his spectacles two bright white circles. “You are aware,” he said, “of what you ask?”
After a moment Kessler said, “Yes.”
2 Thanks From:
G. S. Carnivals (04-25-2011), Spotbowserfido2 (04-25-2011)
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