Wednesday, 9 August 2017

In Eclipseville (2008)

This brief tale is the third in a short linked series about impossible or at least unusual cities, Moonville and Sunsetville being the first two. Originally the main character was going to be Frabjal Troose, who turned into an inventor of improbable machines, but in my fiction the contributory elements often go off on their own paths and I am happy to let them do so. That shadows can have brightness seems illogical at first but on closer analysis this is seen not to be so.

In Eclipseville the authorities have decreed that shadows are more real than the objects that cast them. Substances have no value there: the people would spit on them, if spit was not also a substance. The shadows of spitting people flit rarely on walls in that city.
Some grades of shadow are more highly regarded than others; this goes without saying. The shadows of watermelons have great status, as do those of clocks, scissors, very tall hats. The most valuable shade of all remains to be seen: the shadow of the sun.
Not all shadows are visual and cool. The authorities insist that musical notes are the true shades of instruments, rather than those dark outlines that pretend to be flutes, harps, dulcimers. The implications of this creed must seem absurd to outsiders. Cymbals are only symbols of their own tinkle.
In Eclipseville most nocturnal activities take place in the afternoon. Between lunch and teatime the lonely nightwatchmen poke about in cellars and catacombs for evidence of the night, in accordance with their contracts of employment, but never find any until they abandon the search and switch off their electric torches.
Meanwhile lovers perspire, servants worry about ghosts, burglars prowl, lurkers throb, pools of wax on tablecloths harden under stubs of candles in recently closed caf├ęs, astronomers squint through lenses on rooftops and talented insomniacs generate soft piano music or gently pluck the strings of muted lutes while uncultured neighbours snore.
Many of those talented insomniacs learned to play in the famous Music Institute, a building that is the grandest on the urban landscape. In truth it is not a single structure but a cluster of old dwellings sheltered by a translucent dome, a difference that is a question of interpretation, for a sweet melody might likewise be defined as a sequence of unrelated notes linked ‘only’ by a key signature.
Some say the palatial mansion of Frabjal Troose is one of those clustered dwellings; not I. Others say the Once Held Hands Crossing is also contained within the Institute; I disagree again.
My name is Sacerdotal Bagge and I am one of the authorities of the city. My disagreements are shadowy, like my policies, but I remain undisturbed, for not all shadows are dark. One day a brighter star will move behind the sun and the sun will drape its own shadow, blinkingly bright, on our houses, souls and financial affairs. A scorching umbra, shimmering.
Let it be known that Eclipseville had a difficult birth, for it was the result of a collision and meshing between two contradictory forces, the rival cities of Moonville and Sunsetville. When the moon passes before the sun the day becomes night, and wine, kisses, oddness, cool breezes and nocturnes are suddenly necessary. An expensive business…
An attempt was once made to freeze one of our best shadows. A hat taller than the highest minaret was positioned so that its shadow fell into a vat of liquid hydrogen. The procedure worked. When the hat was removed its shadow remained in the cold fluid.
But the shadow had turned brittle and when it was fished out it shattered into a million tiny sharp fragments. These splinters were caught up by the wind and swirled down the streets. Some specks lodged in the eyes of men and women; others stabbed into hearts.
With those motes blurring their vision, the citizens of Eclipseville saw hats everywhere. Teapot lids became sombreros, manhole covers turned into berets, even eyelids were perceived as being skullcaps for orbits. And soon I will have occasion to talk about other types of orbit. As for people with hat shards in their cardiac muscles, they soon found themselves brimming over, but not always with emotion.
Although a success, the experiment was deemed a failure.
That is often the case in Eclipseville, and I, Sacerdotal Bagge, have little desire to change our methodology.
In fact I backed the decision to make a second attempt, to freeze an aural shadow instead of a visual one, to solidify a musical note. We constructed a special machine. A hearing trumpet of immense size led into the side of a gigantic compression refrigerator.
A lever worked gears that lowered extremely heavy weights onto a piston. But first we needed something to compress. Musicians came and played the same note into the mouth of the trumpet and when the inner chamber was full I pulled the lever.
Slowly the sound was crushed into an enormous black orb. The chamber was broken open. Inside: solid music, smooth to the touch, humming faintly but insistently. What did we do with it? We launched it into space with a catapult, fixed it to the line of the celestial equator. A note belongs on a stave. Only there will it play properly.
Imagine many spheres of solid music – crotchets, minims, breves – in orbit, pinned by gravity to the ecliptic and other lines of heavenly latitude. An authentic prelude to the future…
The globe orbited our planet like a swollen drone, crossing in front of the sun and the real moon, increasing the frequency of eclipses visible from our city, but it did not play for us. There is no sound in a vacuum. No matter. The note was visible. We imagined it would remain in place forever, but it began to fade. The same note sustained too long becomes inaudible. We had forgotten that simple fact.
Eventually it was gone. We did not care.
A big mistake. Just because an object is invisible does not mean it has ceased to exist. Then something very unexpected occurred. A delegation from a brighter star crashed into the note without realising it was there and was destroyed. They had planned to offer us admission to a galactic club of advanced civilisations. The attendant benefits were consumed in blue plasma flames. For long minutes shadows held no sway.
The authorities of Eclipseville no longer emerge from their offices. They shamefully project their shadows out of little rooms over the thresholds of thin doorways, down marble steps, into the streets. They wag long flat fingers on flagstones, wavy fingers on cobbles.
These fingers form a musical stave. Shards of a broken moon fall on the lines or between them. Such things must happen in a city where one strange event is always eclipsed by another.




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