My uncle was the only projectionist in the world. He projected silent films in our town and it was like Christmas had come early, when my uncle projected films from the small booth where nobody entered, but for me and Peasy the Gipsy. Me, being way too young, I made the mistake of not learning my uncle’s craft, and Peasy, who was into metaphysics and abstractions, always looking through the film reels and never at them. I remember my uncle lifting me up and through the small peephole we watched the big white screen and the people below us, all of them spellbound while watching some love scene followed by applause or sighs and tears. Then my uncle would change the reel, right at the most enjoyable moment and afterwards the audience was no longer the sweet, meek audience: they would start booing my uncle, thinking that he ruined the fun for them on purpose, some of them would even cross the line and say that they would cut his head off, just like in the films. Yet nothing got to my uncle, he was just minding his own business, lacing up the reel, taking down the reel, winding it on, winding it off, examining for damages and so on. As for me, I looked more at the people from above, rather than at the film screen.
Sometimes I was looking at Peasy, but Peasy stared into nothingness. He was just murmuring – now metaphysics, now esotery, nothing but those two words. I don’t know why my uncle took him in, probably because Peasy didn’t wear him out, that’s the way my uncle was, he only took a shine for things that didn’t wear him out and didn’t talk: he took in street animals, cats, dogs, turtles, chickens, he himself was taken in by women, slender, fat, beautiful, smart, chickens, he would come back home at ungodly hours or he wouldn’t come back at all, rather he would just dwell in the cinema. As for myself, I just liked to take a peek at people from above and sometimes, through the light and the specks from the projector, I made shadow puppets with my hands against the screen, but only when no one was around in the cinema, otherwise my uncle would glare at me angrily.
Then I grew up a little bit and I started to show interest in reels, probably it was from standing upstairs in the booth and glancing through the little peephole into the world so long, that I failed to see myself grow up. Children my age started to move towards the back-row seats, the only one remaining in the front row was Simke the Chubby, him being the owner of a candy shop so there was no room for him in the back, he was fiddling with Tanya’s hair and then they were snogging and then they were snuggling their noses. Meanwhile, Peasy learned yet another word and kept on going – now metaphysics, now esotery, now lethargy, whereas I learned how to cut and splice the reels. I examined the reels from films that had been shown many times, I played them in the morning when there were no projections and then I realized that my uncle had been cutting the reels on purpose. He had meticulously cut out all the sad love scenes, all the deaths and goodbyes, just so he could inconspicuously make men happy and women go wild, without even uttering a word. Everybody loved him and had no idea why so, they didn’t know that he was their patron saint who prevented them from being unhappy. I admired him.
As years went by, I got downstairs, I wasn’t staying in the projection booth anymore, so I left my uncle and Peasy and mingled with people. I was showing off, although almost no one really knew me, apart from Simke because my uncle and I often ate baklava in his candy shop. Right then, some film had started, as always a silent one, with beautiful actresses and a collage of emotions, kissing, cries from the back row seats; on one occasion Tanya started moaning and everybody turned towards Simke, some of them congratulated him; which was when my uncle cut the reel and I knew that for sure there must’ve followed a heated argument after the kiss or the husband showed up, husbands always show up in love scenes, but the audience was unaware of it, they couldn’t care less.
I started enjoying myself when I fell in love; of course it happened inside the cinema. Elena came to all screenings, sometimes she watched the same film time and time again, and I would approach her, tell her that me and my uncle had picked the film together and similar gibberish that was pure nonsense. It didn’t even matter if Elena was interested in me or in the film, what mattered was that we were holding hands; I invited her on a date in the candy shop, but she refused, kept holding my hand and kept convincing me that we would have the best time in the cinema. I wanted to take her in the projection booth, introduce her to my uncle and Peasy, ask Peasy whether love had anything to do with those words he was always murmuring, but she was comfortable on the cinema seats and she never got up. I never saw her out of the cinema, to be fair seldom did I myself go out, apart from those occasions when my uncle would catch a rare animal, like for example an ostrich or a seal and he would leave them to me to take care of them, or when some cuckold of a man would start chasing him, which was not all that rare, and then my uncle had to run away and I had to look for him all around town, in the candy shop or in the projection booth.
And so it happened that one day my uncle caught a squirrel. His eyes were shining; I had never seen him like that. I thought that he had gone blind from so many films, but it wasn’t the case, he was holding the squirrel in his hands and he brought it to me at home, all cheerful, livened up. I asked him where did it come from, he said that he had found it hurt and he would keep it in a parrot cage. That day was red-letter day. Word got around that my uncle had caught a squirrel; normally people were bumming in front of our house to ask for screenings, for the upcoming films or for the name of the actor with moustache, but then again, all actors had moustaches. Everything my uncle did stirred people’s interest in town, even more than the town fair did. And so, in front of our house came the priest, the mayor, a representative from the library, a woman holding a baby in her hands, for whom she later claimed it was my uncle’s, Peasy, Simke the Chubby and Tanya, and in the end – me. Only Elena didn’t. We all wanted to see a squirrel in a parrot cage. This was something you couldn’t see even in films. So, we all held our eyes wide open, our ears pricked up, my uncle gave a shriek, the squirrel ran away, and we all started running after it. My uncle backed away, he had teeth marks on the right hand, and something was lost from his eyes or something died inside of him, he lost all cheerfulness, he was drained, I gave him water, and Simke the Chubby told Tanya to bring some baklava.
The other day it was as if nothing had happened. The whole town came to the cinema, my uncle arranged five screenings one after the other, he worked incessantly, I begged Elena to go to the back-row seats and grope a little bit in the dark, and then she would have my children, and they would be running all around the cinema, but she said that it was okay like this, just holding hands, snogging discreetly and God knows what and watching a film. Then I wanted to tell her that the film we were watching was not the actual one; that it didn’t really have a happy ending, the guy with the moustache jumped under a train because of unrequited love, there you go, someone did not love back and thus the film ended. I was in love. I went to the booth only rarely and at first I hadn’t noticed that my uncle had changed somehow, as if he had shrunk and observed everything absent-mindedly. He barely even recognized me.
Screenings started to show only by day, and my uncle screened films that were popular when I was a child, people objected, an unpleasant atmosphere was created. Once, in between two screenings, I found chewed film reels, I followed the reels leading to the corner and there I saw my uncle, smaller than ever, slouched in the corner, his teeth grown. He had gone wild. Another time, when the reel ended on half of the film and the other reel didn’t continue, I went to the booth to see what had happened, but he was gone. I got back downstairs; everybody had gone out of the cinema and pointing towards a tree. And there was my uncle, he had climbed the tree; he was running up and down, gnawing on the tree. Simke the Chubby was begging him to get down and screen the film, because it wasn’t fair for everyone to expect the hero to go back to his first wife, but never find out about it, Tanya was coaxing him with baklava and saying “soft kitty, warm kitty”, yet he was a squirrel, the priest was sprinkling him with holy water, the mayor was wielding the document for legalized property, and all the while, my uncle was no longer among us.
The other day, feeling all ashamed, I stood behind the projector, announced the usual screenings, but I wasn’t skillful in cutting out all those sad love scenes, robbed trains and suicides, so people were disapproving, Tanya burst into tears and left Simke, Simke closed the candy shop because he forgot the recipe for baklava, all women came back to their husbands, the priest stopped believing in God, Elena started to go out of the cinema and snog with another guy, nothing was like before, even Peasy stopped existing soon enough.
The day the cinema was closed, I was inside. Right there on the white screen was projected my entire childhood, so I said goodbye to it, to myself, to my uncle, to Elena, to the screen. I noticed it had been chewed on the sides. I smiled. I guess I had been standing inside for so long that old age found me there. I was almost older than the cinema itself, and it soon started to wreck on all sides, first the booth had gone and then some wind blew in and today’s newspaper rolled along. In it I read an article saying that silent films no longer existed, that there was an outbreak of a modern disease, which attacked film reels and white screens and damaged films for good. This plague had been noticed throughout the whole of Europe and America, there was no way to prevent it. I was the only one who knew it was my uncle. He always loved only things that didn’t speak and in the end, he himself had turned into a silent thing.
Then I died happy, and dead like that, I felt that my uncle finally rested, that he had made peace with himself, having taken all silent films in the world, as if he had taken his craft along. Afterwards sound films appeared, and then color motion picture films, but nothing compared to my uncle’s films which were free from the eternity of death and the sadness in the eyes of the man with moustache, world sadness which, for the good of humanity had to be removed from the film reel from that exact frame and forever preserved in my uncle’s warm heart.
Translated to English by: Gjurgica Ilieva