Strangecraft, Part IV—You Old Indian Summer—Mikael Thompson SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents Strangecraft, Part VI—Much Ado About Shoggoths—Mikael Thompson

Strangecraft

by Mikael Thompson

- V -
The Highest Time of Living

The weekend the new class matriculated, Trevor and I chose to celebrate the Via Mundi by skipping it to take a long overnight hike 16 miles further inland to a ruined town deep in the resurgent woods. Fenton had been abandoned shortly after the Subsidence and no one had felt comfortable squatting there, so it sat in the wild as a minor local attraction much as a shallow-sunken ship enveloped in coral provides a destination for divers. We poked around to gain a feel, however attenuated, for the layout of a small mid-21st century town and puzzled over inscriptions scratched in the walls of some of the houses. That night we thought it respectful to make our way a mile further west to a meadow often used by overnight hikers; atop a low hill in the center of a small break in the forest we rolled out our sleeping bags and slept under the stars. Already there was a deep chill in the air and we woke sore but refreshed, above all at the realization that by that time communal dreaming would have been restored to full force and a new generation of lambs was being led to the shearing post, and we had had at least one night less of the grind than they.

We returned by a different route to see a town further along Bank Road and arrived back at the dorm after dinner had ended. After a short chat with Smith and Jones and a longer chat with Finley, we hit our respective sacks. While I have no doubt Trevor roamed about the place in his dreams meeting new and old, even in my dreams I remained locked firmly in my room hiding from a surly ugly tortoiseshell cat and answered none of the knocks at my mental door. I overslept in the morning and rushed off to Introduction to Language Acquisition without breakfast, and even with one of my best hikes I was two minutes late. Flandry, the semanticist, was teaching it this semester on the grounds that he was the least unsuited of the faculty, and as I came in he switched to an overdone Texas accent and said, “Ah, Mr. Viner, do come in and enrich us with your presence.”

I merely smiled and looked around the room. The usual complement of syntacticians glared at me with less disdain than the year before, and a couple of new faces sat on the left and right edges of the classroom. The fellow to my right had the typical aloof and overbearing air of a fledgling New England syntactician, while the woman on my left smiled at me when I looked at her and held my gaze curiously. Eventually I made the effort to break my gaze and tried to pay attention to Flandry’s always entertaining lecture, but constantly found my attention drifting to the woman on my left as I wondered about her.

When class ended, I was about to time my exit to match hers, but just then Sarah Prickle came in and glared at me for some grievance I had unintentionally caused her, probably in connection with my continued existence, so I made a quick retreat and started off to Gilmore’s sequel. As I stood at the building door looking around to make sure the green was free of cats, a low voice said, “So you’re the Texan.”

I turned around to find the too-interesting woman from class standing next to me. A little shorter and thicker than me, she had warm dark skin of the sort usually crassly described by the names of the stronger varieties of coffee drinks, tightly curled ringlets of shoulder-length black hair, and deep brown eyes vivacious behind thin wire-frame glasses, and after a few seconds mentally rummaging around to find my voice I said, “Yes, that’s me.”

“You’re notorious, you know.”

“How curious. I’ve always taken great relief in the thought that just because everyone hates me, that doesn’t mean they think about me when I’m not there.”

She laughed brightly and held out her hand. “Helen Benoit.”

I shook her hand and said, “Hugh Viner. You’re not from New England, I can tell.”

“Ohio.”

“Pleased to meet you. What do you plan to work on?”

“I don’t know yet. Perhaps semantic theory. Certainly not syntax.”

“Why did you come here then? Forget to send off your applications to the good schools and only made the deadline for MIT?”

She laughed and said, “One of my professors was trained in the New England approach and it actually intrigued me.”

“Ah, the sins of our youth.”

She grinned wickedly, “Far from my worst.”

I swallowed distractedly and said, “You don’t see a cat out there, do you? Tortoiseshell?”

She smiled and looked around and pointed behind me, “Right there! Quick, it’s about to jump!” and laughed when I started. “Scared of cats?”

“No, but I think we had a falling-out. Rather, I think it had a falling-out. A person doesn’t have much say in such things, you know.”

We had started walking across the green and she yawned repeatedly.

“Bad night?”

“Bad dreams.”

“Get used to them.”

She said, “I wish I could just curl up somewhere quiet and take a nap.”

“Maybe you are and you’re just dreaming you’re talking to me.”

“So you think you’re just my dream? How sweet, maybe you’re hinting I’m your dream.”

“Oh, you’re dreamy, but I know I’m not dreaming you.”

“No? Maybe I’m dreaming you think you’re not dreaming, but I know you really are dreaming.”

I laughed and said, “No, you see, you’re forgetting that really, in fact, we all of us are just players in the dreams of the neighborhood cat.”

She grinned and looked around, “But I don’t see our host.”

“No, but he sees you, and that’s what’s important. It’s because he dreams you that you have existence, and because of the way he dreams you you’re able to dream yourself when he dreams you’re sleeping, and that’s how you have a life, and not just have life.”

“But aren’t you afraid that you’ll disappear when he wakes up?”

“Have you ever known a cat to sleep less than 23 hours a day? It’s a far better proof of the likelihood of your continued existence than Berkeley believing that it’s God’s seeing things that gives them existence. God’s capricious and he’s so old you might have to worry about Alzheimer’s, but you can always trust a cat to sleep.”

“I’m flattered that a cat would pay so much attention to little me.”

“But of course, think about it. If you can create worlds by dreaming about them, then after a while you’d get really bored. So you’d start dreaming about people creatively preoccupied with petty problems. People have novels while cats have dreams, and they keep themselves entertained by dreaming about us reading novels. We’re like cats’ novels at a remove. So there’s a natural basis for why you have to live an enlightened and fulfilling life, it’s so as to be most entertaining to the cats. If you just sit around all day watching TV, pretty soon you’ll bore the cats, and buh-bye. But that’s also why good things happen to bad peoplethey’re not written off because they’re so damned entertaining. It’s an amoral world in the mind of a cat.”

She laughed and said, “Perhaps. It’s certainly possible to believe all that nonsense in this wretched place. I had never known dreams could be so undreamy.”

I paused. “So, you’re in Farnsworth Dorm?”

“You too?”

“Alas, yes.”

“Why didn’t I see you at any time the last few days?”

“Off with a friend saying farewell to the joys of summer.”

“A friend? A lady friend?”

I smiled at all the implications of her question and said, “Nope.”

By that time I had arrived at the math building and said, “See you at lunch?”

“Of course.”

I turned to walk inside and heard a low meowish growl. I jerked around and saw her smiling at me. “Gotcha again!”

I shook my finger at her, and as she laughed I waved and went inside.

I got back to the dorm shortly after noon, and as I walked in Purnell said, “ ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ ” to general merriment. I saluted Trevor and Anne as I went through the lunch line. I looked around and saw Helen wave at me, and as I went over Finley came in and followed me over. “Hello, Helen,” I said, and then introduced them. “Helen, my suitemate Finley. Finn, a fellow linguist, Helen.”

She nodded with a curious smile playing around the corners of her lips, “Oh, we’ve met already.”

Finley said, “Yeah, her family’s from St. Kitts originally. There’s the most amazing tradition of folklore from there, didja know?”

“No, Finn, I did not know that. The Caribbean? Have you ever gone there yourself?”

“Every other year when I was a little girl, then I went to school for a year in Martinique. My grandfather settled in Ohio but kept in touch with family, so we were always welcome to visit.”

Finley then proceeded to ask her any number of questions about the culture of St. Kitts, which seemed in his mind to have been a mixture of Jamaican, Trinidadian, and Bahaman stereotypes dumped hodgepodge in a high-speed blender. Eventually Trevor and Anne got off work and joined us before Finley exasperated her to distraction, and I introduced her to Trevor. “Trevor, pleased to meet you,” she said warmly. “I haven’t seen you here either,” she said and seemed quite pleased with her inferences.

“No, Hugh and I went on a long hike. Any excuse to put off thinking about this semester, you see.”

“Oh! Where did you go?” For the next quarter hour we regaled the table with what we had seen. At the end of it, I excused myself to go to work at the library. I arrived ten minutes early and looked around a bit as my crew showed up. April and Clarice had stayed on and we sat lamenting the loss of Birwan, who had told me at the end of summer when I was checking on everyone’s availability, “This job is a total waste of my time, Hugh. We just trudge around all day in the university’s trash heap from two generations ago and get paid less than food service.” He later confirmed that he had gotten a better-paying job at food service emptying this generation’s trash heaps, so we waited for his replacement. April said, “We’re not Alphabet Soup without Birwan. We need to hire another Birwan.”

I said, “Human Resources might have something to say about that.”

Clarice said, “He doesn’t have to be Birwan; we can just call him that. ‘Hello, John, I’m very pleased to meet you. Mind if I call you Birwan?’ ”

Just then a young woman popped her head around the doorframe and asked, “Is this Unbound Holdings?”

I stood up and shook her hand. “I’m Hugh, and this is April and Clarice.”

“Hi, I’m Barbara Holland,” at which Clarice cheered and April smiled. As she came in, April said in a false sotto voce, “Don’t tell her anything about the job until she’s signed on the dotted line.”

After we had shown her around and welcomed her aboard, I asked everyone to give me their schedules and contact information and we worked out a reasonable work schedule for the group. Fortunately, I was able to work a full afternoon every day and one day a weekend, so our common work would not be grossly neglected during the semester. Our days of full complement were Monday and Wednesday, and Tuesdays and Thursdays would again see me working with Clarice for part of the day, while Fridays and Saturdays I would work alone. We spent the rest of the day training Barbara, and after they left I spent the last half hour inspecting the place to see if any meddling was evident. Satisfied, I locked up and returned to the dorm for dinner and pan washing.

In order to fit the library into my schedule, I had arranged with Gilbreath to have independent study for an hour and a quarter three evenings a week in his office. I rushed over there after work and found him looking over notes. “Ah, Hugh, right on time. Excellent. Now then, I’m pleased to lead you in this class; I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it, or at least not feel you’ve wasted your time or mine. It is a language I first encountered in the course of some independent research, then I found some native speakers. I won’t give you any language-external information about it because I don’t want you cheating in the library; as you know, the point of field methods classesand that is precisely how this class will be taughtis to learn how to learn and analyze a language, and so bear always in mind that your wrong answers are far more valuable than the truth swallowed whole from someone else. For the same reason, don’t discuss it with any of my colleagues or yours; you should remember I expect you to be an island unto yourself in this class.

“You will be expected to keep a notebook to hand in every Wednesday, to be returned on Friday, in which you take transcriptions and notes and in which you will answer a few questions or work an assignment I will give you after every Monday and Friday class. Starting next week you will have a short quiz every Monday on vocabulary and grammatical points, and you will have one paper a month, length dependent on the progress we’ve made, to analyze the structures of the language up to that point, but probably two to three pages. You will also be expected to start writing a short reference grammar and lexicon of the language as we proceed; these materials you will turn in at the end of the semester as the greater part of your final project. The remainder of your final project will be a paper in some depth on some aspect of the language that most interests you. As for the dream environment, that will be devoted, as with all languages classes, to review and drills. Tuesdays and Thursdays are best for me. —Is this acceptable?”

I nodded. “It’s what I expected.”

“All right then, let’s get started. You brought your list?” This was a reference to the list of 200 basic vocabulary items he told me to compile, followed by ten basic sentences chosen to display the basic grammatical functions of the language with a vocabulary of five verbs and ten nounsor at least their English equivalents, for the boundaries between even these most basic categories of words are drawn a bit differently across languages.

He then spoke the first twenty words of my basic vocabulary list just slowly enough for me to transcribe them hurriedly on the fly, then had me repeat them as he corrected my pronunciation and I in turn corrected my transcriptions. This continued until I had finished my list, and we then spent several minutes on my sentences. When we ended, he said, “Good spot of work. For Wednesday I want you to collate your data and do as complete a phonetic description as possible. Find any possible gaps and look for patterns that might indicate phonological processes within words, and prepare for eliciting words to test your generalizations. Also do a grammatical analysis of your sentences and prepare twenty more to look more carefully at grammatical roles. If that proceeds well, Friday you should start looking at the structures of different types of phrases.” And so began my first taste of real linguistic work with my own hard-won data and my own interpretations thereof.

When I got back to the dorm, Trevor was chatting with Smith and Jones as Helen sat listening with one of her suitemates, a first-year French literature student from Québec named Chantal Dumont whose undergraduate grades had not been of the uniform excellence needed to secure one of the deadly competitive positions back home. When Helen saw me, she smiled brightly and started partaking in more of the conversation; we spoke of nothing important, but it all seemed to possess the essence of charm. Too soon Chantal said, “Hélène, je m’en vais, tu m’accompagnes?

Oui, j’arrive.” She turned to me, “It was great to chat with you again, Hugh. Trev, Hal, Hal, always a pleasure,” and after she left I felt unaccountably let down. I sat and listened to Trevor argue with Smith and Jones over the significance of the inscriptions in Fenton. “No,” said Trevor, “I’m sure they’re just hobo code of some sort.”

“Hobo code where there are no free three squares?”

“Hobos have to know safe places in the wild too.”

“Granted,” said Jones, “But why would they need so many?

“It’s not like they’d all go into the same house, you know.”

“But from what you say, there were close to one in every three.”

“But if you look at the distribution, they seem to have been evenly spread out for the most part, with an extra concentration in the more likely food-bearing places downtown.”

“Which means not much at all, Trev. I still say it’s just as compatible with a crazy cult of inbred locals.”

“For which you have evidence that’s, oh right, not much at all.”

They all laughed and I noticed Trevor looking at me closely. “What do you think, Hugh?”

“You’ll find inscriptions like that in lots of local places. I have no strong opinion either way. I’m much more interested in the system of signs itself.”

Trevor nodded vigorously. “Exactly right! A man who cuts to the quick of things. What did you notice in that respect?”

“I noticed about 23 different signs; I didn’t pay enough attention at first to say that’s exhaustive, but a set of signs that size could be an alphabet, or it could be a stripped-down system of words. However, the inscriptions were too long and repetitive to be naturally interpretable as sequences of words. So, I suspect it’s an alphabet. The set’s probably too small to be a syllabary, you see, and much too small to encode larger sequences per sign.”

Trevor nodded. “Can you disencrypt it?”

I laughed hollowly. “If it’s just a simple direct encoding of English, either the written or the spoken form, I could probably do so with enough samples after a good deal of effort, but if it’s not English, hardly.”

Trevor spread out his hands. “So that’s it then. Ah well, I guess we can return to our pointless speculations, right?”

After we returned to our suite, Trevor said, “I’m glad to see you’re getting over Ingrid. Or are you just on the rebound?”

I stared at him and finally said, “I don’t know.”

“Good night, Hugh. Sweet dreams.”

Alas, there was no sweetness to my dreams, only an angry meow at odd intervals outside my door as steel-sharp claws scratched most of the way through the wood. The next morning I woke up early and checked to make sure the outside of my bedroom door was intact. When I walked into the dining room after my shower, Purnell finished, “ ‘You don’t come here for the hunting, do you?’ ” and laughter abounded. One of the older students asked him loudly, “So, is that how you got your start?” Purnell waited for the laughter to die down and winked, “No, I like lumberjacks, not bears.”

I sat at our usual table and Felicia blushed and went for a cup of coffee. Helen had arrived a few minutes earlier and asked, “What’s wrong with her?”

I looked at her levelly and finally just said, “You’ll find out soon enough.”

She looked puzzled for a short while and asked, “Sleep well?”

“No.”

“Oh?”

I just nodded and she quietly said, “Meeee-ow!”

I laughed and said, “That’s not funny.”

“For you.”

Soon Finley, Trevor, and Chantal joined us, and when Judy walked past Finley blushed and went for a cup of coffee. I looked at Trevor and said, “Back to the grind.”

“Yeah.”

And so began another semester. Two mornings later when I sat down to breakfast, Helen saw me and blushed deeply, and despite the undue pleasure I took in the sight I merely nodded and said, “Good morning.”

“Umm...I need a refill.”

I smiled and said, “Get me a cup too?”

She paused and said, “Sure.”

As we talked after her return, she spoke increasingly naturally but was still taken wholly aback when Smith and Jones sat down at the next table and the former blushed on seeing her, and I had a little pang of jealousy that made me shake my head at myself sadly. Soon we were joined by Anne, Felicia, and Judy, at one or more of whom Jones blushed, and suddenly Chantal appeared at the door and waved Helen over for a confab that explained itself to us regulars when she and Benjamin mutually blushed on seeing each other. Helen came back and said, “Chantal’s not well. I should go see what’s wrong.”

Anne leaned over and said quietly, “She’ll do better to just join us. It won’t get any easier if she doesn’t.”

Helen looked at her with shock and said, “What?!”

“Didn’t you read your brochure?”

“Were we supposed to?”

Judy snorted and laughed around an interrupted swallow of coffee that went everywhere and Felicia shook her head and said, “Oh, pobrecitas!” The rest of us maintained a stoic silence and looked elsewhere as we wiped coffee off our faces. Anne said, “We need to talk,” and went out with her. Twenty minutes later they returned with Chantal, and she and Helen spoke little as they pecked at their food and quickly rushed out. Before they left I heard Chantal mutter something to Helen filled with emmerdante, maudite, enfer, chienlit, foutue, and a bewildering profusion of turns of phrase involving anatomically impossible contortions with every sacred implement on the altar. After they left, Trevor chuckled and said to me, “Whoever thought the French are always the soul of graciousness?”

Smith had heard Trevor and said, “Man, that was like this girl from Strasbourg I dated once. It was foutu this, emmerdant that, and everything she refused to do with me performed verbally on a poor communal wafer in a cathedral with the Pope officiating.”

We laughed and Finley said, “You know, that’s thought to be a German trait dating from the Investiture Controversy that survived even after the French took over the city.” At first I marveled at a heretofore unevidenced knowledge of basic European history on his part, never mind the ludicrous content, but Smith and Jones simply looked at him. With a perilous calmness to his voice Smith said, “Where did you hear that, Finn?”

“It’s common knowledge among folklorists.”

Jones goggled at this and said, “Finley, are you sure about that? Haven’t you read von Fensterkacker’s Einführung in die Untersuchung der deutschen mündlichen Überlieferung?

“Oh, I don’t read German.”

“But it’s a major language of folklore studies!”

“We’re not expected to read it in our department.”

“Well, fine, there’s a solid French translation by Landreau.”

“Sorry, can’t read French either.”

“Does your department at least require a reading knowledge of English?

“Well, it is encouraged, but our discipline is an essentially oral field, after all, so we concentrate on that.”

And so once again Finley’s guilelessness and sweet nature combined to disarm all opposition.

The Saturday morning following I went to breakfast and blushed on seeing Helen for the second morning in a row, and finally she seemed as if she would not have to be excused to go some place more pleasant, like a pig farm. “Good morning, Hugh,” she smiled with a slight flush, and I smiled back shakily, “Good morning.”

“What are you doing today?”

“I have work this morning and part of the afternoon.”

“The library, right?”

“Right.”

And so with the small talk of daily life smoothing over her introduction to the Nightly Grind, I felt comfortable enough to become expansive around her again and soon we were chatting easily and less skittishly skirted around the edges of flirting, but after a series of dreams about her and a vengeful cat as persistent as a rash I was in no suitably light mood. Shortly Purnell came over and said, “Hugh, here you go. You can pick up your lunch from Sol.” I looked inside the paper bag he gave me and said, “Thanks. This should make things up with her.”

Helen looked at me quizzically. “Girlfriend?”

“Of sorts.”

She reached across the table suddenly with a grim expression and looked inside the sack.

“What?! A dead chipmunk?”

“It’s a chipmunk skin filled with paté and sprinkled in catnip.”

She laughed loud, long and brightly and said, “You really know how to treat a woman.”

I left early for the library and waited on the green until the ugly tortoiseshell cat saw me and glared burning anger at me. I bowed and held out the bag, which made her stop short and turn my way. When she was a couple of yards from me, I opened the bag upside down a few inches above the ground, and when she smelled the chipmunk she became all obsequiousness and let me pet her as she chewed on it and drooled in drugged abandon. “Are we good?” I asked and she purred loudly and twitched her tail, so I said, “Have a good day while I’m at work, you hear?” and she ignored me as I walked off to the library.

I spent six hours searching for more manuscripts and processing, scanning, and recording the information of the ones I found, one eye on my work and the other on my open textbook. In the mid-afternoon I locked up and returned to the dorm for some reading before dinner. After dinner, Trevor and I were getting ready for a short hike when Helen passed by the door and said, “Oh, where are you guys going?”

I said, “Short walk up river.”

Trevor added, “Wanna come with?”

She thought for a second and said, “Can Chantal come too?”

I smiled, “Sure, the more the merrier.” Chantal had blushed on seeing me that morning and it seemed that Helen had the idea of bringing her along to help her adjust to the Nightly Grind, which for certain provincial French types was always tougher than the mean.

Five minutes later they stood at our door and said, “Allons, les gars!” We walked to the green as we chatted about our classes, and a certain tortoiseshell cat meowed happily at me and went about her business. Helen asked, “Oh, is that her?”

“Yep.”

“So you’re all forgiven?”

“Yeah, but for whatever I’ll never know.”

Chantal looked quizzically at Helen, and she said, “Hugh’s girlfriend. They had a spat.” She looked even more quizzical and a little ill at ease, and I told her that she was a cat that had decided I was her friend until suddenly she had started trying to prey on me in my dreams. Perhaps in a couple of weeks Chantal would have taken it in stride, but she just frowned and shook her head.

After a minute of silence, Trevor started pointing out the sights as we passed, and soon we reached the Miskatonic. We looked around and I pointed upstream: “This way.” As we walked, Helen and I told about our families and Trevor and Chantal listened.

“So your father’s what kind of lawyer?” I asked her.

“Family law, estate planning mostly, some adoption matters and the like.”

“And your mother?”

“His secretary.”

“Your sister?”

“She’s the family paralegal.”

I laughed. “And your brother? Is he full partner yet?”

She laughed. “He’s a sanitation engineer.”

We all laughed. I said, “All law firms need one to cart away the shredded documents.”

She laughed and said, “Oh, he started out as a garbage man, but now he’s a supervisor. I mean, he’s really an engineer now. Civil engineer, you know. He was a garbage man in high school and went to college and now he supervises the waste disposal people as he learns how to build better sewerage systems.”

I smiled, “I like a man who...”

“If you say ‘...knows his shit’ I’ll beat you.”

“I was going to say ‘...knows how to make his way in the world,’ but I like yours better.”

She gave an exasperated groan and swatted my upper arm.

When we reached the bench on the bank near the meadowy niche in the woods, Trevor and I let the other two sit down while we peered around a bit. “What are you two looking for?” asked Chantal.

“Hugh’s probably keeping watch for cats both feral and domestic, but I’m just trying to remember where the bare spot is.”

“Bare spot?”

I said, “It’s a nice spot near the middle of the clearing where people have bonfires sometimes. Someone put down flat rocks so there’s little risk of burning down these woods with a stray spark.”

Chantal grinned, “A bonfire? How lovely!”

Trevor said, “Well, that sounds like a vote of confidence among our constituents, Hugh.”

“Indeed it does, Trev. —That way. I sighted it last time. See that pine?”

“Good eye, my man.”

I walked that way to make sure the way was passable and the others followed; after we reached the bare spot I went on a little distance and collected some dead branches until I reached the pile of logs left by local foresters, a rare touch of civic fellow-feeling in such a ghastly land. Five minutes later Trevor and I had a small fire going and we all crouched before it. Soon we were sitting cross-legged in front of it in a windward semicircle due to the light easterly breeze. We began by telling about our favorite work stories from college.

I started, “Well, one year I worked at the campus gym, in the equipment room, and in the evenings there were two of us stationed there and two supervisors who liked to slough off in the cubicle behind us. One of them was a guy getting ready for law school, and one evening we were chatting about how Melba, my coworker, had been mugged and he said, ‘Yeah, when I’m on the streets I’ll catch punks like that and teach’em what’s what.’ ‘I thought you’re gonna be a lawyer,’ I said, and he said, ‘No, I’m going to the police academy. You don’t need to know law to become a policeman.’ We all started laughing and he got really angry and said, ‘Oh, come on, you know what I mean,’ and Melba said, ‘No, no, it’s just that we think you’d make a great policeman. You have the perfect attitude to your work.’ And he just got madder and madder and we just got meaner and meaner. Oh, it was great, but I’ll never drive in that city. Don’t wanna run into him. —Chantal, your turn.”

She said, “When I was in school my third year I worked in a department store. Saleswoman. One day this man came up to me and asked, ‘Do you have notions?’ Bon sang, I had no idea what that really meant, so I said, ‘None of your business.’ ‘No no, do you keep stationery?’ so I slapped him. My manager came over and asked me what had happened and then he told the man to leave immediately before he called security. Finally another saleswoman came over, canouque anglaise, and she explained everything. Poor man left like a paroled prisoner. —Trevor?”

“Oh, in college I worked for a few months as a baker. I was supposed to only work on weekends, but the weekday baker was a guitarist in a band and she kept calling me to fill in for her with six hours’ notice because their career was taking off. After a while I just let the answering machine take it, and when she confronted me about it I said, ‘I wasn’t home.’ ‘Then give me the number where you’ll be.’ ‘But it’s different every night.’ And she couldn’t say anything about it because exactly the same was true of her. —Helen?”

“Oh, I worked in a bookstore in college. One evening a young couple came in and looked around, and after I showed them where fiction was I went and read at the desk. They came up and the woman asked me, ‘Do you have any [ˈflabr̩t]?’ I just pointed to the shelf behind them with translated fiction, and her boyfriend said, ‘Honey, I think it’s [floˈbɛɹ],’ and she blushed and finally said, ‘I didn’t think she’d know that,’ and I just smiled and said, ‘Mais oui, c’est vrai, elle a raison. Quand j’étais à Paris, chez un vendeur de bouquins au Boul-Mich, j’ai demandé, “Avez-vous du [floˈbɛʁ]?” et le mec-là m’a regardée longtemps et m’a dit enfin, “Ah, vous voulez dire [ˈflabr̩t].” ’ Poor girl slunk out with her tail between her legs after picking up our cheapest copy of Éducation sentimentale.

We laughed and Chantal started singing old Québecois songs; she had a pretty voice so we gladly listened, and after fifteen minutes she said, “Your turn, guys.” No one volunteered, so she looked at me and said, “Hugh?”

I had discovered that while I couldn’t carry most tunes in a bucket, some classic songs had been written to fit a range that happened to be mine, so I sang quietly,

I won’t dance, why should I?
I won’t dance, how could I?
I won’t dance, merci beaucoup.
I know that music leads the way to romance,
So if I hold you in my arms I won’t dance.

At the end I said, “Helen?” She looked at me throughout as she sang but especially pointedly at the lines,

What is your latest foible?
Are manuscripts more exquisite?
Is hiking more enjoyable?
For heaven’s sake, what is it?

I can’t believe
That love has lost its glamour
That passion is really passé.
If gender is just a term in grammar
How can I ever find my way,
Since I’m a stranger here myself?

At the end, she said, “Trevor?”

“Oh, if I must,” he said and began,

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlor’nes Lieb ! Ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.
Das weiß ich längst.

Towards the middle of it, Chantal on my right whispered, “J’ai froid,” and put her arm through mine; soon her head was on my shoulder. When Trevor finished, there was a long stunned pause and I said, “I didn’t know you could sing lieder.

“Most I can’t,” he shrugged.

“Show-off,” I muttered, and he replied, “Wovon man singen kann, darauf muß man stolz sein.”

I grinned back, “Und wenn du nicht mehr trinken kannst, so singst du wundervoll.”

Helen had glanced several times at Chantal and said, “I think we should head back. It’s getting late.” We all agreed and I helped Chantal to her feet and let her borrow my jacket. She walked back next to Trevor while Helen and I walked a couple of paces behind them, her on the left. As we walked back I asked her about her school as an undergrad, and she said, “Oh, linguistics was my major, you know, but I did a minor concentration in classics, four years of Latin, three of Greek.”

“A solemn Afro-Greek eager for grades.”

“Oh, you know the classics! Very good, Hugh, I might be able to introduce you to my parents yet.”

Chantal turned at that and said sweetly, “Ah oui, vraiment?”

“Oh, ça va toi!”

Soon conversation died down and we trod along quietly as the moon rose higher. When we reached the dorm Chantal returned my jacket and kissed me and Trevor on the cheek. “Thank you for a wonderful evening,” she said and walked off to their suite. Helen looked after her and said, “Thanks, I’m happy you took us along.”

Trevor said, “Certainly, you have an open invitation in future.”

“Hugh? Good night. Miao!”

I grimaced and said, “Still not funny yet.”

She winked and walked off to her room. Trevor and I went to our suite and quickly went to bed as Finley sat in the dark looking out the window. “Staying up long?” I asked.

“Can’t sleep.”

“Good luck with that. Good night.”

I soon fell asleep, and after a while a knock came at my door. I opened it to find Helen standing there, and she reached out for my hand and said, “Come on, we have to go.” We walked on a goodly distance in an enforced silence that encouraged intimate gazes and eventually found ourselves outside the administration building. We looked around and saw a basement door; we tried it and found it unlocked. She pulled me along the halls to a door in the back marked “Records.”

“They’ll never think to look for us in here,” she whispered and pulled me inside. We sat down on a couch facing row upon row of head-high file cabinets with a corridor to the door on the left side and looked at each other. I said, “So...” and she put her finger to my lips and smiled, then ran it down to my shirt. When she finished unbuttoning it, she pushed out her chest and said, “Your turn.”

A few minutes later our caresses were interrupted by a plaintive meow. I groaned and Helen laughed, and the cat sat watching us with glowing eyes. Suddenly her ears turned and she stared towards the door and immediately after hissed in fear and anger. Helen stared at me in fear and said, “I guess they knew exactly where to look for us.”

“Why would anyone look for us?”

“Clearly our union’s a threat to someone.”

“Then why’d you bring us to Records?”

“Because nobody ever knows what’s in here.”

The door opened then, but whatever came in silently was hidden by the file cabinets. The cat stood at the edge of the cabinets looking down the corridor and screeched bloody murder, and when she turned and ran we knew we had no time left. As something lurked in the dark beyond the edge of the cabinets, I stood in front of Helen and looked around for something heavy or at least pointed, and before the lurker turned the corner I awoke in a sweat. Eventually I fell asleep again and dreamed of Pamela and Veronica teasing me mercilessly about my latest schoolboy crush.

The next morning I woke up exhausted and grim and went to breakfast with deep misgivings. Indeed, when Helen and I blushed in unison, her expression was queasy and we barely spoke the entire meal despite Chantal’s best efforts to draw us out. Afterwards, I waited for her near the door and she said, “Let’s talk this afternoon. I have work to do and I can’t deal with this right now. I’ll come by when I’m free.” I nodded and went back to our suite to read.

Shortly before four she poked her head in the door and said, “Hugh? You free?” I put down my book and followed her out. Trevor and Finley looked up briefly and said, “Hi, Helen, bye, Hugh,” and returned to reading. We walked a hundred yards or so from the dorm and sat on the grass. For a long time we said nothing, and I finally said, “I’m sorry last night was so terrible. Dreaming here can be horrific.”

“Have you ever had a dream like that before?”

“Not like that, but worse a few times.”

“What about?”

I shook my head. “No, do you want to catch them?”

“I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I can’t make sense of it.”

“There is no sense to nightmares in this place. Don’t think about it too much, okay? You don’t want it to return.”

She nodded. “Anyway, would you like to have a civilized dinner with me in town?”

“What, are you already tired of homogenized meat substitute?”

“I most certainly am. And don’t try to foist off a paté chipmunk on me either.”

We laughed and I asked, “Six-thirty?”

“Good.”

“I’ll meet you at your suite.”

“I’ll be ready.”

We returned to the dorm and I finished my chapter. I dressed presentably and met Helen, and we walked to a restaurant on the far side of Pursleyville. As we walked, we talked of her favorite Ohio scenes, her trip to the Miskatonic Valley, and some of the interesting features of the land that Trevor and I had seen. We were seated along the side of the main room of the restaurant facing the door, and after we ordered we talked of our earlier trips to various places. She asked me numerous questions about Brazil and Kazakhstan and answered several of mine about St. Kitts, Martinique, and Paris.

“So yes, my aunt had the idea of my going to a private school in Martinique for a year, and after my French had gotten good enough my father made sure I got into a very good private school in Paris for two years. —Oh, I was 17 when I returned to Ohio, almost 18. I went to high school there for my senior year to make sure I met all the graduation requirements and went to college the next year as usual. —No, I’ve never been to the heartland. I don’t need to listen to the joyous sound of commerce and industry wafting across the staked plains. —Well, I’m glad you like that song. Musically it’s painfully dull. —Good for you recognizing that. And yes, there’s any number of silly ditties I love too, but I think the staked plains would be very dull, perhaps even as dull as the song’s melodic line. —Listen to you. ‘The grandeur of vast, wide-open expanses subtly changing their colors as the sun moves overhead’? What is that, Stockholm Syndrome? —Oh, so now you’re just quoting your high school textbook.”

We chuckled as our food arrived, and I smiled in approbation of her choice of wine. “To sweeter dreams,” she said, raising her glass, and we clinked glasses and drank.

After dessert I paid the bill and we walked towards the Miskatonic, trading off the rest of the bottle of wine until it was tapped out. When we reached Bank Road she took my hand and pulled me upstream. We walked for a while until we came to a pair of oak trees by the road, and I turned to walk between them. She followed my path, and on the other side I put my hands on her waist and pulled her to me, and she breathed out a whispered “Ah” as she tilted her head and leaned in to me. Many minutes later she pulled away and said, “It’s too cold out. If we had a sleeping bag...I don’t want to make things worse for Chantal. She’s had a very hard time with this place.” She looked at me questioningly.

“I don’t want our first night to be in my dingy little room. Shall we find a room in town?”

After she nodded, she pulled her sweater down and smoothed down her outfit, and as we walked back arm in arm she asked quietly, “You are unattached, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

She said, “In every way? I have to know. You have had those dreams with others here, yes? Dreams like ours?”

“Yes, of course.”

“There’s no one I need to be worried about, is there?”

“No, I assure you.”

She nodded again. “Who were they?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I want to be sure of that.”

“No, that’s all past. It’s after we’re together and the dreaming continues I’m not looking forward to.”

She nodded. “I’d hope it would stop.”

“It won’t.”

“So don’t be jealous when it happens to me.”

“I’ll try. Won’t be fun.”

“Nope, won’t.”

The next morning I woke exhausted on my back, and Helen was curled up in my side where she had lain after sliding off me around midnight. I stretched, which woke her up, and after rising onto one elbow she kissed me and looked down at me. I reached up and caressed her face, neck, shoulders and breasts and said, “Good morning.”

“It is.

I kept watching my hand as my fingertips roamed around and she asked, “Do you like what you see?”

“Oh yes. You?”

She giggled, “You’ll do.”

As I looked at her I fancied that several generations of miscegenation had worked their magic to bring hybrid vigor to perfection and wished to continue the tradition into the next generation, but I merely said, “Beautiful skin. Contrasts nicely with mine.”

She laughed a low sarcastic laugh. “Honey, that’s what everyone says.”

“It’s still true though.”

“I’m not saying it’s not true, but give me something new this morning.”

I hoped something old would do in its stead and said,

Plus tost des Cieux de mers seront couvers,
Plus tost sans forme ira confus le monde,
Que je sois serf d’une maistresse blonde,
Ou que j’adore une femme aux yeux vers.

O bel œil brun qui vint premier éteindre
Le jour des miens les sçut si bien atteindre
Qu’autre œil jamais n’en sera vainqueur...

“Ooh, you’re good. If you just knew the contemporary pronunciation it would have been perfect. The best I ever got in the past was Shakespeare. I’d hit you if you pulled that. And you know, I must have learned half of those by heart when I was in high school, so you did much better than you knew. Shame about that ‘O cheveux d’or, ô coutaux plantureux, De lis, d’œillets, de porfyre, et d’yvoire’ though; if he’d met me I’d have broadened his palette and poor Cassandre would be long forgotten.”

I merely nodded and made a note to go into the stacks later at the library, for I’d never quite gotten that far. “We should get ready for breakfast.”

“It’s still a bit early,” she said suggestively.

J’suis tout tapé,” and she laughed. We showered and dressed quickly and rushed off to a quick breakfast before class. I asked her, “So you seem to have gotten over our joint dream quite quickly yesterday.”

She swallowed a bite of omelet and said, “I talked it out with Chantal and Emily. I’m actually not over our dream. It was a real shock, not just the invasion of my privacy, not just the nightmare, but both, you know? I had to think very carefully about what I feel for you without being pushed into anything by the dream. Of course, once I realized I liked you enough, the dream did make everything easier. But be honored, I very rarely sleep with a man before the first date.”

We laughed and I said, “If I may ask, what finally decided it for you?”

She played with a bit of egg with her fork and shortly said, “I think it was that you stood in front of me in the dream to protect me.”

We walked off to acquisition class and sat quietly together in the back, and afterwards we separated to go to our other class. “Meet me outside the dining room at lunch, okay?” she said, and I nodded and kissed her goodbye. At lunch I walked in with her hand in hand, but we went almost entirely unnoticed as Purnell finished, “ ‘Oh, that’s all right, I give up. You can have the duck,’ ” and everyone laughed. Our grand entrance deflated, we sat down and smiled back at Chantal, who moved around the table to start a rapid whispered conversation in French with Helen, who in turn moved over to the seat on her other side so they were further inaudible. As they kept glancing appraisingly at me, I went on to the lunch line and got two lunches, and when I got back to the table we chatted of nothing in particular until Trevor and Anne got off their shift. As I left to go to the library, Trevor followed me out and said, “Looks like you had an eminently satisfactory date.”

I nodded and said, “Indeed we did, my good man.”

“Good for you.”

“We can chat about it tonight, but I have to go to work.”

“Chat about what?”

“I don’t know, arrangements maybe?”

“Just don’t disturb your neighbors and I don’t think there’ll be anything to discuss.”

I grinned, “I’m not sure we can promise that.”

“In that case, you know where the sleeping bags are.”

We laughed and I marched off to work.

And so began a grueling semester. With work, my time for reading was diminished, and with Helen my desire for reading was diminished as well. Moreover, as I learned more about Manæhill, I found it surprisingly difficult to turn my attention from it to the more mundane classes in my schedule. Indeed, if I had not read extensively ahead over the summer as Gilbreath had afforded me the chance, I would have drowned. As it was, Helen herself set Tuesday and Thursday evenings from dinner until midnight as time for her studies that was not to be breached by anyone, especially someone as hypnotically distracting, as she termed it, as myself, and disappeared each evening until well after midnight; seizing the same opportunity, I devoted Tuesdays to preparing my notebook to give to Gilbreath the next day and Thursdays to reviewing what I had read over the summer or to work on assignments or papers, no matter the cost in whale oil. Those nights we slept apart; the other five we alternated her room and mine, and Trevor and Chantal both had sport laughing at my ceremony of moving Helen’s chair from her suite to ours and back throughout the week.

The semester was difficult in other ways as well, which though foreseen were no less hard. A few mornings after we began, we woke up a bit late and found it hard to look at each other. Helen said, “We should go get breakfast.” She dressed and kissed me as she went off to her suite; when she opened the door, she said, “Oh, hi, Trev,” and Trevor said, “Good morning.” After she left, I walked out in my robe with my towel and toiletries and nodded to Trevor, who nodded back and returned to reading. When I went into the dining room, I blushed on seeing Chantal, whose eyes widened until she looked away; shortly after, Helen came in and blushed on seeing Finley, who cleared his throat and went to get a refill of coffee. We said nothing much at the time, especially after Chantal whispered hurried French in her ear, but as we walked out she said, “But Chantal?!”

I retorted, “Why Finley?”

And in the next few acrimonious minutes as we walked to class, we became increasingly jealous and short-tempered until I decided to apologize on behalf of my reprobate dreams before we started tearing at each other in earnest.

“You’d better be sorry. It’s bad enough we have to have those dreams, but if you don’t feel any guilt over them, pretty soon you’ll think there’s nothing wrong in following up on them during the day.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed with the universality of her argument, but as it seemed to draw on some experience of hers I let it pass without comment, and she continued quietly after a long pause, “And sorry, really.”

Although the frequency of such dreams did seem to have decreased somewhat compared to my experiences the preceding year, they occurred frequently enough to impress on me the ease with which Bob Jenkins’ pills could make the staidest of men a junkie within a month. One workaround we discovered was to spend at least one weekend night a week in Pursleyville, a serious hit to our budgets that nonetheless well repaid itself; another was to skip breakfast a morning or two a week, for the blushing reflex did decay over the course of the day and could be taken in stride at lunch. Finally, while we did have such dreams with distressing frequency, surprisingly often they left us blushing at each other, an unexpected blessing to the curse.

The part of my life that took the greatest damage that semester, however, was my correspondence with Pamela and Veronica, for not only did the volume of my letters decrease, my need to communicate with someone, anyone, outside the circle of daily life was much lessened. Pamela’s response to my news was to tell me to tell her all about Helen at the next vacation, while Veronica wrote, “If, as you imply, you’re now spending your nights deeply immersed in a true work of art, perhaps by the time you visit us next you’ll have something valuable to say on the subject.”

In a letter late in the semester, Pamela informed me that the Boston City Council had finally been prevailed upon to defund and shut down the Subway Museum and the associated research project; she and Veronica were looking around for another place to live, preferably outside New England, and they invited me to help them pass their last Christmas season in their apartment. I was given permission to bring Helen if she was willing to come, but she said she would only be able to spend one or two days there before going to meet her family, whom she considered it too early for me to meet, or else after her return.

Apart from all this, I began considering the prospect of receiving my MA. After a good deal of reflection, I realized I didn’t care, so I took no account of the award ceremony in making my winter plans. Instead, I would pick up my diploma at the registrar’s office and continue working until four days before Christmas, when I would make my way to Boston for a week; Helen would be back in New York two days after Christmas and fly into Boston, where we would stay with Pamela and Veronica for two nights. We would then get a ride with an acquaintance of Felicia’s, a grad student in history, before New Year’s, a Boston celebration Pamela warned us to do our best to avoid; the dreams were uniformly horrific and the ceremonies skewed in troubling ways.

Although I had no interest in any ceremony to award my MA, I was quite interested in certain attendant matters that, fortunately, were settled long before vacation started. In early December I had an appointment with Aylesworth to discuss my future in the department. I showed up five minutes early fully caffeinated and dressed most spiffily, and the department’s administrative director, Nancy, greeted me with a smile and said, “Mr. Viner, always a pleasure.”

“How are you, Nancy?”

She smiled and said, “Quite well. I’m going to be a grandmother in a month or so.”

“Congratulations. You don’t look a day over forty.”

She grinned, “I’m not.”

“Oh. Well, you don’t even look a day over thirty-two.”

She smiled with pleasure and ushered me into Aylesworth’s office. “Have a seat. Selena will be in shortly.” From my chair I looked at her bookshelves and around the room. On one wall was a picture of an attractive older woman of stern aspect next to a markedly younger Aylesworth, both in academic robes, with an inscription and signature. I stood up and walked over to look closer, and as I tried to decipher the hand, the door opened and Aylesworth said, “She wrote, ‘Best of luck to my newest fledgling doctor.’ That’s Frances Killian, my old advisor. She taught here for many years.”

“Hello, Dr. Aylesworth.”

“Hello, Hugh. So you managed to earn a degree from us despite your theoretical heathenish nature,” she smiled.

“And an epic struggle it was, too.”

“Posh, save the heroic rhetoric for the laity. You have half a brain on your shoulders and strong enough Sitzfleisch to stay the course so far. An MA means relatively little; it’s what you do now that counts.”

“And what shall I do now?”

She smiled, “I had assumed you would either stay for your PhD or leave with an MA.”

“You take no risks.”

“Welcome to academia, Hugh,” she nodded. “So, we’ve read your application for the PhD program and none of the faculty had any objections, so I’ve signed off on it. Totally pro forma in your case. You do realize that if you continue in your current rut, you’ll have to get outside members for your committee. Gilbreath is no problem, and a couple of sociologists or anthropologists could serve as well, but you should make a note of any potential suitable outside members at conferences or the like. But that’s only once you’ve got a better idea what you want to do.”

“Thanks for the advice. I hadn’t really thought of that.”

“Also, take time some time to look through some of the old dissertations in the library. That should cure you of any lingering belief that you need to write a magnum opus. You don’t, just a masterpiece,” she smiled.

I paused for a second. “Huh?”

“In the old sense, the piece of work an apprentice did to show the guild he qualified as a master.”

“Ah.”

“People too often forget the medieval origins of the modern university. If they kept them more in mind, there would be much less starry-eyed nonsense about the institution.”

“What was your dissertation on?”

“The analysis of certain constructions in Koyukon using a theoretical framework I later did the primary work in overthrowing. It’s of course purely of historiographical interest now.”

She handed me a copy of a letter confirming my admittance to the PhD program and shook my hand. “Welcome aboard.”

As I took the letter and thanked her, a knock came at the door and an older man poked his head in. Aylesworth glared at him and said, “Conrad, you know never to interrupt me.”

He looked me over as if noticing me for the first time and replied with disdain, “A grad student?”

“Departmental business, I assure you.”

He strode in and shook my hand. “Conrad Matthews.”

“Hugh Viner.”

Aylesworth said, “Professor Matthews teaches in folklore. We’re working on a project together.”

“Ah, one of my suitemates is in folklore.”

“Who’s that?”

“Finley Andrews.”

He looked at me more closely. “Yes, he’s a student in my New England folklore class. One of the best students in our department, very bright, very sharp. He has a great future ahead of him. In fact, he’s got a good chance of working on part of our project next summer.”

“Ah, so you work on Algonquian folklore?”

“Of certain types, yes. We’re collating a series of myths in Alaska, Canuckistan, Québec, and Newf-Labland that haven’t been properly treated before. Selena has been doing some of the Athabascan work for us. —You don’t by any chance know Haida or Tlingit, do you?”

“No. I just know some Seri.”

His eyes brightened. “Seri! Let me ask you...”

Aylesworth interrupted, “Near Baja California, Conrad.”

“Oh, we could extend the project down to northern California, you know...”

With gritted teeth Aylesworth replied, “In Mexico.”

“But you said California.”

She jabbed swiftly at a map on her desk. “Here. See?”

He looked for a moment. His eyes faded and he said, “Ah well.” As his manner indicated I was dismissed, I nodded goodbye to Aylesworth and left, and as I closed the door I heard her say, “This latest idea of yours is even more crap than all your others put together. Haven’t you even looked at a relief map of Manitoba, you moron?”

I goggled and heard Nancy snickering. I looked at her questioningly and she tapped her temple. “The only reason she puts up with the guy is because he has some fascinating texts, you know. Every time he leaves, Selena has to drink a glass of scotch to keep from throttling the next person who goes in.”

“What kinds of texts?”

“Oh, a bunch of animal tales and supernatural folklore collected orally throughout the snowy north about forty years ago. Dr. Killian discovered them in the anthropology archives some time ago and got a few people interested in it, but it’s only been the last five years anyone’s had the energy to do anything with them.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, lots of stuff about bears. Folklorists here are gaga about bears now, cracked in the head for’em. And caribou. And, let’s see, lots of myths. Selena likes to tell me the ones about K’t-talqani. He kills monsters. There’s also Nik’inla’eena’. They’re hairy woodsmen. They often try to protect the ts’oq’otl from K’t-talqani, who is trying to protect humans.”

“Tsokotl?”

“Oh, I know, it’s a hard bunch of sounds even for linguists, isn’t it? It’s [tsˈɔqˈɔtɬʰ]. Well, I mean, if you were a Koyukon who was trained as a linguist though, they wouldn’t be hard then, would they?”

“Nancy, you make your ejectives very well.”

“Thanks! Selena told me if I wanted to hear more about the stories I had to learn to pronounce the names right as a courtesy to the Koyukons.”

“What are the ts’oq’otl?

“They live in the bottoms of lakes. They sometimes eat people, but they also make the lakes overflow with fish, they say. Give and take, you know.”

“Do lots of people work on this project?”

“Selena and two of the other professors, Henley and Morton. There are a couple of grad students who work on it for tuition and stipends and there’s a post-doc, but you see, even though Killian found the materials she wasn’t able to get linguistics in as co-sponsors, so we get called in only for languages the anthropologists can’t handle.”

“Or the folklorists.”

Nancy snorted, “Right, a folklorist could do that.”

“So why is folklore involved anyway then?”

“They have a budget and no mother-wit, so anthropology is more than happy to soak them. If linguistics were a co-sponsor, imagine all the fighting we’d have.”

“So what do they work on? Translating texts? That seems awfully Bloomfieldian for this place.”

“Somebody has to, but there’s lots of interesting syntactic problems involved, Selena says. She spends a lot of time reading a bunch of texts about the ts’oq’otl by some of the medicine men and a couple of old hunters who had dealings with them. She said their speech seems to have been influenced by that somehow when they describe how you talk to them.”

“Talk to them? The ts’oq’otl understand Koyukon?”

“Well, Selena’s really unclear on that part so I’m totally at sea, but it’s kind of like that. It involves dreaming or dream quests or something like that. She goes on about LF replication and one-to-one mappings even though she knows I don’t know what she means and mutters all the time about multiple branching from nodes and all that. —You know, maybe you could work on that.”

“Interesting, but it’s not really my cup of tea apart from the languages.”

“Funny, that’s the one part everyone else seems to hate except Selena.”

Really. Good for her.”

That evening I met with Gilbreath for the last regular class meeting of the semester. After congratulating me on acceptance to the PhD program, he handed me back my notebook and said, “Good job.” We spent the class discussing a couple of issues from the last class, then my choice of topic for the paper, and I handed over my dictionary and grammar.

“Are you sure you don’t want more time?”

“No, I think these are good enough as is.”

“All right, it’s your choice.”

“Dr. Gilbreath, I have a question.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Not about Manæhill. What do you think of Dr. Aylesworth’s research project?”

“What research project?”

“The work with folklore and anthropology.”

He chuckled. “You mean the work she does on the side with them. It’s hardly hers; most of them hate her as much as she despises them and they’d love to get rid of her, but she produces a lot of material they need so they tolerate her, like she tolerates them. —It’s useful work she does, I gather. I doubt she’ll get to publish any of it though.”

“Why?”

“Office of the President keeps a close eye on certain bequests and any projects based on them. That’s one of them.”

“But why?

“The ways of the gods are mysterious to mere mortals like ourselves, Hugh. There are certain odd legal restrictions that get invoked when a green slip arrives by special messenger. They don’t make much sense, but they must be obeyed.”

“What could they do to her?”

“They’d tell her all publications have to be submitted through Legal, and Legal would warn her that too much of the data violates confidentiality agreements, the details themselves being kept strictly confidential, and submission for publication contrary to their directives would result in serious disciplinary sanctions. Not least of which would be the seizure of all her materials. No linguist would risk that. She has hinted that the President’s Office is sniffing around it already; it’ll probably be strictly desk drawer work.”

“Does that happen often?”

“That’s confidential information, Hugh.”

“But?”

“Often enough to keep the fear of the green slip in the back of everyone’s mind.”

“That’s appalling.”

“Yes, but one learns to live with it.”

“What about this language?”

He stared levelly at me for several seconds. “Yes, I was wondering whether to ask you not to tell anyone much about it until after you finish your PhD and move on to greener pastures. I doubt a green slip would be sent down from the desk of our amphibian fill-in for Zeus, but as it does rely on years of native informant work there are grounds for them to stop it if they like. I’ll publish eventually, but probably not until after retirement or moving to another university.”

“Do you discuss it much with your colleagues?”

“Why? All they’d be interested in is digging through my data to misappropriate the interesting bits for themselves, and it might give them a sword to stab me with if they feel I threaten their positions. —Have you mentioned it to any of them?”

“You told me not to.”

“I meant specifics of any sort.”

“Well, oddly, I haven’t bothered to mention it to anyone. At all, really,” at which I thought curiously for a second. “It’s never come up. I’ve never brought it up, rather.”

He nodded, “People often find when they’re doing seriously creative work that they have to keep it deeply secret. Once you get the language thoroughly under your belt you’ll be bursting at the seams.”

“I guess. So have you looked at any of her work?”

“No, Hugh, we tolerate each other but she’d scarcely try to enroll me in her work. Why are you so curious about it?”

“She seems to be doing actual linguistics. You know, learning the language and translating texts and analyzing them.”

“Yes, it’s rare for a New Englander. It’s one reason she rules the roost among her like-minded colleagues; doing actual work puts them in great awe of her. And you think you’d like to do some actual work in that line yourself?”

“No, it doesn’t interest me much, the translating I’d have to do, and her ideas sound a bit wispy. But I’m curious why she’d do it. There must be something interesting there in those folktales. Hairy woodsmen and culture heroes and lake critters, it sounds like a tedious diet after a while.”

He chuckled pensively. “Hairy woodsmen and lake critters, huh?”

“Yes, Koyukon medicine men talk with them or something. Well, not the hairy woodsmen.”

“Well, there’s your answer: Koyukon. She’s an expert in it, so of course she’d be interested in long texts like that.”

“I guess.”

“So...did I clear up your quandary?”

“Well, you satisfied my curiosity enough, I guess.”

“She’s a very good linguist, don’t get me wrong, despite her theoretical commitments. If you were specializing in Athabascan I’d strongly encourage you to work with her professionally, though only on something you could publish. Indeed, if she ever offers a structure course again I’d pretty much require you to take it. But for sociolinguistics she’d be no greater benefit to you than any other syntactician here.”

“So you do respect her as a linguist.”

“Certainly.”

“Despite the fact that she’s committed to New England linguistics.”

“Quite. Hugh, instead of asking, ‘How can someone so smart accept such rubbish?’ you should say to yourself, ‘If someone so smart can see virtues in a theory, perhaps I should reconsider its merits.’ Don’t judge a theory by its less accomplished crowds but by its leading practitioners. I’d say it’s a failing of the young, but alas, it affects most people at any age. You said you wanted to be introduced to a different approach to linguistics, so have at it.”

“But I have been introduced to it and I understand how the theory holds together, in the basics at least. But I don’t buy its premises.”

“Not in the market, eh?” We chuckled and he continued, “Yes, it’s extra-linguistic. Decided by one’s philosophical views, right? Well then, here’s your chance to reexamine all your views in just the same way you wish everyone else would. It’s a problem with many people, you never consider that the adherents of a viewpoint you dislike might have already done that and found your views lacking.”

I was set to ask him another question but decided to let it wait; Helen had urged me to return as soon as possible after class to celebrate my acceptance, so it seemed best to call an end to the class for the semester.

That semester also brought changes at the library. Finding windows tampered with and broken, Cornelius had obtained permission to hire more security, and so Grampa Ferguson showed some measure of satisfaction in issuing commands to Sonny Jarvis and Uncle Hendricks. At the beginning of October I had a meeting with Cornelius and the head of the bookers, Janet Frescobaldi, which he started off by saying, “We’ve had some threats against the library.”

After a long pause, Janet said, “Who in the world would be so goddamn bored they’d threaten a library?

Cornelius replied, “Janet, it’s not a laughing matter. There are some very troubled people in this part of the world.”

“Pshaw. Do you actually buy all those silly old widows’ tales about lodges of long-knived dark monks out in the woods?”

“I take credible threats very seriously that name names and give schedules.”

After a long silence she said, “Show me.”

He handed over a photocopy to each of us. As I looked through the list, I marveled at someone’s observational acumen almost as much as I feared it. Clearly perturbed, Janet sat beside me staring into space. Finally she said, “Damn. What do they want?”

“They want the library shut down.”

“Why?!”

“I have no idea, but I suspect it’s to force a change in administration towards something friendlier to the old staff.”

I said, “Or maybe they have really big late fees.”

“Hugh, shut up.”

As we discussed measures we might take, I mentally went over some of the manuscripts I’d worked through, sifting through them for what they might suggest about the matter. After returning to the warren, I looked through them while referring to my notebooks and thought hard about the stashes I’d made in secluded parts of the warren. Perhaps a place more secluded was called for, I decided, and thought hard as I made a point of setting about over the next few months finding every manuscript I could that remained in the piles.

After turning in my assignments to Gilbreath, I still had a paper to write for him and finals in my other three classes. The final in acquisition was fairly easy, that in advanced syntax rather harder, and that in Galois theory a serious challenge, but in all three I passed well enough. The final paper in Manæhill could easily have expanded to a half-baked monograph, but I rigorously held to my topic, the use of the subject-possessive and non-subject-possessive markers with verbal nouns in comparison with full-blown switch reference systems, and explored most of its ramifications to my satisfaction. Gilbreath gave me an A on it, reluctantly (he said) given the absence of one particular construction I hadn’t even thought to check, and returned it with three pages of comments, counter-arguments, and pointed questions attached that fermented in my mind over break.

Once the paper was handed in, I worked a full work week at the library until the 19th, doing the work of all four of us for a week. Helen had finished the day after me, and for three days and nights we spent our free time together. Too soon, however, she left on a bus to New Haven to catch a ship to New York, leaving me counting the days until the bus to Lynn and hike into Boston. I arrived without incident and prepared to walk to Pam and Ver’s apartment.

Before meeting Pamela, however, I walked to a small café-bakery; when I sat down, I checked my watch and saw I was on time. I found a small table in the back corner where two booths met and sat next to their join. Suddenly I opened my backpack and took out a few things to better rummage through ita couple of books, a box of pens, a wrapped package, two notebooks, and a couple of presentsand just then a tall man my age sat down. I looked up and smiled, “Jim! Glad to see you.”

“How are you, Hugh?” He put his backpack down close to mine and opened it. I handed him a small present I pulled from my bag and said, “Merry Christmas.”

He handed me a small book in return and said, “And Happy New Year,” as we shook hands.

“It was great to hear from you. How’s the old neighborhood?”

“Quiet. Good thing Glenda had your address; she gave it to me when she heard I was coming up here.”

“So what is this conference?”

“Small thing on American languages. There are some interesting papers.”

I nodded. “At least we have one day of overlap in Boston.”

“Hmm, yes, I wouldn’t want more time here than absolutely necessary.”

“That’s the way of this place, isn’t it?”

Jim asked, “How long will you stay here?”

“Too long, I fear.”

“How is New England?”

“Rusted rustic charm without the charm. —What do you think of Boston?”

“I will be ever so happy to leave this place. Boston does not love the black man.”

“Boston hates everybody. Don’t take it personally.”

“I don’t. My distaste for this city is wholly impersonal.”

“How are your dreams?”

He shook his head. “Hugh, I did not think it was possible for me to have dreams like that. There must be something in the water.”

“Most people say the air.”

“Oh, I have something for you from the conference. Remember Jackson?”

“Culpepper? A year ahead of us?”

“Yes. He gave a paper on Seri you should enjoy. I got an extra handout for you.”

“Thank you! I’m eager to see what he has to say.”

He dug in his bag and handed over to me a handout of half a dozen two-sided pages. I flipped through it for a minute as he sipped at his coffee. Finally he asked, “How are classes here?”

We then discussed our coursework for a quarter hour and gossiped about the old department for a few minutes. “You know, you raised some eyebrows coming here. I hope it’s worth it.”

“Maybe.”

“Meet any interesting people anyway?”

I grinned, “Oh yes, most certainly.”

He looked at me appraisingly and said, “I take it that you’re seeing someone then?”

“Oh yes.”

“So you’re over Sally?”

“I have been since before I came here.”

“Really. That’s not what rumor holds.”

“Rumor is not entirely reliable. —How is Sally?”

“She’s doing well. You’d probably have a hard time recognizing her; she’s a redhead now. Anyway, we had our first anniversary a couple of weeks ago.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you. You really didn’t have to come all the way up here just to get away from all that, you know. You’ve always been a sensible adult, Hugh. You amazed everyone.”

“I had my reasons.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. Three months after she...makes her choice, you suddenly get a bee in your bonnet to study in New England. Ditch a promising career to come up to a cold, dark, tree-infested wasteland that time chewed up and spat out as indigestible just to study a backward approach to language? I don’t buy that it was any disinterested pursuit of the truth, Hugh. But it’s not my business. We wish you well and hope you make a go of it.”

We talked a few minutes more until he looked at his watch and said, “I have to get back to the last session. It was good to see you again.”

“And you. Say hi to Sally for me.”

“I will.”

“And Glenda, and the old gang.”

“Of course.”

“Have a safe trip. Be careful here. It’s a nasty place. How are you going back?”

“Old plane to New York, then a good plane to Texas.”

“How was the trip here?”

“I’m not eager to ride in that plane again. It felt like all the propellers were about to fall off simultaneously.”

I repacked my backpack, three books, pen box, notebooks and presents, as he put items back in his. We stood up and shook hands, and I sat back down to finish my coffee before leaving to meet Pamela. He waved through the window and patted his backpack as I waved back, and I thought for a few minutes about a past that felt further in the past than I had ever hoped it could before New England.

An hour later I knocked on their door. Pamela answered and smiled, “Right on time, Hugh. Come on in! Ver’s not here. She’s busy transferring ownership of the gallery, so she’s involved with any number of agents and lawyers inspecting all the paintings and drawings she doesn’t personally own. She has to meet three of them today. Besides, she said she knew once you got here I’d spend a couple of hours pestering you with all kinds of questions about your exciting new love life. She hates girl talk.” We laughed and walked into the study, where I sat on the couch and she sat in her armchair.

I asked, “So, how are you doing without work?”

She smiled sadly. “I miss it so much, but at least I don’t think it’ll be my death every day I have to dive. It gives me the chance to do some sailing though, and I get to go diving in the ocean when I miss it too much. It’s not the same though.”

“Did you say a proper goodbye to Barney?”

She laughed, “Yes, the cold-blooded bastard didn’t wave when I took my last dive, even when I gave him a tasty fish.”

“Have you two found a new place yet?”

“We have a lead on a nice house in New Haven.”

“Do you have a buyer for this place?”

“A few nibbles, no tugs yet.”

She went to the kitchen and poured each of us a glass of juice. When she came back and handed me mine, she said, “Okay, Hugh, time to spill your guts.”

I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly and said, “Well, I met this really cute chick and we went out and she’s really cool and life is good.”

“Oh, okay, glad to hear it. So you’re leaving now, right? ’Cause there’s really nothing to say after a declaration of love like that. The possibilities of human language have finally been exhausted.”

I started to tell her about Helen, but she held up her hand. “Start at the beginning, Hugh. You’re leaving someone out.”

“Why would you want to hear about her?”

“At one time not so very long ago, you were eager to tell us about her. Your letter was almost smutty. Hell, she sounded almost as good as Veronica, or at least that’s what I told Ver.” After a coy pause she added, “She didn’t think it was as funny as I did.”

I proceeded to give a full accounting of the more public parts of our time together. Then Pamela’s interest in vertebrate physiology kicked in, and after fifteen minutes of plying me with fairly intimate questions she said, “Okay, the girly side of my curiosity’s satisfied now. About her, anyway,” she grinned salaciously. “And you scarcely even blushed. You’re growing up.”

“Most of that’s hardly what I’d call a scandalous conversation, Pam. Asking about our first kiss? Our first fight? What she was like in the morning? What she looked like when we were talking about music? Hardly stuff to blush over.”

“Oh, is that a challenge?”

I chuckled, “No, more like a sigh of relief.”

“A sigh of relief? So it is a challenge!”

We laughed and she said, “Tell me more about the break up. That was out of nowhere. And give me all the details so I can tell my dear wife later. She hates gossip, but sometimes she just has to know everything.”

“I suspected so.”

“Oh yeah, she’ll want to know about that part anyway. The mushy romantic stuff doesn’t interest her unless it’s our mushy romantic stuff, but someone betraying one of our friends? She’ll be so curious she might even ask you a couple of clarifications later, so be sure to rub it in, okay? I know that what takes you ten minutes to tell me will take me an hour to tell Ver.”

“Because of her questions?”

“Because of how slowly I’ll dish out the info.”

I laughed. “How does she get back at you for that?”

She smiled and said, “Never you mind, young man.”

I then recapitulated the events in the library as Pamela listened closely and asked questions. After fifteen minutes she said, “Well, she certainly didn’t end things with a whimper. Do librarians really live such passionate, deceptive lives? I might have to make the acquaintance of a few.”

“Oh yes, they’re all simmering pots of curdled passions and frustrated dreams of glory.”

“We could write a ground-breaking vid series! The loves and lives of a bunch of backstabbing, conniving librarians trying to weasel their way to the top! You can supply the realistic detail, I’ll handle the interesting stuff. Though we should wait until we leave Boston, otherwise it’d be 72 hours of sex in the stacks and ten minutes of plot. Though I could write that, really I could.

“Even the male librarians?”

“Oh, who cares about them? It’d be a library at an all-girl school or something.”

“Something tells me you wouldn’t need my help then. Let’s see, why was that again? Oh yeah, I’m there for the realistic detail, but clearly you have no interest in realism.”

She laughed brightly, “Besides, I want all the royalties for myself. Sorry to cut you out of the deal so coldly, Hugh, but I’m a heartless rotten bastard deep down.”

We laughed together and then sat quietly for a couple of minutes. “Now tell me about Helen,” she said. After another twenty minutes she said, “You know, I really liked Ingrid, but you traded up.”

“You liked Ingrid?”

“Up till the end, just like you did.”

“Fair enough.”

“Now the important question: What does Helen know about Ingrid?”

I looked at her with a good deal of irritation and reluctance to start down that path, but I swallowed my hesitation and said, “The name. The bare events. She knows I cared about her quite a bit.”

“At least you haven’t deceived her. Think she likes suspecting she’s just a fill-in?”

“I don’t think she does.”

“You hope she doesn’t. She might not.”

I had nothing to say to that, and after a short pause she said, “Well, you won’t settle that talking to me. Just keep it in mind.”

She took my empty juice glass and asked, “More?” I shook my head and thanked her, and when she returned from the kitchen asked, “You told Helen about how she has to wear ruffles?” I nodded. “How did she react?”

“About like you’d expect from any normal Midwestern girl. She was mightily irked, then after she got used to the idea she teased me with ankle stripteases.”

“Yeah, that can make a girl a lot of money here.”

“I can imagine.”

“Ver and I went to one once. Coworker found out about it and we were all curious, so we went as a group. Dingy dirty little place underground in one of the outskirts. We didn’t stay long. The show was thoroughly debased. They didn’t serve anything but local beer so we didn’t even get to quench our thirst.”

“I think you’ve satisfied my curiosity as well.”

“Good. I’m glad you’ll have no reason to visit Boston after we leave.”

“If you move to New Haven, what will you do?”

“It’s on the sea. I can find something.”

“A research post?”

“If I’m lucky. I’ll probably do some odd jobs on the water so I can go diving on my own after work. But I don’t think I’ll worry about it for a few months. It’ll be a nice vacation.”

“What about Ver?”

“She already has job offers. The Mafia likes a good collector.”

We chuckled and I asked, “You never told me. How did you two meet?”

“You never asked. Friend in grad school set us up as a joke. This friend, she was smitten with me, but I wasn’t really taken with her, so she figured if she set me up with someone who was really thorny and bitchy I’d go running back to her, and she knew just this thorny bitchy gallery owner to settle me on her for good, see? Joke was on her, the first date proper ended in the back room of Ver’s gallery an hour after it started, just enough time to wolf down dinner and settle up. We were married six months later; my supposed friend never talked to me again.”

After a few seconds, she continued, “See, thing is, Ver and I weren’t the bitchy ones in that trio. But she was the sort of oversensitive soul scared of mommy’s dirty looks who sees anything forthright as bitchy. That was why I was always a little uneasy around her when she was pursuing me. You just sensed from the moment you met her that you had to walk on tiptoe around her, and no good can come of that. Ver was a perfect fit after a month of that kind of treatment. We’d probably have jumped right into things in any circumstances, but as it was I didn’t even bother looking back.”

“So why’d you put up with her in the first place?”

She grinned, “Best legs you ever saw. A young woman can put up with a lot for that.”

“To each her own.”

“Yeah, you and Ver, you two aren’t leg people,” she smiled.

“And certainly not ankle people.”

“Thank all that is good and proper for that. Ankles’re good as part of a well-shaped ensemble, but by themselves they’re actually kind of troubling. Hard lumps sticking out, not the best transition from calf to foot.”

She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “So, when did you know?”

“With which one?”

She laughed, “Okay, you’ve piqued my interest again. Both. Spill it, Hugh.”

“Hmm. Probably after a couple of weeks in either case.”

“A couple of weeks after...first meeting? First night?”

“With Helen, a couple of weeks after our first night. That’s when I was sure.

“So when did you tell her?”

I grinned. “Tell her what?”

“Do you love her?”

“Of course.”

“When did you tell her?”

“Oh, I haven’t. I’m just stringing her along. I’m cruel that way.”

“Ooh, I’m telling on you!”

“All part of my cunning plan.”

She snorted. “So really, when did you tell her?”

“I haven’t yet. I’m sticking to saying she’s really neat for the next year, and then I’ll promote her to ‘swell.’ ”

She groaned. “Seriously, Hugh.”

“Seriously, shortly after I knew.”

“What’d she do?”

“She said she loved me too and took me straight back to bed.”

“Good for her.”

After a while I asked, “So what were you like as a little girl?”

“Nothing special, just a girl. Wanted to be a scientist from very early on. Knew biology was my field after I was ten or so. Marine biology hooked me on my first dive, when I was fourteen.”

“What were you like in college?”

“Very studious. Did lots of outdoor activities besides diving. Diving was part of my job, see, so my pastime was rock climbing. Hiking too. Not much partying, of course.”

“Any hot and heavy girlfriends?”

“A couple.”

The chatting continued in similar lines for a while. A couple of hours later Veronica came home as we were finishing dinner preparations. “Ah, it’s great to have a wife and a servant boy to keep me well-fed and looked after,” she smiled.

“Speaking of which, mistress, I need a raise,” I said.

“You’ll take my leftovers and like them, you rogue. Not a dime in tribute, not a mill more than you’re worth, and not a penny wasted, that’s my motto.”

“Hard day haggling with the lawyers, dear?” Pamela asked sweetly.

“Why’d I go into art? If I wanted money and full scope for my antisocial tendencies, I’d have studied the law.”

“Dinner’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

Veronica sniffed and went into the kitchen. When she came back out, she said, “A marine biologist and a talented cook into the bargain, perfect for living in Boston.”

Pamela grinned, “Actually, that’s Hugh’s recipe.”

Veronica raised her eyebrows and said, “Well, we’ll see soon if you make the grade.”

That evening we sat in the study in our wonted fashion, reading, listening to music, and drinking wine, when Veronica asked, “So what is Helen doing right now?”

“Probably getting a fitting on custom-made ankle ruffles,” I smirked.

“It’s a shame to buy them for a one-off adventure.”

“Better than making them part of her permanent wardrobe,” said Pamela.

I continued, “Probably she’s relaxing at home. She plans to leave the day after Christmas and spend a couple of days in New York.”

“Shame you can’t call her, you know.”

“Yes, but even if I could, I don’t think she’d want me to. I don’t think she’s told her family about me yet. She’s very close-lipped until she’s sure something’s sure.”

“Quite different from you,” she said pointedly.

I considered it for a moment and replied, “Yeah, suppose so.”

That night I slept early and well until the witching hour struck in its usual ghastliness. Pamela had taken me sailing in the bay so that we could get away from the annual Take Back the Day march the Boston Satanist Alliance had long since made a June treat. We struck a jelly-like rock that we couldn’t budge from, so Pamela handed me a tank, mask, and flippers and said, “We gotta swim for it.” We jumped in and made for shore, but suddenly she pointed to a curious fish and motioned for me to follow her. We swam deeper and a chasm appeared beneath us; with a fearful expression on her face, Pamela pointed urgently to the surface and I quickly followed her. I was soon aware of something else following her in an inky cloud that didn’t disperse but gathered more closely together; occasionally the cloud would open slightly on a glinting eye or a green leathery hide, and as it pushed past me I looked down and saw brightly-colored long-tentacled anemones launch off from the sea bed in my direction. I woke choking as the first feathery touches tightened on my ankles and started stinging, biting, and chewing.

When I fell asleep again, Pamela and I were in the foyer of a sumptuously decorated building. I was dressed in a tuxedo, while Pamela was spilling out of what for Boston was a shimmering green conservative evening gown and a fetching half-slip in more civilized lands that displayed rather more of her front than was her wont; naturally, she wore matching ruffles. “No wonder Veronica fell for you,” I cracked and she snapped back, “Eyes in their sockets, young man.” Veronica came out in a severe guard’s uniform and after looking Pamela appraisingly head to toe smiled, “Are you here for the next tour?” When we nodded, she motioned for us to follow and we passed into a large hall with a dinosaur skeleton towering above us in the center and fishes on display around the walls. I took a closer look at the dinosaur and boggled at its eighteen limbs and six tails splaying out from a barrel of bones surmounted by a skull that was mostly jaw beneath four eye sockets. I quickly looked away and saw all of the fish on display were flaking or half-eaten, and Veronica said, “I don’t think you have any interest in our natural history?”

Pamela grimaced, “It’s been ruined. Take us somewhere else.”

Veronica shrugged, “It’s been like this for eighty years, you know. Anyway, come with me.” We passed through an arch in the far side of the hall and entered a hall of sculptures. In the center was a sculpture of several chained men and women in poses of surrender and obeisance bowing down to a marble mass that when viewed straight on took pugnacious human form but in the corner of the eye transformed into a winged daemon; on one side was a sandalwood Narcissus, his face a mirror, bowed down to stare in an attitude of entrancement at his ithyphallic lap, and on the other was a green-jade ichthyphallic monstrosity of tentacles and teeth. Veronica walked up next to it and intoned, “Behold the centerpiece of our collection, Sabina Vlach’s Civis Fabae. Take special note of the skill with which she sculpted the figure of Morpheus in the center.” We stared at the tableau for a minute and shuddered, and I gave Pamela my jacket.

“Now please come with me, we’ll be closing soon and you really won’t want to be here after dark.” We looked around at the arches between tentacle-entwined pillars and saw hints of lurkers in the dark beyond. She motioned to a dank hole in front of us and said, “This way.” As we entered, a door closed behind us and we started down a circular staircase; after about ten yards of descent, the walls leaked brine and Pamela asked, “How far below sea level are we?”

“Ten meters and descending,” Veronica replied.

“Is this the way out?”

“If you take the right turns, yes. We have to go under the bay and around.”

“Why?”

She shrugged, “That’s just the way it is, dear heart.”

After descending another twenty yards, we debouched into a broken hall of shattered pillars and pilfered plinths and Veronica led us across to an exit catty-corner from our entrance. “We’d best hurry.”

“Wait, which way to the old Aquarium?”

“Through that door, but they’re closed.”

“They’ll let me in.”

“I’m sure they will, but they won’t let you out.”

“Maybe next time then.”

When we reached the door, Veronica opened it and said, “Oh, sorry, my bad, this is the abattoir. This way.”

We turned and soon passed a line of kindergarteners being led through the door we had just tried, and Pamela asked their teacher, “Are you sure you want to go that way?”

“Of course. They have to grow up some time.”

About that time the lights started dimming and Veronica said, “Oh crap, lights out. Oh well, it was a good run.” She grinned sheepishly, “Sorry, guys,” and sprouted wings and flew away. The doors opened as the lights dimmed and loud scratching, screeches and wailing started, and Pamela and I grabbed each other and held on tightly in the dark until we were pulled apart and each of us was pulled apart. I woke up an unpleasant few seconds later as the first light of dawn peeked into my room. I rubbed my eyes and groaned. Figuring a third time couldn’t be worse, I turned on my side and proved myself wrong.

After I fully woke about nine, I went into the study and found Pamela sitting there. “Sleep well?” she grinned.

“Hell no.”

“Did you get the museum dream this time?”

I stared at her for a few seconds. “Yes, I guess. A museum dream anyway.”

“Enjoy our sculpture hall?”

I sighed out, “Not the verb I’d use.”

“Pretty dreadful, ain’t it?”

“Dollar dreadful.”

“Veronica’s a cute little guide, isn’t she?”

“So did you have it too?”

“Oh yes.”

“What about Veronica?”

“Likely not. It’s a standard dream template in which someone you trust is personated by Morpheus. Screws fiercely with your head if you let it.”

“How often have you had it?”

“Oh, roughly twice a year. —Hope you enjoyed the show.” She then laughed and said, “I guess you did. So that’s how the blushing works?”

“Sorry about that.”

“That’s okay. Your fly was open the whole time, you know.” She laughed and smiled wickedly, “I thought the way it worked is that I blushed. Look at you!”

“Just give me coffee.”

“It’s made. You know where to go, Tux Boy.”

She filed into the kitchen after me and said, “Yeah, that wasn’t Ver in the dream. You can imagine what the real Ver’d say about something like Civis Fabae.

“How were your other dreams?”

“Worse. Yours?”

“Same. Worse, that is.”

“Sounds like you got it full barrel last night. That usually means tonight you’ll have a break, but after that it’ll start up nasty again.”

We sat quietly in the study until Veronica joined us. “I have more appointments today. What have you two got planned?”

“Nothing special,” Pamela said.

“Bad dreams?” she asked worriedly. We nodded glumly and she said, “I guess I escaped mostly unscathed.”

“Jinx.”

“Yeah, prob’ly so.”

After Veronica downed a quick breakfast and rushed off to meet her lawyer, Pamela said, “Enough gloom. Let’s make a fun day of it today. Ferry ride! Seafood feast!”

The days passed quietly until Christmas. We spent the morning making a large lunch and feasted the afternoon away. Around three we heard a group of women outside singing:

Oh, you better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not shout,
I’m telling you why,
Santa Claus is mugging a clown.

He knows where you’ve been sleeping,
He sees your bowl of change,
He’s got a thirst for whiskey
And he’s just a dollar short...

Veronica said, “It’s the damn carolers again,” and went to the door to shoo them off. I heard a gruff female voice bark back, “$50 or we stay here all day.” Veronica closed the door as they resumed singing:

Trudging through the snow,
With the pall all shut up tight,
To the grave we go,
Mourning noon and night!

The bells in steeples ring,
Marking spirit’s flight,
To lykewake stake and garlic bring,
And sing a dirge tonight!

Tolling bells, iron bells,
Solemnly they moan;
Oh! what throbbing fears compels
Their melancholy tone!

After Veronica put on thick-ankled sweat pants and grabbed a long stick with a hook on one end from the extra room, she opened the door again and asked, “Will you go away?”

“Already told you our fee, miss.”

“And I told you lot last year that if you came round these parts ruining our Christmas celebrations again I’d make you pay.” Someone scoffed; Veronica pushed out the hooked end of the stick and said, “I warned you. Leave now or I’ll strip off all your ankle ruffles.”

The women singers outside gasped and looked uneasily at each other, but the leader stood firm and said, “That’s felonious assault.”

“First, it’s classified as a class C misdemeanor to encourage vigilante policing of uppity female behavior, and second, I’m perfectly willing to wait three years for you to get out of jail to file suit.” Half of the women melted off across the street, and the rest broke and ran when the hook passed the snaps on the side of the nearest singer’s left ankle ruffles with barely an inch to spare. “Next time it’ll be right on target,” Veronica glared, and the group walked off muttering.

That evening we sat stuffed in the study and Pamela said, “Time for prezzies, guys!”

Veronica groaned, “Ugh. I can’t move. Look in the closet.”

“Yeah, I know where they are, dear.”

“Do you know what they are?”

“A woman never tells.”

“Hugh, you’ll get your present before you leave. It’s still preparing.”

I nodded and went into my room. When I returned to the study, Pamela sat in her chair bright-eyed and grinning; in her lap was a small pile of gifts in shiny wrapping and elaborately tied bows. She distributed them to each person as indicated, and put one on a corner table. “That’s for Helen.”

I said “Ah,” and put one beside it.

Pamela then said, “Hugh, you first.”

I unwrapped my present and found a large picture book of deep sea fishes. “It’s pre-Subsidence,” she said. “Some of those fish have disappeared since then.”

“Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Ver, your turn.”

“Ugh. I can’t sit up. Hugh, you do the honors.”

“No! Ver, here, I’ll put it in your lap.”

“Dear, I’m too full. That would have unpleasant consequences.”

Pamela laughed, “Lazy girl. Here. I’ll hold it above you and you can open it that way.” She looked at me and winked, “Every Christmas she’s like this.”

Veronica reached up and slipped the bow off and ripped half-heartedly at the wrapping. She said, “Ooh!” and ripped the rest off more quickly. “Dürer prints! They’re a different set than I have. Excellent.”

Pamela then said, “My turn!!!” She opened Veronica’s present and said, “Ooh, look, Hugh!” She pulled out a red scarf that she wrapped around her neck and a matching beret that she put on her head at a rakish angle; the shade matched the jet black of her hair.

“Okay, Ver, your turn again.”

Veronica reached over and took my gift. “All right, Hugh, let’s see...too big for a wad of cash, too small for a briefcase of cash...Another Christmas wish dashed,” she smiled, and started opening it. “Oh, a book. Of course. I was hoping you were pledging me your troth with an ankle bracelet.” I laughed and she said, “Ah, a book of short stories. Yes, I’ve heard of her. She died recently, didn’t she?”

“Yes. They’re very good. I hope you like them.”

“They sound intriguing, from what I’ve heard. Thank you.”

Pamela squealed and said, “My turn again!” She took her precious time opening the gift and said, “A set of strip chips, of course. Vaňhal?”

“Yes, I figured you’d like something earlier than the 20th century this time.”

She looked at the cover and said, “He certainly wrote a lot.”

“He played in a string quartet with Haydn and Mozart.”

“Really?!”

“Yes, at a few parties. Haydn played first violin and Mozart played viola, while Vaňhal played cello.”

“Who played the other violin?”

“Another composer named Dittersdorf. He was very good too. He and Haydn were drinking buddies.”

“Wow, it’s a nice set. Symphonies, concertos, chamber music of all sorts,” she said as she looked through the strips. “I know what we’re hearing tonight.”

Veronica groaned, “Only if it aids the digestion.”

“Poor dear Ver, why do you always do that to yourself?”

“Why do you have to be such a good cook? It’s not my fault.”

After refilling our wine, Pamela grinned, slipped the first strip in the player, and sat back in her armchair as I picked up my book and looked through the pictures. An hour later I asked, “What’s that noise?”

Pamela cocked her head and finally said, “It’s either the Catholics going to Midnight Mass or other people going to Midnight Black Mass.”

Veronica said, “Pamela, make sure the doors are all locked, okay?”

“You still can’t move?”

“Ugh.”

She smiled, “Hugh, you grab her feet, I’ll take her arms. Remember, you can only drop her three times.”

Veronica said, “Okay, okay, I’ll go.” She dragged herself up and slouched around to the doors before going to bed. Pamela stood and said, “It’s my bedtime too. Sweet dreams, Hugh.”

“Wait, is it a bad night for dreaming?”

“If every other Christmas is anything to go by, yes, but it’s only a lead-up to New Year’s.”

I went to bed myself, and if that Christmas was anything to go by, Christmas in Boston is a testing ground for the perfection of cruelty and brutality.

The morning of the 28th Pamela and I rode out to the local airfield where Helen’s flight would put down. It arrived a little late and spewed its passengers out in a rush. I waved when I caught sight of her and ran over to hug her. She kissed me and said, “Thank God that’s over.”

“How was the flight?”

“Dreadful. The plane shook like the wings were going to fall off the whole time.”

Pamela walked up and held out her hand. “Hi, Helen, I’m Pamela.”

“It’s a pleasure. Hugh’s told me a lot about you.”

We collected her suitcase and went out to catch the bus. Pamela said quietly, “Good ruffles. Attractive and demure.”

“Yeah, the last half hour all of the women stood in line to go put them on in the bathroom. There were a lot of Boston men on the flight salivating like hounds.”

“They were enjoying the last bit of day-to-day smut before touching down.”

“No kidding. Guy next to me kept bumping my ankle. Rubbed against it several times and stared at it the whole time. He woke me up from my nap going like this.” She breathed in and out raggedly and made a twisted face. “Then he had to go to the toilet. I had five minutes’ peace once he came back, but then he was back in action and I finally had to get the steward to move my seat. I got put in first class.”

Pamela asked, “How was first class?”

“Third rate.”

I said, “Sorry you had such a lousy flight.”

“Oh, don’t be. He reminded me of you.”

Pamela laughed brightly and Helen smiled innocently as I scowled. The bus arrived and we sat in the back. Pamela and Helen talked quietly as I relaxed, and when we reached our stop we walked to the apartment. When we got inside, Pamela said, “First things first. Ruffles off.” Helen laughed and said, “Perhaps Hugh should do me the honor?”

Pamela said, “I don’t think he’s ready for that step yet.”

“Huh?”

“That’s what the new husband does in upper-class Boston families when he leads his new bride into the bedroom for the first night. He takes off the ruffles and puts an ankle bracelet on her. Of course, among the lower classes that’s what every man does when he hires a woman, usually on his 16th birthday, to celebrate coming of age.”

“Okay then, I’ll do it myself. Damn. I hope I really enjoy this trip, because I am never coming back here.”

“That’s the spirit, dear.”

After that I took her suitcase into my room and came back as Pamela showed Helen around. “This is our room, the library...This is our study. Family room, really. This is your room. This is our storage room and here’s the utilities. Are you hungry? We’re fixing lunch soon while you wash up, then we thought we’d take you around the less repulsive parts of this city, unless you’re too tired?”

“No, that would be great.”

“We’ll meet Veronica at the gallery about four and go to a seafood restaurant for dinner, then it’s back here for wine and relaxation. Oh, and prezzies!”

We laughed and Pamela said, “I’m not joking. Put whatever you got on the table there.” Helen nodded and Pamela said, “Hugh, I’ll get started. You come in once you’ve had a few minutes to catch up.”

We nodded and she left us in the bedroom. Helen kissed me deeply and said, “Missed you, love.”

“Missed you.

Damn Boston.”

“It is damned. That’s just wasted effort, dear.”

She laughed and sat on the bed to go through her suitcase. She pulled out a few presents and said, “Look what Mom gave me.” She held up a necklace with a tourmaline dangling from a silver chain. “And Dad gave me a little spending spree.”

“How are they?”

“Everyone’s doing well. They were very happy to hear about my new love, by the way.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, it was a bit of a Christmas present for them. You’re invited next winter, on condition.”

“On condition?”

“That we’re still together, of course. If not, it’s rescinded. Of course.”

“Of course.” After a too-brief fit of smooching I said, “I should go help Pamela, if you don’t object.”

“Only because I’m starving. Famished. All they served on the plane was a bag of peanuts. One bag. For the whole plane. By the time it came to me I had to make do with the crumbs at the bottom.” After a pause she said, “I’m joking.”

“Okay. Hard to tell with New England.”

We kissed and I went to the kitchen.

“She’s even prettier than you said, Hugh.”

“Oh great, are you going to be jealous on me now?”

“No, but Veronica might be.”

“Uh huh.”

After lunch we strolled around Boston in the general direction of the gallery. We visited an art museum and a small history museum and arrived at the gallery about 2:30. When we entered, Veronica was deep in a detailed discussion with three charcoal-suited men. She waved at us and soon said, “Yes, I understand. The terms are fine.” They signed and shook hands and two of them left. She came over and said, “Insurance on works to be transferred. So, you’re Helen. Pleased to meet you. Welcome to Boston. Sounds much less welcoming than a farewell to this place does.”

“Yes, it’s a fearsomely impressive place.”

“Nicely phrased and much too kind. Let me show you around.”

As we walked around, the last charcoal-suited man followed us around and stood unobtrusively but sternly in the background; if anyone got close to a work, he cleared his throat and got jumpy. Veronica smiled and said, “He reminds me of my museum guard days. He’s an agent for the new owner making sure the works remain in pristine condition until ownership transfers.”

“What happened to Ralph?”

“Oh, they kept him on. He’s on vacation.”

After showing us around, Veronica said, “Closing time. Mr. Jesperson?”

She walked around to turn out the lights and retrieve her coat and scarf, and then waited at the door with us as Jesperson went around on an inspection of his own. Satisfied, he nodded and we went out as he put on his outerwear. After he followed us through the door, Veronica locked it and shook his hand. “See you next year.”

We walked towards the sea and soon arrived at the restaurant. We were seated in a small alcove overlooking the dark gray water under a light gray sky, and as we took off our coats to soak up the warmth Pamela ordered some coffee and appetizers. We glanced over the menus and soon fell to chatting. Helen and Veronica talked briefly about their trips throughout their respective states, and then Veronica grilled her closely on her experiences in Paris. Soon they were deep in reminiscences of the museums they had seen and launched into short arguments on the merits of various works of art. Eventually they broadened out to the general merits of the French in the arts. Veronica asked, “You seem to have more experience among that tribe, Helen. Is it true, do you think, the usual folderol of reason and clarity being the hallmarks of the Gallic mind?”

Helen paused and frowned; after a few seconds she said, “That’s what the French certainly claim. Clarity, yes, I suppose. Reason? Not sure that’s really applicable. Bloody-minded rationalism, perhaps.”

“How is reason not applicable?”

“I’m thinking of stylistic matters. Clarity I can understand as applying, but reason? Reason’s too broad a term to use, never mind its constant refrain among French critics. Is Ingres more rational than some German Expressionist, say? What would that mean? It strikes me as stacking the deck. The term I’d use instead might be, oh, formalist, but with subtlety? A supremely high degree of technical skill, perhaps, and of course clarity. It’s a fine goal but not the most fruitful approach when you have extraneous ideas packaged together with ‘reason.’ I’m speaking of literature, anyway, which I know pretty well. You might ask Hugh about the musical side of things.”

“No, I’m asking you.” She smiled, “If I wanted to hear Hugh talk about art, I’d know I should get myself committed.” I stuck out my tongue at her and she waved me away with an evil grin. “So what do you mean exactly?”

Helen thought for a moment. “Oh, the usual, French classicism especially. The prose is superb; the poetry is largely forgettable after the Pléiade. Oh, it’s not as bad as its reputation, but it’s still only from Gautier that French poetry becomes alive for me again. It was generations of writers refining traditional rules and standards into a rigid system, which they did in the name of ‘reason,’ so-called, which meant in practice that the system was based on the ancient thinkers read as literal-mindedly as possible, and their written language was increasingly severed from the living speech. That worked fine for prose; it sapped the vitality of poetry.”

Veronica thought for a moment and asked, “So, does that mean you share Hugh’s worship of the spoken language and all its warts?”

Helen looked at me quizzically and I grinned, “Thanks for getting her started.”

“Hugh has an unhealthy attachment to colloquial language and thinks everything should be judged by its standards, no matter how anti-intellectual, inartistic, or debased it might be,” Veronica continued.

“Well, Hugh is a bit of a jackanapes,” Helen replied, “and Texans do go in for tweaking everyone’s noses. Occasionally it’s even charming.”

Veronica shot back, “No, he’s charming in spite of all that.”

Helen looked at me critically for a few seconds and nodded sagely, “You might well be right.”

“So do you also study colloquial speech exclusively and ignore the literary language?”

Helen nodded even more sagely and said, “Ah yes, the old question of the priority of speech or writing. Of course I focus on the spoken language. It’s logically and chronological prior to written language, and much easier to examine by questioning native speakers.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s chronologically prior; grunts and gurgles are prior to speaking, yet speaking opens a much vaster world to the child that grunts and gurgles simply cannot support. Writing does the same with respect to speech.”

“And if writing were entirely separate from speech, you might have a point. But writing grows out of speech and it’s inseparable from it at root. Study speech and you learn a great deal about the written language as well.”

“So why stop with speech?”

“I don’t.”

“So you’re a rare flower among linguists then.”

“No, not rare at all, but speech is the essential reference point for studying language.”

“So do you study substandard speech like Hugh does?”

Helen laughed, “Substandard by whose standard?”

“The standard of elegance and correctness.”

“Among which speakers?”

Veronica sighed in frustration, “Educated speakers, of course.”

“With what sort of education? Literary, scientific, automotive repair...?”

Veronica glared at her, “Now you’re just being difficult.”

Helen smiled, “No, just pointing out the difficulties your view raises for you.”

Veronica laughed and said, “Put that to one side. What do you study?”

“Semantics. Meaning. Semantics of real languages, anyway; it doesn’t line up perfectly with what the philosophers do.”

“So you deal squarely with the real central part of language.”

“We like to think so, yes.”

“So surely writing should be of most importance to you then.”

“I don’t think that follows.”

“Speech is sloppy; meanings slip. They’re frozen in writing.”

“They’re simply more regimented, and they certainly do change, just more slowly. In any case, despite the differences between the two forms of language, the basic tools for expressing meaning, for encoding it in a linear stream of symbols of some sort, are pretty much identical. The sloppiness you don’t like in speaking actually tells us a lot about the way meanings are structured in the mind if you’re patient enough to look at them clearly, and are structured similarly in writing despite the basic differences between the two.”

Veronica chuckled and said, “Basic differences? I thought you were playing coy with me, missy.”

Helen shrugged and said, “Of course they’re different; they’re hardly entirely distinct or logically separable, however. They overlap a great deal. For me the basic issue is that speech and writing are cognitively different. They have different processing and therefore have somewhat different standards.”

“What do you mean?”

“Speaking is...ephemeral. You have to catch it and process it as it’s spoken, so there’s a good deal of redundancy in spoken language. Writing requires less redundancy, and the more formal the writing, the more that unnecessary repetition is frowned upon, for example. Besides, with writing you have visual processing rather than auditory, and writing’s more permanent than speech; it’s accessible to the senses longer than a unit of speech is. You can reread a passage and discern patterns that are not as...temporally bounded as in speech.”

“So you would say then that the written language is distinct from the spoken?”

“They’re intimately connected, but they have different strengths and weaknesses, different demands. Or rather, the demands are not necessarily the same. And they influence each other constantly.”

“So why should it matter if poetry is severed from the spoken language?”

Helen grinned, “En agradar et en voler / es l’amors de dos fis amans; / nula res no∙i pot pro tener / si∙lh voluntatz non es egaus. Beautiful, isn’t it? Sublime, no?”

“Cute, but you know what I mean.”

“Do I? Do you?”

“You’re as obstinate as Hugh.”

“The more you allow poetry to be severed from the spoken language, the more it requires training to appreciate. That in itself isn’t a problem since the training’s well worth the effort. But, the less it becomes a matter of immediate response for a general reader or hearer, the more it’s severed from the culture as a whole. And poetry demands that immediate response, otherwise you’d just write prose, or else you’d write for an elite audience that, say, was nurtured on Latin for ten or fifteen years as children. In which case it’s just drawing on a cultivated immediate response in a different language whose poetry was shaped by a spoken language 1500 years earlier. So really, it just comes down to which spoken language you draw from, that of your contemporary generation or of an earlier one.”

“So once again, it all comes down to anti-elitism.”

Helen pursed her lips thoughtfully, “Nooooo...I’d say it comes down to the audience you aim for. There’s difficult poetry and easier poetry, and there’s value in each. But in either case, the poetry has to have solid roots in the spoken language. [Pause.] Or rather, in some form of the spoken language accessible to some audience. Seems arbitrary to me to plump for any stage of the spoken language as preferable to another in that regard; any of them is a fit vehicle for poetry, and it’s what the poet says in it that matters, not what accent she uses.”

“Yet you yourself say that the accent does matter, since poetry demands an immediate response from the audience.”

“The accent matters by selecting the audience you have to aim for; it shapes the poetry by offering certain aural effects that might be useful to your purposes; it doesn’t make the content of the poetry itself greater or lesser.”

The conversation turned to structure versus content and quickly veered into the narrow straits of subtle distinctions and straitened narrows of closely-reasoned feints and checks never attaining checkmate, and continued in a casuistical, jesuitical vein through our early dinner and dessert. As we prepared to settle up Veronica said, “Hugh, you listen to this woman very carefully from now on. Hopefully some of her good sense and taste will rub off on you.”

We hurried back to the apartment in the gathering dark and quickly closed ourselves in against the cold wind and decay. After stripping off our coats and hats, we washed up and went into the study. Pamela brought out two bottles of wine and four glasses. Critically examining the spread, she said, “It’s a start.” Helen curled up next to me on the couch as the other two occupied their armchairs, and after we toasted each other and settled back Pamela said, “It’s time!” She went over to the table in the corner and said, “Okay, all entrance fees have been paid.” She distributed the presents and Veronica said, “Helen, you’ll get yours when you leave.”

From Helen, Pamela received another smaller box of chip strips, this time 19th century Russian chamber pieces, and Veronica received a light blue scarf with a red and green brooch. “You like it?” she asked, and Veronica said, “Yes, it’s my favorite color.”

“My mother and I made it for you.”

Thank you. It’s a very fine piece of work.”

“She said thank you for putting me up.”

Pamela grinned and said, “Now open mine!”

Helen hefted it and looked over the wrapping. “Hmm...”

“Open it open it open it...” said Pamela and I muttered, “Toldja.”

“Hmm...it might be a book. Or it could be a box. Or a book inside a box. Or it could be a box full of socks and maybe rocks for weight.”

“Open it open it open it...” Pamela continued, and I said, “Or, it could be a box of cat food.”

“Oh no, Pamela would never do something so dastardly as that.

“Ah, but it could be a box of cat food with another box inside.”

“You think? What could be in the smaller box?”

“Dog food?”

“Oh, now that’d just be odd.

“Open it open it open it...”

“Perhaps it’s a box of dog food with a small can of cat food inside.”

“Now that’s a serious possibility.”

“Tell you what, let me see that.” I took the package and measured each dimension with my knuckles and hefted it. “Okay, I estimate the density at...hmm...okay, it’s probably a book.”

Open it open it open it...”

“Or cat food.”

“Yes, or cat food. Heavy cat food.”

“But there’s another possibility we haven’t considered yet.”

“Which is?”

“A set of door stops.”

“Or a support for a flower pot.”

“Or a box of pot holders.”

“True.”

Open it open it open it...

Grinning, Veronica said, “Just open it before my wife breaks something.”

“Oh, okay.” She opened it and looked at her new book. “Oh. Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America. Oh my, thank you! It’s wonderful!”

“It’s not really five centuries old, it just looks like it. It’s a reproduction from a century ago.”

“But it’s still pre-Subsidence. It’s really special. Thank you.”

For me Helen had made a sweater and bought a matching necktie. “Thank you,” I said and kissed her.

Veronica said, “You can tell when a man’s grown up. It’s when he likes getting clothes for Christmas.”

“True,” I said, “very true.”

Helen added, “Oh, he has another present later.”

Then, as Helen and I read, Pamela sat in her chair listening to some of her new music and Veronica sat sketching. After another three hours Pamela rose and said, “It’s my bed time.”

We rose as well, “Yes, we need to hit the sack too.”

Veronica said, “I’ll join you later, Pam. I have to work over a couple of papers before I turn in.”

We all hugged each other good night and went to our respective rooms, Veronica to the dining room after making sure the doors on the other side of the study were firmly shut, then we chuckled as she winked at us and closed the study door on their side firmly. After another hour Helen and I fell asleep.

In the small hours of the morning I dreamed Helen and I were standing outside a dilapidated building that I was fairly certain was the entrance to the subterranean hall Pamela and I had visited earlier. As we walked in, I asked Helen, “Where shall we go? There?”

I pointed at a drab and peeling stairwell, and she said, “Certainly not. This way, love,” and led me to the right. We stopped before a nondescript door and she looked around the hall. “Okay, come with me.” She opened the door and we stepped outside into a small garden swimming in sunlight and smelling sweetly of fruit and flowers. For a while we rested happily in the garden, and after we curled up to nap on the grass I didn’t dream again until morning.

When I woke, I heard the water running across the hall; I washed my face and hands as Helen showered, and then I went into the kitchen. Pamela stood against the counter looking worn and exhausted, and I said, “Bad dreams?” She just nodded. I said, “You go sit down. I’ll make breakfast.”

“No, I’ll help. I need something to do.”

I nodded and we cooked some eggs and sausage as our biscuits baked. Helen joined us as breakfast neared completion, and Veronica joined us in the dining room once the table was set. As we ate, Veronica said, “No nightmares?”

We shook our heads happily and she said, “A wonderment.”

Helen said, “Our sleep must have been charmed.”

“Must have. Mine was lousy, but Pam was wretched all night.”

Pamela said quietly, “Nothing new, but a line-up of the greatest hits of the past seven years. Well, if I was a lightning rod for your reunion, so be it.”

After lunch, Veronica said, “Okay, last present time.”

Pamela brightened up and squealed happily. When Veronica pulled out and handed over two presents to us, Pamela leaned over to watch as we opened them. To each of us Veronica had given a framed sketch of the other. “I did the sketch of Helen last night while you two were reading. Hugh sat for me earlier in the week, no doubt much to his current surprise.”

“So that’s why you stayed up late?”

“No, the sketch was done and the frame was ready, so it took ten minutes to slip it in and wrap it to match the other one. I had to finish some paperwork, like I said. Would have made a good cover story though, huh?” We chuckled and looked more closely. Both sketches caught us as we had looked up from reading to think about something, and Helen at least was irresistible in that pose.

“Thank you,” we quietly said, and Veronica said, “You’re welcome. Thank you for keeping Christmas with us. It makes leaving Boston even happier.”

Pamela added with a smile, “Tell’em...”

“It looks like we have an offer on the apartment and a house to make an offer on.”

“Where?”

“New Haven, of course.”

“Taking a soaking?”

“No, we’ll make out okay. It’ll be a happy new year indeed after January.”

We then wrapped ourselves up tightly in outerwear and spent the early afternoon going through a passable art museum under Veronica’s lead; she mostly focused on Helen and ignored the random conversations Pamela and I indulged in. About 3:30 we wandered to a coffee shop to chat some more, or rather, Veronica and Helen chatted as Pamela and I listened; it was a continuation and elaboration of their conversations of the day before. After another hour and a half of Veronica and Helen sparring over the relevance of the herd to esthetics and language, we returned home. After another fine dinner and another comfortable evening in the study we went to bed early, as we were to get up early to catch our ride. Again we slept well, with no dreams to be recalled the next morning by any of us four, and after a quick breakfast Pamela handed each of us a lunch bag and said, “Stay safe. We’re expecting you both in New Haven whenever you get a chance.”

We kissed and hugged her goodbye and walked out with Veronica. “Okay, this way,” she said. “It’s not far.” As we walked, she said, “Look around at the wonder that is Boston, the city on a hill of beans.”

Just then we swerved to sidestep a puddle of technicolor green vomit and failed to avoid the other puddles around.

“Ugh, is this blood?” asked Helen squeamously as I said, “Cripes, my whole leg’s splashed in pee.”

Veronica chuckled hollowly and said, “The city is seeing you off in its own inimitable fashion. Helen, looks like your ruffles are spoiled. No loss.”

I asked, “Is there some place to wash?”

“Nope, hope you have a change.”

We soon reached the diner set for the rendezvous, and as I went into the men’s room to make a quick change of pants and Helen rushed to the women’s to clean her leg, Veronica sat down at the counter. When I came back out, Helen was seated at the counter with Veronica; they were sharing a plate of hash browns and chatting with our ride Bill, who was wolfing down a massive hangover special. “God, that green beer is the worst.”

Helen asked, “Why do you keep drinking it, Bill?”

“It always seems a good idea at the time.”

Veronica shook her head, “You do realize it’s liquefying your innards, don’t you? Drain cleaner’d be quicker and less painful.”

“Yeah, but drain cleaner’s not got alcohol.”

“I guess it liquefies your brain first.”

He paused in thought and said, “Yeah, that’s what it feels like.”

Soon the waitress brought me and Helen each an order of pancakes and set down a second hangover special for Bill.

“Damn, Bill, did the beer really punch a hole in your stomach lining? I thought you were joking. You’ll get peritonitis,” Veronica said.

“That must be why my belly aches. I thought it was the impurities in the beer.” He shrugged and started on his second plate.

“Bill, the beer’s nothing but impurities.”

“Ethanol is not an impurity. It is a universal solvent.”

“That’s water,” I said, and he said, “Yeah, thanks. Waitress, more water please.” He soon finished his second plate and said, “Ah, I feel vaguely human again.”

Veronica said, “Now go to the restroom and wash up and maybe you’ll look vaguely human.”

After he staggered off, she said, “I really hope your choice of chauffeur’s not a fatal mistake.”

Helen chuckled and said, “He’ll be fine.”

“Ugh, doing that to yourself. The only good side to Boston beer is it tastes as good coming up as going down. Which is an important consideration.”

I said, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to follow Bill’s example.” After a pause I said, “Bad choice of words.” I passed him coming out of the restroom, hair slicked back and face slightly less pallorous. When I entered I nearly retched and realized that asparagus is not the only green thing to add a special aroma to a body’s effluents.

When I came back out, Bill said, “Hugh, sir, you ready?”

“Ready.”

“Let’s go. Hit the road runnin’.”

Veronica hugged us farewell and whispered to me, “If you let her go, you’re a damn fool.” She kissed Helen on the cheek and whispered something to her as well that drew a slight blush. “Stay safe, stay warm, and Helen, Hugh, don’t let this drunken yeti kill you guys.”

“Hey now, I’m completely sober,” Bill protested as he dug out some aspirin.

“Yeah, I meant in general.”

“Oh. Well, okay then.”

We piled in the car. Despite his ragged condition, he carefully checked his mirrors, adjusted his seat, checked his mirrors again, looked carefully at all his gauges, and glared at us until we buckled our seat belts. Satisfied, he started the motor. With a measure of relief Veronica waved at us and blew us a kiss. As we drove out of the parking lot, she waved once more and turned to go home. Soon she was out of sight.

In half an hour we crossed the city line and Bill pulled over to the side of the road. We looked at him in wonder and he said, “Helen, if you’d like, you can liberate your limbs here. That’s what it’s usually called by outsiders.”

“I would be overjoyed to do so,” she replied. She walked four yards from the car and sat on a tree stump to remove her ruffles. She tossed them towards Boston and saluted it farewell with her middle fingers; she grinned happily as she rejoined us and told me, “There must have been two hundred pairs of ruffles scattered round there.”

Bill started the engine and he said as steered us carefully back onto the road, “At least ten pairs out there were left by passengers of mine. They usually make a bigger celebration than you did, but they were all there longer than you too.” For a few minutes he told us about the back and forth in customs as ankle-ruffling spread north and back south beyond the edges of Boston over the years, and eventually Helen and I dozed off as we made our way north and then west.

Strangecraft, Part IV—You Old Indian Summer—Mikael Thompson
Strangecraft, Part VI—Much Ado About Shoggoths—Mikael Thompson
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents