Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents Strangecraft, Part II—The Kudzu on the Ivory Tower—Mikael Thompson


by Mikael Thompson

- I -
Ruffles and Blood

A copy of the book on a table

It is perhaps best to begin my chronicle as I stood on the deck of the freighter taking me from New York City to Brockton. I had flown from Houston to New York, but having time to spare until I matriculated, I chose a more leisurely route to New England proper. Our ship, the S.S. Paludament, was an old but serviceable midsize freighter that transported sundry machine parts in the final stretch of their passage from the industrial heartland north and east to the rural hinterlands of New England and carried passengers as space permitted; I smiled at the thought that much of our cargo had come along the same route I was taking. Shortly after we had turned north from Long Island Sound into the murky waters of Providence Bight and the small coastal town of Hope Valley had just come visible to the northwest, I spied a deckhand a few yards ahead of me spit ceremonially over the railing and mutter a lengthier incantation than anything I had heard him say all voyage. As he rubbed a charm on a cord around his neck, I walked up to him and asked, “Surely there’s no need for worry? The sea seems calm enough.”

He looked at me long enough to make me feel impertinent and answered, “They might be calm, but these waters is hardly healthy.” Although his speech was marked with the pronunciations of General American ð as ʒ and w as β characteristic of the mid-Atlantic coast, it had other features I couldn’t quite place, curious vowel centralizations and the like.

“Well, no, they wouldn’t be, would they?”

He stared at me some more and answered, “No, they wouldn’t be.” He then turned to walk away but looked back and said, “Take care not to fall in; a body’s footing gets slippery once we get in the Bight, no matter how tight your shoes hug the deck.” He thought for a pause and said, “You’ll be getting off in Brockton.” I nodded. “Buy no fish as they may try to sell you in Brockton, not that you should be tempted. They ain’t right. —You’ll be heading on to Boston, I recollect.”

“Yes, for a short while, then further north.”

He nodded. “Nice town for a sailor to visit; not a place fit for anyone else. Stay in after dark, if you don’t mind some more advice, and don’t drink local brews. They’s something in ’em ain’t right. Even sailors avoid them.”

I smiled and asked, “Sailors drink beer?”

He pondered a second and replied, “Not in Boston we don’t.”

I then asked, “When we travel the Bight, will we pass near Providence Deeps?”

He frowned and said, “Nay, course not, it’s a navigation hazard. Over the southern edge of the Washington Shallows straight to Narragansett Trench and up to Brockton we go. Not right to cruise over the Deeps anyway, it’s disrespectful. And it’s as like they’s something they as takes offense.”

“I thought there was nothing there for a hundred feet below the surface.”

“So say the maps. So don’t say sailors who’ve passed near it at night.”

“What do they say?”

“Not much, nor does a body ask twice.”

I nodded, “I see. May I ask you a personal question?”

He glowered. “You might ask, I have no say in that.”

“I’m just curious where you’re from. Your speech is interesting.”

He neither glowered nor smiled, just shrugged. “Northern Delaware by birth and raise, I’ve skipped round much of the coasts in the years since.” He paused a second and added, “You collect speech, I heard you say the captain.”

“I study dialects, yes.”

“Not much paying call for such work, I’d say.”

“No, not much.”

“Looking for work? Odd you’d leave a land where they’s jobs for that.”

“Going to graduate school.”

“Shirking work and shirking a land with work, yes, you must be a student.”

I shrugged in my turn and said, “Still young.”

“Stay little in Boston and you’ll remain so.” A ship’s bell rang then signaling lunch, and he nodded and said, “Eat well. And remember to watch your footing above decks.”

I thanked him and went into the cabin that passed for a dining room for passengers. My two fellow passengers were seated already, and a younger sailor served us and went to stand at a porthole; as we neared the end of our meal he refreshed our water and tea and took his leave. As we ate, my companions discussed an upcoming meeting in Dedham they had with a local tractor distributorship. After hashing out their strategy and tactics, they sat back and looked at me. George, the older of the two, ran a hand through his graying hair and said, “Enjoying your last day afloat?”

“More or less. And yourselves?”

“No complaints. What are your plans again after Brockton?”

“Boston for a day or two, then I’ll hike north to school.”

They smiled. “Hiking? Quite the professional student, aren’t you?”

“I’ll be there for a few years, so might’s well enjoy the scenery as I get to know the place.”

“Indeed. Wish my hiking days weren’t over.”

Bill, the other passenger, asked me, “How will you be going from Brockton to Boston?”


They nodded. “Where will you stay in Boston?”

“The Funambulus.”

George looked at Bill: “What did I hear once about the Funambulus? Was it you told me?”

“Hmm. Oh yes, Margot stayed there back in ’27 when she landed that big account with Vescliade. The service was okay but the staff gave her the shivers. They had good seafood, but even so she swore not to go back, which should tell you something.”

“Well, you know Margot, unless they host a meeting of the neighborhood gardening society every week it’s bound to rub her ladylike sensibilities the wrong way, good fish or no. How she ever got by so well in Boston I’ll never know.”

I asked, “Is Boston as bad as they say?”

Bill smiled, “That depends on what they say.”

“Den of iniquity, den of thieves, dilapidated, debased, decadent, and decaying?”

“That about covers it, yes. A professional college student like yourself should love it.” We laughed and he continued, “It’s not what you’ll find in the heartland, that’s for sure; it’s got its own customs and it can be very dangerous after dark. Don’t pay mind to all the rumors, though.”

“Is it true you shouldn’t drink the beer?”

“Oh, that’s for damn sure.”

“It’s off?”

“It’s green.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of that, on Saint Patrick’s Day.”

“No, all year round. It’s not dyed; it comes naturally. It started pretty soon after the Subsidence that anything fermented from the grains grown around there turns green. The taste isn’t wholesome either, a bit like artichokes and asparagus but not in a good way, as if they’d been canned then burnt, and just...brackish. And while it doesn’t seem too strong, just two will give you a hell of a hangover, and the hangover’s perhaps better than the drunk.”

George shook his head, “Yep, they’re vile brews. Stick to bottled stuff from the heartland, or maybe just teetotal it while you’re there. It’s an oppressive place that makes for bad dreams. Drunk you’ll find it far worse.”

Bill added, “But never mind the drink. That’s not what’ll rot your ropes.”

George chuckled, “Oh, heavens no.”

I looked puzzled and George said, “They still fancy themselves the cultural center of America, the decadent bastards.”

Bill added, “Maybe they are, and heaven help us all then.”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Oh, we wouldn’t want to spoil the fun. You’ll have to see it to believe it.”

Bill said, “Me, I figure they’re just stuck in the old 20th century rut, working every old trend to its dregs.”

George replied, “ ‘Wretched century and blessed century,’ after all. Some of the finest art humanity ever made, and some of the most inhumane and soul-crushing. Well, love it or hate it, we live in its wake.”

I said, “So says everyone, but no two people ever agree on which is one and which the other.”

Bill laughed, “That’s only because George hasn’t come by to tell them what’s what.”

“I’ll do it too!”

We all laughed, and I continued, “But what exactly do you mean about Boston culture?” They smiled sadly and said nothing. I asked again, but they just shook their heads. Figuring they were having fun at the expense of a callow youth, I changed the subject. “Do you go to the Boston area much?”

George answered, “Twice a year maybe, not counting negotiations with prospective clients. No real need to go more, no real use to having a local supervisor. Connecticut’s close enough to New York to be bearable, but it’s still New England. Rusticated dying land, just dreary as hell.” He grinned humorlessly. “Have fun in school up there. You shouldn’t find many distractions, unless you have a weakness for talentless folk music, illiterate folk poets, and inbred toothless yokels.”

Bill asked, “Where are you studying, anyway?”

“Not studying yet, just starting grad school. Miskatonic Institute of Technology, in linguistics.”

“Oh yes, up Arkham way. That’s quite a hiketalk about rusticated! Don’t let the line from Brockton to Boston fool you. It’s still pretty settled there, but once you start going north, it just dies off. A lot of it’s reverted to wild. After the Subsidence, a lot of the population dribbled away, and much of the rest shifted south. Lots of abandoned tracts with lots of unsavory squatters. Stick to the big roads and you should be fine though.”

“Thanks. But I’m curious, since you probably take the ship from New Haven to Brockton fairly often, have you ever passed by Providence Deeps, close enough to write home about?”

“Once or twice. Ships don’t like to pass too close to it.”

“Risk of hitting something?”

“Or the like, or so they say, despite being as deep as they say. There’s nothing to see except that it seems rather too calm, at least during the day. The tales they tell about travelling there at night are something else; whether you believe them or not, the area certainly has a hold on the minds of the locals. In any case, soundings say it’s deep enough to pose no risk, but there are advisories warning crafts away from the area for routine travel.”

George said, “Oh, Bill’s a bit wet there. I had to take a late ship out of Brockton back to New Haven about seven years ago, and we passed pretty close by Providence Deeps that night. My dreams were not pretty. I dreamed I was in an overgrown street, broken houses all about, walking along underwater with the fish nesting in the branches above me like birds, or swimming-flying along bubbling instead of chirping, but there were things in the houses watching me. I couldn’t see them, what with the murk in the water and the sun barely punching through from the surface, not that I was overeager to catch a glimpse of them, but they could see me and were very eager for me to get closer. And then the sun went down, and soon I woke up, but not soon enough for my druthers. And my later dreams don’t bear telling.”

After a long silence Bill said, “You must have had some Boston beer at dinner.”

“Oh, it was quite a bit like I had, yes, but I went to bed sober. No, it was probably just my imagination acting up, but I’d be wary of spending any time in the waters above the Deeps all the same.”

Bill said, “Respect for the dead.”

“Yes, and whatever else might be there.”

The conversation had effectively died as well, so I finished my coffee and took my leave to return to my cabin. When I stepped out on deck, I tripped over my shoelace and slid towards the railor so I thought at first, but when I checked my laces they were as I had tied them. I then checked the deck for spills or something loose, but nothing was out of the ordinary. Puzzled and shaken, I held firmly to the rail as I gingerly walked to the stairs and descended.

We docked in Brockton that evening. A few minutes after sunset we disembarked, and George and Bill led me to their inn. “You should be able to find a room here no problem. Care to join us for dinner?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Indeed, the inn was largely empty and offered me a good rate for something larger than a closet but smaller than a bridal suite, and over dinner George and Bill gave me some useful small pieces of advice about where to go and what to see, what to order, and what not to say to Bostonians. “Don’t praise New York. Bostonians have conceived a well-deserved and richly merited inferiority complex about New Yorkindeed, any conurbation more populous than Boston, and quite a few smaller ones, too.”

Bill asked, “How recent is your travel information?”

“I have little, and what I have is old.”

“Don’t worry, there’ll be nothing new you’re at any risk of missing. You’re more like’s to waste your time going to places that have disappeared. I have an old map here I don’t need any more. It has some old travel notes on it that might help.”

He handed it over and I thanked him as I opened it for a look. “Oh yes, this is very handy! Thank you!” He had marked several theaters and a couple of museums, but best of all had carefully indicated several seafood restaurants. “Are you sure you won’t need it in future?”

He shook his head. “It would be most unwise for me to return to Boston proper ever again.”

George added, “Be careful how you choose your battles in Boston. You could easily be drawn into something that’ll blow up in your face if you don’t mind your own business.”

Before I could pursue the matter, Bill said, “And let me warn you, Bostonians have a taste for sick jokes about Providence, the more ghoulish the better. ‘What do you call a Rhode Island Red? —The Coast Guard.’ ‘What do you call a million lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? —Second place to Providence.’ And so on.”

George added, “There’s a reason many people outside Boston point at Providence Bight and say, ‘Providence Bight, and lack of Providence bites.’ ”

Bill continued, “Bostonians don’t make themselves overloved.”

After dinner, I thanked them for their company and their assistance. George said, “Think nothing of it. It’s always a pleasure to break bread with someone from the heartland. You fellows keep us in our jobs, you know.”

Bill added a farewell common among heartland businessmen, “If we don’t see each other again, have a good trip and live well, and if we do, then may we all be richer and wiser.”

“Thank you,” I said and responded in kind, “May even your troubles redound to your benefit and your joys be unceasing.” We shook hands and I went to my room for an early morning departure.

Boston was a strange and noisome place. The bus deposited me at 8:07, and I found a kiosk to examine a newer map than the hand-me-down from Bill to check for any roads fallen out of service in the interim. Fortunately, my route was largely unchanged, so I strolled in the general direction of the Funambulus with no worries. After an hour looking in the shops at the latest fashions, which seemed hazardously revealing for autumn in a northern clime, and glancing through a seedy antiquarian bookstore window that puzzlingly fogged up every time I got close enough to make out the title of any of its many tantalizing offerings, I decided to find some breakfast. I had heard of a good place from George in the vicinity of a couple of newer award-winning theaters not too far off my track, so I loped off that way, making my way gingerly between and around puddles and splashes of various shades and hues, more than a few of them troublingly scarlet.

The place George had pointed me to was an inviting bistro, Le Flem Phlégmatique, in what was clearly not a business district, and arriving so early I had a wide choice of seats. I chose a table in the far corner next to the front window and looked out on the neighborhood as a large steak and potatoes cooked up for me. The theater across the street announced a Shakespeare festival, so I stared hard at the billboard and made out that that week they were presenting performances of Tight-Ass Androgynous and Core Ye Ol’ Anus on alternate nights. I continued staring hard in disbelief at the billboard until the waiter brought my coffee.

Two men had come in, marked as thespians by their pungent odor of stale booze and the pretentious yet conformist mediocrity of their opinions, and took the seat next to mine. “Yes, Patrick’s all huffy about the set. He bitches so much about the colors of the costumes matching the backdrop just right that if he only had any taste you’d think he was gay.”

“Colorblind old buzzard. How’d he get hired?”

“Old Lady Monkeybreath’s all sweet on him.”

“Sweet on the savings from hiring a non-union washed-up old hack, you mean.”

“As I said.”

He turned to me and said, “Say, fellow. Bud. Chap. Viewing public and financial mainstay of the arts, going to the theater tonight?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“That’s fine, just so long as you don’t go to that theater down there.” He pointed at a marquee further down the road.

“Is it a bad play?”

They looked at each other in bewilderment. “Well now, come to think of it, actually it’s pretty good. But we don’t act there, see? So support the arts: Jobs for the boys.”

I replied, “So it’s a women’s theater.”

They laughed and said, “Well, you’re all right, Jack.”

I asked, “Are you acting in the Shakespeare festival?”

“That we are, fine sir. It’s a shame you weren’t here last month for A Mitt-Humper’s Wet Dream, or last week for Romeo and Julio. We did a marvelous job, the best performances of Shakespeare this city had seen in years, nay decades, and now we have this claptrap.” He waved dismissingly at the marquee. “After the sticky smear the director made of Osello, you’d hope he’d be stuck for the rest of a short and painful life directing community theater productions of Neil Simon in Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas, that is. Patty Boy’d be the Worm in the Little Apple if the world were just. But no, he bounced back like a dead cat. Alas, it’s not a bar he had to cross, it was a damned limbo line, and he just bent over backwards, planted his head in his brain, and traipsed right under.”

“Umm, excuse me, did you say ‘Osello’?”

They chuckled sardonically. “Yeah, that was part of his shtick. It was spelled ‘Osello,’ see, but all the characters had a lisp. It was that kind of a production. The Bard groaned. I heard him too, all the way across the Atlantic. Patty Boy fancied himself a better playwright than the best, so he just butchered the damn thing making every other word begin with s. Oh, I admit it had some fine possibilities for actors to, you know, bounce off each other, but it departed wildly from the original. There wasn’t a two-backed beast anywhere in the production; one-backed, three-backed, four-backed, and more-backed, yeah, but in the theater more is not always better, especially when the Moor’s already the best.”

“Oh,” his fellow added, “don’t forget the green-eyed monster.”

They chuckled and I asked, “Umm, the green-eyed monster?”

“Yeah, Fineas, guy who played Osello, has a Prince Albert.”

The other added, “So he got special glowing green studs for every time Iago made him jealous. Whenever we protested that it was a crass bit of pandering to an imagined audience of hirsute prepubescents, Patty Boy would just keep going on about objective correlatives.”

Sickly curious, I asked, “Did he at least keep the ending intact?”

“Well, Osello did choke Desdemona. In a manner of speaking.”

“Stabbed her too,” his colleague added. “In a manner of speaking.”

“But for obvious physical reasons he couldn’t stab himself, so Iago did that.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Ghastly.”

“Yes. Yes, it certainly was.”

Just then my breakfast and their beers arrived. A sickly opaque green, like broccoli soup sprayed on whitewall or a goodly dose of Dyspepto-Dismol, the beer reeked of green vegetables that had sinned and been forsaken by their god, then cooked badly to darken the plates and palates of unhappy children all around the world. “Ah, the poor man’s absinthe!” said one, “Tentacly spirits of the vasty deep, come to papa!” said the other. Within three minutes they were silent, staring rapt over each other’s shoulders at ponderous things. I ate my breakfast in peace, settled up, and walked past the window without either of them having stirred.

I strolled down towards the waterfront, and two blocks before the shoreline saw the entrance to an underground museum. Underwater museum, I corrected myself, after going down several flights of stairs inside a drab metal tube, and as I stepped inside the lobby at the bottom I realized it was an old subway station much deeper than it should have been whose tracks had been blocked off with glass and the space cushed up for the comfort of its visitors. Behind the glass, glorious and bizarre fish not found elsewhere were swimming in the submerged portions of the old subway system. I sat near the glass and raptly watched a fish that fused the features of at least three distinct species, at least two of them tropical, chasing a green and orange minnow. A large octopus...rather, decapus was curled up in the corner watching me with knowing eyes, then casually reached out and grabbed a stonefish. Immune to its poisons, it lifted up its skirt and quickly devoured it. A woman had come up next to me, and when I gasped at the feat of the hardy decapus she smiled. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

“Amazing! The fish are so beautiful.”

“I know. I get to watch them all day.”

I looked askance at her. “You’re not a panhandler, are you?”

She laughed, “Panhandling pays better. I’m a marine biologist on staff here. I’m a guide two days a week, and the rest of the work week I’m on the other side of the glass.”

“So you’re paid to answer my questions.”

“Think of me as a volunteer, which financially I nearly am.”

“So, first question, what’s the story of this museum? It’s just a flooded section of subway, right?”

“Oh, it’s much larger than that. Much of the old subway system was inundated during the Subsidence, and much more of it than should have been just from looking at a map. Lots of the city subsided in odd ways, and the bedding of the subway system somehow just eroded away and flowed around the tunnels as they sank in the ground, so it didn’t disturb the topsoil so much because no gaps were made. Several dissertations have been written identifying the many geological events that could not have caused it. More than that, after subsiding, the breaks in the walls on the sunkenmost parts opened onto a massive network of old flooded tunnels nobody had ever known about that connected to the basements, in some cases now the submerged husks, of many old Boston landmarks. Including, I might add, most importantly the aquarium, which is off that way under the sea line. Yet somehow the Subsidence caused the buildings to collapse with such surgical precision that while they interconnected with each other, they presented no outlet to the sea. Numerous dissertations in civil engineering have been written explaining precisely what could not have happened to cause that.

“And in any case, it was the aquarium that provided the genetic base of much of the life you can see here. Not all of it, for there’s a significant remainder whose origin is unexplained, though dozens of dissertations have been written ruling out any known sources. Including mine, I might add, which eliminated 90% of the genetic inventory of three Pacific atolls as candidates. We think there are very curious species indeed in the sections of the old network no one has ever penetrated to. It’s very dangerous down there, psychologically as well as physically, and while we all have seen some very strange things, we’ve never caught anything for analysis. Whether some of us have been caught for analysis in our turn is a possibility we can’t rule out,” she grinned a little crazily, and I chuckled uneasily.

“Sorry,” she added, “gallows humor. It’s damned oppressive down there, and we can’t penetrate as far into the tunnels as we’d like, but we can tell from odd glimpses and hints that there’s a lot more down there that could be very weird indeed. —Come here,” she said and stepped over to the glass. When I stood beside her she put my hand to the glass.

In surprise I said, “That’s not ocean water, I take it.”

“No, it’s just a little cooler than you. It’s 32 in this section and reaches 54 in the furthest parts I’ve gone. Others have reached spots with 70 or so before they had to turn back. The heat’s only part of it, though. There are serious obstructions and threats of obstructions that no one has dared to passno one who has returned, anyway. And sources of electric power are very unstable down there.”

I shivered. “Better you than me.”

She smiled, “Oh, I was going to put you in a wet suit and give you the up close and personal tour reserved for our more attentive visitors.”

“I think I’ve gotten quite close enough to the friendly neighborhood decapus, thank you kindly.”

“Oh, Barney’s a dear. He only eats cold-blooded prey.”

“Cold-blooded prey’s pretty close to warm-blooded in that water.”

“True. But anyway, that’s the basic situation. What else would you like to know?”

“It sounds like I’d like to know exactly what you want to know: How did all those distinct species...meld like that?”

“Yes, you do know us so well. A lot of dissertations have been written utterly failing to answer precisely that question. Two shelves’ worth at the time I finished, probably another quarter-shelf since then. It might be viral, though we can’t place the biochemistry we’ve teased out into any sensible model. The melding of genes? Well, it’s not just an obvious splicing, but some aspects of it do match that. The expression of genes makes no sense. Inheritance patterns are non-Mendelian; the basic features can be described with an offshoot of group theory, I gather, involving a basic semigroup of order 124 or greater, and a Markov process laid on top of that. But don’t ask me to explain it; I’m just the biologist. And if you ask me my suspicions, it’s probably just intestinal winds, but it got the guy an easy doctorate since standards have been going to hell for a long time, so we have to pretend to know what he was talking about. But the basic fact seems to be that the genetics of these fish are in flux on a subgenerational time scale at a very basic level, possibly even evolving away from DNA entirely.”

“How could that be?”

“Dear sir, if I knew that I’d have published it by now and made damn sure my priority was acknowledged in every publication in the field from that day forward! Riches and fame beyond the dreams of your ordinary street panhandler would be mine!” We laughed and she said, “Dunno. Perhaps the new DNA encodes a life-long process of greater and greater shifts towards some form of protoplasmic fluidity that we can see in certain organs and processes of certain varieties of these creatures. There could be evolutionary advantages to that, and if sexual reproduction went by the wayside in favor of asexualwhich would be a true irony in this benighted bucket of dregswho knows? But we haven’t actually observed any such abnormal reproduction though we suspect it’s there.”

“Why do you suspect that?”

“Certain lines of evidence suggest it. The genetic anomalies increase as you go deeper in the tunnels. The protoplasmic fluidity increases in importance as you go deeper in the tunnels. The degree of melding increases as you go deeper in the tunnels. The amount of non-standard genetic material increases in variety and peculiarity as you go deeper in the tunnels. Something down there holds a lot of answers we’d really like to get out in the open.”

She asked if I had any more questions. I said, “Of course. If it’s closed off from the sea, why isn’t the water completely deoxygenated? And what source of energy is there to keep the whole cycle going?”

She smiled and tapped the end of her nose. “It’s closed off near sea level, yes. Probably there’s an opening rather further down, past the tunnels proper and through some vents. I guess. It still makes little sense, but that’s par for this course.”

“And no doubt dozens of dissertations have been written by geologists failing to explain it.”

She shook her head, “No, only four or five. Any more questions?” When I said I hadn’t, she asked me a few questions of her own: Who I was, what I was doing in Boston, what I was studying. She then spent well over an hour introducing me to the peculiarities and ancestries of each of the fish swimming by. About the time my brain could handle no more, a woman’s voice called, “Pamela!”

She looked up and smiled at me, “My wife is here. We’re going to lunch. Care to come along?”

“Only if we’re having seafood.”

“As a matter of fact we are.”

“Truly committed to your work, I see.”

“Swimming and eating my job is the closest I can get to living and breathing it.”

I gagged a little. “We’re not eating any of them, I hope?”

She shuddered, “Oh, heavens no. They’re almost certainly inedible and likely toxic.”

“In that case, aren’t you afraid of swimming in the same water they breathe?”

“At first we all were, but whatever causes the changes isn’t transmitted by water, fortunately. We’ve tested that to the point of near-certainty, you can be sure.”

“I don’t mean to be gruesome, but if there is something down there with protoplasmic fluidity, aren’t you just a little bit afraid of it grabbing onto you and not letting go as it becomes you?”

She blanched a little and swallowed loudly. “Or me it? That’s something we talk about over our whiskeys and by 2 AM we’ve sworn to resign en masse, but in the light of the morning you know you’ll just have to wait until you reach that bridge. It’s the most fascinating ecosystem on earth. You have to take the risks to reap the knowledge.”

By this time Pamela’s wife had joined us. “Hugh, this is my wife Veronica. Veronica, this is Hugh Viner, a very attentive, smarter than usual humanities drudge on his way to Arkham.”

“Pleased to meet you, Hugh. I should tell you you’ve made Pamela’s day. Only tourists come hereBostonians don’t like it at all. It’s not something they want to think about. Certainly it doesn’t get much funding from the city, and most tourists are bored by it. Just fish, you know?”

We exited and walked a block further towards the sea line, then hooked a north. Over lunch, chowder followed by a delicious cod with a side of broccoli and potatoes for me, shrimp and scallops of various sorts for them, Veronica told me about her work in the art world, and I told them about my work in dialectology and sociolinguistics.

“So you’re a linguist?” asked Pamela, and I nodded. “Writing up a grammar of the speech of our fair and fetid city, are you?”

Veronica interposed, “It’s not my damn city.”

“Nor mine, but it is our home now.”

“You forgot ‘Alas.’ ”

“Alas, yes, I forgot. ‘Alas,’ alas.”

I said to Veronica, “Let me guess. Your city is north of Pittsburgh, say Kittanning or near enough.” She nodded in surprise. “And Pamela is from, well, from one of the rural states north of the homeland. I’d guess Kansas.”

She smiled, “You’re good. Not perfect, though. Try northern Nebraska.”

“Do I have to?”

“Only if you’ve been a very, very bad little boy.”

“So no, I don’t write grammars. I compare dialects and study language variation in general. By seeing how language varies now, we can figure out the factors causing it to change over time.”

Pamela said, “So it’s just like evolutionary biology, just of language.”

“Sort of, but in the details it’s quite different. Ontogeny is phylogeny. What you see is what you get. Lamarck, not Darwin.”

She stopped me with upraised palm. “Now wait just a minute. I thought language was genetically programmed and inherent. There’s a deep structure and a surface structure, just like expressing DNA.”

I took a deep breath. “That’s what some linguists argue, though it’s become a minority view in the past century or so outside New England, and even in New England linguistic thought that particular metaphor is avoided by everyone except third-rate hacks trying to make ill-gotten pelf in the popular quasi-science book trade. And in any case, even if that were true, it would have nothing to do with the evolution of language. To linguists who still use the term, deep structure’s the supposed principles of production for a particular language, and surface structure’s a description of its product, you might say. But deep structure itself isn’t genetic, even in this view, though the general principles underlying the deep structure in the mind of any speaker are claimed to be. The deep structure is learned, inferred to some extent, in conjunction with those inherent principles from the speech around the child, they say. So in fact, the speech around the child replicates itself in a new generation, and undergoes changes in the speech of that generation that are then replicated in the generation after that. So, you see, the deep structure isn’t like DNA; there’s no gene of a particular language that’s distinct or insulated from changes in the surface expression. What you hear is what you got.”

“So language is in continual flux then?”

“Protoplasmic fluidity all the way down.”

“And there’s nothing to limit the changes?”

“Well, nothing outside the language, save its speakers themselves. Change happens, yes, but with some regularities. Some are physically based, some are neurological, some mental and unconscious. But besides that, even though a change has to happen somewhere, has to start in one speaker, that doesn’t mean anything for whether it will spread. That depends on other speakers: Do they accept a change or ignore it? That’s part of what I study.”

“So people just play deuces wild with their speech?”

“Not often, no. People adapt their speech to talk like their fellows, generally: Their family, then their classmates, then their colleagues and neighbors. If a change seems prestigious for some reason, it will tend to spread among the social network of them that find it cool. So there’s that, yeah. But there are so many different ways that people interact and so many different ways of being cool, and so many different kinds of cool, that you can’t really predict anything detailed most of the time. We like to use the word ‘prestige,’ but that’s a band-aid to cover a multiplicity of sins. It’s like a friend of mine back in Texas said who’s a plasma physicist. If you look at your equations in a different coordinate system, yet another type of resonance pops up. It’s like that: Every time you look at people in society from a different angle, there’s another way for change to spread, at least theoretically.”

“So our languages are just flowing along mindlessly like water in a stream, churning away and branching off...”

Veronica interposed, “...and in some places lying in a gutter starting to stink.”

We laughed and Veronica continued, “So you’re one of those descriptivists corrupting the speech of our youth.”

“I describe language as it’s used, yes.”

“But you have no use for prescribing its usage.”

“The two approaches aren’t inherently contradictory.”

“Aren’t they?”

“They’re two separate questions, what is and what should be. I have my preferences, just as everyone else does, and my language belongs to me just as much as anyone else who speaks it, and all of us vote just by speaking as we choose. It’s quite democratic, really, a self-organizing system in which everyone has a say. And there are general standards of coherence, elegance, and beauty; whether they’re objective in any sense doesn’t matter to the people speaking the language, including me. But I’m strongly irritated by ignorant arbiters who try to preempt the free workings of the system by imposing their preferences top-down and who equate logic and Platonic elegance with the speech of their fellows. Some prescriptivists are like that, just as I suppose there are some linguists who are anarchist warriors against the ruling elite, though I haven’t met any personally.”

We had finished by this time and gotten the bill, and outside the restaurant Pamela asked, “What are you doing the rest of the day?”

“Sightseeing, but no particular plans.”

Veronica asked, “Up for an art gallery or two?”

“Since I’m sure you’re the best guide in the city, I’d love it.”

Pamela said, “I have to get back to work. It was a great pleasure meeting you. Since you’re leaving tomorrow, this is it for now, so let me give you our info so you can drop us a line when you’ll be back in Boston. Make sure you have more time next time so we can show you around properly. Why, there’s possibly three whole days’ worth of things to see.” She wrote on a piece of paper and gave it to me. We shook hands and she took her leave, kissing Veronica on the cheek and waving at me.

Veronica and I chatted as we walked to the next intersection and turned right. Shortly we came to a large glass window with paintings on display in a wide variety of styles. She unlocked the door and turned over the ‘Out for lunch’ sign. She ushered me in and waved her arm from left to right. “This is the front room of my gallery. There are three smaller rooms, but I keep the works most likely to sell with the tourists in here, of course.” We walked along the walls as she told me a bit about each artist, and after about fifteen minutes the door opened and a bland young man came in. Veronica looked at her watch and said, “Right on time.”

He walked over to a stool at a table in the opposite corner and asked, “Any visitors today?”

“Three this morning. Sold one, too. —Ralph, this is my friend Hugh. Ralph is paid to sit in the corner there. Sometimes he gets to scare the children and harass the adults.”

Ralph smiled, and after briefly exchanging pleasantries with me he pulled out a book and started to read. Veronica said, “So you said you don’t know much about art. You didn’t say whether you like it though.”

“Some I like, some I don’t, most just fades into the woodwork.”

“Oh, a philistine! Excellent! I was afraid I’d be bored this afternoon. Let me guess, you like sunsets, dogs playing poker, and kittens, oh, and clowns selling balloons.”

“God, that sounds like a pixie puked into a plate.”

“Ah, we’re getting somewhere! All is not lost, the patient might yet recover. Tell me, what do you like? And I don’t mean motherhood, apple pie, or shepherd’s pie.”

“In painting or in general?”

“Oh, let’s start with the broad generalities and work our way down to the waffly weasel words. You claim to have no sensitivity to the visual arts. Is that a general cognitive deficiency or a sector-specific one?”

“I love music, if that’s what you mean. Literature too.”


“Not really.”

“Okay, the man’s got no rhythm, but he can sing a plaintive song.”

I grinned, “Actually, I can’t sing. It scares animals.”

She grabbed my upper arm: “Oh God, really? The neighbor’s dog’s a vicious beast. Wanna punish him for me?”

“Do you want to inflict permanent damage or temporary?”

We laughed and she said, “Okay, so you’re not a lost cause. Is it all visual arts you’re at sea in? Do you like architecture or sculpture?”

“They’re okay.”

“Oh, listen to the man. The Arringatore is just okay. The Pantheon is a glorified corn silo. You’re a lady killer, Tiger, ’cause you’re killing me here.”

“No no, I like the Arringatore.

“Good. Good! That’s a good place to start, actually. So how much time have you spent in your life looking at art? Go to art museums much?”

“Oh, a couple of times a year maybe.”

And so it continued for a rapid quarter hour, as she went through my past and checked about the paintings I might have seen and artists I might have read about elsewhere.

“Quite a congeries you’ve got. Van der Weyden, Velasquez, every Impressionist under the sun, even Friesecke, Bellows, Furtado, Couvier, and Poznievskaya. Good for you, you’re not bound by fashion. I can forgive a lot for that. You hate Poussin, which puts you on my good side; you prefer Modigliani’s nudes to anyone else’s, which means we’re kindred spirits with consummate taste in women; cups of mud and Picasso leave you equally cold, which means you’re not mindlessly reactionary or mindlessly avant-gardist; and you have a pronounced distaste for David, which means, oh, I’m not sure, but at least any radical republican ideology you might have doesn’t influence your esthetic responses, which suggests you’re a fundamentally healthy organism. —Tell me, what do you think of this watercolor?” she asked, pulling me around the corner to a small image of red flowers on a vine.

I grinned cruelly. “It’s very pretty. It’d look great in this cafe near my old apartment.”

“Okay, I’ll accept that provisionally as a utilitarian summary that’s preliminary to your explaining why it would look good there, so you can avoid me kicking your ass all the way from here back to Texas for that loutish mouth of yours.”

I thought for a second and explained the layout in my favorite corner. After some questions about the locations, dimensions, tones, textures, and hues of the furniture, she said, “Okay, your palette’s a little vulgar, but you’re excused this time.”

“I do like it though. The arrangement’s intriguing.”

“Intriguing, the man says. Give the man a cigar, and off with his head!” I laughed as she shook her finger at me and said, “Well, I should hope the arrangement’s intriguing.”

“Can you tell me anything about the artist?”

“Of course. She’s a hot blonde who was born in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, 34 years ago. She studied art and art history, but decided that since it’s a racket preying on willing victims she’ll be part of the Mafia. She loves art and so she hates much of the art world. Also, she’d burn Boston to the ground if it wouldn’t poison half of North America with its fumes. There are, after all, strict controls on burning toxic waste.”

“Hmm. She sounds like a dreadful person.”

“Oh, she is.”

“What do you hate about the art world anyway?”

“Let me tell you a story. In college I worked as a museum guard. In the back of the museum was an old O’Keeffe. One of her flowers, so you know what it’s supposed to be if you’ve ever taken art history. Never looked much like it to me, but what do I know, eh? I’m not a dirty old man on a soapbox. So anyway, day after day you’d have all these dry-as-dust middle-aged women come through in groups, and the slightly drier and dustier woman leading the group would tell them all about the flower’s velvet sensuality, secret folds, and dark moist center, everything about how it looked like something they never named. Then they’d pass this sculpture, see, and usually someone would ask, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh, it’s just a plant.’ And they’d walk on without a second glance. But what a plant! It had a vertical leaf opening like this towards the front inside another leaf,” and here she motioned with her cupped hands and I blushed and laughed as she nodded, “and yeah, I knew what that was the first moment I saw it. But it wasn’t on the radar screen, see? Not part of the curriculum. But if people came through the gallery alone, they’d stop and look at it with cocked head and laugh. And I soon realized, the art world’s composed of herd animals, mostly. They stumble around in groups all looking in the same direction and they wrap everything they see in the cotton gauze of a received opinion. Occasionally some of them go off by themselves, and then sometimes they see things straight and true. As for you, you haven’t been taught enough of other people’s words about art to know what you’re supposed to say.”

“So I guess that’s a compliment.”

She shrugged. “Now tell me, if you don’t mind, how did you know where I’m from?”

“Easy. There are several features of your pronunciation that all intersect in western Pennsylvania, but it’s your pronunciation of ‘traditional’ that made it certain. You see, in much of the eastern states, old tr is pronounced [t͜ʃɹ], and with an unstressed following vowel you get continuation of the r. But in the Allegheny Valley, there’s been a development over the past few decades in which consonants after an r are affected by it in the same way the t was in tr. So you say [t͜ʃɹ̩ˈʒɛːʃnɔʷ]. Easy as pie, see?”

“So it was just a gimme?”

I shrugged.

After another hour looking at the rest of her gallery and a quick tour through one of the few rivals she had any respect for, she said, “And now I must go to work myself. It was a real pleasure. You’re a great chew toy. Please call us the next time you come to Boston. I want to see if anything I’ve said to you has taken root.”

“I’d love that. Maybe over winter break, but I can’t promise anything yet.”

“Of course not. But try your best.”

We shook hands and I headed towards the Funambulus, which I reached in another hour. The neighborhood was dingy, dirty, and dreary, with trash here and there, unseemly stains everywhere on the pavement, and squirrelly figures fading in and out of the alley mouths. The owner checked me in and handed me my key. “Dinner will be served in the dining room in an hour, if you’d like to take repast here. It’s getting dark, and I’d urge you not to go out for very long.”

“I’ll stay here, thanks.”

“Very good, sir.”

I went to my rooma single bed, a table, an arm chair, and not much else, but clean and comfortable. I made a few notes in my journal and entered a summary in my dictapross until it was time for dinner. I had a chicken dish and then a slice of lime pie. It was growing dark when I finished dessert, and not liking the look of the neighborhood any more in the gloaming than the light, I went to my room to get an early start the next morning. All rooms were equipped with cable sensorvision, though that in my room at least was a generation or more out of date. Being naturally loath to spend more money at the place than I needed to keep its roof above my head, I turned on the public access channels. On the first channel, a fellow running for some city office was being interviewed. Curiously, however, he was not being asked about his policy views but rather his preferences among secondary female sexual characteristics. I had gathered that he had a weakness for rumps when he added something salacious about the object of his regards whinnying while shaking a silky mane, so I quickly thumbed the button to the next channel.

Ah, this was more like it, I thought, a broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra! It was, however, the most inadequate performance of the Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture I had heard, even during a tedious month in Tennessee; fortunately, it was soon over, hiccoughing and stumbling to a ragged finish line. Next was a performance of Bruckner’s 4th. It was not one of the standard versions of the symphony, however, and while it is curious to ponder which of the versions current best represents Bruckner’s musical vision, I was certain that this was not a contender. First, the tempo was sped up to match a techno beat specified by the editor to accommodate a new part for synthesizer; second, the French horns had been replaced with bagpipes, perhaps in a tribute to sexy northerners. It rollicked perversely to an end that Bruckner probably never envisioned a mere 20 minutes after it started, and over the applause the announcers showed close-ups of the woodwind players and made suggestive comments about their embouchures. Blessedly, it was only a minute before they announced the final piece for the evening, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, but my spirits fell as they showed selections from an interview with the soloist before the concert. The interviewer asked her why she started playing the cello, and she replied, “Any woman would be eager to show she can give pleasure to thousands with the instrument between her thighs.” She added that in fact she was performing a little-known re-orchestration of the concerto by Nam June Paik from over a century and a half before, and when she came out on stage completely nude except for elegantly purfled ruffles covering her ankles I shook my head sadly; when I saw the body of her cello was made from transparent crystal and had a small camera on the back for special subscribers, I thumbed the button for the next channel.

It was a historical drama about a kingdom wracked with civil strife by restive Albigensians while under attack from both the Vikings and the Visigoths; curiously for that place and any of those times, everyone was fully nude, except that all the women wore ruffles to cover their ankles. The king announced in dulcet tones that if the leader of the opposition supported his rule, he would shower him with gold. A small still voice told me that there was no way that was going to end well, so I thumbed up to the next channel.

A dramatization was starting of Christabelhardly my favorite of his poems and a pale imitation of the glories of Anglo-Saxon meter, but an intriguing choice nonetheless. After about 15 minutes I realized that lesbian vampires had come into fashion yet againonce a century, it would appear. I took note of the time remaining, an hour and three-quarters, and realized the poem had been greatly padded with material of little artistic interest.

The rest of the public access channels were much the same. In growing lassitude I watched a succession of paizogonous diversions, and finally gave up after a frothy tale about a poor beset pronovalent parnel whose pathic paramour of the cloth insisted on perfrication against her peplum under the ministrations of a pizzle. While the dialogue was stilted and the acting mannered in the extreme, the story was a far sight more palatable than the study in pyrolagnia that had preceded it and even attained some mildly humane sentiments in the end. Above all, though, I noted with growing bewilderment that however patulous the action and evident the details of the pareunia in which she participated, each paracoita wore ruffles on her ankles.

I shut off the sensorvision about eleven and tried to read until sleep overtook me. Alas, however, the sensorvision was not so easily shunted aside from my consciousness: the random coruscations in the spackle on the walls resolved themselves into vistas of trembling flesh, and even after I gave up the good fight and turned off the lights to sleep, the very pinpricks of light in my retinas flowed together to form images much like those I had watched earlier. I soon dreamed vivid, fatiguing dreams of paphian abandon with an abundance of ruffles on the extremities of the limbs.

I awoke about three to a sound curdlingly reminiscent of a cat being garroted, then with a start I wished it had been a cat. I crept to the window and peeked out onto the street. Although most of the streetlights were out, light from the corner up the street to my right showed a trio of high-stepping dandies wiping blood from their hands and knives as two servants dragged a pair of bodies off to an alleyway. One of them looked up as I stared, and he smiled and made a hushing sign. Suddenly they looked hard down the road and were off, knives at the ready. The two servants fell in behind them, tracking red footprints from two thick pools on the street.

I left the window and sat in the chair near the door, all ruffles vanquished. Shortly I fell asleep to dreams of being hunted. As I ran between dilapidated stone buildings, cries of “Tally-ho!” and “Say, Jameson, where’s that fox got off to now?” came from unexpected directions to drive me into a pitch-dark cobbled alleyway leading into an inky black courtyard surrounded by slate-roofed high-gabled houses many centuries old. As I hesitated just inside the mouth of the alley, I heard muffled footsteps from both ends of the cross street; seeing no alternative, I went into the courtyard and ducked around a corner. Soon people stood at the entrance to the alleyway, and one voice wheedled, “Damn it all, did he go into the courtyard? That’s the third fox we’ve lost this week to the damned thing.”

“Would you like to go in and lodge a complaint with the master of the premises?”

“Blast it all, you have a damned rotten sense of humor.”

“Well, perhaps the fox will get a sense of Its Madnesty’s presence. You stand there, you there.”

I turned around to peer into the darkness, not daring to breathe, and cared not for the thought of going any further, but no more than the thought of staying put. Soon I heard a slight psithurism on my right, and then a slight scraping on my left, and as I turned to my left to meet any proreption from that direction, something rubbery grasped my right shoulder from behind.

Wanting to scream, I opened my eyes and looked around the room unable to breathe, unable to squeak, unable to fashion coherent thought. My heart was racing and I was overheated. The shadows of the room were lighter than the pitch of my dream, but they were no more amenable to giving me a feel for my surroundings and seemed rather to hide something fetid crouching in wait. I reached out and turned on the lamp on the table; the acherontic murk disappeared in a flash, but I remained in my chair much too timid to move. I seemed to hear something scraping away from my door in the hallway, but in such a state, I had the presence of mind to remind myself, all the odd settlings and creakings of an old building are magnified. I left the light on and eventually dozed. If I dreamed I did not remember it, and blessedly saw no more ruffles or blood that night.

I woke up at 9:02, hurriedly packed what little I had, and rushed down to breakfast, which ended at 9:30. With sausage and coffee in me, the terrors of the night before were a bit distant and capable of pondering without overmuch stress. As I walked back to the stairs, I saw the owner pass in front of me, so I went to the front desk. He looked up from the register and smiled, “How was your stay, sir?”

“I slept very badly, I must admit, very badly indeed.”

“Most visitors to Boston do their first few nights.”

“I’m curious, did anyone report finding some bodies across the street this morning?”

“Only two.”

“I think I witnessed part of it. Should I make a statement to the police?”

“Whatever for? It’s simply quite pointless. They have other crimes to worry about.”

“But...there are murderers about! Murderers for sport.”

“Yes, there certainly are. It’s part of the price you pay for living in a large city. I know it sounds callous, sir, but you’ll grow used to it in time.”

“Murder is not simply the price you pay for living with other people.”

“That’s a naive view of life, if you don’t mind my saying so, sir.”

I was feeling rather apoplectic by that point, so I simply asked, “Where is the nearest police station?” He shrugged and gave me directions. I said, “Thank you. Also, I was wondering about something. I was watching sensorvision last night and noticed that all of the women wore ruffles on their ankles. Why don’t they show their ankles?”

The owner had been the soul of sweetness and light after his own fashion, but upon my posing this question his face flushed and he sputtered, “This is a family establishment! We do not show trash like that here! How dare you suggest...! Why, I took you for a normal man, but you, sir, you are sick! Go look for your smut elsewhere. Your checkout is in fifteen minutes and not a second more.”

I wiped the flecks of spittle from my face as I rushed back to my room to absquatulate as ordered. I was back at the front desk seven minutes later, and the owner silently glowered his way through the checkout. After I paid up, he pointed at the door and pulled out a large stick from under the counter, so I left. As I passed the window I knocked and waved, and departed with a spring in my step as he shook his fist at me and accidentally knocked a pile of pamphlets off the counter with his elbow.

After I turned the corner, I looked around to find the next street on the route, and soon enough saw the local police station. I went up to the clerk and said, “I’d like to make a statement. I witnessed a murder last night.”

The clerk looked at me dumbly as he dug in his ear with a bent paper clip, and only after examining what he had extracted with an air of satisfaction and wiping it on his shirt did he reply, “Right, what were the circumstances?”

I gave a bare outline of the facts, and he looked at me oddly. “I’m not really sure that’s in our purview, sir.”

“Murder’s not in your purview?”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, sir. Did you actually see any violent acts?”

“Not as such, no, but even disposing of bodies like that...and tampering with evidence...and leaving the scene without alerting the authorities is a criminal act on several counts.”

“Is it now? I don’t remember that from training.”

“That’s no problem of mine, officer. I’d like to make a statement all the same.”

He breathed in heavily and exhaled heavily as he pondered me with a look of utter bafflement, and then looked around behind him and said, “Officer Geraghty is free; he should be able to help you, sir.”

Contrary to the clerk’s assertion, Officer Geraghty was not much help at all. “So you say you saw three citizens helping two old men to their feet after they had tripped and banged their heads on the pavement, is that correct?” he said 15 minutes later after editing the dictapross of my statement.

“No, officer, I told you I saw three men cleaning their knives as two other men dragged two bodies into an alleyway.”

“Okay, you say that it was too dark to make out exactly how the three men helped the two old men to their feet.”

“No, officer, it was not that dark.”

“So you did see them helping the old men to their feet.”

“I told you, officer, they did not help them to their feet.”

“But you said...ah, yes, it was the two other men, the servants, who helped them, that’s right. Silly me.”

I heard some muffled snickering in the room behind me, but nothing was out of sorts when I turned around to see what was going on. Just then a higher-ranking officer looked out of his office and called, “Baker, get in here,” and I recognized him as one of the three men with knives from the night before. Pondering quickly the balance of probabilities between nothing happening, bad things happening to me, and anything good happening at all, I looked at Officer Geraghty and slowly asked, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“You said that the two servants helped the old men to their feet.”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

Officer Geraghty smiled and nodded. “I’m glad to see we understand each other, sir. No end of troubles can happen if we don’t always strive for clarity, as my father used to say.”

I swallowed and said, “I think I’m ready to sign my statement.”

“Good, very good, sir.”

He made final adjustments to the text and slid a printout of the statement over the desk to me. I glanced over it, noting that at the end I was quoted as suggesting the city would not be remiss in seeking out the men I had seen to award them a commendation for their selfless good deed in helping the elderly, and in despir and disgust I scrawled something illegible on the dotted line.

As I left, the clerk said, “Thank you for coming in, sir. A solid community needs acts like yours. Day in and day out all we hear about is terrible crimes, but it’s important to recognize those who help their fellows. Health of the city, caring for our friends and neighbors, building a sense of civic responsibility and all that.”

I looked at his grinning face and said, “Yes, I must say that the sense of community here in Boston is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”

“Why, thank you, sir, that’s a fine tribute.”

“Say nothing of it, I beg of you.”

He made a mock bow and I nodded, turned, and rushed out in as seemly a fashion as I could manage. Once out the door I turned north and started hiking as quickly as I could. There was a city bus stop two blocks north of the police station, and I made it just as the bus pulled up. I boarded, took a route pamphlet from the display behind the driver’s seat, and went to the back. The map was a relief; the route continued north to the Charles, and after that I should be able to get well out of the administrative city by mid-afternoon. In fact, that estimate was pessimistic, for once I got off the bus and checked my route on the city map I began jogging and hit my second wind inordinately quickly.

North of the Charles, the habitation dropped off precipitously. Although Boston had retained its old engorged boundaries jealously in a sad bid to be ready to rise again, they clearly made up any budget shortfalls by giving the trans-Charles region lowest priority for city services. I jogged through abandoned business districts collapsing back into the earth and saw glimpses of residential areas now home to native flora; only rarely did I find a cluster of open businesses or pass a neighborhood with humans in evidence. Despite having once been an academy on a hill, the only traces of universities along my route were wreckages of towers and halls overgrown with vegetation near gaping craters. Towards evening I was ensconced in an inn in Lynn, where I slept well, only slightly troubled by mere echoes of the charnel house of the Boston dream world.

Refreshed, the next morning I rose early and made it to Arkham by lunch. While Arkham retained some measure of population, it was a shrunken husk of an old small city of the 20th century with few traces of the intervening years: A sensorvision transmitter, a few large satellite dishes, and the like coexisting with centuries-old power and telephone lines. As I walked towards the Miskatonic along Garrison Street, I found my passage blocked by a rickety fence and a sign reading “Hazardous Passage. Detour.” Looking through a crack in the fence, I saw the edge of a crater falling off a few yards in front of me and a wide chasm beyond whose far side was shrouded in a mist of unhealthy aspect. I backtracked to Pickman Street and walked a short distance until by happenstance I found myself outside the Miskatonic University Memorial Museum. I went inside and paid my pittance, and over the next hour learned of the rise, flourishing, decadence, and destruction of what was claimed by city boosters to be the Oxford of the Northeast, though more like the Arkham Community College and Special School for the Feeble-Minded, Insane, and Lost if you looked past the guff to the facts they boasted to bolster their flimsy claims. In short, the university did not survive the Subsidence; after a massive explosion, unsuspected underground caves must have collapsed, leaving a vast smoking crater in the middle of Arkham that soon filled with brackish, unhealthful water that had been linked to typhoid and malaria outbreaks every summer. Thus, I concluded, the University in death inflicted on the physical health of its neighbors much the same affronts and morbidities that it had inflicted in life on their minds.

My hike had made me hungry, so I walked on to the riverfront to find an appealing restaurant. I especially liked the looks of the Clamshucker on River Street near the bridge to Ipswich, which was built in a former warehouse in an early 21st century gentrified district that had since declined into the pervasive New England muck a bit less than the rest of Arkham. After I ordered chowder and a pot pie, I asked my waitress the best way to get upriver to MIT. She answered in heavy Maine-Hampshire dialect, with which I was not as familiar as I should have been, so I listened carefully.

“Ah, sirree, thar’s a nice trip. Take yeself to the next bridge upriver, and follow ye the Innmouth Road but turn yeself towards Bolton, and go ye on till ye can turn yeself upriver onto Bank Road. Can’t ’void the bend any way, and that way’s the smoothest. Ye can find nothing much but trees till ye reach the vicin’ty Topsfield, and then half again along ye’ll find Pursleyville on nex’ the river. Thar ye’ll be.”

“Thanks. It’s about 20 miles, right?”

“Aye, so’s it.”

“I should probably overnight here and hike to Pursleyville tomorrow?”

“Aye, Topsfield’s drearier’n here’ven, and ye’ll n’wan’ye be a’road in dark.”

“Know a good inn for tonight?”

“Widow Curtis’s good enow f’r’em’s like ye. Ye hike, ye seem none so p’rticular.”

“That should do.”

She gave me directions and after I had eaten I went back inland to the corner of Pickman and Parsonage. Widow Curtis was a high-toned old Christian woman who frequently winced, and she gave me a careful, dissatisfied inspection crown to toe as she interrogated me before assenting to put me up for the night. Fortunately, I had once written a lengthy paper for a class on the intricate system of terms of address that had taken root in the soil of the South, so I knew how to appropriately address traditional women of primitive agricultural backwaters where politeness and tribalism made do for opportunity and industry, and hence acquitted myself well as a gentleman of sorts, if not a man of parts. “Texas, say ye? Godless land of mammon and brigandage. Ye did well to exit the place. —Pursleyville? Salt of the earth there, despite the pagan ceremonies heard tell in the woods about. Stay indoors against the pixies, and ye should be fine. —Ye did well indeed to exit Boston hastily. Too proud by far they were and sunk in worldly vanity, and cast down they were then in their finery and debased to the beasts of the wild.” Here I could only agree heartily. I then satisfied her curiosity about the sundry ways of speech of the many people I had met and entertained her with my imitation of the waitress at the Clamshucker. “Aye, that’s Mabel to the letter. Ye’ve a good ear. Her parents and she came here twelve years, nay thirteen back, from the Maine backwoods. Sounds a dangerous place; bears are on the return that way, and large and fierce they sound to be.”

Dinner was a plain stew and bread. I went to bed early to be troubled early in the night by dreams, first of being nuzzled by something sharp-toothed and furry, then of being smothered by a benevolent pillow with claws; when I woke, I found a long-overfed yellow cat had taken residence on my chest and neck, and after pushing its purring weight slightly down and to the right so its tail no longer covered my nose, I slept soundly until Widow Curtis rapped smartly on my door at 7:00.

I washed my hands and face and packed my bag, then took it downstairs with me for a simple breakfast of oatmeal and toast, pondering all the while how the cat had gotten in my room. I paid her the charges asked and thanked her for her company, and she nodded. The cat came in as I was about to leave, so I petted him goodbye. “Thank you, Officer. You keep good public order.”

“Aye, my Little Man stands good guard against the mice and other little nibbling things that lurk in the dark of the night.”

“I thank you again, good lady, and wish you well.”

“And may God speed ye on your journey, young man. Would that more young men were so well spoken.”

I bowed and exited the door that she held open for me and closed right after. I turned north onto Parsonage Street and followed it to the river, then went left to the bridge with a stop to buy a lunch to take with. There was a passable amount of motor traffic to and from Bolton and Innsmouth until I turned off onto Bank Road, after which I saw few cars the rest of the day. Bank Road had once been well paved and solid in the early 21st century mold, but in the decades since it had fallen into some measure of disrepair. The walking path beside it was overgrown and patchy, and in most parts overhung by dark trees and only rarely bordered by a fence in repair. The day was cool and cloudy, and as I walked I glanced with increasing unease at the dark depths of the woods pressing against me on my right. After an hour I began to entertain the fancy that some other traveler was following a parallel route to mine about fifty yards to the right amid the dark trees and picked up my pace. In another hour or so I came to a bridge over Pye Brook, or so quoth the sign there, and turned to survey the woods pressing against the road behind me and crowding the brook. I hastened across and pushed on, but when I glanced back the bridge was darkened by the passage of a cloud and partially obscured by a tree; in the shadows it seemed that something moved there, but that could have been mere shiverings of branches.

In any case, the clouds started to break up and my mood lifted, and after another mile scattered habitations came into view. Eventually I reached the junction with a well-maintained paved road to Topsfield, and I paused to eat my lunch on a large rock overlooking the Miskatonic. After a short digestive pause, I began my postprandial perambulation to Pursleyville, which I reached in mid-afternoon. A smallish town that had never seen much of a glorious past and showed little hope of a glorious future, Pursleyville crouched between the river and the woods like a small alert hedgehog. I found a small inn and spent the rest of the day relaxing, for the morrow was my day of matriculation.

Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor
Strangecraft, Part II—The Kudzu on the Ivory Tower—Mikael Thompson
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents