"Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend,
More than cool reason ever comprehends."
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 5, Scene 1


At the edge of a snowy forest squat a shanty, snug and warm, far from the modern world. Nighttime tested with howling wind and flurry. Soft glow of lamp and hearth stood as warden against the forbidding winter dark. A feminine shadow swept across the yellow window. She crossed again: troubled pacing's rhythm. Airmid's land lay beyond the horizon—the border, remote from Man's eye, where knowledge greets dream and weather carries omen.

A fortnight earlier, Airmid's patient had departed with the pair of aged woodcarvers. Two months before that, they delivered the young lady half-dead. The three brought early winter's cloistering burden. Inside, heated in body and mood, both old men fidgeted, spooked enough to prattle, taking turns keeping watch at the window as they did so; to know their usual swagger—as a piqued Airmid did—made such trepidation alarming. The woodcarvers insisted calling the patient Portia, little consideration in the naming, her original never spoken aloud lest it caught upon a keen, distant ear. Portia arrived with dire illness, poisoned into a clairvoyance which burned away her élan vital to sustain the magic seething in her blood. Worse, the woodcarvers said, with her heightened perception she had pierced the penumbral shroud of a Watcher, the species' endling. The incident shattered her psyche into sharp shards of gruesome remembrances and pulverized glass, twinkling motes of happy instances which were only even discernible under strong light. The woodcarvers intoned this, begged Airmid her solemn confidence, and fled, their strange vows and traditions making even this helpful contact a hypocrisy which required absolving prayer.

Airmid knew the lore of a thousand and one flowers, herbs, spices, extracts, seeds and nuts, and fruits from the living world and another. Portia's poisoner was crude but effective. He laced her with more than what was necessary to open her inner eye but added other compounds, each at odds, to transform her into an enticement for creatures—night persons—both sensitive and wicked. Airmid flushed Portia's arteries and chakras, grinding charcoal, mugwort, mallow, meadowsweet, and lovage to form a panacea, and Nick Slant, the shanty's steward, fluffed the young woman's pillow and swaddled her and stoked the fire wide; and useless Blog, the unwelcome tenant, stole Portia's silver whistle from around her neck and squirreled it in his cubbyhole.

Seven touch-and-go nights went by before Portia formed coherent speech. "Helluva song," she said of Airmid's lullabies, performed over the young woman hour-by-hour while Nick Slant plucked his tiny harp from his stool by the fireplace.

"Those were as I sang them over my daughter whenever she took ill. That was so long ago. Tell me, what do you remember, my dear?"

"I remember shapes and colors and... halos. A stupid boy. B-but there's—I'm missing time. How'd I get here? I remember being angry," said Portia.

"I needed to apply an amnesiac so you might return to yourself. You experienced something none deserved to see."

"It—Was this what Du—"

"Hush, child." Airmid stroked her patient's hair which, once washed clean of artificial color, she found to be stark white, added results from Portia's terrible trials. Airmid continued, "Your friends will explain more than I upon their return. For now, you must keep fast shut those names and memories for your sake and my own, Portia."

Narrow-eyed silence: "Who's Portia?"

Six conscious weeks elapsed until the woodcarvers arrived for their ward. Airmid sheered Portia's long hair and dissolved her many tattoos with a long-forgotten unguent. A historic weight seeped from her draining away with the tub's stained bathwater, and her voice regained a lightness, a melody believed lost. Airmid shared elementary lessons of her craft and found Portia had learned from her poisoner a harsher, pragmatic discipline of herbalism—the sort practiced by sterile, alchemical brains. Her memory was that of a philosopher of antiquity, hallways and chambers of organized eccentricities bearing meanings only significant to her. ... Time confined by thickening wintertide bred familiarity, enough for Nick Slant to show himself, surprising Portia when she looked up from the breakfast table to see him eating his porridge and honey. Blog stomped around, causing the old shanty to groan at night, in an ironic anger at Portia's intrusion. Despite Airmid's insistence, he never conceded the whistle.

After the woodcarvers and Portia withdrew, Airmid caught herself often glancing to the photograph of her daughter which hung in a cheap wooden frame; any finer and Blog steals it. Letters waited in her nightstand, completed and not, each unaddressed. The courage never rose to mail them. Chill to the touch, the possibilities they inferred leeched away into endless winter night—fated to go forever unfulfilled.

The temperature plummeted two weeks later, the night snow fell sideways and howled. In the little sitting room, Airmid paced, Blog tapped his foot, and Nick Slant mended a quilt from his fireside stool.

"Crap-lousy weather," said Blog. "What if I wanna take a stroll? Sky ever think of that?"

"You'll never leave, old boy; you're too afraid we won't let you back in the house." Nick Slant laughed a lilting tune.

"Blog is correct. The weather. Ghastly. Too ghastly..." Airmid brought a hand to her mouth, fingers tapping her lips. "I fear—"

Something roared over the wind, a harmonizing choir of tigers. The shanty vibrated; plates rattled from shelves, crashed. Airmid and Blog clung to the windowsill, and they stared into what should be darkness, but a light, hollow and blue, drifted from them in the sky before vanishing behind the tree line.

"Tis but the peel of thunder." Nick Slant knitted faster.

" 'Tis nothing but thunder' says he. Pshaw. Always the same with y—"

A thunderclap; a boom from the distance washed the warmth from the shanty and set their bones ashiver. The electric lamps died; the fire sputtered, choked, spiraled and sucked up the chimney leaving only fast-dying cinders. Nick Slant's knees rattled from where he clung the hem of Airmid's dress. Beyond the black forest, from their now black vantage point, the hollow, blue light shown amongst the trees, and from within emerged inky silhouettes: one, two, and a third—"Always in threes," said Airmid. Lengthy shadows stretched from slender men striding forward indifferent to the snow's chill, one hand each up to hold the fedoras perched upon their heads while the wind whipped at vintage suits.

"Blog, take Nick into your cubbyhole."

"Nobody b-but me g-goes..." Blog could not finish the sentence through the chatter of his teeth; his wide eyes never left the window. Airmid shook him. He looked up to her.


Blog grabbed Nick Slant, tore him away and bounded out of sight, tiny patches of dress still clutched in the steward's hands. They veered into the kitchen, squeezed behind the potbelly stove, and climbed a forgotten dumbwaiter shaft into a secret crawlspace. A sea of treasure spread: pocket watches, silverware, candlesticks, millennium-old coins. A multitude of shiny things in disorganized waves littered the floor. Blog brushed a pile of jeweled hairpins aside to expose a space and pressed his large ear against the floorboards.

A single knock struck the shanty's door with the finality of a funeral knell. The entrance opened, and in her tersest tone Airmid said, "Hello."

"Greetings, madam," hissed a breathy voice. "I am Agent... Door with my colleague Agent... Snow."

"Save your feeble lies. Why do you call upon me at this hour or any other? This land accepts not your ilk's science."

"Too true, madam. May we enter?" The door groaned in brief contest, slammed against the wall, banging twice from errant gusts before being shut fast. "How kind. Take a seat." A thud, a person tumbled across the sitting room, but a swift shuffle followed as lightweight body rose from the floor, the rocking chair resuming its familiar creak. "Deft recovery, madam."

Heavy footsteps sounded upon the roof, and Blog eyed Nick Slant, both his hands clasped across mouth. "Don't you go making a damned sound," Blog growled and brought his ear to the conversation in the room beneath them.

"—you had a visitor this season. What you may or may not know..." The voice was alien and slow, inhaling words instead of projecting. "Your visitor is a crucial witness in our, ah-ha, investigations."

"Well, no luck I fear; they took her away. Where? I could not say."

"Yes. Yes. Doubtless. But they are...?" The rocking chair ceased to creak, and wood squealed under a mighty grip. "Give their names and titles."

"I cannot. I have given my word—my pledge; it is not within your power to extract it from me."

The old lamp clicked, a few discordant notes played upon the piano, tiny harp strings snapped, and a picture frame swished, swinging from its nail upon the wall. "Agent... Door, note this."

Airmid spoke first, "That is nothing. It came with the frame. A good-looking creature, yes? Reminds me of youth. I remember a ti—" A smack hit cheek accompanied by a single, feminine grunt.

"Flirtatious deception: the hallmark of your kind," said Agent Door. "Catalog that... In our records, you bear no living kin, Airmid. A useful piece of data one imagines."

"How recently you have only just awoken if your bookkeeping be so outdated. You're a sad gray color, Fomoir. How afraid are you of not lasting til your world returns? Very, one imagines, should your slumbers be so frequent and for such duration."

"Ah-haha," wheezed the agent. "The old names—so many colorful memories."

The shanty's door burst open. A third hissing voice carried on the wind, "She escaped thirteen, maybe fourteen nychthemerons ago. No trail, but the dielectric constant remains untampered—the veil: unbreached."

"Ah, good, good. Well, florist, our conversation ends."

Buzzing, angry as a dentist's drill, rang over the gusty howls but couldn't drown the loudest screams. No short affair, ceaseless, the agents' interrogation carried no questions, required no answers, pure amusement the only goal. The deed persisted until Nick and Blog had no tears left unshed. With the silence—blessed and cruel—the weather calmed, and the house shook beneath hollow, blue light, and slender men returned to their solid world, more Euclidean and Newtonian than Airmid's.

The survivors crept into the sitting room, half-filled with snow and worse. From the doorway, Blog stared at the clouds receding into the horizon exposing stars known by few astronomers. Nick Slant covered his mistress' remains with the half-finished quilt then stood beside his housemate, despondent. He said, "Tis no longer a house—a home. I cannot tend an empty building."

"We need to reach that city."

"A madness takes you."

"I'm madder than you'll ever be, but the lady's girl—"

"The woodcarvers practice well their craft, Blog. She will—"

"Damn you. I'm not talking of that albatross. I'm talking of the lady's real girl, her daughter. She's in that city. What if those things go for her?"

"But-but Airmid kept this secret from the little lady; she told me so, she surely did."

"Fool. You think that makes her safe? You think—" Blog gestured toward the sky "—they care!"

"A city is the death of me; I'm not worldly as y—"

"Do you serve? Or don't you!"

Nick Slant started to look upon the uneven lumps hidden by the quilt but could not muster the nerve. "I serve. Always."

Together, without another word, they gathered few essentials and set out into the snow and woods to leave their ephemeral land and journey into the rigid realm of Man and his unbearable certainty. Blog, with Nick Slant in tow, smelled the path back to his grizzly origins. To crowded halls, to court and street


" '—to frozen hearts and hasting feet,' " mumbled Faye through semi-consciousness, her body coated in frost. She awoke above the sheets. The sheen of night terror sweat turned icy under the blast of the duplex's four battery-operated fans which blew over both occupants of the bed shared by underwear-clad roommates because of another power outage in Amity Heights; the city's summer nights fogged every window and suffocated every resident in a muggy, Biblical heatwave. Beside Faye, Ector emitted a shuddering snore, its volume so surprising as it came from such a small, brown figure. She rolled over, felt the chill of drying perspiration, listened to the whirl of fans and Ector's rumbling exhalations, and wondered at the dream, the nightmare, the portent?—details lingering at the fringe of memory—which slipped into oblivion before dawn.

But across the black of powerless Amity Heights, to the river's west bank not two miles away, the Mertroy Tower shined, a lighthouse in a shadowy land. A modern-day Babel, the Mertroy housed the élite: the city's powerful—business owners, aldermen, lawyers, bankers, dilettantes and debutantes, the old moneyed and the new—and more seasonal residents: Saudi princes, European blue bloods, Chinese investors, along with faded actors and forgotten musicians prematurely aged by drink, by pill, by pipe. Despite being so disparate, the tenants unified as truly American, each worshiping at the altar of conspicuous consumption. A jigsaw of cyclopean condominiums filled the Art Deco skyscraper, and in one cavernous example, its air cool and crisp and redolent, cocooned in thousand-thread-count bed sheets, Bill Callahan enjoyed a dreamless repose because there was no contest within him... yet.