Why You Should Never Ignore the Prickle

Once upon a time there was a man driving along a straight lane just as it was about to get dark.  

He knew where he was going and had friends waiting for him at the end, and the scenery on both sides was perfectly peaceful, but still he had a funny prickle at the back of his neck.  He recognized the funny prickle.  It always came when something was not quite right.

Still he drove on as the sun slowly set, and he tried to ignore the prickle.

(Silly, silly man.  You should never ignore a prickle on the back of your neck.  Your neck knows things that the rest of you can’t quite figure out.  When it prickles like that, you should always turn around and change all of your plans.  Always.)

Just as the last rays of sunlight were streaming across the road, the man’s car sputtered and turned itself off.

He drifted a ways and the rolled to a stop on the side of the road.  Then he got out of the car, still ignoring the prickle, which by now was more like a jabbing under his collar.

He lifted the hood of his car.  Nothing seemed to be wrong.

He closed the hood and straightened up, looking around for the first time.  What he saw was quite odd.


As far as the eye could see stretched flat, neatly-clipped grass, marked off in giant rectangles by white paving stones.  On the edges of each rectangle, small cone-shaped hedges grew, each one surrounded by its own tiny fence.  This pattern was repeated over and over with eery consistency off into the distance.

Rubbing the back of his neck and refusing to worry, the man took out his cell phone to place a call to his waiting friends.

The phone was dead, and no amount of button-pushing or power-cord-plugging-in could make it come to life again.

The man no longer felt that he could ignore his prickling neck, but he also no longer felt that he had many options left to him.  His car would not move. His phone would not work. There were no other living beings anywhere at hand.

(Silly, silly man.  There are always options.  Sometimes you just have to look harder to find them.)

The well-manicured look of the landscape suggested that people did live nearby, though.  After all, someone had trimmed those hedges and put up those fences and cut that grass so low.

With no other option that he could see, the man and his pricklig neck began to walk down the white paving stones away from the road and (he hoped) toward some sort of house where he might find help.

He walked a very long time, past a great many curiously precise grass rectangles and even more oddly perfect cone hedges. 

He walked a very long time.

And eventually, he did see a house. Or what he thought must be a house.

The building was perfectly white and perfectly rectangular and each of its four corners touched the edge of a smaller building, perfectly black and perfectly cone-shaped.  The man had never seen anyplace so strange.  There was a large front door in the exact middle of the white rectangle, but no windows that the man could see.

With a great deal of prickling in his neck but still no other options, the man went to the big front door and knocked.

Silently, the door opened.  The man was blinded by the light that poured out into the night but he heard music from inside, so he didn’t hesitate long before stepping inside.

“Is anyone home?” he asked.

The door shut behind him.

The man’s friends wondered why he didn’t arrive that night, but they didn’t begin to be worried until the next day when he didn’t return anyone’s calls.  They drove down the long, straight lane, all the way to his home in another town, but they never found any sign of him or his car in all that peaceful landscape.

And they never saw him again.

The Heart of a Cloud


By the time I discovered the manor at Shrouded Bluff, it had been empty for over a hundred years, but the house had not forgotten people.

I had rented a room in the village below, and the landlady, with a load of other unnecessary chatter, told me about all the best walking trails. When I asked about the bluff, she waved off the question. No one ever walked up there anymore. With all that mist, the stone steps were slippery and dangerous. Yes, there was a trail at the top, but there was no view at all, just a damp walk through the heart of a cloud.

It was the first place I went. I think I had some vague notion that if I went into the heart of a cloud it might make sense of the cloud in my heart.

The landlady was not wrong about the condition of the steps. Not only were they slick with condensation but years of neglect had left them broken and slanted. There was danger with every step. Oddly, this comforted me, to be so focused on the placement of my feet that I could not think about the misplacement of my affections. As I climbed, the cloud reached out and enveloped me, and when I reached the level top, I could see nothing but disembodied limbs of trees emerging from white walls ahead.

I followed the path.

It ran fairly straight, still rising slightly, cutting through the fog with its rough, pebbly persistence. After a while, a stone wall rose up along one side. I attempted to peer over it, and though I could see nothing through the thick mist, I had the impression of a great depth.

The path ad I continued until a dark shape loomed through the fog ahead. The thrill I felt could have been fear or excitement. I had long since lost the ability to distinguish my emotions. In any case, I did not slack my pace as I approached the mysterious monument.

With a jarring suddenness, I stepped out of the mist and into a space of open air. The wall suddenly swept away, curving around a wide lawn. In the center of that lawn was the manor house. It was imposing, two stories, countless windows, well-formed gables, a wide porch, every last bit built of stone. The pebble path led straight to the front door, and I followed willingly.

I never gave a thought to trespassing. The house was clearly abandoned, glass missing from many windows, stone pillars crumbling in places, tufts of grass growing on the roof. The porch steps were firm under my feet, though, and the front door, though not latched in any way, swung open without a creak. Inside, the house was spacious and elegant and heart-breakingly empty. Immaculate crown molding lined the ceilings, each door frame was carved into a work of art, the walls were covered in delicate papers, as lovely as they were faded. The wooden floors, though dusty, were still smooth and unbroken chandeliers dangled from the ceiling.

But there was nothing inside: no furniture, no pictures on the walls, not so much as a forgotten toy or stray comb. No wild animals had made their home here. No birds had taken shelter from the cold and damp. Only I wandered from room to room and the wind that swept in through the windows only to leave again as quickly as it had come.

I wandered from room to room, and tears ran down my face that such a masterpiece of beauty and strength should contain so much emptiness.

The house was glad to have me there. I felt that clearly. I felt how it yearned toward me, how it enfolded me in welcoming arms. It was cold, but it wanted to be warm. It was neglected, but it wanted to be cared for. It was desolate, but it wanted to be filled.

The house remembered people, and its memories were filled with longing.

I don’t recall making any decision. When I had visited every room of the house, I went back outside. I stood for a long time on that neatly encircled lawn. I followed the pebble path back to the slippery stairs. I descended with great caution and emerged from the cloud with little droplets clinging to my hair. I returned to my rented rooms.

The next day I bought a lantern before climbing the bluff.

The day after that, I bought a rug.

The day after that, I bought three small cushions, a music box, and a tea kettle.

This went on for many days. No one every questioned my strange purchases. No one ever asked me where I went each day. Over dinner at night, the landlady chatted of this and that, of village gossip and news of the world beyond, but she never made the slightest reference the Shrouded Bluff over our heads. It was as if I and the cloud made no impression on those around us.

Then one day, I packed my things. I payed my landlady. I climbed the stairs, more carefully than ever before.

The heart of the cloud was quiet and still. It was damp and gray. But it was no longer empty.

As you can see, the manor is a place of warmth and light, a place of music and elegance. The house and I have kept each other company all this time as we waited. We knew you would come one day, climbing through the fog with cautious steps, following the pebble path until your feet stood on our front porch and your hand knocked on our front door.

Please, come in.