The rail carriage jolted, spoons jumped, ringing the empty tea-glasses; the wild sheep standing in the passageway raised his head and pawed the floor. His tail flicked as if to chase away flies, his moist eyes fixed attentively on each sleeping passenger in turn. To stay unnoticed he huffed and snorted only in unison with the clatter of the wheels. Cautiously he peered under the lower berths, sniffed at the duffel bags stowed beneath them, then poked his head under the table. His horns scraped against the underside, rattling the glasses in their holders and knocking over a bottle of mineral water. It rolled and fell; the crash of it hitting the floor woke Nick with a shudder.
Nick heard his neighbor turn and murmur in his sleep on the lower berth. Jagged spots of moonlight raced each other across the table. The bottle of mineral water leaned against the window as if nothing had happened. Nick wagged his finger at it and looked down, searching for the intruder. Naturally, the sheep was nowhere to be seen; evaporated, as usual. On the floor there was only a book.
He pulled off his sheet, climbed down cautiously, taking care to avoid stepping on his neighbors who slept below, then threw the book up to his berth and climbed back up. Then, finally back in his berth, he tried his best to catch shards of moonlight to browse the book’s fragile pages. Nearly all of them were shredded, as if someone had gnawed at the book methodically, leaving no page unscathed, or chopped it with a weapon of sorts, that left the edges of the cuts fringed and blackened and curled into tiny tubules. He had to smooth each sheet and run his finger over each splice until it healed. This took longer than it should have, longer than yesterday or the day before, and to compare with last year, painfully slow.
The sky beyond the window glowed steel-gray in the predawn twilight, and early bird travelers (looking in fact more like the undead than like any member of the feathered family) queued up in the corridor before Nick passed his hand over the last page of the book and closed it. He yawned with abandon and spent several seconds staring at the blank cover, then stuck his healed treasure under the pillow and in an instant fell into heavy morning sleep.
By close to midday, when the conductress shook him awake, the book had melted away like an evil premonition.
He had felt the urge to go on the road several weeks earlier. Before that his city supplied more than enough random occurrences to keep him busy. Paint peeled off old fences, baring letters and symbols carved into the splintery wood long ago. Cars speeding on collision courses passed a hair’s breadth apart. Murders of crows lost their way and dashed madly among sunset clouds that glowed just above the western horizon. And, falling asleep on a bus, one could see animals who searched for lost items, seedling trees that crawled to fountains to drink, and twilight caught between night and day.
From early childhood Nick could see rips in the fabric of which the Universe was knit, so early that he forgot what life was like in the days before he felt the cold breath of the other side. At ten years of age he came to understand that adults who recounted fairy tales did so in the firm disbelief of their reality, while he observed, at first hand, orderly queues of house spirits goose-stepping to the bathroom to wash their shaggy socks, and in his grandmother’s village encountered a fox who, hiding in the brambles, crooned invitations to geese to come for a plate of porridge.
A short time later Nick learned that he could influence events. He trailed the house spirits in silence and taught them to use his family’s washing machine, shushed the fox to silence, erased strange inscriptions from fences. In general, he assisted reality in its peaceful coexistence with faerie and helped people hold on to their misperceptions.
At seventeen he learned to see the fabric of the Universe itself. He even noticed the barely audible twang before it tore to birth yet another paradox. His mission changed from finding the strange and hiding it from the eyes of others to healing wounds on the surface of reality. He brought together the ghostly edges of dehiscences, breathed on them, and watched the Universe return to its appointed rounds. Flowers gave way to berries, curious green noses poked out from seeds of trees, and souls at liberty queued up at the windows of labor and delivery wards to await their turns at reincarnation.
“Assistant, a suture!” he once murmured merrily under his breath, pacing a huge fissure in the asphalt on his way home from work. It shrank behind his back, eventually to disappear, as if it had never existed.
Then disaster struck.
Random occurrences grew less and less frequent. At first Nick did not notice this, the difference being small between an avalanche of strange events one minute and avalanche-less-one the next; but when the figure grew to ten fewer, then rarer still, he began to worry.