Evidently, the serpent isn’t poisonous, because Martie isn’t alarmed about it, and neither is Susan, who is also on this South American expedition. At the moment she is sitting in an armchair across the clearing, half turned away from Martie, visible only in profile, so still and quiet that she must be meditating or lost in thought.
Martie herself is lying on a cot, or perhaps even on something more substantial, like a sofa, which is button-tufted and has a warm leathery sheen. This must be a first-class wilderness tour if so much effort has been expended to bring along armchairs and sofas.
From time to time, magical and amusing things occur. A sandwich floats in the air—banana and peanut butter on thick slices of white bread, judging by the look of it—moves back and forth, up and down, and bites disappear from it, as though a ghost is here in the woods with her, a hungry ghost having lunch. A bottle of root beer floats in the air, too, tipping to invisible lips, to slake the thirst of the same ghost, and later a bottle of grape soda. She supposes this is to be expected, because, after all, South American writers created the literary style known as magical realism.
Another magical touch is the window in the woods, which is above and behind her, shedding light into the forest, which would otherwise be quite dark and forbidding. Everything considered, this is a fine spot for their camp.
Except for the leaves. Fallen leaves are scattered about the clearing, perhaps from the mahoganies, perhaps from other trees, and though they are only dead leaves, they make Martie uneasy. From time to time, they crunch, they crackle, though no one steps on them. Not even the slightest breeze weaves through the forest, but the restless leaves tremble singly and in small gatherings, shudder and scrape together, and creep along the floor of the campsite with sinister susurrant sounds, as if mere leaves could scheme and conspire.
Without warning, a hard wind blows out of the west. The window is west-facing, but it must be open, because the wind rushes through it and into the clearing, a great howling presence on which are borne more leaves, great seething masses, hissing and flapping like clouds of bats, some moist and supple, others dry and dead. The wind sweeps up the leaves on the floor, too, and the churning debris pumps around the perimeter of the clearing— red autumn leaves, moist green leaves, petals, stipules, whole bracts—pumps around like a carousel without horses but with strange beasts formed of leaves. Then as if drawn by the pipes of Pan, every leaf without exception flies to the center of the dearing and coalesces into the shape of a man, forming around the invisible presence that was always here, the sandwich-eating and soda-drinking ghost, giving it form, substance. The Leaf Man looms, huge and terrible: his bristling Halloween face, black holes where his eyes should be, the ragged maw.
Martie struggles to get up from the sofa, before he touches her, before it is too late, but she is too weak to rise, as if afflicted by a tropical fever, malaria. Or maybe the snake is poisonous after all, the venom finally producing an effect.
The wind has blown the leaves out of the west, and Martie is the east, and the leaves must enter her, because she is the east, and the Leaf Man places one massive bristly hand over her face. The substance of him is leaves, churning masses of leaves, some of them crisp and crimpled, others fresh and wet, still others slimy with fungus, with mold, and he pushes the leafy essence of himself into her mouth, and she bites off a piece of the beast, tries to spit it out, but more leaves are shoved into her mouth, and she must swallow, swallow or suffocate, because still more crushed and powdery leaves are forced up her nose, too, and now a moldy mass of leaves squeezes into each ear She tries to scream for Susan 's help, can’t scream, can only gag, tries to cry out to Dusty, but Dusty didn’t come here to South America or wherever this is, he's back there in California, there's no one to help, she is filling up with leaves, her belly full of leaves, her lungs clogged, her throat, choking on leaves, and now a frenzy of leaves whirling in her head, inside her skull, scraping across the surface of her brain, until she can’t think clearly anymore, until her entire attention is focused on the sound of the leaves, the incessant scraping—rattling-ticking-clicking-crunching-crackling-hissing SOUND— “And that’s where I always wake up,” Martie said.
She looked down at her last scampi, lying on what remained of a bed of pasta, and it less resembled seafood than it did a cocoon, one of those she’d encountered from time to time when she was a kid, climbing trees. In the upper branches of one spreading giant, in what seemed to be clean bowers of sunlight and emerald-green foliage and fresh air, she’d once come upon an infestation, dozens of fat cocoons firmly glued to leaves, which curved to half conceal them, as though the tree had been induced to help protect the parasites that fed on it. Only mildly repulsed, reminding herself that caterpillars, after all, can become butterflies, she studied these spun-silk sacs and saw that squirming life filled some of them. Deciding to free whatever golden or crimson winged wonder wriggled within, to release it into the world minutes or perhaps hours before it would otherwise be free, Martie delicately peeled back the layered fabric of the cocoon— and found not a butterfly, nor even a moth, but scores of baby spiders bursting from an egg case. Having made this discovery, she never again felt exalted merely to be in the airy tops of trees, or indeed to be in the upper reaches of any place; thereafter, she understood that for every creature living under a rock or crawling through the mud, there is another equally squirmy thing that flourishes in high realms, because although this is a wondrous world, it is fallen.
Appetite spoiled, she passed up the last scampi and resorted to her beer.
Pushing aside what remained of his dinner, Dusty said, “I wish you’d told me your nightmare in all this detail a lot sooner.”
“It was just a dream. What would you have made of it, anyway?”
“Nothing,” he admitted. “Not until after my dream last night. Then I’d have seen the connections right away. Though I’m not sure what they would’ve meant to me.”
“In your dream and mine, there’s an. . . an invisible presence. And a theme of possession, of a dark and unwanted presence entering the heart, the mind. And the IV line, of course, which you didn’t mention before.”
“In my dream it’s clearly an IV line, dangling from the floor lamp in our bedroom. In your dream, it’s a snake.”
“But it is a snake.”
He shook his head. “Not much in these dreams is what it appears to be. It’s all symbol, metaphor. Because these aren’t just dreams.”
“They’re memories,” she guessed, and felt the truth of it as she spoke.
“Forbidden memories of our programming sessions,” Dusty agreed. “Our.. . our handlers, I guess you’d call them, whoever they are—they erased all those memories, they must have, because they wouldn’t want us to remember any of it.”
“But the experience was still with us somewhere, deep down.”
“And when it came back, it had to come distorted like this, all in symbols, because we were denied access to it any other way.”
“It’s like you can delete a document from your computer, and it disappears from the directory, and you can’t access it anymore, but it’s still on the hard disk virtually forever.”
He told her about his dream of the heron, the lightning.
As Dusty finished, Martie felt that familiar mad fear suddenly squirming in her again, with frenzied energy like thousands of baby spiders bursting from egg cases along the length of her spine.
Lowering her head, she gazed down into her mug of beer, around which she had clamped both hands. Thrown, the mug could knock Dusty unconscious. Once broken against the tabletop, it could be used to carve his face.
Shaking, she prayed that the busboy wouldn’t choose this moment to clear their plates.
The seizure passed in a minute or two.
Martie raised her head and looked out at the wedge of restaurant visible from their sheltered booth. More diners were seated than when she and Dusty had arrived, and more waiters were at work, but no one was staring at her, oddly or otherwise.
“You okay?” Dusty asked.
“That wasn’t so bad.”
“The Valium, the beer.”
“Something,” she agreed.
Tapping his watch, he said, “They’re coming almost exactly an hour apart, but as long as they’re this mild. .
A prickly premonition came to Martie: that these little recent seizures were merely previews of coming attractions, brief clips from the big show.
While they waited for their waiter to bring the check and then to bring their change, they pored through the haiku books once more.
Martie found the next one, too, and it was by Matsuo Basho, who had composed Skeet’s haiku with blue pine needles.
Lightning gleams and a night heron’s shriek travels into darkness.
Rather than recite it, she passed the book to Dusty; “This must be it. All three from classic sources.”
She saw the chill quiver through him as he read the poem.
Change arrived with a final thank-you from the waiter, plus the traditional have-a-nice-day, though night had fallen two hours ago.
As Dusty calculated the gratuity and left it, he said, “We know the activating names come from Condon’s novel, so it should be easy to find mine. Now we have our haiku. I want to know what happens when. . . we use them with each other. But this sure isn’t the place to try that.”
“Let’s go home.”
“is home safe?”
“Is anywhere?” he asked.
Left alone most of the day, turned loose in the backyard rather than walked properly as any good dog deserved to be, given dinner by an intimidating giant whom he had met only twice before, Valet had every right to sulk, to be standoffish, and even to greet them with a disgruntled growl. Instead, he was all golden, grinning, wagging forgiveness, snuggling in for a cuddle, then bounding away in pure delight because the masters were home, seizing a plush yellow Booda duck and biting it to produce a cacophony of quacks.
They hadn’t remembered to tell Ned Motherwell to switch lights on for Valet, but Ned did indeed mother well, leaving the kitchen brightly lit.
On the table, Ned had also left a note taped to a padded mailing envelope: Dusty, found this propped against your front door.
Martie tore the envelope, and the noise excited Valet, probably because it sounded like a bag of treats being opened. She withdrew a brightly jacketed hardback book. “It’s by Dr. Ahriman.”
Puzzled, Dusty took the book from her, and Valet stretched his head up, flared his nostrils, sniffing.
This was Ahriman’s current best-seller, a work of psychological nonfiction about learning to love yourself.
Neither Dusty nor Martie had read it, because they preferred to read fiction. Indeed, for Dusty, fiction was as much of a principle as it was a preference. In an age when distortions, deceptions, and out-right lies were the primary currencies in much of society, he had often found more truth in one work of fiction than in slop pails full of learned analyses.
But this, of course, was a book by Dr. Ahriman, and was no doubt written with the same deep commitment that he brought to his private practice.
Looking at the jacket photo, Dusty said, “Wonder why he didn’t mention mailing it.”
“Wasn’t mailed,” Martie said, pointing to the lack of postage on the envelope. “Hand delivered—and not from Dr. Ahriman.”
The label bore Dr. Roy Closterman’s name and return address. Tucked inside the book was a succinct note from the internist:
My receptionist passes your place on her way home, so I’ve asked her to drop this off I thought you might find Dr. Ahriman’s latest book of interest. Perhaps you’ve never read him.
“Curious,” Martie said. “Yeah. He doesn’t like Dr. Ahriman.” “Who doesn’t?”
“Of course, he likes him,” she protested.
“No. I sensed it. His expression, his tone of voice.”
“But what’s not to like? Dr. Ahriman’s a great psychiatrist. He’s so committed to his patients.”
Quack, quack, quack went the plush toy duck.
“I know, yeah, and look how much better you are just after one session. He was good for you.”
Bounding around the kitchen again, ears flopping, paws slapping the tile, duck in mouth, Valet raised more quacks than a feathered flock.
“Valet, settle,” Martie commanded. Then: “Maybe Dr. Closterman. . . maybe it’s professional jealousy.”
Opening the book, leafing through it from the front, Dusty said, “Jealousy? But Closterman’s not a psychiatrist. He and Dr. Ahriman are in different fields.”
Ever obedient, Valet stopped bounding around the kitchen, but he continued to savage the Booda until Dusty began to feel as though they had been zapped into a cartoon starring both famous ducks— Daffy and Donald.
Dusty was mildly irritated with Closterman for laying this unwanted gift on them. Considering the discreet and yet unmistakable dislike that the internist had shown for Dr. Ahriman, his intentions here were not likely to be either kind or charitable. The act seemed annoyingly petty.
Seven pages from the front of the psychiatrist’s book, Dusty came across a brief epigraph prior to the first page of Chapter 1. It was a haiku.
This phantasm of falling petals vanishes into moon and flowers...
“What’s wrong?” Martie asked.
Something like theremin music, out of a long-ago movie starring Boris Karloff, wailed and warbled through his mind.
“Odd little coincidence,” he said, showing the haiku to her.
Reading the three lines, Martie cocked her head as if she, too, could hear music to which the poem had been set.
“Strange,” she agreed.
Again, the dog made the duck talk.
Martie’s pace slowed as she ascended the stairs.
Dusty knew she dreaded hearing Susan’s voice on the answering machine. He had offered to listen alone and report back to her; but to her that would be moral cowardice.
In the upstairs study, Martie’s large U-shaped desk provided all the work space that she needed to harry Hobbits out of Eriador and across the lands of Gondor and Rhovanion, into the evil kingdom of Mordor—assuming life ever gave her a chance to get back to the sanity of Tolkien’s otherworld. Two complete computer workstations and a shared printer occupied less than a third of the territory.
Attached to the phone was an answering machine she’d used since graduating from college. In electronic-appliance years, it was not merely old but antique. According to the indicator window, the tape held five messages.
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