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Tapping the Dream Tree
By Charles de Lint, Terri Windling
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2002 Charles de Lint
All rights reserved.
Ten for the Devil
"Are you sure you want off here?"
"Here" was in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt county road somewhere between Tyson and Highway 14. Driving along this twisty back road, Butch Crickman's pickup hadn't passed a single house for the last mile and a half. If he kept on going, he wouldn't pass another one for at least a mile or so, except for the ruin of the old Lindy farm and that didn't count, seeing as how no one had lived there since the place burned down ten years ago.
Staley smiled. "Don't you worry yourself, Butch."
"Yeah, but —"
Opening the passenger door, she jumped down onto the dirt, then leaned back inside to grab her fiddle case.
"This is perfect," she told him. "Really."
"I don't know. Kate's not going to be happy when she finds out I didn't take you all the way home."
Staley took a deep breath of the clean night air. On her side of the road it was all Kickaha land. She could smell the raspberry bushes choking the ditches close at hand, the weeds and scrub trees out in the field, the dark rich scent of the forest beyond it. Up above, the stars seemed so close you'd think they were leaning down to listen to her conversation with Butch. Somewhere off in the distance, she heard a long, mournful howl. Wolf. Maybe coyote.
"This is home," she said. Closing the door, she added through the window, "Thanks for the ride."
Butch hesitated a moment longer, then sighed and gave her a nod. Staley stepped back from the pickup. She waited until he'd turned the vehicle around and started back, waited until all she could see was the red glimmer of his taillights through a thinning cloud of dust, before she knelt down and took out her fiddle and bow. She slung the case over her shoulder by its strap so that it hung across her back. Hoisting the fiddle and bow up above her shoulders, she pushed her way through the raspberry bushes, moving slowly and patiently so that the thorns didn't snag on her denim overalls.
Once she got through the bushes, the field opened up before her, ghostly in the starlight. The weeds were waist high, but she liked the brush of stem and long leaf against her legs, and though the mosquitoes quickly found her, they didn't bite. She and the bugs had an understanding — something she'd learned from her grandmother. Like her music.
The fiddle went up, under her chin. Tightening the frog on the bow, she pulled it across the strings and woke a sweet melody.
Butch and Kate Crickman owned the roadhouse back out on the highway where Staley sat in with the house band from time to time, easily falling into whatever style they were playing that night. Honkytonk. Western swing. Old-timey. Bluegrass. The Crickmans treated her like an errant daughter, always worried about how she was doing, and she let them fuss over her some. But she played coy when it came to her living accommodations. They wouldn't understand. Most people didn't.
Home was an old trailer that used to belong to her grandmother. After Grandma died, Staley had gotten a few of the boys from up on the rez to move it from her parents' property on the outskirts of Tyson down here where it was hidden away in the deep woods. Strictly speaking, it was parked on Indian land, but the Kickaha didn't mind either it or her being here. They had some understanding with her grandmother that went way back — Staley didn't know the details.
So it was a couple of the Creek boys and one of their cousins who transported the trailer for her that winter, hauling it in from the road on a makeshift sled across the snowy fields, then weaving in between the older growth, flattening saplings that would spring back upright by the time spring came around again. There were no trails leading to it now except for the one narrow path Staley had walked over the years, and forget about a road. Privacy was absolute. The area was too far off the beaten track for hikers or other weekend explorers, and come hunting season anyone with an ounce of sense stayed out of the rez. Those boys were partial to keeping their deer, partridge, ducks and the like to themselves, and weren't shy about explaining the way things were to trespassers.
Round about hunting season Staley closed up the trailer and headed south herself. She only summered in the deep woods. The other half of the year she was a traveling musician, a city girl, making do with what work her music could bring her, sometimes a desert girl, if she traveled far enough south.
But tonight the city and traveling was far from her mind. She drank in the tall night sky and meandered her way through the fields, fiddling herself home with a music she only played here, when she was on her own. Grandma called it a calling-on music, said it was the fiddle sending spirit tunes back into the otherworld from which it had first come. Staley didn't know from spirit music and otherworlds; she just fancied a good tune played from the heart, and if the fiddle called up anything here, it was that. Heart music.
When she got in under the trees, the music changed some, took on an older, more resonant sound, long low notes that spoke of hemlock roots growing deep in the earth, or needled boughs cathedraling between the earth and the stars. It changed again when she got near the bottle tree, harmonizing with the soft clink of the glass bottles hanging from its branches by leather thongs. Grandma taught her about the bottle tree.
"I don't rightly know that it keeps unwelcome spirits at bay," she said, "but it surely does discourage uninvited visitors."
Up in these hills everybody knew that only witches kept a bottle tree.
A little farther on Staley finally reached the meadow that held her trailer. The trailer itself was half hidden in a tangle of vines, bookended on either side by a pair of rain barrels that caught spill-off from the eaves. The grass and weeds were kept trimmed here, not quite short enough to be a lawn, but not wild like the fields along the county road.
Stepping out from under the relative darkness cast by the trees, the starlight seemed bright in contrast. Staley curtsied to the scarecrow keeping watch over her little vegetable patch, a tall, raggedy shape that sometimes seemed to dance to her music when the wind was right.
She'd had it four years now, made it herself from apple boughs and old clothes. The second summer she'd noticed buds on what were supposed to be dead limbs. This spring, the boughs had actually blossomed and now bore small, tart fruit.
She stood in front of it for a long moment, tying off her tune with a complicated knot of sliding notes, and that was when she sensed the boy.
He'd made himself a nest in the underbrush that crowded close up against the north side of her clearing — a goosey, nervous presence where none should be. Staley walked over to her trailer to lay fiddle and bow on the steps, then carefully approached the boy's hiding place. She hummed under her breath, a soothing old modal tune that had first been born somewhere deeper in the hills than this clearing. When she got to the very edge of her meadow, she eased down until she was kneeling in the grass, then peered under the bush.
"Hey, there," she said. "Nobody's going to hurt you."
Only it wasn't a boy crouching there under the bushes.
She blinked at the gangly hare her gaze found. It was undernourished, one ear chewed up from a losing encounter with some predator, limbs trembling, big brown eyes wide with fear.
"Well, now," Staley said, sitting back on her haunches.
She studied the animal for a long moment before reaching carefully under the branches of the bush. The rabbit was too scared or worn out — probably both — to do much more than shake in her arms when she picked it up. Standing, she cradled the little animal against her breast.
Now what did she do with it?
It was round about then she realized that she and the rabbit weren't alone, here in the clearing. Calling-on music, she thought and looked around. Called up the rabbit, and then something else, though what, she couldn't say. All she got was the sense that it was something old. And dangerous. And it was hungry for the trembling bundle of fur and bone she held cradled in her arms.
It wasn't quite all the way here yet, hadn't quite managed to cross over the way its prey had. But it was worrying at the fabric of distance that kept it at bay.
Staley had played her fiddle tunes a thousand times, here in her meadow. What made tonight different from any other?
"You be careful with this music," Grandma had told her more than once. "What that fiddle can wake in your chest and set you to playing has lived over there behind the hills and trees forever. Some of it's safe and pretty. Some of it's old and connects a straight line between you and a million years ago. And some of it's just plain dangerous."
"How do you know the difference?" she'd asked.
Grandma could only shake her head. "You don't till you call it up. That's why you need be careful, girl."
Staley Cross is about the last person I expect to find knocking on my apartment door at six A.M. I haven't seen her since Malicorne and Jake went away — and that's maybe three, four years ago now — but she looks about the same. Straw-colored hair cut short like a boy's, the heart-shaped face and those big green eyes. Still fancies those denim overalls, though the ones she's wearing over a white T-shirt tonight are a better fit than those she had on the last time I saw her. Her slight frame used to swim in that pair.
I see she's still got that old army surplus knapsack, hanging on her back, and her fiddle case is standing on the floor by her feet. What's new is the raggedy-ass rabbit she's carrying around in a cloth shopping bag, but I don't see that straightaway.
"Hey, William," she says when I open the door on her, my eyes still thick with sleep. "Remember me?"
I have to smile at that. She's not easy to forget, not her nor that blue fiddle of hers.
"Let's see," I say. "Are you the one who went skinny-dipping in the mayor's pool the night he won the election, or the one who could call up blackbirds with her fiddle?"
I guess it was Malicorne who told me about that, how where ravens or crows gather, a door to the otherworld stands ajar. Told me how Staley's blue spirit fiddle can play a calling-on music. It can call up the blackbirds and open that door, and it can call us to cross over into the otherworld. Or call something back to us from over there.
"Looks like it's not just blackbirds anymore," she tells me.
That's when she opens the top of her shopping bag and shows me the rabbit she's got hidden away inside. It looks up at me with its mournful brown eyes, one ear all chewed up, ribs showing.
"Sorry looking thing," I say.
"Where'd you find it?"
"Up yonder," she says. "In the hills. I kind of called him to me, though I wasn't trying to or anything." She gives me a little smile. " 'Course I don't try to call up the crows either, and they still come with no nevermind."
I nod like I understand what's going on here.
"Anyway," she goes on. "The thing is, there's a boy trapped in there, under that fur and —"
"A boy?" I have to ask.
"Well, I'm thinking he's young. All I know for sure is he's scared and wore out and he's male."
"When you say boy ...?"
"I mean a human boy who's wearing the shape of a hare. Like a skinwalker." She pauses, looks over her shoulder. "Did I mention that there's something after him?"
There's something in the studied casualness of how she puts it that sends a quick chill scooting up my spine. I don't see anything out of the ordinary on the street behind her. Crowsea tenements. Parked cars. Dawn pinking the horizon. But something doesn't set right all the same.
"Maybe you better come inside," I say.
I don't have much, just a basement apartment in this Kelly Street tenement. I get it rent-free in exchange for my custodian duties on it and a couple of other buildings the landlord owns in the area. Seems I don't ever have any folding money, but I manage to get by with odd jobs and tips from the tenants when I do a little work for them. It's not much, but it's a sight better than living on the street like I was doing when Staley and I first met.
I send her on ahead of me, down the stairs and through the door into my place, and lock the door behind us. I use the term "lock" loosely. Mostly it's the idea of a lock. I mean I'm pushing the tail end of fifty and I could easily kick it open. But I still feel a sight better with the night shut out and that flimsy lock doing its best.
"You said there's something after him?" I say once we're inside.
Staley sits down in my sorry excuse of an armchair — picked it out of the trash before the truck came one morning. It's amazing the things people will throw away, though I'll be honest, this chair's had its day. Still I figured maybe a used-up old man and a usedup old chair could find some use for each other and so far it's been holding up its end of the bargain. I pull up a kitchen chair for myself. As for the rabbit, he sticks his head out of the cloth folds of the shopping bag and then sits there on the floor looking from me to Staley, like he's following the conversation. Hell, the way Staley tells it, he probably can.
"Something," Staley says.
"What kind of something?"
She shakes her head. "I don't rightly know."
Then she tells me about the roadhouse and her friend dropping her off near home. Tells me about her walk through the fields that night and finding the rabbit hiding in the underbrush near her trailer.
"See, this calling-on's not something I do on purpose," she explains when she's taken the story so far. "But I got to thinking, if I opened some door to who knows where, well, maybe I can close it again, shut out whatever's chasing Mr. Rabbitskin here."
I raise my eyebrows.
"Well, I've got to call him something," she says. "Anyway, so I got back to playing my fiddle, concentrating on this whole business like I've never done before. You know, being purposeful about this opening doors business."
"And?" I ask when she falls silent.
"I think I made it worse. I think I let that something right out."
"You keep saying 'you think.' Are you just going on feelings here, or did you actually see something?"
"Oh, I saw something, no question there. Don't know what it was, but it came sliding out of nowhere, like there was a door I couldn't see standing smack in the middle of the meadow and it could just step through, easy as you please. It looked like some cross between a big cat and a wolf, I guess."
"What happened to it?" I ask.
She shakes her head. "I don't know that either. It ran off into the forest. I guess maybe it was confused about how it got to be here, and maybe even where here is and all. But I don't think it's going to stay confused. I got only the one look at its eyes and what I saw there was smart, you know? Not just human smart, but college professor smart."
"And so you came here," I say.
She nods. "I didn't know what else to do. I just packed my knapsack and stuck old Mr. Rabbitskin here in a bag. Grabbed my fiddle and we lit a shuck. I kept expecting that thing to come out of the woods while we were making our way down to the highway, but it left us alone. Then, when we got to the blacktop, we were lucky and hitched a ride with a trucker all the way down to the city."
She falls quiet again. I nod slowly as I look from her to the rabbit.
"Now don't get me wrong," I say, "because I'm willing to help, but I can't help but wonder why you picked me to come to."
"Well," she says. "I figured rabbit-boy here's the only one can explain what's what. So first we've got to shift him back into his human skin."
"I'm no hoodoo man," I tell her.
"No, but you knew Malicorne maybe better than any of us."
"Malicorne," I say softly.
Staley's story notwithstanding, Malicorne had to be about the damnedest thing I ever ran across in this world. She used to squat in the Tombs with the rest of us, a tall horsey-faced woman with — and I swear this is true — a great big horn growing out of the center of her forehead. You've never seen such a thing. Fact is, most people didn't, even when she was standing right smack there in front of them. There was something about that horn that made your attention slide away from it.
"I haven't seen her in a long time," I tell Staley. "Not since we saw her and Jake walk off into the night."
Through one of those doors that Staley and the crows called up. And we didn't so much see them go, as hear them, their footsteps changing into the sounds of hoofbeats that slowly faded away. Which is what Staley's getting at here, I realize. Malicorne had some kind of healing magic about her, but she was also one of those skin-walkers, change from something mostly human into something not even close.
"I just thought maybe you'd heard from her," Staley said. "Or you'd know how to get a hold of her."
I shake my head. "There's nobody you can talk to about it out there on the rez?"
She looks a little embarrassed.
"I was hoping I could avoid that," she says. "See, I'm pretty much just a guest myself, living out there where I do. It doesn't seem polite to make a mess like I've done and not clean it up on my own."
Excerpted from Tapping the Dream Tree by Charles de Lint, Terri Windling. Copyright © 2002 Charles de Lint. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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