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The Serpent Mage
By Greg Bear
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Greg Bear
All rights reserved.
The pale, translucent forms bent over Michael Perrin once again. Had he been awake, he would have recognized three of them, but he was in a deep and dreamless sleep. Sleep was a habit he had reacquired since his return. It took him away, however briefly, from thoughts of what had happened in the Realm.
He is pretending to be normal, one form said without words to her sister, hovering nearby.
Let him rest. His time will come soon enough.
Does he feel it?
Has he told anybody yet?
Not his parents. Not his closest friends.
He has so few close friends ...
Michael rolled over onto his back, pulling sheet and blankets aside to reveal his broad, well-muscled shoulders. One of the forms reached down to squeeze an arm with long fingers.
He keeps himself fit.
The fourth figure, shaped like a bird, said nothing. It stood by the door, lost in thought. The others retreated from the bed.
The fourth finally spoke. No one in the Council knows of this.
It was a surprise even to us, the tallest of the three said.
Michael's eyelids flickered, then opened. He caught a glimpse of white vapor spread like wings, but it could easily have been the fog of sleep. With a start, he held up his left wrist to look at his new watch. Eight-thirty. He had slept in. There would barely be time for his exercises.
He descended the stairs in a beige sweat suit, a gift from his parents on his most recent birthday. There had been no candles on his cake, at his request. He did not know how old he was.
His mother, Ruth, was reading the newspaper in the kitchen. "French toast in fifteen minutes," she said, smiling at him. "Your father's in the shop."
Michael returned her smile and picked up a long oak stick from beside the kitchen pantry, carrying it through the door into the back yard.
The morning was grayed by a thin fog that would burn off in just a few hours. Near the upswung door of the converted garage, his father, John, was hand-sanding a maple table top on two paint-spattered sawhorses. He looked up at Michael and forearmed mock-sweat from his brow.
"My son, the jock," Ruth said from the back steps.
"I remember him still carrying stacks of books around," John said. "Don't be too hard on him."
"Breakfast lingers for no man," she said. "Fifteen minutes."
John wiped the smooth pale surface with his fingers and applied himself to a rough spot. Michael stood in the middle of the yard and began exercising with the stick, running in place with it held out before him, hefting it back over his head and bending over to touch first one end, then the other to the grass on both sides. He had barely worked up a sweat when Ruth appeared in the doorway again.
"Time," she said.
She regarded her son delicately over a cup of coffee as he ate his French toast and strips of bacon. He was less enthusiastic about bacon—or any kind of meat—than he had been before ...
But she did not bring up this observation. The subject of Michael's missing five years was virtually taboo around the house. John had asked once, and Michael had shown signs of volunteering ... And Ruth's reaction, a stiff kind of panic, voice high-pitched, had shut both of them up immediately. She had made it quite clear she did not want to talk about it.
Just as clearly, there were things she wanted to tell and could not. John had been through this before; Michael had not. The stalemate bothered him.
"Delicious," he said as he carried his plate to the sink. He kissed Ruth on the cheek and ran up the stairs to change into his work clothes.
Michael had not yet assumed the position of caretaker at the Waltiri house. The time was not right.
After two weeks of job hunting, he had been hired as a waiter in a Nicaraguan restaurant on Pico. For the past three months, he had taken the bus to work each weekday and Saturday morning.
At ten-thirty, Michael met the owners, Bert and Olive Cantor, at the front of the restaurant. Bert pulled out a thick ring of keys and opened the single wood-framed glass door. Olive smiled warmly at Michael, and Bert stared fixedly at nothing in particular until his wife handed him a huge mug of coffee. Shortly after Bert emptied the mug, he began issuing polite orders in the form of requests, and the day officially started.
Jesus, the Nicaraguan chef, who had arrived before six o'clock, entering through the rear, donned his apron and cap and instructed two Mexican assistants on final preparations for the day's specials. Juanita, the eldest waitress, a stout Colombian, bustled about making sure all the set-ups were properly done and the salad bar in order.
Bert and Olive treated Michael like a lost son or at least a well-regarded cousin. They treated all their employees as if they came from various branches of the family. Ben had called the restaurant his "United Nations retirement home" after hiring Michael. "We have a red-headed Irishman, or a lookalike anyway, and half a dozen different types of Latinos, and two crazy Jews in charge."
Michael served on the lunch and early dinner shifts, and he studied the people he served. The restaurant attracted a broad cross-section of Angelenos, from Nicaraguans hungry for a taste of home to students from UCLA. Lunch brought in Anglo and other white-collar types from miles around.
This morning, Bert's mug of coffee did not fix him firmly in the day. He seemed vaguely distraught, and Olive was unusually subdued. Finally, half an hour before opening, Bert took Michael into the back storeroom behind the kitchen, among the huge cans of peppers and condiments and the packages of dried herbs, and pulled out two chairs from a small table where Olive usually sat to do the books.
Bert was sixty-five, almost bald, his remaining white hair meticulously styled in a wispy swirl. He always wore a blue blazer and brown pants, a golf shirt beneath the blazer. On his right hand he sported a high school class ring with a jutting garnet.
He waved this hand in small circles as he sat and shook his head. "Now don't worry about whether you're in trouble or not. You're a good worker," he said, "and you wait tables like an old pro. You're graceful. You could even work in a snazzy place."
"This is a snazzy place," Michael said, smiling.
"Yes, yes." Bert looked dubious. "We're a family. You're part of the family. I'm saying this because you're going to work here as long as you want, and we all like you ... but you don't belong." He stared intently at Michael. "And I don't mean because you should be in a university. Where are you coming from?"
"I was born here," Michael answered, knowing that was also not what Bert meant.
"So? Why did you come here, to this restaurant?"
"I don't know what you're getting at."
"The way you look at customers. Friendly, but ... spooky. Distant. Like you've come from someplace a hell of a ways from here. They don't notice. I do. So does Juanita. She thinks you're a brujo, pardon my Spanish."
Michael had learned enough Spanish as a California boy to puzzle out that brujo was the masculine for bruja, witch. "That's silly," he said, staring off at the cans on the gray metal shelves.
"I agree with Olive. Maybe even, pardon me, a dybbuk. Juanita washes dishes, and I taste the food and maybe yell once a week, but that's both our opinions. Both ends of the rainbow think alike."
"Is Olive worried?" Michael asked softly. Olive reminded him of a slightly plumper Golda Waltiri.
Bert lifted his hands in an expressive shrug. "Olive would like to have half a dozen sons, and the Lord, bless him, did not agree. She adores you. She does not think ill of you even when she sees the way you 'learn' our customers, the way you see them."
"I'm sorry I've upset you," Michael said.
"Not at all. People come back. People, who knows why, enjoy being paid attention to the way you do it. You're not in it for the advantage. But you still don't belong here."
Bert put on his look of intense concern, raised brows corrugating his high forehead. "Olive says you have a poet's air about you. She should know. She dated a lot of poets when she was young." He cast a quick, long-suffering look at the ceiling. "So why are you waiting tables?"
"I need to learn some things."
"What can you learn in a trendy little dive on Pico?"
"People are everywhere."
"I'm not used to being ... normal," Michael said. "I mean, being with people who are just ... people. Good, plain people. I don't know much about them."
Bert pushed out his lips and nodded. "Juanita says that for somebody to become a brujo, something has to happen to them. Did something happen to you?" He raised his eyebrows, practically demanding candor. Michael felt oddly willing to comply.
"Yes," he said.
Having struck pay dirt, Bert leaned back and seemed temporarily at a loss for what to ask next. "Are your folks okay?"
"They're fine," Michael said abstractedly.
"Do they know?"
"I haven't told them."
"Why not? They love you."
"Yes. I love them." The dread was fading. Michael did not know why, but he was going to open up to Bert Cantor. "I've tried telling them. It's almost come out once or twice. But Mom gets upset even before I begin. And then, it just stops, and that's it."
"How old are you?"
"I don't know," Michael said. "I could be seventeen, and I could be twenty-two."
"That's odd," Bert said.
"Yes," Michael agreed.
The story spun itself out from there, across several days, each day at eleven Bert drawing up the chairs and sitting across from Michael with his forehead corrugated, listening until the lunch time crowd arrived and Michael began waiting tables.
On the fourth day, the story essentially told, Bert leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, nodding. "That," he said, "is a good story. Like Singer or Aleichem. A good story. This part about Jehovah being a fairy, that's tough for me. But it's a good one. I'm not asking to insult you—but, is it all true?"
"Everything's different from what the newspapers and history books say?"
"Lots of things are different from what they say, yes."
"I'm asking myself if I believe you. Maybe I do. Sometimes my opinions are funny that way. Are you sure it's better here than going to college?"
He nodded again.
"Smart boy. My son James, from a previous marriage, he's gone to college. The professors there don't know frijoles about people. Books they know."
"I love books. I've been reading every day, going to the library. I need to know more about that, too."
"Nothing wrong with books," Bert agreed. "But at least you're trying to put things in perspective."
"Well," Bert said, with a long pause after. "What are you going to do with yourself? What are you getting ready to do, I mean?"
Michael shook his head.
"I feel for you, with a story like that," Bert said. Then he stood. "Time to wait tables."
The winter passed through Los Angeles more like an extended autumn, crossing imperceptibly into a wet and clean-aired spring such as the city had not seen in years, a sparkling, green-leafed, sun-in-water-drop spring.
The pearls appeared in Michael's palms six months after his return from the Realm, in the first weeks of that spring. They nestled at the end of his lifeline, insubstantial, glowing in the dark like two fireflies. In two days' time, they faded and disappeared.
The pearls confirmed what he had suspected for some weeks. Events were coming to fruition.
So ended the pretending, his time of normality and anonymity, the last time he could truly call his own.
Rain fell for several hours after dinner, pattering on the roof above Michael's room and chirruping down the gutters. Moonlit beads of moisture glittered on the leaves of the apricot and avocado trees in the rear yard. Rounded lines of clouds, their bottoms glowing orange-brown in the city lights, moved without haste over the Hollywood hills.
Michael had come upstairs to read, but he put down his book—Evans-Wentz's The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries— and stood before the open window, feeling the moist air lap against his face.
The night birds sang again, trills sharp and liquid by turns. The trees seemed alive with song. He hadn't heard them sing this late in months; perhaps the rain disturbed them.
Michael closed the window, returned to his bed and leaned back on the pillow. He slept naked, disliking the restriction of pajamas, and he lay in bed as his mind took up signals like an antenna, extending itself and receiving, whether he willed it or not ...
Tomorrow, Michael would leave the home of his childhood, the house of his parents, to live in the house of Arno and Golda Waltiri. He would assume control of the estate. He had planned the move since telling Bert and Olive he was quitting, but the time had never seemed exactly right.
Now it was right. Even discounting the pearls, unmistakable signs stacked themselves one upon another.
He was having unusual dreams.
He turned off the light. Downstairs, a Mozart piano piece—he didn't know which one—played on his father's stereo. He felt drowsy, and yet some portion of his mind stayed alert, even eager. Moonlight filled his room as the shadow of a cloud passed. Even with eyes closed to slits, he could clearly make out the framed print of Bonestell's painting of Saturn seen from one of its closer moons.
For the merest instant, on the cusp between sleep and waking, he saw a figure cross the print's desolate, snow-dappled lunar landscape. The print was not in focus, but the figure seemed sharp and clear. A young—very young—Arno Waltiri smiled and beckoned ...
Michael twitched on the bed, eyes closed tightly now, and then relaxed, falling across continent, sky and sea.
He saw—in some sense became—
Mrs. William Hutchings Cunningham, widowed only a year, had become addicted to long treks in the new forest beyond her Sussex country home. She walked gingerly, her booted feet sinking into the damp carpet of compacted leaves, moss and loam. Early spring drizzle beaded in the fine hairs of her wool coat and cascaded from ferns disturbed by her passage.
The dividing line between the new forest and the old was not well marked, but she knew it and felt the familiar surge of love and respect as she crossed over. The great oaks, their trunks thick with startlingly green moss, tiered with moons of fungus, rose high into the whiteness. Her booted feet sank into the black wet loam and spongy moss and the slick, slippery piles of last autumn's moldering leaves.
Mrs. Cunningham became part of the deep past whenever she crossed into the old forest. There was so little of it left in England now; patches here and there, converted to regular dun brick housing projects with distressing frequency, watched over by (she felt) corrupt or at the very least incompetent and uncaring government ministries. She raised her goose-head walking stick and poked the empty air with it, her face a mask of intense concern.
Then the peace returned to her, and she found the broad flat rock in the middle of the patch of old forest, near an ancient overgrown pathway that arrowed through the trees without a single curve or waver. The trees had adapted themselves to the path, not the other way around, and yet they were centuries old. So how old was the path?
"I love you," she said, with only the trees and the mist and the rock for witnesses. Carefully maneuvering around a black, unmarked slick of mud, she sat on the rock and let her breath out in a whuff.
It was here and not by his grave, in a neatly manicured cemetery miles and miles away, that she came to hold communion with her late husband. "I love you, William," she said, face downturned but dark brown eyes peering up. The mist's minute droplets slipped into the wrinkles of her face and made lines of sheen. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back to feel the droplets land on her eyelids and lips.
"Do you remember," she said, "when we were just married, and there was that marvelous inn, The Green Man, and the innkeeper wanted to see our identification, wanted to know how old we were?"
For some, such a process, day in and day out, would have signified an unwholesome self-torture. But not for her. She could feel the distance growing between herself and the past, and she could feel the wounds healing. This was how she kept a bandage on her injuries, protecting them with a bit of ritual against the abrasions of hard reality.
"Do you remember, too—" she began, then stopped abruptly, eyes turning slowly to the path.
A tall dark figure, walking on the path miles beyond the trees, yet still visible, approached the rock on which she sat. It seemed she waited for hours, but it was only a minute or two, as the figure grew larger and more distinct, coming at last to the extent of the path that Mrs. Cunningham would have called real.
Excerpted from The Serpent Mage by Greg Bear. Copyright © 1992 Greg Bear. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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