Volume 1 Number 2
Suds washed down Taiko's throat like cold sand. Over the lip of his beerglass, he eyed the mirror hung on the wall behind the bar. It reflected the tables behind him. A woman had been watching him for the better part of an hour. Long black hair. Almond eyes. Attractive. He thought she might be Japanese. She sat alone.
Maybe he wasn't drunk enough, or maybe the old dream eater had sucked too much of the life out of him, but he still hadn't decided whether to approach her. He just didn't care enough about getting laid to make the effort. He hadn't barhopped in years, and he only came to O'Leary's tonight to celebrate a private anniversary. Although this year, the beer buzz didn't feel like much. He sighed.
Everything was going to slip away from him, just like it did for his father. One day he might even take the old Buick and drive it off a cliff just like Dad did. He dropped his gaze from the mirror to the soapy scum in his empty glass. His sodden brain swam into the past and the mistake his father didn't live long enough to warn him about.
Taiko was six.
Something woke him out of a sound sleep. He wasn't aware of hearing a sound, but the feeling of a presence lasted. He opened his eyes and saw it leaning halfway out of his closet. It paused, then raised its head into the banded moonlight coming through the blinds, revealing a milky eye. The whiskers on its muzzle sparkled like spun glass in the full moon. It gave a couple of short, sharp sniffs then stepped toward the bed.
Skin pimpling, bladder muscles twisting tight against a new surge of fear, Taiko sank into his mattress. He tried to hide as he peeped out from under his covers. The creature ran its pale eyes over the bed to the hoop hung over his headboard.
In the slashes of moonlight leaking through the blinds, he saw that its body was like that of a starving lion, except that it seemed better able to balance on its hind legs. It held itself more or less erect. Looking up at its chin, it looked just like a lion from the shoulders. It was white, like clouds, almost pretty, if not for its black mouth and gleaming black teeth, the huge canines poking out from under its lips.
It grunted, like his grandfather used to when he approved of something, leaned toward the hoop, and sniffed again. Its lip curled, revealing glossy black gums.
"Another one," it growled in a baritone of such resonance that the vibration rolled through Taiko. The bones in his arms and legs hummed.
The creature leaned forward, its mane brushing across Taiko's pillow as it nimbly caught the hoop on a heavily clawed forepaw and pulled it from the wall. It eased back on its haunches as it turned the hoop back and forth, studying it intently. It toyed with the feather tassels, batting them with finesse, completely absorbed. Without looking up, it said, "I know that you are awake, Taiko."
Taiko nearly peed in his bed. Too terrified to speak, let alone reckon how the thing knew his name, he shrunk deeper into his blankets.
"Yes, I know your name just as I know your thoughts. You may call me Baku as so many others do." Those moon-bright eyes blinked slowly. "I knew your father, too. He was of great service to me. Now that he is gone, I need another to replace him."
Taiko blinked. He and his mother buried his father on Monday. She told him that there was a car accident, but at the wake someone whispered "suicide."
Baku shifted forward on his haunches. "Hmmm. You could be of service to me, too. Your father didn't tell you about the spirit beings of his people, did he?" Its nostrils flared a moment. "No matter. You carry the scent of your father's people."
Baku cocked its head, thick mane sparkling. "You may have been borne in this land, but you have Nipponese blood, and that is enough."
Baku sniffed at the hoop, moaned favorably and said, "Ripe nightmares." It eyed Taiko, "You dream about the funeral, don't you? You dream about the people crying. You dream about your father rising bloody and groaning from the casket. You think he's in terrible pain when you dream of him like that. Such dread sights in the light give you dread dreams in the dark."
Taiko shrugged, holding himself with both hands under his covers to keep from peeing in fright, too scared even to shout for his mother, afraid Baku would hurt her.
It looked him over. "Would you like the nightmares to go away forever?"
Those moon-white eyes captured him as he nodded slowly.
Baku smiled with its leonine mouth. "Very well then." It paused a moment to lick the twine webbing stretched across the hoop of the dream catcher, seemed to mull the flavor a moment and noticed Taiko again.
It held out the hoop. "Let's see if you have the gift. Smell this."
Limbs still rubbery, but beginning to lose the edge of his terror, Taiko sat up and sniffed at the dream catcher.
"What's it smell like?"
Taiko stammered, "Stinks."
Taiko shrugged, not sure what sulfur smelled like.
"Like rotten eggs?"
"Good boy. That's what burned dreams smell like. You have the nose for the work."
Baku grinned in black.
Years later, Taiko was still stealing nightmares for the old demon. Together, they spared little children the ravages of night terrors. The crafty old dream eater charmed him, making him believe in the cause for years without realizing all that the work was taking from him. The changes happened so slowly that Taiko didn't notice until it was too late. All he knew was that after he met Baku, the colors in life's joys bled away.
With them went his ambitions and his hopes. He barely finished high school. He never finished college. He drifted from job to job, but all along he served Baku. Even the pastel memories of long-forsaken dreams rarely drifted up into his thoughts anymore.
Taiko never dreamed, never nightmared. He began to catch snapshot-like moments of his father in himself. Life became a monotonous, perpetual conveyor belt of days. The matter of putting one foot in front of the other became a dull, dead habit.
Even creeping into people's houses to steal their hoops full of nightmares no longer thrilled him. Taiko began to hate the gray predictability of it, but he couldn't stop. He was afraid to stop. The grayness of the hunt was the only shade of life left him. Without it there was only darkness.
A touch startled him.
Slender fingers curled gently around Taiko's biceps. He looked up into brown eyes as warm and dark and deep as Baku's were cold and white and shallow.
She smiled. It was the woman who had been watching him all night.
"My name is Asibikaashi," she shouted over the throbbing base of the jukebox. "You can call me Kaashi."
"Taiko." He looked her over. "Japanese-American?"
Brown eyes fixed upon him. She shook her head. A few strands of black spilled over her shoulder like ink. "No, Ojibwe tribe."
Charmed, Taiko tried to flatter her, "Oh, a Native American."
The twinkle in her dark eyes vanished. She leaned in and insisted, "No. Ojibwe."
Taiko envied her passion. He hadn't felt anything like it in years. He apologized for his insensitivity. Her smile returned as her fingers tightened on his arm. She tipped her head so that her full lips brushed Taiko's ear. Tingling washed across his face, down his nape and his shoulders, then spilled into his soul and parts south. The noise in the bar drained away.
She said, "I know what the old dream eater did to you."
Taiko pulled back to stare at her, not quite believing what he heard. How could she know? How could anybody know? How could anyone believe what happened to him? Yet Kaashi even knew the species of the old demon that spelled him all those years ago.
Her smile grew. Her dark gaze roamed over his face, somehow imperious and compassionate at the same time.
"The Ojibwe, my children, are the people of the dream weavers, Taiko. We know all the creatures of the twilight that trouble the web of dreams. The one who spelled you is especially bothersome to me. He is as a moth on the tapestry of life, endlessly devouring the tender threads of light and dark until there is nothing left."
Taiko looked at her carefully. She talked like Baku did, but there was something more about her. Maybe he had lived in Baku's presence long enough that he developed a sense for the ethereal beings that existed, for the most part, outside of the human scope of experience.
He realized that it was more than the way she talked. It was the air around her. Kaashi was familiar, and yet...not.
Taiko guessed, "You're a demon like him."
She huffed, apparently charmed, and gave her head a gentle shake. "No. I'm much more." She leaned close again and breathed, "I am that which weaves the dreams your master eats. I am the mother spider of the dream weaver people and I know how to set you free."
Fingers digging into the armrest, Taiko slid against the passenger's side door as the old Buick took the tight curve of the exit ramp too fast. Kaashi's gourd rattle, hung from the rear view mirror, swayed and jiggled the pea gravel inside it. The stones hissed as they chafed the belly of the rattle.
As the car rattled down the ramp onto the Northway, Taiko noticed the speedometer as the needle climbed passed sixty-five.
"Better keep to the speed limit."
Kaashi tossed her head, flipping back a silky, black lock. Her brown eyes flicked at him.
"We won't crash, Taiko."
"It's not that. It's cops."
He nodded toward the backseat. It was filled to the ceiling with a tangle of willow hoops, feathers, and beads that clacked together from the vibration of the speeding car. They had broken into a strip mall gift shop near the bar and cleaned out the stockroom. Kaashi had insisted on taking all the dream catchers off the walls in the display room as well. Taiko hadn't thought it was necessary, but she had said that they would need all of them.
"If we get stopped for speeding, they'll want to know where we got those."
"At two in the morning, Taiko?"
"There'll still be troopers on the road. Somebody could've reported the robbery by now."
She nodded, frowning a little. "Of course." The needle on the speedometer slid back to sixty-four. She twitched off a smile.
Taiko eyed her. She seemed a little over eager. "You're going to like killing it, aren't you?"
"Aren't you? Look what Baku did to your life, to your father's life."
Even after everything that had happened, Taiko wasn't sure. He had been used, his dreams bled away. He had lost his father to Baku's appetite and, yet, he didn't relish destroying the old dream eater. Not like Kaashi did. Maybe he'd lost the capacity for vengeance, the same as he had lost the capacity to feel just about everything else.
"What are you, mortal enemies or something?"
"Mortal? No, but Baku's kind of gluttony is ruining the world. Look around you. Has there ever been more despair, more hopelessness and fear? People need to dream, Taiko."
"So you're here to set things right?"
She shrugged her pencil-thin black brows. "I've been freeing his harvesters one-by-one for centuries." She flicked off her smile a second time as she watched the road.
"You're the last one," she said.
Taiko looked out the window to watch the business district drop away in clumps. She was lovely and wise and, of course, she was right, but he wondered whether her plan would work.
"It'll work. Trust me."
Taiko shrugged down in his seat, annoyed that she seemed to know what was going on inside his head. He fixed his gaze out the window, off the side of the road. The bundles of artless, gray, cinder block buildings with that lowbrow, flat-roofed look gradually broke up as they traveled north. The countryside slowly invaded, divided, and swallowed civilization with trees. Two hundred year old hemlocks, white pines, and oaks filled the dark, rolling slopes of the Adirondacks.
Taiko rolled the window down. As gray as the world had become, at least the air still smelled better up here.
The first exit sign for Lake George flashed by. Albany long gone, lurking somewhere an hour south in the dark, Taiko's shoulders dropped. If the cops hadn't pulled them over yet, they weren't going to. They were home free.
He glanced into the dark back seat. Beads glittered. Feathers fluttered as the wind cut through his open window. He picked up one of the hoops and sniffed at it.
"They smell different than ones people have dreamed into," he said.
Kaashi shrugged. "But they smell like something, Taiko. That's all we need."
He sniffed again. The catchers weren't bitter smelling, but they did carry the tang of irritable thoughts. Angry customers, bored and frustrated store clerks, a colicky, bawling baby; all hard smells borne from bitter moods. But they weren't dreams--or nightmares, Baku's favorite food.
"I don't think it'll be fooled."
"You're worrying too much."
"What if it can tell the difference?"
Turning the wheel to guide the Buick onto the exit ramp, Kaashi told him, "It can't."
The car rolled through the village--passed the marinas, dark T-shirt shops, and restaurants--and then headed up 9L, weaving along the lake. The water sparkled in the waning moonlight like Baku's hoary mane.
Taiko put the hoop back as the Buick slowed to make the turn into the long driveway of the old house he rented. Baku liked the roomy closets there.
Kaashi said, "With no others feeding it, old dream eater is the weakest it has ever been. Those tainted dream catchers will finish it off. Then, Taiko, you'll be free."
He felt a chill. Fear. It was the first time he felt fear in years. It felt good. It also felt bad.
"What do we do after?"
Kaashi didn't answer while she pulled up to the garage, clicked the opener on the dash, and watched the door lift. Maybe she didn't know. Maybe they would know after. Maybe it didn't matter. Taiko wasn't free yet.
The Buick rolled in, wheels crackling softly over the grit on the floor, and stopped. Kaashi flicked the headlights off. For a moment they sat in the dark. It was pure and thick and made Taiko think of what life would feel like without the gray glimmer of the hunt, his last and only purpose in life.
He lost courage. "I don't know."
"Don't give up now, Taiko. We're almost there. Just because you can't imagine tomorrow without Baku, doesn't mean it won't come."
He couldn't help it. He stared at the dark. He tried to see tomorrow, tried to see the color of it. He couldn't. There was just oblivion. No being. Nonexistence.
He started and looked at Kaashi. Her pretty oval face filled his consciousness. How could she be so placid at a moment like this? When she smiled, his soul gulped down a sweet drop of hope. It seemed to flash in the dark. And when she pressed her warm, dry mouth against his, he saw a little more light. He could almost see tomorrow without Baku. The sparkle there. The hope.
She drew back, dark lashes drooping as she looked at his mouth then raised her dark eyes. The confidence there plumbed all the way to her ageless soul.
Bewitched, Taiko caught himself murmuring, "Asibikaashi." In just the few hours since he'd met her, he found himself more entangled in her web than in Baku's. He was glad of it.
The queen of the dream weaver people smiled and touched his cheek.
"Grab those catchers."
Taiko popped the lock on the rear passenger's side door then gathered all the hoops in his arms. Kaashi opened the door to the kitchen for him. His arms full, he carried the dream catchers up the backstairs to the second floor. He dropped a couple on the way up, but heard Kaashi say, "I've got them," as she made progress up the creaking tread behind him.
On the landing, Taiko paused to glance over his shoulder. "I have a spare room where it likes to appear."
He padded over the hardwood. Baku liked to enter from the big closet with the double doors. As Taiko stepped inside, Kaashi flicked the switch behind him. The bedroom lit up. It was bare except for rows of nails that studded the walls.
They began hanging the dream catchers. The flicker of fear he felt in the car returned. Only it was bigger now and shook him from the inside out. Taiko's hands began to tremble.
Kaashi leaned close. "We're going to make it."
Though he nodded, Taiko swallowed a knot of dread. He just couldn't see tomorrow happening. He simply couldn't imagine it without Baku.
"Taiko," Kaashi said, folding a hand over his cold fingers.
He looked at her. She nodded at the closet doors. The left one shifted.
Baku baritoned from behind the door, "They smell strange."
"It was all I could find," Taiko lied, "but there's a lot of them."
The closet doors remained patient and quiet.
"Let's finish up." Kaashi whispered.
They hung the rest of the catchers, then turned out the light and closed the door to the spare room. They listened only a moment, hearing Baku shuffle across the floor. After a moment of quiet, they began to hear crunching.
Though the sounds filled Taiko with subtle terror, he noticed a little smile bloom on Kaashi's face. She took his hand and led him off to bed. While Baku munched circle after circle of poisonous emptiness at the other end of the house, they kissed and touched the anxieties away until Taiko turned his eager spider mother on her back in his bed and took her, his rhythm building from tender gratitude to ferocious abandon. For a few explosive minutes, he lost his fear of facing tomorrow without Baku.
For precious seconds, caught tight inside Kaashi, Taiko didn't care if tomorrow never came.
But it did.
In the quiet of sun-splashed sheets, Taiko gazed at Kaashi's prim, golden breasts and golden torso and tried to feel the change. Sleepy and peaceful, he noticed the way the sun cast twinkling beams through the dust suspended in the air.
He thought of Baku, rolled out of bed, pulled up his sweat pants, and padded barefoot down the hall. Cracking open the door to the spare room, Taiko found the light was just the same there, sparkling and serene. The wall, tangled with hoops and feathers and beads last night, was now empty of everything but the nails. It was strangely quiet, like a graveyard.
He stepped in, noticing fragments of Baku's last meal. A bead here, a feather there. Shards of willow lay scattered across the pine flooring.
Taiko noticed the closet and swallowed heavily. He stepped to it and opened the left door. A tiny draft stirred up a whirling dust devil; a tiny, silvery twister that quickly disintegrated into a considerable mound of glittering talc. Taiko crouched, scooping up a handful of the pearlescent dust. It reminded him of the full moon glittering on whiskers like spun glass and dark teeth that gleamed like obsidian.
He held it to his nose and sniffed. All the horrors were there. The sulfur of every child's terror: monsters under the bed, boogeymen in the closet, the green-teethed goblins and movie menaces that floated through little frightened minds at night.
Now that Baku was gone, there was nothing to eat those terrors.
"Oh God," Taiko said, realizing what they had done. Who would eat all the night terrors now? Who would be there to rescue children from their own horrific imaginations in the dark? The oblivion Taiko feared so much, he had visited on the old lion-faced dream eater instead. What a mistake! He picked up Baku's silvery ashes, letting them run through his numb fingers. What a horrible mistake. His heart sank.
He noticed a smell in the closet; something like honey and apple blossoms. It was wholesome and sweet. He sniffed Baku's dust again. The heady aroma of all that night terror surprised him. Without knowing why, he lifted the handful to his lips. He tasted it.
Never did anything taste so sweet, so delicious. He sipped the dead dream eater's ashes and realized that this was what Baku savored when he licked at the strings of the catchers. This is what the minor gods eat for sustenance. What a service! What a great kindness! How they must treasure the pure hearts of children to lick away the dirt and spurn of their imaginations.
He noticed the back of the closet. The wall began to change, turning mildly vaporous. The moment of his strange Eucharist altered his senses. He stared at it uncertain, but curiosity began to build momentum.
"Taiko?" Kaashi called from the bedroom.
Taiko felt heat come up in his cheeks as he clapped his hands, scattering the precious talc. He looked over his shoulder. The room was bright with life and thoughts and being. He could see today. He could see tomorrow. He could see every dream and hope and aspiration humankind ever had and would ever have. Glorious, white, sparkling thoughts. No wonder Baku ate nightmares. The wonder that remained was breathtaking.
He looked at the back of the closet again. The wall was gone. The way out opened there. He glimpsed Baku's kingdom waiting there.
"Taiko?" Kaashi sounded like she was getting up. Hers was the voice of the queen spider of dreams, the spinner mother of all the dream demons and angels.
He began scooping handfuls of sweet dust, shoveling it into his mouth. He didn't swallow. The ashes melted away like cotton candy. Their essence flowed into his very being.
He crouched low and dragged his tongue through the last of the dust, licking up every last grain. He wanted all of Baku inside him. He didn't want to leave a bit of the dream eater behind. He couldn't.
"Taiko? Where are you?" She was in the hall.
The spectacle unfolded before Taiko, filling him with the bliss of purpose. Baku was dead, but it lived, too.
He stepped into the closet.
As the queen of the dream weavers opened the door to the bedroom, the new king of the dream eaters closed the closet door behind him and slipped away.
Illustration by Elisabeth A. Gundlach