Gossamer Page 3

She paused, blushing, and giggled.

"Shhh," Thin Elderly reminded her.

Littlest One covered her mouth and stifled her own giggle. "There's a kiss," she said. "Well, a fragment of a kiss. I always like to collect that."

"All right," Thin Elderly told her. "It sounds as if you are quite good at touching and collecting. But here is what you must guard against. Always remember this." He leaned toward her and spoke very seriously.

"Delving means touching too deeply. Pressing your hand instead of using that lovely light flickering touch you just showed me. It sometimes happens unintentionally, when dream-givers become too interested in what they're touching. When they start to like it too much."

"Like the kiss?" Littlest whispered.

"Possibly. Never linger and press, because everything has a menacing underside. If you begin to pick up the menacing pieces..." He sighed.

"Even by mistake?" Littlest asked.

Thin Elderly nodded. "It's what happened to Rotund. He pressed and delved. Some of us could see it was happening. We tried to warn him, but—"

Littlest sighed. "Then he disappeared."

"Well, he had to go away. He became something else. You can't be a dream-giver when you become consumed by the dark side, the menace."

"What did he become, then?"

Thin Elderly shuddered. "Promise me you won't talk about this in the Heap."

"I won't. Cross my heart." Littlest touched her own pale wisp of a chest.

"The term is"—he lowered his voice and whispered the word—"Sinisteed. Don't ever say it aloud."

She looked puzzled. "Steed means 'horse,' doesn't it? I touched a picture of a beautiful horse in the woman's house."

"It's horselike," he acknowledged. "Four legs. Quite powerful. It stamps the earth, and the nostrils quiver. That's what Rotund is now. And others.

"But there is no beauty to it," he added. "It's hideous."

Littlest trembled a little. "Can it bestow?" she asked.

Thin Elderly gave a scornful laugh. "We bestow dreams," he reminded her. "But a..."—again his voice dropped to a whisper—"Sinisteed?" He pondered for a moment.

Then he said, "It inflicts."


"Inflicts something called nightmares."

They remained silent for a moment. Littlest, glancing sideways to be certain he wasn't looking, slid her thumb into her mouth again.

Finally he sighed. "Better get going. We have work to do. Mustn't delay. Fastidious told me about the woman. She needs a dream, and I haven't collected anything yet."

He looked down at Littlest. She withdrew her thumb.

"I have a lot of fragments," she told him, "but she never let me bestow."

"Well," Thin Elderly said, "time you learned, I guess. You say you have a party? And a kiss?"

Littlest nodded. "Fragments."

"We'll give her a very brief and gentle dream," he said. "I'll show you how."

Thin Elderly took her hand. "Come," he told her, and led her toward the door. Holding hands, they compressed themselves and slid in under. The night's work was beginning.


The woman shifted in her bed. Though it was late, she had been wakeful, troubled by the letter that had arrived in yesterday's morning mail. She had found it on the floor, just inside the mail slot, where it had been shoved through with an oil bill and a notice of a half-price sale on tuna at the local grocery store.

"Whatever is this?" she had said aloud, speaking as she usually did, to the dog. Toby had watched as she turned the envelope over and over in her hand. Then she had gone to the kitchen table, sat, and ripped it open.

Now the letter, folded and returned to its envelope, was on the table beside her bed. Littlest could see it there, in the moonlight.

"Should I touch that?" she asked Thin Elderly, whispering.

He had seen it, too. "No. It might be troubling."

The woman stirred, as if she had heard something.

"Dissolve!" Thin Elderly commanded in a whisper. Littlest obeyed, and concentrated on seeping her form into nothingness. It was very exhausting. But it worked. When the woman blinked herself awake in the moonlit bedroom, startled by a tiny sound, she saw nothing.

They could still see her. They watched as she looked around, sighed, plumped her pillow, and lay her head back down. She closed her eyes. After a moment her breath was even and slow. She was asleep again.

"Reintegrate," Thin Elderly whispered. "And stay very still."

Together they returned to their working selves, casting visible shadows in the moonlight. Littlest glanced with delight at hers, and moved her arms up and down, making a sort of marionette of herself. She was not accustomed to shadows yet.

Thin Elderly looked pointedly at her and she blushed and stopped playing.

"I'm going to bestow a dream on the dog," Thin Elderly whispered, "partly to keep him occupied, and partly to show you how. You've probably watched Fastidious do it, of course, but we all have different styles."

"She didn't like me to look," Littlest whispered in reply. "But I peeked."

"You seem the kind who would peek," Thin Elderly said, in an amused but slightly scolding tone. "What did you see, when you peeked?"

"She fluttered up and hovered. Then I think she breathed into the woman's ear. It was hard to see. She got very close. But I think she breathed."

Thin Elderly nodded. "It's the standard method. It's what she would have done. Fastidious is not very—"

He hesitated. "Well," he said, "I shouldn't criticize. But she is not very creative."

"I am very creative," Littlest whispered, and made a shadow picture of a duck with her small hand against the wall. "Sorry," she said. She stopped and folded her hands politely.

"Stay quiet and watch," Thin Elderly instructed. "First I center myself. Then I pull up the fragments I want to use, so that they are right there, ready. You know how to pull up fragments?"

"Yes. I practice, in the Heap."

"Good. Now, for a dog, like this one, it is almost always food. I will hover near his head. Then I'll pull up fragments regarding food and bestow them. Ears are the easiest way. But do you see the problem with the dog?" He pointed.

Littlest nodded. She giggled a little, very quietly. "Hanging-down ears," she said.

"Yes. Many dogs have those. I will bestow through his nose instead. Actually, the nose is a dog's best entry. Watch, now."

He fluttered over close to the dog and hovered there. She could tell that he was centering himself, making himself calm and receptive. Then he quivered slightly. She knew he was pulling up fragments now. She had felt her own self quiver when she practiced the pulling-up.

While she watched, he leaned forward so that he was almost touching the dog's dark, moist nose. For a brief moment she saw something like tiny sparks flicker from him. It reminded her of a time when she had been gathering touches near the fireplace, which had earlier been aglow, warming the woman as she read in a rocking chair nearby. The fire was out and the woman long asleep upstairs. But suddenly, as Littlest had hovered nearby, a dark log had shifted and a tiny flurry of sparks had burst into a brief constellation. Watching Thin Elderly bestow a dream, she remembered that bright moment.

Finished, he fluttered back to her side. They watched the dog. Toby's tongue quite suddenly emerged from his mouth and licked his own dark whiskered lips in satisfaction as he slept.

"He's dreaming now," Thin Elderly said, "of food."

"I saw it go from you to him," Littlest said. "Little sparkles, just for a second."

"Yes, it's visible for a second."

"Do the sparkles hurt? Or maybe tickle?"

Thin Elderly frowned. "Don't think about that. I suppose there is a moment's tickle. Ignore it."

"It's hard to ignore a tickle," Littlest said. "Sometimes in the Heap, if I'm near that plump one—what's his name? I forget his name—he likes to tickle me, and—"

Thin Elderly looked sternly at her. She hung her head in apology, for chattering.

"I'm going to let you try it now, on the woman," he said.

"Into her ear?" Littlest asked. "Hers don't hang down."

"Yes. Flutter up there. Center yourself. Pull up the fragments. You'll do the kiss, remember?"

She nodded. "But how do I—"

"It will just happen. You pull up the fragments and hold them there and hold them there until suddenly you can't contain them anymore, and then—"

"It's like sneezing!" Littlest realized in amazement.


"Sorry," she whispered.

"You're right. Like sneezing. They'll just burst from you. Your job is aiming."

"I'm good at that. I flutter right to things. I hardly ever miss."

"Well, then. Here you go. Remember the sequence?"

"Flutter up. Hover. Gather. Then—"

"You forgot center," he reminded her.

"Sorry. I flutter up. I hover. I center. I gather. Then I aim. And I hold and hold and hold until I sneeze!"

"Say 'bestow.' 'Sneeze' is rather crude."

Littlest nodded. "Bestow," she whispered. "Here I go!"

Silently, following the sequence exactly, Littlest One bestowed a dream for the first time.

And there in the darkened bedroom, during a dream that by morning would be forgotten, the lonely woman became a girl and was kissed by a young soldier. At dawn she woke with a vague feeling of happiness.


"Toby," she said, as she sipped her tea and turned the letter over and over in her hands, "how will we deal with an angry boy?"

The dog, his head on his paws, simply blinked. His tail tapped the floor briefly.

"I could say no. I had told her I'd take a little girl. I could explain that I'm not up to having a boy."

Toby eyed a fly that had settled on the rung of a nearby chair. If it were closer, he would have made a try for it, just for the sport. But he didn't feel inclined to bother with this one.

"I thought a little girl would brighten the house a bit. I could knit sweaters and mittens for her. Read stories."

She glanced through the kitchen window into the small yard. "I thought a girl might love the flower garden. I could help her plant something easy. I'm not sure what would grow this late in the summer. Nasturtiums, perhaps. They grow quickly, and the flowers are so bright-colored. A little girl would enjoy that.

"I could teach a girl to bake cookies, the way my mother taught me."

She raised and lowered her shoulders, easing the ache that sometimes troubled her there. She stirred her tea, which was cooling now.

"I know it wouldn't be easy. She'd come from a troubled background. They explained that. She might have some bad habits, and it would take a lot of patience."

She chuckled slightly. "Well, I needed a patient mother myself. I was a handful, Toby; would you believe it? Of course, that was a long time ago. Sixty-five years ago that I—what is the age again?" She looked at the letter another time. "He's eight. I was eight almost sixty-five years ago.

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