At the door of Tory’s room, Willow stopped and tried for a deep breath. Only a fool would invade Tory’s privacy because of a dream. If it had been only a dream, not that she could talk herself into that, but if it had been only a dream, there was nothing to fear in having a look. Tory wouldn’t even know.
The key slid into the lock. A soft click and Willow gave the door a tiny push.
Closed-up air rolled into the hall, wafting over her in soft, but ripe arboreal, woody odors. She thought of a hundred-year-old potpourri shop, something out of a Dickens novel. The curtains were drawn, and she could make out only indistinguishable shapes, including what looked like ragged swags hanging from the ceiling. One smell drifted above the others, and she wondered where she encountered its muskiness before.
She stepped only a little way in, letting her eyes adjust. Her uneasiness grew. Tory’s bed was the old-fashioned sleigh bed from Willow’s dream. A graying chenille spread had been kicked to the bottom, also as she’d dreamed. Her heart gripped. She had, somehow, been in the room the night before. She’d stood exactly where she was standing now, looking at Tory sleeping slack-mouthed, the hair she kept pinned tight in the day, still fastened.
Along one wall, a wide desk held a mortar and pestle. Not the small kitchen variety for grinding cloves or cinnamon, but a large wooden mortar in dark wood and with the capacity to hold as much as a cup or more. Against the opposite wall was a narrow, cafeteria-length table, one end piled with books and the other with doll parts. In the room’s dim light the limp muslin arms and legs held the tincture of bruised corpses. Willow’s own legs felt as boneless.
She reached for the switch, hoping the light would give her courage. What she saw had the opposite effect. Clusters of plants tied together in fist-sized sheaves hung from the ceiling. Mushrooms, too, were strung like rosary beads, in all sizes and shapes. Some had round caps, some conical and some with spotted or dark scales. Most of the overhead swags were so old the colors had faded to parchment and become furry with dust, lint, and cobwebs. On the desk were constellations of tiny jars of powders and dried seeds, old prescription bottles with yellowed labels looking like the dregs of medications and pills Tory had been prescribed through the decades. Plant leaves and stems were in rows, as if placed for drying and identifying. As many as forty or fifty cardboard filing boxes sat stacked in a thick, almost ceiling-high block. She peered into one through the opening on the side. Dolls were crammed inside until the box bulged, and the lid was kept on only by the weight of the box on top of it. Decade’s worth of dolls and none of them passed on to children. The number of boxes stunned Willow. How could one person, even sewing every day, make that many dolls? Because they hadn’t gone to needy children, they felt kept from needy children.
Fighting nausea, she continued exploring, wondering how Tory could sleep in the room with the grime hanging over her? But in the morning, even after nights under the riot of fiber-shedding plants and dust mites, she appeared pulled together. The room explained why she kept her clothing across the hall.
Papa once told Willow everything was about money. Looking around the room, she felt everything was about fear. But what did Tory fear?
She moved cautiously, as though even the floor might hold traps. Many of the plants on the desk still had pigment and less dust than those overhead. Did that explain Tory’s nighttime walks? Willow recognized only one plant with its long, distinctive leaves, jagged teeth, and host of names: Loco weed, ditch weed, mad apple, and datura. She was positive; she’d copied my watercolor. She stretched out a finger, touching the prickly surface.
What Willow didn’t know was how much time, starting in childhood, I spent collecting and painting plants. When freed of Le Bête and not clawing through a cave trying to cleanse myself, I collected, learning the secrets of plants by gathering them and their lore from the old scullery maid and cooks in the kitchen. Mme. Francoise taught me that something taken straight from the garden could cure and relieve pain. Once in America, whenever possible, I learned from the tribes Thomas and I spent our first summers photographing. When the women walked up our hill for help, they often brought me the gift of some herb. Now, here was Tory, meddling in the same practice, believing herself knowledgeable and capable of handling the drugs, as though an understanding of plants and pharmacology were something she inherited as she had my hair color. The blame was mine. After her tribulation, I began taking her on even more hunts, trying to make our woodland treks as healing as entering a cave. I wanted her to feel nature’s wonder and beauty. She’d already used poison successfully, and I wanted to teach her to respect it.
“This is it,” Willow said aloud. This was the moment in her dream when fear sent her flying back to her own bed, but she wasn’t dreaming now. This was happening in real time, and she couldn’t hope to wake up and find herself elsewhere. The plants, the mushrooms, and her summer-long illness—she let out an involuntary cry. Tory was poisoning her.
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