With my face shielded from the tropical shimmer by a battered akubra, I could almost hear the infernal drone of a didgeridoo echoing off the forbidding rocky outcrops as we slowly approached a shadowy crevice. If the oppressive heat wasn’t bad enough, unseen swarms of non-biting midges and zigzagging colorful damselflies made their own dissonant harmonics, giving us pause to wonder if the chaotic shrill might be the atonal speech of the mischievous Mimi spirits – those thin, wispy, elongated beings from a parallel dimension as crudely depicted in ocher galleries millennia ago on this rugged escarpment in Australia’s Northern Territory.
My partner on this strenuous excursion several hours from the inviting beaches of Darwin – the one of us who knew without googling that caddisflies are of the order trichoptera – was world renowned entomologist Rance Q. Spartley: bug authority, spider specialist and, as I was about to learn, translator of extinct languages.
Once inside the crevice with its graffitied rock overhangs, beams from our battery-powered torches illuminated the walls of ancient petroglyphs – some of which bore testament to long extinct animal species in the region, while others conveyed complex creation myths concerning “The Dreaming”, a spiritual belief system that explained – in the framework of animistic principles – how all things in the natural world were initially formed and existed in the “Dreamtime” before becoming physical. For us, though – as unlikely as it seemed - we wondered if these ancient traditions of the aborigines could possibly shed any light on recent reports Down Under of a frightening creature (mass hallucination?) known as the “dream-leaper” that was quickly spreading via the modern bush telegraph, and the cause of much alarm to the local population.
“Whadaya think, Chalkie?” I asked Spartley as he closely examined what appeared to be a painted aboriginal figure (or an ancestral totem spirit-being, perhaps) who was squatting down near the ground with three squiggly lines (indicating the wind or a mystical energy transfer of sorts?) separating what certainly looked to be a type of large arachnid scuttling up the rock face. Reaching into his tucker-bag, the bespectacled maverick entomologist offered me my choice of polly waffles or violet crumbles before removing a small brush, which he then used to carefully dust off the rock, thus revealing a series of strange markings. “Well blow me down… It’s a language, possibly a sub-dialect of the indigenous people.” “Can you read it?” I asked. “Can you say Bininj Mungguy three times real fast?” he calmly replied. After brushing away more rock dust, the bug man removed his glasses and attempted a translation: “Here… I… squat… broken-hearted. Came… to… shit… but… only… farted…” After a brief moment of stunned silence, he looked me squarely in the eye: “Fuck me and the baby eaten by a dingo is yours. A damned aborigine comedian gone whacka here in Never Never! I’ll be gobsmacked. Let’s hike back to that urban escape thingamebob and return to Bloomin’ Onion civilization! A monsoonal downpour of deadly box jellyfish in Humpty fuckin’ Doo beats trying to interpret this stenciled foolishness!”
Moments later we were clambering down the escarpment, I trying my best not to sprain an ankle in the treacherous terrain as Spartley tossed violet crumbles at the swarms of tree rats scurrying about. “These non-biting midges are eating me alive,” I shouted. “Not punkies – basic mozzies,” the expert duly corrected me.
“Spartley, do you think that graffiti was the work of vandals?” I asked.
“Hell no, bloke. Not your average vandals, at least. That rude defacement and added chicanery was recently made by someone within the Aussie government… Ordered by their Prime Minister, Dundee or something another… I reckon to prevent people from panicking any further.”
Thinking about this, I paused for a moment. “So… you believe that it’s real… this dream-leaper spider?”
The entomologist stopped in his tracks and wiped the perspiration from his eyeglasses. “New species of arachnids are being discovered every hour. Albino trapdoors, purple-haired vegetarians, chubby Chinese mini orb-weavers, and even a Middle Eastern dune spider that looks just like Moses for Christ’s sake. Look around you, mate. You’ve got termite cathedrals, electric tadpoles, kookaburras on your socks, and taxi cabs required by LAW to keep a bale of hay in the trunk. We’re just a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic boomerang’s toss from primeval here. Add to that parallel streams of activity – more real than reality itself! – all courtesy of the aboriginal Dreamtime sorcerer… Your Bunyip, Dirawong and Yowie… now those are possibly mythical creatures… but not our robust little dream-hopper friend, with its ginormous fangs and freak eye-cluster that has already got citizens in a frenzy. And then there are those toxicologist reports: an aggressive spider that attacks a person in their dreams, and whose flesh-eating venom… upon awaking… eventually leaves behind little more than a tuft of hair and the soles of their shoes… This sleeper-creeper thing makes a toowoomba funnel web look like a roly poly on ambien… That rental Tomcar of yours better start. My intestines are starting to rumble a bit from that mystery bag of Macky’s back in Woop Woop…”
As things would have it, the rental Tomcar ATV – vivid “Blue-ringed Octopus Blue” when we left the lot in Darwin, but now blanketed with ocher-colored dust – didn’t start, a matter made even worse as Spartley had earlier told me to choose the Aussie-made “Heebie-Jeebie”, which he (correctly) considered to a much more reliable all terrain vehicle.
“Well, I suppose we better start walking. I don’t think those wavering specters of Jabbura clapstick players are going to be of much help, and it’s probably easier to find a 1930 copper penny in granny’s old button jar than it is to hail a taxi with a bale of hay in its trunk way the fuck out here.”
Of course Spartley was right, and after a few hours in the unforgiving heat, he began mumbling. “I wish there was a rainbow bombpop in that dilly-bag. Or a snow-cone would suffice.” “You mean a frozen lolly water on a stick, don’t you Spartley? Better yet, how about a Zooper Dooper in cosmic flavors!”
“Cosmic flavors – what’s that?” the bug man asked, sounding a bit annoyed. “I’d settle for raspberry and lychee.”
“Lychee blows!” I protested. “Maybe a Sunny Boy Orange Frozen Explosion. Or hell, even a frozen glass of lemonade squash sounds pretty damn good right now.”
“A thimble full of tepid Billabong scum sounds pretty damn good right now,”Spartley muttered while rummaging once more through his empty tucker-bag. Before I could top that, we heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, which turned out to be a rusted old Heebie-Jeebie that was heading right towards us. Realizing this, Spartley wasted little time in reminding me: “I told you they were more reliable!”
While enjoying some pub grub and beers served in quirky fish bowls at a tavern in Humpty Doo, Spartley explained to me his latest hypothesis about the dream-leaper phenomenon (hysteria might be a better way of putting it). Parasitism was the most likely explanation, he thought.
“It really doesn’t take a bright spark to figure it all out. Suppose that you have some new undiscovered species of arachnid… on the physical plane, of course… perhaps even an unassuming little thing whose bite is painless, and causes minimal if any surface necrosis… No tell tale signs… so that the person doesn’t even realize that they’ve been bitten. However, what the bite does do is introduce a parasite of some kind, and it’s this microscopic unknown organism that plays tricks on the brain… inducing the dream in humans of the more terrifying spider that others have described. We have seen evidence of rather clever spiders that fashion decoy much larger spiders out of leaves and debris in their web in order to scare away would be predators… so why not a spider that re-creates via a parasite another far more shuddersome version of itself that appears in the dreams of its sleeping victims? At first it appears passive… almost cuddly… even with its barbed hairs and menacing fangs… hypnotizing its prey with a multitude of bulbous black eyes with a lightning-fast color shifting. Next, there is this sibilant hissing sound that it emits before - mad as a meat axe - it attacks, sinking those fangs into the dreamer’s screaming face. Having done so, before the person awakens from this seeming nightmare, the agro spider-parasite has released from WITHIN a god-awful venom. One that really packs a wallop, as the evidence – or, in this case – lack of evidence shows. Blokes turned into yackandanah jam that smells worse than a large bag of rotting Cheezels. Which reminds me, my throat’s dryer than a dead dingo’s donger. Your shout, mate… and how about some more burnt dippy dogs and cheesymite while we’re at it. That dolphin spread’s good, too.”
As Spartley raised his empty fishbowl glass, hoping to get the bartender’s attention, it suddenly occurred to me:
“If you’re not pissing on my Cheerios professor, then where does one possibly find the spider that’s responsible for creating the dream-leaper?”
“How the hell would I know,” Spartley replied. “Maybe on some shrub that grows only during a full moon. It might be easier to find a red diamond in a bag of witchety grubs. All I know is that my theory fits like a honeymoon cock. Got another cold Fosters in that silver esky, mate?”
Which reminded me: “Not a 1930 penny in a malted biscuit tin? Check it out - in my change from the carmello koalas that I bought you last night – I found this 1930 Australian penny.”
Spartley jumped up from his barstool as I showed him the tarnished coin. “Red snakes alive!” It’s definitely your shout, now. Fosters all around on this bloke!”
“G’day, mate! Are you talking about this dream hopper sleep-creeper thing? Little children afraid to go to bed at night, and the local officials claiming that they don’t know what’s going on. A bunch of cod’s wallop if you ask me. They need to pull their socks up and figure it out before the mortality rate goes fruit loops. Most of them couldn’t pull a greasy stick out of a dead dingo’s arse-hole if you want my opinion. No better than their relatives…‘orrible fellows such as the dreaded black vegemite pudding hurler and Darby “Put another cute puppy on the barbie” Narby. They’re bloody legend around here.”
Spartley stared for a minute at the middle-aged fellow seated at the end of the bar who had obviously been listening to our conversation. “So what do you know about this dream-leaper and human flesh afflicted by severe envenomation? Necrotic arachnidism on an unprecedented scale my stickybeak friend?”
“Just what I’ve heard on the news. I’m actually from Ponca City, Oklahoma - visiting for a week… Cracking coldies and admiring the lunch counter Shelias… but I don’t want to look like a tourist gone all troppo. So, if that means beetroot on my burger, Kyle Minogue on the juke, and crocodile meat jerky then tie me kangaroo down, sport. Sorry to eavesdrop, mate, it wasn’t intentional. Let me buy you and your mate a Fosters.”
“No wucking furries – that’s some pretty good strine I have to admit. I’m an entomologist by profession… from the states as well, though far enough away from Oklahoma… and perhaps - over some more aussie-tizers, as they call them here - you’ll allow me to yabber some more about this thing of interest to every bastard and his dog around these parts.”
“Absolutely,” the man replied.
“Now surely you’ve heard about the exploding potted cactus that scattered hundreds of baby tarantulas in the old lady’s apartment, and of those giant camel spiders in Afghanistan whose bite anaesthetizes American soldiers, allowing the spiders to then eat their penis and testicles. Well, those are urban legends – pure rubbish – and, as such, are of no clinical concern. But – judging by the pizza with the works loss of tissue from victims of the dream-leaper – that’s something to be greatly concerned about. Unless, of course, the critter responsible contributes to the ecosystem.”
Although the fellow from Oklahoma agreed with this, Spartley thought it might ne best to add: “That’s a joke, my friend.”
Just then another patron of the tavern returned to his seat at the bar, and must have realized that the three of us were discussing the dream-leaper situation.
“G’day, mates. Any more news about the sleep-reaper dream-creeper thing? Sounds dinki di to me, but I’m from Kalamazoo in Mishigamaa… Michigan… America!.. Over here on holiday. Staying at the Mirambeena Travelodge. Holy dooley, have you checked out the lavvy in this place? It’s designed to resemble an old fashioned outhouse. Only in Humpty Doo, eh. I went in there to siphon me python and bang goes another kanga on the bonnet of the van! Had to give birth to a politician, I did. I probably shouldn’t ‘ave eaten those damned canned bandicoots. Talk about your chocolate thunder from Down Under! No wucking furries, though. I left plenty of dunny paper back there…”
As the man further introduced himself to the others, I noticed something that struck me as being a bit odd. This was the tip jar sitting on the countertop of the bar. Rather than containing money, the jar was filled to the brim with a colorful assortment of buttons. These were clothing buttons, and there must have been hundreds of them. As I leaned over to examine them more closely, I could see pearl and tortoise buttons. Also there were decorative metal, enamel champleve, swirlback-glass and a variety of basic plastic buttons. As the voices of the others in the tavern faded until barely audible, I found that for some reason I couldn’t take my eyes off the buttons. There was something about them that seemed absolutely incredible to me. Then, with my gaze fixed on the shiny jumble, I thought I detected some movement in the jar, as if the buttons themselves had started to vibrate ever so slightly. Was I imagining things? Were they actually not buttons at all, but, rather, glass orbs? Colorful marbles, perhaps? Suddenly I realized that what I was focused on was a terribly beautiful arrangement of multi-faceted arachnid eyes… The eyes of some horrific spider! Unable to lift my gaze from its haunting pigments, the thing in the jar began to emit a faint hissing sound… getting louder as I just kept staring… entranced by those strangely fascinating eyes. Then I saw its menacing fangs quiver as the creature reared back. Before I could react, in a blurred instant, it sprang towards my face…
With a loud scream I woke up and quickly rolled to the other side of the bed, frantically throwing off the covers and swatting at my face until I realized that there was nothing there. The whole thing had been nothing more than a bad dream I quickly realized. I was by myself, in my own bed, in Los Angeles…
Later that morning I called my friend, the renowned entomologist, Rance Q. Spartley to tell him about the weird dream that I had, and that he was in it. When I mentioned the part about the dream-leaper, there was a brief pause of silence on the other end. Spartley then asked me if I was fucking around with him. “Why would I do that?” I asked. After asking me some more questions about the spider in the dream, to which I told him that I couldn’t remember certain details, he told me in strict confidence that he was currently involved with a select team of toxicologists and other experts who were investigating cases of necrosis due to SEVERE envenomation that sounded very similar to certain things in my dream. This, he said, was being kept quiet until they had a better understanding of what was going on. Before hanging up, he also informed me that the problem wasn’t restricted to Australia, but that there were a few cases reported outside that continent, including America, and that authorities were looking into a possible Qantas Airlines employee connection.
Shortly after the phone call, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Seeing my reflection in the mirror, I noticed a small reddish patch on my cheek. As I checked it more closely, the rash, or bite, or whatever it was seemed to be getting worse by the second. Suddenly, I recalled another detail from the bizarre dream. Leaving the bathroom, I ran into my office and grabbed a clean sheet of paper. On it I wrote the following: “Spartley, you don’t like violet crumbles, and parasitism is the most likely explanation…”