The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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When Is a Door Not a Door?
By Natalie Babbitt
Nancy and Joe and Genius Kelly began their journey back to find a door, and as they picked their way along, Nancy told them more about her conversation with the wolves. “They’re very brave, you know,” she said, “and very strong and loving. Why, they claim that there’ve been times when wolf families have saved and raised human children from the time they were babies! They love families! That’s the way they hunt, mostly – mother, father, and pups, all together!”
Genius snorted. “Pigs like families, too, you know,” he said. “There’s nothing so all-fired special about that!”
“You’re probably right,” said Joe. “But maybe the wolves know something about our family! Our mother and father! Did you ask them, Nancy?”
“Sure,” she said, “and I think they do know something. But they didn’t say much. It was kind of like they were keeping a secret. The one thing they did tell me, though, was that we had to have a door – that a door would be grand for opening the way to finding our own family. They claimed there’s a new store around here in the woods somewhere with a big sign on the front that says ‘GRAND OPENING’! It sells doors mostly, but lots of other things made out of wood, and they said it’s owned and operated by a dormouse.”
Joe giggled. “Did they mean a door mouse, two words, or a dormouse, one word?” he asked.
“Never mind how many words,” said Genius. “This mouse had better be big. Otherwise we’ll never be able to get through the doors it uses! And anyway, I was just wondering: Do they actually need doors?”
“Sometimes, I should think,” said Nancy. “If they’re inside and need to get out.”
“Or outside and need to get in,” said Joe.
And so they rattled on and on, paying no attention to the route they were taking, and didn’t notice that there were more and more trees as they went along, with less and less room between for walking. The light grew dimmer, too, with so many leafy limbs above them, shutting out the afternoon sun. And then, all at once, after another hour or so – and after a noisy but unresolved argument about whether or not kangaroos in far-off Australia had to use doors that opened and closed upside down – there was a very bright patch of light up ahead. And they found as they came nearer that a large space had been cleared of trees, and a clean-looking, new-looking building was before them – a long, low building that seemed to be more of a warehouse than a store. And, yes, it had a sign, painted on a wide white strip of fabric that said in big letters: GRAND OPENING. But it had something else on it as well: a human foot painted below the lettering, with a red arrow on its little toe that pointed down toward the building’s door – yes, it had a door, a door that was shut – and an invitation on a sort of poster: “This Is The Place.”
“Oh, Joe, look at that!” said Nancy in a breathless voice. “Do you think this place can be the real place? The place we’re supposed to find the real door we’re meant to bring back? There’s something strange about it – but if it’s right, maybe we’ve finally . . . well, almost, anyway . . . come close to finding Mom and Dad at last!”
The door to the building swung open then, with a welcoming swish, and a furry but well-combed creature in a striped apron stood there on strong hind legs. If this was a dormouse, she was more like a squirrel than a mouse – a whole lot bigger than a regular mouse and bushier in the tail – and she was munching on peanuts that she kept pulling out from the pocket of her apron. “How do you do, my dears!” she said. “Won’t you come in, please, all of you? We’re having a sale today on wooden shoes with souls.”
“What sort of soul does a wooden shoe have?” asked Joe as they trooped into the building.
“Firm,” she told him. “And solid. The soul of a wooden shoe will never ever bend, give in, or wear out. That’s true of regular soles as well, of course, if you know what I mean. By the way, my name is Doris. I’m named for my mother and my grandmother! It’s a good name if you’re a dormouse. Everyone calls me by my name, and you may, too. What names do you go by?”
“I’m Joe,” he told her, “and that’s my twin sister, Nancy. And this pig here is our guardian, Genius Kelly.”
Nancy curtseyed politely to the dormouse, and Genius tried hard to bow, but this is not easy if you’ve got four legs. It turned into more of a bob of the head than a bow. Still, everyone smiled, and then Nancy looked around at the store, at all the shelves holding all the items made from wood. “This is an amazing store,” she said to Doris. “You have a lot of lovely things for sale. We’re looking in particular for—.”
But Doris interrupted her. “The store has been a great success, out here in the woods,” she said proudly, gazing about. “In fact, I’m thinking of setting up a few branches. Why, Sibyl Hunch, the famous misfortune-teller, comes in here all the time to buy truth-picks and close-pins. She goes through a lot of them every month, and always needs more. But I keep plenty of them on hand for her, you may be sure of that. One of these days, I’ll be able to talk her into buying a trunk to store them in. That way, she’ll be sure not to run out. I’ve got some dandy trunks in the basement. How are you fixed for trunks, you three? Being out in the woods like this makes trunks an easy item to collect. We take the bark off ours, though, and hollow them out, and then put lids on some of them. Is that what you’re after? Trunks?”
“Well, no, not exactly,” said Genius, “although I’m sure they’re fine for the purpose. What we have to have is a . . .”
“Birthday presents are fine here, too,” said Doris, interrupting again. “I love to give my friends the dog carvings. Dogs standing up, sitting, lying down . . . you know. Smiling, sleeping, whatever you want. They’re carved from dogwood, of course – beautiful wood, dogwood – and the artist always finds a way to leave some of the bark on, somewhere, just to make a nice touch. Of course, they look a lot like wolves, some of them, but there’s nothing wrong with that, you know. Here’s an idea. Just leave me your names and addresses, and the dates of your birthdays, and I’ll send along a card for you to order with!”
“Well,” said Joe, in an effort to be polite, “since Nancy and I are twins, we have the same birthday. Write us down as Joe and Nancy Sloppy. . . . ”
But no sooner had he said these words than a sudden thundering racket burst from the back of the store – a banging and slamming like trees falling down all around them, like a cyclone in a lumberyard that went on and on and made them cover their ears with their hands in an effort to shut it out. Doris went running to the place from which the noise was coming, to try and make it stop, but it did no good. And soon she was back, screaming: “They’ve all gone crazy – all the doors! They keep slamming and bursting open, over and over – all but one! The big blue one! I just don’t understand! There’s a big voice like a giant’s voice back there, yelling at that one blue door, telling it to shut up, but I can’t see where it’s coming from! The voice, I mean! It’s just – in the air! I tried to block them all open, all the doors, so they’d quit slamming shut, but that one door, the blue one – there’s just no way to open it! I couldn’t get near enough to really see, but it looked like someone had banged close-pins into the hinges!”
Nancy cried, “Let me take a look!” And she ran to the back of the store. Here there were doors of all kinds and colors leaning in their frames against the wall, and all were bursting open and banging shut – all except a big blue one. Its hinges and knocker and knob were shiny brass, and above the mail slot were the initials A. S. “Alistair Sloppy!” she cried. “Joe! Come look! It’s father’s door! Help me get it open!”
But the giant voice protested, drowning her own words out: “It stands for ALWAYS SHUT! ‘A’ FOR ALWAYS, ‘S’ FOR SHUT!” And as her hand reached out, it warned her in its booming voice: IF YOU TOUCH THAT DOORKNOB, IT WILL BE THE END FOR YOU!” And the big blue door itself, as if it were straining against the close-pins, made a yearning, groaning noise. And then all fell silent. The other doors stopped opening and closing, the giant voice was stilled. And Nancy stood there helpless, trying her very best to keep from weeping.
Audio recordings provided by National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and the Butler Center for Children's Literature at Dominican University have developed a companion educational resource center (external link) to support “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”