The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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By Katherine Paterson
If you have been following this adventure as closely as the authors have hoped, you will not be surprised to know that at this moment of supreme crisis, Nancy, the brave, the intelligent, the moral Nancy, took charge of the situation.
“First of all,” she said, “Pirandello must stop the train.” As Pirandello rushed to obey, she shouted after him: “And tell the Ringmaster to set up the tent as quickly as possible with the large opening facing the woods! It’s so,” she explained to the others, “the aliens will come rushing in after us.”
“We’re going to be standing in there waiting for them?” Joe had always respected his sister’s acumen, but somehow, running seemed a better option at the moment.
“Good thinking, Nancy,” Angel said. “And we should all go now and help them set up the tent. We can do it in that grassy spot right beside the tracks. There’s no time to lose.”
Everyone, except Genius Kelly who was very speedy when he chose, swung up on Hathi’s back and the great beast raced toward the spot.
The train had barely shuddered to a stop when all the members of the circus had been hustled off and, led by the shouts of the ringmaster, went to work. As you can imagine, persons who belong to a circus are well practiced in setting up a tent in an expeditious manner. In less time than it would take you to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” followed by all four verses of “The Star Spangled Banner” (provided you know all four verses) the big top was erected.
With no time to spare, however. Indeed, Hathi and the other friendly pachyderms had barely hammered down the last tent pole when the invasion of Eggy-Things, having cast off all their disguises, came streaming through the woods and slurped into the tent at such a speed that our friends winced at the schlap against the canvas on the opposite side.
The ringmaster was already on the job. “Ladies, Gentlemen, gentle beasts, and uh – Super Ova,” he cried, in his best ringmaster voice. “We have, if a bit hastily, assembled for you the greatest little show on earth.”
“Forget the show on earth!” one of the Eggy-Things yelled. “We want extraterrestrial jokes!”
“Ah, of course,” said Angel, stepping into the ring, “but ours are old and tired and very earthy, we need your help.”
“Yes,” cried Sybil Hunch. “Give us your yolks!”
“Then (yuk, yuk), the yolk will be on you, old voman! After the yolks we’ll give you our very specially imported brand of salmonella. You will die slowly and painfully, which will be fun to see, but we won’t be able to linger too long. We have to spread our contagion throughout the planet.” With these words of mucusy ménace, the Eggy-Things started across the width of the tent toward our heroes.
“No, no!” said Joe. “Ve only vant da yolks!”
The silly ova began laughing and separating themselves, the yellows from the whites. “Toodle–oo,” cried the yolks to their albuminoidal halves. “Be ready. As soon as we stop yolking around, slither hither. We gotta yob to do. Yuk, yuk.” It was impossible to tell if there was one voice speaking or a multitude of voices.
“Don’t worry,” came the reply, “we’re white behind you!”
“Not bad for ones so colorless!” said Genius Kelly in his most superior tone of voice. “But, somehow, we expect better from you yellows. If the condemned prisoner can request one last good smoke, we’d like to go out with one last good joke.”
The eggy yolks couldn’t bear to be sneered at by a pig and began to scramble for the honor of delivering the last good joke.
“Ore–e-gonna take over the world?”
“You betcha!” chorused both halves, and the yuks that followed this bad joke were so loud they shook the tent. But, to the invaders’ distress, not a one of our heroes even cracked a smile. They tried again.
“Gesundheidt!” yelled Joe, ruining the joke and annoying their enemies no end.
“No more shouting out answers!”
“I’m sorry,” said Joe, “but I do want to have one last laugh before it’s all over, and I’d already heard that joke.”
The yolks went into a huddle. Or, for those readers familiar with the game, into a sort of rugby scrum. At last one yolk seemed to separate from the mass. There was the sound of a throat clearing. “We are going to have a joke, or, if you prefer, a yolk off. The winner will have the honor of making the final joke.”
Genius Kelly sighed loudly and pretended to examine his hoof. The elephants sighed even more loudly and lay down on the ground and pretended to snore.
“If you noodle noggins have any desire to live long enough for a last laugh, this will be your last chance.” With that he/she or it ducked back into the scrum and soon there arose from that side of the tent such a cacophony of screeches and yuks that our heroes put their hands, hooves, paws, feet, or trunks over their ears in defense.
“Look!” Nancy had to yell in Joe’s ear to be heard at all.
Joe looked and what he saw astounded him. The mass of yellows was going around faster and faster. The more the yolks yelled, the faster around they went. The scrum was being scrambled. “Those stupid yolks are beating themselves up!” he said.
Nancy glanced over at the waiting whites. If they had had eyes, their eyes would have been popping out. “Quick!” she cried. “Everyone go into your act. As fast as you can!”
Suddenly the Sick and Tired Circus was sick and tired no more. Genius Kelly danced and whirled into his magical judo act. The twins did loopdy loops on the high wires; the elephants swung their trunks about and then their huge rear ends with their tails a-twirling. The Ringmaster spun around with his whip going at least ninety miles per hour. Roberta grabbed the hand of the headless woman who in turn grabbed a monkey’s paw that grabbed the hand of the bearded woman who grabbed a string of chimps who grabbed a seal’s flipper who flapped Roberta’s other hand and they raced a ring a round a rosie about the startled whites who grew paler and fuller of air by the moment. Every now and then a piteous wail arose over the racket of frenzied circus acts: “Help!” and “Stop! I’m air sick!” and even: “We’ll mend our wicked ways if you’ll stop whipping us!”
But no one even paused to listen. Our heroes knew better than to trust even the pallid portion of the villainous invaders. And before long all the whites had been whipped into a giant meringue, making the lions roar with delight.
“Fire juggling act!” yelled Joe. And the clowns grabbed the torches and juggled and breathed fire onto the newly whipped meringue until it stood up in beautiful ecru peaks.
“Scrambled eggs for a main course and a lovely meringue for dessert,” said Sybil. “It looks almost good enough to eat.”
“Almost,” said Genius Kelly wryly.
Meanwhile Angel had been busy summoning the Cradle of Time. With the elephants’ help all the scrambled yolks were piled into the cradle, topped off by the giant meringue. For a few moments our exhausted friends watched and listened, the beasts panting, the people perspiring, but they needn’t have worried. There wasn’t even a whimper from the cradle. Neither the scrambled yolks nor the whipped whites showed any sign of reconstituting. The Eggy-Things that had threatened them for so long had been done in by their own rotten humor and the cleverness of our little band of heroes.
“Now off you go,” Angel said. “Back to the big bang!”
“Not so fast!” said an ominous but familiar voice. It was, of course, Boppo. He had one giant clown foot atop Libby Verrie-Sloppy and another holding Professor Alistair Sloppy on the ground. Both the twins’ parents appeared to be asleep.
“They are under my power,” said the evil clown. “While the rest of you were busy whipping up trouble, I managed to hypnotize this pair with my best juggling act. It was all done with mirrors – very skillfully, if I do say so myself. Now, I will rescue my comrades and throw these two into the cradle of their own making. Then I will extract one final bomb from my pocket which will, for sentimental reasons, go off in exactly 47 ticks of the clock.
“Oh, no,” said Joe. “Not that stupid juggling act again.”
“I never trusted that red-nosed ruffian,” said Hathi.
“Just when I thought misfortune had landed on its head,” Sybil said sadly.
Genius Kelly gave a deeply dejected “oink.”
Nancy jabbed Joe in the ribs. “Sing,” she muttered.
“Lullaby and goodnight,” Nancy began softly and soon Joe and all their friends from the Sick and Tired Circus were singing along – “With roses bedight.” Before they got to the third line about the lilies, Boppo had sunk to the earth with a snore.
With catlike quickness, Angel threw the evil clown and his ticking bomb into the cradle and sent him and the whole alien brunch racing toward the creation of the universe.
It all happened so fast that they all simply stared at the empty space in the sky that the cradle had flown through.
“Hurray” said a tiny voice. They all turned in amazement. It had come from the throat of the headless woman – her first spoken word.
A baby monkey began to clap his tiny hands and soon they were all cheering and dancing and shouting and hugging one another in relief that the danger had passed and in joy at what they had accomplished.
And now we come to the part of the story no one likes much – the farewells between friends who have suffered and struggled and, yes, even laughed together.
Pirandello headed off to the forest where he found Orlando munching on gummi bears and took her home. Angel and Sybil said goodbye and started off together, as Angel had become quite fond of the Misfortune Teller and determined to protect her from any misfortunes that still lurked in her neighborhood.
The last departing pair were Roberta and Genius Kelly. Roberta had cleverly undone Boppo’s hypnotic spell over the Senior Sloppys. When their friends and ours had escorted them to the door before Pirandello’s shack, the professor gave a lovely little speech, thanking the robot handsomely for all she had done, and then added, a bit sadly: “My dear, you are no longer a corpse, as exquisite as you were and are. You are free to go back to that other dimension where you will find others of your rare kind that I constructed in my years behind the door. They will welcome you as the hero you have become. Take this wonderful pig back with you as he and you belong in that other dimension. He will serve as a companion and reminder of all you have both done to save not only the Sloppy family, but all human and animal kind. The key which you have will take you back through the door. Please lock it behind you and throw it away, for, though the Eggy-Things no longer exist in that dimension or this one, I am convinced that there should be no more trafficking between our two worlds.”
Genius Kelly opened his snout to make a long speech, but Roberta punched him in the short ribs and smilingly urged him toward the door, though she paused on the threshold to hug the twins and say: “Now I know I have a heart, because it is breaking.”
It was all Nancy could do to keep from weeping. Even brave Joe was seen to wipe away a tear.
“Wait!” said the pig. “I have to tell the twins their true names.”
“Nancy and Joe are not our real names?” asked Nancy.
“No,” said Genius Kelly. “Your true names,” and here, he cleared his throat ceremoniously, “are Josephus and Natochka.”
“What?” cried the twins in unison.
“I’m sorry, children. We repented as soon as we filed the birth certificates,” said their father.
“That’s why we’ve always called you Joe and Nancy,” said their mother.
“Then is it okay if we just stay Joe and Nancy?” asked Joe.
“Perfectly okay,” said their father. “Thank you, G. K., for all you have done for our children.”
“May I beg a small favor?” said the pig.
“Certainly,” said the Professor.
“I know it sounds preposterous, but could I have one last joke to send me on my way.”
“Knock, knock,” said Joe.
“Who may I ask is calling?” replied the pig.
“G. K.” said Joe.
“G. K. who?”
“Gee, Kan’t you stay with us a little longer?”
A fat tear rolled down the porker’s black snout. “Very good,” he said, waving a hoof, “I almost wish I could, but as you know, I must return.” And with that, he followed Roberta through the door which closed soundly behind them.
Suddenly Joe, who could never remain gloomy for very long, whipped something out of his pocket. It was the birthday card that had started all their adventures. “Mom and Dad,” he said. “When we got your card we were in the middle of a very special birthday party.”
“The Elephant Clown Party!” cried Nancy. “In all the excitement I forgot about it.”
“We didn’t forget,” said Hathi. “Come back to the tent. Everything is ready. We will give you the party of your lives.”
I don’t have time to tell you about the wonderful party. You’ll have to use your imagination to picture clowns and elephants and seals and lions and a bearded woman and headless woman and monkeys and chimps and every person and creature determined to give the beloved twins the greatest time of their eleven years, even if in their hearts they knew it was not only a birthday bash but a farewell party.
When it was over, and Nancy and Joe turned for the last worst goodbye to Hathi and all their friends of the circus, the loving pachyderm said to the Sloppy parents: “There is no need for you to go. Please make your home with us. Joe and Nancy are already family.”
The Senior Sloppys looked at the twins and then into the pleading eyes of every person and beast assembled. “Why not?” said Professor Sloppy. “I could put my inventive mind to work among you all.”
“Why not?” said Libby Verrie-Sloppy. “I’ve always longed to ride bareback on elephants. And I’m a terrible cook.”
“Why not?” said Joe. “The villains are gone and our parents are here. That was all that was wrong with the Sick and Tired Circus – villains here and parents missing.”
Nancy stroked the place on her arm where they wolf had scratched her. The house with a picket fence and two parents with their twins no longer seemed so desirable. Wasn’t a circus the perfect home for a girl who was, at least for the present, part wolf? And besides, she had promised the wolves to speak out for them. “Why not?” she said.
Hathi encircled the four Sloppys with her warm trunk. “Then it’s settled,” she said.
I won’t say it was the end of all their adventures, for Nancy and Joe were an adventurous pair, but it brings to a close the Exquisite Corpse Adventure – evil conquered, family united, and friends who lived, I’m quite sure, happily ever after.
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.”