The crowd, which had collectively been holding its breath, exhaled on a disappointed note. A low muttering rose. Feltus didnt know what hed been expecting but it wasnt this. Three deflated black balloons undulated forward over the lip of the chasm in the paving stones like giant fleshy slugs. They moved, so apparently they were alive, but once they reached the paving stones they stopped and just lay there. The purple-faced man reached out with his toe and prodded one. It sighed, expelling a gust of air from an unseen orifice. The muttering from the crowd increased.
â€œNice try, Duncan,â€ someone yelled. â€œThe Woodstick whoopee cushion.â€
â€œThatll bring â€˜em in hordes,â€ another person said. This was followed by a shout of laughter, and a few people began collecting their drums and pans and leaving. The rest stood around in small groups making jokes and snickering.
Duncan, his face tinged an even darker shade of fuchsia, held his hands out. â€œIts not an exact science. Give it time,â€ he pleaded. â€œGwen, Morgana,â€ he said turning to his two female companions, â€œTell them to wait.â€
Gwen, the frowsy-haired librarian type, shook her head slowly over the open book on her lap. Feltus could see from where he was standing that it was filled with odd symbols and hieroglyphs. â€œI told you the summoning was too general,â€ said Morgana, with an impatient snort. She paced back and forth along the edge of the hole, carefully stepping over the limp balloons.
Feltus recognized the expression on Duncans face. It was the same one he sported when he was confronted with a mathematical word problem involving a handful of coins, an assortment of fruit and a late-running train. His best friend Percy Flannery had once described it as being pole-axed. Duncan looked like hed been beaten about the forehead with a very large pole until his brains were too agitated to work properly. After another glance at the black rubber balloon things, which were lying on the ground just like deflated black rubber balloons, Feltus sidled forward. â€œUmm, Duncan,â€ he beganâ€”he was feeling strangely sympathetic. He had some experience with magic gone wrong and by the droop of Duncans mouth, he wouldnt have been surprised to see the large man burst into tears. Duncan stared at the balloons with a vague faraway expression. His lips moved but he made no sound.
Feltus tugged on his shirt sleeve and tried a smile. â€œExcuse me. Is this what you were hoping for? An inter-dimensional traveler from the Veil?
â€œNo. Yes. Maybe,â€ the man blinked and wiped a hand over his face. He peered at Feltus and blinked again. â€œHow do you know about the Veil?â€
â€œOh I know about it alright,â€ Feltus said somewhat bitterly. â€œWhat about you?â€
Duncan shrugged. â€œThis is the first time weve tried anything like this. Gwen found some old books at the library. It seemed like a good idea at the time.â€
â€œBut what exactly are you trying to do?â€
â€œInject a little excitement into the place. Weve tried it all.â€ He scrubbed his hand through his thinning hair. â€œThe fiddling championships. The jamborees, the festivals, the buckwheat pancake breakfasts and lentil stew cook-offs. Nothing works. We even had mimes on stilts one summerâ€”such a brilliant idea. But did the people come? Did the buses run more often?â€ He groaned. â€œNo!â€
â€œSo this is your clever way to get more tourists to visit?â€
â€œOf course,â€ he said as if it made all the sense in the world. Feltuss mother was always accusing him of being a dreamer with no common sense at all, but Feltus was beginning to think that Duncan took the cake.
â€œCouldnt you have tried making the worlds biggest pizza or displayed the largest rubber band ball or something?â€
â€œThis town is famous for music. We have more amateur musicians per square mile than wood ticks. It runs through our veins likeâ€¦â€ He gestured expansively and his mouth opened and closed like a goldfish.
Duncan glared at him. â€œLike ichor, I was about to say. Life-giving ichor. The sap which nourishes the heart and spirit and soothes the savage breast.â€ He thumped his chest with an open hand, and Feltus tried not to snicker.
Duncans face fell. â€œBut it went wrong somewhere. The spell, the drumming. Maybe our syncopation was off.â€
â€œWas it supposed to sound awful?â€ Feltus couldnt help but ask.
Duncan frowned. â€œIt was carefully orchestrated. Gwen cant keep a beat to save her life. She does jazz fusion you know. Plays the nose-flute mostly. All over the place. It was probably her fault.â€ He glowered in Gwens direction.
â€œIt could have been worse, you know,â€ Feltus pointed out. â€œThere are some pretty weird things out there. The Jibber Jabber, the Hydra, the Tottering Spoofle. Some of them have rasping teeth, and three stomachs like a cow. At least the things you brought forward seem harmless.â€ Sending them back might be tricky though, he thought, unless they were smarter than they looked. He was running over possible scenarios with his head turned towards the sky when Duncan snorted, and then gripped his arm. â€œLook,â€ he pointed. â€œI knew the spell had worked. Look. Look, everyone.â€ Reluctantly Feltus looked at the portal in the Veil. Something was stirring once again.
Sometimes Feltus regretted his powerful imagination. It was probably the fault of a steady diet of comic books and old Japanese monster movies. He wished that he was more like his father who only thought about money and the sharp lines Rose the housekeeper had to iron into the pants of his suits, or his mother who was much too busy compiling lists to make things up just for the fun of it. If he had had no imagination then perhaps he could have fooled himself a little longer about what was now coming out of the hole, could have pretended that it was just a bunch of dry sticks piled higgledy- piggledy on top of a large, bristly pillow. Unfortunately his brain leapt upon the truth almost faster than his body reacted with fear. But not quite. His legs had already turned to jelly before the voice in his head told him that Yes, he was mere feet away from an enormous brown spider. So close he could hear a clacking noise from its joints as it finished pulling itself from the hole in the Veil, so near he could have counted each stiff hair on each long, bony leg, or the eight glistening eyes clustered above a set of clicking mandibles. If hed wanted to. His thigh muscles told him to topple over but Duncan had a bone-crushing grip on his upper arm.
â€œWell, well, wellâ€, said Duncan in a squeaky voice as if his throat had closed. â€œThis is more like it.â€ He sounded scared but at the same time very pleased with himself. The spider finished clambering out and settled itself a few feet from the balloons with its legs folded neatly beneath its bulbous body. Nothing moved but its eyes. It was almost as if it was waiting for further instruction. Feltus knew several rudimentary guide-book phrases that worked with most inter-dimensional travelers. Things like â€œWould you like some warm milk?â€, â€œThis is the way to the train stationâ€, and â€œHere is a festive hat for youâ€. He had communicated successfully in the past with Limpid Blots, Snorkelings and Lesser Reticulated truffle scouts, and somewhat less successfully with creatures which had no mouths or tongues and the smallest of pea-sized brains. He attempted a few friendly clicks of the tongue now. The spider raised its head briefly and then subsided back onto its legs. It seemed quite bored but at least Feltus was reassured that it was not going to scurry forward, inject him with poison and roll him in a cocoon of silk to consume later.
â€œImpressive, Duncan,â€ heckled the man in the crowd, â€œWe wont have to worry about the black midges this summer.â€ A ripple of laughter echoed around and more people packed up and drifted away down the road until only Feltus, Duncan, the two women and the man with the feathered necklace and the grass skirt remained, and he seemed to have fallen asleep on his bench.
The deflated balloons rolled back and forth gently as a soft breeze blew through. A few sparrows pecked in the dirt. The edges of the Veil shimmered and swayed. And then as if the flood-gates had been opened, a succession of strange creatures slithered, crawled, slunk and hopped from the hole in the Veil. A cluster of sleek-furred animals with ridiculously long and pendulous snouts; a large grasshopper-ry thing with immense back legs; something that seemed to be all pink mouth and struts like the baleen of a whale; and a collection of warty and wet-looking frogs. They assembled in a straggling line. Eyes on stalks, eyes set deep into thick, black fur, eyes indented in slick blubber like two raisins in a loaf of yeasty bread, bulging eyes which rolled around as if tracking the flights of drunken flies. An assortment of strange eyes surveyed human ones.
Feltus finally pulled his arm loose and stood rubbing the feeling back into it. Duncan made a curious crooning noise which Feltus identified as pleasure. His cheeks flushed pink, and he rocked slightly on the balls of his feet, rubbing his hands together. Gwen and Morgana slowly moved to stand next to him and for a moment they all just stared.
Feltus closed his mouth with a snap. â€œWhy so many? What are they doing here? You cant just summon them up and let them loose, you know? They have to be sent back.â€
â€œDont be silly,â€ Duncan said, sounding remarkably like Great Aunt Eunida. â€œThis is all going according to plan. They are exactly what we were hoping for.â€
â€œA band!â€ said Gwen.
â€œAn orchestra,â€ said Morgana.
â€œA new beginning,â€ said Duncan, advancing on the creatures with a broad smile. Slowly he brought his hands together and began to clap.
Feltus hurried after him. â€œOne song,â€ he said.
Duncan looked at him questioningly.
â€œThey can stick around for one song, but longer than that would be dangerous for everyone,â€ Feltus said firmly. â€œI can tell them to rampage through the town if you prefer,â€ said Feltus, addressing the grasshopper with a few trills and chirrups. In fact what he was really saying was â€˜your automobile is speedy and comfortable.
Duncan raised an eyebrow. Feltus stared at him until the eyebrow fell, and Duncan nodded. The man with the feathers and the grass skirt, who had merely been resting his eyes, raised his hand. â€œI have a tape recorder,â€ he said waving it in the air.
The spider gathered its legs under it and stretched. It selected a stick from the ground with one spiny foreleg, peeled the bark from it carefully, and then tapped it on the stones until it had everyones attention. The balloons tumbled forward and slowly inflated, making a mournful sound like a cows moo. The grasshopper drew its legs back and held them crossed like dueling violin bows, the furry creatures with the pendulous snouts drew deep breaths, the frogs inflated their throat sacs, and the pink mouth gaped wide.
The spider held the stick aloft, Duncan clasped his hands together and then the stick came down with a flourish and on the upstroke a chorus of sounds burst forth. It was a mixture of nasal trumpeting and fluting, eerie whale hootings, the soft dry whisper of a breeze through dead trees, the squeal of a pump organ playing simultaneously in several keys, the robust night-time bugling of a chorus of bull-frogs, the sound of a broken-stringed electric guitar being played with a grappling hook, and the whistle of a tin flute.
It was not a song. It was not a melody. It came close to being absolutely unbearable but the longer Feltus listened the more he was caught up in it. It was like eating a hot fudge sundae at the same time as a roast beef sandwich and washing it down with eggnog and a mint chocolate milkshake chaser. Feltus thought there could have been a pepperoni pizza thrown somewhere in there too. It was a glorious swirl of ingredients which should not have gone together in a good way but they did, and it was like nothing he had ever heard before.
He did not know how long he stood there watching the spider bounce and rock and roll and throw itself around in a frenzy, tangling itself up in its legs until it seemed the knots would never come loose again, but he did see the townspeople wander back as if mesmerized, and he did see a column of buses pull up at the village green and disgorge a steady stream of sun-hat and t-shirt wearing passengers slinging cameras and video cameras. And he did see Duncan with large tears spilling over the front of his muumuu. The song built and grew and soon enough, people had gathered up their drums and pots and spoons and joined in, and children from the tour buses wove their way through the crowd in ragged conga lines and whooped and hollered, and someone brought out a guitar and someone else a banjo, and it turned into an endless jam session.
The thrill had worn off for Feltus long before the last, quavering notes were played. He preferred his music simpler with a catchy chorus and a toe-tapping beat and maybe some rapping, and he was hoping that he could finish up his duties quickly and hop one of the waiting buses home, rather than wait another three hours for the return bus.
He pushed his way through the crowd which had assembled at a worshipful but cautious distance from the spider conductor and the musicians, and rummaged in his brain for the universal phrases to bid someone a safe journey home. The clicking noises made by cupping his tongue against the roof of his mouth and the raspberries he blew through pursed lips attracted some weird looks but he was pretty certain the inter-dimensional creatures understood. Without any fanfare, they crawled, hopped and slithered their way back into the hole. The spider was the last to go, and as it disappeared it tossed the conducting stick to Duncan who caught it and held it up triumphantly.
Feltus would have preferred to melt away into the shadows like a mysterious benefactor. He thought he could sneak onto a homeward bound bus without anyone noticing if he was quick about it and chose a seat in the back, but he had just turned away when Duncan reached out a hand and gripped him firmly by the arm.
â€œIt wouldnt have done to keep them here a bit longer, would it?â€ he asked.
â€œNo, that would have been greedy,â€ said Feltus. â€œThis way, they can go spread joy in other worlds.â€
â€œAnd we have the tape,â€ Duncan said, cheering up. â€œAnd I offered one of those tourists a share in the video rights. We can make CDs, sell sheet music, t-shirts, cookies.â€ Duncans eyes misted over. â€œTheres no end to the merchandise we can dream up. What do you think about calling it the Out- of- This- World Jamboree? Or the Inter-Dimensional Festival of Harmony? Or the 1st annual Extra-terrestrial Music Shindig?â€
â€œHow about just calling it Woodstick?â€ said Feltus.