The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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The Shadowy Abyss of Our Own Fates
By Lemony Snicket
“The cradle rocks above an abyss,” says an associate of mine, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” He is the sort of person who often talks in this sophisticated and somewhat depressing manner, and for that reason he is rarely invited to parties, but he nevertheless makes an important point. Life may seem very long, particularly when you are asked to help put away the groceries, but compared to the vast dark history of the universe, the time from your birth to your death is merely one short blink of light. Even a life story as tumultuous and complicated as that of Nancy and Joe is just a tiny speck in the enormous tumult and complication of life, and if you think too much about this sad, inescapable fact you are likely to feel like screaming.
This, however, was not the reason Nancy was screaming, as Joe and the robotic arm realized as they staggered over the beach’s sand dunes in the direction of her cries. Not fifty feet away to the north she stood over a small, wavering silhouette. Even as Joe and the arm drew closer they could not discern what it was. It was shaped something like a boat or perhaps a bed, resting on two upside-down crescent moons like the runners of a rocking chair. But each time the mysterious item moved, it seemed to acquire an enormous shadow – a swath of blackness that made the whole beach as dark and vast as the universe itself. Not until they were standing with Nancy could they see exactly what she was staring at, or why it troubled her so.
It was a cradle, although much bigger than any cradle you’ve ever slept in unless you were a disturbingly enormous baby, and Nancy was staring into it, her eyes wide with horror, as your mother may have stared into your cradle, one night in your infancy when you thought it was more interesting to scream and cry than sleep until morning. As the cradle rocked, it cast its tremendous shadow as far as the children could see, but inside the cradle there was still enough light to see a figure as mysterious as the cradle itself. When the cradle rocked one way, it looked like Baby Max, but each time it moved in the other direction, the baby appeared to melt into another figure of an old man in a tattered tweed suit.
“Is that Baby Max, or something else?” Joe asked his companions, but the robot arm gave a stiff shrug and Nancy shook her head.
“It’s trying to talk to us,” she said, as the shadow passed over them and then vanished to cast itself on the other side. Sure enough, the melting mouth of the baby or man kept trying to say something, and the twins had to lean in close to the cradle to hear it.
“This is the Cradle of Time,” intoned the figure when it was an old man. “It rocks over the abyss of the universe, goo goo ga ga ga.”
By the end of the sentence, the cradle had rocked the other way, and the old man had shifted back to infancy and could not talk.
“And who are you?” Nancy asked.
“Goo goo da da Professor Alistair Sloppy, your father,” replied the figure. “When I was trying to build an Exquisite Corpse I was caught in the mechanics of goo goo ga ga ga ga ga ga, and ended up traveling back in time. But now time has caught up with me, and goo goo goo ga ga wa wa.”
“I don’t understand,” Joe said.
“This journey is almost over, my son,” Professor Sloppy said. “This is the closest thing to a sensible explanation that you’re going to ga ga ga ga goo goo.”
“We’ve got to get you out of there,” Nancy said. “Arm, give me a hand.”
“No!” cried Baby Max, using one of the few words he knew. “No no da da climb into the cradle with me. Together we can use it to travel backwards or forwards in time and ga ga ga ga goo goo.”
“We should travel backwards,” Joe said firmly. “That way, we can stay with our parents and never be orphans, and sort this whole exquisite mess out before it even begins.”
“No, we should travel to the future,” Nancy said. “That way our entire journey will be over and done with.”
The robotic arm moved his palm backward and forward as if to indicate he saw both sides of the issue.
“This is a villainous situation,” Joe said. “Who could be behind it? Boppo? Leonardo Dubenski? Genius Kelly? Sybil Hunch? That monster wolf or that terrible squid? Axan? And why? Why are all these villains conspiring against us?”
“I’m beginning to think that there’s no reason for all this treachery,” Nancy said. “Think of how far we’ve traveled since that night on the train, and yet our journey is as confusing and mysterious as it ever was. It’s like our lives are being written not by a single, beneficent author, but by a whole team of authors pushing the story every which way, the way an Exquisite Corpse is built from whatever scraps are found.” Nancy rested her hand on the robotic hand, who seemed to nod in agreement. “There may be some reason for this journey, but we might not know it until we find ourselves at the end, descending from the Cradle of Time into the shadowy abyss of our own fates.”
“You know,” Joe said, with a gentle smile, “when you talk like this I worry that you’ll never be invited to parties.”
Nancy laughed, but the robotic arm gave him a playful shove, accidentally too hard. Joe cried out and began to fall into the crib, grabbing Nancy’s arm as he did so. Together the twins tumbled toward the ever-shifting figure of their father, forcing the cradle to fall in the direction the twins had feared most . . .
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.”