When a simple trick goes wrong, 15 year-old Gilbert Myrddin, amateur magician and talented illustrator of his father’s original fairy tales, accidentally transforms a group of their readers into characters from his books (and himself into the spitting image of the aged magician Merlin). Struggling to find a way to bring everyone – including himself – back to normal, he embarks upon a wild odyssey through the world of his own fairy tales. The boy’s adventurous but unfulfilled quest takes an unexpected turn as he is put on trial for kidnapping and possibly murder.
//Jules Bass has produced several animated films, including The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, as well as several hit animated television shows such as ThunderCats. Jules has written two children’s books for Barefoot Books: Herb, The Vegetarian Dragon and Cooking With Herb. They have been translated into seven languages and reprinted in paperback. Herb received a “Pick Of The Lists” from American Bookseller, Lifeworks Magazine’s the “Real Life Award,” IRA-CBC “Children’s Choices Award”, “top-of-the-children’s list” at American Book Sellers Association. The London Times called Herb one of the best books of the season. It was short-listed for the Kate Greenaway Award and praised by Paul McCartney as: “A magical read for all new thinkers, young and old…” Herb made his television debut on The Food Network.
Bass’ new novel for middle-grade readers from Eltanin Publishing, The Mythomaniacs, takes place in Devon, in the south-west of England, and from there transports the reader into many worlds of fantasy including a quest that leads back to Arthurian times.
For more visit JulesBass.com
Targeted Age Group: All Ages
Genre: Children’s Fiction, Fantasy Adventure
The Book Excerpt:
by Jules Bass
Illustrations by Lawrence Christmas
The Thirteen Clocks
To The Reader
Before you start, a few words about my brother, Gilbert and our father, Henry. My mother lovingly called them “The Mythomaniacs.” Myths are imaginary stories: my father was a maniac about writing them and Gilbert was a maniac about illustrating them. No, they weren’t madmen or lunatics (hah!), they simply had an intense curiosity about worlds of fantasy. But there came a time when it all got out of hand, and we almost lost each other forever. Our story is told from both sides of the line that separates reality from make-believe.
CHAPTER ONE: Water Into Wine
Gilbert Myrddin had been rushed to the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital on Heavitree Road by ambulance, in an unconscious state. He had not moved or regained consciousness all through the night.
The next morning he lay in bed, surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses who were poking and prodding him. His father, Henry, had remained by his bed all through the night. Gilbert was now mentally awake but had yet to open his eyes, although he had tried. They felt as if they were glued shut.
Maybe I’m dead, he thought. Parts of his life began to flash upon the screen of his closed lids as he tried to recall what had happened: the explosion that had knocked him into insensibility… the acrid, choking, blinding, green smoke.
In his current confused state of mind and body, Gilbert had yet to realize the strange transformation he had undergone.
Gilbert felt one of his eyelids being forced open. A strong sharp light blinded him and was then clicked off. With a great effort he forced his other eye to un-stick itself and stared at the white hospital room ceiling as it slowly came into focus. Shifting his gaze to his left he saw that he was being poked and prodded by a gaggle of white-breasted quacks (that’s how he would have drawn the group of doctors that huddled and chattered at his bedside: as geese wearing stethoscopes!). As a nurse pushed a button that raised the head of his bed, Gilbert stared down at his chest. His first words, spoken with great annoyance and suspicion, were: “Where am I — and why have you put this weird long beard on me?”
He reached up to his chin and tugged — and it hurt. Someone must have glued it on with strong stuff, he thought. He noticed that the beard was extremely long: it reached his toes! He couldn’t wait to wake up from this wild dream and set it down on paper.
The doctors shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders as they conferred in hushed tones, using unintelligible medical words. Their extensive examination showed him to be in perfect health… they could find nothing wrong with him. All they saw was a very old man lying in bed. The strange gray-bearded chap was wearing a high sky-blue pointy hat that looked like a huge upside-down ice cream cone decorated with stars and half-moon shapes.
“How old are you, Mr. Myrddin, sir?” was the first question he was asked.
“Fifteen,” Gilbert said.
“On his next birthday, October 31st — he’s a Scorpio — he’ll be sixteen,” said Henry.
“You’re sure about that?”
“A man knows his own son’s age,” groused Henry, his voice clearly evidencing his displeasure at this dumb question.
“Scorpio,” whispered the nurse. “You have recently been caught up in a dilemma of mammoth proportions. Before it is over you can expect to have some heartrending moments. Your moon is in—”
The doctors all looked at her menacingly.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m into astrology. It just slipped out.”
“Please do the same,” said the head white-suit.
As the chastised nurse slipped out of the room all attention was shifted back to the puzzling patient.
“Why did they stick this stupid beard on me, dad?” the young boy whispered.
“I’m afraid they didn’t, son. I found you that way. Until you spoke I didn’t even know it was you.”
Gilbert’s eyelids began to involuntarily blink rapidly as his pulse rate quickened and his blood pressure rose.
“How are you feeling, old-boy?” sniffed the tallest Doc, looking down at him over half-moon spectacles perched on the tip of a long pointy inquiring nose.
“I don’t know,” Gilbert answered. “And I’m hardly what you’d call an ‘old-boy’, now am I? If you’re doctors you should be able to tell that. Do I sound old?”
“Your voice is a bit high and rather odd for a man of your advanced age. We did notice that,” said the shortest Doc.
“Can you let me have a mirror?” Gilbert asked.
The doctor motioned to a nurse who darted away and soon returned with a round shaving mirror, which she handed to Gilbert.
Gilbert stared at his reflected image with shock and amazement. “That’s not me! You were right. That is some old-bloke. But I’m not that man, uh, this man,” Gilbert complained, peering more intently into the mirror. “And where am I?”
“You’re in a very good hospital.”
“Why? What happened?” Gilbert said.
“That’s what we’d like you to tell us,” said the doctor. “Why don’t you start with the last thing you remember before waking up here?”
The modern-day medicine men all nodded in unison and craned in over him like the gaggle of geese Gilbert imagined them to be — futilely looking for their lost reflections in a moss-covered pond. Gilbert chewed his lower lip for a long moment as he looked at his perplexed father.
Henry was a writer of original fairy tales, and the artistically talented young Gilbert did a fine job of illustrating his father’s stories. Together they created books that they printed, bound, and sold by themselves. Henry wrote at all hours, during every day, and kept a notepad, one of those flashlight-pens, and a tape recorder on his bedside table (because many times his ideas came to him in his dreams). It was not unusual for his wife, Virginia, to be woken in the middle of the night by his muffled whispered mumblings as he dictated his thoughts under the bedcovers.
Lovingly, she called both him and her son, The Mythomaniacs.
Henry’s son, Gilbert, couldn’t wait to read each of the new stories so that he could begin his illustrations for every new book. But for the life of him Gilbert couldn’t remember drawing pictures that made him an old bearded man. Maybe this isn’t one of my Father’s fairy tale stories, he thought. And maybe I didn’t draw a picture of me as an old man — maybe — maybe it’s REAL. But how could that possibly be?
Henry looked over at the doctors. “Would you mind if I told the story? I think all this was my fault.”
Gilbert couldn’t wait!
“Go on,” said one of the docs. “Anything that will shed some light on this situation will be helpful.”
Henry closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He realized that if he told these quacksters what had probably happened when he was out of the room, they might not let his son go home. They certainly wouldn’t believe his story, since he hardly believed it himself. He recalled messing about in his workroom, at the back of his shoppe (as Gilbert sat on a high stool watching), reading a very large hand-written old book. He visualized the almost illegible words on the worn leather cover: Myrddin — c.480.
“What’s the little c stand for, dad?” Gilbert had asked.
“Circa,” Henry replied. “It means approximately, when it stands before a date.”
“So, this book was written in approximately the year 480? Wow!” said Gilbert. “That’s old. Who wrote it?”
“Seemingly some ancestor of mine — ours — since we share the same last name. I found it one day in the attic. Always thought it was some sort of joke, since bound books didn’t exist until about a thousand or so years after that date.”
“What were you doing with it?”
“Well, you never know. Just having some fun,” Henry said, chuckling. “I was thinking that the price of wine — of a decent red Claret — had skyrocketed, and so… I felt it probably a waste of time… but that it would be fun to see what I could come up with by following the recipe. Hey, you never know.”
Henry recalled having carefully followed the complex instructions for Water Into Wine, finally adding six drops of doorstep berries, three drops of riskyroot, and twelve drops of early morning red oak leaf dew to a large glass bottle containing a quart of water. Slowly the colorless liquid began to turn a dark red. He held up the bottle to the light: Good color, he thought. Now for the final ingredients: The instructions called for a soupçon of calabash powder, a nuance of newt wing, a suspicion of whistledown, a quarter ration of ravensblack, and, finally, a pennyweight of glurf and a dose of vermillion plonk oil. Not easy ingredients to come by, nor to measure precisely. Henry had to try several chemists, a homeopathic shop, and a magic store in the next town, before he managed to assemble all of the called-for ingredients of the recipe. He suspected that some he’d bought might not have been the real thing (if the “real things” ever existed), but he persevered nonetheless; it was amusing. Finally, he had done it. He held the bottle to his nose and inhaled its aroma. He almost fainted. The smell was a combination of sulphur and skunkweed. He quickly corked it up as he gagged, hacked, spit, gargled with fresh water and washed out his mouth several times.
Gilbert held his nose. “Ugh. It smells like rotten eggs — and you’re turning blue. I better call mum…”
“No, no. I’ll be fine,” Henry managed to choke out. “Must have gone wrong at some point?”
Gilbert picked up the book and looked at the recipe. Down at the bottom of the page he noticed some very small print and read it aloud:
“DANGER: MAY BE POISONOUS IF USED IMMEDIATELY.
MUST BE AGED IN A COOL DARK PLACE FOR FIVE YEARS.”
“Aha,” Henry said. “It’s always the small print that gets you in trouble.”
Henry looked in the mirror. Fortunately his normal skin color had returned. He hoped he had not inhaled enough of the noxious liquid to cause any lasting effects. Hearing the tinkling of the doorbell that announced customers, he walked out to the shoppe. What Henry didn’t see was what happened after he left.
Gilbert had examined the old book — fascinated by it. There was even a recipe section for baking: Scones, brownies, cookies and cakes, and Myrddin’s Magical Malomars. Maybe I’ll try that one myself, Gilbert thought — but I better get rid of this smelly plonk first. Gilbert held his nose, thumbed the cork off the bottle, and poured it down the sink — running water after it. Immediately, a whirlwind of thick acrid green smoke swirled out of the sink drain — surrounding, choking and blinding him. A fierce wind knocked him to the ground. Just as he lost consciousness he heard strange music, accompanied by loud drums and horns — and a huge explosion. (Later he would discover that the workroom sink had exploded into dust.) When he came to, he found himself in a hospital bed — looking like a 100 year-old, long-bearded man.
Gilbert’s eyelids fluttered open.
“I’m having trouble recollecting exactly what happened,” Gilbert said.
The team returned their attention to Gilbert, leaning over him — their heads together in a round huddle — eyeing him with suspicion.
“So, can you tell us anything, Mr. Myrddin, sir?” gabbled the heftiest of the healers.
“Sir? I’m not a ‘sir,’ I’m a kid. And I don’t remember anything,” he lied, fearing to tell what he did recall. “Nothing! Here I am. Here you are. My mind is a complete blank.”
“Our patient needs rest,” a sorcerer’s apprentice twittered.
Everyone nodded sagely, their mouths turned down and eyebrows knitted, and filed out of the room, leaving Gilbert to rest while his father kept his bedside vigil.
Henry’s thoughts took him back to the time he had started writing stories for his daughter, Marlo, when she was old enough to understand them. He never thought of them as fictional children’s stories. To Henry they were as real as if they had actually happened. Maybe that was because the essence of each of the tales was rooted in some fragment of his reality. Ideas for fairy tales and fantasy were not much different from ideas for any other kind of fiction; there was simply more latitude for invention, although both are frequently condemned as improbable. But, however far from truth the words may be, experience is usually the seed from which a fiction sprouts.
Marlo was a beautiful baby. All the doctors and nurses ooh’ed and ahh’ed over her when she was born. “A treasure,” they whispered. She never cried and always slept right through the night. “A perfect child,” everyone said to Marlo’s parents. “You’re both so lucky.”
Henry beamed with pride. Virginia cried with joy. At least at first. At least in front of others. Privately they worried that Marlo never made a sound at all. No goo-goo, gaa-gaa, whaaa-whaaa. Nothing!
“Don’t worry,” the doctors said. “In due time. All babies are different.”
Time passed, and at the age when most other babies said “mama” and “da-da” and giggled when tickled, little Marlo continued to be “different” and remained silent.
Worst of all she never smiled.
When she was two, Henry and Virginia took her to a pediatric specialist in London, where they learned the sad news: “Your daughter cannot speak or hear,” the doctor said.
“Unfortunately it appears to be a congenital problem — dating from her birth — and there’s nothing we can do. Of course, only time will tell if it is permanent.”
Again, that illusive moment: time.
Marlo went to a special school to learn sign language and lip-reading while Henry, Virginia, and young Gilbert took classes as well so that they would be able to communicate with her. She was very bright, never complained — yet she seemed strangely sad. No matter how hard Henry tried to entertain her with his magic and stories her eyes never sparkled, her lips never curled up into the smile for which his heart ached.
The family lived in Topsham, a small fishing village in Devon — four miles from the main town of Exeter, in the south-west of England. Henry owned a children’s book and toy shoppe in Exeter, on the cobble-stoned Gandy Road — a ten minute stroll from the quay of the river Exe. (All those picturesque towns always spelled words with extra p’s and e’s on the end — to add to their quaintness.) Ye Olde Book & Toy Shoppe, the sign on the window read: Henry Myrddin, Proprietor. It had been owned by three previous generations of Myrddins. There were great big stuffed chairs to snuggle in and read, a wonderful selection of new and old toys, and children’s books — including those Henry had written, and Gilbert had illustrated. They both worked at printing the books themselves. It was a paradise for kids. His workroom was a small space at the rear of the shoppe where he did most of his writing. Gilbert’s favorite time was Saturdays at eleven, when he perched on a high stool on the small stage he had built and read a story to the children. The readings were popular and Henry always had a lottery for a free book and light refreshments for everyone. He usually followed up the reading with a few magic tricks. Yes, Henry was also an amateur magician. And that’s what got him into the big trouble.
Before we get back to Henry’s story, let’s allow Marlo to grow up into a beautiful young girl of eleven. One day, on her way back from the library she saw a mime performing for a small crowd in the park at Northernhay Gardens, and she stopped to watch. The mime was a boy, a year older than she. He wore the standard costume: black tights, a striped shirt and a battered top hat. His face was white with stage make-up and his eyes looked really big because they were surrounded with black eyeliner. His lips were painted into a red bow shape. Marlo was fascinated by his act — a performance during which he told a story without ever making a sound or saying a word. She discovered the boy’s name was Paul and that he performed every Saturday and Sunday at ten, and she didn’t miss a performance that whole month. She watched intently — and learned.
Marlo decided that she needed some help in transforming herself into a mime and one day she got up the courage to confide in her mother — to tell her her secret wish to be a mime, and ask for help.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” her mother signed (for she was getting pretty good at communicating with her lovely daughter). Marlo’s infirmity was not something to cry over any more — it was something to have fun with, to be proud of. Like learning a new way to ‘speak:’ Sign language. Virginia found an old pair of black tights and bought Marlo a red and white striped long-sleeve shirt along with some cosmetics — and at the library she found an old picture book about pantomime and made up Marlo’s face as a classic mime. She even added some big pointy eyebrows that looked like upside-down “V’s,” with star-burst lines around the eyes, and painted a bright lipstick-red smile on Marlo’s lips. The eyes and the red smile gave her daughter a surprised look. She looked the perfect companion to her friend Paul.
“Now we have to create an act for you,” her mother signed. “You look wonderful and so happy with your new painted-on smile. I only wish it were real.”
“I’d like to use some recorded music and some dance steps,” Marlo signed.
“But how will you hear it?” Virgina signed, rather sadly.
“Aha,” Marlo giggled. “I’ve already thought all about that and have been doing some practicing. Wanna see?”
“You bet I do. I can’t wait.”
Virginia had to hold back her tears as her talented daughter put some music on a portable player she had strapped to her waist.
“Guess you’re wondering how I can hear it, huh?”
“Must say, I am… so show me, darling”
“I’ve learned to dance to the vibrations I feel from the musical sounds I feel pulsing through my body. I’ve been practicing every day after school for a month now.”
And so Marlo played the music and began to dance — perfectly in rhythm… and Virginia couldn’t help but join her.
“Let’s keep it a surprise from dad, okay?”
“He’ll love it. Just tell me when and I’ll be sure he’s there.”
Soon she was ready for her debut. She picked a spot on the historic quayside and began to mime. Without words, she “told” her own story: the story of a girl who was born not able to hear or speak and decided to become a performer. A small crowd gathered and when her turn was completed they applauded. Marlo couldn’t hear the clapping, but she saw it — and saw the happy faces — which told her that she had brought pleasure to them and, more importantly, to herself. She made three pounds that day. She had found something she could do, and do well.
Marlo’s mother pretended she hadn’t seen her performance and that next Saturday she brought her husband, Henry, and her son, Gilbert — and they all laughed and cried at seeing this wonderful little girl perform. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. They all hugged and kissed her after the show and her father asked if she would give a performance at his shoppe. She agreed — and the kids loved her. She became an important part of the Saturday’s-at-eleven show. No one expected her to speak; after all, she was a mime.
A few weeks later, when Marlo felt more confident about her abilities, she invited her friend Paul to work with her. For these performances he dressed as a Harlequin — in the traditional body-suit of multicolored diamond-shaped fabrics sewn together, a floppy hat, an eye mask and low shoes that curled up at the toes. She played Columbine, a girl mime. The Harlequin/Columbine combination had long been famous in British pantomime and at first Marlo and Paul put on the classic stories of Cinderella, Mother Goose and Jack and The Beanstalk. Later, they planned to turn some of Henry & Gilbert’s books into pantomime plays.
It was during one of their Saturday shows that the white cat showed up.
Henry began to pace around the hospital room. Aloud, he said: “If only that white cat hadn’t shown up, things would have turned out differently.”
Gilbert opened his eyes and pulled at his beard. “The white cat. I miss that little guy. I remember when I first saw him.”
Henry looked at his bearded son and wondered how all this was going to end. Surely Gilbert would suddenly snap out of it. Or maybe this was all a dream? No. Henry knew it was all too real.
About the cat:
That day in the shoppe, sitting in the audience, was a strange crooked man wearing a hooded robe that covered all but his piercing yellow eyes. The white cat with its pink nose and intelligent yet rather haunting blue eyes sat silently on his shoulder throughout the performance. At the end the cat meowed once and washed its face with a paw. When everyone had gone Gilbert noticed the white cat curled up on his father’s favorite soft stuffed chair, asleep. The man had apparently forgotten it. Gilbert looked for a name-tag. There was none.
Marlo hand-signed that he should put up a notice in the window saying that a white cat had been found. Meanwhile the cat yawned, jumped off the chair and rubbed his head against Marlo’s leg, but she took no notice.
“I think he’s hungry,” Gilbert signed to his sister. “I’ll go out and buy some cat food. I’ll be right back.”
He soon returned with several cans of cat food: chicken with rice, tuna with vegetables, beef with sauce, and a bag of dried food. The cat sniffed at each as it was opened, rejected them all and jumped back into the chair. “Meow,” he said, as he scratched his left ear — as if to say: Are these humans so daft as to think I would eat cat food.
“I don’t know anything about cats,” Marlo signed. “I don’t really like them. Anyway, maybe he’s not hungry.”
“Or, just very particular,” Henry said
Henry scratched the cat’s chin, the top of his head, stroked him between the eyes, and was rewarded with a long low purr. “I have some leftover chicken in the fridge in my workshop. Let’s try that.”
He chopped up some of the chicken and offered it to the cat. Success. The cat stopped eating only once when it glanced up at Henry and Gilbert as if to say: “Glad you finally got it right, although it could use a bit of salt and be warmer. Don’t forget the bowl of cool fresh water, and I’ll need a litter box.”
Gilbert and Henry quickly discovered that they were “cat persons.” Somehow they easily understood the white cat’s way of communicating with just a look, his body language, eyes, tail, ears and, of course, a cat’s way of showing displeasure: “cat-back.”
That night the crafty, finicky cat slept in the shoppe. The next day Gilbert put a sign in the window and they waited for the hooded man to come back and claim him. During the week that followed Marlo ignored the elegant puss; never petted him even once, and left it to Gilbert to do the feeding and to change the litter box he’d made. The following Saturday Gilbert looked for the cat’s owner in the audience, while Marlo was performing, but he was nowhere to be seen. Odd. Surely it was his cat? Had he abandoned it?
Two weeks later Gilbert took the sign out of the window. He had become very attached to the cat and it was obvious that the yellow-eyed man wasn’t coming back. The moment the sign came down, Marlo and the cat became inseparable.
“How come the big change in Marlo, dad?” Gilbert said.
“It’s possible that she didn’t want to form an emotional bond with the cat and then have him taken away from her.”
Marlo now took over all the chores of having him as a pet. He slept curled up next to her head on her bed, followed her everywhere and sat quietly at every one of her performances. Marlo instinctively understood the cat’s moods and desires perfectly. She knew the difference between an “I’m hungry for chicken look,” an “I’d like some cheese look,” and an “I’ve had enough petting warning glance.”
One day Henry peeked into the shoppe and saw the white cat licking Marlo’s cheek. And then he saw something he had never seen before: Marlo smiled, for the first time in her life.
“There’s no doubt about it, Virginia,” Henry said to his wife, “ever since that white cat showed up Marlo’s been a different person.”
“It’s almost magical.”
“I just hope the owner doesn’t come back one day. I don’t think Marlo could bear to part with him.”
That’s when Henry got the idea for a new fairy tale. Had he known that the writing of this new story would change everyone’s life, including his own (and become damning evidence in his son’s trial for kidnapping and possible murder), he would have kept it locked in his mind and never set it to paper. We’ll get to that part shortly, but to make sense of it all you must know the story of The Cat Who Could Change Colors. Gilbert drew all of the pictures and they bound one special copy as a birthday present for Marlo. She read it every night before she went to bed and always fell asleep with the cat in her arms and a smile on her lips.