Chapter 21: The Hills Are Alive
“No sleeping on the job!”
Matt’s eyes fluttered open and he tried to remember where he was. The last thing he remembered was a sensation of falling and spinning before blacking out. As he stared up, the face of a girl became clear, mostly the wide blue eyes that fixed him with an intense stare.
“Come on, get up. I don’t pay for lounging about. I’ve only got a small window of opportunity on this potion and I need your help.”
The details snapped together in her mind, like a jigsaw puzzle in the hands of a puzzle pro. Matt shot to his feet and took a second to study the speaker more fully. She wore patchwork dress, in which every square held a different recipe. Most of them looked like strange potions, but Matt was sure he saw an recipe for butterscotch brownies. Her youthful face was rimmed with a shock of brilliantly blonde hair that appeared to laugh in the face of gravity.
Matt cleared his throat and tried to adopt a serious expression. “So, what seems to be the problem?”
The mad potion mistress fixed her with an intense, blue eye. “Now that’s more like it.” She lifted up the hem of her dress to display a square stained with irregular red splotches. “Me, the clumsy oaf that I am, spilled razzleberry juice on my dress. And wouldn’t you know it? It was a recipe that I needed today. I can still see the first part pretty well, but the end of it’s a total loss. Can you help me?”
In front of the potion mistresses sat an enormous mug with an open silver lid. The sides of the mug depicted a variety of scenes from famous children’s stories some of which she recognized because dad had told them to Tyson and him.
Matt forced a smile. There were so many ways this could end up in disaster. “Just let me take a look at it. I’ll do my best.”
He stooped down and examined the stained section of the potion mistress’s dress. At the top of the square it bore a title in bold black:
Start with a captured cloud in a cauldron. Sprinkle with equal portions of essence of time and thyme. Combine one flibbertigibbet with the light of a will o’ the wisp, and grind in the bones of a cl—
The rest of the formula was hopelessly lost under the dark stain. Matt pursed his lips into a tight line and considered the strange formula. It was nothing like the formulas he had seen in his chemistry lessons. What was a flibbertigibbet anyway?
“Flibbertigibbet,” he whispered under her breath. Saying it aloud made the word sound familiar. He was sure it was in a song that used that word. His mom used to sing it.
“Does that ring any bells?” asked Mad Meraj. “I can’t stress how much we need to hurry. I’ve already added the essence of time.”
Matt nodded and closed his eyes, picturing her mother’s smiling face. It had been so many years!
His lips formed words that barely eluded him. Mad Meraj turned to her desk and shuffled some papers. “What did you say your name was? I don’t think they’ve ever sent you over before.”
“Matt…” he said, pressing his fingers to his temples as if that could help him remember. “…the Magnificent!”
Surprisingly, it seemed to work. The missing piece fell into place and his face brightened. The song had been about a name—her name that her mother had changed to make fit in with the song.
“How do you solve a problem like Matt-a?” he sang softly. He hummed along to the words in his mind. “…a flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp…”
His right hand shot into the air, his index finger pointed skyward. “A clown! The missing ingredient is a clown.”
Mad Meraj slapped her head. “Of course! I was thinking ‘clapdragon’, but that was way off course. Now I remember. That’s it! Good work.”
The potion mistress’s face fell again and she ran a hand through her wild hair. Matt watched in fascination, wondering if there was a chance the hand might not make it out again.
“The question is, where did I put my stash of funny bones? I really should write these things down.” She pivoted on her ankle, examining the entire room for the hiding place of the ingredient. She made several complete rotations before settling on a particular large cupboard.
“Matt,” Mad Meraj said. “Would you be a dear and check in that wardrobe? I’m sure I left them in there.”
Matt nodded, hoping that the ingredients came with labels, and wondering if she hid actual clown skeletons in her closet. He threw open the doors of the wardrobe and was greeted with a blast of snow and what sounded like a lion’s roar. On impulse, he slammed the doors shut again.
“Oh, sorry,” called Mad Meraj. “Wrong wardrobe. You might check again over in my middle earthenware. I keep my most precious ingredients in there. “
She pointed where three enormous clay pots lay by a window. At a word from Mad Meraj, the top of the middle one popped off with a jet of flame. Trembling slightly, Matt stuck his hand into the jar and rummaged around inside.
His first few attempts got him only bones that must have come from small people. He even pulled out a finger bone still wearing a golden ring, which he threw back immediately. Finally, he withdrew a little bone painted a variety of polka dots.
“Ah, yes, that’s it!” cried Mad Meraj. “Quick, hand it to me.”
Matt tossed Mad Meraj the funny bone, which she crushed into powder with her bare hands and tossed into the mug. Clouds of billowing green smoke shot out of the top, and Matt thought he smelled freshly clipped grass. With a grunt, Mad Meraj lifted the pointed silver lid back on the top of the mug.
“Woo-ee! It’s a live one. Haven’t even added the hog’s warts yet.”
Matt wrinkled his nose, hoping that he would not have to retrieve that disgusting sounding ingredient.
“There’s my own specialty ingredient. They don’t change the mixture itself, but it does make things more…magical.” She looked about and then plunged her hand into a cone-shaped piece of cloth that hung from the ceiling. When she withdrew her hand, she clutched a handful of shriveled, black lumps that emitted a foul stench. “Want to take a few with you?”
Matt wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Oh, no that’s fine. You can keep them.”
Mad Meraj looked as if Matt had insulted her mother, her husband and her best friend all at once. “Suit yourself,” she said with a sigh. “They are so rare and valuable, I thought for sure you would appreciate them. Pearls before swine, I suppose.”
Matt tried to summon the courage to take her up on her offer, but decided that nothing was worth having to carry around warts in his pockets.
Humming a little tune to herself, Mad Meraj lifted the lid and tossed the handful of warts in. Bright white sparks shot out from under the rim and glided to the floor. The potion mistress took a gigantic wooden spoon from the wall and rapped the side of the mug three times. The fierce bubbling inside stopped and she cautiously lifted the lid. Taking a large whiff of the contents, her face broke out in a lopsided grin.
“Perfect!” she cried, beginning a little jig. “Perfect, perfect, perfect! Never have I witnessed such a perfect potion.”
Matt smiled weakly and gave a little bow. He wondered how easily he could have blown up the house instead. At first the potion reference had confused him, but then he remembered that “The Sound of Music” was one of Tyson’s favorites. His dad had never dared take him to a crowded theater, but it was one of the movies he watched most often.
He gave a drawn-out sigh. “Thank you Rogers and Hammerstein.”
The potion mistress glanced up, her left eyebrow tilted at a crazy angle. “What’s that?”
“Nothing. I probably should be going, but do you think I could ask for a little favor first?”
“Anything,” Mad Meraj said. “You’re welcome to some of this potion if you like. Will o’ the Wisps are out of season, so I you’d be hard to find any of this potion this time of year.”
Matt peered over the rim of the giant mug. Inside, a frothy green brew bubbled and churned like the contents of someone’s stomach. “Tell me this. Could this brew help me get past the whirlwind down in the valley?”
“Of course,” Mad Marej said, her nod tossing her wild hair over her face. “But why would you want to? Things only get worse the farther you go up. You could stay here. I’ve been meaning to bring on a full time potion consultant.”
Matt backed away a few steps. “That’s very kind. I’m sure that would look great on my resume, but I can’t. My brother is trapped on the top floor, and I have to rescue him. To do that, I need to not get ripped apart by the whirlwind.”
Mad Marej stuck out one side of her lip like a pouting child. “Very well. You are entitled to a vial of the potion. If you don’t want to stay on with me, I suggest you clear out. I don’t want you glimpsing too many of my signature formulas.”
She dipped a small flask into the mug, filled it, and stopped it with a cork. Matt took it with shaking fingers. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, what does this potion do?”
Mad Marej stared at Matt for a long second and then burst into fits of intense laughter. “Trying to test me are you? That’s a good one. You just helped me make the potion and you don’t know what it does? That’s a good one!”
Matt fidgeted with the flask in her hands. “Why don’t you just remind me? It’s been ages since I made something like this. Not since I tried making my split pea soup when my dad was sick.”
The crazy potion mistress leaned in close, her eyes intense. “The hills are alive,” she whispered.
She paused and then reared back, her eyes wild. “The hills are alive! The hills are alive!”
Figuring that he had gotten what she had come for, Matt fingered the wind charm and pressed his fingers against it.
“This is going to be so much easier than getting in.”