"IT IS NOT TRUE that all tarantulas are poisonous," Mr. Crepsley said. He had a deep voice. I managed to tear my eyes away from Steve and trained them on the stage. "Most are as harmless as the spiders you find anywhere in the world. And those which are poisonous normally only have enough poison in them to kill very small creatures.
"But some are deadly!" he went on. "Some can kill a man with one bite. They are rare, and only found in extremely remote areas, but they do exist.
"I have one such spider," he said and opened the door of the cage. For a few seconds nothing happened, but then the largest spider I had ever seen crawled out. It was green and purple and red, with long hairy legs and a big fat body. I wasn't afraid of spiders, but this one looked terrifying.
The spider walked forward slowly. Then its legs bent and it lowered its body, as though waiting for a fly.
"Madam Octa has been with me for several years," Mr. Crepsley said. "She lives far longer than ordinary spiders. The monk who sold her to me said some of her kind live to be twenty or thirty years old. She is an incredible creature, both poisonous and intelligent."
While he was speaking, one of the blue-hooded people led a goat onto the stage. It was making a frightened bleating noise and kept trying to run. The hooded person tied it to the table and left.
The spider began moving when it saw and heard the goat. It crept to the edge of the table, where it stopped, as if awaiting an order. Mr. Crepsley produced a shiny tin whistle he called it a flute from his pants pocket and blew a few short notes. Madam Octa immediately leaped through the air and landed on the goat's neck.
The goat gave a leap when the spider landed, and began bleating loudly. Madam Octa took no notice, hung on, and moved a few inches closer to the head. When she was ready, she bared her fangs and sunk them deep into the goat's neck!
The goat froze and its eyes went wide. It stopped bleating and, a few seconds later, toppled over. I thought it was dead, but then realized it was still breathing.
"This flute is how I control Madam Octa," Mr. Crepsley said, and I looked away from the fallen goat. He waved the flute slowly above his head. "Though we have been together such a long time, she is not a pet, and would surely kill me if I ever lost it.
"The goat is paralyzed," he said. "I have trained Madam Octa not to kill outright with her first bite. The goat would die in the end, if we left it there is no cure for Madam Octa's bite but we shall finish it quickly." He blew on the flute and Madam Octa moved up the goat's neck until she was standing on its ear. She bared her fangs again and bit. The goat shivered, then went totally still.
It was dead.
Madam Octa dropped from the goat and crawled toward the front of the stage. The people in the front rows became very alarmed and some jumped to their feet. But they froze at a short command from Mr. Crepsley.
"'Do not move!" he hissed. "Remember your earlier warning: a sudden noise could mean death!"
Madam Octa stopped at the edge of the stage, then stood on her two back legs, just like a dog! Mr. Crepsley blew softly on his flute and she began walking backward, still on two feet. When she reached the nearest leg of the table, she turned and climbed up.
"You will be safe now," Mr. Crepsley said, and the people in the front rows sat down again, as slowly and quietly as they could. "But please," he added, "do not make any loud noises, because if you do, she might come after me."
I don't know if Mr. Crepsley was really scared, or if it was part of the act, but he looked frightened. He wiped the sleeve of his right arm over his forehead, then placed the flute back in his mouth and whistled a strange little tune.
Madam Octa cocked her head, then appeared to nod. She crawled across the table until she was in front of Mr. Crepsley. He lowered his right hand, and she crept up his arm. The thought of those long hairy legs creeping along his flesh made me sweat all over. And I liked spiders! People who were afraid of them must have been nervously chewing the insides of their cheeks to pieces.
When she got to the top of his arm, she scuttled along his shoulder, up his neck, over his ear, and didn't stop until she reached the top of his head, where she lowered her body. She looked like a funny kind of a hat.
After a while, Mr. Crepsley began playing the flute again. Madam Octa slid down the other side of his face, along the scar, and walked around until she was standing upside down on his chin. Then she spun a string of web and dropped down on it.
She was hanging about three inches below his chin now, and slowly began rocking from side to side. Soon she was swinging about level with his ears. Her legs were tucked in, and from where I was sitting she looked like a ball of wool.
Then, as she made an upward swing, Mr. Crepsley threw his head back and she went flying straight up into the air. The thread snapped and she tumbled around and around. I watched her go up, then come down. I thought she'd land on the floor or the table, but she didn't. Instead, she landed in Mr. Crepsley's mouth!
I nearly got sick when I thought of Madam Octa sliding down his throat and into his belly. I was sure she'd bite him and kill him. But the spider was a lot smarter than I knew. As she was falling, she'd stuck her legs out and they had caught on his lips.
He brought his head forward, so we could see his face. His mouth was wide open and Madam Octa was hanging between his lips. Her body throbbed in and out of his mouth and she looked like a balloon that he was blowing up and letting the air out of.
I wondered where the flute was and how he was going to control the spider now. Then Mr. Tall appeared with another flute. He couldn't play as well as Mr. Crepsley, but he was good enough to make Madam Octa take notice. She listened, then moved from one side of Mr. Crepsley's mouth to the other.
I didn't know what she was doing at first, so I craned my neck to see. When I saw the bits of white on Mr. Crepsley's lips I understood: she was spinning a web!
When she was finished, she lowered herself from his chin, like she had before. There was a large web spun across Mr. Crepsley's mouth. He began chewing and licking the web! He ate the whole thing, then rubbed his belly (being careful not to hit Madam Octa) and said, "Delicious. Nothing tastier than fresh spiderwebs. They are a treat where I come from."
He made Madam Octa push a ball across the table, then got her to balance on top of it. He set up small pieces of gym gear, tiny weights and ropes and rings, and put her through her paces. She was able to do all the things a human could, like lift weights above her head and climb ropes and pull herself up on the rings.
Then he brought out a tiny dinner set. There were mini plates and knives and forks and teeny-weeny glasses. The plates were filled with dead flies and other small insects. I don't know what was in the glasses.
Madam Octa ate that dinner as neatly as you please. She was able to pick up the knives and forks, four at a time, and feed herself. There was even a fake saltshaker that she sprinkled over one of the dishes!
It was around the time she was drinking from the glass that I decided Madam Octa was the world's most amazing pet. I would have given everything I owned for her. I knew it could never be Mom and Dad wouldn't let me keep her even if I could buy her but that didn't stop me from wishing.
When the act was over, Mr. Crepsley put the spider back in her cage and bowed low while everybody clapped. I heard a lot of people saying it wasn't fair to have killed the poor goat, but it had been thrilling.
I turned to Steve to tell him how great I thought the spider was, but he was watching Mr. Crepsley. He didn't look scared anymore, but he didn't look normal, either.
"Steve, what's wrong?" I asked.
He didn't answer.
"Ssshhh!" he snapped, and wouldn't say another word until Mr. Crepsley had left. He watched the odd-looking man walk back to the wings. Then he turned to me and gasped: "This is amazing!"
"The spider?" I asked. "It was great. How do you think..."
"I'm not talking about the spider!" he snapped. "Who cares about a silly old arachnid? I'm talking about Mr...Crepsley." He paused before saying the man's name, as though he'd been about to call him something different.
"Mr. Crepsley?" I asked, confused. "What was so great about him? All he did was play the flute."
"You don't understand," Steve said angrily. "You don't know who he really is."
"And you do?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, "as a matter of fact I do." He rubbed his chin and started looking worried again. "I just hope he doesn't know I know. If he does, we might never make it out of here alive..."