Quests: Larger than life and twice as unnatural

Up the creek with a paddle: Matthew Brace found fantasyland on a trip to Missouri.
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The Independent Online
It was the 8ft rooster that caught my eye. It stood at the side of Highway 61, south of Mark Twain's home town of Hannibal, Missouri, beckoning me in to Detmer's Fantasyland Ceramics. Behind its yellow tail was a yard full of hand-painted ornamental pets.

I picked my way among herds of grazing deer, giant swans gliding across the gravel, open-mouthed bald eagles and owls in mid-flight. Frogs and turtles vied for space on lilypads. Racoons and black bears stood shoulder to shoulder with cats and dogs. A small boy in Huck Finn garb held a bamboo fishing-pole; by his side was a smiling girl in a check dress. The scene was watched over by a life-size model of the Virgin Mary, resplendent in sky-blue shawl.

On guard nearby were two small terriers - which came to life and ran towards me, barking. They were real. At least something was, in this concrete menagerie. Their alarm drew Joyce Detmer from her store. Her face seemed to reflect an inner sorrow, but she was pleased to see a visitor. She buys her concrete animals from suppliers in southern Missouri and Illinois, she told me, and paints them all herself - has done for 11 years.

"The frogs and turtles sell super," she said, "and the fishing boy and girl are asked for a lot by folks, too. The rooster's real popular but he ain't for sale. He's made out of glass fibre. A tornado came through here about eight years ago - blew his legs clean off. We found them down the highway. So we stuck them back on, drilled a hole in his back and filled his lower half with concrete so as he would stay upright. His red eyes light up but I can't find where to plug in the wire to make them work. Otherwise, it would be kinda neat."

For a bird with cement legs and lifeless eyes, the rooster still had a commanding presence and a cheeky grin. The tornado that had robbed him of his mobility had also lifted Joyce's big highway sign and relocated it, end-up, in the roof of a neighbour's caravan.She remembers the twister that shook her home that night.

"We'd just gone to bed and my husband said the wind was picking up and we'd better get out of the house. By the time I got one leg into my jeans it was all over. Sign was gone, windows were smashed. There was glass all over that little fountain over there, the imitation copper one. It's one of my favourites. Do you like it?"

Before I had time to answer she took me by the arm and led me into the living-room to meet her husband, Charles, a mountain of a man with a strong, Germanic face. He was laughing at the television commercials telling him he could have unlimited credit "no questions asked" if he contacted so- and-so financial advisers in southern Missouri "TODAY". He struggled from his chair brandishing a fly swat. "England, eh?" he said. Swat. In between fly executions he began a quiz. "What's the national anthem? Isn't it a famous hymn? How does it go? Sing it, sing it."

"Oh yes, sing a bit for us," Joyce echoed.

I knew, deep down, that the Detmers were just excited and curious because they had a foreign visitor, but for some reason the scene was by now altogether too surreal for my taste. I stood in the room in front of my audience, sweating (it was cooled only slightly by a rattling air-conditioner) and croaked through the first two lines, but they wanted more. I was living a bizarre dream where I was being forced into vocal patriotism by the Missouri Monarchy Club.

I half expected the cement animals outside to come to life and press their wet noses against the windows, ready to join me in the chorus - tenor frogs at the back, soprano racoons at the front - like a Muppet Show finale.

Charles stopped me with a frown on his face. "Are you sure that's the right tune? It don't sound right. But, hell, you're from England so you must have it right."

Had I failed the monarchy test? Maybe it was not the Detmers and their animals who were strange, but me. I had been on the river too long and had temporarily lost track of life on land and my grip on reality. The deckhands on the towboats had warned me of this. "Life on the beach [on shore] can seem pretty darned weird once you have been out here for a while," they had said.

I was in a spin and had to get back to the relative sanity of my boat, which had been queuing for two days now on the river above St Louis to get through a string of locks. I looked at my watch in fake horror, made my excuses to the Detmers and headed for the door. The racoons glared at me as I walked past, and I could have sworn I saw that rooster's red eyes light up.