The Alchemist’s Feather

Issue #25
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I have always done as I have been told, and most of my actions have not been kind ones. I know because the Alchemist did not always tell me to forget and so, trapped inside my jar, I was cursed to remember.

I dreamt the dreams of dolls, and those were the times I could see the past most clearly. I remembered the time I crept inside a true man’s workplace to hide false evidence. And when I delivered a botched love potion into a poor serving girl’s tea and hid behind a jug of milk to watch as she retched black blood and green bile across the floor.

Tonight as I dreamt, I became aware that these were horrible things. They did not bother me at the time, and they do not bother me now, but I am aware of them in a way that I have never been before. And in the morning I realize one of my fingers is gone.

“I need more time,” the Alchemist protests, when the Prince’s latest emissary visits.

“You always need more time.” The emissary walks around the room with a curled lip and an arrogant eye, then picks up my jar and shakes it hard. I rattle around limp inside as I’ve been told to do.

“I’m getting closer.” The Alchemist holds up a small feather for the emissary to inspect. “This is a crow feather—”

“The Prince wants phoenix feathers. We can pick up crow feathers on any street in Vienna.”

“It is a process. You cannot just skip to the end and create a phoenix!”

“What use are crow feathers to the Prince?” The emissary takes the black curl of proof with his free hand. “I’ve seen better tricks on street corners.”

“This is not magic—it is alchemy!” the Alchemist protests and pounds a nearby table. Implements jump and a cloud of charcoal powder billows. “I cannot just paint feathers and make up a pretty story. Is that what the Prince wants?”

“The Prince wants the real thing,” the emissary says, shaking my bottle roughly for emphasis. “But he would like it quickly. He’s paying you a lot of money. For your sake, and the sake of that rodent you call a servant, you’d better hurry.”

“My supplies are low—”

“You’ve got all you’ll get. Your next shipment will be your last. Either you can do it soon, or not at all.”

The Alchemist tilts his head and raises an eyebrow. “If the prince hadn’t put his sword into every whore in Vienna he wouldn’t need them so badly.”

“Treason does not become you, Alchemist. Finish it before his wedding day so that his ‘sword’ might be healed.” The emissary flicks the small feather at the Alchemist and it floats to the ground on a jagged path. He holds my jar tight and makes a show of thinking about its destruction before snorting and setting it down on the table, intact.

A night passes. Things happen. I am told to forget and I must obey.

“Play with the girl,” the Alchemist commands, releasing me from my jar at dawn. There are bread crumbs in his beard and bits of bacon in his teeth. He spills me onto his desk where the small black feather is now mated with a white one, both of them aligned side by side atop a research book full of symbols I cannot understand. I drop off the edge of the desk with a fall and a tumble, in the nature of small things, landing in a crumpled pile before picking myself up and setting off to find Maria.

Maria smiles at the sight of me, as I clamber up the end of her bed. I walk the hills of her slight body and she pinches her nose.

“You’re the smelliest doll ever, Alrun,” she informs me, and I know it is true because I’ve been given a nose. The lab was a sulfurous stinking place; not even the thickest cork could keep the scent out of my jar. “Shall we go outside now?” she asks and I nod.

Her stomach growls. “I’ll grab the crust, if he’s left any,” she says to herself and places me upon her shoulder.

With a rind of bread in tow, I sit on Maria’s shoulder as she trots along the path to reach a glade where our cabin’s smoke is unseen. In a fashionable city, no one would ever tolerate the stench that rises continually from the three fires he keeps lit. We’d been in a fashionable city, once. We’d had gold once, too. But those times are past. I have forgotten most of them because so much time has elapsed—newer memories crowd out the old ones in my small and wooden head.

That, and perhaps the things that were made to be my eyes were not so very good. I was ill-made, and I am falling apart at a prodigious rate. Today, another finger is lost.

“Shall we dance, Alrun?” Maria asks and I nod. She holds me out, one of my hands in each of her thumb and forefingers, and she twirls me around in the white-gold sun, singing a song of her own creation. She has a voice like the birds she sometimes protects me from, when a curious sparrow becomes too interested in the shiny bits that are my eyes or the gummed string that is my hair. She sings and spins until both her body and throat are tired and then winds down to set me in the pocket of her lap.

I am quiet while she weaves me skirts out of grass and makes tiny wreaths for my hair. She places one of these upon my head and I reach up to help her adjust it so that I can see past an ivory petal of a flower and she gasps.

“Another finger gone! I didn’t—”

I gesture that it wasn’t her doing.

“You’re sure?” she asks, and I nod strongly. “I wish you could tell me what happened.”

I don’t know what happened. I have been told to forget. Even if the Alchemist had carved lips for me, that could not change.

“I can make you new ones, I think.” She picks up pieces of twig and whittles them down with her fingernails, pinching off wooden strands.

I watch her silent concentration. How many girls have there been? Three, at least. Before that, I hadn’t bothered to count. But there was always one, a little girl, aged just eight or nine. What has become of the rest of them? I cannot remember these things, either.

But I think I like this one most. I don’t know why, precisely—maybe it’s because Maria has given me a name, something the Alchemist himself has never bothered to do. However, if the past is any indication, there will come a time when she is forgotten to me too.

And this, strangely, hurts. I stare at her, trying to imprint her particular face on my mind, to hide it someplace he could not take it from me. I see her truly now. The dirt that seams where her hair and skin meet, the bruises along her upper arm from his fearsome shaking, the cracked nails that even now become moreso as she embarks on the serious task of creating new fingers for me. She smiles, showing teeth like lines of the chalk the Alchemist uses to draw symbols on his bench, and passes me her efforts, two splinters of the right size and proportion to replace the fingers that I’ve lost.

I try to attach them but they fall off and down into the grasses below. Neither of us are Alchemists, it seems.

“I’m sorry about that, Alrun.”

I shrug. I am neither sorry nor sad. Not about this. Maria is just a girl, and I am only a doll.

We return later that night when it is too cold to stay out any longer, once the wolves begin to howl. The Alchemist is in his lab, and slightly fresher bread is out for Maria to gnaw on. She releases me from her skirt pocket and I creep alone back towards the laboratory and the jar that is my home.

I roll underneath the crack at the floor of the door. “I see you, homunculus,” the Alchemist says without looking. “Come here.” He points to an empty hearth. It is not like any of his hearths to ever be empty.

I make my way across the room, past the decanters and condensers that are his craft and obsession, until I reach the hearth’s entrance.

“Inside with you,” he says and I am compelled forward. “And into the jar.”

I do as I am told, like always.

I wake to find another finger gone. I am down to just my forefinger and thumb, and it will be very hard to climb up Maria’s bedding if this continues. But she’s already awake and waiting for me when I come into her room.

“Alrun!” she says, and sinks down to my level on the floor, taking her blankets with her. It has snowed during the night and for all the fires in the laboratory, the rest of the cabin is cold. “Alrun—last night was freezing,” she begins, as she takes me up to her chest. She moves her lips to be near my delicately carved ears. “Alrun, I crept out last night, to sleep near the door to the laboratory, where it’s warmer. And as I lay down, I could see between the slats of the door, Alrun. He’s got a bird in there somewhere. A peacock. A baby peacock.” The next sound I hear is that of her licking her lips. “Do peacocks taste good? I’m sure they do. Have you seen it?”

There was a peacock feather that morning on the desk, the same size as the other two, the crow and the unknown white one. I recognize the peacock’s colors from their pictures in his studies, green and purple and black. Maria takes my thoughtful silence for negation and sighs. I settle in between her ribs through the thin shift she wears. “I was hoping it wasn’t a dream.”

I nod. This is something I understand now, too. My recent dreams have the feel of memories. I genuinely hope they are not.

Maria naps. She sleeps more these days. I vaguely remember the others, sleeping more, near the end of my memories of them. I find myself wishing that I had made more of an effort at the time to remember. What will happen to Maria, when she is gone? Will those memories fade as well? What can I do to not forget?

I creep into the lab. The Alchemist is asleep across his desk, his verdigris-stained quill tossed to one side. I use him as a ladder and come to the place where his beard meets the manuscripts he drools upon. I spread the locks of his hair and find the proof beneath it, a feather no longer than the span of my palm. I take it and return to her and place it at the end of her bed. My Maria does not dream, and here is her proof.

That night, I am compelled anew. The Alchemist places me into the jar himself and piles his mixtures around me, red, white, black, green.

“There. Now. It begins,” he says, and I have time to wonder, what? before it is over, and I wake to find myself inside my jar again, looking out at the world through its blurry glass. I wish that everything were so blurry for me. I know I have had dreams of past ills done. I have no need for the clarity of my nights.

Only my thumb remains.

I am playing with Maria when we hear wagon wheels crunch in the snow outside.

“Alrun!” Maria gasps. “Food!”

We fly from her room to hide at the door of the entrance to the cabin, where the Alchemist is speaking to two men. They hold a jar between them, huge and glass. There is no food in sight.

“It is not wide enough!” the Alchemist says. His hands are covered in red powder and he strangles the top of the jar with both his hands, leaving scarlet handprints behind.

The first and smaller of the men shrugs. “It’s been made to your specifications, just as we were told.”

“No, it has not. The top. It is not wide enough!” The Alchemist is angry. I feel Maria shrink away.

“Take it back—”

“The Prince said to tell you that this is your last chance,” the first man says.

“No—I ordered a jar as big as—”

“This is what you get,” says the second man. He’s quite a bit larger than the first, and larger than the Alchemist as well. “This is all you get. He said that, too.”

At this, the Alchemist flies into a rage. Maria creeps back down the hall to her room and we hear the sounds of his anger, pots clanking and dishes breaking. He is as volatile as the substances he seeks to create. But he never gets angry in his laboratory, so the kitchen is where his wrath explodes. The kitchen, and on my poor Maria. I leap out from her pocket, fall to the ground, and then crawl out through a deserted rat hole—rats having given up on finding food here long ago—to the outside world. I hear the men mutter to themselves as they climb back to their riding perch.

“You shouldn’t make him mad.”

“What, he’ll curse us? Bah.”

“He’s a powerful man.”

“Who lives in a cabin in the woods two long days from the city. I’ll take my chances.” The larger man clucks at the horses, and the wagon starts off.

“I wonder what he needs the jar for?” asks the first.

And the answer of the second, if it is an answer at all, is cut off by distance.

I return to find Maria, curled up upon the floor.

Did he? Was—he? I look around the room, and then I look again to her.

She smiles at me wanly. “I tripped, Alrun. It’s my own fault.” She pushes herself up against the rough wood planks, and then gasps in sudden pain. Her hand curls into her chest like the head of a baby bird, before she opens it to inspect a fingertip.

“A splinter.” She holds it out to show me. I make a motion to take it from her with my remaining whole hand, and she nods.

The splinter is long enough to be one of my absent fingers, and it takes two tries to pull it free. A drop of blood wells up in its path.

“My mother used to kiss my cuts.” She stares at her own blood idly, remembering home or food or what I do not know. I walk forward and raise my hands up to her finger, my one hand whole, the other missing all but its thumb.

She proffers her wound to me, and I pretend to kiss it, with lips that I do not have. I can feel the blood stain the wood of my face, leaching into the dry pores, filling the cracks and crevices with her.

“You’re a good friend, Alrun,” she says, when I release her finger back to her. She stares at the white dot of her missing skin and picks me up, cradling me gently. Realization seeps into me just as her blood did. She—she is a good friend, too. I wish I had lips now, for the first time, to tell her that.

“I left a mark on you.” Maria frowns at me, and it stabs me in a way that I have never felt before. She licks her thumb and smudges it fiercely across my face. “He’ll be mad at me, you know.”

Why would he anger? I have marks enough upon me. I am a creature of sticks and twine, and pieces of me will not stop falling off.

“I took his key. While he slept. Tonight, Alrun, I’m going to break into the pantry.”

I shake my head. Would that I’d been given lips, with which to kiss and with which to warn—

“I’ve got to, Alrun. I’ll die soon, without more than bread crusts to live upon.”

I shake my head more, and more, and more, till it is in danger of spinning off, and I gesture with my hands. I tug at her skirt and would pin it to the floor were I able.

She holds me up, and kisses me softly with lips both cracked and dry. “I love you Alrun. I wanted you to know that.”

“Homunculus!” the Alchemist calls, and I feel the compulsion inside me to go to him, even though I want nothing less. “Into your jar!”

Maria sets me down upon the ground. “Go to him. Remember that I love you.”

This, the Alchemist cannot compel me to forget. Nothing can.

I climb into the jar and it feels small it a way it never has before.

I watch the Alchemist toil for hours, preparing for another invocation of Chemia. He grinds and he mixes, he pours and he boils, dancing around the hissing arrangements of glass tubes and burbling molten metals he orchestrates for himself.

“Come to the hearth, little man,” the Alchemist says, and I do as I am told. He takes me up and tosses me into the glass jar I have visited each of these nights, not the larger one that the prince shipped in before.

He arrays himself before me, him and all his tools. Piles of powders, red, white, and black, a brass cauldron of liquid green, and last but not least, cupped in his palm, a pinch of something yellow.

With his free hand, he picks up a stick, grabs fire from the furnace behind him, and lights the nearest pile. Black smoke rises and invades my lidless jar.

“Crow,” he commands. And like every other time he has told me to do something in my semblance of a life, I do as I am told.

I know.

The sticks I am comprised of bend and snap. They fold in upon me, pulling together behind my back, and I am covered in a wave of smoke, no, these, these things—they are feathers. Hundreds of tiny feathers grow. The place I have instead of lips lengthens and a beak emerges, still seamed shut, but I can see it there, between my eyes, until this changes too, and I am limited to seeing only things on opposite sides of my head. A dish of liquid mercury, to my far right. And tongs, to my left.

He lights the pile of white and a cloud erupts.

“Swan,” he commands.

The black feathers recede, and white ones take their place. My arms lengthen as does my neck—soon the jar is too small for me, and I am pressed against it, trapped inside.

I sorrow.

The Alchemist pours the liquid green down upon me. Where it touches me, it burns. “Peacock,” he commands. My neck shrinks in length, but my tailfeathers grow and grow and grow. I am a creature of verdant green and striking purple. My heart soars with all the colors I possess.

I hope.

And now the final powder is lit, a burgundy as fine as ground blood.

“Pelican,” he commands, and my tail disappears. Instead, my beak grows to an enormous length. I fold inside the jar, head bowed as if in prayer, until my beak pierces my own chest.

I bleed.

At last he reaches forward with his cupped hand. He sprinkles the yellow that he holds there down upon me. It fills my nose and covers my eyes.

“Phoenix,” he commands. A surge of power runs through me. I am smaller now, but this jar cannot contain me. I am the size of the earth, I am the potential of all things bound into one, and just when it seems my heart cannot swell any larger—

The Alchemist reaches in with his tongs, quick as lightning. He yanks off one of my feathers, and I see that it is burning, like he holds not a feather but a flame. He plunges it into the mercury bath beside the jar and it sizzles, releasing noxious smoke.

And then the fire, my fire, seen at first only as an abstract in the feather that he held—it reaches me. I wish for lips anew, with which to scream and beg and plead. For a creature of wood, there is no worse fate than fire. My life, my hopes, my dreams, are all consumed in pain.

After a life of being told to forget, I now know what it is like to be forgotten.

I will myself to remember, even as I feel myself turn to ash. I will remember this feeling. I will remember all of them.

I realize that I am alive, really, truly, alive—just as I realize that I am dying.

My jar shakes, opens, and I am released from it.

“Bring the girl here,” the Alchemist commands, taking up his mortar and pestle again. The larger jar is set upon the empty hearth. I know that I wanted to remember things. What were they, and why?

“Bring the girl here,” the Alchemist repeats. He looks up to stare at me. “And, last night—forget.”

The intention to follow his command flutters in my chest, only—I do not feel half so bound to him as I once was. And instead of the urge to forget, my will to remember redoubles. Memories, not dreams, but what I think are memories, rush back to me. Searing pain, but before that—life. I was alive. I think I am alive, still.

I walk across his desk and see a small yellow feather. I know what happened was real—the feather proves it. The Prince’s price can be paid and we will grow fat on its commission, and then—but this feather is small. I walk past it as though I did not see it, off on the Alchemist’s mission. But I know that it is not what the prince wants—he wants big feathers, from a larger bird, and there is only one reason why we have had these little girls with us for so long.

The doorways of my mind open up and everything that I was told to forget wells forward. The times when they were trapped, half of bird, half of flesh, cawing his defeat until the Alchemist threw them, whole, into the furnace. The times that progress was made, only to have them fight so hard they broke the jars, because they’d been made of stronger stuff, not half-starved like my Maria. The times that they’d died before any of the transformations occurred, coughing out their lungs from fumes, or swelling, green and bloated, from ill-mixed acids.

All of their deaths return to me, everything I’ve ever done or didn’t do, every decision by action or inaction I have made, landing like a flock of birds inside my mind.

I am alive now. Memories are my price.

“Alrun,” Maria says, after I wake her. She clutches at her stomach and shakes her head. “Alrun, I’m so tired. I don’t feel well today.”

I ignore this and grab Maria’s nearest hand with my remaining good one, and try to draw her up from her bed. Snow is piled high outside, I can see icicles hanging from the roof, and yet—I have to get her away from here.

I cannot stand to have him pluck her sweet fingers away, one by one, to burn her over and over.

“Alrun—is he asleep? I stayed up all last night, after I ate dried pork and cheese. And now I’ve got a stomach ache. He’ll beat me for sure, but if I return the key, maybe he won’t realize it for a day or two.”

He’s not asleep. He’s grinding powders in the next room to transform you into a phoenix. He’s going to make you burn. I shake my head, in answer and dismay.

“Can you return the key for me? Maybe then he won’t be so mad. He’s never mad at you.”

I hold up my hand that should have no fingers, just a stumped palm, as evidence of his anger. But I see that now that my fingers are returned to me and only my thumb is gone. I flex them in amazement. Maria, however, has no will to count. She takes my gesture as a sign of the effort I cannot make. “I could tie it to your back, perhaps?”

I can see it in her face now, so clearly. How and why had I missed it before? Her cheeks are pale, her eyes sunken in, and the line between the bruises he’s given her and the ones she’s gained from lack of food—even I who am so recently born can see the death in her. I would tear my heart out and offer it to her, were it meat enough to save her life. But—now I know. There is a way.

I take the key from her and loop it about my shoulder, tucking it beneath my arm. And then I gesture for her to follow.

The Alchemist picks her up and folds her into the jar. It is a tight fit—had he not starved her for so long, I do not think she would have made it. She lifts a hand in protest and fear sparks inside her eyes before she sees me. I put my finger to where lips would be if I had them, and silently she nods.

He calls out their names, one by one. Crow, Swan, Peacock, Pelican.

It is different with her than it was with me. She’s flesh through and through. She has lips.

She cries. She screams.

The Alchemist waits for a moment. This might be the only time I’ve ever seen him afraid.

“Phoenix,” he commands, and she changes. Plumage bursts from her like an opening flower, yellow feathers streaking out and down. Her strength is returned to her—she screams now not with pain, but with power. The world is hers to set alight. The Alchemist takes up his tongs.

I run forward, unshouldering the metal pantry key, and hit it against the glass as hard as I can. She bites at him with her beak from inside the jar.

“Homunculus! Stop it!”

I strike and strike and strike again. He swats at me, knocking me back, and she still fights, until the jar teeters, tips, and falls with a crash of glass. Where the broken glass touches her it melts away, rolling off of her like tears. She streaks upwards in flight, through the rafters. Her fire catches on timbers and wood begins to split. Sparks shower down, landing atop papers. Years of research turns to ash, and smoke fills the room.

She is free. As am I. I run beneath the door and to the rat-hole, leaving the burning cabin behind.

I think I know where I will find her. It takes me a long time to walk there on my own. I am light enough to walk atop even the freshest snow, but it is almost dawn when the distance is covered. And she is there, my Maria, in the clearing, just as I knew she would be.

She lies on dry earth now, scorched from where she fell, like a comet to the ground. Beneath her shift she is whole and plump, like ripe fruit, and she sleeps.

I walk up to her face and touch along the line of her full lips, and she smiles in her dreams before waking.

“Alrun—are we free?”

I nod. I think we are. She picks me up. “I feel much better now. What happened?” She looks down at herself and then around. The early snow is melting. We can walk to the main road and wait for a rider to pass. I’ve been there. I know where to go.

“I wish I knew what happened,” she says, cradling me. “I wish you could tell me.”

I shake my head. Even if I had lips, I would not utter a word.

I think the Alchemist lived. I think some days he tries to call me back to him still, because I can feel his will flutter in my chest. But there’s a different feeling there now as well—my own volition.

So I serve another master now. I serve my Maria, by choice.

And she never asks me to forget.


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Erin Cashier is a nurse at a burn ward in the Bay Area. She attended Clarion West in 2007, and her story "Cruciger" is in Writers of the Future XXIV. Her story "Near the Flame" is forthcoming in Shimmer Magazine.and "Cruciger" will appear soon on Escape Pod. She is the author of “Hangman” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #10 as well as "The Alchemist's Feather" in BCS #25 and the Best of BCS, Year One anthology.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Hangman” by Erin Cashier
“The Bone House” by James Lecky

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1 Comment on “The Alchemist's Feather”

One Response to “The Alchemist’s Feather”

  1. adunsby says:

    10-13-2009, 07:08 PM
    adunsby

    Very good.

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