The Alchemist

Callum was canny about leaving the right amount of bread with which to mop up his gravy. The plate was bare but he licked it anyway. Won’t need washing now. He watched Morag suck gravy off the finger she sent scurrying about her plate. When she was done she chucked a spotless bone back in the pot to boil up later. The bone was hollow, which reminded him there’d been no marrow in his meal. He’d seen the leg of dog before she cooked it and they’d served from the pot at the table, which meant she’d eaten the marrow before she brought the pot through. He added this act of selfishness to a long list of grievances he’d punish her for if he ever got the chance.

He slid his plate under the chair and slurped his mead. Morag wiped greasy hands on her apron and sucked at her teeth, eyeing him like a bad smell.

 

‘Is that it then? You’re just going to sit back and while away the evening while I skivvy for you?’

 

‘I’ve not asked you to do owt. I thank you for my supper and now I’d like a little time to meself. To think and the like.’

 

‘Think! What you got to think of ‘cept more of that fool’s errand you’re on. I told you, nobody makes gold from nowt but gold. Since you won’t do a day’s work and you ‘aven’t got two bits o’ brass to rub together you’re not going to make nothing but a mess you’re too lazy to clear up. You’re just wasting your time and stinking my house out with your poisonous fumes.’

 

‘Aw hush woman. The conversion of base metal to gold requires heat. Heat Morag! That means a fire, and fire means things must burn.’

 

‘Oooh, aren’t we all la-di-da with our big words and bad smells. You can burn your base wotsits someplace else. You start another of them stinky fires in here and so help me I’ll…’ She interrupted the scolding to extract a piece of gristle her tongue had located between her teeth. She examined it closely and deemed it edible, nibbling it off the end of her finger. She stared at her husband blankly while she regained the thread of the conversation, finally stabbing a stubby finger in the air when the touchpaper was lit. ‘Ah yes, speaking of fire we haven’t hardly got no more wood. And I mean wood for a proper fire, not for burning all sorts of rubbish in a bowl while you jabber at the moon like a madman. So go outside and scrounge some before it’s pitch black, instead of sittin’ there under a blanket while your wife freezes to death.’

 

‘Fine. I will.’

 

‘When?’

 

Callum didn’t stoop to an answer. Morag’s eyes told him only one word would satisfy her. He glared back, drained his cup – he wasn’t leaving mead unattended with her around – and made a great show of getting to his feet.

 

‘Oh you poor old man, thrown out in the cold of a winter’s eve by your beloved.’

 

Callum ignored the sarcasm. He’d teeth that ached regular he preferred to Morag. Poverty was the only glue sticking them together. Once he discovered the secret of alchemy or the art of magic he’d be rich and rid of her. If it were the former he’d pay to have her hung, drawn and quartered, if it were the latter he’d turn her into a toad himself.

 

‘Pretty much a toad already,’ he muttered under his breath as he ambled out the door.

 

It was cold enough to freeze piss puddles, and dark when the clouds hid the moon, so Callum made his way gingerly down the icy road to the edge of the wood. He knew there’d be nothing dry enough to burn at the fringes so he didn’t bother searching for rotting bark and sheltered twigs until he was deep inside. Even here, everything he touched was damp and useless. He was cursing loudly about having to give up and go home for a harpy’s tongue lashing when he spotted a pale light shining through the trees. It intrigued him, so he tiptoed towards it.

 

The light came from a lamp, and the lamp belonged to a man even older and more decrepit than himself. There was not much that could be made out about him since he sat on the ground with a cloak pulled about his body. His thin, angular face was cast in sharp relief by the lamplight, revealing surprisingly clear eyes with shiny black pupils, a hooked nose set above thin lips, and lines of age etched deep into his brow. There was nothing intimidating about him and he looked to be on his own, so Callum approached, hoping a frail old man might be bullied into handing over his possessions. The lamp alone was worth tuppence or more. Or maybe crime would be unnecessary and he’d part with money for assistance, whatever form that might take. When he stepped forward the options and opportunities seemed endless.

 

‘Evening sire, might I ask what you’re doing in these here woods?’

 

The old man looked up and appraised him with an air of casual indifference, as if he were accustomed to encountering strangers in the woods.

 

‘I’m waiting.’

 

Callum waited for him to say who or what he was waiting for, but he didn’t, so he asked.

 

‘For what?’

 

‘For you.’

 

Callum felt his heart thump. This was unexpected.

 

‘That’s a bit of an unsettling thing to say if you don’t mind my saying, and I’ll thank you to take it back. You don’t know me, I know that, and I don’t know you. So sir, for you to say you’re waiting for me in a dark wood is a bit…’ - Callum searched for the right word and couldn’t find it so he opted for something in the general direction of his thoughts - ‘…a bit religious like.’

 

‘Religious is it? Well you should know, you’re the man who calls upon faeries.’

 

Callum wished he’d been less fussy in his search for wood and had a stout stick to hand. Bumping into strange old men in the woods at night was bad enough, for such men to know you when you didn’t know them… Well he’d knew enough to know that was witchcraft.

‘How’d you know that? Go on, speak it you old fool or I’ve a mind to have it out with you right here.’

 

The threat of violence only served to make the old man look bored.

 

‘Don’t be silly Callum. Yesterday you set light to oak, ash, and thorn with the light of the full moon resting upon your face. She didn’t like the smell and made you put out the faerie fire, but by then you’d said the words you bought off Mary the gypsy with the penny you stole from your wife’s secret hiding place. What’s said is said and it can’t be undone. You asked Fin Bheara to show you the path and he sent me here to guide you.’

 

Callum’s legs felt uncertain and he had to take his weight off them and sit on the cold, damp ground. To pray to Fin Bheara, king of the faerie folk, was a desperate move on the part of a desperate man. It was true then what Mary the gypsy said to him – if you call to him with the words of his kinsmen, Fin Bheara hears the words of desperate men. She said the words weren’t Gaelic, but he’d only half believed her.

 

‘You are one of them? One of...?’

The old man arched his eyebrows at Callum’s clumsy attempt to define his origins.

‘You don’t know what I am. You only know I am not one of you. Knowing does not matter, to me, or you. I have been sent to do something. Here I am, and here is the thing to be done. Over yonder lie four pieces of hewn hickory. They are dry as an old bone and will burn well. If you put them in the fire with the little pieces of oak, ash, and thorn you still have hidden under your bed, and you repeat the words from yesterday, Fin Bheara will bless you.’

 

‘Bless me. What will his blessing mean?’

 

The old man frowned and rubbed his chin contemplatively like this was an unexpected question that needed serious, silent consideration. Callum’s eyes bulged as he waited expectantly, like a hungry dog at a table hoping against hope for food to fall from a plate. After a while he spoke, though he seemed careful to only give the dog a bone.

‘Your mind will open. You will see things that are right before you, which have always been there but you have never seen before.’

 

‘Will I be able to transmute metal?’

 

He laughed, a surprisingly girly laugh.

 

‘Alchemy is a disease of the mind. We do not like metal, as is well known in our lore, so we will never help you make or mould it. You will however be able to do things with your mind that you have always wanted to do but never known how. The power will be weak at first, but eventually it will grow stronger. I shall say no more. You may take this gift or leave it. What is said is said, what will be done will be done. There is nothing more to the bargain than has been said and done. All that remains is for you to choose to take it or leave it. The wood is given freely. If you burn it and do not call Fin Bheara, it is simply wood.’

 

Callum turned to where the old man pointed and saw the wood. Already stripped of its bark it was pale and strange in the moonlight. When he turned back the old man was gone. This disappearance Callum took as proof. Only faeries vanished so fast and left no trace. He took the wood and hurried back, slowing only when he remembered the need to pretend to Morag nothing had occurred.

 

She was so pleased at the success of his mission she offered him some of the broth she was making.

 

‘That would be most agreeable Morag,’ he said, pretending to straighten his bed while sneaking fragments of oak, ash, and thorn from under it.

 

He put the logs in the hearth and set the fire burning, secreting the fragments in it. He turned his chair square to the fire and sat and stared at it, the words to summon Fin Bheara going round and round his head. He waited until he was sure the flames had consumed each of the different types of wood and then whispered the mantra six times. Gypsy Mary had told him to only say it once, because saying it more than once might annoy the Faerie king, but he wanted to be sure.

 

Time passed. The fire stopped crackling and dimmed to a healthy orange glow. Callum waited impatiently for supernatural power to overtake him and wondered how he would feel when it did. He looked at Morag, who’d soon be a toad, and let his gaze pass from her to her plate. She’d missed a tiny bit of gravy, and he concentrated on it. Move he thought. Move!

The gravy refused to budge, but Callum remained focused. The old man had known too much not to be of the faerie folk, and he’d said he’d be able to do things with his mind. The three types of wood to make a faerie fire had burned, the words to summon Fin Bheara had been said, and just in case the king was deaf he’d said them six times! If the faerie king couldn’t give him the power to move a bit of gravy what bloody use was he?

He concentrated harder. The gravy trembled. In his mind’s eye it grew from a tiny fleck to a small puddle, and he began to see ripples forming on its surface.

 

I will see things that have always been there but I have never seen before!

Callum concentrated on the ripples. He imagined the wind blowing over them to make them bigger. The ripples grew, becoming more distinct. His power was growing! He concentrated harder still. The ripples merged, became a wave, and the wave flowed and moved. The drop of gravy slid a quarter of an inch on Morag’s plate!

He sat back, elated but exhausted. The mental effort had been immense. It was then he noticed the fire had gone out. Morag had fallen asleep in her chair. He must have been at it for hours. He smiled, proud of his achievement, small though it was. He wouldn’t tell Morag yet, he’d just taunt her, goad her into insulting him again. She’d find out soon enough how he’d changed.

 

‘Oi Morag.’

 

No answer.

 

‘Morag!’

 

No answer. He was about to get up and prod her awake but her eyes opened and she looked at him. Her hand went to her chest as if she struggled to breathe. His first reaction was to enjoy the fearful expression on her face, but then she got up and walked over. She touched him but he couldn’t feel her. She made the sign of the cross over him like he was dead. She closed his eyelids with her greasy fingers, and all he saw was darkness.

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