The AlchemisT Held His Hand over the candle, speaking the old words quickly, determined to finish the spell before the pain grew unbearable and his hand would wrench away of its own accord.
He stood over the body of a huge black rook. It had not been easy to catch. Its beak had gouged his hand repeatedly as he drowned it: the hand he was now burning.
He could smell his smoking flesh, but he could not stop. He had come too far to stop. To gain this one glorious spell he had taken many chances, ransacked many book houses, and stolen more magic books than he could remember. Until one day, he smothered the ailing old witch and found The Book—tucked away in a cupboard under a sack of flour— found the chapter, found the page, found the words, and he embraced the dusty volume as if it were a lost child. After years of searching, years of humiliating failure and countless spells gone bad, years of botched experiments and twisted useless abominations (their names like bitter seeds upon his tongue: Bodoneenon, Cronic, Agulie, Griff), creatures doomed by unforeseen flaws in their concoction or conception—after fruitless years of blunder he had succeeded. He would never forget the months spent sleeping in the woods, begging for bread, spurned by women, teased by children, and tossed out of inns with scornful laughter—but none of it mattered now. He had found it.
Not the spell for gold, but something more precious and astounding, something that promised him a powerful ally and an end to his misery: the spell to raise the dead.
He stood beside the Great River at twilight, fiercely holding his shaking hand to the candle. He finished the spell, the words rushing out of his mouth as if they fled an enemy: “Elbane. Erotser. Sisats d’nepsus. Wake up now! Now and forever!”
Then the earth cracked.
He fell to the sandy bank, dropping the candle and folding his mutilated hand under his arm. As the ground tore open, molten fire spewed forth from the bowels of the earth; it spilled into the river with a roar and a hiss, and a cloud of steam slipped up into the air as the liquid flame dropped about him like fireworks. He moaned in triumph.
In the instant before the cleft had cooled and sealed itself, a creature squirmed out. It had waited centuries to emerge. It had simmered and fumed with rage, clinging to the knowledge that no cell was completely secure: One day its unleashing would come, and it would do what it had longed to do for ages. It would eat.
The alchemist did not see the creature crawling toward him—for outside its natural element it was invisible. What he did see was the body of the dead rook twitching, and he marveled as the smoke curled out of its beak. He could have wept at the beauty.
He saw the bird rise on awkward legs, but he did not see it smile at him as if he were a meal.
“Master!” it said, the words scraping out of its throat. “You have burned yourself!”
So unaccustomed was he to success that for a long minute he stood dumbfounded, staring down at the black rook, half expecting the air about him to break into applause. For the first time he felt tall and proud and a little giddy. He longed to turn to his old Tender and say something that would hurt.
The memory still scalded. Orphaned at birth and deposited on the steps of the King’s Book House, he had been taken on and raised under the strict hand of an old Book Tender: a woman who dawdled over the two lean brown hounds with whom she shared a bed, who let them lick her hands clean after every meal, a toothless woman with a hard mind who taught him elaborate courtesy, the alphabet, and fear of the switch.
“I can see why (Swat) your mother had no use for you (Swat),” she’d say whenever he had broken anything (Swat), missed a lesson (Swat), or had an accident (Swat). “But what she abandoned (Swat)…I will perfect (Swat). I will make of you the perfect little man.”
In his bed he’d watch the moon outside the window slit and feel each stripe upon his back. And think, I will grow up. Someday I will grow up.
When he was five, the old woman had climbed the tall ladder which leaned against the shelves that filled one whole wall of her tower room in the Book House. Her hounds watched attentively as if she were fetching them a treat. From the highest corner she snatched down a book. She crossed the five-pointed star on the marble floor, paused briefly before the huge empty fireplace, and stood before the boy, her thin body glowing in the shaft of golden light that fell from the ball of flame set in the high stained glass window behind him. She held the thick volume before the boy and loftily said, “This is the knowledge that all men hoard, the wisdom they feel no woman worthy of. This will be the reward of your education. When you have worked your way through all the books on the wall, when you have mastered them all down to the last one in the lower corner—this will be your gift.”
The embossed words on the faded leather binding read, The Secrets of Nemot.
“Thank you, Dear Mistress,” said the boy, repeating the required phrase he had learned by rote, though in truth, he would have preferred a picture book or a bag of sweets.
“It is not yours yet. You must earn it.” And she replaced the book, taking out the next volume in the row. “Sit,” she said, and the boy sat on the stool. “Stay,” she commanded, as she settled into her high-backed chair and began to read, the words filling the dusty room like smoke.
It seemed to the boy that he spent the rest of his life sitting on that stool, his legs dangling and sore, the old woman’s voice piping away, demanding attention. He soon learned that attention and memory were the only ways to get off the stool. He was taught not to dabble but excel—to subdue knowledge like an enemy.
In the long monotony of lecture, the book slowly became an obsession. It grew easy to believe that all those hours of boredom could not be in vain—only something splendid could redeem the endless tedium. At night the book crept into his dreams, transformed into something luminous and magical. It came to symbolize not only his reward, but the end of his trial and just reprieve.
At least it was something to hope for.
In time it became impossible to learn from the Book Tender. She often lost her place or fell asleep in her chair. Until one day she asked the adolescent to read to her. And so he read. But when the old woman dozed off, he would switch volumes, or move onto the next chapter without finishing the last. Until over the years he read and skipped his way to the last book at the very bottom of the shelves: an obscure work on Alchemy. He browsed the final pages and snapped shut the binding with a sharp clap that woke the Tender and her precious hounds.
They watched befuddled as the young man stood tiptoe on the ladder and reached up for the promised book. His hand found an empty corner of darkness, a gap in the top shelf where once a heavy volume had rested.
“Dear Mistress,” he said over his shoulder, “where’s my book?”
“Your book? What book?”
“The one you promised. My reward.”
“I don’t recall…promising a book,” said the old woman.
It was all too much, her forgetfulness. He sighed, asking wearily: “What did you do with the book in the corner?”
“Oh. That book…I sold it.”
It cost him a great deal to stand still. Slowly, he stepped down from the ladder. He would not believe it until he saw her face. He turned.
“I needed a quilt!” the Tender whimpered.
“You promised,” whispered the student, his voice cracking, his mind clinging to some wounded sense of fairness. “My reward…”
The Tender replied solemnly, as if pronouncing the issue dead. “Knowledge—as all men know—is its own reward.” She pointed a quivering finger at her pupil. “I am an old woman with little left me. I don’t expect a stripling like you to understand the needs of an arthritic body or the chill of a solitary bed. I merely hope you understand that certain sacrifices are essential in the pursuit of science…”
How convenient, thought the student as the old crone droned on, that the message of this missing book should coincide exactly to the Tender’s needs. How wonderful a woman’s mind. He no longer listened. It was simply one more tangent in a life devoted to digression. The words floated over him and dissipated in the air. From that moment on he hated words; he would scorn anything not as useful as a knife, simple as a cup, practical as fire.
And that night, before he left her forever, while she was sleeping, he strangled the hounds with a rope and left them cold at the foot of her bed so they would be the first thing she would see when she awoke.
He searched for the book for years. Yet after he had found it and the great spell, after he had said the words that cracked the earth, after he had seen his power bring life to the creature before him, he realized he had not been searching for mere words bound in worn leather, not the book, not knowledge, not even—as he had once thought—revenge. But this: this beautiful black bird. This word made flesh. This pet who called him master. This was his reward.
“What is your name?” he demanded.
The black bird walked slowly toward him, flexing its wings.
“You may call me Tomen.” Its black eyes shone. “And I will call you The Usher of the Night.”
For a moment he thought he feared the bird. But it passed, and he swallowed the title like an overdue compliment. It never occurred to him that he had just surrendered his name.
Copyright © 1997 by Patrick O’Leary