The Alchemist's Apprentice
Of the particularly enchanting mechanics of a pocket watch
It was still cold for spring and the first rains stopped a mere day ago. The leaves were wet, treacherous, slippery, and the branches gave loud cracks as they snapped under the feet of the seeking party. They entered the forest on the other side of the Lionie River, their boots filling with water and bringing some of the men down on their knees and waist high in the cold flow of the crossing. Their curses and laughter and chattering of their teeth mixed with the crumbling of rubble as the seekers climbed on the other shore. It was here some of the men turned back, but the rest lit their torches and lanterns and started spreading out in the forest, holding the lights high and calling out in the dark.
Selma held her skirts and petticoats in one hand and the torch in the other. Long ago had she given up on keeping herself clean and her only goal was to keep the layers of muddy fabric clinging to her legs from tripping her even more than the tangled roots and an occasional stump. Every now or then she would stop to catch her breath, wipe the sweat from her brow and call out as loudly as she could. "Laura!" She was the only woman in the search party and her voice was of higher pitch than the other seekers. "Laura!" She wondered who would Laura hear first, her or the loud, thundering men. "Laurie!" She would wait for an answer that never came, then listen carefully for the other seekers' calls, trying to estimate their distance. After that, Selma would gather her skirts once more and continue with her trampling.
The shouts of others from her right and from her left would come through the sounds of her heavy breathing, the rustling of her skirts and the crunching of leaves under her boots. She would stop every time, trying to recognize them and make sure she wasn't lost as well.
"Miss Coleridge!" Old Preacher, dry like a twig and just as prickly, in spite the shiver of his hands. He could feel it in his bones when a storm was coming. Selma suspected it was no fondness for Laura that made him go out after a day of complaining, but more the boredom ruling his old, damp house nearest to the marshes.
"Laura!" That was Father's voice, sounding tired and hoarse from all these hours of shouting. He was starting to lose faith. Selma knew him and his despair well, and she almost cursed Laura under her breath before stopping herself. Laura was a child, she couldn't possibly understand...
More raised in answer and for a moment the entire forest was echoing with calls of the young and old villagers, gone out after sundown to seek for one of them. Selma recognised them all, the carpenter, the butcher, the smithy, the baker. Especially the baker, but she drove the thought out of her head. This was not the moment for thinking about Tom. She thought she saw something moving to her left and turned, but it was only the doctor in his ever present white coat under the long black mantle. They nodded instead of a greeting and moved on. Soon the man disappeared and Selma was alone again.
"Laurie! Where are you?" She stopped again to listen for the voices and examine the steep slope before her. They were quieter, further away, and her will quivered between going forward of going back. Steeling herself, she took a determined step towards the slope. She could hear them, and that meant she could go on.
"Selma?" She could barely hear the distant shout.
Blast it! She answered her Father loudly and stopped again, almost slipping on the damp leaves. After a moment of silence, she heard him calling out for Laura again.
Oh, you stupid, stupid child, Selma scolded in her mind as she dropped her skirts in order to grab a tree trunk to steady her descent. One day you will get yourself in such trouble not even I will manage to get you out of. She remembered all the skinned knees she wrapped in strings of cloth torn off her skirts, all the broken eggs she took the blame for, even the unlocked door and that blasted cow that got out and ate every last one of Nancy's precious pink petunias.
As she hopped down the muddy trough of a small creek in the bottom of the slope, Selma thought her eyes were deceiving her. Then Tom baker slid down the slope at break neck speed and her vision cleared, pink petunias disappearing.
"Selma," Tom called for her, his eyes wide and face pale in the torchlight. How strange, she thought, her movements painfully slow and eyes locked on the small crumpled figure covered by a red coat. Petunias were nothing like that particular shade of red. Tom took her by the hand and led her to Laura, her knees giving up on her when she saw the child's eyelids fluttering as a small, sleepy snort escaped her lips.
Scarlet, like a flame among the leaves…
"Laura!" She shouted, making Tom flinch in surprise. "Father, I've found her! Laurie…" Her voice cracked as a painful sob clenched her throat, making the child stir from her sleep. Laura's eyes widened in surprise.
She gave a shaky smile. She would not cry. "Hello, little fox," Selma removed a damp leaf from the girl's hair. "You've worried us sick." Behind her, Tom was waving his torch at the cluster of men approaching quickly. "Look at you!" Selma cried out as she helped Laura stand up, revealing deep scratches on her ankles and tears in her clothes made by who knows what thorn, bramble or shrub. "Where have you been?"
"In the forest, sister," Laura said, giving her a look that clearly stated this was nothing to raise a fuss about. Then her eyes widened and her voice dropped to an excited whisper as she clung to Selma's sleeves. "The wizard is back, Selma! I saw him! He is building a castle near the old mill!" Selma's heart gave a churn but she kept it away from her face. "Selma, have you heard what I've said? A castle in the forest!"
The men finally found the slope and were descending with more rush than care. Selma eyed the excited child and knew she had to do something to keep her from blabbering herself into a pounding.
"Oh, listen to yourself!" She snapped. "How many times do I have to tell you that you can't just run off because of a daydream? Father will have to beat it in you in the end if you don't stop behaving so childish."
"The wizard isn't a daydream!" the girl protested with fire in her eyes and was quite willing to start a war if it were not for Father who dropped to his knees and embraced her tightly. She gave her sister one last glare before bursting into tears herself and clinging to Father for dear life. Excited because of a fantasy or not, she was still a child lost in the forest for a whole day without even unripe berries to satiate her hunger and all creeks muddy and full of leaves. Selma knew they were quite deep in the forest by now and could feel the walking settling into her bones, making her yawn. Unlike the other men who gathered round and observed the crying pair with both curiosity and amazement, Selma could understand how tiresome it must have been.
"Uh, Selma, I mean… Would you like me to, umm, help you with.. uh.. with, with t-the uh s-slope?"
She gave a polite smile and accepted Tom's help. Even though they were considered to be as good as betrothed by the ruling body of the village, also known as the wives, and have spent almost the entire last summer behind the bakery, him whispering sweet promises in her ear, he would still be awestruck with the presence of Father and become a clumsy, stuttering little boy caught stealing apples from the orchard. Selma smiled at the memory. He still had a scar on his forehead where her thrown apple hit him and sent him tumbling down the tree into the hands of justice or, in this case, Nanny and her broom.
By the end of their climb Selma slipped on her dress and would have fallen if Tom hadn't pulled her up. When he half-jokingly demanded a kiss from the miss as a reward for his rescuing services, she realised was too tired to evade it like she usually did. With the men far enough not to tease and Father carrying Laura, thus unable to cause a scandal by murdering the baker's son and heir, she leaned in with her cheek. He almost skipped the rest of the way home. Selma did her best to ignore the accusing eyes of her sister who, as usual, could not be deceived into not noticing.
Laura would always notice.
That night, after the men returned to their homes and women to their vowing they will light a candle for Laura's return each, Father sent them to their beds and remained in the kitchen, opening another bottle of ale for the doctor and bringing out some bread and ham for the priest. Their laughter did not disturb Laura on the cot, but Selma twisted and turned under her prickly horse hair blanket, unable to sleep. With her ear pressed against the floorboards, she could hear every word they spoke. It seemed the preacher had at last succumbed to the effects of the outdoor exercise and the warm fire by falling asleep with his head on the table. The doctor, a practical man, drank less and ate more, listening more often than speaking.
Selma shut her eyes and pressed her fingers on her eyelids. It did not help. Turning on her side, she looked up to see Laura's eyes gleaming in the dark.
"Tell me about the wizard."
"He doesn't like to be called that."
"You call him wizard."
Laura shrugged. "That's because I'm me, Selma. You can call him mister alchemist, I suppose. I call him that when he can hear me. He always calls me Miss Laura," she added, her tone clearly stating that was not a good thing. Selma stifled a laugh.
"Do you know where he's from?"
"Says from far, far away. Further away than I'll ever go."
Selma turned on her back. "I don't see how he could know such a thing."
"He knows. He knew about the flood last year, remember?"
"No one believed me when I told them," Laura pouted. "Just because I'm not old like you or a boy like Father and Tom doesn't mean I can't be trusted."
"I don't think you should speak of him anymore. Or with him, for that matter."
Laura jumped up in alarm. "Why not?"
"He's a stranger, little fox. And strangers are never good news."
"He isn't a stranger! I know him!"
"But none of the others do, Laura. What if he decides to take you away, like a gypsy, and you never see us again? We wouldn't even know who to look for."
"He wouldn't do such a thing," Laura said, but not with her usual confidence. Selma thought she was winning until Laura spoke again. "I'll take you to him. I'll show you the castle he's building and then you'll know."
But the girl had turned her back to her sister and resolutely pretended to be asleep. Selma knew this battle was lost and sighed. Perhaps if she tried to play along Laura would give up on this fantasy. It was not the greatest of plans, but it was something. And Selma needed that something more than she dared to admit. Turning on her side again, she closed her eyes and imagined silence.
It was not until a few days passed that Laura managed to take Selma to see the swallow nests on the willows by the Lionie. First time they tried Selma was called back to help Father in the garden, and the second time Laura couldn't remember the exact tree. Tom baker gave a disappointed sigh and gave Selma a longing look before going back to his father's bakery.
This time, however, Laura was determined they would succeed. Looking back at the quickly disappearing village over her shoulder, Selma wondered if that was such a good thing.
Laura skipped and ran on and off the narrow path they were treading. Even though her bright red coat made her stand out from the brown and black drapery of the forest around her, Selma quickened her pace nonetheless. After some time the girl got tired of prancing about and hovered closer to Selma. The deeper they ventured, the path became more winding, and trees hung closer to the ground. More than once Selma had to stop to untangle herself from the dark branches reaching for her, shaking clusters of cold dew drops down her collar. When the sounds of a quick creek joined the lone whisper of the wind, she stopped Laura and made her take her hand.
"I'm not a child!"
"There is a creek nearby, Laurie. If you want to fall in, I'd be happy to let you go."
Laura frowned but did not pull her hand out of Selma's grasp.
"Is it much further?"
"No. He built a bridge, but closer than where the old one stood."
They stepped out of the circle of trees and below them they could see the creek cascading down the rocks that made its trough. The remnants of the old bridge were still visible upstream, a few planks hanging of the shore, the wood well touched by moss. The wizard's bridge was a welcome part of the way closer, Selma concluded after eyeing the distance.
Small leaves got caught in the whirlpools forming by the beams holding the new bridge. Laura leaned over the railing to throw a few more in, observing with wide eyes. At Selma's called she jumped down and ran off, waving.
"You know, I did it on purpose," Laura said after some time. She was looking straight forward, where the trees were already announcing the forest ending.
"Did what, little fox?"
"Gotten myself lost."
"Why, Laura?" Selma pulled her to a halt. The girl shrugged, avoiding her gaze. Selma shook her and she broke free.
"I wanted to stay with the wizard!" Laura shouted taking a frightened step back as Selma moved forward. She then turned and ran towards the clearing on the end of the path, leaving Selma standing alone and frozen among the charcoal pillars that were the trees.
"One day you will kill him, Laura," she whispered to herself. "One day, Father will finish what he started when momma left and die, and it will be your fault."
She then straightened her shoulders and walked briskly into the light on the end of the path. Blinking the sunlight away, she raised her hand before her eyes and squinted. Then her eyes widened and she screamed.
There was no mountain in the middle of the forest.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Laura asked, eyes glistening and smile widening with every stone she saw. Selma felt cold, but it was not the reason why she was shivering.
The mountain was an infinitely tall spire of jagged rock and from its flint grey flesh a castle was being carved. Gaze fluttering from one end to another, Selma could make out the outlines of a winding path leading from an empty archway in its base to high, high up the mountain, further than she could make out. The more she looked, the more she saw, and soon smooth swollen bellies of domes sprang into view, spires and guard towers, thin like grasping fingers of beggars, empty sockets of windows and gaping mouths of toothless doorways.
"It's horrible!" Selma cried, hiding her face in her hands. The faceless castle carved from the mountain burned behind her eyelids, filling her heart with fear.
"It doesn't have to be, Selma," a voice said. Selma twirled around and pushed Laura behind her. The tall man smiled. "Hello. And good day to you too as well, young Miss Laura," he bowed to Laura and she giggled.
His face was what one would call dignified. It was long, sharp-featured, with slightly sullen cheeks and a prominent nose upon which a pair of round golden-framed spectacles rested. His combed back hair was dark without a single grey strand and reached his white collar, revealing a high forehead and two dark eyebrows, which Selma suspected resembled battling caterpillars when he frowned.
His eyes were grey.
Selma slowly lowered the hand she raised to stop any form of mutiny from Laura for being shielded like a child she refused to acknowledge she was and placed it on her shoulder. The girl did not even notice, having eyes only for the one she called wizard.
"Mister Alchemist, have you finished the arches?" she asked, her face shining with excitement.
"That I have, Miss Laura. Would you like me to introduce them to you?"
She took his hand and tried to pull him towards the castle, but he stopped her and politely waited for Selma to join them. They passed through the empty arch, where one day, he told them, an iron gate will be placed, and continued climbing shoulder to shoulder, the alchemist slightly in front and leading the way. Soon they came across a widening in the path where twelve arches stretched from the cliff's face above them, reaching their zenith over the path and descending down, forming a wide arcade until the path disappeared behind a curve.
Laura ran to the nearest arch and tried to put her hands around it, giggling when she failed.
"Have your first impressions changed somehow, Selma?"
She eyed the alchemist carefully. "I think I will observe for some more, thank you."
He nodded seriously and bid Laura to be careful. He then invited them on a cup of tea.
The door leading inside the castle were painted red and had holes in the doorway. To Selma they seemed like they were waiting for birds to come and build their nests, but she said nothing. When she looked up after crossing the threshold, she froze mid-step.
Laura turned to look at her, a wide grin plastered on her face. The alchemist, already waiting by the next door, patiently let her take her time overcoming her astonishment.
"The roof will come soon enough, my ladies, but currently I am most proud of the columns. White limestone has its advantages." He opened the other door and halted. "Shall we?"
Selma shook her head to clear her thoughts and followed him into the long corridor, on the end of which a distant glimmer of metal could be seen.
Laura was right, she concluded, watching the alchemist pull an elaborate key from a pocket on his crimson vest. He really was a wizard.
"I do apologise for bringing you here, but it is the only room currently in function."
Everywhere around them things ticked, clicked, whirred and purred, cogs turning and chains uncoiling, slithering down the walls into the glass boxes moving up and down on their own accord, their golden frames glimmering when they rotated. Some went through the ceiling, some through the floor, and the sight of those gaping holes both fascinated and sickened Selma. She averted her gaze to the cup of floral tea she was holding and took a sip. It was sweet and she burned her tongue drinking it.
"What is this place?" she asked.
"I call it," the alchemist said, throwing one leg over the other and settling into his armchair, "the clockwork room. I am in the process of building a few more, scattered around the grounds, so in case you are interested, I could show them to you."
"What does it do?"
"It will make this castle fly, Selma."
She almost choked on her tea. Castles don't fly; she could've blurted, but settled for an answer with a polite sting. "They do seem rather brittle for such an important task."
"They do, don't they?"
She nodded, and he leaned over the small round table. "Selma, I am not a madman." His eyes were staring unblinkingly into her own, his voice level and serious. "Science, machinery and an alchemist's trick or two, it is all there is to it."
"If it is nothing but cogs and chains…" She leaned too and hissed over the ivy patterned porcelain. "Then what do you want with my sister?"
"Ah," he said. "Enter the alchemist's tricks."
Silence washed over the room. Selma could feel her heart beating its way out of her chest.
"I wish I were a pocket watch," Laura said dreamily, resting her chin on her palm as her eyes danced over the moving machinery. She was sitting cross legged in front of a wall of glittering metal, her cup forgotten next to Selma's.
Selma could feel the alchemist's eyes on her own.
"No." Selma felt her heart skip a beat. "You will not take her."
The alchemist folded his hands under his chin and looked at her over his spectacles. "Selma, your sister is a very special child. You must have noticed the amount of imagination she possesses. She is what my castle needs to fly, and my castle is what she needs to do it herself. There is no other way to do both, and I doubt you wish to keep her back from finding her true potential."
"If this were a fairytale, the witch would now be saying it is only true unless I myself wanted to take her place," Selma said bitterly.
"But this is not a children's tale. And you are not her."
She nodded. "I don't daydream about flying castles and alchemists in the forest. Where she sees magic and beauty, I see ruin and fear. We are not the same, sir, we could never be. "
"Are you sure, Selma?"
"You can't buy my sister with promises of a better life. Nor can you do it with me." She stood up and straightened her skirts. "We are who we are. And I feel your promises often remain just that – mere promises. I refuse to be fooled. Laura, we're leaving."
The girl has been listening to the dispute wide eyed.
"I will not argue with you! And you, mister wizard," she spat the word as if it were poison on her tongue, "if you are ever to come near her again, I will gather every man, woman and child in the county and tear at this castle until not a single stone is left standing. " Her gaze became sharp as a knife. "And then I will come after you!"
"A good sister you are, Selma," he called our after her, not moving from his armchair. "Not quite cut out for being a baker's wife, though." Selma pulled her sister as she ran, frightening her even more when she slammed the glass door behind. "I would like to ask you to reconsider your decision. I will stay here for another fortnight before I depart. When I come back I would like to see my home still standing, though." His voice echoed through the empty corridors as she ran, dragging a screaming Laura. "I will return, Selma. "
She stopped, making the startled child bump into her. Her fingers pressing into the stone doorway with all her might, she closed her eyes. When she opened them, Laura was still sobbing, arms around her waist and face hidden in her skirts. Selma gently ran her aching fingers through her hair.
"No. You will not."
The church bells in the village rang noon.
She waited until the first light of the moon.
She was passing Laura's cot when she noticed Laura's eyes were gleaming at her through half-closed eyelids. The child was barely awake, and she yawned to confirm it.
"Where are you going, sister?" she asked in a gentle voice.
Selma placed her hand on her sister's forehead and smoothed back the loose curls of her hair. She smiled, sadness filling her heart and threatening to spill through her eyes.
"To visit the wizard, Laura."
"Will you become the flying castle?"
Selma's lips parted as if she had an answer. But Laura was already sleeping again, so she stood up and left silently. No one came after her.
The golden circle burned her hand with cold as she raised it knock on the red wood of the door. The holes in the doorway peered at her like curious eyes, but she did not return their gaze.
The door opened but for a crack, then enough to reveal the alchemist's politely surprised face hovering above her.
"Selma. So you've came."
"It will be magnificent."
"Do not speak to me, you devil," Selma said, her voice dull and gaze empty. "I am only bringing this cursed castle to life for Laura's sake."
"Of course. I apologise."
He stepped back to let her pass before closing the door behind him and picking up the lantern. In silence she followed him through the empty halls under the open sky until they reached a familiar golden framed door.
She entered the clockwork room and turned around her. The alchemist closed the glass door and she could hear the lock turn. A thousand of Selmas looked at her from the dull depths of the surrounding machinery. It was moving, faster and faster with each heartbeat.
"What will be my name?" she called out to him over the deafening sounds of cogs turning and her own heart beating painfully. He was clearly visible through the door and Selma noticed his lips were pressed into a thin line by something resembling guilt.
But it could have just been another alchemist's trick.
"Your name is Esperth."
Selma nodded. Behind her eyelids, she imagined silence. Spreading her arms, she allowed herself to be engulfed by the brilliant light she was to become. "I am Esperth."
Laura, shethought, beforeallthoughtsvanished.