A Magical Place of Wood and Glass
A short story by Joaquim Trindade
The wood of the bed frame creaked as Zitah got up. He slipped his lambskin slippers and started his daily ritual of looking for his spectacles. The rose-tinted round bastards were under his bed. Zitah's uneasy sleep was prone to throw them off the nightstand.
Slowly he rose from his old knees with the spectacles on.
"I'm getting too old for this," he murmured to himself. The linen tunic the wore to bed was pasted to his back with sweat. On top of the little table in the back of his room, he kept all he needed to concoct his morning elixir.
Zitah cracked each of his knuckles which felt cold on his eyelids as he rubbed the lull of sleep away. As a yawn escaped his mouth his hands went to work. The flame of the little candle felt pleasant on a cold day like that. He filled the boiler with the precise amount of lemon oil, five pinches of ground daisy petals, three drops of red viper venom and one oak wood chip. His veiny hand reach for the box containing the latter and found it empty.
Zitah clicked his tongue while regarding the extra trouble that he now had to go through. He rushed to the lower level, as well as a seventy-six-year-old can rush down twenty worn steps without falling and breaking a hip. To get the wood chips from his shop. The ones he kept downstairs were much smaller than the ones he usually used for his elixir, so he grabbed two instead.
Again, in his room the put the chips on the boiler and let it boil for a few minutes, more than usual because of the time he waisted retrieving the wood. When it was done he decanted the liquid into a clean glass and drank it at once. Zitah dressed but before he started his day's work he opened the window to let the pungent scent of the elixir out.
His shop, an apothecary, was the most sought after in all Flori. It was known as the oval apothecary because of the big window at its front, the layout of the interior was, in fact, a perfect spare. Zitah turned the sign hanging on the door letting "OPEN" face the street beyond the glass.
He stood where most clients would always find him, behind the counter next to his golden scale and granite mortar. In all sides he was encompassed by shelves with tins and jars contains oils and venoms, powders and feathers, leaves and sugars.
The city clock chimed nine times and at the same time, the small bell atop the door ringed as it opened.
I hear a bell ring from above, a delicate sound. Beney has his hands over my eye as to not let me ruin his surprise for me.
"Can I open now?"
"Just a few more seconds," he says as he leads and turns me to a position that I think it must be crucial to the surprise. "Keep them closed until I say so."
I feel the space between us augment slowly. With my eyes closed my sense are seem more aware. I pick up the scent of dust and herbs and feel the warmth of the sun on my cheeks.
Wood and glass are what stands out at first look, a cozy little shop with a big oval window.
"What is all this?" I explore and inspect the near-empty room save for a counter and floor to ceiling shelves on three walls.
"Your new apothecary."
I turn around and face him, "how?" I manage to say my eyes and mind run fast with all the possibilities and how I'll arrange the products on the shelves.
"For saving the life of his daughter the Emperor beside offering a job as his family's physician he said I could ask for anything and he would grant it." Beney toke my hands in his and motioned to the shop, "I asked for this, for you, for us. There's an apartment on the upper level, welcome home Zitah."
My thank you takes the form of a kiss. My hands roam his hairs, and his hands roam my back. He pulls me closer. "We're home," I whisper into his ear.
Ritah entered the apothecary every day at nine bells sharp, sometimes Zitah wondered if she waited on the side of the shop until the clock begin chiming. The girl was beaming like usually, that was why Zitah had hired her in the first place. She put a smile on his lonely life.
"Good day to you sir."
"I feel a full work day ahead of us," Zitah warned her, returning her a smile.
"Well then better start right away."
She went to the small closet to fetch her sun yellowed green apron.
Soon enough their first client came with a simple request, dried leaves for a calming tea. Ritah grabbed two tins and Zitah another. He begged them for the tired-looking young man that he was on his way.
Zitah's gaze was wondering on the counter and when Ritah lifted the tins to put them back in their place a dent on the smooth surface of the counter jumped up and caught his attention.
I ran my hands over the labels of the jars on the highest shelf. And snatch the one which label reads "poppy dust" and bring it over to the counter. After scooping a few spoons to a small tin, the customer pays and exits my shop.
The coolness of my hands feels enjoyable against the strain muscles of my neck, "time to close things up," I think as I roll my neck. I can wait to get upstairs and rest my tired legs and wait for Beney. I will cook supper together like we always do.
I open the door to the apartment and encounter it candle lit.
"Welcome home," Beney comes out of our room holding an enormous bouquet of white roses.
"Am I forgetting some special day?"
"Every day we spend together is special even a regular, bland Tuesday like today." He speaks while walking toward me occasionally smelling the roses.
I realize that love is not just the pretty words, the special anniversaries, the moments of intimacy. It is that constant thought that can't be turned off, the knowledge that you're not just in your body and that you also hold a part of another's soul, that you're a part of someone else's life in a way that is like your little secret.
I realize that I love Beney every day when he is the first thing I see when I open my eyes.
Our kiss goes on for an eternity that seems to end too soon.
"I've made us supper."
I let him lead me to the dining area where he has set up everything. We talk. We laugh. We eat. We live.
I'm in the middle of telling him a story of how today I had a customer that wanted the ingredients to make a love potion, even after I told him there was no such thing when Beney suddenly remembers something else we had prepared for me. "Recite your favorite poem and then come met me downstairs," he says.
I feel my muscles contract as my brow creased in confusion, but I do as told. Mentally I recite "Ocean of Flowers" by anonymous nr. 4 from the great tome "Unnamed truths".
My heart jumps in place faster and faster as I near the end of the poem, foolishly, that I know because any surprise from him would be good, but the endless possibilities cause an ocean of anticipation to erupt within me.
I hug myself walking down the wooden steps that lead to the shop as if to steady myself from tripping.
"Here I come," I announce from the other side of the door just in case.
"It's all ready.
"A box?" he mouths "Ta-da" and motions to a big wood box on the floor with extending arms as I open the door.
"It's not the box, it's what's inside of it."
"It better not be the restock of leaves and grains I order last week."
"Open and see for yourself."
I look over the lock that closes the box at its top, "I need the key."
"What? Oh right, I forgot," he hands me the key from the back pocket of his britches.
"Surprise!" His innocent smile makes my lips mirror his.
I try to take that second box from the first but it to heavy so Beney helps me with it. We carry it over to the counter and the box plops down on the polished surface as we let go of the underside. Then a push the box aside and the dent merging the wood. "I hope the surprise is worth ruining this beauty," I say tracing the indentation with my fingers.
"You'll see, that one open with the same key," Beney stands behind me looking over my shoulder.
I open the box and am surprised by the content within, a folded piece of paper.
My hands tremble as I unfold it, the soft sound of paper is deafening to my ears. I read the words written on the piece of paper over and over until they're engraved in my mind. "Will you marry me," it reads.
I turn around and Beney is down on one knee holding a simple golden ring.
I kneel in front of him.
Zitah's hand was over the dent in the wood of the counter when the next client entered as if to cover a secret that was only his.
"Good day to you sir," said the young ginger woman.
"In what way can I be helpful?" Zitah noticed the way she held her hands over her belly, it was not swollen but he knew after years seeing pregnant ladies in all stages of the pregnancy come and go through his apothecary. "A tonic for morning sickness perhaps?"
"How did you know?"
"At my age, some things needn't be spoken, lass."
She gave him a shy smile
"Do you prefer chamomile or dried strawberries?"
"Chamomile, my mother toke that one."
"I'm sure she'll be glad you're keeping family traditions alive." Zitah started measuring all it was needed to prepare the tonic.
"She passed away last year."
"I'm sorry my dear, but know this, no one is truly gone when their loved ones keep them tucked close to their hearts and memories."
Zitah clutched her hand when he gave her the vial sending her strength through flesh and bone.
"Do you have any inkling about the sex?"
"It is too early to tell still, but I would love to have a daughter."
"Do you think she'll like you?" I ask Beney turning my wedding ring to steady the nerves.
"What is not to like, we're very likable."
My elbow meets his side, "I'm being serious, she will be our daughter if everything goes well."
We're walking side by side on the street that will bring us to the orphanage. The building itself is bland with white stucco and granite on the façade.
The nun in charge greets us at the front door. "Welcome, let's talk in my office, it is always a delight to meet a couple willing to adopt one of our children with arms as open wide as yours."
The office is mostly adorned and furnished with humble furniture. Someone knocks on the door and my hearts skips two beats entirely.
"Sister Alma we can't find Nibba," Said the nun entering the room.
"How come?" Demands Sister Alma rising from her chair.
"We've looked everywhere."
"I'm so sorry, she's never done this."
"Can we help look for her?" My question runs past my lips.
We decide to divide efforts, Beney and I take the garden. We have seen her from afar in one of our last visits. Nibba has unruly blond hair and eyes so big and so blue they could pass as two small skies.
On the garden children of all age run and play past and around us.
Beney crutches next to a small boy pilling wood cubes with letters on top of each other, "Have you seen Nibba?"
The boy ignores him, but I feel a tug on the side of my pants. Looking down I find a girl with clear spectacles and missing a front tooth.
The little girl points to a tree in the back of the garden and runs away.
"Ben, look!" In one of the bigger branches, we see movement. Slow and carefully we walk toward it.
"Nibba," Beney tries.
"Go away!" Her high-pitched voice comes through the twigs and leaves.
"We're not going to hurt you," I reassure.
"But you will return me to this place like all the other before when you get tired of me."
"If you," I take two more steps toward the tree and catch sight of her. "If you accept to be our daughter we will never, never, return you or get tired of you."
"We'll be a family," I feel Beney's hand on my shoulder.
We nod to her.
Nibba's feet slip on her way down and falls to the grass below, we rush to her.
"Are you okay?" He says while we inspect her for injuries and blood.
"I am, I'm tougher than I look."
"Let's go home then," I say giving her my hand.
"We'll be a wonderful mother a feel." The young woman returned the smile and was gone.
Ritah retuned with lunch from the Inn at the end of the street.
"You look tired, is everything okay?"
Zitah was lost in some tome of potions and look to his assistant with a creased brow. "Yes, yes. I just… never mind," and he swatted the idea with one hand like an annoying fly.
"Just what?" Pushed Ritah setting the meal on the counter.
"Today I've been having outbursts of memories of the past."
"Did you prepare the tonic right?"
"Like I do every day," he looked to his left, "Expect I ran out of the oak chips upstairs, and because the ones down here were too small I used two instead."
"That's why!" She jumped in place and fetched the chips from their shelf. "Our chips are from oaks from this part of Serichat, Nibba had brought the ones you used from the magical part of the northern forest."
Zitah's hand went to his forehead, "I had completely forgotten that."
"Will you be okay? I can take care of the shop for the rest of the day, so you might rest."
"I'll be fine, you can't run from the past forever. Sometimes it ought to catch you."
They ate the rabbit stew in silence. And Ritah was about to turn the sign on the front door when Zitah said. "Will you go find me some of those oak chips with your… your friend."
"Of course, anything." Ritah turned the sign and opened the door, "And we're friends, by the way, him and I, just friends."
"If you say so."
The city clock chimed four times its big loud bell.
Zitah found himself getting lost on the grinding swirls of his pestle crutching seeds on the bottom of the mortar.
The sound the pestle makes against the rough mortar gnaws at my ears. I see the leaves getting smaller and smaller.
I'm oblivious to any of my surroundings so I don't notice two guards enter the apothecary.
"Yes," I recognize the sigil on the breasts of the black coats, a tree and a sword forming a cross. "In what way may I be helpful to the emperor?"
"We're not here for the emperor, we came because of Beney." Says the taller guard.
"What happen?" I blur. My palms get damp with sweat, my heartbeat goes wild.
"He's gone missing."
I zone out to whatever they say next, all I can think is him, my partner, my husband. I turn my ring in hopes of finding some comfort but find none. "He'll be home in time for supper," I tell myself.
I wait, holding Nibba close to my chest all night until the candles burn out.
"He comes through that door anytime soon," I murmur to not awake a sleeping Nibba.
But Beney doesn't come
Zitah returned to reality when wetness started soaking his bread. He pawed the tears ways with the back of his hands.
"Just memories, just memories."
The air fills and escapes his lungs in controlled cycles.
The familiar bell above the door breaks that moment like glass. A man holding his arms enters the apothecary.
"Help, please." Begged the man, Zitah then noticed he was bleeding from an ugly gash below his elbow.
There is blood everywhere, on Nibba's clothes and sword. On Beney, he is covered with blood not as much as our daughter but still, he is a crimson vision.
I ran to him.
Ignore the muck and dirt on him.
Feel him embrace me.
Take in his skin's scent buried underneath all.
"I told you I could save Da."
"Just because you can doesn't mean I'm not going to worry about you," I hug our daughter with one arm keeping the other on Ben. "Now, you're both going to tell me everything."
My eyes jump from Nibba to Beney, "start from the beginning, what happened eleven years ago?"
"My reputation for saving the emperor's daughter attracted the wrong person's attention apparently." It is strange seeing Beney now, he is still my Beney somewhere under the filth and unkempt hair and beard. Like he is wearing the skin of a stranger.
I listen with wide ears and tugged heart. He was kidnapped by this lady whose son needn't help and of course she chose the best physician, Ben, but unfortunately, he was under the emperor's service. His daughter has a chronic disease that requires constant care like the lady's son. So, she took matters into her hands.
"Lana'a was her name." Sais Nibba.
"I killed her."
"What?" I run my hands through my hair pulling it snugly with my fingers
Nibba tells me the rest of the story as I clean the blood from their faces.
"How's the child?" I know who he is referring to, the emperor's daughter.
"She, she passed after a time," it pains me to tell him.
I hate that so many people have died, but I can't help being a little selfish now.
"I'm just glad you're both safe and home now."
The stitches on the man's wound were neat and precise, being married to a physician had taught Zitah many other things besides plants and tonics of his craft.
"There's no need, I'll also give you an ointment the prevent and infection."
He had set up a stool next to the counter to clean up the horrific gash what resulted in an assortment of bloodied clothes. There were also the footsteps and drops on the floor that contributed to the shock that came over Ritah when she entered the apothecary.
She'd been carrying the oak chips Zitah had asked for in a jar.
The glass broke into a million pieces on the wood, blood-stained, floor.
Finally reunited after eleven long years our family is in the apartment preparing supper as if nothing had happened.
I am slicing carrots for a stew when we all stop what we're doing and look around.
"Did you hear that?" It is nice to hear his voice, what isn't is the concern in his voice. I've had him back only for a week and will do anything to keep it that way.
"It sounded like glass breaking." Nibba grabs her dagger and we all head downstairs.
"You didn't think you could kill me that, easily did you?" Says a woman, with fiery hair matching her dress when we enter the shop.
"I killed you once I can do it again."
"If you killed me why am I here, alive?" Her retort is defiant.
"Can't you just go look for someone else to be your slave physician?" I dare.
"He died because of her," she growls between clenched teeth.
The atmosphere gets heavier and darker. The woman draws two curved swords that were strapped to her back.
"You won't save anyone else little physician."
She lunges at our throats with both swords. Nibba blocks the attack.
I feel something hit the side of my head hard.
Darkness engulfs me in a dulcet, abrupt way.
When I wake up blood splatters bloom all around like rose buds.
Beney is dead.
I look away from the inevitable truth. Look away from the hole in his chest. Push it away from reality but my desire doesn't come alive.
Beney is dead.
I never belied people when they said that their hearts had dropped when faced with similar situations.
But I feel it, my chest gets heavier, I feel gravity pushing me down, and my knees and legs fail me. Nothing but boneless tissue.
I don't scream. I can't. I just feel my throat closing which makes me breathe jaggedly. My eyes burn like hearths with dying coals.
This cacophony of mixed feelings does not evanesce from my body.
I sit here paralyzed in time.
My daughter crawls to me in tears, "I couldn't save him!"
She cleans the snot on the fabric of her sleeve.
"I tried but failed."
"I'm so sorry, I'll clean all this mess at once," Ritah heads straight for the closet for the broom.
Zitah's eyes were brimmed with hot tears.
At the end of the day, after sending Ritah home, Zitah was cleaning the blood stains from the floor. He was surprised how easy it was coming off.
But there's no arguing that practice makes perfect and he had done it too many times.
His last thought that day was to next morning not forget to prepare the tonic correctly. His heart was getting too old for such strong emotions.