by Barbara Ardinger
It is said that through her lovingkindness Beauty tamed the Beast and made him human again. What if Beauty herself needed to be tamed? What if something else was going on there?
At the edge of the winter city, upon the very brim of the wilderness, sat the house of the Alchemist, and here the Alchemist had passed his long years. Here in his laboratories, among his fires of green and purple and his books written in alphabets of mystery, here the Alchemist was content.
Although the Alchemist was as remote and chilly as his location, people nonetheless came to see him—lords and ladies, generals and bishops, burghers and courtiers—and he would listen to their voices and sell them talismans and enchantments that might grant their wishes. A sliver from a secret bar of mysterious metal, a pinch of red powder wrapped in white paper, a coal that burned in cold flames of magenta and chartreuse, all these he had sold to one or another who sought audience with him.
And, “Oh, yes, yes, you see, I am well content with this life I have chosen,” he would reply, or would have replied if anyone had cared to ask, “And you, Sir, how goes it with you?” But no one ever asked and so the reply was never voiced, and the Alchemist read Plutarch and Boethius and Spinoza and studied the atoms and the stars and all the spaces in between, and he believed himself well content with his life between the wilderness and the winter city.
Until one day, and on that day arrived a shivering messenger from the Lord Bishop. “But I seldom leave my house,” the Alchemist replied to the footman. “Your master—”
“—will throw you into his deepest dungeon for your insolence.”
“Be that as it may,” the Alchemist said with the merest shrug of his shoulders, “I do not leave my home. Here, boy, look here, I do not associate with the common man. My search for the Elixir of Life has enlightened me and made me content with the company of the Invisible Brotherhood, and, no, I shall not leave my mercury and my salt.”
The footman shrugged his shoulders. “Very well. I shall tell my master, the Lord Bishop.” And he returned post haste to the episcopal palace upon the hill in the center of the winter city. The Alchemist returned to his laboratory in the middle cellar under his house.
Three days and three nights passed, and then came a ferocious knocking at the Alchemist’s great oaken door. Three masked visitors burst in. Without looking either right or left, they rushed through the great hall, without a glance at the marvels the Alchemist owned they rushed forward, and they halted at the Alchemist’s great fireplace and thrust out their hands to warm them.
The first visitor took off his mask, which depicted a large, brown, stooped insect. This was the footman, who took pains not to shrug his pain-filled shoulders again. He bowed low. “My august master—”
“—has come to see with his own eyes this wonder of a stubborn Alchemist.”
And the second visitor took off his mask, which was a brazen eagle, crowned, and bearing in its beak a dark throne about which laurel wreathed. This was the Lord Bishop of the winter city. “Well, Sir Alchemist,” and there was as much sarcasm in his bow as in his words, “Well, Sir, if the devil will not present himself to the lord, I suppose it behooves the lord to go in search of the devil.”
The Alchemist's eyes widened slightly, but he only nodded and said no words.
“I am here,” the Lord Bishop continued, “for the sake of this child, on behalf of this carnal and corrupt vessel who is, you must know, my niece.” And the Lord Bishop thrust the third visitor forward. “Now mind your manners, gal!” Instead of stumbling, therefore, the girl curtsied and removed her mask, which was a cow’s face crowed with a garland of tiny scarlet roses and a miniature golden sun. “Go on, stupid cow, speak your speech,” said the Lord Bishop.
“Kind Sir,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes and her fingers, “Kindly Sir Alchemist, my uncle has brought me here because of my great and unforgiven lack. I lack—”
“—a soul!” The Lord Bishop rapped his tall ebony stick on the floor for emphasis. “She lacks a soul. As is well known, women commonly lack souls, but it is to be hoped that one of my own blood, that my niece here, would rise above the commonality and possess if not an entire soul at least the rudiments of one.”
“Sir,” said the Alchemist. “Your Highness, I am only a poor and ignorant—”
“—Jackanapes! Yes, I know. But a jackanapes with a reputation for sagacity. With a reputation throughout my city for cleverness and shrewdness.”
“Sir.” The Alchemist inclined his head a scant inch.
“And therefore I demand that you create a soul for this worthless beauty. I leave her with you, Sir Alchemist, so that you may examine her and test her and prove her. I leave her to your care so that you may operate upon her in whatever way you must. You will, within the space of a year and a day, provide this creature with a proper soul. For if you do not, your life will be forfeit.”
And the Lord Bishop rapped his tall ebony stick first upon the floor, then upon his footman’s shoulders, and then he departed as noisily as he had arrived.
The Alchemist and the girl, who still held her mask in her left hand, looked at each other. They looked coldly at each other as the fire burned in the fireplace, they looked unfeelingly at each other as the wind battered upon the glass of the windows, they looked scornfully at each other as the chariot of the sun came to its nighttime pasture and the chariot of the moon set forth across the darkening sky.
“So, Madam, may I know your name?”
“I am the Lady Belinda.”
They looked at each other still, and might be unmoved to this very day if the Alchemist’s housekeeper hadn’t bustled into the room. “Well, now!” she said. “If this isn’t a sight. Here, girl, let me take your cloak and mask. Sit here in this comfy chair by the fire. Just let me stoke up the fire for you. And have you had anything to eat today?”
“Ah, Mistress Dolya,” murmured the Alchemist, “I was….”
“And you, Sir, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, entertaining a young lady in this shameful fashion!”
“He is hardly entertaining me, good woman. He is...he is giving me a soul.”
The housekeeper looked her up and down, looked sharply at her employer, then looked at the girl again. “And how is he doing that, may I ask? By staring at you, and you just wilting from the lack of a place to be seated? Drooping from a lack of food?”
“What I lack is a soul. I have all things else. I have beauty and gentility, I play the clavier well, and my embroidered cloths are prized by the church. I lack only a soul. My papa said this wonder-worker, this Sir Alchemist, here, is to give me a soul. If he doesn’t give me a soul, he’ll be arrested. He’ll be mocked and executed at the public gallows. Then his head will be chopped off and hung on the bridge. My papa said so.”
“So.” And the Alchemist nodded once at the girl and once at the housekeeper, gestured to the air between them, bowed to the air between them, and strode out of the room without a backward glance.
“If that ain’t just like a man.”
The Alchemist, it’s true, had a reputation for shrewdness, and it’s also true that he had sold marvelous thaumaturgical machines to some few who had sought audience with him. He had sold awful and wonderful utensils to others who had come from the winter city to see him. He had sold powders and talismans and sigils to those who had come through the wilderness to consult with him. And now he stood in his library and looked at his books and his scrolls, row upon row of books written in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, stack upon stack of scrolls written in Ladino and Basque and Hungarian, in Old High French and Old High German and Old High Norse. I have read these scrolls, the Alchemist said to himself. I have read these great and learned books and I have learned to combine mercury and salt. I have learned to invoke the Gods Most High and the Goddesses Most Low and I have learned where the Elixir of Life might lie. But nowhere have I read how to install a soul into a human being.
And the Alchemist went into his study and there he looked at his papers, at piles and stacks and heaps and masses of papers covered with his handwriting, with diagrams of atoms and stars, with equations and calculations of the movement of ants and comets, with maps of unexplored lands and charts of frozen seas, with prayers to the Gods Most High and invocations to the Goddesses Most Low. But nowhere, said the Alchemist to himself, nowhere have I written how the soul is formed. Nowhere have I diagrammed or charted or mapped the soul. What sublime work I shall have in the creation of a soul.
And the Alchemist went into his laboratory, and there he surveyed his mortars and pestles, his blazing furnace, his athanor, his stores of sacred metals and secret appendicles, his supplies of simples and essentials and essences. But there is no soul here, he said to himself. In all my provisions and apparati, in all my cabinets and on all my shelves, there is no soul that I can give the girl. I suppose, then, that she must be tabula rasa. In creating her, therefore, I enter into a great work.
And the Alchemist found one thing in this deep wooden crate, pulled another thing from that rusted metal box. He returned to the study and looked at this page of calculations written in an angelic alphabet and at that sheaf of diagrams of the human anatomy. He returned to his library and opened this ancient book of the Wisdom of Solomon the Great and another book of the Wisdom of Abramelin the Mage and that crumbling book of the legends of dragons and elves and centaurs. He opened the book that answered the questions set forth by the terrible sphinx.
Time passed as he read these great arcane works. Then he pushed the books aside to make space at his worktable. He found a clean sheet of foolscap. He opened a tightly capped bottle and added twenty drops of liquid to his dried ink. He took his bone-handled knife and sharpened a dozen quills. He walked once around the room, twice, three times, looking at the spines of books and the tags of scrolls. At last he selected a small brownish book lettered in an alphabet he hoped he still remembered and he sat himself down and began to read and write.
And what of the Lady Belinda? What of Mistress Dolya? The Lady followed the housekeeper into the kitchen. The Lady demanded quails tongues and ewes’ shanks for supper, demanded white truffles and fine white wine, demanded Torte Carabosse with honey and almonds. The Lady demanded to sit in the Alchemist’s deserted dining room, demanded his finest beeswax candles, demanded that the candelabra be polished first, demanded that the table be scrubbed and set with his silk and porcelain and crystal place settings.
“No, no,” said the housekeeper, “we’ll have none o’ that. Fact is, we’ve got none o’ that. You’ll settle for porridge, you will. You’ll drink good spring water, unless I can find a bit of ale, and you’ll eat at my little table with me. We’ll eat here in my kitchen and we’ll be warmed by my good oven.”
“As you will.”
It was not a propitious beginning. The promise of the required year and a day was unpromising.
Mistress Dolya set her humble table and ate her humble meal. She ate alone. The Lady Belinda sulked. She stormed. She stalked through the Alchemist’s great hall, through his dining room, through his drawing room, even through his bedchamber. She ignored every wonder. She stomped and screamed. But no one followed her, no one hovered to serve her, no one listened. No one answered her swearing. No one was intimidated by her threats.
“Aye me,” said Mistress Dolya.
“I lack nothing but a soul,” shouted the Lady Belinda. “I am here to acquire a soul. Your master will acquiesce or he will perish.”
“Aye me,” said Mistress Dolya once more.
A month passed. The Alchemist in his laboratory studied and wrote. The Lady Belinda in the guest room amused herself by imagining conquests and romances. Mistress Dolya in her kitchen cooked and scrubbed and sang to herself, and something in her singing sparkled upon her good oven.
Another month passed. The Alchemist looked directly at the Lady Belinda as he passed her one day. The Lady Belinda declined to return his look. Mistress Dolya cooked and scrubbed and sang a little louder to herself, and something in her singing glistened in red and gleamed in white and sparked in her warm oven.
A third month passed. “Ahem,” said the Alchemist. “My Lady Belinda, you must know that I am hard at work in my laboratories.”
“Oh? And have you found my soul?”
“And how long must I wait?”
Mistress Dolya looked from one to the other and turned back to scrubbing the ashes out of her oven and nodded to the one who lived under the oven.
A fourth month passed. “Master Alchemist, you must know that I am bored to tears with this waiting for my soul.”
“I can spare a book for you. Plotinus or Ptolemy, perhaps. Or The Alchemical Wedding?”
“I think not! Perhaps I will embroider. You there, Dolya, fetch my linen and my yarns. Thread my needles. I am in mind to recreate the unicorn in captivity. I will embroider the sun in purest gold and the moon is purest silver.”
“As you will.” And the Alchemist returned to his studies of the flight of butterflies and the refraction of light through crystal and the mating of the lion with the rosebush.
Mistress Dolya taught the Lady Belinda how to thread her own needles. She scrubbed away something black and evil-smelling that had fallen behind her oven and nodded again to the one who lived nearby.
Another month passed, and the Alchemist bowed to the Lady. Another month passed. “My Lady, pardon me, but are you, ah, happy? Here?”
“I am never happy. It is unfashionable to be happy. I am bored to tears. See here, do you see how the unicorn would leap over the fence I have broidered?”
“Yes. My Lady, pardon me, but are you content? Here?”
“I have never been content anywhere. That is my destiny. Beauty is never content. Do you see the rose tree behind the unicorn? Do you see the sharp thorns I have broidered?”
The Alchemist retired to his laboratory, the Lady returned to the sunny window where her embroidery frame stood. One day it happened that she sang along with Mistress Dolya. And something in their singing shone blue and white in the air and a crystalline perfume began to bloom in the kitchen and scent the air throughout the house of the Alchemist.
The seventh month passed, and the eighth and the ninth. The Alchemist’s worktable was covered in notes and diagrams, littered with castoff pentagrams and precious gems. The soul is not to be found, he said to himself. It is not to be found in the sephira of the Tree, not to be found in the Ptolemaic spheres, not to be found in the four elemental kingdoms. And he resumed his search through his library and his laboratory. She is very beautiful, he said to himself one day, and I find that her singing touches me.
The tenth month passed. The Lady Belinda helped Mistress Dolya peel the vegetables for supper. The Lady Belinda swept the floor. The Lady Belinda laughed for no reason at all. Someone dreamed of romance and sexual union, someone dreamed that something had died and something had risen, white and shining, from death. Someone dreamed that a soul might be united with a body.
The eleventh month passed. The Alchemist arose from his deep laboratory and sat in the parlor with the Lady. They spoke only of inconsequential things and did not speak what was in their hearts. The housekeeper scrubbed and sang in her kitchen. She nodded a third time at the one who lived there and planted a window garden of almonds and apricots.
The twelfth month passed.
“Sir Alchemist, I am afraid.”
“My Lady, of what can you be afraid?”
“Of the Lord Bishop.”
“And what power has the Lord Bishop?”
“The power over souls.”
“And what power is that?”
“He will come for me, as he has promised, for the year and a day is nearly over. He will come here and carry me back to his palace upon the central hill in the winter city, and there I shall never gain a soul. He will carry you back as well. You will be put on public display and shamed and mocked. Your head will be chopped off and set on the bridge as an example to all who would disobey the Lord Bishop.”
“My Lady.” The Alchemist set his slippers beside the hearth and wiggled his toes, which were encased in the woolen socks the Lady Belinda had mended for him. “My Lady, I know many things. I know that one may gather cadavers and sew their several pieces together and harness the lightning to create life. I know the hidden formulae for initiations in a thousand faiths. I know the legends of the Pelasgians and the Orphics. I know how Eurynome rose naked from Chaos and bore a silver egg, how Black-Winged Night likewise laid a silver egg and Phanes hatched from this egg and set the Universe in motion. I know how the divine lightning bolt flashed down from Kether to Chokmah to Binah and eventually to the Kingdom below. I know the truth of Pandora’s gift and I know what one may see in dark Eleusis and I know how Sophia may return to the Pleroma.” The Alchemist laid his hand upon the Lady's hand. “But,” he said, “but I do not know where to find the soul. I have read descriptions of souls from all the poets and philosophers.” He cleared his throat. “But I do not have a soul at hand. My Lady,” he cleared his throat again, “My Lady, I fear I shall have disappointed you.”
“Oh, my friend, my friend. Let me tell you what I dreamed last night. I dreamed of a scarlet lion, and this lion arose from a purple lily and flew to a clear, cold stream. The lion bathed in this clear, cold stream and the sun shone down upon him, and he emerged a man.”
The Alchemist opened his mouth, as if to speak, but the Lady went on. “And I also dreamed last night that a silver dragon arose from a field of poppies, and the dragon also flew to a clear, cold stream to bathe. The moon shone down upon that dragon and she emerged a woman.
“And I dreamed a third time,” the Lady went on, smoothing the Alchemist's hands between her own, “and in this dream the man and the women walked naked and unafraid into the wilderness. There in the wilderness one day they met. Where they met there was a humble little house, and in that house they lived undisturbed until the end of their days.”
The year and a day came to its conclusion. The end day arrived. The Alchemist and the Lady stood hand in hand awaiting the arrival of the Lord Bishop.
“Fools!” said Mistress Dolya, gesturing with her broom at them. “Get you gone! Get you gone to your home in the wilderness, and let me remain behind to show the Lord Bishop how you both have found your souls.”
Mistress Dolya took up her own mask, which was a bright as the sun and as dark as the moon, and it was wound about with wheat and poppies. She took up her own mask and took up her sword as well, and the two pans in which she weighed only what is invisible to the eyes. She gathered her powers around her and stood outside the door to the Alchemist’s house between the winter city and the wilderness, and she tended the blooming roses while she watched for the Lord Bishop.
And the Alchemist and the Lady? They passed through his library and his study and his laboratories and out a secret door. They followed the greening path they found outside the secret door to a place hidden by spiders’ webs and the vision of owls and the skin shed by a snake of all the colors of the rainbow. And in that sweet place they found a house.
And perhaps they are there still. Perhaps they are living there still, without books, without devices, without masks. Perhaps they are yet living in that precious green place where souls reside.
Barbara's day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her two rescued Maine coon cats, Schroedinger and Heisenberg.
Latest posts by Barbara Ardinger (see all)
- “Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America: Baba Yaga, Kali, Pombagira, and Santa Muerte”, by Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba. - 29th December 2015
- Some Goddesses and Ideas for Spring - 8th September 2015
- Finding New Goddesses - 15th July 2012