Jeff Lewis wirtes fiction, non-fiction and children's books.
He composes music, and plays guitar, piano, mouth organ and ukelele.
Cultural Studies (London, Sage); Language Wars (Pluto, London); Bali's Silent Crisis (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD); Crisis in the Global Mediasphere (Palgrave, London); Global Media Apocalypse(Palgrave, London); Health Communication (Palgrave, London); Media, Culture and Human Violence(Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham MD).
Extremity of the Skies (Flinders Publishing, Melbourne)
Alchemy (from Alchemy and Other Stories)
1. The Hydrosoar
When the Black Collars came to our village, my mother made me dress as a boy.
‘These are wild men, cruel men,’ she warned me. ‘They will take the girls and keep them as slaves or wives or worse. You must dress in your brother’s clothes and learn to speak and act like a boy.’ I did as my mother told me, and I was left alone, at least until the Lieutenant came to our house to dragoon my older brother. The Lieutenant smelled like goat’s dung. He asked for my brother by name—Elixia the Shorter, after my father, Elixia the Taller.
When I protested, the Lieutenant poked me in the chest and told me that I was too skinny to be a soldier. He said that I should stay at home and eat the balls of a moose and red onions until I was big enough to fight.
‘This boy,’ the Lieutenant said, pointing to my brother, ’has noble features and will fight well. But this boy,’ now placing his stolid hands on my shoulders, ‘is very light and has the heart of a tadpole.’ He then hugged me, saying ‘When you have grown legs and a fierce belly, I will return for you. Now you must sleep in the bed with your mother and pluck the unwanted hairs off her back. That is what good boys do,’ he laughed, breathing into my face. Then he released me, turning back to Elixia and leading him to the door.
‘Say goodbye to your mother and skinny brother,’ the Lieutenant said to Elixia. ‘Look at them with courage, so that is how they will remember you!’
When the door closed behind them, Mother sighed a deep and foreboding sigh. Then she looked up and I could see the tears glistening in the emerald of her eyes. ‘It is all right for them to take Elixia,’ she declared. ‘He is cunning like a sea goose,’ she said. ‘He will pretend to do their bidding but will plot against them.’ A sea goose lays its eggs in harrier nests. By the time the harrier realizes she is feeding an interloper, it is already too late. The gosling has eaten the other hatchlings and grown fat on their mother’s vomit.
Then she looked directly into my eyes, pinching my nipples. ‘Nothing there. That’s good. It is better you stay with me. This is better than being skewered, especially before you are even capable.’
‘Not capable?’ I said, a little pained by my mother’s judgement. But she was right. I was tall and thin and my chest was flat. Even though I had already fourteen annums, I had only bled a few times, and the other girls in the village called me Hermes the Lily. I had stopped playing with them, anyway. My days had been spent in the grain plot, catching eels with my brother or tending the ox. Whenever I was relieved of chores, I would lock myself in the chamber and read Grandfather’s books and scripts.
‘They will only take one son from each family to build their army. They will take the boys with big arms and small brains. But your brother will outsmart them. He will return one day with a satin smock and a comfortable chair. He will take us out of this shit-hole to some place where there is always sunshine and the rats are small and have no teeth.’ Then she paused, thinking of something—‘Did you feel the Lieutenant’s fundangle when he hugged you?’
‘Yes,’ I said,’ It was hard like a steel blade.’
‘That was probably his dagger. How did he make you feel. Did you feel your belly go loose and soft, or did it tighten like a drum.’
‘A drum,’ I said.
‘That is good.’
‘I wanted to kill him.’
‘That is bad. But also good. You are beginning to have emotions like a man. This will keep you safe.’
‘I don’t feel safe. The Black Collars have kidnapped my brother.’ My mother looked at me gravely. I could smell the boiling fat on the fire. It was a black night and the wild cats were feuding in the street. The stone walls were groaning.
‘To be a man, you must rub pig sweat around your body and hang something between your legs. Then you will be safe. Now there are only the two of us, you must be the man. Otherwise, if you are a girl, they will take you and skewer you on every other night.’
My father had been killed two years before in one of the Onward Wars. He was shot in the back which suggested to most of the village that he died a coward, ‘This,’ my mother told me, ‘Is how all soldiers should die. There is no point in facing an enemy who might kill you, or you might have to kill … Better to give yourself a chance by running away.’
But even running away, poor Father didn’t get very far, it seems. Nor did anyone else. The battlefield was strewn with the remains of men who had been forced to wear the blue scarf of the Loyalists. Armed only with slings and rocks, the Loyalist dragoons had been speared or hacked in a battle which lasted barely 15 minutes. Elixia the Shorter and I travelled three days to find Father’s body. Poor Father was lying with his face prone and buried in pages he’d copied from Grandfather’s Book of Alchemy, a brief script on treating arrow wounds with hazel-berry, a berry which, sadly for father, was not found in this region of the Lands.
After burying Father and returning home with his belt and a front tooth we’d removed for the family shrine, we found Mother in a battle of her own. Red the Ready, a swineherd who had already acquired three hectares and two wives, decided to make the most of Mother’s predicament by staking a claim against our grain plot. Ready had managed to evade the Loyalist dragoons by hobbling himself and providing the officers with generous access to his wives. The payback, though, was a claim against our plot, which he argued was compensation for unrequited services paid for, but not delivered, by our deceased father. According to Ready, Father had prescribed herbs for an ailment which had caused him to grow a sixth toe on his left foot. The toe had appeared overnight in the centre of the foot, complete with toenail and tinea.
‘Did the herbs fail?’ Mother had asked.
‘No,’ Ready replied, ‘The sixth toe shriveled away, but the tinea remained.’
‘Then you should wash your feet,’ Mother advised.
‘Your husband was an alchemist,’ Red the Ready fumed. ‘He learned alchemy from his own father’s books. This is well known. Alchemy is prohibited! By pain of death...’
‘My husband was a farmer and part-time herbalist. He knew no alchemy…’
But Red the Ready was determined. The grain plot was the most productive in the village, and Father had for a long time been suspected of alchemy. It was, after all, the trade of his own father, my grandfather, a man of learning who had escaped from the Capital following the New Authority Revolution. While Grandfather had spent many years serving the Old Authority, the New Authority purges had targeted anyone who might pose a threat. This included herbalists and alchemists whom they feared might collude with wizards to create unnatural events—like counter-revolutions.
While the stories were vague, it was said that Grandfather had been ordered by the New Authority to restore his craft to the traditions of gold making. Grandfather was directed to weave gold from goat’s hair, or boil it out of crows’ feet and copper. When Grandfather explained that this conception of alchemy was outdated, he was locked in a cell where it was said he would remain until he began manufacturing gold for the New Authority.
It isn’t known how Grandfather escaped, but legend says that he asked the Gaoler for three salted barnacles which, he said, he would eat and then shit gold. The story Father told us was that Grandfather used the barnacles to conjure the Hydrosoar, a spirit creature with five heads, who, in the Time of Before, wandered from the ocean in search of a mate. Disoriented by her passions, however, the poor Hydrosoar became lost in the waterways that transect the Lands. For millennia she wandered the muddy river floors, trying to find her way back to the sea.
The story is not well-known but is occasionally sung by minstrels and cuckolds who know of love and loss, and who have slept by the rivers and dreamed of the Hydrosoar and her many heads. So it goes that Grandfather conjured the Hydrosoar and offered to show her the way back through the rivers to the sea. When the Gaoler came to Grandfather’s cell the next day, there was nothing but three barnacle shells filled with shit.
The New Authority immediately declared Grandfather an Enemy of the Lands and placed a complete ban on the practice of alchemy, particularly the illegal production of gold or use of spirits for personal gain.
Meanwhile, Grandfather assumed a new identity and continued his studies in secret. His new name was Elixia the Forgotten. He married a village woman, and had one son, Elixia the Taller, who had one son, Elixia the Shorter. I was born two years later and was given the name Hermes of Tristone. After my brother was dragooned, Mother changed my name to Elixia, the Even Shorter.
2. Dark Matter.
After my brother was dragooned, the legal impasse over our grain plot worsened. By this time, the rains had begun, and I was occupying my days in the chamber reading Grandfather’s books. Grandfather, it appeared, had spent most of his final days pouring over one particular book. The book was especially relevant to me as my body continually pushed against Mother’s purpose, dragging me further along the pathway to womanhood and against the man I was aspiring to become.
The book was called Dark Matter: A Treatise on the Inversion of Gravity. Alchemy, I need not tell you, is the science of inversion, and it seemed as though Grandfather was seeking knowledge of that dimension of the universe which keeps all things in place while permitting the movement of one state into the next—of the seed to the flower, the rain to the river, of life to death. Gravity, that is, represents for the alchemist the final choice since it is gravity which impels both the equilibrium and the transition of all things in relation to each other. One passage in the book must have been especially significant to Grandfather—
Gravity is that universal force that god, if she exists at all, exerts over herself, allowing crops to thrive or fail in a precarious relation of sunshine, water and pestilence; city walls to stand in a contradictory relation to those whom they should repel or admit, or to whom they should surrender; and things of being and life exist against the passage and apparent certainty of their non-being and nothingness with which they are gestant and must eventually become.
There were thumb-marks and notes all over this passage and surrounding pages. Many were in my Grandfather’s hand, but others were inscribed by other, often much older languages. Some of these languages I was able to translate, but others were formed through exotic shapes and symbols that I had never before seen, originating not only from ancient epochs but from places that lay well beyond the Lands.
Either way, the text proposed that there was a dark energy that emanated from sources beyond our vision. These were not magical or spiritual emanations. They were physical, like the white energy of our familiar spaces. Only in dark matter they are inverted, a form of anti-gravity that would release all things from the encasement of structure—of standing and not-standing, of being and not-being, of life and death.
Grandfather, it appeared, was seeking to access this dark energy. It was possible that he came very close to creating a Grand Inversion. But then Grandfather himself succumbed to gravity, relieved of life by some malicious Pox that he had acquired from the unruly conduct of his own fundangle.
‘This is true alchemy,’ I tried to explain to Mother. Only, she was not one for arcane ideas. She married the son of an alchemist and understood enough to know that the world was never what it appeared.
‘‘Everything is veiled,’ she responded. ‘Every person. When you remove one veil, there is always another. At the centre of it, you have to find something that brings comfort to your arse and joy to your heart. And then you must serve the agonies of the love only you create. Otherwise … well, you are left with nothing on your table and only shit on your shoes. Your father was no alchemist. He failed. Your Grandfather before him failed. But that is of no consequence. So long as you are breathing and you feel the fire in your centre, and the water between your legs.’
‘There is more to know than that, Mother…’ I quietly protested.
‘Perhaps. But all I know is what I tell you and all I feel is the love that will bring your brother home with a garland and a prayer. And this is also why you must be a man!’
Which I had been trying to achieve for the six months since Elixia’s conscription. The rains were falling steadily now. The rivers had swelled and overflowed their banks. The Black Collars had taken most of the adolescents from the village, leaving only a handful of second sons and the children.
‘The Black Collars have laid siege to the Capital,’ the village Alderman informed us one evening in an unexpected visit. ‘This will ruin us all,’ he went on. ‘All the girls and most of the boys are gone.’
‘It is all right,’ my mother reassured the Alderman, ‘ My son, Elixia the Shorter, will bring them all back and he will be carried aloft in a comfortable chair.’ But the Alderman showed no interest in this oracle. He was a round-faced man with wide, white eyes and a forest of nostril hair which rustled as he spoke.
‘This is a whole generation of our young men and women,’ the Alderman groaned, habitually straightening his finely cut jacket, booty he’d won in a game of card-shake. ‘According to our records you have a daughter,’ the Alderman noted. ‘Did she go with the Black Collar army too?’
‘Yes,’ my mother said, her eyes as tight as a rutting dog. ‘I only have my younger son now,’ pointing to me. ‘But he was too young for them. He is a tadpole, they said. His shoulders are still narrow.’
‘We have no record of a second son,’ the Alderman said.
‘Then you must amend your records.’
The Alderman took out a parchment and scribbled a note. ‘We may need your son … ‘
‘I need him here—to tend the ox and the grain plot.’
‘Ah, yes, the grain plot,’ the Alderman considered, taking his eyes from me and looking more intently at Mother. ‘The claim by Red the Ready must be resolved—’
‘The man is a turd,’ I blurted in. ‘And a liar.’ The Alderman looked back at me, glowering—
‘You smell like pig sweat, boy,’ he snarled. ‘You should stand in the rain and wash your face.’ With that I drew back some phlegm and spat on the Alderman’s boot.
‘And you smell like hammer grass and mule piss,’ I said.
‘Perhaps,’ the Alderman fumed, ‘I smell like a man, and perhaps that is how Red the Ready smells. And perhaps he needs a third wife, and your mother is still of breeding age. Huh? Clever boy! Saucy boy! Would you like a turd for a father? We can’t have widows in the valley …or boys with brown noses and shabby smocks on their back. What do you do all day? Sit under your ox’s arse? You need to be married too. We have three widows in the village. And seven girls who will be coming into season over the next year or two.’ And turning back to Mother. ’We can’t have the luxury of celibacy, you know. You’ve been a widow for over two years. And this boy of yours…? We all have to do our part…’
‘He is just a boy. His fundangle barely gets up.’
‘That will change soon enough,’ the Alderman said, waving his arms. ‘And you my dear. What about you and Red the Ready. His other wives are growing fat …’
‘There is no need,’ Mother hissed. ‘My son, Elixia he Shorter, will soon return, leading the breeders back to the valley. The wars will soon be over.’
‘How can you know? How can you foretell any such a thing? Is there alchemy in this house? There have been rumours for many years. How can you know such things? Are you a witch? Is this boy of yours an alchemist?’
At this point I went to the front bench, drawing a vivisector blade which I struck into the table. ‘I will cut off Red the Ready’s balls if he comes near this house,’ I said, then went down to the chamber to find a hemlock that would turn the Alderman into a pumpkin.
Such things don’t exist, of course, but it gave me pleasure to imagine it. Only, as I listened to the bumbling polemic voices of my mother and the Alderman, I knew that we, too, were travelling close to the blade. If Elixia the Shorter weren’t killed in battle or running away, then he would be killed somewhere else by some other power. The white energy would get him, just as it had with Father and Grandfather. There was really no escape. Elixia was doomed, unless, perhaps, there was something in Grandfather’s scripts that might save him.
As for the village, I cared nothing much for them, their miserable and mean manners. Their falsity. Their petty squabbles and selfishness. Their fears and feuds that had no other voice but persecution of themselves and each other.
And yet I also knew that the Alderman was right. If I were to become a man, then I would need to marry and breed. The pretense, though, was becoming more difficult by the day. Even though I’d started eating the dangle beetle in order to bush out my eyebrows and grow a little man muscle, I remained slim and light-bodied. In the few months since becoming a boy, and against all my efforts, my arse kept getting rounder and my nipples were sore most of the time. I strapped them with hessian and I had fashioned a girdle and leather fundangle which I wore between my legs. At first it was uncomfortable, but then I rubbed myself with eel oil and was able to re-position the fundangle with some wooden balls so that it all began to stroke my plump and pitae when I walked. Sometimes, when I was working or running in the field, the strokes would become fast and rhythmic and I’d be breathless and have to stop.
But Mother didn’t stop when she went out to the granary with the Alderman that night. I’d followed them and stood in the rain, listening to them skewering and groaning, ‘til Mother hummed and squeaked like a rat in a trap. Then I saw the Alderman pulling up his breeches, and Mother, spectral, gliding from the granary back to the house.
I stood for another hour, feeling the cold splash of rain around my face and feet. I’d drawn my arms inside the smock, gripping and rolling the leather fundangle against my plump and pitae ‘til I was humming too.
When I came back into the house Mother was asleep in an uncomfortable chair next to the fire. I took off my smock and hung it to dry. Then I removed my breast straps and girdle, slowly slipping the leather fundangle through my pitae. I looked at the dance of firelight on my skin. There was a small splosh of blood on the inside of my thighs. Thunder was rolling through the valley.
The rain continued for the next six months, through autumn into winter and early spring. The dams and wells over flowed. The village streets became tributaries. The bare cliffs and hills released themselves in clammy, thick mud-slides, and there was barely a path or roadway that wasn’t submerged in water and brown slime. The rivers too had become lakes, rising through the valley and across the lower slopes. In some parts of the valley, houses were listing; others had already succumbed, topping headlong into the eddies which surged and barked relentlessly through the unceasing tumult of water.
The Alderman visited Mother on the tenth night of every week. They no longer bothered to disguise their amours in the granary, but spent their time in the house skewering on the floor, on a chair or in Mother’s bed. I would hear them from the chamber, pounding it out, Mother’s squeaks and squeals leaking through the steady flow of rain.
Mother insisted, though, that her pleasures were a mere necessity, ‘It’s food on the table,’ she explained, alluding again to her views on alchemy, ‘A means of keeping Red the Ready out of our grain plot.’
‘What happens when the Alderman tires of you?’ I wanted to know.
‘That will happen,’ Mother said. ‘But by then Elixia will have come for us.’
‘Or we will be washed into the river by the flood.’
‘The rain will cease. Soon enough. The sun will shine and the wild flowers will bloom.’
But the rain didn’t stop. In the months that followed, the only thing that changed was the frequency of the Alderman’s visits. From once a week to once a lunar and then he stopped coming altogether. That is, until one day in the spring when he appeared with a deputation from the village, a civic council.
All of them men, and all wearing eel skin cloaks over their smocks. Red the Ready was standing at the Alderman’s shoulder. Mother didn’t invite them into the house so they huddled beneath the arbour. They were all shin deep in brown water. The Alderman spoke like a clarion—
‘We want the rain to stop,’ the Alderman said clearing his throat.
‘Our granary is flooding,’ Mother replied. ‘Our well is over-flowing. The ox has foot rot. We are eating frogs… Who doesn’t want the rain to stop?’
‘We have already lost three houses, and the mud has closed the village off from all roads. We are isolated. We can’t cross the river.’
Mother’s eyes were narrowing. She had already understood the purpose of this deputation. ‘Have you come here to tell us something we don’t already know? Was it worth the wading. Or have you come to help us build our channels to clear this water and mud?’
‘No,’ the Alderman said. His nose forest was dripping with moisture. Red the Ready was looking past Mother at me.
‘Then what is it?’
‘We want the boy,’ Ready burst in. The Alderman turned to the deputation, raising his hands in appeasement. Then he addressed Mother again.
‘We…I … have seen the boy reading books. We think he has done something. We want him to stop the rain—’
‘Or else we’ll cut off his nose and push it up his arse!’ Red the Ready interjected again, waving a large tanning blade in front of Mother’s eyes.
‘Shame on you!’ Mother fumed. ‘Shame. Shame. The boy hardly has any balls to speak of. He has only 12 annums. Look at him. Not a whisker. Barely a bush on his eyes. Skinny little child. He reads because he has nothing better to do. Too much of a weakling to help out on the farm. Even the Black Collars didn’t want him. Just a tadpole. The rains are what they are. We have had long rains before. We’ve had the river run high before. We have lost houses before. The boy knows nothing. He is nothing. Go back to your houses and dig some more channels. The rains will soon be over.’
‘These rains are… unnatural!’ The Alderman exploded. Then he looked embarrassed but certain. ‘There have been many rumours,’ he said. ‘For years there have been rumours… about your husband and his father too. Now we see this boy suddenly appearing and reading books…’
‘You have books! You have read books,’ she said to the Alderman, a man who, it was well known, had visited the capital on at least five occasions and was well-studied in commerce and card-shake. Mother went on, ‘Rain comes from the sky, not from books. Not from skinny boy’s heads. What nonsense is this? We need the rains so that our crops will grow. So that your pigs will thrive, the oxen grow fat and we can wash the shit from our arses.’
‘That is all very well,’ the Alderman said, ‘but these are not natural rains. We want them to stop. The boy will stop the rain, or he will come with us to the Hall and there he will stay until the rain is concluded.’
Now I stepped forward. ‘I can stop the rain,’ I announced, and pointing to the Alderman— ‘And I can turn your fundangle into a crab’s claw. If I am to stop the rain, then you must stop skewering the village wives. You must leave them be, or your fundangle will eat your balls.’
I doubted, of course, that I could do such things, but I was infuriated by this foolishness. Mother tried to silence me. She took my arm and pressed me close.
‘He is a stupid, skinny boy who is barely 10 annums. He know nothing and can do nothing—’
‘I am two lunars short of 16 annums,’ I told the deputation.‘ And I can turn mercury into gold. I can make the sun shine and turn the night as cold as a witch’s ring. I can make hair grow on a bald man and bring children to the bodies of the barren. I can make old hearts young again. I can make the dead speak. Bring sight to the blind. And I can turn your balls into chicken eggs! A few raindrops is simple fare...’
‘Then you are an alchemist. It’s true…’ the Alderman trailed. The deputation was sinking in the wet soil beneath the arbour.
‘No. Mother is right. I’ve done nothing. I’m simply saying to you, these are the things I could do, but for now, for this moment. I am nothing. Just a boy with potential.’
‘Then you could stop this rain.’
‘Yes … but if I do that, I will be proving that I am an alchemist and so will be subject to punishment by law. And if you force me to practice alchemy, then you are also forfeit by Capital law. The New Authority will have your heads, I think…’ Then with candour— ‘You will understand my dilemma.’
The Alderman who, perhaps, was contemplating his fundangle as a crab’s claw, retreated into the pack
After a few moments of consultation, he looked back at Mother and me. More tentatively he said—‘We still believe you started this rain. We would like to look at your books…’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s time for you all to leave. Go back to your homes and dig more channels. I could stop the rain, but I’m not going to. It will stop when it has finished raining.’
With which they shuffled away, navigating the trenches and water depressions that mined the fields.
When we could no longer see them through the falling rain, Mother said— ‘Perhaps you should stop the rain anyway?…. Perhaps that would be merciful.’
4. Wild Flower.
By mid spring the rains began to ease, and by late spring the deluge was over. Even though heavy clouds still hung overhead, the villagers believed that I had finally taken pity on them and had called back the water. While they said nothing, they were polite and grateful, waving their hands at Mother and I, and lifting the lapel of their smocks in a gesture of contrition.
If it weren’t for the plague of black flies and the crust of dry mud that caked the streets and fields, you would say that the village had emerged from the floods with a new sense of purpose and pleasantness. The villagers appeared more agreeable, even though there was still the issue of the Black Collar siege and the generation of breeders who had been dragooned into the service of the On Wars.
This agreeable demeanour was mimicked in the landscape. The minstrels and other performing troupes had begun travelling the countryside again, filling the Greens with dramatic elegies and songs of watery death and drama. Their coloured suits and bright faces seemed all the more cheery under the breaking clouds and the reflected bloom of wild flowers and sunlight. Now, as the river retreated to its normal path, the hills were glistening with the crimson and blue of the Eglantine Bucolic, the purple and gold of the Mavis Flower. Even the Radish Weeds, which only bloom once in a decade, were bursting in a wheel of colour: pinks in the morning, tangerine by midday and then a deep mauve by evening.
Every morning I went into the fields and gathered the blooms, adorning our house with laurels which filled every room with untamable concoctions of colour and scent.
‘Be wary of the vipers in the Radish Weed,’ Mother cautioned. ‘And of being too much in the light. Be wary that the villagers don’t see you carrying the garlands. They will suspect you of womanly ways…’
And it was true. Despite everything, the man-cloak, the Dangle Beetle, the hessian and girdle, my body refused to acquiesce, pushing me further into my feminine persona. It became increasingly apparent that just willing or wanting was not enough.
‘You smell like a woman,’ Mother said. ‘Do you still use pig sweat under your arms and in your crotch?’
‘Yes, ‘ I lied. Because pig skin reminded me of Red the Ready and all other swineherds. The flowers, on the other hand, reminded me of the recklessness of eventide, the eel-oil lantern, and the play of light and ink inscribed across Grandfather’s books. They reminded me of the lulling silence of words, the drift of ideas, the curious imaginings that rise like incense and fill my head with a wonder and sleepfulness that take me beyond this world and into the exotic domain of possibility.
‘The wild flowers,’ I said to Mother, ‘remind me of Grandfather, Father and Elixia the Shorter.’
But as I said this, Mother sighed that deep and mournful sigh that she exhaled as Elixia and the Lieutenant disappeared across the valley.
‘Do we hear anything about Elixia?’ Mother said.
‘It appears that the Black Collars have sacked the city. There is news on the door of the Civil Hall,’ I explained. ‘The Black Collars spent the time of the deluge digging a tunnel beneath the city wall. But they are no engineers. The tunnels collapsed with the rains, bringing down a large section of the west wall and turret.’
‘Then the New Order has succumbed?’
‘Yes. The Black Collar army entered the city by night while the rains were still falling, and they overwhelmed the Loyalists and the Palace Guard. Most of them ran away, or joined the Black Collar invaders.’
‘This is very sensible,‘ Mother said, inspecting her fingernails.
‘So now there is a New New Authority, and the Village Council seeks a payment of Scutage.’
‘More taxes that will be extorted … but at least there will be peace for a period. What of Elixia and the others. What is being said?’
‘Nothing is said. Nothing appears to have changed other than the brass plates and the name of the emperors. There are some new officers and the class of priests have changed their names to account for new loyalties.’
‘But soon Elixia will return. That is certain.’
‘This all happened some three lunars hence, before the wild flowers. I expect we should all be wearing black collars soon enough.’
‘He will return!’ Mother insisted. ‘Prodigious and free of serious injury.’ She paused and then added—‘You must remain a man. At least until Elixia returns. Your life will be better as a man. Women are never safe. They will be searching for wives and women to violate, even just to show how heroic this New New Authority can be. They want us to quake and bow our heads. They want us to think twice before we join another army and set forth another siege. Look, you are already growing strong.’
Which was true. My muscles were bigger now, catching up with my height which, if I had remained a girl, would have made me the tallest female in the village.
‘And,’ Mother went on, ‘you have become very handsome. Very strong and very handsome, like your brother Elixia the Shorter. You are now handsome like him. And perhaps as tall!’
‘Then I must change my name. Perhaps to Elixia the Equally Short?’
‘Yes,’ Mother says. ‘This is a good name.’
At this time, the Alderman had also resumed his visits. Now, though, the Alderman made no demands on Mother’s pitae, fearing perhaps that I might still turn his fundangle into a crab’s claw. This reticence, however, represented something of a dilemma for Mother herself.
‘The man’s a dog’s turd but at least his thighs are full,’ Mother mourned. ‘One day,’ she continued, ‘I may find another man like your father, a man who mounts like a donkey and has strong teeth and a sound mind.…Aaah, ’ she pondered. ‘ That will be a day when the crows drink poppy-seed tea and the vipers sing. Perhaps Elixia may bring such a man to me …’
By now I had passed 16 annums and as well as being tall and muscular, my breasts had grown large and full. I strapped them down but it hurt, and no matter how tightly I pressed them, they created a topography through my smock. On windy days I had to walk with my arms crossed over my chest.
Despite all of this, the village women had begun calling on us. Mother tried her best to dissuade them, but she was running out of excuses. The Black Collars were already calling on the villages to increase the number of subjects in the Lands, offering incentives to breeders and sanctions for those they called Ferlingers, Fertile Malingerers.
At least six of the village girls had grown to breeding time since their sisters were dragooned, and even some of the mothers in adjacent villages had heard that there was an eligible young man around. I imagined that they were all prepared to overlook my reading of books and light body.
One mother was particularly insistent. Over the summer months she and her daughter visited many times, bringing gifts of sourdough and oysters they had gathered from the lower reaches of the river. On one occasion, a mother gave me a harrier egg, which I explained probably contained the embryo of a gosling.
‘Is this an omen?’ the mother wanted to know, believing, perhaps, that I was the alchemist who turned back the rain.
‘No. It’s just a case of mistaken identity,’
‘Oh.’ The mother replied, before returning again to ask that I marry her daughter. ‘The New New Authority,’ she said, ‘are sending their priests and forcing the girls to marry anyone they choose. You are handsome and you have a very good grain plot.’
My mother thanked the woman for her compliment. She had a round face and dark brown skin. But her daughter was pale like me. She had long white hair and full lips.
‘My daughter,’ the mother insisted, ‘will be a good wife. She is strong and has a back like an ox. But her arse is sweet like honey flower.’ I looked at the girl who stared directly back at me. She was beautiful, more beautiful than I could have ever been had I remained a girl. ‘She can read. I have seen her reading books,’ the mother persisted.
‘Yes,’ Mother said, pressing the girls arms and arse. ‘Is she bleeding?’
‘Yes,’ the other mother said. ‘Like a ewe.’
‘Show me your teeth,’ Mother said to the poor girl, who spat and twisted her mouth into a contorted smile.
‘Yes,’ Mother proclaimed. ‘She is the best of all of them. We will have them together at the end of the Amber.’
‘That’s five months more…’ the other mother expostulated.
‘That will be time enough. She is chosen.’
When they had left, I said to Mother—‘I cannot marry, Mother. I’m not able to breed…’
‘Of course,’ Mother said. ‘Then you must find some solution in your books, or else your brother will marry this girl when he returns.’
‘Mother,’ I said, feeing a surge of embarrassment and rage, ‘Elixia may never return. He may be dead. He is probably dead!’
‘No,‘ Mother said, looking out to the granary. ‘he is alive, but you must go to the Capital, find him and bring him back to marry this girl. Then when there is a man in the house, you can become a girl again—’
‘Mother!’ I exploded. But then I felt ashamed. I turned a circle, hung my head and said, ‘Very well … But it is five days to the Capital, I will need to make some new boots’.
Before I had the chance to make the boots, a group of men bearing the flag of the New New Authority besieged us.
‘We want the boy who stops the rain,’ the leader said. I had heard of these men. They are known as the Terrorpins, a class of priests who cut off their ears and balls which they embalm and hang from helmets made of tortoise shell. The helmet and hanging balls, they believe, protect them from sorcerers and evil spells.
‘There is no-one here who can cease the rain,’ Mother said. But these men are not to be mangoed. By all reputation, they were powerful enough to survive all the revolutions, armies and authorities that came and went in the Capital. Grandfather spoke of them as the cruelest and vilest of all beings, men who would eat their mothers’ entrails and shit on her grave.
The leader descended his horse and raised his sword, the sun reflecting on his tortoise head.
‘No Mother, ‘ I stepped forward. ‘That person would be me. I stopped the rain.’
‘You are an alchemist!’ the head Terrorpin accused.
‘Yes,’ I said before Mother could say or do anything.
‘Then you are under arrest. You are coming to the Capital with us.’ I looked at the embalmed balls banging against the leader’s earholes. His eyes narrowed—‘You stink like a girl.’ He then ordered another priest to chain me. Mother’s hands were wrapped about her face.
‘No,’ she said. ‘He is just a stupid boy who plays with garlic—’
‘Mother!’ I said. ‘Silence, Mother.’ But it was too late. The leader struck her to the ground, telling the other priests to search the house. In a few minutes, the men reappeared with a trunk filled with Grandfather’s books and scripts.
‘No alchemist,’ the leader mocked, directing the trunk to be strapped onto the back of a mule. I was strapped to the other and a hood was placed over my head.
As I was led away, I could hear Mother sobbing and smell the lush scent of grass flower and peppercorn.
We travelled like this for several days until we reached the gates of the Capital. Inside the walls, I could hear the rollicking of the metropolis. People talking, bartering, singing, the rustle of women’s skirts, screeches of children, the grinding sound of a mill wheel. Blackened from sight, I could still smell the bustling bodies, their sweat and perfumes. There was the ox dung and the smell of death on wild dogs’ coats. Fish carcasses hanging in the market. The smell of berries and juniper. The carcass of a rat putrefying in the summer sun. The soft floating aromas of bread baking, and the flush of women’s bodies as we passed the brothel. Fragrant oils, the pungent and waxy aromas of young men’s hair.
I heard the rattle of armaments as we passed the garrison and the tower where the Terrorpins halted. I was led, still hooded, into the long cool stairwell to my cell.
The leader, who was the only one who had spoken to me through the whole journey, pulled back the hood. An old man stood before me. As my eyes adjusted, the leader said: ‘Here is your new home, young alchemist. We have been too clever for your tricks.’ Then he turned to the old man, the Gaoler. ‘Be wary. Here is the one who stopped the rain.’
‘Never fear.’ The old Gaoler said. ‘This cell is lined with lead and copper. Designed exactly for the likes of this one. He will do your bidding. Be assured.’
I looked at the two men, one with the tapping balls, the other with a face that was scored by a hundred and forty annums at least.
‘My bidding…‘ I said. ‘I assume that’s gold.’
‘No.’ The leader answered, pushing me into the cell. ‘The New New Authority want to gild the roof of the palace in electrum. They want the palace to be seen for a million fathoms in all directions, to God and the Heavens. They want all the universe to see their might.’
‘Electrum… You are asking for more than I can deliver.’
‘If that is so, then you will burn. We will make a pyre of your books and we will scotch you to ash and let the dogs shit on you.’
‘And if I create the electrum?’
‘Then you will have all that you wish for. All the wealth, women and luxury that you desire. All tax free.’
‘How long do I have?’
‘I’ll need my books.’
‘They will be delivered. But there will be no tricks. No spells. No escape. Any sign of treachery and you will be burned, and your mother will be tied to the salt marsh tree where she will be slowly eaten by soldier ants.’
With that, I was locked in the cell with Grandfather’s books. The cell was around 12 feet square. It had an open window which dropped a hundred feet to the garrison below. In the centre of the room was a cauldron, and along one edge there was a privy hole, a water basin and hessian bed. As the Gaoler had said, the walls of the cell were lined with lead and copper. Next to the cell door was trap which was just large enough for the delivery and retraction of a food tray. All in all, not too bad, as far as the threat of premature death and denial of liberty are concerned.
When I was left alone, I immediately resumed my study of Dark Matter, the book which Grandfather seemed most to attend during the final stages of his mortality. As I was again looking across the pages of his favoured section, I found a note that I hadn’t seen previously. The note was in Grandfather’s hand, but the script was strangely formal, precise and even slightly stiff-necked. Unlike his usual scrawling, this note was written neatly into the margins. It was headed, ‘A brief Treatise on the Gravity of Wind’—
When a fire burns the flames rise upward. When a flood subsides, the waters run downward. When the wind blows, it mostly runs across the land. However, even a zephyr may occasionally switch direction, blowing up and down or against itself, swooping or rolling, rising and descending in simultaneous directions. This is the same with all nature. Think of yourself and the ways in which your imagination of things shifts speed and direction. How it gathers and sheds thoughts, rolling out emotions that seem not even to have come from yourself, but which blow, like the wind, through your entire body and being. Now think again of fire and flood and how we might imagine them moving. When you seize upon the fullness of this volition and its simultaneous and multiple contentiousness, then you are contemplating dark matter.
It may have been all of these things that Grandfather was contemplating in this very cell when, all those years ago, he was compelled by the old New Authority to manufacture gold. I was alone in a cell constructed of stone, lined with copper and lead. This cell, I considered, was being held together by several forces that were all in contest with one another, but which, united, comprised the white energy of my incarceration. This collusion of men and the white energy of stone, air and gravity was responsible for the inertia of my body. Before I could make their electrum, therefore, I had to deny the gravity of my situation.
One thing, though, that the Terrorpins misunderstood about my situation was that I could not be alone. I was, in fact, surrounded by life and living beings. By the sounds of the market place below; the wing-flap of insects which daily and nightly flew through around and outside my cell; the birds, rats, spiders and dust mites for whom this cell was sanctuary. These creatures were already feeding off me—my scraps and wastes, the shedding skin, my hair, my breath. I was already a feeding factory where my breathing was also a form of wind within the white energy of my situation and the condition of my living body. To make the electrum, I would need to deny this living, white energy and the impositions of my sentence, my prognosis. I would need to invert all things, like Grandfather said, create some splenium of outside-inside where the dark and white matter could collide and reverse all that nature had proposed over the long history of the universe.
Like Grandfather, therefore, I was bringing all things toward me, and simultaneously threatening the cataclysm which would send all life—all being, light and matter—scuttling away into an abyss of absolute nothingness.
So, in the gloom and glare of my isolation, I never felt alone at all. But it was not just the company of these other feeding beings and the visceral voice of Grandfather, his books and thoughts—it was also the insoluble history of the universe which was somehow personified by the Old Gaoler. More than anyone or anything else, the old man, who shuffled his way up the stone stairwell by morning and eventide, delivering and retracting the food, came to represent that Allness of things, living, dead and inanimate. The Old Gaoler was himself a relic, who had somehow extended the natural order of things, beyond what might have been reasonable for the equilibrium of stasis and transition, life and death. In fact, had he ever ventured beyond the walls of the tower, a strong wind would have blown him apart, stripping his skin and leaving his bones to rattle and collapse into the eternal dust.
But then he would bring me food and push his nose through the trap window, asking: ‘Any electrum yet, young Master?’
And on each visit I would respond by saying that I was getting closer to the findings that might produce electrum for the New New Order. The Old Gaoler, clinging miraculously to his own life, would say—‘Very good. Very good. We have to keep those dogs from the door.’
But the truth was, I had no passion for the task, and the idea of my own extermination appeared not to be a reasonable motivation for destroying the universe—a conclusion which Grandfather must also have drawn. No, I was content enough to continue my reading and forestall annihilation, either of myself, all things or both. Better to continue the pantomime, as Mother had imagined it. To raise and retrieve the veil. To find comfort, that is, in the blessings of breath, no matter how precarious or evanescent that final expiration.
At least that was how I continued to feel up until the last few days in which I was expending this breath. It must have been like that for Grandfather too. First when he was in this cell and was threatened, like me, with execution; and then in the last days when the Pox was overwhelming his organs, and the world became a miasma of hopeless and irredeemable misery.
At moments, especially during the nights, I found myself gasping too. Or rather grasping too. In those last days I dreamed about the pink-lipped girl to whom I was betrothed. I dreamed about Grandfather, Father, Elixia the Shorter and, of course, poor Mother. I thought, perhaps, it might have been for her that I would manufacture their electrum. Had I done so, had I destroyed the universe in that way, it would have at least meant a more dignified and instantaneous death—for all of us.
On the other hand, death by soldier ants might have given Mother the opportunity to do her own dreaming. To imagine herself skewering and humming with Father, overflowing with love and milk, holding her babies to her breast. At least there would be that.
So, even in those last days, I could not conjure regret, just as I could not have conjured the Hydrosoar or any other sprit-creature to materialize and save me.
There was only the Old Gaoler, who came to me, as though borne by the wind himself, to call to me from the trap window, to talk and sing a few songs.
‘If you cast a spell on me,’ the Old Gaoler said, ‘then you could force me to open the door and you could escape.’
‘I don’t know any spells,’ I confided.
‘And I don’t have the keys. I am a gaoler only by name. I have had no keys for forty years.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said, ‘you need a new profession.’
‘No,’ the old man answered. ‘This job does me fine. And besides, there is nothing else that suits my talents.’
In those last days the Gaoler had come to realize that I wouldn’t make the electrum, no matter what. He’d reconciled himself, just as he had a thousand times before, I guessed, tending the last moments of many lives, tending the sadness and the loss that was to come.
On that last day, he brought my food, and with the same melancholia, announced that the Terrorpins were coming for me at midday, and that I would be taken into the Capital Square and burned alive.
There are now many versions of my escape. The most popular, as I now recall, has me tied to a post in the city square, my arms stretched overhead and my feet buried in Grandfather’s books. There is a large crowd gathered. They are expecting a miracle which, to their wonderment and stupefaction, seems to come as I am stripped naked and the torchman raises his flame. I had anticipated this moment and had removed my strapping and artificial gonads. I had cut away as much as my plump and pitae hair to ensure maximum impression.
It works gloriously. The whole crowd gasps. And the torchman holds back the flame, hoping, I expect, to extend his carnal gaze. When I look out at the crowd some are looking nervous, expecting some other horror or spell to befall them. Others, mostly men, have taken down their breeches and are fondling themselves. Some others are coupling. The torchman, arresting himself, is struck on the face by the Terrorpin, who seizes the flame and declares an end to all sorcery and naked women. As he is about to incinerate the books and me, one of the men in the crowd leaps forward, his breeches open. He knocks the Terrorpin to the ground, sending the torch into a bundle of firesticks—‘I haven’t finished yet, knackerhead!’ the man yells.
Then another man comes forward and knocks the first man down. A brawl erupts and the Terrorpins retreat. A young woman, who looks remarkably like me, emerges through the smoke and releases me. We steal away through the city gates as the brawling men and inferno spread around us.
The second version is also very nice. In this version of the story, it is the same thing. I am stripped, the crowd gasps, the torchman pauses. This time, however, it is the Hydrosoar who saves me. She is flying over the city walls in the form of a giant Sea Goose. Now the whole crowd drops to their knees in trembling and prayer. As the Terrorpins run for their lives. The Goose bites away the chains and pisses on the flames around my pyre. The piss sends sparks high into the air, torching firesticks and thatching. As the city burns, the Sea Goose bears me aloft, flying and swooping over the palace, the garrison and the tower. Flying past the tower window, I see the Old Gaoler waving his hands and laughing. But all the other citizens of the city appear inert—frozen by fear, frozen by panic. They stand motionless, looking skyward, as the flying Hydrosoar eclipses the sun and carries me away.
Now the third version, and the one I like the most, was foretold in the Book of al-Kimiya which Grandfather had stolen from the Great Library of Toledo. This version has me chained to the post, stripped naked and preparing myself for death. The torchman is struck to the ground by the Terrorpin leader who takes the flame and sets the books alight. The flames tease at my skin, but I am imagining them to be like the caress of a lover. How I imagine love to be. The flames rise around my face, filling my eyes and nostrils with smoke that is the perfume of sandalwood and incense. I feel faint with the richness and wild beauty of the inferno, and I allow myself to drift away.
Suddenly I feel the warm air turning cool, like wind on a winter lake. I hear the crowd screaming as the flames leap across the city, turning everything to fire and ash. My chains are white hot. They become brittle and shatter. As I step out of my own inferno, I see that the books have not burned at all, but still lie in their undignified heap on the ground. I bend to them and stack them into some order.
Now everything is in flames. The scented smoke fills the air. People are running in all directions trying to escape the conflagration. The city gates have been opened, and the whole of the Capital is emptying, like overloaded bowels, into the surrounding fields and the river that runs about its edge.
Somewhere in Grandfather’s Book of Alchemy I had read that Truth exists in the surface tension of Fable. I have grown old reflecting on that aporia.
It turns out that the Old Gaoler was a longstanding member of an incarcerator Guild. The primary mission of the guild was to release as many prisoners as possible without the emancipators being detected and executed. The Old Gaoler had a secret chamber which connected to the prison cell and led to a labyrinth of tunnels which transected the whole city.
‘I released your grandfather,’ he told me, chuckling through a toothless smile. ‘All those years ago …’ Apparently, Grandfather had invented the whole Hydrosoar story in order to distract the investigators, and give the illusion of an alchemy that had mysterious powers for those who already hoped that it did.
Which, to some extent, was also the point of me being naked in the stories of my release. Watching me piss and smelling my skin, the Old Gaoler had deduced, from virtually the first day, that I was wearing veils. He had sent a message through the Guild and across the wider matrix of secret societies which formed the Augmented Matrix of Accomplices (AMA). Mother had followed the Terrorpin arrest party into the city and was making contact with various chapters of the AMA. Together, Mother, the Gaoler and other members of the AMA determined to light a small fire in the rubbish that was piled around the Capital Square. The fire would create a smoke-screen, allowing for my escape, and perhaps the liberation of the city itself.
When we emerged from the tunnels, however, and saw that the whole city was alight, the Old Gaoler told me that he thought the city needed a good clean up anyway. ‘Too many old buildings, blocked sewers and rat pits’ he chuckled again. ‘Not enough natural light…and too many old men…’
We worked our way through the city gates and down to the river where I saw Mother, embracing another young woman who looked remarkably like me.
Mother looked up at me, saying—‘Don’t you recognize your own sister? This is Hermes the Tristone, once Elixia the Shorter, who now takes your old name!’ My sister and I embraced with tears and fervid explanation.
As it went, Elixia and the Lieutenant who dragooned him fell rapidly and deeply in love with each other. In order to protect Elixia, the Lieutenant took him as his concubine and encouraged him to become a woman. Elixia—now Hermes—was also a student of Grandfather’s books. She ingested the Fruit of the Mews which made her jaw retract, her voice lighten and her breasts grow. Now she wore her hair in long plaits, her lips were soft, and her hips were broad.
As we watched the city still burning, Hermes the Tristone and her Lieutenant exhorted the crowd to overthrow the New New Order who had wreaked such terrible destruction upon the metropolis. The crowd agreed and threw all authorities into the river, including rulers, loyalists, guards, priests and Terrorpins. Hermes and the Lieutenant then organized the extinguishment of the fire and all was well.
The crowd declared Hemres and the Lieutenant Saviours of the City, appointing them to the new role of Empress and Dauphin. The new Empress and Dauphin, however, held their power for just a few moments, as their first and only act of government was to annul their own positions and all other ‘grotesque and unendurable forms of authority’. In the place of such authority a series of Aleph communidoms were formed across the city and through the Lands. These Alephs were designed to share resources and responsibilities without recourse to fear, differentiation and violence. All love was permitted and evil was to be deflected, distracted or banished through the consensus communitarianism of the Aleph. Evil, it was said, would no longer be necessary.
After some months of helping the couple set up the community systems, Mother and I returned to the quiet of our village. While the rains still came and went, and the rats continued to grow teeth, the air was clean and the wild flowers bloomed through every spring.
Mother decided to marry the Alderman and take the role of second wife.
‘This is right for me,’ she explained. ‘He is a dog’s arsehole, I know, but he has a comfortable chair and he has some talent as a skewerman. Besides, I like his first wife, who swims in the river every day and keeps a tidy bed. My needs are simple.’
As for me, I married my betrothed, the girl with pink lips. Her name is Forgiveness. We hum happily together and we are able to live in relative peace with our neighbours. With my sister’s help, Forgiveness and I have borne two children, who play in the fields in summer and in the mud in winter. I am free to study Grandfather’s books, and practice my art of alchemy.
Jeff Lewis in Tianya, Indonesia.