The alchemasters apprent.., p.10
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.10

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘You mean there isn’t any man in the moon?’ Echo asked anxiously.

  ‘No!’ said Theodore. ‘There isn’t a woman in the moon either, or a mooncalf! Or any Volcanic Dwarfs or Crater Dragons! The moon doesn’t shine so nicely because it’s made of silver sprinkled with diamond dust!’

  ‘Really not?’ said Echo. ‘Why, then?’

  ‘I can see we’ll have to adopt a far more emelentary approach,’ said Theodore. ‘My goodness, where to start?’

  Echo sighed. ‘I know little enough about the world down here, but even less about the ones up there.’

  ‘First the holes,’ said Theodore. ‘They aren’t holes at all, they’re stars - suns like ours, but much further away. Got that?’

  ‘Suns,’ said Echo. ‘Got it.’

  ‘Good. Those are what exists in the uniserve: suns, platens, gaxalies - everything one can see and measure. Everything that exists.’ ‘Everything that exists,’ Echo repeated.

  ‘And do you see what’s in between the stars?’ Theodore raised one wing and indicated the night sky with a sweeping gesture.

  ‘The black stuff? Yes, I see it.’

  ‘But it’s nothing at all, so how can you see it?’

  ‘I don’t know …’ Echo replied uncertainly. ‘I just can.’

  ‘Exactly. It’s nothing, but you can see it just the same. That’s what might exist in the uniserve - what can’t be measured. There are lots of words for it. Fate. Love. Death …’

  ‘Death …’ Echo repeated darkly.

  ‘But we won’t bother about that for the moment. Let’s begin by contrencating on what definitely exists in the uniserve - on light rather than darkness. On the stars.’

  ‘Actually,’ said Echo, ‘I’m not all that interested in the stars. It’s the moon that interests me.’

  The Tuwituwu gave him a sidelong glance. ‘Do you know why Crats are so scafinated by the moon? Especially by the full or Ugglian moon?’

  ‘Why should the full moon be called the Ugglian moon?’ Echo demanded. ‘What do Ugglies have to do with the moon?’

  ‘Nothing at all, properly speaking. It’s just a bit of medieval nonsense that’s survived until today. Strange things can happen when the moon is full, as you know. People do things they wouldn’t normally do, and since it’s always been the custom in Zamonia to blame the Ugglies for anything one doesn’t want to be held responsible for, they’re reputed to cast a spell over the moon when it’s full. That’s why it’s called the Ugglian moon. And the Ugglian moon, in its turn, is reputed to cast a spell over people and make them do crazy things. In the Middle Ages you could do all kinds of things: set fire to your neighbour’s house, paint his cow green and dance naked on your roof. As long as you did it when the moon was full, the Ugglies always got the blame.’

  ‘To be honest,’ said Echo, ‘I sometimes get the feeling that the full moon casts a spell over me.’

  ‘That brings us back to my original question. Why do you think Crats are so scafinated by the full moon?’

  ‘I really don’t know, but when it’s full I always feel … well, so crattish, as I call it.’

  ‘You feel particularly lively, you mean?’

  ‘Yes, exactly. I hardly sleep at all and when I do I have such funny dreams. And get such funny feelings.’

  ‘Funny dreams, funny feelings,’ said Theodore. ‘Well, well, that brings us to the subject of things that might exist, like the darkness between the stars. In this instance, love. Some people get bitten by it, others don’t.’

  ‘Love?’ said Echo. That was something he had yet to learn about.

  ‘You’re still very young. You haven’t reached buperty yet.’

  ‘Buperty?’

  ‘Well, how can I put it?’ Theodore faltered for a moment. He seemed to have ventured too far. Echo still wasn’t ready for this subject. ‘Yes, well …’ he said. ‘Didn’t your mistress enlighten you?’

  ‘Enlighten me? About what?’

  ‘Well, about it.’

  ‘It? What’s “it”?’

  ‘I’m talking about love. About … oh dear, how can I put it?’

  Theodore sensed that he was getting into dangerous waters, so he tried to cut this awkward conversation short. ‘Well, it’s all to do with Cratesses.’ He heaved a sigh of relief, as if that said it all.

  But Echo persisted. ‘Cratesses?’

  ‘Yes, female Crats.’

  ‘You mean there’s another kind of Crat?’

  ‘Oh yes, certainly. Quite another kind. Tell me, do you really have no idea how you came into the world?’

  ‘Yes, my mistress told me she found me in a clump of Cratmint.’

  Theodore groaned. ‘Oh dear, oh dear …’

  ‘You mean she was lying to me?’

  ‘Yes. No. Yes! I mean, er … Look, I won’t go into all the giobolical details now, I’ll simply give you a very avebbriated account of them, cencontrating on the bare essentials. All right?’

  ‘All right.’ Echo pricked up his ears.

  ‘Well, it’s like this. There aren’t any Cratesses left here in Lamaisea, but there may still be a few over there beyond the hoziron, on the far side of the mountains. Where love is concerned, they’ll have all the answers to your questions.’

  ‘Then I’ll never get to hear them,’ Echo said sadly, looking up at the moon again. ‘Ghoolion will slit my throat first.’

  The Tuwituwu, who had been finding their conversation more and more embarrassing, flapped his wings and rose into the air.

  ‘Nightfall!’ he cried. ‘Time to go hunting! As I already told you, I unfortunately have to ornagise my own meals.’

  And he went into a nosedive.

  Echo continued to sit on the roof for a long time. He surveyed the Blue Mountains on the horizon, whose peaks were being carved out of the darkness by the faint light of the moon. Did another kind of Crat really exist beyond them? One that could dispel the restlessness he always experienced when the moon was full? The old nightbird couldn’t have expressed himself less clearly if he’d tried. Echo was feeling even more puzzled than before.

  He looked up at the moon again and, although it was still far from full, he had an almost irresistible urge to utter a loud, piercing miaow.

  Ghoolion’s Torture Chamber

  The feeling that overcame Echo whenever he watched Ghoolion cooking was a blend of amazement, fascination and disgust. Within his personal domain the Alchemaster was an omnipotent tyrant. Malaisea was his kingdom, the castle his stronghold, the laboratory his throne room - and the kitchen his torture chamber. The cleavers and boning knives, meat mallets, potato mashers and pans of boiling oil were his instruments of torture and execution, the foodstuffs his submissive slaves, who flung themselves into boiling water or on to a red-hot grill at his behest. Eggs waited humbly to be beheaded, poultry volunteered to be dismembered or spatchcocked, steaks to be beaten tender, lobsters to be boiled alive.

  ‘Beat me!’ cried the cream.

  ‘Reduce me!’ gasped the gravy.

  ‘Drown me in dressing!’ groaned the salad.

  Ghoolion carved a joint or kneaded a lump of dough as if dissecting or throttling a living creature. Like an executioner, he hurried from one instrument of torture to another, from grill to chopping block, as if eager to scorch or scald or hack his victims to death. Tongues of fire licked greedily at his frying pans and ignited the hot oil. Yellow flames leapt high into the air, lighting up the Alchemaster in a dramatic fashion. Wind blew in through the open windows, plucking at the steam rising from his pots and pans and inflating his cloak. The old man’s performance at the stove would have made a good circus act.

  ‘Anyone who can’t stand the heat’, he called to Echo above the hiss of the flames, ‘has no business in the kitchen!’ He removed red-hot casseroles from the oven without gloves, dipped his fingers in boiling soup to taste it and scooped fried potatoes out of seething fat with his bare hands.

  ‘Of course I feel the pain,’ he said when
he noticed Echo’s look of horror. ‘I don’t respect it, that’s all.’

  When he hurried from one part of the kitchen to another - hurried, mark you, not dashed - his movements were economical and unerring. Nothing ever got burnt or boiled over. At the Restaurant Ghoolion, the Alchemaster was head chef, sauce chef, waiter, wine waiter and dishwasher all rolled up into one. No tasks were beneath his dignity. He performed them all with the same ceremonious care and attention. When he wielded a kitchen knife his fast-moving hands were a blur. One heard the machine-gun burst of the blade on the chopping board and there lay a heap of gossamer-thin onion rings, a mound of finely chopped chives or a consummate tuna tartare. He carved a joint of roast beef with the unruffled precision of a brain surgeon, so perfectly that no slice ever disintegrated. Without even looking, he flipped omelettes in the air as deftly as a fairground juggler. He tossed chopped herbs boldly into saucepans without dropping a single little thyme leaf. Echo saw him fillet cloves of garlic with a dissecting knife and a diamond-cutter’s magnifying glass, or lather apricots with whipped cream and shave them with a cut-throat razor because he considered their furry skins too bristly. He also witnessed an occasion when Ghoolion skewered a grain of caviar with a red-hot needle and kebabbed it under the microscope.

  The discipline prevailing in Ghoolion’s kitchen was worthy of a Bookholmian fire station, its precision of a watchmaker’s workshop and its hygiene of an operating theatre. The gleaming knives were sterilised and restored to razor-edged sharpness every day. Every meat fork, egg whisk and copper kettle was burnished until it sparkled in the candlelight. The ready-peeled potatoes in the saucepan were as alike as peas in a pod, the shallots chopped into cubes of exactly equal size, the spice jars always well filled and smartly aligned like toy soldiers on parade. As for eating off the floor, in Ghoolion’s kitchen one really could have engaged in that proverbial activity without encountering a single bacterium. In those surroundings, any pathogen would have felt like a lone flea marooned on an alien planet impregnated with insecticide. The flagstones were sealed with floor polish. Sink, chopping boards, working surfaces - every cubic centimetre of the kitchen was regularly scrubbed with acetic acid and sal ammoniac. Ghoolion was afflicted with the same restlessness in his kitchen as he was in his laboratory. He blended herbs, pounded peppercorns in the mortar, mixed salad dressings, made stock from bones, salted butter, whipped cream, skimmed gravy or pickled eggs for future consumption. He never allowed himself a break.

  When Ghoolion was engaged in preparing a menu his movements became so fluid that they acquired a balletic quality. The noises that surrounded him - the gurgling song of soup, the crackle of meat roasting in the oven, the hiss of flames and hot fat - combined with his clattering footsteps to produce a culinary symphony that made the saucepan lids dance to its melodic rhythms.

  What surprised Echo, however, was that he very seldom saw the Alchemaster eat anything. The most Ghoolion ever did was to take a bite out of an apple or a slice of stale bread. He never even tasted the dishes he served his lodger and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. It was as if he denied himself the substance he coveted from other living creatures.

  On the other hand he took a theoretical interest in every kind of food and its preparation. He was a walking encyclopedia when it came to recipes, cooking times, vitamin content, carving methods, food preservation, knife care, seasoning, marinating, blending or macerating. He was never too busy shuttling back and forth between stove and table to entertain Echo with some informative lecture. The little Crat learnt that, in addition to being fried, grilled or roasted, food could be ghoolionised or zamoniated, and that dressing a fowl did not mean dolling it up but using kitchen string to truss it into a shape suitable for roasting in the oven. Echo learnt all about the care of copper vessels, the great art of soufflé-making and Early Zamonian pressure-cooking techniques. No food was so uninteresting, no subject so dry or abstruse that Ghoolion could not strike some entertaining sparks from it. And he had recorded all this knowledge, all his notes, all his ideas on gourmandism and the art of cooking, by jotting them down in a big book with a smoked Marsh Hogskin cover. Whenever Echo wasn’t watching the Alchemaster at work in the kitchen, he liked to look through that wonderful culinary tome, which abounded in the most mouth-watering recipes.

  One evening - the two of them were standing in front of a kitchen cupboard - Ghoolion suddenly laid aside the egg he was peeling. Unlocking the door, he invited Echo to look inside the cupboard and tell him what it contained. Echo did as he was bidden, but all he could see was a dusty jumble of unidentifiable kitchen utensils.

  ‘No idea,’ said Echo. ‘Just junk of some kind.’

  ‘That’, Ghoolion said in a voice quivering with rage, ‘is my dungeon for useless kitchen utensils. There’s one such in every kitchen worthy of the name. Its inmates are kept there like especially dangerous patients in a mental institution.’

  He reached into the cupboard and brought out an odd-looking implement.

  ‘What cook’, he cried, ‘does not possess such a gadget, which can sculpt a radish into a miniature rose? I acquired it at a fair in one of those moments of mental derangement when life without a miniature-rose-cutting gadget seems unimaginable.’

  He hurled the thing back into the darkness and brought out another.

  ‘Or this here, which enables one to cut potatoes into spirals five yards long! Or this, a press for juicing turnips! Or this, a frying pan for producing rectangular omelettes!’

  Ghoolion took gadget after gadget from the cupboard and held them under Echo’s nose, glaring at them angrily.

  ‘What induced me to buy all these? What can one do with potato spirals long enough to decorate a banqueting hall? What demented voice convinced me in a whisper that I might some day be visited by guests with an insatiable hankering for turnip juice, rectangular omelettes and potatoes five yards long?’

  He hurled the gadgets back into their dungeon with a look of disgust. Dust went billowing into the air and Echo sneezed involuntarily.

  ‘Why, I ask myself, don’t I simply chuck them all on to the rubbish dump? I’ll tell you that too. I keep them for one reason alone: revenge! I keep them just as medieval princes kept their enemies on starvation rations. A quick death on a rubbish dump would be too merciful. No, let them languish in a gloomy dungeon, condemned to everlasting inactivity. That’s the only condign punishment for a rectangular omelette pan!’

  So saying, Ghoolion slammed the cupboard door and turned the key three times in the lock. Then he went on cooking as if nothing had happened.

  From that day on, Echo regarded the kitchen cupboard - and the bottommost compartment in particular - with new eyes. No longer a cupboard, it was a medieval fortress whose dungeon harboured a terrible secret. He often slunk past it, and when all was quiet he would put his ear to the door and listen. And he sometimes fancied he could actually hear Ghoolion’s pitiful captives whimpering for mercy - pleading to be allowed to rust away on a rubbish dump.

  A Legal Consultation

  Having now been Ghoolion’s guest for quite some time, Echo felt so at home in the Alchemaster’s castle that it never even occurred to him to leave it. Either he was far too busy eating, drinking and indulging in long, digestive siestas, or he was watching Ghoolion’s alchemical and culinary experiments. He didn’t even have time for a stroll in the town, for the ancient castle itself afforded plenty of scope for long and interesting excursions.

  It was only when he was sitting up on the roof with Theodore, surveying the wide expanse of countryside below, that he sometimes yearned to explore the mysterious regions beyond the mountains, where lived the other kind of Crat to which the Tuwituwu had alluded in such a cryptic undertone.

  ‘You recently said that contracts were made to be broken,’ Echo reminded him during one of their conspiratorial get-togethers. ‘What exactly did you mean?’

  Theodore lethargically raised his single eyelid. ‘What I said,’ he replied.

/>   ‘But breaking a contract would be illegal, wouldn’t it?’

  ‘Of course, but you have to make up your mind which is worse: the fate that awaits you if you abide by it or the penalty you’ll incur if you break it.’

  ‘That’s just what’s on my mind,’ said Echo. ‘The fate that awaits me if I abide by the contract is to have my throat cut.’

  ‘That strikes me as an inapprapriote reward for peeking an agreement,’ the Tuwituwu growled. ‘It’s tosipively unjust. Too unjust for almost any crime I can think of.’

  ‘Still, I wonder what legal penalty I’d incur if I broke my contract with Ghoolion. Might it be equally harsh?’

  ‘Hm,’ said Theodore, ‘I can give you a pretty precise answer to that. I’m something of an expert on prurisjudence, as you know. There’s a precedent where Alchemasters and Crats are concerned - a case that was tried in Baysville two hundred and fifty years ago. A Crat had cantrocted with an Alchemaster to keep his house free from mice for the rest of his life, but the said Crat vedeloped an allergy to mice and was unable to filful his oglibations. The Alchemaster hauled him before the court. Alchemasters tend to be rather tiligious, I’m afraid.’

  ‘Was this a comparable case?’ Echo asked.

  ‘You could say that. Similar charge: breach of cantroct. The fact that your life is at stake would be a timigating factor, I’m sure, and the laws have been relaxed a bit in the last two hundred and fifty years. I don’t even know if what Ghoolion expects of you is legal these days.’

  ‘How did that old case turn out?’

  ‘The Crat lost.’

  ‘I guessed as much! What was he sentenced to?’

  ‘A week in a cage in a home for strays. On bread and water.’

  ‘Is that all? Only a week?’

  ‘He had to share the cage with a mastiff.’

  ‘Oh …’ said Echo.

  ‘But the good news is: the Crat survived. He lost an ear, one leg and his tail, but he lived to a ripe old age. And as I said, it was a long time ago. Barbaric customs veprailed in those days - they were largely resbonsiple for mecidating your breed. And in your case timigating factors would come into play - for instance, the weakened condition in which you signed the cantroct, possibly even mental disequibilrium. I reckon you could well be acquitted - in fact, I strongly doubt if there’s a judge today who wouldn’t misdiss the case out of hand.’

 

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