The alchemasters apprent.., p.11
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.11

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘Now you tell me?!’ Echo exclaimed. ‘So what am I doing here? Why don’t I simply make a run for it?’

  Theodore spread his wings. ‘You’re here to fill your belly, I assume. You’re boviously enjoying your food.’

  Echo made a sheepish gesture. ‘Yes, yes, I know. I’ve put on a bit of weight - no need to keep harping on it.’

  ‘If you want to get out of here somehow, you’d better remain in shape. There may come a time when you need to be feet on your fast and in good condition. The cantroct doesn’t say you have to eat everything Ghoolion puts in front of you, does it?’

  ‘No,’ Echo conceded more sheepishly still.

  ‘Well, then. Chew a few herbs. Avoid greasy foods, eat wholesome salads. I myself am not the slimmest of birds, but at least I stick to a labanced diet. For instance, I always have a getevarian breakfast: a juniper berry, a few blades of grass, a hazelnut and three wild strawberries. A healthy start to the day does my gidestive sestym good.’

  ‘I’ll make a note of that,’ Echo promised.

  ‘But where were we?’ said Theodore. ‘You asked me why you don’t simply make a run for it - why you don’t let the cantroct go hang and disappear into the blue?’

  ‘Exactly. What’s to stop me?’

  ‘You could always try,’ the Tuwituwu said in a low voice.

  ‘What do you mean, try? What would be so difficult about it? Ghoolion doesn’t keep me under lock and key. I could run off any time he’s otherwise engaged.’

  ‘So try it.’

  ‘Why say that in such a funny tone of voice?’

  ‘Try it and the best of luck to you.’

  ‘I mean, what could he do?’ Echo demanded. ‘He couldn’t put a spell on me or anything, he’s just an alchemist. I don’t know why everyone’s so dead scared of him. I may have gained a pound or two, but I’m still faster on my feet than him - faster than anyone else in Malaisea.’

  ‘Then you definitely ought to try it. You have my blessing.’

  ‘I’ll sneak off under cover of darkness, then head across the mountains.’

  ‘So give the mountains my regards.’

  Echo stared at Theodore suspiciously. ‘There’s that funny tone of voice again,’ he said.

  ‘All I’m saying is’, Theodore replied, ‘Ghoolion has ways and means of trusfrating other people’s plans. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should leave any turn unstoned.’

  ‘I’m going to run away,’ Echo said defiantly. ‘Let’s see what happens then.’

  ‘You must do what you can’t avoid doing,’ said Theodore and heaved a big sigh. His watery gaze lingered on Echo until the little Crat grew uncomfortable. ‘But you must sometimes avoid doing what you can’t do,’ he added enigmatically.

  The Wine Tasting

  The first thing Echo noticed when he entered the kitchen that evening was an array of bottles, glasses and bowls on the table. Equally unusual was the fact that the stove wasn’t in use and no steaming dishes were in evidence, just some bread and a wooden board bearing an assortment of cheeses. He also registered the fact that Ghoolion’s high cheekbones were faintly flushed in a way that made him look a trifle less ghostly.

  ‘I’m now going to improve your education,’ said Ghoolion. He spoke somewhat more loudly than usual - more slowly, too, as if he found talking more of an effort today. ‘If we’re to make a gourmet of you, you must also learn something about the noblest of all beverages.’ He picked up an open bottle and poured some red liquid into one of seven cut-glass bowls standing on the table. Then he took a second bottle and poured some yellow liquid into another bowl.

  Echo jumped up on the table and sniffed the liquid inquisitively. ‘I’ve never drunk any of this stuff before,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know if it’ll agree with me.’

  ‘Crats have two livers,’ said Ghoolion. ‘It’ll agree with you, never fear.’ He went on filling the bowls with liquid, some red, some yellow.

  ‘What kind of juice is this?’ Echo enquired. ‘My mistress never drank any. Why is some pale and some dark?’

  ‘This is wine,’ Ghoolion said solemnly. ‘Wine is drinkable sunlight. It’s the most glorious summer’s day imaginable, captured in a bottle. Wine can be a melody in a cut-glass goblet, but it can also be a cacophony in a dirty tumbler, or a rainy autumn night, or a funeral march that scorches your tongue.’

  Wine could evidently be quite a lot of things, Echo reflected.

  ‘Wine’, said Ghoolion, ‘can provide you with the inspiration of a lifetime - or rob you of your wits completely. Where wine is concerned, there’s only one thing to be said about it with any certainty.’

  ‘Which is?’

  ‘The better the wine, the more it costs!’ Ghoolion guffawed at his own little joke. ‘Right, let’s get on with the tasting.’

  Whatever this special kind of juice was, Ghoolion had certainly sampled some. Furthermore, it seemed to have wrought a change in him, whether for better or worse, Echo still couldn’t tell. There was something about the Alchemaster’s manner that was thoroughly out of keeping with his usual grim composure.

  Ghoolion filled a glass with red wine and held it up to the light.

  ‘First,’ he cried, ‘use your eyes!’

  He held the glass close to his face, shut his left eye and stared at it with his right.

  ‘You taste with your eyes as well as your palate,’ he said. ‘Is the wine red or white? The connoisseur can tell whether he’s dealing with a red wine or a white wine. As a general rule, if the wine is translucent and pale gold in colour, it may be a white wine, but if it’s red and inky and you can’t see through it, the chances are that it’s a red wine. If, on the other hand, it’s pink and translucent, it’s a rosé - the hermaphrodite among wines.’

  At the moment, wine seemed to be having a favourable effect on the Alchemaster. For the first time ever, he didn’t appear to be taking what he was saying in Echo’s presence entirely seriously.

  Echo sniffed the wine in the first little bowl. It was dark red and smelt intoxicating. He stuck his tongue in it, intending to lap up a mouthful, then recoiled indignantly.

  ‘Ugh!’ he said, pulling a face.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ Ghoolion asked.

  ‘It tastes funny. So sour.’

  ‘Sour be damned! You’ll soon get used to it. The first sip of wine never tastes nice. Perseverance, that’s the essential thing. Get it down you! Appetite comes with eating and it’s the same with drinking.’

  Echo took a few reluctant sips. Sewer Dragon’s knilch had also tasted nasty at first, but then … He was growing warm, first in the tummy, then in the head. It was a nice feeling. Obediently, he lapped up the rest of the bowl.

  ‘Secondly the nose.’ Ghoolion stuck his long, pointed nose in the glass and sniffed with relish. ‘The wine is now being olfactorily analysed. Aaah! Mm! Does it smell of peach blossom wafted through an olive grove by the breeze in springtime? Of a freshly bisected grapefruit? Or of currant buns and vanilla cream, like this one? If your mistress never touched a drop of wine she was missing something, don’t you agree?’

  ‘Absolutely!’ said Echo, who was now on his second bowl. The wine had already ceased to taste sour. This one had a rather fruity quality, like the sweet acidity of a ripe raspberry. His ears were also getting warm now.

  ‘Well,’ asked Ghoolion, ‘does that taste better?’

  ‘It tashtsh lovely!’ Echo said. Tashtsh? Had he said ‘tashtsh’?

  Ghoolion knocked back his wine and promptly poured himself another glass from a different bottle. He plunged his nose in it and inhaled, only to remove it quickly with a grimace of indignation.

  ‘Or does it smell like a worm-eaten carpenter’s bench? Like a dishcloth soaked in sour milk? Like the sock of a soldier suffering from athlete’s foot? Or, as this disastrous purchase does, like a dead lemming’s sweaty armpit? The secondary aromas have been completely destroyed - a sign of poor fermentation. Away with it!’

  He
flung the glass casually over his shoulder, smashing it on the flagstones.

  Echo marvelled at the Alchemaster’s growing exuberance. The old man had never behaved with such abandon before.

  ‘Shecondary aromash?’ said Echo. It puzzled him that so many of the words he uttered seemed to stick to his tongue.

  ‘Primary aromas are the intrinsic scents of the grape,’ Ghoolion pontificated. ‘Secondary aromas develop in the course of fermentation and tertiary aromas during development in the cask. They combine to form the wine’s bouquet.’

  So wine had a bunch of flowers in it too, thought Echo. It really was a versatile drink. The more of the red juice he lapped up, the more pervaded he became by a feeling of inner serenity and relaxation agreeably reminiscent of bedtime. Except that he didn’t feel like going to sleep, he wanted to stay awake.

  ‘Now,’ said Ghoolion, ‘we come to the ear.’ He picked up another glass, eyed the labels of the bottles on the table with a judicial expression and helped himself to an exceptionally dark red.

  ‘Wine confides its most intimate secrets to the true wine expert,’ he whispered, tapping the glass with a fingernail. A high-pitched note rang out. Ghoolion held the glass close to his ear and listened intently.

  ‘This one comes from Grapefields, the biggest wine-growing area in Zamonia. More precisely, from a vineyard with a sinister local reputation.’

  ‘Did the wine tell you all that?’ Echo listened to one of his bowls but couldn’t hear a thing.

  ‘That and more besides!’ whispered Ghoolion. ‘This wine knows some dark secrets - bad, bad things. Its memories go back many hundreds of years. It’s said to be related to the legendary Comet Wine.’4

  He clamped the glass even harder to his ear. ‘Listen, listen!’ he cried. ‘The depths of the vineyard from which it came are privy to a terrible secret.’

  Echo edged so close to the edge of the table that he nearly fell off. His sense of balance wasn’t as good as usual. He retreated a step and pricked up his ears.

  ‘For a long time,’ Ghoolion went on in a low voice, ‘people in the locality had been wondering where so many grape-pickers disappeared to. No sooner had they started work than they seemed to vanish into thin air. Dozens of them went missing within a few years. They were reputed to be victims of the Ghastly Grappler, a cross between a plant and a predator, which was said to prowl the vineyard at dusk and pounce on defenceless grape-pickers. Half-filled baskets of grapes would sometimes be found, but never a trace of the workers themselves. So the local villagers tried to capture the Grappler. They set werewolf traps, dug pits lined with sharpened stakes and sent armed men to patrol the vineyard at dusk. All the caves in the neighbourhood were searched, but no Ghastly Grappler was sighted and no dead bodies came to light. A few Ugglies were burnt at the stake - that glorious tradition still prevailed in those days! - but to just as little avail. The grape-pickers continued to vanish without a trace.’

  Ghoolion fell silent.

  ‘Well?’ Echo said eagerly.

  ‘Well nothing. End of story.’

  ‘But the secret? The terrible secret?’

  ‘One moment,’ said Ghoolion, fending off the question with an upraised hand. He listened to the glass some more. ‘The wine is just coming to that.’

  He preserved a long silence, nodding gravely from time to time, then stiffened abruptly.

  ‘No!’ he exclaimed.

  ‘What is it?’ Echo gasped, shuffling excitedly from paw to paw. ‘What did it say? What is it?’

  Ghoolion held a hand over his mouth, seemingly frozen with horror.

  ‘I don’t know if I should tell you,’ he said eventually. ‘It might give you nightmares.’

  ‘Oh, go on!’ Echo entreated. ‘Tell me, please!’

  ‘Very well, but only at your express request. Don’t say I didn’t warn you - it isn’t a pretty story.’

  Ghoolion laid the glass aside and made no move to drink its contents.

  ‘Well,’ he said at length, ‘the secret of the accursed vineyard is known only to this wine here, because the vines that produced it were the vineyard’s memory. Its brain. Its nervous system. The vines themselves couldn’t see or hear a thing, but their grapes could sense every movement and their roots probed the bowels of the vineyard. They felt the hands of the workers who relieved them of the weight of the grapes they bore. They knew every earthworm in the soil. They recognised the touch of the winegrower who regularly stroked their leaves to check them for parasites and their roots drank the falling rain. Then, one day, they found they were drinking blood.’

  ‘Blood?’ said Echo.

  ‘Yes, blood. The vineyard was drenched in the stuff and strange things were happening to the grapes. Where they had once been harvested by busy hands, a sudden struggle took place.’

  ‘A struggle? What sort of struggle?’

  ‘Well … Bodies went crashing into the vines and hands clutched desperately at their tendrils. Although the vines couldn’t see or hear this, they could sense that someone was being murdered in the immediate vicinity of their foliage. Then came the blood - gallons of it.’

  With a theatrical gesture, Ghoolion turned his back on Echo.

  ‘This went on for years. First a struggle, then blood seeping into the soil, then months of inactivity, then another struggle and more blood. Meanwhile the vines continued to do their vegetal duty. They grew, put out tendrils, filled their grapes with juice and drank rain - or, sometimes, blood. And their roots probed deeper and deeper into the soil until, one day, they came into contact with what had hitherto been the vineyard’s terrible secret.’

  Ghoolion turned round again. His gaze was fixed and staring.

  ‘The vineyard harboured dozens of corpses in various stages of decomposition. The murdered grape-pickers had been buried there side by side.’

  Echo sat down on his haunches. He was feeling queasy now.

  ‘The vines thought long and hard about this frightful mystery until another fight broke out in their midst. A pair of hands clutched their leaves and the vines recognised their owner as a grape-picker who had often relieved them of overweight grapes in the past. The hands clung on at first with a strength born of despair, then relaxed their grip and went limp. Another grape-picker had bitten the dust! Moments later a different hand took hold of the same bunch of leaves and the vines recognised it as the winegrower’s big, calloused paw. Everything fell into place: it was the winegrower, the owner of the vineyard himself, who was going around murdering people. Shortly afterwards, when blood began to seep into the soil, the vines guessed his motive: he was fertilising his vineyard with blood and decaying bodies to improve its yield.’

  Echo was beside himself with excitement. ‘Go on!’ he exclaimed. ‘What happened then?’

  ‘Well,’ Ghoolion said grimly, ‘what were the vines to do? They were just harmless plants. All they did was produce grapes, put out tendrils and leaves and climb up stakes, but they brooded incessantly on ways of remedying the situation. They alone knew the true circumstances and might be able to end the cycle of violence and blood, because the murders continued unabated - in fact, they occurred at ever shorter intervals.’

  Echo shut his eyes, trying to picture the vineyard, but his head swam and he quickly opened them again.

  ‘The more murders the winegrower committed, and the more he manured the soil with blood, the more clearly the vines sensed the changes taking place inside them. They grew faster and became more resistant to disease. Much to the satisfaction of their murderous owner, they produced ever more, ever finer and sweeter grapes. Their tendrils became ever stronger, their leaves ever bigger, their wine ever better and more abundant. Meanwhile, the winegrower became ever richer. Insane though it was, his scheme was working, thanks to the blood of the murdered grape-pickers pulsating inside his vines. What the murderer never guessed, however, was that his victims’ thirst for revenge was also growing stronger by the day. The vines now sprawled across the hillside like a jungle.
Bigger and bigger stakes had had to be driven into the ground to keep pace with their growth, yet they continued to grow, sending their tendrils spiralling into the air and their roots burrowing into the soil. The paths between the rows became so overgrown that the workers had to part the foliage with their hands in order to make their way along them. Hidden from view in this way, the murderer found it even easier to kill and bury his victims. The workforce of his accursed vineyard, from which grape-pickers disappeared almost weekly, was now limited to the poorest of the poor, who had no alternative.’

  Ghoolion broke off for a moment. He seemed to be summoning up the strength to recount some even more grisly details.

  ‘One night the winegrower went on the prowl again. He was the last person anyone would have suspected - his public complaints about the loss of his workers were all too believable. No one guessed the terrible connection between their disappearance and the vines’ exceptional growth. It was dusk when he entered the vineyard and he rejoiced to see that his vines were more luxuriant than ever. He picked a grape and tasted it. It was plump and sweet, and twice the size of a normal grape. Then he stroked a leaf to see if it was free from disease. The vine seemed to recoil as he touched it, but he dismissed the notion; no plant could move quicker than the eye can see. He lifted a few more leaves to see if the movement had been occasioned by some insect, but there was nothing there.’

  Ghoolion had now begun to pace up and down in front of Echo’s table.

  ‘Satisfied, the murderer made his way further into the vineyard. The light was fading fast as he went in search of another victim. He soon came upon one: a young woman picking grapes higher up the slope, far enough from the rest for him to be able to go about his bloody business undisturbed. She gave a start when he materialised beside her, but was reassured to see that it was only her employer and went on working. The winegrower tore off some tendrils and twisted them together to form a noose - an ideal murder weapon that could simply be tossed into the undergrowth when the deed was done. Just then, he caught his foot in the nearest vine and tugged at it impatiently in an attempt to free himself.

 
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