The alchemasters apprent.., p.12
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.12

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘But the tendrils tightened about his ankles, first one, then the other. Realising that something was amiss, he uttered a terrified cry. The grape-picker straightened up in alarm. One look at the noose in her employer’s hands told her that he was the murderer, so she took to her heels. The winegrower tried to follow her, but the tendrils secured him to the ground like iron chains. The vine had now encircled his wrists, arms and legs, and one particularly strong tendril was winding itself about his neck. The ground beneath him opened like a grave and roots came snaking out of it. A big vine leaf plastered itself to the murderer’s mouth, smothering his cries. He was dragged into the depths. Earth and leaves, pebbles and twigs came raining down, roots wrapped themselves round him like a cocoon.

  ‘And then the murderer’s victims made their appearance. They emerged from the ground, which was heaving like a storm-tossed sea, in various stages of decomposition. Thanks to the way in which the roots made the corpses rise and fall and their limbs swing to and fro, they looked as if they’d been restored to life. The winegrower was still conscious when the dead, with him as their prey, buried themselves in the ground once more. Everything grew darker and darker, until, in the end, his eyes became clogged with blood-soaked soil and he breathed his last.’

  Ghoolion fell silent.

  ‘Did the wine tell you all that?’ asked Echo.

  The Alchemaster reached for the glass he’d laid aside and held it up.

  ‘Yes, it did,’ he replied. ‘It’s a very talkative wine. The story it told was pretty gruesome, I know, but that’s no reflection on the wine itself.’

  So saying, he drained the glass at a gulp. Echo went over to one of his bowls and refreshed himself likewise. The queasy sensation that had overcome him subsided at once.

  ‘And now,’ Ghoolion said brightly, ‘the next stage in our tasting.’ He poured himself a glass of white wine.

  ‘You mean there’s more?’ said Echo.

  ‘Yes indeed. We’re now going to establish telepathic contact with the wine and extract its every last secret. What of its philosophical qualities? Is it optimistic or pessimistic? Is it lively or dull? Does drinking it render you exuberantly cheerful or lugubriously introspective? Is it the kind of wine that breeds ideas notable for their precision and razor-sharp logic, or brutish instinctive urges that could culminate in a tavern brawl? Only one thing can answer that question, and that’s the wine’s most volatile ingredient: its spirit. In other words its alcoholic content.’

  Ghoolion’s eyes clouded over and his shoulders drooped a little. He had returned to reality and his favourite field of study: volatile substances. Echo was afraid he might go back to work at once.

  Instead, he merely drained his glass. ‘Aaah!’ he said. ‘A definite optimist, this wine! A free-thinking aesthete - one wouldn’t mind having a few cases of it in one’s cellar.’ He hurled his glass into the fireplace, where it shattered.

  ‘He’s really got the bit between his teeth,’ thought Echo and he treated himself to another little bowl of wine. His feeling of gaiety was verging on the euphoric.

  Ghoolion poured himself such a generous glass of dark red wine that it overflowed.

  ‘And now,’ he cried, ‘the tasting proper!’

  Seemingly quite unworried by the amount of red liquid that was trickling down his chin and into his collar, Ghoolion took an enormous swig and held it in his mouth. He chewed it for an unconscionable length of time before gulping it down and draining the rest of the glass.

  ‘Aaaaah! Precocious, but already full of character! A stout backbone of walnuts and strawberries. Playful, but in an earthy, honest way. A trace of liquorice lingers on the uvula before it plumbs the depths of the oesophagus. A note of maturity reminiscent of an old violin playing a familiar lullaby. The inevitable peach flavours that lurk in every red, but crisply coated in biscuit crumbs. I detect candle grease. Virgin snow. Gingerbread. Lack of finesse offset by a youthful acidity which is somewhat rough around the edges but well nailed down. I also get young leather, rusty iron, damp carpets, glazier’s putty, pine needles. Roast goose, too, and my late grandmother’s blackberry tart. Full-bodied, but I’d describe it as plump rather than fat, with excessively large feet. The finish, which is as broad as it’s long, like the note of an ancient funeral bell tolling in the subterranean vaults of a catacomb inhabited by seven hundred naked, starving dwarfs, is lubricated by a soupçon of olive oil.’

  Ghoolion hurled that glass, too, into the fire. Then, clearly yielding to a spontaneous impulse, he took a Horrificomonica from a shelf. Stationing himself at one of the open windows, he applied his bloodless lips to the instrument and proceeded to blow a few experimental notes. The kitchen was filled with their plaintive sound.

  Echo braced himself. The evening was threatening to take an unpleasant turn. He had been compelled to endure many of the Alchemaster’s musical recitals down in the town, and they’d been almost intolerable even at that distance. Now that he was having to submit to one at close range, he feared for his sanity.

  But his fears were dispelled once the first few proper notes rang out. They were so pure, so beautiful and melodious, that it was hard to believe a Horrificomonica could produce them. The sounds Ghoolion coaxed from his instrument were more like those made by a flute; in fact, many were reminiscent of a harp. Echo started to caper around on the tabletop - he simply couldn’t help it. Ghoolion also began to dance, beating out the rhythm with his iron-shod feet.

  Unable to restrain himself any longer, Echo leapt off the table and joined in the Alchemaster’s dance. He cavorted across the kitchen more wildly and uninhibitedly than he had ever done in his life. Ghoolion’s playing became ever louder, his zapateado ever faster. Meanwhile, Echo went bouncing over the tables and benches like a rubber ball. They continued to dance their frantic, seemingly indefatigable tarantella until, all of a sudden, Ghoolion stopped playing and flopped down on a chair, utterly exhausted. Echo, too, noticed that he’d overdone it. He stretched out on the floor, rolled over on his back and stared at the ceiling. Oddly enough, the room began to rotate.

  After a short breather Ghoolion sprang to his feet, gave him a glassy stare and lurched towards the door.

  ‘Hey, where you going, Mashter?’ Echo said thickly. ‘We were jusht getting into the shwing of thingsh.’

  ‘Even the most sociable wine connoisseur has to perform one part of every tasting by himself,’ Ghoolion called over his shoulder.

  ‘You mean there’sh another part?’ asked Echo.

  ‘Yes,’ the Alchemaster said hoarsely, ‘the passing of water!’ And he disappeared through the kitchen door with his cloak billowing out behind him.

  Echo continued to lie there, grinning foolishly to himself and listening to Ghoolion’s hoarse laughter. The old devil doesn’t seem such a bad sort, he thought as his eyes closed and he lapsed into a tipsy torpor filled with dreams as sweet as ripe grapes.

  The Tree of Nutledge

  Echo found it an effort to open his bleary eyes. When he finally ungummed them, Ghoolion was standing over him, staring down with a face devoid of expression. Bright early morning sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen windows. As motionless as if he’d been struck by a bolt from the blue, the Alchemaster resembled one of his own stuffed mummies. Roused at last by this sinister sight, Echo rolled over on his side - and promptly regretted it. He had spent all night lying on his back, just the way he’d gone to sleep, and his muscular reaction to this sudden movement was painful in the extreme. Laboriously, he scrambled to his feet.

  ‘I take it you aren’t feeling too much like food at present,’ Ghoolion said coldly. He had reverted to his role as a forbidding Alchemaster and looked as if their binge had left him entirely unaffected.

  ‘That’s why I’ve prepared you only a frugal breakfast,’ he went on. ‘I trust that’s acceptable.’

  ‘Absolutely,’ Echo grunted. The kitchen floor seemed to sway beneath his paws as he strove to get his bearings. ‘I’m not hungr
y.’

  ‘Your current physical condition’, said Ghoolion, ‘is known as a monumental hangover.’

  Echo didn’t reply. The Alchemaster’s voice sounded unpleasantly loud.

  ‘Breakfast is on the table. If you regain your appetite in the course of the day, I advise you to go to the roof and help yourself. I have some important experiments to carry out - they won’t wait.’

  ‘That’s all right,’ Echo mumbled. He scrambled on to the table by way of a chair instead of jumping straight up in the usual way. All he found when he got there, grunting and groaning, was a bowl of warm milk and a plate containing three shrivelled nuts.

  ‘Just nuts?’ he said petulantly.

  ‘They’re no ordinary nuts,’ Ghoolion replied. ‘They come from the Tree of Nutledge.’

  ‘Aha,’ said Echo. He proceeded to munch the nuts without enthusiasm. They were dry and tasted of nothing, not even of nuts.

  ‘The Tree of Nutledge grows in the Valley of Cogitating Eggs,’ Ghoolion explained. ‘That’s an arid, desertlike depression in the neighbourhood of Demon Range. The highest temperatures in Zamonia can be recorded there - if you’re crazy enough to cross it in summer. Towering into the sky in the very centre of the valley are a dozen enormous eggs. They’re arranged in a perfect circle, and some astronomers claim that its coordinates would enable one to calculate the dimensions of the entire universe.

  ‘Nobody knows how the eggs got there, but the long tracks they’ve left in the desert floor seem to indicate that they did so under their own power. On the other hand there’s an ornithological theory that they were laid by giant birds and that one day something unpredictable will hatch out of them. They emit a humming sound suggestive of profound thought, hence their name.’

  Echo gulped down the last dry morsel. ‘But where do the nuts come in?’ he asked.

  ‘Well, it’s assumed that the intellectual radiation given off by the Cogitating Eggs has endowed large tracts of the valley with intelligence. Some of the animals there can talk as well as you do. I own a cactus from the area - we play telepathic chess together and it wins every time! One day a nut landed on this intellectually fertile soil. No one knows where it came from. It may have been dropped by a traveller or jettisoned by a passing bird. It may also have been a tiny asteroid from outer space. All we know is, it must have rained heavily soon afterwards, because the nut germinated and took root in the desert floor, and from it grew the Tree of Nutledge. A tree with blood-red timber found nowhere else in the whole of Zamonia, it grew like mad, both upwards and outwards, and put out snow-white leaves that make you very mentally alert if you chew them. Druids have settled in the tree and live in its branches. Naked, weather-beaten fellows with long hair and beards and demented expressions, they climb like monkeys and screech like cockatoos. Their consumption of nuts has rendered them so brilliantly clever that they’ve lost the need for speech and communicate by telepathic means. Scientists, artists and politicians from all over Zamonia make repeated pilgrimages to the tree when confronted by knotty problems. They write their questions on slips of paper and put them in wickerwork baskets, which the Druids let down on strings. Having been hauled up into the tree, the baskets are generally lowered soon afterwards, complete with answers. Suggestions from the inhabitants of the Tree of Nutledge were responsible for ending the Florinthian Choral Wars. They also led to the invention of the Aeromorphic Barograph and helped to crack the Cucumbrian Cryptogram.’

  ‘I see,’ said Echo. ‘So how do the nuts get here if the Druids eat them?’

  ‘A few of them fall to the ground from time to time, and the Druids are too mentally preoccupied to pick them up. They’re then collected and eaten by pilgrims, but a handful reach the open market. Each nut imparts a priceless insight.’

  ‘The ones I’ve eaten have left me none the wiser,’ Echo said sullenly.

  ‘They don’t work like that - they have a delayed reaction. Believe me, enlightenment will dawn in due course - it’s guaranteed. It sometimes takes a day or two.’

  ‘But that’s like eating something which doesn’t fill your belly till next week.’

  ‘Exactly!’ Ghoolion gathered his cloak around him and turned to go. ‘You’ll have to excuse me now, I’ve got things to do in the laboratory. There’s more food waiting for you on the roof, as I said.’

  Echo spent the rest of the morning roaming aimlessly around in a thoroughly bad mood. He took refuge in dark corners, waiting impatiently for his body to regain its equilibrium and his nagging headache to subside. Early that afternoon he made an excursion to the roof, where he ate a fish pie and some chocolate cake. Although he didn’t really enjoy his meal, it made him so sleepy that he stretched out in a gutter and let the sun warm his fur until he dozed off. He slept for the rest of the afternoon and half the evening.

  It was long after sunset when he awoke feeling thoroughly refreshed - almost newborn, in fact. He was in such a good mood that an audacious idea occurred to him: he decided to needle Ghoolion a little.

  Shadow Ink

  ‘I’m bored,’ Echo said as he sauntered into the laboratory, sounding as supercilious as he could. He followed this up with a long, unabashed yawn.

  The Alchemaster was engrossed in an experiment with a Leyden Manikin, which he had strapped to a wooden board. He was injecting green fluid into the alchemical creature’s little body with a hypodermic syringe and watching its convulsions spellbound.

  ‘Hm?’ he said absently. ‘What are you getting at?’

  ‘I’m bored because you aren’t fulfilling your contractual obligations, ’ Echo said in a resentful voice. ‘In other words, you aren’t doing enough to keep me entertained. Come on, amuse me.’

  He instantly regretted his presumptuous demand, because the Alchemaster’s face darkened, his eyes bulged alarmingly, and his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth began to quiver. He was obviously about to give Echo a tongue-lashing. The little Crat shrank away, expecting the worst, but Ghoolion suddenly stopped short. His body relaxed, his stormy expression vanished and an indulgent smile appeared on his face.

  ‘You’re absolutely right,’ he said to Echo’s great relief. ‘I’ve been neglecting you. My work is so all-consuming, please forgive me. Your entertainment is an important part of our agreement, every single condition of which must be strictly fulfilled. What form of amusement did you have in mind?’

  To crown it all, the Alchemaster performed a humble bow.

  ‘Oh,’ said Echo, completely thrown by this, ‘I, er … I don’t know. What about a game of some kind?’

  ‘A game, eh? Hm …’ Ghoolion was clearly thinking hard. ‘I don’t know many games, to be honest.’

  ‘Never mind,’ said Echo, ‘It was just a -’

  ‘Wait!’ Ghoolion broke in. ‘I do know a game! I’m really good at it, too.’

  ‘Oh?’ Echo said nervously. ‘What is it?’

  ‘Wait and see.’ After a last, sceptical glance at the twitching manikin, Ghoolion hurried out of the laboratory.

  ‘Come on!’ he called. ‘We need a dark room without any windows.’

  Echo followed him reluctantly. What sort of game could the Alchemaster be ‘really good’ at? He doubted if he’d enjoy it and cursed his presumption. He could have spent a quiet evening on the roof, complete with herring salad, honey-flavoured milk and a stimulating chat with Theodore. But no, he’d insisted on needling Ghoolion into playing some mysterious game with him in ‘a dark room without any windows’. Great!

  Boots clattering and cloak flapping, Ghoolion went striding along the passage to the half-open door of an unlit chamber Echo had never entered before. In the dim light from the passage he made out a few crates of junk and a big, unlit stove with a broom leaning against it. That apart, the place was completely bare.

  ‘This was going to be a storeroom, but I haven’t fixed it up yet,’ Ghoolion announced. ‘It’s ideal for our purposes because the walls are whitewashed and there aren’t any windows. Wait here, I need to
fetch a few things. I’ll be back in no time.’

  Apprehensively, Echo slunk into the mysterious-looking chamber while Ghoolion hurried off. What sort of games did you play in an empty room? If someone locked the door there would be no escape from this windowless dungeon. Echo was feeling more and more uneasy about the direction the evening was taking. He wondered whether to get out of the game by pretending to feel sick.

  But Ghoolion soon returned, dragging a chair behind him. He put it in the middle of the room, produced an Anguish Candle and some matches from his cloak, stood the candle on the chair and lit it. It broke into subdued sobs at once.

  ‘We need the flickering light of an Anguish Candle,’ Ghoolion explained. ‘Shadow Ink does the rest.’

  He reached into his cloak again and brought out something that resembled a miniature tub of butter, which he deposited beside the candle.

  Echo circled the chair, eyeing Ghoolion’s paraphernalia with suspicion.

  ‘There,’ said the Alchemaster, hands on hips. ‘We’ve got all we need to stage a proper shadow play.’

  A shadow play! Echo felt highly relieved. Harmless childish fun. Birds fluttering on the wall, a rabbit waggling its ears, a dog turning into a swan - that sort of thing. His dislike of the empty chamber promptly subsided.

  Ghoolion plunged his hands in the little tub and smeared them with the dark paste it contained. They were pitch-black within seconds.

 
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