The alchemasters apprent.., p.16
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.16

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘No, of course not,’ said Echo. ‘I don’t believe it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder, either, but I never do. It’s just a habit.’

  ‘You could also call it a suterspition.’

  ‘Call it what you like.’

  ‘What do you imagine Ugglies do when they aren’t busy bringing people bad luck?’

  ‘They kidnap little children and turn them into soup.’

  ‘What?!’

  ‘I was only joking. They, er, foretell the future.’

  ‘Aha. What else?’

  ‘They produce ointments and potions against toothache and warts and so on.’

  Theodore raised his right wing. ‘Let me get this straight: they tell people what the future holds in store and produce demicines nebeficial to their health.’

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘So why do people clear steer of them?’

  ‘No idea. Look, I’ve nothing against Ugglies, I just don’t like the way they smell.’

  ‘If they don’t do anything really bad - if they only do good or at least do no harm - why do you think they’re treated so badly in Lamaisea?’

  ‘How should I know?’ Echo protested.

  ‘It’s because of Ghoolion - because he turns people against them.’

  ‘Oh, yes, maybe. He even writes books about them.’

  ‘Correct. And why does he turn people against them?’

  Echo grunted. ‘What is this, an interrogation? I’m the one who asks the questions as a rule.’

  ‘Very well, I’ll tell you: it’s because Ghoolion is scared of the Ugglies.’

  ‘I can’t believe that. He isn’t scared of anything or anyone, not even the Snow-White Widow.’

  ‘Everyone’s scared of something. Herpaps the Ugglies know something about him. Or he knows something about them that frightens him. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what it is?’

  ‘All right, perhaps he is scared of the Ugglies. So what? How does that help me?’

  ‘If anyone in Lamaisea has worked out how to put one over on Ghoolion, it’s them. The Ugglies could be your only hope.’

  Echo turned thoughtful. ‘But are there any left here? It’s ages since I saw one.’

  ‘Ghoolion has succeeded in driving most of them out of Lamaisea, it’s true. He did a thorough job, but I know there’s still one around. I’ve sighted her occasionally on my renossaicance flights, gathering herbs in the Toadwoods.’

  ‘But how am I to find her?’ Echo said plaintively. ‘I’ve never been in the Toadwoods.’

  ‘She doesn’t live there. She lives right in the middle of Lamaisea, in Uggly Lane.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘Ugglies aren’t allowed to live anywhere else. It’s quite simple: since all the Ugglies except her have moved out, all you need to do is go to Uggly Lane after dark. You’ll find her in the only house with wighted lindows.’

  Echo shivered. ‘You expect me to go there in the middle of the night? Haven’t you heard all the stories they tell about Uggly Lane?’

  ‘Yes. Sinister stories.’

  ‘That’s putting it mildly. They’re quite sinister enough to deter one from going there after dark. I’ve never set foot in the place, even in daylight.’

  The Tuwituwu eyed Echo gravely. ‘But the last Uggly in Lamaisea is your only hope. She alone can save you, I’m afraid.’

  ‘All right,’ said Echo, eager to dispose of such an unpleasant subject. ‘Perhaps you’re right. It’s worth a try.’

  ‘Then don’t wait too long,’ Theodore advised him. ‘And now, tell me some more about the Snow-White Widow. Was it really an eye you saw in the midst of all that hair? How scafinating!’

  The Golden Squirrel

  Echo’s spirit of initiative seemed to have deserted him completely ever since his futile attempt to escape. His passion for eating and sleeping, on the other hand, had increased considerably. Depressing thoughts of the future, which he continually strove to suppress, had now been joined by dismaying memories of the Snow-White Widow, and the finest aids to forgetfulness, he found, were lavish meals and plenty of sleep.

  The Alchemaster did all he could to promote Echo’s lethargy. He left little snacks all over the castle - a plateful of lamb cutlets here, a bowl of rice pudding there. He also stepped up his use of ingredients such as butter and cream, sugar and cheese, flour and dripping, and dispensed with healthy foods like fruit, salads and vegetables. Pâté de foie gras or black puddings, minced pork or chocolate gâteau, streaky bacon or smoked mackerel - Echo didn’t care what was put before him, he wolfed the lot. His stomach became as rotund and bloated as a wineskin. He had long ago abandoned the sensible eating habits of a Crat keen to preserve his physical agility. Instead, he had developed the voracity of a bear preparing to hibernate.

  The speed with which Echo had put on weight was one of the reasons why he visited the roof less and less often. It was an ever-increasing effort for him to scramble up the sloping tiles and flights of steps. On one occasion he lost his balance, slithered down a roof and only just avoided plunging to his death by clinging to a chimney. After that incident he gave up visiting the roof altogether and lost touch with Theodore for several days.

  Making a trip to Uggly Lane seemed far too arduous, so Echo kept putting it off. He preferred to remain in the castle, where he ambled along the passages, generally in search of things to eat. His sole companion was the Cooked Ghost. That was fine with him because it asked no complicated or disagreeable questions and didn’t press him to visit Uggly Lane in the middle of the night. With the Cooked Ghost for company he ventured into almost every part of the castle, even its nether regions, where most of Ghoolion’s sinister mummies were to be found.

  One night, when the pair of them were roaming around the ground floor, the Cooked Ghost suddenly and uncharacteristically took the lead. It fluttered nervously ahead of Echo as if trying to urge him on.

  ‘Hey,’ he called, ‘where are you off to, what’s the rush?’ He quickened his pace without waiting for an answer. They were in one of the creepiest parts of the castle - the old wards dating from the time when it had been a lunatic asylum - and Echo didn’t relish being down there on his own. They hurried through a series of big, lofty rooms with whitewashed walls and ceilings only dimly lit by the rays of moonlight that slanted down through windows here and there. Still dangling from the rusty bedsteads that littered the wards were the straps with which patients had been restrained. Many of the huge iron chandeliers originally suspended from the ceilings had crashed to the dusty floor and lay there like dead birds’ skeletons. The air was filled with a high-pitched hum whose source Echo could not identify.

  He was involuntarily reminded of the mysterious mental illness that might still be lurking there. He pictured it as a gaunt, shadowy figure on spindly legs - one that might emerge from the gloom and pounce on him like a vicious beast - so he redoubled his efforts to keep up with the Cooked Ghost and leave the wards behind him as quickly as possible.

  They soon came to the area where medieval psychiatrists had administered forms of treatment of which many were crazier than the symptoms they purported to cure. Their disintegrating contraptions and machines looked more like instruments of torture than medical equipment. Echo saw huge, mildewed alchemical batteries to which patients had been attached, iron cages that could be lowered into vats of cold water, rusty hand drills, blood-encrusted saws. He dreaded to think what use the lunatics had made of these facilities after they seized control of the asylum.

  The rooms eventually became smaller and less intimidating. They had evidently been the staff quarters: bedrooms, a hospital canteen, a dilapidated kitchen cocooned in cobwebs. The Cooked Ghost came to a sudden stop. After fluttering for a moment like a flag in a gale, it flew straight through a wall and disappeared.

  Abruptly left on his own, Echo was overcome with terror. He had never been in this part of the castle before and had no idea how to get out - except by retracing his steps through the ghost
ly wards on his own.

  To make matters even worse, he now heard a whole chorus of plaintive sounds that pierced him to the marrow. Why did they seem so familiar? Could they be made by the spirits of the deranged patients who had died here? A ghost that had lost not only its life but its mind as well - what atrocities was it capable of committing? Or had he himself gone mad, infected by the mysterious disease that haunted these premises?

  There! He could see a light coming from one of the nearby rooms! No, not moonlight, but a fitful glow like that created by an open fire. With his heart in his mouth, he crept to the door and peered inside.

  It was a musty old library filled with ancient tomes and festively illuminated by dozens of candles. In the middle of the room, hovering above a stack of mouldering volumes, was the Cooked Ghost. Echo breathed a sigh of relief. The plaintive chorus sounded even louder than before, and he now realised that the candles were Anguish Candles - more of them than he had ever seen together in a single room.

  Everything fell into place: Ghoolion had been here a short time ago - Echo could smell his vile perfume and see his footprints in the dust. He had probably been conducting some form of research with the aid of the psychiatric reference books of which the library consisted. Books explaining how to desiccate patients’ brains or suck demons from their ears, banish hallucinations by opening their veins or cure them of hysteria by plying them with thorn-apple tea. Having lit all those Anguish Candles in order to be able to decipher the ancient ledgers’ illegible handwritten entries, the Alchemaster had then left the room without putting them out of their misery.

  Even though the Cooked Ghost had no ears, it seemed capable of empathising with the pain to which the Anguish Candles were being subjected. It clearly found their torments unendurable, because it was fluttering more restlessly than ever before and revealing glimpses of its ghostly countenance again and again. Echo grasped that it was urging him to put the candles out of their misery.

  He set to work at once. He clambered over mounds of old books, mounted chairs and tables, lecterns and bookshelves, and extinguished one candle flame after another with a swipe of the paw. Although it was a laborious task in his bloated, breathless condition, the library became steadily darker and the moans of agony gradually died away, to be replaced by sighs of relief. In the end only one flame remained. Just as Echo was bending over it he caught sight of yet another Anguish Candle he’d overlooked until now. A moment later he realised that it wasn’t a real candle at all, only its reflection in a silver tray propped against a bookshelf. And in that dusty, makeshift mirror Echo saw himself for the first time in days.

  He was far from gratified by the sight that met his eyes. On the contrary, he felt appalled and ashamed. He resembled a caricature come to life - an inflated balloon of a creature, not a Crat. Was it a distorting mirror? He recoiled in horror.

  ‘Good heavens,’ he gasped, ‘do I really look like that?’

  The next moment the room was filled with a dazzling glare. Echo flinched. For an instant he thought the library had suddenly burst into flames, except that the light produced no heat, did not emanate from a fire of any kind and was accompanied by a low, soothing hum. Standing in the middle of the room was a squirrel as luminous as molten gold. It favoured Echo with a friendly smile.

  ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ it squeaked, ‘but I can set your mind at rest right away. Logical though such an idea might seem in these surroundings, I’m not the product of some mental illness to which you’ve just succumbed. This place used to be a madhouse, didn’t it?’

  Echo nodded. He was feeling utterly bemused.

  ‘No, I’m just a temporary hallucination; more precisely, a telepathic projection generated by an extremely powerful source of intellectual radiation: the Valley of Cogitating Eggs, in other words. Well, are you starting to see the light? I’m the first insight you’ve been granted by your consumption of a nut from the Tree of Nutledge.’

  Echo strove to recover his composure. He’d completely forgotten about the nuts from the Tree of Nutledge.

  ‘It would be going too far at this stage’, the squirrel prattled on, ‘to explain the precise function of the Cogitating Eggs. For one thing, the Cogitating Eggs defy explanation; for another, this is about you, not them.’

  ‘I see,’ said Echo.

  ‘No, you don’t see. Kindly refrain from interrupting and let me have my say. That’s why I’m here, to explain everything sufficiently for you to understand it. The thinking that goes on in the Valley of Cogitating Eggs is more exhaustive and concentrated than in any other location in Zamonia, even a Nocturnomath’s brain - in fact, thinking isn’t really the appropriate word for what those giant eggs do, it’s far too insubstantial. Their thoughts are so profound and ponderous that they should really be called thunks. The eggs aren’t thinkers, they’re thunkers. It doesn’t matter where they came from. What matters far more is where they’ll go once they’ve concluded their telepathic discussions and philosophical deliberations, for that will decide the fate of Zamonia, nothing more nor less.’

  Echo did his best to look suitably impressed.

  ‘That was my primary piece of information,’ said the squirrel, waving its little paws in the air. ‘Now to your special case. The Cogitating Eggs are aware of everything - absolutely everything! - that is happening, has happened and will happen in Zamonia. And that includes your own little personal problems.’

  Echo didn’t consider his personal problems as little as all that, but he felt it was the wrong moment to contest the squirrel’s assertion.

  ‘One look at that mirror has demonstrated that you’ve not only put on weight but undergone a fundamental change. Am I right?’

  ‘That’s one way of putting it.’ Echo dropped his gaze.

  ‘Yes, it is. But that would be putting it far too diplomatically. Let me be blunt: you’ve turned into another person, and not for the better. You look like a sausage on legs, a caricature of a Crat. Everything that used to distinguish your physical characteristics from those of other living creatures - your almost preternatural elegance, your streamlined physique, your agility and sense of balance - all this has been replaced by a ponderous mass, a barrel of lard.’

  Echo winced. This cute little squirrel could be even more hurtful than Ghoolion at his worst.

  ‘Yes, lard. You dislike the word because it puts you in mind of something extremely unpleasant: fat. The Alchemaster has imprinted his desire for fat on your body. It clings to your ribs and haunches. It’s the fat he intends to extract from your body when he renders it down. You’re the living fulfilment of Ghoolion’s contract - you’re your own death warrant. Is that undiplomatic enough for you?’

  ‘Yes,’ Echo said dully.

  ‘Good. What the Cogitating Eggs wish to impart is not the objective realisation that you’ve become too fat, but the fact that certain conclusions should be drawn from it.’

  ‘I must lose weight, you mean,’ Echo whispered.

  ‘Exactly!’ cried the squirrel, clapping its paws together. ‘Not an especially complex deduction, but a profoundly important one. It’ll influence your life in a positive manner.’

  The light dimmed, the golden squirrel’s figure grew steadily fainter.

  ‘That’s it for today,’ it said. ‘We’ll meet again soon, when I come to impart your second insight. Meantime, I’d advise you to take as much exercise as possible.’

  The weird light went out. The squirrel had vanished.

  Echo went up to the remaining Anguish Candle and took a final look at his reflection. His plump form looked ripe for slaughter.

  He snuffed the last Anguish Candle with his paw, and the library, now in total darkness, was pervaded by a deep sigh of relief.

  Black Pudding and Vampirism

  ‘I could use a little physical exercise,’ Echo remarked in a studiously casual tone as the Alchemaster was preparing his supper the following evening. ‘A lighter diet would also do me good. Please go easy on the butter
and sugar.’

  Ghoolion pricked up his ears. ‘Why?’ he demanded. ‘Have you lost your taste for them?’

  ‘On the contrary,’ Echo replied, ‘that’s just the problem, I’m far too partial to them. I’m getting too fat.’

  ‘But I like you that way,’ said Ghoolion. ‘Your curves suit you.’

  ‘I can well believe you approve of my curves, but I’m feeling uncomfortable. I don’t dare go up on the roof any more for fear of falling off. Our contract didn’t specify how much weight I had to gain. I reckon I’m fat enough.’

  Ghoolion removed a heavy cast-iron pan from the stove. ‘Suit yourself,’ he said. ‘After all, the quality of your fat depends partly on your state of mind. You know: contented hens lay better eggs. I want you feeling good when you die.’

  Echo sighed. The Alchemaster didn’t give a damn what he said, however hurtful.

  ‘Still, you could probably manage a little black pudding, couldn’t you?’ Ghoolion asked. ‘Now that I’ve already fried it?’

  ‘All right,’ said Echo. He was undeniably hungry.

  Ghoolion sprinkled the black pudding generously with curry powder and put it in front of him. Echo promptly tucked in and demolished it in three mouthfuls.

  ‘Not bad,’ he said appreciatively.

  ‘Tell me something,’ said Ghoolion. ‘Have you ever dreamt of being a Leathermouse?’

  ‘A Leathermouse?’ Echo replied, licking his paws. ‘Why should I dream of being such a hideous creature?’

  ‘Only other creatures consider Leathermice hideous. If you yourself were a Leathermouse, you’d think you were the Crat’s whiskers.’

  ‘Oh yes, I know all that,’ said Echo. ‘Up is down and ugly is beautiful.’

  ‘But Leathermice can fly,’ said Ghoolion.

  Echo stopped short. It was true. Leathermice could do more than simply hang from a rafter upside down. If there was any other creature he wanted to be, it would have to be one capable of flying.

  ‘They can find their way around at night and hunt in total darkness. Very few creatures can do such things.’

 
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