The alchemasters apprent.., p.21
The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.21Walter Moers
‘Hey!’ Echo called. ‘Don’t you want to hear the story?’
‘No!’ the squirrel called back. Its voice was very faint now. ‘Don’t tell it to me, tell it to Ghoolion.’
‘Listen, Master,’ said Echo, having devoured the delicious fillet of sole Ghoolion had given him for supper in the kitchen that night. ‘This time I’d like to entertain you for once. By telling you a story.’
Ghoolion proceeded to fill his pipe. ‘I didn’t know storytelling was your forte,’ he said with a grin.
‘That makes two of us,’ Echo replied, ‘but I can at least try.’
‘You’re full of surprises. What sort of story is it?’
‘A love story.’
‘Oh,’ said Ghoolion. He looked as if he’d swallowed a cockroach.
‘Don’t worry,’ Echo said quickly, ‘it’s a thoroughly tragic love story. The saddest story I’ve ever heard.’
Ghoolion’s face brightened. ‘Go on, then,’ he said, lighting his pipe. ‘I like tragic stories.’
Echo made himself comfortable on the kitchen table. He sat down on his haunches and supported himself on his forepaws.
‘I must begin by emphasising that this story is true in every detail. It’s about a very beautiful young woman.’
Ghoolion nodded, puffing away. Dense clouds of smoke ascended into the air.
‘Picture to yourself the most beautiful girl imaginable! She was so beautiful that there would be no point, in view of my meagre talent for storytelling, in even trying to put her beauty into words. That would far exceed my capabilities, so I’ll refrain from mentioning whether she was a blonde or a brunette or a redhead, or whether her hair was long or short or curly or smooth as silk. I shall also refrain from the usual comparisons where her complexion was concerned, for instance milk, velvet, satin, peaches and cream, honey or ivory. Instead, I shall leave it entirely up to your imagination to fill in this blank with your own ideal of feminine beauty.’
It could be inferred from Ghoolion’s expression and the faraway look in his eyes that he had already complied with Echo’s suggestion. His thin lips were set in one of those rare smiles that made him look almost likeable. To Echo, the fact that Ghoolion had any kind of ideal of feminine beauty was an encouraging sign.
‘Well,’ he went on, ‘at the time of my story, this beautiful girl lived in Ingotville.’
‘Ingotville?’ Ghoolion broke in. He was looking taken aback.
‘Yes, Ingotville. Anything wrong with that?’
‘Er … no, no, not at all.’ Ghoolion puffed at his pipe. ‘Go on,’ he commanded.
‘Well, Ingotville, as everyone knows, is the ugliest, dirtiest, most dangerous and unpopular city in the whole of Zamonia. It consists entirely of metal, of rusty iron and poisonous lead, tarnished copper and brass, nuts and bolts, machines and factories. The city itself is said to be a gigantic machine that’s very, very slowly propelling itself towards an unknown destination. Most of the Zamonian continent’s metalworking industry is based there and even the products it manufactures are ugly: weapons and barbed wire, garrottes and Iron Maidens, cages and handcuffs, suits of armour and executioners’ axes. Most of the inhabitants dwell in corrugated-iron huts black with coal dust and corroded by the acid rain that falls there almost incessantly. Those who can afford to - the gold barons and lead tycoons, arms dealers and arms manufacturers - live in steel fortresses, in constant fear of their starving and discontented underlings and workers. Ingotville is a city traversed by streams of acid and oil, and perpetually overhung by a pall of soot and storm clouds in which shafts of lightning flash and thunder rumbles. The grimy air is forever filled with the pounding and hissing of machinery, the squeak of rusty hinges and the rattle of chains. Many of its inhabitants are machines themselves. It’s a vile city, perhaps the vilest in all Zamonia.’
Ghoolion nodded again. ‘You’re doing pretty well,’ he said. ‘Very atmospheric. That’s just the way it looks.’
‘You know the place?’ Echo asked.
‘I do indeed. But go on.’
‘Now picture this contrast: the lovely girl and the hideous city. Beauty and the beast. Innocence and a metallic Moloch.’
‘I can imagine it,’ said Ghoolion. He was gazing into the distance once more.
‘She was the daughter of a lead tycoon and lived in his fortress built of precorrodion - that’s a very special kind of metal which rusts on the surface but, beneath that deceptive layer, consists of impenetrable steel. The fortress had loopholes instead of windows and, instead of doors, drawbridges spanning a moat filled with acid.’
Echo paused for a moment. His storytelling was quite a success. He’d ignited a spark of interest in Ghoolion, he could tell.
‘When our lovely heroine at last reached marriageable age, the lead tycoon invited every young man in the city to take part in a contest for his daughter’s hand - provided he had a certain amount of money. Like everything else in Ingotville, the contest involved metal: who could bend the thickest iron bar, who could bring lead to the boil the fastest, who could forge the finest sword, who could throw a gold ball the farthest - that sort of thing. In the end there were only three suitors left. The decision now depended on their mental agility. Our heroine had made it a condition that she would ask each of them three questions and the one who thought of the cleverest answers would be awarded her hand in marriage.’
Ghoolion had grown quite still. He wasn’t even puffing at his pipe, just staring at Echo with an inscrutable expression.
‘But the questions were so subtle and ingenious that none of the suitors managed to come up with sensible answers to them. The lead tycoon was at his wits’ end, the onlookers started to grumble. They felt they’d been duped by our shrewd and beautiful heroine, who seemed unwilling to bestow her heart on anyone at all.’
Echo paused for effect.
‘But then another young man entered the arena. He apologised for being late and whipped through the first part of the contest at lightning speed: he bent the thickest iron bar, brought lead to the boil the fastest, forged the finest sword, threw a gold ball the farthest, et cetera, et cetera. Then, at last, he faced our heroine’s questions.’
Ghoolion had deposited his cold pipe on the kitchen table. He seemed even more affected by the story than Echo had hoped, yet the climax was still a long way off.
‘Well,’ Echo went on, ‘it was obvious to everyone present that our heroine had taken a fancy to this young suitor. He was extremely good-looking, but I shall refrain from giving a description of him in this case too. Simply picture the handsomest young man imaginable.’
‘That’s easy,’ Ghoolion said in a curiously unemotional voice.
‘I need only picture the opposite of myself.’
Echo was surprised by Ghoolion’s modest self-assessment, but he took it as a good sign.
‘Our heroine put her first question: “How much is one plus one?”
‘A murmur of approval ran round the room, now that it was clear she’d fallen for the young man and wanted to make his path to her heart as easy as possible.
‘“Two,” he said.
‘“And how much is two divided by two?”
‘“One,” he replied.
‘A few people laughed and the lead tycoon heaved a sigh of relief. Our heroine put her third and last question: “If I asked you to do me a great favour, one that would deprive you of your heart’s desire, would you do it?”
‘Another murmur went up and the lead tycoon looked round in bewilderment. What sort of question was that?
‘“Of course,” the young man answered gravely.
‘“Come with me, then,” said our heroine. She took him by the hand and led him from the room, leaving a confused babble of voices behind them. When they came to a secluded part of her father’s fortress, she paused and gazed into his eyes.
‘“Please listen,” she said. “I’ve taken to you, I must confess - v
‘The young man didn’t reply.
‘“My father still doesn’t know this,” the girl went on. “I took part in this contest purely to gain time for my beloved. In order to ask for my hand in marriage, he needs to acquire a hundred thousand pyras. That sum is the basic requirement for anyone hoping to marry a girl of my rank, as you know, but he comes of a poor family and hasn’t managed to raise it yet.”
‘She looked round anxiously, as if afraid of being overheard.
‘“Since I know you possess that sum, or you couldn’t have entered this contest,” she went on, “here is my shameless request: can you lend my beloved the hundred thousand pyras and enable him to ask for my hand? He will definitely repay you some day, with compound interest. You can rest assured of my undying gratitude.”
‘Although the young man had turned pale, he steadfastly preserved his composure. “Of course,” he told her. “Nothing matters to me more than your happiness.”
‘Our heroine gave him a kiss. “How very unselfish of you,” she said. “You must promise that we’ll remain good friends and that you’ll come to visit me regularly.”
‘“I promise,” the young man said softly and took his leave. The next day he brought her the sum of money in question. She kissed him and extracted another promise that he would come to see her again before long. Then she let him go.
‘As soon as he’d gone our heroine clasped the purse to her bosom. She was overjoyed because she didn’t have another suitor at all; she had simply wanted to ascertain the true extent of the young man’s feelings for her.’
Ghoolion groaned aloud - whether at the story or in physical pain, Echo couldn’t tell. The look of distress on the Alchemaster’s face might have been caused by either.
‘Well,’ Echo went on, ‘no one could have given a greater demonstration of his love. Our heroine waited for the young man to visit her, as he had promised, so that she could confess her cruel subterfuge and marry him.’
‘But he never came. A week, two weeks, a month went by. Our heroine became anxious. She eventually took to her bed, sick with worry, and lay there clasping the purse as if it were her beloved. Then messengers came bearing news: after leaving the fortress, the young man had turned his back on Ingotville and joined an army of mercenaries. Not long afterwards he had been killed during the Battle of the Gloomberg Mountains.’
Ghoolion’s spindly fingers clutched his cloak in the region of his heart. His eyelids fluttered.
‘Our heroine almost went insane when she heard this news. She tore her clothes, scratched her face and wept for a whole month. Then she left Ingotville and roamed the length and breadth of Zamonia. At last, having tossed the purse of money into Demon’s Gulch, she settled down in Malaisea, where she mourned her dead love in silence. She led a reclusive life. Whenever she left the house, which she seldom did, she concealed herself in a cloak with a hood, for she remained strikingly beautiful, even in old age.’
Ghoolion gave a sudden start. Echo flinched.
‘What?!’ the Alchemaster cried in a voice like thunder. ‘She’s here in Malaisea?’
‘No, she doesn’t live here any more - she died not long ago. It’s a true story, though, I didn’t make it up. It’s the story of my former mistress’s life. She told it to me when I was little.’
Ghoolion went reeling across the kitchen as if someone had dealt him a mighty blow on the head.
‘She was here all the time … here in Malaisea …’ he muttered, more to himself than to Echo. Then he looked round once more. Echo shrank under his gaze, for it conveyed a despair that bordered on insanity. A tear trickled from the Alchemaster’s eye as he tottered to the door.
‘She was here all the time,’ he whispered again. Then he blundered out.
Echo hadn’t been expecting such an emotional outburst. What did Ghoolion’s mysterious words signify? He jumped down off the table, fled from the kitchen and hid in his basket till bedtime.
Echo slept exceptionally badly that night. He dreamt of Ghoolion, as he so often did, but also of Theodore T. Theodore, the Cooked Ghost and Izanuela the Uggly. He dreamt of his mistress, both as a lovely young girl and as a kindly old woman. He dreamt of the Leathermice and the Snow-White Widow. Of Anguish Candles and the salmon he’d swum with after eating that dumpling. Of Shadowsprites and Leyden Manikins. Of the wild dogs he’d chased as a Leathermouse and the stuffed Demonic Mummies that had come to life in his nightmare. Even while dreaming, he realised that he was being shown the whole of his life to date in a condensed form but completely out of order, like a stage play whose director has got his pages mixed up. The actors performing this farrago of a play swapped voices and roles as they pleased. Ghoolion spoke in the Uggly’s voice and vice versa, Theodore was a Leathermouse and the Snow-White Widow his mate. They all gave him conflicting advice and bombarded him with meaningless drivel as he roamed restlessly through the streets of Malaisea and along the castle passages in search of something, not that he could remember what it was. A huge Woodwolf with resin dripping from its open jaws came lurching out of the darkness. ‘Don’t believe a word an Uggly says,’ it declared in the Golden Squirrel’s voice, ‘especially when it’s to do with the Alchemaster! If you have trouble with him, better consult your doctor or pharmacist!’
Echo awoke with those words ringing in his ears. Feeling utterly bemused, he scrambled to his feet. Beside his basket was a bowl of cold milk and a plate containing a slice of bread and honey cut into bite-sized morsels. The handwritten note lying beside it read:My dear Echo,
I regret my inability to offer you a particularly lavish breakfast this morning, as I will be engaged on a research project all day. However, the honey on the bread is very special. It’s made by the Demonic Bees of Honey Valley.
Don’t worry about the dead bees in it, they’ve had their stings removed and they make the honey nice and crunchy. But be sure to chew with care. It sometimes happens, though very rarely, that one of the bees has not had its sting removed. Although a prick in the gum or tongue wouldn’t kill you, it would certainly give you an unpleasant time. This risk factor is said to be part of the enjoyment one derives from eating a slice of bee-bread.
‘Well, well,’ Echo thought sleepily, ‘Demonic Bees from Honey Valley. Whatever. After last night I’d eat a grilled Sewer Dragon, with or without its knilch.’ He hurriedly devoured a few morsels and took a swig of milk. The milk tasted odd - soapy, somehow - so he wolfed another piece of bee-bread to take the taste away - and instantly felt a stabbing pain in his tongue.
‘Ouch!’ he said, but that was as far as he got. The room began to revolve, alternately bathed in light and darkness, and he went plummeting down a black-and-white shaft that spiralled into the depths, losing consciousness on the way.
When Echo came to, he seemed to be looking into a shattered mirror that reflected many little fragments of the world around him. It wasn’t long before the tiny images assembled themselves into one big picture, and he saw that he was in a chamber with a huge domed roof composed of cells of yellowish wax. It was dimly lit by the few rays of light that filtered through cracks between the cells. What impressed Echo most of all, however, was not the chamber in which he’d recovered consciousness, but the company in which he found himself. There were bees in front of him and bees to his right and left. He felt sure he would also find bees behind him if he looked round, but he wasn’t brave enough. They were Demonic Bees the size of full-grown mastiffs, and there must have been thousands of them.
‘Just a minute,’ he thought. ‘Bees the size of dogs? I must think this over before I get into a panic. What happened before I passed out? The milk tasted odd - Ghoolion probably spiked it with something. If I bit on a bee sting, you can bet he put it there. This can only be one of those trips in another
Echo looked down at himself. Bristly black hairs were sprouting from his chest, and his legs - six of them! - were insectile legs of glossy black chitin. And what were those things waving around in front of his eyes, antennae? Yes, they really were.
‘I’m a bee,’ he thought, ‘a Demonic Bee, and these creatures aren’t so big at all. It’s simply that I’ve shrunk. This is just a trip,’ he went on, trying to reassure himself. ‘It’ll soon be over. Relax! Enjoy it! After all, you enjoyed being a Leathermouse.’
So this was what a beehive looked like from the inside. The air, which smelt pleasantly of honey, was nice and warm. Oddly enough, Echo felt at home. Except that it wasn’t really so odd. After all, he was a bee.
‘Just relax,’ he told himself. ‘Be a bee. See what happens.’
His head was suddenly transfixed by a thought which - he couldn’t put it any other way - came from outside himself. A Demonic-Bee thought, it took the following form:
‘Gnorkx is great!’
The community of Demonic Bees suddenly stirred. They all took one simultaneous step to the right, then one to the left and ended by turning on the spot. Echo performed the same movements precisely and he knew why he was doing so. These dance steps were a statement in the Demonic Bee language. What was more, he knew what it meant:
‘Gnorkx is great!’
He even knew who Gnorkx was - it was common knowledge among Demonic Bees. Gnorkx was the venerable, supernatural being who had created them all. Gnorkx dwelt on the sun and was believed to be immortal. When a Demonic Bee died it went to Gnorkx and lived with him on the sun for evermore.
‘Good heavens,’ thought Echo, ‘not only am I a Demonic Bee; I even think and feel like one, and it doesn’t feel strange at all. It feels - well, normal. I wouldn’t mind gathering some pollen, and I’m also experiencing an irresistible urge to worship Gnorkx.’
He took one step to the right, one to the left, then turned on the spot. The other bees followed suit. ‘Gnorkx is great!’ they danced again.
The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes