The alchemasters apprent.., p.24
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.24

           Walter Moers
 

  Echo was puzzled. Hadn’t Izanuela told him that the most effective remedy she possessed was camomile tea? These plants of hers could create a whole host of hallucinations.

  ‘How can all these plants grow down here?’ he asked. ‘In the dark, I mean?’

  She plunged both hands in a bucket and held some loose soil under his nose. It was teeming with big, long worms that emitted a bright red glow.

  ‘Lava Worms,’ she explained. ‘I put some in every flowerpot. They give off light and heat, which is all that the sun does. In fact, they’re even better than the sun because they radiate heat the whole time, even at night. There’s no winter down here, no clouds, no storms, no hail or frost - no bad weather at all. It’s a botanical paradise, an Elysium for anything with roots. If I were a flower I’d like to grow here and nowhere else.’

  Izanuela went over to a rough old kitchen dresser draped in a red velvet curtain. ‘Would you like to see something really special?’ she said.

  Echo nodded. Of course he would.

  ‘This is my botanical theatre. It’s horticulture of the highest order. You could also call it a mobile plant theatre, but that would be a misleading designation. All plants are mobile, but most of them move so slowly their movements can’t be detected with the naked eye. These are rather more agile.’

  The Uggly drew the curtain aside, pursed her lips together and imitated a brief fanfare.

  ‘Tarantara, tarantara! Allow me to present the Ballerina Blossom!’

  She pointed to a plant on the top shelf. It did full justice to its name. A handsome flower with a red calyx, a long green stem and thin, translucent leaves, it launched into a graceful pas seul.

  ‘The one beside it is a Cobra Thistle - careful, please, it can strike like lightning!’

  The prickly weed made an almost imperceptible movement. Its tense body was vibrating like a coiled spring and Echo guessed how unexpectedly its poisonous barbs could strike home.

  ‘That one there is a Throttlefern. It’s capable of strangling creatures as big as a thrush, but I’d advise you to stand back. I’m sure it wouldn’t hesitate to attack a Crat.’

  The fern lashed the air with several of its tendrils, cracking them like bullwhips. Echo retreated a step.

  ‘On the shelf below is a Twitching Terebinth. Eat a salad made from its leaves and you develop St Vitus’s dance. You dance for three days and then drop dead.’

  The plant shook its big leaves violently to and fro - so violently that the flowerpot wobbled, scattering soil in all directions.

  ‘It’s absolutely insane,’ Izanuela whispered, tapping her forehead. ‘The billowing stuff in the green bucket is Breezegrass. I like looking at it when I’m in need of relaxation. Watching Breezegrass for five minutes sends me off to sleep.’

  Although there wasn’t a breath of wind in the cavern, the grass stirred as if a gentle breeze were blowing through its stems. Echo found this had a soothing effect on him too. He was gradually becoming accustomed to his strange surroundings.

  ‘Growing in the yellow flowerpot is a Clapperatus Applaudiens. I can’t help it, but it’s a bit too obsequious for me.’

  When Izanuela pointed to it, the tuliplike flower broke into applause, clapping its leaves together like a maniac.

  ‘I think it’s amusing,’ Echo said.

  ‘That Asparagus Timidus is the absolute opposite. Another specimen from the Megaforest. It’s as shy as a blushing bride.’

  The tip of the asparagus turned red at the touch of Izanuela’s outstretched finger, then buried itself in the mossy ground and stayed that way.

  She sighed. ‘Mobile plants are becoming increasingly popular with people who find normal plants boring but are too lazy to keep a pet. Personally, I think they should be declared a protected species. It’s cruelty to plants to allow such people to own them. They’re bound to start teaching them tricks.’

  ‘Could they do that?’ asked Echo.

  The Uggly studied her fingernails. ‘Well, I must confess I taught that Trampoline Fern down there a little trick. The temptation was too great.’

  She clicked her fingers. The Trampoline Fern withdrew its roots from the flowerpot, climbed out of it, turned a somersault and climbed back in again.

  ‘Encore!’ Echo cried delightedly.

  ‘Certainly not,’ said Izanuela. ‘This isn’t a circus, it’s a serious botanical theatre.’ She drew the curtain and looked around. ‘Let’s see … What else have we got?’

  She hurried over to a long red wooden bench. ‘This is a collection of especially fragrant plants: Lemon Balm and Thyme, Rosemary and Sage, Poppy Orange and Blossoming Nutmeg, Gingerbread Japonica and Sprouting Vanilla, Marzipan Potato and Cinnamon Citronelle.’

  Eagerly, Echo applied his little nose to each plant in turn. They all smelt divine.

  Izanuela made her way across to a crude wooden cupboard overgrown with ivy and opened the door. ‘I keep the more evil-smelling plants shut up in here,’ she said. Echo backed away, repelled by the vile stench that came drifting out of the interior.

  ‘Garlic Breath and Cheesefoot, Sulphurous Sumach and Perspiring Tulip, Horse-Apple Hosta and Common Turdwort, Fernfart and Stinkboot. Pooh!’ She fanned herself. ‘I have to admit I always speed up a bit when I’m watering this section.’ She slammed the cupboard door and went over to a set of shelves. Unlike the others, they were made of some silvery, richly decorated metal.

  ‘Take a look at these beauties instead. They’re Crystalline Orchids.’

  Echo gazed at the wonderful plants. Their flowers resembled magnified snowflakes, each unique in shape.

  ‘Please be careful of this magnificent cactus. Although it changes colour every second, it fires off its poisonous spines like arrows when it’s out of sorts. It hit me in the backside once and I had heartburn for three days. Beautiful, though, isn’t it? It glows in the dark.’

  Izanuela pointed to various flowerpots and reeled off the names of their occupants: ‘Golden Leafling, Ladykiller, Cupreous Rose, Nightingale Crocus - that one can actually sing when it’s in the mood. Angel’s Hair. Blonde Princess.’

  She turned to a tub which seemed to be on fire.

  Issuing from the peaty soil was a wonderful, balletically flickering blue flame. ‘A Graveyard Ghost,’ she said in a whisper.

  As Echo and the Uggly looked more closely, he saw that the flame had a childlike face and was whispering softly to itself. It was a while before the two of them could drag themselves away from this mesmeric apparition.

  ‘But where there’s light, there’s darkness as well,’ Izanuela said in a low voice, beckoning to Echo to follow. ‘Come with me. I’ll show you some plants that aren’t as good-looking.’

  She led him over to some flowerpots standing on a rustic bench beneath a table. ‘I have to confess I keep them hidden,’ she said. ‘Their appearance tends to depress me.’

  Echo looked at the plants. They really were remarkably unattractive. Suppurating sores had developed where flowers once grew. Their leaves were shrivelled or dung-coloured, their stems misshapen and prickly.

  ‘Humpbacked Gnome, Python’s Fang, Death Cup, Septic Verruca, Mouldering Morel, Slimy Susan, Athlete’s Foot. You can’t help feeling sorry for them. The majority were almost exterminated, simply because they’re so ugly, but they’re highly effective medicinal herbs if administered in the correct dosage. That one cures rheumatism.’

  Echo could restrain himself no longer. ‘You told me that camomile tea was the most effective remedy you possessed,’ he blurted out, ‘but this garden of yours is full of the most miraculous plants.’

  Izanuela eyed him with a pitying expression. ‘You really are gullible. I only said that to get rid of you. I also said I was the worst Uggly in Zamonia. That was another lie, of course.’

  ‘Really?’ Echo pricked up his ears.

  She pointed to a framed document hanging on the wall ‘See that diploma?’ she said with a tremor in her voice. ‘It was awarded me by the Ugglian
Academy in Grailsund. I graduated with five necromantic stars. Do you know what that means?’

  ‘No,’ Echo said.

  ‘It means I’m a qualified Uggly with five necromantic stars, that’s what! I wrote my doctoral thesis on the capillary system of the Witch’s Hat Toadstool. I studied prophosophy for thirty-four terms - that’s prophetic philosophy, a subject only Ugglies can study. Only one Uggly in a hundred is awarded five necromantic stars. My mentor was the legendary Kora Kronch. That’s what it means.’

  Breathing hard, Izanuela pointed to a gold cup on a shelf. ‘You see that cup? That’s the Green Thumb of Watervale, the most highly prized award in the field of floristic botany. Guess who was nominated for it three times and awarded it once! I’ll give you a clue: the person who’s standing in front of you, bears my name and is the only Uggly left in Malaisea.’

  Izanuela had delivered this harangue with her head held high, squinting like mad and waggling her ears excitedly. She still seemed proud of having pulled the wool over Echo’s eyes, but that was fine with him. Better a well-qualified Uggly than the worst one in Zamonia.

  ‘Is there anything else I should know?’ he asked. ‘Now that we’re partners, I mean?’

  She looked down at him with a smile.

  ‘I really must congratulate you, my young friend,’ she said in a condescending tone, ‘on your good manners. There’s one question you must be itching to ask me.’

  ‘What’s that?’ said Echo.

  ‘Well, how the staircase works. But you don’t dare, eh?’

  ‘It would certainly interest me to know,’ Echo admitted.

  ‘Then look around you. Which is the biggest plant down here?’

  Echo looked around the cavern.

  ‘That big blue cactus over there,’ he said. ‘That’s the biggest.’

  ‘Wrong.’

  ‘But there isn’t anything bigger.’

  ‘You aren’t using your eyes properly. Where do you think all these roots in the ground and the ceiling come from?’

  ‘A tree of some kind, I suppose.’

  ‘Well? Have you seen any trees in Uggly Lane?’

  Echo thought hard. No, there were no trees at all in Uggly Lane.

  ‘The nearest trees are in the municipal park,’ Izanuela said with a laugh. ‘That’s half a mile away. No trees have roots that long.’

  ‘You mean …’ Echo looked up at the ceiling.

  ‘Exactly,’ said Izanuela. ‘This house is the biggest plant here. All the houses in Uggly Lane are plants and they’re alive. Very much alive.’

  Picking up a flowerpot, she brought it down hard on the fat black root writhing around her feet. The bark split open in several places and some big, melancholy eyes came to light beneath it.

  ‘An Ugglian oak,’ she said. ‘One of the oldest plants in Zamonia. Only the Ugglies know of its existence. Which makes you an Uggly too, in a manner of speaking. Can you keep a secret?’

  ‘Of course,’ Echo said hurriedly.

  ‘Good. You wouldn’t like to hear what would happen if you blabbed.’

  Izanuela subjected him to a long, piercing stare and he felt genuinely scared of her for the first time. Her eyes were incandescent with the millennial power of Ugglyism. He grew terribly cold, as if a giant shadow had engulfed him, and for one brief moment he thought he heard the weird music that had assailed his ears the first time he set eyes on her house. Her gaze was like an unspoken threat, a curse. He shivered.

  Then the light in her eyes went out.

  ‘These trees existed many thousands of years before Malaisea was founded,’ she continued, squinting good-naturedly now. ‘Only the Ugglies realised that they were habitable, and they were also the only living creatures the trees would accept as tenants. The Ugglian oaks came to look more and more like houses as the centuries went by, until no one would have guessed they were really plants. The town of Malaisea grew up around the Ugglies’ colony, but they kept the secret to themselves and passed it on from generation to generation.’

  The eyes in the roots slowly closed as if the tree were going to sleep.

  ‘Living inside living plants isn’t a bed of roses, believe you me. They have their idiosyncrasies, their moods, their quirks, their habits. You have to be able to put up with them or you’d go mad. Things are in a constant state of flux. Walls become displaced, windows close up, roots suddenly appear where there weren’t any before - you trip over them and fall flat on your face. This tree also hums to itself at night, that’s why I wear earplugs.’

  Echo looked around nervously. It wasn’t a very reassuring sensation, being inside a living creature - it was like being swallowed by a giant. He now understood his instinctive fear of the Ugglies’ houses.

  ‘Don’t be frightened,’ Izanuela told him soothingly. ‘It’s thoroughly good-natured. At least, I’ve never known it to lose its temper.’

  She climbed over the root and went to a big trestle table groaning under the weight of numerous flowerpots. Echo would have liked to hear more about the living houses, but Izanuela seemed to have exhausted the subject.

  ‘This is the medicinal section,’ she went on. ‘That’s another misleading designation, of course, because almost any plant can be used for medicinal purposes, even the most poisonous. These are particularly effective, though. They range from the simple Runny Nose to the Crazy Courgette, but there are many more.’ She indicated a cucumber that had tied itself in knots. ‘That one can cure serious mental illnesses, but it can also induce them if incorrectly administered. When Ghoolion’s castle was still a lunatic asylum, the patients there were fed on it. No wonder it all ended in chaos.’

  She pointed to a few inconspicuous plants. ‘That’s Disinfectant Knotgrass and that’s an Anaesthetic Sponge. The juice of this cactus can combat hair loss, but the patient’s head grows prickles instead. Turdwort, Thistlegut, Black Uncle … I’d rather not tell you what ailments they’re good for.’

  Echo was fascinated. This was in every respect a counterpart to the Alchemaster’s laboratory. Ghoolion’s morbid realm was filled with stuffed corpses and dangerous chemicals, pathogenic substances and preserved death rattles, whereas this was a celebration of life, a living, proliferating, breathing world in which everything served therapeutic medicinal purposes. What a contrast between the Alchemaster’s acrid alchemical fumes and the vernal fragrance of Izanuela’s flower garden! Echo felt like making his home there right away.

  ‘But that’s enough about diseases,’ Izanuela said firmly. ‘It’s an unpleasant subject.’

  They came to a big table laden with gadgets, all of which might have come from the Alchemaster’s laboratory: flasks and test tubes, phials and mortars, coloured liquids and powders, microscopes and tweezers. Compared to Ghoolion’s equipment, however, Izanuela’s was just a child’s chemistry set.

  ‘This is my distillation plant,’ she said with a grin. ‘I certainly can’t compete with Ghoolion’s laboratory, but I can brew a potion or two. Incidentally, about my so-called Placebo Wart Ointment: it is, in fact, the most effective wart ointment in the whole of Zamonia. Apply some to a wart and it’ll drop off the next morning. There’s nothing to touch it anywhere on Apothecary Avenue. Here, this is a cold cure distilled from Snotgrass. Take some and five minutes later your cold will be gone. I’d like to see the doctor who can prescribe such a medicine.’

  She held up a test tube containing some green powder.

  ‘There’s no such thing as a cure for hangovers, right? You just have to let them wear off, right?’

  Echo thought of his wine-tasting session with Ghoolion and nodded.

  ‘Wrong!’ cried Izanuela. ‘A spoonful of this powder in your coffee and you’ll be as clear-headed as a teetotaller. This tincture cures any migraine. That pill banishes any toothache. Here’s a liqueur that will heal stomach ulcers. Appendicitis? Chew this root and your appendix disinflames itself. Chickenpox? Simply rub my chickenpox ointment on your spots and they stop itching within seconds. Jaun
dice? Drink this potion and your liver will be back in order immediately.’

  She spread her arms wide.

  ‘Down here I’ve devised remedies for most of the diseases Ghoolion is concocting up there. Not that he knows it, the two of us are engaged in an everlasting duel.’

  Echo had been carried away by her enthusiastic recital. ‘Let’s get down to work!’ he cried. ‘When are we going to brew this love potion? Now?’

  The Uggly made a soothing gesture.

  ‘Not so fast,’ she said. ‘First I have to familiarise myself with the relevant literature.’

  She picked up a huge leather-bound tome and slammed it down on the tabletop so hard that it set all the retorts and test tubes around her jingling.

  ‘The Ugglimical Cookbook,’ she explained. ‘It contains every Ugglimical recipe in existence. In Old Ugglian.’

  She opened the book at the title page and read out the motto:

  ‘“Nyott stropstnopirni hapfel zach; hapfel zach stropstnopirni!” Can you translate that too?’

  ‘We don’t live to learn; we learn to live!’ Echo replied.

  ‘Correct,’ she said. ‘Let’s see now …’

  She turned over the pages for quite a while.

  ‘Toadstool Soup … hm … Henbane Rissoles … Crab-Apple Cocktail … hm … Muddlewater Cordial … Adderthistle Salad with Larkspew Dressing …’

  She tapped a page with her finger and uttered a triumphant cry. ‘Here we are! Ugglimical Love Potion, Extra Strong!’

  ‘Have you found it?’ Echo asked excitedly. ‘Is it really in there?’

  ‘Phew,’ Izanuela said to herself, ‘this is a tall order. We need some Gristlethorn … some Treacletuft…a spoonful of Champagne Rennet … a Clubfoot Toadstool … some Prickly Wormfern…a Twelve-Leafed Clover…a Graveyard Marsh Anemone … Arctic Woodbine…a pinch of Old Man’s Scurf … some chopped Toadpipe … a pound of Pond Scum … some Sparrowspit …’ She mopped her brow. ‘Heavens, what next! A Funnelhorn … Quail’s-Eye Wheat … Tuberous Stinkwort … Devil’s Clover … Inflorescent Cabbage … some Ranunculaceous Nectar … two Shadow Shallots … hm … hm …’

 

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