The alchemasters apprent.., p.26
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.26

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘Whoa!’ cried Izanuela. With a sound like thunder, the whole avalanche of tiles cascaded over the edge of the roof with her and Echo on board.

  Then they were in free fall. This time, Echo possessed no Leathermouse wings he could have deployed at the last moment. Quickly, far too quickly, Malaisea came rushing up to meet him. It would be all over in a few seconds. Was this his punishment for trying to redirect his destiny: an even swifter death than at Ghoolion’s hands?

  He was almost on a level with the Uggly, who was plummeting to earth in a shower of tiles. Her face betrayed no fear, just bewilderment.

  A moment later they were suddenly surrounded by darting shafts of black lightning - by hideous, wrinkled faces and bared teeth: Leathermice, hundreds of them! They sank their teeth in Echo’s tail, buried their claws in his fur and gripped him by the neck.

  Then he noticed that his rate of descent was slowing. The same thing was happening to Izanuela, he could see this through a flurry of black bodies. The vampires had fastened their teeth and claws on her in many places and were bearing her slowly downwards, vigorously flapping their membranous wings.

  Echo was gently deposited on the path that led up to the castle. Izanuela landed just beside him, the Cratmint still in her trembling hand. The creatures of the night were fluttering overhead.

  Echo looked up at them. ‘Why did you do that?’ he called. ‘You’re under contract to Ghoolion. I don’t understand.’

  ‘Nobody understands the Leathermice!’ came the reply, doubtless from an individual whose first name was Vlad. ‘Not even the Leathermice!’ Then the vampires, in close formation, went soaring into the sky and darkened the moon.

  Echo felt himself all over. He had escaped without a single scratch.

  ‘Please excuse me,’ he said to Izanuela. ‘Ghoolion is bound to be waiting dinner for me.’

  The Cheese Museum

  When Echo paid a visit to Izanuela’s house the next day, the door opened even before he set foot on the veranda steps. It was as if the house had seen him in the distance and invited him in. He was flattered by this mark of esteem on the part of a centuries-old plant and tried to tread with special care once he was inside the house. Izanuela wasn’t in the kitchen, but the stairway to the subterranean garden was open.

  ‘Hello!’ he called. ‘Iza? Anyone at home?’

  ‘I’m down here!’ she called back. ‘Come and join me!’

  He found her at her distillery, which was surrounded by unfamiliar plants in clay pots. Translucent coloured liquids were bubbling away, and the air was filled with many new smells.

  ‘Some job you’ve landed me with!’ she groaned. ‘Thanks a lot. Have you any idea what a business it is, extracting the chlorophyll from a Dragonthistle? I have to ugglimise almost every plant I need. That’s a particularly economical way of isolating its active substances, but you’ve no idea how much work it entails. And my suffragator has just broken down. Now I’ll have to suffragate everything by hand.’

  ‘Well, how’s it going?’ Echo asked diffidently.

  The Uggly put her hands on her hips and squinted at him.

  ‘Is that the only reason why you’ve come, to hassle me? What comes next, the “I’ve-got-so-little-time-left” act? The “poor-little-Crat-in-distress” spiel? You can save yourself the trouble, my friend! I’ve been slaving away - didn’t sleep a wink all night. My heart has been beating like a tomtom ever since we fell off that roof - it just won’t stop. I feel as if I’d drunk fifty cups of coffee and I never touch the stuff.’

  ‘I was only asking,’ said Echo.

  ‘Thanks for the enquiry, then. Yes, I’m making progress. I’ve been distilling the Cratmint oil for twelve hours. It’s a remarkably productive plant. The perfume will be very strong.’

  The Cratmint, Echo saw, was immersed in a big glass balloon filled with some kind of clear, pale-green liquid. It had lost none of its beauty.

  ‘The Gingerbread Japonica has already been etherised,’ Izanuela said with a sigh, ‘and I immersed the Toadmoss in a marinade of Crocodiddle’s tears overnight. It should soon be chattified.’

  ‘Chattified?’ said Echo.

  ‘Yes, chattified, the opposite of unchattified. You’re surely not suggesting we lace our love potion with uchattified Toadmoss?’

  ‘No,’ Echo said uncertainly, ‘of course not.’

  She grinned at him.

  ‘You don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, do you? That’s because I’m a qualified Uggly and you aren’t. It doesn’t matter how much you know about alchemy; Ugglimy is a science in its own right. Ghoolion may cook ghosts or transform sugar into salt or heaven knows what, but he can’t concoct a decent love potion - not him! And I’ll tell you why: because alchemy doesn’t give a fig for the emotions, that’s why! Because he’s too busy trying to construct perpetual-motion machines or looking for the Philosopher’s Stone to trouble his head about anything as stupid as love. But the thing that makes the world go round isn’t in here.’ She tapped her forehead. ‘It’s in here!’ She thumped her chest twice with her fist.

  Echo didn’t reply, but he wasn’t displeased by Izanuela’s vehemence. It showed how motivated she was.

  ‘My colleague, Sister Crapanthia Urgel, is sending me some Goat’s Gristle and Old Man’s Scurf from Florinth,’ she said. ‘The Treacletuft and the Toadpipe I’m getting direct from the Impic Alps. The Devil’s Clover is coming from Grailsund.’

  ‘Are you really planning to get them from so far away?’ Echo was shocked. ‘It’ll take weeks. I don’t -’

  ‘- have that much time left!’ Izanuela broke in, casting her eyes up to heaven. ‘I know, I know. They’re coming by airmail.’

  ‘Airmail?’

  ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s one of the advantages of being on good terms with Zamonia’s flora and fauna. We Ugglies have an efficient airmail service at our disposal. Pigeons and seagulls mainly, but also eagles, vultures and swallows. Sparrows for short-haul flights, condors for freight.’

  Echo looked surprised. ‘You’ve got trained birds?’

  ‘Our birds aren’t trained,’ she said indignantly. ‘They work for us on a voluntary basis.’

  ‘You don’t say!’

  ‘Yes, a long-standing relationship of mutual trust with the natural world can sometimes pay off,’ said Izanuela. ‘We refrain from polluting the birds’ air space with sulphurous fumes from alchemical furnaces, provide them with medical treatment free of charge and hang up bird feeders in the woods in winter. In return, they deliver an occasional express letter or parcel. I’m expecting those consignments as early as tomorrow morning.’

  Echo looked relieved. ‘Oh, that’s all right, then.’

  ‘Meantime, you can make yourself useful. I need your help.’

  ‘Of course, that’s why I’m here. What shall I do? Do you need some alchemistic advice?’

  ‘Not yet. I haven’t got enough chattified Toadmoss, but I don’t have time to roam around in the Toadwoods. You could do that for me.’

  ‘You want me to fetch some moss from the Toadwoods?’

  ‘Not just any old moss, Toadmoss. As much as you can carry in your mouth.’

  Echo swallowed hard. ‘I’ve never been that far from town.’

  ‘The Toadwoods are still inside the city limits,’ Izanuela said. ‘They’re quite civilised, really. People only avoid them because the Incurables live there.’

  The Incurables … Echo felt uneasy. You didn’t venture into the Toadwoods unless you had some fell disease: you went there to die.

  ‘“You’re feeling terminally sick? Off to the Toadwoods with you, quick!”’ Izanuela recited. ‘You know the poem by Knulf Krockenkrampf?’ She gave a hoarse laugh. ‘I told you this wouldn’t be a stroll in the park, my friend, but we need that Toadmoss badly.’

  ‘All right,’ said Echo, ‘I’ll go. How do I recognise it?’

  ‘By its smell: it smells of toad.’ Izanuela removed the lid from a clay pot and
held it under Echo’s nose. The Toadmoss floating in the Crocodiddle’s tears stank appallingly.

  ‘Got it,’ he said with a shudder. ‘I’ll find some.’

  Izanuela laid the pot aside. ‘Pooh!’ she said. ‘I could do with a break. A little snack wouldn’t come amiss, either. Like to join me?’

  ‘What have you got?’ he asked.

  She stared at him in astonishment. ‘Cheese, of course, what else?’

  Echo wrinkled his nose. ‘Cheese is for mice,’ he said disdainfully. ‘I never eat the stuff.’

  She went stomping up the stairs to the kitchen. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘What possible objection could anyone have to cheese?’

  ‘It stinks. Besides, it’s all much of a muchness.’

  ‘Cheese doesn’t stink,’ she retorted. ‘It’s fragrant. It isn’t all much of a muchness, either; it’s possibly the most varied food there is. Do you know how many varieties of Zamonian cheeses there are?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Nor do I. That’s because there are so many, nobody has ever tried to count them, and new varieties are appearing every day. Me, I eat nothing but cheese.’

  ‘Really?’

  Izanuela nodded proudly. ‘I’m a fanatical Caseinian. We Caseinians are convinced that cheese contains all the essential nutrients. Fat, salt and calcium, that’s all one needs.’

  She drew herself up.

  ‘Look at me! I’ve been on a strict cheese diet nearly all my life. Does my physique give you the impression that it may have been impaired in some way?’

  Echo had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from making some injudicious remark that might have jeopardised their budding friendship.

  ‘Do you eat no meat?’ he asked instead. ‘No fish? No vegetables? No fruit?’

  ‘I could never eat an animal,’ said Izanuela, shaking her head vigorously. ‘As for vegetables … Being a holder of the Green Thumb, how could I bring myself to eat plants? They’re rational, sentient beings like you and me.’

  ‘How about bread? Or cakes?’

  ‘They both contain flour. Flour is a product that comes into being when innocent vegetable matter is ground to death between millstones. Can you conceive of a more barbarous method of execution? No, I eat nothing but cheese. We Caseinians worship it almost like a god.’ She flung open both doors of the kitchen cabinet and performed an elaborate bow.

  Echo was totally unprepared for the tidal wave of odours that burst from the interior and surged over him. The garden cupboard containing the ‘more evil-smelling’ plants had smelt like a perfumery in comparison. But this was not a wholly disgusting smell like that of Ghoolion’s banqueting table. What came wafting out of Izanuela’s cheese cupboard was of a quality and variety all its own. It smelt not of death and decay, but of life. A very peculiar form of life, admittedly.

  ‘In this cupboard,’ Izanuela declared in a tremulous voice, ‘three hundred and sixty-five cheeses are ripening to perfection. One for every day of the year, yet this choice assortment is far from complete. It’s a very subjective selection. Cheese is a matter of taste, you know.’

  His curiosity aroused, Echo peered into the cupboard. He saw big rounds of cheese, plump balls, pointed cones and pyramids, and countless wedges. Many were wrapped in greaseproof paper, others dipped in ash or sealed with varnish, and still others encrusted with mildew or mustard seeds. It was a veritable cheese museum.

  The Uggly clapped her hands in anticipation and craned far into the cupboard.

  ‘What shall we have today? Some Gloomberg Gorgonzola? A smidgen of Cape Coldfinger Camembert? A Bookholm Blue? Some creamy goat’s cheese from the Impic Alps? A slice of Murkholmian Mumblecheek? A tasty Florinthian Slithercurd, which melts on the tongue like butter when ripe? Or would you prefer something more powerful, for instance a Double Magma from the slopes of Mount Molehill, which is rolled in volcanic ash? Some Demon’s Gulch Gouda? Some Druid’s Delight, complete with wax coating? Or how about some Dullsgard Diarrhoeic?’

  Izanuela grinned at Echo over her shoulder.

  ‘Didn’t you just tell me that all cheeses were much of a muchness? Quote me another food that exists in as many different varieties.’

  Echo shrugged. ‘All right, you win. Cheese is the greatest.’

  She reached into the cupboard and brought out a small glass jar with a screw cap.

  ‘This is Grailsundian Miner’s Breath,’ she said reverently. ‘Look at it.’ She held the jar under Echo’s nose.

  ‘I can’t see anything. The jar’s empty.’

  ‘But it’s in there. You can’t see it, that’s all.’

  ‘You mean it’s invisible, like the caviar Ghoolion gave me once?’

  ‘No. I should make it clear that Grailsundian Miner’s Breath exists only in Grailsund, and there’s only one example of it - a pretty big one, mark you. Grailsund is Zamonia’s cheese capital, the fragrant metropolis of Caseinism.’

  Izanuela lowered the jar and stared into space.

  ‘Ah, Grailsund! Every Caseinian has to make a pilgrimage there once in his or her lifetime, to pay homage to the great Grailsundian Miner’s Breath. A cheese of monumental proportions, it’s as big as several houses piled on top of one another.’

  She made a sweeping gesture, and Echo pictured a cheese towering into the sky.

  ‘Miner’s Breath has to ripen in a mine, of course, so the Grailsundians dug the deepest cheese mine ever excavated. The cheese has been maturing down there for over a thousand years and is still far from fully ripe. No one may eat any - it’s prohibited on pain of death! - but one can smell it. And believe me, that’s quite enough for anyone.’

  Izanuela smiled ecstatically.

  ‘I was only permitted to sniff it for a few brief moments when I made my own pilgrimage to Grailsund, but I was completely glutted for several days. I even put on a pound or two. I couldn’t so much as look at a cheese for a whole week, I was so full.’

  She unscrewed the lid.

  ‘Although it’s forbidden to eat any Grailsundian Miner’s Breath, every pilgrim is permitted to fill a preserving jar with its aroma and take it away. Here, have a sniff!’

  Echo reluctantly sniffed the jar and Izanuela promptly screwed the lid on tight again.

  For a moment he thought he would choke. The smell was so intense, so physically palpable, it threatened to cut off his air supply. Then the alarming sensation subsided and he felt as if his stomach were full of hot olive oil. He became as warm and sleepy as he did after one of Ghoolion’s lavish meals.

  ‘Phew!’ he said. ‘Thanks a lot. You’ve ruined my diet for at least a week.’

  Izanuela smiled. ‘Yes, quite something, isn’t it? Mind you, it’s really only for special occasions.’ She replaced the jar. ‘I think I’m going to treat myself to a little Ornian Crumblecrust.’

  She removed a primitive-looking farmhouse cheese from the cupboard. As she did so, Echo thought he glimpsed a movement on one of the shelves inside.

  ‘What was that?’ he asked.

  She instantly slammed the cupboard doors.

  ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

  ‘I saw something move in there.’

  Echo noticed only now that the worm-eaten cupboard itself resembled a gigantic cheese.

  Izanuela gave a little cough. ‘You’re imagining things.’

  ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘what are you hiding in there?’

  She blushed. ‘Nothing,’ she mumbled. ‘Nothing at all.’

  ‘Something moved. I saw it with my own eyes.’

  Izanuela shuffled from one foot to the other. ‘But you must promise never to tell anyone,’ she said.

  ‘I promise.’ Echo raised one paw.

  She deposited the Crumblecrust on the kitchen table, opened the cupboard again and reached for the shelf on which Echo had seen something moving.

  ‘Come here, you …’ Izanuela made several attempts to grab something, but it appeared to evade her every time. Could it be a mouse?

 
; ‘Got you at last!’ she cried eventually.

  Turning round, she held out a cheese the size of a clenched fist. It had numerous legs, all of which were waggling furiously.

  ‘A…a live cheese?’ Echo looked dumbfounded.

  Izanuela shrugged her shoulders.

  ‘All cheeses are alive, strictly speaking. They mature like other living creatures. I simply give the process a helping hand - in a spirit of Caseinian fun, so to speak.’

  She held the kicking cheese close to her face. It emitted a fretful whine.

  ‘I’ve christened it Inazuelan Brie - in my own honour. It’s my personal Caseinian creation. Live yoghurt cultures are partly responsible for its animation, as you can imagine, but I also use some Ugglimical essences strictly prohibited under the provisions of Ghoolion’s Municipal Ordinance No. 52736.’ She laughed.

  ‘What put the idea into your head?’

  Izanuela sighed. ‘If you abstain as rigorously as I do from foods that used to be alive, you sometimes feel the urge to eat something that moves as much as possible while you’re eating it. It’s like that with me, anyway.’

  ‘I understand.’

  ‘If that brings me down to the level of a Demon’s Gulch Cyclops, so be it. But I should point out that the cheese feels nothing while you’re eating it. It resembles a Leyden Manikin in possessing no nervous system, so it can’t feel pain.’

  As though in contradiction of the last statement, the cheese uttered a high-pitched whimper. Izanuela stuffed it into her mouth and devoured it in a few bites.

  ‘Mmm!’ she said, looking at Echo. ‘Yes, I know it’s a blot on my Ugglian escutcheon.’ She shrugged. ‘But who is free from guilt?’

  ‘So everything is alive in this place,’ he said. ‘Even the cheeses.’

  ‘Would you like one?’ Izanuela asked. ‘There are some more in the cupboard. They taste really delicious.’

  ‘No thanks,’ he said, ‘that Miner’s Breath was quite enough for me. Besides, I’d like to get my trip to the Toadwoods over before dark. It’s getting late.’

 
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