The alchemasters apprent.., p.39
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.39

           Walter Moers
 

  Izanuela’s house was the first to arise. It creaked and groaned as its mighty roots freed themselves from the moist earth with a sucking sound. All the houses in Uggly Lane followed suit. One after another, they detached themselves from the places where they had stood for so many years. It was a long time - night had already fallen - before the last of them was free of the ground. Then they struck up their mournful song and set off.

  To avenge Izanuela …

  And then Echo was high in the air again. His vision was at an end. Reality had reclaimed him. No Uggly, no Golden Squirrel. No more sympathetic vibrations or golden glow to lull him into a sense of security.

  It was night-time once more. Echo could feel the rush of air and the pull of gravity. He was very near the rooftops now - as near as Izanuela had been when she left her body - but there was no chance he would cheat death by dissolving into a scent. He would crash into that roof down there, the roof of a nondescript house with a small garden where he had once … Echo suddenly realised that it was the house in which he’d spent his early days: the house that had belonged to Floria of Ingotville. Fate might be cruel, he reflected, but it did have a sense of humour.

  ‘Ouch!’ Something had gripped him painfully by the scruff of the neck. Falling no longer, he was being borne aloft into the night air.

  ‘The Leathermice are back!’ he thought. ‘It was just a joke in poor taste.’

  He turned his head. Sure enough, some powerful talons were gripping him by the neck, but they didn’t belong to a Leathermouse. Their owner was Theodore T. Theodore.

  ‘You simply aren’t safe on your own,’ the Tuwituwu said as he skimmed the rooftops with Echo dangling beneath him. ‘I burn my tack for a couple of days and what happens? You’re up the peek again without a craddle.’

  Love at First Sight

  ‘Where have you been all this time?’ Echo asked as they flew over

  Malaisea’s municipal park. Instead of putting him down at once, Theodore had headed straight for that part of town.

  ‘You’ll see soon enough,’ Theodore said breathlessly. ‘Phew, you may have shed a few pounds, my friend, but you’re still no wightleight.’

  Just beside the pond in the middle of the park was a big weeping willow. With Echo still dangling beneath him like a sack of potatoes, Theodore flew into its overhanging branches and released him. Echo landed heavily on a large, well-upholstered nest.

  ‘This is my nest,’ Theodore explained as he touched down beside him, panting hard. He spread his wings. ‘My new adobe.’

  Echo sat up and looked around. ‘I say,’ he said, ‘what a big place. Far bigger than the chimney. You live here all by yourself?’

  ‘Er, not exactly,’ said Theodore. ‘You’ll see soon enough.’

  ‘You’ll see soon enough, you’ll see soon enough,’ Echo parroted. ‘What will I see soon enough? Why so secretive? What have you been up to all this time?’

  ‘Well, for one thing I built this nest,’ Theodore said sheepishly. ‘Then came the billing and cooing and brooding. The miracle of love, et cetera. You’ll see soon enough.’

  He gave Echo a piercing stare. ‘What’s more to the point, tell me what’s been going on here. I fly off to the Blue Mountains for a few hours’ hunting, I come back and the castle has vanished. Then you appear out of the blue - or the clouds, to be more precise. Come on, out with it! Where’s Ghoolion?’

  ‘Ghoolion’s dead. He and his castle have gone to perdition. The Uggly … the Snow-White Widow … It’s a long story. Let me get my breath back first.’

  ‘You went to see the Uggly? Did she help you?’

  ‘Yes. No. Well, in a way …’ Echo tried to marshal his facts in the right order. So much had happened.

  There was a whirring sound overhead. He looked up. Two Tuwituwus were coming in to land, a big one and a very small one. Catching sight of Echo, they applied their air brakes and hovered.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ Theodore called to them, ‘he’s a friend. Come down here!’

  The two birds landed on the edge of the nest. The smaller Tuwituwu nestled against the bigger one’s leg.

  ‘Allow me to indrotuce my friend Echo,’ said Theodore. ‘Echo, meet my wife Theodora.’ He indicated the bigger of the two Tuwituwus, whom he treated to a look of adoration.

  ‘So she’s a female,’ thought Echo.

  ‘And this is my son, Theodore T. Theodore the Second.’ His breast swelling with pride, Theodore pointed to the little bird, which inclined its head politely.

  Echo bowed likewise. ‘A pleasure and privilege to make your acquaintance,’ he said.

  The little bird turned to its mother. ‘He can hold a conservation,’ it whispered.

  Theodore T. Theodore put a wing round Echo’s shoulder and drew him aside. ‘Pretend not to notice,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Junior has a broplem with long words - can’t think who he gets it from.’

  ‘So you’ve founded a family,’ said Echo. ‘That explains everything.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Theodore, ‘the call of nature. You have to obey it when it comes. In my case it came late, but it came. My giobolical clock was reading five to twelve. We met in the Toadwoods. It was love at first sight.’

  He gazed ardently at Theodora, who was climbing down into the nest with her son. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s put you in the picture. Now it’s your turn.’

  Echo complied. He told of his meeting and friendship with the last Uggly in Malaisea, of his adventures as a Leathermouse and a Demonic Bee, of the brewing of the love potion and distillation of the Cratmint. Of the Cooked Ghosts and the demons’ awakening. Of how he believed he’d eaten Theodore. Of the Snow-White Widow’s lethal dance. Of Izanuela’s death and her resurrection in the Ugglian Oaks. Of the castle’s destruction and the terrible end of Succubius Ghoolion, Malaisea’s erstwhile Alchemaster-in-Chief. It wasn’t until he’d finished that he realised how much he’d been through in the last few weeks.

  ‘Good heavens!’ Theodore exclaimed. ‘What a tanfastic story - well worthy of a place in Zamonian lorefolk. So you weren’t just a Meatherlouse, you were a Bemonic Dee as well. By a curious coincidence, I nearly swallowed a Bemonic Dee the other day.’

  ‘Really?’ said Echo.

  ‘Yes, it was while I was hunting for mice in a lovely, lush summer meadow. By the time I noticed it was a Bemonic Dee it was almost too late - I already had it in my beak. I managed to spit it out just in time. Do you know what a Bemonic Dee’s sting in the gullet can do to you?’

  Echo grinned. ‘I do indeed.’

  Meanwhile, Theodora had fed the little Tuwituwu. She was now rocking it to sleep beneath her wing and humming softly. The tension was gradually draining from Echo’s limbs. He was among friends in a safe, warm nest. The Alchemaster was dead, the spell lifted at last. He felt very tired suddenly.

  ‘Tell me,’ he said, resting his head on a soft pillow of grass, ‘how do you account for the fact that you were there to catch me?’

  ‘Pure chance,’ said Theodore. ‘I was returning from a hunting trip in the Blue Mountains, as I told you. I had a dead mouse in my talons, a prize specimen. I was on course for Lamaisea when something suddenly came over me …’

  ‘Something came over you?’ Echo raised his head again.

  ‘Yes, a strange feeling of … of confidence, I can’t describe it any other way. And I heard, well, a humming sound … a kind of, er …’

  ‘Sympathetic vibration?’

  ‘Exactly, a sempathytic bivration! I seemed to be flying along a beam of golden light that guided me to my nestidation through all the chimneypots in Lamaisea. At the same time I was puzzled that the castle has disappeared during my absence and worried about my family - a strange state of mind. And then you came falling out of the sky. I just managed to drop the mouse and grab you. It was a combination of chance and precision.’

  ‘Exactly,’ Echo said with a smile. ‘Chance. Chance and precision.’ His head subsided on to the grassy pillow and he fell into
a deep, dreamless sleep.

  Malaisea’s Awakening

  Echo was thoroughly rested when he awoke the next morning. Theodore T. Theodore and his family had been considerate enough not to wake him and flown off, possibly on a hunting trip. Echo, who wanted to spare himself and them a sentimental farewell, seized the opportunity to depart without more ado. He climbed down the tree, left the municipal park and set off on a last stroll through the streets of the town that had hitherto been his world.

  Malaisea had just begun to stir. The full moon was still visible in the paling sky. The town and its inhabitants were waking the way people wake after a long illness, when a last night of fever has sweated their remaining symptoms out of them: still unsteady on their trembling legs, with dark rings round their eyes and chalk-white cheeks, but filled with renewed hope and certain that the worst is over.

  They emerged from their homes and stared in disbelief at the place where Ghoolion’s sinister castle used to stand. All that marked the spot was a heap of rubble and a thin haze of grey dust. An ancient and unloved building had collapsed with a crash in the middle of the night. A row of deserted houses had vanished. The shattered remains of an Uggly had been found in a side street. Who cared? Before long, it would all seem no more than a bad dream.

  Bandages and handkerchiefs were tossed into gutters to be washed away by the next shower of rain. Pharmacists stood helplessly outside their shops, waiting for non-existent customers. The usual smells of ether and antiseptic, pus and iodine, sickness and death were overlaid by new scents of all kinds: thyme and garlic, pan-fried bacon and chicken soup, chips and tomato ketchup, roast pork and bouillabaisse, pancakes and toast, sage and lemon, coriander and curry, saffron and vanilla. The Malaiseans were busy cooking, for what was the first thing people did after recovering from a long illness? They cooked themselves their favourite meal. That was why all the pedestrians in the streets, far from being on their way to the doctor or pharmacy, hospital or dentist, were off to the butcher or baker, grocer or greengrocer. No more camomile tea, sticking plasters or cough syrup for them; they were after fresh pasta, ripe cheese and olive oil.

  They paid scant attention to the little Crat threading his way between their legs. The townsfolk of Malaisea knew nothing about a contract, about Crat fat and Cooked Ghosts, Prima Zateria and the biggest treasure chamber in Zamonia. They hadn’t sampled any nuts from the Tree of Nutledge and were ignorant of Anguish Candles and Demonic Mummies, Shadow Ink and metamorphotic meals.

  Echo didn’t care. He was wholly indifferent to the town and all who lived there. His connection with Malaisea was at an end. Every step took him a little further from the sickest town in Zamonia. Malaisea was now on the road to recovery, but without him. Echo was the only creature there that wasn’t hungry. He didn’t intend to eat again until the next full moon. Till then he would go without - he still had enough fat on his ribs to last him.

  He didn’t pause until he reached the outskirts of town. Ahead of him lay the unpredictable wilds of Zamonia. Strangleroots by the roadside, wild dogs in the fields, poisonous snakes and scorpions in the long grass. Rabid foxes, Woodwolves and Corn Demons. Raging torrents and treacherous bogs. Mistwitches, Voltigorks and Snow-White Widows. All those dangers were said to be out there.

  But so was that other kind of Crat, the one of which Theodore had told him. Echo set off in the direction of the Blue Mountains. Awaiting him somewhere beyond them must be the miracle of love.

  The End

  Optimus Yarnspinner

  Epilogue

  Anyone even vaguely familiar with my writings will know that I have never disguised my profound respect for the works of Gofid Letterkerl. For me, his novel Zanilla and the Murch is still one of Zamonian literature’s outstanding achievements, and most of his other books also rank high in my estimation.

  My godfather Dancelot Wordwright read me Letterkerl’s Echo the Crat again and again when I was a youngster, and I have cherished a special liking for that slim novella ever since. I shall not attempt to explain or justify my predilection here; instead, I shall simply leave the story, which can now be read by anyone so inclined, to speak for itself. My sole concern is that Letterkerl’s tale of the Crat and the Alchemaster be accessible to as many readers as possible.

  Echo the Crat is the first of seven so-called Culinary Tales, all of them written by Letterkerl and set in the Zamonian town of Malaisea. The ‘culinary tale’, a literary genre originated by Letterkerl himself, has inspired countless imitators. One has only to think of Glorian Gekko’s Princess in Pea Soup, Rimbo Demoniac’s Incorrigible Liver Pâté or Knulf Krockenkrampf’s The Potato Tycoon. But Letterkerl not only founded this genre; he brought it to a pitch of perfection. None of his imitators has ever succeeded in producing such a close-knit fusion of literature and the culinary arts. Even today, many physicians advise their overweight patients to avoid reading his Malaisea stories on the grounds that they promote obesity.

  But let us face facts: Gofid Letterkerl is perhaps the supreme exponent of classical Zamonian literature. He attained his greatest popularity hundreds of years ago and his style - I say this with all due respect and circumspection - was considered, even during his lifetime, to be as ponderous as a wardrobe and as much an acquired taste as a trombophone concerto. I myself have always been enraptured by his style because it conveys Orm6 in its purest form. However, I can well imagine that Letterkerl’s linguistic idiosyncrasies are more likely to drive modern readers, especially those of the younger generation, into the arms of certain authors of light fiction whose names I shall refrain from citing here. (The Prince Sangfroid novels are a case in point. Need I say more?)

  I have, therefore, taken the liberty of transposing Echo the Crat into a somewhat more up-to-date New Zamonian idiom so as to reacquaint the public with the novella and, I hope, assure it of renewed popularity.

  I have also ventured to rework the story a trifle and provide it with a new title. I have called it The Alchemaster’s Apprentice for commercial reasons, I freely admit, because how many modern readers would buy a book about a harmless little Crat named Echo? The word ‘Alchemaster’, on the other hand, immediately conjures up mysterious happenings and hair-raising alchemistic horrors. And so, if you picked up this book purely because of its title, be honest and admit it. Don’t be ashamed of never having previously read such an Orm-infused story because you found its original title insufficiently sensational.

  Furthermore, I have been presumptuous enough to amplify Gofid Letterkerl’s story with a few improvisations of my own, for without them the creative element would be lacking.

  I can already hear critics accusing me of robbing the dead - of spiritual theft. Suffice it to say that Letterkerl’s oeuvre is out of copyright, and how can anyone steal something that belongs to all?

  So go ahead and sue me!

  Optimus Yarnspinner

  1 A Zamonian mammal identical to a domestic cat in outward appearance and other characteristics, the only difference being that it can talk and has two livers. [Tr.]

  2 A Zamonian cousin of the bat, to which it bears only a distant resemblance. It possesses a mouselike or ratlike head of appalling ugliness and is covered in leathery, almost impenetrable skin instead of fur. Vampire bats and Leathermice are quite similar in their social behaviour and diet, notably in their unpleasant predilection for drinking blood. [Tr.]

  3 An exceedingly unpleasant Zamonian arachnid. Its appearance precisely matches its name. [Tr.]

  4 See the chapter entitled ‘The Trombophone Concert’ on p. 114 of Optimus Yarnspinner’s The City of Dreaming Books. [Tr.]

  5 See p. 354 of Optimus Yarnspinner’s Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures. [Tr.]

  6 According to Dancelot Wordwright in Optimus Yarnspinner’s City of Dreaming Books, p. 20: ‘A kind of mysterious force reputed to flow through many authors at moments of supreme inspiration.’ [Tr.]

 


 

  Walter Moers, The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A N
ovel

 


 

 
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