The alchemasters apprent.., p.8
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.8

           Walter Moers
 

  Ghoolion knew all there was to know about a Crat’s brain. He realised that a creature with a perfect command of every Zamonian language, animal languages included, was a genius, and that it must be capable of intellectual feats of quite another order. Echo’s brain was an absorbent sponge full of unused chambers and synapses, fresh cells and youthful tissue crackling with mental electricity. You could have read him the Atlantean register of births or the fundamentals of Zamonian mathematics aloud, and he would have memorised every word and numeral sufficiently to be able to recite them backwards on demand. But he was quite unaware of his gift. Because it had scarcely been tested in its brief existence, his young cerebral organ would provide the ideal vessel in which to deposit the Alchemaster’s whole store of knowledge - or at least its quintessence, which he had condensed into a compact system of handy formulae and theses.

  Whether Ghoolion was lecturing him on the integrated geocentric model of the universe or the language of diamonds, Bookemisticotypographic hypnosis or the sensitivity of metals to pain, his words seemed to Echo like music that went in one ear and came out the other. He was happy just to listen to the Alchemaster’s melodious voice, which could always be relied on to banish his own dark thoughts, and he hadn’t the least idea how much he truly understood of what he heard and how much had lodged between his ears. Ghoolion knew that Echo’s mind possessed the unique ability to store all this knowledge without its becoming a burden to him - indeed, without his even realising that he had learnt something of importance. Only in a Crat’s brain could this serene symbiosis of ignorance and intelligence have prevailed.

  But Ghoolion’s playful tuition in the fundamental principles of alchemy was practical as well as theoretical. He granted the little Crat unlimited access to the laboratory and allowed him to wind round his legs while he was performing his daily tasks. Echo observed every one of the Alchemaster’s techniques and series of experiments. He was permitted to read Ghoolion’s notes, even the entries in his journal. What he failed to realise, however, was that all these figures and formulae, chemical ingredients and focal lengths, logarithms and barometric data, fermentation times and melting points, et cetera, were etching themselves into his brain.

  He was allowed to look through all Ghoolion’s magnifying glasses, microscopes and telescopes, watch the alchemical furnace being fired and even be present at every stage in the operation of the Ghoolionic Preserver. He also sniffed powders and solutions, secret tinctures and ointments, essences and acids, and made a mental note of their odours, names and composition. Hanging on the laboratory walls were big blackboards bearing alchemistic tables, symbols and chemical compounds, all of which he studied from top to bottom. He read passages from priceless old alchemistic works, which Ghoolion brought him from the library. And at night, after a long day’s work and a meal of many courses, the Alchemaster would read to him from the secret texts in which he had recorded the most daring of his experiments. Echo’s little head absorbed all this information until it became what may well have been Zamonia’s biggest hoard of alchemistic knowledge, but he bore it lightly.

  He was sometimes awake at night because the food lay heavy on his stomach, so he liked to walk it off by roaming the old castle until he got tired. When he encountered Ghoolion, as he occasionally did, he dived behind some piece of furniture and surreptitiously watched the Alchemaster at his nightly activities. These, as he soon discovered, were thoroughly unmysterious and predictable. Ghoolion would either sit down on a window seat and survey the town through a telescope, or repair to the library, with its stupefying aroma of old books, and mutter to himself as he read. He often messed around in the laboratory as well, of course, and because he felt unobserved at night his manner was far more feverish and restless than during the day. He would fire up the alchemical furnace, check on the progress of current experiments, or tap on the jars containing Leyden Manikins. Then he would hurry over to the big blackboard, wipe off formulae with a sponge and replace them with others; take a step backwards; fly into a rage; bellow at the blackboard and hurl the chalk into the fire; promptly calm down and carry out some elaborate experiment with the utmost serenity and composure; pace to and fro, reeling off an endless succession of figures and formulae; make an entry in his journal; rinse out some test tubes and retorts; sew up a damaged taxidermal specimen; tan a hide; add a few brushstrokes to a painting; scrub the floor; sweep the chimney; and so on and so forth. The old man never paused to rest.

  Echo was reminded of an occasion when he’d scaled the ivy-covered walls of Malaisea’s municipal lunatic asylum. The roof of that unloved institution had afforded him a view of the exercise yard. What he saw there was remarkable. The lunatics were all behaving like people engaged in activities of supreme importance. One had made a pile of leaves in the corner of the yard and was guarding it against potential thieves with a resolute air. Another was banging his head against a wall with clockwork regularity, counting as he did so. Another was vehemently haranguing his fellow inmates about an impending invasion from outer space. Ever since seeing this, Echo had realised that, far from being impelled to conquer continents or burn cities to the ground, the victims of insanity were driven to carry out trivial routine tasks that differed little from those performed by the sound of mind. Before long, he ceased to regard Ghoolion as the dangerous madman the townsfolk of Malaisea believed him to be. Instead, he seemed an embodiment of all those harmless loonies in the exercise yard. Tormented by his restless, discontented nature and divorced from reality by his self-imposed isolation, he was toiling away at a monumental folly that would probably never be finished. Ghoolion the bogeyman, who had seemed ever more monstrous to Echo and all the other inhabitants of Malaisea, shrank on closer inspection to more tolerable proportions. Echo hadn’t grown fond of him, of course, nor did he feel sorry for him. Ghoolion was still an old tyrant, bully and tormentor of animals who proposed to slit his throat in a few weeks’ time, purely for the sake of some stupid experiment, but Echo learnt to treat him with an increasing lack of deference and constraint - in fact, there were times when he genuinely enjoyed his company. This struck him as smarter than spending his last days of life in constant trepidation.

  But Ghoolion, too, saw Echo with different eyes after a day or two. He very soon discovered that a Crat’s effect on its owner was far more subtle than that of any other domestic animal. A dog obeyed your orders and guarded the house, a bird’s song was easy on the ear. A Crat appeared to do nothing at all, to begin with, apart from favour you with its presence and accept your hospitality. In the company of a faithful hound you could feel powerful and secure; in that of a Crat, you could count yourself lucky to be tolerated at all. A dog deferred to its master, worshipped him, allowed him to put it on a leash and teach it idiotic tricks. It would even accept a thrashing from its master when it could have torn him to pieces. You could kick a dog into a corner, and a few hours later it would have forgotten and bring you your slippers in gratitude. But a Crat would cold-shoulder you for days, even if you’d merely trodden on its tail by accident. A Crat inspired respect, not fear. You could feel afraid of a dog, but never respectful. If Ghoolion had thrown a stick, Echo would have stared at him as if he were out of his mind and then stalked off with a toss of the head.

  What particularly fascinated Ghoolion about Echo was his almost preternatural agility. He half believed that the Crat could walk along a razor’s edge without cutting himself, or cross a rain cloud without falling through it, or nimbly traverse a deep puddle without wetting his paws, or step on a red-hot stove without burning himself. The laws of gravity seemed of only limited application to Echo. A dog that tried to scale a roof was the epitome of a venture doomed to fail. If Echo wanted to do this, he glided up the drainpipe as effortlessly as if he had suckers on his paws. If a Crat fell off a roof it landed unscathed on all fours. If a dog did so, it was dead.

  Echo exerted a soothing effect on Ghoolion, if only because of his silent, unobtrusive presence and the tranquil atmosph
ere it generated. With his inward and outward equilibrium, his flowing, well-gauged movements, his insatiable appetite for sleep and his instinctive aversion to hectic activity, he was the personification of poise and calm. Ghoolion particularly admired the way he prepared to go to sleep. He didn’t just lie down, he performed a balletic tribute to Morpheus. When the time came, the little Crat betook himself to his basket with the leisurely tread of a lion making for a waterhole. Then he climbed in and marked time with his forepaws to tamp the cushion down, purring and turning majestically on the spot as he did so. Next, yawning unashamedly, he stretched, first his forelegs and then his whole body, which positively melted into the cushion in a single, fluid, seductively lethargic movement. Last of all, he curled his tail round him in a semicircle, licked his paws with care and gave another yawn. His little head subsided, his eyes narrowed to slits, then closed, and Ghoolion could tell from the regular rise and fall of his furry flanks that Echo had safely arrived in every feline’s paradise, the land of dreams.

  The Alchemaster hardly slept at all. The most he did was sit down on a chair and lapse into an hour’s restless slumber, haunted by excruciating nightmares in which blazing Ugglies pursued him along endless passages or an octopus digested him alive. Then he would get to his feet again and resume his restless, obsessive activities.

  Ghoolion’s only companions in recent times had been the Leathermice, but he now realised how much of their behaviour had rubbed off on him. He lived more by night than by day, was extremely nervous and fluttery, had hypersensitive hearing and started at the smallest sound. He wrapped himself in his cloak like the vampire bats in their wings and, like them, was forever retreating into the shadows.

  ‘If I’m not very careful,’ thought Ghoolion, ‘I’ll soon be hanging from a rafter upside down, squeaking. Echo is so relaxed. I really should try to emulate him.’

  Yes, he was starting to develop a respect for Echo. It had been a good idea to choose a Crat for his culminating experiment. Crat fat might contain the missing bonding agent that would weld all other substances together. But Ghoolion derived particular pleasure from the way in which Echo was being trained and used despite his natural indolence and independence - and all without his realising it. That was cruelty to animals of the highest order.

  The Sheet

  After only a few days at the castle, Echo had acquired two friends: an eccentric bird and a Cooked Ghost. Beggars couldn’t be choosers in Ghoolion’s ancient pile, so you had to take what you could get in the way of company. But even a Crat subscribed to the principle that friendship entails obligations, so he felt bound to cultivate those acquaintances, however peculiar.

  The Cooked Ghost disappeared for days after Ghoolion had shooed it away, but it must have remained on the premises because it suddenly turned up again. Its manner at first was timid and hesitant, but as time went by it became increasingly confident - if a ghost could be described as such. It seemed to enjoy being near Echo, who gave a terrible start whenever the shimmering thing came sailing through a solid stone wall or bobbed up through the flagstones like a figure in a puppet theatre. In time, however, he got used to it. It never came too close but floated at a respectful distance behind him when he sauntered along the passages. If he halted, the ghost would also stop short and hover there, patiently and unobtrusively, until he walked on. That was all there was to their relationship - silent proximity - and Echo sometimes wondered what the ghost got out of it.

  His private name for it was ‘the Sheet’, which shows how little it now unnerved him. He had almost completely lost his original fear of it, having grasped that the ghost was no more dangerous than a curtain stirring in the breeze. There were times, however, when the sight of it did still make his blood run cold. This happened whenever he seemed to glimpse a kind of face in the floating ectoplasm. The phenomenon, which never lasted for more than a few seconds, looked as if a scary mask with a gaping mouth and no eyes were pressing against it from behind. Echo would have liked to talk the Sheet out of this undesirable habit, but alas, Cooked Ghost was not among the languages in his repertoire.

  The Sheet even followed Echo up to the roof, where it would suddenly seep through the tiles and pursue him up and down the stairways for hours on end. At night it often hovered beside his basket until he went to sleep and sometimes it would still be there when he awoke in the morning.

  But the Sheet was no less scared of the Alchemaster than anyone else in Malaisea. As soon as Echo heard his clattering, iron-shod footsteps, the ghost would instantly disappear through some wall or painting or the floor and refrain from showing itself again for a long time thereafter. Thus, Ghoolion was unaware of its continued presence in the castle. For some reason he himself could not have defined, Echo had refrained from telling the Alchemaster about his relations with the Sheet and Theodore T. Theodore.

  One warm summer night his nocturnal perambulations brought him to the big room filled with dust-sheeted furniture. He was once more accompanied by the ghost, which had turned up at some stage and was floating doggedly after him. When they entered the room, however, it came to an abrupt halt, fluttered to and fro like a terrified bird, and fled back in the direction they had come from.

  Echo walked on into the room. He had stopped trying to fathom his new friend’s motives. For reasons that remained a mystery, the Sheet kept on turning up, manifested itself at the most diverse times of day and vanished as abruptly as it had appeared. It couldn’t have fled at Ghoolion’s approach on this occasion, or Echo would have heard his unmistakable footsteps long ago.

  He found this room one of the creepiest in the entire castle. Even though it contained nothing genuinely frightening, his imagination was so stimulated at night by the enshrouded pieces of furniture that he could readily picture some dangerous creature lurking beneath each dust sheet, ready to burst forth and pounce on him. There! Hadn’t that fold of cloth stirred? Wasn’t it bulging as if something were breathing beneath it? Or was the material merely billowing in the wind? Whatever the truth, Echo wanted to cross the room as quickly as possible. He scampered nimbly between the wardrobes and chests of drawers, wing chairs and sofas, which looked to him like snow-bound giants. What kinds of decay did they harbour? What was in those wardrobes and chests of drawers? He could imagine pullulating maggots and woodworms, but also drawers full of desiccated eyes and mummified hands, shelves laden with skulls and chests filled with grinning teeth. He kept casting nervous sidelong glances at the white mountains of cloth, prepared at any moment for a sheet to be rent asunder and a skeleton to emerge with glowing embers in its eye sockets and fangs smeared with blood. He had almost reached the door. Only one last cloth-swathed colossus barred his path. Perhaps the dust sheet concealed a big oak cupboard, perhaps a guillotine and its headless victim. He had just slalomed round the bulky piece of furniture with the exit already in sight when he heard a strange sound.

  He came to a halt.

  And listened.

  There was someone else in the room.

  The fur on the back of his neck stood on end. It wasn’t a loud, frightening or menacing sound, but subdued and exceedingly mournful.

  Someone was sobbing.

  And Echo knew who it was, because at that moment he caught a whiff of something familiar and not particularly pleasant - something to which he had become accustomed: Ghoolion’s alchemical body odour.

  He stole back into the room. All his fear had gone. Now he was motivated by curiosity alone. He paused behind a wing chair, then crawled beneath it and peered cautiously from his hiding place.

  There he was: Ghoolion. The Alchemaster was seated in an armchair nearby, and he was weeping.

  Echo had thought at first that he might be giggling softly to himself. It would have been considerably more in character for the old devil to be sitting there in the dark, sniggering at some diabolical scheme he had just concocted. But he was sobbing beyond a doubt. The circumstances were unusual in every other respect as well. For one thing, Echo found i
t remarkable that the Alchemaster should be sitting down at all. It dawned on him that he usually saw Ghoolion standing up or walking around, seldom seated, far less lying down. There was nothing demonic or authoritarian about him as he sat slumped there, shaking all over. All his strength and kinetic energy seemed to have evaporated; he was just a picture of misery. He sat there as if the air weighed on him like lead. His shoulders sagged, his head was bowed, his whole body was shaking with convulsive sobs.

  Echo was not only astonished to see Ghoolion weeping, he was stunned, not least because he’d never believed him capable of such emotion. The sight moved him so profoundly that a tear trickled down his own nose and he emitted a muffled sob - which he promptly regretted. Instantly, Ghoolion sprang to his feet like a jack-in-the-box and froze, a gaunt shadow silhouetted against one of the lofty windows. ‘Who’s there?’ he snarled.

  The words positively exploded in Echo’s ears. He darted out of his hiding place and scampered to the door as if someone had set his tail on fire, then sped like a rocket through a series of rooms, along various passages and down the stairs. He didn’t dare stop until he was three floors below in a library filled with ancient books and redolent of the cold ashes in the fireplace. He crept beneath a worm-eaten lectern and listened with a pounding heart to see if Ghoolion had followed him, but all he could hear were the rustling wings of some Leathermice performing their nocturnal aerobatics beneath the library ceiling.

  The Smallest Story in Zamonia

  The Alchemaster was bent over a table with his eyes glued to a microscope when Echo, yawning and stretching, slunk into the laboratory the next morning. He made no attempt to greet the little Crat but remained engrossed in his observations, which he clearly found fascinating in the extreme.

 
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