by Adam Smith
The first figure is lopsided—a long, thin arm on one side balanced by a short cudgel-shaped appendage on the other; a bulbous head like a misshapen potato. Murak mutters, smashes it flat with a blow of his palm, starts again.
It takes practice, this shaping. Murak begins to mold them one piece at a time. A dozen little feet, flat like the paddle of an oar. Legs rolled into perfect cylinders, cut to identical length with a knife. Arms with cupped, fingerless hands, like tiny shovels. The torsos rolled out like bread dough and compressed into elongated ovals.
The heads he shapes last, rolling them between his hands. Feeling the clay cling to the little waves and whorls of his skin, taking shape from the creases and curves. They leave little trails of brown slime across his palms like slug tracks.
Then he assembles them, six clay figures no larger than a child’s straw doll. They are blank, coldly expressionless. He makes two tiny pinholes for eyes; no nose; a thin, horizontal slash for a mouth. He leaves them there on the wooden desk in two neat rows beneath the flickering oil lamp, sweating out beads of brown water like blood. They look grim but focused. The flat mouth suggests resolute anger, a desire to complete a disagreeable task, an unspoken irritability with existence.
If they could speak, he thinks, they would say—“All right, we are ready. We are ready.” But they do not speak.
He leaves them there to dry, extinguishing the oil lamp with a puff of breath. Smoke descends on a current of air, washes across the clay figures with the charred odor of fish oil.
He dreams. A little army of clay men with eyes like stones pressed into a streambank, mouths sharp as the edge of a blade. They watch him. They do not smile or mock. They stand in perfect rows of perfectly round, hairless heads. They go down on one knee as a group, tipping heads forward. Their voices sound together in a chorus. “All right, we are ready. We are ready.”
When he wakes they are still there, two trios of clay figurines asleep on the desk. He stares at them through breakfast. Surely they are missing something. Something is needed. But he cannot say what. They are as perfect as his limited art can make them.
He can see the city through the window, hazy in the morning light. The faceless wall, the crenellated watchtowers like broken teeth. The round dome of the Academy rising above it all, gleaming in the morning sunlight like the fabled eggs of the golden goose. Every bit the legend. Every bit the lie.
He breakfasts on boiled eggs. Not golden but brown, dull brown with a grayish tint, as if the hens ate nothing but dust. Here in the flatlands, the hovels beyond the city wall, kept at arm’s length across the prairie, it is as likely as anything. There is dirt and little else.
A man trudges past the window, wearing an expression not far removed from those on the clay figures. Compressed lips, taut skin. Eyes that squint against the harsh glare. The air is full of sound. Rickety carts, snorting pigs, clucking chickens. A strumming instrument accompanied by voices lifted in song. A love song, a song about the first time a young boy lays eyes on his unattainable beloved, and Murak does not picture a girl in a dress but a glass bubble lifting against the blue of the sky, a dome that glimmers like a golden egg.
He doesn’t actually recall the first time he saw the Academy. It has always been there in the distance, visible. By day, agleam with sun or reflecting the grey surface of the clouds. By night, lit from below. Sometimes blue with alchemical glow. At others it is orange like a candle flame, ruddy and hellish as glowing embers, the pink of spring flowers.
He does remember the first time he saw it up close.
The young boy follows his father through the massive archway formed by the city gates. Murak’s father carries four pairs of chickens hung upside-down on a long dowel of wood slung across his shoulders.
The folks in colorful city clothing move aside for them, away from the scowling man in dusty, colorless homespun. His father forges up the street as if wading against a rushing current. Flaccid, feathered heads swung to and fro with each forward stride. He doesn’t look back, and his son struggles to keep pace through the crowd that eddies around them, casting bewildered and disgusted glances as they pass.
Buildings crowd close. There are more people here than he has ever seen, clustered along the edges of the street. Every few paces a man or woman stands outside a doorway beneath an awning and shouts into the masses.
“Meat pies! Hot meat pies! Mutton and beef!”
“Timepieces! Academy clocks! Sandglasses!”
It is clamorous, deafening. Glorious. Colors and scents. Red wine and roasting meat and pyramids of sunlit lemons. Cloaks that flow and shimmer like curtains of water. Lamps burning without flame. Coins clink and change hands amid raucous bargaining.
His father presses ahead with an air of disinterest, almost of loathing. They turn right, left, right again. The gate disappears behind them in the distance, hidden by the pressing buildings. His father’s step never falters. Murak is confused by the warren of narrow, winding streets. He hurries to catch up.
Another corner and suddenly the street opens up like a stream emptying into a wide, placid lake. The dome lifts above the city like an immense head, a giant toiling amidst the clustering buildings. Streets spiral out from this central space.
He stops, gaping. The square is full of splashing fountains; green shrubbery painstakingly pruned into exotic shapes; flowers planted in colorful pinwheel designs. Hanging lamps flicker blue even in the sunlight. He takes it all in at a glance, an overwhelming glut of sight and sound. Clusters of Academy students in scarlet robes chant in harmony as they walk past the fountains, the flowers, a shrub in the shape of a striking hawk.
The students are impeccably clean, pale, fine-featured. They walk with straight backs, heads tilted slightly upward, as if watching something on the horizon that no one else can see. So unlike the olive-skinned, dirt-crusted boys of Murak’s village as to be almost a new species. Even the city folk stand aside for them, cast longing glances as they pass.
He sees another shape, halfway across the square with a dowel of dangling birds on his shoulders. This is comforting. He thinks: “chickens”. One familiar thing in all this foreignness, old friends from home. Then he recognizes the stride, the scarcely-contained fury behind each step.
He darts across the square, dodging carts, red-cowled students, fountains that smell of rain. He tries to keep the figure in sight but there are too many people, too many hedges of twining roses. By the time he crosses the square his father is gone. Disappeared where? From one to the next, he peers down each of the nearby streets. None are straight, all curve off in a single direction like water spiraling away from a drain. He cannot see far down any of them.
He notices then the sign above him, a flat wooden slab with a word—he can’t read—and beneath the word a painted image. A leg of beef. A steaming, roasted chicken.
He pushes open the door and there is his father, standing at a high counter. He is arguing, his face the color of a rooster’s comb. The chickens are laid out on the counter with limp heads drooping over the edge.
The butcher is on the far side, looking fearfully across at the large, angry man gesticulating with heavy hands. A pink strand of flesh clings to his apron. He looks up hopefully as the door swings shut with a woody thwack, eager for a customer to rescue him from the murderous peasant. There is no one but Murak. His father does not turn.
After a moment’s tense silence the butcher relents. He nods, disappears into the rear of the shop, returns with a short stack of coins. Murak’s father places a coin between his eyeteeth, bites down. Grunts. He wraps Murak’s arm in his meaty fist as he passes, tugging him back out into the square.
His father says nothing as they cross the square back in the same direction they had come. Murak stares up at the Academy as they pass. There are windows high in the stone walls lit from within. He sees a face at one narrow window just below the great glass dome, a young face in a red hood. He is too far away to see the expression, to make out more than the pale flash of features beneath the red. But he imagines the expression—beatific, enthralled, fascinated. Mustn’t they all wear such expressions, in a place so grand?
“I will live there one day,” he tells his father as they pass beneath the city gates a second time, pass from the chaos and color into the brown plain, into the fields of wheat and flax and the scattered flocks of grey sheep like spots of mold on the landscape.
Murak’s father grunts.
He goes on. “To that round building, in the city. I will live there.”
His father stops then, turns on him with a look that contains both anger and disbelief. Murak flinches from an expected blow that does not come. “Aye?” He laughs, a sound Murak has rarely heard from this bear of a man with palms like stone. It is not a pleasant sound. “The Academy? A peasant boy like you? From the flats? Oh, aye! You will live there with the nobles! With the merchant’s boys!” He belches out a gust of laughter.
He’d been right. A hateful, bitter, spiteful man. But he knew. He knew.
Murak set his sights on the Academy. He understood nothing of alchemy, nothing of the mysterious sciences of the elements. Oh, he was aware of them. He knew the humours must be balanced. Everyone knew that, down to the lowliest peasant, the lowliest chicken-boy in the flats. But he didn’t understand.
His father wanted no help with his chickens and little plot of vegetables, no boy at his heels like a cowed dog. Instead Murak assisted the village herbal, a toothless old woman who reeked of garlic and smoke. He trekked into the fallow fields in search of chamomile and lavender, fennel and rue. In turn, she taught him to read. Dusty apothecaries, mildewed books of recipes.
He traded an old frying pan and a dozen eggs to a peddler for a decaying notebook covered in unintelligible scrawl. He could make out few words at first glance, some numbers scribbled along the margin. He studied it more carefully at night, by candlelight, as his father snored drunkenly on the far side of the cottage. The words glowed beneath the flickering tallow light, shimmered as if inked in gold dust. He picked out letters, strung together words.
Night after night he pieced the bits together like a puzzle. Secrets. Knowledge. Drawings he traced with his fingers—two triangles, drawn one atop the other, pointing opposite directions; a many-petalled flower; an open eye surrounded by a spiral of stars.
His father’s drinking grew worse. He stirred only to refill his jug from a barrel of last year’s grain liquor, lashing out clumsily when he found Murak in his way. The vegetable patch fell to rot. Murak gathered eggs and herbs and butchered chickens for their meals.
Within the year, his father died. Complained of pain in his stomach, went to sleep. Never woke up.
Freed of one tyrant, Murak apprenticed with another. Blacksmithing was hot, brutal work. But necessary. He learned how to feed the forge fire, how to pump the bellows at the proper rate so that the dark coals took on an angry edge of red-laced white, how to bank the coals. He watched the smith heat the iron to an orange glow and beat sparks from it with his hammer. Murak learned how to heat ores and meld them together to make a single, new metal. The smith was an alchemist in his way, though he did not realize it.
Murak discreetly pocketed tiny nuggets of iron; green-flecked chunks of copper; a miniscule, misshapen lump of silver that the smith was certain to miss. At home, outside the little cottage he had shared with his father, he built his own furnace—an athanor—from drawings in the notebook. Clay bricks. A dome of mud and straw. A funnel-shaped chimney.
In the evenings he lit the coals, stoked the fire with a bellows made from wood and a sheep’s bladder. He experimented with his little fragments of metal, with liquors and tisanes and urine, dried herbs and salts. At first he followed instructions, recipes laid out in the notebook. He went several times into the city with chickens, eggs, herbs—whatever he could sell or steal—returning with glass jars, brandy, powdered minerals, tawny elixirs from the Academy.
As time wore on he tested new combinations, new ideas from his learning. He found no need, no desire, to write things down. Ideas and facts lodged in his brain with a detail he would never have been able to capture with his rough, twiggish handwriting.
Murak was not unaware of the contrast he posed with the red-robed demigods he remembered so clearly, pale-featured and delicate. The face peering back at him from the surface of clear water was swarthy, angular, irregular. But they would marvel at what a peasant—a blacksmith’s apprentice from the flats—could do! He would walk those halls, walk beneath that great glass bulb, open to the whirling constellations. He would learn things that could not be learned from a notebook, things only the temple of the Academy taught.
He made elixirs as efficacious as those sold by the Academy shops. The city shops wouldn’t buy them. They purchased only from the Academy. He traded them in the flatlands for vegetables, herbs, ores.
He fashioned a lamp—burnished copper and glass with a single amber stone suspended from a wire inside—that burned longer and brighter than any of the ineffectual cobalt alchemical lamps in the city. It absorbed the light of the sun throughout the day and poured it back out during the night, golden as a ray of dawn.
Two men arrived from the Academy. They stood in the door of his ramshackle cottage in silken robes. Older men with square, shaven jawlines. Dark hair sprinkled through with gleaming silver. They might have been brothers, slightly distorted reflections of one another. They were brusque, turning the lamp about in the light, studying the form. They removed the amber stone, smelled it, rubbed it with a dampened finger.
“Where did you steal this?” the first one asked.
Murak scowled. “I made it.”
The second made an inarticulate sound in his throat.
The first continued. “Sell it to us.” He tossed a small leather purse on the table. It tipped, spilling silver coins like moonlight out onto the scarred wood. More silver than Murak had ever seen.
“I will not sell it,” Murak said. It was hard to meet their eyes. “I wish to be a student. I will trade.”
The second man’s cough sounded like the bark of a wild dog.
“Take the silver,” the first urged.
Murak traded the lamp, two days later, to a passing caravan for a handful of rare spices.
The moon rises above the city. It sits balanced above the dome of the Academy, a ball of yellowed ivory perched atop the sapphire glass. Murak moves away from the window, back to his desk.
The six clay figures are there. They are dry, hard. The drying has fissured their dusky skin with hairline cracks. He dips a brush into the tulip-shaped mouth of a glass vial, dew collected in the pink light of morning. Liquid drips from the horsehair bristles. He sweeps it across the emotionless faces, the tiny, cupped hands like clay chalices.
Wind gusts through the window, sets the lamp swaying on its hook, upsets the feather quill in its inkpot. Ink drips from the edge of the desk into the rushes with a crisp rustle.
He scoops them up into his palms and carries them, two at a time, out of the cottage, out to the athanor like a smoking mound of earth in the open field. Two by two he feeds the figures to the flames, to the blur of heat.
Murak works the bellows with his foot, gorging the coals with air. Smoke the color of the new moon, the color of secrets and malice, inks a ribbon across the stars. Inside, clay hisses like bacon fat, blackens at the edges. The bellows wheeze—in, out, in, out—as the moon ascends, riming the grassland with light.
When it reaches its apex he stops, mops sweat from his brow. He banks the coals and walks slowly back toward the cottage. His head droops. There is no glee—no triumph—in the set of his body, the weary sag of his shoulders.
He does not stay to watch the figures slip from the tiny door of the furnace, shadows veined with flickering crimson. Does not stay to watch them unfold like paper in the cold light. Two-dimensional, without depth, on feet like oars. Narrow mouths taut like a string. He does not stay to watch them nod toward the cottage as if in unspoken agreement—as if to say, “All right, we are ready. We are ready.”—and turn away toward the distant city, toward the blue-lit knuckle on the horizon.
Adam Smith’s stories have appeared in Allegory, The Griffin, Fiction Funhouse, and River Currents. He is an active member of the Online Writer’s Workshop (OWW).
Filed under: Jabberwocky 10