the alchemist


The alchemist’s first construct was a marionette without strings. People woke early and traveled for hours to see it dance.

It floated in the air, spinning in place.

“It doesn’t need strings,” said the alchemist, “because nothing holds it down. It exists in a state of pure equilibrium.”

“How high can it jump?” asked a man in the audience.

“It exists independent of all frames of reference. It moves with perfect inertia.”

The audience grew restless, shifting in their seats and whispering to each other. A few got up to leave.

The alchemist sighed. “As high as the moon,” he said, and gave the construct a push. It floated upwards, still spinning.

The audience gasped, and applauded. They craned their necks to watch the construct rise, until it was too distant to be seen. But long after the audience had left, the alchemist remained, his eyes focused on the empty sky above.

The explorer and the scribe traveled over barren landscapes not yet worn smooth by time. The explorer’s wings were shaped by the wind, shifting in answer to unseen currents. Their boundaries grew indistinct as they swept outwards, and the scribe, seated on the explorer’s back, sometimes traced its eyes out towards the horizon, imagining the wings never ended, envisioning their union at some distant antipode.

When a storm rose, they took shelter in an empty city below. They landed in a courtyard, where long grass pressed up through broken stone tiles. The scribe dismounted, and the explorer’s wings folded around its broad frame.

The explorer walked along a wide stone path, looking up at the falling rain. The scribe followed, taking in its surroundings with large, unblinking eyes. At the path’s end, they found a statue on a rough stone pedestal. Its features were eroded into abstraction, and the scribe began to trace the striations with its fingers.

The statue looked down at the scribe, and spoke. “Hello,” it said.

The scribe froze, and let its thin fingers slide down the statue’s face until its arm hung limply at its side. The statue stepped off the pedestal, its movements slow and unsure. The explorer flexed its wings nervously, creating a soft rasping almost swallowed by the sound of the rain against the earth.

“It’s been a long time since I last had an audience,” said the statue. “I used to speak even when there was no one to listen, but then I asked myself, what’s a story without someone to tell it to?”

The scribe and explorer stood beside each other, silent.

“Not much,” the statue said, “not much. But now you’re here. And so, if you’ll permit me:

“There was once an alchemist who lived beside a river of silver, and wished to remake himself. After missteps and failures, he made a construct in his own image, and it quickened. The construct sat up, and began to wander around the laboratory.

“‘What is there to do around here?’ it asked.

“‘I build constructs,’ said the alchemist. ‘I built you.’

“‘Oh,’ said the construct. ‘Well, what now?’”

The statue smiled, its mouth a deep crevice across its worn face. It sat on the pedestal, and looked up at the rain. Finally, the scribe spoke.

“What happened then?”

“That’s the end of the story,” said the statue. “But I have others.”

The statue began to pace, its feet pressing deep into the wet earth.

“There was a construct which could know nothing of the world around it. Its thoughts unfolded, each revealing the next, in accordance with rules the alchemist had etched in its mind. The rules gave shape to its world, casting it down a path that the alchemist himself had once wandered, but never fully explored.

“One day an earthquake knocked it from its pedestal, and it shattered upon the ground. And, as its pieces lay there, with only fragmented memories of what had come before and half-formed notions of what came next, they began to retread what remained of their old paths.

“The wind and sand scored its surface, the rain wore it away, and in time each piece retained only a single thought. But these too can be broken apart, and only then did it begin to understand its own nature.”

The scribe stared out at the dark, looming shapes of the city, and finally spoke.

“I once lived beside a forest, so I created a language to describe the trees. I recorded the paths of their branches, the patterns made on the ground by their fallen leaves. I mapped their growth, their life, their decline.

“All this was inscribed onto a cliff face, so that those who came after me would share in my knowledge. When I was done, I traveled beyond the forest and into the mountains, where I saw many things. But when I tried to describe the texture of a boulder worn smooth by glaciers, I could only say that it was unlike that of any tree. I began to devise a new language, but I realized that once I moved beyond the mountains, I would only have to begin again. And so, I stopped.

“I will only write in a language which describes the way of all things.” The scribe stared at the statue. “Perhaps one day I’ll find it.”

A journalist came to see the alchemist’s laboratory, and was greeted at the entrance by a construct whose face mirrored his own. The journalist stepped back, swearing under his breath, and the construct silently mimicked him, falling back into the laboratory. After a moment, the journalist followed.

The alchemist sat, waiting. The construct perched beside him, seated on nothing, and tumbled backwards. The journalist pulled out a pad and began the interview.

“What’s the first step in making something like that?” he asked.

“First I decide on their limitations,” said the alchemist. “Everything stems from that.”

“Wouldn’t they be more useful without any?”

“I once made a construct which could take any form it chose, but it’s never been anything but a sphere. Their actions are guided by what they cannot do, and their thoughts by what they cannot understand.”

Behind the alchemist, the construct stared at a copper still, its face distorted and shrunken on its polished surface. Its features began to collapse in on themselves, unable to mirror the dwindling reflection. The two men walked deeper into the laboratory, leaving the construct where it was, lost in its own image.

The statue had returned to its pedestal. It gestured as it spoke, drawing its arms up slowly and letting them collapse downwards. “One of the alchemist’s constructs believed that all its journeys ended as soon as they began,” it said. “In the time between, it traveled in a single moment which spanned oceans and deserts. All the world was folded about it, reshaped by each step it took.

“One night, it looked up at the sky and decided it wished to stand upon the moon. It walked alongside the river, towards the mountains. It climbed to the point which lies closest to the moon, where the lunar seas are drawn down in a long silver thread to the earth. But when it stretched out its hand, it found the moon was beyond its reach.

“It stands there still, trapped forever in a moment, waiting until the moon is close enough to touch.”

The explorer had extended its wings upward, parting raindrops on their edges. It spoke. “I am blind to what I’ve already seen. I’ve always been so. What does not change is consigned to darkness.” It paused. “I remember when I first saw water.

“It wandered across the landscape, and I followed. Soon there was only water beneath me. The world there was bright, shifting.

“For days I flew above the water, immersing myself in its endless variation. But I began to tire, and I could not rest amidst all that flux.” The explorer grew silent.

“What did you do?” asked the statue.

“I returned to land. I stayed at the edge of the water, unwilling to look away for even a moment. Before I had been able to see branches swaying in the breeze, clouds moving overhead, but my senses were dazzled by the breaking of the waves, the surf lapping against the shore. The world around me faded away, until the water was all I could see. And I found that in time, even water grows dim.

“I left, and wandered in darkness. But slowly the world reappeared around me, and as before I went in search of places that are still bright and unseen. Those places grow ever fewer, but that has always been so.”

The explorer stared up at the rain. “And tonight it doesn’t matter, for light falls from the sky.”

The alchemist stood before a room full of students, leaning heavily on his lectern.

“An alchemist’s goal is purity, a transcendence of his mind and body, but I gave up on that long ago. My constructs are simply my own limitations, distilled and given form. My life has been a study of what I am not, and my flaws will long outlive me.”

“There was a construct who wished to remake itself,” said the statue. “It would craft new bodies in its image, gathering materials in the day and shaping them by night. When it was done its old body would fall away, revealing the silver that ran in its veins. And, when it had shed its form entirely, it would stand there, its head collapsing into its shoulders, its feet pooling on the ground below.

“With each new body the articulations of its hands became more delicate, and its shape more refined. But in the moment between, with its old body in pieces behind it and its new body before him, its fingers would descend in shapeless tendrils. It was only by moving forward that it could keep from spreading thinly across the ground, shaping itself to the earth’s contours.”

The scribe had sheltered itself beneath the explorer’s wings, drawing its thin legs towards its chest. “Don’t you have a story of your own?” it asked. “We’ve both told you ours.”

The statue nodded. “The alchemist grew old. In his final days, he built his last construct, to which he gave a story.

“The story defined the construct’s world, both the stillness of a rock and the motion of its shadow suggesting one word and then the next, until the story ended. And the story began, ‘There was once an alchemist who lived beside a river of silver, and wished to remake himself.’”

“Go on,” said the scribe.