Alchymical Romance – Lee Battersby
September 10, 2008
Original story: Alchymical Romance, Lee Battersby
Adapted by: Sajbrfem
Changes: Pronouns and gender specific terms reversed, Main character name changed to reflect common gender assumptions, some descriptive words omitted in the last section to help the flow of the new version.
Story length: Aprox 3200 words.
License: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.
The problem was, she had never loved him. They both knew it, even in those moments after orgasm, when they leaned into each other and persuaded themselves that it meant more than shared sweat and another notch on a mental bedpost. Another boast for her mates, if only she had any.
Now he was gone, and it wasn’t his absence that kept her from re-entering the world. The thought of it wearied her before she started. The long, dreary process of nightclubs, and blind dates, and turning up for dinners with colleagues to find an extra male present and the only empty chair directly opposite. The whole thing was such a drudge, and he’d have to be a sexual athlete of Olympic proportions to make up for the love she wouldn’t feel for him. Too much trouble for the few weeks before his presence began to drain her of everything she held dear. Then he’d be gone, and the bar would be raised another notch for whomever came next, and where would it all lead her? A man with superhuman flexibility and the perverse nature of an Indian God, perhaps. A man made of fingertips and tongues, with no sense of shame.
And she still wouldn’t love him.
She sat at her kitchen table, sipped coffee, and stared over her newspaper at the busy street beyond her window. There was no way around it. She couldn’t face the real world. She had lived too long with reality. She raised a hand to her neck and ran fingertips along the network of tiny puncture marks criss-crossing the skin at the base of her jaw. She would have to visit Lady Million.
She plucked a set of keys from the hook by the phone and rubbed her thumb across the silver dog tag. There was a time when she could rejoice in the sensation the stamped letters made under her thumb, delight in the ripple of cold, rolled edges against her skin. Now: nothing. She felt nothing. She sighed, and pocketed the keys.
The streets north of Perth wither and die in the winter rain, leaving behind slick tarmac and an occasional oasis of sodium light. Residents close their curtains and hide before televisions, ignoring the rolls of thunder as best they can. Margaret’s black Audi slid along unnoticed, undisturbed, a metal shark cruising an empty ocean. Margaret barely noticed the lack of humanity. Their absence meant only a lessening of white noise, a drop in the background level of static, a slight reinforcement of the link between her subconscious and the muted hum of the city. She glided along black tracks: a tiny spark within a vast, dormant machine; a single atom within a city-wide accelerator.
He hit the end of the freeway without seeing another car, turned away from the bridge, past late night construction works, and away from the centre of Joondalup, devoid of personality without its semi-permanent cast of shoppers; just an empty façade of shop fronts and parking lots, glistening clean in the aftermath of the evening’s downpour. A right at the lights, and she pushed past the suburban sprawl, attention fixed upon the promise of overgrown country roads to come, and the moment of pure solitude before Lady Million’s driveway.
After half an hour she left the coast, and soon found herself on the lonely road leading northwards from Wanneroo into the countryside. Trees formed a tunnel of outstretched fingers at the periphery of her headlights. Before she could get used to the ghostly burrow and decide to follow it into forever, Margaret spied the entrance to Lady Million’s driveway. She slid into the oncoming lane, took the turn without slowing, and jounced up the dirt lane as fast as the Audi’s suspension would allow. She pulled up before the house with a squeal of brakes, a ghost of dust settling in her wake. Margaret sat with the lights out and listened to the ticking of the car’s cooling engine. There should have been some movement from outside, some noise in response to her arrival. An explosion of birds from the surrounding trees, a barking dog, even a light inside a window. Instead, nothing. Animals knew better than to come near the residence, Margaret thought without amusement. With no better alternative, she opened the car door and stepped out.
The slamming door sounded supernaturally loud in the dead air. Margaret surveyed the house. It had shrunk since her last visit. She’d expected that. Lady Million had stumbled across the ruins of the homestead some ninety years ago, if you believed the woman- a gutted shell of broken masonry with only ghosts for occupants. Bit by bit, using whatever flotsam the universe deposited before her, she had rebuilt it to her own design, obsessively refining and shaping until every room, every angle, had reflected her own arcane needs. The woman had shrunk as she’d aged, and the house had followed her. Now it was little more than a shanty. Bare wood boards patched together bricks of countless shades; glassless windows peered out at whatever angle they had been forced into the gaps; animal bones, wire, feathers, a rainbow assortment of bottles. Nothing had been spared. The house crouched upon bare soil like an abandoned engine. No wonder nature avoids this place, Margaret thought for the hundredth time. It’s like a lunatic’s dream catcher. Which, she reflected as she tested her weight on an unfamiliar porch step, it is.
The front door swung open as she raised her fist to knock. Margaret stepped into the darkened hallway.
No answer. Light framed a door at the far end of the hall. She was almost upon it when it, too, swung open. A lumpen silhouette stood in the light.
“Margaret de Brant! I knew it would be you!”
The silhouette reached out misshapen arms, grabbed Margaret by the wrists and dragged her into the light.
Idly, Margaret noted the whirr and click of clockwork.
Lady Million turned from her, making her way across a room overgrown with a profusion of esoteric constructions: pipes that began in one box and ended in another, if at all; dials that spun and whirred; cabinets in a myriad of shapes, covered with inscriptions, crackling with sparks at odd moments; cups; plates; cutlery, bent and deformed; statuettes; mummies both human and otherwise; painting, plans, and blueprints; and over everything a flow of detritus and flotsam the nature of which Margaret could not begin to guess. The whole effect was one of arcane disorder, as if some key to understanding lurked just out of Margaret’s grasp, and only with it could she begin to divine a purpose from her surroundings.
Lady Million stopped by an overstuffed sofa, crammed between a dozen empty canvasses and something that could have been either an iron maiden or cappuccino machine, depending on the angle from which it was viewed. She cleared a space by the simple expedient of dumping everything on the floor, and patted a cushion, arm jerking spasmodically.
Margaret studied the old woman. She had grown younger since their last meeting. Metal plates covered large areas of her body, her skin smoothed out and neatly tucked behind them. Assemblages of rods and pistons surrounded her knee and hip joints, and everything was connected to a small engine that crouched on her back and contributed to her lumpy, toad-like shape. Steam hissed whenever she moved. She stared at Margaret expectantly. Margaret coughed.
“Necessary. Big explosion. Lost bits. You’d have known if you visited.” her head twitched to the side. “Still, worth it. Look.”
A window ran the length of the far wall, opening out onto a back yard more bedlam than garden. A bench table crouched underneath, back almost broken by the weight of tubing that covered it. At regular intervals, liquid dripped from openings into petri dishes filled with piles of coloured powder.
“Uranium,” Lady Million said. “Strontium, mescaline, heroin, saffron.” she laughed, a sound like the clearing of pipes. “The Alchymical wedding, in all its most lovely forms. Gold is for amateurs.” she turned her mechanical gaze upon Margaret. “Now. You.”
Margaret shrugged. “It’s not-”
Lady Million raised herself from the seat, stalked over to Margaret, began to prod her here and there about the torso.
“You don’t feel? Not a thing? Nothing penetrates?”
“Physical things.” Margaret shrugged again. “Pain, cold, you know. Nothing emotional.”
“No laughter? Fear?” she snapped her fingers before Margaret’s eyes, peered into her ear, up her nose. “Love?”
“No.” Margaret gazed steadily out the window, at the bombsite of weeds and rubble beyond. “No love.”
“And this is important?”
A rat peered at Margaret from the window of a rusted car, then withdrew into the dark. “I don’t know.”
“But you want to.”
Lady Million turned away, walked to the window, and stared at the sky.
“One hundred and sixty five years, seven months, three days, twenty one hours, several minutes, assorted seconds. A long time. Still you all come. Problems, problems, problems. No matter the country, or the time. You all come.”
Margaret bit her lip. “No. I guess not.”
“If you were, the problem would not exist.”
Lady Million returned her gaze to the room. She clapped her hands, a sound like cymbals. “Still. If you did not come, the solution would not be found. I have never failed. Never. Not with Kings, nor Fuehrers, nor Godmakers. In what do you work now?”
“Work? Um. I was in advertising, last time. I’m in web design now. Contract work.”
“A web designer. Not worth becoming my first failure. Not after Kings and…” Lady Million waved her hand. “And so on and so on. This time, this time, I will find what you need.”
“I don’t even know what I want any more.”
“I don’t care about want. Now sit.”
She indicated a chair in the darkest recess of the room, a complicated web of wires perched upon it like a crown. Margaret sat, wiggled her backside around until she was comfortable.
Lady Million threaded a long tube onto a hypodermic, swabbed a spot on Margaret’s temple, and carefully inserted the needle into the skin. Margaret sucked air between her teeth. Previous experience kept her from flinching. Lady Million drew off several millilitres of milky fluid, and frowned.
“So little left. This will be the last time, old fellow. The last time for us both. You are bereft of essence.”
“So soon? Pish. Nobody bothers me as you do. You are quite drained, my girl. Drawn dry. This is the last time.”
She withdrew the needle and placed it to one side. Moving about the machine, she encased Margaret in the cage of wire. Countless tiny spikes pressed against her skin at head, face, throat and wrist, points nestling inside the healed over puncture wounds that littered her body.
“One more time to capture your dreams,” Lady Million said. “One more time to bring them to life. Don’t blink.” she clanked across the room to rest her hand atop a large, tape-wrapped lever set into the wall. “This is going to hurt.”
Margaret stared at the world outside the window. With a sigh of expelled steam, Lady Million lowered the lever, and the world turned black.
The problem was, she could never have loved him, no matter how much she needed it. No matter how many bodies filled her bed, or whatever drugs, blades or fluids she used to batter her nerve endings, the core of her remained indifferent. Nothing reached inside. The void remained empty, pressing against her organs, deadening everything it touched. Nothing had changed, not in all the months since her visit to Lady Million. Not since then, and not in all the years before. It was not that the failures proved so disastrous. It was knowing the inevitability of failure, and still being compelled to try.
The taxi arrived, the lover departed, and a small interval of peace descended. Again, and again, and again.
Today, however, a change: the taxi was gone, and a courier van filled the driveway. A uniformed figure approached, knocked on the front door. Margaret signed the proffered form, received the brown-wrapped package. A flat box, perhaps four inches thick, long and wide enough that she chose to lean it against the arm of her sofa rather than attempt to lift it onto the coffee table. She curled her fingers over the top flap and pulled, revealing the contents in one long tear of cardboard.
A mirror, simply framed, reflective surface gleaming a dull brass in the light from the single lamp. A small sheet of something like thick paper was taped to its surface. Margaret fingered it. A spark of something tickled her inside. The sheet was not paper, but vellum- smooth and supple beneath her fingers, slick as she pulled it from its mooring. She recognised Lady Million’s rounded, feminine hand in the letters stained into its surface. She read.
A surprise. Not what you expected. There was so little of you left. So few drops of essence. Not enough to transmute blood or dreams. Enough to spread over a surface. Enough, I hope, to show you. What? Who knows? A mirror made of you, dear Margaret. Let it not fail.
Margaret ran a finger over the mirror’s surface, frowning. It was soft and warm, sticky, not at all the cold, smooth metal she had expected. In the mirror, her doppelganger frowned and removed its finger from the glass. Margaret bent, and peered closely. The image was dark, its outline vague and wavering. She stood and recovered the lamp from the far corner of the room, set it upon the coffee table, and knelt before the mirror again. The light worked- she saw herself, the details of the room stark behind her. Still, the image bore soft edges, almost out of focus, as if a million tiny imperfections caught the light and diffused it. A fault of the odd surface, Margaret decided. A flaw in her essence.
There was something else wrong with the image, something she could not quite put her finger on. Margaret traced her outline. There she was, in the centre of the glass, in her shirt and trousers, and with a look on her face that countless men had referred to as the final straw. The lamp was there, casting its light. The coffee table, the curtains… there. Behind her, to the right. A figure. A dim smudge where she should be able to see to the wall. As Margaret watched it came closer, became clearer. A man. There was a man. Margaret spun away from the mirror with a gasp, then stopped short. The room was empty. The coffee table, the lamp, the curtains. Nothing else. She turned again to the glass. He was there, almost touching her shoulder. Margaret reached out behind her, felt nothing.
“What the hell?”
There was more, now, Margaret saw. A fault with the man, something wrong, or missing. He was beautiful, breathtakingly so: short without appearing small; lean; his chest the perfect size to balance his hips; elfin features atop a long neck; suntanned skin the colour of lightly burnished bronze; short hair curled around delicate ears. His almond eyes met hers. He smiled, and in that smile lay all the joys that had avoided her for as long as she could remember. Margaret gasped. A bolt of heat struck the centre of her chest, tearing her breath away. The man stepped in front of the mirror-Margaret and raised his hand. He was perfect, as perfect as any desire she could ever have. And exposed to her gaze as he was, with nothing between them but the surface of the mirror, the light from two lamps playing across his, front and back, Margaret saw the wrongness she had been unable to place. His skin was not just the colour of bronze. It was bronze.
The man in the mirror was made of bronze.
They stayed that way for several minutes, staring at each other across a gulf of space and understanding. Then, with a smile so sweet it made the void inside Margaret ache, he raised one perfectly forged hand, and beckoned her: closer, closer. Margaret fell to both knees, inches from the mirror. Without knowing why, she raised her hand and pressed it against the sticky surface, like a prison inmate in an interview booth, desperate for the touch of a visiting lover. The surface resisted her briefly, then her hand sank into it, deeper than the millimetres-thick plane. She let go a shout of surprise. On the other side of the image, her hand appeared. Only it was not her hand but a simulacrum, in every detail a perfect imitation of her own, forged from glinting bronze.
Margaret wiggled her fingers, and the bronze hand in the mirror did the same. She clenched her fist, and watched the metal fingers curl over until they pressed against their palm. She pulled back, and her arm came out of the glass. The hand slid backwards until the heel was on one side and the fingers were on the other. Margaret stared at it, then leaned forward again.
“How? I don’t…” But of course, she did know. It was Lady Million, and her essence, and the need that had been drawn out of her- transformed, transfigured, given shape. She looked into the perfect eyes of the bronze man. He reached out, and his hand nestled inside hers.
And suddenly, just like that, the barrier that surrounded her void was ruptured, and into the breach poured… she didn’t know, didn’t have the words, but it was hot as blood, and it stung, and the emptiness inside her drank and drank and she was crying and laughing and so… so…
“Oh, oh, God. Oh, God.” she brought her free hand to her face, and wept into it. “Oh, God.”
And slowly, slowly, the first, boiling rush of emotion thickened, settled, until the void was full and only gentle waves lapped at the edges. Margaret raised her head, drew the back of her hand across her face, tears and snot mingling in a long streak. She sniffed, brought her breathing under control.
“Oh, God,” she said to the man behind the mirror. “Is this what it feels like? Oh, God. Do I love you?”
He smiled, and pulled on her hand, drawing her closer to the surface of the glass. Margaret resisted, looked around- at the room, the furnishings, the fixtures. Nothing here, she realised, nothing that isn’t beyond the mirror. Nothing that isn’t replicated. She turned her gaze back to the glass, and the one thing she could not find anywhere else.
“But what if…?”
She paused. What if what? She looked at herself in the mirror. What happens to her, she thought, if I’m there too? Does she disappear? Do I? And if I disappear, will anyone notice? Will they care?
And she realised: it doesn’t matter. None of it does. Whatever happened, she would not be alone. Whatever happened, he would be beside her, and if not him, then someone, and she would love him.
She would love him. And for that small fact, that one small fact, she would risk the answer to any question.
Smiling, crying, happy, Margaret bent forward and leaned beyond the mirror.