The Apothecary’s Tale
by Robin K Hickson
Death doesn’t scare you. Only the pointlessness of a bound existence could do that, you say. Twist and kick, apothecary, or hang motionless, rehearsing death. At the end, you will change nothing.
There’s a gap between the cornice and the highest drawers of the copper-scrolled cabinet. A place where the teak remains proud. Stretch your hand out now as you turn; feel it grate under your fingertips. Too late! You spin further, and flick watery hair away from your eyes, or perhaps you were reaching for the choking cord? You notice that the inner door is closed. Behind you, the front door, too. The room is unlit. Normally, four chandeliers create pools of plaster-yellow illumination upon the ceiling, but tonight, three of the fittings hang cold, and the fourth chimes against your buckle. The absence of light makes little difference upon the chequerboard floor below your feet, where the blacks and whites have mostly merged into smudges and furniture scars, but the dark windows would appear strange to your neighbours: for they would know that the lights are rarely extinguished at the great American Drug Store.
The window blinds are drawn. Perhaps, if they were open, somebody outside could crouch low enough to see through the lettering in the windowpanes. For the letters, unlike their frosted surround, are transparent; carved like a stream across a beach. The marbling in the plane of the more recent side, installed when “General” became “Drug”, is lighter than the other, but still opaque. The same old “Store” opposite; you were too cheap to replace both panes together. Thus the curious might crouch and peer through the bowl of the “D”, or the broad font of the “O”, and if somebody discovered you hanging, what then? Would they raise an alarm? Or would they pretend to have seen nothing; just sure that, after all this time, you’d finally got what was coming?
Desiré Au Lac. She was sixteen, with braces; the fat and silver-black kind that warps a mirrored smile. New to town, she sported a Nikon, and fancied herself a reporter; no – a photojournalist, she insisted. Your smile recovered. How’s school, you asked. Fine, she said, glancing to the floor, which told you that it wasn’t. Head down, she asked if she could take your picture. Mimicking her in sympathy, you lowered your eyes, until your stare was arrested by her bare ankle. Embarrassed, you turned instead to the cabinet dominating the centre of the room. A century earlier, when you were new here too, it bore the first soda fountains. Beneath the modern display lie the holes where the ice-feeder was once bolted. Back then, the ice was stored in the cellar – glacial blocks that dripped slowly, to your young eyes, hardly reducing in volume even over summer days. Madame Illes would slice head-sized chunks off a trolleyed block with a garrotte. Then, upstairs in the store, she lifted each head in succession, out of it’s sublimed fog, before feeding it into the funnel at the rear of the machine. One execution at a time, heads became chunks and chunks became gravel, until crushed ice filled the glass container on the front, where chromed taps encouraged the town’s children to self-serve. Soda-making was an adult magic, a ritual you observed by peering over the counter as the machine rattled and cold-steamed above you. Mister Witt would nudge you out of the way good-naturedly if you edged too close, lest curiosity drag you into the mechanism, and when Madame Illes had finished her part, Mister Witt would insist on adding the flavouring and colouring himself, never failing to remind his aunt, though he spoke directly to you, that she was incapable of judging the perfect emulsion because, he said, her mind was addled by too much tincture. Once satisfied, he would invite you to taste each new batch, and if you grinned or nodded, he would clap his hands and grin triumphantly at Madame Illes, who would turn away with the faintest shake of her head. Now those memories are strangely manacled; what was it you said, as Desiré’s ankle heckled?
“Sure”, you replied eventually, unable to decide why you remained reluctant. “Soda?”
“I didn’t know you sold them,” she said, then laughed. “No, thanks. Just your photograph?”
You skirted between counter and ankle to place a palm on the nearest surface, lifting your chin according to your own internal portrait of the gentleman store owner. “Why do you want to be a journalist?”
She backed away, camera to eye, getting her range. She appeared to fumble and the flash bloomed unexpectedly. You blinked at her answer.
“I want to see how people die. I want to photograph the wars – show people back home what they’re like. Make them stop, maybe.”
“Stop what?” you asked stupidly, still blinking.
“The killing, of course!” she said, lowering the camera. “Don’t you think that war is just awful?”
The camera strap pulled the hoop of her vest lower. You looked further up, above her head, to about where you now hang, suspended by the neck.
“Not really,” you said, distractedly. “Sometimes you have to fight.”
She sighed and looked disappointed. “For freedom? For your way of life?”
“Yes, I suppose…” Too late. “Or rather, no. I think…”
You looked back at her face. Into her eyes; so young.
“Do you like mints?”
The black smile reappeared. “Oh, thank you, sir.”
She came into the store often after that, from post-war summer until the wintry days of cold war. She shared her fears, her hopes. Innocent things, nothing complicated. You ended her life not because of some unfortunate sexual indiscretion, but because of what she said, what she thought; her absence of faith.
“It’s a way of making everybody equal, see? Man, woman, educated, simple, poor, rich – we’re all people. Socialism just gives that equality a bit of structure – a system of justice to protect individuals, without religion or government interfering. Are you listening?”
You wished that you weren’t. You paused whilst refilling the salts. Fresh from up north. Lavender, and agents like orange with kombucha, a concoction whose pungency you forever since associate with socialist indignation. You dip your chin in agreement.
“Good, ‘cos this is important, sir. One day we will rise up, and none of the overlords will survive.” Her head tilted backwards, and her eyes cast up and left as her mind remembered the original orator. Meanwhile you stared into the back of the display case, blindly seeing banners and bloody confrontation. “But I hope you survive, sir. You gotta listen to me before it’s too late!”
You turned towards her.
“It’s not safe to talk openly about such things, Miss Au Lac.” But you smiled encouragingly as the passion left her face. “Come back Friday evening. We’ll speak then.”
She nodded, still wide-eyed. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
She took the proffered tablet and swept the door open. A girl, not yet a full woman.
Tonight, your face is bursting blue, when it should be flushed red with memory’s shame, apothecary. Ah! A foot up. You’re thinking, but your strength is fast fading. Just unravel the noose, and fall…
Your chest and stomach stretch and your hands claw at your throttled neck as you abruptly find the floor, smashing glass and bouncing away from the old cabinet. Your lungs flame. Small lacerations prick your bare palms, your mouth is impossibly dry. This is how it feels to be betrayed, apothecary. Remember dear Mister Witt? He invested in you, trusted you, and you dashed his faith upon Madame Illes’ imperfectly pale breasts. Beyond fear at the end, as your hands squeezed his larynx, your wrists and fingers aching, understanding dragged his eyes to yours. Realisation bulged in his throat like his swollen tongue. Phlegm squeezed from the corners of his mouth. His cheeks puffed, and legs kicked.
“We’re helping you, Mister Witt. Don’t you see?”
In your mind’s eye, you see her too.
Madame Illes' reflection fills the mirror. By hinging the two wings, she could study her own golden-framed face three times. Front, left and right. When you were just a boy, she sat you in front of the main mirror, on her lap, and you played with the wings while she told stories of the theatre; of her favourite plays and greatest loves. When you were a little older, a young man, Madame Illes leant her cheek against yours, and whispered the same stories of her greatest lovers. When you were older still, she lay beside you, speaking through a post-coital sigh.
“Soon, sweet love, we shall be together, always. Come and hold me,” she said.
You draped an arm across her shoulder and chest, and the other encircled beneath her breasts. You touched her navel with one finger.
“What about poor Mister Witt?” you asked.
“I have a present for him,” she said. “But he can’t know it comes from me. And he must take it all – that's very important.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sit down, and let me explain, while I finish looking beautiful.”
“You always look beautiful,” you said, backing off to half-sit on the edge of the bed. She smiled and took her seat before the mirror. She closed her eyelids, leaving you to watch her unobserved. With one hand she found a squat pot on the dresser. She raised it over her shoulder.
“Shadow,” she said, replacing the pot but retaining the stopper. Blindly, she reached for a cotton brush, dipped it and carefully steered the dark-powdered bud, tainting both eyelids. In the mirror, you watched the dark areole of her left breast amplify the tiny movements of each stroke. Her eyes reopened, and she blinked and owled at herself.
“Hand me that gown,” she said, pointing behind the door.
You snatched the garment from its peg and held it open, stretching the shoulders, and she stood and wrapped it tightly around, knotting the belt emphatically. She pointed to the edge of the bed, and you sat back.
“Listen, my beloved. You and I, we need to be free of Mister Witt’s selfishness and cruelty. We deserve our indépendance, at last. Don’t you feel it too?”
She reached around to pick up the pot and reinsert the stopper. Placing it in the palm of her hand, she held it out to you.
The next day, just as dawn light threatened the kitchen window, you shook the black pot’s contents into Mister Witt’s tea, and served him as usual, alone at the head of the table. Chai, with a touch of lemon and wolfsbane. You feared discovery when he grimaced at the first sip, but he merely yawned, then blearily supped a second time. He gasped as he released the cup's lip from his mouth.
"It’s the lemon,” you said, foolishly.
Blue eyes sought yours, apothecary, fear and confusion shaping them wide. He sagged back in his chair. Fussily, he succeeded to juggle the cup back onto its saucer, spilling tea onto the kitchen table, then slithered further to fall to the floor with a thump as his limbs succumbed. You watched him froth and writhe for long seconds, his expression now one of quaint surprise, but when he began to gurgle and fight his paralysed jaw, you suspected recovery rather than surrender. You straddled his chest and throttled, and this – rather strangely you thought – gave you the time to consider your own fate.
Madame Illes failed to rouse herself for breakfast later that morning. While you were curiously absent, she woke only to the sound of the disintegrating door from the store below. She stumbled sleepily downstairs, nearly tripping on her nephew’s body, to find the marshal forcing his way inside. Madame Illes paid, alone, for Mister Witt’s abandonment. One bright morning in the spring of 1814, her prison jerkin ripped away from her shoulder as she dropped onto the noose, exposing a limp and varicose breast to the laughter of the assembled townsfolk.
The townsfolk! Crawl to the door and beg their aid. Make them help you, apothecary. Tonight, you cannot loath them. Crawl.
You look back to gauge your progress. Four tiles; red, then black, then white, now red again as your palms smear blood. Alternately wiping your weeping hands across your jacket, you suck and blow through your teeth, urging your heart to slow. A flush bursts in your eardrums, leaving the night muted; nothing to hear but your own dying breaths, you think. Your throat seizes, chokes. You reach the door, and rest your back against it, then stretch your neck up, painfully forcing your shoulder and arm above your head until your fingers find the handle. You push and pant, heart pounding harder. Unexpectedly, a spike of hope leeches through your thoughts as a cool air flows across you, then circles and retreats, as if searching for an exit. You gasp it down emptily, like a landed fish. It tastes of humanity. Earthy, warm. You see a flare, like a street lamp from within autumnal fog, muffled and diffuse, from the back of the store. The fog grows and forces out the smell of earth, and dims the glow. Sight, smell and sound fuse in your muddled head.
Glass snaps, somewhere in the back room, with the noise of a rotten branch ripped from a tree in a storm. Much closer, you hear and feel, together, the woof of accelerating flame devouring the furnishings. Push, you urge yourself. Get up. Sweat breaks out on your balding crown, and is transmitted by straw hair to your cheeks. Acrid sweets reach your nostrils. Unknown chemical fumes compete with woodsmoke to blind and intoxicate. Your eyes stream, the hot salt joining the sweat from your scalp to burn across the wounds encircling your neck. Beneath your chin it drops from your beard, trickling over your chest to form a pool in the shelter of your paunch. You force yourself to stand, and you feel the sweat running away down your back and curving around your belly to link again beneath your scrotum, dripping along your thighs like a woman’s birthing waters. You attempt to shout, but your voice is cooked and weak. Instead, a shriek from behind makes you flinch, and you slither back to the floor as your legs fail to hold you. The shriek becomes shadow, midair, then blooms into reddish mush until it collides with your face. Cat’s fur. Claws that dagger and slice in desperation. In reflex, you flail and swat the animal away, connecting far too well, propelling it across the room. It yowls in pain, then is silenced as it impacts the case front adjacent to the store window, cracking the glass and leaving the ginger still. Poor Puck. Poor Puck, you repeat, something nagging at you.
“My little one,” said Madame Illes one hot Sunday afternoon, lifetimes ago. “I need you to run to Mister Freeman’s.”
Mister Freeman ran the grain exchange, a rat-stained barn on the edge of town.
“Oui, madame. What may I fetch for you?”
“Non. Nothing. Take a message to that dirty, thieving heathen. No doubt he is working on the Sabbath, and drinking, and whoring…” Her voice took a nasal tone, one that she adopted only when her mind toyed with evil-doing.
“Tell him – pay, or we will burn his filthy warehouse back to the desert sand!” You heard her swallow. “Wait. Of course... don’t tell him that.” She spun around, the evil shine still alive in her eyes. “Just make sure he understands, boy.” She shrugged. “Make sure he knows who I am.”
You ran from the store, past the cellar entrance, emerging from darkness into raw sun and the scentless dust of frontier desert. What little moisture your body possessed was squeezed from your armpits and crotch, but you didn’t stop running until you dropped beneath the shelter of Freeman’s barn. The floor was a mix of cornhusk and dried mud. Hessian sacks, each as large as a cart wagon, were lined across the height and length of the longest side. You tried to ignore the rats that grazed in herds, like miniature plains bison, on the loose grain. To those that snuck along roof pillars near your head or roamed too close to your shoes, you flapped or kicked a warning. A central hayloft ladder led to the office-cum-dormitory of Mister Matthew Freeman – entrepreneur and trader. Up the ladder, then, quietly but loud enough to be heard. Long-fingered hands assisted your last steps from the ladder into the cramped space. Light fell unobstructed from an open skylight several yards overhead, and pooled in the centre of the simple room.
“Ah, the honourable master. Welcome.” Mister Freeman waved his arms expansively. “How is the ever-pompous Mister Witt? And that whore, Madame Illes, how is she?”
He leaned forward to make sure his face was lit from above, then spat tobacco juice onto the floorboards in front of you. He cocked his head to one side, and waited, staring. You were relieved when something moved behind him, permitting you to look away. From the poorly lit area near the far wall, a shadow emerged. It stopped beneath Mister Freeman’s stool, and pinned you back with a hunter’s focus. Eventually, at a moment of its choosing, the great tomcat squeezed forward between the legs of the pedestal, dipped its tongue into the viscous juice, and lapped. You grimaced in disgust, but Mister Freeman laughed, loud and open, arching his head back.
“Don’t be so judgmental, boy,” he said, his laughter ceasing as unconvincingly as it had begun. The two men either side of him, each resting astride a straw bale, grinned – more hungrily than happily, you thought. “Puck is the best ratter in this godforsaken town. He hunts day or night, summer or winter. What if he likes a little baccy when he’s not working, right boys?”
The others grunted in agreement. The cat returned, unremarked, to the darkness, out of sight.
“Do you know why I’m here?” you asked abruptly.
The grins disappeared. Mister Freeman leaned in further, menacingly.
“You’ve lost your way? Or that bitch Madame Illes wants her tithe? Her bloody money. Tell her to come and get it herself. No good sending her apprentice. Or maybe…?” He thrust his hips forward, complimenting the simulation with a lewd flick of his tobacco-brown tongue.
You remained silent. An idea was forming. Mister Freeman laughed and glared at you, daring you.
“Can I have some?” you asked, your voice neutral.
“Some what?” he asked, shifting his weight.
“Some tobacco, of course; my job is done, the message delivered. Obviously there’s not much I can do to threaten you.” You looked pointedly towards Mister Freeman’s sleeve and the secreted cut-throat. “But if I return now, Madame Illes will say that I was too hasty. She will beat me.” You knitted your eyebrows, and looked between your feet, then back to his face. “Let me have some tobacco, and I’ll return later and tell her that I cajoled, threatened, begged – but to no avail, and I will tell her that it’s no use. The money is lost.”
Mister Freeman sniggered.
“An unlikely story. But I'll play.”
He threw the pouch across. You seated yourself cross-legged on the floor behind where it landed, and pulled paper and a match from your chest pocket.
“No. Chew it, boy, like a man,” he said. “Then go back to your store and kiss that whore on the lips. I heard you like that.”
You hesitated before dropping the match and paper to the floor in the triangle between your legs, then lifted a peck from the pouch, tucking it into the corner of your cheek. The men watched you chew, your face twitching and snarling as the potency bit.
“That’s it,” said Mister Freeman, and as he watched he reached across to slap one of the men conspiratorially on the back. “That’s it, boy.”
“What about some rye, too?” you asked, nodding at the bottle on the small table. Mister Freeman laughed again.
“My, aren’t you going to be a handful for Madame Illes as you get older?” You watched that planted thought flux and open in his mind like watered barley. His eyes widened. “Sure. Sure, boy. Here.”
He waved an impatient hand at the man nearest to the table. Obediently, the oddly clean-shaven man (both head and face), bent in from the shadows to collect the bottle, and passed it to you as you chewed.
“Thanks,” you said, and brown drool escaped from one corner of your mouth. You snatched at the bottle and cuffed your face at the same time, managing to spill a few precious measures on the straw-strewn boards.
“Careful, boy!” snapped Mister Freeman, and leaned forward as if to claim the bottle back. You corrected your hold, and took a long swig, persuading the older man to retreat. Smiling broadly, apologetically, you put the bottle down between your thighs. After several more grinding mastications you leaned forward, and spat half a mouthful in front of your feet. You reached for fresh tobacco, and Mister Freeman applauded. From the shadows, the great tomcat glided forward again. Tentatively, it approached the brown phlegm, then, perhaps encouraged by Mister Freeman’s good humour, it stretched out to lick the mess, its tongue searching ahead like a wilful snake. You swigged again from the bottle, spilling some, as your other hand rounded out, faster than the cat could flinch. You seized a handful of fur, and dragged it closer. Its tongue morphed into glazed fangs which reached for your wrist, and the inflated beast hissed horribly. From the corner of your eye, you could already see Mister Freeman loose his sleeve, and sensed his momentum shifting forwards. You released the bottle, and kicked out, sending it spinning towards him. You had only seconds, to snatch the discarded match from the straw, and strike it blindly against the nearest pillar. It flared orange, illuminating the features of the shaven man. His skin was broken and waxy, scarred by old fire. As the flare subsided you watched his eyebrows knit in surprise, then horror of remembered agony.
You expelled a second mouthful of rye on to the desperate cat, dropped the lit match into its fuzz, and ducked as the whisky flashed. The angry animal slashed at your hand. You let go, simultaneously pushing yourself backwards towards the ladder. Yowling and scrambling, the cat bounced from the stool to the shaven man’s lap, igniting his loose blouse, then fled further back into the room, its flaming coat illuminating the animal’s panicked flight away into the roof's eaves. The straw bales snapped immediately afire, forcing Mister Freeman and the men away from the hatch, beating at their clothes. You escaped, bouncing down the ladder steps to land in the soft chaff below. From the floor, you kicked out violently, connecting with the ladder, causing it to fall away. Back on your feet, you raced the rats from the barn, mindless of your clothes’ rents and the ellipses of sweat and dust that stained your Sunday shirt.
With the assistance of the townspeople, Mister Freeman saved most of the grain, dragging the sacks clear from the doomed building, yet he could not save himself. Madame Illes swore that you were plied with whisky, and if it hadn’t been for a carelessly discarded cigarette causing the blaze, she argued, you would probably have been abused and murdered. Mister Freeman was run out of town, leaving Madame Illes to build and manage a new emporium, while your part in her prosperity remained unheralded. But the ginger tomcat was your first kill, a milestone you commemorated by immortalising Puck as the given name for the next shop cat, and every generation thereafter. So now? Is this Freeman’s revenge?
No – it’s too late for that. There’s no-one left from that generation – that time – save you, apothecary.
“Who is it then?” you demand of the sulphurous room, but receive only crackles and groans in answer, though the injured cat rouses itself at your voice. Conspicuously bleeding, it staggers away towards the fire and smoke and a memory of exit at the rear of the store.
“So die, Puck. Go.” You call after it through raw lips, while your bloodied fingers brush circles in the shattered glass around you, making space. You roll and stand, using one knee as a crutch. A light nausea lifts your chin. On the cusp of a faint, you sway but catch and scorch yourself on the front door’s handle. You shake your head, sweat spray flying to hiss on the walls where it lands. By now the smoke is high enough to make you cough, even standing. Your hand finds the head of the spare key atop the doorjamb, and you pull it down, trying to control your heaving chest long enough to direct it towards the keyhole. You steady one hand with the other, and slide the key home. The heat on your back throbs and your breath rasps, surely weaker. Despite the cracking of wood and the chime of fracturing glass behind, you hear as well as feel the mechanism clunk. You tug on the handle with what strength remains to you, expecting to feast on the spill of night air, but fear burns in your chest like the fire’s heat on your back when the door sticks. Trapped. Destined to be shrivelled and contorted by the inferno. You imagine a gargoyle left to posterity in an image of weakness, foetal, screaming silently as the flames sear your throat and blind your eyes.
To die alone, apothecary, like Desiré Au Lac.
When Desiré returned, as promised, that next Friday evening, her fervour had not dimmed. Her passion was condemned with a simple question.
“Mint?” you asked, holding out the coin-sized tablet.
The scent and texture of hairy horsemint wrapped the trace of monkshood as neatly as her lips wrapped around black teeth, exposing darkening gums. Her eyes closed, and she crumpled unconscious to black and white. You dragged her to the cold cellar, her shouldered camera bag thumping on the stone steps, and left her without food, water or hope. She died one night, while her family forlornly searched the desert beyond the town.
When the scratching ceased, you re-entered that dark space to find her buried beneath a molten, shimmering mat. The rats mostly scattered as you approached, and you shooed the last away as you bent over her body. Scratches and bites marred her skin, and most of her fingernails were missing – some of which you found in the back of the cellar’s inner gate. Her camera was by her side, dented but intact. You opened the case and reeled the film free. Later, you scraped away the emulsion, and burnt the celluloid into unrecognisable knots. The camera was discovered beside her body, amongst the rats, in an abandoned space above the stables – the same place that you cut her arm, dragging the blade from wrist to forearm.
The ivoried blade was prised free from the rigor mortis in her right hand. When the marshal came to call and asked his questions, only then did you remember her left hand reaching across the camera when you first met her, a cack-handedness you mistook for the clumsy dexterity of a teenage girl. That portrait photograph hangs still on the wall in your office, reminding you. She was left-handed, the marshal confirmed, but he had little more. The store lights went out, only until insufficient evidence lit them three weeks later. You sacrificed her to your dogma, apothecary, then wrapped her soul and reputation in a lie of suicide.
You sniff again at the crack between door and frame, tasting the air outside. So close! You brace one foot on the wall for purchase, and grip and lean, your excessive weight a rare boon; then at last, a cold crack echoes the hungry flames behind. The door bursts free, and cool night seeps past you, feeding the fire within. You scramble over the threshold and drop onto the dusty asphalt, just as the blaze feasts upon the fresh fuel. It roars like the shot of a giant cannon, booming over your prostrate head.
“Help!” you cry, and roll onto your back. “Somebody help me!”
The neon of the 7-11 on the opposite corner inks your body red. In the night sky, Orion’s belt is split by his sword. The tip accelerates towards you, gleaming a brighter orange on the fire side, to embed itself in your thigh. Unexpected agony bleaches your thoughts. Wild-eyed, craning your neck to peer above your belly, you watch the dagger withdrawn by your own hand. From the wound, blood spurts and splatters warmly, soothing the flash pain of the fire on your skin like a salve. The dagger has a hickory grip, and the blade drips black. American timber and ill-tempered steel silhouette the constellations. Orion’s Dog Star is hidden behind the knife's shadow, low down to the horizon. You tilt your head for a new perspective, and sure enough the blue diamond sparkles clear. Out of reach. Your arm falls to your side, and the blade is free, jangling lightly on the stones.
“I don’t understand,” you say to the night. But you do. You are dying, alchemist, and you were wrong.
Death does scare you.