What Fits in a Vial

Djaro was one of the Alchemist’s apprentices, and he was by far the most curious.

Each day, the students would gather beneath the walnut tree at the village edge, and wait for the Alchemist to come and fetch them. The rest of the boys would sit patiently while waiting, some drinking from canteens or eating a crust of bread packed by their parents. Not Djaro. He would climb the tree, or roll down the hill behind it, or think up hard questions to ask the Alchemist when he arrived.

When the Alchemist did arrive, he would lead the boys down the path to his house. The path lead through the forest, down into the valley, where the people of the village found themselves speaking in whispers but could not tell you why exactly.

The house was not large, nor was it terribly small. It was more than one story, but not quite two. The walls were crudely made of mismatched wood leaving small gaps and holes such that the rain could easily find it’s way in if the wind was high enough. The roof was thatch, and had been well done at the time it was laid down, but was in dire need of repair, looking as though it was less likely to stay up each time the boys visited. More than one of the boys kept one eye to the closest exit when the Alchemist was giving his lessons. To the side of the house there was a small lean-to, under which sat an earthen oven, itself cracked and needing repair.

The door was not like the rest of the house. While everything else spoke volumes of neglect, the door was solid oak and polished, with a silver knocker and golden lock. Several small windows of opulent stained-glass  were arranged, recessed, in an arc at the top. The door belonged to a different house. A house as far from this one as the earth to the sky.

The Alchemist would open the door with his golden key, holding it ajar as the boys filed in.

Inside, the main room of the house was the laboratory. At its center was a long table, weathered, but perfectly level, cluttered with precisely shaped glass and weighted metal. The walls were covered in large tapestries. They passed for tapestries here at least, but away in the village they would have been sold as horse blankets. The Alchemist had sewn into them various strange symbols, and he would point to them in his lessons.

“This is the symbol for gold,” he would say pointing to symbol, “but not this,” and he would throw a sparkling yellow coin down on the table with a flourish. “This is metal. Precious to some, and wonderful in it’s properties, surely, but that is not an alchemist’s gold. Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi.”

And the Alchemist would pull back one of his tapestries, revealing shelves of vials and small jars. Each one filled with a substance wholly unique. Transparency, color, thickness, smell, taste (although the Alchemist had only allowed the boys to taste a few), even temperature; all were different, though some seemed the same unless subjected to rigorous examination.

“Knowledge is our gold, boys,” the Alchemist would say.

And knowledge was in the vials. Every liquid was a knowing of something. Something secret. Something worth distilling from ephemeral thought and expression. Something Djaro wanted to know.

The Alchemist had let the boys drink a few. Simple things, he had called them. The biting cold of a winter’s day, the frustration of being turned about in a familiar place, and the swelling of pride at bringing a flower up from a seed and seeing it blossom for the first time.

Djaro lived for the days when the Alchemist would let them taste from the stores of knowledge, but it was so rare, and the Alchemist kept such a watchful eye on them, Djaro had not yet had the chance to sneak one. Not that he planned to sneak one, but had the opportunity arisen, he knew he would do it. In less time than the pause between heartbeats.

So it was that one day, when one of the other boys caught his own shirt on fire, and the Alchemist was busy dousing the boy so that the whole of his house would not burn, Djaro reached behind the tapestry holding the vials. He felt with his fingers quickly, but carefully, and they came to rest on one of the vials. He peaked back quickly to look at it. It was blue. He had tasted a blue one before, but this one was a darker blue, almost black it seemed, and it was warm to the touch. He slipped the vial into his belt quickly, and rushed to help put out the fire.

That night, in his own house in the village, Djaro took the vial out and examined it. It was not much larger than a grown man’s finger, maybe holding a thimble-full or two of the liquid, which seemed to change in color as Djaro held it in his hand. Where his skin touched the glass, the liquid turned slowly from the blackish-blue of midnight to a lighter, greener shade of river water.

He drank it.

It was warm in his mouth and throat, and tingled as he swallowed it.

The knowing in the liquid came on slowly, and in broad strokes.

He felt shyness. It was a timidity that seemed to linger as he yearned for something terribly close, but just beyond his grasp. He felt a hardening resolution to reach out for it. A terrible crushing embarrassment and a certainty that he was making a fool of himself. There was a wave of euphoria. He had succeeded. He felt a bubbling of pride, but also of nervousness. He had it, but what now? Not an it….another person was involved somehow.

Next came a feeling of clumsiness, followed by familiar certainty of his foolishness. It was gone soon though, as he felt as though he was being embraced. Wholly, completely, and without reservation. Happiness. Comfort. Always growing.

It was the most wonderful feeling in all the world, and it seemed like it would last forever.

But it did not.

The feeling began to turn sour. At first he merely became uncomfortable, like he was being held too tightly. He still felt good though, so he ignored it. Then a strange sensation reared up like a venomous thing poised to strike. A wave of anger. Anger at something small, but rather than setting it aside, he found himself latching onto it. He tried not to, he desperately tried, but he couldn’t help it. He held tightly onto that anger with the grip of a drowning man at a lifeline. He wanted so badly to let go.

Drops of the venom poisoned everything. Before, his clumsiness had always been forgiven, now he felt the sting of mockery. The embrace began to fade, and the harder he tried to keep it to turn it back to the wondrous euphoria of before, the more unbearable it became.

When it was over, and the last of the embrace, once sweet and glorious, had left him, he was glad to be rid of it. He rolled over in his bed, and sobbed himself to a restless sleep.

Djaro did not climb the tree or roll down the hill the next day beneath the walnut tree. He merely sat quietly in the shade and waited. He had no questions for the Alchemist when he came to fetch them and lead them down the forest path. He only followed behind the other boys to the Alchemist’s house.

He shuffled through the day, unable to focus on the day’s lesson, and when the light was fading, and the Alchemist gathered the boys to take them back to the village, Djaro was glad it was done.

Back at the walnut tree, as the other boys rushed ahead to the village, the Alchemist put a hand on Djaro’s shoulder.

“You have stolen gold from me, boy,” the Alchemist said gravely. Djaro only nodded. “Were you satisfied with what you took?”

Djaro began to cry.

The Alchemist knelt down by Djaro and put a hand around his shoulders.

“You took something you were not ready for,” his voice was not reproachful now, “Something too complicated for one so young to learn.”

“What was it?” Djaro asked between sobs.

“It was love, boy. True love,” the Alchemist sighed.

“Why does it hurt then?” Djaro was so confused.

The Alchemist shook his head, “The love didn’t hurt you, my boy. What you drank wore off. Losing that…. that is what hurt you so.”

“Why would anybody love anyone then? When it hurts so much?” Djaro asked.

“You don’t always get to choose that,” the Alchemist hesitated, and gave Djaro a brief hug, “And even if you could, you should choose love.”

“Why?” Djaro asked again.

“Because it’s worth the hurt, boy,” the Alchemist smiled, “Because what you drank was just enough to fit inside a vial.”

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