Old Alchemy


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The Beginning

    When the twins turned seventeen they were taken in. Dormwell went into the white tent. Veritee went into the blue. In their village seventeen was the first special age. It was when the children were sent to walk the long hill and find out about their lives. In the blue tent Veritee gave up her childhood in front of the other mothers. They cut her hair and told her about healing and living. They told her about sex and childbirth. Veritee played with her hair and told the mothers she had not yet had her menarche. They said these things would come of their own accord. They said be kind to yourself because they knew how strict the girl was on her body. The mothers made the signs and told her secrets which only the women were allowed to know. And mother and father were proud.

    Dormwell went into the white tent and the fathers said cheer up and gave him liquor. They became serious when they talked about loving and farming. In the village they tended olives and Dormwell’s hair was cut and washed in oil. He promised to climb the long hill with his sister and then promised to fulfil the life he’d find up there. They told him half of the secrets and urged him to return one day and marry a woman who knew the rest.

    Outside things moved in their normal ways. Their village was small, and far from the roads which led east to the sea, and west to the big city. They had set their sticks down in the vast prairie lands. Yellow stalk grass grew everywhere. There were wildflowers and rabbits. There were green pines on the crests of the hills, and above them always the aching blue of the cloudless sky. In the summer everyone moved their cots into the cellars where the heat was a little more bearable. And in winter the snow fell on the grass and killed it in a soft way.

    Most of the village had come out to see the twins walk the long hill. They were the only twins to be born in the village, and they were born under a rising Cassiopeia. It was considered a lucky sign, though mother and father hadn’t been so sure. There was a wild streak in their children. They’d wandered off into the prairie so many times it’d become pointless to stop them. In the winter they locked the doors and windows, but still sat vigil on snowbound nights and waited for their children to come home.

    The blue tent opened up and the mothers emerged. They stood and waited for the fathers. The crowd murmured and burnt hazelwood. The white tent parted and just as it was at their birth the twins emerged, Veritee first and Dormwell a second after. Everyone began to cheer. The girl smiled and blinked in the sunlight. She was slender and darker than her brother. Both children still bore the traces of their ancestry, which was Mohawk and a little savage. They moved towards their waiting parents.

    The gathered crowd pressed in closer to hear mother and father say their words.

    'It rained when I went up there.' Father remembered. 'Do you know where to look?'

    'We’ll find it.'  

    'It may be dangerous. We haven’t seen her in a long time.'

    'It’ll be okay. We’ll find it.' The twins repeated.

    'You might have to leave.' Mother reminded them. 'I was gone for a long time. I hope you’re ready for that because I don’t want either of you to leave. We might try and stop you.' She laughed.

    'But it’s the way of things.' Father nodded. 'And you have our blessing.'

    The twins were given gifts for their lives. Mother gave Veritee her big book of everything. In it was a scattered galaxy of writing covering topics that ranged from the homely (how to make porridge from husk) to the bizarre (wolf calls and praying for rain). Father gave Dormwell a peony flower.

    'There is no one thing more important than another.' He told him.

    Mother and father urged them on and the crowd followed in a meandering way. At the base of the hill they waved and began to ascend. They were seventeen now, and almost adults. They were about to embark. Just like the prairie-men had once done. Out into the world to walk it and find the good and gold of the world. Whatever they could bring back they would. New dances, inventions and ways of thought. No newspapers but tales of the outside world and maybe a lover or a child slung in a pea-pod over their belly. Those people believed in the simple power of heel over toe, and with the miles the twins would shed their fat and the scales would fall from their eyes. Mother and father would welcome back lean and wise children. In this way they proved themselves and would eventually command great respect in the village. But before they set out they had to find her.

    They emerged and walked into the woods. Somewhere in there was the last seer. She was Lisbet and they said she knew about the world at large. Through it she would map out the path the twins would follow. If the stars said linger on she’d delay them from their beginning. And if there was some greater purpose in their journey she would nudge them toward it. Later on, when they returned from the world they would walk back into the village and introduce themselves to their parents as new people. As farmers, or makers, or prairie doctors. As whatever they found themselves to be. It might mean staying put. It might mean saying goodbye forever. This was the way it worked in the village. And it all began today. 

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    'That's a shit haircut.' 

    Veritee looked at her brother and laughed. 'Does mine look like that too?' 

    'You got a bowl cut.' He smirked.

    'What the hell?' 

    They went halfway up the hill. Veritee toyed with her hair and the book of everything. Dormwell tucked the peony behind his sister's ear and sat down to shake a rock out of his shoe. 

    'I've got to mend these. Do you think she's going to send us away today?'

    'Look at them down there.' Veritee said, ignoring his question. At the bottom of the long hill the crowd was still milling about. 'Did they all climb up when they were seventeen?'

    'They say that. A lot of them really don't care. They don't send their children.' 

    'Come on get up. I don't want to be wandering through the woods all night.' 

    He grinned and slipped his shoe back on. 'Sure thing. But how about this - if she tells us our stars look good for the farming life, let's not pass that on to mother and father.' 

    'What do we say then?'

    Dormwell took back his peony and started up the hill again. 

    'We can say anything.' 

    'So we just change our stars?' 

    'That's what I'm saying. There's treasure out there for me, somewhere. I've dreamt about it all my life. And towns full of doe-eyed girls.' He laughed. 'I’ll take on with a merchant ship sailing the coast of Africa. I’ll trade in spice and gold and red-green parrots. I’ll make my fortune and come back swinging a satchel full of gold bricks.'

    Veritee shook her head. Her brother had always been a wanderer. But so was she. The pair of them were wild - always running and escaping and gone for days on adventures. They’d given their parents three conniptions and many sleepless nights. Poor folk, they tried everything to reign in their children, but the snares were never quite tight enough.

    'What are you hoping for?' Dormwell asked.

    'Oh, I’m not sure. Something out there.' She swept her hand in a big arc, encompassing the world. 'Something to do with animals maybe? In some place I can run, run all the time. Every morning I’d be up with the sun and running. That’d be nice.' She smiled and looked down at her stepping feet.

    'So if I leave today are you coming too?'

    'If she tells me to stay?' 


    Veritee shrugged. 'You're going to have to lie to mother and father for me. I'm no good at it.' 


    'Did you know there's a city out there that builds its walls out of oyster shells? When the sun shines in the afternoon the city is as bright as a diamond. I want to see that. And I want to see a whale.' 

    Dormwell was a few steps behind his sister now. He’d never been as fit as her, preferring to spend the day reading or talking with their father than running in panting zig-zags through woods and valleys.

    'This could be a lot of fun.' He mused. 'But I need to find a girl. A real woman to show me the world.' 

    The last stretch was steep and uneven. When they’d almost crested the long hill they both looked down on the village, hands on knees bent up and puffing. It was hazy in the noontime heat; the stores and mud-brick homes and olive plantations were swimming. All round was the yellow stalk-grass and druzzing insects. The rain had been longer in coming this season, and things were dryer than the village would have liked. But it was their home and it was beautiful.

    'There’s our house.' Dormwell shaded his eyes with one hand and pointed with the other.

    And all the world too. They could see the people gathered down there still. And in the village there were little figures, people they’d known all their life, walking unhurried down lanes and leaning languid on their farm tools to chat. A group of children had a dog they’d taken into the long grass to sniff out nests of field mice. And beyond that the hills, hills untold and stretching and golden in the sun, gold all the way to the horizon and there meeting the sky. There was a sea too, somewhere out there, the self-same waters that Dormwell longed to sail.

    And a war too, that was out there on all sides now. They were isolated in the valley but bit by bit the world trickled in. Traders came through, and they brought rumours. The tectonic masses of great nations were shifting and grating against one another, and it was only a matter of time before everything began to die. Dormwell and Veritee remembered their father in the centre of a clutch of muttering adults. But those matters seemed very far removed from their lives. 

    'We should keep going.' Dormwell said, giving Veritee a nudge. She came out of her daydream and looked at the last steep rise.

    ‘Here we go, then. The whole world is waiting for us.’

    They huffed up to the top of the hill, the hill where they said Lisbet sat in a bundle of straw and chicken-bones, telling the future from the flights of the birds. Neither of the twins had met her before, but she came to the town sometimes to make her magic. She was the unofficial doctor, midwife, genie, tale-teller and the last seer left in the world. Whenever someone was unsure about their lives they climbed the hill. She dispensed remedies and babies and advice. Mother and father had been very insistent that the twins go and see her. Many of the other children chose to ignore the summons - they wanted to fight in the whispering war or seek out money or boys or girls. But mostly they just lay around talking until their youth had passed them by. 

    I'm not going to be a farmer, Dormwell thought. There must be something better in my stars. Not that it matters. If she calls me a farmer I'll sail out to the middle of the ocean where there isn't an olive tree for a thousand miles around. Then we'll see. 

    Maybe some sort of doctor, Veritee thought from up ahead. She’d run into the shade of the trees which cropped the top of the hill, and stood there waiting for her brother. Human or animal. In some far away city somewhere. Or some far-flung artist. She reflected on the coming moments. What if Lisbet saw badness in her soul? Something mean and evil? What if she ended up loveless and alone? It was unsettling to think that someone could see your whole life in front of you. But maybe fate can be changed. 


    Her brother came up smiling, hands held behind his head.

    'You’re in a hurry.' He noted. 'Nervous?'

    'Aren’t you?' She asked. He shrugged. But they’d shared nine months in their mother’s rosy-red belly and he couldn’t fool her. He was nervous, just like her.

    So they went into the trees together and felt the cool air. Everything smelt of pine and moss and the low notes of decaying vegetation. The trees were ramrod straight and ancient, their shifting tops way up in the bright sky. Little leaves were drifting down in the breeze. They followed the path and saw mushrooms growing up mightily through the loam. It was calm and quiet under the boughs. The twins rambled on and pressed deeper into the forest. It was nothing they weren't used to. They'd explored most of the surrounding plain-lands and sparse forests, though they'd never ventured so far here. They were told not to disturb Lisbet's wood until it was the proper time, and this was one order which they obeyed. If she did run with the world at large then who knew what kinds of bad hoodoo curses she could put on trespassers? They'd heard enough about gypsies and their dark magic to make them respectful of the deep forest. But on that day there was sunlight and the purple bloom of wisteria. A singular breeze ran between the trees and nudged the twins along. They were being welcomed. Without really knowing why they took turn after turn and found themselves stepping firmly on a path that ran between the bushes and boughs. 

    'This will take us to her.' Veritee said decidedly. 'This is the way.' 

    Her brother stubbed up some moss with the toe of his shoe. 'It's nice in here. The air smells clean.' He turned about, deliberately dawdling. 'Do you really think she's got magic?' 

    'Probably. So let's not make her wait.' Veritee said and walked on toward her new life. Dormwell hurried to catch up. 

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    Lisbet cast the teeth again.

    'It's all the same.' She murmured. 'I wonder what he's doing?'

    She glanced round at the teeth. She knew what they told her. The same thing they’d told her on the last sixteen casts.

    Lisbet sat on the threadbare rug and worried. They’d be here very soon. They'd be here and they didn’t deserve it. But she could see no other way forward.

    She was surrounded by strange signs and little stacks of the materials she used for divination. When the teeth kept saying the same thing she’d tried other things. She’d read it from falling needles. She’d read it in powdered bone. There were little piles of ash everywhere. She’d even burnt her last turtle shell. It cracked in a way that asked her why did you waste me? You know it already.

    Someone was looking for the thing called Alkahest. Lisbet’s jaw creaked. When she worried she ground her teeth, and it made her jaw creak. Because she'd thought nobody could draw out Alkahest anymore. It was the pure curative essence that they’d once been able to take straight from the world at large like a sapper from a tree. It had turned the dust and mud of the bald world into Adam, the first of the human line. The teeth said that it could cheat death. 

    Lisbet looked again. The worn edges of a canine and lower bicuspid told her that whoever was hunting the Alkahest was being dogged by that death. They had some power to use and they had used it to end lives. Worse still, Lisbet saw that they moved with the ways of the world at large.


    It would have been easier to hide away from a simpler human.

    'No matter though,' Lisbet told herself. 'Everything unfolds exactly as it should.'

   But she did wish that she had more time to look for it herself. It would be better for her; she knew the ways in which the world at large moved. She could read the signs. But there was no more time left. 

    Lying further from the other scattered teeth was a single grey molar. There was a perfect hole in it. It said the same thing every time. She was going to die. And in some way it was all connected.

    Lisbet sighed. Not because she was afraid of death. Her contact with the world at large had washed her of that fear. It just came at a bad time. There was a lot left to do. And that was why she had to alter the stars. Not her stars, of course. She was going to be shot in the head. That’s not something you can just stop. It was the twin’s fate that had to be mapped.

    'No matter.' She repeated. ‘Those two are strong. They will like the world. And if they manage to beat the other to it – what a prize they’ll bring back from their journey.’

    Lisbet sneezed from all the bone in the air, then sneezed again. These divinations were bad for her allergies. When her eyes stopped watering she walked out into the sunshine.

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Heads & Feathers

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Lisbet Speaks

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Some Final Advice

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The First Fire

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Dark Prairie

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Old Men in the Sky

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Wild Kingdom

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Something is Missing

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Curious Things

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Big Dark Moon

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Silent Open Places

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They Are Free

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Reverie pt.2

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Coyote Teeth

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Beesblood & Honey

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Victory, Death, Resurrection

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The Immortal Herdsman

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Whisky Drunk

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Home, but Lonely

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Everything is Hungry

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Red Capsules

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