The Alchemist

Tom Recht

   Back in the days when artists wrote manifestos, women wore felt hats and Europe (insofar as it is worth writing about) floated in an ineffably romantic haze, like a wraithly island glimpsed over late autumn waters, there lived in Klemmburg an aspiring womaniser, a reluctant merchant’s clerk, and a dismally unsuccessful young poet. He - for the three were one - was named Hans Georg Twiffel and wore his sandy hair briskly dishevelled, as though he had just hurried to wherever one met him from a secret tryst; a more probable reason was his incurable tendency to oversleep. His family was from the north, but he had come to the capital ostensibly to learn a trade, actually to compose breathtaking revolutionary poetry and debauch the dilettante beauties of the canal-side bistros. One, he assumed, would lead inevitably to the other. He doused the constant failure of both schemes in countless pints of the cheapest beer, stumbling nightly up the Himalaya of stairs that led to his fourth-storey room in the Old South, where used pen nibs littered the uneven floor like the corpses of insects.
   Tonight, as we meet Hans Georg Twiffel for the first time (instantiate him, one might say, from the general blueprint outlined above), he has not yet begun his nocturnal climb. Rather, he is pedalling a wobbly, secondhand bicycle of the straight-spined feminine variety down a narrow cobblestone street which is doing its best to appear quaint - the ambition of most Klemmburg streets of the period. In his nine months in the capital Hans had come to know this street (the Kobaldstraas) quite well; for a week or two in winter it had turned into a tributary of the phlegmy canal that was the fault line between the Binnstad, or town centre, and the Old South. He knew the tiny stamp shop in whose window there always slumbered a ginger cat with a tail like a half-eaten sausage; the four-room inn where he had stayed for a few nights on his arrival in the city (its proprietress, the only woman he had ever seen smoke a pipe, had puffed a smoke ring at sputtering Hans when he put salt in his coffee the first morning, to signify that she would not refill his cup); the cupola of the Dömkirch, a stone breast whose cross-bearing nipple was just visible over the right-angled gables of the houses, which climbed stairily to a zenith whence protruded an iron hook for hoisting furniture.
   But at the moment, Hans Georg’s attention was elsewhere. He was on his way home from Wolf’s, a damp little bar-and-two-tables establishment where he had quaffed a few pints – six or ten – of a pale local lager which tasted like cooked mushrooms and cost accordingly. By now he could feel the heaving tides of liquor which bubbled odiously in his belly seeping cell by cell into the rest of his body – into his rubbery fingers, whose knuckles formed ugly yellow U’s as he gripped the handlebars in tense apprehension; into his feet, which though growing ever heavier were having less and less effect on the stiffly stubborn pedals; into his befogged eyes (by weather or alcohol, he could not tell). The rattling bicycle droned in harmony with the sour wheezing of his breath, and from the mist ahead there loomed a sudden, contorted tree which stretched a tentative root out from the pavement, as though preparing to cross the street. Hans swerved leftward, tottered nauseously and managed to regain his balance after a second or hour of frantic pedalling, trying without success to swallow down his growing vertigo. It would be better to dismount, he thought, and walk the rest of the way. He could escort the bike by his side, like a docile young lady. The notion charmed him into smiling, and he would have carried it out immediately, but he feared that at some point in the dauntingly complex process of bringing the bicycle to a halt and separating from it safely, something – a limb, a coatflap – would get entangled somewhere, causing havoc. No, it was best to persist; the bridge over the canal was only a short way off, and three blocks later he would be home.
   At the thought of “home” Hans Georg’s stomach gave a sort of lurch, as though it had trodden on air at the unexpected end of a dark flight of stairs. That warm, consoling word – how could it describe the barren attic his landlord (a small, gruesome Flem who laughed only at his own jokes) had converted into a bedroom by means of a scrawny couch and a clothes closet without a back? No, it was not “home”. It was a sordid cell which starved his mind and his body. For all his fits of scribbling in various cramped positions (there was no desk) all he could produce were abortive poem-scraps which he tossed despairingly into the wastebasket like crushed cigarette stubs. And he had never brought a woman there.
   Hans clutched the handlebars tightly to resist the dangerous temptation of scratching his left ear, which had begun itching savagely. He suddenly found that he was choking. The dim veil of mist that shrouded the night was murkier than ever. A strange convulsion gripped him, supernaturally cold, and an invisible cat shrieked in anguish from a distant rooftop inside his head. He blinked violently and forced himself to peer into the fog ahead. Where was the gas lamp that should have been flickering at the foot of the bridge? All he could make out was a pair of inscrutable silhouettes – one tall and thin, the other short and pudgy, each wielding at eye level a small glowworm-like object, which gleamed with a bright futile red that illuminated nothing.
   “No,” muttered Hans Georg with sudden resolve, steering the bicycle laboriously towards the two shadowy figures, who, he hoped, were standing on the bridge. No, it was time for a decision. Klemmburg had nothing for him, it was no use denying it any longer. No poet could flourish in this vapid merchant’s town, this obscene menagerie of boors who led their respectably jejune lives in a mindless orbit of shops, dinner parties and brothels. He could not entomb himself here any longer. “I’m leaving,” he said to the bicycle, noting with some puzzlement that his voice sounded as though he were speaking through a mouthful of damp wool. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m going to Paris.” Yes, Paris! There he would thrive, there where all life was bright as art and all art true as life! Why had he not thought of it before? And now his mind, illuminated with the brilliance of Montmartre cafés and the clear rippling image of Notre-Dame baptized head downward in the Seine, realized that the taller of the two shadows with which he was about to collide was after all the gas lamp – that stiff one-eyed sentry which he usually knew quite well – and that leaning against it pensively with her back to the canal was a young woman with a freshly lit cigarette, who, seeing him, gasped and darted suddenly aside to escape the wobbly onrush of Hans Georg’s drunken bicycle.
   “It’s all right,” he shouted to reassure her, “I’m leaving tomorrow.” And as if to confirm that a great change was imminent, a miniature earthquake engulfed without warning first the front wheel of his bicycle and then the rear one, and for a second the world crumbled into nothingness as he rode empty air, and somersaulting forward like a deftly flipped omelette he heard the girl shriek “Oh!” from somewhere behind or above him until a huge, slimy hand slapped him full in the face and his lungs gulped salt water. In a blind, floundering panic for something firm he grasped the handlebars, but they were not there and he clutched only ice-cold brine, with which he was drenched all through like a mop in a bucket – and finally his breathless head broke the surface of the canal and the first endless draught of crisp night air was the deepest, most eternal joy Hans had ever known.
When it was over he realized countless things at once: that he was treading water, not still pedalling as he had unconsciously imagined; that every nerve in his body was screaming with cold at the top of its voice; that he was sober as a monk; that he had opened his eyes, and that the young woman he had terrified was now stooping anxiously at the edge of the canal, calling out something which his water-plugged ears transformed into a muffled thud, and holding out to him a small, quivering, gloveless hand.

*         *         *
   How he staggered the three blocks home, hatless and dripping, the naked toes of one foot curled inward like sleeping waifs (right shoe, hat and bicycle had all drowned, as had his wallet, fortunately emptied at Wolf’s), he would, so he thought, never forget. His mind was a mad carousel of passion, whirling wildly through hordes of fresh memories: her wide hazel eyes as she watched him wade towards her through the sluggish black water; the warmth of her naked hand helping him to clamber heavily onto the bank; her mellow voice offering meaningless consolations (“Such a pity about the bicycle”, “They really should have a better lamp put in, it gets pitch black here at night”); her pliant figure receding smoothly into the darkness when she had ascertained that he was quite all right and lived close by. And how her shawl had come loose as she stooped with outstretched arm, and had dipped its tail playfully into the water until she gathered it up again! Shivering, he knew that this was the supreme moment, the epiphany of which poets spoke. Yes, his heart was enchanted, branded with the image of her, and he could not wait, he could not wait to be there, so he rushed on through little puddles of his own making, heedless of all except this blazing passion that yearned to be consummated, that would, he knew, be consummated this very night – for he was almost there. In a few moments he would know the deep rapture, the forging of gold within the soul. In the smithy of art he would transmute her image into gold. Finally he was there, hurtled through the door (luckily left unlocked), leapt three stairs at a time all the way up to his expectant room, snatched the tattered notebook from its roost on top of the closet, and not stopping to change into dry clothes and risk the fading of the precious ember of inspiration, he began:
A street, breathless and alone,
A bridge arches its spine
And the cathedral spire counts clouds –
None of them know this night
As I will know it. For I have received
The benison of black waters,
And the grim doleful accolade
Of misery. And long I wallowed
In Despair’s grimy den lair (where
Dogs have no days, the Devil does not care) –
Until a star-tinged face
Birdlike Eaglelike Eaglewise reached out a flitting hand:
How casually the gods bestow salvation!
- and so on, until the Flem’s thick-jowled wife, kept awake by the storms of coughing from upstairs, nudged open the door in her nightgown with a pot of tea.

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(c) 2000 Tom Recht