Updated: Dec 3, 2022
The room smelt old—not musty old, woody old—a remnant of a scent, like a breeze blowing down a craggy cliff, collecting, absorbing, then dispersing the mingled aromas of all it had touched. The place was dark, gloomy. I had no idea what sort of shop I had stumbled into. But the aroma lingered. Then there was another—an underlying woodiness, mahogany dark, splinters of cedar embedded in the grain. Then further down, bitter wormwood, dry as dust, aftertaste of poison.
‘May I help you?’ an amused voice dusted over me. Feminine and almost sweet.
I sidled past the bay window, which was multi-paned and dirty as a dog after a week of rain and mud. No way anyone could see out. Or in. A wide windowsill, and a display area empty except for a collection of oddly shaped bottles in one corner—old bottles, mainly brown, although one was blue and very tiny. The bottles were like something from a chemist’s shop a hundred years ago. But they had no labels. They sat like castaways on a beach. Waiting.
My eyes were still not accustomed to the dimness. I smiled vaguely into the gloom to where I thought the voice may have come from. Say something, I thought, but the words were stuck in the back of my throat, wedged there. I coughed instead, inhaling the shop’s aroma even more. I could taste it. I licked my lips.
At that moment, I saw her. She was behind the counter, leaning into it, her chin balanced on the cat’s cradle of her fingers her arms forming a triangle with the counter-top beneath. Her eyes glinted topaz brown in the dimness. Her hair tangled around her face like an abundant vine of gold leaves. I walked across the floor towards her, my brain formulating words, as my mouth began to form a kind of smile. Finally my voice was coming back.
Behind the woman I could see shelves of bottles. A wall of shelves filled with bottles of all sizes. From where I stood they looked empty and very dusty.
‘What is it you sell here?’
The woody aroma was stronger. I wondered if it was the woman’s perfume. When I breathed out, I could taste it on my tongue, like I had been licking antique furniture.
She laughed. ‘Dreams.’
This time I laughed loudly. ‘Yeah, right.’
Her face was almost pretty. She looked a bit like the girls in some paintings I had seen once in the museum. The Pre-Raphaelites: the names were coming back to me—Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Waterhouse. The shop girl was similar, the bloom of hair, the pale elfish face, the mouth like Cupid’s bow. An expression of almost-knowing, a slight sneer in the curve of her lips, melancholy in her eyes. Even the sleeves of whatever it was she wore had a voluptuous flow to them—something silky and the colour of faded roses.
I peered at the bottles. Snake oil charms. Tinctures of who knows what. I decided to play along.
‘What sorts of dreams?’
‘Licorice all sorts?’
‘Some are dark. Some are striped. Some are sweet. Some are nasty.’
‘How much for those?’ I pointed to some large bottles on the upper shelves.
‘Way beyond your means.’
I felt my smile constrict. I didn’t take kindly to perceived slights, even if they were based on truths. ‘You can tell, can you?’ I sneered.
She put her hands on the counter—pale hands, like creamy soap against the dark grain. I imagined washing myself with them, her pale, soapy hands gliding over me, every part of me. The thought of it swept over me so fast, my knees buckled and I nearly banged them against the partition. I looked away from her seductive hands and back to her face.
She studied me and then bent down, her face and one hand disappearing behind the counter.
When she straightened, she held out a very small brown bottle and placed it on the counter.
‘With what’s in your back pocket you could afford this.’
I stared at the very small bottle. I’d be lucky if it contained fifty mils of anything. It looked empty, although the glass was dark so it was hard to see.
‘Just this?’ I wondered how she knew how much money I had. It seemed ludicrous to pass over two hundred bucks for this tiny thing, especially here. The place looked like it hadn’t had a customer in a decade.
I found myself picking up the bottle. The glass was not just dark, but opaque. I shook the bottle. It wasn’t empty. I could hear a sort of sloshing that felt as though thick, oil-like liquid washed against the sides—treacly, gluey, mucous-like.
‘Do you drink it?’
‘Careful.’ She reached for the bottle and steered it back to the safety of the counter.
‘Open the bottle and take a couple of sniffs. Not too many—three maximum. Then re-seal. You’ll get at least three outings if you’re not too greedy. And you don’t want to be greedy. Too much of this is not a good thing. Dream gluttony can kill.’
‘Just a whiff. Not too deep. Nights are best.’
‘Like just before you go to sleep?’
‘But that’s when you dream anyway,’ I said, ‘so how do you know if the stuff is working or if it’s just a standard dream?’
‘You’ll know,’ she said. ‘It will not be like anything else you’ve experienced.’
I had ingested pretty much every type of drug on the market, from chemical concoctions to herbal hallucinatory lollies, and I was betting that what was in the very small bottle wasn’t going to blow my mind. Yet I pulled out the wad of notes and handed it over. It gave me an excuse to come back and see her again.
Her back was to me. She placed the notes into an ancient silver till. I could see more of her body now, the folds of satiny fabric that floated over her back and gently around her bottom. She was shapely, and when she turned to face me again, a beam of dirty sunlight from the window caught her breasts, silhouetting them for a moment. And a moment was good enough for me.
She picked up the bottle from the counter. Gently and reverently she wrapped it in tissue paper that was ivory coloured and somehow old-looking as well, like something left over from two centuries ago. It seemed that she was the only thing in the shop that wasn’t old. Her hands were youthful, creamy, soft like a child’s. Her face was smooth, radiant in the filtered light. I watched as she wrapped up my little drop of snake oil, and I wondered if I had been well and truly fleeced. She put the bottle into a bag made of stiff cardboard and coloured pale rose. She sealed it with a silver leaf emblem.
She handed it to me, watching my face with her delicious eyes.
‘Remember what I said. Not too much all at once.’
‘Or I’ll overdose, right?’ I couldn’t resist smiling at her.
‘I am serious.’
‘So am I. I take my life very seriously.’ My tone may have been flippant, but at least I had the grace to look like I meant it.
On my way out, I turned and said, ‘what are your hours? In case I want to come back.’
‘We’re open all the time,’ she said. ‘Insomniacs are our best customers.’
I couldn’t tell if there was any sarcasm in her tone. Her words were like a warm breeze blowing over from some tropical island, soothing and tranquil.
The door closed behind me with a click. The sun, much lower than it had been before, hit my eyes like a fist. The traffic noise of peak hour was nauseatingly loud. I pulled my shades down over my eyes and headed home.
I had just switched my computer off and was contemplating having another cone when my eyes alighted on the bag. I had completely forgotten about it. I broke the seal and pulled out the bottle. It felt cool. I shook it gently, held it to my ear and listened to the sloshing sound going on inside. Might as well give it a go.
The top was a kind of cork. I pulled it out with a whoosh. Then I inhaled three times. Inhaled deeply.
There really wasn’t a smell of any sort. That surprised me. I had expected something. I sniffed once more, for luck. I put the stopper back into the bottle and went to bed.
He was much higher up than I was. I could see only the whites of his sneakers in the growing twilight. And hear his breathing. I pushed aside some small branches and continued hauling myself up. Above me, he had stopped climbing. I heard the crunch of an apple. Flakes of apple spit rained on me. ‘Geez,’ I muttered. Then I settled astride a branch and grabbed the nearest piece of fruit. Bit into it. Juicy. Crisp, almost tart.
We sat together, he above and I below, surveying our territory, the orchard. Everything was a mass of dull green leaves, twisted brown branches, balls of ripening red and the sky turning purple.
We shouldn’t have been up here, but we were. Jake and I were friends, allies, rivals, brothers. He being older, he always managed to go higher, run faster, yell louder.
I could hear rustling: some leaves had broken off and were falling around me. Jake was standing up on his branch. Right at the top of the tree. I could imagine his head appearing just above the canopy.
‘Look,’ he called. ‘Over there.’
I leaned through a gap in the leaves and tried to make out what he was pointing to. Far away, near the horizon, I could see a hot-air balloon, its orange stripes bright against the dusk, like a second sun floating there. I was about to say something when there was a cracking sound above me.
A branch, leaves, twigs, apples cascaded over me and around me. And worse, Jake falling, and screaming as he fell. I didn’t see him, but felt him go past like some wind that had just been conjured up into existence. Then I was peering down, shouting out his name, ‘Jake! Jake!’
He lay on the ground. He looked like he was resting, except his limbs were bent strangely. He didn’t move—just lay staring at the stars that had by now begun to pierce the sky. My heart bashed against my ribs as I clambered down, hands shaking and legs weak, a half-eaten apple still in my mouth. I sat beside him—held his hand, limp and dirty.
His eyes were wide open, looking up at the sky. I imagined him telling me which constellations were up there. I could almost hear his voice saying ‘When I grow up, Nick, I’m going up there, to the stars. I’m going to be an astronaut. Yep, Nick, that’s where you’ll find me.’
I ran through the orchard, tripping over irrigation pipes and stomping on fallen fruit. I ran yelling and crying for Dad—anyone—to come, as above me a thousand stars formed an arch, a roadway of twinkling light that Jake was leaving on.
I woke up, my heart thumping, tears wetting my face. I sat up in the darkness And buried my face in my hands. Jake, I thought: my brother. I felt that familiar pain in my stomach and the shock. I remembered Dad running to me, then past me. Mum as well. Then Uncle Davo had hoisted himself and me onto the old beast, as we called the tractor, and we had rumbled through the long lines of trees back to Jake.
Now, I cried like I was seven again, cried huge tears that fell plopping onto my chest. I got up and wandered to the kitchen to get a glass of water.
I was halfway through the water when I dropped the glass, and it smashed onto the floor.
I had never had a brother. I’d had an older sister who was almost a stranger. Hadn’t lived on a farm, either. Couldn’t recall ever visiting an orchard or climbing a tree—well, maybe at school I guess. So it wasn’t a memory: it had been a dream. It had seemed so real. I could still taste the apple, smell the trees in twilight, and feel the loss.
Like an earthquake only I could feel, my world, my reality, seemed to shift under my feet.
I left the kitchen, trying to avoid any broken glass. I walked out onto my small balcony that overlooked a car park, and stared at the sky. Clear night, but here in the city the stars could almost be counted—a few hundred, maybe. Not like the night sky in my dream. I tried to clear my head. I leaned on the balcony railing, and looked down. Not a good idea, vertigo rushed up at me. I retreated to the plastic chair and looked to the heavens to where Jake was. Who didn’t exist. But he had seemed so real.
Then I remembered the little bottle and the girl at the shop. Dreams, she’d said. And I knew that had been one of them. I had to admit that she’d been right.
In the weeks following, I got some extra shifts at the pub to make some more money. I paced myself until I couldn’t hold out any longer, until I had to pull out that stopper and take a few deep breaths. I thought I was prepared, but afterwards I realised it wasn’t something you could prepare yourself for.
The rattling had stopped, but no one moved. I had been watching some older boys play cards: a game I couldn’t understand. The room was warm and smelled of wool and sweat. But a hint of icy coldness lurked just beneath.
We all wore thick coats and jumpers. Everyone was bigger than I was. I had begun to feel hungry. Thirsty too. I clambered around the people. Most were sitting; some were standing. I tripped over someone’s feet, and I felt big hands lift me up. He loomed far above me—large bushy beard and dark twinkling eyes. He smiled and went back to his reading, and his muttering, words I didn’t really understand. I stared at his kippah; it looked handmade. I wished I had one. When you’re older, Mütter had said.
I felt so tired, so hungry. I felt myself begin to cry, and then her arms were around me, pulling me onto her lap and holding me close to her chest. I felt the familiar, rough wool of her coat. I ran my fingers over the star, up and around and up again; it never ended. I liked that. It was eternal. I liked the colour too: yellow gold, pretty. I nestled into my mother’s lap, and the room started moving. A rollicking motion that became faster. Drowsy, I listened to the voices—hushed, anxious, tense. I was here with my mother, so it was going to be all right. My sister and my elder brother were somewhere nearby, in one of the other rooms.
So many rooms, all joined together like a string of silver boxes. We were all travelling to somewhere. Not far, Mütter had said. Not far. But we had already been in this room for a hundred years; breakfast had been so long ago. When was dinner? I drifted into the soft rough texture of Mütti’s coat. Her smell like baked bread and honey made me feel safe. Her heart had a steady beat like the wheels underneath the room, a rhythm unending like the star. I drifted away.
The shock when I woke this time was less intense. Yet it still took my breath away. I lay for a long time in the darkness, feeling the cold that had curled around the rail wagons. Three: he had been about three, I decided. Unaware as only a child can be. Comforted by his mother, and incongruously by the star on her coat. Had he got through? How old would he be now? Had he married, had children, grandchildren even? I’d never know.
Who was he? Me in a past life? An ancestral memory? A dream? A memory that wasn’t? But whatever it was, it felt indelibly stamped on me now. A few hours can feel like a hundred years when you’re small and frightened.
I didn’t sleep again until dawn. I decided I wasn’t going to have any more of what was in that bottle. The dreams were too sad, too painful. Why weren’t there any happy dreams? Was it a lucky dip—stick your hand in and who knows what you pull out? I didn’t regret the experience: I just wasn’t sure I wanted another one so desolate.
When I finally picked up the bottle again. I shook it and heard nothing. It was empty. I opened it and sniffed. I waited. No dreams came, no sleep either. I was tempted to go back to the shop, even though it was midnight. She’d said she was open all hours.
Insomniacs: yeah, I could well believe they went to her. Her bottles of snake oil were addictive.
I showed up mid-morning and put my empty bottle on the counter.
‘I only got two,’ I said.
‘I told you to go easy.’
I nodded, suddenly unsure of what to say. I looked at her soft, pale hands. I’d had a hundred questions that suddenly didn’t seem important. I unrolled my money and placed it near her hands.
‘Are there happy ones?’
‘The dreams choose you. If yours haven’t been happy, then it is because you needed to experience unhappiness.’ She stared into my eyes. ‘I’ll see what I can find for you.’ She turned and perused the back shelves.
I watched her. She was wearing the same dress as last time. Her hips moved as though she were doing a really slow dance. I wondered if she featured in any of the dreams. I wondered if it would be possible to have one of those: her dancing, her swaying, her kissing me, her removing her clothes, and—I stopped myself. ‘Wrong,’ I muttered. ‘Really wrong.’
She turned, and I blushed as though I had been caught out. She came back to the counter and placed on it a slightly larger bottle than before.
‘This is a bit stronger. You should get four. Two inhalations. No more.’
Her look was stern.
Again she wrapped the jar in ivory tissue paper and placed it in a rose-coloured bag. I watched, captivated. Those creamy hands, so delicate and poetic. I wanted to grasp them and kiss them, feel her skin against my mouth.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
She smiled that enigmatic smile of hers. How was I ever going to ask her out? If I kept coming to the shop, then maybe I’d eventually pluck up enough courage. Maybe eventually she’d say yes. The possibilities made me smile, a wide grin.
I sat at the lounge room table and stared at the opaque bottle. How could the oil inside do what it did? Perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps my mind created the dreams and her suggestion that what I would experience would be extraordinary did the rest That’s how magicians worked: you expected magic, and that’s what you got—sleight of hand, the eyes tricked into believing it was magic.
Like an addict, I counted the days until I was so rigid with anticipation that I couldn’t count any more. My hands were trembling as I unsealed the bottle and inhaled deeply.
Once. Twice. Three times for luck.
I laughed. I could taste something woody on my tongue, like I had been licking dry logs. I felt myself falling down a cliff. The air was scented with wild rosemary and salt.
My eyes followed her as she walked over to the table covered with bottles, an ornate hairbrush, a dish of fresh dates, some metal cups and a ceramic jug of wine beaded with moisture. The air that blew through the open window was warm and scented with flowers. She picked up a date, lusciously black, and ate it. Her body was beautifully naked; her long hair half obscured her breasts; her hips were majestically curved. She turned and offered me a date. I nodded. She swayed over and placed it in my mouth before returning to the table and pouring a cup of wine.
I closed my eyes and let the sweet honey flavour dissolve in my mouth. My mind was finally slowing down, as it always did when I was with her. All the affairs of state, the strategies for the war, the letter I had just sent to her husband asking him to return for a few days—everything faded, and I could finally hear the music again.
Faintly I heard it. I sank into the pillows, following the music as though I were swimming a river that was dark with melodies. I let myself become as round and smooth as a pebble. The water swirled over me, picking me up and taking me downstream.
There it was: clear, a chime of perfection. I let myself fall into the note, and another followed—two, three, a chord of great sweetness. I had it now: it sang into my fingers, and I pulled it into my skin, wrote it in my blood, etched it in my bones. More followed. I strung them together and the words came. Like molten silver, they curled above my skin as the music flowed below. I sighed at the chorus of the cosmos, and for a second I saw it: the sublime note in the centre, the ultimate key of sound, the purity of silence so divine it vibrated beyond.
For a moment His hand held mine again. For a moment He was there. Then He let go.
She was talking softly, lying beside me now. I lay still, happy with what I had received. Later when she slept I’d write it down—a few bars, a few verses, so that it would become engraved into this world. Existing here.
‘David.’ Her sweet voice held a hint of annoyance.
I turned and smiled.
‘Are you listening?’ she asked.
‘Always, my love. I always listen.’ The echo of the music faded around us.
Her large brown eyes stared into mine. I leaned over and kissed her. Her lips were soft; the taste of the warm wine lingered still.
‘But what did you hear?’ she asked astutely.
‘The music of love.’ I laughed. She was my siren, she pulled me onto the rocks that sang, and as my body smashed into them, the notes escaped and entered me.
I placed my hand on her rounded belly, warm and golden. I kissed it lightly before laying my head against it. I could hear the gurgling of her stomach, and further down the echo of a pulse.
‘It’s a boy,’ I said, smiling.
Her hands played with my curls, which were as dark as hers, but in every few strands swirled a coil of silver.
‘Yes, my king,’ she whispered.
I smiled. King that I was. Strategist of battle, conqueror of lands, keeper of the holiest. A poet. A mystic. A warrior. I breathed in Bathsheba’s scent: lemons and oranges intermingled with a muskiness that resided in her skin.
And I was a thief. I was that as well. In the night, I had stolen her, and now I couldn’t, wouldn’t give her back.
I covered her mouth with mine and lost myself in her lips, her body, her sweat. Flesh and music, love and war, the unguents that made life flow.
Her hand was strong in mine. All around the dry sand of the desert burned. Her creamy skin was cool. I leaned into her. I felt strangely light.
Her voice told me everything. Somehow in one word I knew.
‘Too much,’ Lailah whispered sadly.
‘Where am I?’ My voice was a grain of sand.
‘Home.’ Lailah pulled me into her.
I rested myself against her naked body. She held me. Worlds winked out. Worlds reformed. A galaxy far away spun, and a star turned black. We lay together, pure and innocent as brother and sister, as mother and child. Her arms were the beginning of everything, and in every grain of sand a life came into being—lived, loved and faded away, a billion grains of sand blowing over us.
It was golden, my world. The distant sun was opaque as its heat washed over me. I lived inside the glass and became the atoms of life. Her voice, soothing, drifted over: my anchor.
There was no time; there was just sand and a slow distillation. We were many. At times I floated and joined with them. We were all at different stages of fermentation and transformation. I was newly born, living on the shores of a vast desert, like a castaway. Gradually, the light and the warmth would dissolve me, and then I would join the multitude—blend with them, dissolve and re-form.
One day I would be decanted and bottled, and my being, my essence, split and splintered like a huge tree felled yet fragmented into itself many times over, would live again.
A dream. A memory.
A moment captured between the dusk and the dawn.
Between birth and death.
A dark bottle of oil. Perfection. The silence within the nucleus.
©AliceGodwin ~ etchings #9 Love & Something, Ilura Press, 2010
"Alice Godwin’s THE APOTHECARY is more magic realism than horror, but excels at achieving a surreal sense of disturbance. Out of the stories on offer, Godwin’s is my pick of the bunch.
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