The Butcher’s Daughter
Alchemists lust for gold.
They tried to create it from lead, from fire, from bones. But it never worked. Uncle, a great alchemist, nearly lost his mind trying. And somewhere, teetering on the edge of sanity, deep in his sunless workroom, he found it, the key to limitless gold.
I have my fingers in the dirt when he comes for me.
Uncle says nothing, but I understand. I am to help him with the Dust. I rise, wiping my unclean hands upon my apron, and follow Uncle out of the sun.
In his workroom, my eyes adjust to the light, which comes only from a fire under a large black cauldron. The air is dry and smoky and my throat burns. Tears itch at the corners of my eyes, but I will not let them flow.
Uncle has me keep the fire burning. Stick by stick, I feed it so it never gets too hot and never goes cold. I must be doing well. He shows me a woody plant that he boils to make a soft white powder and teaches me how to measure out the ingredients for Dust like I do in the kitchen when I bake. I smile when Uncle places his hand on my shoulder and nods his head. He will let me come to his workroom again.
At dinner, I serve Uncle first as always, even though he sits to the left of Papa. We all benefit from the gold his Dust brings. I give him the finest pork chop, the thickest slice of bread and tonight he nods his head in thanks. Conversation at the table falters; now they know. When I serve Papa, he sighs heavily. The look in his eyes shames me; a girl should not be working for an alchemist, but he will not deny Uncle. Mama turns her head away from me like I smell of dirty pigs. I blush when I reach Noll, Papa’s apprentice. He stares at me, full on my face, and I turn my cheek so I cannot see him through my bonnet.
Noll did not want to be a butcher’s apprentice; he came here kicking and screaming. Papa beat him until he was silent. Even through the welts and bruises, he was handsome. Before Noll came, I had never thought much beyond my cooking, cleaning, laundry and the farthest my dreams reached was the garden. When I went to wash his wounds and stood very near him, my skin tingled and went hot, but Noll turned away. He always turned away.
I know he still looks and I imagine a trail of fire where he must be staring at me, but the quick caress against my calf is real. I hurry back to the kitchen and cool my cheeks on a hard round of cheese.
The moon is up when Noll enters my room. He closes the door silently. I sit up but he pushes me back down into the pokey straw of my bed. He lifts my worn blanket and crawls in beside me. I swallow butterflies when he pulls me against his hard side and places his lips over mine. When he lifts my skirts, all I know are the words of love and promises he whispers into my ear. The words end when he fills me with pain, but it does not last long. The blood is still wet on my thighs when he asks me for Dust. My butterflies turn to pincher beetles and I can only nod. Noll leaves as silently as he came and I clench my fists, over and over.
I hurry down the workroom steps, clutching my apron tight to my chest. I have watched Uncle make Dust now and the different powders and liquids are lined up on the table for the next batch. I light the fire and dump them two at time into the cauldron, the white powder and red powder, the burning liquid and lye. It starts to bubble and my eyes water from the stinging smoke. Carefully, I dump the contents of my apron into the pot. We will have no aubergines this fall; I have picked every flower. As I stir them in, I can almost see the deadly purple poison leach out as the petals dissolve.
By midmorning, I am scraping Dust out of the cauldron. I separate it into vials, but I only need one. I walk to the market stall and the sun breaks free of the clouds and beats down on my bonnet. The vial sweats against my palm.
When I see Noll, he is frowning into a pig side; his boots are stuck with blood and sawdust. I clear my throat and he turns. Seeing me, his eyes light up, and I waiver, just for a moment. Then he asks after the Dust. I hand it over. I even manage to smile like I am giving him a gift. Noll stares at the vial for a long moment before popping out the cork and pouring the crystals down his throat.
I grab the wine flask that Papa keeps at the stall and hand it to Noll. His grin stretches from ear to ear and he reminds me of toad, all mouth. His pupils disappear in the green of his eyes and I drop the flask as tremors start to rip through his body. Noll falls, shuddering to his knees and his arms reach into my skirts as he tries to steady himself. I push him away and he crashes in a billow of sawdust. Blood from the pig drips onto his forehead and finally Noll lies still.
I turn to head back home but angry, distrustful eyes confront me. They have seen me. Men move in closer, while the women huddle their children behind their skirts. Uncle is the alchemist, but they have another word for a woman like me.