Ouroboros (Three Crow Press Fiction)
Ouroboros by Marie Robertson
“Will it hurt?”
It was a childish question, but Lawrence couldn’t help it. The woman before him continued to work, her back to him, as though she hadn’t heard. The room was lit with a low, cheap lamp, and Lawrence could barely see her thin, gnarled body. She stirred something vigorously, filling the room with the scent of spice and timeless foreboding.
“Of course it will hurt,” she said after a few moments. Her voice was like a sheet of dry paper being torn in two. “It will be excruciating.”
He hadn’t seen her face yet; all he knew was her name, Angélique, and the vague information she had shared in their electronic conversations. Of all the places in the world to find her, it had been through the Internet. No magic, no mysticism there. It was almost disappointing, anachronistic, for two scientists from across the ages to meet through something so disgustingly technological.
“I asked the same thing, you know,” she rasped. “I asked my teacher if it would hurt. He lied to me. I never forgot that pain.”
“Who was your teacher?”
Again she ignored him, preoccupied with mixing, stirring, concocting. Lawrence squirmed nervously on his tattered chair, glancing at the door; he had latched it behind him, coming in as instructed, finding the run-down apartment building in the bad section of town, opening the door to a small, dank apartment. He wondered if Angélique actually lived here.
Through their correspondence, they’d discussed life and death and beyond, and he still knew nothing about her. He convinced her to meet; she agreed to share her knowledge; she directed him to come. That was all he knew.
He glanced at the door again. He could run and escape, if needed.
Angélique stopped her work then, going very still as though she were lost in thought. The cheap lighting made her wispy hair look like a dusty, cracked halo around her head. “You know of alkahest?”
Lawrence blinked. She had pronounced the word differently than he was used to, as though with a strange accent, and it took a few moments to realize what she was talking about. “The universal solvent? It’s one of the alchemical quests, isn’t it?”
“My teacher finally managed to cobble together the recipe, after decades of research,” Angélique said. Her voice quite resembled someone who was being strangled. “But the victory was short-lived. Think; you create the universal solvent, but how do you contain it? The moment Paracelsus stumbled upon the correct composition, the solution ate through the cauldron, extinguished the fire, and continued to burn through the wood and the ground underneath until the hole appeared fathomless. Paracelsus was quite stunned, and remarked that the alkahest would only stop once it had eaten a hole clean through the world. I thought it quite funny. I was there in the room, you see.”
“Paracelsus?” Lawrence breathed. The legendary alchemist. He wracked his brains and recalled that the man had died in the mid-1500s. “Are you telling me the truth?”
She scoffed. “Does it matter greatly if I just made up that story?”
“You have to understand– in my searches, I’ve run into a lot of people who turned out to be liars, or scammers, or delusional,” he said.
“So have I,” Angélique said, and for the first time, there was a hint of emotion to her voice. “And as you’ve gathered by now, I’ve been searching much longer than you have.”
“But you already have the secret to immortality, don’t you?” Lawrence said. “You did agree to share it with me? It’s why I came here.”
“I witnessed the world grow from iron tools to the technology that brought you and I together. Yes, I know the secret to immortality.”
“So what on Earth are you searching for?”
There was a loud clanging, and Angélique went still. Had he offended her?
Her silhouette turned towards him. “Alchemy is about balance,” she said softly. “The alkahest will be created, only to destroy everything. You know of the ouroboros, the snake eating away at its own tail?” She made a chomping motion with her thin hand. “Creation and destruction, life and death in a never-ending cycle. Alchemy is the science of that cycle.”
“I know that,” Lawrence said. “I know all about that. I’m no dabbler; I’ve done my research.”
“Then stop asking ridiculous questions and let me finish working.”
Angélique busied herself at her worktable for several minutes, stirring and pouring and Lawrence could hear something bubbling thickly. There came a scent so lovely it made his eyes water; moments later it was replaced by an acrid smell that tore at his belly.
He gasped, and suddenly felt a distinctive urge to get the hell out of the dilapidated apartment.
“You want to flee,” Angélique said, as though reading his thoughts. “And for good reason. The elixir is almost ready and you can smell it. But I never promised it would be painless.”
“What’s happening?” Lawrence said. He tried not to gag. “What’s going to happen?”
“As you have been searching for me, I have been searching for you my entire life, Lawrence,” she said, and it was strange to hear her say his name. “I was part of an ouroboros once, trying to chew my tail. I needed to find someone who wanted what I desperately need to shed.”
“A full circle. Creation and destruction,” Angélique said. Her raspy voice was now directed at him as she turned. “Immortality isn’t plucked from the ether. If someone wants life, then somewhere else, there must be death.”
“Shit, wait just a second!” Lawrence said, nearly bolting from his chair. “Are you saying you’re going to kill me?”
“What an idiot you are. Above your head, there is a light switch. Would you turn it on, please?”
Licking dry lips, Lawrence obeyed, reaching up above his head with a shaking hand until he felt the switch and flicked it on. The old bulb stuttered before spilling yellowed light into the room, and he got his first look at the immortal alchemist Angélique. “Oh, Jesus…”
Lawrence had seen elderly women before; every once in a while, there would be a television special about the oldest people in the world. They had the same look; wrinkled, bent, fragile as a leaf.
Angélique looked older than anything he’d ever seen. Her bones were twisted and gnarled, like the broken branches of an old tree; she held a ladle in her hand, though her grip was weird, the fingers warped and bent. Her skin was wrinkled, dry, cracked, and so paper-thin Lawrence could see every vein and broken capillary.
She watched him with milky eyes sunken into a face that looked skeletal and lipless, her skull mostly hairless but for a smattering of wild gray hair around the crown of her head.
Lawrence was stunned that a human body could grow so old without succumbing to death. She was absolutely hideous; a part of him felt guilty for thinking so. Another part felt terrified, as though his very soul was reacting to the hugely unnatural sight of her.
She had given him a few moments to take in her appearance; now she smiled, ghoulishly, twirling the ladle in her hand in a jerky, eerie fashion.
“I was young, once, and while I was never a great beauty, you would not have gasped in horror at the sight of me,” Angélique said. “Paracelsus found me on one of his travels. He was travelling to France to search for the works of Nicolas Flamel. He found me reading Flamel’s notes; the old archivist who found me was about to beat me. He had me follow him back to Austria, to assist him in discovering the elixir of life. I was fifteen years old; my mother had died in childbirth, the black death was all around me—how could I turn down the chance to escape from illness and death?”
“Who could turn down the temptation of immortality?” Lawrence said numbly.
Angélique laughed; it was harsh and breathy. “Someone who doesn’t realize that there are worse things than death. It starts when you take the elixir. You think dying hurts? Losing your life is natural; losing your death is dark, dangerous magic, and you will never feel a pain quite like it.”
She turned her back to him; Lawrence could hear the sound of liquid pouring into a glass, and when she turned again, she was holding a steaming cup between her twisted fingers, quickly walking over to him. Lawrence started, jumping from his chair. She, and the cup, were now between him and the door.
“So I’m not going to kill you, Lawrence. I’m going to do something much worse; I’m going to take your death away from you,” Angélique said. “What are you afraid of? You wanted immortality. You went searching for an alchemist, for the fountain of youth. I’m offering you a fair exchange; my eternal life, for your death.”
She held up the glass; the liquid was clear, casting off a strongly-smelling steam. It didn’t stink, but it made Lawrence feel as though he would vomit. Cold sweat ran down the back of his neck; years of research, and finally he’d found what he’d been looking for. But holy shit…
“You came to me,” Angélique rasped. “You convinced me to meet you. You will not run, you will not hide. I’ve not lied to you; you will have immortality. So take the elixir.”
“Take it, or I will force you. I have waited too long to die.”
Lawrence debated running, debated knocking the glass out of her hand, kicking her to the ground, running for the door. The thought of assaulting an old woman nearly made him pause, until he remembered that she was no sweet elderly grandmother.
She was so close that he could see the dusty blood circulating through the skin of her denuded skull, could smell the stink of near-death hovering around her, like a rabid dog on a chain.
He made his decision, drawing his hand back to smack her on the side of the head.
The centuries must have honed her reflexes; she struck him first, with a savage punch to the jaw that knocked him flat on his ass. She’d hit him with all the strength and power of someone whose body felt no mortal limitations, and with all the desperation of someone who wanted those limitations.
His head was still ringing when he felt her pin him to the dirty floor, setting her body down on his ribs. Her bony fingers went to his jaw, squeezing with freakish strength. Panicked, Lawrence tried to struggle, but she squeezed harder, and the pain in his jaw made him gasp and go still.
Their eyes met, mortal youthful ones and cloudy immortal ones. For the first time, there was a look of vulnerability, of regret about Angélique’s grossly aged features; she didn’t look like an old woman, but like a young girl of fifteen, wearing a centuries-old mask.
“The ouroboros is grasping, can’t you see? Let me die,” she pleaded, her voice a harsh whisper. “Let the tail be bitten. Please let me die.”
Lawrence tried to struggle, tried to push her off as she pried his jaw open. He saw, with horror, the still-steaming glass as she brought it up over his face. He shrieked; she poured it into his open mouth, pushing his jaw shut until he had no choice but to swallow the mixture.
It tasted at once sickly-sweet, bitter as ash, and comforting as a nice bowl of warm soup. It burned like fire down his throat and into his stomach; for a moment there was nothing, and Angélique got off of him—he could hear her joints cracking as she did—and for a glorious moment, he thought she’d messed up, that she hadn’t mixed the elixir right.
And then, he felt a shredding pain deep inside his belly that spread to his limbs, to his head, to his very soul. He rolled over and gasped, his blood roaring furiously in his ears, and he felt as though he was dying– no, God no, it was the opposite. He was becoming immortal, and the pain was his very death tearing away from him, like someone had plunged a hand into his chest, digging around the gore and guts to pluck a shiny penny out.
Balance. Creation and destruction. Life and death in a never-ending cycle.
When the pain stopped, Lawrence felt sweaty and weak. He had no clue how long he’d been out—and then realized with a shock that it didn’t matter anymore, because he was immortal. He could waste all the time he wanted.
He struggled to his feet, breathing around a deep ache in his belly, and looked about for Angélique. He didn’t see her immediately, because the last time he’d seen her, hovering over him with the elixir, she hadn’t looked like a pile of dust, but there she was, dead at last just in front of Lawrence’s feet. He swallowed hard. She certainly got what she wanted, stealing his death from him. He felt sick, violated, as he stared into the pile of ash where she’d almost instantly decomposed.
And he got what he wanted; God-damned immortality.
As he left the dank apartment to ponder his new life, he had a sudden vision of a snake’s mouth, open and gaping, the fangs desperately seeking a tail to latch onto.
Marie Robertson is a speculative fiction writer and playwright from Ottawa, Ontario. Her work has previously appeared in Crossed Genres and Canadian Stories, and locally in Ottawa whenever she can find an available stage. She enjoys obscure cryptozoology, spaghetti for breakfast, and hanging out with her husband and cats. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.