I’m standing in a dark cool tent in the middle of a desert with the simoom wind outside petulantly flinging hot sand against the tent flaps.
The tent is full of fascinating glassware and alembics and crucibles and other things I have no names for. I’m facing the alchemist as she stirs a fiercely glowing metal gloop.
Look into her eyes and you’ll believe those that claim the alchemist is eight hundred and fifty-three years old. Look at her smile and the stories that she’s younger than the morning’s dew become clear. She’s wearing folded robes and rainbow suspenders; I would kill an archangel for her dark hair.
She smiles in twenty-three dimensions and speaks. You know why you’re here.
I sadly admit that I do.
She stirs and says Tell me why you are here.
I clear my throat, both in the dream and in my sleeping body, and I say, “I accept work I know won’t be my best by working with people who aren’t quite right.”
Do you do this for the money?
No! Well, sometimes. But mostly I do it from love.
You love people, so you give them less than your best?
Yes. No. I want to help!
But you also crave magnificence. For yourself and the people you work with.
I do. (My sleeping forehead is crumpled and pinched and rigid. Uncomfortable.)
Do you know how the Elixir of Life is created? How the Philosopher’s Stone is made?
(Resist the Harry Potter joke, Catherine.) They’re made by removing all the impurities from a special mixture until only a liquid and solid remain. The liquid is the Elixir of Life, which grants immortality. The solid part is the Philosopher’s Stone, which will turn any metal into gold.
Do you know how to identify an alchemist?
She smiles across five wavelengths of light and rolls back her sleeves. Her hands and forearms are pitted with burn on top of burn. In a few, I wincingly note, it appears that liquid metal has actually bonded with the skin. My sleeping hands twitch in sympathetic pain.
It is an easy thing to say, to remove all impurities. But what it means is to suffer and to strive and to breathe painful fumes and to burn and to burn and to burn. One of the ingredients in this mixture is a hundred times the mixture’s volume in the tears of its creator.
My sleeping eyes sneak tears onto my red pillow. “So I must suffer to create magnificence. I accept that.”
Oh, it is worse. You must accept that other people will suffer because of your desire for magnificence. I have scars, but I am not in the crucible. It is the metal which suffers most.
O no no. I love my almost-right people. I don’t want to make them suffer.
What, then? Will you continue to work with people who cannot get the most from what you offer? Perhaps now, perhaps forever?
That’s not fair to them either! Or to me. (My sleeping body draws in on itself, knees almost grazing nipples in a tense fetal ring.)
You wished to be an alchemist. To create money and lasting change, your cash and joy. Money is the province of the Philosopher’s Stone. Lasting change is simply immortality with different pants on, your Elixir of Life.
This is the alchemist’s master work. And it is painful.
But it’s not like they’re bad people. They’re amazing!
Yes, they are. Silver is a beautiful metal, costly and delightful… but if I added it to this crucible, the mixture would fail. This is not a judgement about value, this is a recipe. And with receipes no is much more important than yes.
I say yes a lot.
You do. And so now you must say, “I’m sorry, but…”
(The tears spread across my pillow as I beseech my dream.) Is there any way around this no don’t tell me I know there isn’t. My heart feels like it’s breaking.
That is another ingredient in the alchemist’s master work. Your heart must break so it can regrow larger.
Please, is this worth it?
Only you can tell. But I think it’s pretty kick-ass.
The alchemist crafts a smile that is both a wave and a particle, and I wake to a damp pillow and a dreaded to-do list.
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