The Alchemist’s Wife

by Paula R. Stiles

My husband told me yesterday that I was pure silver. Some women would accept this as the greatest of compliments. “Some women” are not married to my husband.

Late that morning, he ordered me down to the dank badger’s lair in the cellar that he calls a “laboratory”, crowded with curling tubes and decanters full of bubbling, multicolored liquids always going somewhere, driven by the blue flames of sinister-looking brass lamps. He puttered and fussed there all day, like nothing more than a scrawny, overgrown chicken.

This was in the middle of Wash Day. I went reluctantly, wiping my wet, wrinkled hands on my apron, but I said nothing. He would not have noticed any protest. He was the wrong kind of absent-minded, a small man in too many ways.

“Drink this,” he said, holding out a steaming vial a thumbtip wide, smoke curling off the rim.

I took it gingerly. “What is it?” I said.

“Just drink it.” I knew that he would pester me until I did. I could not afford to delay the washing or I would fall behind for an entire week of work. And if I did, I would get no household allowance from the little bag he kept around his neck for the next week.

I drank it down.

He observed me closely for a moment or two, then plucked the vial from my grasp. “As I thought: it didn’t work.” He waved a hand at me, dismissing me. “Make sure supper is ready by sundown. This will be a very long day for me.”

Not only for him, but again, there was no point in saying so. If I sounded pessimistic about my husband’s affections for me, that would be because he was not my first choice, or indeed, any of my choosing. My parents had thought an alchemist a great catch and arranged the match. With six other daughters, they were eager to marry me off. I could not go back to them for help and I could not live on my own. This house was my trade. I could not make do in the world without a husband.

Having been raised with parental indifference evenly spread out over seven daughters, I did not come to the marriage with high expectations. My husband failed to meet even those. Who knew that he would be trying to make the Philosopher’s Stone and turn lead into gold because he was poor? Lacking other test subjects, he naturally used his wife.

Some of his potions had made me quite ill, but this one settled well enough. I thanked the Lord for very small favors and trudged back upstairs to finish the washing. Supper, being an all-day affair, was already cooking in the oven: a chicken that had started the morning having its neck wrung in the front yard.

I continued washing as usual. I did not immediately notice a change. I had learned indifference to my appearance. Otherwise, I might have despaired at growing so thin and wearing clothes that would have embarrassed a scarecrow. What little money we had went below to the laboratory. If it came to a choice between my husband’s projects and anything in the house, I starved.

Nay, it was not until I banged the washboard against my hand and the two objects made a diminuendo like the crystal bells one found in the windows of rich folk that I noticed a change. Puzzled, I took my hands out of the gray water and looked at them.

They had turned bright silver.

I perhaps do not need to add that I was rather alarmed. Not so alarmed as the wife of a farmer or a butcher, however. My husband had given me a potion two months ago that turned me into stained glass and made me too fragile to do any work for two weeks. It was my only vacation since our marriage vows three years before. Still, I found this development alarming. Could I change other things to silver like old King Midas and his hands of gold? Would I starve? Die?

Hurriedly, before I could change any more, I rushed over to the oven where the chicken was cooking, took it out and sawed off a small sliver. Since my husband ate most of the meals that I cooked for us, sneaking food during cooking was the only way I could really eat anything. I put the sliver into my mouth. It tasted warm and juicy, though still a little bloody. If anything, it tasted better than usual. I swallowed; nothing clanged down below.

I looked at my hands again. The silver was spreading up my arms under my dull brown dress. I felt ripples spread over my stomach and back, down to my feet. The floorboards creaked under the unaccustomed weight. Slightly reassured that I remained flesh inside, I cut a somewhat larger slice of chicken and swallowed it. If anything, it tasted better than before. I stared around the kitchen, noticing far more detail than before. Not all of it was pretty. Though I tried to keep a clean house, I had so many chores that dust had gathered above the cupboards and grease under the stove. It seemed to me that what this kitchen needed was more pride.

I stood up. As I did so, I caught a flash of myself in a pot hanging over the stove–a bright silver figure. Lifting up my shining hands, I saw a face reflected in my palms. It was my face, transformed by metal from lines and sags into the hard visage of a goddess statue. Yet inside, I felt no great change, save for a new sense of well-being. When I smiled, the goddess reflected in my hands smiled and when I grimaced, she frowned. To reassure myself that no internal changes had occurred, I ate another, much larger, slice of chicken. It was delicious.

In the nights after my husband had given me a particularly bad potion–when I lay in bed, alone, groaning in pain that bit into my insides like live rats while my husband puttered down below, filling the house with the smell of rotten eggs–I had sometimes hoped for an avenger to appear. Someone who would not hurt my husband so much as make him see my worth. Now I began to wonder–had I been looking in the wrong place all along?

I heard the heavy tread of my husband coming up the stairs. I stood up, trying to smooth out my dress and having to stop when I ripped it over my metallic hips.

“I need you to try this potion,” he called as he came through the door. “I want to see how it reacts to the one I just gave you.” When he saw me, he stopped dead in the doorway.

“The Philosopher’s Stone!” he gasped in awe and for a moment, I hoped he saw me in a new light. Then his face faded into disappointment. “But it’s only silver!” he cried. He thrust his latest vile vial at me, this one boiling over red. “Here! Take this and see if you turn into gold.”

Automatically, I took the vial from him. So strong was self-destructive habit that I nearly did what he wanted without thinking about it. Then, I paused and looked down at the vial in my hand, before looking up at him. The kitchen was not the only thing that appeared different today.

“Well, hurry up!” he said impatiently.

Instead, I set the vial on the table and took a step toward him. Caught up in his own bad habits, he did not immediately notice his danger. “What are you doing?” he said, with great irritation, as I drew back my fist.

I punched him in the face. He went down like a sack of grain, or a chicken whose neck has been wrung. Kneeling beside him on the squeaking floorboards, I plucked his money bag from his neck.

I took the vial outside and poured it into the lush spring grass, which immediately reacted by turning brown. Then, I came back inside and sat at the table.

By this time, my husband was stirring. I smiled down at him, hoping that the expression was terrifying. When he recoiled, I had my answer.

“Now,” I said, “let us see how you treat a wife who is worth her weight in silver.”

The End

5 Responses to “The Alchemist’s Wife”

  1. JamesRiot says:

    That was great!

  2. I love that last line. Fabulous.

  3. Renbaudus says:

    A really interesting story. I love the way you set the mood 🙂
    While I was reading I thought it could be a great lead for different stories. Each time the alchemist makes his wife drink a potion, a new adventure starts!… ahem, I should steal this idea but I wouldn’t be able to write the stories as well as you do!

  4. Terry Ervin says:

    Interesting story that kept my interest. Good last line.

  5. Trina Schetzle says:

    Wonderful storytelling!

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