The Better Angels of Our Nature

 By Nina Shepardson

From CHM #34 April 2023

Albrecht’s new master didn’t look like the sort of person who would engender so much gossip. His red, puffy eyes, sunk into dark circles, were the only indication that this man had been recently widowed. His graying hair and straw-colored beard were both neatly trimmed, and no stains or patches marred his clothing.

“I’m Albrecht, sir. I believe my father told you about me?”

“Indeed, he did. The question is, what did he tell you about me?” The man’s voice was soft and even, but Albrecht sensed a test behind the words.

“He said a noted alchemist from the city, Master Eckhart Lessing, had moved to town and needed a servant. You were gracious enough to trust his good report of my character, so here I am.”

That wasn’t all Albrecht’s father had told him. He’d also said, Some kind of scandal chased him out of the city. Had to do with his wife’s death. Some experiment of his gone wrong. Alchemy wasn’t banned by the Church per se, but it was frowned upon, since alchemists were thought to seek immortality. Some of the townsfolk speculated that the death of Master Eckhart’s wife had been a punishment for his hubris.

Instead of repeating this, Albrecht added, “He told me you found the city oppressive after the loss of your wife and wanted to live somewhere quiet for a while.”

Master Eckhart stared wordlessly at Albrecht for a few moments. He knows I’m lying, why did I think I could fool him? Just as Albrecht opened his mouth to blurt out an apology, the alchemist said, “Please, come in.”

Master Eckhart showed Albrecht the house and explained his duties. Along with the list of tasks, he conveyed one absolute prohibition. “This is my laboratory,” Master Eckhart said, standing before a closed door secured with an iron lock. “It is the one room you must never enter.”

Despite his repeated nightmares of jostling the wrong beaker and being incinerated in a burst of alchemical fire, Albrecht was disappointed. The secrets of the world hid just on the other side of this wooden door. Why could plants, but not animals, make food from sunlight? What happened inside an egg to make a chicken grow? Might there be a way to cure the sickness that had taken his mother? He glanced back over his shoulder as Master Eckhart led him away.

Finally, the two men reached a small study with a desk and chair—and a bookcase. Albrecht stared. He’d never seen a book other than Father Dieter’s Bible and had certainly never touched one.

Master Eckhart noticed him gaping and smiled. That smile shrank the circles under his eyes and pushed the redness from them. “I suppose I’ve become known for my discoveries, but I could never have made them without drawing on the wisdom of those who came before. Truly, these are more essential to my work than anything in my laboratory.” The smile faded. “I hope I won’t lose my access to them.” He reached up and rubbed at his eyes. “Perhaps…Tell me, Albrecht, can you read?”

“No, sir,” Albrecht said. “I’ve never needed to, and we wouldn’t have the money for a tutor anyway.”

Master Eckhart nodded but said nothing.

* * *

“’Sblood!” Albrecht swore and stumbled after the wayward hen, who had escaped her pen and flapped into Master Eckhart’s kitchen garden. She was making a good start on demolishing the mint plants.

Even after Albrecht wrangled the escaped chicken back into the pen, the day went from bad to worse. By the time he had finished with his duties, he was starting to wish his father had found some other work for him. He was no good at watching over his family’s goats, milking them, making cheese, or negotiating with customers, and now it looked like he was no good at being a domestic servant, either.

“I should have just dropped you on the doorstep of a church when you were born,” Albrecht’s father had told him after he had, yet again, ruined a batch of cheese. Maybe that would have been better. He would have been sent to a monastery as soon as he was old enough and spent his days praying and chanting. He could have made copies of the Bible, maybe even assisted with illuminating the manuscripts, though that was likely too complex a task for him. Still, as he trudged down the hall, he allowed himself to imagine mixing pigments and carefully painting the golden circle of a halo, the rich indigo of the Virgin’s robes, the fluffy cloud-white of an angel’s wing.

Albrecht walked into Master Eckhart’s study, and his fingers reached out to caress the spine of one of the books. He pulled them back, hoping Master Eckhart hadn’t seen him. He’d meant to say good night to the alchemist before heading home, and he was usually in the study at this time of day. Where was he?

A muffled sound filtered down from upstairs. Master Echkart must have gone to bed early. Albrecht made his way back down the hall. As he passed the foot of the stairs, he heard the noise again, and now it was unmistakably a sob.

Albrecht froze. What should I do? He tiptoed up the stairs, cringing each time they creaked. Why are you trying to hide? Didn’t you want to talk to him?

“Rachel.”

Albrecht could make out words between Master Eckhart’s sobs.

“Rachel, I’m so sorry.”

Albrecht backed down the stairs, snuck down the hall, and slipped out the door.

* * *

“Do you have to go home as soon as you’re done?” Master Echkart asked.

Albrecht closed the cupboard, then turned to face Master Eckhart. “My father will be expecting me,” he said.

Disappointment crossed Master Eckhart’s face like a storm cloud.

“But I could tell him you required my presence!” Albrecht hastened to add.

The corners of Master Eckhart’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Come and sit down,” he said. When Albrecht obeyed, he slid a piece of paper over to him.

Albrecht scanned the paper. Something was written on it: the letters of the alphabet, he thought. “What do you want me to do with this?”

Master Eckhart’s smile widened. “I want you to learn to read.”

Albrecht’s face split into a grin, a mirror of Master Eckhart’s own, but then it occurred to him to ask, “Why?”

“Over the past year, my sight has been getting worse,” Master Eckhart confided. “I fear the day may come when I cannot read these books on my own. But if you meant to ask, ‘Why me?’ the answer is that you remind me of another young man who was sure he could uncover the secrets of the universe if only someone would give him a chance.” He tapped the paper. “But first, you must learn your letters.”

* * *

Over the next few months, Albrecht spent more and more time at Echkart’s house. The disgraced alchemist was far more patient than Albrecht’s father had ever been. He didn’t call Albrecht a fool for misspelling his own name or slap him for mispronouncing a word. Sometimes, Albrecht heard him weeping in his room. At those times, Albrecht remembered his mother and how the only time he’d ever seen his father cry had been on the day they’d buried her.

One evening, after washing the bowls from their evening stew, Albrecht sat down beside Eckhart at the table in his study. Eckhart opened his great leatherbound Bible, turning the pages with reverence. “Let us find something for you to practice with,” he mused. He turned to the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, whose pages were adorned with magnificent illustrations. In the upper right corner of one page, the Star of Bethlehem shone a brilliant gold. An angel hovered alongside it, ivory-colored wings keeping it aloft while a shepherd knelt beside his sheep in the lower left corner of the opposite page. Even the sheep looked awestruck.

Eckhart made a strange, choked noise in the back of his throat and moved to turn the page again, but Albrecht saw words he recognized. Sitting up straighter, he intoned, “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the—uh—glory of the Lord shone about them, and they were…” He trailed off.  “There’s a word before ‘afraid’ that I don’t know.”

Eckhart didn’t respond. Albrecht turned to look at him and saw his mentor staring at the page of Holy Writ. Eckhart’s fingers gripped the edge of the table, and his bearded chin trembled.

“Is something wrong?”

“I’m afraid I must retire for the night. Please return the book to the shelf.” Eckhart’s voice was strained. He stood and rushed from the study.

Albrecht did as he was asked, carefully closing the Bible and sliding it back into its place. Normally, he would have gone home after being dismissed, but he hesitated. What if Eckhart was ill? I can at least look in on him before I go.

Albrecht climbed the stairs to the second floor, and once again, he heard crying, a sound of heartsickness so wrenching that his stomach clenched in sympathy. As he continued his slow advance toward Eckhart’s door, he discerned words among his mentor’s tears. “Forgive me, Rachel. I didn’t know. I didn’t know!” His voice dropped, and Albrecht could barely make out what he said next. “Our Great Work, all of it, is nothing more than a curse.”

What can he mean? Albrecht remembered the rumors. Could it be that Eckhart truly had caused his wife’s—Rachel’s—death? Perhaps it wasn’t only because of Albrecht’s clumsiness that Eckhart kept him out of the laboratory.

He isn’t an evil man, though. I’m sure he’s not. Eckhart had told Albrecht something he’d needed to hear, not in words, but in actions. “You aren’t stupid. You aren’t useless.” Thinking to return the favor, Albrecht did something he’d never had the courage to do before: he knocked on Eckhart’s door.

After a few sniffles, footsteps crossed the room and Eckhart opened the door. “Do you need help with something?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you.” Eckhart opened his mouth to reply, but Albrecht cut him off. “You’ve shown me a great deal of kindness, sir. More than I deserve, and more…more than I’ve ever experienced at home.” He swallowed and waited to be scolded for speaking ill of his family.

Eckhart said nothing.

Albrecht soldiered on. “I want to repay that kindness. I’ve heard you crying before, and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know what it’s like to lose someone you love. When my mother died, it felt like the sun had gone out. But it can be survived.”

To Albrecht’s astonishment, Eckhart laughed. “Death? Is that what you think happened?”

“Well—I—”

“Do you know what the Great Work is, Albrecht? The ultimate goal of every alchemist?”

Albrecht mentally ran through the catalogue of rumors he’d amassed about Eckhart. “Trying to make the Philosopher’s Stone?”

“That’s right. And what does the Stone do?”

“It turns lead into gold and makes you immortal.”

“No, my boy. No, it does far more than that. It perfects things. Gold does not rust or tarnish; it is the perfect metal, and so the Stone turns lesser metals into the perfect one. When applied to a human being, it perfects them as well.”

Albrecht crossed himself. “But men are fallen.”

“Yes, we are. A human who ceases to be fallen ceases to be human. He becomes like the angels in Heaven.”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying that you…you’ve made the Philosopher’s Stone?” It sounded like something out of a fairy tale.

Eckhart flashed a skull-like grin. “Yes! The Great Work, the Magnum Opus. Where every alchemist since Trismegistus has failed, I have succeeded!” Eckhart strode from the room. Albrecht followed him down the stairs, and his heart leapt into his mouth when Eckhart unlocked the forbidden door to his laboratory.

Albrecht had expected an alchemist’s laboratory to be full of bubbling beakers, hissing flasks, and strange instruments. Instead, he saw boxes with small glass panels in the sides lined up neatly on tables. Some held butterflies flitting around bits of greenery. Others contained fat caterpillars crawling on branches. In still others, leathery brown cases hung from twigs.

Eckhart moved one box aside and pried open a loose board in the wall behind it. He reached into the cavity and pulled out a shiny black box, which he placed on the table and opened. “Look, but do not touch.”

An orb about the size of Albrecht’s fist lay inside the box. It was perfectly spherical, and tones of blue and gray and pink played over its surface. “Is that it? The Philosopher’s Stone?”

“Yes. In all its terrible glory.”

“Then you are…you said it makes people like angels.” Albrecht’s hands shook. Eckhart looked haggard, exhausted, hardly angelic.

“I haven’t touched the Stone with my bare hands,” Eckhart said. “I was thinking of Rachel when I made the Stone, and I gave it to her first.”

“And it went wrong?”

“No.” Tears leaked from Eckhart’s eyes again, and the dark shadows under them deepened. “Nothing went wrong at all.”

“I don’t understand.” Albrecht tried to make sense of this, but how could Rachel have died if the Stone rendered her immortal?

Eckhart led Albrecht out of the laboratory and into the study, where he lifted the Holy Bible down from the bookshelf and opened it on the table. This seemed like an odd time for another reading lesson, but Albrecht sat beside him. Eckhart had opened to the Book of Ezekiel, from which they hadn’t read before. He pointed to a verse. “Can you read that, Albrecht?”

Albrecht leaned in close. “And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel.”

Eckhart pointed to another verse, and Albrecht read: “And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about.” Albrecht looked up at the man who had started as his master and become his mentor. “Are you saying that Rachel…”

“Yes. That’s what the Stone turned her into. One of those whom Maimonides called the Ophanim.” His hands shook as he closed the Good Book. One of the delicate onionskin pages folded over, but he didn’t notice.

“But then…then she isn’t dead!” Albrecht turned the incredible story over in his mind and found this one understandable point to grasp. “Your Rachel, she isn’t dead, she’s an angel, she doesn’t need to fear Hell or damnation—”

“You fool!” Eckhart smacked the table, and Albrecht jumped. “Don’t just read; think!”

Albrecht shrank back, as he so often had when his father berated him for some failing or other, but then he remembered. He’d braved the company of this man everyone said was the next thing to a sorcerer. He’d completed every chore asked of him, often in less time than expected. He’d spent hours squinting at letters and sounding out words.

He wasn’t as worthless as he’d always thought.

“Maybe I was a fool when I first came here, but not anymore, thanks to you. And I’ve always been able to think, even if you’re the first one to notice. You found a way to remove the taint of Original Sin from a woman you claim to love, and yet you don’t seem happy about it. So maybe, if you’re just going to call me a fool instead of explaining, I’m going to think the rumors about you aren’t as wrong as I thought.”

Albrecht’s chest heaved, and he realized his fists were clenched. He’s going to turn me out, he thought. He’s going to turn me out and send me back to Father.

Instead, Eckhart’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right, of course. It’s a poor teacher who scolds his pupil for not knowing something he hasn’t been taught yet.” He gestured back toward the laboratory. “As part of my work toward creating the Philosopher’s Stone, I’ve made an extensive study of metamorphosis. There are some creatures that change from one thing into another without the need for alchemical intervention. Butterflies being the most obvious example. But I found that the caterpillar does not simply grow wings and a proboscis. Within the chrysalis, its body is broken down and rebuilt. Essentially, it liquefies.”

All the tension bled out of Albrecht’s body. His mouth was so dry that it took him several tries to croak, “That’s awful!”

“Perhaps so, but the caterpillar is a simple creature, and this is natural for it. It cannot understand its transformation and so cannot fear it. It may not even be capable of feeling much physical discomfort. But Rachel is—was—a human. What do you suppose it would feel like for a person to undergo a transformation into something so radically different? To feel their flesh breaking down like a caterpillar’s and—” He broke off and shuddered like a man having a fit. Albrecht couldn’t think of anything to say or do, so the two men sat in silence. Albrecht imagined he could hear the butterflies in the laboratory flexing their wings.

* * *

After that day, the laboratory was no longer off-limits to Albrecht. He thought Eckhart meant that as an expression of gratitude for having listened to his story, but the gift was lost on him. The sight of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, wings wet, made him light-headed.

One morning, he arrived at the house to find a letter on the kitchen table. It was addressed to him, and he felt a shock of pride at how little trouble he had reading it before alarm crept up on him.

“Dear Albrecht,

“Your work has been a great help to me. More than that, your intelligence and desire to learn brought some happiness into the darkest time of my life. But even though I’ve enjoyed teaching you, I cannot stay here, knowing that there is a way to reach Rachel.”

A thump echoed down the hall, followed by a heartrending scream. Albrecht sprinted from the room.

“I have written a will instructing that some of my money be given to you. Hopefully, this will allow you to pursue some education if that is what you wish.”

The door to the laboratory was locked. Albrecht flung himself against it, shoulder first, while the howls of agony from within continued. He had never been a particularly strong boy, but he slammed his shoulder into the door over and over again until the bolt tore through the wood of the doorframe.

Albrecht stumbled into the room and almost fell over Eckhart. The old man spasmed, back arching and heels drumming on the wooden floor. The pearlescent orb that Eckhart had claimed was the Philosopher’s Stone lay beside him. It threw back the light from an oil lamp in shades of aquamarine and lavender, as if it couldn’t help transforming anything it touched.

Eckhart’s back arched with a series of cracks. Albrecht fell to his knees beside him and put his hands under the old man’s back to support him. “Master!” he cried, reverting to a formality he’d long since abandoned.

Even through the linen of Eckhart’s shirt, Albrecht felt that his teacher’s skin was fever-hot. More than that, it felt soft, a pudding-like consistency that made his own skin crawl. Eckhart swept his arms above his head like a man doing the backstroke, and Albrecht couldn’t keep himself from releasing the other man and skittering backward when he saw that the flesh was melting and flowing, gluing Eckhart’s arms together.

Eckhart’s back arched even further, his legs curling under him so his toes almost touched his fingertips. His shirt rode up, exposing his pale belly, and Albrecht could see skin bulging and splitting open as things pushed up from underneath. Eyes—the same vivid green as those that peered from bags of rheumy flesh on Eckhart’s face—blinked open. White pinions waved from Eckhart’s pores, the barbs stuck together by half-clotted blood.

Albrecht crab-walked backward until he crashed into a table. A box fell to the floor, and butterflies escaped through its shattered windows. The door was just to his right, but somehow he couldn’t maneuver himself through it. Eckhart’s neck disappeared, and his face stretched, the features spreading apart from each other. His clothes shredded, but it hardly mattered; his genitals were subsumed into the wheel he had become. Eckhart’s new body lifted off the floor and began to spin. The wings flexed, shaking off their coating of dried gore, and the wheel burst alight.

A humming noise emanated from the angel that had once been Eckhart, deep enough that it made the floor vibrate under Albrecht’s hands and feet. The hum modulated into something like syllables. It reminded Albrecht of when he’d first been learning to read, sounding out strange words. “Beeeeeeeee,” it said. “Be. Be not afraid.”

“Master Eckhart?” Albrecht whispered.

“Be not afraid,” the angel repeated. It lifted further off the ground, and the flames around it grew ever brighter until they shone magnesium-white. The radiance flared so brightly that Albrecht hid his face in the crook of his elbow, and the angel spoke once more. “Be well, Albrecht.” Then the light faded, and when Albrecht tentatively lowered his arm, the angel was gone.

The Stone sat on the floor, still reflecting the light from the oil lamp. Albrecht’s ears rang with the memory of Eckhart’s shrieks. His fingers tingled with the feeling of flesh remolding itself like putty. He smelled the dust-and-iron reek of bloodstained feathers. A wave of anger cascaded over him, and he scrambled to his feet. Could the Stone be destroyed? Could he smash it with a hammer? At the very least, he needed to get rid of the Stone, bury it so no one else would touch it without knowing what it would do to them.

But what about me? Albrecht didn’t need to worry about being under his father’s thumb anymore. The money Eckhart had left him would purchase his independence…but wouldn’t it be even better to see the old man’s eyes widen in awe as Albrecht burst into their home, shining with the glory of God? Albrecht could show him the perfection he’d always demanded, could show him what perfection meant.

Albrecht edged toward the Stone, arms held out from his sides, moving carefully as if trying to avoid startling an animal. He knelt before it and pulled his arms in until his hands hovered inches above the glossy surface.

“Please forgive me for yelling when you couldn’t make cheese,” his father would say. “I see now that you were always destined for greater things.” Albrecht would grant him that forgiveness, of course. A perfect being should be perfectly merciful. Only humans, fallen as they were, held grudges or withheld love from those who didn’t live up to their expectations. For once, Albrecht would be better at something than his father.

“Be not afraid,” Albrecht whispered to himself as he lowered his hands to touch the cool, smooth surface of the Stone. His skin itched, then prickled, then burned as eyes and feathers pressed against it from inside.

End.

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The Music of the Spheres” appeared in the October 2021 issue of Cosmic Horror Monthly. She has also had short fiction published in Vastarien, Nightscript, and the BSFA’s Fission anthology series. She is an Associate Member of the SFWA. Nina lives in New England with her husband.

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