Prose: Memento Mori – Anna Pittenger

Memento Mori
Anna Pittenger

The cold north wind blows through the street, and I wrap my cloak more tightly around myself. The sky is dark, great clouds covering the stars and moon, and the only light comes from the torches that burn outside nearly every house. The torches serve to ward off the vengeful ghosts of those who died unshriven and improperly buried, and to illumine the marks placed on the doorposts of afflicted houses. At the sound of the creaking of a cart I sink back into the shadows of an unlighted house, pulling the hood of my cloak over my head. I have no wish to be seen at this hour and in this part of town, let alone be recognized, lest word should spread. For I know all too well how the tongues of gossips might light a fire of imagined scandal that should serve to consume my family and destroy the good name which is all we have left.

As it draws closer I see that it is a plague cart, piled high with the grotesque and mottled bodies of the dead. I turn my face away from the spectacle, sketching the sign of the cross in the air between myself and it. My stomach twists inside me, and it is not due solely to the smell of the cart. I cannot help but think of my sister’s body lying on such a cart, being hauled by strangers out of the city to be burned in a pile with so many others. My heart is pounding so loudly that I wonder that no one hears it and comes to investigate the noise. I wait, stiff with fear, pressed against the wall until I feel that I should surely be glued to it with my own sweat. The cart passes on out of sight and hearing, but the sight of it has shaken me. I remained standing pressed against the wall for some moments still, breathing in and out and trying to muster my courage before continuing to stride quickly down the street. Already I am beginning to regret the rash hope that has brought me here, but I am not yet willing to turn back.

I move through the city like a ghost, or a robber, making as little noise as possible and staying in the shadows to avoid being seen. I have never before been to this part of town, the poor end, where the houses are little more than slanted shacks cobbled together from discarded material, leaning against each other like so many drunks, and looking as if they might fall down at the slightest provocation, and where beggars might sleep in doorways if their bodies were not piled high in the plague carts. There are fewer torches here to light the way, and I tread carefully, peering closely at the street markers when I can find them, or at the marks of trade over buildings otherwise indistinguishable from houses. Yet I have heard that the shop of the man I seek is at the very edge of town, near the tanner’s place, and the stench of the tannery guides me to the proper street. At length I reach my destination: a small dirty shop, nearly hidden in the shadows, but it bears no plague mark, and over the door is hung the symbol of an alchemist. Taking a deep breath, I knock once, twice, thrice, upon the door.

The door opens a crack and light shines through, illuminating the lined and suspicious face of a grey-bearded old man. “Who art thou?” he demands. “What dost thou want with me? If thou art a beggar, I have no use for thee.”

I can well believe he would have no use for beggars, being scarcely more than a beggar himself, but somehow this makes the insult even greater. “I am no beggar,” I say hotly, “but an honest customer.” Momentarily forgetting my resolve to remain anonymous, I shove my hood back so that it falls about my shoulders and my face is illuminated.

The alchemist’s eyes widen in recognition as he takes in my features, then narrow again with canniness. “Well, well, well,” he said with a sly smile, “I know thee, child of the house of Windham, though little did I think the day would come that should bring thee to my door.”

“How darest thou bespeak me thus informally?” I snap, my temper flaring at his use of “thou” and “thy” when he is so clearly of lower station. How dare he imply that we are of equal standing—I, the child of a noble and he, an alchemist! “Thou hast shown that knowest full well who I am.” Despite my intention to hide my identity tonight, being addressed in common terms by someone barely better than a beggar rankles me, especially after he has shown that he recognizes me. It is as if, with that one word, he has said that my family, my house, my name, has fallen so low and in such disgrace as to be of no more value or standing than that of an alchemist huddled on the far side of town, near the tannery. After my sister’s death, everything is changed. The servants have abandoned us, despite all of my father’s threats and entreaties, saying they would not stay in a plague house. Our good name is almost the only thing we have left, and my honor demands that I address this affront of having that name dragged through the dirt.

“All are equal before death,” the alchemist says, “and thou doth fear death, dost thou not? Which makes me thy better, I the one man who need not fear death.”

These words make my heart leap within my chest. “‘Tis true then,” I say, “that thou hast created the elixir of life?” My eagerness at this reminder of my objective overcomes my earlier pique at his rude address. I wait anxiously for his answer, for what if the rumors were only rumors and nothing more. It is true that I fear death, and living in such close quarters with it these past months, coming face-to- face with it with the death of my sister, has only made me fear it more. I am by no means resigned to such a fate, and I am willing to take great risk and go to great lengths to avoid it.

The alchemist nods, a jerky motion that continues for longer than it should, like a marionette bobbing beneath the hand of a lazy puppeteer. “Aye, aye, ’tis true that I have wrought what other men have only dreamed,” he says. He opens the door fully and does back inside the house, motioning for me to follow.

The stench that wafts outwards as he opens the door is overwhelming, and I pinch my nose as I walk inside, stooping a little so as not to hit my head against the lintel. The putrid smell of the tannery has permeated the entire street, but the smell coming from this place is something different and—if such a thing is possible—even worse. Entering the single room that serves as both house and shop, I see the source of the smell: a large pot over the fire in which boils something that looks and smells suspiciously like urine.

The alchemist laughs at my discomfort, a phlegmy cackling that sounds as if he is on the verge of breaking into a fit of coughing. “The smell of this place does not please thee, eh?” He says, shutting the door behind me. “Why dost thou not carry a pomander or a nosegay? ‘Tis said they keep the plague at bay, for is the sickness not carried by bad smells?” He cackles again at this, gesturing at the pot of urine as if it were proof of his immortality.

I shudder at his suggestion, remembering how we had filled my sister’s room with flowers in the hopes of saving her. The memory is so strong that, even over the stench of the present, my nostrils seem to be filled with the cloying scent of dying flowers from the wreaths, garlands, and bouquets that had filled her room, their smell barely masking the stench of sickness and, finally, death. “I have no wish just now for the smell of flowers or spices,” I say.

“Aye, aye,” mutters the alchemist, “These are strange and terrible times, are they not?” His eyes pass over me again, and his gaze seems to hold something of a mocking look. “Thou wert ever plain,” he says, “but thou art more thin and pale of late than was thy wont, and I can see by thy black clothes and the dark shadows beneath thine eyes that the plague has not spared even the house of Windham.”

I pass my hand over my eyes. “’Tis true,” I say at length. “My youngest sister lies dead of the plague, though truly did I strive my utmost to save her.” For a moment I dare not speak, for fear that the wavering of my voice should betray me and I should burst into tears at the thought of this so recent loss. “Yet ’tis not for my sister’s sake that I came here,” I say, “but for my own.” “I did not think it otherwise.” The old man said, and I rankle at the hint of scorn in his voice.

“Thou canst little imagine how much I have suffered and sacrificed for her sake,” I say, my hands clenching involuntarily at my sides as I speak. I think of the physician who I smuggled in to visit her in the middle of the night, so that—much as I desired his assistance—no one would see him attending her and spread stories of scandal that would damage not only her reputation but the good standing of our whole family. “Calling in that physician, watching him put his filthy hands all over her—” My voice breaks and my throat is suddenly choked with suppressed tears. At last I regain my composure, and am able once again to look the alchemist in the face.

“Thou art an alchemist,” I continue, “and ‘tis said that thou hast the secret of eternal life.” I pause, then continue, “I wish thou to share this secret with me.”

“Thou art impatient,” he says, “and well might thou be, but stay, such a thing does not come cheaply. Art thou prepared to pay the price?” He cackles and rubs his knobby hands together.

“Perchance this shall be sufficient?” I untie the strings of my money pouch from where it hangs at my belt and emptied its contents into his waiting palm. As soon as I have done so I regret it, and nearly do I snatch back the pile of silver from his gnarled palm, but I think of my terror at the passing of the plague cart, and of my sister’s body lying in the room full of flowers, and stay my hand.

The old man turns the coins over and over in his hand, counting them and holding them to the light. At last he pockets them and turns towards me again, eyes gleaming greedily. “Nearly, nearly,” he said, “but it is not enough. Thou knowest not what thou asks of me.”

“Verily,” I say, “have I given you the last of what I possess. I have naught else to offer thee.”

“Thou hast still thy cloak,” the alchemist said, “fur-lined and made of good English wool. I will have thy cloak.”

What? Would the man strip the very clothes off my back? I bite my lip to suppress my cry of anger, for the cloak is not only a fine one but a gift from my sister besides. Still, I think, ‘tis better to lose one’s cloak than one’s life, for the one can always be bought but one is lucky if one can save the other. “Verily, thou shalt have it,” I say, and so saying I unfastened my cloak and handed it to him.

“Aye, aye,” he nods, “and thy amulets too. Thou wilt have no more need of them.”

Reluctantly I remove them, pulling them from around my neck and waist, and where I had pinned one over my heart. I have quite the collection, for I have worn some since before the plague started and have been steadily adding more as time has passed and death and disease have continued to run rampant in the streets like signs of the end-times. I have not removed them, even to sleep, and their weight has been on me now for so long that, removing them at last, I feel almost naked and entirely unprotected.

“Let me see,” the alchemist mutters, pawing through the pile on the table. “What have we here? Aye, these will fetch a pretty penny. What’s this? Solid silver? Tsk, tsk. What wouldst thy father say if he knew thou wert spending his money thus, on trinkets?”

“They are no mere trinkets!” I start hotly. “These are a valuable source of protection—”

“Aye, aye,” the alchemist cuts in. “If thou thought them such fine protection, thou wouldst not have come to me.”

I swallow my protests and hang my head. “Thou speaks truly,” I say reluctantly. “Pray continue. I am most anxious to obtain the elixir quickly.”

“Aye, aye,” the alchemist nods. “Thou desires haste. I will fetch it shortly, but first, bethink you, ‘tis a potion of eternal life. Desires thou to see all they friends and family die before thee?”

“I am like to see that already,” I say impatiently, though my heart pangs at the prospect, “if I do not die first of plague myself.” My sister’s death is still vivid in my memory, and I would do much to avoid such a fate.

“‘Tis sooth,” the alchemist cackles. “Death and sorrow await all of us, save those who find the means to escape them. Think you though, to live forever on this earth, never growing older, never feeling thirst or hunger—”

“It sounds almost too good to be true,” I say.

“—never, perhaps, to find a way to heaven?” The alchemist continues. “To give up eternal life in true paradise for a prolonged existence on this miserable earth?”

I hesitate, but only for a moment. Fear makes my blood thrum in my veins, and I fear death now, death by the plague, far more than anything the future may bring, or fail to bring. Memories of my sister flood over me, and her suffering, and my spirit quails at the thought that I might suffer and die the same way. My very being shrinks from such a prospect. Even the fleeting thought that this old man, this alchemist, might be some demon in disguise, sent to tempt me, lacks the power to sway me from what I plan to do. For all my hesitation and half-hearted wavering, my cowardice serves as a form of determination, even a twisted sort of courage, as my one great fear, the fear of suffering and death, drowns out all other fears and doubts.

“After thou drinks it,” the alchemist says, “thou wilt not change or alter—not age, nay, nor alter in any way. Alas for thy vanity!” He cackles. “Thou shalt be forever preserved thus—wan and pale, with eyes dark-shadowed!”

“I care little what I look like,” I say, “so long as I do not die.” Vain, I may be, but before all else I am a coward, and my fear of death holds far more power than my desire to maintain a good appearance. After all, I can hardly maintain a good appearance when covered in pustules or lying as a corpse in a plague mound ready to be burned. Still, at the alchemist’s persistence, doubt begins to creep into my mind. “Wherefore dost thou try to dissuade me?” I ask. “Either thou is willing to sell me the potion, or thou is unwilling to do so, but ‘tis ludicrous to take my payment and then try to keep me from that which I have paid for. I have told thou, this is what I desire, and this exchange is surely profitable for thou as well.” I think bitterly of all I have given him: the money, the cloak, and the amulets. It is indeed a princely price to pay for the hope of escaping death.

The alchemist shakes his head. “If the elixir is effective, thou and I shalt be the only two immortals in this country, perhaps in all the world, for I have heard of no other who has come so close to success as I. I have no wish to be haunted forever by a person who has come to regret the choice they made, and blames me for it.”

“‘If it is effective’?” I repeat. “Thou hast not already drunk the potion thyself?” I ask him. “Thou is unsure of its results and efficacy?”

The alchemist shakes his head, the motion just as jerky as his nod, and into my mind flashes the mad notion that his whole body is controlled by wires and strings, and he is, after all, no more than a puppet. “I have made tests and experiments, aye, aye,” the alchemist says, rubbing his gnarled hands together, “on rats, and cats, and slowly have I perfected it, but not yet has it been drunk by any human, and certainly not by myself. Nay, nay,” he cackles. “Wherefore should I drink that which might prove ineffective or poisonous? Nay, thou shalt be the first, and after thou hast drunk it, I shall observe and take note, that I may know if I have at long last achieved that which I seek, or if there are changes still to make before I may drink and be assured of success myself.”

At that, I nearly demand back my money and possessions, but I do not. I have come too far, and risked too much, to go back now empty-handed. Besides, have I not already seen that there is no other way to avoid death by the plague? “I shalt not be dissuaded,” I tell him. “Make haste with the mixture! Enough of night has passed already.”

Turning, the alchemist catches up from a shelf in the corner a small vial which he hands to me. “There,” he says, “there is that which thou so desires.”

I hold the vial doubtfully to the light, for the liquid it contains looked suspiciously like water. I uncork the vial and sniff the liquid, but it has no smell, or at least none that I can discern over the general stench of the room. I tip back my head and poured the vial’s contents into my mouth. At first, the liquid seems horribly bitter and I nearly spit it out at once. The next moment, however, I am sure that I must have been mistaken, for the liquid is as tasteless as water. I swallow the potion and look over at the old man, who has pulled out a large tome and is now scribbling vigorously in it with a quill, writing in some series of strange symbols which I cannot read.

“If thy potion has truly down what thou dost claim,” I said, “then truly must I be grateful to thee, but how am I to know if this is so?”

Yet he ignores me, intend on his writing. “Interesting, interesting,” he mutters to himself. “Perchance the lack of solid corporeal form is a result of my attempts to reduce the needs of the body—food, drink, and sleep.”

Lack of corporeal form? At this ominous phrase I look down at my hands and find to my horror that I can see the floor through them, and on the floor the vial where it has fallen from my grasp. I dive after it, but my hands, rather than stopping at the vial, pass through it and into the stones beneath until I find myself buried up to my elbows in the floor. “What has thou done?” I cry, springing to my feet, my body passing as easily back out of the floor as it had gone into it. “Have I become a ghost?” Yet if my spirit has passed out of my body, then I can see now sign of my body anywhere in the small shack.

“It seems the mixture is still missing some vital ingredient to balance it,” the alchemist says, still intent on his writing. “Clay or ash, mayhap, to signify the body, or perhaps…” His voice fades off into low and unintelligible mutterings as his quill scratches busily across the parchment.

“Yes, but what of me?” I cry. I stamp my foot, but it merely passes through the floor without a sound, rendering the motion unsatisfactory and wholly ineffective. “Canst thou not alter the effects of this potion, so that it grants me all that thou hast promised, or, if not that, then at least provide me an antidote that I may return to my former state? Even that would be better than this.”

“Go, go,” the alchemist says, waving his left hand impatiently while his right hand continues its journey across the page. “Thou hast what thou asked for. Aye, aye, didst thou not insist thou wouldst have it, regardless of consequence? Thou shalt not die. Begone with thee.”

“No!” I cry, and flee sobbing, out of the house and through the dark and empty streets of the city. “No! This was never what I desired!” For some time, my distress is so great that I am not aware of my surroundings or where I travel, so caught up am I in thoughts of my own folly and its consequences. When at last I come back to my senses, I see that my legs, even acting without my conscious direction, like tired horses catching the scent of the stable, have carried me back home.

I find my mother sitting in the solar. The sun is just now rising, so it is early for her to be awake. Or perhaps, like me, she never slept. She is embroidering a pattern of leaves around the edges of a gown. Yet her mind is not on her work, for she will turn her gaze from the garment to stare out the window or at the wall, sighing, her hands going still in her lap, for a full minute or more, before she resumes her sewing. As I come closer, I see that her eyes are red-rimmed from crying. She does not notice me enter the room or approach her, my feet gliding silently without actually touching the floor.

When I am directly behind her, I speak. “Good morrow, mother.”

She starts at the sound of my voice, and I see relief rise in her eyes at the sight of me. In the dim light of the room, lit only by a single candle and the first red rays of the sun, I look almost solid. “There you are!” She cries. “You have no idea how worried I was when I came into your room this morning to stir up the fire and found your bed empty and you gone! Thanks be to God that no harm has come to you!” She exclaims, dropping her embroidery and moving to embrace me. She tries to throw her arms around me, but they pass straight through, my illusion of solidity shattered.

My mother screams and leaps backwards, overturning the stool on which she had been sitting. Her eyes are wide with horror as she crosses herself. “Shade,” she mutters, “phantom!”

“Mother, be calm, I pray you,” I say. “’Tis not as bad as you believe. I am not dead, even if my appearance is that of a ghost. Allow me to explain what has befallen me this night.”

She does not stay to hear my words, for even as I am speaking, she hurries past me, calling out to my father so that the whole house echoes with her words. “Wilhelm, our elder child also is dead! Just now, the ghost came to me!”

Not knowing what else to do, I follow her, staying some paces behind in an attempt to keep from further alarming her. I hope that eventually she will calm down enough to let me explain what has happened, but I am not given the opportunity.

My father holds my mother firmly but gently in his arms, whispering to her, trying to soothe her, to convince her that she has merely been dreaming or that the ghost she believed she saw was only a figment of her imagination. When my father looks up and sees me over my mother’s shoulder, his hands stiffen.

“Good morrow, father,” I say, stepping forward, arms outstretched in a gesture of peace. “I have news to share with you of some great import.”

My father’s face hardens, and he steps away from my mother, snatching up a torch from the wall and waving it at me. “Begone, spirit! A vaunt!” He cries, “Trouble us no more!”

“Mother, father,” I say pleadingly. I feel as though my heart is breaking. I had never thought that my own parents would fear me and cast me out. Yet my father strides toward me, waving the torch, while my mother cowers pale behind him, and—although I doubt that the torch would hurt me in this state—I flee from him, running from the house and out again into the street, where I huddle in the chill of the morning, watching the sun rise slowly over the shops and houses of the town.

I do not go far, because I have nowhere to go. I can think of no other place besides my home where I might be accepted, or even just find a place to stay. For some days, I remain in the house, staying in my room or in the old servants’ quarters for the most part, occasionally venturing out into the rest of the house to check on my mother and father and see what they are about. It galls me to live thus, like a thief in my own household, or like a shadow. I watch as my parents gather up all of my possessions—my clothes, even my mattress and blanket—into a pile and burn them in case I too died of the plague, although my father says it is far more likely I fell in the river and drowned. It is a cruel irony, I think, because I am not dead at all, and—if the alchemist’s words are to be believed—cannot die. The more time I spend in this state, the more I come to believe that he did speak the truth, for his other words prove true: I have no need for food and drink, or for sleep. I could test the veracity of the claim of immortality easily enough, by throwing myself into the river that runs through the town, or into the fire. Yet I am still too much a coward to make the attempt, holding back out of the fear that it would kill me after all, or that it would cause me pain even if I failed to die.

After a while, I bethink myself once again of the alchemist, who it seems is the only one who might be able to help me find a way out of my current predicament. If I am a ghost, I tell myself, then I shall act like one and haunt someone. I will go back to the alchemist’s hut and I will stay there and haunt him until he develops and consents to give me an antidote and a true elixir, one that will grant me eternal life while retaining my own form. I am sure that the alchemist must have developed an improved version of his elixir by now, given how confident in his abilities he was the night I visited him. Indeed, he already seemed on the cusp of such a discovery, between the elixir he gave me and the thought about it which he had so vigorously scribbled down in his book. Even if he has not yet developed a suitable elixir of life, I am determined to stay with him until he does, assisting in any way possible, so that the discovery may be made more quickly and I may be free from this phantom existence. I am lucky at least, I reflect, in that the man I sought out has proved to be no charlatan but a true alchemist, dedicated to his craft, so that I may have hope that whatever mistake he made in crafting the elixir I drank will be one which he is well able to find and rectify. I feel a pang at the thought of leaving my family, but not as much as I might have anticipated. Even when I am here with them, I am no use to them. In the daylight, I am invisible and inaudible to them, so they are unaware of my presence and I am unable to interact with them in any way, and in the evening, night-time, and early morning, the times of day when they are able to perceive me, my presence only frightens and disturbs them. Far better to leave, I think, and return when I have taken the improved elixir and can rejoin my family as myself, provided they survive the plague as well. They are traveling to the country to try and avoid it, but I think I will be able to find them, or if not I will stay here at the house and await their return. 

It is raining, and although one might think that, being without substance, I would not be bothered by the rain, in fact it makes it worse for the rain runs straight through me, making me feel wet and cold down to my very soul. Yet now that I have a plan, I am determined to follow it, and any delay would seem painful. My parents have decided to leave our house in the town and go to our manor in the country, in the hopes of escaping the plague, and are already in the process of packing up their things to leave. I have no wish to stay and see them go, without being in my proper body and able to accompany them. When I am myself again, I promise myself, I shall come back and find them, and I am sure that they will rejoice to see me alive and well, not dead as they had feared.

The journey to the alchemist’s hut passes more quickly this time, for I have no need of caution and skulking in shadows to avoid being seen. With the rain, there are few people on the street, and those who are out walk quickly with their heads down, thinking only of getting to their destinations as speedily as possible. I doubt that anyone would take notice of me even if I were not half-transparent and difficult to see in the fading daylight.

When I arrive at the alchemist’s hut, I find the windows dark and the door tightly closed. I am unable to knock, but this time I have no need of knocking. Instead, I pass straight through the door, shuddering at the horrible feeling of the wood entering inside my body, of what is left of my substance becoming temporarily one with that of the door, before I pass through into the hut.

At first, I am disoriented by the darkness of the room, for the fire is unlit and there are no candles lit. I wonder for a moment if the alchemist is gone, if he has fled the city like so many others. As my eyes adjust to the darkness I gradually make out the figure of the alchemist on the floor by my feet. He lies completely still, no movement of the mouth or chest to indicate that he is breathing, his eyes staring without seeing. His skin is covered in the scars and pustules that are the signs of a plague victim. I stumble backwards from the shock of the discovery, and only the sensation of falling partway into the door brings me back to my senses. So he was neither demon nor puppet, as I had half feared, I think, but only a man, as susceptible to the plague as anyone, for all his boasting.

His death seems recent, for no mark has yet been placed on the doorpost of his house, the stench of the tannery partially masking the smell of death. Still I know that it will not be long before someone notices the body and sends for the plague cart to come carry it off.

On the table, the book still lies open, pages covered in notes written in the alchemist’s wavering hand. Notes that are written not in any language which I know of, but instead in rows of strange symbols, no doubt a cipher of the alchemist’s creation, so that only he would be able to read the book and could thus keep safe his secrets.

“What was it you said to me, the night you gave me the elixir?” I ask, knowing even as I do so that I must be mad to speak to a corpse. “‘I am the one man who need not fear death.’ Was that not what you said?” Yet now here he lies, a pustule-covered corpse, ready to be taken away by the plague cart, and all his work to discover the secret of immortality is of no use either to him or to me. I feel hollow inside, as the last hope that I held crumbles into nothingness. It is true that I am not dead, but neither can I dwell any longer in the world of the living. Tears come unbidden to my eyes, run down my cheeks, but they are ghost tears, an illusion. Even my sorrow is another reminder that I am no longer real, no longer solid. “Tell me,” I whisper to the corpse of the alchemist, “in the moments before you died, were you afraid?”