Short Fiction

The following short story was my first fiction sale.  It originally appeared in the Autumn 1990 issue of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  Hope you enjoy it.

“Potion”


I never would have believed it was possible. I dabble in magic; I’ve memorized some intricate spells, and can cast many simpler ones with a thought. I’ve seen so-called potions and magic elixirs come and go, but never anything like this.

The creator, an aging old alchemist friend of mine, claims it isn’t even magic. “Not a lick of sorcery in it! Not a drop of snake spittle, not a granule of ground-up bone, not a flake of dried blood. No incantations or demon beseechings. Just the perfect blend of my secret ingredients!”

I believed this much of what he said, but still couldn’t take his claim seriously. I didn’t want to berate his efforts, though. He was my friend, and I respected him.

“So why are you telling me all this, Lethyes?” I queried, hands on hips, eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why did you send your page all the way across town in a snowstorm to fetch me here to tell me this? You know I hate snow.”

Lethyes began tapping the tabletop with his fingers, anxiously averting his eyes. “Oh, well, I just got excited is all, Sirel.” His brow wrinkled in dismay, and I couldn’t keep from smiling. He babbled, “I do apologize, I’m such an old fool. You can stay in the spare room until the storm is over. I have plenty of food and I can always send Dalkon to the market. He loves the snow.” His finger-tapping became more pronounced, and a glass beaker full of some opaque, unwholesome-looking fluid on the table began to rattle against other assorted glassware. His eyes began to search titles stacked on bookshelves nearby.

I walked over to the old man and put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Lethyes. I can make it home okay.” Besides, the musty old room he spoke of had no windows and smelled about as pleasant as a tomb. I pointed at the brown gloop in the beaker on the table. “I hope that’s not it.”

Lethyes followed my gesture, and started. “Oh, no, no, no.” He chuckled, becoming his old self once again. “That’s liniment for my aching joints. Works wonders. Not kind on the nose, however.”

Then he looked back to me, pious once again, almost father-like – or grandfather-like. “Look at you!” He waved his hand in my face. “Such a beautiful young woman.” I’d heard this coming as soon as he’d started describing the potion to me. He continued to preach and gesticulate at me. “Daughter of the finest artisan in town. Granddaughter of Egan the wizard. Skilled craftswoman and magician in your own right. You should have a husband.” He emphasized the last by pounding his fist on the table. A piece of glass tubing fell and stuck upright in the jar of liniment.

He finished more quietly, “I made it for you.”

I rolled my eyes and turned away from him. “Don’t you think I’m old enough to decide when I need – when I want a husband? I don’t need a potion. It won’t do any good on someone I haven’t met yet. But when I do meet him, I don’t want to intoxicate him with some potion to make him love me.” And if this were like every other love potion I’d heard of, the effects would either wear off rapidly, or backfire somehow on the instigator.

“No, no, no,” Lethyes insisted. “It’s not to intoxicate the man. You drink it yourself, anytime you please. Then you use the power whenever you want. That’s the beauty of it, you see? Use it anytime, for any man you choose. Years from now, even.” Then his voice lowered to a serious whisper. “But it only works once.”

Something inside me, eager, almost frightening, pulsed with anticipation. But no, it couldn’t work. This had to be the most absurd tonic Lethyes had come up with yet.

I swallowed hard. “How do you know it works?” I was curious.

The old alchemist puffed himself up, as if beyond repudiation. “I know, girl.”

So he hadn’t tested it. But somehow, suddenly, I believed him. Something about his demeanor made me regret my doubt. Lethyes always denied having any kind of magical skill. Yet my late grandfather, Egan the wizard, had respected the old man – they’d been the best of friends. And more than once, after visiting Lethyes together when I was younger, I recall my grandfather turning to me, frowning deeply. He’d clear his throat and nod to himself, as he always did before speaking, and grumble softly to me, “I feel strange things when I’m around that man, child. Strange things.”

Lethyes seemed more confident to me now than with anything else he’d ever created. I think he usually knew when something he did wouldn’t work, though he wouldn’t admit it. He simply wouldn’t let anyone try it.

“It has no real purpose in all practicality,” he’d say, or some similar excuse, and quickly change the subject.

But about this potion he felt sure.

I, on the other hand, felt terribly uneasy.

“Where is it?” I said, feeling my resistance crumble.

Lethyes smiled broadly, exposing yellowed teeth and two dark gaps where teeth were missing. He turned around and began to undo the intricate clasping mechanism on the door of a wooden hold built into his bookshelves. He’d tried to teach me the trick of opening the box once, but I no longer remembered.

“Heh, heh,” he chuckled to himself, his back to me, as the door to the box swung open. He reached in and drew something out. Holding it cradled in his hands, he turned to me. In a crystal flask, a pinkish, clear fluid swirled gently. It looked like colored water. “Tastes fruity, too,” the alchemist said.

He carefully proffered it to me.

* * *

As I walked home through the cold and snow, the once dreary stone and brick of the shops, apartments, and paved streets seemed suddenly stripped of their winter bleakness. I carried the potion within my coat, holding it close to me as if it were a source of warmth.

I wondered for a short time what I had done, in accepting Lethyes’s gift. To what kind of act had I committed myself?

But my instinctive wariness waned, giving way to growing excitement, a pleasant stirring within me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Emotions had not been kind to me in the past, but what I carried with me now gave me a joyous sense of control. I had sworn my heart would never break again.

I was to find I still had many things to learn.

When I reached my small apartment, cluttered with books of spells from my grandfather, and tapestries I’d woven just for the sake of creating them, I set the flask carefully down on a spot of bare tabletop, and stepped back to stare at it.

I could drink it now and get it over with.

Or I could wait, think about it, let my emotions calm before dedicating myself to this questionable venture.

I decided to wait.

Why, I don’t know. But the decision may have saved me from the biggest mistake of my life.

* * *

I’d brought some of my work – wall hangings, rugs and table-mats – to the harvest market to sell. It wasn’t actually harvest time, mind you; winter had barely drawn to a close, opening the way for spring. But this market had acquired the name harvest market, no matter the time of year. The title had more to do with location. The market tents and booths were set up, some permanently, at the crossroads between several villages, in the midst of fields of fertile farmland. It was the largest market I knew, and gave me a chance to get out into the open countryside and admire that which I tried to convey in my work, and to see new faces.

The one person I may have chosen not to see, however, was there.

I stood, huddled in my coat against the chill air, in a small booth, my work displayed around me, hanging behind me. I saw him at the edge of the market, examining some kettles at a metal wright’s booth. An old scar tore open within me, and the outside cold rushed to my bones. I had loved him once, and suddenly realized I still did. I bent my head and watched him; yes, it was he. So many times after he’d left I’d thought I’d seen him — the hair, the stature, the curve of the face – only to realize it was a stranger. My mind had finally gotten over that, I’d thought. But it was he.

I didn’t want him to see me, I realized in panic. I couldn’t bear the thought of him turning away if he saw me, couldn’t imagine myself being able to talk to him like an old friend if he approached.

I cursed myself. Tears rolled down my cheeks like droplets of resolve. I thanked the powers no one shopped nearby, as I turned and stepped around behind my booth, weeping. Chests and crates were stacked here, behind the market line. Several wagons also stood empty, their horses stabled for the day in the livery tent.

I thought for a moment, cleared my mind of roiling emotions, and organized the words. Yes, I still remembered the spell, though it was newly committed to memory. I felt a brief moment of pride at that, and brushed the tears from my icy cheeks. I hadn’t mastered the spell yet, couldn’t cast it with a thought. But that also would come in time, I knew.

I bowed my head, and emptied my mind with practiced ease, despite the exploding convolutions of my heart and the cold bumps rising like waves over my skin. I silently uttered the words, each one passing my moving lips and filling my mind in turn, until the spell was complete.

The spell was powerful. A true wizard would have seen through it, and someone my equal might have been able to penetrate it, with difficulty; but everyone here seemed oblivious to it, and to me.

The actual spell was one of illusion; I did not truly become invisible. But the protective shielding effect of the incantation caused the minds of others not to comprehend nor to register what they saw when they looked at me. They could not see through me – they still had to look around me to see things behind me – but it never really dawned on them that they were doing so.

I stood at the entrance to my booth, and watched him. He moved from one marketer to another, as in my mind he moved from one painful dream of longing to another, pausing to look for something he might desire, finding nothing. He had rejected me. I could not stop the flow of my tears; I tried to swallow my sobs, that they would not be heard.

I thought of the potion then. I would have used it. I know that I would have.

And at that realization, I felt so deeply ashamed that my weeping stopped. He had not loved me of his own free will, though I loved him – and now I was ready to steal that love from him. I had never before seen the depths of my selfishness. I wished I were truly invisible then – to the numbing cold, to the wind that blew me into small, hopeless fragments. More than invisible, I wished I did not exist.

I stopped watching him; I couldn’t stand it any longer. I spent the rest of the icy afternoon huddled in the back of a wagon, within my spell. The business I lost mattered nothing to me. My art pieces sat the afternoon alone, as if only to be admired, not purchased.

As the sun fell low, late in the afternoon, I muttered the words that undid my spell; then went and helped the trader I’d come with pack his wagon with our belongings. He was a friendly old gentleman, but very quiet; we exchanged few words, until we‘d almost reached our town. His curiosity and empathy must finally have overwhelmed his shyness, and he spoke.

“Doesn’t appear you did much business today,” he stated, in a roundabout way. I knew it was his way of asking if I was all right.

“No, I’m afraid I didn’t. I didn’t feel well this afternoon, and spent most of the time lying in a wagon, like a body in a tomb.” It was the truth, though not the total truth.

“Sorry to hear,” he said, in his slow way, with honest feeling. “Might have been more comfortable in a tent.”

“I preferred the quiet,” I admitted.

“Feeling better now, I hope?” He glanced at me quickly, then fixed his eyes back on his horses and the road ahead.

I managed a smile for him. “Yes. Thank you.”

* * *

I knew after that day that I couldn’t use the potion. Perhaps if I’d never been in love before, if I didn’t have memories that haunted me, if I were more naive and less virtuous, I might have. I’d felt as if I were on a pinnacle after accepting Lethyes’s gift. I knew now that I’d had my deserved fall, and chided myself for my weakness. How I’d let myself be drawn in by the artifice of it, I didn’t know. I’d reached beyond hope, and reached too far; tried to grasp at love, teetering on the edge, still ignorant that love cannot be grasped. And so I fell anew into my self-made abyss of despair.

I moiled over what I would tell Lethyes. Another peg in the crucifix of my depression was the hurt I would cause the old alchemist if I returned the potion to him. I knew I could pour away the liquid, and simply tell him I waited for the right person. But I could no more lie to the old man than I could drink the elixir he’d given me.

Several days trudged by, as if bogged down by my mood. I worked and taught in the artisan section of town, while trying to erase an old pain and come to terms with my own emotional crisis. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone – certainly not to Lethyes, and for some reason not to my father, the two wisest people I knew. And my friends would be of no help. Forget about him, they’d say, as if that were some secret remedy for grief; or else, Don ’t be a fool, drink it!

I wished my mother were still alive. I could have talked to her.

I thought about her more and more as the days went by, about her sudden illness, and I wept in loneliness for her. But another thing I remembered, as I thought of her: I didn’t need her here with me to know what she would say to console me. I thought of her personal strength, her brimming love. I heard the words she had spoken to me time and again, always in a different way, but always in a way I understood. And the way she lived her own advice.

The hour finally came when I knew what I had to do.

I drank the potion.

* * *

Though the liquid was cool, I felt a warmth spread through me as I swallowed it, like an embrace. And I remembered my mother’s words: Forgive yourself, believe in yourself, love yourself and you invite others to do the same.

I concentrated for several moments, as Lethyes had told me. And the potion worked.

I felt it, like a release, like a dam burst within me, and I wept again, but this time for joy. For I used the potion in a way that, perhaps, was not intended, but still miraculously, beautifully, it worked.

I used it on no one else but myself.

And in the aftermath, the thing that struck me most was the knowledge that I never would have needed the potion. The real ingredients had been within me all along. I had only to realize they were there, and drink them in. I hadn‘t realized how thirsty I was for my own forgiveness and love.

Yes, Mother. Thank you.

When I told Lethyes what I had done, glowing in my inner transformation, he thought about it, nodding slowly (reminding me of my grandfather), then smiled at me, toothless gaps in prominence. “I knew you’d make the right decision, Sirel, my beautiful young lady.” He came forward and put his hands on my shoulders – a warm embrace, for him. He acted as if he’d known the final outcome all along, since the very day he’d made the potion. Which, in turn, made me smile.

He nodded again, wise and knowing. “I felt sure you’d make the right decision.”

I crushed him in a warm embrace of my own.

###

  1. #1 by Martea on November 2, 2011 - 6:28 PM

    I love this short story as much today as I did the first time I read it, years ago. Actually, I come across my copy from time to time, mainly when I’m moving, so I have read it many times throughout the years. I love the uplifting message, I never tire of reading it. Thank you for dusting it off and letting it see the light of day once again.

    Like

    • #2 by Joseph M Kurtenbach on November 2, 2011 - 7:36 PM

      Thanks, Martha. No writer could ask for a nicer compliment than that, nor me a nicer friend.

      Like

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