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The Alchemist's Wife

Melody Sage has had solo art exhibits in the Snoodle and Washington Studios Galleries. Her poetry and fiction have appeared recently in Acidic Fiction, Quaint Magazine, Pinball, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2014 Scott Imes award, and currently resides in St. Paul, MN with her husband Ben. To view more of her work, please visit: melodysage.com.

I remember we celebrated with the dark chocolate torte at L’oiseau D’or. Its glossy black ganache was splashed with a comet trail of 24 carat gold stars. The gilt leaf dissolved tasteless on my tongue. The idea of it was titillation enough.
Ian talked about the project, and I pretended to listen to him, enjoying the sound of his voice, the exuberant parabolas he made with his hands. I was an artist. Chemistry, nanotechnology, bionics, and their various intersects, did not interest me. Colors did: the yellow candle flame flickering on his irises, the flush at the base of his throat, the creamy ivory tablecloth beneath my fingers. I smiled into my champagne. No, that is not entirely true. I loved learning about science in school, but Ian was on another level. He virtually spoke his own language. Only a select few of his colleagues could parse the intricacies of his logic. Now, I wish I had listened more closely.
My breath fogs the glass while I look out upon the tundra, its false infinity of frostbitten grass surrounding us on all sides like the sea. Ian comes up behind me and rests his chin in the crook of my neck.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say, putting my hand to his cheek.
We continue with our morning routine, moving deftly around each other in the tight quarters. He starts the generator for the kettle. I mix the powdered eggs with water. Some things have changed in the months since we came here. We no longer turn on the hand-cranked radio. Instead, we listen to the wind rattling the windows, the fall of sleet on the metal roof, while blowing companionably on our steaming cups of oolong tea, which we have learned to enjoy just as well without slices of lemon.
Paper flowers bloom across the gray walls of the bunker, cascading over our heads, their glued edges curling. Six weeks after we arrived, when the final outcome was clear, Ian began cutting them from his collection of books on natural history.
“A garden,” he said, pressing a veined paphiopedilum orchid into place under a vent. “To make up for the one you left behind.”
Since then, he also pasted up a zoological exhibit around our bed. Sometimes, I find myself staring into the unblinking eyes of Siberian tigers or flamingoes during sex, and I quickly look away.
I wonder to myself if he is creating a kind of ark out of photos and lavish illustrations, one of each on display, and it makes me want to make him stop, stop torturing himself like this, but I have not questioned him about it. As a tacit rule, we do not question each other. Our love has always been particular in its upkeep, careful of its limits, as mute and delicate as a rain forest fern in a faceted Wardian case. He did not question me when I dyed a hot pink streak in my hair and abruptly quit teaching. I did not question him when he destroyed the world.
Although, of course, it is not destroyed. Not yet. Not entirely. I pick up his hand from our small two-person table and kiss it, feeling the callouses and tiny nicks and chemical burn scars from a lifetime of experiments brush across my lips. In return he gives me a semblance of a smile.
After breakfast, he goes to the laboratory, and I go back to the window. I could paint or draw, but I won’t. According to the projections, all my paintings are gone by now. I see them as a uniform glare in my mind, blinding me. The futurists used to envision this type of eventuality as a gray goo enveloping the earth in its viscous embrace, but in the end it was gold. Hard, coveted, speciously precious and pure. Gold.
Gold was only the first metal. A PR stunt. It was supposed to be followed by others with more industrial utility. Lithium. Titanium. Uranium. That night at L’oiseau D’or was the last night of our anonymity. The New York Times article came out the next day. Then there were the television crews. The documentary film. The award ceremonies. The continual requests for interviews. I still remember the headlines, although we left the box of clippings behind: The Rumpelstiltskin of MIT, The Man Who Turned Trash to Gold, The Midas Touch, The Alchemist, basically every fairytale-esque pun a person could come up with. Those days were a giddy stressed blur, where my cheeks always seemed to ache from being ordered to smile. I barely saw Ian alone. Success seemed to hound and pester him like a cloud of stinging gnats, leaving him no time to continue his research or to sleep. His already lean, gray-stubbled face became gaunt in a way the newspaper buying public found sagacious and intriguing.
The gold first started mutating and altering its operating procedure in California. The footage showed streets turned to gold, sidewalks burnished, lampposts glistening, bicycles frozen in place, toys glinting on front lawns where every blade of grass shone as sharp and piercing as a knife. Ian and I watched the flashing images side by side in taut silence. The media showed the same reel again and again on a loop. No one else took it too seriously. The homeowners joked about the value of their properties going up along with the insurance compensation. Tourists snapped pictures at the edge of the spreading periphery, as if it were the La Brea Tar Pits. It was like the Ice Hotel in Sweden, or the world’s largest ball of twine, splendidly kitschy.
The phenomenon became less amusing when the Golden Gate Bridge metamorphosed into actual gold, the city of San Francisco transformed into a glittering crescent around the bay. Or when shiny gold patches began to spread across sensitive necks and hands like a luxuriant eczema. By then, people were throwing their wedding rings into the ocean, and there were riots at jewelers. We learned about this later. Without my knowing it, Ian had begun assembling the bunker in secret weeks before the first outbreak, and we left before anyone else realized the full implications of what had gone wrong.
Mechanical hums and pings emanate from the lab like a chorus by Stravinsky, and I feel a lovely little stab in the center of my chest, like a threaded needle being pulled. Just hearing him, knowing he is still there. We are still us.
You cannot know the full breadth, the full wingspan of your love for someone, until they utterly devastate you, whether by dying, or some other betrayal or failure, I have found. In a few hours, I will make him take a break for a snack and another cup of tea and rub the tension from his shoulders. And tonight we will read together by the propane stove with our feet overlapped. When we sleep, we will take turns being spooned. We will enjoy the simple things. Bath day. Socks. Packaged cookies that have gone only slightly stale. The rare sight of a bird flying in the distance. The close warmth of our tiny, bestially decorated home.
Unforgivable as it may seem, I believe we are happier here, now, than we have ever been.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Author Comments

Most fairy tales are about falling in love. This one is about staying in love, even when love seems impossible and bounded by intolerable limits. While I was writing, these lines from Robert Frost's poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," kept floating through my mind:

- Melody Marie Sage
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