BY REBECCA HURST

Dancing at Sunset by Alexi Francis

Dancing at Sunset by Alexi Francis

Once there was a scholar who all his life sought to turn lead into gold. Alchemy was his art, his science and his religion. It left no time for anything else; he lived as one who is blind, deaf, mute. Or at least he spoke, but only of gold.

In time the Alchemist lost his parents, his wife and his home. Only his daughter remained, living with her father in a half-derelict cottage the innkeeper gave them in exchange for the girl’s labour. During the day she worked for the innkeeper, sweeping out rooms, laying fires, chopping firewood and scouring the filthy floors.

An old jackdaw lived in the courtyard of the inn; a scrawny bird with feathers as tattered as the Alchemist’s black robes. The innkeeper and his guests would chase the jackdaw away when he hopped close, eyeing the food on their plates with a beady eye. But the girl saw something of her wretched father in the bird’s stooped frame, and she would pick out choice scraps from the rubbish bin and feed him when no one was looking. Once, after she had fed her pet a particularly succulent piece of sausage, he dropped a wing feather in her path — coal-black and gleaming. The girl picked the feather up and tucked it in her bodice.

“Thank you, Brother Jackdaw,” the Alchemist’s Daughter whispered; for she was a strange child with the vivid imagination of one who spends too much time alone. And the jackdaw bowed, solemn as a priest, and hopped back into his shadowy corner.

At night, after her work in the inn was done, the girl helped her father prepare for his experiments and then clean away the wreckage of his failures. She did these things because she loved him; but the work was hard and unhealthy and over the years the Alchemist’s Daughter grew pale and thin. Her head and stomach ached and often she cried herself to sleep in her cold, narrow bed. The only thing that warmed her was her mother’s cat – a large marmalade tom – and even he disappeared one winter’s night in search of a warmer, fatter home. The Alchemist’s Daughter found one of his needle-sharp whiskers on her pillow the next morning, and this too she tucked into the bodice of her tattered dress as if it were his parting gift.

The Alchemist’s Daughter missed the cat, and she missed her mother, and she longed for her father to give her a warm word or a loving glance; but the only thing he loved was the promise of gold.

One cold bright day in March a Traveller came to the door of the ruined cottage selling books, fur-lined mittens, satin ribbons and gingerbread stars. The Alchemist ignored these, although his daughter stood at his elbow staring at the pretty ribbons and treats with wide eyes, as starved of beauty as she was of nourishment. The Traveller was a tall, slender young woman wearing breeches and worn felt boots, her hair cropped like a boy’s. She smiled at the Alchemist’s Daughter while the girl’s father pawed through the clutch of second-hand books. One small, black volume in particular caught his eye — its printed pages were a maze of crabbed notes, equations and symbols — and to his daughter’s despair he took their last penny from a box on the mantelpiece and gave it to the Traveller in exchange for the book.

“May I trouble you for a cup of water?” said the Traveller.

But the Alchemist, eager to plunder the pages of the little book, muttered rudely into his beard and slammed the door shut in her face. Pulling a chair close to the dying fire, he began to read.

Silent and unobserved, his daughter filled a lead cup with fresh spring water and ran out into cold. The Traveller stopped when she saw the girl, drank from the lead cup, and as she turned back onto the road leading out of the village reached into her pack and took from it a sky-blue ribbon.

“To wear in your bonny brown hair,” the Traveller said, and she smiled warm as a summer day and was gone.

The girl dared not tie the ribbon in her hair, but she tucked it into her bodice, close to her heart, and slowly walked back to her father’s home.

All night the Alchemist read the little black book, and just before dawn he shook his daughter awake.

“We must travel, child,” he said, and handed her his bag to carry. The bag contained a pig of lead, his stone pestle and mortar, a box of vials and spoons, a small tripod, a cauldron, and his books and notebook, and the girl staggered under its weight.

“Make haste and follow me,” said the Alchemist, full of impatience.

His daughter did not even have time to look for her thin winter coat and worn boots; and much good it would have done her, for the Alchemist had exchanged them for the lead. So barefoot and bareheaded she followed her father out into the dark and bitter cold.

“The book is the code and you are the key,” was all the Alchemist said by way of explanation, and began to walk swiftly in the direction of the dark forest. The girl followed him as best she could, her heart heavy with dread.

They walked all day, the Alchemist and his daughter, going deep into the forest, leaving the road, then the woodman’s track far behind them. The Alchemist led the way following an icy, fast-flowing river upstream; and long into the night they walked beneath the harsh light of the bone-white moon. Only in the short hour between moonset and sunrise did the Alchemist allow a moment of rest, during which his daughter lay down like a dog on the bare ground and fell instantly asleep. At dawn the girl’s father shook her roughly awake, handed her a piece of dry bread, and all that day too they walked, coming at last to a deep gorge. Here the Alchemist stopped to consult the black book, then led the way up the side of the gorge along a narrow ledge that climbed high above the river. At last they reached a place where the rock face was pitted like the stone of a peach with caves, some quite shallow, some deep and shadowy. The evening sunlight had turned the cliffs gold as honey. But, despite its early springtime warmth, the Alchemist’s Daughter shivered in sudden horror and turned to face her father.

“Enter that cave, child,” the Alchemist said.  “And forgive me what I must do.”

Like a sleepwalker the girl walked into the cave and stood in silence as her father rolled a huge stone across its mouth.  The stone sealed the cave quite exactly — mathematically, the Alchemist observed to himself with perverse delight. It swallowed the golden sunlight and left his daughter in darkness that was absolute.

“Father,” she called, “do not leave me here!”  And she began to scrabble and scrape at the rock-door until her fingernails were broken and bleeding, calling to her father all the while. But the Alchemist had tucked a wisp of moss into each ear. In the little black book he had bought from the Traveller there was a footnote on page 389 — (the Alchemist was a man who thought very highly of footnotes and endnotes and parenthesis and addendums). The footnote claimed that lead could be transmogrified into gold in the skull of a young woman, but only if she had died of natural causes. The Alchemist believed that dying of thirst in a cave was natural enough. So he sat down to wait with his back against the sun-warmed rock. All night he read by the light of the bone-white moon, and all the next day; and the following night — and there he remains to this day perhaps.

Inside the cave the Alchemist’s Daughter began to puzzle her way out her father’s trap, slowly circling the dark cave and brushing her bruised hands against every square inch of it — the rough, uneven walls, the low, sloping ceiling and the dry, sandy floor. At last, unable to find a chink or crack in the stone that covered the cave’s mouth, and convinced it would become her tomb, she sank to the floor and wept. When she was done crying, however, the girl noticed something sharp was digging into her, just below her heart, and reaching into her bodice she pulled out the jackdaw’s feather. As she ran her fingers along the plume it began to glow, then burn like the flame of a candle, dancing and guttering in some invisible draft.

Holding the burning feather before her like a torch the Alchemist’s daughter scanned the cave’s golden sandstone walls until she found at last the source of the draught: a narrow crevice, just wide enough to slip the tips of her fingers into, out of which a thread of fresh air flowed. With trembling hands the girl crumbled the soft stone between her fingers, widening the gap until she felt a latch smooth and cold as iron. This she hooked with her index finger.  It snagged and lifted and the chink grew wider as the rock swung open to reveal a roughly hewn door just wide enough for her to creep through. And by the dying light of the burning feather she scuttled down a flight of steep stairs into a narrow passageway.

Then, in the pitch dark once again, the girl began to walk. For miles and miles she walked, feeling her way with her feet, running the tips of her bloodied fingers along the rock walls, until she saw a white light ahead and heard birdsong, then the clamour of water. Finally she emerged from the beneath the mountain and found herself next to a racing, clamouring stream. With great relief in her heart the Alchemist’s Daughter ran out into the sunlight. Happy to still be alive, she threw herself to the soft ground in the shade of a golden larch and was soon fast asleep.

When she woke some hours later the Alchemist’s daughter knew she must find her way home. There was a narrow path leading into the forest, but it was on the other side of the stream. The water was deep and fast-flowing and deathly cold. The Alchemist’s Daughter reached into her bodice she found the blue ribbon the Traveller had given her. This she tossed across the river, and as it unravelled it became a delicate glass bridge that spanned the rushing water. The girl quickly crossed the river and set off in the direction of the setting sun. Not a moment too soon, either, for a pack of wolves came flying through the darkening forest and stood sniffing around the glade where she had slept. However, they would not cross the glass bridge, and the river flowed too swiftly for them to ford, so they sat at last and howled in frustration.

The sound of the wolves reached the Alchemist’s Daughter and she shivered with fear when she heard them, for now she was walking deep into the forest. The shadows were full of mysterious noises. Eyes gleamed in the dense undergrowth and twigs snapped and cracked on the forest floor. Something vast and shapeless and evil seemed to be following the girl, always just out of sight. The girl’s bright eyes were wide and watchful, and she held her last gift — the needle-sharp whisker — tight in her hand. She clutched it like a blade. Roots caught and snatched at her feet as she walked. Branches snagged her skirt and tore her hair. Thorns scratched her and burrs pricked her. And the shadowy figure lagged so close behind the Alchemist’s Daughter believed she could hear its harsh, shallow breathing. It panted with hunger, and she knew if she stopped to rest for a single moment, it would have her. So she stumbled on through the night, too fearful to stop and sleep, and at dawn found herself on a rocky outcrop high above the forest. The trees lay beneath her, an ocean of dark green, and no matter which direction the Alchemist’s Daughter looked she could not see her way home. She took the cat’s whisker and holding it flat on the palm of her hand she sang,

“Past river, past wolf, past beast in its lair,

It is time to go home — so take me there!”

With these words the girl blew the whisker and her breath lifted it high into the air, right over the edge of the rocky outcrop. As it fell the whisker became a ladder, and while the top of the ladder rested against the golden sandstone outcrop, the bottom vanished deep into the ocean of tangled trees. Oak and larch, beech and elm, hornbeam and hazelnut: root and branch they began to stir, lifting and falling like waves, thrashing and shuddering, until it seemed the Alchemist’s Daughter had summoned a great maelstrom of green needles and leaves. Then, sudden as the wild storm had been stirred up, it quietened. All was still. And out of the forest strolled her mother’s fat tomcat, his tail held high in the air. The girl hugged him and kissed him and for a time the cat tolerated this. At last though he drew himself out of her arms and stalked towards the top of the ladder. The Alchemist’s Daughter hesitated, afraid of the descent, but the cat arched his back and narrowed his eyes, impatient with her stupidity. So the girl picked up the marmalade cat – which stretched himself comfortably along her shoulders – and began to climb.

Down and down she climbed, through treetops so tall they were crowned with clouds. Down and down she climbed, past birds' nests and squirrels' dreys.  Down she climbed, while the sun rose high in the sky and then vanished below the horizon as night fell. In the dark of the night, by starlight and moonlight and owl-song the girl climbed, stopping every now and then to catch her breath and rest her trembling arms and legs. She did not look down and she did not look up, but on she went, climbing. And the cat sat warm and quiet across her shoulders and purred encouragingly, and sometimes gently pressed his sharp claws into her shoulders as though urging her on.

At last, as the golden dawn broke again, she reached the bottom of the ladder and found herself on the very edge of the village that was home.

In no time at all the Alchemist’s Daughter and the marmalade cat were back at the tumbledown cottage, and the girl found that in her absence spring had come. The garden surrounding her cottage was full of golden daffodils, while the barren old plum tree guarding the gate was covered in blossom.

The Alchemist’s Daughter and her marmalade cat lived very happily together from that time to this and almost everything she touched turned out as fine as her old plum tree. Her well water was the sweetest in the village, her cakes and pastries the lightest and tastiest, and her flowers and vegetables the most beautiful for miles around.

And when the Traveller came through the village the Alchemist’s Daughter did not slam the door in her face. Instead, she was invited in and fed a good dinner. Then, late into the evening the two young women would sit telling each other stories and singing songs, while the marmalade cat slept contently between them. And the Traveller alone knew that the girl’s kisses were as sweet and rich as the plum cake for which she was rightly famous.

Rebecca Hurst is a doctoral student at the University of Manchester where she writes poetry and researches Soviet fairy tales. Her work has appeared in Magma Poetry, The Next Review, The Golden Key, SWAMP, and Cricket Magazine. Her chamber opera Isabella, written with the composer Oliver Leith, premiered in London in 2015. Visit her at rebeccahurst.carbonmade.com and on Twitter @zinadreams.

Alexi Francis is an illustrator and writer. She works mainly in mixed media and pen and ink and is inspired by nature, myth, stories, the mystical and mysterious. In her writing she focuses mainly on nature writing but has also written and illustrated a magical tale for all generations. Visit her at alexifrancisillustrations.co.uk and on Twitter @AlexiFrancis.