Chemicals and their esoteric connection to the sustaining of life had always held a particular fascination for me. From the earliest days I would put salt on a slug, and as it melted, quickly apply a solution of camphor and ipecac and watch as it regenerated before my young boy’s eyes. Metals were easy to work with. I never did succeed in turning a base metal into gold, but with the help of a strong electrical pulse and copious applications of saliva, I did succeed in transforming dysprosium into molybdenum. Sadly I only produced the effect once. I attribute this to the fact that I had a throat infection at the time and the bacteria in my spittle was surely the key to the transformation.

When I decided to try my new endeavor, the winter was especially tumultuous and I could scarcely get out of the house. When necessity required it, I would don my grandfather’s black rubber coat and hat. And reluctantly, amid in the fierce night storms and black snow flurries and tornadoes, I would venture out for what I needed, bracing myself against the sleet, scampering from porch to tree to shed as the lightning pursued me with malice, snapping at my heels. It was just such a night when I felt I must procure some new diversion or go mad. Under black skies and violent weather, I set out for a curiosity shop of some acquaintance.

The man at the counter did not speak proper English, and the parcel he gave me was labeled in a language that resembled his throaty, tongue-heavy speech made up of various gargling sounds and Nordic vowels and an occasional cumbersome English adjective. “Alchemic,” he kept saying. He pointed at me and to the package, and then to heaven, saying “alchemic!” repeating it with gesticulations, saying it now slow, now fast, and finally beating the countertop with his fist as if this would stir my comprehension. In response to my request for a hobby kit involving chemical elements with biological applications, he had disappeared for several minutes in the rear of the shop and, returning, produced the parcel previously described. “Alchemic,” he croaked. Finally I discerned that he was speaking of alchemy.

“Ah! Alchemy. Yes, I know something of the subject,” I replied, and I tried to describe to him my success with molybdenum. I surrendered after a moment when I realized that I was wasting my time with him, for he merely looked at me with an increasing intensity and a guttural diphthong utterance at random points that momentarily interrupted my tale. As I attempted to carry on casual shop clerk banter, he was becoming more and more animated, if that can be imagined. And the more I tried to thank him and ask about the parcel, the more be began to pound the countertop and to point his finger in my face and finally to shout what I can only assume to be rank profanity in his glyphic and forgotten tongue.

And when he seemed to have expressed the burden of his dialectic in the fury of passion into which he had lathered himself, he fell silent and pointed to the door with a resolute finger and his head bowed. “But I have not paid you yet,” I protested, in response to which he returned to his apoplexy. And in blushing astonishment before his leaping and stamping and swooping gestures toward the door and his voice that signaled that a seizure was nigh, I grabbed up the parcel under my arm and I fled out the door to the frightful ululation of his pagan doggerel that summoned twelve legions of demons, or so it seemed to me.