They were strange books
They were strange books. They spoke about mercury, salt, dragons, and kings, and he didn’t understand any of it. But there was one idea that seemed to repeat itself throughout all the books: all things are the manifestation of one thing only.
In one of the books he learned that the most important text in the literature of alchemy contained only a few lines, and had been inscribed on the surface of an emerald.
“It’s the Emerald Tablet,” said the Englishman, proud that he might teach something to the boy.
“Well, then, why do we need all these books?” the boy asked.
“So that we can understand those few lines,” the Englishman answered, without appearing really to believe what he had said.
The book that most interested the boy told the stories of the famous alchemists. They were men who had dedicated their entire lives to the purification of metals in their laboratories; they believed that, if a metal were heated for many years, it would free itself of all its individual properties, and what was left would be the Soul of the World. This Soul of the World allowed them to understand anything on the face of the earth, because it was the language with which all things communicated. They called that discovery the Master Work—it was part liquid and part solid.
“Can’t you just observe men and omens in order to understand the language?” the boy asked.
“You have a mania for simplifying everything,” answered the Englishman, irritated. “Alchemy is a serious discipline. Every step has to be followed exactly as it was followed by the masters.”
The boy learned that the liquid part of the Master Work was called the Elixir of Life, and that it cured all illnesses; it also kept the alchemist from growing old. And the solid part was called the Philosopher’s Stone.
“It’s not easy to find the Philosopher’s Stone,” said the Englishman. “The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified the metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves.”
The boy thought about the crystal merchant. He had said that it was a good thing for the boy to clean the crystal pieces, so that he could free himself from negative thoughts. The boy was becoming more and more convinced that alchemy could be learned in one’s daily life.
“Also,” said the Englishman, “the Philosopher’s Stone has a fascinating property. A small sliver of the stone can transform large quantities of metal into gold.”
Having heard that, the boy became even more interested in alchemy. He thought that, with some patience, he’d be able to transform everything into gold. He read the lives of the various people who had succeeded in doing so: Helvetius, Elias, Fulcanelli, and Geber. They were fascinating stories: each of them lived out his destiny to the end. They traveled, spoke with wise men, performed miracles for the incredulous, and owned the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.
But when the boy wanted to learn how to achieve the Master Work, he became completely lost. There were just drawings, coded instructions, and obscure texts.
* * *
“Why do they make things so complicated?” he asked the Englishman one night. The boy had noticed that the Englishman was irritable, and missed his books.
“So that those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand,” he said. “Imagine if everyone went around transforming lead into gold. Gold would lose its value.
“It’s only those who are persistent, and willing to study things deeply, who achieve the Master Work. That’s why I’m here in the middle of the desert. I’m seeking a true alchemist who will help me to decipher the codes.”
“When were these books written?” the boy asked.
“Many centuries ago.”
“They didn’t have the printing press in those days,” the boy argued. “There was no way for everybody to know about alchemy. Why did they use such strange language, with so many drawings?”
The Englishman didn’t answer him directly. He said that for the past few days he had been paying attention to how the caravan operated, but that he hadn’t learned anything new. The only thing he had noticed was that talk of war was becoming more and more frequent.
* * *
Then one day the boy returned the books to the Englishman. “Did you learn anything?” the Englishman asked, eager to hear what it might be. He needed someone to talk to so as to avoid thinking about the possibility of war.
“I learned that the world has a soul, and that whoever understands that soul can also understand the language of things. I learned that many alchemists realized their destinies, and wound up discovering the Soul of the World, the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Elixir of Life.
“But, above all, I learned that these things are all so simple that they could be written on the surface of an emerald.”
The Englishman was disappointed. The years of research, the magic symbols, the strange words and the laboratory equipment . . . none of this had made an impression on the boy. His soul must be too primitive to understand those things, he thought.
He took back his books and packed them away again in their bags.
“Go back to watching the caravan,” he said. “That didn’t teach me anything, either.”
The boy went back to contemplating the silence of the desert, and the sand raised by the animals. “Everyone has his or her own way of learning things,” he said to himself. “His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our destinies, and I respect him for that.”