Aleksandar Prokopiev


This fairy-tale is to be told to postgraduate students
studying the subject of Elitist and Mass Culture

He found his teacher standing in front of the bell jar studying the homunculus with intense interest. Come! Come closer! the Teacher called to him without averting his gaze. Don’t you think it’s grown since last night?

Judging by the dark rings around his eyes, the Teacher had stayed up all night. But his eyes sparkled with the fire of a rejuvenated old lover. See how it’s stirred a bit!

His impression was that the little human inside the bell jar—or something that resembled a human—was lying just as still as ever. Its lips, hands, scrotum and feet were all recognizable, disproportionately well formed compared to the surrounding, almost amorphous mass.

It’s making rapid progress! Do you think it can see us? whispered Alcibiades in the tone of an excited child and not waiting for Boniface’s answer. Whatever the latter might have said, affirmative or otherwise, the Teacher would have ignored his response. Having dug up the mandrake root from under the gallows on Friday morning before dawn, he now protected it under a bell jar and was doing all that was necessary to get the homunculus’s organism to function. The process was far from easy from start to finish. The mandrake root had to be removed from the soil with great care. Thick double-layered gloves made of pig skin were used for this purpose because a mandrake can be very dangerous when dug out, oozing poisonous oily drops. Some people use dogs to pull the root out with their teeth and it often happens that the dog suffers the most horrendous death. The Teacher, familiar with the skill of extraction and the initial care of mandrake roots, was extremely careful and precise as always. He fed and watered the root with honey and milk and the blood of a freshly slaughtered young rooster. He made a bed for it out of the clumps of soil taken from underneath the gallows, soaked with the sperm of the hanged and enriched with forty-day-old horse manure. This was a tried and tested procedure which had helped Alcibiades bring several mute homunculi to life. These he employed as miniature servants or acrobats for entertainment. Their short lives (they lasted four months at most) did not detract much from their worth—a value appreciated by only a select few confidants whom the Teacher allowed to attend. Unlike those mechanical figures shaped like birds and bees and lute players that would tinkle for a little while and buzz or play on double strings (but with nothing like Francesco di Milano’s skill) and then flop like rejected marionettes after just a few minutes of activity, the homunculi actually ‘lived’ from the beginning to the end of their existence. Admittedly they were clumsy and their unfinished extremities—one of their arms or legs usually being shorter than the other, for example—made their bodies unattractive One could not compare their birth or death to that of humans or any other living creature. Created from a mandrake root that has sprouted from the sperm of a person who has come to a violent end, they are truly the offspring of death—the role of Eros is adopted by Thanatos in their case. Nor is their departure from this world very human. When the previous homunculi sensed that their day of judgment is nigh, these normally obedient creatures became more and more excited and restless. They couldn’t stay in one place but roamed the house with visible displeasure on their incompletely formed faces. Unable to speak, they released a sad and at the same time angry sound—something between a squeal and a growl. At dusk they would start scratching and beating the window panes like a cat or a dog wanting to get out for a piss. What Boniface found most mysterious and alarming was that the homunculi went out of the house and disappeared only at night. During the day, when it was obvious that they were depleted, they stayed indoors. They would crawl into some dark corner of the house, quietly whimpering all day long and waiting for the night to come. Alcibiades learnt that they were waiting for the sunset when, teetering and limping and without bidding farewell, they left in the night for good. Where do they disappear to? What do they turn into? There is something inscrutable here, beyond this life, and I think, my dear Boniface, that the riddle of time must have a different solution in their case. It is not like human time. And yet this creature could not have been born without a human seed, albeit one ejected in agony. The seed of the dying man fertilizes the womb of the soil. With the very act of birth this ‘omino’ destroys the illusion that life is a straight line that travels inexorably from its beginning to its end. Quite the other way round! Born literally at the end, the homunculus mocks the cruel joke that is imposed on us—the belief that time moves in only one direction and that ageing is irreversible. This ‘omino’ will prove the opposite!

Boniface was the direct and astonished witness of this obsession. The Teacher never moved away from the foetus in the bell jar, supplementing its food with berries, catfish roe and oil of St John’s wort.

Boniface was in his seventh year of apprenticeship with Alcibiades. He could still remember the day he had been accepted. It hadn’t been easy, even though his uncle, one of the richest nobles in town, had interceded for him. The Teacher had invited him to his house where his laboratory was situated. Boniface had just turned eighteen and had read De Hominis Dignitate, but this was of little help to him and did little to increase his confidence. The examination lasted three whole days. To the initial questions—questions about chronomancy, about the basics of the magic square, about the painting of the atramentum in red and its dissolution in water, about the dual nature of ammoniac, about the interpretation of the calendar in days and decades and in accordance with the trajectory of the Moon…—his answers were prompt and clear and delivered with no hesitation. When the Teacher asked him to apply astro-mathematics to concrete medical problems, however, such as the functioning of the thymus and the heart in dependence on the influences of the sun, the functioning of the lungs in relation to Mercury, the functioning of the eyes and the gall-bladder in dependence on Mars, Boniface needed to think a while and struggled to give the correct answer. (He listened carefully to Alcibiades’s clarifications later.) And on the last day of the examination, when the questions concerned the more secret spheres—the astral spirits that inhabited the heavenly bodies and governed human souls with them and through them, the building spirits who created energy-chains, the recording spirits who left records about the use of those energy chains for future advice, prophecies and curing–—Boniface could only remain silent, his cheeks burning like a child learning the alphabet, excited and terrified in anticipation of learning the answers from the Teacher. The Teacher was obviously pleased with his conduct. At the end of the examination he declared Knowledge is ambiguous. At times when you are sure you have it, you saturate it with too much verbosity. At other times, scared you don’t have it, you become stingy with words or hold your tongue. Not unlike in music, in the first case the melody is overcrowded, while in the second the tones gain greater depth from the pauses in between. As from tomorrow the doors of my house will be open to you. We will work together! At first your efforts will be great and your pleasure might be little, but in time, when you have built the foundations of your castle in the sky, you won’t be able to live outside it anymore. Alcibiades had in fact been describing the composition of his own life (to use one of the musical analogies so dear to him). But he proved largely right: despite the differences in their characters, Boniface had managed over these past seven years of apprenticeship, through dedication and sustained interest, ‘to fill his Temple with sculptures and harmony...’ as his Teacher used to say, in order to ‘...relinquish himself to the mysteries of Wisdom all by himself.’

Despite the virtuous knowledge of things that he had acquired during their time together, Boniface hadn’t lost any of his childlike inquisitiveness. The directness with which the Teacher involved him in his experiments would either give him the creeps or overwhelm him with uncontrolled smiles, depending on whether his assumptions were being confirmed or remained ambiguous.

- What do you think? How does it perceive us? What kind of image can it form of us? Does it ask itself ‘Are they real? Do they exist? Do I exist?’

Standing woodenly beside the stooping Teacher staring excitedly at the bell jar, Boniface could not suppress the feeling that this time they had gone in an opposite direction and that there was an impending danger of stumbling upon something scary and dark. He remembered what the Teacher had told him one late evening when, under his guidance, he had prepared several vials of ointment made of anis, onion, olive oil and basil against inflammation and pain in the ears: - There, now you have learnt how to make this medicine. As a student who travels the sea of knowledge, I hope that with my modest assistance you’ll one day manage to reach the opposite shore. But no-one else except you yourself, good Boniface, with all your investment, dedication and bravery, will be able to reach the opposite shore of the sea called Time.

Now as he watched Alcibiades following the development of the homunculus in some sort of ecstasy, Boniface rather thought that, unlike the Teacher, he would not be able to reach the shore called Time after all.

- In my case, Boniface, there is only one challenge that drives me to make this homunculus more perfect than the others and that is the truth. I want to create a body like a glove and a mind that will fit as perfectly as a hand in that glove. You know that when we lose our body we can see—that is, if we have progressed sufficiently on our earthly journey—the astral aspects of all phenomena, and that through our dreams we can even influence other people’s thoughts. However, we would find it most difficult to communicate physically, as one body with another body. Through the homunculus, though...

- You mean through his second ‘self’?

- Precisely. Because in this way the innocent who was hanged will once more become aware of the vibrations and influences of physical matter.

- But wouldn’t that involve a process in the opposite direction, too? The homunculus, the hanged man, I mean, could vibrate and influence this world and us!

-That is precisely what I am hoping for! exclaimed Alcibiades, straightening up his body, his eyes smouldering with some almost subterranean depth. That is when the truth will come to the surface!

- So that is why you are making such a great effort to get this homunculus to speak?

- It will speak! And with his voice, the voice of Count Maurizio Benedetti. And then we will find out what really happened.

- But everybody knows he was hanged for murder… Boniface murmured, somewhat unconvinced.

- And under whose orders was he hanged, I ask you? Who was the one who had Count Benedetti executed? ... I am a scientist, my dear Boniface, not a politician. I am interested in power over chemical processes, not in power over people. But if I were a politician I wouldn’t govern with such ruthlessness and cruelty towards my opponents as the people in government now do.

- Our masters? Boniface blurted, and recognized at once the hypocrisy of his humbleness.

- Yes, our masters. God help anyone who dares say anything against them. He will be rewarded in grand fashion. He will be swallowed by the dark without a trace, without a sound. Painlessly… (Alcibiades did not conceal his scorn.) And it works perfectly with the people because they are scared and gullible in equal measure...

- But they have built a University. And many scholars have visited the Palace from Florence... Poliziano, Ficino, Mirandola ...

–I know, I know, I was there and I listened to them with delight, though critically too. But my good Boniface, that penchant for lectures, receptions and feasts our so-called masters have in such great amounts has nothing to do with the poor servility of our citizens, not to mention their vulgarity. Count Benedetti was one of the few who dared criticize the government aloud for its parading and boasting and for its real neglect of the ordinary mortals. You will agree that ceremonies cannot compensate for life, though they can be used as efficient distractions. The Count’s trial for the murder of his brother and Alessandra di Prana was one such distraction, completely rigged, and no one can dissuade me that this was not a very cunning manoeuvre of the government to be rid of an opponent.

Taking up his quill he began to write letters upon the body of the homunculus. The quill was white but the letters were dark red like blood. Boniface recognized Latin, Hebrew and Greek letters among them, but the rest were completely unknown to him.

Even before he had framed the question, the Teacher responded: These are letters from the angular Glagolitic alphabet, the younger sister of the round Glagolitic alphabet presented to Rome by Constantine the Philosopher centuries ago together with the relics of St. Clement of Rome. The first two people to make it known were Athanasius the Librarian and Gauderic of Velletri. These letters are still in use on the island of Veglia in the Adriatic—the one the Slavs call Krk—and in the town of Zara, too, all the way up north on the Adriatic coast...

Boniface nodded, though he was far from being able to fully grasp this hastily pronounced onslaught of new data. He had become used to listening to the Teacher carefully in order to remember all he said so that he could obtain more clarification later from the glossaries in the library.

- I have added the Glagolitic alphabet together with Latin, Greek and Hebrew so that I can embed the Logos inside him—the Logos that joins pure ideas and reality. I am drawing the trunk of the word. I feed it with letters. The branches elongate and intertwine with other word-trunks and complement each other... And for this reason I use different alphabets, so that it can learn and remember the shape, the order and the uses of all the letters... So that it can speak... For this purpose I am using a quill made of a swan’s feather. There is magic that can transform a swan into a human and the other way round... Zeus seduced Leda in the shape of a swan... The red colour is beetroot juice. thickened and boiled nine times so that it is lasting and permanent...

Though the letters were written only lightly, the homunculus’s skin absorbed them very slowly. Their outlines were still visible ten days later. And the homunculus was still mute.

- Teacher, he hasn’t spoken yet.

- Be patient, Boniface. When the Moon’s horns facs the same way as when I wrote the letters, the time will have come to hear its voice.

- Please understand my confusion. This... business... was a bit unexpected for me...

- Silence! Alcibiades interrupted him. – See how it breathes!

The candleholder that shone upon the bell jar was placed on the edge of the table (Boniface was forced to move it a bit more inwards), highlighting the homunculus who appeared as if upon an enormous dark rectangle much larger than the table. The ugly and degenerate baby grew rapidly. The light of the candles added to the pale yellow of the homunculus’s face. The face appeared swollen and as if from another world, not only because of its waxy complexion but also its irregular features, its left eye being much higher than its right. The creature’s unruly red strands of hair looked as if artificially planted on its head. Its lips were too large and too soft.

Boniface felt the air grew thick and musty as he looked on, as if he were in a room that had not been aired for a long time. His gaze turned to the creature’s hairless chest that rose and fell with small rapid breaths chasing one another as if recovering from great exertion.

- Let’s remove the jar. It needs more air.

The Teacher was rushing—the bell jar had enough small openings to allow an air flow. But Alcibiades was so impatient he almost dropped the glass bell when he tried to lift it. ‘It’s been a long time,’ thought Boniface, ‘since I’ve seen the Teacher so excited.’

Yes... there it’s with us...

The homunculus’s breathing grew louder. Some half-sound half-noise ...agrr...agrr... akrr... was coming out of its swollen lips ...agrr...agrr... akrr... and they could even recognize the vague outlines of the long diphthong aoo... between the bouts of gurgling.

- I can see it happening, Boniface! Fragments of thoughts that once belonged to Count Maurizio have started forming in its head, I recognize the anxiety... Don’t hold back—ask me the thing that troubles you most: Is he going to speak? Well, respected Boniface, (could there be mockery in this address?) our brains are from God and we should trust them. There is a reason for the existence of all things in this world. The compass tells us where we are and where we should go. Gunpowder tells us how to kill people from a distance. Dog-headed people and the Amazonians tell us, too, though not about who they are but who we are.

Overwhelmed and trembling in confusion, Boniface listened to his Teacher’s elated talk.

- And tonight he is to receive his name—Maurizio (Boniface said it together with him). We will address him as if he has been born again. We have given him his life back, Boniface! We have resurrected Count Maurizio!

The previous homunculi had been marked with numbers instead of names. (To Boniface these number-names sounded too jolly for their sad fates: Primo, Secondo, Terzo...) The current homunculus was their ninth and would have been awarded the name Nono (!) if the Teacher’s intentions and expectations, as well as the meaning of its existence, had not been quite different.

Count Maurizio Benedetti’s case was considered a politically motivated murder by the majority of the Republic’s citizens, but to state this openly—or even to whisper it—required great courage, for spies lurked behind every corner and punishments came swiftly and silently. The Benedetti family was such a grand family that for decades only a few could equal it in nobility and wealth. Bernardo, the father of Maurizio and his younger brother Jacopo, was for many years, until his death in fact, a member of the Council of the Six, the highest authority in the city that governed the Republic. It was expected that his son Maurizio would replace him in the Council. But that didn’t happen. At least not immediately. The official public announcement declared, hypocritically and cunningly, some would say even maliciously, that Count Maurizio’s public behaviour should be investigated before his appointment. The count’s involvement in a number of public incidents was said to indicate a violent nature and a lack of stature for such a high and responsible office. And indeed Maurizio did lack his father’s innate nobility and was prone to causing brawls and fights. But wasn’t that typical of a great number of young people in this city? They were ruled by the fiery element, cholera, hot and dry, a fruit of their impatient youth. According to the Teacher, the fact that Maurizio’s cholera was more pronounced had been used and abused by his powerful adversaries to his detriment and ruin.

For three years the Count was married to the most beautiful woman in the city. Boniface once had the rare opportunity of seeing Alessandra di Prana, later Countess Benedetti, pass him on the street and was, like pretty much anyone in the same situation, shocked and astounded by her attractiveness. She was five or six years older than him at the time, which was considered a great difference in age even though Boniface had already reached adolescence, but her beauty glided past him as if untouched by time, like the beauty of Helen of Troy or Simonetta Vespucci. She fully deserved the name by which she was known around the city—La Bella. Her wild red hair, decorated with a pearl diadem, made her pure white skin seem whiter still by contrast. The girls and women of the city spared no expense in their efforts to achieve such paleness. (It was no secret to Boniface that a great proportion of the Teacher’s income came from his sales of skin-whitener for ladies.) But in Alessandra di Prana’s case, her delicate paleness and dark fiery curls were a gift from nature or God. The third miracle of beauty revealed to the enthralled beholder (embarrassed by his unconcealed admiration) was in her elongated, almond-shaped light brown eyes—eyes that could be described as melancholy if it weren’t for the laughter playing in them from some hidden depth and their brave and open, even piercing gaze that only increased Boniface’s confusion.

As a child Boniface had listened to the stories told around the city about La Bella: about her beauty, but also about her amazing singing and playing of the flute. It was said that she also wrote verses dedicated to love and ornamented with delicate elegance. And so the announcement of her betrothal to Count Maurizio Benedetti, an uncouth man devoid of style and a confirmed misery-guts, caused consternation to all. Elderly ladies could be overheard gossiping that she had been forced to marry the Count for his wealth. For though Alessandra di Prana was a descendant of one of the oldest noble families hereabouts, she was impoverished now and this was her last chance to win a rich home. But the gossips continued to wonder why her father hadn’t chosen the younger Benedetti, Count Jacopo, who unlike his brother was a playful spirit, a lover of art, and in any case much more suitable to become beautiful Alessandra’s husband. The obvious answer was that Maurizio, as the firstborn, was set to inherit the wealth of the Benedetti family and had been planning for quite some time to make this beautiful noblewoman the mother of his children. In this city, which prided itself on its free spirit and its jocular and teasing canzonetti and frottoli, all women were ordered to cease wearing clothes of any colour except black after the first six years of marriage. High, ruffled collars and wide sleeves were allowed to be worn for another twelve years before these too had to disappear.

- We’re not involving ourselves in sacrilege, if that’s what worries you Boniface. We are not resurrecting a dead man for the sheer sake of it, we are doing it to right the wrong that he suffered. God prefers those who work hard, those who strive to fulfil some mission, some duty in their lives, to those who passively fail to stir and think that regular church attendance is their only task. Count Maurizio, if we manage to revive him, may not have the same bodily shape he used to but he may be able to tell the truth he was prevented from saying before those pretend judges. The magnificent Pico once wrote that ‘God has given man a choice as to the shape in which he is going to exist on this Earth. If he chooses to live like a plant, he’ll be a plant and if he chooses to live like a dog then he’ll be a dog. But if he chooses to be a man then he chooses the manner in which he will exist.’ Not unlike the human body, the body of this homunculus is mortal and finite. It has a very short life, but it will enable us to revive Count Maurizio’s soul so it can tell us what I firmly believe is the truth—that he was innocent!

Even though the Republic was accustomed to dark and ghoulish events, the news of the murder had been received with horror—the most beautiful and gracious Alessandra di Prana and the noble Count Jacopo cruelly slaughtered!

Alcibiades was immediately summoned to the crime scene, being highly esteemed as a master of medicine, with knowledge of Hippocrates, Galen, Aristotle and the teachers from the Salerno-Montpelier school—knowledge which he successfully applied on his patients. The woman was already dead but Count Jacopo was still alive, his vitality fading away and his heartbeat almost inaudible, his pulse twitching like the tail of a mouse... (Boniface quickly checked himself on the procedure of the ‘mousetail’: ‘when you place four fingers on the vein, you will only faintly feel the pulse under the first finger, it will become more distinctive under the second finger, and even more under the third, but almost non-existent under the fourth. This kind of pulse indicates a fatal outcome.’) ... a terrible sight... a deep gash in the upper part of the neck just under the chin had cut through the blood vessels and tendons, inflicted with the precision of a professional assassin. Blood was still gushing from the wound. The man’s eyes were wide open and he tried to say something but what came out was as indistinct as if he had a piece of cloth stuffed in his mouth. I stooped over him and managed to understand the following: ‘C’e una speranza di salvezza.’ There is hope for salvation. Yes, good Boniface, that is exactly what he said: There is hope for salvation. Those were his last words, followed by his gurgling last breath and death. 

Count Maurizio was immediately charged with double murder from motives of jealousy. He was tried with great haste and the verdict was equally hasty: death by hanging. The appeals of his friends to prolong the trial while they gathered counter-evidence only fell on deaf ears.

-And all this when there was clearly room for doubt, my good Boniface! Why was Count Jacopo killed in such a manner and not in a duel? Why was he not stabbed in the chest the way one would expect from such a temperament as his brother’s? And why was Alessandra di Prana murdered? Maurizio Benedetti could yell at a woman, even insult her, but he could never kill a woman in cold blood.

Only a few days after the murders of Alessandra and Jacopo, Count Maurizio Benedetti walked towards the gallows with rage in his eyes and curses upon his lips. – I’ll be back, you scoundrels! And I will take my revenge! he yelled just before he was hanged.

- He departed from this world irate and inflamed.

The homunculus no longer needed the protection of the bell jar. He soon began moving by himself, teetering just like all the other previous homunculi. Only his step, because he was so much larger, was heavier and slower. Thus clumsily he teetered under Alcibiades’s protective gaze throughout the house, swaying from his longer to his shorter leg, mumbling and stopping occasionally, whether in front of the large iron bed or in the library with its old manuscripts, or on the shelves with glass test-tubes. He even tried to pick up one of the latter, luckily an empty one, but it slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor, breaking into a thousand pieces. The Teacher rushed to collect the broken shards. – Are you all right, Maurizio? Did you hurt yourself? he asked. - Aca? - What? – Acqua! exclaimed the Teacher. – Boniface, he said acqua! He wants some water. He understands it all! and he began jumping and skipping like a child.

- From now on he’ll sit at the table with us, Boniface! the Teacher announced solemnly as soon as he’d pulled himself together again, And we shall share our meals together.

Boniface found this ‘at the table’ a little ridiculous since the Teacher, always carried away with his work, would often skip meals, and even when he didn’t, would mostly eat merely a piece of bread and some onion and wash it down with some light wine. But this time he proudly laid the table with the embroidered Flemish cloth and the finest silver cutlery. The meal began with a dried vegetable stew which the homunculus slurped up with gusto. – More! it murmured as he finished his last helping. The Teacher was over the moon! Every word the homunculus managed to squeeze out as it devoured the rabbit in garum sauce and cabbage with garlic was greeted with a fresh wave of excitement. Despite its unclear pronunciation, Boniface was astounded by the precision with which the homunculus guessed the words as if it had known them before.

At the end of the meal, Alcibiades poured some mead—a drink with a gentle effect. He filled his own and Boniface’s silver cup to the brim while the homunculus, whom he addressed as ‘Maurizio’ or ‘Count Maurizio’, received only half a cup. Having downed it in a single go, the homunculus immediately demanded ‘red burgundy’, pronouncing the words with exceptional clarity. The dinner revolved around the homunculus’s enormous appetite and its murmured words that never failed to excite the Teacher’s loud admiration. It lasted deep into the night, though Boniface experienced the whole thing as unreally, unusually crammed. The two of them together, the teacher Alcibiades and the homunculus Maurizio, saw Boniface to the door and wished him ‘buona note’.

Walking down the narrow city streets towards his parental home, Boniface could not rid himself of the disturbing thought that he should not have left the Teacher alone tonight, alone with a dangerous and immoderate creature that increasingly reminded him of the real Count Benedetti, bestially cruel in his attacks of uncontrollable rage. The ritual of the posthumous mystery of the homunculus loomed like a dark cloud above the Teacher’s head in Boniface’s disturbed thoughts. What are you waiting for? Go back immediately! he ordered himself.

Breathless and terrified, he found himself in front of the Teacher’s house. The front door was wide open and groaning sounds came from the dining room. Amongst the scattered dishes, cups and leftover food lay the Teacher Alcibiades curled up on the floor, stabbed in the chest with a dagger like the one they had used to carve the rabbit.

- ...That Maurizio... was a mistake... he wasn’t natural... the operation... a bad idea...

Boniface pictured Count X disappearing into the night, that evil creature capable of any crime, limping on one of its legs along the dark alleys all the way to the gates of the city and then out to God knows where.

- That great thing I yearned for... to bring it back... to test the Time...I let it go away... into the night...

- It will be all right, Teacher. Do not strain yourself. Everything will be all right.

- ... to return to God... and its old measure... inaccessible for humans... Time...

As he carefully placed a silk cushion beneath the head of the wounded man, Boniface did not and could not have known that centuries later an alchemist of the verse with the androgynous name of Reiner Maria would sing the very same words under the chains of synchronicity invisible to the mortal’s eye—the Teacher’s message which seemed to him only the stammer of the wounded:

Translation: Matthew and Marija Jones

На Растку објављено: 2012-01-26
Датум последње измене: 2012-01-26 15:20:12

Пројекат Растко / Проект Растко Македонија