Momentarily distracted by the sight of such happiness, Nyx did not realize she had come to the very apothecary’s shop she sought. She drew a deep breath as if summoning courage for battle and entered the claustrophobic shop whose wooden shelves were crammed with amber bottles and sleeves of powder all carefully labeled in flowing black script. A young apprentice knelt in the center of the shop grinding herbs with the largest mortar she had ever seen, and two funny little men in ruffled collars and velvet tights eyed her up and down. Undeterred, she strode to the counter where the men stood, one a customer like herself and the other the apothecary. He stood poised in his peaked and cockèd hat, waiting for her to speak.
“My twin is ill,” she said, her voice emanating in fluted notes from the dark cave of her hood. “Her alabaster cheeks have turned an alarming shade of crimson, and I need a patent to cure her terrible fever.”
The apothecary paused to look inside the dark from whence the girl’s voice came. Discerning nothing, he turned to his shelves and from the highest one procured the needed potion.
“Three didrachm,” he said, and held out for her inspection a tiny amber bottle filled with milky liquid.
She uncumbered her hand from her sleeve and reached for the bottle, and in the dark shop, her hand fairly glowed in the corroded light from the dust-mottled window.
“You see . . . sir,” she said, trying to quell the stammer in her voice. “I have no money.”
“Well, well,” he said, placing the bottle on the counter between them, just out of her reach. “But since you have come all this way . . .”
And because he had heard the strange legend of two beautiful and ancient twins who lived in the deep, deep woods, he said, “Perhaps you would be so kind as to take down your hood and let me see the face that belongs to such a dulcet voice.”
“I will do as you ask,” she said, thinking it a small request for such a monumental gift, “but first you must draw the drapes, for even by this scant light my skin has never been touched.”
“As you wish,” he said, and drew the velvet drapes across the stenciled letters
while the apprentice paused his mortar in its grinding and the sole other customer drummed his fingers impatiently upon the counter.
The apothecary was old enough to be her father—or rather, the father of her memory, so many years ago it was he died that she could hardly remember anything of him but a wreath of smoke around his head. And not having had the benefit of proper mothering, she could not see the harm in satisfying this strange man’s small desire. She pushed back her hood in one swift motion. The customer’s tapping ceased, and the apprentice dropped his mortar into the wooden well of his pestle.
At the sight of her, the apothecary lost his powers of speech. With his sulfur-stained hands, he fingered first her golden curls, each one a perfect spool of purest silk, and then her alabaster cheeks, unmarred by even the slightest crease or crinkle of Time, and finally her rose-colored lips, still sticky from the juice of her plum feast. His fingers lingered on her lips, and her cheeks colored with two spots of blood-red blush. She stood transfixed (and strangely thrilled) by the apothecary’s greedy touch.
The customer strode toward her then and urgently whispered in her ear, “Haven’t you read Freud?”
She gasped as he roughly drew the cloak-hood over her head and handed her the small, corked amber glass.
“Go!” he said. And without a word, she stole quickly away.
Again she found herself in the rounded square. She felt an odd, unsettled warmth settle upon her lips and then spread slowly down through the core of her body, as if a lighted match were fluttering down her throat. She told herself that the apothecary’s coarse, yellowed fingers were but a necessary means to restore her sister’s health. And yet, the feeling lingered as his hands upon her face. Her own hands still trembled ever so slightly, and she reached up to touch her lips, surprised by the sweet and sour taste of her experience, forgetting for a moment the bottle in her hand. The bottle slipped and shattered in shards on the cobblestones.
Small drops of the milky liquid splashed the hem of her white cloak, but she did not even notice as they penetrated the fabric, threading their way up its warp and weft. She did not notice because the sun was warm and sweet like honeyed tea, and her only thoughts were to wash her lips and cool the fever that had settled over her. And lo, the fountain called, its bursting, thrusting water as enticing as siren song. The two little girls still laughed and splashed in the refreshing water. Their slips clung transparent to their lithe bodies, and their arms and faces glistened golden-brown like buttered toast. They were not alone. Their mother sat knitting a long black shawl in a slanting pool of sunlight, oblivious to the wisdom of long-dead Wicked Stepmother, whose own skin, Nyx imagined, now stretched taut and dark over her skeleton like the tanned and desiccated hide of a skinned goat.
The girls’ laughter spoke to Nyx as longing. How could it be, she wondered, that she had only now just noticed the timbre of their joy? She wanted suddenly to dip her feet in the spring (for she was heat-stroked from her long journey) and to lift her face to the sun and feel it there, its warmth a touch she imagined not unlike the apothecary’s touch. The girls looked at her, a strange vision in white, her arms covered by wings of cloth, and they thought an angel had touched down for their pleasure.
“A fallen angel,” one whispered into the ear of the other.
They giggled and plotted and then held out their hands to the angel. “Come!” they said in unison, and splashed her white cloak with clear water.
The water looked delicious as the plums. As if in a trance, Nyx slipped the robe from her head and shoulders, and the heavy garment fell to the ground. The sun, touching her face for the first time, felt like a hundred hands caressing her. She stroked her cheeks, expecting to find the creases and crevasses of Time working instant mischief, but no. Her skin felt smooth, and she saw that her arms, too, remained white and pure. Wicked Stepmother had been wrong.
All those years, she thought, and sighed, and stepped into the eternal spring.
Again she sighed, for never before had her foot felt as it felt then, like mint dissolving on the tongue, her foot so light she did not notice it was no longer there. All she wanted was this sensation, mint and light, over and over, and so she placed her other foot in the spring, and the girls splashed her again, and her skin speckled as if the water were acid. And yet, it did not hurt even as the flesh dissolved. It felt instead like bubbles frothing, dancing lightly over her skin.
Horrified and dumbstruck in the face of the angel’s terrible disfiguration, the girls’ mother dropped her black knitting. But her daughters only laughed and splashed all the harder because they believed in fairies, in angels, in all things marvelous. They believed with all their hearts that this was one of their stories, charmed into life. Why should it not be so? Their angel’s ecstatic face confirmed the wisdom of their youthful vision. She sank and sank, down, down, down into the water as her legs dissolved and her wings melted and all that was left was head and shoulders bobbing on the fountain waves.
Was she not an angel? they wondered.