Up and Down

J. Siegal

Story image for Up and Down by

T hat glum and stupid day, when I set foot in Mr. Morgan’s apothecary, I knew, or I should have known, that something dismal was in the offing. It was just such a typical ruin of a morning; I missed my bus and got my foot stuck in a puddle of muck, and then like an idiot I went galumphing after the bus, only to realize I’d left my briefcase on the bus stop bench, and when I returned, drenched and moping, the sagging slats of the bench were empty.

This was bound to end at Morgan’s. Maybe, I thought, that curious old boulder of a man might light a candle or something and read my palm and sell me some potion to quell my gross moods.

I entered his apothecary, and the bell on the door gave up a dull clank. I smirked and said he’d better get that fixed, it sounded pretty disheartening.

Mr. Morgan insisted on proper introductions. He said this from the back of the shop, and his voice stirred the plumes curling from his incense cones. Then he slumped into the front room of the shop and my palm rose to meet his, and we shook hands as if there were great import to my arrival at his shoddy establishment.

He cleared what must have been a massive wad of phlegm and swallowed. “You have,” he said, letting the word settle all the way down to the dust, “come to the right place.”

Orbit-sml ><

T he man Morgan wedged his large rump—obvious even under the flowing robes of his costume, I could tell—into an aching wicker chair, and bade me take a stool across the table.

“Take off your shoes,” he intoned. “They are full of mud.”

With just as much wit as I could muster, which wasn’t much, I told him of the awful bus and of my losing my stuff, and how an indigent man had mocked me as I slunk back to my stupid job.

He picked his teeth with a silver toothpick while the larger of his eyes took in my story.

“You must excuse me,” he said. “Your shoes.”

I took my shoes to the front of the store and tried not to look too hard at all the scummy merchandise leaning off of shelves and towering in the corners, but something struck me in my gut, some lack.

I sat back on the stool, and as Morgan and I regarded one another, he folded his large fingers together.

“You have no price tags on your wares,” I said.

Morgan drummed his heavy fingers on the table. “You’ve not come here,” he said, “seeking gifts or perfumes.”

I removed my simple hat and held it in my lap. “It’s true.”

Had I struck out in the wrong direction with this visit? Maybe I should have my fortune read, and throw in with every unmoored matron hoping at suitors for her daughters, every keen young man tripping forward into the future?

As I searched for the courage to tell what I’d come for, my eyes wandered around the shop and settled on a large frosted mirror. “What good is a mirror that’s completely frosted over?”

“It’s terrible,” Morgan said, “terrible.” He settled in his seat and stroked his scruff. “But have you come to my shop to haggle over trinkets and talismans?”

“I guess not,” I said, but my eyes fell on a mannequin next to the mirror. It struck an absolutely rigid pose, its arms stiff at its sides, yet I could not get over the notion that it was meant somehow to be dancing, as if it were uncomfortable.

“That mannequin over there, it’s very odd. There are no joints at the limbs. How does one get the clothes onto it?”

“The mannequin is exquisitely expensive,” said Morgan. “Do you want it in your home?”

“No, not really.”

Morgan’s voice sank deeper, and his larger eye squinted. “It is very shrewd, the way you are trying my patience.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Truly.”

I got up to pace about the room in my stocking feet, hoping to grasp at the essence of why I’d come to visit Morgan at his bizarre apothecary, imagining myself some inquisitor of my own desires. I attempted a grand gesture in the hope some flourish would unlock my tongue, and stuck my hand through a portrait leaning in a corner. When I removed my hand, a gaping half of a face glowered from the canvas, incredulous at me.

Morgan gripped the armrests of his chair and shifted forward, as if he were about to rise and beat me.

“Do you know,” he bellowed, “whose face you’ve just disemboweled?”

My apology was fleeting and ineffective.

“That was a portrait,” Morgan said, wiping his face with a red kerchief, “of my progenitor. A great… a great…”

“Apothecarian?” I offered.

“Sit down!” Morgan’s voice shook the room. I sat back in my chair.

“I can pay to have the portrait restored,” I said.

Morgan chuckled to himself. He returned his kerchief to his robe and leaned across the table. “I shall ask you to leave,” he said.

Desperation gripped me. “Please, Mr. Morgan. Hear me out. I have been stuck in this rut of rotten success and stupid progress. I find that my one foot skips while the other goes lame, in every thing I attempt. In business, in love, in matters of family… there isn’t a solitary part of my life in balance, and the only thing that exceeds the sunshine is the cold water splashed each time in my face. I have a great success, and the next thing I know I’m back in the muck. I meet a lovely lady, and before I know it she’s been swept away… by another man, by a tidal undercurrent, by syphilis. I have a wonderful turn of affairs in business, just to find myself on the street again.

“I’m finally feeling flush,” I said, “and I want to cure it all. I’ve tried all the books and the lectures and the talking-doctors and the woozy medical preparations. By account of those who seem to know, you would be a man who can help with such afflictions of… fate or something.

“I want you,” I said, drawing myself up in my chair, “to concoct for me a stabilizing potion. An analgesic for my fortunes. I want my life to cease being so damned up and down. It’s got so I can hardly sleep at night. Please, I’m desperate for your help.”

Morgan regarded me with evident pity.

“Let me see,” he said, rising slowly from his chair. “I think I may have something…”

He made his way over to a great lurking cabinet of drawers and opened many of them in turn, muttering and poking through them.

“Here we are,” he said, and handed me an amber coin with an ancient insect trapped within. “Put this under your pillow at night, but never on Sundays. It will help steady and calm your life. No charge, no charge, my friend. Put it under your pillow and you’ll be fine. Thank you for stopping into my store. Don’t forget your shoes.”

I took the coin and held it up, though there was little ambient light in the shop. The tiny beast was caught in a great dollop of long-hardened sap.

“What is so special about this particular specimen?” I said. “I’ve seen these in museums and curio shops before. As I said, I was hoping for some kind of potion or tincture—”

At that moment, the coin slipped from my grasp and rolled the length of the store, past the dusty shelves and cabinets, past the odd taxidermy and the stacks of misshapen boxes, and settled, with a humming clatter, into the far reaches of a dark corner between the pots of two large and sulking plants.

“No problem,” I said, rising quickly. “I’ll go get that.”

Do not approach those plants!” Morgan’s face was as red as his kerchief. He pointed a fat finger at my face. “You are an attractor of chaos,” he said. “Get out of my store. I cannot help you.”

“Can you not retrieve the amber coin?”

“That’s just a toy. It’s not even real amber.” His gaze fell on my face. “But I do have something else for you.”

Morgan reached into his robe and drew forth his necklace, a marvelous shard of crystal on a silver chain. The pendant hung still and seemed to draw every bit of light from the dreary shop.

“Do you see this crystal?” he said. “It is a structure most miraculous—every atom of it perfectly aligned. It is always in the most sublime stasis. Yet there is power, even one might say life, within it.”

I had considered such trifles beneath me, had always scoffed those I saw molesting some stone or other, cooing at a collection of trinkets, scrutinizing tea leaves. A potion had been my desire, but now I found myself entranced. Maybe there was something to this crystal. I would have to possess it.

“Yes,” I said, egging myself on. “I can see how that might be soothing, or steadying, to hang something like that against my chest.” I stood up, knocking over a distressed lamp that crashed angrily to the floor. “How much for the necklace?”

Morgan’s smile drifted from his large eye to the smaller. “This is not for sale.”

“Of course, of course,” I said. “Well you must have another one somewhere. What about here?” I brushed my hand along a row of rattling boxes.

“Do not—touch—my things!”

I stood silent in my stocking feet, chastised by the great man.

“I bid you sit down,” Morgan said, and by some force of his imposing presence I complied. “Just examine this spectacular relic, and let its calming power claim your attention. Let it steady you. Let it heal you. Inhale deeply of its light. Allow it to calcify and calm your ragged nerves. Receive its invitation.”

As he said this, my gaze focused upon the charm draped over his massive thumb. His words fell away into mumbling and the crystal seemed to enlarge, reflecting more and more light, drawing it from every recess of the room, slowly sparkling, radiating beams, a brilliant spectacle, a still-life dance of radiance.

“How much,” I blurted through leaden lips.

Orbit-sml ><

I f I try to trickle upwards, I stick. And if I try a sideways slip, these tricky beams, these peculiar pricks of light restrict me. They shine in from just above wherever Master Morgan sits. His rosy ears are often understimulated, so he drapes himself in tinkling robes adorned with clever singing trinkets. But even when he sheds his finery, there sits me, in my glinting prison, always dangling from the links around his neck. Always just under his chin.

It’s nothing like a crucifix, this lattice to which I stick, though stretched within it I must admit, I’ve wished for one. Sometimes I think, Is this it? and then it sinks in, that my limbs are fixed, not quite constricted, more assimilated, taking their own trips inside this mirror maze of iridescence, firm and flitting, not retreating, deeper into this crystal.

Recalling sitting in ninth grade, listing briefly into sleep while listening, half deeply. It’s the physics teacher’s lecture on the structure of a crystal. I feel myself repeating, seeping deeper into grids in grids. An icicle de-melting. Thinning into stasis. It pricks the places where my ribs should be. This sifting of myself into delicately knifing reticles. These molecular electric spikes, piercing into me. I feel I will eventually diffuse. But it’s taking an eternity.

Master Morgan, he is sleeping. Silks drape his stiff limbs. The chain of silver dangles. His big chest heaves and stills. I miss my limbs. Where once my sinew stretched, only tingling inklings persist, airy and stiff. Bit by bit the crystal fingers wind. Where once I might have bit my lip, my face is ossified. I drift in labyrinthine. Where once I might have cried, to help the pain subside, I only drift.

A lattice pricks as it expands. It constricts and grips. Its teeth are turning me to teeth. To eat myself. It’s teeth are me. I’m biting into soft of me. Biting into stillness me. I eat the teeth of lattice grips. I’m teeth are me. Lattice constricts and eating me. I lattice grips. I teeth are me. I lattice grips and pricks expands. I lattice me.

I slip. I’m slit. A piece. Dispersed. I me. A piece. A piece.


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J. Siegal

Author image of J. Siegal J. Siegal writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music, and code. He plays barrelhouse piano and produces the musical group Red Spot Rhythm Section. His writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review and Skeptic Magazine, among others. Currently, he is at work on his first novel. He lives with his wife and two children near Chicago, IL. You can find out more on his website or Twitter.

© J. Siegal 2022 All Rights Reserved

The image was created by compositing images generated by Micah Hyatt using DALL·E 2 and a rights-free image by Antony Trivet.

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