Time is a dusty antique for which all true use has been forgotten by modern minds. We use it as a bone scraper, a tool to separate fur from membrane, when instead the lock and key before us is far moe than the sum of its earthly parts. Its secrets, which by all rights, should be mildewed and spotted with mold instead swirl with fresh activity when ancient minds reach out to modern souls and leave their gifts at the gate.
Oh the things that time shows through the looking glass of the senses once deranged! A foot, which the owner thinks is wearing American boots, instead is in sandals of rope and leather soles, leaving the tender skin and flesh of the foot exposed and vulnerable as it wanders in the crystalline home of a scrubby desert wasteland. An imperious Cobra, with a hood blue and yellow like the boy pharaoh’s headdress strikes out of nowhere and quickly retreats. The owner of the foot looks down. It all happened so fast he was unsure if he had been bitten or merely threatened, then the body catches up with the mind, and two rosy spots of blood, parallel to each other, bloom on the top of the foot. The man staggers in shock. The cobra does not even wait to see if the man dies, and slithers off in triumph. It struck because it could. It struck because the owner of the foot was haughty and prideful. It struck in revenge for all the times the foot trod it’s tail and smashed its eggs. In the distance a flock of butterflies, mechanical and beautiful hover against a neon sunset where the dust in the shape of two umbrellas has not yet spread.
Almost as an afterthought a map hovered in the air showing Addis Ababa pinpointed in glowing yellow. The Alchemist viewing this strange scene made a point to go and find a world map and find if this curiously named place even existed. The Alchemist, Jean Marie was not much of a visual artist, he was better with words and kithara than pencil and sketchbook, but nevertheless he finished drawing the sketch of the foot and the cobra and the scrubby olive trees without any fruit. Even obtuse gifts from the muse by way of the Green Fairy were precious, even if they were currently impenetrable.
No, none of it was any use to him now, perhaps it would be later. 1869 and the Parisian bars had thrown out their patrons hours ago. The sun was on the rise and the bottle was empty except from a dribble in the bottom of the dark green glass, which looked as if it might be something, but when the bottle was tipped upside down, nothing was delivered, nothing was given to the mouth of what remained in the glass. A trick of the light. A small torture. An inconvenience. Jean Marie set the bottle upside down, the opening jammed into a glass, a stack of books attempting to prop it up. It was the principle of the thing. It was his nectar and the bottle would not have it. By hook, crook or hammer it would be his even if his tongue bled on shattered glass.
Jean Marie was not a man who set his jaw, rather a soul who set his lips in a tight purse, his bottom lip slightly pouting, bitten between wine-stained teeth. His hair was way past his shoulders and shaggy as one of his mother’s sheep. The enfant terrible from the countryside was not fond of soap and even less fond of manners. It was a long time, even at the tender age of 17, that Jean Marie had listened to anyone else, or let them dictate his path or actions. Not man nor child, not bum nor prince, not bumpkin nor effete left bank bohemian with affectations and pretentions, Jean Marie was an enigma even to himself.
Poetry is a kind of alchemy, taking words and images and sounds and rhythm and forging the heavy lead of those elements together by way of mercurial experimentation to forge solid gold out of the mundane. A woman standing by a shop window. A dog howling at the emerging moon. A cup of coffee sitting on a table. An old dusty book. A smoky barroom full of stinking men swaying in unison with beer and fear. Hands on drums. Lambs on stones. A man shitting in the gutter. There is gold to be found in the shit and piss and stink of life, with the right catalyst to bring it all together and make it shine, and rise it up into a reflection of the beauty and the horror of human existence. No wandering clouds for Jean Marie! The Alchemist had eternity on his mind and a muse on his shoulder.
Still the sad fact of this world in which we have lived for as long as our collective memory allows us to remember, is that even an Alchemist of words needs to eat, and for that yet more gold is needed. Gold which distracts from the Grand Quest for immortality, for Art and Poetry and Music, is a necessary part of life as air or water. Bread is not free, and neither are the tools of the trade – absinthe, whiskey, vodka, the flowers from the lotus, and the resin from the root of exotic plants, the juice of the poppy and the strange gifts of the mushrooms and toadstools that grow in dark forests. Alchemy has many forms and uses, but turning lead into bread by way of gold is the most profane.
Jean Marie cursed his grumbling stomach. It had been days since he ate, prioritizing booze over food. He was not above latching on to some kindly soul in a bar and offering to be their drinking partner, the life and soul of the party, and hoping for a few scraps to fall his way. Jean Marie saw it as a fair and free exchange of his charm for their food. Even an Alchemist has got to eat and must sleep somewhere that provides enough peace and calm to put pen to paper in the quiet of the morning or the whispering semi-still of the night. Even an Alchemist must find a spot to look into the shadowed eyes of the future as they peer out at him from ouija boards and empty bottles and tincture droppers. Even Jean Marie must sleep.
The thin boards of the bed, covered with a lumpy horsehair mattress dug into his back, as he attempted to concentrate on the task in hand and not get distracted by catalogues of new books, the memory of the smooth backsides of the men he held in the palm of his hand, nor the grumbling in his belly. Stillness was an art that he did not find easy to master, yet stillness was what his craft required. The muse cannot be heard in an unquiet mind, and a grumbling stomach does not help matters either. He leant down too hard on his pen and broke yet another nib. Yet more requirements upon his meagre resources. He could work, but that would leave no time for his life’s purpose, no time to commune with the Muse. No time to rearrange his senses, and swallow the green fairy, little stiletto shoes and switchblade and all. No time, and time was not something he had the faintest idea of how to manufacture more of. Gold, however, there had to be a short cut to gold.
Jean Marie stumbled out onto half-baked streets, stealing a half-eaten slice of hard stale bread from the table of the old woman he had paid for a place to sleep for the night, a long wiry grey hair twisted amongst fragments of other meals embedded in the preserves and butter meagerly spread onto its surface. It tasted like manna from heaven, like anything even barely passable as food does to a tongue that has gone without too long and is connected to an ethanol-soured stomach.
Ahead a hunchbacked man ducked into an alleyway, a black hood shadowing his face, his stick shaking in his aged hand. A few long grey whisps of hair escaped and blew like cobwebs in the breeze. His fingernails were stained purple and a burn marks pocked his wrist that sat bare and pale at the end of a royal blue sleeve which once was velvet but now was worn smooth and shiny and missed the soft nap of that gentle fabric. Jean Marie stopped in his tracks as he noticed the cobra-headed walking stick, painted in blue and gold. He knew he must talk to the old man, or die trying. He stomach told him so. The Green Fairy and her endless demands insisted upon it.
The Muse shook her head at Jean Marie in wonder. The man in the mirror with the delicate features and the wild brown hair, and the eyes of a child in the soul of a beast, who wielded strings and pen, paper and bottle with the ease of an acrobat strode with the confidence of Zeus towards his destiny, as the mystery hobo, the tramp whose face was always hidden, stood down St Germaine Avenue, half hidden amongst the flowers, waiting for the boy he knew was going to come along on that day. The snake head atop his cane hissed quietly and the church bells tolled.