I watched the old magician, though she called herself a physicist, whatever that means, adjusting flames under glass bulbs, gently twisting tubes to test their tightness to the various apparatuses on her big work table. In the village we used such things only when we needed to purify water for sickly children. Some made strong alcohol with them when they could afford the materials, but we mostly drank beer. The lembik the physicist used was far more complicated than any stil I’d seen. 

And when I tried to ask her about the tools, the magician said, ‘Tscha, child! Silence or away with you.’ I knew the rules. I could watch to learn and ask questions only before and after. I wanted to do the work she did or my time was wasted. I thought if I couldn’t twist the pipes, adjust the flames, measure the ingredients myself, what use was I? Paper was at a premium and so was ink, so there was no taking down what she said and did. I just had to trust in memory. And I could barely read the crabbed script in the cookbooks she used. Textbooks, grimoires, recipes. It was all the same to me and would remain so for years.

My efforts to memorize her actions, the sly gestures she made with her tools, put me into a kind of revert. I repeated her steps in my mind and added new ones and repeated the whole list. This technique worked pretty well, especially if I asked before she started what she was doing. If I had a name, I could put it into my recitation. At some point after the tenth or eleventh step, she let out the loudest ‘Tscha!’ I’d heard her utter, and a bulb shattered, filling the room with the foulness of hell.

Dragging me through the door, she said, ‘Tscha, girl! Tell me what I did. What happened here?’

And my revery broken, I had to think hard to recover what I’d seen. I’d usually take a deep breath, but I still had the poison from the workroom’s air in my nostrils and couldn’t bear to inhale. As soon as I could, I recited what I’d seen.