It is different, this place. The forests are thinner, sparse. The flowers no longer bloom.
Try as he might, he can find no trace of the house one block down the street from his—the house of—what was their family name again? Porters, maybe. Or Cobblers. Could've been Hutchinsons, even; he isn't sure. His memory is rotting along with his body. Faces cling, soft and blurry-edged, but names scatter to the winds. The letters are there, clear, yet they attach to nothing he can pinpoint. Ironic, he supposes, given that he has memorized no less than two-thousand and thirty-three (and no more than four-thousand and six) alchemical formulas which he can readily recite in assorted orders: by the transmutation, by the chemicals involved, by numericals and alphabeticals and any other cataloguing systems necessary.
Reuestadt. Town of regrets.
Long years ago, he laughed at that name, and he remembers this now with a touch of irony. There is nothing left of Reuestadt besides regrets, memories floating in the empty air like smoke from the fires that scorched the trees and destroyed the old wooden houses, including the one he lived in when the world was younger.
Yet in spite of the centuries, he can visualize it: tall, with pillars, a wooden fence, livestock grazing in the backyard. He can smell his wife's cooking in the kitchen, and the chemicals of alchemy residing in the basement. He remembers potassium nitrate burning to form a bright pink colour; he knows how the child always delighted in that. He thinks upon orpiment—pyritic-coloured trademark of a doomed search for gold, and he recalls how he scorned the substance among those so-called "learned" men who thought of nothing greater than wealth.
They called him a healer, a genius, a prophet, a god, and mad.
To some, he was a fool.
To her, he was all and none. Her everything. Her nothing.
Looking across the ruins—kneeling to inspect the mulch of the ground through bespectacled golden eyes—he can touch, feel, remember. The wooden fence springs up all around him, splinters coming to life as though activated by a transmutation in an unseen array, and he can see them again: the wife, the son.
The wind blows; the broken pieces come together, and he is there again.
Mary. Her original name had been Mary, like the mother of Jesus, and Hohenheim had found that noteworthy, something to comment on, if only in passing. The two of them had met when he had lain in bed, plagued by fever, and she had been the nurse who had tended him, touching his burning flesh with moist towels as she whispered soothing words.
"Your fever must be high," she had said with a small smile as he had babbled on and on about the cities of Earth, about the Holy Land and Constantinople, about religions that were then only vague legends in Amestris. He hadn't meant to say so much, truly. He had come to Amestris for a visit, a sojourn and nothing beyond that, but he had not been expecting the difference in climate, the sudden jump from one sort of atmosphere to a slightly different one, and his immune system had been unable to handle the switch.
It was ironic to suppose that a man who prided himself on having such a modern outlook on medicine had ultimately ended up in a small backwoods town, being cared for by people who had little understanding of medicine and some understanding of alchemy; yet, as with Earth, they did understand religion, although they believed Christianity to have originated in their world. Mary was the daughter of a preacher (in a world in which the religion was small and struggling to catch hold), and she believed that nurses and doctors were put into the world to do God's work. Her hands were soft, and she couldn't have been older than fourteen, which of course was an average age for marrying.
He shouldn't have confided in her. Even at the time, he knew it was unwise to pour wisdom out to a child who could not appreciate the depths of what she was being told, but despite her humble birth, the girl's eyes shone with the appearance of wisdom. Hohenheim—called Paracelsus in those days—had met many people throughout his life, and he knew what searching eyes looked like.
This girl was no scientist. Being female, it was unlikely that she had even been schooled. However, her eyes were keen: pale, pale blue; cornflower. The sky looked out from her face, wisps of cloud and sunshine peeking through her sockets.
"I wouldn't tell anyone about your alchemy if I were you," she cautioned, looking down. Candlelight ran its tongue along her dark blonde hair. "If you really are an alchemist, you ought to know better. They've been hanging people for that, you know."
"Have they?" His voice was weakened, made feeble by the fever, but the words held his trademark curiosity. Hohenheim had always been told that he was an inquisitive soul, asking of the sun, the moon, the stars and the elements, asking of men and asking of nature. "I didn't realize that."
She grinned. Eyes sparkled in the darkness. "You must be from farther away than I had thought, then. What town were you born in? I've heard about Ishbal and Xing, and you don't match the description of someone from those places. We don't get a lot of wanderers here. You're not an exile, are you?"
"My dear girl, I've told you where I'm from already," he said, honestly, but with the sort of whimsical tone which could easily convey words spoken in a light jest. If she didn't believe him initially, she would not believe him now; he trusted this, and sometimes the truth was the best ingredient with which to create a fabrication. Plainly, anyone in Amestris would think he was mad, and that was just as well. "I was born on Earth. My full name is Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, though I typically go by Paracelsus. I was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, and I have journeyed to and fro in my search for knowledge."
As he had expected, Mary laughed and patted his hand. "You are a man who has drunk far too much absinthe is what you are."
He, of course, refrained from mentioning that Artemisia absinthium was first used to make "The Green Fairy" in Switzerland, although he did find it curious—and highly noteworthy—to observe how much Amestris and Earth had influenced one another, each while being generally none the wiser.
Jumps between the two worlds were common enough; in those days, the planets were not as far apart as they came to be during later years. According to popular tradition amongst occultists and scholars on Earth, the figure of Christ had united the two worlds for a time, bridging them with a Big Event, but as centuries passed, they drifted further and further apart.
It was Hohenheim's personal belief that the division of planets was caused by the growing contrast between the cultures and beliefs of the two, though other alchemists on Earth disagreed with this theory, and he had no way to substantiate it. Indeed, even he had considered that his notion might be scant more than superstitious nonsense, but Paracelsus was a man who liked to test his ideas, and so he had seen fit to journey to Amestris, and he had, quite by accident, ended up in the backwater nothingness of Reuestadt...a town whose very name proclaimed its squalor.
"It's named that because the first year here was difficult for the pilgrims who founded this town," Mary had explained. "The winter was one of death and sickness."
"A pity I wasn't here. I might've saved them," Hohenheim had replied, not meaning to say the words aloud, but out they had tumbled anyway; he'd always been told he had something of a bad habit with regards to releasing sentences his lips and tongue had never intended to form.
The girl had only laughed, although she'd at least had the grace and dignity to cover her mouth in an (unsuccessful) attempt to disguise her mildly disdainful mirth.
"Well, I might've. I didn't say it was a certainty." He reached up and wiped his forehead, though he felt no sweat. Oh well. If the fever had not broken, then he could still speak words for his companion to accept as the rantings of disease-fashioned madness. "Honestly, I did save one village, Stertzing, by administering trace amounts of the excrement of ill patients; I firmly believe that a small dose of something can cause the body to create a defense against it. I see no reason I couldn't have found some other 'miracle' cure for this place."
"You are charmingly odd."
"You think me a rambling fool."
"Rambling, assuredly, but a fool? Well, I don't know about that." She traded the candle in favour of an oil lamp, setting it on the desk next to the bed, and he watched her with a detached sort of interest. Strands of hair peeked forth from beneath her bonnet, and Hohenheim could not help but take notice of her sparse freckles and the way dimples dotted her face when she smiled. He had never seen her in complete daylight, given that he was ill and bedridden, but he could tell she was an attractive girl.
A girl, though: probably half of his age or less, and probably ready to be married off to some young man, a neighbour boy she'd known since childhood, someone she'd frolicked with back in the days when both of them had worn tiny blue gowns.
Still, whether she was out of his reach or not (and really, women were distractions and he'd always staunchly maintained as much), she made a lovely sight, something nice to look at as he went about his recovery. He welcomed her just as he welcomed open windows to send the shadows away...even if he did scorn the crude medical practices she had been taught. Such practices were common in both Amestris and Earth, and Hohenheim counted himself as experienced in dealing with ignorance. In many cases, he had criticized his fellow physicians, and in specific instances (as with Avicenna and Galen), he had actually gone so far as to torch their literature, but unless this young lady made some attempt to pad his wounds with dry dung or—heaven forbid—pour boiling oil onto him, cauterize his wounds, and then amputate a limb or two...well, short of that, he really saw no cause to have issue with the girl whose main concern was treating his aching body.
"Get better and come to church with me," Mary insisted, albeit with the same air of politeness which characterized all of her actions and words. "I'd love to see you debate with the theologians there. You seem like you could even make my father tired of arguing." She shrugged. "But don't talk too much nonsense, or else you'll make everyone sick, and then there'll be more patients than any of us can care for."
He could do nothing but grin. A master physician he may have been, but endearing was endearing, and though the girl may or may not have held an inkling of genius, she did indeed have a rare skill with people.
He was a man searching for a religion, or all religions, a quest for Truth and a quest for knowledge, and she was the angel who sat at the foot of his bed and complimented his wit and his story-weaving skills; by and by they talked each day until he wondered if they were learning anything from one another or if they were just giving words to the air to fill the space between them, and in that manner they grew close. For what ailments leeching and powders failed to cure, there was this simple healing method which many a wise man scorned: camaraderie.
And Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, wise in the world and a fool when it came to matters of the heart, had entertained the thought that he might be in love.
In retrospect, he supposes there are many signs he should have picked up on.
Friendly though she was, Mary was a proud girl, not prone to admitting her errors. She believed herself to be as charming as Hohenheim himself deemed her, though he had been altogether too sick or too enamoured or simply too ignorant about other humans to notice the child's idiosyncrasies. She was a pretty little thing, a flower blooming in a sty, and if she was twenty percent wit, then she was eighty percent confidence that she carried sharp, clever words and radical, ground-breaking opinions.
He had looked for himself in her, and that had been his primary error. On Earth, he had often been an outcast, proclaimed arrogant and impossible to deal with, and to all outward appearances, this girl was his kindred spirit in that regard. She was too vocal, too opinionated, too sure of herself, and she questioned too much, and all of these things he had admired.
The alchemist had been far too eager to see a student and not incredulous enough to suppose that perhaps she was merely a youthful rebel searching for some cause to pursue in the hopes of finding fame or power. Her hands had brought good health to so many people, not the least of whom being himself, and he had opened his own hands in the hopes of giving her a path to enlightenment.
Ultimately, it had been a path to damnation, but this would not be apparent for many years yet.
He had not meant to linger in Reuestadt. There was a whole world out there, one ripe for the seeing, and Hohenheim was a man who believed that travel was the key to unlocking all the knowledge in every world. On Earth, he had been to esteemed universities: Basel, Vienna, Wittenberg, Leipzig; however, he had always held that books and teachers did not contain all the information a man could aspire after. A man needed to converse with innkeepers, gypsies, wandering tribes—the great of the world as well as the meek, and on Earth, Hohenheim had done just as he had suggested. Prior to venturing to Amestris, he had seen no reason to do otherwise while there.
But Reuestadt intrigued him, if for no other reason than because it paralleled Earth's towns so perfectly and yet with such disparity that he could not help but wonder over every nuance that set the pace of the differences between the here and the there. He nosed about like a dog sniffing out traces of metallurgy as opposed to bits of flesh from bones, and he asked questions, but with such whimsical innocence that few even realized they were being asked of.
Gnostic influences were heavy within the town, if not within the world itself, but the belief system had advanced in a considerably different direction on this sphere, from what Hohenheim could discern, and the Gnostic circle was far more developed: whereas on Earth most Gnostics still preferred the simple symbol of a cross within a circle, Amestris had invented a wide variety of designs, or "arrays", as many called them.
"Show me," Hohenheim asked of Mary one day, and from the look in her eyes, he had known that this was the first time she had really wondered if he might have been from as far away as he claimed. She had looked upon him not with affinity, but as though he were a being to inspect, but she had not inquired into his reasons.
She inhaled deeply and knelt down, and Hohenheim thought—not for the first time—how uncomfortable she must have been trying to move while restricted by an undergarment, at least one petticoat, a bodice, a skirt, a waistcoat, a coif, and goodness knew what else. In the spirit of being a gentleman, he tried—also not for the first time—not to let his mind wander onto ponderings of what her hair might look like when released from its tight bun and unveiled from the bonnet beneath which it hid.
"The Circle is Unity," she began, but he knew that already. Her dainty, shaking hands traced the wide chalk outline across the dark wooden floor. "The Triangle divides by three."
"Representing the Trinity, yes."
She looked up, offering a slim smile of admiration. "That's right. Three parts of the same wholeness. One being and one Unity, but broken into three parts. The Trinity. Next is the Square." She fixed the circle accordingly, making her marks with the dwindling chalk. "This is the symbol for our world, as God speaks of the four corners of the world. Next is the Enneagram, which breaks the Circle into nine parts. Finally, there's the Zodiac, which divides the Circle into twelve, in accordance with the twelve months of the year."
We have twelve months, too, Hohenheim noted, bemused.
Once she had finished with the array, Mary arose and gingerly wiped her gown. "A crude version. Any of the scholars and priests could do better work for you."
She frowned upon her creation. Hohenheim saw only a circle and numerous structures within it, drawn well enough that he had no room to offer critique.
"Have you ever seen a mandala?"
Blue eyes blinked at him in surprise. "What?"
"I suppose it's not important...but, well, your variant of the Gnostic circle reminds me of a mandala. I think one might have a good deal to teach the other, if anyone here wishes to expand this circle even further."
He took the opportunity to approach her array and place his hands within it, thereby making the bold move of activating the circle so as to make the room bright with the forces of alchemy, and near him, Mary gasped and shook her head.
"Stop that!" she said, almost hissing the reprimanding words. "What do you think you're doing? Do you want to get us both hanged?"
Really, she needed only to ask, but she must not have known that, for immediately after having put forth her rhetorical question, she promptly stomped over to the circle and gave Hohenheim's arms a delicately forceful shove. He took the hint and relented, regarding her with interest and mild curiosity—the scientific sort, of course—only to find that her eyes were wild, half-crazed with fear for her life, and she was sweating, panting, though he wondered if this might not have been due to too much clothing.
"Why would you have such a powerful tool if you've no intention of using it?" he asked, genuinely perplexed by this seeming incongruity.
"It's a symbol, not a tool." She looked away, eyes lowered, as though the man's actions had grievously wounded her, yet he hardly saw how that could be possible. "It's no different from the image of the cross and Christ upon it. We make this symbol, but we can gain no divinity through it, and to do so would be blasphemous...a heresy. You must not profane, Bythos, The Absolute, by seeking access to the Pleroma—"
"My dear girl?" Hohenheim could not help his reaction. He should not have done so, but he laughed, and Mary looked nigh ready to faint...though once again, perhaps her corset was merely squeezing her lungs too tightly. "I'm sorry to say, but you are talking nonsense. I'm not one for Gnosticism to begin with, but I do admit that your creations in this world are impressive. All the same, this Pleroma you speak of—this realm of light—it does exist, but there is nothing holy about it. It is simply the nexus between my world and yours, a Gate of sorts. When you put that mysticism aside, it's really nothing more than a fancy, glowing door."
She fixed him with a glare. "You don't think I know that?"
"I...well. No, no I suppose I didn't. You do know that?"
Well, now he was just puzzled.
Her glare softened into an expression that was partially joy and partially a sort of 'I affectionately want to wring your throat; you exasperating sot', but Hohenheim was glad to see it, all the same. She was so lovely when her eyes smiled as well as her mouth did. "I've known all along," she confessed. "I'm not illiterate. My mother taught me to read at a young age, much as my father resented her for it. He thinks my education is dangerous, but I know you disagree, and that's one thing I appreciate about you. You favour knowledge."
"I do, but I'm not certain that I'm following your meaning."
"I'm trying to tell you..." She lowered her voice and glanced around the empty room as though eyes might be peering out from murder holes hidden away somewhere. In nearby rooms, the laughter of other women could be heard. Perhaps there was a town meeting going on. "...I'm trying to tell you that I already knew about Earth. I...I've read about it before, a little. And then you come here, getting sick and talking all about this place I've heard of, and well, what was I supposed to think? Yes...I knew all along."
"Oh. I suspected as much."
"You did not!" She looked even more bewildered than she had a moment ago, and for half a minute, Hohenheim actually wondered if she might strike him. Her fists stayed by her sides as she stared at the man, eyes narrowed, smile tight. "You may be able to act so eccentric on Earth and get away with it, but here, you'll find yourself made an outcast or worse in a hurry, and I'd rather it not come to that. I'm fond of you."
"You're no less eccentric than I am, it seems to me." He gesticulated, waving broadly to indicate the length of the lightly furnished room. "In spite of your humble beginnings, you're keen, intelligent, well-read, and a rather strange girl all the way around. You may sit in the pews and uphold everything your townsfolk say when you desire to preserve an outward appearance of ignorance, but you can't tell me you enjoy living as a simpleton conforming to all the popular beliefs of her era. Do you take pleasure in that, really?"
A flush crept across her fair cheeks, and she stuttered over whatever words she might have been trying to speak. "You don't understand," she managed, finally. "I...I have no choice..."
"On the contrary. The choice is here before you. If you tell me now that you are content with the guise that you wear, then I shall be done asking more of you, or telling you more. We will be acquaintances who see one another in church and rarely elsewhere. However, you are good at hiding things, and if you wish to hide something else...then, well, tell me so, and I shall be your mentor. The decision sits in front of your face."
And she had beheld him with wide, youthful eyes: looking to the tall, golden man as the archetypical Eve might have looked to the serpent who had slithered close with the promise of Knowledge, and in that moment—in that instant he would wonder about that for centuries afterwards—had she considered? Had she suspected? Had it even crossed her mind to be wary? Or had she simply seen Opportunity—massive and gilded, soft-spoken, with wit and strange words? They were the same, after all: smart, but awkward in the scheme of things. They didn't fit in, and no amount of pretense would salvage their lives or make either of them normal and mundane, but had Hohenheim not told Mary to take the fruit, then perhaps she would've at least had a chance.
"Marry me." The words sounded dry, hoarse. Mary swallowed, then reached up and massaged her throat.
"You heard me. Give me a ring and your name." She approached and clasped Hohenheim's hands, placing her own within them, not paying any mind to the eyes or ears that may have been upon them. He stared at her, at every inch of her, and there he saw a female image of himself captured from his adolescence: young, proud, willful, stubborn. A pigheaded child...but a brilliant one, no less. "I haven't gotten the best dowry in the world yet, but I'm still young, and I'd think...I'd think you wouldn't mind..."
He adjusted his glasses and looked away from her, beyond her, as though the small blue bird outside the window had just grown exponentially more fascinating than the young woman who was touching him. She must have noticed her companion's sudden hesitation, because she gave a gentle grunt of protest, and out of the corner of one eye, he noticed her soft grimace. "Why are you...?"
"I cannot marry you, Mary. You are a child, if a bright one, and I am not a man who believes in remaining in one location for too long. I will be your teacher if you will have it of me, but I can be nothing more to you than that. I am sorry."
A shadow drifted across her eyes. "Then you had best leave."
"No. You are a wandering man. A wandering fool. Stupidly wise. You must care for me. I've seen it in your eyes. But if you're not going to act on your feelings because of some stupid personal creed, then...well." She withdrew her hands from his. "Wander onwards, and good luck in your journeys."
He would have responded, but his immense vocabulary failed to cooperate with his tongue, and by the time he was capable of producing something in the way of an apology, the door had slammed and Mary was gone, skirts swishing at her feet.
Perhaps, Hohenheim reasoned, it was just as well.