He takes a crowbar to the lid of the wooden packing case, carefully easing it up. If he doesn't break the box, he can use it to store the books it contains, shipped at no small expense from the publisher in Amestris. The nails squeal as he levers them free; he winces, hoping the noise won't wake his little brother in the next room, and then chuckles to himself. The epithet is habitual, but his "little" brother is now not merely taller but broader than he, sporting the heavy muscles of a manual laborer. Healthy exercise is one of the only advantages to ditch-digging—that and the work's existence. The task is exhausting and the pay pitiful, but few honorable ways remain for the sons of Ishbala (even those trained for better things, like the priesthood) to earn their bread.
He sets the crate's lid aside and lifts out the books one by one. Once, he thinks, boys followed their fathers or uncles into the family trade; later, when the old ways began to fail, anyone with any ambition rolled his possessions in a blanket and left for the cities to the west. He considered doing that himself when he was younger, but by then it was too late. The letters home from his cousins spoke not of streets paved with gold but signs reading NO ISHBALANS NEED APPLY ... of crowded tenements and harassment in alleys ... of grinding poverty and dying dreams ... and then there were no more letters. He sighs and opens the topmost volume on the stack he has created: A Text-Book of Alchemy by Edward Curtis Hill.
Alchemy is that branch of natural science which treats of the intimate composition of matter, the changes in composition and the principles governing such changes. It is, therefore, the most rational of sciences, since it seeks to find an ultimate reason for every natural phenomenon.
But he's lucky, he believes: he managed to work his way through secondary school to a diploma before his father died. This far, no further, he remembers thinking at the funeral, as if his dreams of scholarship had gone into the ground with the coffin. When the elders who came to condole with them mentioned that the mathematics master at the district primary school would be retiring soon, he recognized a conspiracy to benefit his mother, not him. Nevertheless, he acquiesced, sitting the certification exam and passing easily, serving as the old man's assistant without pay for four months, and then slipping into his position as much by squatter's right as by his own talent.
Every day since he has walked four miles from his home in Debir to the market-town of Kirjath to teach basic computation to small children and algebra, geometry, even a little calculus to the older ones—those few who stay to graduate at fifteen. Not one in fifty continues on to secondary school now, no matter how he encourages them. They have no money and, worse, no initiative. Why bother? they ask him. I don't want to be a doctor or a teacher. What's the point?
Natural philosophy differs from alchemy in that it treats of the forces and motions of matter in the mass rather than its final components. The two sciences are, however, closely related, and an elementary understanding of natural philosophy, or physics, is essential to the understanding of alchemy.
The question "Why learn?" always stops him; he cannot imagine not wanting to learn. The world is for knowing: everything in it, no matter how trivial or twisted, reveals the mind of the Maker. Nothing is wasted, nothing evil at its roots—only distorted by bad husbandry. The first duty of all human beings, he believes, is to dress the world Ishbala has seeded and to do that, they must first understand how God's garden grows. He is a passionate seeker of connections; his students know that they can always distract him with philosophical questions (What is infinity, teacher?). They do not guess, smirking at each other as they lay down their pencils to listen to his sometimes stumbling answers, that he welcomes the opportunity to put aside fractions and teach them about wholeness. Especially now, when the world around them seems to be falling apart.
The general or essential properties or qualities inherent to all matter are the following: indestructibility, extension, attraction, weight, divisibility, impenetrability, porosity, compressibility, elasticity, inertia and mobility.
He began to investigate alchemy because his students seemed unable to winnow fact from rumor when it came to matters Amestrian. Lies breed like maggots, destroying the truths they feed on. He cannot determine who started the fight at Sarosh that ended with four—or was it six?—men dead, but he can retrieve the first volume of the Encyclopedia Amestrida (ed. 1902) from the library and put any misconceptions about alchemists to rest. No, they don't engage in blood sacrifice to raise the dead—they know that's impossible. Yes, it is possible to transmute lead into gold, but the practice is forbidden. No, I don't know why—so he tried to find out. To his surprise, he discovered a nobility in the science, a commitment to reason and a tradition of service, that gave him, for the first time in years, hope. The elders tend to blame the Amestrians' intransigence on their lack of belief in God. No evangelist, he thinks the problem less fundamental: they've lost sight of their own teachings. Alchemy affirms that a substance must be transmuted in conformity with its natural properties. Had the Amestrians truly attempted to comprehend Ishbal, they would not be seeking to remake it against the grain of its own being. Perhaps, he dares to believe, they only need to be reminded of this.
So he ordered the volumes that now sit in his house. If he can learn alchemy, it may be that he can build a bridge of understanding between his people and their governors. A romantic project, he knows, and far too large for one man, but he doesn't intend to work alone. He is, after all, a teacher. Running his hand along the books' leather spines, he considers the people with whom he can share this new knowledge. They must, as he does, be able to draw a distinction between the practice of alchemy, banned by the elders, and the study of the subject. His attempt at reconciliation will fail before it begins if he alienates his own kin over a misunderstanding.
Two or more substances may be unsuitable for combination because of physic dissociation or immiscibility, chemic decomposition or therapeutic antagonism. Such incompatibilities must be identified before attempting a transmutation in order to prevent a rebound.
The ceiling light blinks out. He sighs again. This has been happening more and more frequently; the same substation that provides power to the Amestrian garrison also serves the town. He wonders if the saboteurs who cut the lines know or care that the garrison has back-up generators and Debir does not. He lets his eyes dark-adjust, then takes down the oil lamp from the shelf and strikes a match to set the wick alight. The flame does little to push the shadows off the page and he gives up when he feels the first twinges of a headache, carefully returning all the books to their box. Perhaps he is deluding himself, as his younger brother insists. Perhaps no one will listen to a small-town schoolmaster flirting with heresy. Perhaps he is risking his soul to no good end. He doesn't believe in forbidden knowledge, but he knows that human beings meddle with the world and with each other at their peril. The road to hell is paved with the corpses of those who thought themselves right and mortared with the blood of their victims. He puts his hands together and prays, as he does daily, for wisdom and humility. Cleanse my heart, he begs Ishbala, sharpen my wits—tell me what to do!
He hears no whisper of approval, but neither does his certainty of purpose receive any check. The books will still be there when the sun rises; a four-mile walk allows plenty of time for reading. He blows out the lamp and seeks his bed, composing his mind for sleep.