I was already chopping ingredients when Dartemis arrived, uninvited. He stood over me and dictated the recipe anyway. There were only a few years between us, but he still considered himself the master alchemist.
Thick, dark blood left sluggish marks against the glass sides of the bottle as I swished it around.
“A full pint, yes?” Dartemis said, as though I’d make a mistake like that. “Of your own?”
“Yes,” I lied. Only half was mine. This was an experiment after all. And Anna had been more than willing.
Dartemis had expressed relief earlier to see that I was making a homunculus, now that Anna had passed away. A human assistant was uncommon these days, when alchemists need only build a mud servant. It never slept, it never ate, it always listened.
I just nodded.
Whilst he babbled, I pulled the bag of flaked mandrake root across. The tag attached flipped over. All my ingredients were labelled in Anna’s neat handwriting. But this was marked in a larger, looping scrawl; one of her first tasks. When I taught her to read.
Dartemis interpreted my hesitation as confusion. “Two and half cups,” he said, pointing to the bag.
“Yes,” I said, wanting him to leave, wanting the quiet blonde girl to be scribbling away at the desk.
He didn’t leave. Before long, I had started construction. Mixed the paste of blood and ash into a thick clay, building and shaping.
Dartemis told me it was too tall. A homunculus should be knee-height; mine looked like a short adult.
“And the wings,” he said. “Where are the wings?”
I looked at him over the brass-frames of my glasses. “They’re unnecessary,” I said, stunned he thought I would go for something so ostentatious.
“A homunculus always has wings,” he said.
“They’ll get in the way,” I said. “Imagine a great thing like that flapping around in the workshop.”
“But it’ll look too…too human,” Dartemis spluttered.
Dartemis brought his apprentice, Taras, on his next visit, to pretend this was a social gathering instead of an excuse to steal my ale. Taras made me feel old—skinny, polite, and somehow infinitely cheerful in the face of Dartemis’s sour dictatorship. He would only have to endure another year of berating before becoming a fully-fledged alchemist himself, and he was quick-witted enough that I rather suspected Dartemis and I would be out of a job.
Whilst Taras murmured a good-mannered ‘how do you do’, his master dived for my liquor cabinet, with a swift glare at the nearly-finished clay model. “A girl homunculus!” Dartemis said, opening the cupboard door. “What do you want a girl homunculus for?”
Taras walked over to make closer inspection of the statue. “She looks a lot like the girl who used to live here,” he said.
I settled into my chair, in the warmest corner of the room, waiting for Dartemis to sneer and say something.
The grey girl stood beside the desk. She was still short, and a little dumpy because I didn’t want to throw away the excess clay. Her arms and legs ended in sloppy lumps without fingers or toes, and my fingerprints littered her cheeks were I had shaped her face. I left her eyes open, which was more unsettling than I had expected.
“She looks exactly like the girl who used to live here,” Taras said, leaning in close to her features.
“Anna,” I said, wondering if I’d ever bothered to introduce her by name before.
“Don’t say ‘she’,” Dartemis said, head still inside the cupboard, rustling through my belongings. “A homunculus is an ‘it’. Remember that. No matter how well re-created.”
I was fairly sure that last comment wasn’t directed at Taras.
Taras put his fingers against the statue’s chin and tilted her mouth open to see the neat rows of clay teeth. “You even gave her a tongue,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or confused. I felt childish to say that the swirling hole behind her lips had scared me. Even when her mouth was closed, I knew it was there, this grey blank nothingness. I had to fill it with something.
Dartemis’s silence was even more damning than his cynicism.
“What’s her name?” Taras asked.
I leant back in the chair. “I was thinking Karelina.”
Dartemis reappeared, clutching a bottle I had failed to hide well enough. “Too pretentious.”
“I like it,” Taras said, drowned out by Dartemis’s disapproving grunt. “Besides, you called yours ‘Grumble’.”
“Well, he does,” Dartemis said.
“Takes after you then, does he?” I asked.
Dartemis fell back into another chair, pulling the cork off the ale bottle and dashing all hopes that he might share it. “It’ll be odd,” he said. “Having a twin of that girl walking around.”
“It’ll be like nothing changed,” I said mildly, as Dartemis lifted the neck of the bottle to his lips.
He was right, and I hated it.
Karelina was finished, but I hadn’t given her life yet. Her grey eyes followed me around the room when I tried to work, her lumpy clay feet still rooted to the floor.
She was the dead girl. Dartemis said I might as well have stuffed Anna’s body and put it on show.
Sometimes, when the nights went on and on, I would creep down from my bedroom and look at her. I wondered if she moved around by herself—and just pretended to be still when I entered the room.
I spoke into her ear. This was about Anna; about letting her die. “I should have been nicer to her, I should have been nicer to her,” I chanted to this perfect clone. I promised to make things better, I promised to be sorry.
Nothing changed. She never changed.
Dartemis stopped visiting. He said she was creepy. He said that she watched him, too.
Once I threw a bottle at her. I smashed it into her squashy head, hoping it would fall off her neck and she would stop looking at me forever. But after a day, I couldn’t stand her ruined face anymore than I could her perfect stare, so I fixed her and pleaded with her to forgive me.
I knew then that I could never unmake her. That she belonged to me, and couldn’t be forgotten.
If I couldn’t kill her, I’d have to move her.
I wrapped my hands around her wet ankles, pinching so her legs came apart from her feet. She was an awkward shape, hard to carry; but I threw her into Anna’s old room, beside the bundle of hay that she had slept in. I would build a wall over the door. Never mention her. Never think of her blind eyes in the dead of night.
Her feet stayed glued to the floorboards, amongst the sawdust and dirt, and nothing would shift them.
That month was even worse. I knew she was down there; betrayed. I knew she was in that airless coffin, banging on the door to be let out, shouting in the dark. Moaning whilst I tried to sleep.
I unlocked the door. She lay where I had left her, and I picked her up again. I cut the excess clay from her feet and used it to glue her back together.
“What am I going to do with you?” I said, tapping her sloppy toes.
Maybe she wasn’t angry. Maybe she was just mourning.
I made myself stare into her blank face. Hesitantly took hold of her button nose,
pulled it, shaped it, made it longer and crooked. I took inches off her hair. Made her chest smaller. I gave her wide, big feet.
It was better already. Like Anna’s older sister had come to stay. Like she resembled a girl I used to know.
I took a deep breath, and gently blew the air back out into her face.
The grey melted away, letting her rich skin tone seep through. Her hair was dark and thick, and it looked better shorter. Green eyes.
Karelina blinked, slowly.
Mitch K. Allan grew up climbing trees and milking goats in deepest darkest Dorset, England. Now she lives in Winchester, where she works in the post room of an energy supplier. When she’s not writing stories about dragons and spaceships, she’s scrolling endlessly down Tumblr, avoiding cooking, or creating very wonky knitting.
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