I had a thought over the holiday season. What if my character Gaelan Erceldoune was visited by a mysterious man while tending his book shop in Evanston? I hope you like it! And let me know if you’d like to hear more of Gaelan’s story…
Balulalow by Barbara Barnett
(story and characters copyright 2016 by Barbara Barnett.
Do not reprint without permission of the author!)
“Black Friday.” Each year, the phrase brought a chill to Gaelan Erceldoune, evoking memories very far from current usage: that riotous, yet innocent shopping day, and start to the Christmas season, full of cheer and light. But he’d lived through too many Fridays—centuries of them—riots and unrest, economic earthquakes and death, all called “Black Friday.”
It was not that he didn’t appreciate the season with its lights in the midst of darkest season: the way the stars and planets seemed clearer in the cold black of the sky above the Lake Michigan horizon, the festive lights that lent an unearthly pink-blue glow to the city, especially when it snowed. But Black Friday evoked none of that. It was strictly a shopping bacchanal—an homage to the dual gods of greed and selfishness.
Unless you were seeking it directly, you were as likely as not to miss the shop, despite its broad double-bowed windows, hand-lettered with “Gaelan R. Erceldoune Antiquarian Books and Antiquities.” The shop was obscured as it was beneath the elevated tracks, and Gaelan had little reason to suspect the horde would descend upon him this day.
Still, he brewed a large batch of his most special tea—just in case—to offer a cup to any who crossed his threshold. The spicy-sweet aroma of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and cayenne and oranges supplanted the usual musty infusion of aged vellum, worn leather, and ink.
Gaelan closed his eyes as he sipped from a steaming mug, breathing in the fragrance of memory—his apothecary in London, where he had lived for years, a full life, a life of love and family, perhaps for the last time. That Friday, November—1837—was the “Black Friday” that would curse him forever, leaving him with scars that ran deep, inside and out.
The doorbells to the shop jangled, startling Gaelan from his thoughts. “Good morning, sir. I confess I’ve no Black Friday specials, but I do have many fine volumes appropriate to the season. Please do have a look about. In the meantime, could I interest you in a cup of my special home brewed spice tea—on the house of course.”
“Thank you. I wouldn’t mind a cup. Mind if I sit?”
He was a man of middle years, with old, intelligent eyes. Gaunt and serious. He was carrying an old leather satchel. Gaelan had a keen eye, able to tell with just a moment or two of conversation just what might interest a visitor to the shop. He waved the visitor to a high-backed easy chair. “I shall return in a moment with your tea.”
The visitor nodded.
Gaelan returned, placing the mug on a small antique glass table, and taking a seat in a second easy chair. “Now, sir, what might interest you? I’ve some excellent volumes on—”
“You are Mr. Erceldoune?”
The visitor’s clipped English accent did not surprise him. “Yes. That would be me.”
“I am seeking a particular book.” Even now the visitor was scanning the bookcases that lined the shop’s walls. “At least I am told you are my best hope of obtaining it.”
There was something in the man’s calm, silky voice that caused the hairs on the back of Gaelan’s neck stand on end. Every instinct told Gaelan to usher him from the shop.
“I am seeking a particular volume by a man called Jean Auguste Flamel—”
Gaelan jumped at the mention of the name, stopping himself, he hoped, before this man customer noticed his shock. Jean Auguste Flamel. There was only one sort of book anyone would wish by that man—a charlatan, most said, but Gaelan knew better. Much. “Sir, do you not mean Nicholas Flamel? His work Abramelin the Mage? I indeed have—”
“No. I do not. I have the work of the father. His original translation of The Mage. All seven volumes. In the original. No, Mr. Erceldoune, it is the work of his son, Jean Auguste I seek. It is why I come to you. It is a singular work. And I hear you are an expert at obtaining such unique volumes.”
Indeed, it was. Terrifying. The senior Flamel—Nicholas—was said to have discovered, and then translated, a text that conjured the lapis philosophorum—the philosopher’s stone. And that work was doctored in the eighteenth century to make it seem as if the work was genuine. That in fact, Flamel had discovered the secret to immortality—and employed it. But that the alterations to the text were, in fact, employed by unscrupulous publishers to sell more books. In fact, as Gaelan well knew, Flamel neither discovered the secret to immortality nor employed it. But the son…that was another story. Entirely.
He shuddered. “Your name, sir. I don’t believe you’ve mentioned it. And since we are—”
“Smith. Alistair. I’m a history professor and linguist, my interest in Flamel—both Nicholas and Jean Auguste has much to do with my research. Jean Auguste continued his father’s work on the lapis philosophorum, expanded upon it greatly, it is said. But the manuscript vanished and the record of it stops short of—”
“Well, I am sorry, Professor Smith, but I have nothing in my possession by a Jean Auguste Flamel. I recall no work in the man’s name at all.” It was a lie, of course, and Gaelan endeavored to keep his expression flat, relieved that the very work Smith sought was upstairs in his flat, a manuscript in his personal collection, and one he wished never to see the light of day, yet could not bring himself to destroy, whether through superstition—who knew what consequence would happen if the book were burned—or his own experience of seeing too many books burned in his lifetime.
“That is quite the shame, Mr. Erceldoune. My plan was to arrange a trade. I have a volume you might find quite interesting, given your…name.”
Now Gaelan was curious. “My name.” A statement.
Smith opened his satchel, removing a clear plastic bag, which enclosed a large manuscript, its edges singed as if the book had been wrested from a fire. “It’s a manuscript, perhaps six hundred years old. Handwritten. It’s in quite good condition, considering its age. The pages are brittle; some burnt, but all in all…” Smith carefully removed the manuscript from the bag and placed it between them.
Gaelan’s mouth went dry as he took in the title and then the author. “May I?” He barely got the words out.
Gaelan pulled the volume towards himself, running his right hand over the brittle cover page, careful of its fragility, yet half-believing this could only be a dream…a hallucination. He read it again and again, not, for the moment caring about the scrutiny with which Mr. Smith examined him. De Communicabile Morbis In Curatio– Air An Leigheas Galar. “On the treatment of Contagious Diseases by Lord Thomas Erceldoune, Physician to His Majesty James VI,” he said, almost to himself. It was dated with the year 1587—the year of Gaelan’s birth. “This is…this is…” Gaelan struggled, barely managing to speak. “This is an incredibly…rare…Where on earth…?
Gaelan swallowed hard, unable to say another word. It was a manuscript that had gone missing with the rest of his possessions in 1837. The year of his imprisonment and five lost years. The year his life had taken a horrible left turn once again, and not even nearly two centuries had erased the damage wrought. But this manuscript. “Excuse me a moment,” was all he could manage.
Finally, Smith spoke. “I would like to make a trade. This book, for the Flamel. The Jean Auguste Flamel, that is.”
It would be so easy. The Flamel sought by Smith sat in a closed, carefully humidified bookcase in his flat upstairs. And all it would take to recover his father’s manuscript, one of so many lost on that bleak, black Friday in November 1837. But should he? What did this Smith fellow want with it? To what end? Was it really simple historical research interest—or was there a different agenda?
Long ago, Gaelan had learned not to trust anyone who coveted the secret to immortality, no matter the stated purpose. And the very presence of this man who appeared from nowhere, and with father’s manuscript unnerved him more than he could admit—especially to…Smith.
Gaelan mustered every bit of the dispassionate rare books dealer that lay within him. “Mr. Smith, might I ask where you would happen upon such a rare piece? I must say, I thought all…or many…such manuscripts from that period were destroyed as witchery? The author…his name…his name and station…are vaguely familiar. I mean apart from the fact we share the unusual surname. He is certainly a distant…” Once again Gaelan stopped the words from emerging unfiltered and unguarded. He considered whether a modern man—even a rare books dealer—would be able to call up so readily something from six centuries ago.
Too late. As was the hour. Gaelan hoped they would be interrupted by another customer. “Yes, an ancestor. I believe that somewhere in family legend, this man existed, but was burnt at the stake by James—along with his family…and his writings—”
“Indeed, sir. You are correct that Lord Thomas was executed at the end of the sixteenth century. And most of his manuscripts were destroyed. But not all, as you see. And there is another, or so it is said, quite a bit more valuable.” He laughed. “But that one may be more out of the realm of fairy tales, if it existed at all!”
“Indeed.” Again, Gaelan was breathless. “And what of that book, then?” Could Smith be referring to the long-missing manuscript that held within it the cure to his own condition, also missing from his possession since 1837?
Smith looked directly into Gaelan’s eyes. “That book, sir, would be the prize to people like us…historians. Antiquarian book collectors.” Smith paused. “And…others with more than a scholarly interest, shall we say. It is singular, and legend has it there is none other of its like in this world. And much sought after, as I am certain you know.”
Was that a too-knowing look in Smith’s grey eyes? Gaelan shrugged. “I do…not. But—”
“Now. About the Flamel. Do you have it…or at the very least know where I might procure it?” Smith glanced at his watch and sipped from the cup. Smith made a face, as if he’d expecting the tea to be hot and unpleasantly surprised. “Oh dear. Look at the time. The tea is quite good, but grown cold, I’m afraid.”
How long had they been sitting there? Gaelan looked up and through the window. It had started to snow. Huge lake-effect snowflakes. Gaelan would give anything to obtain the volume that lay on the table before him—the work of his own father.
How could he risk exposing what he knew for a fact was hidden within the strange text and annotations of Jean Auguste Flamel’s work, which had never been published? Flamel the younger was afraid of both ridicule and the truth to what he’d discovered about immortality, and like Gaelan, feared the worst in humanity would exploit it. Gaelan had paid dearly for the Flamel manuscript and vowed to never let it see the light of day again.
But here, laying before him was his only link to family—to his father, and now he risked losing forever. Who was this man Smith to so torment him?
“What do you say, Mr. Erceldoune. An old, discredited book by an eighteenth century nobody for this incredibly rare volume, with, perhaps some…sentimental value along with its—”
Gaelan had to say…something. He could not let the Flamel go. Yet, to allow Smith to leave the shop with that manuscript…unthinkable. His hand shook as he raked his fingers through his long hair.
“Your collection is quite impressive, Mr. Erceldoune. Mine is larger, but the age of some of these… May I?”
“Thank you. And of course. This is only part of my collection. The rest are in my personal library at home.”
Gaelan watched as Smith as he perused the bookshelves. “You are, then a specialist in scientific works? At least it would seem so from your collection.”
“The history of scientific discovery has always been a keen interest of mine. Is it not true that what was once magic is now established scientific fact?”
Smith arched an eyebrow. “I suppose that’s true. By the way, we have a mutual acquaintance, it seems. A bookseller in Chicago. Morris Goldfarb.”
“He recently passed away, you know.”
“I do. And his grandson, who runs his shop found your name in his contact file and directed me here. The old man had mentioned you many times as a person I should meet if ever I was in the U.S. He said we would have much to discuss—many common interests. At the first mention of your name, I immediately thought of the manuscript I had in my possession.”
Goldfarb had been a good friend. He had been through more hell than even Gaelan could imagine, which was considerable. Gaelan breathed, careful not to let down his guard. Although he’d never trusted Goldfarb with his deepest secrets, they’d shared much.
It would be easy, so very easy to make the trade. He had nothing of his father’s, his family’s legacy for all the rare books in his collection. He would never get hold of the ouroboros book—the key to understanding—to ending his and Simon’s immortal curse. This manuscript offered by Mr. Smith would have held no clues. Only the writings of his father’s medical service to the crown. Cures to diseases that no longer existed, or were vastly misunderstood during those times. To hold it in his hands…to read his father’s writings again would be as if to have him nearby. But the price was too dear.
“I am sorry, Mr. Smith. I have no such book in my keeping. I have many others that might interest you from the same era. But I do not, as a personal rule, collect the ravings of those who sought the Holy Grail of immortality. I can give to you the names of others in the U.S. who might, but—”
“Might I ask why?”
“Many of us specialize—”
“But you are a specialist in scientific antiquities. At least that is what Morris Goldfarb suggested to me when he gave me your name. And is clear from the books on your shelf.”
“But immortality…is hardly—”
“I see. Gibberish?”
Gaelan shivered as a chill fled down his spine. “Forgive me, sir. I have an appointment. I would dearly pay for this manuscript in your possession, as it does hold for me both medical and, as you say, sentimental…family…interest. I would pay you a sum well beyond its worth, but I cannot help you with obtaining the Flamel manuscript. I am sorry.”
Smith rose, closing his bag, the manuscript still on the table. “I shall tell you what. It is the start of the Christmas season here, and I will leave this book with you—a gift, let us say. If ever you do happen upon the Flamel, sir, my advice to you is burn it. Destroy all evidence of it. Flamel’s writings that of his son have both been discredited. You may not know, sir, that there is more to it than meets the eye, and heaven help the man or woman who tinkers with such folly.”
Smith looked out the double bay window and out into the street before fixing his gaze back upon Gaelan. “Or perhaps you do. Good day, then, sir. And Merry Christmas.”
A wintry wind blew over the threshold as Smith opened the door. Snow whipped into the shop—swirling into a small glittery cyclone before settling on the dark mahogany floor. Gaelan stepped just outside, as Smith disappeared into the dense gray of the day.
Gaelan stepped back into the shop and shook the flakes from his jacket and hair. He fell into his chair and took up the ancient manuscript. Tears filled his eyes as he once again ran his right hand over the rough-hewn surface of the cover. Just who was this Mr. Smith? And for the moment, Gaelan did not care. That he had in his hands this small token of his family’s legacy was almost more than he could bear. But why? How? The questions lingered? Why leave such a undoubtedly valuable manuscript—even after Gaelan had refused him? And did it matter?
For awhile, Gaelan simply stared at the book; he could not bear to open it, afraid that to handle it would cause the brittle, fragile pages to disintegrate in his hands, and he would have nothing but the ashes of memory once again.
He sighed and lit a fire in the shop’s fireplace, carefully placing the grate, before realizing he’d left the door ajar, and a small hill of snow had accumulated just inside it. He thought of sweeping it away, then thought better of it, instead, stepping again out into the cold, letting the wind-blown flakes wash over him. The sodium vapor street lights had come on, lending the entire neighborhood an ethereal pinkish glow.
In the distance, he heard the sweet voices of the Northwestern Early music ensemble as they moved through Evanston, caroling. He closed his eyes, listening as they drew nearer. Then he heard it. At first he had to strain, but the music grew louder as the carolers approached his shop. Balulalow? Could it be? Or had his imagination gone wild with the strange visit of Mr. Smith and his even stranger gift? Balulalow—one of the very few festive carols of his childhood—a simple, beautiful lullaby. He could almost hear his grandmother’s voice whispering it into his ear.
It was too much to bear. First the book, and now this equally rare ballad, both echoes from a time almost out mind, but ever with him—more than four centuries past. He stumbled back into shop and locked the door behind him, flipping the sign to “closed.” He fell upon the book, gathering it to his chest. He lowered himself to the floor, his back against the door, holding the book close as tears and memories welled up in eyes. It was, after all, not such a black Friday.
You can buy The Apothecary’s Curse at your favorite online or brick and mortar bookseller: