(Story begins here) Pete settled down on the edge of his seat in excitement. Mary bustled about with her equipment, carefully measuring powders and fluids and adding them to a large earthenware pot. Eventually, after running through a checklist on a papyrus scroll, she lit the stove underneath with a long spur and stood back. “Behold,” she said with uncharacteristic solemnness as she began to stir the peculiar potion with a large ladle. Pete glanced down at the thick brown fluid in the vessel. It was becoming darker, but so was Mary, her life force seemed to be fading, like someone had switched off the illumination of her skin. “This stage is known as the nigredo, said the alchemist through gritted teeth, also known as the dark night of the soul.” Pete looked troubled.
“This is why there have never been any true prophets in the modern world, your mental focus is weakened by social media, films, TV, national and global affairs ricocheting around in your brain all the time.”
“So skin turning black, that has nothing to do with_”
“No Pete,” Mary’s voice was strained, “this has absolutely nothing to do with the naturally different colours of human skin on the physical level. I confront the shadows within.”
“Lust, fear, anger, loneliness and many more” said Mary her skin becoming darker and gaunter as the potion turned a thick black colour. Pete thought he could see the corpse of a raven rotting in the fluid.
“Are you alright?” he asked with concern.
“No, I am not alright. I am a monster Pete,” the alchemist wailed. “I am nothing but an animal mind from which I cannot escape. I have been having impure sexual thoughts towards you since you arrived, I keep wishing for bad things to happen to my brother for what he’s cost me, and I pity myself for not finding love, when I should be grateful for all I have.” Mary collapsed in grief, “keep… stirring…” she managed as she shook uncontrollably. Pete looked shocked, but dutifully took over with the ladle. At length, the potion began to lighten, and so did half of Mary’s face. The alchemist got unsteadily to her feet, with only one arm and leg, the other side of her body was hanging limp. “The albedo or whitening” she slurred with the good half of her mouth. The potion lightened further towards perfect whiteness and half of Mary’s face began to radiate beautiful light, whilst the other side remained dark and gaunt. Pete gasped as a beautiful white dove arose from the liquid and settled gracefully on a bookshelf in the corner of the laboratory. “Also known as the ablutio, the washing, the purification stage,” continued Mary. “I separate the good and the bad within me, so the bad can be removed from around my soul, just as dirt is removed from the body during washing. As above, so below.” Mary clutched her bench for support. “Can you keep stirring Pete, I can’t yet.” The young man resumed his post at the cauldron. The fluid stayed white for a while, but then a yellowish hue began to emerge. As it did, the side of Mary’s face rapidly healed, then it began to shine bright just like the other side. Mary threw both hands in the air in euphoria, then collapsed on her knees as the bliss radiated from her. “Citrinitas, the yellowing, the solar consciousness,” announced Mary with breathless delight. “She gazed around in rapture. I see by the light of the sun, not it’s mere reflection by the moon. Silver is transformed into gold! Oooohh.” Mary began moaning with bliss. “It’s all so beautiful, too beautiful to imagine. I can see the fire not just it’s reflections on the cave wall. Oh! The futility of sorrow in a creation as supreme as this!” A rift of light was shining down on Mary now, who was letting it wash over her face like a warm shower in an ice-cold house. Pete who had been absentmindedly stirring the potion, saw it begin to turn a vivid shade of crimson. “The rubedo,” moaned Mary, “the redness, the symbol of gold itself.” Pete gasped as from the fluid, a phoenix erupted, wearing a golden crown and clasping a rose in one of its talons. It placed the crown on Mary’s head and somehow it did not seem out of place, like it was adorning a true high queen. Mary stared reverently into nowhere, beyond the power of speech, a figure of spiritual regality. Pete just stared, utterly awestruck. After a few minutes, the crown, the animals and the light ray faded away. Mary began to return to her normal physical appearance. She smiled weakly and held up an upraised finger before tottering over to a soft couch in the corner of the laboratory and collapsing on it heavily.
“That was incredible,” breathed Pete.
“Was it as good for you as it was for me?” smiled Mary. Fortunately for Pete she was too weak to slap his back this time. Pete chuckled licentiously.
“That stuff you said along those lines,” he smirked, “you didn’t really mean it?”
“Oh probably,” said Mary airily, “but now it’s buried again beneath good manners and other higher considerations, so I’ll just gloss over it. I think.” Mary flashed an intelligent smile, and Pete joined in.
“Fair enough. So what did all that mean? How did your spiritual experience match the potion like that?”
“Just a matter of focus,” said Mary simply, “Alchemy only works with a focused mind, not just the right chemicals.”
“But, I couldn’t do that, no matter how hard I stared into the cauldron what happened to you didn’t happen to me.”
“I’m sorry my little Bubbeleh, but you live in an age where there are just too many distractions. You never have sufficient time nor indeed motivation to train your mind. Every time you get a twitter notification, it broadens your mental focus, when you should spend every day sharpening it more and more. This is why there have never been any true prophets in the modern world, your mental focus is weakened by social media, films, TV, national and global affairs ricocheting around in your brain all the time. All the different foods, different clothes, the technology even. Technology can be fun, it can be useful and even merciful in alleviating suffering in the medical sphere, but it just leaves so little space in your head to look for what’s real.” Mary got unsteadily to her feet and began pacing as she warmed to her theme. “It is why so many religions start in the desert. Day after day, night after night, you have nothing else to do but stare and think and whether consciously or not, you sharpen and focus your mind to the point that true reality has a chance of briefly becoming visible. Basically, what you have achieved with your fast-adding machine_”
“You mean the computers powering Phaethon?” Mary waved her hand dismissively
“I am an alchemist, not a physicist, call it what you will, it is possible to see heaven without your machine. You have just taken a huge and to be fair, very clever shortcut.”
“So you synchronise your soul with the physical processes in the cauldron,” Pete whistled, “amazing”.
“Oh, but it works on other levels too, Bubbeleh, the mind for instance.”
“How?” Mary considered this.
“it’s probably easiest if I invite a friend over to explain that one.” Pete turned as he heard echoing footsteps on the narrow stone staircase behind him. (continue)