There is nothing a writer loves more than free books, so I knew our (very brief) History of Living Forever contest—based on Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painting “The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus”—would attract its fair share of entries. But I never knew those entries would be so amazing. Literally every submission we received was a serious contender for the top prize. Myself and co-judge Samantha Hunt faced one hell of a challenge selecting from so many brilliant works of fiction, which is how you end up with three second-place winners and eight honorable mentions. Our most heartfelt thanks to all who entered.
Alas, there can only be one Grand Prize, and Sam and I landed independently and unanimously on Warren Glynn’s “Something Just Found but Not Yet Owned.” A number of entries explored the point of view of the boys occupying the background of the painting, but we loved how Glynn located conflict both between the boys and the old man—who, in this telling, has taken them from their mothers—and also between the boys themselves, as they compete against each other in a mysterious game whose rules are unknown to them. In exactly 250 words, Glynn provides a micro-masterclass on the principle of in media res: We open with that stance adverbial, even worse, hinting at horrors we’ll never see, before transition into a haunting backstory. From there, Glynn guides us with startling specificity to the moment depicted in the painting itself. In Glynn’s reimagining, it’s a tragedy, capturing both the darkness and the light of the scene: that moment when all you have is hope, but you don’t even know what you’re hoping for. What else is there to say but wow?
• • •
Grand Prize Winner
“Something Just Found but Not Yet Owned”
Even worse: the boys are soon instructed to store their urine, leave it jarred for weeks until the smell becomes unbearable. Then the boys give it to the glassman like a confession. The glassman kneels in the middle of his beakers and flasks and boils their waste over thin flame. Week after week, the boys leave the room, eyes watering and coughing as the glassman pokes at the putrid leftover tar as if looking for something in the boys that they’re supposed to have. The boys were not his at first, but now are nothing but. One boy can remember being taken, whisked away from a begging mother on the street by the glassman without a second glance, hauled off like a wailing melon at market.
By day the glassman sells mirrors and window panes, cups and dishes. By night he fills the shop with rancid smoke. The boys share a small room together and each night after they flee the stench, they undress for bed and sneak glances at each other against the candlelight, wondering which one of them has what the glassman is looking for.
As the seasons change and the air sits heavy with heat, the stench seeps into their bedroom. The boys wrap sheets around their faces, sweating through the cotton. When they hear the glassman yelp, they rush to find him in front of a pale light, new and trapped in glass. Oh please ̧ the boys both think, oh please, let that light be mine.
• • •
Second-Place Winners (alphabetical by last name)
Our three second-place winners showcase both the quality and the range of our entries. In “Red Phosphorus,” Dylan Brown approaches the painting as a painting, one observed by a down-on-his-luck narrator who wants desperately to be the illuminated hero but keeps finding himself, again, in the dark margins of the background. Devika Maulik’s “Earthshine” takes the theatrical quality of the painting to its literal extreme, imagining a bit-part thespian whose musings on a “wine made of moonlight” are infinitely more beautiful than the performance of the blowhard dominating the stage. In her appropriately untitled entry, Tammy Xiao looks beyond the painting, and indeed, beyond the frame, to consider the narratives we don’t see—the women so often erased from recorded history. Their differences are plain, but what these entries share is a commitment to the unexpected, to finding heart and pain in places you’d never think to look. Not to mention: they’re all absolutely gorgeous.
• • •
Uncle Loden gutted the moldy innards of the Airstream, put cardboard in the windows. He did hang the painting of the old man on his knees.
“Found it at the thrift store,” he said.
“I fucking love art,” I said.
“That old man is cooking!”
I thought the old man was some kind of medieval drug wizard. Loden didn’t have to say it but I knew he thought of me as one of the kids in the back. I helped in whatever ways I could: lifting cold medicine from the CVS and Rite Aid on Canyon Way, big hauls of ammonia jugs, red phosphorous from the firework plant in southern Nevada.
The plan was good: park our shit outside Coachella, supply all the kids with enough synthetic crystal to turn their brains soupy. On my way back to the trailer with a few thousand dollars was when they got me. You don’t think a family member could turn you in, definitely not one who told your mom he wouldn’t let anything happen to you.
I’m learning a lot these days. For example, much scientific progress happens by accident. Did you know acid was uncovered by a Swiss chemist looking for how to treat post-partum bleeding? When I’m out I’ll be the old man, I’ll make a drug, maybe by accident, one that makes it so no one turns on you, it makes you lovable, the kind of person other people want to love and never give up on.
• • •
We are in the part of the play where the epiphany happens. The light bulb in the flask brightens; the liquid within froths. The painted moon in the backdrop looms above ominously. The MADMAN crouches by the flask, trembling, kneeling as if in prayer. He is overacting.
On cue, he shouts at me, “Note the time!” Dressed in a wig and rags, I play his assistant, a bit part where I mostly fiddle with candlelight. I glance at the clock and scribble gibberish with a ballpoint quill. Inconveniently, the clock stopped three rehearsals ago; no one noticed. I probably should’ve said something. Of course, if historical record is to be believed, the actual madman had a strange relationship with light, seasons, never fussing with hours or minutes.
He generally disregarded conventional wisdom, and instead devoted himself to lunar alchemy. He believed the moon’s reflection of light was an act of purification and tried to sublimate its energy into an elixir. Imagine that: a wine made of moonlight, a potion that dissipates the hunger for conquest into a happy complacency, a phosphorescent liquid that clings to skin, allowing the very bodies of anointed sailors to glow, navigate darkness, tame tides. It was a literal communion of human flesh with its remote celestial heritage; it promised immortality.
Holding the flask, the MADMAN delivers a soliloquy, beseeching the audience in its infinite darkness to believe in his discovery. After he finishes, someone sneezes. They are unmoved.
Maybe they prefer a broken clock.
• • •
They talked about alchemy, not knowing that it happened all the time right before their eyes. While they bent over dusty volumes and played with vials, we were in the next room doing much of the same thing—measuring bone-white powders and siphoning amber syrups, forming bulbous, bubbling concoctions that were, unlike their experiments, one success after another. They had to be, because after all, our recipes fed the appetites of an Alchemist and two assistants three times a day.
Sometimes I peeked in from the kitchen to see what they were doing. They started late—much later than Maria comes in to knead the day’s bread—bleary eyed, tripping over their robes, back to the long tables where they picked up the quills, vials, and candles they had set down the previous night. The room, unlike Maria’s organized kitchen, was a mess: books spilled over each other in a cascade of pages, and jars filled with putrid smells edged the shelves precariously.
Today, close to nightfall, I saw a gleam of light from the laboratory and ran there, finding the Alchemist knelt on the floor before a shining orb of light. His assistants crowded around him, murmuring about how he, after all this time, had done it at last—
I turned back to the kitchen, which was illuminated by the warm, human glow of the hearth, back to the dusty flours and spice jars where we women conducted our own form of everyday magic—cooking.
• • •
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical by last name)
My husband’s crack pipe is smooth, petite, and flecked with silver. Not actual Silver (Ag), of course—that vanity alloy reserved for sterling, foxes, and Olympic runners-up—but Magnesium (Mg) instead, a real blue-collar bitch.
My husband doesn’t smoke crack. Not meth, or cigarettes either. Ditto beef short ribs, my favorite of the lot. Eight years strong and I’ve yet to see him so much as hit a joint at a party, he just ferries the roach on downstream until it tugboats back around. My man loves making treasure out of trash, though. That’s why YouTube tutorial. Why crack pipe.
“Lightbulbs, bottle caps, plastic straws. We already had the raw materials,” he says, holding up the piece so I too might revel in his craftsmanship.
“How wild,” I say. “Squatting here all along, Mr. Unassembled Liability.”
“Paraphernalia—in isolation—isn’t actually illegal.”
“My bad,” I say, “I sound like a mom.”
He pulls out a lighter then and motions to a corner. “Magnesium burns white hot. I can probably take it, but I don’t know about you. It’s pretty wicked stuff.”
“Okay,” I turn my back to him, “I’ll look away.” A moment later the flame catches and my shadow’s gigantic on the kitchen wall, sparks shooting from her sides—Artemis, Athena, harpy.
“Fuck,” my husband says after a few seconds, snuffing out the light.
“What happened?” I ask. “What’d you see?”
“Nothing special.” He rubs his barren eyes. “What about you?”
“Same, babe. Exactly the same.”
• • •
“The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus”
Boys, watch closely!—the alchymist said, for I had been looking away. I was young then, and to me, his magics were dull chemistry; I had no desire to be a wizened philosopher hunched and swaddled in robes and my own self-important intellect; I did not want to understand the world or pull gold from rocks—it was Joseph, my friend, who so craved all that: an important life by candlelight, surrounded by the great works of Hermes Trismegistus and other dead men; Joseph, who never ran in the fields or rode his father’s horses, and who was unwilling even to come with me no matter how many times I asked him to the lake where we might have swum in the sun and been free for an afternoon. The alchymist was bent like a praying man and his laboratory was as shadowed as a church. He tinkered with his instruments, and I could feel Joseph stiffen with anticipation. The alchymist’s arms went suddenly wide in supplicant wonder. “Behold!” he said, as the round-bottom glass before him began to glow. I turned to look at Joseph, his face awash in pale light. In his eyes I saw reverence. It was the look I would have given the sunlit surface of the lake had he ever come with me, and in that moment, I realized with horror that the brightest lamp is not the sun but that they—these two philosophers—would claim no difference between the quality of each light.
• • •
The man who rented the house to us said science required sanity. We did not agree.
James was ill, but he worked. In the attic apartment, dust settled itself on our skin, feathered into our eyelashes. With the vicious rot circulating in our lungs, we debated. We held his instruments, listened. We’d been hearing about advancements with Ketamine and psilocybin. Still, James believed he could uncover a new method that would not arrest the mind, not stick thoughts to a glue board like a fly spasming and seizing up and letting go.
In the winter, the attic worsened his condition. But in the warm, honeyed months, he cranked open the arch window and let West Virginia inside. The home of his wife, her family.
We had wives and children. Malik had a man he wished to be his husband. We attempted to share the private agony of everyone thrusting their morality on everyone else. We begged to have James’s steady vision, but we left the apartment like shift workers to settle on bar stools. The work gutted us, but it cleaned out his core. He paid us. It was a job.
We asked him to take time off.
“Don’t talk that way,” he’d say. We kept our voices low, careful. “Stop,” he said. “Let me be alive while I’m alive.”
He allowed us this: “I want spring,” he said. “Just one more time.”
He would see it in another country. He took his wife to Barcelona. He stayed.
• • •
Some nights she would pass by the lancet windows of the old man’s studio and peer in with longing. His was a crowded space: vials and burners and tomes that turned to dust in his hands, apparatuses like iron spiders guarding the floor and a tabletop. The thaumaturgist’s assistants, his two sons, were rose-cheeked with life’s beginnings, though one day they would discover a copious beard flourishing from their faces like their father’s and they’d see him as themselves, and the old man, just as certain, could see himself in the two boyish wisps he had made. Together, the three pairs of hands would do—pulverize, ply, pinch, drip, drop, taper—and then father and sons would look, hoping for a world at their fingertips. Peering in through a window, she was familiar with the disappointment they wore. Then the thaumaturgist and his sons would do again—pinch, drop, taper—and then look some more. Again, then again, until out of nothing came something: a white potent light, a majesty non obscura. It remade the architecture of the room, added bricks to a wall that could not previously be seen, deepened the curve between two colonnades that once harbored the dark, and then formed this within her, the beat beat beat of seeing another like herself: a moon in a rounded laboratory flask the way she was encased by the night sky. What a miracle: love. What a wonder: as if she’d been invited in.
• • •
“Filippo’s Invention Of Heaven Has Brought With It Some Cruel Reminders Of Absence And Fate”
While we’re all hard at work on science, Filippo is inventing heaven. Come quick, Filippo says, I’ve just invented heaven. But heaven is more of an aspirational construct than a tangible product, we say, and besides, don’t you have science stuff to do. We are busy measuring liquids and lighting burners. Filippo tugs at his beard. He does not like being talked down at. Besides, he is confident that he has created promiseland. We return to work. Petro is pouring the contents of one beaker into another. Filippo has not been interested in his work since his great loss, Petro says. We have all had great losses, I say to Petro. Do you remember when you spilled those crushed herbs? Petro nods.
Filippo returns, this time carrying a flask emanating a seraphic glow. The glow spreads beyond the container like a mirage. Petro sobs, just absolutely wails. You see! Filippo says. Heaven! My body goes all weather—elbow earthquake, stomach flood, head landslide. The bottle’s shine resembles everything that has ever been. Phlegm pools in my throat and I sob with Petro. We hug one another, our first embrace in years of work. Filippo is chortling and shouting the word heaven! over and over. We cannot stop crying. The room rivers with tears until Petro tosses a blanket over the bottle of heaven and silences its glow. I pinch the salt from eyes and tell Filippo to get back to work. The burners fizz like they’re gasping, exhaling, aching.
• • •
The siblings made potions with the bubble bath. “Mine makes you fly,” said the four-year-old. “Mine makes you live forever,” the six-year-old gloated as if he were in a lab perfecting an elixir and didn’t just scoop some dirty bath water into a multicolored BPA-free cup their mother had purchased the week before. The mother sat on the toilet impressed with her recent bath toy purchase because it was inspiring her children to create potions that could help others, while also activating a basic interest in chemistry. The brothers weren’t impressed with each other’s creations, and asked their mother to tell them who made the best potion. Not wanting to be the accidental judge, she ordered them to “Stop! This isn’t a lab.” The mother instantly regretted using the word “stop,” afraid this would somehow impact the trajectory of their creative development. The six-year-old remarked, “Mine is better. It would make everyone live forever.” The mother was about to respond, when the four-year-old screamed, “No! Mine is better! I want to fly!” and attempted to run away. He stood up and slipped back, banging his head against the bathtub wall. His cup landed with a splash. The mother’s heart jumped as she pulled him from the bath, wrapped him in a towel and inspected the bump on her son’s wet scalp. The older brother placed his potion on the edge of the tub and said with great sincerity, “this can save him.”
• • •
“The Alchemist’s Reason”
I thought it was the lamp hissing in the dim atelier.
He gestured me back to the shelf, underneath the water clock. If there was a portion of eternal vigor in that phosphorescing bauble, repurposed from a lamp, then he would take it for himself, like snatching one of god’s out-blown breaths.
But it was not the lamp. He was hissing in fear. As I watched from across the room, the glass grew brighter and brighter, then shattered. Shards speckled the flagstones and the fabric of his robe. He cursed. He spat. He threw a candle on the floor. It lit the hem of his garment, on which he began hysterically to stomp.
A thread of smoke drifted aloft in the room. Inside the thread were visible the most infinitesimal bits of glass, nearly sand, curling like that wisp of milk—galaxías kýklos, the milky circle—that cleaves the night sky. Here was a portion of that everlasting vigor. I watched the starry strand float on a draft I couldn’t feel. When it reached the window, it slipped through an unseen fissure in the frozen pane and was gone, a key vanishing in its lock.
Extinguishing his robe, the alchemist kicked over the stand where the glass had burst and fumbled another candle. He hadn’t seen the smoke from the cracked shell of his bauble.
“So much to seek and understand!” he cried out, startling me. “How thrilling that none of it has been promised to us!”
• • •
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
“The Immortality of Trees”
It seemed to the dying professor that the single clock in the whiskey-colored dark stopped ticking. The moon stuttered. The two boys, the professor’s assistants, froze over their flame.
“I did it,” the professor said, blinded by the new light emanating from the bottle of sap he’d worried over for months. He’d worked his alchemy, cooled and warmed the glass, exposed the liquid to every chemical the university let him get his hands on. In the end, he found a solution stranger than he imagined. He attached the limb to the last remnants of a brick wall mortared with the mud in which the tree once grew.
The tree that birthed the branch that birthed the sap had once been woman, or so the story went, a tale of an insistent god and a nymph who never loved him. The professor believed the myth so strongly that he risked his career to buy the single limb left of her. It might hold the key to the magic of transformation: bark that once was skin, sap that once was blood.
The professor didn’t want to be young again—unlike his colleagues, he didn’t desire the exhausting energy his assistants expended—but he didn’t want to leave the world and its miraculous advancement.
“I did it.” He touched the bottle. The room smelled of dust and blood-soaked tissues. The bottle was cold even as it glowed. His heart sank. The professor understood: no woman’s life was his to drink.