A Taste of Wine (March 2021)

By Martyn Sullivan

It's not easy getting drunk when you're a skeleton. I say “skeleton”, for there is some flesh still remaining. I have my jaw and a little of the meat upon it, but the wine pours straight through and splashes on my bones. In addition to my jaw, I have most of my teeth, and some twisting sinews and nerves binding my bones in place, keeping me more or less in function. These binding cords now look more like brown cobwebs that happen to be tethering me together rather than a part of any living body. Some hair, white. Held on by who knows what, for both skin and blood left my skull long ago. A hard hand would surely brush these few clutching hairs away.

I've learned to feel texture through bone via the vibrations from whatever my fingers touch. Most of my other senses are gone now: my eyes are shrivelled dim, my vision almost turned black and I can barely hear. I am imprisoned by catechisms — they help me remember — and if I forget them, the bricks of reality may dissolve and dark oblivion will surely creep in. My nose is totally decayed of course but I have the vestiges of a tongue, at least enough to speak, so I can still taste, and wine is the only thing that I miss. The wine we have today is so much better than what I remember, yes, there are tastes that we've forgotten that are not represented on the shelves of the modern market. Nevertheless, I am certain that there are few things that were actually better in my natural life as opposed to what is available in the here and now.

I'm five hundred and fifty years old, as close as I can reckon. My date of birth was not accurately recorded so five hundred and fifty years is the best that I can do. The pursuit of immortality, “eheu fugaces labuntur anni” ... it drove us all on. There were so many magicians once upon a time. It was never a brotherhood or an order with common agreements of learning, we were all rivals; but given our different patrons and their desires, a king here, a duke there, occasionally a bishop hedging his bets or even an ambitious merchant, we never had the time to properly attack one another or even really compete for any kind of supremacy.

So it was that our various strands of magic wove apart as we failed to secure longevity. Divination, necromancy, command of the elements ... they are parlour tricks. They impress but they mean little at the end of things. If we could have done anything with our knowledge and learning ourselves, without more money, we wouldn't have needed patrons; and our patrons only wanted a longer time to rule on earth, so they weren’t truly interested in what limited abilities we could actually offer them.

I fled Brännkyrka before the hostilities started proper. My practice of divination was advanced, and I saw what would come to be. So, I stole my patron's fortune. With patience, I wove a magic sack, and I forged a magic box, I sent the box far away to London. The sack though, I crept with it into my master’s treasury and I filled it up with figurines and jewellery and then I squeezed full all the gaps with coin. With a set of enchanted shears — that I had prepared beforehand — I cut holes in the sack and the coins tumbled out, no longer visible in Brännkyrka, but instead spread upon the bottom of the box in a town house far away in London. I shook the sack again and again, and the last of the treasure silently poured out into my far-away new home.

I stole away and fled to my new fortune. Given the war and my own advancing years, I knew this would be my final chance at longevity. I knew stories of other magicians who bargained with nightmare devils for more time, who sacrificed innocents to these beings for favour. Fools, who after years found themselves cheated and damned — what does a devil reckon to the passage of a few more seasons if it means it claims one more soul? Others, who brewed deep draughts from rare, hard to come by ingredients that absolutely halted the aging process but had to be consumed more and more frequently. In time their letters ceased.

I had met a man who swore his master bound lonely ghosts to a charm about his neck and that these fettered spirits scared away Death itself! I smiled at him as I could not credit Death fearing the dead. I corresponded with a Moor who marked his skin with small, black tattoos, each of which held off the pain and wear of a season. Born uncommonly fair among his people, he was gradually covering himself in dark ink and erasure. I thought of him as a mistake in time, slowly scribbled through by the creator, despite every struggle the man made to stay present.

These men all faded from the world, they all died in the end no matter how much longer they thought they had left. I believed that I had my own preparation effectively planned but I knew that the ingredients would be expensive. Too expensive for my patron to take a chance on for himself so when war threatened, well, I had to take matters into my own hands to live forever and ensure the future.

My master at this point was long dead himself and I had no apprentices. This, this aging — if nothing else — was placing my magical lineage at risk so I had to act. It all went off-course so horribly wrong. My misunderstandings of the formulae I had devised, critical, crucial. Terrible, terrible. I did not die. In itself that was a great success that would have seen me recognised as a magician without equal, had there been many of us left by that point to celebrate such an achievement.

However, I continued to slowly age and gradually I fell apart. I wove preserving charms that held me together as best I could but eventually, I could not venture out in public. I found a museum and I hid myself within it as a medical curiosity. At that point, the new lore started coming direct to me. Books, art, tablets, statues — all wonderful additions to my own knowledge — and over time I began to stitch together my own original magical theory. Then I was sold, at auction.

Insufferable! My progress was disrupted, and I found myself no longer free to wander after dark. Instead, I found myself in a doctor's study. The start of the twentieth century had seen a boom in occultism that had blurred the lines with other disciplines, and so that was how I came to linger near the desk of a somewhat unimaginative family physician. More curious as a young man, he had snapped up my body as an expensive conversation piece, and in time I became a more unique version of the common anatomical skeleton other doctors placed within their chambers.

It wasn't all bad. The man for his all his shortcomings had a fine taste in wine. As his family slept, I crept about the house drinking what I could and so my ribs and pelvis stained purple. Uneasy joke after uneasy joke and then suspicion turned to “daddy's cursed skeleton." I stopped drinking for a time in order to remain undetected … and then I met Sarah.

Sarah was the doctor's daughter. I had never married, never passed my name on. I had a master who believed that holding seed within you would grant extraordinary powers and demonstrate mental discipline. It came as some surprise to me that despite my lack of heart and my lack of most things I wished desperately that Sarah were my daughter instead.

She was lovely: I observed her stamp her feet for her father's attention so that she might show him a leaf and I heard her play with the family puppy and then the old hound that it became. I strained to watch her fondly as she went from quiet little girl to what I learned was called a flapper, or at least the local version of it. She used to sit with her father as he wrote in his patients’ files and quietly slip over to me to walk her fingers across my toes until Dr. Reynolds called her away.

One day, alone, still young, she told me that she knew that I could talk, and she stared at me, stared hard up into my shrivelled eyes. I shocked myself and her by rasping "How?" She turned and ran and didn't venture back for a month. When she did, she again came close to me and told me once more that she knew I could speak, and I replied "Yes." She raised her hands to her mouth and nodded and I nodded back. I was after all already grinning at her.

We spoke and we spoke, and I told her of my history, and she rightly laughed at me. What wizard spends his art and knowledge becoming a museum piece? She was right to laugh. I asked if I could teach her magic. That I believed all my contemporaries had long fallen to age and I had valuable secrets, valuable lore that would be forgotten to the world if the enchantments upon me were broken. Women were never apprenticed in the past, as per tradition, but I decided that I was now the ultimate magical authority and could change the rules as I wished. With the kind of shrug that would not have been acceptable from any other prospective apprentice at any other time she accepted.

I regretted my change in policy almost immediately. She was a pest, never asking the right questions and never in the right order and consistently refusing to study certain things in case there might be a chance that she would end up like me. She wanted to cast spells, to do magic. You don't do magic — magic is and it exists — you harness it like wind to a sail or a crop to a landscape before careful harvest, and then you direct your magical project’s course and it’s further applications. It is not an activity. It certainly isn't "fun".

She wasn't a quick pupil, but she gave me purpose again and she laughed when I explained about stealing the wine, and then I laughed when I asked her how she knew I could speak. I didn't believe her when she said that I was posed in a slightly different way every time she entered the room as I knew myself to be extraordinarily coordinated and careful. Then she confessed that she had seen me once climbing the stairs dripping purple. Her parents when told the next day had gently explained she had had a nightmare, but she must have believed her own senses and must have kept that knowledge for some years before she confronted me.

In time she learned: first spells of invisibility, then ways to hold someone's gaze and extract their secrets from them. The basic charms that my master had taught me, and their master had taught them. I shared everything that I could with her and in time, in time as I say she learned. She became a better pupil than I first thought she might be. She learned how to divine weather and laughed with me when the rain fell. I taught her the languages that I knew and the history that I had lived, and she became a formidable young woman; she was even on the path to completing her apprenticeship. The first new magician in centuries!

Then war took her from me.

I had nowhere to go. I couldn't flee with her far away; I had no enchantments to weave and no way to stop Sarah from leaving. I was terrified that she would go to war. I was terrified that she would die, that I would lose my apprentice and the only person I had spoken to in centuries. I was furious that she chose to go, that she risked everything for the sake of another bloody war. I forbade her to go and she ignored me. Regardless of the moral, regardless of what was right or wrong about it, magicians do not fight wars. We have an eternity to lose here in this life not a stake in the afterlife to claim or a history to declare as we pass from this earth.

Despite my pleading. Despite all my frightened pleading and angry, logical explanation. Despite everything.

She went.

I wish that my spells were more useful. She said they had their uses for the work she did though what use ... how does one obtain mandrake root or a hand of glory at short notice? Of course, she did exceptional work, I have no doubt that she would have been unusually effective, no doubt she was like in the films she played me later, meeting French resistance and Dutch resistance and partisans and stealing German plans. No doubt ... no doubt. She didn't tell me in detail what she did, and I didn't ask but despite the risks, despite everything she came back though I had come to believe that she would not. I did not divine on the matter for fear of the answer and I do not know if she chose to ask the universe herself.

She came back and she said that she had after all been wrong to go. That she had been proud of the work she did and glad to serve but she hadn't understood her arrogance in believing her value was abroad for her country when her family and I had counted on her living a long life here in England. I think she hadn’t counted on how many young people just like her would die and how sudden that death could be. She could have been in any number of supporting units instead, safer at home and still in service; but at least in the end she came back, alive. Maybe the spells did help, but she regardless did come back, and I am more grateful of that than anything.

Dr. Reynolds died in time and Sarah had babies with the soldier she met during the war. She inherited everything, even daddy's cursed skeleton. Me. We continued our studies, stitching my preservation more tightly and expanding her knowledge. In time we agreed that one of her children should learn and continue the magical tradition and the others would not. Sarah and Sean and their children — Fergal, and Jean — moved me to the country with them when Sean became a vicar.

The parsonage and the grounds became known to be haunted by a mysterious ghostly figure, a skeleton wrapped in a dark cloak, said to be the shade of a drunken minister long past. In time the village took on the tradition of leaving a bottle of wine on the churchyard wall to keep "Father Legless" as I became known in good spirits and uninterested in haunting anyone. Sarah did everything that she could to encourage the tradition much to Sean's irritation.

It's been many years now and I'm still teaching magic, now to Sarah's grandchild, researching, waiting for the breakthrough that will restore my flesh and give me the true immortality that I have always sought. I still can't get drunk, but I have at least secured the supply and taste of wine and there is no longer anything in life for me to miss.

Text copyright © 2020 by Martyn Sullivan. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.

About the Author: Martyn Sullivan (@ribenademon) is a writer from Swansea in South West Wales. He reads and writes speculative fiction, particularly folklore infused urban fantasy; he is also very fond of cyberpunk. The rest of the time he can be found wrangling spreadsheets, growing chillies, being in turn wrangled by his cat, and hiking.