The Apothecary (September 2021)
By Mel Lake
It didn’t take long to realize the apothecary in Dogshead Falls wasn’t human. Instead of greasy strands falling from his scalp like me and every other unwashed man this side of the Mississippi River, his white hair looked like silk flowing down the body of a woman in an expensive gown. And his skin was a greyish blue color I’d never seen on a man who wasn’t long dead. But the throbbing in my jaw was getting worse and the sign in the window advertised potions for almost any ailment, so a blue-skinned, white-haired alien with a cure for a bad tooth was better than a normal-looking man without one.
I hitched my horse to the post next to the first brick building I came to as the sun reached halfway up the ridge that loomed over the town. The bright light of morning made half the mountain look almost white, while the other half remained a cool pre-dawn blue. I sucked in a deep breath and immediately regretted it. The air in the mountains was thin and cold. As soon as it hit my teeth, pain shot through my jaw and I almost doubled over with the sudden force of it.
When the pain faded, I walked into town, trying not to run my tongue over the aching abscess in my mouth. Rooster cocks strutted in the street while hens fluttered in a pen between the post office and a mercantile building. My muddy boots slipped on the planks of the raised wooden sidewalk, so when I reached the Apothecary’s door, I kicked the brick wall next to it. All that got me was an ache in my foot in addition to my jaw.
A mixture of scents assaulted my senses when I pushed open the door to Jarvis’s Apothecary & Assorted Sundries. Glass bottles in every color you could imagine lined the shelves two and three rows deep. Some had inscrutable diagrams of organs on the labels while others boasted of their potency in large letters. On the far wall, an ornate wooden barrier separated the apothecary — and his heavy metal cash box — from customers. Behind it, a blue-skinned man wearing round spectacles spoke in a quiet, singsong voice to a large woman in equally large petticoats. He handed her a small vial and noted the exchange in a ledger, bypassing the cash box altogether.
“Oh, good morning,” she said, turning to me. Her skirts took up most of the space between the shelves and I looked down to be sure I wasn’t stepping on them.
I tipped my hat and made a noise that resembled the word “ma’am” while trying not to let saliva escape my lips. My jaw throbbed and the stuffy air inside the shop made my head feel like I’d gathered a handful of the fluff that came off prairie flowers and swallowed it.
“I was just telling Jarvis here I hoped you’d come in before you set off to the mine. I know the foreman is expecting you but we like to get a good look at newcomers, don’t we Jarvis?”
The apothecary gave a small nod. His thin blue lips were pressed together in an approximation of a smile.
“Anyhow, Jarvis’ll fix your sore tooth right up. And I’m sure we’ll be seeing you in service on Sunday.”
She said this with such a sweet look on her pudgy face that I had trouble connecting the veiled threat with the peaceful smile. I’d been in Dogshead Falls for an hour and hadn’t told anyone who I was or what was wrong with my tooth. In fact, my doubts about taking the open position had only increased as my travels brought me nearer to the mine I’d agreed to manage. The advert I’d replied to had been sent directly to the college as I was about to graduate and the correspondence I’d had with the foreman was sporadic and brief. The farther I traveled from home, the larger the sky grew over my head, and the more my ambitions shrank under the weight of it.
The woman pushed past me with a ruffle of skirts and a whiff of bergamot and lemon entered my nose, layering on top of the heady scents of the apothecary shop. The dab of scent she’d used could’ve cost as much as my horse. I opened my mouth to ask how she’d known who I was but couldn’t get any words to form.
“Mr. Becker, please step inside,” the apothecary said.
I held my face, trying to hold the pain back with my hands, and followed him behind the counter through a door that led into a small backroom. It was stuffed with bags of loose grain, unmarked bottles, and shiny metal objects arranged on shelves. Some of the objects seemed lit up from within as if they were electric, though I didn’t see any wires. Red and yellow lights blinked at me and my mind struggled to make patterns out of them. The blue man beckoned toward a chair bolted to the floor in the middle of the room. It looked like a barber’s chair with flat glass panels attached to the arms. I sat and ran my hands over their smooth surfaces and as I did, a ripple of energy pulsed under my palm.
The apothecary peered at me through his little spectacles. His eyes appeared much larger through them. They looked like a human’s eyes but were a beautiful golden color that complimented his strange greyish-blue skin. Jarvis gently nudged my mouth open and pressed down on my tongue with something cold and metallic. The soothing noises he made while examining me sounded like the low cooing of the hens outside. When he pressed down on the left side of my mouth, a lightning bolt of pain shot through my face and I squirmed in the chair.
“Oh dear, I do apologize, Mr. Becker,” he said.
“How do you know my name?” I managed to ask. The flash of pain had left a hangover ache in my jaw that spread outward until my entire head hurt. The apothecary smiled wide. His teeth were very white and though I only got a glance at them, it seemed like he had too many.
“You’re not from around here, are you, Mr. Becker?” he asked, though he obviously already knew the answer.
I shook my head and little halos appeared in my vision. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, the apothecary was holding a bottle of golden liquid.
“Drink this,” he said.
“Is it medicine?”
I took a drink, wincing at the burn as the liquor traveled down my throat and lit up my gut.
“Pittsburgh,” I said. I was drooling on my shirt but Jarvis didn’t seem to notice or mind.
“Dogshead Falls is a long way from Pittsburgh.”
It was. The apothecary busied himself at a metal sink in the back of the room, cleaning his tools. I watched, feeling like I would at any moment wake from this ridiculous dream to a vicious scolding from my father. He’d berate me for the weakness in my constitution and send me to Mother, who would stare at me with those cold, disappointed eyes. Neither of my older brothers would dream of having a bad tooth. I was glad they weren’t around to see me drooling and at the mercy of a blue man with a bland smile in the middle of nowhere. I felt foolish but grateful to be far, far away from them. I took another drink.
“Where did you come from?” I asked. The whiskey was going to my head. Though I hadn’t had much, I felt the effect immediately. This strange town was high above sea level, nestled in a valley between a severe, flat-topped mountain and a set of gentle, sloping foothills.
The man — Jarvis — hummed noncommittally.
I took another swig, this time enjoying the burn in my throat. I hadn’t eaten a full meal in days. After leaving St. Louis, the hardtack hurt my jaw too much to bother with. Camp beans and grits were soft enough to eat but I could only force down so much of those before growing sick of them. The whiskey sloshed around in my empty stomach, making my head spin and distracting me from thinking about the pain in my mouth and the strangeness of the town on which I’d staked my future prospects.
“I am not originally from Dogshead Falls, no,” Jarvis said. He wiped his hands on a towel that didn’t look terribly clean and collected his tools. I tried not to focus on the glint of the scalpel or the long-pronged pliers that looked like something you might use to shoe a horse.
“Yeah.” Then, unsure why, I said, “I hated Pittsburgh.”
Jarvis chuckled. He set his tools on the metal tray next to my chair and took the bottle from my hands.
“My home is much further than Pittsburgh,” he said, with a small smile. His lips were so thin they almost weren’t there. “You and I have one thing in common, though.”
Jarvis put an instrument in my mouth. It tasted like the wooden spoon Mother had used when she caught me cursing. He adjusted the light so that it was shining directly in my eyes. His face was dark in the shadow of the bulb’s glare so I couldn’t see his expression when he began to tell me his story.
“I also hated the place I came from,” he said. “But I love the place I found.”
I woke in a dark room surrounded by snores, with the taste of blood and alcohol in my mouth. I groaned, then rolled over and spit a stream of dark liquid in the bucket at the side of the bed. My head ached but my jaw, by some miracle, did not. Carefully, I tongued the backs of my teeth, searching for the rotten one. All I could feel was a cavern where it had been. The apothecary hadn't been a dream, then.
Naked limbs filled the room in tangled piles. I couldn't make out which arms belonged to which legs or how many torsos there were. The place reeked of sweat. My head felt as though it were full of cotton and a line of saliva was drying on my cheek. I wiped it and carefully stood. Outside the room was a long hallway lined with doors. Behind them, I heard more snores and a few groans. Making my way down the creaky wooden stairs to the main floor, I disturbed no one. Downstairs, I found a large bar with a giant mirror behind it. On one side of the room, a grand piano sat, quiet.
As my head cleared and I walked through the bar to the front of the room, I remembered Jarvis telling me of a beautiful place full of waterfalls. There were people who spoke in their minds. He’d told me about his family, and the cruelty with which they ruled over their land on the planet of Xygoria. He’d taken his father’s ship and set off across the galaxy, searching for a new home. Right before he plucked the tooth out of my head, he told me how he’d run out of food and hope, alone among the vastness of the stars. Jarvis had set his ship on a course for oblivion, never intending to crash on a little blue planet in the middle of nowhere.
He took my tooth and gave me his story. Then everything had gone black.
“Good morning to you, Mr. Becker,” said a woman seated at the bar. She wore last night's finery, but the ties on her corset were loosened. Her face was painted with a bright red rouge that smeared across her lips like the fingerprint of a kiss.
“Where am I?”
“The Red Pony. Mr. Jarvis doesn't have much room for guests.”
“Thank you.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
She nodded and continued what she’d been doing when I’d crept down the stairs: meticulously counting a large stack of bills. I stood in the center of the room while my thoughts swirled. The bar was eerily quiet and filled with a dim morning light that filtered in through wooden slats.
“He's — the apothecary, he's really —”
“He told me he came from a planet called —”
“Xygoria, I believe.” The woman finished counting her stack and set it aside. She heaved herself off the stool and came to stand next to me. Her skirts brushed against my leg. “An old prospector named Fremont Davis found him out in the backcountry, must've been thirty years ago now. Him and his wife Hattie, they looked after Jarvis and he loved them like kin.”
She tilted her head to the side. “Ain't you got a mine to get to, Mr. Becker? Foreman'll be asking after you and I’d suggest this may not be the place you’d want to be found. Your horse is in the back with your belongings.”
“Yes. Yes, thank you,” I said again, feeling foolish and unsettled.
“Mr. Jarvis, he's from another —”
“Mr. Jarvis belongs to Dogshead Falls. Same as any of us.” She sighed and I couldn’t tell her mood from it. “This place takes folks and keeps ‘em. It kept Jarvis. It’ll keep you, now.”
She turned to go back to the bar.
“How does everyone know my name?”
Over her shoulder, the woman said simply, “Welcome home, Mr. Becker.”
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Mel Lake (@melofsometrades) lives in Denver with her partner and a very good dog. She has an English B.A. and an M.S. in Technical Communication. She is a technical writer/editor, creative writer, and contributor to Multiversity Comics. Her work has appeared in “The Mark” and is forthcoming in “The Human Touch” and “Capsule Stories”.