If there were ever a boy with more infuriating a father, Neathan would’ve loved to meet him. For Neathan’s own father was so desperate to boast about his son that he lied about him, as Neathan was, in actual fact, quite the average boy.
According to his father, Neathan was unbelievably talented, and to avoid embarrassment, Neathan strived to meet these false expectations. When his father insisted Neathan had the voice of an angel, the boy practiced singing until he perfected. When it was proclaimed that he could draw the most perfect portrait, accurate to a t, Neathan spent hour upon hour sketching until his hand produced the prettiest of pictures.
Whilst the lies were maddening, they were manageable. Except some grew jealous and attempted to pick Neathan’s virtues in order to pull them into vices; one man stepped forward with the declaration that Neathan’s talents held nothing against his daughter’s.
“My girl can spin straw into gold,” the man announced. It earned the gasps and murmurs of the surrounding crowd, as well as a humble flush from the girl at his side.
Neathan’s own father clenched his jaw. Never the one to be outdone, he lied, “Neathan can heal any sickness or wound with just the touch of his hand.”
Exclaims sounded throughout the gathered crowd, each bustling and whispering among themselves over who might need such recovery. Neathan felt his face burn with the pressure of the lie – he glared at his father, who had no eyes for him. The two dads were staring each other down, until the girl’s father huffed and turned away.
A young boy burst out of the crowd and tugged on Neathan’s sleeve. “My gra’ma is awful sick,” he said, “I’ve done all I can but it just ain’t enough. Would’ya see to her, mister, please? She’s all I got, mister, please, I don’ know what I’d do if I lost her.”
Guilt nestled into the pit of Neathan’s stomach and anxiety nibbled his bones as he just stared back at the kid. Except his father was far too proud to reveal he’d lied, and so Neathan’s father answered, “Of course! We’ll see her tomorrow. Neathan needs to rest now.”
“Why did you say that?” Neathan snapped the second the pair were home.
His father shrugged. “Every other time I’ve said something about you, it’s always turned out to be true. I think we have luck on our side, Neathan – you can turn any lie I make into the truth!” He laughed. “Now, ain’t that better than straw to gold?”
Neathan burned with fury at his father’s words and laughter. Luck! There was nothing lucky about it – it had all been the product of Neathan’s diligence! His hard work! But now his father was teetering the idea of alchemy, and that’s a dangerous field indeed. Neathan was no alchemist, and it was nothing that could be learnt overnight.
At a loss, Neathan stomped into his room and slammed the door shut. His anger melted into sorrow and tears rolled down his cheeks; there was nothing he could do. Tomorrow, Neathan would have to approach a sickly woman and fail to heal her, leading to the disappointment of the boy, maybe even the entirely village.
He sat on his bed and wept. There was simply nothing else he could do. Except as he cried and cried, a very small girl opened his door and stepped inside. “Young man, why are you crying so much?” she asked.
Neathan sniffed. “I’m expected to go to an elderly lady’s house and heal her of any and all sickness. I can’t do that.”
“Shall I teach you?”
“Please!” Neathan’s head jerked up to look at the small girl properly. “Oh, please do! Is it truly possible?”
“Certainly,” she said. “I expect something in return, though. So, I’ll teach you this, and in return, I’ll take something of yours. Nothing to worry yourself over, you just happen to have something I need. An ingredient for a philosopher’s stone. Aren’t you lucky? Or well, I suppose I’ll have the luckiest outcome.”
Neathan nodded vigorously. “Take whatever you want, just please teach me!”
The two got to work. Neathan was awake all night, drawing and redrawing the symbols the girl showed him. Eventually one symbol was decided upon by the girl, and she pricked her skin to draw the symbol on his palm with her blood.
“Do not ruin this symbol,” she ordered. “Use this hand to heal the old woman.”
Once the time to visit the woman came, the small girl was gone, and Neathan went to the old lady’s house with his father in tow. The small boy who’d called out to Neathan opened the door, his exhausted face lighting with excitement as he welcomed Neathan inside.
Neathan was led into a bedroom, in which the old woman sat propped up on her bed. She was sickly pale and horribly thin; tears threatened to spill from Neathan’s eyes as he just looked at her.
Following the small girl’s instructions, Neathan approached the woman and momentarily clasped his hands together, as if in prayer, before placing the hand with the symbol onto her forehead. Before his eyes, the woman seemed to rejuvenate, good health seeping into her skin and returning her to a healthy colour and plump figure.
The young boy cried out with glee, running to his grandmother and throwing his arms around her as he chanted his gratitude to Neathan. The grandmother held her grandson tenderly, and met Neathan’s eyes with her own soft, brown ones.
“Thank you.” Her voice was gentle, but not feeble. Neathan suspected the healing process may have stripped her of some of her age in exchange for good health, for she looked and sounded much younger now. “Are you an alchemist?”
“I wouldn’t say so, no,” Neathan confessed. “Do you know much about alchemy?”
Her expression turned solemn and she nodded as she answered, “I know enough.”
Thinking back on the promise Neathan had made with the small girl who’d helped him, he pressed the matter despite the budding tension and asked, “Do you know what ingredients are in a philosopher’s stone?”
The woman’s breath hitched at the mention of the stone and her grip on her grandson tightened. Silence loomed over the room as she considered her response.
Eventually, she told him, “I do know. It’s a secret, something I intended to never tell anyone, but you saved my life. Charlie, Mr Long, please step outside.”
Her grandson nodded and took Neathan’s father out of the room. With just the two of them, the old woman held Neathan’s gaze.
“The main ingredient in a philosopher’s stone,” she said, “is a human soul. You understand the idea, don’t you? To give one person eternal life, someone else’s soul must be contained for that same eternity. While one is immortal, the other is stuck in limbo. The two souls become intertwined and both become immortal, but only one is truly alive.”
Neathan felt as if he could cry again. He’d unknowingly promised the girl his soul.
There was nothing he could say. Neathan nodded, stupefied and silent, and left without another word. His father hurried after him, but Neathan didn’t stop to wait. They arrived home and Neathan went straight to his room, where he let his tears run free.
By the time the sky had fell into an orange ombre, the short girl appeared. “You cry an awful lot,” she chirped. “Did you fail to heal her?”
“I know what you want in exchange for teaching me,” Neathan sobbed. “Please, you can take anything, but not my life.”
The girl shook her head. “No can do, kid. The philosopher’s stone needs a soul, and yours is the best around.” But she took pity on his sorrow and tears, for the girl sighed, “I’ll give you three days. Figure out my name by then, and you can keep your soul.”
All night, Neathan listed every name he’d ever known. He wrote down the names of every girl he’d ever met, every book character he’d ever read, and scoured every other source there was to generate a list of two thousand names. When the girl appeared, he called her Zusa, Morwenna, Reynette, and continued to rattle off all the names he had written down.
But with each name Neathan gave, the small girl responded, “That’s not what I’m called.”
The second day, Neathan returned to the old lady’s house.
She was no longer confined to her bedroom and instead stood in the kitchen, helping her grandson bake some cookies. Neathan showed her a sketch of the short girl and asked if he knew who she was.
“I’m afraid I haven’t,” the old woman replied. “Who is she?”
“She’s the one who asked me for the ingredients to the stone,” Neathan informed her. Fear kissed the woman’s face as her cheeks fell pale.
Once the cookies were done, the woman sat with Neathan and gave him all the names she’d heard, all of those that suited the girl. Neathan sat with her til evening, writing the names around the girl’s portrait. For good measure, Neathan asked the young boy for his help, too, until all the space surrounding the sketch was full.
Neathan took the paper home and went to his room, where the girl sat already on his bed, waiting for him. He pursed his lips and began: “Tinytoes? Hardheart? Goldyarn?”
Each name was met with the same response. A laugh and, “That name’s good, but nowhere near as good as mine.”
The third day was faced with sorrow; Neathan couldn’t find anymore names to give. He wandered aimlessly throughout his house, desperate for inspiration to strike. Neathan’s father sat on the couch, and Neathan realised he’d been surprisingly quiet since the healing.
“Dad,” Neathan snatched his attention as he spoke, “I need you to tell me that I can find out the girl’s name.”
Bemused, his father quirked one eyebrow and asked, “What girl?”
“Dad,” Neathan begged, “please.”
“Okay, Neathan. You can find out the girl’s name. You will.”
An obvious lie, yet Neathan felt reassured. He donned a cloak and stepped outside, desperately hoping he’d stumble upon a name if he strayed far enough.
After a while, Neathan found himself having passed through the entire forest, and towards the end of it was a cabin. He hid as he saw some from a small fire and heard a girl’s voice singing.
“For now, I live, for never I’ll die
And I’ll spend my immortality making pretty boys cry.
I’ll live forever, be forever a dame,
And no one will know, Terremita’s my name.”
It took all of Neathan’s self-restraint to keep himself from laughing with glee. He returned home and waited for the girl to make her arrival. When she came, she wore the contempt he so expertly disguised.
“Is your name Mary?” he tried, to which she shook her head.
A grin rolled across Neathan’s face, his white teeth revealing themselves as he asked, “It’s not Terremita, is it?”
A scream tore out of the small girl’s throat at the name; she shrieked and shouted, declaring Neathan to be a cheat, a demon, and she kept yelling as she stomped her feet. The girl stomped so hard that her foot sank deep into the earth, and when she tried to pull it out, she tore herself in two.