This story contains child death.
She had thought being a sorcerer’s assistant meant learning the secrets of the universe. Instead it means this: One day, after she has swept the sorcerer’s office, washed all of his dishes, and tidied up the explosion of acid left in the laboratory, he hands her a small, squirming bundle.
She takes the bundle into her arms, because she’s already gotten used to the sorcerer handing her things he no longer wants. “What’s this?”
“An experiment,” the sorcerer says, face sour. “Failed, I think. But only time will tell.”
Inside the bundle is a child.
He is not a child in the normal way. The assistant learns this very quickly, though she does not know much about normal children. At first glance, he is only a baby, which fills her heart with panic because she is not knowledgeable on the subject of babies. She knows how to precisely measure ingredients, and a fair bit about the placement of the stars, and a wealth of other things she studied in hopes they would be helpful once she became an assistant. She also knows a lot about keeping a clean kitchen, doing laundry, and quelling fires, which are the skills actually helpful to a sorcerer’s assistant.
She didn’t think babies were on either list.
But in the midst of her panic, the burden in her arms changes, growing to a comfortable heaviness instead of the feather-light delicacy of an infant. When she pulls the blanket back, the inquisitive face of a toddler peers up at her, silent and understanding. His eyes are a curious warm brown.
The assistant, who has not been looked upon with anything close to warmth for some months, finds herself charmed.
“Well, now,” she says, meeting the child’s eyes with what she hopes is an equal measure of warmth.
An ordinary child in the sorcerer’s tower would be disastrous. But a magical one could be useful, and her job is often lonely.
“You will be the assistant’s assistant,” she tells the boy. She doesn’t know if he understands, and she doesn’t know if this was what the sorcerer intended, but it settles her nerves to give the arrangement a title.
The child does not cry. It should, perhaps, be eerie, but he is silent the same way a ray of sunshine is — blanketing everything in light. He grows steadier on his legs by the day and follows the assistant around with the tender loyalty of a dog. He watches her cook and clean and sneak glances at the open books the sorcerer leaves lying around. He says nothing, but on the third day, the apprentice starts arriving in rooms and finding her tasks are nearly complete by someone else’s hand.
She knows enough about magic at this point to understand without seeing. Half of sorcery, she has come to realize, is about wanting something badly enough.
A clean sorcerer’s tower leaves more time for other things. Like tucking a book into her skirt pocket and gathering the child up for a trip to the market. Along the way, they stop in a field and lie in the grass so she can flip through the pages of her borrowed book and absorb the words hungrily.
The child never gets hungry for anything, but the assistant has discovered that he will eat spoonfuls of honey with great enjoyment, so she buys three large jars and keeps them in a cupboard the sorcerer will be unlikely to look into.
Two months later, the child dies.
The assistant goes to the sorcerer with the bundle he gave her clasped in her arms, face streaked with tears, heart fractured in her chest.
“I don’t know what happened,” she says, each word a wound. “I found him like this.”
The sorcerer, who has not shown a speck of interest in the child since handing him over, glances at the still figure and says, “Yes, I thought this one would be short-lived. The experiment is not complete.” He then turns and heads for his study with a revived sense of determination, leaving his assistant standing there with her burden.
She buries the child in the field not far from the sorcerer’s tower. It is not a large hole. She marks the spot with a stone and then goes back to work with a hollow place in her stomach that causes such pain she has to stop in the midst of her chores, hunching forward over herself and pressing the back of her hand to her mouth, lest she make a sound.
She does not open the cupboard with the honey.
The hollow place inside her has not yet closed when the sorcerer finds her and pushes a squirming mass into her arms.
The assistant stares at the blanket, hope and horror warring within her. But when she pulls back the folds, the face within is not familiar. It is a child, yes, but one even stranger than the last. Her hair is a patchwork of colors and her eyes are slitted like a cat’s. She curls into the nook of the assistant’s elbow and nestles there, and the gaping void within the assistant twinges, as though uncertain whether to close or blow apart further.
“What’s this?” she asks.
But the sorcerer is already walking away.
It is not the same, but it is something. This child is like a changeling, something stolen or returned. She chases shadows and doesn’t know what to do with honey when it’s presented. Instead she nibbles the flower buds off of plants with great delicacy. The child curls up on the assistant’s bed beside her at night. Upon waking, she remembers dreams in vivid detail and color — bright as the child’s rainbow hair.
The assistant and the child fly through every task the sorcerer leaves for them, and then escape the tower to roam through the wood to the east. The assistant doesn’t dare take this strange being with her to the market. She also doesn’t take her to the field.
The hollow inside her knits its edges closer together, and she doesn’t ask about experiments or the parameters of success. She doesn’t think about how the child never grows but instead seems to contain everything already captured within, like a capsule of a life.
She wakes one morning and her remembered dreams are dull. Beside her on the bed, the familiar form, with her rainbow hair, is just as colorless.
It has been half a year. Longer than she had with the last child. Not as long as she allowed herself to hope for.
The hole inside her chest, which is only recently repaired, tears open anew. The assistant abandons all her duties that day. When the sorcerer comes looking for her, he finds her in the field beside recently dug earth, staring at two stones.
“Your second experiment failed,” she tells him, voice flat.
The sorcerer sighs. “It was not ready to succeed.”
“What are you trying to do?”
The sorcerer does not answer at first. He is looking at his assistant and frowning, as though he does not like the question, coming from her. “Prolong life,” he says at last. “But it’s very hard to contain that much time within one form. I’m trying to find a vessel that will hold eternity.”
“Will you keep trying?” the assistant asks.
“Of course,” he says.
The next month, he hands her another bundle.
The assistant wants to refuse. She does not want to know what this child likes to eat. She does not want to know the color of their eyes. She does not want to know the shape of the void they will leave in her body. But she can already see it — a waiting emptiness.
She takes the child from the sorcerer and says, firmly, “Let me help you with the next one.”
“Why would I do that?” he asks. The sorcerer is very handsome, but he is not as beautiful as any of the children he has given to eternity to be eaten. There is a lack to all his expressions, as though he is already thinking of the next thing.
“Because you do not understand enough about death to manufacture eternal life,” his apprentice tells him.
The sorcerer looks at her thoughtfully. “You are more useful than I thought you would be.”
His apprentice gathers the blanketed child close and stares evenly back at him and says nothing.
This child lives longer than the other two combined. They dig literal claws into the assistant’s skin, as though clinging tightly will keep them there. They don’t eat honey, and their hair is jet black. So are their eyes. They sing at night, staring out the window at the moon. The singing bothers the sorcerer, but the assistant likes hearing a voice besides his and her own. Sometimes she joins in and sings everything she knows into the night, abandoning words in favor of melody.
The child is odd and terrifying, and the apprentice knows before she begins that it’s no use telling herself not to get attached. She gives away her love, even as she sets aside a perfect jet-black stone, knowing she will place it on this child’s mound of dirt.
The field starts to grow memories that pull agony through the empty places inside the assistant. The memories are both bitter and sweet, and she can’t stop herself from walking through the tall grass to sit next to her collection of stones. They are the only tangible reminder of her heart when it was whole.
The assistant pulls books off the sorcerer’s shelf openly now. She joins him without asking permission inside his laboratory. She watches the next child be born there.
She knows she will watch him die too.
But she is learning. A little from the sorcerer — though not as much as she once thought she would — and a bit from the aged books she pores over until her eyes cross and her vision goes dim. But mostly she is learning from the lives brought from nothing into something. Each one lasts a bit longer before being snuffed out. Each one fills the void in her chest before tearing her apart all over again.
“Your hunger for eternity nearly matches mine,” the sorcerer says, almost approvingly. “I never knew how ambitious you were.”
The assistant looks up at him from where she kneels on the floor, the remains of another failed experiment between them.
“You never asked,” she says.
The sorcerer isn’t asking anything now either. He assumes he knows her, but only knows himself. He sees reflections everywhere he goes.
The assistant waits until he is gone to cry. She wonders if there will ever be a time she does not weep. She fears the very thought.
The sorcerer never sheds a tear. He is dry-eyed and dried up, for all that he still looks young. There is more life in the dead forms she buries in the soft earth of the field than there is in his entire being.
But she doesn’t say this. The sorcerer hasn’t asked.
If she thought he would stop, she would too, but the assistant knows he never will. All she can do is wait and learn and dig holes and let her heart be torn apart and rebuilt, over and over.
It is an education, though not the one she had expected when she first came to the tower.
The pain is eternal. She clings to it as a reminder, and in return it unfolds inside her like a flower.
The last birth takes place in the field.
It isn’t hard for the assistant to convince the sorcerer to follow her there. At this point, he knows her worth. Worth is something that can be measured, like components for a spell.
And besides, the assistant has already done all the hard work of bringing the laboratory equipment outside.
The two of them stand surrounded by graves the assistant knows as well as she knows the empty places inside herself. She thinks of the sleeping children beneath the dirt often. Sometimes the thought raises her from bed at night, to walk through the tall grass and lay amongst the stones.
She does not know if this is because she is lonely, or they are.
The sorcerer and his assistant place crystals in a circle and arrange metal instruments so that the moon’s glow is reflected in just such a way. When the sorcerer isn’t looking, his assistant takes a bit of dirt from every grave and rubs the earth between her hands. She opens a jar of honey and licks sweetness from her dirty fingers. From one pocket, she retrieves a braid of downy threads of hair, all interwoven — keepsakes collected before she made use of her shovel.
When the time is right, the sorcerer steps into the center of the circle and pours liquid from one glass beaker to another. Then he pours the liquid on the ground.
From behind him, the assistant tucks the collected strands of hair into the sorcerer’s pocket. She reaches out and places her honey-sweet, dirt-streaked hands on the sorcerer’s shoulders and he gasps.
The liquid on the ground before him bubbles and hisses. Normally this is when a new bundle would be born. It would take shape and be inspected before he would hand it off to his assistant and go to write down his notes, planning his next experiment.
This time the liquid does not form something new. Instead it travels across the grass and spreads beneath the sorcerer’s feet in a pool that refuses to sink into the ground.
The sorcerer spins around to face his assistant.
She looks up at him calmly. “I am making you eternal.”
Blackness takes over the sorcerer’s eyes, flat and shining as two stones. His hair blooms into a patchwork of colors and his nails grow sharp. When he opens his mouth, honey dribbles from the corners of his lips.
It tastes sweet.