Clutching my string of ducks, I forced my way through the throng of people into the dark shape of the alley’s entrance. It was the year 1545, and life in Brussels couldn’t be more busy (or crowded). Striding at a fast clip down the cobblestoned path, the din and racket of the busy street behind me faded away. The intricately carved door loomed ahead, made of heavy wood, and it almost seemed out of place embedded in the plain wall around it. As I almost reached it, the door burst open, startling me. A man stumbled out of it, followed by a rain of small glass vials and orbs which burst into a glittering mist upon making contact with his back. He took his leave so swiftly that I could feel the wind from his strides, all the while meeting the glances he threw over his shoulder. I watched until his shape faded into the mass of human bodies moving just outside the barren alley. Another unhappy customer, upset at our “no discount” policy, I’m sure…
“Well are you just going to stand there, mouth agape? I don’t want my birds drying out!” The crackling voice quickly reigned my thoughts back into the present. I turned, and there was my grandmother, standing akimbo in the doorway to her shop. Her small stature was somewhat concealed by the abstract shapes that both her wild untamed hair and layers of robes created. The breeze coming through the open doorway brought with it the familiar scents of lavender and incense. I turned and followed her in, feeling the heavy door catch at my skirts as it closed. The closing door removed the outside light, and so I was left in temporary blindness. This was no matter to me, as I had seen the inside of the apothecary more times than I could count. The magical appeal that was present when I was much younger had all but faded away. At my current age of nineteen, I was practically an adult now. I wasn’t so easily impressed anymore.
The shop was a decent size, and probably could hold around ten people, but one wouldn’t know it from the clutter my grandmother had collected through the years. Shelves lined the walls, all holding jars and glass containers. Whether they were filled with liquid, ground and intact ingredients, or simply feathers, rocks, and wood, they all seemed to be illuminated from a source unknown. Candles were scattered on multiple surfaces, as well as on tall stands, and somehow I couldn’t remember one being unlit or burning out. Numerous tables created a maze to find one’s way through, all covered in papers, incense sticks (still smouldering), mortars and pestles, bottles, quills, vases of flowers both live and dead, fabric, beads…they were all identical in their chaos save for one, which was intended to be the meeting place for customer and apothecary owner. A haze of smoke could be seen hovering around the ceiling, which was hung with sheafs of fabric that glimmered in the low light. All these things my grandmother had found in her travels across Europe, or others had brought them to her in hopes she could utilize their properties. Of course, she never turned away a potential cure, and thus the shop grew full to bursting with a random assortment of items.
She was waiting at a table that had been mostly cleared off in preparation for the new supplies I had brought from the Brussels Saturday morning market. A knife sitting on the table caught the light, and I noticed multiple ceramic bowls awaiting the ingredients that would be procured from the birds’ bodies. I walked over and placed the string on the table, taking a step back as she grabbed the closest one to her — a duck, nice and fat from the summer’s insects. I despised witnessing this process, but leaving the scene was not an option. Many times, I had been scolded and had my ears boxed from “missing the lesson”, as my grandmother would say. Whack! The head was taken clean off, and deep red blood spurted from the neck. She plopped the head in a small bowl and continued butchering the body, removing the heart, liver, muscles…I turned away; I could hardly bear to see innocent animals being maimed in such a way. It disgusted me thoroughly. She continued cutting and slicing, and as the table grew more stained with blood, she began to hum a tune. I drifted in and out of conscious thought, not necessarily paying attention…
The humming abruptly stopped, which could mean one of two things. Either she was done with the birds, or I was in for another lecture prompted by my facial expression. “You know, I won’t be here to do this forever,” she pointedly said to me. “This business, this art, must be kept in the family. Our blood and minds were meant for this work, and we are healers…this is tradition!” I had heard this one before, and so it was safe for me to escape into my mind. How can she say that we are meant to be healers? Hasn’t she been able to tell that I do not have the temperament for this? I had always been a dreamy, thoughtful child, rather opposite from my relatives who stayed rooted in the present. My family calls it “empty-headed”, but that’s because I do not share my thoughts. They would scandalize them, and make me seen as a shameful addition to the clan. The doubts and feelings that have been at the edges of my mind have only grown with age and experience. Spying my family’s patients in the cemetery told me all I needed to know. The explosive event when I arrived at the shop was not out of the ordinary — probably an unhappy customer returning to either get back their money (or more healing).
The whispers of the new kind of healing, with the reliance on one’s own mind to find the truth, appealed to me far more than any mystical explanation my family could come up with. The trouble in this is that the family expects me to take up the practice, and uphold the (admittedly spotty) reputation of our apothecary. Without good faith in the healing, my rule over the shop would quickly lead to its closing. The apothecary functioned not only as a distributor of salves and ointments, but also a mystical mood that I simply cannot replicate. It’s like I’m the sun’s rays splicing the darkness that surrounds our practice; the light I cast is unfortunately unflattering. I’ll never understand how my family has pinned their hopes onto me, the child who’s been treated like an outsider by her own flesh and blood. This “otherness” I’ve felt ever since I could speak has helped form a plan in my mind. With the meager earnings my grandmother gives me for my hours in the apothecary (a reaction to her own lack of funds when she was a young woman), I plan on traveling far away from Brussels, the Netherlands, and the expectations my life has shoved onto me. My heart’s desire is to be free, truly free. To be a stranger in an unknown city with all the possibilities I could imagine ahead of me.
The rest of the Saturday was spent much in the same way as other days. I swept, dusted, located ingredients for my grandmother, gave change to customers, wrote out labels…any task my grandmother found too irritating for herself, I performed instead. Normally on Saturday, I was released from my work an hour early and allowed to visit the market for my own leisure. Every week, all week, I anticipated this hour of solitude with bated breath. It was always an hour, and only an hour, since I was expected home to help prepare dinner for my household soon after the shop closed. Even when I was attempting to enjoy myself and my limited freedoms, somehow a responsibility always loomed over my head like a dark cloud. Today, I planned on visiting a shop not often frequented by other patrons: the book and pamphlet stall. To go beyond the lessons I was taught by my family was always a goal of mine, and this stall often had the instruments to help keep my mind busy with new ideas and theories. The time came to leave, and my grandmother caught sight of my face, which I could feel was glowing with excitement. “Alright, you may escape my clutches for the day,” she stated with humor in her voice. I saw the glint of amusement in her eyes as I grabbed my cloak and headed out the door. I always felt that her harshness towards me concealed a kinship between us, an understanding that her past adventures lent her my other family members lacked.
Pulling my cloak’s hood over my head made it much easier to traverse the busy marketplace, overflowing with bustling bodies loaded up with packages and purchases. I always ran the chance of being recognized, which could be either positive or negative (depending on the customer’s experience). I’d rather just avoid it altogether and become another anonymous body in the crowd. Once one becomes part of the flow of movement through the stalls, getting from one place to another becomes much less taxing. My intended destination was located in a far corner, meaning the area was notably quieter and less frequented. Many stalls that sold more “private” (and perhaps illegal) items were located in this corner, meaning the visitors kept to themselves. I liked this for obvious reasons. I spotted my favorite stall and hurried to reach it, quickening my pace.
I lifted the canvas and entered the covered stall, revealing stacks of books and paper pamphlets, woodcuts, inks, quills, and the familiar scent of parchment. The owner jumped up from his seat, crowing “Welcome, welcome!”. His somewhat paunchy body moved much more quickly than the eye would believe, and he was draped in robes of blue with a hood that did nothing to conceal his long wiry black beard. He and I knew each other from my many visits, and I always politely listened to his long tales of danger and excitement while traveling (which I’m sure are extremely embellished for my benefit). He put his arm around my shoulder and steered me towards a trunk, all the while keeping up a constant stream of chatter. “Now I know you don’t purchase often, not books either, I know they’re expensive, but here’s one I have saved just for you, and I’ll even slash the price for you, I just know you’ll love it…”, He bent and lifted the dark wooden lid of the trunk and grabbed a book covered in fabric, handing it to me with a triumphant look. I pulled the slipcover off the tome, opened to a random page and gasped.
My eyes couldn’t believe what they were seeing. A graphic picture was before me, portraying a human body. This was not simply a body though; the skin has been flayed off, showing the muscles beneath. The intricate detail, the care that went into each illustration struck me. Labels were attached to every single part of the body, minimizing the horror that had initially gone through me. I quickly turned another page, and the process of dissection continued on and on, through numerous diagrams and explanations. I closed the book and opened to the title page, needing to know who created this book. Andreas Vesalius, a native child of Brussels itself. I slid the book back into its protective fabric covering and handed it back to the shopkeeper. He, in turn, pushed it right back into my hands. “Now child, I know how much medicine interests you, especially with your family business, plus you’re always leafing through the medical pamphlets…” I interrupted him, a first for my many visits here, “I can’t afford it,” I stated. I knew it already, since full novels cost much more than simple papers. “Ah, I anticipated this…to be perfectly honest, I picked up this copy with full intentions to give it to you. You’re my most frequent customer, and also the most quiet!” He laughed loudly and shooed me out, still holding the precious volume. I suppose this book was mine now, the first book I’ve ever owned.
As the following weeks went by, I leafed through the volume, closely examining each diagram and page. I pored over the words, letting them sink into my mind. Now this is what healing and medicine should look like. This book was logical, it used evidence and reasoning…it was everything I was looking for. I never let anyone else touch it, never even let them know I had it. I kept it on my person at all times, and under my mattress when sleeping. Medicine suddenly became a new creature to me, something that could be tamed and controlled with mental power. I’ll always remember the day my grandmother discovered the book. How could she not? Out of all my family members, I spent the most time with her. She had snatched the book out of my robe, noticing the unsightly lump it created on my figure. “Ahhhh, what’s this you’ve been hiding? Did you steal this?!” I blushed and told her that it was a gift. She slowly leafed through the pages, filling me with nervous anticipation as the time stretched out. Her brow furrowed as she closed it and handed it back to me.
Our eyes locked, and she had something hovering behind her gaze, something I hadn’t seen before. She closed her eyes and slowly nodded her head. “The thirst for knowledge is a mark of a true healer, my girl, and now I know that you were the perfect choice for my apprentice.” She wandered off into the shadows of the apothecary, leaving me with a sense of peace. Her acceptance gave me more courage than even the strongest swig of drink.