The Apotek of Seminyak
From the world of Guangzhou Future Tense
The young woman was blushing, and trying to disappear behind her beaded bag. The noise of scooters came in off of the narrow street behind her, as did the heat of the tropical day.
Made sized up the buleh girl. Unmarried. A touch heavy and pale for Bali’s beaches, not that the local men would be stopped by that. Dark hair in an unflattering cut, once again not something the local boys would notice or care about.
“Who is buleh you want between legs?”
The girl turned an even deeper shade of red. “How did you know?”
“Only he not see you sexy. Bali men and boys been sniffing, yes?”
Made was an apotek in Seminyak, renowned throughout the tropical town and island for her skill. Her vials did not bring healing, did not cure warts, did not make skin whiter or hair grow back. Her salves did not straighten limbs, or strengthen nails. Her potions did not make people fall in love.
“I guess. But I met a man on the plane before getting anywhere near Bali, and I can’t stop thinking about him. And all he does is surf and paraglide.”
If a love potion is in a play, at the end of the third act, the lovers exchange a chaste kiss and live happily ever after. If Made’s potions were ever in a play, the lovers would be panting and moaning in the middle of the second act, at the end of it, then a few more times through the third act before the lustful protagonists separated for the curtain and final bow.
“I fix. Talk me about him.”
Made’s potions did one thing, and one thing only. They made people lust after one another. If someone bought a potion from her, they would be guaranteed that the person who drank it would want nothing other than to throw them on the ground and ravish them shortly afterward. And then again shortly after that. And want to wake them up in the middle of the night to ravish them again. Made’s potions were potent, and targeted like a fishing spear into a snapper’s side.
As the girl rambled through a familiar description — tan, shaggy blonde hair, surfer shorts, flip flops, board rash, gap year — Made’s hands danced over her bottles and jars, shelves and drawers, buckets and barrels, drawing a pinch here, a touch there, a drop of this and a distillation of that. She chose as a base a fine synthetic fiber used in kites and fabric wings; the boy was obsessed with harnessing nature and risking his life in it. She cut it with brine for the sea, and distilled water for the clouds his head was in. Her quick fingers reached out and tweezed a single long, black hair from the girl’s head, ground it in a pestle and dusted the potion with it. Some surfboard resin, a hint of dried placenta from a dusky island woman who knew her way around too many other women’s bedrooms, and a splash of Bintang beer to make it whole. All-in-all, a common potion. She stoppered the vial, shook it for ten seconds, then placed it on the counter.
It started glowing, the vial rocked, then with a flash resolved into a clear fluid. The girl stopped talking, eyes wide. Suddenly she was pale instead of red. She looked at the vial, then back at Made.
“800.” Made threw the number into the air to see if the girl would catch it. 800,000 Indonesian rupiahs was a lot of money in Bali, and the price of a very good meal without wine in other parts of the world.
The girl fumbled with her beaded purse, pulled out an overstuffed wallet that contained an iPhone, at least 20 plastic cards of various brands, and currency from three countries that Made could see. The girl counted out six 100,000 notes and four 50,000 notes, then added another 50,000 note on top, the gesture familiar to Made from the buleh who didn’t know whether tipping was appropriate or not in Bali.
“Put in beer or water. Stay close. Take hold in 20 minute. Go. Enjoy.”
The girl swept the vial off the counter, a surprised look crossing her face when she realized it wasn’t hot, and hurried back out the door into the sunlight, clutching the vial like the hope it was.
Made sighed. She knew that the girl would be on her back by nightfall, the buleh attentive and inventive between her legs, her Balinese vacation made perfect by a little sex magic from the town’s best apotek. An apotek who hadn’t warmed to a man naturally or by potion for fifteen years. An apotek whose talent for lust was restricted to those who walked through her front or back doors as customers, a group she was conspicuously outside of.
She started tidying, unable to stand a single thing out of place when she wasn’t bottling lust or taking buleh money. Jars were straightened, then moved an iota to the perfect place. The floor was swept, then inspected, almost invisible grains of substances and dust picked up by her agile fingers and deposited in the trash. The notes in the cashbox were aligned with one another, squared and carefully placed back so that the stacks were centered upon one another, the currencies didn’t touch.
It was time to go, the light long gone, the night places open and throbbing. The buleh girl’s money made the day doubly a success after she had helped four island girls, three island boys and one aging buleh who was making up his mind about dying on the island or finally leaving.
The door closed, the lock locked and she took her scooter along her always-followed path out of the narrow alleys of Seminyak to her little place north of Jl. Gatot Subroto Road.
Made opened the door to her narrow shop. And stopped. And stared. She turned to inspect the door and lock closely. Nothing. She had unlocked it and it had been locked and now it wasn’t and it looked as if it were about to fall off of its hinges. Same same.
But there was a short piece of yellow yarn on the floor of her shop, perhaps 2 cm long and on the golden side of yellow, tawny. There was nowhere for it to have come from. There was no way for it to be there. She had the only key since the last girl apprentice she had taken on had accidentally inflamed the local cricket team by making a tea for them with the wrong ingredient. The girl survived, but was now living on the other side of the island with two of the men, her passions attended to daily and nightly. It had ended well, but the apprenticeship had ended too.
Made looked again, and it was still sitting there, like a small, furry caterpillar that had walked out of some other country where they looked like that and into her shop. But it remained still and legless. Just a piece of yarn that couldn’t be there. She stooped, plucked it from the ground, found a tin and dropped it in, settling the tin neatly back in its place.
Her day proceeded. She made and sold potions that would inflame a local grocer, another two buleh surfer boys, a modern hippy girl and an old love. Delightfully, she sold potions to a husband and wife at different times in the day, both intending to return to the passion of their early days with their loved one on a special anniversary. She knew that for many nights they would be have an extraordinary return to the days when every surface seemed made for sex and every hidden nook a chance to plunge fingers beneath clothes.
She tidied, obsessively, cleaned, obsessively, locked up and puttered away on her scooter, the route unrolling without care or thought.
Another piece of yarn was on the floor. Definitely the same colour. Probably the same length. Very definitely in the same place, beside the deep stain where a customer had dropped their purchase, the vital fluid leaching deep into the wood in an instant, leaving the floor marked with an unsettling shape.
Once again she looked at it, checked the door, the lock. She looked at the ceiling and inspected the floor. Nothing. No way for the yarn to have arrived. She picked it up and added it to the tin.
More buleh and Balinese came and went, leaving with a quickened step as anticipation drove them toward the object of their passion, or with the languid pace of someone anticipating satiation.
Tidy, clean, lock, scooter once again.
And once again yarn, which unceremoniously was thrown into the tin. Made checked every window, the back door, the front door, banged on the floors and walls, muttered to her self, called her former apprentice only to hear cries of passion through the cellphone, and called a locksmith to come and inspect the lock. She threw her annoyance at this untidy intrusion into her potions, only realizing part way through the day that some were perhaps a bit stronger than the customers might expect, hoping that the duration and passion of the resulting tryst wouldn’t overwhelm any of them, knowing from experience that no one ever really complained about too much sex, not in a way that included returning the money they had given her.
Tidy, clean, scooter. Repeat.
Every day, another piece of yarn. They outgrew the tin. Then the woven basket she had transferred them to. Then a bin. Finally, she cleared a large box in the closet of odds and ends of rarely used ingredients in this hot tropical paradise — pickled ice worm larvae, dried reindeer meat, narwhal tusk, a rusted piton — each with its own story of how it had arrived and how it might be used, but never called for. She put the armfuls of yarn into the box, chasing stray pieces when a draft came through the window, and closed the box and yarn in the closet.
A year passed, a thousand or more bottled passions exchanged for rupiah, dollars and sing. The box was overstuffed.
Made had put the closed sign out, pulled down the woven reed privacy blinds and was tidying prior to cleaning prior to scootering. She heard a whispering noise from the closet. Then a clatter. She gripped her broom, looked for her knife, looked at the closet door. The knob turned. The door opened.
A man walked out into the little shop. But what a man. Sculpted, exquisite, sensual and somehow debased. Naked and gifted. A corner of his tawny lips turned up. Tawny? He was tawny. His hair was tawny, his skin, his eyes, his… yes, that was tawny too. And growing larger as she watched.
Made was experiencing something unusual. She wasn’t afraid, although it was akin to that. She wasn’t hungry, although not too distance from that either. She was slightly light-headed. Her mouth was watering. So was her… Made realized she was feeling lust, deep animal lust, for the first time in fifteen years. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the tawny man, off of his lips, his fingers, his hips and what was now standing out between them.
She took a step. Then another. Reached out. Slid a hand over his smooth and leanly muscled chest. His chest rose under her caress, his eyes widened momentarily. Her hand continued across his skin, but the feeling was unusual, a million tiny and soft hairs, each distinctly felt, caressing her palm and fingers. Of course, he was a creature made of the yellow yarn deposited on her floor each day for the past year, a creature of magic ensorcelled to first perplex, then annoy and finally to arouse her.
She didn’t care. Man or demon, flesh or yarn, she wanted him. Her hand slid across his tight stomach, found the object of her new obsession and started moving. And she tugged too hard, and felt him start to unravel. Before her despairing eyes, her tawny man fell into tangled skeins of yarn upon the floor, long loops instead of the short pieces she had placed into the tin, then basket, then bin, then box, then closet.
She fell to her knees in it, lust dwindling, crying for her lost passion and her dusty years. She wanted it back.
When her spell of weeping had passed, she carefully gathered up the yarn, making loops and balls and skeins of it, tidying it according to a precise mental map within her obsessive mind, returned it to the box, and returned it to the closet.
She tidied, she cleaned, she scootered.
The next day, there was no yarn upon the floor. She checked the closet. The box was full and neat. She sighed.
She went on about her day, and then her days, and then her week, each night putting out the closed sign, closing the woven reed blinds and tidying while listening for the sounds that never came.
Three long months of bottling passion for others later, Made was just turning the closed sign over when a pale hand reached for the door. A buleh was there, looking at her, a corner of his mouth turned up slightly, blue eyes, linen trousers and yellow shirt, red shoes and flecks of brown upon his skin.
“It’s not too late for one last customer, is it?” His voice was smooth and rich, coffee and chocolate on a cool night.
“No. Come.” Made stepped away from the door, and he followed her through it, filling it briefly before stepping fully into her shop, which suddenly seemed much, much smaller.
He looked around, breathed deeply through his nose, smiled with lips and eyes. “Surf board rosin. Excellent! My name is Kaa, Made. I’m pleased to finally meet you.”
While he was inspecting her store, she had been sizing him up. She rarely failed to predict exactly what each customer might want before their lips parted, the sex and age and nationality and weight even. She knew the customers of lust the way that others knew the appetites of gourmets, or the palates of wine lovers. But this pale buleh was a mystery to her. Except for one thing: he was a lover of women. That baked off of him like smoke from roasting chilies, spume from surf. But what age or nationality or type of woman was his target was invisible to her. She was perplexed, and intrigued.
“You know what I do?” Made’s inability to read this man also preempted her normal smooth and simple question, the pattern of her interaction. She was reduced to asking if he even knew what store he had come to.
“Yes. You are the best apotek in Bali for those looking to inflame passion in another. No one is your equal. Everywhere I went in Bali when last I visited, and in Sumatra and Java when I traveled there, your name is known. You are Made, and you make potions of lust. I want one for a very special woman.” His voice rolled over her, around her. She thought of people in the islands to the west speaking of her in hushed and intense tones, her name on the lips of people she would never see and was amazed. She had not realized that she was anything other than an apotek of Seminyak, not realized she was known as the apotek of lust in much of Indonesia. Perhaps beyond.
“Tell me about woman.”
“The woman I am interested in is a woman of Bali. She is in her early middle years, wise as a crone in some ways, but like a child in others. She is the best at what she does, a unique and brilliant talent, intuitive and studied, learned and masterful. She can see into the souls of people who come to her before the bell of her shop stops ringing as they enter. She could unroll their history for them, the highs and the lows, the humiliations and exaltations. She sees through them to their dreams, and what is necessary to achieve them.
“But her dreams, whether daytime fancies or nighttime visions, are unrealized. She has spent her time servicing the desires of others, but in pouring herself into their needs, has left nothing for herself.
“Recently, she has had a taste of what she was missing. A long and teasing mystery, leading to a vision of consummation, barely touched before collapsing, leaving her striving to return to her regular order.
“She desires, but has buried her desires. She dreams, but forgets them. She is awakened, and is fighting to sleep again. I’ve come to rouse her fully.”
He looked at her, she at him. She hadn’t moved, for once at a loss as to what to do, what ingredients to combine, in what order and with what intention. Her nimble fingers were still at her side.
“I will return tomorrow night just as your shop closes. Good night, Made.” And he left, the door closing behind him.
She stood for another five minutes, then slowly shook herself, touched her face, then moved to the door, put the closed sign out, pulled the woven reed blinds down.
She moved around her shop in the light of the single bulb, low music rumbling through the closed windows. She touched ingredients, smelled them, tasted some, rubbed others on the skin on the inside of her wrist. Nothing was right, nothing worked.
She opened her closet of never used ingredients. Nothing. Except the box of yellow yarn, neatly bundled, its chaotic lust contained by her obsessive looping and knotting. She lifted out a golden skein, moved into her shop.
Made snipped free a length, took up her magnifying glass and peered through. It was yarn, but warm, rich and pulsating with vitality. She burned a wisp and smelled the smoke. She ground some and mixed it with a weak acid, then diluted it, tasted it. She burned a bit more, mixed the ashes with saltpeter and watched as the saltpeter burst into flame and vanished, leaving only the ashes of the yarn behind. And she knew.
The yellow yarn was spun pheromones, as far beyond her usual ingredients of passion as the local coffee was beyond the burnt water they served at the US chain that was encroaching. It was lust embodied, made physical, more potent than she had imagined possible. It was the perfect ingredient. It would be the heart of every potion she would make for the rest of her life, and when it ran out, she would stop bottling passion as it would be watery and weak. Until then, her vials would not just inflame but transport, would give the acts of lust depth and hue beyond the levels already provided. They would make the profane sacred and the base sublime.
But first, there was this client, and this potion. Her agile hands quickly measured wool, tested and assayed, dissolved and distilled, titrated and condensed until she had a golden liquor in her smallest glass vial, swirling slowly, glowing. The first note was perfect, but it needed the second and third notes to bring it to fruition. The second was easy: rosehip, a delicate scent and a shape that leant itself to pornographic musings from some angles. She took a dried leaf, rubbed it counterclockwise between finger and thumb of her left hand and sprinkled it into the vial. The hue intensified.
The third note though, what was the third? She scanned her ingredients. She went through them by potency, then colour and finally, in frustration, alphabetically, a last resort. A through M, then Q then there it was in V. Vanilla, the sublime pod, so often flavoring desserts the colour of his milky skin, so often taken for plain and boring, but with a sensuality rarely matched. The final ingredient would be vanilla. She chose a liquid extract. She siphoned up a drop and deposited it on a glass slide. She cut it with a razor blade into halves, then quarters. She rolled three of the tiny beads of liquid off of the slide into the vial, touched her tongue to the fourth so as not to waste it, enjoyed the feel of it in her mouth.
Made picked up the vial, quickly snugged the lid and shook it. She watched in satisfaction as it roiled, flashed and settled into a colourless liquid. She put it on a shelf, in a space that it happened to fit. She looked at her phone, saw that it was nearly midnight and smiled.
She walked out of her shop, locked it and took the scooter on a different route than the one she had been following for fifteen years to her small flat. She slept peacefully and well, and returned to her shop at her usual time.
The day passed. She made and sold potions, teasing out wisps of yarn and smiling with the thought of the nights her customers would have. She didn’t overcharge the buleh quite as much as usual, and undercharged the locals more than usual.
Night fell. She looked around her shop, then up as the door opened. Kaa stood again in front of her. She held up the tiny vial.
He looked at her, an equal in passion and magic. “Drink the potion. For you. For us.”
She said: “Don’t need.” And tossed the vial to one side while stepping into his arms.