Audei touched the glass flask with the back of her fingers and felt it cool against her skin. She grasped the neck and lifted the flask toward the light. The liquid inside was clear, colorless, and extremely mundane, like rain or tears, yet Audei regarded it with the wonder of a child. She flicked her wrist and the liquid swirled. There is enough to fill a hundred tiny vials, she thought. Each vial worth an orb of gold in the Keida.
Audei’s chest tightened at the name. The Keida was no more. At the height of the Raesci War, a war not of their own, their land was razed to the ground, leaving nothing but ash and ruin. Before the great fires, her mentor had sent her here, to faraway Pallor, the underground city, to obtain ten drops of precious erodrate. As she was about to return home, news of Keida’s fall had spread, and she knew there was nothing else to return to.
She uncapped the flask carefully and let the scent waft its way into the air. Audei closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. In the damp, earthy odor of the erodrate she pictured the narrow streets of Pallor – paved in hewn stone, bordered with moss-covered walls, slick with sewage water. People squeezed through these passageways, their sallow faces and tunics flecked with powdered coal that had drifted from the high ceiling. Above the maze-like streets, dwellings appeared as mere grooves in the earth covered with doors made of hide.
Audei inhaled a second time and searched for hints of dark fir in the erodrate. In the harsh aboveground where she had been gathering ingredients, a creature of the shadows had let its presence be known with a guttural snarl that had left Audei cold with fear. Audei wanted to return home, but the unseen creature seemed to block her escape. Slowly she picked a rock lying on the ground. Summoning her strength she hurled the rock through the shadows, and heard her target howl in pain. Audei leapt from her spot and rushed toward the opening. At the corner of her eye she momentarily saw a dark red specter spring from its hiding place. Audei fled as fast as her legs could carry her, but in the pursuit a foreign twig had been caught by her harvesting sack, and mixed unknowingly with the black erodra bark. In the days that followed, Audei had tried to amend the preparation by distilling the macerated wood many times.
The trace of fresh green is gone. It is musty enough, she said to herself.
Satisfied, she opened her eyes, and laid the flask gently on her work table. She sought her notebook and turned to the page where she had written the changing recipe for Ebretrida Lune, a healing perfume. The perfume, when perfected, would be her gift to Pallor, the city that had adopted her, which was now in the clutches of a creeping plague.
Audei had witnessed a similar pestilence in Keida, once when she was just a novice to the craft. The ill shivered unceasingly as their skin turned from warm caramel to a pale bluish tinge. On the third day of sickness their pulse weakened, and before the morning of the fourth they were dead. Audei had seen how her master worked feverishly with his best apprentices to compose a healing perfume – Grato Sola. Its notes, its individual scents, were either rare or commonplace, yet when mixed together spoke nothing of their origins. Their accord, the harmony of fragrant notes, sang in a strange magical language. In a month’s time the Grato Sola was ready, and the apprentices were sent out to administer to the sick. Audei had dispensed a bottle of perfume herself. She remembered dabbing the perfume lightly on the tip of the many noses, and almost immediately their symptoms faded like a dream.
As a perfumer’s apprentice, she had only mixed her master’s compositions, most of which she eventually learned by heart. Her favorite, it seemed, was Keida Prosa, a mixture that presented the city at its finest – cherry blossoms in the spring, wooden houses after the rain, the sweat of children at play, the salt in the neck of lovers in the throes of passion. A creation meant for the weary, her master had once described. It is meant to lift their spirits.
Spirits! A flash of urgency pervaded Audei, prompting her to move to her closet of tinctures. Audei reached for a bottle filled with the spirit carrier she had prepared days before. With one hand she dipped a slender glass pipette into the erodrate, then plugged the top end with her finger. She lifted the dropper and carefully rested its tip at the mouth of the carrier bottle. Slowly, she eased the pressure in her finger, causing a drop of erodrate to fall into the spirit. The drop dissolved quickly, and the mixture’s color changed from clear to coal black.
Audei lifted the bottle to eye-level. Ebretrida Lune, she said. We have much to do.
Spots of green had already bloomed on the child’s arms when Audei arrived at one of the cave dwellings. In the corner by the infirm’s bed the mother sat quietly; however, when she turned to Audei, her calm was betrayed by her eyes. Audei nodded her head instead of giving the evening greeting. The mother replied, “See how he sleeps, my poor little son.”
Her voice grated against Audei’s ears. “Death keeps watch at his door.”
Audei knelt beside the young one and noticed his thinning breath. From her satchel she filched a small vial of the perfume she had concocted earlier. She flipped back the stopper and dipped the end of a very thin and long piece of cloth into the solution. Audei placed the cloth’s dry end unto the edge of the child’s nostril. The perfume soaked the cloth, and soon its scent traveled from the vial toward the child’s air. “The perfume has to travel slowly, or else it loses its power,” Audei assured the mother.
The child breathed the scent weakly. Audei wondered whether the boy sees what she had seen – the streets of Pallor, the deep moss, the black rain, the comfort of home. She inspected his arms and noticed some spots disappear. The child spoke, the word “Mama” hardly escaping his mouth.
For the first time in days the mother hears her son’s voice. “Yes, my love.”
“Papa says ‘come’.”
The green spots that had disappeared returned, and the child’s face bloated and turned ashen.
“What have you done?” The mother tore away the cloth and vial and pushed Audei to the side. Audei stood transfixed, horrified at the sight of the child being eaten by the plague–the arms and legs swelled and watered, his eyes vanished into slits filled with pus, the tongue grew and forced its way out of his mouth. The child struggled and began to choke.
“Go to Papa,” the mother wailed to him, “Go to Papa, my love. Go to Papa.”
The child gurgled in pain, and cried, but soon the sounds of choking stopped.
The mother cradled her dead son and kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his nose. She brushed away hair from his ruined face and called out his name.
“Please, you mustn’t touch him,” Audei beseeched her. She was surprised to have been able to say anything at all. “You will catch your death.”
The mother held her son tightly. “Leave us be.”
Audei had been walking the tunnels for hours. In her mind the scene played over and over, the child lived and died a thousand times. She bit her lip at the mother’s words. Felt her insides coil with the child’s disfigured face. The room smelled of rot, she remembered. And of erodrate.
She reconstituted the accord in her head. Was there an impurity? Had I not distilled it enough? Was there an error of measure in the carrier?
Already miles away from Pallor, the entry to the aboveground waited, the gush of wind whistling through the opening. She acknowledged the pair of archer guards, who answered back with a respectful nod. Upon setting foot in the clearing she touched her harvesting knife beneath her cloak. There may be nothing to harvest at all, but the knife would offer protection from the creatures that owned the above land.
As if to punish herself Audei took an unfamiliar, more difficult route. She had only gone a short distance when behind her she sensed a rustling in the bushes. A blaze of red fur flashed briefly through the trees. She crouched in front of a bent sapling to search for tracks–there were familiar diamond-toed prints in the soft, wet earth. When she was certain of what she had seen, she pursued the vision deep into the forest.
Her mind raced feverishly–lessons taught in a small preparation room in Keida whirled like smoke in her memory, but then it cleared and the name of the creature appeared in her head. Poulla. It was what old perfumers called them, which in ancient tongue meant “fragrant blood.” It was the swiftest and rarest of animals, and quite dangerous when provoked. Once captured, it must be carved with expert hands, for the small bulbous sacs between the legs produce an essence said to correct any flawed accord. It could round the sharpest notes and lighten heavy whiffs. When need be, it journeys like a sentient being to the heart of the perfume and fills it with power. As apprentices they had practiced skinning poulla-like dolls or similar animals, had been shown drawings of their likeness, had been educated with the poulla’s temperaments and habits. But not one of them, not even their own master, had ever held or seen a real one
The poulla beyond Audei’s reach was full-grown and thickset, covered in mud and crimson fur from snout to tail. It astonished Audei that she had always been in the territory of an animal as rare and magnificent as this, and not recognize it, until now.
The poulla moved slowly–its gait seemed fettered by a limp in its front leg. Audei bade her time with her prey. She crept atop thorns and sharp stones that cut skin. She breathed quietly, lightly, for she feared the sound of her own exhalation would cause the poulla to notice her and flee from her sight.
The way to the creature’s lair was short but well-concealed in a fortress of prickly bush and fallen trees. The poulla ambled toward the spring pool nearby and immersed itself to wash away mud. Contented, it emerged from the water and sent a ripple of shakes throughout its body. From where she hid Audei stifled her gasp–the poulla’s wet fur clung to its belly and revealed a row of teats for suckling.
But I do not see its young anywhere. As soon as Audei pondered this, the mother poulla used its head to roll back one of the fallen trees. There was a hole underneath, and out came small scarlet heads yelping for milk. The mother obliged and fed her brood.
Audei thought carefully. Without making a sound she eased herself out, crawled far away from the lair and out of the poulla’s hearing. She gathered purple miru leaves that were in abundance and bundled them with her cloak. From the ground she chose a rock the size of her fist and shoved it in her pocket. Audei returned to the lair.
The litter was asleep, but the mother kept watch. Audei squatted low behind the bushes and wrapped her fingers around the rock. With all her might she pitched the stone into the air, making it fly into the tangle of amo-ob vines beyond the poullas. The rock fell on more rocks, and the sound of their falling caught the mother’s attention and sent her quickly on her way, to investigate what danger lurked in the vines.
Audei rose and scurried with feather light feet toward the nest. The cubs whimpered about, restless with the absence of their mother. Audei brought out the miru leaves and crushed them in her hands, releasing a sweet amber sap that tasted of honey and spice. Into the brood she tossed a crumpled handful, and the little ones sniffed and licked. When they had cleaned the miru off the ground, they turned toward Audei, as if to ask for more. The woman was perplexed, but she crushed the remaining leaves anyway in her hands and held it out. Before she let them drop however, the miru sap had already begun to work, and the brood had fallen into deep sleep.
She scooped a young poulla from the hole and cradled it with her arm. The young one was all beauty and softness with fur that yielded to her touch. It nuzzled its head into her breasts and slept soundly. Audei realized that moments from now she would have to kill this tender thing. Is this my fortune? To slay an offspring to save another’s? She pushed these thoughts aside and wrapped the small poulla with her cloak. She must leave the lair in haste, for the mother may arrive and find its reason to attack.
Audei ran as fast as her feet carried her. She sped past the flowering trees, the stream, the gate of boulders, the colony of gan-lin birds. They had always been familiar and comforting sights but strangely, strangely, they seemed to hiss at her. They cried out “Thief!” and “Ingrate!”
An ululation unlike anything Audei had ever heard broke through the forest–her heart jumped at the howl’s grief and madness. The mother would reach her soon despite its injury. She held the young poulla tighter to her chest.
The trees parted and the clearing appeared. Just beyond it was the opening that led to the tunnels of Pallor. Her legs were beginning to fail her, feeling like lead with every step. However as she went past the last trees she braced herself for the dash of her life.
She ran through the clearing. The cold air stung her cheeks while her own breath fired in her chest. A few strides more and she would have reached the opening, but then she felt her self yanked and dragged into the opposite direction. A feral mouth clamped onto her arm, and it felt as if a hundred burning blades were cutting into her skin. The young poulla fell from her hands and tumbled to the ground.
The mother tugged and swung Audei around, wanting to break off the woman’s arm with the sheer force of its jaw. Audei was nearing faint with the explosion of pain in her body. She unsheathed her knife with the other hand and stabbed blindly toward the mother’s head, hitting a soft spot in its face. The mother released Audei quickly and fell back, but only for an instant. It straightened its back before Audei and stood on hind legs. So this is how I am to die, Audei thought.
At the moment when the mother was about to pounce on her, Audei heard a whirr, then a steady whoosh through the air. Audei rolled quickly to her side. The arrows found their aim and the mother collapsed heavily. The archer guards emerged from the tunnel, their hands grasping bows, ready to draw again.
“Enough!” Audei shouted to them as she crawled toward the mother poulla. It whimpered, not for its wounds, Audei realized, but for its family.
Thick arrows had pierced the mother’s belly. Blood flowed freely, coloring its down with a deeper hue of red. The young poulla, now awake, found its way to the mother, and then nudged the head with its snout. The mother became quiet and refused to move; the young one curled its body close and waited.
“Your arm–it bleeds,” one of the guards said. He tore a piece of Audei’s cloak and bound her wound with it.
“Perhaps you should stay with dry twigs or little birds. What is all this trouble for, perfumer?” he asked.
“I stole its cub to end the plague,” Audei replied. Her face shone with tears. “It was not my intention to make orphans of its brood.”
Audei reached out to the mother’s unflinching eyes and closed them with her fingers. Her hand sank into the velvety folds of its neck and felt the warmth ebbing away.
“I have children of my own to think of,” the guard said. His face was rugged but revealed kind eyes. He picked up the harvesting knife and tucked the handle into Audei’s good hand. “Save Pallor,” he said. “Do what must be done.”
She understood. She asked the guard to take the young poulla away from the dead one–she would attend to it later. The other guard stayed behind to help her up.
Audei tried to keep the knife from shaking as she curved a long slit on the mother’s belly.
The Ebretrida Lune shifted the light inside the flacon, emanating the azure sky as it swirled inside. It had taken Audei some time to prepare the poulla’s essence, as her arm still ached, but once the extract was gathered and added to the mixture, there was not much left to be done.
Audei uncapped the flacon beside the face of an ailing boy. They were in the deep dwelling huts of Pallor, where the plague had flourished like weed on fertile ground. There would be no need to temper the erodrate with a long thin cloth as she had done weeks before. The poulla had done its job. Audei sat and held the boy’s hand.
The fragrance opened with the ash of burnt cherry blossoms, rising gracefully to the leaves of the miru tree. It lingered a little, darkening slowly with the erodrate until the heart arrived in a fog of carnal breath and shredded fur. Audei looked at the boy’s skin. It was as if nothing changed–the green spots blinked back at her.
But the accord was not finished yet–its heart began to pulse with the odor of milk wrapped in the metallic scent of blood. It pushed its way into the room, almost suffocating everyone with its anger and richness. It was here when Audei noticed the spots fall off the boy’s body like scales.
Soon the heart dissipated, and the perfume’s airy light showed. It floated up like a feathery cloud and gave the boy a healing kiss.
Audei ran through the tunnels, her face beaming with pride and relief.
The archer guards smiled as she went past, “Off to feed your little poullas again?”
“Later, perhaps,” Audie laughed as she answered back.
She ran past the clearing and headed straight toward the gate of boulders where a mound of rocks marked a site. Audei paused to pick golden olins blooming by the path. She pressed the bouquet onto the mother poulla’s grave and whispered her thanks.
Elyss G. Punsalan is based in Manila and works as a brand manager for a beauty company. Her stories have appeared in various local publications such as Philippine Speculative Fiction Volumes 3 and 6, First Love, Philippine Genre Stories, and Story Philippines. She also produces and hosts the monthly Filipino audio fiction site Pakinggan Pilipinas.
The above illustration is by artist, photographer, and writer Oscar Bryan Alvarez.