In the still hush of morning, Howard the allegorical alchemist sat before his work table with magnifying spectacles perched on his nose. He held tweezers and a funnel, and one by one he plucked tiny balls of sunshine from a jar and placed them on a scale. When the scale balanced—a properly measured dose—he poured the balls down the funnel and into a pill press. He sipped his tea and pulled the lever that compressed the lozenge. Simple work. Meditative. A good task for the hours between waking and alertness.
The door opened, a jingle of bells. A cool taste of fog swirled into the shop. Low purity, tainted with all sorts of city vapors. Entirely unsuitable to be collected as a curative—but it smelled nice.
Rows of shelving shielded his workspace from the door. He tapped the pill out onto the table, swept it into a jar. A quick scrawl of pencil on the label—sunshine, 10 mg, generic autumn—and he rose and rounded the closest stack of shelves. “May I help you?” he said.
“I’m not sure. I’m new in town and I saw your sign.”
She was beautiful. Her eyes were sunrise on mountaintop. Droplets of fog glistened in her hair. Light from the windows and lamps seemed to bend toward her, to illuminate her inside and out. He was instantly, hopelessly in love with her radiance.
Howard caught a toe on a crooked floorboard and stumbled. He snagged a shelf to catch his balance. Phials and bottles wobbled, clinked against one another.
He coughed. “Pardon my oafishness.”
A smile spilled across her face and vanished just as quickly. “Of course.”
“If you’ve come seeking a cure for an ailment, it’s likely I can provide it. What’s troubling you?”
“It’s not me. I have a sister. My twin. She’s . . . ”
“She’s . . . ” She clamped her lips and balled her fists, a clear attempt to avoid tears.
“Come, have a seat.”
Along one wall, a pair of armchairs crowded a low coffee table. The woman settled into the chair that granted a view out the store’s front windows. Howard took the other. He crossed his ankles and stacked his hands on his knee. “What’s your sister’s name?”
“Elena. We weren’t meant to be two, you see. The midwife said to plan for a single child right until Norah crowned. Mother wanted to name us Eleanor.”
“And instead, you’re Elena because you were first, and she’s Norah, the remainder. Your sister feels that she’s the unwanted child?”
She shifted back in her seat, and Howard scolded himself. He’d attempted to impress her with his shameless display of deduction. Totally inappropriate for a clinical consultation.
“That’s true,” she said. “But there’s more.”
“I must be honest, Elena. I deal mostly in physical ailments—cold and flu, arthritis and gout. But some of my remedies have a psychoactive component, a side effect really. A breezy spring afternoon never fails to—”
Elena set both feet on the floor and leaned forward. “She’s vanishing.”
She nodded. “We’re opposites, Norah and I. She sleeps during the day and works at night. I keep normal hours. Neither of us can finish a meal. Half of it always tastes abominable to one, divine to the other.”
“What does this have to do with her vanishing?”
Elena didn’t answer immediately. Howard sat back to let her frame her words. Muffled sounds came from the street: the scrape of a box dragged over pavement, an alley cat’s hungry lament.
She looked down at her hands. A tear spattered on the floor between her feet. “I’ve been staying up later and later. Eating more than my share. When I do see Norah, she seems . . . she’s thinner. Not skinnier. Faded, like there’s less of her there.”
Howard shifted in his seat and took a deep breath. “Frankly, Elena, I’ve never heard of this sort of thing.”
She whipped her head up. Anger clouded her brow, and her eyes were a summer thunderstorm. Beautiful. Electric.
Howard raised hands, placating. “I believe you. Truly. But I have no experience with this sort of case. I can’t imagine what I could prescribe to help your sister.”
“It’s not for Norah.” She stared at him. “It’s my fault this is happening, I’m sure of it. I need you to cure my selfishness.”
Howard stared back, entranced. It had truly been too long since he last looked for a romantic connection. He was acting like a besotted youth. He looked aside just before it became impolite, and dove into his professional knowledge to cool his mind. He considered his stock. Up front he kept the generic remedies. Bottles of everyday sunshine, sorted by season and origin. Some ailments called for a nice, dry heat, others for a good, tropical soak. Wind he kept in flasks, organized by strength. Nothing cured a headache like good, gusty gale taken by the teaspoon.
But selfishness? He glanced at the back row of shelving where he kept his rarest tonics. Stillness from the hurricane’s eye? A bitter-cold draught from a polar winter? He doled those out when nothing else worked, but felt decidedly uncertain and unstudied regarding the effects, especially the side effects.
“I’ll pay. I’ll pay you well. Norah and I have saved quite a lot, only needing one house, one bed—”
“Stop. Money isn’t my concern here.” He would try to do her bidding just to see Elena smile. “It’s just . . . I’ll have to do some research. Your case is unusual.”
He desperately wanted to see her tomorrow. But he’d only disappoint her. “The day after. The tradesmen’s library here is a mess. And disregarding that, I may need to experiment. It’s likely you’ll need a bit of a cocktail, and not all of my medicines combine well.”
She slipped a card onto the table. “My address, in case you have something sooner.”
Dusk yellowed the fog outside the window. It was rare for the damp to last the day. Soon the street lamps would be bright islands in the murk. Howard strode to the door, ready to flip the sign to “closed” and twist the deadbolt. He’d exit via the alley, shortening his trudge to the library archives by half a block. An all-day fog promised rain, especially in the summer months. He didn’t want to be caught out.
A face loomed in the display window, hands cupped against eyes that squinted at the shop’s interior. Her features were lost in dimness. When she saw him approaching, the woman waved to catch his attention. She was a wraith in the fog, tall and ragged in a knit coat that fell unevenly below her knees. He cracked the door open.
“We’re closing. Do you have a quick request?”
She stepped closer. Her face seemed to capture the already-waning light, to suck it in and tuck it away. Dark filled the indentations around her collar bones, pooled in the hollow at the base of her throat. Her eyes promised secrets, wisdom, the stars. The scent of jasmine on a moonless night. He was instantly, hopelessly in love with her mystery.
She nodded. “Elena came here, then.”
“Today. She was looking . . . ” Howard paused. “She wanted to know if I could help you.”
“Do not listen to a thing she says,” Norah said. “My sister has the mind of a hummingbird. Sweet, innocent. Capricious. My predicament has nothing to do with her.”
Howard sighed. He opened the door and stepped aside. “Why don’t you come in?”
Norah, naturally, chose the chair that faced the shop’s backrooms and storage shelves. It was the seat opposite that which her sister had picked.
She spoke before Howard had time to settle into the other chair. “Elena told you that it’s her selfishness causing me to wane, correct?”
Momentarily unbalanced by her quick words, Howard smoothed the wrinkles from his pant legs. “What leads you to think otherwise? She hinted that you resent the order and circumstance of your births. It seems strange to me that you wouldn’t consider Elena’s selfishness as the culprit.”
“First of all . . . ” Her lips were dark and full of blood. She paused to wet them with her tongue. ” . . . I do not resent the circumstances of our births. I regret them. Elena and I were meant to be one. Instead, each of us lives half a life. We share only the gloaming time, the neverland between day and night.”
“Perhaps if you stopped looking at it that way, you’d be content. Elena doesn’t—”
She sliced the air with a long-fingered hand. “I know what my sister thinks. She’s naïve. A child of the sun. We killed our mother, you know. She couldn’t care for us both. Mother became too tired, frayed. She argued with the women she hired to watch us while she slept. They never stayed, and eventually Mother’s exhaustion opened the door for the wasting disease that finished her.”
Howard took a deep breath and regarded her. He could swim in her complex tides. High brows arched over dark eyes. But for all the knowledge that lurked there, Norah seemed blinded by preconception.
“Norah.” He wouldn’t dare touch her, but he leaned in to soften his words. “Bemoaning one’s birth is the ultimate arrogance. You did not cause your mother’s death.”
A glimmer lit her face, moonlight glinting from ripples in a pond. Norah wanted to believe. But darkness fell like a curtain. “We’re unnatural. You are convinced otherwise because Elena made you love her. Men tumble at her feet. You want to be the savior that wins her affection.”
Enraptured by sisters, a hopeless plight. He didn’t acknowledge her accusation. “You still haven’t told me your idea. With only Elena’s declaration of selfishness, how am I to proceed on any other course?”
“It’s obvious.” She looked at him as if he were dimwitted. “I am melting into her because the fates have finally seen their error. We were meant to be one from the beginning, and soon we will be. Lately, I dream of daylight.”
“You would have me do nothing? Stand by and let you . . . melt?”
Howard tapped his index fingers together. His gaze met hers, a challenge. And a chance to bathe in her attentions. “And if the fates really meant to erase you, you would do nothing to fight it?”
“Norah, I deal in cures for everyday physical ailments. Blizzards to cool a fever. A capsule of fog to loosen a cough. But even I can see you suffer a terrible case of despondency.”
She pursed those stunning, sensual lips and rose. “I’ll be going now.”
Her hair trailed behind, strands of night. She turned just before leaving. “You say you treat physical illness. Then what business do you have dosing my sister for selfishness? Think about the risks you subject her to with your . . . ardor.”
The jingling of the bells seemed muffled, somehow, when the door closed behind her.
A serum for selfishness. A drug for despondency. Howard scoured the library stacks. He would pursue both cures. The latter he would leave in Elena’s hands; she could decide whether to slip it into Norah’s food. He’d thought hard about the conflicting stories, and decided that to do nothing would be risking Norah’s life for the sake of her regard. He’d need to discover the remedy for selfishness simply to cure his own failing.
If Elena were wrong—if Norah’s theory proved correct—and the sisters were destined to reunite as one person, his efforts would be in vain. Yes, it would free him for the romantic pursuit that was impossible with two women. But they deserved their individuality more than he deserved their embraces.
The books smelled of dust. Pages were smudged, marked by the fingers of hundreds of tradesmen who had sought out their secrets over the decades. Tome after tome offered advice for poxes, baldness, jaundice. But none braved the murk of the psyche; at least, none dared to offer conclusions—the humors of the mind defied careful science. A few supplied anecdotal evidence of observed side effects. He pored over these tales.
When midnight came, and the library’s archivists shuttled him out the door, he had yet to find promising remedies. And it was raining.
Elena pushed open the door, traipsed in to the shop trailing sunshine and birdsong. It was the second morning after she’d first visited, and Howard still had no answers. He tucked away the rag he’d been using to dust a row of bottles, and held his palms up to her, empty.
“Not yet,” he said. “The research is difficult. We may have to perform some trials of our own. Low-dosage experiments. But I much prefer to proceed armed with some clues.”
Her eyes widened like those of a startled calf thrust into a spring morning. “We can’t just dally along like this, Mr . . . .”
Had he never told her his name? “Howard. And I don’t see another course to take.”
Static crackled in her eyes. “Norah doesn’t have time. I’m losing her. Just yesterday, she slept in too late and lost her job. She has no other references here, no hope of countering accusations of laziness without sending away for recommendations from our previous home.”
“Some days I can hardly see her, Howard.”
Howard felt as if he were shrinking under her fervor. He needed to change the subject. “Where is this previous home?”
Elena opened her mouth, and then seemed to swallow the words she’d readied. Her face softened. “South. We were born along the southern sea and lived our whole lives in the same fishing village. We loved the warm waters but hated the small-town gossips. We made the journey overland this past spring.”
Howard reached a hand toward her but stopped inches from her arm. “Did you leave family behind? I understand that your mother has passed on.”
Her nostrils flared. “How did you . . . ? Norah! She’s been here.”
“The same day you came. In the evening.”
Elena crossed her arms over her chest. “I understand now. You’ve delayed my cure because Norah convinced you I’m mistaken. You’re in love with her, aren’t you? I should have suspected. Men lie down before her like worshippers in a temple.”
Howard stammered. She cut him off. “She disdains them all, you know. You doom her for silly romantic hopes that will come to nothing.”
The urge to laugh—or cry—at his predicament crept up from the bottoms of his shoes. He shuffled his feet to banish it. If only he’d made time for courting sooner. A lovely, faithful bride would do wonders to distract him from these two.
“Elena,” he said. “Romance has nothing to do with this. I spent the last two nights in the library, researching until they closed. You must believe me. At the end of my studies in curatives, I took an oath to do no harm. Implicit is that I will always help when I can.”
She drew her brows together, considering.
He sighed. “Perhaps a sharp mind will help. Words blur when I read by lamplight. I’ll close the shop at noon and spend the afternoon in the library.”
“And if you continue to find nothing? What then?”
“Then we’ll consider alternatives. Experimentation, if we must. Return here this evening and knock.”
She straightened her purse strap. “I’ll come just after dinner.”
“Elena.” He waited for her gaze to meet his. “Wait until Norah wakes and come together. She deserves a voice in the decisions.”
Her face was a canvas, her feelings painted as clearly as seasons on the landscape. Fall’s melancholy, the fear that Norah would doom the plan and herself. Winter’s quiet acceptance. And then the hope of new-minted spring. Elena believed in him, believed at least that he might yet save her twin.
“We will see you tonight,” she said.
She slipped out the door and left him wondering what the height of summer would look like on that beautiful face.
Mid-afternoon, epiphany struck him like a hurricane. Summer. Of course. He shut the volume he’d been reading, producing a whump that earned him several stern looks from busy archivists. Calling an apology over his shoulder, he rushed out the door.
Bottles clinked. He shoved them this way and that looking for the proper tonics. A jar of sea breezes shattered on the scuffed floorboards. Pills scattered, vanishing into cracks and under shelves. He’d retrieve what he could later, but most likely there’d be a few mice with very clear sinuses.
His knees wobbled with relief when he finally found the phials tucked among the oddments he’d purchased from a gold-toothed gypsy half a decade ago. After double-checking the date of purchase jotted on the label—most curatives retained efficacy for a number of years—he sank to the floor and rested his head against the wall. He had his cure.
The sisters rapped loudly, waking him from a doze. He rubbed a hand down his face to clear his muzzy head and, knees cracking, stood.
He opened the door. “Norah. Elena.”
Norah looked unsurprised and Elena seemed offended at the order of his words. He regretted using their names.
The sisters strode to the chairs and sat. Howard set before them a tray that held an assortment of flasks and jars.
“This will fix your situation,” he said.
“But I don’t want—” Norah said.
Elena cut her off. “All these for selfishness?”
“Norah’s vanishing and your . . . insomnia and appetite . . . have nothing to do with either of you specifically,” Howard said.
He picked up a jar and read the label. “Tropical equinox. Take one a day with water.” Howard looked up. “Weather conditions have been distilled out. The only active component is the time of year.”
“The equinox?” Elena asked.
Norah’s eyes narrowed. She grasped it. “I’m not really fading away. It’s just that, this far north, the summer nights are shorter. Around the turn of the new year, Elena will be eating like a mouse and napping her hours away.”
Howard nodded and looked at Elena. “You grew up in the tropics—”
“Oh, I get it,” she snapped. “I am, as Norah would say, sickly-sweet and annoyingly effervescent. That doesn’t make me stupid.”
“Okay, okay.” Howard shuffled the jars. “This will balance you. Keep you as you were before you left your home. But I have another idea.”
Norah cocked her head, more engaged than Howard expected. Perhaps he’d been wrong about her despondency. Maybe gloom was a cloak she wore to protect herself from the fear of nonexistence.
“Winter and summer solstices. Collected in the arctic regions. I’m afraid, Norah, that the winter solstice falls a little short of perfect. Quite a difficult journey to the pole in the dead of winter.”
She raised a shoulder, a half-shrug. Alluring. Howard swallowed.
“My theory is that these tonics will bring you both into ascendance. Norah said that you are each just half a person. I disagree. You’re whole already, quite . . . stupendously . . . so. I believe the polar solstices could make you greater than the rest of us. Paragons of the traits you embody.”
Norah wet her parted lips. Elena glowed, exuberant.
“There are risks. I don’t know if you’ll stop sleeping. You must watch each other, beware any deleterious effects.”
“You haven’t named your price,” Norah said.
“Free?” Elena’s voice trembled.
“As long as you promise to look elsewhere when your supplies run out.” He slid a list of his guild members onto the table, along with a parchment detailing the cures and the suppliers he’d used. “Someone here will gladly take on your care.”
“But why?” Elena shoulders drooped like petals falling from a flower.
“I’m sorry, Elena. After this, I’m returning to simple, straightforward healing. I just ask that you respect that in exchange for these medicines.”
Norah stood, settled the jars into her handbag, and urged her sister out of her chair. “It’s near your bedtime, Elena. We must give this man his peace.”
Both sisters glanced back at different times as they walked to the door. He nodded politely to each.
Howard stepped outside to watch them walk, arm in arm, up the street. He wanted to call out. If only there was a way to love them both. If only he could love just one without yearning for the other. A few minutes after they disappeared around the corner, he shuffled inside and pulled the blind down over the door’s small window.
He climbed the stairs that led from his shop to the small apartment he kept above. Tonight, he might indulge in a few more hours imagining how he might have wooed Elena or begged Norah for her attentions. But tomorrow, he’d start the search for an ordinary, uncomplicated woman to share the life of a simple shopkeeper.