Tag Archives: Alchemical Quest

Annabelle and the Hand of Christ

The first thing I did when I moved to Nagspeake was find the local candy shop.

Okay, it was actually about the fourth thing. I did have to find someplace to live, and I did have to find someplace to buy alcohol, and I did have to pee. Actually that last thing was kind of the priority after I got off the train, and no one who knows me will believe me if I claim I did anything else first. But then I decided to find a nice little place to have a drink before I went apartment hunting and found myself, as a result, looking for the local candy shop, where I was assured I could sit on a porch with a water view and have a nice cocktail.

Annabelle’s way of serving a nice cocktail is to shove through her screen door with a bottle of what she calls her “heirloom gin” under her arm, a tray of little bottles full of thick, jewel-colored syrups in one hand and an ice bucket clamped in the other. The glasses, shortbread, and grape salad took another trip.

It really should be said right away that Annabelle’s heirloom gin is the refined great-granddaughter of the bathtub variety. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen the bathtub. It is a loud cocktail party of flowers and herbs–juniper (of course) singing just a bit louder than the other partygoers–tipsy as even the most genteel of ladies can get when drinking in the sun, but managing to harmonize perfectly nonetheless. Then she tips in the contents of one of those little bottles, adding a few drops of some indescribable elixir the color of sea-glass, the result of which is a gimlet plus ultra, without the syrupy sweetness of the conventional variety but with an extra kick of juniper and basil.

“I like gin in my gin,” Annabelle said as she added tonic to our second round.

Magothy Treats sits on the inland side of Bay Byway, the main beach road through the Bayside Quarter, and by some miracle of zoning or possibly some homeowner’s bad luck, there’s nothing to block the view of the water across the street. Just one empty lot with a birdhouse and a faded For Sale sign stuck in the scrub grass at an angle that suggests it’s been buffeted by the wind for a couple seasons, if not years. After a couple of gimlets the waving of the sign actually takes on a sort of restful quality as it waves back and forth in the beach wind. At some point after I reached this stage of mellow communion with the For Sale sign that Annabelle said conversationally, “I’m on an alchemical quest, by the way.”

By the way? How does anyone go on an alchemical quest by the way?

I don’t self-edit well at the best of times, and this was after drinks. I can only imagine what the look on my face must’ve been.

“More shortbread?” Annabelle pushed the tray across the table. Was it my imagination, or did she shove it a little to the side of me, so it wound up in a patch of sunlight on the table instead of the shade directly in front of where I sat? Was it my imagination, or did the shortbread actually sparkle a little bit in the sun? Sparkle a bit more than one might chalk up to butter and sugar crystals reflecting the light?

It tasted perfectly normal, but still.

“An alchemical quest?” I repeated, holding my wedge of shortbread up to the light and turning it this way and that in what I hoped was a subtle manner.

“I’m looking for the manus christi,” Annabelle said. “It’s a very mysterious sort of candy. Or cordial. Or something. Nobody really knows. It’s different every time someone writes about it, but pretty much all the accounts are from centuries ago. But I have a theory.”

“…?”

“It used to be that confections were mostly made for medicinal reasons. Sweeteners came into Europe from other places, along with accounts of sweets in those more exotic places. Bear in mind, this is at a time when the same traders were telling first-hand stories of dragons and weird monsters. They’re not all exactly reliable. Take marzipan.”

“Which is like a weird monster…how?”

“People have been eating it and writing about it for hundreds of years, but it means something different depending on where it’s made and when, and since nobody really can prove where it originated, nobody knows what recipe is the closest to what it was when it was invented.”

Since it hardly seemed polite to pull out a notebook and pen, I had to reconstruct a lot of the conversation afterward, but the upshot of the afternoon was this: Annabelle’s theory was that the manus christi represented no less than a confectionery form of the elixir of life–the holy grail of alchemical pursuits throughout the ages. She theorized that someone, somewhere had seen it or tasted it, and brought the account back to Europe, where it made perfect sense for an essentially medicinal marvel to be equated with a confection, since European candy, she said, originated in the apothecary world. All recipes for the manus christi, which means, roughly, Hand of Christ, descend from attempts to re-create that original recipe. None of them, she said, are correct.

I have, since that conversation, done a little research on my own. Nothing like the scope of Annabelle’s scholarship on the subject, but enough to realize that on some level, Magothy Treats is like a little alchemist’s lab in its own right. Sure, there are candies you know and recognize, but there are little red flags, the markers of her quest, for those who know where to look. And there is always one round tray of something special sitting on a domed cake plate on the main counter. Usually it has a vague luster to it, as if something golden or pearlescent has gone into it. Often when you lift the domed lid, the smell of roses wafts out at you.

But on that first afternoon on the porch I had yet to see her kitchen with its collection of copper pots and mortars, rows of jars of spices and herbs and glittering powders; or the distilling room full of retorts and alembics straight out of an old laboratory woodcut. That first afternoon I thought it all sounded a little bit crazy, and to be perfectly honest, I think I can be forgiven for it.

“How will you know when you find the right recipe?” I asked.

“The alchemists knew what they were looking for,” Annabelle said. She paused to refill my glass again, mixing the gin with a few teaspoonfuls of something the color of bruised rose petals. “I’ll know.”

(from 14 August, 2007)