The hanged man’s neck is broken and so I have to cradle his head in the crook of my arm to hold it upright. Then I reach my fingers around to the mouth. I don’t want to touch those cold lips, that swollen tongue, but I think of the gold and I force myself.
The jaw is already getting stiff, so I have to yank on it hard, and I hear it crack. Then the old fellow crouches down and brings the bottle to the dead man’s lips and starts to pour the contents slowly and carefully down his throat. Whatever this stuff is, it smells worse than goat piddle left to ferment in a bucket all summer. And all the while he’s pouring, the old one is murmuring to himself, like someone reciting his prayers.
“Life is heat, and motion, and impulse,” he’s saying. “Impulse is the physical manifestation of desire, and desire is not only of the corporeal body but of the spirit. The salamandrian fire does not originate within the body but the body takes part in it…”
The concoction is all gone. The old fellow slips the empty bottle back into his cloak and hunches forward, peering closely into the corpse’s face.
“Nothing’s happening,” I say.
“Patience,” the old one says, and then he looks up at me sharply. “You believe you have a soul in you?”
“I don’t know. That’s what the preachers say.”
“Tell me this, if the soul is incorporeal, insubstantial, if it is not physical matter, how could it be confined by time and space? Why would it have to be in you at all? No, my friend, our lives are moved by a great cosmic force called desire. We think of our desires, like our souls, as part of us, as something growing from us like our hair and teeth, but desire is larger than any of us. It’s an invisible river that we all swim in. It surrounds us and shapes us, but like stones in a stream we also give a shape to desire. We leave our own particular traces in the current. Those traces are still here, lingering around the body.”
He returned his gaze to the dead man, frowned, and prodded the cold, bare chest with a finger.
“All that the elixir does is restore heat and motion to the physical shell. The rest is accomplished by desire. The body seeks the same things it did in life. And what did he want more than anything in this life?”
“Gold,” I say, and the dead man jumps. As if the word itself was all he was waiting for, he flops in my arms like a fish. I give a shout and I’m about to drop him but the old fellow raises a hand.
“Don’t be afraid,” he says. “It’s just life. Life returning.”
He’s not afraid, clearly, and something in me doesn’t want to look a coward in his eyes, so I hang on to the dead man. If he is a dead man anymore. And if he isn’t, then what is he?
I cry out again when the dead man’s hand reaches out and clutches my arm.
“Papa,” says a voice that I can still hear, all these years later. A voice that seems to be coming from a cave deep underground, though it’s coming from the dead man’s throat. “Papa, is that you?”
I look at the old fellow, and he nods. I understand what he wants me to do. I swallow hard.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s me, son.”
“I want to come home Papa. I’m so sorry for what I done. Please let me come home.”
I look at the old fellow and he mimes rubbing a coin between his fingers.
“You can come home, son,” I say, “as soon as you tell us where you hid the gold.”
The voice rises again out of its deep hole.
“Don’t let them hang me, Papa. I’m sorry. I want to come home.”
“The gold.” My voice is harsh, but not because I’m angry at him. I’m angry at myself. I’m disgusted with myself, but I can’t stop. “Where did you hide the gold?”
He growls and he moans and he thrashes in my arms, but in the end he tells us. He gives us the precise location in great detail, so we won’t have any trouble at all finding it. And once the old fellow has the information he’s after, he whispers to me, “Now put him back.”
“He has to go back in the ground so no one will know.”
“But he’s alive.”
“You call this life? No, the elixir’s potency will fade in a few hours and the body will go cold again. He’ll begin to rot, just as nature intended.”
“If the elixir brought the dead back to life and kept them alive permanently, why would I need to dig up graves in the middle of the night? Think, man. I could just sell the elixir and get rich that way.”
That made sense, I suppose. I lean close to the dead man’s ear and I whisper, “You’ve done well, son. You’re home now, and you can rest. So rest now. Sleep.”
The dead man lets out a long sigh, but doesn’t speak again, or move. His hand lets go its grip on my arm.
And yes, I buried him. Tied the sack back around him like I was tucking him in for the night. Put him back in the ground and covered him over. And then the old fellow and I went to the place where the dead man had hidden the gold, and we found it all right. The old fellow honored his word. He shared the gold with me and I was able to buy the tavern and set myself up for life. As for the sorcerer, never heard a word of him after that night.
A happy ending? Things went my way for a while, it’s true. Sure, it was a mystery where a gravedigger had found enough money to set himself up in business, but because no one could prove anything, I was safe. But even though I was on the other side of the bar now, filling the glasses and raking in the coins, the drink was still right in front of me and I couldn’t keep myself from it. At the end of each night, after the last of my customers had staggered home and I was cleaning up, I’d look toward the door and expect to see him there. Come for what he wanted more than anything in this life. That thought was enough to drive a man to the bottle. And in time I lost everything: tavern, wife and child.
You call this life? I haven’t forgotten the question. He wasn’t speaking of me, but he might as well have been. Heat, motion, and impulse. Did I live any better than the man I put back in the ground?
So that’s what magic does. That’s what magic is. There’s always a price to pay for the thing you want more than anything in this life. You find out who you really are.