The Alchemist’s Bench

by Josh Woods

Akbar Umayl sold antiques and taught karate. He tended to pack so much mysticism into his sales pitches to customers that both businesses soon went under—this is Missouri after all—and he decided to move his new American family back to his home in Tehran.

This is not to say that I thought he was a fraud. I didn’t. I had bought some nice pieces from him in the past, and I’m sure he could, with a flying kick, knock my glasses through my skull and out of my occipital lobe. Professors aren’t known for our durability, not even those like the strapping new hire in the department who runs 10-k races for charity and was handed all future sections of my Poe literature course. I didn’t raise a fuss over that, as I ought to have. I wanted him to like me, just like I want everyone to like me, for some goddamned reason.

So I showed up at Akbar’s moving/going-out-of-business sale with a wad of twenties, ready to nab a brag-worthy conversation piece to (a) help him out, (b) console myself for losing my favorite course, and (c) generally enrich the cultural diversity of my living room décor. I wanted to throw a party for the Humanities Department at my house. I had never done so before, and I figured it might turn things around for me.

The final days of the sale took place at Akbar’s house, just a few streets over from mine, a suburban neighborhood bordered by a small state park that everyone appreciates and no one visits. The leftovers from his shop and his dojo were consolidated at his place. I poked through the open garage alongside a couple of other neighbors, but nothing there would do at all: some sets of Depression glassware, books of coins, Americana relics ranging from restored spinning wheels to a Charlie’s Angels pinball machine, bins of once-collectable Christmas ornaments that couldn’t possibly hold meaning for Akbar (a Muslim) or myself (a rather open-minded agnostic who tells some people he’s Jewish because of his non-practicing father and tells other people he’s Buddhist because of his ex-Catholic-turned-hippy mother, and who feels he doesn’t know enough science to be an atheist and is, honestly, uninterested in actual religious matters unless he is called upon to be outraged at conservatives). Akbar’s garage also had discounted foam gloves used by karate students to hit themselves. I didn’t want those either.

I told Akbar, who stood by sipping afternoon coffee out of a piece of Polish pottery, that I wanted something authentically Iranian.

He took me inside.

His kids sat on the floor of a family room that was boxed up and bare except for the flat-screen in front of them. They watched an age-inappropriate reality show as if trying to soak themselves to maximum density with American pop-culture before their long, dry exodus to the desert.

Akbar’s wife cried behind a closed door that we passed. I had met her previously. She was a full-on American blonde, and I wondered whether she mourned leaving her life in Missouri, or feared the life to come in Tehran. I worried that it was both racist and sexist of me to think that Tehran was bad for women, but I couldn’t help admiring her dedication. She was going to get on that jet no matter what, for her kids, for him. I envied that. All of my past candidates for soul mate had been scared off by the slightest of annoyances: my supposed snoring, my clumsy lovemaking, my unpredictable nighttime housecleaning crusades, my inevitable conviction that on the other end of every one of my relationships was a person who secretly hated me, those kinds of things.

Akbar showed me some small tapestries still hanging on the hallway walls. He said they were handwoven to replicate the patterns of prayer rugs used by five different Islamic mystics who had, while alive, spoken with the angels Nakir and Munkar. Then he let me in on a little secret: after I die, Nakir and Munkar will show up at my grave and ask me three questions, and if I get the answers wrong, they will beat me with their giant hammers until Judgment Day.

“I hope the questions aren’t about algebra,” I said.

He laughed a little. Maybe he got my reference to his people having invented algebra. Or maybe he just felt sorry for me. He turned the little tapestries over to show me how hand-woven the backs were too, but they looked like something I could buy at a kitschy home-goods franchise. At least my guests would think so. Rather than tell him that, I just said they were too small. So he led me into the basement.

I waited with one foot on the bottom step while he navigated the dark. He reached about and grunted and then gave us some dull light from a hanging bulb. He tried another, but it popped and died. He pointed through the shadows toward a tall mosaic vase, a woven basket large enough to hide a body, a marble bust that looked stolen from a museum, some acid-etched metal plates, two huge rugs rolled up and leaning against the near wall.

I shuffled to the basket and lifted the lid. I couldn’t tell if it was empty or not, and I wasn’t about to reach down into the dark. Akbar said he was considering destroying it along with everything else down here, but that I could talk him out of it. I asked him why he would want to destroy them. He told me that the basket had been cursed and subsequently spit upon by a shepherd who had placed a lamb in there and had found, to his dismay, that the lamb had immediately disappeared. This had happened a few hundred years ago, he said.

“Then why not sell it to the mafia?” I said. “They’d pay a lot for a garbage disposal like that.”

He made no attempt to laugh that time. He seemed, perhaps, offended. “These relics would be better off destroyed than poorly possessed,” he said. “People don’t appreciate the same kinds of things here.”

By people, he meant Americans. I felt a little guilty, though I wasn’t exactly sure about what, so I feigned interest in a bench against the far wall. I asked about it and went nearer to inspect it.

“I am afraid to destroy that piece,” he said. “The fire I put to it might burn the world.”

I wasn’t going to fall for those kinds of story-time sales gimmicks, but I ran my hand along the seat of the bench, and the dark lighting was no illusion: its wood had been worn to a rich black with the age of decades, maybe centuries. The legs curved out at low, sweeping angles. Letters of the Persian alphabet had been hand-carved with such skill that I could run my finger in the grooves like a paintbrush. It could have been the seat of a sheik or of a peasant, worth a million dollars, or snatched by me for a hundred. It was perfect.

“How much?” I said.

“Do not sit on it,” he said. “It is unsafe.”

I hadn’t thought to sit on it until he said not to, and I knew that my suddenly wanting to sit on it made me the kind of sucker salesmen love, but I sat on it anyway. I smiled and showed my hands like a magician. “Looks like I survived,” I said. “So how much?”

“It is cursed,” he said. “And priceless.”

“How about a hundred dollars?” I had meant my first offer to be fifty, but I knew the exact nook by the window in my house where I would set it, and I knew what books I would put on one end, and I could just see that new professor who took my favorite classes from me sitting on the other end with his snifter of bourbon, reaching down to rub the lettering and admire the craftsmanship, wondering whether he would be able get one for himself—which he wouldn’t—while the other professors would gather around me and ask about it. We’d all admire it together, and I would explain the kinds of teachings Akbar had just shared with me about the afterlife beliefs of his people. Then I would tell them how we had talked about the mathematics of al-jabr and how much I miss Akbar already, and that would lead into a discussion of the current politics of Tehran, which I would research before the guests showed up. This bench was perfect.

Akbar said, “If you promise to keep it hidden away, and to leave nothing on it, and never to sell it, and not to sit on it for very long, and to forget that I was the man who sold it to you…”

Here it came. He was going to ask five hundred, maybe eight. I could swing three hundred, tops.

He said, “Then I will sell it to you for one dollar.”

“One dollar?” I said. “What’s the catch?”

He shrugged. “It is cursed.”

“Then I’ll take it.”

* * *

Later that evening I attended the refreshments session that followed each event in our university’s Arts and Letters Lecture Series. While most of the others stood holding clear plastic cups half-filled with light beer or cheap chardonnay in the midst of catering tables that circled them like covered wagons, I stayed on the edges of the gathering nibbling little cubes of cheese from a napkin and staying near my bottle of water—alcohol tended toward adverse effects with me—and trying to glean what the lecture had included. I had been able to bring myself to actually attend because the speaker was that new professor. His subject had been, of course, Poe. I had simply waited in one of the stalls of the bathroom until the reception began.

I spotted a philosophy professor carefully considering the cocktail weenies before him, and whether he should add them to his plate of cauliflower and carrots. I said, “What struck you most about the lecture?”

“The doppelganger in all his stories,” he said. And then, while still leering at the weenies, he said, “Fascinating.”

I was aghast. Six years ago, when I had been the featured lecturer—also discussing the works of Poe—I had mentioned that Poe’s ideas could never divorce themselves from the fear of the doppelganger, whether consciously as in “The Imp of the Perverse,” or unconsciously as in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I had gone even further to posit that Poe was pre-doppelganger for many writers to come.

“Tell me more,” I said to the philosopher. “What fascinated you about it?”

He said, “I guess the idea of Poe’s influence as pre-doppelganger.”

As nonchalantly as possible, despite my small quake of indignation, I mentioned, “I remember pointing out something extremely similar when I gave the lecture a little while back.”

“Curious,” he said, finally deciding to gather a line of weenies between a pair of tongs and roll them onto his plate. “They sprang for the name-brand ones. They say the others are the same, but they’re not.”

I looked around. Everyone chatted like everything was fine. No one was noticing that this new professor was a plagiarist—my plagiarist. “Did he at least mention Borges?” I asked.

“What?”

“Did he mention Borges? Or did he just default to Lovecraft?”

The philosopher looked at me quizzically, grinding away at a fat mouthful of sausage meat, and said sloppily, “Did you not even go to it?”

I made some vague comment and excused myself as if in the noncommittal way one leaves for the bathroom meaning to return. My mistake before fleeing the event was looking back at the new professor, who, mid-conversation with a dozen others faculty members—half of whom wanted to date him—looked up and made eye contact with me. If I were a handsomer version of myself, I’d be him.

* * *

I spent the remainder of that evening in a manic rearrangement of my living room furniture around the ancient Iranian bench, and then giving up and moving the bench to different rooms, and then returning to where I had placed it to begin with.

I finally got it looking right when I realized my difficulty was merely a matter of lighting. I angled the lamps so as to re-create some of the half-lit shadows of Akbar’s basement. And to complete the scene, I set on one end of the bench my 1952 edition of The Aleph and Other Stories crudely signed, dated, and noted by the author: “Jorge Luis Borges, 1977, Nadie en el espejo.” It meant, No one in the mirror. I had had it officially authenticated by an expert and had been told that its uniqueness was due in large part to the fact that, at the time of that inscription, Borges had already gone blind.

Before closing my own eyes for a fitful night’s sleep, just before midnight, I sent out a mass e-mail invitation to everyone in the Humanities Department for a party at my house at the end of that week, assuring them that no RSVP would be necessary since there would be plenty of food, music, and illuminating conversation about unique ideas—I italicized that last adjective for a certain someone—to go around for all who show up. I also said I would provide free liquor.

* * *

The next morning, I stumbled around the kitchen to prepare my freshly ground coffee, then balanced the full mug and blew on the steaming black surface as I went to the living room to admire the bench, and that’s when I noticed a second book under the signed Borges edition. I remembered specifically placing only the one book there before I retired to bed, but the first thing I did was doubt my memory. So I lifted The Aleph to see what book I must have lain under it, and I saw another copy of The Aleph.

Then I no longer doubted my memory. I possessed no other copy of that book, nor had I ever come across another that looked so much like my 1952 edition. I set my coffee mug down on the bench to free my hands for inspecting this second book further. And, upon opening its cover, I found a duplicate—down to the subtlest curve of each letter—of the unique inscription: “Jorge Luis Borges, 1977, Nadie en el espejo.”

I had been assured that experts had never seen a second of this inscription, as I was seeing now.

I checked for anything else unique. I flipped inside the book to a page near the middle that had once been folded in half. I found it, so I compared it to the original book, and they both held the same crease on the same page. I flipped through both again, finding a blotted brown stain across a page in one, finding the same stain in the other. The blotch had faint branches at its edges, like the tips of a snowflake, where some drop of tea had long-ago splashed. Down to the tiniest fractal, the patterns were identical.

I realized what this meant. My stomach turned a cold sour, and I could feel my pulse in my ears. I looked around me for pranksters to jump out with cameras in their hands and laugh, or for a clue such as an unlatched window showing where someone had snuck in, left this forged duplicate under the original, and left. But I found nothing to support the theories of prank or hoax, just as my adrenal system had already intuited. And I had to acknowledge that no one cared enough about me to try such a thing. I was alone in this miraculous discovery. This was no forged duplicate by any person. The bench had done it.

I immediately took my coffee off of the seat and put it on a table elsewhere, fearing now to drink it.

Returning to the two books lying side-by-side on the bench, I couldn’t recall which was the original—the one on the left or the right. And like wafts of steam, the realizations hit softly again and again: I had merely assumed the book on top had been the original. If they were exactly the same, neither was the original. Or, that is to say, they both were. And if this bench could duplicate an item with absolute exactness, I could use it to duplicate something far more valuable.

* * *

I soon returned from the bank with a small stack of hundred-dollar bills. It amounted only to four thousand; I didn’t have as much in savings as I should have. But that was about to change.

I set the stack of cash in the middle of the bench and waited. An hour elapsed, and other than my getting new coffee in the kitchen while keeping a steady watch over the bench, nothing happened.

I decided that the bench couldn’t do its magic while being watched, so I took some time away long enough to call into work to lie about an emergency concerning my (non-existent) significant other—for whom I even made up the name Naaji—canceling all my classes for the day. Then I wandered the house, trying to give the bench some privacy.

A half-hour later, nothing changed. Without lifting the cash off the bench, I flipped through the bills to give them a rough count, still finding only forty.

So I put myself on a steady schedule of watching the bench for an hour, and walking away to wander the house for an hour. I spent much of the time considering what else I could duplicate that would benefit me more than cash, coming to the same conclusion each time that cash would be best. To further pass the time, I tried without a calculator to determine how many doublings of my original four-thousand dollars I would need to become a millionaire. Eight, I figured, and not many more to be a billionaire. The flocking attention given to the new plagiarist professor would scatter from him and roost at my arms the moment I walked through the doors at the next lecture, which would be held in the new auditorium that had my name graven over the entrance. My colleagues would be endowed by me. My soulmates would stand in line. But I knew in getting there, I would have some troubles with taxation, so I ran through some ideas on money laundering and finally decided that I would pay someone else to work all that out for me.

I drank pomegranate juice and did nothing else than watch the bench, and think about the bench, and watch it some more.

But when the sun set and still nothing had happened, I worried that the bench could duplicate only one item per owner, or maybe only one item per century, and I felt the sharp regret of ignoring Akbar’s warning that the bench was cursed. The curse, it seemed, lay not in the bench but in the mind of the owner. If tomorrow was a duplication of today and the next day a duplication of that, I would soon go mad.

* * *

Because I forced myself to stay away from the bench all night—not to even sneak the quickest peek—I paced the floor of my bedroom and got no sleep. At sunrise, I rushed back to the bench.

And on the bench, lo and behold, sat two stacks of cash.

I jumped with my hands in the air and cheered in a whisper—I couldn’t have the neighbors hearing me. I could let no one find out what I had.

Gruesome thoughts of what I would need to do with Akbar and his family came to my mind but quickly flew away. They would be in Tehran by now. They were out of the picture. The bench was my secret, mine alone.

And now I had discovered the secret to its operation: I had to leave the item to be duplicated overnight.

I removed the identical lead-colored rubber bands from both stacks, sat on the floor in front of the bench, and counted out every hundred-dollar bill in front of me, one by one, keeping the bills from each stack with their own kind, to my left and to my right.

I now had eight thousand dollars. Tomorrow morning I would have sixteen. The next morning would be thirty-two, and so on for the rest of my life.

But then I picked up the first two bills from each of the stacks—left and right—and I realized the bad news, a fact that would have come naturally to the mind of any seasoned criminal—whether his crimes were occult or otherwise. The serial numbers were exactly the same.

* * *

I mindlessly called the campus to cancel what remained of my classes for the week, not even bothering with an excuse. Too much was on my mind. I needed a solution for the bench.

Duplicating more high-priced collectors’ items—like the Borges book—would be too inefficient, perhaps not resulting in real money for years.

Casino chips made the most sense, at least immediately. The highway signs boasted of casinos being no farther than an hour’s drive in every cardinal direction. I could easily cash in the four grand for chips, return here to stack them in a neat pyramid on the bench, duplicate them overnight, and return to cash out eight grand.

But I knew what would happen. The security guards would mark me like imperial spear-holders spotting a crooked little magician approaching the throne of a pharaoh. They would let me try to cash out, watching me the whole time, and even if I had the nerve to follow through under their gaze, even if they didn’t have little electronic identifiers in each chip, I would give myself away somehow. They would ask me to step into the back room, and I would be too frightened to resist, and I would admit everything. Would they believe me? Would it matter?

I would need to find a better way to duplicate wealth.

Diamonds seemed to make some sense, but an economics prof on campus had once told me about their inflated retails scams, and I doubted that I would hold up under scrutiny any better if I walked up to a jeweler with a shoebox full of identical diamond rings and he called the cops.

Pure gold was the only solution. Un-minted bars would be best, but I would be able to melt them down myself on my gas stove if I had to. Everything else in the modern world was numbered and labeled and tracked and dated and accounted for. Everything was too unique. But a slice of pure gold from Fort Knox was the same as a slice of pure gold from King Tut. A single, pure ingot was one with all the pure gold on the planet. Gold in the hand was the exact same as gold in any fairy tale. Gold was its own archetype. Only gold could be duplicated and remain true. So only gold was really true.

* * *

It took me most of the day following flawed GPS guidance from one shop to another before I finally found a place still in business that claimed to allow not just cash for gold but also the reverse. The building looked new: a small, stucco construction the color of pottery and nearly the size. The sign let me know that closing time was minutes away.

Inside, a kid with a goatee sat behind the glass counter, deftly tickling the buttons on a video-game controller, watching the magic he worked on the screen. He must have been cheating. The car he controlled kept hitting a ramp on a rooftop, flying over the streetlamps, and ever-so-closely failing to land on the next rooftop, before the whole scene reset, and he tried again, and again. I stood near the counter and made throaty sounds ostentatiously like a valued customer, waiting for him to fetch his boss.

He duplicated his car stunts endlessly and without success.

“Is the owner here?” I finally asked.

“You got him,” the kid said. “What can I do for you?”

I looked for any sign that he was fucking with me, but he was too busy with the game to have tried.

I said, “I need to buy gold. A lot of it. In a single unminted bar.”

“What for?” the kid said.

“What for?” I thought about how I wanted to answer that. Never before that moment had I been forced to resist ripping a power cord out of a wall and whipping someone with it. I said, “What do you care what I need it for?”

“If I’m going to be your hook-up, I want to be convinced.”

“Convinced of what?”

“That it’s worth the effort.”

“I have a lot of cash,” I said. “Is that not enough these days?”

“Not really,” he said. “It’ll take me some time to score. I might have to cast it myself. Tomorrow afternoon at the fastest. So what if I do all that and you never show back up?”

“You’re worried about wasting time?” I said.

He paused his video game and looked away at his profound thoughts. “It’s the only thing we lose that we can’t buy back.”

“That’s not the only thing you could lose,” I said, sounding like I did when correcting my soft-brained students, simultaneously disappointed and ominous.

“You threatening me?” He opened his ironic green cardigan to show me the pistol he wore in a shoulder holster. “Because I’ll waste you right now. I don’t even care.”

If I had merely tested this scenario out in my head, as I had with the casino, this moment would have concluded with my fleeing from the shop and driving away in urine-soaked pants. At least that would have been my hypothesis. But I would have been wrong. Instead, what I observed was that I seemed made out of minerals. I felt nothing except a desire to get what I came for and to return to my bench. I couldn’t tell what had already begun changing in me, but something had.

I told him, “I could lose my life, sure, as could you. But we could also lose our sanity. Our identity. Our love for something. Our love for all things. There is much one could lose, much, much more than time.”

“I got you,” he said. He closed his cardigan and nodded. “True that. True that.”

I slapped the four-thousand dollars in cash on the glass countertop and said, “And here’s how you’ll know I’ll be back tomorrow.”

He pulled the cash out of sight without counting it. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “But how do you know I’ll be here?”

“Do you believe in black magic?” I said.

I had his attention. He had ceased to be safely amused by me at some point in our discussion.

He said, “What kind of black magic?”

“The kind that’s real. The kind that drives a guy like me to drive around the state all day until he can buy unmarked gold from a guy like you.”

He watched me, slow to answer. He eventually said, “I guess so.”

“Then that’s how I know you’ll have my gold tomorrow afternoon.”

* * *

That evening, as proud of myself as I had initially been, I dismantled my house in a panic. The bench was there as I had left it—everything was as I had left it—but I had nothing to duplicate until I could get my gold the following day. A whole night would be wasted, unless I could find something of value to duplicate. I had to have owned something that would use a night of duplication wisely.

I ripped apart my bedroom, every dresser drawer, every box in the back of my closet, finding nothing more valuable than a few old coins and a geode. I tore apart the extra bedroom I used as an office, realizing how completely worthless every modern implement was: printer cartridges, cell-phone charging stations, laptops, back-up hard-drives, all of it top-dollar name-brand, and all of it useless junk. Nothing in my world had any value of its own.

Finally, deep in the back of a kitchen cabinet, I found a set of my grandmother’s silverware. It was a weak substitute for gold, but it was the closest substitute I had.

I stacked all the silverware pieces on the bench, breathed with sane relief, and then locked myself away for the rest of the night.

* * *

The next morning—after very little sleep, if time enough for just one nightmare counted as sleep—I had double the amount of silverware, even though some had fallen onto the floor. That must have happened after duplication. I wasted no time with exploring such wonders, however. Instead, I scooped all the silverware into a large pot, set it on the stove over a gas burner on high, and drove off to collect my gold.

* * *

That evening I returned to a foul-smelling house, having acquired a pathetic little turd of a gold bar.

I checked the stovetop to find that the silver had not melted all day but instead passed wisps of weird gas throughout the house. I switched off the burner and gave up on it.

Back at the shop, the kid had seemed extraordinarily concerned that I understood how little my four thousand could actually procure. He had reweighed everything for me in person, had taken me through several Websites on current market values, had proved that he erred to my benefit by three grams. He had apologized the whole time.

I was perhaps disappointed, but I would not let my mind boil over. I knew it would be enough gold to get started, enough to double, quadruple, octuple, sexdecuple, and so on.

I set it on the bench that night, turned off all the lights in the house except the softly glowing lamp on the floor beside me that was built inside a block of Himalayan salt—an old gift from my mom—and I sat amid my pillows and blankets cross-legged like an Old-Testament herdsman, and drank straight from a bottle of liquor distilled from figs, called boukha—an old gift from my dad. I wondered how either of my parents, both of whom seemed awful at their own relationship, managed to keep the other from leaving all those years. With regularity around this part of the season—the first of the winter frosts—one or the other would ask, with the all callousness that only parents find acceptable, what’s wrong with me and why I always seemed to sabotage my relationships and end up alone. As many times as I had answered their clueless and outdated questions, I had only started wondering the same thing myself in recent years. I knew I would have trouble sleeping without the boukha. I was desperate, for sleep, for this plan to finally work, for everything in my life to work.

* * *

I awoke late in the morning sprawled out with puke dried to the side of my face. I hurt from guts to brains with a hangover, and I had trouble seeing with all the light shining in through the closed blinds. My glasses cut into my back, and I retrieved them painfully, getting a smear of my own blood across my palm and finding the frames snapped in half. I felt for the bottle of boukha nearby and finished the last two swigs, immediately feeling the buzz from the hair of the dog that bit me, immediately feeling better.

I sat up to inspect the bench. Where there had been one little bar of gold the evening before, now there sat two.

This would finally work. I would be well off in a week, rich in a month, and, in a year, as wealthy as a god.

I spent the day nursing my hangover and deciding not to drink that night even if it meant losing sleep again. I couldn’t trust myself to start drinking the hard stuff now that I saw how absolutely steam-rolled I had let myself get. I needed to keep watch on my bench.

* * *

That night, still on the pallet in front of the bench, I tried not to look toward the seat where the two bars of gold would turn into four. I wondered whether the duplicates popped suddenly into existence at 12:01 Central Standard Time, or whether they faded slowly into existence, or whether Nakir and Munkar snuck them into the house like Santa with presents. It seemed a sin to watch the duplication happen, or maybe watching would have broken the magic, so I looked away all night. I might have slept an hour, maybe less. Part of what kept me awake was a new worry: since this bench was cursed and priceless as Akbar had warned, what else was true? Would Nakir and Munkar truly visit my grave after death? If I could not answer their questions, would they beat me with giant hammers until Judgment Day? That which seemed so silly to me previously was now genuine dread across the long hours of that sleepless night.

At daybreak, I allowed myself to look at the seat of the bench. Where two bars of gold had sat the evening before, now there sat three.

I screamed.

Then, angry at myself for making noise that neighbors could hear, I cried, and I snotted along the sleeves of my shirt, which I had not changed in—how many days had it been since I had changed my clothes, or showered? I did not care.

Why were there only three bars of gold and not four? It couldn’t have been a matter of separate items. The book made of many pages had been duplicated down to every last page. The stack of cash had duplicated entirely, the same with the pile of silverware. I had stacked the two gold bars, one on top of the other, yet there sat one more bar beside them rather than two more.

I held them, inspected them, put them back, inspected them again, set them back, left the room, then returned and inspected them again, set them back again, crying the whole time.

It was too much for me. I left the house, went to a liquor store where I blindly grabbed half a cartful of bottles of the hard stuff, paid out hundreds of dollars for it all—with the cash of duplicated serial numbers—and was already drinking from one of the bottles by the time I pulled back into my driveway and stumbled from my car, not caring to shut the driver-side door.

Inside, the three gold bars continued being only three. But the liquor had helped me stop crying. The bottle I sipped from was some cheap imitation of my father’s boukha. That’s how I realized the solution: the bench could not copy a copy. The real-world original could produce an exact duplicate, but that exact duplicate—being from some other dimension, or some other quantum possibility, or from Hell—that one could not produce another.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe each item could duplicate only once, and maybe it didn’t matter whether it had been the real-world original. I wasn’t sure.

I had a gut feeling about the former hypothesis, but I couldn’t rule out the latter just yet. It was otherwise impossible to tell which of the three gold bars had been the real-world original, and which was the second duplicate, and which was the third, especially not now that I had rearranged them, but I had to know. Sipping the fig liquor and drawing diagrams on printer paper—then needing more space and drawing diagrams on the living-room walls—I worked out dozens of ways to run tests. It took the whole day to figure out how to reduce the wasted nights differentiating the original gold bar from the second duplicate, but solid answers came after hours of research on Game Theory, especially the Monty Hall “choose a door” probability problem.

But since I was dedicating myself to testing the bench to further understand its physics—or was it metaphysics? Once a paranormal phenomenon revealed itself to be real, would it be downgraded to mere physics? Did ancient magicians, if successful, practice mere chemistry?—I realized that I should test something more insightful than a mere gold bar, something infinitely more complex. I should test a living being.

And why start with just a spider, or toad, or cat? Why not a large mammal?

Then I realized what a fool I had been.

I laughed at myself aloud, not fearing to alert the neighbors. What a fool I had been! I drank more to celebrate my insight.

I had been trying to duplicate mere gold. The price of gold per ounce was high indeed, but what was that compared to the price of the exact right match for a kidney? How much gold could buy the perfect liver for a transplant? Bone marrow, skin grafts, non-mangled limbs for reattachment—a single body was worth more than its weight in gold.

And sheer value wasn’t all, of course. The implications were now vaster than wealth. Stem cell research, cloning, gene therapy—civilization bent all its will toward fending off death, toward the preservation of life, and all its mighty achievements would shrink under the shadow of that which I could produce in a single night. With a coven of chemists around me, I could cure genetic disease in a week, cure cancer in a month, and in a year, overtake death itself.

In one hand, I had limitless gold and, in the other, immortality.

And maybe, just maybe, something more could be gained by duplicating a human than eternal life. Human history has watched countless men and women sacrifice both wealth and life for one thing above all. Maybe I could use the bench to duplicate that too. Maybe an immortal life didn’t have to be lived alone.

To begin, all I needed was a human test subject.

Then someone knocked on the door.

It was night. I had no idea who it could be, but there were voices, many of them. They were—it sounded like—they were laughing. Why were they laughing?

I threw open the door. Half a dozen members of the Humanities Department stood on my front porch, wearing coats, huddling from the cold. Some had foil-covered party trays; others had store-bought bags of chips. One of them said, “It’s still on, right?”

* * *

With music blasting, lighting low, snacks abundant, a dozen bottles of liquor generously opened and free for the pouring, my party quickly mimicked everything that a party was supposed to be. But everyone seemed uneasy. They acted polite enough, and said nice things about my house and décor, but they talked softly among each other and kept gathering in small groups away from me.

I had splashed some cologne on quickly, so it wasn’t my stench. I looked rough, surely, but I had swept up my pallet from the floor and acted like everything was normal. Maybe it was because I was a tad drunker than everyone else. They had been at work all day, while I had been sipping ambrosia and unlocking the mysteries of the universe.

Keeping to the living room as often as I could, I tried to get them to relax. I started dancing to an old song that came on from Kid Creole and the Coconuts, taking heavy swigs of liquor between bouts of flailing my elbows, shaking my butt side to side, and saying “yeah” a lot. I danced like a sheik, like a pharaoh.

That new professor seemed to get a kick out of watching me dance by my bench, so I motioned for him to come closer. “I want to show you something,” I said. “Have a seat.”

He yelled for me to repeat myself over the music.

So I yelled for him to have a seat.

He did.

“Comfortable?”

He admired the bench beneath him and traced the Persian writing just as I had done. “Nice piece,” he said. “Where’d it come from?”

“There’s no other like it,” I said. “Do you think you could sleep on it?”

“No, too small.” He held the sides and tested his weight. “It’d be pretty uncomfortable.”

I took a heavy swig and then handed the bottle to him. He didn’t want it, but I forced him to drink, holding the bottle so that he had to sputter and gulp. I said, “A few more of those, and that bench might as well be a king-sized bed. Sleep like the dead.”

“Say what?” he said under all the noise.

I tried forcing him to drink again, but he struggled back this time. I screamed, “Sleep like the dead!”

But someone had just killed the music right before I said it. I had screamed in a silent house. Everyone was watching me, as still as statues.

“What?” I asked them. “What’s the problem?” I took the bottle back and drank some more to show them that we were all just having a good time. “See?” I drank again and danced in the silence. I danced the dance of kings, to the sound of their tombs, to the sound of great tomorrows rolling out before me, the glorious silence.

Some of them excused themselves as they left, but most of them just left. I tugged on the arm of that new professor, begging him to stay, just a few minutes more, promising him that I could show him something amazing, but I could hear how slurry and vague I sounded.

He kept apologizing to me as he pulled away, telling me that he wasn’t interested.

I scoffed. He thought I wanted his interest. I scoffed again, and then realized that I had.

He was the last one out, locking the door from the inside out of courtesy before shutting it behind himself. I sulked there and drank some more. I remember slumping on the bench to prove to myself that he could have indeed slept on it. But a waft of dizziness hit me, as if the world rolled the wrong way. It was followed by quick drowsiness, and, after that, all was blank.

* * *

The unmistakable sound of squealing tires—and then of speeding away in a panic—from my driveway wakes me. It is morning. My front door is wide open. My joints ache worse even than my head, and my ribs feel as though I slept with an anvil on my chest. I sit up and see. I had passed out on the bench, overnight.

I rush to the window and catch a glimpse of my car turning the corner at the far end of the road. The figure at my wheel could be a simple car thief, some stranger noticing the careless and vulnerable state of my car.

But, for all I saw, that figure could have been me. The other me could have awoken, found the original me lying below, and then fled in a panic.

It could have been the panic of an unholy being looking down to see me, the original, the creator. Or it could have been the panic of a creator. What if I am the duplicate?

I lock the door. I rush to the kitchen and arm myself with two steak knives, one in each hand, identical, both looking at me like dim mirrors. I need to be ready to kill the other me. A murder conviction would be no worry. Even if they found the remains of the body, its DNA would prove to be merely my own.

But would the other me think the same way? That one might be out there acquiring a gun right now, for we both know we don’t have one here in the house. Would I do that? Would I have gone to get a gun? We know exactly where to go to buy one without any waiting-period hassle. The other me went to the kid’s shop.

No, maybe we are panicking and just need to calm down. We can meet back up with cooler heads and talk it out, even find a way to use this blunder to great advantage. We could even find a way to live in a miraculous harmony, more harmonious than any two people have ever lived, alone nevermore.

And after, we will talk it out; after, the other me will feel safe. That’s when I will strike. I will go straight for the throat. I will have to. There is no way around it. The other me will know that I need to be killed sooner or later, and I know that the other me knows it.

The only difference between us is that the other me has a head-start on acquiring better weaponry. I have no knowledge or skill that the other me doesn’t also have. The other me has every advantage. No matter what I do, I will lose. I will die today. My world is at an end. And maybe that is just as well, since I am, in all likelihood, the mere copy. Maybe I always was.

The only element to my advantage is that I still possess the bench.

If my world is at an end, I will make it an end that is, for the first time on the planet, unique.

I hoist the bench over my shoulder, and, with the two knives at my belt, I haul it out of the house, out of the neighborhood, deep into the state park at the edge of town. I ignore the trails and hike into the most remote pack of trees in the bottom of a small valley, nestling low among the damp stones. The hills on either side hide me from discovery. Here, I am alone in the absolute.

Hours passed in getting to this spot, and I feel ill. I drink from a stagnant pool and rest. Squirrels rustle the leaves. I am surrounded by animal, mineral, and vegetable, all of which I can duplicate.

I can duplicate everything.

The other me has probably made it back to the house and has begun hunting me by now, but it will be no use. The other me won’t find me; no one will, not until tomorrow, not until it is too late.

I sit before the bench, and I already grow cold though the sun has not yet set.

I think about what I am about to do just one more time, just to make sure I have the resolve. Then I do it: I lift the bench, turn it upside down, and I press the seat down onto the ground. Sitting on the bench now is the entire earth.

Then I lie back onto the cold leaves, their moisture seeping into my clothes. I watch through the fracturing branches the vast sky that lies under the bench, feeling beneath myself the whole hard planet, a thing that has been the only one of its kind for so long, alone in the universe for so long, knowing that although I will not survive the cold of tonight, my death will herald a collision like none other, for tomorrow will welcome a whole new world.

 

About the Author

Josh Woods loves monsters, ancient and esoteric lore, comedy, combat, storytelling, hiking, professional wrestling, making stuff, and learning almost anything he can. And he enjoys teaching others what he has learned and figured out. He has recently released his first novel, The Black Palace, and has published genre and literary short stories in numerous journals, magazines, and collections. He also edits anthologies, teaches creative writing as an Associate Professor of English in Illinois, and writes about techniques and strategies for the craft of fiction. For more information, visit him at joshwoodsauthor.com.

“The Alchemist” by William Fettes Douglas (1853). Oil on canvas. Public domain

 



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