the Four "f" words

by Elizabeth (wife of Br. Serephah)

It had been a year, perhaps even two, since my husband during one of his alchemical experiments had flooded our outbuilding that serves as bedroom, library, massage clinic, laboratory and storage area. He had set up a distillation operation and after several hours left the room for about 90 minutes while attending a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) class. He returned home to find to his horror that the tube that circulates water through the distillation column had popped off. The hose flailing wildly about as water spurted, unstopped, for the better part of an hour. The floor and rugs nearest to the sink and a little more than half of the large room were soaked.

Fast forward to the 9th of May, 2012. I have just returned home from work. My husband is in the lab distilling alcohol from the wine he recently brewed from water, sugar and about 16 cans of Welch's Grape juice. I got to thinking how it would be nice to add some fresh stinging nettles to the soup I'd been simmering all day so I wandered up the road to gather a bunch.

Satisfied after picking several cups of nettles, I began making my way back home. And then I hear the frightening cry of "FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" in what is unmistakably my husband's voice. A very small part of me tries to convince myself that perhaps it is some other person calling out? Perhaps I am mistaken. But no - when I left he'd been once again distilling alcohol for one of his alchemical lab works - and so, I race for home. (Note to self: gumboots are no good substitute for a decent pair of running shoes.) I feel as though my legs are made of rubber - horrific images fill my head and all I can think of is, what blanket can I soak in water to throw over the inferno that is surely burning our house down at this very moment? I make it to my driveway just as my neighbour, Megan, from across the road arrives with her cell phone clamped to her head in the midst of a 911 call, her little sheep in tow.

I hear her saying, "I don't know what the emergency is. I heard someone shout FIRE!". Once we are half-way down the driveway we see my husband, slumped in the doorway, fire extinguisher next to him, face sooty and drawn.

I shout, "What the hell happened?"

He goes on to regale us with a story of how he'd been distilling 160 proof alcohol (80%) over to 180 proof (90%) in an untested column glassblower that a friend had designed when the pressure in this special cornmeal-filled extraction unit must have built up too much. Suddenly the cork popped out, and because he was distilling such a large amount of alcohol, it began belching out, spilling over the countertop, down behind the cupboards and onto the floor. Upon being introduced to the orange glowing hot plate, the alcohol said WOOF. With that, the entire corner of the room exploded into flames. It was about this time that my husband thought to himself, the landlady is going to kill me. Followed close on the heels of that thought began his panicked cries of FIRE. He raced toward the main house to retrieve the fire extinguisher next to the door. Yes - he now knows, after a lengthy and highly detailed diatribe, complete with wild Italian gesticulation, that perhaps the fire extinguisher is best placed next to areas of high risk or at least in the same building as potential outbreaks. Future reference.

By now the neighbour is telling the fire department for the dozenth time that their services are not required as the fire has been successfully extinguished. When they continue to insist, she finally gets fed up and simply hangs upon them. They telephone back; she allows it to go to voice mail. The crisis is now averted, we all hug and share a nervous laugh then she collects her little sheep, shoos our barking Jack Russels away and heads back home across the road.

"Look at this", my husband says, leading me back through the foul, chemical clouded room. Pulling a red bound book from the shelf, "The only casualty", he tells me. Turning the singed spine towards me I read, "Creation of Fire". We both chuckle then exit the building again and my husband starts heading for the house.

"Where are you going?" I ask in disbelief.

"Oh, I'm just going to go into the house and go on the computer for a bit."

"No, no, no, no no," I say, shaking my head emphatically. "There's a reason why the firemen stay all night after they put out the fire. It can flare back up. You stay here and keep checking on it."

This is news to my husband so he goes back into the chemical billowing room, coughing and looking around. The first thing he notices upon opening up the lower cupboard doors is that two cardboard boxes full of paperwork are on fire. After gingerly transferring them outside, he sets to work with the handy-dandy ABC fire extinguisher. I leave him to it and head into the house, more than a little shaken, to continue my efforts on dinner. Nettles rinsed, and I hear the first of the sirens. "Please, no," I say to myself. "Let it be for something quite unrelated." But alas, no. The fire chief had arrived, parking his bright red (for all neighbours to see) truck at an angle across our driveway lest any of us dare an escape.

What I didn't know was that the fire department, suspecting a Meth lab, had called the police. Thankfully, amongst the volunteer firemen is a good friend, Bob, who argued fervently in our defence and so the police were not dispatched. Soon after the chief's arrival, a proper fire truck arrived. Yes, sirens and lights ablaze.

I remained inside the house thinking it best that my dear husband deals with the mess that he's created. To say I was embarrassed would be a monumental understatement. Megan, our neighbour with the sheep, comes in to find me. She's apologizing profusely for ever having called the fire department in the first place. I tell her not to worry and that I am sincerely very grateful for her quick actions as it could have been, quite easily, very serious. She tells me the fire guy is yelling at my husband, something to the effect of, "This is the third time I have told you to GET OUT of this building". My husband later tells me that he had a very awkward moment as he tried to explain exactly what he was doing and why he had all these dangerous chemicals in the room. Apparently, modern-day alchemists are not as common as one might think. Eventually, the boys from the fire department determine everything is safe and finally leave.

The room is a disaster. A white chemical film coats every surface in the entire room.

"You're beginning to scare the hell out of me," I profess.

Three days later.

It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday here on Denman Island. My husband and I have agreed to meet up with a neighbour down the road, Harlene. She has a tremendous amount of rhubarb threatening to take over her garden entirely and we've happily agreed to take 25 pounds of it off her hands. Visions of rhubarb cherry crisp fill my head; my husband, on the other hand, has his heart set on brewing another batch of alcohol; all the more to distil for his mad scientist experiments! We return home after filling two 5 gallon pails and I start working on the dinner and dessert while my husband begins chopping and pureeing the rhubarb and filling the carboy. My youngest daughter, Guinevere, is at work but since her boyfriend, Tristan, is over, I recruit him to help with the making of the potstickers.

While he wraps the delectable little dumplings, I set about making the Chinese sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables. Guinevere called just as we were about to sit down saying she was done at work and could I pick her up. Of course, I could; so after collecting her, we all sat down to enjoy the meal. For dessert, we devour the lovely crisp, still warm from the oven, topped with vanilla ice cream.

After dinner I am doing some tidying up when my husband wanders in, head down, asking me to come with him for a moment. I immediately look to see if the two dogs are in the living room, worried by his tone that something terrible has happened. Rosie and Orion are in their little doggy beds so after breathing a sigh of relief I follow him out the front door. My husband immediately plunks down on the stoop and reaches out for me. I sit down next to him and he throws his arms around me, crying out that he's so sorry. "What is it, what's happened?" I ask, confused and deeply concerned.

For several heartbeats he says nothing and I begin to wonder if he'll ever speak again. Finally, he utters the words. "I've flooded the room again. But this time - it's REALLY BAD." Earlier in the day, he had gone out to fill the washtub in order to clean the chemical mess left on his lab glassware. Thinking of something he needed from the house, he left intending to return in a minute's time. After that, we drove up the road to the neighbours, had a nice chat and cut rhubarb with her. Returning home, I made dinner and dessert while he prepared his rhubarb. I collected Guin from work and then came home. We all ate dinner - etc., etc. How many hours had passed? Apparently, about six...

I sit there in shock. I have no words. I'm not even sure I had emotion. Just ... shock. What can I say? There is nothing to say. Nothing at all. No words will take it back. No words will make it not be. So - I say nothing. I'm not sure who moved first but after a time we are both walking towards the outbuilding room. He opens the door and there it is. A flood was worthy of Noah's Ark. I have the urge to toss a penny and make a wish. Please, please, make it not so! There is probably an inch of water covering the floor of the entire room. At some point, I ask him if our friend, Willow, might have a wet-vac. My husband calls and yes, they do, and yes, come now and get it. Fiona isn't sure it works and wishes us well.

It is a temperamental beast, working for moments at a time and then suddenly sucking for air like some geriatric, emphysemic. I can see my husband becoming more and more frustrated with the machine and on more than one occasion takes to beating it violently with its own metal suction wand. Poor defenseless creature.

Eventually it's time to move the heavy, sodden rugs out. The problem is that the largest of the wool rugs is trapped beneath the legs of a dresser. Easy enough to lift but for the fact that a massive, older TV sits atop the dresser. After an experimental try I realize there is no possible way I can help lift it. Brainstorming, I suggest moving a similar height dresser alongside and simply sliding the TV over. Grabbing something that is in the way, I tell him to wait a moment while I place it out of the way. I turn just in time to see him attempting to lift the TV himself. Slowly it begins falling towards him, grim panic washed across both our faces. I leapt forward and slammed my body into the TV, helping right it again but injuring my back in the process. It is then, this one and only time, I lost my shit and actually yelled at him. "Why don't you listen? You could have fucking hurt yourself!" When he learned of my hurt back he's once again railing on himself about how stupid he is.

1:30 AM we are still dragging wet boxes and bedding, mattresses, clothing and pictures from the room. Between breaths, he loudly proclaims that he must be somewhat retarded to have walked away and forgotten entirely that he had left the water running for over six hours. He also says, with a slight hint of doubt in his voice, that a part of him is hoping that perhaps I will disagree, that he can't go on like this and that he should just give up doing alchemy. I say nothing.

7:30 AM I was up again and started laundering the wet clothing and bedding. I look around - every square inch of bare wall is collaged with drying photos, childhood art, newspaper articles containing my only copies of published work, my own sketches from my high school years and beyond. As much as the experience was a tremendous amount of work, as with everything in life, there were gifts as well. How wonderful to go through all of those memories in the course of a single evening. So many little treasures that I'd forgotten. Yes, there were some losses, but not the end of the world. Hey, I downsized a bit and that's a good thing for most anyone, and especially for me.

And I am both sad and glad. You see, I know how important Alchemy is to him. It isn't simply a hobby - or a passion. It is a connection to spirit - it is his Path - and I know, in time, he will find his feet skipping upon those mercurial trails once again - a more grounded, and focused Alchemist.

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