Updated: Apr 26
Near the edge of Huna Village, Oriana lived with her son, Aleph. Their home made of wood from the trees of Forest Vagary stood out like a sore thumb among the brick-and-mortar palaces that Oriana deemed were too great for her to enter. Her late husband built their house with his own hands, but despite the sturdy posts and expertly carved trellises, the village citizens viewed it as nothing more than the home of a widow and her cursed son.
The origin of Aleph’s curse remained unknown to Oriana. All she could find out was that common medicine couldn’t cure it and that Aleph had little time before it seized his entire being.
Born with a stone heart on the same day his father died, Aleph grew up unable to live as one of the other boys in the village. Oriana did her best to protect him from the cruelty and danger of the outside world, but he wanted to make friends, and she only wanted to keep him safe. The more he yearned for the world’s acceptance, the more the curse spread. By the time Aleph was sixteen, it had moved across his entire torso, but he didn’t care. He was sick of hiding in the family shack. He’d rather die as a free man than live as a captive.
Aleph’s unruly heart led him to a group of unrulier boys. They used him as target practice with their bows and arrows, since their iron tips would ricochet off of his chest. Aleph’s curse proved a powerful license to get into trouble. They’d steal from local vendors and then hide behind Aleph like a shield when the guards came after them with spears. The boys struck rocks against Aleph like a flint to start a fire and burn down a neighbor’s chicken coop. And one time, during a full moon, they rolled Aleph down a hill to break through the locked door of the mayor’s home. Nobody stole anything. The boys simply conspired to give their beloved leader a scare. They indeed frightened the mayor, but Aleph was the only one to receive punishment—hours in the stocks until the sun came up.
Oriana hadn’t seen the curse spread as quickly as it did since Aleph started spending time with his friends. A month away from his eighteenth birthday, the stone curse had covered him from the neck down.
After Aleph went to bed one night, Oriana knelt at her windowsill and prayed to the gods to save her son. Bitter tears strolled down her cheeks and into a barren rose bush that stopped producing flowers since the previous spring.
At dawn the next day, an old hag with a dirty apron knocked on Oriana’s front door and woke her. She reached into a basket and extended a yellow blossom. “Might I interest you in a rose?”
Oriana rubbed her eyes and blinked. “Do you work at the flower shop down the road?”
“Heavens, no! I’m not here to sell flowers. But if you have interest, I might be inclined to give you one.” She pushed the rose to Oriana’s face. “Smells quite pretty.”
She shook her head. “This looks like a rose from the bush behind my house.” Fingers wrapped around the thorny stem, she grabbed it and sucked in the scent through her nostrils. “I sure miss them.”
“No need to think about the past. I picked these from that same bush.”
Oriana lifted an eyebrow. “What are you, crazy? That bush has produced nothing since last spring.”
The hag waved her hand. “Come. See for yourself.”
Oriana wasn’t sure if the situation upset her because the crazy woman woke her or that the crazy woman woke her in order to lie and tell senile stories. Regardless, curiosity gripped Oriana more than anger and she followed the hag behind the house. “Bless the gods!” she yelled, jumping. “I promise you this was a barren bush just last night.”
The hag gave a half-smirk and shrugged. “Tears have a way of bringing dead things to life.”
Oriana snapped her eyes toward the hag. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m here with a message for those who have ears to receive it.”
Hand on the hag’s shoulder, Oriana cried. “Please tell me. What is the message?”
“The alchemist sends word.”
Oriana retracted her hand. “You mean the Queen of the Furnace?”
“The one and only,” the hag said, smiling with a fist on her hip.
“Ha! You really are crazy. The Queen is a myth. Everyone knows that.”
“You ever wondered why such a small village as Huna has such luxurious homes?”
Oriana scrunched her eyebrows together. “Don’t tell me it’s because you think the alchemist deposits gold in our coffers once a year. Village elders tell us that story to make us think we’re blessed beyond all the other regions of the world.”
“Is that such a hard thing to believe?”
She stood straight and sighed. “If the Queen is real, why do my son and I still live in poverty? Why is he still cursed? Where’s our share of the coffers?”
As the hag talked, her apron turned to a clean white. “The Queen hears your cries and beckons you to join her.”
Oriana bowed to the ground. “I have tried everything to save Aleph. I traveled long distances, welcomed strange men into my home, and sold every valuable thing I own in search of a cure. Why now?”
The hag’s wrinkles melted away into youth, and a young maiden with silken brown hair stood before Oriana. She lifted Oriana’s chin. “The curse is not for the work of men to cure, but for the work of the furnace.”
Oriana looked up with glassy eyes. “And you can guarantee my son’s healing?”
“I cannot guarantee anything. It’s up to you to decide what to with my information. Information alone will do nothing for your son.”
The mother of the cursed child stood with a new shine on her face. “How do I find the Queen?”
“First, you must convince your son to go with you. The curse will never leave an unwilling host. But make haste. If Aleph has not reached the Queen by his eighteenth birthday, you shall no longer have a son, but a stone statue for your living room.” She then told Oriana the path of how to get to the Queen’s hollow.
Oriana went to hug the maiden, but when she wrapped her arms around her body, the young woman vanished into a cluster of falling rose petals, coating the ground in a blanket of golden yellow.
When Oriana ran into the house to wake up Aleph, he already stood out of bed, staring at himself in a mirror and rubbing his neck with his stone hand. “It’s crawling up my neck.”
“No need to worry, my son. I have news that should make you glad.”
He turned, arm scraping against the mirror and knocking it off the wall. With a stomp, he yelled, “This always happens!”
“Don’t worry about the mirror, Aleph. The heavens have smiled upon us. Bless the gods!”
He picked up the shards of glass, but they broke into smaller pieces in his hands. “What are you going on about?”
“The curse. Your healing is finally upon us.”
Aleph chucked a piece of glass on the ground. “I’m done with your healers and miracle cures. I’ve made peace with what I am. Once the curse finishes its spread, I’ll finally have my release.”
Oriana spent two weeks trying to convince Aleph of the Queen’s ability, and her willingness to break the curse, but he proved too hard-hearted. He wanted to die, to be left alone, to crumble into a pile of dust, sprinkled over the Clear Lake that he always wanted to visit, but never got to see for himself.
After weeks of appealing to Aleph’s logic, Oriana fell at her son’s feet, weeping. “You turn eighteen in a few days. My heart broke on the day of your birth. I lost the love of my life, but I gained a new one. There was nothing I could do to save your father, so I’ve dedicated my life to saving you. If you will not indulge a fool’s errand for your sake, then do it for me. I cannot bear living beyond you without exhausting every path for your healing.”
Aleph had never seen his mother so weak and vulnerable, soaking his stone feet with her tears. Afraid to touch her with his cursed hands, he nodded. “I’ll do as you say.”
They packed for a two-day journey and departed at sundown.
Only Aleph’s face was flesh. The curse spread an inch every couple of hours, which meant they couldn’t waste time. Aleph’s movements became slow and clunky, so Oriana strapped him into a wheelbarrow and pushed it into the woods, running.
She looked for the purple ash tree that the maiden said would be in the middle of the forest. From there, they needed to head due East until they came upon a cluster of boulders. One of them had the picture of a crow etched into the rock. The maiden told Oriana to follow the crows until she came upon a tunnel of dancing foxes.
Once she got to the boulders, Oriana dropped the wheelbarrow and hunched over her knees, panting.
Aleph climbed out. “I can walk.”
“There’s not enough time. Your birthday’s tomorrow. The maiden said if you are not with the Queen by your eighteenth birthday, I’ll be hauling a statue back to the house. That’s not happening. Now help me look for the crow!”
Together, Oriana and Aleph searched the rocks, but despaired after an hour when they were unsuccessful. “Help us!” Oriana cried into the sky, trembling from exhaustion.
“It’s okay, Mother,” Aleph said, extending his hand. “I’ve made peace.”
She took his hand and rubbed the surface. “You can make peace all you want, but the gods are making a way, so let’s find that crow.”
Aleph sighed, turning around. Head sulked, he walked away to take a break. Once he was out of his mother’s eyeshot, he ground his teeth and punched a boulder. The rock on top of it rumbled and fell, revealing an etched crow. “Mother!” he screamed. “I found it!”
She ran to Aleph and kissed his stony forehead. As she searched the area, she found another crow, and then another, and another, until she saw in the distance the cleft of a rock that glowed.
Oriana and Aleph walked to the cleft, which was only big enough to let through one person at a time. When both of them were in, they saw flames skipping between walls of lined torches. “These must be the dancing foxes,” Oriana said, pointing. “Come, let’s see where they lead.”
They traveled down the tunnel for hours; the flames moving in a peculiar pattern, or rather no discernible pattern at all. As long as they kept forward, there was enough light for them to see, but when they stopped to examine, they stood in darkness. With nothing but faith in the word of a shifty hag maiden, they continued their trek. It was too late to go back. They couldn’t find their way even if they wanted to.
At the end of the tunnel, a wooden door stood before them. Hand on the handle, Oriana glanced back at Aleph, “Are you ready?”
With a loud creek, the door swung open. A tall, stalky woman, coated in soot and wearing a leather apron, hurled shovels of iron ore into a blazing furnace. The room reeked of cold steel and the sweet smell of red-hot iron. Piles of onyx, steel, gems, silver, and gold sat like mountains against the walls of the massive square room. Shovelful after shovelful, one material went into the flames and another material came out, but not the expected transformation one might expect under natural law.
When the iron finished its process of magnum opus, it came out as emerald. Sometimes it was steel. Other times it was beryl, but this time was emeralds. They shined with a clarity that would make the kings of the world tremble with awe.
Aleph stood in stunned silence, but Oriana took his hand and dragged him to the alchemist. “Please, Your Highness. We’ve come here a long way. I’ve been told you can save my son.”
The woman took off her goggles and placed the shovel down. “Ah, you must be Oriana. Please, take a seat.” The three of them sat in wooden chairs around a wooden table that had a loaf of bread and a water pitcher. “Would you like some refreshments?” the woman asked, waving her hand across the table.
Oriana shook her head. “I’ve waited almost eighteen years, Your Highness. I’d rather skip the pleasantries and get to the part where I can bring home my son.”
The woman nodded and poured herself a glass of water. “The name is not Your Highness. I go by Gurveer.”
“Are you not a queen?”
“No, no, no. That’s the title your people gave me because they felt I had limitless wealth.”
“Well, don’t you?”
“Not exactly. I am limited to the resources found in this room. I put iron in the furnace and out comes steel. Then I put steel in the fire and out comes silver. I haven’t mastered the art of it all, even after all these years. It seems to have a mind of its own.”
“You can’t control it?”
Gurveer chugged her water and stood. “Heavens, no! I’m a servant to the furnace. Not the other way around. I stumbled upon this place many years ago by accident. The power of the flame beckons me to stay. I neither feed the fire or know how it works. It burns on its own and refuses to submit to me.” She scratched her neck. “I’ve stopped trying to make it do what I want a long time ago.”
Oriana stood to meet Gurveer at eye level. “Then how do you know it will help my son?”
She lifted a couple of fingers. “Two reasons. First, he’s now in the room. Second, he’s made of stone, is he not? Stone seems to react to the transmutation process well.”
“He’s not entirely stone. At least, not yet.”
Gurveer leaned over and studied Aleph with her face close to his. “Yes, it seems he still has his eyes, nose, and mouth.”
“Let’s hurry!” Oriana yelled, pulling Aleph to his feet.
“To be honest,” Gurveer said, “I’m not sure if the fire will do anything. The last person who tried what we are about to do turned into a pile of ash.” She looked at Aleph. “Are you prepared to be a pile of ash?”
“No, he’s not!” shouted Oriana.
Gurveer glanced back and huffed. “I didn’t ask you.” She looked at Aleph again and repeated her question.
“Whether dust or ash, it makes no difference to me,” said Aleph.
“Do you want to live?” asked Gurveer.
“I want my mother to stop worrying.”
“But do you want to live?”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“That’s a suitable answer.” Gurveer pulled Aleph by the hand and directed him to lie on a sheet of steel that slid out from the furnace. “Alchemists call this transformation magnum opus, and it will happen in four stages: decomposition, purification, awakening, and wholeness. Once you reach the last state, you’ll either be a new man or you’ll fall apart. It depends on how strong you are. You cannot rely on your mother’s strength. This process is yours, not hers.”
He looked at his mother, shaking.
Hand on his cheek, Gurveer turned his face and looked into his eyes. “Don’t look at her. She cannot save you. Do you understand me?”
Oriana gnashed her teeth. “You can do it, Aleph.”
“Can you make sure she doesn’t watch,” Aleph said to Gurveer. “I don’t want her to see me turn to ash if something goes wrong.”
“As long your heart is willing, the furnace should be able to break the curse and make you anew. No matter how painful the process, you must push forward. You’ll know you’re finished when you feel the peace that surpasses human understanding. That’s called wholeness.” She put a blindfold on Oriana and muffs over her ears. With her attention back on Aleph, she said, “It’s time. There’s no turning back now.”
She pushed the steel sheet into the furnace, and immediately Aleph’s shadow appeared, hovering over him. The flames turned black as it battled with the shadow. Aleph screamed, the fire confronting the darkest parts of who he was. When the shadow decomposed, it was obvious to Gurveer that there was hope for Aleph.
In the second stage, the flames turned white and Aleph released a shrill of pain, reconciling his dark and light halves. He confronted his darkness, but now he had to submit it to purification. Aleph as the prima material had to be cleansed, his chaos washed away in the flood of blinding light. The flames turn to a dove, vanished into light particles, and Aleph stopped screaming.
Then came the awakening, a dawn of yellow light. It poured into every fiber of Aleph’s cells, electrifying the sleeping atoms with shocks of revelation. He glowed with the burn of a star and continued to shine until new life bathed every crevice of his soul.
The light subsided, and all that remained was red-hot flesh, blood coursing through Aleph’s veins. In the furnace, Aleph became one—spirit, soul, and body. When Gurveer pulled him out, he was naked and beautiful.
She pulled off Oriana’s blindfold and earmuffs, reintroducing her to her son.
A crack echoed from inside Oriana’s chest. Hand over her heart, she wept and screamed. “Thank you, Gurveer!”
“Don’t thank me,” she said, pointing to the flame. “Thank the power of the furnace. Only it has the power to transform. I merely serve at its pleasure.” She handed Oriana a yellow rose and winked. “I’m sure its power goes beyond this room, but I like to be where the fire burns the hottest.” As Oriana and Aleph were about to walk out the same way they came, Gurveer pointed to a door beyond the furnace. “You can never go back. You can only go forward.”
Oriana gave Gurveer a hug. Aleph shook her hand. Together, they opened the door and walked through; the portal leading them into their home. They never saw Gurveer or the furnace ever again.
When later asked what kept him from giving up, Aleph said, “I had to change for myself. I couldn’t change for my mother, for my friends, or for my dead father. I had to change for me.” He realized in the heat of the furnace’s flames that he wanted more for his life than dying as a free man. He wanted to live as one, too.
Oriana treated him differently because she experienced a transformation as well. She discerned that when her husband died, her heart turned to stone, so when Aleph was born, he inherited her curse. It never spread for her because of the love she had as a mother. Obsessed with keeping Aleph safe, she never saw that she treated him as a possession, a fragile treasure to be hidden away. After the furnace, she saw her son for the first time since he was born. It filled her with joy, but it also broke her. The furnace destroyed the curse of the stone heart, and it didn’t return from that day forward for either of them.