Wilhelm Homberg’s Excreta

New Work

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

(Wilhelm Homberg’s pyrophorus was originally discovered in the process of trying to make an oil that would transmute mercury to silver)

The four young men I hired for the job are magnificent. I supply Gonesse bread, bought each Wednesday and Saturday at market, and wrapped in dampened linen in between to keep the loaves soft. The men may eat nothing else. This is the finest white bread in all Paris—in all the world, I might add. And for drinking, let water not pass their lips. Only champagne. This is the recipe upon which I harvest the finest pyrophorus. I have forgotten the names of my boys, but I have the curve of their torsos to memory. It is true that two of them look alike, and I sometimes mix them up. But when I watch them take exercise each day, I know them. I know the way their muscles undulate. By God, they are strong! And they are singular in their expulsion, too—oh, yes, I witness my boys excrete.

There is joy in the moment of rejection; I have seen the ecstasy waft their dear faces, as push comes to shove. They hand me their spiraling product on the glass plates I have supplied for this, and all through the winter I watch the exhaust plume up and dissipate, as I carry the triumphs of their perfect diet to my laboratory.

“Thank you, Sir,” one of them says to me. And another, “It’s thicker today from yesterday.” The second is clever; if he wasn’t poor he might have made something more of himself (this is a joke, in the event you missed it). The third puts his hand out for bread, and I place my own palm on his naked chest for a moment, so that he understands he must wait, but also for this: I want to feel the warm life pulsing through him. He has grown beautiful—though all of them were already healthy—else why hire them?—and his shit reeks not of corruption but of wheat and sunshine. I let my palm slide a bit, down the pretty line his sternum makes under the skin, and then I turn to the fourth boy. “Aimé,” he reminds me. “My product is delayed this morning.”

“Bring it when you can,” I reply.

The recipe for pyrophorus goes like this: fry the excretum of four excellent men in an iron skillet. I make three trips back and forth from the outhouse to the lab, slide the masses one by one into the pan. The fire is already lively, and the skillet sizzles. I thrust in a handful of alum to get things going. I think of the third boy’s face as he evacuated, and I marvel. I cannot, as a natural philosopher, pretend I am not also moved. He has the lips of a Roman God, with only the faintest trace of hair. When he pushes, his face is compressed in concentration but then, upon success, it opens like a flower. I have clapped once or twice in the past for one or another of them. Sometimes, I grunt in sympathy with them. My children, I call them.

“Sir?”

It is the fourth boy whose name I have already forgotten. He’s in the doorway. Purified by water of the Crould River used in their bread, and by the champagne, of course, too.

“Aimé, sir,” he says, pointing to himself with his free hand. “It’s a gorgeous one,” he adds, offering me his plate. He watches as I let it slide into the skillet, and laughs like a stupid child to hear it make contact.

“Have you exercised?” I say.

He looks disappointed and I remember that this one likes to watch. He does three jumping jacks and a handstand to appease me, and then affects the look of a Basset Hound. So I take the stoppered bottle down. I’ve got so much I’ve been reusing the champagne bottles. I’ve shelves and shelves of polyphorus by now.

“Sit here,” I say, and I place him close, for the spectacular effect. “Are you watching?”

He is nodding and smiling almost continually, waiting, waiting. And so, I pull the great cork from the bottle and, with the fire that leaps from its mouth, draw a square in front of him. “Marvelous, no?” I’m giddy.

“Marvelous,” he says, laughing, his eyes all lit and wonder-filled. And then the strangest thing. He leans in and kisses me on the lips. It’s not a boyish kiss—there is nothing remotely boyish in it. His lips use exactly the right muscle tension, and so it isn’t much for him to slip his tongue along the back of my teeth. “Aimé,” he says when he has finished.

And I am stupid from it. I say, “It’s Wednesday, and I’d better get to market or else they’ll be out of Gonesse, and what will you eat?”

He searches my eyes. I don’t know what for. But already he is laughing again, like he knows something.

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Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer


Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner, as well as the short story collection Way Up. Kathryn’s short fiction has been published in Granta Magazine, The Walrus and Storyville. She is the recipient of The Sidney Prize.