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The Gunpowder Plotz
by Peter Dabbene

"In the 9th century, Chinese alchemists trying to synthesize an 'elixir of immortality' from saltpeter, sulfur, realgar, and dried honey instead invented gunpowder." (Discover Magazine, November 2006)

What follows is a previously undiscovered account of the aforementioned event, translated from the original Chinese into English (and other languages).

* Disclaimer: May lose some of the original meaning in translation

A cave in rural China, circa 870 A.D. Three robed alchemists crowd around a large cistern...

Alchemist #1: "If in this attempt we do not succeed in creating the Elixir of Immortality, the Emperor will punish us beyond our ability to recognize pain."
Alchemist #2: "Thank you. We can always count on you to clarify the hopelessness of our happiness."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "Do not fear. Have faith in this, the sacred science that turns common metals into precious gold."
Alchemist #2: "Except that it never has. Not once. Ever."
Alchemist #1 "Maybe you need to be a little less rigorous in your evaluations."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #2: "Very well. I'll ignore our long, bitter history of failure and put on a happy and hopeful face."
Alchemist #1: "Cheeky monkey!"*
Alchemist #2: "What's that awful smell?"
Alchemist #1: "Please relax your rigid self. It's just this sulfurous waste I've acquired for the Elixir."
Alchemist #2: "Sulfurous waste?"
Alchemist #1: "All avenues must be explored. There is sulfur in the brew already, but I believe that sulfurous waste is the often overlooked—"
Alchemist #2: "But the smell! Is raging flatulence the price of eternal life?"
Alchemist #1: "No, but the odor of raging flatulence might be."
Alchemist #2: "A high price indeed."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #2: "Lose the sulfurous waste."
Alchemist #1: "If you insist."
Alchemist #2: "I do."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #2: "So what is this you've made, exactly?"
Alchemist #1: "A kind of tea. I call it immor-tally tea. Get it?"
Alchemist #2: "Cute name. It looks disgusting."
Alchemist #1: "Drink it."
Alchemist #2: "It looks vile. You drink it."
Alchemist #1: "No."
Alchemist #2: "I dare you."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "No."
Alchemist #2: "Maybe we can improve its appearance, aroma, and flavor by adding an ingredient."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "It's possible. Which ingredient?"
Alchemist #2: "Hey, I'm strictly big picture. I leave the details to you guys."
Alchemist #1: "I am hesitant to dilute the obvious potency of this concoction."
Alchemist #2: "Why not add something else and see what happens?"
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "You can't just add something else and see what happens! It's random. It's unscientific. It's—"
Alchemist #2: "What we've been doing for the past thirty years?
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "Touché, mon ami."*
Alchemist #2: "We are alchemists. 'Have faith,' you said, in the rigorous discipline that has, for years, futilely attempted to turn lead into gold, sow's ears into silk purses, and homely frogs into handsome princes."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "Very well. More salt Peter?"
Alchemist #2: "My name's not Peter, and I prefer pepper."
Alchemist #1: "Something else, maybe. Bring the crust-honey."
Alchemist #2: "Yes, cuddlecakes."
Alchemist #1: "Did you just call me 'cuddlecakes?' It is extraordinarily unwise to announce your secret, illicit, and punishable affection for me with our companion here as witness."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #2: "It was you who called me 'honey' first."
Alchemist #1: "I meant honey in the strictest sense of the word—namely, the tasty regurgitations of bees—not as an alternate designation for one whom a secret, illicit, and punishable affection is harbored."
Alchemist #2: "Oh."
Alchemist #1: "Perhaps instead of 'Bring the crust-honey,' I should have said 'Bring the dried bee excretions,' despite the unappetizing nature of that description."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #2: "For future reference, that might prevent embarrassing disclosures of secret, illicit, and punishable affection."
Alchemist #1: "It has been noted."
Alchemist #2: "So. Our companion now knows of our secret, illicit, and punishable affection for each other."
Alchemist #1: "Not to worry. After we have perfected the Elixir of Immortality to serve the greater glory of the Emperor, we shall undertake efforts to create a Nectar of Forgetfulness. Upon success, we shall attach a funnel to the mouth of our companion and force him to drink deep until he has forgotten about our awkward revelation."
Alchemist #2: "Or we could simply threaten him."
Alchemist #1: "Yes."
Alchemist #2: "Or make him drink the vile concoction."
Alchemist #1: "Yes."
Alchemist #3: "No."
Alchemist #1: "Drink it!"
Alchemist #2: "Sláinte! Gezondheid! L'chaim!" *
Alchemist #1: "Does it taste awful?"
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "Good. That's how you know it's working."
Alchemist #2: "How was the consistency? Too chunky or too watery?"
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "The crusty honey really makes it."
Alchemist #2: "Do you feel alright?"
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "Do you feel immortal?"
Alchemist #3: "No."
Alchemist #1: "Hmm. Come, let us prepare draughts and saturate our innards with the Elixir of Immortality while our companion undertakes to digest and thereby become immortal."
Alchemist #3: "Yes."
Alchemist #1: "We must also give thought as to how we might test our companion's immortality upon his digestion of the Elixir. For example, we might shoot arrows at him and see if he survives."
Alchemist #3: "No."
Alchemist #2: "Or throw knives."
Alchemist #1: "Or spears."
Alchemist #3: "No."
Alchemist #2: "Or hit him with heavy blunted objects."
Alchemist #1: "Rocks."
Alchemist #2: "Yes."
Alchemist #3: "No."
Alchemist #2: "Or throw him off a cliff."
Alchemist #3: "No."
Alchemist #1: "The possibilities are endless."
Alchemist #2: "I'm only saying."
Alchemist #1: "Before all that, let our companion light another fire. The afternoon grows long and a dark and ominous cold descends upon us all."
Alchemist #3: "Ye—"
Alchemist #2: "Ay caramba!*"
Alchemist #1: "What was that noise? Where did our companion go? And what is this charred, smoking man-sized stain on the ground?"
Alchemist #2: "I believe those are the ashy remains of our companion. This may be difficult to explain to the Emperor."
Alchemist #1:"Apparently, in our quest for the Elixir of Immortality, we have instead discovered the Potion of Loud and Immediate Mortality."
Alchemist #2: "Do you have the document of instruction provided by the Emperor?"
Alchemist #1: "In which he tells us to find the Elixir of Immortality or be punished in a most heinous manner?"
Alchemist #2: "That's the one."
Alchemist #1: "I have it right here."
Alchemist #2: "Let me see it."
Alchemist #1: "Buona fortuna."*
Alchemist #2: "If we... change this character... from the symbol for 'immortality' to the symbol for 'mortality,' we will have fulfilled... our directive appropriately. Voila!"*
Alchemist #1: "Will the Emperor not notice that we have forged upon his handwriting?"
Alchemist #2: "The Emperor is surrounded by the most beautiful concubines in all of China. It is said that he spends most days in a state of sublime exhaustion. So no, I don't think he'll notice."
Alchemist #1: "And will he not care that our companion has been killed by an incredibly dangerous combustible?"
Alchemist #2: "What do you think?"
Alchemist #1: "I think the rewards for meeting the Emperor's demands will be great."
Alchemist #2: "Great enough that maybe we can get out of the alchemy business for good."
Alchemist #1: "We can buy a small domicile in a remote but beautiful area. There we can provide bed, and breakfast, to passing travelers, for a small fee."
Alchemist #2: "We'll indulge them in delightful conversation as well. And we ourselves will finally be able to indulge in not-so-secret affection without fear of reprisal."
Alchemist #1: "So be it. Let us deliver the news to the Emperor and celebrate our good fortune through the expression of secret, illicit, and punishable affection."
Alchemist #2: "What a momentous day. I'm plotzing!*"
Alchemist #1: "The world will never be the same."

About the author:
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton, New Jersey-based writer. His poetry has been featured in
Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Zillah, The Journal of New Jersey Poets, Apple Valley Review, White Leaf Review, California Quarterly, Adagio Verse Quarterly, Ampersand Poetry Journal, Hinge Online, Griffin, BluePrintReview, ByLine, Bogg, Red River Review, and SLAB, and is forthcoming in Rokovoko and Astropoetica . He has also published two story collections, Prime Movements and Glossolalia, as well as a novel, Mister Dreyfus' Demons. Some of his stories can be found online at,, and, in print in US 1, American Drivel Review, North Atlantic Review, Universe Pathways, Riversedge, Writer's Post Journal, Cantaraville, in the music anthology Tribute to Orpheus and recorded in the audiozine Scyweb Bem.

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