A Cure for Winter

March 22

I don’t feel real enough to know where my body belongs in space, but I am just real enough to injure myself in the most unlikely ways. Seeking healing, I go to the Deutsche Apotheken-Museum (the German Apothecary Museum), an esoteric exhibition in the whitewashed cellars of Heidelberg’s palace. The museum is the architectural offspring of a dungeon and a chapel, with walls five meters thick and vaulted ceilings. Here I find my elixir, a tincture called order, one sip and I feel sane and safe again. I am more at home here than in my own kitchen.

In this subterranean kingdom of wooden cabinets and glass cases, weights and measures, mortars, pestles, and mills, there is no such thing as uncertainty. The scales come in every size from birdbath to brandy glass—nothing can escape quantification. Remedies and raw ingredients come in ceramic jars, pots, and urns, in glass bottles, flasks, and phials, all hand-labeled and zealously alphabetized. Alphabetization is my favorite flavor of therapy. The largest jars could hold human skulls; the smallest are the size of a slim cigarette. Like slick penny candy, the glass bottles come in toothsome colors: lemondrop yellow, green apple, caramel, and blueberry. Their labels promise a cornucopia of nineteenth century panaceas, from the most fanciful to the most fatal, from narwhal horn to arsenic.

From her treasure troves, the Apothecaire could measure out medicine from the three regna naturae: Vegetabilia, Animalia, and Mineralia. The Cure came in oils, extracts, acids, spirits, collodions, unguents, liniments, tinctures, gums, fungi, roots, herbs, elixirs, extracts, syrups, and sugars. Here you could fill your prescription for absinthe, anise, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, Peruvian balsam, angelica, calendula, calamine, crocus, aloe, primrose, peony, saffron, arnica, salvia, lavender, rosemary, mums, malvas vulgaris, hellebore, hyssop, valerian, vulneralia, morphine, laudanum, liquid vervinus, ipecac, sassafras, elderflower, juniper, chloroform, ammonia, zinc, arsenic, antimony, amber, turpentine, mercury, sulfuric acid, and aqua Saturn.

For more arcane ailments, a pharmakon could be found in the Alchemist’s laboratory. Here the shelves gleam with test tubes, alembics, flagons, and Bunsen burners. Ranks of hourglasses count the glistening hours. Light catches in the swollen sphere of the alembic, soon to be distilled into pure lumens. Bottled and sealed in wax, the light will be sold as a cure for winter.

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