Paracelsus is asleep in the alcove when the homunculus finally emerges from its gourd-shaped glass—a tiny, blood-filled form. The creature’s mouth is no bigger than a nail’s head. Its teeth are like granules of sugar. It stands at the edge of the workbench, flushed and silent, peering warily into the chalky recesses of the master’s room. Above the fireplace hangs an accordion bellows, a dark and portentous wing. Iron troughs and copper tubes form a complex city beneath a plaster sky. Snow crusted on the windowsill throws spangled light across the wall. The near translucent homunculus lifts its tiny sliver of a hand, and for a moment, the hand is gloved in light. The creature feels warmth, and it hears its master stirring.
Upon awakening, Paracelsus sees the homunculus on the workbench, and he rises, gathering a sheet around his body. He is startled by the results of his experiment—this shrunken and skinless child. He has never taken a wife. There were men in Germany and then again in the African mines, but nothing remains of those friendships. The alchemist never expected a family, and he wonders if he should dare to call the unlikely thing that stares back at him a son.
We have only the old physician’s fragmentary notes to reconstruct this meeting. “The homunculus has many features of a boy that is born from a woman,” he writes, “but it would be wrong to mistake it for that. The creature comes from me alone. And because of this, it is mine to care for. As I hold it in my arms, it has the air of one who sees the invisible wheels of Heaven. Forty days in the glass cucurbit were clearly enough to give the seed time to agitate. This same number of days was required for Egyptian embalmment. It was forty as well for Christ’s awakening in the wilderness. Forty more when He was entombed. This is a mystical happening—one that I do not think my scientific mind will soon understand.”
In his journal, Paracelsus makes a record of his care. A homunculus must be nourished, he tells us. Human blood is ideal. It fattens and rouges the delicate body. The old man cuts his finger daily and allows the creature to sip the red bead that forms at the base of the incision. The homunculus must be educated as well, though not with books or dictation. The education of a homunculus is best performed in the natural world. If correctly taught, it is foretold by both Ficino and Agrippa that the creature will become a master of nature itself, one who can raise armies of bizarre forms: giants and wood-sprites, worricows and naiads. “Those beings who understand the hidden matters of the Earth,” Paracelsus writes.
Imagine the alchemist tramping through a dark forest at the base of the Swiss Alps. He holds his homunculus gingerly in the crook of his arm. The creature’s pink legs dangle. “Chestnut tree,” the old man says, pointing. “And here—a puddle of rain water.” The water seems to swell and contract as the homunculus observes it. The chestnut tree too looks as if it might burst open and give birth to mysteries that have been long dreaming. When the old alchemist coughs, the creature turns to look at him, gazing out from beneath heavy lids. Paracelsus attempts a smile, revealing stained teeth. “Old man,” Paracelsus says, touching his own breast. “Terrible weak old thing.”
Paracelsus writes that when not being educated, the homunculus should be stored in a cupboard or concealed in some other even darker place. He tells us that he has begun to realize the uneducated homunculus is like an unpolished mirror, the surface of which is distorting but more revealing because of its imperfection. “How many of us have caught glimpses of ourselves in a poor surface of reflection and been taken aback by our own terrible nature? A badly made mirror may not reveal the precise lines of the face, but it can instead show the very essence of a soul. To look at the homunculus, therefore, is to see oneself aslant. The homunculus provides a truer vision.”
The alchemist’s journal is rife with descriptions of evenings spent by the fire, listening to the creature rove about in its locked cabinet. “The homunculus sounds neither frightened nor displeased,” Paracelsus writes. “It merely paces, as I sometimes pace when I am deep in thought. Perhaps, there in the dark, it considers its lessons. Or more likely still, it concerns itself with subjects beyond my own reckoning.”
At times, the alchemist seems to grow weary of considering the homunculus’s secret knowledge. He digresses, writing of his mother in Einsiedeln. She died when he was very young. He placed small red flowers on her grave—Dianthus, gathered from her own garden. The memory of those blossoms reminds him of the homunculus’s own delicate face. “When I hold the creature, it is as though one of mother’s red flowers is staring up at me,” he writes. “I can almost see the gentle curve of the petals and smell the sweetness of those long ago days.”
Paracelsus recalls the priests who taught him the sciences at the stone abbey in Carinthia. He makes a list of their names. Father Brandt was particularly kind, teaching him the specifics of botany and metallurgy. The alchemist wonders what the priest would make of the homunculus locked in the cabinet. Would he perceive it as a product of science or some ethereal body unwisely gathered from the air? Paracelsus goes on to tell us of his journeys in Africa where he worked in the mines, searching for precious metals that could be used in his experiments. He treasured being alone with the men in the darkness, listening to their stories. He remembers coming up out of the throat of the Earth, coughing, hands and face caked in soot. He had to close his eyes against the bright light of the African day.
Finally, Paracelsus writes, “How should we imagine the light on the morning when the homunculus stirs in its cupboard, ready for release, but I myself do not awake? Certainly, that day is coming. I can feel the weight of it in my chest. Will it be the salt colored light of my own dreams that fills the workroom, having escaped from my head? Or will it be a gray light? The dim light of abandonment. How long will the tiny body knock against the cabinet door? Will the homunculus eventually find a voice to call for me? I imagine the pitiful sound spreading into the workroom and then to the city beyond, growing thinner, leaving only a few strangers in the street unsure if they’ve heard anything at all.”