the oracle of his ashes ft

The Oracle of His Ashes

by Gregory Nortminton

In the dreaming spires of Oxford, a professor finds an ancient incantation, given by a witch to the last pagan king of Mercia...

It is incumbent on me to assert at the outset that I struggle to believe what follows. By this, I mean that I am resistant to the likely conclusion of the common reader that this is an account of supernatural phenomena. The personality, being located in the nervous system, cannot survive death, and though we remember the past and anticipate the future, time, insofar as we are subjected to it, is a constant and impermeable present. My late friend and colleague, Professor W—, whose story I feel compelled to record, accepted these propositions; yet he was devoted to the principle of open-mindedness. Humani nil a me alienum puto. Since it was my honour and misfortune to attend on him in his final hours, it is also incumbent on me to set down what Professor W— claimed to have experienced prior to his collapse. I am not a physician, and cannot expound theories about hallucinatory spasms that afflict the brain before a cerebral accident. It may be that neurological explanations suffice to make sense of everything. I can only set down, in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, the testimony as I received it of my unfortunate and much lamented friend.

*

It was the eighth week of Trinity, the Long Vacation almost upon us, and though undergraduates wore a distracted and sometimes antic air as they patrolled the sunlit quad, the spirit of intellectual inquiry persisted among the dons.

On the evening in question, we had gathered as usual at High Table, each summoned from his solitary efforts by the prospect of company and claret. To my left, Dr H— was berating a Politics Fellow for his dismissal of the threat posed by the Kaiser. Upon my right sat Professor W—, who seemed in good spirits. I asked him what he was working on. ‘Mysteries,’ he muttered. ‘Portents and sibyls. The future… Fate…’

Those who had the good fortune of being taught, or befriended, by Professor W— will recognise his parlance: the shorthand, not without poetical fancy, of a mind that moved too swiftly to suffer the encumbrance of syntax. He had spoken this way as long as I had known him, which is to say over forty years, ever since we used to slope off to the Dewdrop in Summertown to read towards Greats and escape the company of college sportsmen. I wonder if I have ever known as clever a fellow: intellectual capacity discharged, like electricity, through his twitching fingertips and the shimmering, fascinated dart of his pale blue eyes. With a different temperament, or a worldlier disposition, he might have achieved greatness of one sort or another. Alas, a love of letters, and a cast of mind that inclined him to the abstruse, doomed him to the life of a scholar. It suited him, as once it suited me, and he attained to eminence in his field. We participated in the founding of the English Faculty, I devoting myself to the Seventeenth Century, and Professor W— to the ancestral languages of northern Europe. If any sense can be made, today, of Ogham script or Nordic runes, my friend played a part in the elucidation.

Dr H— had overheard us. ‘The future and fate, you say. Have you made some discovery that will shake the world?’

‘Of a philologist perhaps.’ Professor W— lowered his spectacles and breathed on them, wiping away the fog with the hem of his gown. ‘A few weeks ago,’ he said, ‘I was burrowing through the manuscripts bequeathed by Humphrey, first Duke of Gloucester. His books were catalogued centuries ago, so how it should have got there and lain hidden, I cannot imagine. It is a very ancient document. Only five pages in length. As is the way with such material, the author had not thought to give it a title. The text is for the most part in Latin and Old English—Mercian, to be precise. However, these passages serve only as preface and afterword to the significant part. And this nub or kernel. Is not. So easily. Interpreted.’

He trailed off, wandering down some avenue of thought, and Dr H— and I leaned in to await his return. Professor W— emerged, blinking, from his reverie, and finding himself at the centre of a tightening knot of attention, resumed his account.

‘I began to suspect the nature of what I had discovered. The script, you see, is cursive minuscule. This dates it to the eighth or ninth centuries, and denotes non-liturgical subject matter. It is not a holy text. Nor even, by any stretch of the imagination, Christian.’ My old friend noted the unslaked curiosity in our faces, and added, with a look of triumph: ‘I believe my discovery to be nothing less than the Codex Augurius.’

There was a pause, after which Dr H— spoke for me. ‘You’ll have to enlighten us. This codex—what is it, exactly?’

‘A text long thought lost. Possibly spurious. One of those curiosities that antiquarians dream of.’

‘Some sort of treatise?’

‘No, something altogether more intriguing. We know from an inscription that it is the work of one Wulfred, a monk—the transcriber or custodian of, shall we say, uncanny knowledge. You see, at the heart of the text, after an account of its historical provenance, there is a cryptogram. This, Wulfred informs us, is a… how shall I put this? A magical incantation, locked within a cipher to protect the reader from harm. Wulfred claims that a cunning woman gave this incantation to King Penda—the last pagan ruler of Mercia.’

‘You mean to say that you’ve stumbled on some sort of spell?’

‘That sounds fanciful.’

‘And this Panda,’ said Dr H—, ‘what was he after?’

‘Oh, the power of augury. The same assurances sought of the Sibyl at Cumae. Like many rulers, before and since, Penda needed to know the outcome of a forthcoming battle. He uttered the formula—an auspice was granted—two days later, at Maserfield, he slaughtered Oswald of Northumbria. It made him the most powerful man in what was to become England. However, it cost him dear. His brother, Eowa, was slain in the battle. The monk Wulfred is categorical on the subject: the price of the knowledge on offer cannot be known until the instant when it must be paid.’

‘And you are the first, the very first, to discover this antique nonsense?’

‘To rediscover. It is the confirmation of a very old rumour. Sir Thomas Browne knew of the Codex Augurium. He writes of it in his “Upon Divination.”’ Here, my learned friend revealed the capaciousness of his memory, for he was able to recite a passage that I have had to look up. ‘“Tradition gives to the Code, and to him that deciphers it, the Gift or, as some aver, the Curse, of Foresight. The Future is as an Horizon obscured behind the Hill of the Present; yet he that speaks the Words acquires the Powers of a Cassandra.”’

‘This Browne,’ said Dr H— ‘has a rum turn of phrase. And what became of this Wulfred?’

‘According to Sir Thomas, he went mad. Hanged himself in the scriptorium. Though this too seems Fanciful, the Law being fixed against Self-Slaughter and no cleric, however afflicted by Melancholy, liable to bequeath the Immortal Part of himself to the Flames.’

I could not help marvelling at my old friend. I had never seen him so animated, like a man of science poised to discover an iron law of the universe. ‘Do you believe it?’ I asked.

‘Does it matter? I have an appetite, as you know, for puzzles. Codes and ciphers.’

‘I shouldn’t want the power to see into the future,’ said Dr H—. ‘Not if I were powerless to avert what I saw.’

Professor W— smiled. ‘We are not unique in our fascination with the passage of time. Archaeology may be a relatively new discipline, yet the bones we contemplate were thinking and sensible flesh, prone as ours is to contemplate what went before, or what is to come. The Anglo-Saxon has a word for it: dustsceawung. The tribes settled in Britain and found the work of giants, as it seemed to them. Reminders everywhere of a lost civilisation. When your homes are of wattle and daub, and you step through the ruins of Roman Bath, is it any wonder that “contemplation of the dust” should become a poetical theme?’

Here my friend’s antiquarian interests and my own love of melancholy verses combined. I cleared my throat and recited:

‘Were beth they biforen us weren,

Houndes laden and hauekes beren,

And hadden feld and wode?’

A silence fell across our portion of the table, and Dr H— broke it, scraping his chair against the floor. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘in contemplation of dust I must leave you.’

This appeared to spur Professor W—, for he too was rising, muttering his apologies and blinking at the candlelight that pooled in his spectacles. ‘I am on the cusp,’ he said, bowing so that I alone should hear him. ‘The Codex Augurius awaits.’

‘You sound as if you were going on a quest.’

‘To the Faculty Library.’ Professor W— rapped a farewell tattoo on the gleaming dark wood of the table, and bade me, with a nod, farewell.

It was to prove our last meeting before disaster overtook him.

*

Upon leaving High Table, he went to collect his papers from his office in college. He bade good evening to James, the porter, and passing under the sandstone portico beneath which he was never to pass again, turned left onto St Giles.

The evening was still light and warm; only the fumes from a motorcar, and its mechanical roar, disturbed a scene that might have been familiar to William Tyndale: the eternal Oxford of the imagination, which is not wholly illusory even today.

What was on his mind as went his familiar way? Was he thinking of the enigma in his briefcase, or did more domestic concerns accompany him: that conference between conscience and intellect that continues under every man’s hat as his body attends to the business of motion? I know that paternal worry afflicted my colleague. His daughter, Evie, gave little cause for concern: she was diligent at school and sufficiently attractive to find herself a husband when the time came. His son, on the other hand, was given over to idleness: a charming, feckless youth. Professor W— passed in front of the new buildings on Magdalene Street, where Taphouses used to stand and where young Henry W— had learned to play the banjo. The lad had almost wept to see the shop close, only for the cinema to replace music in his affections. He would learn nothing at the Electra Palace.

‘I’m not made for books, Pater. I’m a chap of action.’

‘Is sitting in the dark watching pictures “action?”’

Professor W— had relayed these conversations to me more than once, and I can imagine him, as he turned into Broad Street, berating himself for his indulgence of the boy; hardly a boy now, a young man. Perhaps it was a relief to turn his mind to the work that awaited him.

The cipher was a simple one, given its antiquity, though the fragments of words so far revealed belonged to no language that he knew. It was possible that they were phonetic transcriptions of words that were equally mysterious to the first speaker: Sanskrit perhaps. Was the incantation as ancient as that? Evidence of cultural transmission, via the Druids, from the Aryan heartlands to Dark Age Britain? Doubtless, in the mind and practices of that cunning woman long ago, there had survived superstitions that predated the Anglo-Saxons; predated, even, the Claudian conquest. It is human nature to seek good luck—hál, in Old English—and to devise rituals in pursuit of it: scrying the crystal, casting the runes, consulting the horoscope, all to keep the darkness of the unknown at bay.

It can be difficult to believe in darkness of a bright evening in June, when Oxford stone retains the warmth and luminosity of the day. Professor W— sent his gaze strolling amongst the venerable buildings; he nodded at the philosophical heads guarding the Sheldonian. A student, half-cut and reckless, mounted the pavement with his bicycle, forcing my friend to step into the road. Having berated the youth, he approached the English Faculty Library. Given the hours at which he often worked, my friend was one of the few entrusted with a key. He let himself in, shutting out the life of the city, and established himself at his table.

Owing to the venerable prohibition on lending books (even the first King Charles was refused permission to borrow from the Bodleian), my friend had transcribed the entirety of the Codex, and it was from his notes that he was working that evening.

I was to see that transcription only briefly, its jottings and marginalia quite beyond my powers of comprehension. They are gone forever, so that, for the purposes of this account, I have had to consult the original document, disinterred for me by one of the librarians at Selden End.

It is a strange and melancholy experience, visiting the Bodleian today. There all looks as it ever did, while the rest of University is suspended—the Examinations School a hospital, our college gardens occupied by tented wards. Even my study at home is no refuge, my wife having turned it over to the Belgian family that she insisted on taking in last year.

The librarian has brought me a shabby document, which I consult with trembling hands, abstracted from the celebrated oak ceiling and the immemorial tomes on their ancient shelves. Oxford no longer exists: I find myself in a Dark Age scriptorium.

The boards of the Codex Augurium are of birchwood, the flax threads long ago decayed that bound the few pages. The binding of goatskin leather is stained the colour of dried blood. I have looked for many minutes at the tight, stylised script: the passages in ecclesiastic Latin, those in Old English, and above all, that nonsensical jumble of letter that constitutes the cipher. Professor W— had transcribed every word, every letter. Two years ago, he sat down with the transcription that I was to burn on the morrow at his request.

I wish you to picture him alone, bathed in the glow from a single reading lamp. Professor W— was not susceptible to what novelists and housewives call ‘atmosphere.’ The quiet was conducive to no ghostly imaginings. For two hours, while gradually on Broad Street the light faded, he taxed his wits and covered many sides of paper to break the seal on Penda’s formula.

We have all experienced that transition from head-bowed absorption in written work to the upright, blinking awareness that time has passed and the world outside our minds has continued without us. Professor W— perceived that it was night; the murmur from the street had dwindled to the occasional shout. His neck ached, for he had kept his head and shoulders in a state of tension matching the intensity of his thought. He gaped and shut his mouth in the manner of a fish, as with amusement I had seen him do many times, to relieve the pressure on his jaw. He glanced down at the few letters in the cipher whose correspondents continued to elude him, and as in a dream of revelation, they yielded up their mystery. He jotted down his surmise; tested it against what he knew of the system, and once he had considered, measured and interrogated everything to his satisfaction, he wrote out, in full, a phonetic transcription of the formula.

Did he enjoy a feeling of triumph? I, that cannot master The Times crossword, have only an inkling of the satisfaction that may have accompanied his achievement. Yet what had he accomplished? Passed from witch to Penda, from Penda’s thane or bard to minds unknown and from their mouths to the inky quill of a scribe, the formula was gibberish. It corresponded to no language that has survived. Yet his suspicions that it might be related to Sanskrit, and that the mishearing and mispronunciation of centuries had warped the vowels and consonants, led him, even at that late hour, to continue his pursuit. He would have to go home, he thought, and consult his Monier-Williams. Was it likely that a copy might exist on a shelf in the Faculty?

He stood up, and his shadow awoke in the lamplight. Now it preceded him, passing over the spines of books; now it kept obediently at his side, or crept up behind him. There was no sound save his footsteps. He searched in vain; hesitated in a mullioned square of moonlight; returned to his papers on the table. Seated once more, he contemplated what he had deciphered. He would go on the morrow to Arthur Macdonell, the Boden Professor of Sanskrit. If Macdonell concluded that the text was a corruption of his ancient language, he more than anyone would relish the discovery, and all that it revealed of mystical lore and cultural transmission.

Professor W— contemplated the decoded incantation. He felt the sounds well up behind his teeth; his tongue and lips longed to mouth it. He felt, as a kind of heat in the stomach, an appetite, a restive inner quaking, to break the silence. Ours is a generation conditioned to recitation; indeed, it is to rob poetry of its vital element to confine it to the mind’s vacuum. My friend could resist the impulse no longer. His voice cracking at first, then gaining in strength, he spoke aloud the verses.

He felt much the way he imagined an archaeologist might feel upon opening a burial chamber and being the first to breathe air that had been sealed up for centuries. There was no shudder of apprehension, no intimation of a boundary unwisely crossed, only a sense, vague and autosuggested, of trespass. He came, without a stumble in his delivery, to the end of Penda’s incantation… and nothing happened. There was no revelation, no vision. He had anticipated, at least, the jolt of pleasure one feels upon resolving a riddle.

Perhaps he was overwrought; it was late, approaching midnight, and he had strained his faculties. He gathered up his papers, and looked about the reading room, as he was wont to do upon retiring from a place, to ensure that he did not leave a coat or his umbrella.

He turned off the reading lamp, walked to the front door and let himself out.

The fatigue that had descended on him in the library lifted with his first breath of air. The night was mild, the sky dark save for patches of purple cloud. The moon was out—a poet’s moon, full and bright—and he cast a shadow as he launched into the deserted Broad. Revelry continued, no doubt, in college rooms or quads: dunkings in fountains, fugs of tobacco smoke, high spirits and low japes. He was glad to avoid it, and as he crossed the street towards the front of Balliol, only his footsteps sounded in his ears. He felt the stirrings in his blood of the sleep that awaited him, and thought back to his recitation in the Faculty library. How foolish he had been, even for a moment and half deliberately, to entertain the workings of fancy. Yet Penda had believed in the magic; so too the scribe, who had gone to such pains to contain it. It was possible, he supposed, that Wulfred had belonged to the great scriptorium at Wearmouth Jarrow, before the depredations of the Danes. Had he, too, uttered the incantation? It is possible for autosuggestion to overthrow a troubled mind, and doubtless the legend had fallen on fertile soil, for the Anglo-Saxon imagination was haunted, murk dwelling, a place of monsters. Yet, Professor W— asked himself, struggling to supress a shudder down his spine, what if, after speaking the formula aloud, Wulfred truly had seen the future? Might he have found himself, all of a sudden, in the roofless shell of his scriptorium, surrounded by the hacked bodies of his brothers, the awful aftermath of a Viking raid? Could he have seen his books, the priceless treasures of godly scholarship—all that he had devoted his life to—torn and dishonoured, as they would be a century after his time?

My friend dismissed these notions. He attended to the moonlit scene before him, noticing that his briefcase felt heavier the longer he carried it. He turned up Magdalene Street, past the Martyrs Memorial. The tree-lined sweep of St Giles was empty of traffic. St John’s and the Ashmolean were locked for the night. He walked under the quietly murmuring trees. Only one other was abroad. He had noticed a figure silhouetted against the lights of the Randolph Hotel, and thinking nothing of it, had continued on his way.

At the level of Blackfriars, Professor W— sensed that the man was behind him. He expected the stranger to catch up with and then overtake him, for my friend was no longer spritely. Yet the other kept a slow, steady pace in time with his own. By ear, Professor W— made sense of that slowness; for the man dragged one of his feet. His shoe, or rather, by the sound of it, one of his boots, raked along the pavement.

The fellow was lame; there was nothing sinister about that. Even so, my friend upped his pace a little, until he reached the church of St Giles and that prow of graveyard that cleaves the thoroughfare in two. He crossed the Woodstock Road, hoping that the man and his unpleasant limp would continue on the other side. Yet the footstep and its rasping afterthought pursued him across the road.

It was at this moment that Professor W— turned around.

The stranger was indeed crippled, yet appeared not to know it. For his leg was horribly awry, as if he had suffered an industrial accident and only adrenaline or drink kept him from cognisance of the fact.

‘I say—are you all right? Do you need help?’

The words had rushed out of Professor W— and he had failed to keep the fright out of them. He expected some signal from the stranger, a wave of dismissal or reassurance; even, ideally, a drunken oath. Instead, the injured man continued across the road, pulling his ruined limb behind him. When he reached the pavement, he stopped. His face was obscure beneath the brim of his hat. The leg hung, senseless meat, from his hip.

Professor W— stared. Then horror gained the upper hand; he turned and, terrified as of some ancient malignancy, began to run.

For half a mile, he heard only his footfalls and the rasping of his breath; felt only the pain in his chest and the burning of his body. There was a kind of relief in motion, for it clouded the analytical mind, that scholar in every brain that insists on making sense of the inexplicable. At last, familiar streets asserted themselves. His lungs were on fire; he had to slow his pace, or he was in danger of doing himself an injury. He turned right down his home street, among the decorous, sober houses of our fellow academics. Professor W— leaned on the gate to his front garden, panting to catch his breath.

The cripple was gone. His neighbours slept wisely in their beds, and only he was abroad, frightening himself with his imagination.

Professor W— paused a while on the cinder path. A bank of cloud engulfed the moon. The front garden was dark, the house darker yet. He realised that he had dropped his briefcase and went in search of it. Having found it on the lawn, he righted himself, approached the front door and felt inside his waistcoat for the key. As he did so, the cloud shifted and moonlight drenched the garden. In the stained-glass window of the door, he could see his own reflection. Someone was standing behind him.

‘Henry?’

His son appeared to sway faintly. Had he been out drinking? Professor W— was about to bark at the lad when he saw, in the moon glow, that this version of his son sported a moustache. He held a peaked cap in his hand; beyond the cap, his mangled right leg jutted out from its socket.

The ground lost its firmness. There was a hammering as of great guns, and cracking his forehead on the cinder path, my friend disappeared from himself.

*

Several hours later, I was roused from sleep by our maid, who informed me that Professor W—’s servant was at the door. The young man insisted that I accompany him to his master’s house. He was reluctant to explain this extraordinary summons, though I could tell from his harried expression that the case was urgent.

The two of us walked as rapidly as I could manage, and arrived at my friend’s bedside shortly before nine.

The doctor had come to bandage his wound and to make him comfortable, yet though he could not writhe such was the damage wrought by the stroke, his distress was evident. His eyes, marooned in that stricken body, stared at me, vatic and imploring. Shocked at what I found, yet determined to remain calm, I sought words of reassurance, but he chased these away with his functioning hand and beckoned me nearer, so that I might hear what he had to tell me.

I have attempted to reconstruct both what I heard from my poor friend and what I can surmise from the gaps and inconsistencies in his account. It was painful and laborious for him to deliver. When, at last, he had finished, he begged me to share none of what he had said with his wife or daughter, but to warn his son, whose presence—on the one occasion that Henry attempted to enter the room—caused my friend great distress. I hardly know what I said to reassure the young man. Henry withdrew, and gradually his father calmed sufficiently to ask that I burn his handwritten copy of the Codex Augurium. This I did, not without qualms, in the hope that it might bring him some degree of comfort.

I wonder, now, if I ought not to burn the Codex itself.

I wrote earlier, of my friend’s stroke, that he had disappeared from himself, but this is not entirely true. He had lost consciousness, as we understand the term, yet he had not been granted the relief of unknowing. Visions or hallucinations assailed him, the nature of which, for reasons other than his physical condition, he could not bring himself to describe to me.

His attention faltered, and a terrible lassitude stole over him. He was almost asleep, and I had to lean in close to his pillow to receive the last words I was to hear him speak. I cannot be certain that I heard correctly. It sounded like, ‘Victory—at what cost?’

That night, shortly before ten, Professor W— suffered a second and fatal stroke.

Two years have passed, and I think often of that evening at High Table. Dr H— had been right to fear foreknowledge. We all live under a sentence of death, the date and time of which are withheld from us. Sir Thomas Browne had observed that ‘no man can be the oracle of his ashes,’ and it is as well for the sake of our sanity. How much worse, then, for the mind, to foresee the fate of those we love?

Could I—whom my friend entrusted with his testimony; who became, after his death, its sole custodian—have acted differently? Should I have shared with the son the details of what had befallen his father? I chose not to, telling myself that this would have added unnecessarily to his grief. I persuaded myself that what I had heard was the terminal infirmity of a shattered mind. Yet was it loyalty, on my part, to my late friend’s memory, or cowardice, that kept me from revealing what I am, today, and far too late, consigning to paper? The question will haunt me to my own grave. For I understand that the power granted, centuries ago, to a pagan king of Mercia, was granted again, and on similar terms, to Professor W—.

The news arrived this morning from Grace his widow that Henry, whilst leading his men with great valour, fell before the guns at Mametz Wood, in the Valley of the Somme.

Gregory Norminton

Gregory Norminton was born in Berkshire in 1976. He is the author of five novels, most recently The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate), as well as two collections of short stories and a book of aphorism. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and lives in Sheffield.

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

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