A tale of a dusty old professor and his new student.
I think it must have been my sheer cussedness that made me opt for Antiquities as my major at college. Until I found the subject in one of the many less frequented back streets of the university prospectus, I had no idea that it existed. Even then, the meaning of the term was a little vague in my mind, but I figured it would become clearer in time. It seemed unlikely that the study of antiquities would approach anywhere near the category of onerous and so it fitted my requirements perfectly.
There, in the underpopulated backwoods of a forgotten discipline, I could pass myself off as a genuine student of noble ambition, a true acolyte of the academic virtues. And that should give me plenty of time for parties, drunken revels and adolescent horseplay that was the true intent of my time at college.
Truth to tell, had I pursued my original goal with more fervour and dedication, Antiquities would have been the ideal camouflage, it being laden with free periods for the student’s own discretion, and so far out of the way of such things as examinations that drifting would have been the best way to sail through the course with flying colours.
But that was reckoning without the singular character of Woden Pie. Having established that he was the sitting professor of the discipline, I searched for him on that first day, delving ever deeper into the furthest and dustiest entrails of the ancient and rambling college building. I have since wondered often whether it was by chance or some hidden design that I met ultimately with success in my quest for his rooms. Certainly, I found his door without having to enquire of its whereabouts, as though I were drawn by some unknown power through the labyrinth that preceded it.
The light was gloomy in the dark corner that housed the insignificant door. There were two notices attached to its facade but these were obscured by cobwebs so that, at first, I could not decipher them. When I brushed away the webs, the message became clear.
Prof. Woden Pie
Department of Antiquities
So the signs proclaimed. I knocked hesitantly.
There was no result and it was several minutes before I dared to repeat the exercise, this time with a lot more force and, I reasoned, the greater likelihood of being heard. The door responded with deep, booming noises for each rap upon it and these seemed to echo into a vast space beyond it.
Still there remained only silence as a response to my efforts. Even more time passed before I summoned the courage to try the door handle.
In the time since I had arrived at the door, a growing sense of unease had settled upon me and I had become aware of the impertinence of my plans to use such an ancient and esteemed discipline as a passport to my frivolous intent. As unassuming was this little door at the end of my search, it yet possessed an aura of great learning, as though the mysteries it hid were not for the likes of me. The resounding noises of my enquiries only served to increase this feeling of my own effrontery and I had to muster my will before I could try the door.
The handle turned easily in my hand.
Aware that this was the moment for decision, I pushed the door open a little and moved to peer around it into the room. It was as huge as the echoing noise of my knocking had suggested. It was rather gloomy so that it was hard to see detail, but I was conscious of a space so tall that the ceiling was swallowed in deep and impenetrable darkness. The walls seemed to be made of books that marched in orderly rows on all sides. The dim shapes of ladders could be seen, each wall supplied with one that could be moved on rollers for access to the volumes beyond reach in the heights. At the far wall, barely visible in the shadows, there appeared to be a desk dwarfed by the vastness around it.
The room appeared unoccupied but I ventured a quiet word.
“Hello?” I called and my voice issued in a hoarse squeak reflective of my ever increasing awe and unease. There was no response so I steeled myself for a more powerful effort.
“Hello? Is there anybody there?” This time my voice was strong enough to raise a few echoes in the chamber. As they died down, a quiet voice responded, apparently from the direction of the desk.
“Come in, boy, come in. Don’t hang around there like an incipient bout of the ague. You’re letting in a dreadful draught.”
My eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness and I could now see that there was a lighter shape hovering above the desk, perhaps the face of someone seated behind it. I entered the room, closed the door behind me,.and began the long walk to the far wall. My footsteps echoed off into the distance.
As I neared the desk, it became clear that the shape behind the desk did indeed belong to a person. The brightness was caused by the exploding halo of white hair around his head. It seemed he belonged to the same school of hair styling as did Albert Einstein. The face at the centre of this explosion was considerably more wrinkled than Einstein’s, however, and was less rounded, being long and thin with sunken cheeks. Beneath the overgrown eyebrows, a pair of grey eyes regarded me without expression. His neck, seemingly consisting mainly of stretched and fleshless tendons, disappeared into an unbuttoned white shirt and a threadbare tweed jacket.
I halted a short distance before the desk and stood, waiting for further instructions. He gestured with a pale and bony hand. “Take a seat, young man.’
I sat down in the only chair visible in front of the desk. It was comfortable enough, being well padded and having arms, but it meant that my head was now below the level of his. It seemed that, even in Antiquities, it was known how to provide the resident with an edge over any visitors.
He continued. “My name is Woden Pie and I am the professor of Antiquities. What may I do for you?”
“Well, I was hoping to pursue a course of studies in the discipline of Antiquities. Presumably, you have to decide whether I am suitable for such a task.”
“And your name is?” he asked, leaning forward so that his face was a little closer to mine.
“Greesham Warnock,” I answered.
“Then I have all the information I need.” He relaxed back into his chair and smiled. “It is many a long year since the Antiquities Department had a student at all. There were times when I thought that the modern world no longer had need for our particular brand of wisdom and that never again would a bright and eager young student enter these musty halls. Oh yes, you are certainly most welcome, young Warnock. Indeed, you seem well beyond the calibre that I had resigned myself as willing to accept.”
Unsure whether this was a compliment or an insult, I mumbled my thanks.
He rose now and stretched out his arms to indicate the entire chamber in which we stood. “To begin our introductory tour, this is what we call the library.” He began to walk around the walls, gesturing with his arms and hands, pointing out the most imposing and important books, while giving a detailed discourse on the ancient wisdom stored in this room.
“Here we have treatises on the ancient art of alchemy. You will, of course, have heard of the medieval pursuit of the unlikely goal of turning lead into gold, a greed-driven intent, if ever I heard of one. But these are much older than that, being antiquarian. Their subject is what would probably be called magic today and they pronounce upon physical and supernatural laws beyond the ken of mere scientists. These are no recipe books for turning one thing into another, playthings of the materially-minded; they speak of the reality behind what we see, hear and feel, the ancient laws governing the beginning of time.
“Now here, in this section, we have collected the thoughts of sages before the dawn of history. These enlightening books contain not lists of laws and rules, but reflections on life and its meaning. The subject is called ethics because it reaches beyond mere measurements and deals with matters so deep that they move us even now, although we are not aware of them.
“In this corner we have an extensive library of discourses on the subject of war. Not Sun Tzu, as you are probably thinking, but earlier generals and warlords who were wrestling with the harshest questions in the very dawn of strategic thinking. Their discoveries and maxims are as relevant to daily life as they are to warfare.”
So we made a complete circumnavigation of the library and my understanding of Antiquities grew with every step. It seemed that I would have less free time than I had expected, if I were to absorb even a tenth of the wisdom resident in these ancient tomes but, to my surprise, I found myself being drawn into a sort of fascination with both the discipline and its aged exponent, Woden Pie. He made everything seem so mysterious and yet brimming with forgotten knowledge so that I could not help but desire to know more.
Professor Pie, who had begun the tour with back bent and eyes unable to rise to the highest levels of books, slowed down as we neared his desk again. Clearly exhausted by the physical effort, he hobbled to his chair and sank into it with a sigh. It was a while before he could speak again. I stood waiting while he recovered. Eventually, he looked up at me again.
“Well, that is the library and it’s as much as I have the stamina to show you today. The other rooms will have to wait until tomorrow and later.”
“There are other rooms?” I was astounded at the extent of the department even without the knowledge of more rooms.
“Oh, yes,” he answered. “We have rooms for storage of artefacts, for writing of our own observations and conclusions, for display of our greatest treasures. And then there are our living rooms, of course. But I’ll show you all that tomorrow. Right now it’s getting late and you should go through the door behind me and decide which bedroom you would prefer. There’s a common room as well where you can relax.”
This was well beyond what I had expected. I had yet to find a place to stay in the college rooms or a rented room nearby, and this meant I would not have to worry about that. I thanked him and went through the door that I could now see behind him.
The bedrooms were small and sparsely furnished but comfortable enough. I chose one with a window facing the setting sun so that it was filled with a cheerful orange glow to reflect the burning sky. From there I went to the common room where I met Argon, the butler, a man apparently even older than the professor. He directed me to the dining room where he presented me with a menu and then disappeared. The food turned out to be simple but quite tasty and I retired to bed that night with satisfaction that I appeared to have fallen on my feet.
The next day began at a leisurely pace. I lazed in bed until the sun was high in the sky and then ambled through to the dining room. It was empty but breakfast was laid out, ready for me. I had my fill and then wandered through to the library, in search of my tutor.
He was there still, seated behind his desk, head buried in various old scrolls piled in front of him. It was some time before he looked up and noticed me.
“Ah, excellent, young Warnock,” he said. “Glad to see you out and about today.”
He rose and led the way to the northern end of the library. Once there, he pressed a set of worn and discoloured books in the wall before him. There must have been some sort of latch concealed behind these books because a section of the wall detached itself and began to move backwards. It was a door painted to mimic the rows of books around it, the only clue to its existence being the worn nature of the paint in the area of the latch. We passed though the doorway and entered another room almost as large as the library.
It was not, however an enormous void in which only the walls were used for storage. The room was filled with row upon row of solid wooden tables, upon which were distributed the most extraordinary assemblage of artefacts I had ever seen. Some were easy to identify, the weapons of war in great heaps of spears and shields and swords. Bronze and other metals gleamed off the surfaces of innumerable breastplates and helmets and the larger tables supported larger machines that looked capable of hurling rocks and arrows and other missiles considerable distance.
There were other things not so recognisable to the modern eye. Strange contraptions whose use was a matter of guesswork to me proliferated on the tables a little further from the door and, beyond them, other tables held up piles of pottery, glassware and metallic containers. I could not see beyond them to the furthest reaches of the room but it was clear that it would take a long time to become familiar with all these strange and ancient artefacts.
Professor Pie was speaking again. “This is what I like to call our warehouse.” He raised an arm and waved vaguely as if to include everything in the chamber. “Here is stored all that we have been able to salvage from the deepest ages of time. This, with the library is the core of our study and many of the books in the library deal with the construction and use of the artefacts you see before you. And this will be your task; to study in the library and become aware of the usefulness of the items in the warehouse. You will be free to come and go in these two rooms and others that I will show you. You may follow up any lead that you consider will add to our knowledge of these early ages and then, in the scriptorum, you will record your findings for later ages to learn from. It is a high calling and I know that you will submit yourself to it with complete devotion.”
I had been astounded at the magnitude of work being presented to me but now, as the old man spoke so surely of my own dedication to the discipline, I found that he was correct. A new vision of the wonders being opened to me by the Antiquities Department had entered my soul and I had fallen under its spell.
Or was it Woden Pie himself that had pronounced some sort of witchery over me so that my dreams of riotous living melted like mist in the morning sun? Certainly it was impossible not to like the man, his enthusiasm for his subject giving potent force to his quiet words and simple explanations. Whether it was the result of some weird sorcery or the awakening of something within me, I discovered that my old passion for a dissolute life had fled and I was now prepared to throw myself into the task before me. I turned to the the old man, who had been waiting patiently for my reaction, and spoke.
“Yes, I am ready. When do I begin?”
He smiled. “Excellent. You started the moment you entered the department but it is important that you give voice to your assent. And now you have done so. Today I will show you the remaining rooms and you will be free to dig and delve to your hearts content.”
And it was as he said. From that moment I have spent all my time in these halls of Antiquities, reading, inspecting, translating and writing of my discoveries. It is several years since I entered the place and I thought it might be good to leave a record of my experiences in the department. Hence this document, which I shall add to as and when it seems fit..
Woden Pie still sits at his desk and pores through old manuscripts. He is older now and bent like a hair clip but we have the most interesting discussions of arcane matters at times. My understanding of the wisdom of the ancients has grown until I feel myself almost a part of it and I do not regret my decision to stick to the task presented here.
I admit there are times when I look at the view from my bedroom window and marvel at the beauty of the world I have forsaken forever. Yet nothing can drag me from the wonders I discover in this department. I have no desire to ever leave this place.
It is true that I seem to be aging rather more quickly than I would have deemed reasonable. My face becomes quite gaunt (I caught a glimpse of it in a hammered bronze mirror yesterday and quite frightened myself) and my legs and arms seem more spindly than they were a year ago.
But I have spoken to Woden about it and he assures me it is the result of our sedentary lifestyle. While the mind expands in the bright light of wisdom, the physical being must shrink. I had a thought then and asked how old he was. He answered without hesitation and I am inclined to believe what he said, not only because I had an inkling of the answer already, but because I had, that very day, come across a scroll recording the butler Argon’s birth date.
Woden told me that he is 597 years old but that is as nothing compared to Argon’s 6,734 years.
I think I am doomed to live forever.
Word count: 3,065
For SCREAMS!!! Pop-Up Contest, August 2021
Prompt: Wide open.
Note on the name: Woden Pie - personal name, probably of a professor of some obscure discipline. Woden is clearly a parentally pompous reference to the Anglo Saxon god/hero, while Pie probably refers to the Old English form of "magpie." It is uncommon but still in use as a surname today.