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Lick the Dust

When you misplace something in the library here, it stays lost for a very long time. The eighteenth-century catalogue that alerted me to the book’s existence was brought up from the vaults by mistake. It had a similar order number to another, more exhaustive version written by the same antiquarian twenty years later, after he had acquired more of Simon Cypriano’s library for the university at auction. Since the catalogue was in front of me, I thought I might have a look at this early attempt to document the university’s ever-expanding collection of occult medieval manuscripts. I expected to find only a shorter list of the same books, but perhaps the antiquarian had been more clear-sighted in his youth and included better descriptions. Two thin pages were stuck together, although the numeration skipped over them, concealing this at first. I looked around at all the diligent indifferent heads lowered over mahogany lecterns, like buoys bobbing in the sea. Very slowly, so as not to attract the attention of those oafs they call librarians, I pried the leaves apart with a fingernail. At first I feared that I was simply destroying an irregularly made page for nothing, and then, as I saw there was more writing, thrilled that my suspicion had been correct. The hand was cramped and spidery, but from what I could make out, the two hidden pages described an unknown book by the Great Magus Cypriano, which the antiquarian had tucked away in Lord Kenelm’s library on the other side of Oxford. He provided details of the binding, but also warned that this book should be handled very carefully, perhaps not at all. What a superstitious idiot, to be living in the Enlightenment but still behaving like the men he studied! I hoped this might be the lost book that Cypriano was rumoured to have written before his disappearance. If I were to find it, it would be the making of my career – or at least, salvation from early and permanent obscurity.

 

But now the catalogue pages were unstuck, for anyone to see. What if Professor Kelly learnt about the book and kept all the credit? Or that sly bitch Agnes? She took everything that was mine. Agnes was picked to convene the conferences and invited to symposia. Agnes won the M. R. James scholarship and I had to get by on a couple of crappy little funds and countless hours spent teaching Guthlac to undergraduates barely literate in modern English. None of her papers were particularly brilliant, but she was prepared to flirt with the great and good. That was how she got in with everyone, a light touch on the arm and some confidences that would cost her nothing. That was how she had tried to get in with me, back when she thought I could be of any use to her.

 

I grabbed a larger bound manuscript from my pile and made a show of heaving it onto the lectern, sliding the little catalogue into my thick woollen cardigan as I did so. No one would miss it. I stayed another half-hour, noting down unusual manicules and measuring the gutters. I’d spent so much of my life on tasks like these, I was becoming sure I could tell hair side from flesh side on the vellum. It was the only skin contact I had these days, after all.

 

After I’d placed the other manuscripts on the reshelving trolley, I went to rub out the catalogue’s call number in the orders book, since the more popular version they should have brought me remained in the vaults and I was hardly about to alert them to their error. The petty scum who run this place still insist we come in to write out our requests by hand, no matter how inconvenient this might be for us. Fortunately, they have also forbidden us the use of pens. A mechanical pencil is enough to make them send you back down to the lockers. Completely erasing the request would leave a tell-tale gap, so I decided I would write in Agnes’s name instead and the call number for a richly illuminated book of love lyrics. Kelly would be bound to see it and assume she was wasting precious time showing off the university’s treasures to dilettantes. Both of our DPhils had overrun, mine because the work demanded strictest accuracy, hers because she was always jetting off around the world. All the enthusiasm I had once felt for my thesis had long ago withered away, but what remained was a cold determination to finish before she did.

 

It was already three, Lord Kenelm’s library would be closed before I could get there, so early the next morning I began my search. It took weeks. I should have been focussing on my edits, but I knew Cypriano’s book was in there. I searched every shelf several times, facing down time-wasters when they wouldn’t move. The cloistered hush among the dark wooden shelves, smelling of mildew and resin, has a perverse attraction for those people least interested in working. Couples request books to Lord Kenelm so they can have study dates somewhere atmospheric; I don’t know why they let undergrads in there at all. I gave myself eye strain and my knees ached from crawling along the lower shelves, but I found it. Tucked away in a little alcove in the upper gallery, it had a golden chimera tooled into the dark blue binding.

 

I picked up the book and hurried with it into the darkest corner of the library I could find. I could not help but notice it was very light for a book of its size. But there was Cypriano’s sigil, embossed on the cover. The leather was soft and worn, but still very supple. I’ll admit it, I was trembling. I thought: this will show Kelly, this will show them all. I unlatched the metal clasps that held the book shut. Could this be an exhaustive treatise on herbs and spirits? Perhaps the account of his life which some scholars believed they had found references to in other works? Proof he was spying for the king?

 

In the centre of the book-shaped box lay a black, charred-looking thing. I leant closer, trying to make out what it was, my mind riffling through all the diagrams and illustrations I had ever seen. I started back, feeling like something had grabbed my stomach and twisted it. The wooden lid clacked shut and I had to clamp my lips tight, so as not to spit vomit on the binding. It was a Hand of Glory.

 

I knew from my reading that these were made from the left hands of hanged criminals, to lend the power of invisibility to living thieves. Blaise Goethius wrote that he once saw Cypriano use a Hand to steal back some love letters he had written to his patron’s youngest daughter. But Goethius also thought he could keep water demons in his privy and that drinking tincture of mercury would help him live past a hundred. There was one theory that Cypriano had been so exasperated by Goethius’s effusive admiration of his prowess as to repent and enter a monastery on returning to Spain, though most reputable scholars agreed that his disappearance from history was because he had been poisoned in Mantua.

 

The book-box itself was worthless, except as a curio. He could have bought this and had it bound anywhere in Smithfield. But the Hand would need further examination, before I could be sure what best to do. It occurred to me that I might sell it secretly, the price I could fetch for such a gruesome and rare thing even without the illustrious history of its owner would keep me afloat for several years if I couldn’t get a funded postdoc. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket, making sure not to come into contact. Who knew how fragile it might be? The Hand was stuck to a slip of parchment with Cypriano’s writing on it. Now this might really be of interest, and could plausibly have fallen out from somewhere else. Attached as it was, I picked it up along with the Hand, placing them gently in the deep breast pocket inside my jacket. As I buttoned the jacket closed, I could have sworn I felt it nestling up to me.

 

Huddled in the privacy of my room after informal hall, I took it out. It was intact, a small hand but a sturdy one, so old the muscles had dried up into wood-like ridges and whorls. The high arch of the palm, the delicacy of the fingertips – for a moment I allowed myself to wonder if this had been a woman’s hand, but that was hardly likely. So few women ever got caught. Using steel tweezers and my magnifying glass, I unfurled the parchment slip to read it.

 

If thou wishest to use this Hande that hath served me so well and so readilie go thou to thy Holy Bookes. Thou may find there Isaiah 49 and Psalme 72 that is King Solomon’s Psalme. Burn thou these and blow the foule airs upon this Hande between the hours of compline and matins that it may know thy maistrie.

 

I had not come across anything like this in the works of his contemporaries. Checking my watch, I saw I was within the appointed hours of night for a little experiment. More out of silliness than anything else, I took down the King James Bible, sitting unused on my shelf since Kelly had publicly humiliated me for using it in footnotes instead of Douay-Rheims.

 

Leafing through in such a hurry that the scritta paper tore, I found the necessary verses. I took a lighter from the wobbly bedside drawer I’d been provided with by the college and followed Cypriano’s instructions, fearing that I might set the Hand alight and so spoil all my chances. Rooms in St Bernadine’s were so high-ceilinged that I would have some time before the smoke detector began to bleep.

 

Nothing happened. I tried again, feeling foolish, then exhaled a deep sigh, hoping to blow the burning pages out. In the warmth, the Hand stretched and flexed its pointed fingers, shrugging off some of its ancient crust. I felt the nub of wrist turning through the handkerchief. In a practised-looking gesture it drew the flames to itself, coiling them in like ribbons until there was a blue-white ball of fire resting in its palm.

 

I felt light-headed, but calm enough. The only question was what to do now? I already had the most valuable thing I could think of in my possession, but I decided that I should still test it out. I held it uplifted like a torch, and reaching for the doorknob to my set with my free hand, I found that it passed right through and out into the corridor. It didn’t hurt, though I could feel the grainy solidity of the door as I pushed through it. Exhilarated, I hurried down to the darkened quad, lamplight orange on the cobbles, and saw I cast no shadow. The porter was making his dumpy way back to the lodge, muttering about a party on another staircase. Apparently, some great wit had decided to cover all the portraits in stick-on googly eyes. I followed him, close behind. There was a stone near my feet, glossy black and the perfect size for throwing. Struck, he wheeled round with a face that would terrify the most entitled day-tripper, but looked right through me. It had worked! Then, I noticed that the flame was beginning to shrink and flicker, the Hand curling to close over it. There was no time to draw breath and light it again. I started running. I had to get back into the stairwell before the light went out.

 

I practised with the Hand every night; now it knew who its mistress was, all I needed to do was take it from the drawer and breathe upon the shrunken palm. I walked through all the sets in my corridor and watched their occupants weeping, working, making love. The lengths of time the Hand allowed me to remain unseen were variable, so I stayed cautious. Even in pitch-black rooms, that roiling ball of flame allowed me to observe everything. There was nothing so pure as being in things but not of them. It was what I had once loved about the past, the intimacy of studying other human beings and uncovering what had long remained secret, without any messy interaction. My first thought had been to creep outside and back into the libraries to access the special collections in their vaults. However, I found I could not bypass the wall around St Bernadine’s. It was even older than the college and had been built and re-built in successive layers. Some people said a woman had been walled up alive in there, to ensure it never fell.

 

It was around this time that Kelly called us in to announce another batch of funding had been released for fourth years. Agnes was wearing an azure blue coat I’d never seen her in before, with strands of golden hair pulled back into a loose bun, like she fancied herself the Madonna in a rose window. When she asked me how my work was going, I answered, ‘Well enough.’

 

‘I’m glad to hear that. I’m sure both of us will do our best. I enjoyed your article on the marginalia in Rais 157, you know.’

 

‘I think I saw a mention of Nottingham in an old issue of Manuskripte, if you’re still interested in citing him.’

 

I knew perfectly well she couldn’t read German. I’d hated Agnes since the day I met her. She always looked as if she was lit up from inside, but now I had my candle in the dark.

 

The funding forms were long and tedious, they asked us lots of sentimental questions about our reasons for studying and how it would ‘benefit the community’. I wanted to know what Agnes had put on hers. By now I was pretty sure I could make it into the next quad, up several flights of stairs and back, with lots of time to spare. If I knew what she had written, I could improve on it, make her words sound trite and dull compared to mine. I needed that money badly, while she was splashing out on new clothes. Her room was neat, with posters of the Mappa Mundi and sections from the Book of Kells. I passed the flame over her sleeping face. I’d thought she would look different asleep, that her expression would reveal her for the calculating slut I knew her to be. She remained soft-cheeked, slightly smiling but otherwise unreadable. Her nightwear was unexpectedly demure.

 

I opened up her laptop, humming on the desk. Just as I had found the parts I wanted, she sat right upright and asked:

 

‘Who’s there?’

 

As if I could have answered. Then it came to me that I might have some fun with Agnes in other ways than surpassing her. I picked up her shoes and threw them. Flicked the table lamp on and off until it broke. Lifted up the furniture so it looked like it was floating. Her screams were echoing in the corridor as I ran.

 

Soon the bags under her eyes were stained almost as deep as mine. Her lovely hair began to thin and Kelly mentioned her with exasperation in our meetings, the way he must usually have been talking about me. I didn’t visit every night – sometimes she slunk off to her boyfriend’s house in Jericho. Besides, I had begun to find that I was often short of breath. My extended sessions with the Hand left me gasping to the point of fainting for many hours after. Often, I thought I could feel the sharp points of its fingernails pushing inside me, like five roundels branded onto my heart.

 

At night when I was minding my own business reading, I heard it tapping in the drawer, asking to come out. I didn’t like to overindulge the Hand, I was the one in charge here, but the thought of its company was not unpleasant. Sometimes I came just to watch her. She usually lay on her left side, curled around a pillow, or flat on her back, exhaling little whistling snores. That rosebud mouth empty of platitudes for once. A corkboard of trophies hung from the back of her door – smiley photos with her vapid-looking friends, congratulatory cards, love notes from her admirers. The more you are given, the more entitled you feel to take. I wondered how often over the course of our lives she would snatch everything I’d worked for away from me.

 

One night, I found that she was not alone; she’d asked her boyfriend to stay with her. But I was not afraid of the captain of the rowing team. In fact, she had provided me with a wonderful opportunity. I climbed up onto the bed and knelt over her chest, one knee to pin each arm. With my free hand I covered her mouth before she could even think to scream. Rory slumbered on beside her, feeling nothing. She must have worn him out. When he woke up with her body in the morning, there would be no one else to blame. She let out a ragged gasp as I slid my hand down to clasp her throat. Let her find out how it feels to go breathless. Her body bucked beneath me, the edges of her lips were turning blue. This was the most beautiful she had ever looked and I would be the only one to see it. The Hand was squirming in my hand, like it could enjoy the spectacle, its ball of flame rhythmically flaring and shrinking almost to nothing. How long it was taking her to die. Then the expression on her face changed from terror into rage. I knew the Hand had failed me and I loosened my grip in shock. She shouted my name, her voice hoarse with damage. This, finally, was enough to wake Rory up.

 

I sprinted through two quads, not much liking my chances there. The moon was nearly full and if I couldn’t get back in time, there would not be enough darkness to hide in. The dining hall was thick with oak-panelled gloom, I waited there, crouched under the high table, panting. Were those Rory’s footsteps I could hear echoing in the corridor above? From the vantage of the dais, I could see all the way into the kitchens – and out! Some sloppy washer-up had left the door into the street wide open. My ruinous battels had been worth the money after all. I blew frantically trying to relight the flame, and eventually it caught. I could hide myself in the library if I hurried. The pre-dawn streets were crammed with students in clubwear and silly costumes, laughing with each other. More and more of them pressed in behind me, then a huge crowd came surging down Parks Road, carrying me away from the library. I remembered it was May Day. I was jostled by Morris dancers and shoved by boys in suits. Girls with hair down to their waists begged rollies from each other and Green Men on stilts walked high above the throng. It was impossible to get past them. I was being pushed inexorably towards Magdalen. The tower was full of hidden choristers, who made it sound as if it was the stones themselves that sang. The sun was coming up.

 

I tried to blend in, putting the Hand back in my pocket and slowing to a saunter. Nobody was paying attention, they’d been drinking all night and wouldn’t notice me flickering back into view. The music ended and the sermon began, so the crowd began to disperse, as uninterested in the tradition’s meaning as it had been compelled by its ambiance. As the crowd thinned, I looked behind me to see Rory shoving through the crowd. He had not yet spotted me, but soon he would. In a panic, I shoved too, hoping to get as far as Cowley and wait in a cafe there for the daylight to convince him Agnes was going mad. I was halfway across the bridge when I saw Kelly coming down St Clements. I owed him a whole chapter of corrections, he would want to stop and talk. Rory was catching up behind me. I wheeled around, trapped. Some drunken idiots were teetering on the outside edge of Magdalen Bridge, readying themselves to jump. I vaulted past them, straight down into the water.

 

The other jumpers plunged in either side of me, their impact ripping at my clothes. In the dim green light I saw the Hand float up and away from me and tried to catch at it. It opened its fingers wide once more, as if it thought it could make fire down here… The fire was in my lungs!

 

The Hand had me where it wanted, I felt it jerking at my limbs with invisible chains like I was its puppet. I tried to kick off my sodden shoes to keep from sinking further. The more I resisted, the harder it tried to pull my remaining breath from my body. It was so hot inside my ribs I beat the heels of my hands against my breastbone, growing dizzy as it drained the air from my blood. I saw it flexing, writhing with delight. No longer able to hold my breath, I opened my lips and in an instant the Hand darted into my open mouth, scrabbling and clawing as I choked. Bony fingers cut into my tongue as I desperately tried to pull it out. I could feel it dissolving, strips of flesh and cinder floating loose before me as it crawled down my throat.

 

*

 

‘Are you alright, miss? I expect you’ve learnt your lesson. We’ve a few brave souls that try it every May Day, it always goes the same. You’re lucky we’re not giving out cautions this year.’

 

The policeman, having decided that was sufficient, moved along the riverbank to deliver a version of his lecture to other sopping revellers wrapped in golden foil blankets.

 

This was no time for us to sit around, Agnes was still at the college and we had work to do.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

’s writing has been published in the TLS, The London Magazine, The Mechanics' Institute Review and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Cunning Folk and the anthology Queer Life. Queer Love. Her short story collection, Parallel Hells will be published by Sceptre Books in February 2022.

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