The Michaelmas term was over. I breathed easily as I passed under the stone archway of Magdalen College and stepped out on to High Street, Oxford. Exams had ended only an hour earlier. My shoulders loosened under my neck for the first time in what seemed to be weeks. It had hardly been easy, but I was presently quite chuffed to bits at the state of things.
I told myself that I had learned plenty. My first term as an Oxfordian had been satisfactory in every respect. The walks by the Thames, the book shopping at Blackwell’s, and the fellowship with my fellow brethren was enough to make any starving academic want a home here forever. I was wholly pleased with my current situation.
I met my mates George and Leo for dinner that evening at the Wig and Pen, where we dined at a table with fellow Oxfordians over plates of fish and chips, peas, and a few pints of ale.
“The exams were real tough nuts, weren’t they, mate?” everyone seemed to be asking. “Indeed,” I would reply, simpering into my glass without looking into the speaker’s eye. “I thought my brain’d burst by the end of it all, didn’t you, Charlie?” I would make eye contact, nod briefly, then proceed to shovel a forkful of peas into my mouth. The strategies I had employed in the last month had all but ensured my success, and I was determined to keep quiet about my methods.
No one minded me, and that was the way I liked it.
At around 23:00, when the pub closed and forced us to clear off, we tromped back to Magdalen, singing songs and splashing in puddles. Our glee was unparalleled, and the ale was beginning to do its work. Torrents of rain were chucking down, and the deluge was making music on the tops of the waste bins. I was laughing now, watching as the boys clapped one another on the backs, twirled each other around, and kicked up their heels on the cobblestoned streets.
The college door had closed a few hours earlier, and we knocked on it with our fists. The warden showed us in, wearing a gruff, scowling expression. Shaking his head, he growled at us to hurry to our rooms before the curfew in half an hour. George and I separated from the others; we were neighbors, he and I.
“Write home tomorrow, eh? Describe the taste of success!” he joked, unlocking the door to his room.
I laughed, and so did George. He had a snortly, piggish sort of laugh that sounded like air being squeezed through a small opening. It always made me smile to hear him laugh. Over the last few months of endless studying and rigorous learning, the laugh of dear George was what my ears best loved to hear. Nay, what they wished to hear on dreary days.
Clasping hands in amity before emerging into our rooms, we laughed once more.
“Good night, George!”
And he proceeded into his room with the lively hum of the Marseillaise on his lips. He was a student of French literature and spoke it just as well as English. I chuckled as I heard him burst into the melody he so loved to sing.
Closing my door, I found my room to be the tranquil space I had been aching for during the evening spent in society.
My room was on the ground level with a view of the quad. The window was blurry. I could hear the panes creaking against the wind without. I enjoyed nights like this.
I slipped into my pyjamas, clad my feet in slippers, and curled into bed to read a novel so that I might weary my eyes with sleep. My eyelids were like lead bullets, and the ale’s magic was helping push them down. After a half an hour, I set my book down upon my nightstand. Shutting my eyes as I settled underneath the covers, I breathed easily, my mouth slipped open, and I fell asleep.
But I did not sleep long.
The rain had stopped. The moon shone through my window, casting its light upon the floor. An hour of sleep had barely been granted to my weary mind before I began to hear the noises.
I did not know how to categorize them. Indeed, I still do not.
I, a student of mammalian biology, had never heard the likes of them before. They sounded to me as though they belonged to many creatures…many creatures in unison. They were no human sounds; of that I was certain.
It was something akin to the raspy cries and yells of the orcs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet not quite. Nay, more like the screeches of the foxes during mating season, or the scream of the Barn Owl on a summer’s night. Perhaps it was all of those inside of one.
The hairs on the back of my neck were erect, and sweat began to form beads on my forehead. But the night was cold; I had no reason to sweat.
Wrapping myself in my robe and putting on my rain boots, I went out to join the throng I believed to have assembled in the quad. There were surely others who had grown curious at the noises disturbing the night.
Emerging into the cool, wet English air, I found a layer of fog to have descended over the quad. Its presence chilled my bones, and goose pimples prickled my skin as they formed. I rubbed my arms to keep warm. The chilly air bit at my lungs.
To my surprise, I was the only soul in the courtyard. Every window was dark, and there were no voices of alarm or confusion. There were only the screeches that I had heard before. They seemed to be coming from the air. Yes, coming from the roof! I glanced upward. Lining the edges of the walls were gleaming yellow specks. They seemed to be in pairs, like…my stomach lurched…like eyes.
The screeches stopped. They were replaced by mirthless laughter. Cackly, fairy-tale, malicious snickering. My heart was louder than my own breath.
The fog cleared for but a moment and my eyes were forced to gaze upon something I had never imagined possible. The gargoyles of Magdalen College were alive. Their heads emerged from their places in the wall and they had bodies.
Claws, wings, horns, forked tails. Where their heads had been were now holes in the walls. Their stony faces now had bodies attached to them. Their rigid, sculpted forms moved with life, their chiseled mouths sent forth laughter, and their talons gripped the places where they perched.
“He comes! He comes!” they whispered to each other, jumping with excitement as they glimpsed me. I made a run back to the door, but a winged gargoyle with long, vampirine teeth landed in my path, blocking my way with a malicious grin upon his face.
“What are you?” I screamed, retreating from the one on the ground back towards the others on the wall.
“You see us! You see us! Smart boy sees us every day!” their voices sounded like all the devils of hell speaking in unison. They spoke together synchronously: like Macbeth’s Weird Sisters.
“What do you want?” I cried, my voice cracking under the weight of my immense fear. I only wanted to be back in my bed, sleeping soundly and away from the threat of the gargoyles.
“Do you really want to know?” asked the one behind me on the ground. His voice was like the sound of pebbles grinding against one another on a rocky shoreline. His stone eyes, usually dead and inanimate were alive: blazing yellow and seeming to ignore the fact that I possessed a body; yes, they all looked directly into my soul.
The horns on his head looked sharp enough to impale me. I aimed to appease the beast, so putting my hands out in front of me to beg my leave, I nodded. Anything to make them happy.
The voice of another gargoyle sounded from behind me. He had an open mouth and a long, lolling tongue swaying out of it. His voice resembled a trumpet; high, mocking, and shrill. His eyes were embers as he yelled, “Your secret, boy! Your secret!”
My stomach was the pit of hell itself. They could not know. It was impossible, or this was some bloody awful prank. I staggered backward and nearly lost my footing. My head was spinning, and I began to take deep, hungry breaths of air.
“Ah! Ah! Look, he thinks we lie!” the trumpet-voiced one shouted. He flew on his wings of mortar to the ground in front of me. The others in the air continued to look down at me, gloatingly.
“We see all!” the elderly gargoyle rasped from behind me: the one whose voice was like the pebbles. “Your success is treachery cloaked in virtue. You cheated!”
I had done everything I could to succeed in the exam, and in my book, that included paying my way. I had learned quite a lot, that was certain; it was not a vain pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to stay here, to continue on at Oxford, to have a good standing. I admit. I cheated. I paid for the answers; I fooled the examiners. I had succeeded nonetheless.
How could these demons know?
“No!” I screamed, anger beginning to claw at my heart. I gripped the insides of my robe to keep me sane.
“I did not!”
The creatures hissed.
“Liar!” They all screamed once. Then they began to chant the word, and I felt like those witches who had been burned at the stake long ago among those immense crowds of chanting spectators. I wanted to die.
“Peace!” screamed the patriarch. Every voice was stilled.
“We see all, lad,” he seethed. “You have cheated. We only beg you repent.”
Repent? To whom? God? A priest? My examiners?
“Come clean!” hissed the trumpet-voiced one. His long, wet tongue licked his chiseled teeth. The nostrils flared, and as the night was quite cold, his breath (all of their breaths, really) was like a dragon’s: smoking from the horrid mouth and into the crisp air.
“Why?” I rebutted, turning to stare at every one of them that eyed me. “What hold have you over me? If I die, my accomplishments remain unscathed.”
“…or else…” whispered them all in unison. Every one of them. Their voices were like the hushed rustle running through a field of dead corn when it is stirred by the harvest wind.
They continued to say it. It was not chanting as before. It was imploring.
“The clerk in 1501!” screamed a voice up above.
“The scientist from 1723…” whispered a serpentine accent from the roof.
“The poet in 1900!”
“The novelist with the broken foot.”
“The activist holding the yellow sign!”
“Remember the philosopher! Forget not the philosopher!”
Many of them began to crow and cry out at this name, and their voices made me cover my ears. I feared I might be sick. How had these previous victims so suffered? What had happened to them?
“Will you hear the stories, boy? Pray, come and listen to our perilous yarns!”
The patriarchal one startled me as he flew up to the roof, as did the trumpet-throated one.
I was delusional. Gargoyles upon the roof? Telling me stories? Threatening my sanity?
What had I done?
I had had too much to drink at the pub earlier. I was delirious. I was tired from the exams; they had lasted quite a while. This was a dream.
And all one needed to do to get out of a dream was to wake up. Surely! I needed to get back to my room and away from these horrid beasts!
“Providence, whom I have so far removed, be with me now in this hour of hell. Close my eyes to the devils! Carry me into the arms of angels.”
Shutting my eyes to them, I ran from their presence back into the dorms. When they realized what I had done, they began to shriek in anger. They howled, they screamed, they screeched into the night: it was as before. This is what had woken me.
Why didn’t I wake?
I entered the hall and ran down the long, still corridor. Reaching my room, I found the knob and wrenched the door open. As I approached my bed, I found a note upon the pillow. Picking it up, I realized that it was a torn piece of paper. It was not just any piece of paper: it had been torn out of my book.
Scrawled in an ancient, medieval hand were written the following words in red ink:
On your head be it.
It fluttered to the floor as I failed to grasp it.
The clock inside my room seemed to be taunting me in my despair. How much time did I have before something happened? The blood inside my head pounded against the walls of my skull.
The clock was excruciatingly loud upon my nightstand.
George’s foot hit the wall in his sleep from his room next door. It startled me greatly, and I jumped. I settled down onto my bed, breathing heavily. I went under the covers, let my head rest upon the pillows, but I did not close my eyes.
Because then I heard a bloodcurdling scream next to my ear.
It came through the wall.
It came from George’s room.
I ran to the window and opened it to look out on the quad.
The gargoyles were back inside their holes, only their heads emerging. They no longer move. They no longer shriek. They don’t have to anymore. Because what is it I see instead? Am I mad to say it? I know not! All I know is what I remember, and I shall say it: I go so far as to relay my frightening discovery. I glimpse crimson ribbons streaming down their stony chins, dribbling down their cracking lips, and glistening in the light of the ebony moon.
Now I shall have to tell the priest that I have killed a man.