The story of Doctor John Dee
Written by: Tara Naval
“Dr Dee? I brought you some warm soup”, came the timid voice by the door.
The little figure squinted into the dim room, her slight arms shaking slightly from the weight of the tray. It smelled strange in Dr Dee’s private room. Like the room had been empty for a long time, like there was an absence, but she didn’t know what it was that was missing.
The figure hunched over a manuscript at his desk quivered slightly. It was always cold these days. Especially at night, the wind went right through his bones, literally. He missed her, whoever that was, he didn’t remember why.
“Do come in your Majesty, I was going through the new calendar system I have devised and I believe that August is the ideal month for your coronation”, he gestured the girl over with a spindly hand.
Molly stepped in, timid as the day she had arrived. Dr Dee was kind and gentle, but there was something unnerving about him, even worse, this house frightened her. The fact that he now thought he was in the presence of the glorious Queen Elizabeth before her coronation and not in a dusty old room lent credence to the rumours going on in the backrooms that Dr Dee, though a famous mathematician and formerly the Queen’s Royal Magician, was now put simply, quite mad.
She curtseyed nervously, slopping a bit of soup over the lip of the bowl. “Uh, Dr Dee, sir, it’s me, Molly, your um, wife’s chambermaid.”
“My wife is dead.”
Molly bowed her head, ashamed of having used his departed wife as a way to bring him into the present. It seemed that was the only thing he remembered these days. “Yes, Dr Dee. I’m sorry, Dr Dee”.
She shuffled over to his desk, it was covered in dust and the debris of scribbled papers. Some were torn, some were irreparably stained with ink, some looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. It was a haystack of notes and memories, theories and calculations scattered on every surface of the large oak desk, stained yellow by the pallid light of a fat tallow candle on a gnarled candlestick.
Next to the ink well was a wooden tankard with the mulled wine she had prepared earlier in the morning. It had now grown cold, thick and sticky, it had a dead fly in it.
Dr John Dee was writing on a weathered journal, his withered fingers grasped a writing plume with uncanny dexterity as he scribbled strange lines and squiggles over the ink-stained page.
Molly slowly placed the stoneware bowl on the cleanest part of the desk and leant forward to retrieve the wine, now useless. She kept her eyes closed in fear of seeing what Dr Dee had written, they looked terrible, those strange, incomprehensible sigils and glyphs he wrote over every page of all his journals.
Some of the other maids had whispered, crossing themselves as they gossiped, that he wrote in Devil script. Some of the older stewards who had been with the good Doctor scoffed at the implication.
“‘Tis E-no-chian innit?” Said Wallace, the oldest of the butlers, in his ignorant yet presumptuous tone. “Some sort of angelic speech is what the Doctor says it is. Well, that or maffs, I never could tell the difference between that and them numbers and measurements ‘e uses”.
Well, whatever it was, it still frightened Molly. But she was in charge of bringing him lunch, so it couldn’t be helped.
“It’s a calculation dear, based on Pythagorean principles, I am charting a more ideal travel course to the Americas.” Came the Doctor’s soft voice from somewhere near Molly’s elbow.
She froze and opened one eye, the Doctor was smiling at her, his old face soft in the jaundiced candlelight. Feeling sheepish for her cowardice, she withdrew from the desk, taking up again her tray, now slightly heavier as the tankard was larger than the soup bowl.
“I’m sorry, Dr Dee, I just didn’t want to be prying is all.”
He waved the suggestion off. As if anyone in this crumbling household could ever understand the difference between a geometric calculation and the divine script of angels. The chambermaid curtseyed again, now red with her abashment, and quietly exited the room before she could discombobulate herself some more with the strange atmosphere of the room and the even stranger man in it.
John Dee sighed, shaking his head, he had done it again. These strange lapses of time and memory. It had been so vivid.
The young chambermaid Molly, had similarly unruly red hair to his Royal Highness, and even in the dim light, her plain clothes seemed, for a moment, to become the ornate skirts and corsetry of the young Queen Elizabeth, all big eyes and ruddy red cheeks (and she still had all her hair). She had been so trusting, the Queen, of his ability that she allowed him to determine the auspicious date of her coronation and later, had sought his advice on how to deal with the oncoming threat of the Spanish naval invasion.
She trusted him, he, a lowly warlock, scientist, mystic, seer, mathematician, the Venerable Doctor John Dee, Warden of Christ’s College and conduit of angels, to perform ancient and secret rights to dispel the dreaded Spanish Armada upon the shores of Dover.
Hah, take that, Walsingham!
Oh, he is dead too.
They had tried him for witchcraft, those fools of the Chamber of Stars, like they could ever comprehend the extent of his knowledge and power. How insignificant. This wasn’t witchcraft, it was more! It was the music of the spheres, it was Hermetic Universal Theory! Even God was on his side!
Well. Now he knew better. He had been a fool, all those years ago. He barely even scratched the surface. And then that strange and wonderful and evil Edward Kelley came along.
He wasn’t Fated then, but he was destined to be. It was inevitable, he was already gleaning small flashes of ancient, occult and ultimately forbidden knowledge. It would only be a matter of time before he would begin to seek his answers beyond people and places of this natural world. Or further yet, those beyond this mortal plain would notice him and seek him out instead.
As it turned out, both had. And one was Kelley. He shuddered, remembering his honeyed promises of visions and power. All those strange words of knowledge he’d taught him. Those visions he offered him, promises of communication with angels and verily! with God himself!
What a fool he was to almost fall into Kelley’s Devilish trap.
He had given him his wife, and later, he prepared to give him his soul. He was so desperate to learn back then, he would have given everything.
Gods above, he had given Kelley his own dear Jane in exchange for a vision of angels. But she had forgiven him, bless her heart, and stayed on with him.
The Preta asked for no such nonsense. Just his heart, just his soul. It was easier.
“I shan’t give you my family, they are innocent to my thirst for knowledge, I shan’t give them!” He had exclaimed, upon finally seeing the demon who promised him power and knowledge. Its decayed and distended appearance frightening and grotesque, yet even then, less intimidating and less sinister than the presence Kelley cast upon his life.
“I do not want that, just your life. Your family are of no use to me living and their time will pass. But with my help, yours will not, and you will learn”. It croaked, the strange flaps that passed for lips slid back and forth emitting barely coherent sound.
“Learn what?” Dee had asked.
It was, in the end, a kinder exchange. The years passed and the Preta’s power conferred upon him allowed him to discover and see more of the world than he had ever conceived when he was still in favour in the Queen’s court. Even when things went awry in Bohemia.
But it mattered not, he had discovered the ultimate alchemical formula later in Prague, and even though the Emperor did not believe him, he would eventually see that Dr Dee had been right all along (except the Emperor would be dead before his transmutation formula would be revealed as being true, Dee had transmuted the Emperor’s body in his coffin!)
He had even let Kelley take the credit, foolish Devil that he was, still trying to ensnare some poor hapless soul into his trap. What a terribly bad Devil he was in being one.
Incompetence also afflicts the demonic kind, the Preta had once explained, with a wilting (literally) gaze at Kelley from the shadows, on the day Kelley finally exited their company.
Dee had been surprised at how calmly Kelley had taken the news that Dee had been Fated to be a Lich, rather than a Pagan. But he suspected Kelley was far more frightened of the ancient Preta to dare a backlash.
He wondered where Kelley was sometimes, when he was not busy filling another journal with Enochian convocations.
And then the plague came.
His wife died.
There was a time he believed it to be the Devil’s revenge. But sometimes, disease outwitted even the cruellest of demons. Even he, with his immortality was not immune to the ravages of disease, as he rugged up in volumes of cloaks to hide the areas of his ribs and spine where the disease had eaten his flesh.
The Preta had smiled at his apprehension and gleefully picked at the weeping sores when he had showed them, fearing the demon’s promises of immortality false that first time.
“No my dear Dr Dee, I may find you quite delicious even now, but you shall live yet. There is more to do.”
Out of gratitude, he arranged that the body of his deceased wife not be buried, but be kept in a sealed chamber on the grounds. The Preta made quick work of her flesh and bones.
Only her memory remained. And even that, soon got replaced by the incomprehensible script of more Enochian writings.
The good and ancient Doctor turned back to his manuscript. He wasn’t lying, it was a recalculated route to California by ship, but it was encoded in a ritual to be used with ancient Enochian sigils to be cast upon a ship before boarding. He licked the nib of the plume with a slowly drying tongue and added the last flourish on an image of a forbidden rune.
Dr John Dee, Warlock, Lich, achieved more in his quiet Fated life, than he had ever done as a petty Royal Magician. But there were times when he missed having the Queen’s favour (oh, wait, she is now dead too).
Nonetheless, now he truly conversed with angels, or what ended up simply being otherworldy beings beyond the gauze. But he still wrote everything down, and then wrote it all again after his precious library was looted. As much as it had dismayed him that so much of his work had been lost to ravage, it ended up mattering little. He had all the time in the world to refill all those tomes, he remembered everything that he had ever learned and ever met. To the point where he forgot his daughter’s name, that he needed to eat and sometimes, even sleep.
All he remembered was that his wife was dead.
And that in all these years, he had never learned his Preta’s name.