Signs & Portents





Chapter 24

Ah, but my Computations, People Say


Miri worked on into the night. She intended to complete the translation she had been working on and get started, or at least examine, the new work the Gnostic group had sent her. She reviewed the text, deciding the style of it reminded her of some versions of Sepher Yetsira, Kabbala's oldest extant book. Besides the seven "heavens" and "worlds," there were references to "hot periods" and long "cold periods," the exact meaning of which she couldn't quite make out, beyond the fact that the ancient author appeared to regard them as portents of some kind. She felt that there might be anagrams or coded meanings in the text, but she had no time to try to puzzle these out, if she were to finish the translation and get it back to the Gnostics.

She knew a British scholar had come up with a theory that Kabbala had been carried forward into the Greek language during the Hellenistic period. It was to her, an extremely plausible idea. If nothing else, there was the famous, to the occultists, at least, Kabbalistic cross in the Christian Greek scriptures.

She also agreed wholeheartedly with another scholar of the past, who had demonstrated that the ancient Mediterranean phonetic alphabets all derived from a phonetic proto-Semitic rather than from pictograms of any kind. The obvious similarity between the Greek and the Semitic letters indicated that the Greeks had adopted their phonetic alphabet from that same source, adding a few letters for their own vowel laden language. It was, therefore, the same alphabet and would take the Kabbalistic meanings for the individual letters without any particular difficulty. There was no hard evidence for this phonetic theory beyond the similarity in the letter forms and the fact that historically, no ancient peoples had ever actually evolved a phonetic alphabet from a beginning of picture writing. What had happened instead, was that "picture writers" had abandoned their picture writing and gradually adopted the greater flexibility and superiority of the phonetic approach when they encountered it. The clearest example of this was the progress of Egyptian hieroglyphs through hieratic to coptic, finally taking up Greek forms completely as Greek influence spread in Egypt. She regarded as rather contrived the diagrams and attempts to show that picture writing would ultimately evolve into a phonetic form, or the converse, that phonetic began as a form of picture writing. It ignored the reality that the idea of substituting a symbol for a sound was a completely different approach to writing and a marvelous human invention. She felt intuitively that the theory told something wonderful about the history of the human race, something elusive perhaps, but very real. Or was it only the old biblical statement that in the beginning, all the world was of one tongue?

In her private thoughts, she was forever a participant in the great struggle to decipher prehistory. This inclination had inspired her to the study of dead languages, although at the time, she had no reason to suppose that she would find a use for the skill. Her teachers had warned her that interest in the past was rapidly declining. Other more urgent subjects were simply eclipsing the study of history or pre-history in a modern world too concerned with its own survival to afford such a luxury. But if circumstances of the time of her birth prevented her active participation, she was still, privately, a passionate partisan.

But you never know how things would turn out, she thought wryly, her present occupation, for example. She quickly made the last necessary checks of her work and finished. She wished she did have time to play with the "Greek Kabbala" idea. Perhaps some strange and golden message from the past would leap out at her. The text had that sort of "quality" about it and synchronistic with her own mood, even subtlety apocalyptic. She found the document intriguing and somehow charming.

What the pseudo—no that was too harsh a word—neo-Gnostics would make out of it or do with it, she could not imagine. They might even decline to reproduce it with their equipment, deciding it was not "truly gnostic" by their definition of the word because of it's Jewish authorship. While it was true that some of the ancient Gnostics were anti-Semites, she fervently hoped that the prejudice had persevered with the new ones. She hoped they would appreciate its antiquity enough to honor it as she did.

It had stated at the beginning of the text that this was the epistle, or letter, of one, Alexandrios of Armenia. She suspected that it dated to sometime around the third or fourth centuries which meant it had traveled forward in time for centuries.

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It was a long time for a piece of writing to travel that no one had made a particular effort to cherish or preserve. "Alexander," she thought with a flourish, "you are remembered today! Live forever, my good man."

With that, she stuffed the completed transcription and photostats into a folder. She reached for the new job in the manila envelope which had been delivered by the pretty girl with the striking bronze colored hair and wideset blue eyes. She was a new face among the Gnostics, not that Miri had seen the whole membership, but the thought made her wonder again why so many were attracted to groups like the Gnostics. She knew that most were not mere dilettantes, but quite painfully sincere about these religious convictions.

She pulled out the photostats and spread them before her. These were quite a mess, she saw, the original was full of holes and the "scriptmanship" was poor to begin with. She studied the jumble of letters. Just as she thought she had identified it, it danced away from her, and she remained unsure. After about ten minutes, she decided someone had forwarded the photostats of an old palimpsest to the Gnostics and regrettably the photographic process was causing the previous "erased" writing to show through.

She groaned out loud, deciphering something like this would take forever—if it was even possible. She might have to have a talk with the Gnostics about costs on this one. Well, she had to first get some sort of handle on it. She reached for what she regarded as one of her most priceless volumes, a thorough compendium of ancient alphabets and styles compiled at a time when the study of the past was in its golden age. She began to leaf through it and found a style that looked reminiscent of what she had just been examining.

She reached for the photostats to bring them closer for comparison and saw a flimsy sheet of paper fall from between the sheaf of them. She could see as it floated down to the floor that it was printed and not one of the photostats. She picked it up quickly, thinking that this must be a note from the original photographers that would help with the translation. It appeared to be covered in what she at first thought were mathematical symbols. No, not mathematical, she realized after a few minutes, an honest to goodness foreign alphabet. Miri thought that she was familiar with the modern scripts, but this was a new one on her.

She could not see a connection with the palimpsest, but intrigued, she gave it a longer perusal. She did have a book on modern alphabets somewhere, she scanned the book shelf and found it. When even that failed to give her a clue, she laid the sheet face up on the table in front of her other work and tried to get back to work. All her life, it had been hard on Miri to turn her back on a puzzle, but the best theory she could come up with was that it might be some very unusual language.

Returning to her book of styles, she saw that the example she had selected in her style book was a form of Levantine Aramaic. Again, she picked up the printed sheet, on closer examination, she saw that while the squiggles the ancient brush had made on the parchment did look a little like the ones in the book. In the next minutes, she became refocused on the strange page and began playing a mental game. If you stripped away the uneven pattern of the brushed letters from Aramaic and represented the letters with clean mechanical lines, they would quite resemble the printed ones she had just seen. She began to translate the note from Levantine Aramaic.

It read well and easily that language—she had the translation in front of her in about fifteen minutes. The very first word had been her own name, intriguingly enough, and it read:
Miriam O'Leary:

Those who can decipher the past can escape the great cycles. Go to the safe lands when the time comes. Do not tarry. We are but a few and a few cannot turn back the tides of the eternal mystery. Do not think otherwise.

Your Brother—Alexandros of Aram
Had there been letters left over when she finished, or words that were gibberish in some places, she would have known it was her own head that

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had played a trick on her. But as it was, she knew the answer lay elsewhere and was stunned by the implication. It made no sense of any kind. She rethought the concept that it was, after all, some sort of coincidence or trick of her own mind. But no, the odds against that were simply astronomical. And there was no one of her acquaintance capable, let alone likely, to do such a thing.

Her intuition again came up with an answer, it suggested that she had, at last, met the supernatural face to face. She reviewed the content of the note and now noticed something directed, intimate and personal about its cryptic message, as if the author were privy to her innermost thoughts.

Carl, in the meantime, had emerged from his room. It took her about fifteen minutes to explain the language permutations and probabilities to him. He picked up the paper, reversed it and held it up to the light while Miri watched apprehensively. As far as he could tell after long examination, the weird message did appear to be printed.

"Well, mother," he quipped, "if this guy came from Atlantis, it's amazing that his word processor survived the flood."

Miri greeted this attempt at levity with solemn silence. She was in no mood for jokes.

"Carl," she said, "I've told you, and now something really weird is trying to tell you that we have to leave this area. Don't you see that?"

Then for reasons she didn't understand, she lost control and began to weep. She shook her head, trying to stem the flood, but her feelings seemed to be bruised and confused. She was more than a little bit just plain scared.

"Oh, mother," Carl tried to comfort her, "it's just a trick of some kind. These Gnostics are a pretty weird bunch. They're trying to put something over on you. You wait and see. You'll find out soon that Alexandros is their special spirit, or something of the kind. And has summoned you to join the inner sanctum."

He was not really sure of this analysis, but it was the only one he could think of at the moment. Perhaps he should go over to the Gnostic center and look around and see what he could find out about them, he thought. If they were too weird, he wasn't very keen about his mother getting mixed up with them. Recollections of the antics of some of the more violent cults began to occur to him.

Miri recovered herself and reached for a Kleenex. Could her son be right? Maybe that was it, she thought. For long moments, she felt Carl had hit upon the answer. Or more likely, her spirits rose, perhaps they had simply invented their own language for their religion? Surely that was the most likely explanation, she realized.

A serious flaw in the solution came to her just as she was starting to feel a little guilty about making so much out of a small thing. The selection of both the letters and the language showed an uncanny linguistic expertise. She had not gotten the impression that any of the Gnostics had this kind of expertise.

And if they did, then why on earth were they at pains to hire a translator from outside their ranks?

Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Have squared the Year to human compass, eh?
If so, by striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
as rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald

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Copyright© 2007, Undiscovered Worlds Press