The following is an extract from the first chapter of my second novel Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs in which ghosts of the past haunt the Yorkshire town of Burly-the-Wath while a coven of witches rise to try and put things right.
Illustration by Elizabeth Snider.
From A Tudor Maiden’s Book of Psalms archived by St Becket’s Church of England Grammar School.
Burly-the-Wath. 22nd June, 1563
Each morn I do offre up to Him above my soul. At Mid night will I rise for mine deare Lord pryserving me from below. At noon I cry out sweete lamments to heaven do I pray. Morning, evening and at non His hand showeth me the wey.
A needle cannot thread itself. Cecilia knew this. Thread was a length of wool; needle was made of bone. Both needed a hand to work them. She tried without success to thread her needle with tender fingers which had not yet lost the plumpness of childhood.
The needle drew first blood. It pricked Cecilia’s palm. Disgusted she threw needle and thread to the floor where both became lost in the rushes. She sucked the blood welling in her hand. If I cannot school my fingers to be dextrous,she thought, my whole life shall be spent licking wounds.
At that moment the needle chose to obey. Acting of its own power, needle surrendered to thread like a maiden to her lord. They rose from the rushes as one and lay meekly in Cecilia’s lap ready to sew.
She looked about to make certain no one had seen. Fortune was with her, the small brown mouse she fed on kitchen scraps. Happily no one else was.
‘Fortune be always with me,’ she chanted to the brown mouse.
It was hardly her first experience with unnatural phenomenon. Objects flew, water jug refilled themselves, candles lit without benefit of flame. Cecilia wondered if these things were only in her head. She prayed they were.
Throughout the normal course of her days, Cecilia Norvyle tried not to draw attention. A thorny challenge considering all of Burly-the-Wath watched her, wary for signs of devilry or witchcraft. The townsfolk thought her a changeling the fairies might reclaim any moment. Because Cecilia was the daughter of a priest.
The king and his reformed religion allowed its leaders to marry and have children. But kings, religions and reforms were fleeting things nowadays. Under the old queen, Cecilia’s family had been forced into temporary exile in Flanders, but the new queen’s tolerance brought them home again. Legitimate daughter of a new faith father. Folk of Burrdale parish knew this. But knowing a thing and believing a thing are not the same thing.
‘Give me to the church,’ Cecilia often begged. ‘Let me devote myself to God.’
Less than a day’s journey was the Abbey of St Margaret. There Cecilia might spend her days in sheltered seclusion. Perhaps God would cure her of the strange and wondrous things she did and saw and dreamt. But her parents had already buried three sons and Cecilia’s infant twin sister. They would not be parted from their last surviving child.
Thus condemned, Cecilia strove not to bother anyone; to appear and behave as a pious and modest maid. She dressed in simple clothes, kept close to hearth and home and never revealed she could read or write. She kept her unusually deep blue eyes lowered—a singular violet in a field of green-brown and blue-grey.
Her only companion besides Fortune the Mouse was a nomadic cat. Full black he was but for the hind legs which were pure white and of a slightly shaggier fur; his body large, lean and strangely muscular. A true brute of a beast to anyone save Cecilia. The cat growled defensively at every parishioner who made a sign against the evil eye behind the back of the priest’s daughter.
‘You wear saint’s greaves ‘neath your dark armour, sir,’ Cecilia told him, tickling the white ruff of fur at the cat’s heels. ‘You are my Archangel,’ she whispered as he rubbed his ebony head against her. ‘My Michael.’
It was a sad truth of Cecilia’s lie that her sole companions, Fortune the Mouse and Michael the Cat, could never meet for fear one might consume the other.
The summer of her fifteenth year broke out in pansies and primroses. Cecilia began work on a gown for the Midsummer festival. She looked forward every year to the Feast of St John, where so many curiosities abounded no one would notice her. People dressed in fantastical costumes: sometimes as mythical creatures, sometimes garbed only in floral garlands. Churchman, ploughman, trader, shepherd and pauper would parade the streets with torches and tankards of ale playing music as they went.
For one day she put modest dress aside. With Mistress Norvyle’s guidance Cecilia altered her mother’s old silk and linen gown of willow green, shaping it to her younger body, embroidering it with violets, ivy and musk roses. On the morning of the festival she wove fresh versions of these flowers in her waist-length honey-coloured hair.
Is this wise? Shall I draw attention to myself? What if something unnatural should occur? Yet everyone will be laughing and feasting. None will give me a second glance.
He was an Unfortunate from the church school. That’s what folk in town called them: The Unfortunates. Some of the boys, Cecilia knew, turned the slander into a title.
He looked to be of a similar age as she, fifteen or sixteen years. Beneath full white linen breeches his legs and feet were bare. His ruddy chest was bare as well. Ropes of ivy draped about him like some savage warrior. His thick, brown curls were flecked with daisies and meadow sweet.
Cecilia couldn’t help admiring the young man. When he caught her looking at him, his radiant smile nearly made her weep with longing. Laughing, he took her by the hand and led her along the parade route. Cecilia laughed with him as they followed the river, crossed the Bridge of Souls and finished in the churchyard. The whole of Burly-the-Wath seemed to laugh with them.
‘They call me Tom.’ He did not let go of her hand. ‘Tom o’ the Streets. Or some call me Tommy Street.’
Cecilia couldn’t speak. He held her hand and his sun-baked chest was bare. He had flowers in his hair. She couldn’t say a word. She could only smile.
‘You’re Father Norvyle’s girl,’ said Tom. Cecilia nodded. ‘I seen you before.’ Cecilia blushed. ‘But you never see me.’ Cecilia frowned.
‘I see you,’ she protested.
‘Aye,’ grinned Tom. ‘Your Mam sees me too.’
Tom nodded over her shoulder. Catherine Norvyle glared at the two of them across the churchyard of All Hallowed Souls. Before Cecilia could turn to look, Tom pulled her behind a yew tree growing beside an ancient tomb dark with age.
‘Tell me your name,’ he begged. ‘No one will tell me. Maybe nobody knows. Please. Just tell me your name.’
Cecilia fought to remember how to form words, struggled to find her breath to make the sound he wanted. She felt faint and leaned back against the lichen stained tomb closing her violet eyes. Deep inside a voice unlike her own stuttered a version of her name.
‘C-C-Celia.’ Her body exhaled to him in hesitant gusts.
‘Celia.’ He inhaled the sound deeply, as if her name were a rare fragrance he remembered from long ago.
Against the hard stone tomb the boy variously called Tom pressed his hands into those of the girl he knew as Celia. Beneath their twined fingers the tomb’s wall pulsed hard once, then again in a softer echo. Like a heartbeat. Awake and alive.
Elsewhere in the churchyard the black ears of a cat called Michael flickered to attention and a white-breasted bird took flight.