A Tudor ghost story by Faith Moore
The moon shines down on the Tower of London, which squats like an ancient toad by the river Thames. Water, sloshing against the banks in the wake of a solitary ferry boat, freezes in a thin sheet on the jetty. A bitter, February wind whistles around the towers, rippling the pennants. Somewhere, a church bell is tolling the hour.
Within the tower walls the workmen are packing away their tools. They stand in silence a moment, surveying their work, before clapping each other on the shoulders and heading off to the tavern for their supper. As the echo of their footsteps dies away, the courtyard settles into silent darkness. The giant bulk they’ve left behind is a smudge on the dark, resting quietly. Waiting.
Above, in a tower room, a light is burning. The orange flicker through the leaded glass suggests a fire still burning in a hearth. Though the bitter wind and the biting cold have sent most prisoners to their beds hours ago, there is one who is still awake.
The fire in the hearth is the only light in the room. It sends the darkness to lurk in the corners and lends enormous shadows to the furniture. Dark copies of the bed, the table with the looking glass, and the solitary chair dance on the ceiling and the walls.
The only other item in the room does not belong here. It was brought at the prisoner’s request. It sits alone in the center of the floor, scuffed and stained from years of use. Tomorrow it will occupy the place of honor in the courtyard. But tonight the prisoner is practicing.
Catherine Howard stands in the center of the room dressed only in her smock. The billowing, white garment covers her entirely—the lace collar at the base of her throat, the frilled hem that brushes the floor. Her tiny, teenage form is hardly even a suggestion beneath the opaque, white fabric. Her light brown hair snakes down her back in a thick braid, tied with a strip of tattered ribbon. Her face is as pale as snow, except for the dark smudges that ring her eyes. Her full lips are open slightly, the tip of her tongue emerging to rest on her upper teeth as she looks intently at the object on the floor.
The block is the same one they will use tomorrow. She has asked that they bring it to her room so that she might practice laying her head on it. It is what she has been doing these last three hours, ever since her ladies went to bed in the room next door.
Unconsciously, she brings her thin-fingered hands up to her throat, slipping them around her neck. Her dark eyes are distant, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing. No one, seeing her now, would guess she was the wife of a king. How small and pale she would look, seated beside her husband under the cloth of estate. His “rose without a thorn.”
She takes a shuddering breath and releases it, lowering her hands to her sides and looking, again, at the block on the floor. She grasps hold of the skirt of her smock, pulling it up slightly and drawing it backwards. She slides one bare foot forward. It slips into view from beneath the hem of her smock like a cold, dead fish. Carefully, she lowers herself down to kneel on the floor. Her shadow shrinks and expands on the wall above her bed but she pays it no mind. She swallows once, the sound of it audible in the silence. Then she tilts herself forward from the waist and lays her head down in the now-familiar groove in the block’s scuffed surface. There is a pause, in which she seems to collect herself, her lips pressed tightly together, and then, suddenly, violently, she throws her arms out wide.
The fire crackles in the hearth and the shadows dance on the walls and Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, kneels at the block, her arms outstretched to symbolize that she is ready to die. She breathes in once, deeply, her eyes closed and her brow furrowed. The breath escapes her body in a steady sigh and she raises herself to her knees again. She regards the block, her eyes distant. Her hand, as if of its own accord, reaches out and fingers the indentation where her neck will go.
Her hands are at her neck again and then her face. She traces the outline of her lips, the curve of her cheekbones, the arch of her eyebrows. She pauses, her hands suspended before her. Then, with a quick intake of breath, she rises and hurries to the looking glass. She sits down on the bench before the table and leans in close to the glass. Her reflection is dark, the features shadowed and unclear. Only her eyes, glinting in the firelight, betray a face at all. She stares at her own eyes intently for a moment and then breaks her own gaze. She sighs a long, quivering sigh and pushes herself away from the table. She gets up and walks back to the block, beginning again the series of movements she will make tomorrow.
Behind her, in the mirror, a figure is still reflected. A pair of eyes catch the light and gleam out from the darkened glass. The form is lost in darkness, though it seems to be a woman. There is the shadow of long, dark hair and the bulk of a dark, flowing gown. It stands, motionless in the glass, as Catherine kneels on the floor in front of the block.
Catherine pauses as if listening. The hairs on the back of her neck are rising one by one. She rises to her feet again, standing still with her back to the looking glass. She takes in air in a tiny gasp and spins around. Her hands fly to her mouth as she catches the gleam of the other pair of eyes and the outline of another form next to her own trembling reflection. She whirls around and scans the room with darting eyes. The furniture is silent and the fire crackles as before. The room is empty.
Catherine lets out a low whimper and turns to the glass once more. The eyes are still there. The shape of someone else, still there. Catherine presses a hand to her chest and takes a tentative step toward the glass. She sees herself reflected dimly, moving closer. She puts her hands up to her face and her reflection does the same. The other reflection stands motionless. Catherine stares at the other figure standing still and silent in the mirror. Its eyes move to meet hers.
Catherine takes a step backward then stands frozen. Slowly, deliberately, the reflection lifts its hand. Catherine’s eyes are huge in the firelight. The reflection stands with its hand outstretched, its face unreadable. Then its fingers flick upwards, beckoning.
Catherine’s hands are pressed to her chest, her breath is coming in tiny gasps that rasp across her tongue and bump into her teeth. But she takes another step toward the glass. Immediately, the shape is gone. Catherine freezes and peers into the space where it had been. There is her bed, there her chair. Nothing more. She lets out her breath in a thin stream and slowly turns to face the room.
The block sits on the floor, silent. The bed, neatly made, rests against the wall. The fire crackles in the hearth. Catherine breathes again as something flickers at the window. Without thinking, her eyes follow the movement. The window glass is warped and bowed, undulating under and over the leaded diamond shapes. She has to take two steps to the right before the glare from the fire lets her see what has caught her eye. Then she begins to shake.
There is a woman reflected in the window glass. She flickers with the light and warps and stretches with the imperfections in the glass, but Catherine can see it is a woman. Her dress is rich and dark. She has long, dark brown hair flowing freely down her back. Her face is pale and pointed, her eyes a glittering brown. Her figure flickers and swims across the window pane as Catherine stands motionless, her hands tangled up in her smock as she grips the simple, white fabric.
Then, as before, the woman’s arm extends outward, her palm resting upward, and beckons for Catherine to come. Catherine’s feet are planted on the floor. Her eyes are wide and huge and dry. She stares at the figure in the window glass. The figure’s fingers flicker upwards one more time and then its arm drifts slowly back down. Catherine lets out a low moan and the woman in the window disappears.
Immediately, Catherine’s limbs are her own again and she runs to the window and looks out. The courtyard is lit by a shaft of intensely bright moonlight. It slices through the darkness, lighting up the scaffold. Catherine raises a hand and lays her palm flat on the window pane. She presses her face up to the glass and peers out into the night.
There, on the scaffold, glowing in the brilliant, white light, is a woman. She is wearing a gown of midnight blue velvet and a kirtle of silver silk. Her cloth-of-silver stomacher and sleeves look as if they were woven out of moonlight. Her hair is a glossy, dark brown and flows freely down her back in a cascade that reaches her knees. Her pale face is tilted up to the moon, her eyes closed, the whisper of a smile hovering on her mouth. As Catherine watches, the woman’s eyes open, revealing deep brown wells.
Catherine takes a slow, ragged breath and her mouth falls open. Her voice, when it comes, is barely a whisper.
“Anne . . .”
The woman looks up at the moon, smiling her secret smile, and closes her eyes again. Around her neck a pendant with a golden B glimmers in the moonlight. B for Boleyn. Her arms, in their glimmering silver sleeves, raise upwards at her sides and she begins to twirl. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, her hair flying out in a brilliant stream behind her, she spins in the moonlight. Catherine watches, mesmerized, as the woman on the scaffold spins and spins until she is nothing but a blue and silver blur. And then, as if she had never been there at all, she is gone. Leaving nothing but the ghost of a laugh.
In the morning, in the cold glare of the rising sun, Catherine places her head on the block as she has practiced. Her blindfold has slipped down on her face and she can see, through its gauzy edge, the crowd silently watching. In the quiet moment before the axe plunges downward, Catherine’s gaze locks on a pair of brown eyes set in a pale but slightly smiling face. The woman’s arm raises, palm upward, and her fingers flick forward, beckoning.
Catherine’s mouth comes open, her tongue clicking dryly against the roof of her mouth. There is a whistle of air as the axe begins its downward arc. Catherine draws in a breath and speaks her final word:
“Anne . . .”