. . .
Excerpt from Death at St. Vedast by Mary Lawrence. Reprinted with permission of Kensington Books.
. . .
London, December 1543
She would touch the moon.
Her bare feet met the hard earth, and the cold shot through her legs and spine. The shock alone would have startled most to their good sense. Yet she seemed oblivious to her feet turning blue against the ground. The linen smock she wore was of thin against December’s breath—a breath blowing in gusts and catching her hair, twisting it like ribbons. Her neck bent at an unnatural angle and she saw the road slant like milk being poured from a jug. She adapted her steps to this tilted horizon—a toe striking the road, then the flat of her foot, so that she appeared to be dancing to a tune only she could hear.
No one was out at this devilish hour—save for a man burying the corpse of his beloved dog and a drunk cursing the cold as it bit at his face. Most slept huddled beneath layers of wool and fur, their bed curtains pulled tight. Heated stones at the feet of beds grew cold and were irritably kicked to the floor. Tallows guttered in pewter holders, snuffling from a draft through a window.
Though the silence of the night was broken with the occasional lowing wind, only a few heard the loud intrusion of the woman’s discordant singing. Her raucous song was mostly nonsense, neither patter nor sea , but instead was an eerie chorus, ranging higher than the screech of a gull and just as shrill. Thinking her drunk, those restless enough to bother shouted from opened windows.
“Stupid trug! Are ye mad with French pox?” yelled one.
“Stop your mouth! It reeks like a common sewer,” yelled another. Playwrights grew imaginative when roused from dreams.
But to these insults she gave not a care.
Indeed, she did not seem to give a care about anything.
She dipped and careened, angled toward a front door and curtsied low before it. The door was closed and remained so. This she found comical, and she burst out laughing.
If only her laugh were as pleasant as her song.
She found amusement in her own hilarity and shrieked loud enough to set dogs baying two streets over. But then she tired, ran out of breath, and resumed her macabre dance down the road—toe to heel. Toe to heel.
Turning the corner, she spied the Queen Moon peering down from above. Such ethereal beauty should not be ignored. A shame that man preferred the company of the sun over her sublime charm. Not many chose to keep court with her celestial grace. Think on what they missed!
The woman could not bear to shun her lovely companion. She wished to climb to the heavens and kiss her round face. And why not? Had her mistress moon not kept her company on many a sleepless night?
Her shoulder spasmed, then rose to her ear and stayed there. She continued her dance, and when a dog stepped from the shadows to growl at her, she growled back.
A man, hearing that song, hearing the dogs bark, sought the source of the commotion. He came upon the woman and the dog and stopped. He stood a moment, glanced down at his feet to make sure they had ceased walking, and waited for his body to obey and cease swaying. He knew better than to finish off the dregs of any barrel left behind the Crooked Cork, but it was a cold night and he had no woman to go home to. Indeed, he had no home. His gaze returned to the snarling pair in front of him.
“What is this? A dog on four and one on two? This is not the song of maids,” he said, hoping the young woman might desist her gnarring and notice him.
Alas, she did not, and she thrust her jaw forward, trying to outmenace the slobbering cur. With arms outstretched and fingers curved like claws, she redoubled her efforts, growling ever louder.
The man took a tentative step forward. “For whatever bones the two of you must chew, I beg do not subject me to that grisly sight. It is too late for such sport, and you stand between me and my rest.” He where he stood, waiting for the maid to reply.
It appeared that the dog possessed better judgment. The animal probably sensed that this woman was a bizarre creature better left alone. Besides, she produced more saliva, and though she lacked long canines, probably the dog knew humans often possessed longer knives. The dog backed away and at a safe distance turned tail.
The poor sot breathed a sigh of relief. He was just about to speak when she turned her back on him and lurched forward. Down the lane she ambled, her unusual gait making him wonder if she might be a , the way her spine curved like a fisherman’s hook. His curiosity niggled him to follow. He hurried to catch up but trailed a few steps behind in case she decided to suddenly turn and gnarl at him.
Four parish churches abutted Foster Lane, not counting the ones tucked behind yards and chantry chapels. The woman stopped beside St. Vedast and leaned back, running her gaze up its exterior. Near the top, the Queen Moon peeked from behind the steeple.
The woman found the limestone less luminous than her mistress’s face, but it was smooth and cool to her touch. She rested against the building. In so doing, she finally noticed the drunk.
She did not voice a thought or start from surprise. Intrigued by his presence, she simply stared.
. . .