NEEDLES by Lisa Tecoulesco
Tudor Ghost Story Contest Winner 2011
Edward Tudor, from his royal cradle to his early grave, was plagued by needles. A lone, long, vicious pin was tucked into his bedding sometime during his first night on earth, another fastened to the robes prepared for his christening. They were later found in his little shoes, clothes, plumed hats, even in the bread he would have eaten. Many a servant and maid were threatened and released from service over this repeated occurrence, but as time passed, it became clear the source of the needles was not of this world. It seemed, rather, that some phantom was intent on pricking the precious jewel of a child. Thus, each time one appeared it was quickly removed and they were never spoken of, especially in front of the king.
Edward himself never knew of their existence. Let us think then upon the young prince’s bewilderment as he was thrust into this other world, unseen though so intimately concerned with him, at the very tender age of four on the late afternoon of a warm May day in the year of our Lord 1541.
Lady Bryan had organised a walk along the wood bordering Ashridge Castle where the bluebells were turning the forest floor into a fairy tapestry of lavenders and blues outshining the work of the finest Turkish or Flemish looms. And though night was making itself known, the air was so refreshing and the chatter of birds so appealing that none had the desire to quit this earthly paradise. Likewise, no one took notice of what unnaturalness, the orange sun, dying low in the sky and surrounded by a bloody scarlet haze, might portend.
Majestic beech, ash and cherry trees were happily stretching their furled green fingers to the sky when all at once the breeze that animated them stopped; the birds too left off their song. An unnatural silence spread far into the distance along with a cold menace. Mist, white and cottony, seeped out from between the trees, filling the lane with a fog so unseasonably cold the smell of its emptiness was painful.
Creeping outward, the white shroud soon enveloped the entire party, causing all who came in contact with it to grow torpid and slip limply to the ground in slumber.
Only Edward remained unaffected. A robust, clever boy, he was nevertheless too young to be more than amazed by the snowless blizzard he found himself in, that reddened his plump pink cheeks and left him waving his arms about in front of his face in search of his fingers. He gave no thought to the danger he might be in as the mist wrapped around him like the wings of a fallen angel and then thinned a bit, leaving him in the centre of an alabaster ring.
“Prince Edward!” a voice, faint yet clear, called to him from the mist, a voice that slid deliciously down his spine, mesmerizing him into motionlessness.
“Prince Edward, come here!” he heard again and, being too young to fear, he turned and took a few cautious steps into the nothingness towards the sound. Without warning he felt someone grab his wrist. He watched wide-eyed, too startled to call out, as the hand and the body of a woman materialized before him.
She was like no woman the prince had ever seen; almost entirely silvery white barring long auburn hair that fell dark and glossy to her waist. She wore a simple, elegant gown and her movements were preternaturally graceful. Skin like marble shone radiantly, but her dark brilliant eyes, despite their loveliness, carried not a hint of warmth.
“What a beautiful child you are,” she purred softly grazing his face with her long, cold fingers, “Almost perfect. Tell me, has a good little boy like you got a needle?”
Edward shook his head.
“What no, needle?” she enquired mildly reproachful, “After all the times I have given you one.”
“I have no needle. I am sure of that,” Edward answered unable to take his eyes off the beguiling woman.
“That saddens me,” she said, kneeling to look him directly in the face, “for you need one and I have given you many.”
“I am sorry for your sadness, but I must insist I have received none from you.”
The gravity of his reply occasioned a chilling smile. “That must change. Be a good boy and take this,” she intoned placing a perfectly straight copper needle into his hand. “But be careful with it. We would not wish for you to hurt yourself.”
He stared at the strange gift, “Why do I have need of it?”
“Why indeed? You, young prince, must learn to sew!”
“Sew? Why should I sew?” Edward narrowed his eyes. “I will be king of England!”
“Well, your future majesty,” she answered, “no one should sit on the throne if they cannot sew.”
“My father is king and he does not sew!”
“A tragedy that must be corrected! If you learn to sew, you can teach him!”
“If he commands me to do so,” the boy replied, though his nose wrinkled at the thought.
“He will,” she said with a rueful laugh, “whether he knows it or not.” Then softly ruffling his reddish golden hair she was gone.
As suddenly as the mist had appeared it cleared, leaving only a simple spring evening behind. Edward’s nurses began shaking themselves awake and Lady Bryan called him to her. Upon seeing the needle clutched tightly in his chubby fist she gasped.
“Where did you find that?”
“I did not find it. It was given to me by a beautiful woman who told me to learn to sew. Am I to learn to sew?”
“Not one word more! No talk of needles or sewing! And God have mercy on us all,” she said crossing herself. She took the abhorrent object from his hand. Though nothing more was said, the next morning a needle pinned to his pillow was the first thing Edward saw.
Needles continued to make their unwanted way into Edward’s life. He grew to accept this and was only mildly aggravated by them. The memory of the ghostly woman, as happens in the natural course of growing up, grew faint and indeed Edward had already reached his ninth year by the next time he saw her.
Let us rejoin him, taller and more serious, on a January day, soon after the celebration of the New Year, enjoying a walk along the edge of the River Lea. He had been inside pouring over his studies all morning and was now enjoying the fresh, if cold, air outside. The early afternoon sun, a dangerous yellow mix of hot and cold in the sky, watched over him when, as had happened before, a heavy stillness descended and all noise came to an abrupt end. Though bundled up against the cold, the boy shivered and he swallowed hard as a thick vapor drifting towards him from the water stirred his memory.
The partially frozen bluish liquid turned instantaneously into a thick, murky sheet of ice; from its glassy surface the downy mist billowed, thickened, rolling, swirling midair. Wisps of white curled around the prince and he glanced down at the feet he had no hope of moving, however much his fear prompted him to. He heard nothing save his own heavy breathing as pearly white she emerged from the haze accompanied by two colourless greyhounds. Edward, wise enough to know she was a shade, marvelled at how small she was and despite the prickly feeling of terror, he had a great desire to touch her shimmering dark red hair.
“Dear Prince! How you have grown! I can hardly believe my eyes!” Her voice was like the ringing of a bell and the tips of her fingers icicles as she caressed his face.
“I have seen you before. I remember, but much escapes me.”
“You were quite small then, but thoughtful. You still are. I imagine you learn well.”
“Yes, I have the best tutors and soon I will be even cleverer than my sister.”
“Saying a thing does not make it so,” her icy tone dampened his pride and nourished his uneasiness. “When I visited you before, I entreated you to learn to sew. Have you?”
“I have not, nor will I. I have been taught many things, but of that I have no need!”
“Obstinate child! Have you kept none of the needles you have been given?” Her eyes flashed sharper than the point of the tool itself.
“No. They are taken. Nor do I wish for one. It is evil whatever puts them there.”
“Evil? Is everything you do not understand evil?” She let out a long sigh, “You have not then taught your father to sew.”
“Of course not. He is king. He does no work with a needle.”
“I tell you he needs a needle!” she bellowed out in rage inciting frosty droplets of ice to fall upon them like snow. “Oh, but it is too late now! All is over for him. I only came to warn you.”
“Warn me of what?”
“Take this,” she hissed handing him the largest needle he had ever seen, “for your father is near death. If you have no chance to give it to him while he lives, then you will have to deliver it after he has perished. Doubt what I say at your own peril my prince, for if we meet again, it will not go well for you!” She was gone before he could blink, leaving behind a silence powerful enough to rip the world in two.
Edward dropped to his knees struggling against the heart threatening to beat out of his chest and the hot coppery smell of blood in his nose, to breathe. By the time he regained sufficient composure to rise, turn, and walk home, the mist had completely disappeared. The brass needle, it must mournfully be reported, remained on the ground lost among the frozen brown leaves.
The death of his father brought great changes in Edward’s life, leaving him no time to think of the ghostly woman or her sharp gifts. Mercifully, their appearance waned to the point of non-existence and he truly came to believe he had outlived such visitations. Thus six years passed.
We meet Edward again, now king, lying in his bed on a savage winter night. January was coughing a consumptive gale that rattled the windows of Whitehall palace and the swarthy-faced and starless sky pelted the world with sleet. Pitch blackness reigned as if the moon itself were hiding, while inside Edward watched as the ominous wind sent fantastic shadows from his flickering candle to play upon the tapestry covered walls. A temporary lull allowed a tap, tap, tap on the window to be heard.
The sour taste of old milk formed at the back of Edward’s throat. The tapping continued and then scratching sounds as fingernails were run down the glass. Edward looked at the window, first seeing only a white haze before two burning eyes, almost black, appeared followed by her white and wraithlike face. He shuddered, but bravely rose.
“Edward, good king, let me in!”
“Never,” he answered with the shake his head. Behind him he heard something fall to the floor. Click, click, click needles fell onto the floor; bone, copper wood, steel, brass needles were suddenly raining down upon him with such intensity he had to cover his head with his arms.
“I demand to be let in!” she cried her voice both fearful and alluring in its intensity. Reluctantly, Edward pushed the casement outwards and she was in.
“Face me Edward, it is time.”
Edward turned towards her but not before snatching something from the table by his bed.
“You must deliver two things to your father.”
“My father is dead! You, who may well have been the cause of it, know that. Why, therefore, are you here to torment me?”
”You accuse me of the death of your father! Be silent for such absurd fantasy does not become you.”
“In the name of Jesus,” he cried producing a jewel encrusted cross from behind his back, “I demand to know why you are here!”
Her eyes passed over the gold ornament and the shaking hand that held it.
“You have the piety of a young man but I have the faith of a woman. Put that away as I revere it more than you,” and turning her slender neck in the direction of the window she continued, “Though dead your father stands before us.”
Edward looked out the frosted glass at the very moment the moon chose to make its appearance allowing him to glimpse his father in the courtyard. All white and of monstrous girth he appeared to be searching for something, then feeling the eyes of his son upon him he turned to gaze upwards at Edward.
“It cannot be!” the young king stammered involuntarily.
“Yet, it is. Shall we go to him?” Before she could finish her question Edward had rushed from the room tearing through the long hallways dressed only in his nightclothes. Once again all within the palace were in a state of stupor unaware of his plight. As Edward stepped outside the coldness of the night stopped him. The icy air was painful; he coughed deeply the effort racking his thin frame.
Suddenly she was before him. “Hold out your hands!”
He did staring so intently in the direction of his father he barely felt the steel needle she dropped into his palm.
“Be quick! Take him the needle and this!” she screeched.
Edward turned at the hideous sound that followed and doubled over. His stomach contracted and he swallowed what was rising in his throat for she held in her outstretched arms her own head forcibly wrenched from her neck. Thick crimson rivulets oozed from the wet pulpy stump, staining her gown in sickening patches. “Take it,” roared the gruesome mouth and he numbly stretched out his arms a second time. It was heavy. Her ice cold blood felt oily, and he could but stare in horror at the repugnant, slippery object in his hands.
“Let it be as it should be,” she told him before closing her eyes. Then her face relaxed as her body turned and began slowly walking toward Henry. Edward dropped both the ghastly object and the needle in his haste to reach his father.
Around Henry the mist was thickening into the forms of separate bodies, all mutilated, most headless. Ignoring the bone chilling cold Edward approached. All around him desperate, agonizing groans were heard, as scattered over the ground heads and other body parts began to materialize.
“Let me see you my son! Already a man! Speak, did you bring me a needle?”
No question could have astonished the prince more. “Have I been cursed? Father, why on earth do you wish for a needle?”
“It is not for the sake of this world but the next, my precious son. Listen and learn from my wrongdoings. To my shame, I am doomed to sew onto these good people the very heads I did so cruelly and unjustly remove from them. I have been so judged.”
Edward’s eyes soaked in the bloody stains on his father’s hands. “I am king now. I will put an end to this.”
“A far more powerful king is he,” Henry solemnly conceded, “that has demanded this. You can do nothing to benefit me save hand me the needle to begin. I work until sunrise, seemingly for naught for they always return headless at nightfall. Yet I maintain hope that if I do my task diligently, some day God may grant me mercy by relieving me of it. Enough, my son, I can bear their moaning no longer! I must commence but cannot without a needle. Have you one for me?”
“I did, your majesty, but I dropped it.”
“Then, please, I beg of you, go back for it.” The great man sank to his knees pressing his white hands against his ears to silence the sobbing and wailing that seemed the very soul of the night.
Edward tuned and ran back to the door where not only the needle was waiting. Though exhausted, he knew what he must do. With his right hand he picked up the steel fiend and then, though loath to touch her, he picked up the head by the hair, curling his fingers into the thick mane to form a fist near her skull. It hung heavy and swung nauseatingly against his thigh.
At last Edward drew near his father who was placing bodies in neat rows, “I have a needle and this!” he said thinly, offering the hideous appendage to his father who turned at the sound of his voice. Henry took it gravely. The exertion, however, had been too much for the young sovereign who collapsed on the ground, his face flushed from a fever raging inside his chest.
Henry stared hollowly at the head before clutching it to his breast. He slowly knelt by his son, placing one hand tenderly on his burning brow. He turned his face towards heaven, “This head was required for your birth, and now I fear it has in turn required your death. Arise, my son! Go inside, quickly!”
Edward rose and staggered towards the palace but fell again convulsing in shakes and shivers. They found him the next morning insensible but alive, just inside the doorway. Sadly, despite the best efforts of his physicians the chill never released him and within six months he was dead.
Thus ends our melancholy account of Edward Tudor, whose short life, as in gentle truth are both yours and mine, was a single thread in a cloth woven in two worlds. Let us leave him now in peace, except to note in passing that when told of her brother’s death, Lady Elizabeth wiped away her tears with a kerchief she herself had sewn.