Before Mass by Sonetka

St. Peter’s Square was a muddle of bicycles, scarves, shawls, blankets, voices, and flashlights which now
and then briefly shone full on exhausted faces. Although it was an hour and a half until Christmas Eve Mass
began and I had already got my ticket, I had thought it best to arrive early. As it turned out, I had arrived none too soon. The place was boiling over with humanity, and finding a place to sit which wasn’t either damp or icecold was a problem, but I finally managed to squeeze onto a low wall next to a group of students shouting at
each other in a language I couldn’t identify.

“Buon natale!” said the girl to my right, whose face was flushed and who was holding a small bottle of
something.
“Grazie,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t know any more Italian than that.”
“I don’t either,” she said, and laughed. “But I know more English. Of course, in English you say Happy
Christmas, not happy birthday like they do here.”
“It is a happy birthday,” I said. “It’s mine. I’m twenty-five now.”
She laughed again, and in the beam from my flashlight I noticed how pale her eyes were, almost white. “Have
you seen any ghosts yet?”
“What, should I have?”
“Oh, do they not say that where you live? It’s a superstition; they say that a baby born on Christmas Eve will
see ghosts on that day. Or perhaps she becomes a ghost, I don’t remember which one.”
“The first one sounds easier, but I must be overdue, because I’ve never seen even one.”
“It’s only a story. Drink?” She offered her bottle to me, but I told her I had my own under my coat. Mass or no
Mass, I never let strangers offer me drinks. She nodded, and introduced the rest of her group to me. I told
them my name – Veronica – and that I had come here for a vacation from the museum where I wore out my
days cataloguing the endless sheafs and boxes of things donated. They told me their names and that they
were spending the holidays on a mission to get drunk in every country in the EU, and the conversation
wandered about for a time while the square became more and more packed and the buzz of noise so loud
that eventually we stopped speaking and began simply looking. Lights were shining brighter in the basilica,
and faint strains of music were beginning to sound. I took a short, warming pull from my own tiny bottle and
straightened my shoulders. I should be tired, I thought, but I’m not. Although the lights are so bright now that I could hardly sleep if I wanted to. All of those people, hooded and cloaked and talking and laughing and why were they here … why was I here, for that matter? I hadn’t been to church in months, and yet while I was
travelling I was suddenly seized with a need to go to Christmas Eve Mass here … I had been astonishingly
lucky even to get in, the line had been enormous and there were only so many tickets … I was staring ahead
without really looking when I saw the woman approaching.

She was small, draped in a long, dark, cloak and seemed to be gliding through the crowd. It was not that they
made way for her, for none of them seemed to see her, but rather that they happened to step away just as
she passed, or turned aside to speak to someone else at the moment she walked into the space they had
just been occupying. I looked to both sides of me, but neither of my companions seemed to notice anything
out of place. A few more lamps lit up in the basilica, and I shivered.
“You see me!”
“Excuse me?” I looked up and nearly tumbled off the wall. The woman was standing before me, her hood
thrown back, and in the dancing flashlight beams I could see a thin, pale face, smudgy eyes, and the above
all, her headdress. The dark crescent, studded with pearls and gems along its edge, with a yet darker veil
behind it – it was a French hood. Were there re-enactors here tonight, I wondered stupidly. But before I could
get any further in my thought the woman snapped her fingers at me.
“Come here, I have little time. What is your name?
“Veronica.”
She looked at me expectantly, as if I hadn’t yet finished my sentence. It was then that I knew whose face that
was.
“Veronica, Your Grace.” I added.
She gave a small flick of her hand and I stood up. The people around me were continuing to talk, and none of
them seemed to have noticed that the new woman in our midst was wearing astonishingly bulky and
bedizened clothing under her cloak. The noise from the others had receded as well, and although Anne
Boleyn did not speak loudly I could hear her as easily as if we had been alone in a room together. She was
speaking in quick, staccato phrases, her accent a strange brew of French and what sounded like Irish.
“Veronique, I need your help. Every year I come here, seeking out someone born on this day, someone who
can see me, but they are not many and fewer still will listen to me. They think they are drunk, or dreaming –
oh no, you are not! Or else they think me a poor insane woman, telling lies, who wishes to trick them into
crime.”
“A crime, Your Grace?” I was quite sober enough to understand that.
“Those letters!” she cried, and for a moment her face was pure pain. “I know that they are here, but how can I
take them back again? The Bishop of Rome has no right to them – no, nobody has a right to them save
myself and His Grace, for he did write them. And yet here they are, and I cannot touch them. They have gone
forward in time, and I have not. Oh, you stupid girl, why stare at me so? I need you to get my letters back.”
I felt my legs begin to sag, but one hard stare from Queen Anne straightened me back up. “But –” I stuttered,
“But – if they’re out of your time, how can I give them back to you? Even if I could get them? Which I can’t.
You don’t know what the security is like there.”
“Nothing can go back in time, only forward,” she said, and her eyes softened briefly. “I can never have them
back. But if I cannot have them back, then they should be destroyed. I will not have them pawed over by spies
and strangers. Oh, but I could slap that Marie! How could she have done it? She was always a greedy little
creature, but to steal my letters –”
“Wait – your sister stole the letters? Mary?”
“Lady Carey,” she corrected me, unclenching the fists she had been making a moment previously as she
talked. “Yes, that was my sister Marie; she was a little thief, she would spy and steal if she could gain a
farthing by it. Poor George’s wife was more of a sister to me than Marie.”
“Jane – Lady Rochford? What’s she like, really like?”
“Very dull now. I never see her – every Christmas Eve she haunts the College of Arms, she has some letters
there which have been gathering dust since she wrote them. She wants to find someone who will discover
them and read them. Why should she wish for that? I told her so, seventy-five years ago, or perhaps it was a
hundred and seventy-five. You should be pleased that nobody pries into your letters! And you have no
perpetual rebukings from –”
“NAN!” Another figure, much larger, thicker, and also cloaked, bounded before me – as he threw off his hood,
the light from the basilica caught the masses of gold and jewels and they blazed so brightly that for a moment
the man’s face was obscured, but I didn’t need to see it – I had seen every line of it in portraits, many times.
“Every year I find you in Rome!” he bellowed, as the shady figures of other people bent and billowed around
him, avoiding him without knowing it. “In Rome, of all places! It used to be that the Pope was the last
gentleman you wished to see, but if you’ve done aught else since we died, I know nothing of it. Why not in
France, or England? There’s a Monarch’s Ball at the Louvre, wonderful! Let the letters be. You were foolish to
let them go, Nan, see here! I keep yours always on me.” He threw back his cloak and showed the leather
pouch hanging from his belt beside a short dagger, and the lights in the square made them both gleam. “A
pity the Pope should have mine, but at least now he may see how right I was to pursue our great matter.”
“And I as well,” said Anne, her voice cold yet faintly amused. “For you’ll hear little Latin at this Christmas
Mass, and you’ll find Bibles in every tongue. Why keep my letters, though? When I died, surely you
destroyed them as well.”
Even in the bad lights I could see Henry blush. “I did not care to burn them,” he said finally. “And there was
no safe place else to keep them, as you learned.”
“Your graces both,” I said, startling even myself. “Her Grace has been requesting that I take the letters for
her. I can’t do this – even if I could steal them, and I don’t think for a moment that I could, it would be
pointless.”
“Why is that?” Anne’s voice was still cold, and a little fainter than before.
“Because they’ve been printed. Scholars have put them into books, and there are copies of them, all over the
world. Millions of them. I have a copy at home, myself –” I shrank back a little as Anne’s eyes lit up with
anger, but after a moment the fire died down again.
“A pity,” she whispered, so low that only I could hear her. “And why should it be his letters, if the world must
know? Mine were ten times as beautiful, for his Grace could never abide writing for long.”
Henry was standing to the side, hands on hips, grimacing. He tapped one foot. “Come, Nan, let this be – we
have no time, see! Midnight is approaching.”
A bell rang, sounding very far away. The basilica’s lights were misty. Where were the real people, the living
people, the damp, shouting students, the girl with the colourless eyes? I froze, and so did Anne. Then she
looked into my eyes and smiled.
“Nothing goes back, only forward,” she said. “And the day is over.” She took Henry’s hand, slowly and
elegantly (with those heavy sleeves, it would have been impossible to do otherwise) and smiled again.
“Farewell.”
Their cloaks ruffled for a moment, and they were gone. As they vanished I heard a faint, soft thump, as if
something had struck the cobblestones, and a second later I realized that it was me. Suddenly the lights
were brighter, and the other people were clear and close and loud, shouting, trying to help me up, talking in
languages I didn’t know.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I tried to say, but I had had the wind knocked out of me and was grateful when the paleeyed
girl and some of her group swarmed over, lifting me by the arms and hauling me back to where I had
been sitting.
“Where were you?” she was asking. “Are you feeling well? You disappeared for a few minutes.”
“I think I saw a ghost. Or I became one. I’m not sure,” I gasped out, and she pursed her lips.
“You need to sit down. Wait! Did you drop this?”

She was holding out a small leather pouch, a short strap still looped through the top. A strap which was
freshly cut.
“No! I mean yes, yes, that’s mine. Can I – can I –”
She tossed it over and I clutched at it. I could feel stray drops of rain spattering my head, but I took the risk and peered in.
It must have aged four hundred years in the moment Anne stealthily cut the strap, with Henry’s own dagger,
no less. The leather was cracked at the corners, thin and frail in others, and I feared even to touch what was
inside. But nonetheless I opened it, and with careful effort I pulled out about an inch’s worth of a thick pack of paper. At the very edge of the top sheet, faded and creased, I could just make out that signature – the sharp, spiked A, the neat little letters following it. I pushed the papers back in and hugged the pouch inside my coat.
Far ahead of me, a choir burst out singing, and everyone around me rose. Mass had begun. I rose as well,
wondering how it would be when the pouch and letters were discovered among the uncatalogued items I was
so faithfully labouring through for the museum.

And next year, perhaps, I would visit Lady Rochford at the College of Arms.
THE END

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4 thoughts on “Before Mass by Sonetka”

  1. Dawn1st says:

    Great story, Sonetka, well worthy of a prize. A Merry Christmas to you.

    1. Sonetka says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! If there’s a competition next year maybe I can send Veronica to talk to Lady Rochford as well.

  2. Denise says:

    Wow…Got a serious case of the chills reading this, but of the best kind. 🙂 Love, love, love this and I can very easily see Anne being extremely peeved just where those letters had ended up. I always think of it as one of History’s Great Jokes actually.

    Such a fantastic story and well deserving of a prize. I hope Veronica is able to get to the College of Arms and have a chat w/Lady Rochford. 🙂

    Thank you and a Very Merry Christmas to you and yours from me and mine!! 😀

    1. Sonetka says:

      Thank you, and Merry Christmas to you as well! And yes, I agree that the universe has a slightly twisted sense of humor, as evidenced by the eventual home of Henry’s letters. And I too hope Veronica can find Lady Rochford, goodness knows the poor woman has been waiting long enough to tell her side of the story.

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