My Mother's Eyes to See,
My Father's Hand to Guide
106 Egiptians (gypsies) were condemned to death in York.
Only 9 were executed, the others able to prove their English birth.
The magistrate forced the children of the condemned to watch.
Cornella’s eyes welled with tears as she struggled against the hand on her shoulder. Far from being alone, scores of people stood before her, but every one of them was a stranger. She was standing on a high wall, the last in a line of youngsters. These children she did know. They were her fellow gypsy children.
A second hand rested on her other shoulder, pinning her firmly in place.
The people below her were gathered as though at a fair. They talked excitedly, eagerly awaiting the spectacle. Cornella felt the grip of invisible, icy fingers tighten around her chest as they began laughing and jeering, a certain indication the condemned men and women were being led to the scaffold. Nine nooses hung there. One for each gypsy who was unable to prove their English ancestry. One for each parent whose children were being forced to watch.
Powerless to struggle free from the hold of the city guardsman, Cornella screwed her eyes closed so she would not have to witness her father’s and mother’s deaths. She did not need her vision to tell her when the rope had tightened, the sound from the crowd was indication enough. They revelled in the macabre display, celebrating the deaths of these gypsies, laughing and pointing at their final spasms. Each suspended convict was accused of being naughty, idle, and ungodly but, as Cornella opened her eyes and saw the crowd, she realised they were the ones who were naughty, idle and ungodly. They were carrion monsters in human form.
Cornella’s gaze rested on her parents as her breathing choked her. Her father’s face seemed calm, as though he had expected nothing but this outcome, almost pleased it had arrived. But her mother’s eyes stared out wildly, watching forever the world from which she had been so brutally ripped. Frightened as much as she was horrified, Cornella took a step back, colliding with the guard behind her.
The children were being led away, each shoved and gripped by one of the city guards with a vehemency which spoke of mistrust and hatred. Several wept, but they were afraid to make too much noise lest they would be forced to suffer the same fate as their parents. Cornella glared at the magistrate as, ignoring the children entirely, he addressed the guards who held them.
“Find them somewhere to stay. If no one will take them, throw them back in the castle.”
The instant she felt the grip on her shoulders loosen, Cornella slipped away, rushing to a pile of crates. She crouched low, waiting long enough to watch the guards round up the gypsy children and herd them away. None of them bothered counting them. None of them cared. Rushing through the streets of York, she ducked in and out of snickleways until she became completely lost. Only then did she lean against the wall of an overhanging building, desperately drawing in deep breaths, determined to overcome the desperation and terror which was suffocating her. When she was able to regain her self-control, she glanced around, uncertain where she was. Her one solace was that, if she had lost herself, she must surely have lost the magistrate too.
Without aim or direction, she wandered through the city until nightfall, afraid to rest in case she was discovered. The streets became quiet as the sun went down, good folk staying indoors, but Cornella had nowhere to go. She stood in the shadow of the wall, where earlier she had been forced to bear witness to the brutality of the bigoted law, and stared at the figures hanging from the scaffold. Tomorrow, having paid for their invented sins with their lives, they would be buried in the churchyard’s north side which was reserved for criminals and those unshriven prior to death.
She stood. And watched. And listened. Only when she was entirely convinced that she would not be discovered did she stumble towards the bodies of her parents. Lifting her hand and placing it on her father’s bare foot, she reached to do the same to her mother, but the rageful intensity with which the corpse stared accusingly down made her withdraw the gesture.
“Watch your step, imbecile!” hissed a voice behind her, venom and scorn dripping from each consonant and drowning every vowel. “There are only a few more minutes before the city guard return.”
“Who are you?” Cornella asked, staring into the scarred face which sneered down.
“I need this one’s eyes and this one’s hand,” he announced, flicking a broad knife blade towards her mother and father. “If you squeal, you will join them.”
Cornella stepped backwards as he turned his knife on her. Her mother’s lifeless legs wrapped around her, and Cornella opened her mouth to scream. Without a moment’s hesitation, the man slashed his weapon at her, slicing her palm as she tried to fend him off. She fell to the floor of the scaffold, staring up through wide, frightened eyes as he hacked at her father’s hand until he eventually succeeded in severing it at the wrist.
“They are coming,” she sobbed, pointing her bleeding hand towards a side alley as torchlight spilled out.
Snatching her arm, the man pulled her off the wooden boards and pushed her into the space below the scaffold. She tried to breathe but his hand was gripped over her mouth, silencing her. They both watched as the four guards failed to notice the mutilated body and continued their walk down another of the city streets whose darkened mouth yawned onto the open square.
“Why did you warn me?” demanded her captor, sliding his blood-soaked hand from her face. “You could have let them take me.”
“Why did you do that to my father?” she wept in return. “Let the dead rest. He will come after you, looking for what you stole from him.”
“No. He will serve me. His hand will bring me glory.”
Cornella watched as he scuttled from their hiding place before she crawled after him. Hastily, he wrapped the severed hand in a cloth then mounted the scaffold once more to remove her mother’s eyes. She threw herself at him as he attempted to complete the macabre act.
“What are you doing?” she wailed, fighting against him. Her thin hands were clenched into fists, repeatedly striking him as his fingers reached towards her mother’s cadaverous face. But her feeble blows were no match for this man, and he pushed her aside. She slipped from the wooden surface and crashed to the ground. Above her, she could see stars: tiny pinpricks of intense white, which danced and flickered for a moment. There were more than normal and, at once, they lunged towards her, consuming her with their brilliance.
She awoke to the sound of rhythmic footfalls. The guards were returning on their rounds. There was no trace of the other man, but the cut across her palm and the deformed bodies of her parents were sufficient confirmation of how real her assailant had been. She dragged herself to the concealment of the scaffold, desperately trying to avoid the sight of her parents, and crouched there, waiting until the guards had passed through the square once more. Bathing in her own tears, she scrubbed the blood from her face and crept out into the night.
It had been foolishness which had driven her back to the square, and the terrible sight before her made her realise at what a dear price it had come. But she had returned to her parents for a purpose, and now she swore it to them. Calling on names her parents had threatened her with, Cornella swore to avenge them. Had she been only one year older she would have swung beside them. But, instead, she would be able to harvest her own form of retribution from the magistrate. She would find where he lived and she would kill him, making his own children watch as she had been forced to witness her parents’ execution.
Over several days, Cornella sought for the magistrate. A man of such wealth and rank was frequently to be seen in the city but, having found him protected and shadowed by the city guardsmen, it took a further number of days to learn where he lived. However, when she had become more confident in her determination, she uncovered the location of his opulent brick house. It looked exactly as she had imagined it: ostentatious and grand, but with a scornful expression in its glass eyes, and steps leading up to it which looked like clenched teeth. It was as repulsive as its master. Waiting until the evening darkened, she threaded her thin form through a tiny gap in the garden wall and crept towards the door.
“Good evening?” Cornella whispered in return, uncertain whether or not this young voice was addressing her.
“Who are you?” A girl only her own age dropped out of the branches of a lime tree, straightening the skirts of a beautiful dress as she landed.
“Who are you?”
“I live here, so I am permitted the right to ask all the questions. I’m Emma.”
“My name is Cornella. I was looking for help,” she lied, recognising the round features on this girl’s face from those she had seen on the magistrate. Without doubt, this was one of his children. One of the children who would watch Cornella kill him.
“Why do you need help?”
“I cut my hand.” She presented the wound which, despite the time which had elapsed, still refused to heal. “I need something to bind it.”
“You need something to clean it first,” Emma pointed out. There was an assured tone of knowledge and confidence which clipped the girl’s words, but there was no repulsion or derision. Every word she spoke was an indisputable statement of fact. “It is filthy. Come with me.”
Cornella blinked in surprise as the girl gripped her other hand with no concern for her despised background. Emma marched her towards the house, entering by the servants’ door and justifying her reasons for doing this.
“Father will not approve of my helping you. But, if you do not get this injury bound soon, it will spread to your spleen. How ever did you come by it?”
“My spleen?” Cornella repeated, choosing to ignore her question. “It is nowhere near my spleen.”
Emma only laughed, believing this to have been a joke. Guiding her onwards, they entered the washroom where, without calling for any help, Emma began to clean and bind Cornella’s hand. Cornella watched this through narrowing eyes but Emma ignored this reception of mistrust, explaining that her father had found her a position in the infirmary.
“In the wicked days,” Emma explained with all seriousness, “I might have joined a convent. But now we are free of papal rule, I can be a nurse.”
Once this treatment was concluded, Emma showed Cornella out of the house along the same route they had taken to enter. They both avoided the servants, eager not to be seen. Emma appeared to find this game very entertaining, and her behaviour did not sober until they reached the place in the garden where they had first met less than an hour earlier. As Cornella turned to leave, Emma snatched her wrist.
“Will you come again, Cornella? I have only younger brothers and they are dull and foolish.”
“Of course,” Cornella promised in return. The smile she offered to Emma was received as though it was genuine affection. In truth, however, Cornella was only amused by how easy the magistrate’s daughter was making it for her to accomplish her goal of retribution.
Over the following two weeks, Cornella visited the magistrate’s house most days. During these visits, she began learning the layout of his house, discovering the door which led directly into his study, and even trying to substantiate Emma’s story about a secret tunnel. It appeared the house had once belonged to the church and had witnessed murder before, during the bloody dissolution of the monasteries. When her new friend had explained this, Cornella began to understand the expression of hatred she had witnessed on the features of the house. Perhaps it loathed its owner with an equal intensity as the young gypsy girl did, or perhaps Cornella only wished it so. According to Emma, the priest had tried to escape along the tunnel, but the king’s men had sealed the entrances and left him to starve there. Emma’s grandfather had been gifted the house as reward for his service in these events. Cornella soaked in all of Emma’s tales, looking for the weaknesses within them and preparing for the moment she would secure justice for her parents.
But the more she learnt of Emma, the more she came to like her. The girl was no different to herself in anything but birth. And she was lonely. They talked about everything, pleased to share conversations without the prejudice of their adult counterparts. Cornella even admitted to being a gypsy and, after an initial response of shocked horror, Emma began to find it exciting.
“I wish I could introduce you to my father,” Emma said one night as she walked Cornella to the gap in the wall where she slipped in and out for their meetings.
Cornella did not reply but considered how close she was to achieving her vengeance.
“I have an idea,” Emma continued, excitement in her voice as she remained oblivious to the threat of the girl before her.
“You could wear one of my gowns. And we could say you were Lady Cornella of Athens.”
“Where is Athens?”
“In Greece. You have a Grecian colouring.” Emma laughed, allowing her idea to take shape into an entire plan. “We will do it tomorrow. My father is hosting the gentlemen of the district. He will be so distracted by them, he will never spare you a second thought beyond what I tell him.”
Vanity had never played a part in Cornella’s life. Yet, as Emma suggested this deception, she wondered how she would look in a gown. Emma could not have failed to notice she always appeared in the same clothes, stained and torn. Nor that she carried a smell unique to herself. But perhaps, with enough diligence from Emma, she really could pass as a noblewoman.
She arrived early the next morning, slipping into the garden and waiting for Emma beside the lime tree. There was an eagerness to her thoughts, pressing in on her with their giddy excitement. Emma greeted her, leading Cornella through the house and up to her own room. The party which the magistrate was hosting for the local gentry was not until the evening and, in the hours between Cornella’s arrival and her presentation before the magistrate, Emma was certain she could turn her into a lady. Besides, Emma had told her that, while her father’s attentions were turned towards building his own illustrious alliances, he would only be pleased his daughter had a companion to distract her.
They spent the morning cleaning Cornella, combing her hair, and carefully styling it. In the afternoon they dressed her. Cornella loved it. She admired herself in the glass as she tried on each one of the dresses. The laces had to be pulled to their tightest, for she was not as robustly built as Emma but, as she caught sight of herself in a deep blue and white gown, she gasped. She had never seen herself as anything more than the filth to which society had degraded her. But here she glowed with elegance and style.
“Father,” Emma began that evening, oblivious to the fact she was presenting the magistrate to his intended murderess. “This is Lady Cornella of Athens. She has donated a large sum of money to the infirmary.”
“Indeed, Lady Cornella,” he replied, bowing his head towards the gypsy while Cornella curtsied as Emma had shown her. “Then we are grateful to you.”
Following this comment, he utterly ignored Cornella. The two girls were seated at the opposite end of the long table from him, and Emma was beside herself with how they had fooled him. She continued to make comments about it throughout the evening, unaware of the thoughts which ran through Cornella’s mind.
Cornella stared at the knives on the table, willing herself to obtain the courage to use one as a weapon. Every time she stared at the magistrate, laughing, celebrating his victories, and sending food, saliva, and words across the table as he replied to his guests, she hated him enough to kill him. But whenever she felt her hand on the knife’s handle, she glanced across at Emma and her resolve abated.
It was not until the meal was drawing to a close and the topic of the law was raised, that the gentlemen thought twice about the young woman.
“This current spate of robberies must be brought to an end,” one remarked, sitting back and looking at the nodding approval from the other men.
“Sixteen houses in only a little more than the same number of days,” agreed another gentleman. “And all of the victims simply slept through it.”
“It’s magic. Those gypsies, mark my words. They should never have been spared.”
“According to the law of the land, they had to be offered the chance to leave if they were born here,” Emma’s father explained.
“And this is how they repay you.”
“Are you alright, Lady Cornella?” asked the first gentleman. “You look pale.”
“Cornella?” The magistrate repeated her name as though he was hearing it for the first time in the evening. “I know that name. You are not of Athens. You are no more a Greek than I am! You were their daughter.” He rose to his feet, shouting for his servants to seize her. A madness seemed to have caught him: a blind rage at the audacity of the creature whom he suddenly saw more clearly. “And now you trick my own daughter to gain admittance to my house? Throw her in the cellar and tomorrow she can be tried. What were your plans?”
For a moment, the rest of the people in the room faded into obscurity. Only Cornella and her parents’ murderer existed. The candle flames became steady and tall as each of the gathered guests held their breath. Cornella’s eyes burned with hateful vengeance and she pushed her chair back, preparing to advance on the man without considering how strongly outnumbered and outpowered she was. But, as Emma rose to her feet, Cornella’s anger ebbed.
“No, Father. I knew what Cornella was. I asked her to play this part. If you throw her in gaol, you should do the same to me. The deception was mine and mine alone.”
“No,” Cornella gasped, looking first at Emma and then the magistrate. “I did seek admittance to your house. And it was not only my hope but my intention to make your children watch you die, as you forced me to watch my own mother and father die. But since then, I have come to love Emma, and now-”
“How dare you address my daughter in such a casual and informal way? Take her to the cellar and have her horsewhipped until she learns her place!”
“No!” Emma screamed, watching her friend being dragged away. She pointed an accusative finger at her father. “If she is a monster, then she is a monster of your making, Father!” Shocked silence filled the room as Emma ran out, calling after Cornella who was being dragged through the hallway.
Turning her frightened face towards her friend at the sound of her name, Cornella watched in confusion as Emma collapsed to the ground. The servants who were on either side of her did the same, releasing their hold with such spontaneity that she stumbled herself.
Everything in the house became silent. Cornella watched as the candlelight was extinguished in the room from which she had been dragged. A gust of hot air, like the stale breath of a dying man, blew out each of the torches in the hallway and plunged her into an unnatural darkness.
She leaned back against the wall, sliding down it until she reached the floor. Needing the support and the reassurance of a solid, tangible touch, she listened to her own ragged breaths, the only sound to be heard. Her eyes began to adjust to the darkness, revealing the house in its entirety, only colourless and grey.
The first thing her gaze settled on was Emma’s undignified form. She had not moved from where she had fallen, and Cornella rose to her feet and rushed over to her friend, taking the girl in her arms. At first, she thought Emma was dead, but she could feel her friend’s pulse beneath her fingertips as she rested them on the side of her neck. Her heartbeat was slow and steady, and Cornella realised Emma was not harmed but only asleep. In bewilderment, she looked down the hallway and into the banquet hall. The guards who had been dragging her away; every member of the magistrate’s table; the entire house had just fallen asleep.
Cornella dragged Emma into the room with her father, kissing her forehead before walking out. This good fortune was too much to believe and Cornella knew better than to question such a thing. She closed the door and wondered how to find her way out of the house. Perhaps the tunnel was still there somewhere: a safe and unknown path through the building and into the darkened night beyond. Or perhaps this situation was of the murdered priest’s doing, and the house was simply taking its revenge?
As she stood there, trying to decide which route was best to take, she heard another sound.
From somewhere further into the body of the house, reverberating along the brick walls and throbbing through the wooden floorboards, came heavy footsteps. Each stroke hammered confidence in their even beats. This ominous pounding was threatening enough, but it was made only more petrifying as it was accompanied by echoes of muttering and maniacal laughter.
In these sounds, Cornella could hear different tones and voices. Desperate to remain silent, she leaned back against the door and clasped her hands to her face, muffling her fearful sobs. In her mind, it was the priest who roamed the house, seeking vengeance on those who had trapped him and left him to starve to death in the bowels of the building. Ghosts, she knew, could not be reasoned with and rose with only one purpose, from which they would never be swayed.
But what her eyes beheld was far worse.
A putrid light, sickly yellow, shone from the end of the room and Cornella watched in terror as a glowing hand entered the hall. Each of the fingers burnt like human candles. The palm pointed upwards, as though demanding a payment, and the thumb shone with a flame of its own. It hovered three feet from the ground, gliding through the air, which it continued to scour with it five illuminated digits. She gave a relieved gasp as she realised this horrendous apparition was not floating but being carried. But, as the severed hand’s owner stepped into view, she could not hide her fear and screamed out into the quiet house.
It was the same man she had met on the scaffold: the man who had cut open her palm and left her for dead. His marked face was one she would never forget. His skin glistened with sweat from the heat of the flames, but his scars were unique beneath this and the white marks of knitted tissue reflected the fire he carried.
But it was not solely his presence which caused Cornella to scream. It was the realisation that it was her own father’s hand which lit his way. The newcomer grabbed a string from around his neck and pointed it towards her, causing Cornella to scream once more in sheer terror. Trying to remind herself to breathe, she panted in shallow mouthfuls of air as she realised this gruesome talisman was formed from the remnants of her mother’s eyes.
“Be quiet, child,” hissed the man. As he spoke, he shook his head, tipping it slightly to one side as though he was trying to rid himself of a thought and believed he could tip it free from his skull. “How are you awake? The hand of glory should render sleep to all those beneath the roof.”
“I do not know,” she stammered, too afraid to venture further words. Her voice trembled and she was unable to take her eyes from the two hideous reminders of the mutilation of her parents’ corpses.
As though determined to force her gaze upon them, he lifted the eyes once more. They stared forward, somehow even more intensely than her mother’s death stare had allowed. She pressed her hands over her face once more, leaving just enough room between her spidery fingers to peer through and see the man’s face, without being forced to look upon her mother’s gaze or her father’s hand.
“Ah, now I see,” he laughed, his voice morphing into her mother’s for only a moment, causing her to lower her hands and stare in confusion. “The eyes. They show me you are immune to this spell. They see you and whisper to me all you are, Cornella.”
“How do you know my name?” She tried to coax her voice to work, but her words came out as little more than stilted sounds riding the crest of frightened breaths. It did not matter, for the strange man scuttled towards her, encouraging her to lower her hands and pull herself to her feet, determined to meet the creature who had enslaved her parents at his own level. Despite his appearance, she realised he was scarcely the same man she had met the month before.
“They whisper to me,” he repeated, cackling in his madness. “Can you not hear their voices? Always lighting my way. Always showing me my path. And they tell me other things. For I know, too, that you are protecting the man you swore to kill. I can kill him for you, little one. He is helpless while your father’s hand burns.”
A realisation, heavy and condemning, dropped down on her, and she whispered: “You robbed those sixteen houses. You have turned my parents in death into what he accused them of in life. You are no better than him.”
By the time Cornella had finished this tirade, her voice had grown in strength and denunciation. She spread her thin arms across the doorway as though she had the power to stop his plan but, rather than hinder him, this defiant act made him angry. His lips pulled back in a sneer and the skin around his scars reddened in the glow of her father’s hand.
“Get out my way,” he snarled, ripping her from the door and pushing it open. He skipped into the room and opened his arms wide, performing a capering dance around the full perimeter of the table. Every man who sat there was locked in peaceful slumber. They were all unaware of the horror which was taking place around them, blissfully ignorant in their own dreamworlds. Cornella made a snatch at the man, but his ravings had given him an unearthly agility and he skipped away from her with ease.
“But see how the jewels glisten in this room,” he continued. “On their fingers, around their necks, and in their purses. And you, little one, you provide the perfect scapegoat.”
Cornella watched in confusion which escalated into fear as he snatched the knife from his belt, the same knife with which he had severed her father’s hand and sliced her own palm. But this time, he pounced forward at her, sinking the blade into her side. Her world became distorted by terror and tears. Through this, she watched as he set the burning hand on the table, like a horrific candelabra, and moved nimbly from man to man, pulling rings from their fingers and pushing their purses into a sack.
Having completed his round of robbery, he looked back at the gypsy girl and laughed. But his gaze drifted to the body which lay beyond her. His smile broadened, becoming almost skeletal in the fetid light. With the graceful movements of Death itself, he swept towards Emma. Seeing this, Cornella positioned herself between her friend and the thief, holding her bloodied hand out to stop him advancing.
“Leave her,” she stammered.
“Get out of my way!”
“No.” With grim defiance, Cornella forced her hand to remain raised. She could feel dizziness battling against her conscious senses, but she would not let him rob or harm her friend. “As my mother’s eyes saw me,” she whimpered, trying not to look at the strung eyeballs around the man’s neck, “my father’s hand has sheltered me. That is why I did not succumb to sleep. That is why I know he will shield me now.”
Deep within the house, something stirred. Creaking could be heard as though the building was drawing in a deep breath. Cornella was pushed back against Emma’s sleeping form by a gale which blew into the room as the house exhaled. Each one of her father’s fingers were extinguished, sending out coils of twisting smoke which dispersed into the air around the gentlemen, teasing them from their slumber. She felt Emma twist awake beneath her, and heard her penetrating scream as her eyes rested on Cornella’s wounded form.
Unable to lift herself to her feet, Cornella sufficed to point her finger towards the scarred face of the thief. The magistrate’s guests were quick to draw daggers or raise knives as they saw the sack hanging from the man’s shoulder. Now the hand of glory had been extinguished, he was trapped inside the room with his victims, and each one of those victims had suddenly become his jury.
“They will have you hanged from the same scaffold as your father and mother,” the robber spat, kicking out at Cornella.
He was correct, of course. The man whose house she was in would only have to wait scarcely two more months before she was of age to hang there. But, as Emma gripped her hand and supported her head, Cornella remained proud that she had defied the thief. He was being led away, down the route she had been dragged along only precious minutes earlier, cursing Cornella on her parents’ behalf. But she shook her head. Her parents would not rebuke their child for taking justice in such a way: in breaking the heart of the magistrate’s daughter with her own death as Cornella had been left distraught in their own execution.
“Father, she saved us! Help her please,” Emma begged, ignoring all the other chaos in the room, but concentrating entirely on the friend in her arms.
Cornella watched as the magistrate stepped into her vision, smoothing her black hair from her face with one hand while he pressed his other against her side to try and stem the bleeding.
“Cornella?” he whispered, drawing her ebbing consciousness back into the room. “Thank you.”
Breathing out, Cornella offered him a tired smile. Her expression dropped and her eyes widened as one of the gentlemen moved over to the hand which still rested on the table. He was holding a candle close to it, the flame reaching down to its outstretched fingers and, before Cornella could muster the strength to speak, the hand set alight. Stretching forward, she willed herself to reach the table, to take and be guided by her father’s hand as she had been on so many occasions.
The magistrate and his daughter, as well as each one of the guests, fell into the grasp of the hand of glory. By the time they awoke, it was daylight outside. There was a confusion within the room, none more so than the magistrate himself as he looked down at his daughter, whose dress was seeped in the blood of another. There was a vacancy on the faces of each gentleman there as they emptied a sack of loot, reclaiming jewels and purses which they argued were their own. Each turned accusative expressions towards their host, blaming him for this attempt of theft.
Order could not be maintained until Emma rose to her feet and looked around her in a conflicting state of fear and bewilderment. Her three words silenced the room in their nervous tone, and every gentleman turned to face her, their expressions matching her own.
“Where is Cornella?”