Lizzie awoke in the black belly of a room. The ropes creaked beneath the straw mattress as she rolled into a crouching position and stood up. She walked to an oak lectern in the far corner where a large black book lay just inside the perimeter of a cone of light that showered from an opening in the ceiling. She opened the book to a dog-eared page found in the last section and mouthed, ″Jesus sayeth to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the Father, but by me.” Then closing her eyes, she repeated each word, inhaling it, as if it were a spirit whose holiness would fortify her against her loneliness.
She slowly rotated, stared into the darkness and, her cotton smock wafting loosely against her skin, counted off twenty steps. A baritone droning of people's voices outside muted the flapping of her soles on the cold tile floor. At the twentieth step, she extended her arms and touched a brick wall, damp and cold, with outstretched fingers. Pushing off the wall, she turned and took ten steps back to where daylight had stenciled a primitive face of two round eyes and an upturned mouth on the floor. She stooped, twisting to her right, and, closing one eye, peered with the other through one of two holes in the wall then repeated the process with the other hole. My world through the eye of a needle, she thought. Frustrated, she stooped to gaze through the supine crescent opening just below. A sunlit morning exploded and burst into the dark cave entrance, interrupted, here and there, by a truncated stalactite or stalagmite.
Below, thousands of people were swarming from Little Britain to the North and Angel Street to the South. The two strands twined and condensed into the center of the park on Aldersgate Street. A young man, just a couple of years older than Lizzie, maybe twenty, was running in and out of the crowd, from one person to another. He was grabbing their shoulders and directing them to a bearded man in a loose-fitted olive green jerkin and black flat hat who stood at the entrance to the park below Lizzie's room. The bearded man held a leather-bound book in his right hand high above his head. She knew the man only as the "actor."
The actor was looking up at the brick façade and pointing to the medallion-shaped gargoyle down-spout, its jagged-toothed grin ballooning its cheeks and burying its beady eyes.
As Lizzie watched the crowd below, there was a clatter on the roof and the room went dark. A chill had begun to bead across her skin when a muted shout came from a silhouette above.
"Are you ready, Lizzie? They've come to hear you. There are thousands of them."
For Lizzie, the aroma drifting from this silhouette evokes an image of a square jaw, large brown eyes and curly black hair. It lowers a basket through the opening in the roof where, a week ago, she descended by way of a rope ladder. The basket is filled with kippers, bread, a waterskin, rosemary soap and a wash-cloth. Lizzie unhooks the basket, exchanges it with her chamber pot and tugs on the braided cord. A few minutes later she receives a pot of orange peel water for her sponge bath. She sits with her back against the inside wall, stretches out her legs and tries to touch the opposite wall with her toes. Looking up at the silhouette, she begins to eat.
"Do you remember Anne's words?" the voice asks.
"I do," she replies.
"Are you filled with the Spirit?"
"What will you tell them?"
"I will reveal the papists as the Antichrists. I will disrobe the Whore of Babylon."
"That's right. You'll do what Anne couldn't. You'll make the country great again."
"Not I but faith will make the country great again. It has nothing to do with me. I'm just a vessel of the Lord."
Lizzie bows her head, dips her hands into the scented water and wipes her face.
"Still, I'm afraid," she says, "I worry what'll happen to me . . . to us . . . if I'm found out."
"If we're successful, no one will know your name, Elizabeth Crofts."
"I'm scared that Anne's fate will be mine as well," she says.
"Just do as we've practiced. Look for the actor's sign," the voice tells her.
Lizzie looks up at the shadow in the ceiling and smiles.
"John, once I've done this, will we be together again?"
"My angel, as we've discussed, when we've completed the Lieutenant's plan, he'll appoint me alderman of a small town. We'll marry. You'll teach and I'll govern. Our life will be bountiful."
"Although I want to believe that the Spirit will be our bounty, I have doubts. The only surety is that without you none of this means anything to me."
"Soon, Lizzie, soon. We'll be together soon. Have faith."
Lizzie senses an impatience in John's voice but wants him to linger. She taps her forehead gently with her forefinger.
"John, remember to bring yarn this afternoon," she tells him, "I want to knit a bonnet, a fancy one, for our reunion."
"I'll remember. I must go."
A white smock floated to the floor beside her, the light returned, the room warmed and became quiet.
Then Lizzie entered the light, removed her smock, squatted above the pot and bathed. Finished, she put on the new smock and emptied the bath water into the drain in the far corner. The container was to be her chamber pot that day and returned tomorrow.
Before last month and since the age of seven, Lizzie served as a maid in the Lieutenant's household. Her mother had put her under the Lieutenant's guardianship. Together with another servant, John Drake, she learned to read and write. At sixteen she began studying the poetry of the martyr, Anne Askew, and writing anti-papist flyers. She crafted the words of the pamphlets in the plain, direct language of the people in the street.
"No need for pomp, just the simple words of the Lord," the Lieutenant taught them.
At seventeen, Lizzie was inducted into a small group of loyal reformists: an actor, a clerk and John. She recorded the minutes and helped John organize local meetings. Together, they studied the speeches of the Scotsman, John Knox, and how to work a crowd. The two became inseparable. In the evenings, they reviewed the minutes in the loft of the Lieutenant's manor. It was there that they structured a plan to engage their supporters to overthrow the Queen. Inevitably, they spoke of their lives after the reformation and morning would find Lizzie's head on John's chest.
Then nine months ago, the Lieutenant called Lizzie and John to his study.
"Edward has died. His Catholic sister has ascended the throne. Word is she plans to marry that Spanish papist, Philip. We've only six months to turn things around. John, call the group together."
In the following months, the Lieutenant had a false wall built on the third floor of a building across the street from the municipal park on Aldersgate Street. The bed, lectern and, later, Lizzie were lowered from the roof through an opening about the size of a basement window. Word spread that the voice of an angel could be heard coming from the mouth of a terracotta gargoyle. At first, it was curiosity that drew people to the park. Then the rumor of a talking angel ran up and down the streets of neighboring towns and the crowd grew. Intoxicated with religious fervor and convinced they were hearing the voice of an angel, the believers waved their arms wildly to the rhythm of its condemnation of the royal administration. John, moving amongst them, organized protests; the straight-haired clerk, dressed in a loose white chemise untied at the neck, solicited signatures from recruits; and the bearded actor feigned conversations with the gargoyle.
This morning, the actor, black book in his right hand, looks up at the gargoyle and shouts. Lizzie can see him but strains to understand him. Nevertheless, she knows that as long as the response is from the book, it'll be fine.
"Lord, fill me with the spirit of Sister Anne and let me be with my John again," she prays and reaches out and clenches the spiral contour of a long, hollow wooden tube that leans against the wall. She closes her eyes, puts the shaft to her mouth, puffs out her cheeks and vibrates her lips against the circular mouthpiece. The people below become still and listen to the deep rhythmic grunting that emanates from the monster's grin.
"Listen," the actor yells, the angel is speaking."
"Listen," someone in the crowd repeats, "the angel's speaking." A single-syllabled awe ripples through the spectators like the sound of an ocean wave filtered through the forest .
″Jesus sayeth to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the Father, but by me,” Lizzie intones.
"Do you hear? the actor says, "The power of God is not in works but in faith. The pallium and embroidered chasuble are but corrupted symbols of God's power. Listen, listen to the angel."
"Mary, Whore of Babylon, beware." Lizzie mouths into the tube then looks through one of the two holes in the wall. The clerk is handing out pamphlets with the words Lizzie had written, convinced that they were words the Lord had breathed into her quill.
The air of the room has become still and heavy now. She feels weak and leans the tube against the wall in front of her, then walks to the stand and runs her index finger across then down the pages to find another verse.
Throughout that morning, she and the actor repeated their performance. In the afternoon, the actor began to preach, exhorting the crowd to join the revolution, overthrow the hypocrites and retake their country in the name of the true Lord.
Meanwhile, Lizzie sits on the floor tapping her fingernails against the wooden tube and waits. Her stomach knotted and hollow, she wonders what is taking John so long. Groping for calm, she begins to imagine herself with John surrounded by children in a home of their own. But her daydream is suddenly shattered by footsteps on the roof. She thinks he's finally come but a shadow passes over and hovers above for just a moment before light returns and with the light, silence. She knows it wasn't John and wonders who it was.
A few hours later, the cooing of reverence across the street became cries of fear. Peering through the crescent opening, Lizzie watched men on horseback enter the park and begin rolling the crowd away. A constable grabbed a man that looked like John by the shoulder and was beating him with a club. She recoiled and curled up on her mat. By sunset the crowd had disappeared.
She buried her head in the bedding, leaving her body to twist and turn. She moaned deeply to drown out the scraping and chipping that had begun to echo from the other side of the inner wall. She began to feel as if she were spiraling down a shaft, falling and falling until the clinking of pieces of brick on the tile floor suddenly suspended her descent with a jerk and light burst into the room.
"God, it stinks in here," mutters someone who, seized by a coughing spell, waves away the dust of the pulverized brick.
"Here she is," a gruff voice calls out.
Officers in tight leather vests emerge from the wall, fill the room and point their pistols at Lizzie.
"What kind of crazy do we have here?" one of them asks.
"Must be the Angel," another one says.
"Angel or imp?" laughs the first one.
Lizzie stands straight, her back flush against the outer wall and glares at them.
"I'm the servant of the one true Christ," she says.
"An imposter you are," shouts a heavyset bearded officer.
"You're the imposters," Lizzie tells them.
"Won't you just listen to little Annie Askew," one of the men says as he winds a rope around her wrists.
"What are you doing to me? Where's John?" she screams.
"I imagine that'd be John Drake. We'll point him out to you on the way to the tower."
Outside the building, the officers placed another rope around Lizzie's neck, ran it through the one tying her hands and attached it to their cart. She was to follow them on foot. As they started, the cart jolted forward and the rope tightened. No one turned to see that she had tripped and fallen to the ground tearing her smock at the knees. The cart dragged her along the stone street shredding her blood-stained robe. She violently tugged at the rope, kicking wildly until she could bring her legs under her, pull herself to her feet and quicken her pace to keep the rope slack.
"There he is, Missie, your John Drake himself," cried one of the officers pointing to his right, "Over there, standing on the scaffolds at St. Paul's Cross."
Lizzie turned to see three men on the platform, heads bowed like the broken necks of geese above a butcher's stand. She recognized his curly black hair and stocky body. An acidic stench rose in the back of her throat, gagging her. She swallowed hard and told herself to keep the faith, they'd be together soon.
The cart stopped and the officers pulled and prodded her up a flight of steps until, pushed from behind, she fell to the floor of a limestone cell.
The room was larger than the one on Aldersgate Street. Sunlight entering through a barred window revealed an oak writing desk and bed of down. Exhausted, she collapsed onto the bed and, hounded by the screams and shrieks of women, succumbed to darkness.
Hours later, she awoke to the clanging of rattling chains. The door opened and a small flame floated towards her.
"Make yourself decent, little Miss Angel. There's a gentleman to see you."
The door thundered shut. Footsteps approached Lizzie's bed and the flame oscillated before her eyes.
The man knelt at the side of Lizzie's bed and took her hand.
"We will get you out of here. They don't suspect me. I have their trust and have explained that this was not you're doing; that you'd been duped. I told them that you are my servant, an intelligent and God-fearing woman. That's why you're here and not below."
"Where is John?'
"Lizzie, you must forget John. He's to be sacrificed with the others."
"Be strong. I've told them the boy is a rogue; how he took advantage of his position to betray you, me and the Queen; how he used your innocence to cloud your reason. This lie will allow us to continue our work."
"Without John I have no reason to live," she whimpered, "Let me follow him. Burn me too."
"Lizzie your life is too important to waste. I have spoken to John and he agrees that to give meaning to his sacrifice, we must continue the struggle in the Lord's name. Besides, the Queen has agreed to spare you if you stand on the scaffold by Saint Paul's Cross and confess that you did not realize the severity of what you were doing, that you were tricked."
"Lieutenant, I can't betray John."
"Lizzie you can't betray the revolution. The country depends upon you. You cannot save John but you can save the country. I'll come for you tomorrow at the hour of Nones."
The Lieutenant slid a parchment under Lizzie's cheek.
"Be prepared to read this tomorrow. Remember, this is not about you. It's about our faith, our country."
The Lieutenant rose, leaving the candle at Lizzie's side and ran a tin cup across the barred window of the door to summon the jailor.
Lizzie rose and, guided by candlelight, spread the parchment on the small desk in the corner. As she read she heard Anne Askew refusing to recant. Then the Lieutenant's words became louder drowning out Anne's voice. She imagined the fiery stake and looked through the flames into John's eyes. Would he really understand if she lived? Would he and Anne really expect her to continue without them? John had said, after all, that it was war and now their Lieutenant had commanded that the bodies of the fallen be left on the battlefield. If she were to die, she'd be just one more body for someone else to step over. Hadn't the Lieutenant explained that John, by not betraying them, had made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause. Her sacrifice, she told herself would be to live. She was young; it was her duty to build a life in the name of the Lord. Under the Lieutenant's shield she'd continue to make a difference. She blew out the candle and reread the parchment by the light of the full moon that flowed through the window.
The next day, Thursday, July 15, 1554, Elizabeth Crofts, floating above a sea of faces, ascended the scaffold and read a public confession. She then dropped to her knees, folded her hands and, looking up at the sky, cried for the Queen's forgiveness.
Ten days later, Sunday, July 25, 1554 Mary married Philippe. Lizzie was released from her cell the next day.
By the end of the month, the Lieutenant had moved her to his cottage in Somerset and by the end of the year they'd married.
Four years later, as Lizzie laid out a loaf of barley and bowls of pottage for the children, one of the Lieutenant's messengers bounded through the door and cried,
"Bloody Mary has died. Her protestant sister, Elizabeth, has ascended the throne. We're saved."
Mark Russo was born in Queens, NYC, graduated from the University of Cincinnati, ran a family business for 20 years, graduated from the University of Maine School of Law, and practiced Immigration Law for 18 years. He has published with Flash Fiction Magazine, New Reader Magazine, 34th Parallel Magazine, Literally Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Spillwords.com, Knot Magazine, MacQueen's Quinterly, South Florida Poetry Journal, Grey Sparrow Journal, Ekphrastic Review and Squawk Back.