Monday 24th August
Kirsty Venters Marks
Kirsty was the tenth reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Mon 24th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
Kirsty Venters Marks was born in Ireland but grew up in Edinburgh, where she always enjoyed telling the odd story. Her many projects include an interactive book for kids called Kari’s Map and a collection of Not Quite Fairy Tales. Find out more at kirstyventersmarks.com, or catch her on Twitter @KVentersMarks.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The Short Story she read
a short story by Kirsty Venters Marks
I can’t say it didn’t hurt. Of course you could feel the pull, the weight, the pressure. But the pain of the stretching of the scalp was worth it because it meant company, of sorts: a break from the walls of loneliness that held me in. One set of locks rusted and held me fast; another set of locks freed me, in the end.
A book I had with me (I was allowed books) was a guide to the traditions of different royal families of all the known kingdoms. It was the very last book I wanted to read because I had such contempt for anything to do with my own situation and my own gaoler relatives, but I had read everything else, twice or more. In this book, I learned of a Princess Medulla, who was never allowed to remove her crown, day or night. This lead to her infamous demise, when her skull was crushed by the mass of shiny stones and heavy metals clamped around her cranium. No one would marry her then, dead in her grave, her brains leaking out through the gold and the garnets and the rubies.
I learned of the family where the daughters were kept sweet for their eventual suitors, being fed nothing but honey, mead and golden figs for years, until their teeth were black and their hair fell out. (They still found husbands, as I recall – there were always husbands for princesses from wealthy lands.) My diet was better. My hair, of course, never fell out.
Princesses were bargaining devices, just like princes. Unlike princes, we had no freedom to do as we pleased. It worked like this: I’ll give you a wife for your chinless son if you’ll sign this pact, cut this deal, make this trade. That’s the value of a daughter in this world of men, I thought, not without reason. I didn’t know there were other worlds, beyond the known kingdoms. Even from the top of my tower, I couldn’t see my freedom, but it was still there, however far away.
The book also told of the palace where the unfortunate Princess Thenalexica was kept in an entirely separate wing, away from any human contact at all until her wedding day. From a tiny age, she had food delivered through a hatch in the wall and her chamber pot removed the same way. No words were to be spoken, no communication permitted. Any prince who claimed such a princess could be certain she was unsullied by other hands. The fact that she could not speak in anything other than a babble of baby words was not deemed too much of a problem.
Princesses – we’re all prisoners, I realised. My tower was not so different from that barricaded room of the voiceless Thenalexica. At least I had had some kind of life before they locked me here. I had played in the sun; I had heard songs and sung them; I had learned to read; and I had known love. My parents had loved me, but when they died, the love had died with them. My uncle became king and he saw me for the business asset I was. So, at the age of ten, my captivity, my ripening for market began.
They must have given me a sleeping draft, because I have no recollection at all of my journey to the tower. There were a lot of steps – I would have noticed the climb. There were a lot of doors – I would have heard them closing. I woke up alone and screamed for help. I screamed until the screams ran out. I clattered on the doors; I ran against them and bounced off, to the ground. I almost fell from the balcony, looking for non-existent foot-holds. (More than once, in the years that followed that dreadful morning, I thought about jumping off.)
In the early days, I was terrified and so lonely; I wore my solitude like a winter cloak with a broken clasp, heavy and unable to shake it off. I had to get used to the sounds and shadows of the tower, the locks and the darkness. I wondered what I had done wrong to have been punished in this way. Still grieving for my parents, I thought that somehow I must have caused their deaths, or at least that my uncle believed that to be the case.
It made no sense: their carriage had fallen through a crumbling bridge and into a ravine – how could I have made that happen? But with so much time and such an enclosed space to think, even ridiculous conclusions seem plausible. The truth, of which I am now certain, all these years later – that my uncle had made sure my parents travelled over the death bridge –, was inconceivable to me then.
They used to send a kitchen maid, every few days, to bring food. The doors would open and close, one at a time, so that even if I made it through one of the doors, I’d never get close to escape. A guard was sent with the maid, in case I tried to overpower her with a loaf of bread or a round of cheese, I suppose. Maybe they thought I would strangle her with my hair. My extraordinary hair. My mother had always called it magical – it grew so fast she cut it every week, sometimes twice a week in the rainy months when it always grew even more quickly. After she died, no one came near my hair for a long time and I had no proper knife, no scissors…
They always used to send the older maids with my provisions, sometimes they were kindly, sometimes they were hard – I never knew who was coming. I do know that, whoever it was, the joy of seeing another person, any other person, was always ruined by the closing of the doors behind them as they left. Even now, the sound of a door slamming makes me want to run outside, just in case.
But the stairs were steep and the baskets of food and drink were heavy. Evalinda, a warm-hearted but arthritic kitchen maid was the first to notice just how long my hair had grown and just how useful that might be.
‘Rapunzel!’ she cried from below my balcony. Peering over, I saw her there, palace guard beside her, looking up at me. ‘Throw down your hair, dear!’ I was used to doing what I was told. I threw down my hair. It already reached right down to the ground. ‘Well done, dear,’ she said, tying the basket to my locks. ‘See if you can pull it up, there’s a good girl!’
It took some getting used to, but a new routine was set from that day. My magical hair had put an end to any close contact with another human being; my physical sustenance was delivered by hair. Every week, just as my mother had done, Evalinda (now the only maid who came and no longer accompanied by a guard) cut my tresses just enough to let them reach the ground without becoming too unwieldy for her to tie that horrible, life-saving knot. Years went by and the locks on the doors rusted. I was more trapped than I had ever been.
But things always change, even when everything seems so stuck. The first change was that Evalinda succumbed to ill health and could no longer make the walk from the palace to the tower. A string of less friendly maids came after her, none of them willing to engage in any conversation longer than the ‘Throw down your hair!’ bit. I longed for a kind word. I thought about the whole marriage thing that was undoubtedly coming my way soon enough – having read the book, I knew that my advanced age (by now seventeen) was well and truly old enough. I imagined that my uncle was negotiating a deal with whoever offered the best terms. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I’d get out of the tower, wouldn’t I? But what would I have in its stead? Would it be worse? Those were dark days. I couldn’t bear the thought of some grubby prince arriving and taking me away to my next prison. I hated my captivity and now I hated the thought of leaving it even more. I thought again about jumping from the balcony. I was thinking about it when I saw the new maid arriving, basket in hand. She was young, something closer to my own age, I saw that already.
‘Hello there!’ She didn’t start with the hair. She actually said hello to me!
‘I’m Berta! Nice to meet you! I think you’re supposed to throw down your hair, if that’s alright with you.’ She even smiled!
‘I’m Rapunzel! Nice to meet you, too!’ I didn’t want to throw down my hair straight away because I was so happy to be having a conversation – I didn’t want it to end. But I didn’t know what to say. ‘You’re new.’
‘Yes, I am. I’ve got your food here. Hope you like it. Please could you throw down your hair?’
She said please. I threw down my hair. ‘Watch out, there!’
‘My stars and sky! I didn’t think it could be true! Your hair really does reach the ground! I never really believed what they said! That must be heavy to carry around on your head all the time.’ Yes. Yes it was. No one had ever mentioned that to me before. I had never thought of it. It was so heavy, it hurt my head. ‘And I just tie the basket to it, like they said? Well, alright, here goes! Sorry if it tugs a bit.’ She said sorry.
I pulled the basket up, untied it and threw my hair down again, as always. ‘Now you’re supposed to cut it, so it doesn’t get too long,’ I called down.
‘Too long? That’s a joke!’ What did that mean? ‘But I’ll cut it for you, Rapunzel, as much as I can.’ Berta took scissors from the pocket of her cloak and cut my hair. ‘A bit too much for a locket, princess!’ What did that mean?
‘Thank you for the basket, Berta.’
‘My pleasure, Rapunzel. Is there anything else you need?’
How about my freedom? How about getting me out of here? ‘I’d love a new book, if you could get me one – I’ve read everything here over and over again.’ It was worth asking.
‘Don’t know if I’d be able to do that, princess – there aren’t many books in the kitchen. Can’t actually read, myself, I’m afraid.’
Berta couldn’t read, then. But she could climb. And so the next chapter of my life began. With every delivery of my food basket, Berta would climb up my hair and spend time with me in my tower. I began to teach her to read and she began to teach me to laugh again. The emptiness of my solitude was filled and even though it pulled at my head (and my heart) to let her go again, abseiling down the tower on the rope of my hair; she was the light I needed to let me see properly. I knew that I would have to escape before my uncle married me off. And, given my age, I knew I’d better be quick.
Sometimes the gossip reached the kitchens and so Berta could find out how the plans were progressing. It turned out that a young prince – three years my junior – was lined up for me. Prince Sobimatu was the son of an eastern emperor and the marriage would bring very useful trade to both kingdoms. The tradition in his land was for young men to marry on their fifteenth birthday: I had five months. We had to work fast.
Berta found her way into the palace library – I had remembered visiting that magical room when I was small and was relieved that my uncle had not destroyed or emptied it. There was bound to be a book of maps in there, maps that might show a way to one of the free lands Berta had heard of, lands without kings and palaces and fifteen year old princes. She found a dusty old atlas and with her remarkable guile (one of Berta’s many gifts), she managed to conceal it in my food basket. We read it together, desperate to find a destination fit for an escapee princess and her accomplice – of course Berta was going to come with me. I knew that the penalty for helping me to leave the tower would be death and so did she, but there was no talking her out of it.
‘My father didn’t name me Liberta for nothing, you know!’ she said, as we flicked urgently through the pages of the atlas. We reached the end of the book – the very last map. There it was: A plan of lands beyond and afar – terra obscura. South. The map showed a wide sea shore and several islands, but very little else. It wasn’t much to base an escape plan on, but it was all that we had. Berta would collect as much food as she could and some extra clothes for me (I was to be dressed as a maid too). The only thing I would take with me was the map to our destiny, ripped from the old atlas my parents had left in their library. All I had to do was to get down from the tower. I didn’t realise quite how quickly I’d need to make that descent.
That last morning, Berta came early, before dawn, and shouted me awake: ‘Rapunzel! Quick! Let down your hair! The guards are on their way! The king is coming to get you!’ It was a whole month earlier than we had anticipated. ‘Quick!’
Berta scrambled up my hair, faster than she ever had, leaping on to the balcony with her wild green eyes catching sparks from the last of the moon’s light. She looked terrified.
‘Your uncle is taking you back to the palace to prepare you for the wedding. You are supposed to be fitted for dresses and taught how to dance. They are coming today!’
‘How am I going to get down?’ I couldn’t think straight.
‘Same way as I always do –your hair. We’ll cut it all off and tie it up here. I’ll go first and catch you if you fall.’
There was no time to argue. Berta took the scissors from her pocket and cut my locks as short as a page boy. I would only notice later just how good that would feel. Now, though, was not the moment for such thoughts. Breathlessly, we tied one end of my tresses to the stone pillars carved into the balcony. Neither of us knew if it would hold, but there was no question of waiting to find out.
‘Go on, Rapunzel – one last time – throw down your hair!’
And over it went. Watching Berta, half sliding, half clambering down as the sun rose over my old tower, I had no idea of what my future would hold. I didn’t know if I had any future at all, or if my story was about to end in a heap at the bottom of a useless pile of shorn hair. But I chose, right then, to take the chance. I knew I didn’t want to end up as a bride – not to anyone.
‘Come on, Rapunzel – down you come – you can do it!’
Could I? The hair was slippery and the drop was long. I was no climber, either.
‘Come on! Quickly, now – don’t look down, just put one hand under the other and let your feet walk you down, easy does it!’
‘Easy?’ Berta didn’t hear me. Over the edge I went. I tugged at the knot: it seemed pretty secure. Slowly, very slowly I inched my way down the tower, Berta patiently encouraging me as best she could. It wasn’t until I was half-way down that I noticed the strands of hair slipping out of my hands and falling to the ground.
‘It’s coming undone!’ I shouted.
‘Faster, Rapunzel, faster. You’ll make it, if you’re fast enough!’
My rope was shedding hair more quickly than a mangy dog in a windstorm. Thinner and thinner it became, as the knot loosened above me. I let the hair slither through my hands like a skinny snake, and careered down, landing in Berta’s arms at the bottom. On top of us both was my magical hair, uncoupled from the tower at last, just like me. We hid it in some bushes on our way south. The guards would not notice and it would take a while to get through all those rusty locks, buying us enough time to get away.
The rest is all about our own happy ever after, because you know what? Those free lands did exist! They do exist: we live here now, on an island far from palaces and crowns and towers. Berta cuts my hair – comfortably short – once a week, sometimes twice in the rainy months.
(c) Kirsty Venters Marks, 2015
Story Shop 2015
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