Wednesday 26th August
Sheena was the twelfth 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 Wed 26th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
Sheena Guz relishes unearthing surprising individuals from the past and is currently working on a historical novel called Black Agnes. Sheena also describes plays for visually impaired people at local theatres. You can follow her on Twitter @Legendlover.
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 Sheena Guz
No one will remember her. A grim smile comes to her lips at the thought. That’s a sad jest when her present state – this punishment – was meant to be memorable; a lesson to be studied. Who dares rebel against the king? Her living death is a warning.
Her cage is cross-shaped, one length barely long enough to form a bed, its wooden floor and wooden bars reinforced with iron. At the far end of the other length, a sheet of sacking forms a curtain for the privy, and reveals the mercy of her captors. There, she can hide in secret, avoid the curious stares and stop her ears from rancid comments.
The plan was to hang this cage from the castle walls but pulleys and chains are too expensive and too much trouble for a criminal such as she, so they’ve put her in this tower instead. No glass in the window and easy access up the spiral stair for the curious, or malicious. The first winter would have killed her if she’d hung outside. Now deep inside her feelings are chained. If she releases them, they’ll carve her mind from her body, leaving behind an empty husk.
She has survived. Latin, vivere. To live. Her step-father promised if she learned her ABC’s the priest would teach her Latin. ‘Latin will take you through doors to a wider world, Isobel.’ Sure enough, her heart nearly burst when she read about the sacrifice of Roland and the ending of King Arthur. Reading French heated the blood but reading Latin taught her philosophy and theology. The most dangerous door was learning to think for herself.
Vincere. To conquer. French, venquis. English – vanquished. ‘No one will remember you now.’ They whispered this morning, when they told her she was being moved. Somewhere far away, shut off from news and rumours or glimmering hope.
The lesson had been learned. The first year she was a novelty and they came in crowds. The second year only the soldiers passed the time of day. If she remained in the very centre of the cross they couldn’t reach her with their groping arms, unless they brought sticks. The wood is worn in the centre from her knees. The cage isn’t high enough to stand upright. The second year she shut her mind down, unwilling to think. She concentrated on killing, each louse, each flea, a tiny victory. Latin, victoria.
The third year, her mind began to ramble, digging up the past, unearthing long, forgotten memories and regarding them with wonder, astonished at the sharpness.
Four times now – she’s counted bitter winter, scented new earth bursting, leaned back and breathed in warm summer draughts, shrivelled with the autumn leaves, a little more each time. No more. From now she’ll be hidden, learning her ABCs. Alone. Banished. Confined, remembering stories, written by men, about men, for men, to inspire men and, sometimes, frighten them.
The bible. In the beginning, Eve, seducing her husband to turn against the greatest authority, a woman who condemns mankind entire. Far, far better imitate Mary, mother of salvation, with submissive soul. They told her: ‘Isobel, through marriage you’ll find your place, and children will fill your heart.’ She married as they bid, a man three times her age, stepping across the threshold into womanhood. That day, she couldn’t eat. Could barely speak. Her step-father took her hand and placed it in John’s. Her father murdered, her brother a child, it was necessary to join with a powerful family. Who wouldn’t want to be a Countess?
Like the book of Ruth, she left all she knew to cleave to an older man who would protect and care for her, though Fife was hardly Moab, no matter what some folk said. Ruth was great grandmother to a king, so perhaps her path, her faith and obedience were deemed worthy of recording. As an incomer she’d be wary and keep her nose clean, provide for her husband, see to his needs, balance his humours. Perhaps Boaz was not afflicted with overmuch yellow bile.
Many things make a man angry. A lack of cheese, a neglected rent, a disappointing hunt or being passed over when he thinks he’s deserving. One thing drives him near speechless with rage – disobedience.
‘Kill her.’ The only words he could utter. Her brother however, was more forthcoming.
‘What possessed you? Do you not know your duty?’ Reckless, dishonour, shame. Written words which echoed her own doubts but she’d counted the cost. The balance of humours in her life was governed by her heart.
If minstrels told her story, what would they sing? Songs proclaim deeds of glory, not heart searching that goes before.
They chose Balliol for king and she cared not, nor bothered for the petty squabbles rumbling in the background. With a rich husband and men aplenty, no storm threatened. Safety covered her like a mantle.
Then Berwick. She’d been there in the autumn, buying wall hangings. William the Fleming, who gave orders in the Red Hall, spread out a tapestry of David and Goliath, their faces picked out in tiny stitches, one stone in David’s hand. William’s daughter pointed out her betrothed and her eyes glowed with contentment. In those days Isobel still prayed to the virgin for a child of her own to love. Those weavers perished defending their Red Hall. Men from Fife, sent by Balliol to guard the town, died alongside thousands. Berwick broke her peace. Now she was its prisoner. Poor town, rebuilding on the bones of the dead.
What had possessed her? The country had tried Balliol and found him wanting. Her husband’s cousin was next in line till Robert Bruce killed him. What was she thinking?
The country needed peace. Armies swept through the land, burning crops, terrifying people. They needed a leader. Wallace showed what could be done but he couldn’t command the Earls. Their pride forbade it. The Lord of Badenoch was dead. His killer must be crowned before word reached the pope, before the forces of retribution were unleashed.
For centuries, kings had been crowned at the stone of Scone by the Mormaer of Fife but her father was dead and her brother a lisping child when Balliol was crowned. Without the ritual, some said his kingdom would never stand.
She’d told herself it was her duty to crown a leader to end the madness. Now, four year later she was ready to confess. She’d wanted a tiny piece of power, to make up for years of emptiness. She wanted to feel the circle of gold in her hand and say words that made a man king. She wanted to be a part of the woven fabric of history. Did that make her evil?
Her brother was an exile, taken by Edward, as he’d taken the Stone of Destiny and the black rood of St Margaret. Duncan was sixteen and a stranger to her, a boy who was proud of his friendship with Prince Edward. How she had embarrassed him.
Once a choice is made, a dreadful freedom takes hold. She took her husband’s horse. No turning back. Breathless and trembling she arrived at Scone as dusk fell and spoke her offer. Too late. The deed was done, even though the crown and sceptre were borrowed church gold.
Odd that a bishop risked the wrath of Rome. The abbot offered her shelter and Robert Bruce himself came to see her. He was willing to be crowned again by her hand. Indeed, he was eager for it. Instead of leaving next morning a second ceremony was arranged, prayers offered once more in the priory followed by another procession to Moot Hill.
The hill was a large flat topped mound near the priory. Robert sat on a chair draped with a velvet cloak. Wishart, bishop of Glasgow announced her. ‘Isobel MacDuff, daughter of Duncan, Mormaer and Earl of Fife and sister of Duncan, who became Mormaer upon the death of his father and who cannot be here today…’ The bishop paused then added as an afterthought, ‘and Countess of Buchan.’ The evening before, as they sat beside a flickering log fire, she’d leaned in close to hear the words she should say, and she’d seen flames reflected in their eyes.
The reckoning had cost her dear. If she’d done wrong, she’d surely paid for it. Five short months of freedom then hunted through the country.
Those who supped with her, slain by the sword. Those sworn to protect, betrayed and tortured. Her husband wanted her dead but that mercy was denied. Displayed in a cage and forbidden to speak to any save the woman who brought her food and daily spat in the bowl.
She’d seen herself like Esther, a woman who risked her place to save her people. There was another story – two midwives who saved the Hebrew boys in the time of Moses. Their names were recorded, but she couldn’t call them to mind. It made no sense but their names suddenly became the most important thing to remember. She closed her eyes and willed the memory to surface.
When the guards came to collect her later, the lock wouldn’t open, rusted shut by four years of disuse. It took five of them with axes to break her free. Later, one of them told his sister the woman who smelled most foul with hair like weeds had turned at the door and spoken to the broken bars. Four words. ‘They will remember me.’
(c) Sheena Guz, 2015
Story Shop 2015
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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