Tag Archives: stories

Stand and Deliver

The 17th century always had the appearance of a ripe old bawd:  good-natured, boisterous, and with a penchant for a pretty rogue.  Overflowing the stays of the 16th century, and with no interest for the baroque frippery of the century that would follow, the 1600’s were born out of taverns and plague, plots and intrigues, typhoid and flowers.

It was a lively time; one that welcomed audacity that was tempered with grace – a type of messy elegance that was not out of place on a muddy road, balancing instruments of persuasion, bullets primed.

It was the time of the highwayman.

These ‘gentlemen of the road’ were common to all centuries, but they seemed to thrive with a guilty panache during this one.  And as the 17th century seemed to possess a special bravura, it saw the blooming of a special kind of flower, ragged yet fragrant:  the highwaywoman.

There was the shoemaker’s daughter, Mary Frith:  ‘The Roaring Girl’, branded four times for thievery, escaping the gallows by the fortuitous means of a 2,000 pound bribe.  In her supposed ‘Confession’ she stated:  “I held very good Correspondence now also with those Grandees of this function of Thievery”.

Joan Phillips, respectable, beautiful and “…eminent for picking of pockets and shoplifting at all country fairs and great markets…”  Hung in 1685, her body was gibbeted:   left to rot in a cage to serve as a deterrent to all would-be miscreants, as well as making sure that it could not be removed for proper burial by her friends.

The ‘Wicked Lady’, Lady Katherine Ferrers, was an aristocrat and an heiress – her portrait shows a face framed with curls and pearls and  a smile that was both dangerous and discreet .  Married at 14, she took to the road in her husband’s absence – whether out of boredom or in order to build up her stumbling fortunes it has never been said.  A whimsical combination of the two situations would be the best guess.  Legend has it that she was shot during a robbery and later died of her wounds.  She was 26 years old.


Now, there is a ballad from around this time – known as “Sovay” or “Sylvia” or “Sylvie” – that tells a very pretty story.

It is about a young woman, about to be married, who is determined to test the loyalty of her fiancé.  She comes upon an idea, one that is typically robust, born from the earthy and daring mindset of the 1600’s.

Her lover, who has been away, is traveling back into town – she knows when, which coach he will be taking, down which rutted path it will be traveling.  The clever lady has decided to dress as a highwayman and waylay this vehicle, shivering with harness and brass traces protesting, and demand all goods that are held inside.

Should her young man willingly give up all his possessions, including his engagement ring, she would shoot him dead.

It is easy to imagine her standing thus:  the sweeping velvet hat, feathers curling to her shoulders, a dark cape reaching to her chin, heavy boots obscuring the feminine sweep of calf and thigh.  Brazen lace cuffs cowered in the breeze that raced unimpeded across the flat coaching road, obscuring hands that fingered two flintlock pistols.  It is easy to hear the clear, brave voice state the iconic demand, both romantic and criminal:  “Stand and deliver!”

Her lover did not.  And they lived happily ever after.

“I did intend and it was to know
If that you were me true love or no
For if you’d have give me that ring she said
I’d have pulled the trigger I’d have pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”


The King’s Noble Stomacke

Youth is an envied commodity, it seems.  Look how jealously it is held on to; how desperately it is pursued…how the grasping fingerprints still show on its soft skin.

This wasn’t always the case.  Photographs and portraits provide galleries of children and teenagers dressed as adults – diminutive and unprepared. Frog-like, they have blithely leapt over their childhood; landing instead in a marketplace built out of society’s expectations.

History has long portrayed these defeated children.  Crinolines, hoops and farthingales trying in vain to balance on undeveloped hips.  Greatcoats that are too great, after all.  Tiny silk slippers and tight polished boots.  Corsets that punish soft bones:  their crossed laces creating a pattern of misery on thin backs.  We see the faces of distant youth, impervious and set:   profiles of extinguished rebellion.

What hope was there for the mutinous child?  What prospect was there for the young adult brave enough to be witty – that volatile combination of audacity and intelligence?

In 1538 Christina of Denmark was 17 years old and already a widow – she had been wearing her smothering ‘weeds’ for two years.  The Duke of Milan had proposed marriage to her when she was only eleven – her guardian, Charles V, not only agreed to the match but also to its immediate consummation.  His sister, Mary of Hungary – a strong and moral woman – was able to delay the wedding until Christina was thirteen.

In 1533, a portrait was done of the bride-to-be, no doubt to be rushed to the groom before the paint had completely dried.  Christina is seen in a three-quarter profile, taking advantage of her curving brow, the soft landscape of her neck and mouth.  She is dressed in a gown of quiet midnight; her hair scraped from view beneath her cap – no madcap tresses, no scintillating curls to tickle the skin unbidden.  She is shown reading a book – an obvious symbol of her careful education – yet it seems that at any moment the charming, red mouth will flutter into a smile and the lids rise to reveal eyes full of childish confidences.  She has been carefully posed, yet she has the attitude of a mischievous Madonna.

A Wise Child

Five years later, another portrait of Christina was painted.  Henry VIII had been on a marriage hiatus for almost a year and needed a new wife.  His third wife, Jane Seymour had done the unexpected – given birth to a male heir – but had also done the expected, dying as a result of her three days of labor.

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Christina reveals a face of barely subdued dimples, of restrained amusement.  She is wearing black, standing in a shadowy room:  her white hands bloom against the dark like soft flowers.

The Merry Widow

In her eyes there is a demure twinkle; a cleverness that kept her informed of events happening beyond her realm. And it is with that same spark that she commented to the English ambassador:  “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”  The ambassador, Thomas Wriothesley, no doubt thinking the outspoken girl deserved a good beating, commented to the King’s minister that their master should; “fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place.”

Christina is an example of the extraordinary child – the spirit that would battle her way into adulthood on her own terms.  In any century, there was hope for the honest child, the strong woman.  But that hope was rare, a prickly star few could hold on to.  But for the majority, there were only vanquished dreams, and a life to be spent staring into the starry sky.

The Green Lady, Part II

The border that separates Scotland from England runs harsh and ragged like a bloody spine.  Many castles straddle that sorry backbone – a testament to the populations unable to look each other in the eye unless the steel glove of war pushes them forward.

There was one castle that was built on the east coast, spilling into the cold, granite sea:  a dark, shadowy building – ominous in its simpliciity.  It was strong and defensive, a masculine silhouette that punctured the cloudy sky.  It always rained.

But this castle was also a home.  In 1592 Alexander Seton brought his wife to live there, expecting from her the type of physical obedience that would break the body as well as the spirit.  He wanted nothing from her but sons – annually, if at all possible.  A male hierarchy to surround him and to plant his name throughout Scotland.

Four years passed.  Each year Lady Seton retired to a private room with her ladies, wetnurses and maids to await the terrible pain.  Each year a nurse emerged from the room carrying a female child.  As each daughter grew to adulthood, they became aware of their father's disappointment, their mother's fear.  He ignored them, and their mother's shoulder became wet with their tears.

In the fifth year Lady Seton, in a final, gallant effort, produced a remarkable child.  Female, yes, but dainty and beautiful.  Her features were clear, and her skin was as fair as the flower that was placed in the Virgin's young hands.  She was named Lilias.

She grew up gentle and distant, a golden thread weaving through the shadows of the household.  Such a jewel was kept hidden – for dowries and contracts beckoned, and in time she would have to sign away her obedience, as her mother had.  For nearly 20 years her potential made her a prisoner.  Through iron-clad windows she watched the Cheviot Hills across the border change color with the breath of each season.  The smell of the earth and grasses spoke to her blood and she would feel them crushed beneath her feet.

She was lonely.  When she looked through her window, who stared up into her radiant desparation?  No one knew his name.  Or, more likely, no one would tell.  Perhaps they were envious of her pretty secret, and they guarded it as selfishly as if it was their own.

How the two of them met, where they went – the details of their furtive escapes became a myth of the family's shame, closeted away by Lilias' parents.  Scoldings, reprimands, would not make her reveal her lover's name.  She was slapped until her pale skin became livid, like a white and burning sky.  For nine months she was starved, for guilt is a very thin food indeed.

When Lilias retired to the dark, confining room she was given all the simple preparations for the frightening time.  She could smell the raspberry leaves and the boiled seaweed.

And when the time did come, her flesh pulled and rebeled.  The castle shuddered under the weight of her agonies, before the proof of Eve's punishment.  Lilias grew weak – but before she lost her awful consciousness, she heard the loud, hungry cry of a healthy baby.

When she woke up, it was a different day.  It was windy, and the sibilent breezes lifted her hair and curled it around her shoulders.  The angle of the sun was different, and she saw things she hadn't noticed before:  a pair of slippers she had embroidered, a corner of a green, woolen dress winking from the darkness of her closet, a comforting memory.

But there was no child in her arms.  It was then that Lilias noticed her mother seated beside her,  The baby, Lady Seton told her in a frightened whisper, had been born dead.  And she wept on her daughter's shoulder, begging forgiveness. 

Months passed.  Lilias walked the swirling staircases of the castle towers, the chilly hallways; her lovely face lingered by the window of her room, waiting.  No one stared up towards her mooon-like sadness again.

Then a discovery was made in one of the rivers that bound the estate like a silver ribbon.  A body – beaten to death, unrecognized…a nobody.  But there was one thing that had escaped the attackers' notice:  a chain the victim wore around his neck, bearing the image of a beautiful, pale woman, wearing a green dress. 

Centuries passed.  Time – which did not care – buried the tragic family, and let its name evaporate.  The castle stumbled and fell, its lines no longer straight and sharp – no longer a threat to the horizon's delicate under pinings.

But people still do visit the castle's grandiose delapidation.  And many have claimed to have seen a white face at a tower window, disappearing into the cold vapors of the castle's interior.  Some have seen her outside; her arms clasped as if they were holding something – yet always quite empty.  Whether the day is still or not, her hair is always stirring around her verdant body.  She is young and cold, sad and patient – a lady in green waiting for justice.


Read and post comments | Send to a friend

In A Fog

Boyfriend and I visited Catalina over New Year's.  All during our time there, the island – known for its bison, golf carts, flying fish, its Deco and decorated Casino – rested under a blanket of fog.  Except for the day that we left, when the sun perversely warmed the sky into a Baroque twist of cloud and blue, the air moved like cold smoke, choking and freezing.

Our boat left Long Beach in mid-morning, progressing carefully into a blank wall of fog.  It was odd, looking ahead and seeing nothing but a pale mystery – with all details erased.  For all we knew, the world could have been flattened into a geometric plane, and we were about to motor over its edge into a soft, white void.

For days I felt its cold, vaporous fingers twisting through my hair and pressing down on my eyes like pennies.

Once we drove to the other side of the island, plunging into the morning's foggy embrace.  When our path ran low, trees appeared and disappeared in the atmosphere's cold sweat, like pieces in a ghostly chess game – checking and check-mating at will.  But when the road broke free and climbed above the misty fabric we were able to look down upon a fogbank that stretched below us, solid and yielding, like a cloudy continent.

The fog was endless and white, touched with gold and turquoise by a hidden though still laboring sun.  It rose like the breath of whales from the ocean, it dropped like the veils hiding the stars and extended like a gentle, feathery lake.

Throughout our stay I saw the dusky tendrils curl in the maritime breeze.  They flowed like a rhythmic stream.  They whispered to me, silent stories of their birthplaces:  the sweet earth, the mountains jade-colored and carved like an opium pipe…and the generous ocean that strung droplets of water into a necklace of melting pearls before offering it to the sky.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Fancy Free

It was a fan like no other.  It breathed cool air from its perfumed lips; it fluttered pink satin; it whispered in its owner's ear.  It twisted impatiently in gloved hands, with sequins the size of sand crystals and flowers clenched like tiny, angry fists.  And when it was raised to its owner's eyes, the fan was a spy, telling breathless stories of all the foolishness, gallantry and cruelty it had witnessed.

It was a playful shape of ivory, pushed into a painful silhouette.  Distant, pale stars played across the haven of its dark hair.  Its throat was the color of the moon's lonely reflection in the cold, black sea.  Growing out of its shoulders like wings from an angel's skeleton were sticks taken from the foreheads of unicorns and narwhals, and painted parchment that folded and stretched like the horizon as it lives and dies.

It was meant to be an inanimate decoration, hanging from a wrist, hidden within a sash.  But its story is crowded with mystique, keen with a secret language, self-important as a bridge between eyes and hearts.  So it quickened, and became as light hearted as a bird.  It turned and tilted like a doll, it comforted like a child, it confided like a friend and was as unlikely as a wish.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Entertainment QotD: Boleyn For Dollars

Which book would you love to see adapted into a film?

I'll get to that – because there is something else that is getting screen time:  history.  History is hot.  History is money.  And one family in particular is attracting the attention of filmmakers who know as much about their subject as I know about roof thatching.  In their eyes, the Tudors are tight-bodiced, heaving, pouting, smooth-faced and spotless.

I can start with the soon-to-be-relased The Other Boleyn Girl.  Now, it's a little unfair to tease it for any inaccuracies, as its origins are in Philippa Gregory's book of historical fiction.  It's speculative reality.  Also the relations between Anne and Mary Boleyn are not my strong points.  I do, however, know that Anne was black-haired and olive-skinned, slim and sharp.  I just don't think that a dewy Natalie Portman is the girl for the job.  And why the devil someone couldn't run to the nearest drugstore and buy a henna rinse for Eric Bana (Henry VIII's hair was auburn – a small point maybe, but still a physical trait closely associated with the man) is beyond me.

And then there was Showtime's gangsta epic, The Tudors, starring 'Henry 8'.  I've written about this in more detail, some time ago.  But suffice it to say that the sight of a whisper-thin, brooding Henry, in a blouson shirt and tight, shiny pants simply withers my soul.  People, I am not interested in your new, swinging version of history.  History has happened.  It is an established fact.  That's why we call it history.  Don't f*ck with it.

Moving on.  First, let me say that I positively revere Helen Mirren.  She's tough, talented, dignified and beautiful.  I just can't understand why she portrayed Elizabeth I as a hormone-addled schoolgirl.

When she and Leicester (Jeremy Irons) were strolling together towards her assembled army at Tilbury, where she would give her famous speech, she said something like, "You know, Bobby, my Edible Earl, I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King!"  He pauses…he has a look in his eyes…yes:  it…just…might…work…

Cut to the next scene, she's speaking to her men and using that very line.  I believe that is when I set my hair on fire and went outside to howl at the moon.

I can't say much about Elizabeth:  The Golden Age.  I haven't seen it, and you know Aubrey likes to be fair.

And on a side, non-Tudor note:  Ms. Coppola:  if the only way you can portray a teenager's angst – as she is flung from the safety of her home to a foreign court, to marry a foreign king – is to throw in a pair of Keds amongst her satin slippers, you, madam, deserve to be slapped.  History has its own irony – it doesn't need yours.

OK.  That's better.  As for books to film:  this weekend I read in Vanity Fair that a screen version of 'Brideshead Revisited' is in the offing.  I will be watching developments very carefully.  I've read the book close to ten times.  I've seen the PBS series nearly as often.  Both are thrillingly wonderful.  Suffice to say, I know the story well.

I didn't find any of the acting choices offensive.  Julie Flyte looked a little lost, but perhaps she'd just had an ice cream and was exhibiting the symptoms of a brain freeze.  I am pleased to say that Emma Thompson will play Lady Marchmain – however in her photo, she looked a little too cold, too intimidating.  Weren't her destructive qualities seen only through th eyes of the most dysfunctional members of her family – her husband and her younger son?  Still, she was weariang a lovely olive and black cloak, so that made it better.

I know that I can be too judgemental when it comes to  historical re-enactments and portrayals.  I can be very steely-eyed when it comes to a new interpretation of something I care deeply about.  But I'm not saying people shouldn't try.

They had just better be careful.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend