The king and queen took hawks out that day, and their retinue trailed along hills and swales, watching as Duncan and then Suthen lifted gauntleted arms and opened their fists. The hunting birds circled high, disappeared. When one plummeted toward the grass, conversation hushed and all eyes turned to see what it would hold locked in its talons when it rose. Most delighted in the power on display. Some eyed both flight and strike as if they were omens. But I had no interest in prey. When the file of riders broke apart into groups defined by friendship and family alliance, I let my horse, a sturdy little black mare, fall behind.
Choosing my own path seemed my right as the daughter of a highland chief, and as soon as the sound of hooves died away, I drew a deep breath, spicy with fern, and dismounted. I stood at the edge of a greenwood, with pine and fir rising on the slope ahead. Elgin was my refuge, but the nearby fields and forests meant freedom from curious and calculating glances, liberty even from the queen who’d taken me in and treated me as a noble companion. Out of canniness, if not kindness, the court followed her lead. But I remained a stranger, a woman who’d arrived riding a stolen horse, a widow who’d lost her child to her enemies.
I led the mare inside the tree line, knotted her reins to a sapling, and began to climb. When I stepped into the duff, it was like returning to the north. I rubbed a handful of evergreen needles in my hands so that I’d smell less like humankind, and stepped on an occasional twig so that I would surprise no adder, no sleeping wolf, no foraging bear. As I walked, a flock of crested tits moved in the boughs above me, each fluttering and returning to its zee zee zee when it realized I was no danger. Half smiling, I called, “A, B, C, zee zee zee,” and then sat, leaning back against a trunk. Dapple of light, hushing of wind in the trees. My heartbeat slowed, and I closed my eyes against the brightness.
Moments later, the red-gold warmth dimmed. I opened my eyes. A few feet away, a man stood silhouetted between me and the sun, one hand resting on his sword hilt. He turned slightly, scanning the woods to the left. Hunting. Not for me, or if so, he hadn’t seen yet where I’d gone to ground. No horned helmet, so he wasn’t a Viking strayed from a raiding party. If he was the king’s man, he should have been with the others, so perhaps he was a spy for the Anglish, or an assassin sent to kill Duncan if he found him in the company of none but servant or falconer. I felt dizzy, realized I’d been holding my breath, and silently released it.
A capercaillie leapt from the far side of a fallen pine onto a gnarled branch, spread his tail feathers, dropped his wings, and threw back his head. The stranger caught the flicker of movement and froze, then stepped cautiously backward, once, twice, caught his heel on a tree root, and fell. When the cock began his tapping call, the man rose up on his elbows and chuckled, shaking his head.
Then he saw something that didn’t belong among the rusty pine needles at his side, maybe the edge of my tunic, and he jumped up almost as fast as he’d lost his footing. His sword was halfway out of its scabbard before he recognized that I was a woman and unarmed. He bowed slightly, stroked his dark beard, and smiled.
“Allow me,” he said, and offered me his hand.
When I stood beside him, he raised my hand to his lips. My fingers trembled.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me,” he said.
I could see the forest and my face reflected in his eyes. His skin was fair, his hair brown streaked with chestnut. He wore a long tunic, a leine, belted at the hip, with a green and black plaid draped over his shoulders—it seemed he was a native son and noble.
The capercaillie began to drum, and we turned to watch. When the black bird finished claiming his territory, the stranger touched my arm and said, “I was riding to join the king’s party when I saw a loose horse and assumed the rider had been thrown nearby. Can you walk?”
“Yes—I got down of my own free will.”
“Hobbles. That’s the best way to keep an animal from wandering. But I don’t suppose you’re used to caring for horses.”
“The Queen does not encourage her ladies to carry tack when they ride to hawk,” I said.
“What were you—”
“I just wanted—”
We both fell silent, and then I finished my sentence: “to be alone.”
“I’m sorry I intruded,” he said. “But it’s not…customary for women to go unaccompanied.”
“I know,” I said, thinking of how I’d anticipated not only getting away but having a good gallop when I was ready to catch up with the others.
He started downhill, and I followed, stopping only once to pick up a pine cone and tuck it into a fold of my plaid. When we reached the spot where he’d hobbled our horses, we stood, watching them graze. I wondered what had made my mare pull free from where I’d tethered her.
Finally he said, “I’ve been away a long time, but I would have come back sooner if I’d known Alba held a woman like you. I’m Macbeth mac Findláech.”
“Gruoch mac Bodhie,” I said, and glanced up to see what my name meant to him. His name had told me that he’d returned to the land of the Scots to rule Moray, taking the place of my dead husband, Gille, the previous mormaer.
“Gruoch,” he repeated, and paused, frowned. His jaw tightened. But instead of telling me what had darkened his thoughts, he said, “Ru, Ru,” as if renaming me and then turning the syllable over in his mouth to see how it felt. I thought of regret, rue, the burning herb of grace. But the corners of his eyes crinkled, and he made the combing gesture that country women use to gather wool—took my elbow and drew me, rooed me, toward him.
I pulled away and stepped into the sun. Did he think I’d lie down beneath the trees with a man just because he’d frightened and then flattered me?
When I looked over my shoulder to see if he was coming to catch the horses, he was watching me with his head tilted to one side.
Macbeth was what we called a shadow king. Duncan claimed that Alba’s crown passed from father to eldest son, yet his father was an abbot—it had been his mother’s father, the high king Malcolm, who suggested that Duncan be the next ard ri. None of the chief men agreed to primogeniture as a principle; they had chosen Duncan out of respect for their dying king’s voice, by tanistry. But what would happen hereafter was uncertain.
The chieftains had already overturned tradition by no longer alternating the kingship. For over three hundred years, first a northern king and then a southern had ruled Alba, balancing the power of men descended from Kenneth mac Alpin’s two sons. Then, in 1005, the kings of the south began claiming that the high kingship lay only in their line. So the men of Moray had insisted that, no, each of their mormaers was the true ard ri—first Findláech, then Malcolm son of Mael Brigte, then Gille Coemgáin, and finally Macbeth. But the northern kings’ power over Alba stretched, like a shadow, only as far as the country’s memory of her past.
For me, that knowledge was one story among many, darker by association with my father’s ambitions. For Macbeth, it was family history. Not merely the tracing of inky branches of descent back to both of Kenneth mac Alpin’s sons, but the source of who he was—the lad fostered out to a high king, the one who’d come home for a holiday visit, gone ice fishing, and returned to find the table wrecked, benches tipped over, and his father’s beheaded body lying on the floor. Coals kicked out of the hearth smoldered at the foot of tapestry and table-cloth. There was no sign of the cousins who’d been invited to the feast except a scattering of blood drops, shining like holly berries. Some of his father’s men were dead in the hall, some in the snow. Others were missing. The killers had taken the horses, not only for what they were worth but to prevent pursuit.
When I asked Macbeth, later, what had happened to his mother, he said that he’d found her dead in the cellar. She might have been running to take shelter and fallen, or she might have been pushed, but, either way, she’d ended up lying at the foot of the ladder, a crucifix in her hand. “Not that her prayers did her any good,” he said.
“You don’t know that,” I answered, thinking of what might have happened in the woods if he’d been a different kind of man. I needed to find a way to carry a dirk.
Macbeth reached toward the one sheathed at his side. A cross set with pearls dangled against the leather, and I had a sudden vision of a robed sister reaching for her beads, then of Macbeth reaching for his claymore.
I shook my head. This was no time for what I called the dreaming, no place for falling into the darkness that sometimes went with it. As for the gesture, that was no more than a memory of the first time I’d seen him. Of course Macbeth didn’t wear his long sword when he attended King Duncan in Elgin, especially when heavy rain kept everyone indoors, seated in clusters around the great hall, as it did that chilly day in early summer when he told me how he’d lost his family.
I pulled my plaid closer around my shoulders. Macbeth had paid court to Duncan and then honored me by bowing, taking my arm, and escorting me to a remote corner of the room. I was glad that he trusted me enough to reveal what had happened—though I’d asked where he came from innocently enough. “Dingwall,” he’d answered, rubbing at his temple.
The ground was frozen, so the bodies couldn’t be buried. “All winter long,” he said, “I imagined her lying there beside my father, the frost over them like a frayed blanket, no one saying a word about who’d done it but everyone knowing: Malcolm mac Mael Brigte.”
Gille’s brother? My hands went cold. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean I didn’t know.”
He reached out and touched my shoulder. “Oh, Ru, of course not. Your father kept you hidden away. I wish my father had taken care of his wife and daughter as well.”
“You had a sister?”
“Ailsa. She was home that Christmas too.” Seeing the look on my face, he added quickly, “She lived. She was trailing after Cook when the servants in the kitchen heard what was going on, and they turned a giant pot upside down over her—she was four and a wee thing. They told her not to make a sound, no matter what she heard. And she didn’t, even when I’d searched the house twice, calling for her, and finally realized there was only one place she could be. I tapped on the pot and tried to pry it up with my father’s sword. But though I was fifteen and could force the point under the rim, I couldn’t lift the iron. When I’d found my way to the nearest farm and returned, it took both the man and his grown son to hoist the thing high enough for me to reach in. And even when Ailsa heard my voice and opened her eyes, she didn’t speak.”
Macbeth suddenly looked old and distant, his face tired. “I’d have done anything to protect her,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen her in a year; I remembered when she was born, and when she learned to talk and walk.”
I nodded, wishing I’d had a brother like him. ““Where is she now?”
“Hidden away where no man can do her harm.”
“A nun, then?”
“In Tara, in Brigid’s house. I saw her just before she took her vows. She hardly remembered the time before.” Macbeth looked up from his interlocked fingers. “The knowledge of good and evil…”
I waited for him to finish his sentence, but he looked back at his hands and continued in a more measured way, “If you know certain things, you can never have the life you were meant to. Memory taints every joy. So my sister lost her hope for a home on earth, a husband, children. Then she made herself forget. I remembered, and I was angry. She told me not to visit her again until I’d forgiven. Well, I’ve made my peace with the past,” he concluded in a bitter voice.
The torch nearest us smoldered in the damp air, and a horse’s tail of smoke drifted over our heads. I hesitated, not wanting to mention Gille lest I sound as if I’d loved him, or as if I’d been a bad wife because I didn’t. Finally I said, “I think it’s better to know. Ignorance isn’t safe. Though some say it’s holy, especially for women. If I’d lost a loved one, I wouldn’t forget.”
He looked at me sharply; then his face relaxed.
“And I don’t forgive wrongs done me, either,” I added.
“When you know them.”
I felt a moment’s confusion, as if we’d been arguing rather than telling each other what made us the people we were. Quietly I said, “Aye, and I do. My father didn’t save me from anything.”
“Yes, he did,” Macbeth said. “As I would.” He leaned forward and pressed my hands between his until they were warm.
Someday, I thought, I’ll tell him my story.
But I never did, not all of it.
The lessons began with gathering graylag goose feathers and making ink of soot or gall. Brother Rahbade showed me that after a few cuts with his knife I could hold a quill, dip it in the inkwell, and make a stroke. The first time the monk’s hand closed on mine and we made the letters of my name, I thought it was magic—especially when he insisted that I learn to write the alphabet invisibly, scratching over and over on a bit of parchment until neither he nor I could trace exactly what was written on the skin.
It was winter, and Brother Rahbade had brought a bundle of pages of the Book to school me, as the Culdees taught boys at Dunkeld and Abernethy. I was twelve, my mother long dead, and my father, Bodhie, had given a gift to the college so they would send a tutor. For, as Bodhie said, I was a king’s granddaughter and might come to dwell in high places. A smile crooked his lips, and he added, “Y’ cannot rule or bear a sword to defend your people, but if y’ learn a bit, y’ might make yourself useful for something besides having bairns.” Then he rode off again.
How surprised the steward and my white-haired Gwenythes were a month later, when Rahbie, as I came to call him, arrived at Gorm Àrdan. He looked more like an older brother than a father: his face was unlined, pale from years of study, and he wore a robe of undyed flax and leather sandals. But his yellow hair receded above his brow, shaved in a Celtic tonsure, and he made it clear that he was a master, mine as well as theirs. It was puella this and that even more when my father returned.
That is, until the spring day, over a year later, when I read a page aloud without hesitation and looked up to find my teacher rapt: “Male and female he created them.” That night the monk escorted me to the great hall where my father, whom he called dominus or lord, sat drinking new beer and picking meat from a roast gone cold in its grease. I wore my best embroidered tunic over my shift, and I read from “In the beginning” to where the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were set in the garden—first in Latin, then putting each sentence into our Gaelic language.
Though I didn’t know it, reading and writing were uncommon outside the priesthood, even among men, and when I glanced up I found my father strangely taken aback. He looked away from the parchment in my hand, rose, and lifted his warmed wine in my direction. “To Ghruach,” he said, and he spoke not in his customary growl but as if presenting me to his men, the G softened almost to silence, the stress on rue, the last syllable rhyming with loch.
When Bodhie smiled and stood that way, back straight, easy on his feet, purple-brown plaid draped around his shoulders, golden leine falling in pleats to the tops of his dyed leather boots, I saw why other men admired and obeyed him. At his shoulder a dragon on a brooch ate its tail, and at his side another coiled atop his dirk. I wondered if I’d ever wear that pin.
He drank again, wiped his beard, and let his hand fall on the dirk’s hilt. I shuddered and pressed my arms to my sides for warmth. Then my father passed the cup to Rahbie and to me, as if we were sealing something there by the hearth—I was no son, but I was something.
When the cup was empty, my father turned back toward the hearth. After all, he had an heir, Malcolm, my elder by some seven or eight years, fostered out when I was very young but still his favorite. I paused and looked back as I left the hall, but Bodhie wasn’t watching me. He’d turned to stare at Rahbie, and where firelight caught the dampness around his mouth, it looked as if he’d been drinking blood.
He’d never intended for me to read but simply to listen and repeat the great song-poems, as his mother had. Only someone as young and idealistic as Brother Rahbie could have made such a mistake. But only one haloed in his own purity would have been trusted with such a mission at all. Fortunately, what’s learned cannot be unlearned.
Over the next few weeks, before the monk returned to Abernethy that summer, I scanned every parchment sheet he’d brought. And I had questions: If God preferred Abel’s gift, why damn his brother for spilling blood? If Adam and Eve were the first man and woman, who else was around to see the mark of Cain and spare him? Rahbie told me there were many different ways to understand the same story. Adam being made of clay showed that people are dull as earth unless inspired by God’s breath, but Genesis also revealed the origins of Israel. Other kingdoms arose in other places, like our people, the Scots of Tara, who brought their customs and the cross to Alba.
According to Rahbie, the Israelites traced their blood through the father’s line and all the angels were male, just like all the powers on earth. But Gwenythes told me that the painted people traced relation through the female line, and that I was just as much Pict as Scot. So sometimes I dreamed about inking flowers and vines on my skin and riding off across the mountains to find my mother’s people. But I always woke in my father’s house.
In autumn, a messenger from Strathclyde brought word that my brother had died. The young men had been racing their horses, he’d spurred his animal to leap a rocky burn, and it had stumbled on landing and broken its leg, falling and crushing him. I hadn’t missed Malcolm, who’d ignored me when he wasn’t pushing me down or pulling my hair, but I regretted his death. Bodhie began drinking early in the day, and his glance fell on me as if I were bitter lees.
When Brother Rahbie came back that winter and the next, I’d take his hand and show him the tapestry I’d made with bright red birds in a tawny field, and the bridey dolls I’d woven of straw, or I’d lead him out to see the calves growing their first horns, and the ducklings as big as their parents but still piping like babies for food. After a few moments his face would thaw from monkish seriousness into what I imagined a loving brother would look like, returning to the sister left at home. He’d name things in Latin—accipiter for sparrow-hawk, buteo for buzzard, corvus for raven—a Latin name for every bird that flew to the rooky woods and tucked its head under its wing at twilight. My new hood was cucullus, and the three hooded women you see carved in stone were cucullati, their faces shadowed, their eyes fierce.
Later he’d say the letters, and I’d spell with my quill and look up to find him watching, rubbing absently at the stubble on his jaw. “Am I not as good as a boy?” I’d ask, and he’d nod, demand I speak in Latin, and slap his hand on the table, pretending sternness. Once he startled Gwen so badly that she croaked like a heron and tipped her stool over. Usually we kept our voices low and she drowsed through lessons, being old and having no interest in what she called bird-scratchings.
One day Brother Rahbie let me write out two pages of begats for the monastery book and then gave me a piece of vellum for my own. Not parchment, which might be cow, goat, or sheep hide, but vellum, the finest calfskin. Silky smooth and pale, taken from the unborn. How could that be? Rahbie just shook his head when I asked.
The first texts I copied for myself were riddles he’d found in a miscellany, a book gathering together history, holy writ, and wise sayings, but also summer songs, winter’s tales, recipes—the words of many all bound into a single creature, miraculous and monstrous.
A ruthless farm-raider slaughters me
and strips me of my coverings;
another turns me into fallow ground,
then waters my fruitful furrows.
My pale field yields a many-fold harvest—
a living for the healthy, healing for the sick.
Who am I?
Lady Macbeth, Her Book is the fictional memoir of one of literature’s most haunting and haunted women. It presents her bad dreams as prescient and clairvoyant visions, not, as Shakespeare would have it, nightmares. And Ru has other gifts that neither she nor her ambitious husband imagine when they fall in love.
The novel was inspired by my experience of teaching the bard’s plays and allowing students to write “missing monologues” for characters they loved but felt had been represented unfairly or incompletely. Research on medieval Scottish history led me to see Lady Macbeth (and her husband) as two such characters, and life experience led me to want to shape the novel as the story of a woman struggling to find herself and her place in a world that found her useful but did not value her as an individual. Ru’s story is one of ups and downs, which she relates in sections defined by time and unified by theme. Events from chronicled history are refracted and shaped by her experience, and her story ends when she has established herself in a way that places her beyond history.
Born in the north, Ru grows from a child who’s lost her mother into a literate young woman forced into her first marriage. Over time she becomes a mother who’s lost her child and then a widow who thinks she’s freely choosing her second husband. Eventually, as queen of Scotland, she trains as a midwife, recovers her lost son, survives a witchcraft accusation and a series of betrayals, and then loses the husband she has just reconciled with in a cataclysmic invasion, which she has foreseen without being able to prevent it. Aided by friends as close as sisters and unexpected allies, including a paid assassin, Ru eventually embraces the roles of wisewoman, witch, and seer.
Her Book weaves together several love stories, Scottish history, and a coming-of-age narrative with elements that modern readers will recognize, whether they are high-school or college students discovering their spirituality and sexuality, or older readers concerned with marriage, career development, and starting over. Fans of literary fiction will ask, “What did it really mean for her to be a witch?” and “Did she ever see her foster-daughter again?” and “What happened to Macbeth?” Shakespeareans, college students, and people who’ve seen the recent Joel Coen film will also ask, “What happened to Macbeth?”
The riddle at the end of this excerpt is adapted from multiple translations, as well as the Latin version available here.
Dana Sonnenschein is a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, where she teaches Shakespeare, folklore, and creative writing. She has had four books published: two collections of poems (Natural Forms, 2006; Bear Country, 2009) and two of prose poems (Corvus, 2003; No Angels but These, 2005). Her poems, folktale revisions, and flash CNF pieces have appeared in numerous online and print journals.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022