Mountainview MFA Student Contest Winner: Have Mercy
By Margaret McNellis
I remember going to the cathedral as a child. Salisbury stood tall. It reached the sky. I dipped my fingers in holy water. It was cold on my forehead and it dripped down the bridge of my nose. A priest spoke to me in Latin. He touched my head with his bejeweled hand.
Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.”
My father had two hounds for hunting and two children for breeding. Sometimes I dropped morsels from the table into the dogs’ waiting mouths. At night my father excused himself to pray before his altar and score his back with a cat-o-nine tails. I spied him once through a hole in the wall and cried.
The Tower of London is a damp place. The moist air is hard to breathe. I hear the screams of those who refuse to give names. Names of other reformers like me. Names of parents, lovers, children. Names of siblings.
My brother and I grew up running through tall, dark corridors. I didn’t know that we lived a castle. I didn’t know that it was possible to wear so much dirt that it caked on the skin like mud. I didn’t know what it felt like to try to sleep on an empty stomach. I didn’t know that we were rich, and that others weren’t, that we had shoes and they didn’t.
I don’t know if I’m imprisoned because I think the Church shouldn’t be rich, or if I’m imprisoned because the Church wants our riches.
Fact: Anne Askew was the first woman tortured on charges of heresy. They racked her. They being the King’s servants. They racked her before they burned her.
They say it’s not the flames that kill you, but the smoke.
I’ve counted five-hundred thirty-nine stones in my cell. [JD1] There are more, but I got tired of counting. I don’t how many days I’ve been here, but now there’s snow on the ground.
Am I a traitor? When the King was married to Anne Boleyn, I wasn’t a traitor.
What Anne Boleyn said on the day she died: “I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.”
I was there the day she was killed. The executioner was from Calais. He used a sword instead of an axe and he took her head off in one blow. They say the king celebrated Anne’s death, even though she said such pleasant things about him. They all said such pleasant things about him, even her lovers. Even her brother.
If the king elects to burn me, I will die at Smithfield. That’s where people burn. Thomas More burned six reformers. Then he fell out of favor and they lopped off his head.
What Thomas More said to the executioner before his head was lopped off: “Pick up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office; my neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine honesty.”
I will tell my executioner that I forgive him. I forgive him and will speak highly of him to God when I reach Heaven. I will tell him that Hell does not exist, so he should not fear it. Then he will make my death so fast and effortless that I think I should almost enjoy it.
Of course, they may torture me first.
I was engaged to marry once. I was fourteen. I went into the village with the ladies of my household and we looked at fabrics and jewels. The fiancé was thirty-seven years old. He had a pot-belly and no children. His first two wives died in childbirth. We didn’t marry because he died.
What the physician said: “He might have been poisoned, but his body did not come in for examination in time to tell.”
There is no fire here in the Tower. Traitors don’t get fires.
I saw my father beat a servant once. I was seven. He whipped her with his cat-o-nine, threw her to the ground. I couldn’t see what happened then, but I heard the screams.
Should I pray? Should I ask Henry to have mercy? I bet that even if I prayed like a Papist, making silly marks on my back, they would still call me a heretic. [MOU3] They found too many books in my bedchamber. If I beg for mercy, they will still kill me. Even if I give them names.
Night comes again. The moon reflects on the snow, turning it silver. One of the guards told me I am lucky to have a window. Even here, it seems, there is a division between the formerly-rich and the forever-poor. The forever-poor don’t get windows. They don’t get regular meals. I suppose they must feed on rats. There are plenty of rats here in the Tower. In this part of the Tower, anyway.
What my father said: “King Henry VIII is the Nero of England.”
I don’t know much about poison except for that our father had a taster at home.
The Borgias ruled Rome because their father was the Pope. They were famous for poisoning people. Is poison better than torture? Is torture better than being burned alive?
The prisoner huddles in a corner of her cell, rubbing her shoulders. She was racked this evening. She spoke no names.
She prays. Deliver me from this agony. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to burn. Don’t let me burn.
She doesn’t sleep. She stays awake, all night. The next day, the guards come again. They carry her. She whimpers all the way down to the lower dungeons. Nothing survives down there, not even the whispered names of fellow reformers. She doesn’t remember if she gave her brother’s name. All she remembers is pain.
She can’t track the days. She counts stones instead. One. Two. Three. Four. She never makes it past five. The pain comes into her brain and she screams. Sometimes screams live where the formerly-rich live: under windows, in cells where food is delivered twice daily. Sometimes screams are louder than You.
“I am here to inform you,” says one of the king’s men, “that on the morrow you will be put to death at half past nine. You will be tied to a cart and dragged to Smithfield, your place of execution, where you are to be burned—”
She cries out then. She wants to attack him, to rip the puffy sleeves off of his shoulders, the arms off his body. She isn’t sure if she knows You anymore.
If she gave her brother’s name, would he be tortured until he gave names of pamphlet-writers, preachers, university men? Would he be burned? Would they house him in a cell with a window? Would they house him in this cell? Would he count the stones? Would he count as many stones as she has? Would they talk about how she gave up her brother’s name?
She recalls the first time she set foot in Salisbury Cathedral. The sun glinting and squinting and sparkling from the priest’s rings when he put his hand on her head, heavy from the weight of those jewels. He said, “I bless you, child.”
The prisoner hopes she will be allowed to speak last words, to the people gathered around her pyre. She hopes she will be allowed to speak last words to the king, and to her executioner. She will forgive the latter but not the former. Henry let the people of England open their eyes and then he demanded they shut them again. She will not forgive him, and if they go to Heaven together, she will protest his presence before You.
The guards send in a priest. The prisoner does not speak to the priest. She has words for the king, for her executioner, and for You. She has no words for priests, even if their hands aren’t covered in red and blue and green jewels. The guards carry her from her cell. The prisoner whimpers. The prisoner screams.
Nine-thirty: the prisoner is tied to a stake. The prisoner is invited to speak. She opens her mouth and can only sob.
What Cardinal Wolsey said before he opened his own throat: “I see the matter against me how it is framed; but if I had served God as diligently as I have done the king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”
The prisoner knows she served You. She feels forsaken. Fire licks the hay and wood at her feet. Like the prisoner, they will soon be ash.
Margaret McNellis earned her MA in English and Creative Writing from SNHU in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in several publications, including Dual Coast Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and The Penman Review. She is a graduate of the Mountainview MFA.