|Written by Beate Sigriddaughter / Artwork by Holly Eddy
Once upon a time it was the custom to save a man condemned to death from execution if a woman in
the crowd of spectators volunteered to marry him. It must have been a custom devised by women, for
they were the ones who later on had to listen to the snores of these pardoned villains by night or to a
cantankerous diatribe of a would-have-been-rebel now in existential dilemma over a bottle of distilled
barley corn. How many men were saved this way from untimely demise was never made of record. The
stories, however, are charming. Imagine the place of execution, perhaps the center of the market-place,
and all the people of the town gathered for the spectacle. It must have helped a great deal if the
condemned was a dashing fellow, a young hero with eyes blazing proudly and unafraid, indicating more
than pleading, that he was not yet finished with life. An appropriately high-ranking person of the town
would then stand before this victim of justice and gravely ask the great either/or of death or life: “Who
will wed this man?”
Once this was the custom of a city by the sea. Here, whoever had sinned against the city’s laws was
brought to a high place out on the cliffs, and if not rescued by a woman’s pity, the poor sinner was
weighted with stones and flung down. Four men would hoist him along the steep rocks into the sea
below, into his last brief sensation of life. In this city, as elsewhere, some were saved, perhaps many,
and some were not.
One time it happened that this city was bewildered by its own laws. A beautiful proud woman named
Katherine had been delivered into the rigid hands of justice. She had conducted her outlaw works in the
woods by the sea, dressed in men’s garments, her hair tied up under a cap. In the woods she was
known as Ken Redjacket. Whenever there was political strife in the city, the fugitives were searched for,
but never found, in her woods. She sheltered expectant mothers whose children, according to law and
custom, should not have been conceived. Briefly abandoning her masculine disguise, she served as
midwife to such women on several occasions, and cared for the infants until more viable shelter for them
could be found. These women kept the secret of Katherine’s identity.
Poor people came to her with hunger and with trouble, and when she had no other recourse, she waylaid
rich merchants of the city and robbed them and gave the booty to the poor. She had no fixed place of
abode, but those who needed her never had difficulty finding her. For five long years she angered the
rich and the powerful of the city, escaping all attempts to capture her, avoiding all traps, refusing even a
few bribes offered to her in return for ceasing to administer her own interpretation of justice.
In the sixth year she was unlucky. She was caught. They took away her male attire, including her famous
red jacket, and held her captive for some weeks. Afterwards she was tried and condemned to death. And
now she stood at the cliffs, surrounded by male guards who kept a respectful distance. She herself no
longer looked like a handsome young man. She stood there in a long bleached linen gown, her dark hair
falling loose around her shoulders, her black eyes shining with sadness and also with pride.
During the last days of her captivity, many people of the city had come to her to whisper sympathy
below her barred window, or to promise masses and candles and prayers for her soul. Those of her well-
wishers who were not spirited enough to approach her prison window, even after dark, sent
messengers. Katherine accepted the love these people brought her with gratitude. They were her people,
her family even, the only family she had. For she had been raised as an orphan, handed from home to
home, until she had grown bold enough to run away to shape her own fate, and sometimes that of
She stood quietly as they bound her hands in the ritual manner. The stones which were to be tied to her
body to assure she would sink into the sea lay at her feet in readiness. And then the crowd of
spectators was faced with an awkward event. It was time for the question of grace. It had never to
anyone’s recollection been asked on behalf of a woman before. With unfocused eyes the mayor of the
city rose and turned to the crowd to ask: “Will one of you wed this woman to take away the judgment of
A moment of hope and excitement went through the crowd and then died quickly as one by one the
unmarried men bowed their heads in silence, confusion, and shame. Not I. Don’t look at me.
A little boy aged seven, with tears in his eyes, tried to volunteer. “She is so beautiful,” he cried.
His mother hurriedly pulled him back into the safety of the crowd. “You’re too young, Tom,” she
Tom bit his mother’s hand to free himself from her grip, but she held him tightly. No one else spoke for a
time. Slowly, as though still waiting to hear a voice of pity, the mayor raised his right hand as a signal
the execution must proceed.
The mayor’s daughter Belinda stood up next to him and put a hand on his half-raised arm. She was his
only child, whose mother had died at her birth. She was his one and all in the world. She interrupted his
business rarely, and when she did, he heeded her. He lowered his arm. Belinda looked straight into his
eyes and spoke loudly and clearly: “Father, I will marry this woman.”
Stung with humiliation, her father turned once more to the crowd: “My own daughter has offered to
marry the condemned. It cannot be done. She is putting the men of this city to shame. I will repeat my
words to the men of the city: Will one of you wed this woman to take away the judgment of death?”
“Wed her yourself,” a heckling voice came from the crowd, but no one stepped forth.
The women, Katherine and Belinda, stood gazing seriously at one another all the while the stones were
fastened to Katherine’s body to make sure she would drown. Many things went back and forth between
the two women’s eyes. Much of it was the surprise of love and the surprise of courage, and some of it
was promise. But neither of the women spoke another word.
The priest came forward and with a low murmur performed his death-ritual like an unwilling magician.
Katherine stood still, permitting his ministrations but aiding them in no manner. Her eyes remained fixed
on Belinda’s face, holding silent counsel. When they led her to the edge of the cliff she smiled. Four men
flung her body out into the fate the city had judged fit for her. Calmly Belinda stepped up to the edge of
the cliff and jumped down after Katherine, before anyone could gather wit enough to stop her. Only then
did a cry of terror come from every mouth in the crowd. For Katherine. For Belinda.
Long afterwards the two women were mourned, Katherine secretly by those who had not been able to
save her, Belinda publicly by all. Belinda’s father was beyond consolation and resigned from his office
shortly after this event. It was said his daughter had gone mad that day—witness her offer to marry the
condemned, another woman—and that she had hurled herself from the cliff on account of her madness.
A quietness of unease hung over the city for years.
None thought of going down to the coves by the foot of the cliffs where a wild stream entered the sea.
None thought to listen there in the reeds for the murmur of laughter of life and of healing, or later on
further upstream. None thought that a woman’s arms could be strong enough to carry another, and
stone, through the current of fate dealt out to them into a shelter of choice.
Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.com, is a US citizen
currently living and writing in North Vancouver, Canada. Her
work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. She has
established the Glass Woman Prize to honor passionate women’s
voices. Currently she is working on a novel called "Tango."