Catharsis – that’s the word she would use to describe the sensation she got as she beat Hensley within an inch of his life. Not shame or guilt but catharsis. As he begged, pleaded and bawled for his life, she felt every ounce of shame, abuse and hurt seep out of her battered body and soul and into his. A fair exchange.
She stands spent, physically exhausted from the beating she put on him, wondering why she never fought back before. As the demons of rage, hurt and years of degradation, pent up anger and frustration release her from her violent stupor she is stunned. She shakes her head in wonder as she looks at the whimpering 6ft 2 heap at her foot, crying like a child. She feels empowered as she hears him beg for mercy, beg her to stop. Empowered as he too calls on God for help as she’d done countless times in the past. But God does not come. He was too busy that day. Besides, he never came for her and he was certainly not coming for a good for nothing, wife-beating scamp like Hensley.
The tables had turned and she felt no pity or mercy just sweet, wonderful, catharsis. The irony, she hated violence, loathed it, abhorred it for she knew it, lived it and experienced it with all 5 senses. She had tasted it in the form of blood in her mouth from knocked out teeth, from punches in the jaw and heard it each time he attacked her with profanity-laced words. She saw it each time his face took on an unearthly shade of red when he felt she’d not honored him or done something to his discriminating, highbrow standard. She’d live and die with the smell of it, too. The funk of sweat, alcohol and cigarette that greeted her each Friday and she felt it with each chokehold he used to pin her down as he demanded due benevolence even in his drunken state.
She had come undone, unhinged, unglued and to her it was cathartic. After years of running into the bushes when he went into his violent fit, locking herself in the gardener’s shed, hiding behind the fowl coop or under the bed, she is suddenly emboldened. The pain of all the years of being kicked, bitten, punched, slapped, spat on, mocked, ridiculed, all collides into mere moments as he marches towards her with fire in his eyes, obscenities in his mouth and the hot skillet from the stove in his hand. Wasn’t it enough that he left scars on her soul? Now he wanted to scar what was left of her physical beauty?
Mamma used to say, the longest rope had an end, the longest prayer has an amen. Mamma was always right. She was right about Hensley and had him pegged for the scamp he was the moment she laid eyes on him. And she was right that the first beating would never be the last one. Even at that moment she remembers the first time he hit her.
She was folding laundry and he had just come in from the farm. In his newly acquired gruff manner, he demanded lunch and reminded her that it must be served within minutes of his return from work. She muses to herself that he must have started keeping company with that stupid fool, Thomas, who was filling his head with macho garbage. She continues folding, fuming in her mind and wondering why the hell he couldn’t get his frigging food himself. So what, she had to bring it to him too? It was on the stove, where she’d been leaving it for the past eight months, but no, he had to start keeping company with fools and try to assert his manliness on her! And as she fumes inwardly and continues her internal monologue, she feels a whack across her neck.
Stunned, she turns behind her to see his face an interesting shade of red and a newly formed vein bulging from the center of his forehead. With her attention now fully his, he informs her she should be grateful that he does not demand that she come to the farm with the food pail each day as the other women did for their menfolk and that the least she could do is have it piping hot and ready when he came through the door. He reminds her that he married beneath him and she should be glad to have gotten someone with his family background and nice light complexion to pick her up with her lack of pedigree and dirty-black color.
He reminds her that he could have had his pick of women in Castorville and beyond yet he choose her because she had wifely qualities and she’d better do her best to keep them. She is angry and afraid and reasons that his logic and ramblings make sense. So she suppresses the tears as he threatens a beating this time, threatening to give her something to really cry about after all a whack could never constitute a beating. She recalls the second time he made her skin burn. Of course, that too was not a beating to him. She had answered him in a way he felt was unwarranted and he slapped her across her face so hard that she was on the floor in seconds. Reminded that she did not have two coins to her name, she is now informed of the new house rule that she must never speak to him in a louder voice than his. As he sits on her stomach with his arms tightly around her neck, he feels he has established his authority with each tightened grip on her throat and thinks his action will earn him respect and obedience. And the list of rules grows as he makes them up at his whim and fancy and each rule comes with a ‘discipline session’.
I never beat my wife, he boasts to his partners at the bar, because to him, beating involves the use of a belt or a whip. No, I just give her a little discipline. And over the years the ‘discipline sessions’ become more frequent. With each occasion, she dies piece by piece and he gets bitter, more hateful, and angrier at her because he is losing the woman he fell in love with. Never mind he beat away, or rather ‘disciplined’ her away. He somehow manages to fool himself into thinking that she’d love him, dote on, admire and respect him the same way because she didn’t have to go out and work like the other women in the village. He gave her a comfortable life, a big house, and the perks that came from his family name and being the wife of the proprietor of Hillhouse Farms.
He is inflamed each time he brings up the good old days of courtship and how she used to love him. Enraged that after four years of marriage she is yet to give him a child. So he ridicules her and calls her barren mule in front of his friends, all while failing to recall that last two miscarriages from kicking and stomping on her. He’s a good man because he provides materially and no one could argue with that. Yet he has somehow managed to get himself saddled with a barren, useless woman who didn’t recognize his station in life and fails to recall that he pulled her out of the slums and elevated her with marriage.
Ungrateful wretch. She should love him. Respect him. Honor him but more so love him. So he stops coming home and gains a new object of affection. One who would love, admire, and respect him the way he deserves. One who hangs on his every word and feels privileged to have a man of his caliber take interest in her. Yet in his absence, she manages to bloom yet she is still broken and ashamed. Ashamed each time the other women in the village snicker and huddle together with the gossip of her on their lips. Each time they make snide remarks about not being able to keep her man. At the same time, she’s relieved that she doesn’t have to endure him. Endure each time he touches her or tries to enjoy the scent of her womanhood, the curves on her body, and her warm, intimate places. Yet, he still craved her, even when finding no issue in humiliating her and eating away at her soul.
She’s relieved when the beating stops because he’s hardly ever there. Nancy keeps him busy and it gives the old her chance to bounce back and she does, because she is woman and she is resilient. She’s like the tree that looks dead but the roots are strong. And as the tree blossoms again, the new leaves emerge and the boys by the bar see her with fresh eyes and make moves because she looks good and is a good woman, they say. But like the typical man, he wants to eat his cake and have it he becomes enraged when he finds out from Thomas was making advances. So he shows up the first time in weeks to remind her that she is still a married woman and that men look for fame and woman look for shame. And as if to remind her that he is man, he drags her from the verandah to the bedroom and reminds her what of a real man’s loving is like and she’s thankful that after two minutes of violent thrusting it is all over. His message registered.
Of course, not one to miss a show of his authority he holds back some of her allowance money and asks her if she thinks some other man would still take care of his wife when he had a lover. He goes back to his lover and she makes do with the little he gives because that’s what women do. And as she gets back bits and pieces of her soul and essence, and the talk of eyes on her start bothering him, he returns and resumes sucking the life-force out of her. The lover couldn’t keep him and the family didn’t like what they were hearing.
Son, nothing wrong with having a lover, but you don’t have to live with her. You could be like Mable and me before your mother died. He watches her, thrilled to see the glow in her skin, the lilt in her words, the pep in her step, and reasons that she’s fallen in line because of his months of absence. She’s learned the value of having and keeping him. He is appalled when she pushes him off her, refusing to give herself to him when he has just rolled off Nancy’s bed. He reasserts his authority with a swift tear of her nightgown because she is his to have and to hold, to take and break. And when he is over a few minutes later this time he really does beat her, for he grabs the nearest belt and gave her what she’s been deserving for the last four years.
Her screams punctuate the quiet night and pressed by his deacon, the neighbor next door, complaining of her depriving him of sleep, Rev. Simpson visits. Deacon Walker was an important member of his congregation, a generous giver and servant of God, and was entitled to his rest. Rev. Simpson offers counsel and pray but don’t get too deep because Hensley is an even bigger giver. And it looks like the 30-minute session after years of her begging and pleading with the good Rev. to come see them work because he does not physically discipline her for months. Yet true to his vile nature he now uses his mouth to deliver soul-crushing blows.
Barren, worthless, ungrateful, dirty-black mule and other litany of insults now replace his discipline sessions. Even that didn’t last and the old Hensley comes out as he grabs the iron off the stove and charges to her when he sees a wrinkle in his work shirt. All her painful memories are encapsulated in mere moments and she grabs the piece of 2×4 near the kitchen door. She charges him, swinging wildly like a bat out of hell. He finds humor in the scene. He saw it but didn’t believe it. And why should he? She never hit back once, never complained to the authorities. She knew her place was under him and as man and husband he had authority to beat her for the Bible did say so and so did Reverend.
So he calls her bluff and laughs to his detriment and as the piece of wood connects with his back he releases a blood-curdling scream. She has the last laugh and laughs best, almost to the point of sounding maniacal. As fear and a deluge of memories flood her mind she beats him mercilessly. It would be the last time he would beat her because they later learned that the beating she put on him would make it hard for him to do anything for himself for months.
So she nurses him back to life as a good wife would and because she is a good woman, as they say. She feeds him, bathes him, cares for him, and takes care of him. As if a fog has lifted, he sees her again for the first time in months. No years. He sees her kind heart and forgiving spirit, he sees the love that is unrelenting. He sees the girl he fell in love with. It was not she that changed, he just stopped seeing her and in his failing to see her he became something different.
As his strength and health return, she realizes that she too has become stronger than she ever knew or thought possible. This pushes her to search her heart and memory for the girl she used to be. She realizes that the girl is still there. Her branches and leaves may seem withered but her roots are strong. That strength pushes her to manifests a bold new identity, one that informs her consciousness that she is enough; she is beautiful, she is resilient and he is not worthy of her time, heart love, and devotion.
Taking only what she came with she leaves his house of horror and steps into a bright new future. One rooted in the knowledge that she is woman, she is resilient, enough, and deserving of much more than this broken man could give.