One night in October I was trying to fall asleep and absolutely could not. For no fathomable reason, this scene came to mind and I tried to ignore it for a while, probably a couple of sleepless hours, before I finally made notes on my phone. I was able to fall asleep almost immediately after. For some reason, my brain needed this scene to be written:
“This looks like a pleasant enough place,” I said as we topped the rise. The village below was as any other. A low stone wall encircled it, and small stone houses were scattered about. The roofs were thatch and mud, and while most had small gardens and pens for a couple of animals, there was also a large central garden in the middle of town. Several residents were tending it while there was still light.
We were spotted and several villagers watched us approach. Their faces held no hostility, but they were curious. They saw Angelo’s braids and greeted him in their shared language, waiting for him to explain my presence. I was picking up pieces of the language, but still thoroughly appreciated his presence as my guide in this area. Their traditions were not mine, and I didn’t want to upset anyone. Still, my pack was heavy, and I was eager to find a place to rest.
While Angelo negotiated our stay, I studied the architecture and the clothing of our newest hosts. It wasn’t much different than what I grew up around, though the stone was different, of course. And we roofed our homes with lacquered wood instead of thatch and mud. Much as most of the other places we passed, the clothing was all about the same. Everyone wore lose tops with short sleeves and loose trousers. None of the children wore shoes, of course, but a few of the adults did. It didn’t seem a necessary article of clothing, considering the pleasant weather and lack of loose stones.
They also braided their hair as Angelo did, but I noted that their patterns were slightly different. I’d have to ask him, but he was reticent to explain more than the basics to me. I was certainly a novelty with my short hair, and children were staring. I smiled and gave them a small wave. They returned the expression and gesture, but before I could start to tease them, a scream broke the small noises of evening.
Every head snapped around to stare in the direction of the commotion. A woman sprinted out from between houses holding her shirt to cover her chest. A large tear made that difficult. Her lip was leaking blood and a chunk from one of her braids was pulled lose, her hair hanging about one side of her face. She screamed again and pounded her chest before pointing in the direction she’d come. I stared at Angelo, who watched the village burst into action. He glanced in my direction and gave a small shake of his head.
I slowly released the grip I’d taken on my knife and tried to regain my calm posture. There was nothing I could, or should, do except wait.
It didn’t take long for a group of villagers to drag a man forward, kicking and yelling and fighting them. They remained calm despite the man’s struggles, dragging him forward to the center of town where everyone had gathered. A woman the age of my mother with stern lines about her eyes and mouth spoke and pointed at him, and then the woman who had screamed. She was hidden from view by a group of other women, but the man spat in her direction anyway. He didn’t look much like the other villagers and I wondered how long he had lived with them.
Angelo touched my arm and we stepped away. In a low tone, he explained, “That man has been found guilty of the attempt of rape.”
I felt heat rise to my cheeks, fury filling me. “They have appropriate punishment for that here, yes?”
Angelo nodded. “We will be separated, and so I want to explain what will happen so you are not confused.”
“What do you mean separated? Why? We’re just travelers.”
“Everyone must participate, unless they are too ill,” he explained. “This is a serious crime.”
“All right,” I agreed.
“You will go with the women, and I will go with the men. The women will braid coarse ropes and knot them. They will strike the rapist’s friends with the ropes, to punish them for allowing this evil to grow in him. You must strike them, same as the other women.” He waited for my questions, but I had none. “Once this is done, you will go and bathe with the other women, washing away the filth of this event. Then you will grant permission, or not, to the men of the village to return to their homes, if you believe they are worthy of it.”
“How should I know if they are worthy or not? I don’t know anyone.”
“You must use your best judgement,” he shrugged.
“What happens after that?”
“The night will continue. You can eat, or sleep, whatever needs doing. I will find you so that we can claim our room.”
“What are you going to do during all of this?”
Angelo gestured vaguely. “I will be with the men.”
“Yes, doing what?”
He hesitated only briefly. “We will punish the rapist. We will cover him in animal dung, every inch of him. Then…” he closed his eyes for a moment. “Then we will break his hands, feet, and jaw before taking our punishment from the women.”
My eyes were wide, but I didn’t interrupt.
“Then we will dispose of the rapist, clean ourselves of his filth, and return to ask permission to enter the village.”
“What do you mean ‘dispose’?” I asked. “You’ll have already injured him, right?”
Angelo nodded. “He will choose a direction and we will take him away. If he asks to die, we will kill him. If he asks to live, we will let him, but he will not be allowed any healing, or food, or water. His belongings and home and wealth are forfeit and go to benefit the village.”
I absorbed these words, and imagined what it would be like to try to travel any distance from my home with broken hands and feet and jaw. “They usually ask for death, don’t they?”
“All right. I understand.”
He met my eyes, searching for unstated questions, and then nodded, satisfied.
I joined the women and they welcomed me in their language. I did my best to respond in kind and they were forgiving of my foreigner’s tongue. The group traveled together to a clearing outside of a supply building and lengths of rope were handed out. Someone started a song and everyone joined in with various harmonies. I followed the melody wordlessly as several women showed me how to make my knots sturdy and firm.
The mood had changed. There was no fear, or even outrage. The women had work to do, and were preparing for it. As if for war.
We sang another song. And another. Our voices grew louder and the melody was lost to thundering. Volume was important, not precision. I noticed young girls in the crowd; some near adulthood, some far from it. Toddlers and infants, too. They were learning the knots if they were old enough, or else learning the songs with wide-eyed curiosity. I imagined it was their first time as well. I imagined the young boys participating in the men’s part. No one was exempt.
An older woman had been watching the village entrance and waved at us to join her. It was time. The crowd surged forward, ropes swinging, knots whistling, thunder in our throats, and battle in our hearts.
The men were naked and filthy. Many were openly weeping. The rapist was thrown aside, whimpering and crying with his pulverized limbs. The chief raised an arm for silence and asked a question. A small group of men and two boys came forward, eyes downcast. I followed the lead of the women in front of me. There was no singing this time. We swung our knotted cords with bruising force. The ropes left red marks on their skin. Some women struck the men across the face, some the chest or arms. I didn’t know these men personally, and so I kept my strikes to their chests.
All the while, the men were silent, raising no objection and only wincing when the ropes struck. The boys were the most difficult. I didn’t want to strike them, but they were as silent as the men. No one struck their faces, and I saw the women did not hit as hard, but they still had welts and marks before the end. The chief said something more and the groups disbursed again, the women to bathe while the men disposed of the rapist, and then the men to bathe when the job was done.
We undressed on the river bank. I hesitated, not because I was especially shy of my body, but because I knew I tended to make others uncomfortable. A couple of the women who’d been guiding me nodded and smiled encouragingly and I managed a grimace in return. I slowly removed my clothes and we all stepped into the river.
I saw plenty of them giving me sidelong glances, and finally one of my guides touched a particularly large scar on my shoulder blade with gentle fingers. “Man?” she asked in my language.
I pursed my lips and made a sort of shrugging gesture. She looked confused, but we were unable to communicate further. I wished I could explain that scars were what happened when you trained to fight, and while some of them were inflicted by men, it wasn’t in the way I was sure they thought. I didn’t want to attempt any miming, lest their interpretation muddy the waters further.
We all washed thoroughly, helping clean each other’s backs and hair. The mood was lighter. There were small smiles now with new, gentler songs. Children splashed playfully. When we had dried and dressed, we held hands to walk back to the village. The men were not yet finished, and so we waited, singing and playing with the children.
When the men returned they were quiet and somber. We lined up to guard the entrance to the village and each man approached, asking quietly for permission to enter. Many were graced with an embrace first, escorted inside by a wife or sister or mother. The line dwindled until only a few men remained. Angelo was among them, I saw, and a few others as well as those we whipped for their friendship with the rapist.
They, too, were embraced, however. Tears were shed over them as they were brought inside. Angelo came to me and gave a nod of respect.
“Do you have questions?” he asked softly.
I shook my head. “But the women might. I have scars from my training.” I gestured vaguely to my form and he nodded.
“I’m tired,” he said. It was a rare moment of vulnerability I hadn’t seen before. We’d been traveling together for only a couple of months, but this was the first time he’d offered such a notion. I put a friendly arm around his waist and he dropped his heavy arm across my shoulders.
He pointed out the direction I should lead us and when we arrived, our host and hostess showed us to the space near the fire they’d prepared. I helped him with his boots and he fell asleep straight away. I put my back to his and made myself comfortable amongst the bedding, and it didn’t take me long to follow suit.
February 07, 2021