For one of my college classes, I chose to research the initiation rites of young women of a certain culture into the steps of their adult womanhood. When I arrived at the country whose culture I had chosen to study, I was paired with a guide named Helen. She was a middle-aged woman who seemed kindly and wise. Her patience was astounding - pliable and elastic; warm. Nothing seemed to upset her. She met my confusion or dismay at this new culture with a sturdy, but warm arm around my shoulders. She would hug me for a moment, and then release me and smile. She had a way of looking down that was both humble and respectful, but did not usurp her own presence as a woman of strength, purpose and authority in her field. She was a guide. That was considered an honor in her country.
For the initiation sequence, I was taken to a small house in the center of an isolated village. Outside the village there was dry golden-brown desert that stretched for miles in all directions. The house sat in the middle of a garden clump of tree's and tall grasses; an oasis of sorts, though the house itself looked like a rustic cottage more likely to be found sitting in the middle of a mid-western woods. It had a sagging front porch, and a screen door that scraped loudly against the jamb when it was opened. Once inside, I was seated on an old plush cut velvet couch. It was burgundy and dusty and sat at the far end of the house, which appeared to be one large room. Frayed mustard-colored carpeting covered the floor. The windows were hung with yellowed thick gauze curtains and scratchy old asbestos shades. A small cooking area held a stove that was covered with utensils and pots of varying sizes; across the room from the couch stood several hard wooden chairs with carved curving backs, their dark wood sticky with age. Helen took a seat on one of them.
On the wall to my right were two doors about seven feet apart. I found that curious, but said nothing. As we sat quietly, the door through which we had entered the cottage opened. A tall stocky man in a stale grey suit stepped inside. He was followed by several young women, their bowing bodies curving in on themselves from the waist. They looked old and shrunken in this position, but they moved with a sliding ease that conveyed their youth. As he approached me, the man's fiery dark eyes glinted, making laser cuts deep into my psyche. I was sure that no one would ever dare to question their flashing authority. His grey-black hair was wiry, reminding me of a scouring pad and, had his presence not been so compelling, I would have chuckled. Instead, I glanced quickly at Helen. She nodded once and looked down. He said nothing to me, instead reaching out his hand to mine and indicating for me to rise as he took it. His smile flashed rows of square white teeth - - tiny cold tiles in rigidly perfect order up and down his jaw. He held my hand warmly, tucking my arm under his with deliberate gentle force. Without a word, he led me to the door furthest from where I had been sitting.
As we approached them, the young women quickly opened both of the doors and I caught a glimpse of what lie behind them. There was a room - an alcove of sorts, rectangular and narrow. It was tiny, six or seven feet long and no more than five feet wide. There were no windows or openings on the three framing walls, only the two doors on the entrance wall. The bulk of the room was taken up by a rather large contraption that could be changed from a deep white porcelain bathtub, to a long white marble table, or a warm and lush velvety brown bed. Just how this was accomplished escaped me, but I was given view of it in all three states as we moved from the doors and walked three times silently about the room. At the foot of the contraption stood a small dark cabinet, its top level in height to the table. There were reddish-brown stains mottled about its surface, and three strange looking metal instruments lay haphazardly upon it. The man led me into the room. Three of the young women quickly assembled about me and just as quickly began removing my clothing. That accomplished, they wrapped a large white muslin sheet around me and moved me over to the white marble table. Together, they assisted me onto the table, adjusted my position until I was lying on my back, and then departed from the room. I assumed that I was about to be given a massage, perhaps a lecture - instruction. The man stepped up next to me and removed that portion of the sheet which covered my abdomen. He raised his hands, rubbing them together over me for a couple of seconds, then began pummeling my belly in short painful Judo chops. I rolled sideways, moaning at the pain, but he continued striking at me. The blows forced me back, coming so fast that they pinned me to the table. And then, as abruptly as he had begun, he stopped.
"Now, how is that?" he asked me. "Does it hurt?"
This was the first time anyone had spoken to me since I had arrived at the house and the sound of his voice stunned me in its gentle gruffness. "Yes," I moaned, holding my stomach, "It hurts so badly."
"Hmm," he sighed, pursing his lips and shaking his head. Then he moved his hands back over my stomach and began striking me again. During the second assault, my mind finally grasped the concept that I was to remain silent and unflinching. If I moaned or complained of pain, the attacks would continue. This theory proved true when he stopped hitting me and again asked me how I felt. I stared up at him, forcing my face to relax, and said nothing. He smiled and nodded, then made a rapping sound on the table with his knuckles.
The door on the far end of the wall opened and one of the women came in. She was holding a large, round, low basket. She stepped up beside him and he turned back to me. He smoothed his hands over my stomach, then began taking beads from the basket and laying them on me. The beads, heavy, yellowed and ancient looking, were larger than any I had ever seen before. They varied in size and length, the largest as big around as an infant's arm. They ranged from one to six inches in length, reminding me of old bones. After he had arranged the beads in a pattern to his preference, the man took a large needle from the basket. It was threaded with heavy ropey twine, the kind used for baling hay. To my shock, he began stitching the beads to my abdomen. The agony of each stitch tearing roughly through my skin forced my breath from me. I dared not scream, understanding by now that to do so could possibly bring even worse hurt upon me. I fought to stay awake, terrified of passing out and waking to even greater circumstance or torment. Through the haze of pain, I kept thinking of the beads as bones. I tried to focus on that to keep my mind from the sensation of the thick twine dredging through my skin. And then he was finished. He stood up and walked from the room. Someone shut off the light and closed the doors.
I lay for hours in the darkness, in and out of a hazy consciousness that threatened my sanity when things became too clear in my awareness. The agony of my belly seared into my exhaustion, pried itself in jabbing slivers into my mind. I had never imagined that so archaic and ancient a ritual could endure in my lifetime. And, this was a culture that prided itself on its growing modernization.
As time drudged slowly by, I fought to keep from going crazy, to get my mind and myself beyond this puzzling torment. Through my anguish, the purpose of the ritual drifted over me. The women of this culture were expected to "realize" that they must endure excruciating pain without wince or complaint; secondarily, that they were totally captive of and subject to the whims of the culture - again to be met and followed without wince or complaint. My mind slowly began to grasp what had been meant by the phrase "sequential ritual," which had been used to describe how this culture initiated their women into adulthood. Each week for a month, they returned to this room for a different "lesson." And, I was to be brought through the steps as one of them. A heavy silent moan coursed deep inside of me, searing its sore and throbbing sorrow to the very center of my soul. If I continued with the initiation, I feared I would go crazy with the pain.
Quite suddenly, the door opened at the far end of the room. A young woman stepped inside. She was beautifully dressed in a soft pale lavender sweater and soft dark slacks. Her vibrantly brown chin-length hair was perfectly cut and styled, curving about her face and framing her young pink beauty. I sat up, realizing that I was to leave the room. As I rose, the beads on my stomach sagged from their own weight, clinking against each other in melodious accompaniment to the pain that dragged through me. I moved to the door closest to me and opened it. As I began to step through it, she threw herself next to me and blocked my way. I moved to continue through, but she stopped me again. I knew that it was to be her turn for the ritual, but she seemed to implore me not to leave. It was almost as though she wanted me to go through it for her. I tried again to leave.
"Oh, you mustn’t," she cried out in a despairing whisper. She put her arm up, holding it across the open doorway as she pleaded, imploring me with her dark eyes and an even louder whisper to stay. "I'm pregnant!" Her confession was swift and desperate, as she stood barring my way out the door.
No sooner had she spoken than the dark menacing face of the man appeared. She shrank back and, as he towered in rage over us, I realized that he was her father. "Pregnant!" he seethed. His words cut through the air like razors.
The young woman pointed at me. "Her, not me!" she cried in terror.
"No!" I screamed and escaped past them, running to stand beside Helen. She was still seated in the chair she'd taken so many hours before. I huddled in terror next to her and she slowly wrapped her arm around me, but said nothing.
The man turned ferociously on his daughter and she began to cry. He bent her back against the door, his anger rising and flashing about his face. Then, she started screaming, her pain and terror dripping like blood in the shrillness of her cries. I jerked my head up and saw that he had begun chopping at her in flat strikes with a sharp knife, flaying at her belly until it was a mass of bloody waxen ribbon-like bands. Her screams became louder, deeper, thicker - drenched with a sickening agony, but she continued to fight him. This seemed to anger him even more, and he stiffened for a moment in his obvious outrage. Through my shock, I realized that she had made an even worse error that I had when I'd complained of the pain. She had dared to fight him. His face grew livid, confirming my thoughts. Then he drew a larger knife from his belt, thrust it into the side of her abdomen, and carved the baby from her. All the while, he held her bent backward and screaming in the agony of his assault.
I begged Helen to intervene, but she sat silently, her head turned sideways and staring at the floor. I began to sob. My guilt at not taking the woman's pain, not lying for her or anticipating the consequences felt ominous and heavy. It had crossed my mind that I was too young to be believed, but that did nothing to ease the awful sense of responsibility I felt for her fate. I noted again her beautiful dark chin-length hair, her pale creamy lavender sweater, and her dark camel wool gabardine pants, and the clarity of my observations stunned me. From somewhere I remembered that my awareness of my surroundings had always intensified whenever I was hurt or afraid. Certain things seemed to coagulate vividly in my observation, staining my awareness with their oddly abject flavor in the midst of my distress. Perhaps it gave me a focus to find my way through, I thought dimly, and wondered if that was what was happening now. I looked back at the woman. She was so beautiful. Her clothes were so beautiful, and she was held writhing, screaming and bloody by her towering angry father. She may live or die I realized, but her agony was, would forever be, unthinkable, irremediable. I shook and cried, desolation overwhelming me; then I felt myself sliding away.
. . .
I awake to my body convulsing, feeling the hazy grayness dissolve into heavy ashen gloom. In the sticky darkness, I sob and pant in anguished despair. A woman appears beside me, surrounded by a fuzzy yellow glow that makes her appear surreal. She moves closer, a look of concern and sympathy furrowing her face, and then she reaches out and softly pats my arm.
"Would you like something for the pain?" she asks gently. "It's been a while since your last shot."
I feel puzzled. I look at her, blink, and then look around the room. I shake my head no.
"Bad dream?" she asks.
I look at her again, trying to comprehend, to orient myself.
"You were moaning and sighing when I came in," she explains. As she reaches out and adjusts the I.V. that is threaded into my arm, the edgy clarity of my surroundings files into my consciousness. Memory rushes back to me, blocking my senses for a moment, and I nod. A long deep sigh courses through me. "Bad dream," I repeat back to her.
She pats my hand again. "Let me know if you need anything."
She retreats from the room, her flashlight laying an amber path before her.
When she's gone, I raise my hands, running them tentatively over my belly. My fingers trace the tender ridge of the newly forming scar that edges along the side of my abdomen then races up to just under my left breast. I raise my arms to hug myself, then throw the sheet back and expose my silvery skin to closer examination. The moon hugs my belly in the splotchy darkness, bathing it in the light of centuries and moments, and I sigh in anguished and curious relief. "Bad dream," I say out loud in the darkness. Suddenly, I am crying, the hot salty tears flooding from my eyes, cauterizing my exhausted mind. This pain is ancient and enduring.
THE RITUAL © 1991 JM Shephard ~ JOY in the arts!