To Die For by Connie Fick
There was a picture on the wall of three stone-coloured umbrellas. Spread out under each other, they protected against drops of rain that represented Satan. The umbrellas were a sacred image of the divine order. God’s umbrella was uppermost, the biggest to protect and encompass all. Underneath Him was a slightly smaller umbrella for the husband. If you blinked it was the same size as the first one. Underneath both was the smallest, the place of women, children and home-making activities.
Her blood spatter was next to the picture. The impact of her head against the wall had broken the skin, causing blood to fly. Head-butted, her nose was bleeding, her lip too. Their dance, which had started in the kitchen, had moved to the lounge.
How did it come to this? She wasn’t sure. Married at 17 to an older man, she had not recognised the war so she could marshal her defences. A first it was so subtle that she didn’t notice. He didn’t like her friends or her family. When they came to visit he was angry. They drifted away. He objected to her going out, she stayed at home. He made her feel guilty about pursuing her interests away from the children.
Invisible bounds ensnared her until she couldn’t breathe. When she tried to break them they were like mist. They’re only in your mind, her husband assured her.
He playfully kicked her ankles, elbowed her in her sleep under the guise of turning. A particularly hard blow to her chest left a blue mark for months. It couldn’t be talked about, even to her family. It had happened in the dark and didn’t exist.
Naïve and eager to please she couldn’t fathom that someone big and strong who loved her could hurt her intentionally. She remained vulnerable, wavering between happy and sad, a see-saw that kept her off-balance with the vague sensation that something was wrong.
She had been with him long enough to recognise the lie of the land, that his love lasted as long as his sexual passion. He blamed her for everything. She did not take care of herself, her skin was not supple enough; she had become older. His only option was to get a younger wife.
Everyone knows an older woman becomes difficult. As soon as she recognises her true place she starts to rebel. A younger model is needed. One that still has stars in her eyes and believes in the dream of love as beautiful and everlasting. One that can be bombarded with love acts while her subjugation is set in motion.
However, breaking down a new woman takes time. And to start again is hard work not lightly undertaken at an advanced age. Better to stay with the one into whom he’s already put all the labour. He had broken her down once and could do it again.
But he wanted a new sexual partner and she would just have to accept that. He was a man after all, with needs. He had rights, he announced to his group of friends. There was general agreement.
They were at someone’s house drinking, laughing and telling tall stories; building solidarity, discussing women.
“And if she doesn’t want to agree you make her,” a friend asserted.
Laughter. They all chipped in.
“I have a stick named Jimmy, especially for my wife.”
“Nay man, I just slap her. And when you’ve done it once or twice you just lift your hand and she pisses her pants.”
“Yes, beat in the love.” A boxing gesture.
“You have to slap your daughters too, when they’re young, to make it easier for their future husbands.”
“Listen here, this is the best, tell your son from a young age that women are stupid.”
“That they’re just good for one thing.”
“Which reminds me, when I get home now there’s going to be trouble.”
“What’re you going to do Boetie?”
“I’m going to shake that woman awake and demand sex.”
“What, you wouldn’t.”
“Just watch me. Me, I rape.”
There was laughter and encouragement as he left to carry out his threat.
He was whistling when he opened the back door.
He had just touched her when she jumped up, locked herself in the bathroom. He was livid. After he had already promised his mates this was an affront. A man denied access to a woman he regarded as his property, he developed an acute hostility. He didn’t fix things around the house anymore; he withheld money and slept hugging himself, curled away from her, a frown in repose.
That was when the abuse started.
He slammed her wrist against the wall, breaking it. She sank down onto her knees. He yanked her up by her arm, pulling her shoulder almost out of joint. She fell. He kicked her head, her chest. She curled into a foetal ball, her hands covering her head.
She pretended to be unconscious on the floor, a strategy to make him stop and start on his crying apologies, the next stage after a beating. It worked. He brought her flowers and chocolates. He promised never to do it again. She believed him.
The picture of the umbrellas was put up by her husband when he became saved, discarding his old religion in a traditional church to join the growing movement of fundamentalist Christianity. He had a spare on top of his wardrobe.
The umbrellas depicted God’s authority. Converts had to live under it or face Satan’s rain.
Evangelism was sweeping through the land, a revival. The bible was supreme and the scripture said ‘woman submit to your husband’. Even if he assaults you, a good woman should heed this advice. Her only claim to being was through her husband.
All you had to do was defeat the devil and then you could demand from God the economic fruits you deserved. Countless women had joined the church. Yet she held out, putting her marriage in peril and the spiritual lives of her three children.
It had been hard to oppose. Birds of a feather flocked together and none flocked so hard like the adherents of the new faith. She was an outcast.
A woman had to be quiet, gentle, a ‘prayer warrior’, whose prayers would move mountains.
He and his friends were discussing television.
“What’s your favourite series bru?”
“There’s so much to pick from. Vikings, the Vatican, fighting over thrones. ”
“Ja, at last they are catering for real men.” The boxer hit the table as he said ‘real men’, two thumps.
“Not all this sissy shit that they had previously.”
“Things were better in the past. Men went to war and women stayed at home.”
“They knew their place. They made themselves pretty for the man’s return.”
“Did you see, in the one about the Vatican, one man slept with his sister?”
Hoots of laughter.
“Did you see the one where this oke traded his sister for an army?”
“Those were the good old days.”
She felt uneasy when he watched these television programmes. Most men in her life were uncomfortable with women trying to advance and wanted to reinstate the past.
So many Hollywood series had appeared with onscreen violence against women. In one about Blackbeard, British soldiers beat up a young girl and buried her alive.
Afraid the television programmes would give him more ideas on how to increase her torment; on the days he watched she tiptoed around to please him. It ignited her fear.
There seemed to be an intense war against women which nobody noticed. Their only use was to provide sex, preferably on their knees being taken from behind.
Her daughter had married recently, to a man whose brother had founded a church. As the lead pastor he conducted the wedding and interpreted the picture of the umbrellas. The husband, as the head of the house, prayed directly to God. The wife looked up to and respected the husband, because through him she could reach God, there was no direct line. Stepping out from under the umbrella of God’s authority meant inviting Satan.
She was appalled. Morality and a set of principles had become obsolete. All that was required was to fall on one’s knees and pray to be forgiven. Replicating the same sin was alright because the crying and the praying could be repeated as needed, like Panado or an anti-diarrhoeal tablet.
She couldn’t sleep at night, worrying about her daughter. Her life would be one of submission with no earthly reward. She couldn’t warn her because she had been moved into the position of the mother-in-law, long disarmed by ridicule. And her experience and the knowledge gained from thirty-eight years of marriage could not be passed on: she was ashamed. How do you speak the unspeakable?
There was a bruise on her daughter’s arm which was explained away as bumping into the wardrobe. The realisation that her daughter may be abused hurt more than any kick on the ankle. It seared her mind. Would her second daughter fall into the same abyss if she shirked her duty?
She removed the umbrellas from the wall when her husband went away for a week to a church conference. She tore it into strips, stomped on it, and threw it into the dustbin. She replaced it with the wheel of power and control she had found on the internet.
In plain black and white, the wheel set down the tactics men had learned on how to dominate and control a spouse. These were passed from one generation to the next. The spokes of the wheel were: coercion, threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, economic abuse, male privilege, using children, minimisation, denying and blame. Physical and sexual violence formed the outer rim.
These tactics were universal; the lived experienced of most battered women, and were reinforced through social, cultural and institutional means.
She had been conditioned to accept. She was used to being ignored, used to being treated badly. She had built up a secret way of coping. First was to create distance between the violence and her feelings about it. Shut it out, don’t think about it and soon it will disappear. Only that exists which you allow to exist. It had always served her well.
But spurred by the courageous act of removing the umbrellas, concern for her daughter, and her husband’s infidelity, a thorn in the flesh for a long time, she called her husband and announced that she wanted a divorce.
When he came home he saw that the picture had been moved. Threatening divorce plus moving his property, that was too much for any man to bear. Without a word he removed her picture, went to retrieve his spare, and replaced it on the wall. The wheel he flung onto a chair.
A man who couldn’t control his woman, causing other men to shake their heads in disgust? The thought inflamed his rage.
He approached her where she was standing in front of the stove to warm his food. He grabbed her neck and slammed her against the wall. Her head knocked back and bounced forward. She clawed at his hand. This infuriated him. He put both hands around her neck. She started to choke, turn blue. Fear released her bladder.
The silence made it surreal. If it was accompanied by shouting and screaming, hers or his, it would make a dent in the universe, but the silence made it dreamlike, intimate. His snarl and the hatred in his eyes was therefore a mistake. She couldn’t believe that it was happening again, he had promised. Her body felt numb.
Their private dance took them across the room a few times, he leading, she stumbling, her ragdoll body following without protest. Blood in her mouth, she had bitten her tongue. But the children would not be disturbed in their sleep.
“I’m going to kill you, you fuckin bitch.”
The words exploded into the silence, breaking the spell. It galvanised her into action. She began to fight for the right to live. Locked in a deadly dance with her devil, she pushed him with her sound arm, kneed him in the groin. He fell.
She gasped for air, trying to clear her head. Her safety plan. Where did she put the car keys, the bag with her identity card, money, credit card and a change of clothes? She couldn’t remember.
Although she had prepared for it she never thought that she would actually leave. She had read about a safety plan in her research about surviving an abusive relationship. She had thought about it a lot, done little.
She ran, crawled under the bed. He pulled her out by her legs, turned her over. She saw the knife in his hand. Concern for her children forgotten she uttered a primal scream which echoed through the house.
“Shut up. You bitch.” He sat on her chest, stabbed her twice.
The neighbour heard her scream, knocked on the window, saw him sitting on her chest. Alarmed at being discovered, he was going to blame a burglar, he slashed his own throat superficially, nicking his voice box.
While waiting for the ambulance it gave her no joy to watch him injured, unable to speak, blood slowly seeping from his neck. The bitter taste of hatred settled on her tongue. She fastened her eyes on the picture that had replaced the umbrellas, which had slid onto the floor. Two pairs of legs, her daughters, they were looking at the wheel.
She regretted screaming, waking them and her son. Where was her son? Fifteen, he was kneeling next to his father, glaring at her. She started crying.
“It’s delayed shock.” The neighbour said, a tall thin woman. “Bring some sugar water. Please stop dearie. You’re making yourself sick. The ambulance is on the way.”
Shuddering, gasping sobs. She lost the tears of all mothers when they realise that, in spite of their teaching and influence, they had raised a son who was like the father, that under the tutelage of the patriarch, their son had grown up to disrespect women. Her physical pain had receded, overtaken by mental and emotional agony. She cried and cried.
“Please don’t cry Mummy.” Her daughters were on their knees, crying with her.
She had been discharged from hospital and was cleaning her bedroom. Her husband was going to kill her. She knew it with a certainty that was sticking to her bones.
He was also home but was hardly speaking to her, casting brooding glances of such malice that it made his eyes squint. He would kill her and the choice she had to make was whether to wait for it or get out. But that meant leaving everything behind, her children, her friends, her rose garden, her specially fitted kitchen, a lifetime of accumulated possessions. It belonged to her because she had found them and arranged them to the best feng shui.
Stay or leave, even if it was just emotionally, to lessen the pain of being abused. She shook the dust out of a small rug. She couldn’t allow him to know though. He wasn’t a man who would relish being left by a woman. He was too proud.
But maybe this time he would change after seeing how much he hurt her. Her hands became still. Having married straight after matric she had never worked. With no skills and no confidence she was afraid. She changed the duvet cover. Dust particles shivered in a ray of sun.
Cornelia Smith-Fick (Connie Fick) is a South African writer currently reading for the MA Creative Writing at Rhodes University. The daughter of an Anglican priest, she was born in a small place that you can’t find on most maps. A nurse by profession, she worked for a number of years as the editor of Health & Hygiene, a monthly primary health care magazine for nurses, and the bi-annual publication Mother & Baby. She has been a freelance writer for Takalani Sesame (radio and TV) since its inception in 2000. Her poems and short stories have been published in South African magazines.