The Penultimate Day. Tomorrow will be the end of Women’s History Month, and thanks to having this month, we have achieved all our goals. We now have equality everywhere in the world, and we are all standing proud and strong beside the men, sharing fully in the human experience.
Just kidding. So for today, I take you into a world that is all too familiar to all too many women, women who are treated both as the spoils of war, and as the tools to fight a war through humiliation and degradation.
THE TOOLS OF WAR
The sound of the guns grew closer. The cannons in the distance still roared, but more frightening were the close battles. Who was winning? The small hut shook with the force of the explosions that hit too close for comfort, and the women clapped their hands over their ears to protect them from the sound, so loud it hurt. Somewhere in the huddle, a child began to cry, her wails joining the general noise surrounding them. Annalee motioned to the girl’s mother; she needed to keep the child quiet.
The women held each other and prayed. The guns were close, so close they could smell the gunpowder. Explosions threw dirt against the blacked over windows of the hut; the women heard pebbles hit the window. It felt as if the pebbles were hitting them. They kept their heads down and their arms wrapped around each other.
They had no idea who was winning, if anyone was winning. They knew their men were outgunned, but their men were strong and would not give up without a fight. They would protect their home as long as it was possible. They hadn’t asked for this war; they hadn’t fought it. This village had remained neutral, not taking up arms, but the war sought them out and now the men were facing an enemy they had no beef of their own with. No one even knew which side had attacked them. The first attack came in the middle of the night; by the time there was light enough to identify the fighters, the men were hidden in the woods waiting for their chance to defend, and the women were all gathered in the single hut, the largest hut in the middle of the village, the one surrounded by other huts and believed easier to defend. A single male remained on guard outside their hut, hidden behind a bush so his guard didn’t give their location away.
Annalee herded all the women into her hut early in the morning, and provided paper to black out the windows. They had only two small candles for light, afraid more would give away their position. Now they were all huddled together, cold and scared, praying and whispering to each other in an effort to gain some comfort. The children were told not to cry, but the littlest ones were too small to understand. The women took turns managing the babies to prevent crying that would give away their location.
Many of the girls that were on the verge of womanhood thought it was a great adventure, but Annalee knew what the risks were. Their village had been overrun during earlier wars, the location too strategic for either side to ignore, and their countrymen refusing to accept the neutrality they did their best to maintain. This could be a raiding party to bring their men to the front, or it could be the enemy attempting to gain the territory. Either way, Annalee knew it was best if the women weren’t discovered. Her mother had told her in horrified whispers what happened when outside men captured a village in war. Annalee was determined to keep that from happening to any of the women in the village.
The gunshots were less frequent, and the cannon was silent. A few scattered shots kept them in place, knowing that the men were still out there, but not knowing which men. Who would be the ones who came through that door? Annalee felt for the hand of her youngest, promised but not yet married, and held on tight. The child no longer viewed it as an adventure. Her hand was cold with fear, and Annalee felt the child shaking. She wrapped her arms around the girl, hoping to absorb some of the fear and allow her child some peace.
Her oldest was lying next to them on the floor, her arms wrapped around her own child, a little girl of three who was terrified and wanted to cry. Mother and daughter lay together, the mother’s hand clapped over the daughter’s mouth, a necessary precaution. All over the hut, mothers kept their hands on young mouths, their sons and daughters prevented from crying out loud. They listened, the silence that had settled over the village almost more frightening than the explosions. They hoped for the whoop that would tell them their men had prevailed and were coming home, but they heard nothing except a single footstep cracking a stick outside.
The door swung open and a hand stuck a light inside. A head followed, examining the hut with a practiced eye. The light swung around in a large arc, covering the walls, not yet finding the women huddled in the middle of the room. The arc was swinging closer; there was nowhere to go, no way to escape the light finding them. A single movement would give them away as much as the light falling on them. They prayed, not letting a sound escape their lips, but sending pleas upward from their minds, their souls, hoping the figure in the doorway would move before his light found the women, hoping that some miracle would render them invisible to their enemies.
The arc of the light narrowed, moving closer to the women. Annalee held her breath, unwilling to risk detection by even a single wisp of air. She sensed the other women holding their breath. Her granddaughter was no longer wiggling; the stillness of the women had impressed on her the need to be silent, to be still. The light moved over the top of the huddled women, and moved away. Annalee started to breathe again; the men had missed them. The light moved away, then toward them again. It settled on the group of women, and paused.
“Well, look here!” A male voice shouted toward his mates. “We’ve got ‘em!”
The door burst open and men piled through, unfamiliar men, not their men. These men knew what they wanted, and they were coming to take the spoils of war. The man with the light moved forward, putting his foot on Annalee’s head as she tried to rise, tried to run.
“You’re not going anywhere, sister.” The man leered into her face. “You got a man out there? Not gonna answer, huh? Well, it don’t matter. Come here.”
The man grabbed Annalee and pulled her to her feet. She was still holding her daughter, and he grabbed the girl and wrenched her out of her mother’s arms.
“Bring them in here.” The man held Annalee with one hand, her daughter with the other. “Bring them in. They can watch. They can see what their resistance costs them.”
The women cried as their men were marched into the room, lined up against the wall. They were going to be forced to watch the humiliation of their women, they were going to pay for their refusal to fight. Each man of the victorious party chose a woman for himself, and the women of their village once again became both the spoils and the tools of a brutal war.