If

TW: frequent references to domestic violence

If he hadn’t been my gaoler
Maybe I’d still be a wife
With that photogenic life
At least between 9 and 5
Because you know what kids are like
Near 6 o’clock…

If he hadn’t tried to own me
Maybe I’d still wear that ring
Finger swelling round the thing
The symbol of my giving in
To the fight I couldn’t win
Against the world

If I’d got to keep my body
Maybe I’d still walk those halls
With their off-white painted walls
And their scratch-resistant floors
And their lever-handled doors
I chose myself

If he’d been somebody different
If he’d know-n how to love
I might not have… “given up”
I’d still have a smooth-shaved cunt
Not leave the house without makeup
Cos I’m a… woman…

If he hadn’t been a monster
I wouldn’t have to be so grateful
For escaping something dreadful
With three reminders of my downfall
Not their fault they bring back painful
Memories.

If I’d stayed…
If I’d surrendered…
If I’d died.

All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017

Snow White And The Seven Misandrists

Once upon a time there was a young princess named Snow White, whose new-aged hippie parents had named for her snow-white skin, blood-red lips, and ebony hair. There have been suggestions that Snow’s personal features may have been exaggerated for narrative purposes, which has never been proven. Certain it was that her parents, though kind and gentle, and good rulers in their way, should not have been allowed to name a child under any circumstances, regardless of that child’s appearance.

Alas for Snow, her parents died when she was very young, leaving her with only her name and her title to remember them by. She missed her parents, but she was not alone, nor uncared for. The queen’s brother Ronald was declared Regent upon the king’s death, and was to hold the throne until Snow White was of age. Uncle Ronald and Aunt Natasha treated Snow White as a daughter, and she was very happy with her new family, for although she had loved her parents after the way of all young children, she did not remember them well, and her aunt and uncle were kind.

The years passed, as the years are wont to do, and Snow White grew into a beautiful young woman, which perhaps is evidence enough that her vampiric description was rather exaggerated. She began to learn her duties as princess, and future queen, and she loved both her kingdom and her people. Ronald taught her everything she would need to know, and she had nothing to wish for as she approached her fifteenth birthday but a little cousin. Natasha had long since despaired of bearing a child of her own, but her lovely Snow had prevented her feeling the lack in all ways but one – Ronald had wished greatly for an heir of his own, for Snow could hardly carry his name once she was queen.

Ronald’s desire for an heir had always concerned his wife, for although she loved him, and although he had always shown her great kindness in return, she knew him to be shallow, after the way of all men. He valued youth and fecundity as the highest traits a woman could possess, and as Natasha grew older and her barrenness became apparent, she feared her security as his wife was less… well, less secure than she could wish. Natasha’s mother had come from a land where men were given power according to their abilities – that is, very little – and Natasha had learned early the true weakness of all men, and the danger that such weakness created. While she had adapted well enough to life in a world of men, Natasha could not be fooled by them. As Snow grew closer to womanhood, Ronald began to grow colder to his wife, while his attentions to his niece increased. As little as Natasha wished to doubt her husband, she knew the weaknesses of the male race too well to doubt his intention.

One evening as she sat with her aunt, Snow innocently confirmed Natasha’s suspicions by asking, “Dear aunt, my uncle has told me something that has filled me with great fear. He has told me that he has grave concerns for your health, that he fears you are most unwell. He begged me to keep his concerns from you, I cannot but ask you to be open with me about something you must know to be dear to my heart.”

Natasha instantly saw her husband’s plan, for she was perfectly well in body and mind, and if her husband talked of illness, it was one of invention, designed only to allay suspicion should Natasha mysteriously succumb to an early death. Immediately resolved to protect her niece from such machinations, and of course herself, Natasha kept her tone calm as she replied, “Your uncle’s concern is quite misplaced, my dearest niece. He is a man, after all, and gives little credit to a woman’s superior constitution.”

Snow, although knowing men to be inferior in many ways, was astonished that her uncle could be so concerned about his wife’s health without reason, for he had warned Snow that Natasha was dangerously ill.

“Yet what reason could my uncle have for thinking you ill, when you declare yourself well?”

“A man’s reason,” replied Natasha. “And, as such, none that does him credit.”

Snow saw that her aunt did not wish to be questioned further, but it preyed on her mind over the ensuing days. She feared that either her aunt or uncle were unwell, or that something had come between them, and as she loved them best of anyone in the world, she was saddened by the thought. Her fears were confirmed three days later, when she was woken in the early hours of the morning by her aunt.

“Come, my love, we must leave immediately, and most secretly. I fear there is danger for us both if you remain.”

Snow was obviously confused, but her trust for her aunt was such that she followed her without question until they were a safe distance from the palace, deep in the Dark Forest. Natasha knew the forest well from her childhood, and took them through backways and secret paths that no one else knew. Snow’s shock upon hearing the truth about her beloved uncle was very great, and she cried many tears over such a loss of trust. Natasha comforted her, and cried also, for her heart was very sore.

“I always thought him better than most men,” said Snow, when her crying was done. “Yet he is no better than the worst of them, if this is true.”

“I am sorry to break the last of your innocent trust in the goodness of men, but so it is. Perhaps there is a man who would act otherwise, but I am yet to meet him. Certain it is that your uncle paid my maid to slip poison into my evening tea, and certain also is it that she loves me better than he thinks, and that she warned me.”

“And you think he wishes to marry me? But he has been a father to me, what would make him think I would endure such a thing?”

“Who can understand the thoughts of men, save for other men?”

Snow and Natasha travelled through the Dark Forest for a night and a day, until at last they came to a small house, in a clearing hidden by thorny brambles and towering oaks. Awaiting them were seven women, each bearing a crown of silver braids and a stout hickory stave. These women had been bodyguards to Natasha’s mother, who had travelled with her when she married, and had stayed with the family, helping to raise Natasha. Upon the death of their employer, the women had left the palace for a simpler life, for they found the society of men to be unpleasant, and preferred the peace of the forest and their garden, but they had always maintained contact with Natasha, whom they loved almost as a sister.

When Snow and Natasha had eaten and bathed, they joined the group before the fire.

“I fear news of your flight preceded you,” said the eldest, Agnes. “Armed messengers have twice passed through this part of the forest in search of you. Your husband accuses you of kidnapping, my dear,” she said to Natasha.

“I expected nothing less,” said Natasha, although her heart was sore at the news. “And I come with a plan. I know my husband’s wishes, and we will use them against him.”

For some days, Snow and Natasha remained hidden in the forest with the seven women, preparing their trap for Ronald. Rumours reached them from the palace, and it began to be said that Natasha was a witch, who had enchanted and kidnapped Snow White out of jealousy. Ronald had declared Natasha a traitor to the crown, and a reward was offered for her capture. Snow was incensed at these implications, for she could hardly bear that her aunt could be the victim of such slander, or that any woman would stoop to kidnapping a rival for a mere man. However, Natasha was pleased to hear such rumours, for it made her plan far easier. Snow, despite her newly-roused anger, was still confused.

“Surely if my uncle is the origin of these rumours, he will not believe the story we shall send him,” she said. “He would know it is not true, for he created it himself.”

Agnes shook her head and replied, “My dear, you have much still to learn. A man claims logic and reason are his alone, but in truth they are ever out of his grasp. He will believe what he wishes to believe, and will congratulate himself on having the foresight to imagine it beforehand.”

“I am ashamed to have ever thought so highly of him,” said Snow, shocked at the inferiority of the male race, and that they should ever have learned to walk and talk at the same time, if such was their intelligence.”

“We have all made such mistakes, my dear. Your whole country has allowed men to fool you, but not for long. Once we take care of your uncle, you will redress the imbalance that has so long plagued this land.”

As Snow watched her aunt, she felt her anger growing. She could see Natasha’s grief for the loss of her marriage, and although she consoled herself with the company of her beloved friends, it would have been a heartless woman indeed who did not feel the stab of a husband’s betrayal. And Snow was pretty narked on her own account, of course, since Ronald – who was a full twenty years her senior – had simply assumed that she’d marry him once his wife, her aunt, was dead. Her illusions about the goodness of men were being shattered apace.

One morning, about three weeks after their flight from the palace, Natasha and Snow sent an anonymous message to the palace, claiming that Snow’s sleeping form had been discovered in a hidden glad in the forest, and that a heavy magic lay around her. Only a true nobleman could save Snow White from the eternal magical slumber into which her wicked stepmother had cast her, and the message begged Ronald to come and save his niece. Snow herself accompanied her friends to a beautiful glade near the house, where the locals believed fairies lived. (Obviously this was total bollocks, fairies aren’t real any more than magic is, but Agnes knew that an enchanted princess in a magical glade would prove irresistible to the gullible Ronald.)

It took only four days for Ronald’s party to reach the glade, where they were met by the seven women, all wearing their old knightly uniforms, and armed with swords at their hips and staves in their hands. Ronald’s party was small, for while he was supremely confident in his own goodness, there was just such a germ of self-awareness that he knew there was the possibility he would fail to wake Snow White, if indeed a ‘true nobleman’ was required to save her. It was thus a relief to him that the women told him to leave his entourage at the edge of the glade and to continue alone, for the breaking of a spell was a task for one man, not five.

“But how is such a spell to be broken?” asked Ronald, somewhat embarrassed at not already possessing such knowledge.

“With a kiss, of course,” answered Agnes with a sneer. “But your Lordship should hurry, lest the princess should perish from lying too long asleep.”

Ronald took her advice, and, leaving his companions, ventured into the glade. There, he found Snow White ‘sleeping’ on a raised bed, surrounded by wildflowers that they had planted only the week before. She was dressed in a fine robe, her hands crossed over her chest and her eyes closed in demure repose, and her face was as beautiful as he remembered. Yes, dear reader, I fear he thought nothing of the fact that she was his niece, nor that his wife still lived, nor even that he had been as a father to her. He thought only of being King as her husband, of the prestige of having such a young and beautiful wife (whom he had saved from evil magic, no less), and of having children as beautiful as she to which he would pass his name. Such was the nature of this man, and of all men.

Fortunately for Snow, she was never subjected to such unspeakable horrors, for Ronald found himself prevented from kissing her by a blade at his throat. Natasha did not hesitate to rid herself of such an unworthy husband, and while it is possible that Snow made Ronald’s last moments infinitely more painful with the toe of her sturdy boots, such matters are hardly fit for this tale. Suffice to say, Ronald was dispatched, his guard subdued by the other women, and Snow returned to her rightful place in the palace.

Natasha was pardoned of all wrong-doing, and Snow refused to allow another Regent, preferring instead to appoint Natasha as Advisor. There was much upheaval for a time, as the kingdom struggled to understand what had taken place, but Snow proved herself an able queen, and all fears of magic and witchcraft proven quite unfounded. Natasha did not marry again, and thus ended her life happily at a great age, satisfied in the knowledge that, in one place at least, men had been shown their proper place beneath a woman’s rule.

This adaptation is the property of Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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The Nightmare Girls

People always want to know about beginnings.  They want to know where it all started, but the truth is, there is no such thing as a beginning.  Every beginning has its own past, and what we call the ‘start’ of anything is simply where we choose to say “there, that is where It began”.  When people ask where the Nightmare Women began, how a house full of women (Somebody’s Mothers, Somebody’s Sisters, Somebody’s Daughters) became Vigilante Murderers, they don’t really want to know how we came to be, but about how we came to be conscious of ourselves as Ourselves.  There was a Before, when we were still making ourselves into Ourselves – a dark, lonely, loud Before – but it is never allowed to be our Beginning.  Why not?  If we’d had no Before to escape, no Before to remember, no Before to fear, we would not have found that Beginning, the one everyone wants to read about.  The story of our Beginning is only a tiny fraction of Our Story, but humans are so very eager to know where Things Started.  They already know how it ended.  This is how it Began.

It would surprise people to learn what we remember first when we think of The Nightmare Women. It’s not blood, or death, or violence. Those were only ever background to those of us who were there. We remember the food – lasagne and risotto and stirfry and dahl and home-made naan, which was apparently a complete betrayal of a major culinary tradition, but which tasted delicious. We remember fruit mince pies in July, just because we could, and chocolate cake with jam in the middle, and butter cookies decorated in garish colours by chubby little fingers. It took three or four of us to cook dinner for everyone, three or four bodies dancing around one another and stepping over toys and shoes and toddlers as we stirred and strained and instructed various children to do their homework or take their shoes off at the door or don’t-touch-that-you-little-beggar. Our home – and it was a home, not a barracks, or a base, or a compound – our home always smelled of cooking. There were nearly twenty of us, after all, and all those mouths needed feeding, all the time. But we didn’t just feed each other with pasta and cakes. We fed each other with our words, our thoughts pouring out in a river, tongues finally freed after so many years of biting silence. Our words spilled out of us and filled the rooms, warming them and lighting them, resonating with laughter that was, for the first time, un-faked and un-smothered. These words that were as warm and comforting as tea-and-biscuits, or fresh-baked-bread-and-apricot-jam. Words of love; I-knows and it-will-be-okays and you-can-take-your-times. Words that were uncensored, unafraid, tumbling over one another, shocking at first, like a first kiss at the back of a cinema, or the first taste of alcohol. We baked words for our sisters. What we remember of The Nightmare Women is sustenance.

There was another beginning, of course, before the Beginning.  This beginning was Sadhna.  She was forty when she said “no more”, and escaped.  She brought Jaya here, just a child then, and made it a fortress.  And in the beginning it was a fortress, when it was just Sadhna and Jaya.  They barricaded themselves behind these walls and pretended the world didn’t exist.  But the world didn’t stop existing.  It kept creating more Sadhnas and more Jayas, and some of them found their way to the fortress, and Sadhna let them all in; all the single mothers and high school drop-outs; the queers and trannies; the Abos and towel-heads and chinks; the bludgers and povvos and spastics and nutters.  The survivors.  The empty rooms were opened and we filled them with noise, with bundles of second-hand clothes, and op-shop furniture, and recycled fabric turned into Etsy-worthy bedspreads.  We filled them with night terrors, and cups of tea delivered by sister insomniacs, with tears and whispered stories and arms around shoulders.  We filled them with ten people trying to learn sign language because the new girl was non-verbal.  With seven different languages, and toddlers who would use words from all of them in the same sentence, plus a few they’d made up.  With study for the first time in two decades, and night shifts keeping an eye on the diabetic eight-year-old, and children sleeping in their own beds for the first time, and music that everyone sang along to, and laughter.  The walls grew warmer.  They held the world at bay, and inside, we made our own world.

Until he came.  Fools that we were, we allowed ourselves to believe in Safety.  We had Got Out.  We had Survived.  It was a Good Area.  It was quiet, so quiet that you could Leave Your Doors Unlocked (although we never did, even in that magical innocent time).  None of us talked to our pasts any more.  We believed what we were told; we believed we should have been Safe.  But he found us, and for those fateful twenty-seven minutes, our home – our safe, warm, noisy home, smelling of roses and gumboots and curry – our home became a fortress again, and we were under siege.  This was the Beginning.

********

It was our favourite kind of evening.  We had already started hanging the Christmas decorations.  We spent our spare time stringing popcorn garlands to hang from the door frames and the three baby pine trees we’d cut from the bottom of the garden.  We’d already gone through three bags of popcorn and we’d barely finished the ground floor.  Sadhna and Bec and Meara and Jackie were making tacos, the easiest meal possible with so many children.  We always used normal corn chips, though, because they were cheaper.

– Harley, stop hitting your brother! Bec hollered through the kitchen window.  Harley was Viv’s, but we shared everything, including parenting.

– Do I have to come out there? Viv shouted over the back of the couch.  A chorus of giggling ‘no’s came back through the screen door, followed by a shriek indicating one of the older ones had found the hose.  Bec and Meara rolled their eyes and laughed.  It would be worth the wet clothes to have twenty minutes of relative peace.

It was our favourite kind of evening.  It had been muggy all day.  There was a storm coming, the brief, showery kind that barely cools the air.  The gloryvine nodded in the breeze, the scent of rain and the distance crackle of thunder had energised the children, which was why we’d sent them all outside.  Except Finn, of course, who was sleeping on the rug, his little three-month hands clenching and unclenching as he dreamed his baby dreams.  Viv relaxed back into the couch and sighed.

– How long since we were all home at the same time? she asked, clasping her glass of wine like it was the Elixir of Life.

– About six weeks, replied Hen, her eyes facing the television but her hands flashing toward Viv.  We’d opened all the windows, and for once, none of the children had sports training or music lessons or dance class, none of us had to work or visit a relative.  We sat and leaned and stood and lay in the cavernous living area and drank tea and coffee and wine and beer while we strung garlands and yelled at Family Feud and at each other, and the only way we could tell what was going on was because of Hen’s closed captions.  She needed them because when we were too loud, she couldn’t interpret individual sounds, and we were often too loud.

It was our favourite kind of evening.  Finn woke suddenly, his face crumpling and legs pumping angrily as he worked his way up to a decent howl.  Seven voices said ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwww’, but Sal got to him first, cuddling him tight as she couriered him to Meara for a feed.  Meara gave her a brief hug as she took her son back, resting her cheek against Sal’s.  It was nearly two years since Sal had arrived, bruises still fresh, the tiny urn in her luggage carrying a deeper wound than anyone outside of this home would ever understand.

– Can you hear something? Hen signed at Viv, the only one still facing her.  We were too busy smiling at Finn or worrying about Sal, and the television was turned up and the children yelled too loud for us to notice.

– Hey, shush, you lot, what’s that?”

It was our favourite kind of evening…

 

I know you’re in there, you filthy bitch!  Fe fi fo fum…

It’s amazing how silent a noisy room can become when fear arrives suddenly like that.  It’s amazing how familiar fear can be and yet still so jarring.  Only two of us knew the man, but we all knew the voice.  It wasn’t drunk, not this one.  He didn’t need to be.  It was a toddler-in-a-man’s-body voice; a toy-taken-away, it’s-not-fair voice; a bitch-slut-whore you-belong-to-me voice.  A Man’s voice.

– How did he find me?  Why is this happening?

– Ssshh, someone get the kids inside.

– Don’t worry, Meara, you’re safe, it’s fine, it’s fine.  Please let it be fine.

– What are we going to do?

– We’ll deal with it, don’t worry.  Who let this fucker walk free?

– Okay, kids, we’re going to go upstairs.  Don’t worry, sweetie, it’s going to be okay.  How dare he frighten our babies.

– Turn the TV down, lock the door.  We’ll deal with It.

– He’s my child, Meara!  You’re my wife!  I smell the blood of a frightened woman…

Nine pairs of frightened eyes.  Nine pairs of angry eyes.  Nine pairs of hands signing.  Nine heads nodding.

–  You promised ‘til death do us part!  You seem pretty alive to me, you fucking whore!  Be she alive or be she dead…

And just like that…

– Let me in, you crazy dyke bitches!  Give me my wife back!  I’ll grind her bones…

It was our favourite kind of evening.  And that was the real reason it became our Beginning.  We had finally found our Place, and he wanted to take it away from us.  Like every other Man we had ever known, this one wanted to take what we had worked for, what we had built.  He wanted to steal it and make it his.  We were all afraid.  We carried fear with us from the moment we were born, Women-in-a-Man’s-World; property, objects, saleable, ownable.  Killable.  But this time the fear didn’t win, because this place wasn’t a Man’s World.  This place was Our World, and he wasn’t welcome.  In this place, we could be angry.  Anger, after all, is what happens when you have been afraid for too long and you want it to stop.  Anger was our Beginning.  And those are still our favourite kind of evening.

I suppose there are people who will want to know his name.  They will want to know who he was, what he had done, exactly what we feared he would do.  They will want to know what we did, and where he is buried.  But to us, he has no name, not any more.  He is simply the one who reminded us that in this world, in this reality, we are never safe.  He is the one who tried to bring the Man’s World into Our World; who tried to take back our humanity and turn us, once again, into Women-in-a-Man’s-World.  Instead, he turned us into an army, and reminded us that there were other fortresses out there, other Women-in-Men’s-Worlds who wanted to be human too.  We learned, then, that if we fought on their terms, we would keeping losing.  So we made our own terms.  There was no other way, nothing else to be done.  This was where the Nightmare Girls began.

All Rights Reserved (text and image) to Cambrey Payne 2016. Acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.