There was this woman on the Metro. I noticed her head scarf first. It was colorful in that way of woven fabrics common in France, oranges and greens and yellows. She had it wrapped tightly about her head and tucked away somewhere in the back. Not one stray hair escaped the bondage.
Her lips were painted a persimmon red, with a hint of pink. Even though she was seated, I could see that she was a woman of strength in that way of goddesses over the generations of time. Her dark eyes curved upward ever so slightly at the corners, giving the appearance that she was cutting a look at every person, taking it all in, a woman who’d learned to be wary of the world around her. Whatever emotions she had – glee or anticipation, gratefulness or eagerness – were hidden behind the mask of expertly applied make-up. Make-up meant to cover the wounds of another day.
She had been burned at some point. Perhaps long ago. Perhaps only three years ago. Had someone lit her afire? Had she fallen into a fire? Did someone torture her, throw acid on her face? Whether by accident or on purpose, this woman had suffered. The scars of that suffering had left her with skin that looked like glass shattered, but not yet broken into ragged pieces. And even that shattering could not deny this woman her beauty.
There is a courtyard in the palace just around the corner from the recently gutted Notre Dame Cathedral. The acrid stench of the burning hangs in the air all these weeks afterwards. I could smell Notre Dame before I could see her, blackened from within.
There is a garden that grows in that courtyard in the palace. There are peonies growing there. Budding, almost ready to burst wide their petals to the sun. The sun reaches this courtyard only a few hours a day, shining down from straight overhead, through the arrow-like spikes that served as a threat to any of the prisoners who were once jailed here, inside these impenetrable stone walls.
They brought them here, the women, to gather in the courtyard, the same way prisons are run at Parchman or Pelican Bay. Other than TV and Gospel meetings, the US remains woefully in the Middle Ages when it comes to our approach to dealing with prisoners. According to reports, the US boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate, with close to 2.3 million people locked away in some 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Over 200,000 of those inmates are reported to suffering sexual assaults each year. The number is likely higher given the under-reporting of such assaults.
In the far corner of that courtyard is another wrought-iron fence with spikes. It is narrow, pie-shaped. It was here that the men were brought to meet with their wives, their daughters, their mothers, their sisters. These meetings were brief and allowed only on the most special of occasions.
Not any of the High Holy days, mind you. No. They would meet here before being led off to their executions. The mothers. The daughters. The wives. The sisters. The husbands. The brothers. The sons. The dads.
Thousands of them were imprisoned here. Thousands of them were beheaded just beyond this courtyard. In front of God and the gawking public. Beheaded. Even ISIS has the good sense to not behead people on the public square.
Nuns. Priests. Dressmakers. Winemakers. Writers. Performers. Bakers. Gardeners. Those breast-feeding. Those who would never bear a child, who were just but children themselves. It didn’t matter if you were a Queen or a beggar. If you were a woman, or a man identified as a threat to the government, you were taken into custody. A neighbor you had crossed, or a local who envied your farm, any reason at all might be cause enough to arrest you.
Neighbor turned against neighbor. Daughter against mother. Son against father. Husband against wife. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. Shopkeeper against bookkeeper. Sometimes people turned on one another in hopes that it would keep the government officials from targeting them.
Writers and artists were at a particular disadvantage, because their compulsion to tell the truth threatened those whose power was established upon lies and manipulation of the masses. Fake news! They would cry whenever someone wrote of the beheadings, or displayed them in a work of art. Fake news!
Then they would carry out their court proceedings in rigged adjudications, dismissing the imprisoned or beheading them, whatever the whim of the court was on that particular day. Today, just steps from where the women were imprisoned, there is a room whose walls display the names of those arrested. If the ink is black, it means these people were arrested but eventually released, deemed not guilty or at least not to the point of death. All others, those whose names are in red, those were the ones executed.
Cruelty by governments against its own people is nothing new. History is full of examples. Even our own history as a nation. As I stood reading the names of those buried at Normandy today, I noted that the African Americans who died on June 6, 1944, gave their lives for a government that denied them the right to drink from the same water fountains as whites, use the same bathroom as whites, eat in the same restaurants as whites. Denied them the right to marry whomever they loved, to live wherever they wanted, to go to any school that they wanted. Simply because they were people of color.
The white men running this country are so afraid of losing power to people of color, to women of any color that they will undertake the most drastic of measures to control us.
Given America’s recent criminalization over women’s health issues, how far behind can the public beheadings be?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY (Mercer University Press).