In my late twenties, I was in need of help to flee an abusive relationship. I was far from home, but found help in an ex-boyfriend on my home coast; we talked often and eventually came up with a plan to get me home in three months’ time.
As my departure date approached, my situation escalated. I was being harassed and harried; I was frightened and stressed. The police in the conservative southern state where I lived were of little help, and my home and workplace felt unsafe. My roommates felt uncomfortable and distressed as well. Things continued to worsen, so I left ahead of schedule.
That very evening, a tropical storm swept through the town I had just left; violent winds knocked down trees and torrential rains created floods and giant sinkholes that gaped in roads and swallowed cars. My roommates relayed the destruction through static-laden calls: You left just in time, they said, and I knew it was true.
Because I had left ahead of schedule, I had some time before the next chapter of my life was scheduled to begin. As I didn’t have anywhere else to be, my rescuer parked me with an aunt and uncle, in his hometown and close to his siblings and extended family. Then he got on with his own life – coming and going to check on me – but knowing I was safe with his family and that I’d be moving on in due course. I was left to orient myself to the dynamics of his small hometown and family, kith and kin who dutifully outstretched their arms and kept me safe, if without sentimentality.
Auntie schooled me in the weeks while I transitioned and recovered. Do this, she said. You don’t this. I do. I was in charge of dishes, bringing in wood for the fire. I stopped asking questions, learning to wait for information and invitations. I was a child in their collective eyes, youthfully ignorant. Their judgments came without blame. Be quiet. Go there. Do this. Get in the truck. Let’s go.
When I went with the men, my silence was expected, and although I tried we all collectively gave up that fight. We took the boat upriver, where they left me on the rocky beach, not a soul in sight. Here I found bones and shed snake skins. I watched the clouds, and the churning water at the confluence of a small creek. They pulled up laughing once, a shining salmon offered from hooked fingers. I splashed in the river to catch it, gently laying the still bleeding fish on the shore. Circling back, the boat scraped the river rocks a for a moment a second time, and a knife clinked on the rocks beside it. Clean that.
I took photos of Uncle, who always covered his face, often with his middle finger. Auntie finally told me to stop taking photos. I felt embarrassed. She was irritated; I was clearly her charge, but the men’s business wasn’t hers.
And so, when not with the men I was with Auntie. I walked beside her, or half a step behind, listening to her instruction as we approached house after house. Family relations. Things she wanted me to see. We visited Grandma; Wait here. She disappeared into the house to allow Grandma to hide her basketry from my eyes. I saw the most exquisite beadwork I’ve ever seen, even to this day, seed beads sewn by hand by cousins, sisters, pouches piled everywhere.
One day, Grandma saw my ring, and asked if I could translate it into a design for crochet. It’s a Tlingit design, I explained. Not mine to use. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand, it was no matter to her elder authority. Do it. And I did. Auntie brought me to Grandma the next day, Here, Grandma. I handed the drawing to Auntie, she handed it to Grandma, and Grandma harumphed. It’s good.
One day Auntie looked over my shoulder as I leafed through my CDs. Her finger came down like a gavel on a copied CD, the album title hastily scrawled in black sharpie: Murder Ballads.
Why would you have that? Why would you want that?
I knew I’d done something wrong. It’s just music…
That music, it’s love songs about women who are murdered by men. That’s what a murder ballad is.
Her eyes searched my face, questioning me; seeming to rethink her idea of me. Another lesson to give. Impatiently explaining. That’s real. That happens. It’s not just a story in a song. You know that, don’t you? There’s men that kill their women. Beat them to death. Children witness it. Have you ever known a woman who has been beat to death by her husband? I have. More than one. Sometimes they live, but their souls are murdered just the same.
Why? Why would you have this?
I didn’t have an answer for Auntie. Why, indeed? The strength in her dark eyes was unavoidable, but there was a flicker of something else. Betrayal, perhaps? Not you, too.
Many years later, found my singing voice, buried in the composted matter of my twenties and the failed marriage of my thirties. I know that Auntie likely never heard a murder ballad that wasn’t about man murdering his lover, but I found one. It’s the only one I will ever sing, where the woman murders her rapist with a broken shard of his own broken whiskey bottle.