Catherine Beck held her hands palm-out, swathed in thick foam gloves that looked like baseball mitts.
“Hit me,” she said. “A nice solid punch to my hand. Go on.”
“I can’t,” the girl said. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t. The gloves absorb the impact.”
Learning to hit someone else. The hardest part in a beginner’s self-defense class.
Evasive maneuvers were easier to teach: stepping out of the way, ducking, breaking a chokehold. Even blocking a knife thrust was easier for students than the next phase. “Pro-active moves” was how Catherine had to describe it. Privately she thought of it as How To Fight. How to beat the crap out of some motherfucker before he does even worse to you.
“Start with a light punch,” she prompted, smiling.
Still no good. The other young women, gathered round, were looking more and more anxious.
Punching bags would have been good. Tackle dummies. But this strange little cash-strapped country couldn’t afford equipment.
And the people of Erda didn’t seem to mind. So peaceful, calm. So amazingly rational. Like a huge Quaker meeting or a mini-Canada.
When North Dakota had seceded and formed the Republic of Erda, the right-wing talk shows in the U.S. tried to spout their usual abusive buzzwords, but the image of jack-booted femi-nazis was simply too far from reality for anyone to believe. The pundits had to settle for more benign innuendos: liberal elite, pot-smoking hippies, throwbacks to the 1960s.
“How about we try this?” Catherine said. “Take a glove. Are you right-handed? Put the glove on your left hand, and punch it with your right hand. You’ll see for yourself. Go ahead now. Hard as you can.”
The girl punched her own gloved hand.
“See?” Catherine said. “It didn’t hurt. Now let’s go back to landing a good punch in my direction, and you won’t have to worry about it hurting.”
She still looked doubtful. “Let’s start with you hitting me,” the girl said. She held out her gloved hand.
Catherine punched it. The girl, off-balance, toppled onto the mat. The others gasped.
Fortunately the girl laughed. “She’s right,” she said, still sprawled out. “It didn’t hurt.”
Things got easier after that, but these classes couldn’t substitute for the real thing. The adrenaline rush as you dodged punches. The feel of someone’s jaw against your bare fist.
Catherine still had fond memories of a particularly dingy bar outside boot camp. Marines, locals. Women and men. People on edge, trading insults. Nothing like a good old-fashioned bar fight.
That evening after class, she wandered around the town of Reservoir. Restaurants and bookstores on the ground floors of red-brick four-story apartment buildings. Small businesses advertising furniture, leather goods, lighting. On side streets she saw signs for electronics repair, shoe repair, tailoring. The way towns in the U.S. must have looked before the mega-stores opened up.
She was energized by the commotion around her, customers in the outdoor cafes, people walking past or bicycling, the streetcar on its regular rounds, an occasional car.
She found a gym on a side street, but the only men in the weights room were muscle heads. No one knew about any martial arts studios. She wrote a note on an index card and pinned it to the bulletin board by the door.
At one of the noisier bars she found a table in a corner and sipped a beer while she watched the patrons.
In particular she watched the men.
There were appreciative glances in her direction, but no one approached. Women outnumbered men in Erda. Catherine couldn’t remember the exact ratio, but she knew that social scientists begged for temporary visas to do research there. And men clamored for immigration permits.
In this bar there was definitely no tension in the air, no stirrings of the nerves that alerted her to an imminent brawl. No rickety chairs would be splintered across backs, no bottles crashed down on skulls. What she saw before her, she realized, were the dazed smiles of men whose sexual needs were unceasingly, joyfully met.
She stood up.
Even in Erda, the sight of Catherine unfolding her long frame, in simple lavender tank top and faded jeans, got the attention of almost everyone, gender and orientation notwithstanding.
She stopped the first man who passed. Catherine had watched him while he stood at the bar earlier, noted the lank hair in need of washing, the bad teeth, the rough tattooed skin revealed by rolled-up sleeves of a flannel shirt. In some other context she would have taken him for a rural unemployed meth addict. But she’d seen him talking to several people, figured he was a regular.
“I’m looking for guys who know martial arts,” she said.
“Hot damn,” the man said slowly, sounding every bit the hick he looked like. “Wish I could say yes.”
Catherine was tempted to ask why they had let him into Erda, but another man had already approached. This one looked like the typical post-college guy: slightly overweight already, thinning hair, an attempt at a goatee.
“Why?” Goatee said. “You need someone flexible?”
“I’m looking for quick reflexes,” she said.
“Duck and cover? Bob and weave?” said Goatee, illustrating a bobbing, weaving motion as well as he could.
Catherine played with the idea of punching him, to make her point about the ducking skills she was looking for. She had a feeling he would laugh if she flattened him.
The tattooed man, on the other hand, shook his head sadly. “Only my wits are sharp, girlfriend,” he said.
It was odd how relaxed she felt, how non-irritating the banter was. What a different world.
Tattoo and Goatee must have circulated her request, because soon a boy presented himself as a martial arts student.
He might have been nineteen, twenty at the most. Lean, almost undernourished, but good definition. Too goofy-looking to be attractive, even if she could overlook the fact that his silky black hair was jelled up into a ridge along the top of his head.
“Which kind?” she said. “Jujitsu? Taekwondo?”
“Can you take a punch?”
“Does he have to?” someone quipped. Another slapped the boy on the shoulder in congratulations.
Catherine persisted. “Do you know how to fall?”
“Sure. It’s the first thing they teach us.”
“What’s your name?”
“Come with me.”
Swathed in padded protective gear, he was introduced to the class the next day as their live tackle dummy. Catherine had to get things started, demonstrating with a few punches, jabs, and body blows that it was impossible to hurt him. Soon enough the students were willing to try.
She and Sandeep had done a quick training session right before the class. At one point he’d asked about trigger warnings. “I mean, the students might find it traumatic. Like, a minute ago, I came up behind you and grabbed you. And, you know, now I’m on top of you with my hands around your neck.”
She’d broken his chokehold and sent him sprawling.
“Rapists don’t give trigger warnings.”
The class ended, and the tackle dummy took off his padding, with the help of several of the women. Catherine could tell they were listening with concern to his exaggerated claims of muscle aches and sore knees. They were practically massaging him. The boy wouldn’t suffer.
Catherine walked over to him. They shook hands.
“No, Captain. Thank you.”
Men made money off the women, enormous amounts of money. These men lived in palatial homes, were driven about in limousines, protected by squads of bodyguards. The women, meanwhile, had sex with strangers all day in return for being allowed to live.
Some people ignored the problem. Others claimed it didn’t happen—women weren’t kidnapped, coerced, exploited. It was all trumped-up feminist hysteria. It was anti-sex prudery. It was disrespectful to the women’s “agency” to speak of them as victimized by criminals. They wanted—they really really wanted—to have sex all day with strangers and live in poverty and fear.
When the women broke free—and survived—they made their way to Erda. They came from everywhere, Ukraine, Thailand, Somalia, the United States. Often their families didn’t want them back. More often, the women didn’t want their families.
Many of them lived communally. Erdans called them the sisters, as if they were an order of nuns.
They made no contact with Catherine until after her self-defense classes were over. The woman who showed up at her hotel door had green cat’s eyes, auburn hair scraped back like a prima ballerina or particularly stern librarian. She spoke in an East European accent.
“Captain, come, you join us.”
The car was driven by an Asian woman with short wavy hair and a suede Lenin cap.
“You didn’t need to do volunteer work,” the driver said to Catherine. “You could have used a tourist visa.”
“It’s always good to have a plausible cover.”
In the ensuing silence she felt rather than saw their approval. Praise obliquely given, obliquely received. A visitor to a foreign country, adopting their ways.
She never asked their reason for the skills she taught them that week. She didn’t want to know the details. It wouldn’t get any attention, she was sure. Whatever they did, it would be covered in the press, if at all, as part of ordinary street crime.
Always the same five women, though many more of the sisters lived there in the cluster of houses on the prairie, far from any town. Five silent women, learning basic attack moves, the use of knives, chokeholds, garroting. How to break into houses and cars. How to use handcuffs. How to render unconscious without killing. They barely spoke to each other, their watchful eyes riveted on Catherine. She sensed they were waiting for something else, besides the training they eagerly received. For her to prove them right, perhaps, or wrong.
They had the fierceness lacking in the women in the self-defense class back in Reservoir. You can be trained to hit, but first you have to want to. These women wanted to.
On her last evening there, she wandered the compound after supper and noticed that the workout studio was in use again, its windows lit up and clearly visible to anyone watching from outside. The door stood wide open.
The women there shared the same guarded expression as Catherine’s five students. Women with no illusions.
Someone had rolled a battered upright piano into the room, and a woman played a leaping rhythm while women formed circles, then lines, then circles, stomp, shuffle, kick-leap. They seemed to have learned moved from all kinds of traditions, from African village celebrations to U.S. square dances to Sufi devotions.
The music slowed down. Someone greeted Catherine and beckoned her in. The green-eyed woman she had met the first day.
“We study this for years. You teach us, Captain, now we teach you.”
They stood facing each other. The green-eyed woman would assume a pose, then Catherine would mirror it. Slowly, an arm curved upward. A leg stretched to the side. Hands on hip, deep bow and straighten. Toe-heel. Toe-heel. Squat, straighten. Catherine followed her, move for move.
These women had never had the chance for childhood dance lessons. They danced on a scuffed wooden floor, in an unlocked building with unblocked windows, their room lit up like a stage with the endless night prairie as audience.
They seemed to have no fear of being watched, of being stalked. They had used up all the fear they were ever going to feel, shed all the tears they were ever going to cry.
Rosalie Morales Kearns, a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the founder of Shade Mountain Press, author of the magic-realist story collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012), and editor of the feminist short-story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (2015), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “a vital addition to contemporary literature.” Her website is rosaliemoraleskearns.wordpress.com.