Crossing the Threshold in Rites of Passage
The kitchen was drab. All the love and sense of family had long since left this small alcove at the back of the house.
An old-fashioned wood stove dominated the room. A young mother, worn beyond her years, stirred the pot of stew while cooking carrots and beans. Her oldest son, now 12, was sitting at the rickety table reading a newspaper while keeping his mother company. But fury and fear raged inside him. Fury at what his mother painfully endured for the sake of her family, and fear of the cruel punishment he would inevitably receive if he intervened. The roiling bile rising in his throat choked him to the point of silent helplessness.
They didn’t speak; it had been a hard day for the mother. She had been permitted to lie down for a short time following a cold lunch and a hard beating from her second husband, a tyrannical Scotsman. The beatings were mercifully short and usually confined to the parts of her body covered by clothes.
She no longer felt the physical pain. Her tears were shed only in the privacy of her room, away from her children. It was the shame she felt that gave her the most pain; the shame of not being able to provide a better home for her four children. Her inability to change the situation deepened her sense of defeat.
Lillian was from a large, happy Welsh family known for its glorious singing and unshakable faith in a merciful and loving God. She had married Robert Lawrence, a strong, loving Englishman who had given her a daughter and two sons, along with a small but safe home in the Welsh countryside. When her husband died from wounds suffered in the ‘war to end all wars’, it had taken every bit of her courage, strength and determination to survive on the small pension left to her.
The tall, lanky Scotsman looked so safe and reliable when he proposed 3 years later. And so he proved to be – for one lovely year. But, coal mining was not a benevolent livelihood. It made the men hard, tightfisted, and sometimes mean. For an already tough laborer, brought up in a stern, unyielding and authoritarian home, the combination of unforgiving work and rigid character forged the Scotsman into a harsh, unjust disciplinarian. He had given her one more son and now, four years of pain and agonizing regret.
Lillian could see by her oldest son’s rigid back and clenched jaw that, although he was sitting quietly, he was fighting an inner turmoil that threatened to erupt all over the barely controlled emotional scene. She knew one wrong word or gesture from her only slightly-restrained husband would serve as a match to a tinderbox.
Her hopes for a silent meal were dashed by the cruel expression on her husband’s face as he darkened the kitchen doorway to complain about the lateness of his evening meal. Had he punched his wife one more time he would have been found dead on the floor. The son’s barely contained fury would have finally overcome his overshadowing fear of punishment and pushed him to the point of blind murder.
But the Scotsman didn’t punch. He closed his black calloused hand around the back of his wife’s neck and squeezed harshly enough to raise a whimper of pain from the persecuted woman. The sound from his mother’s lips, even more than the grim scene, enraged the son beyond his endurance.
“Let my mother be,” demanded the boy in shrill tones of barely disguised hatred mingled with the chilling fear he had for his stepfather.
The husband whirled from mother to son, hovering menacingly over the boy’s shorter but sturdier frame. “Mind ye own business, boy,” he growled, “this be none of your concern.”
But the boy stood his ground, so close to the man he could smell his foul breath as he heaved his bitterness and impotence at the younger male.
“You will submit to my authority as head of this house,” hissed the Scotsman, “or ye shall know the business end of my stick.”
It was the threat of a beating from his walking stick that had proven to cower the boy in the past. It had never failed - until now. The usually cringing boy tried not to flinch. With all the strength he could muster, he drew himself up to his most commanding height. With clenched fists at his side he said evenly to the old man, “We take this outside, now!”
Man and boy glared at each other in mutual hatred. Both knew beyond a doubt whoever walked back into the house first was indeed the ‘man of the house.’
Lillian recognized the life-changing ritual about to take place. She understood she had no place in the ancient rite of dominance determined by physical superiority. As she stood quietly in the doorway of her kitchen and watched, she prayed that neither man would be destroyed by the outcome of the ritual about to be played out in her backyard. She knew if her husband won this battle she would suffer continued, possibly escalating abuse. But was her son too young to wear the mantle of ‘alpha male’ without it destroying his ability to acquire the more civilized experiences of a full and successful life?
Now outside, the boy stood with legs planted three feet apart, his arms at his side and his fists clenching and unclenching to the rhythm of his rapidly beating heart. “You will not hurt my mother again, not by word or deed. Do you understand, Mr. McGowan”?
The man, no more than five feet away, swayed menacingly as he took his stand, arms akimbo, and sneered at this boy-man he had never liked and certainly never wanted as a son. “You have no say in this matter, boy. You linger here at my will, not your own. Your mother is my wife – to be handled as I see fit and to discipline as I think necessary.”
To the surprise of both, the boy hit the man hard on his left jaw. The pain in his hand was excruciating. He could hardly imagine the pain the man felt but watched him stagger backwards in stunned surprise.
With a sheen of mist in his eyes and a desperate attempt to keep a squeak out of his alto, turning to tenor, voice, the boy repeated his order to the man, “You will not hurt my mother again, not by word or deed. Do you understand, Mr. McGowan”?
The man’s face now reddening with damage and shame, turned to the boy with murder in his eyes.
The boy still shaking his hand from the sharp pain of hitting his stepfather, recognized the inevitable intent in this callous man’s eyes and, before he could think about consequences, hit him hard again. This time he heard the crunch of bone splintering as he caught the older man’s nose and eye, again on the left side.
The man went down, terrifying the boy into believing he was dead. But with a low groan and a slow staggering to his feet, the man raised a hand as if to strike the boy. In disbelief and righteous anger, the boy grabbed the hand with both of his and twisted it back as hard and as far as he could. Once again, he sent the older man to the ground.
The man rose shakily and stepped back from the boy in cowering defense, his face a mess of blood and spittle. They stared at each other with complete understanding between them. The tide had turned. The mantle had shifted from man to boy. The boy gave the older man his own handkerchief, freshly cleaned, pressed, and folded, from his pocket.
“Clean yourself up before returning to the house,” the boy ordered. “Mother should not see you this way.”
The boy had turned into a man. “And from now on, Mr. McGowan, you will refer to me as Mr. Lawrence.”
This is a scene in a story about a astrophysicist who must use all his wits to avoid death and maintain his sanity before he can save his reputation in a world that is 30 years older than when he left it for deep space only 3 years ago.
© 2013 Marilyn Alexander
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