When I was still a newbie volunteer at the safe house for battered women in upstate New York, the director sent me, because no one else was available that day, on a salvage mission. A woman who'd run away from a beating and a gun needed a ride back to the home she'd shared with her abuser to pick up her things. The law, public awareness, and the attitude of police departments toward domestic violence as a criminal rather than family matter was still forming in the early eighties, and activists—resources for victims were not yet the province of social services departments—had learned the hard way how much could go wrong. The director gave me careful instructions. Call the local police before driving to the woman's home, and ask them to meet us there—to observe that we observed the law, and as deterrence in case the abuser, who was supposed to be at work, got a tip from a friend or neighbor and showed up armed and angry. Stay in the car, no matter what, while the woman went in for her things, so that no one, including she, might later allege that I'd committed a burglary. Tell the woman to hurry, and remind her that if she insisted on rescuing a pet, we'd have to take it to a vet who'd agreed to provide temporary safe haven for non-human victims.
I don't remember the season. It presents in my mind as leafless, wet, gray and cold. I head up the Taconic Parkway—narrow, winding and slick, walled in by stones and naked trees—driving a beater belonging to the shelter. The trip takes an eternity and is conducted in rigid silence. My passenger is terrified and so am I, a fact that shames me. I also feel very brave, almost heroic, and this inappropriate, unsquelchable self-importance further shames me. I'm afraid, too, that I'll turn out to have been terminally stupid: I've been unable to bring myself to phone the police in the hamlet where the woman lives. I cannot bear to push myself that much into the faces of authority; I've heard many stories about the response of rural cops to the kind of uppity woman I'm pretending to be.
I pull up in front of the house, a sagging, wood-frame bungalow on a steeply pitched lot above a lichened granite retaining wall. The car idles roughly while I clutch the wheel, sweat, and scan 360 degrees repeatedly. This mission takes place long before ordinary people had mobile phones, so if we encounter trouble, I've no recourse but to stamp on the accelerator, or duck. When I am almost beyond my ability to bear this waiting, the woman—younger than me by a half-dozen years, lank-haired, her face puffed, one eye blacked, her cheekbone scabbed and stitched—reappears on the porch above me. In each hand she clasps a giant, distended garbage bag. She lumbers down the steps awkwardly encumbered by the load; I fight the urge to get out and help her. Back up the steps she scampers, and down she comes again with another bag and a cat.
"That's it?" I ask.
Her luggage, the three bulging black plastic sacks, fills up the back seat. Her cat sits in her lap. I press the accelerator.
I'm proud of her and I say so. I'm embarrassed at how relieved I am the mission is accomplished without any gunplay, and I am offended to the depths of my middle-class soul that all she'll carry forward from her old life to her new is stuffed into garbage sacks. I'm also frustrated about the cat and mad at myself for that lack of charity; I don't know where the volunteer vet is located and by the time I find out and make that drop-off, I'll be in danger of arriving home too late to fix supper on time. And that might trigger my husband's rage. That I am scared of him is a secret I tell no one, not even myself.
I complete my assigned mission, doing everything that's required because I've said I would. The woman seems more depressed than grateful but I drive home feeling exhilarated and—this, I admit to myself—definitely heroic. I have made a difference. And I've faced down one moment of my own complex fear.
One week later I return to the shelter on my appointed day to volunteer. The woman I think of as my rescuee is not there. When I ask about her, one of the other residents tells me flatly that she's gone home, back to the guy who beat her bloody and threatened her life. He sent flowers, my informant says with only a touch of irony, so she forgave him.
He sent flowers, to the secret safe house. He knew where she was. That meant she'd told him. She chose to go back. She just couldn't leave him, no matter the fists and the gun.
A year or so later, my daughter J took her first steps in the worn and grassless backyard of that safe house, an open secret now, on a backstreet of a working-class hamlet. I sat on the wooden stoop, doing my weekly volunteer gig, flanked by women who'd come there to hide from men who, on bad days, wanted to kill them for failing to please. I'd visited the shelter diligently throughout my pregnancy, my big-and-getting-bigger belly dispelling the class or race distinctions that divided, on the surface, my kind of life from their kind. Once J was born I carried her there with me, strapped in a front-pack until she got so heavy and wiggly I put her down and let her cruise. Without ever quite admitting to myself why I went to the shelter I sought it out regularly, learning what I intuited I would some day need to know: how to run, what my rights were, and just how difficult and profoundly unsafe it would be to assert them.
This June day was warm and soft. All of us wore shorts. I glanced away from J and back again, and she'd done it: turned loose of my knee and set off down the gravelly path. At nine months she'd blacked an eye the first time she tried to walk with nothing to hold on to, but this time, at eleven months, she didn't fall.
Off you toddle in summer-gold light, unafraid, my girl—leaf shadow on your shoulders, and three bruised women behind you cheering your impulse to get on your feet, and go.
Christine Hale's prose has appeared in Arts & Letters, Spry, Saw Palm, and PMS, among other journals. Her debut novel Basil's Dream (Livingston Press 2009) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ms. Hale teaches in the Antioch University-Lows Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, NC. Her just-completed memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, is set in southern Appalachia where she and her parents grew up.