THE MENSTRUAL HUT
“This is a historic day,” Violet heard her mother say, far away and muffled like a YouTube video on a browser window that somehow was left open.
And where in history did she fit in, where in the Big Boom and platonic layers moving and volcanoes forming mountains and everything on Earth freezing and melting again and again? Where in the Roman gladiators and signing of the Magna Carta? Violet has a strong and layered imagination and when her mother said the word “historic” all of these images tossed around and mixed in her head.
The word historic made Violet livid, the exaggeration her mother always put on everything. Some blood was dripping out from between her legs and it was historic.
Her mother had suggested they needed to have a ceremony to mark her first period, like the initiation ceremonies of the Aztecs.
“But they kill people,” Violet said.
“No killing, of course,” her mother said, a little scattered, hurriedly heading to work. “We’ll have to think of a fitting initiation.”
Violet just shook her head. She had asked if the bleeding always hurt like this, and her mother had said it didn’t or maybe it did for some people. She’d asked Violet if it hurt a lot, and when she said it did, her mother had teared up.
“Oh Sweeties, I’m sorry,” she’d said. “It will get better. You can take some Advil and that will help the pain. I can’t believe it’s happened to you. This means you could have a child. I mean theoretically. I know it will be a long time, I mean you’re still a baby, but it’s so wonderful.” Violet cringed. She hated her mother growing sentimental over her getting older, hated her mother’s sentiments in general and wished that she had a more even-keeled parent, with a real job, not a cranial-sacral therapist, a title which Violet refused to say in public, calling her mother instead a physical therapist.
At school Violet’s main concern was dealing with the bleeding and not letting anyone suspect that something was going on. She had stupidly forgotten to wear pants with pockets, which meant that she would have to carry the pad thingy to the bathroom with her. She was not the kind of girl who carried a purse, her backpack contained everything of meaning to her, but she didn’t normally carry it to the bathroom, so if she took it now it would look suspicious. She practiced putting the pad in her hand and folding her hand over it to see if it looked normal. It looked like she was hiding something.
She’d asked Violet if it hurt a lot, and when she said it did, her mother had teared up.
If she had a best friend, she would have told her, but Hannah moved away last year. She stilled called her and talked sometimes, or texted her in the middle of the night, but it was obvious to Violet that she had taken the loss a lot harder than Hannah had, which didn’t surprise her. It was always a relationship with a bit of worship on her side. Hannah was prettier than her and more popular and now she was talking about boys all the time and dating and things that Violet was not very interested in. Boys, those were the ones who mocked you or tried to grope you and lacked all sophistication. She was interested in ideas.
Violet was the kind of girl who tried to solve things with books. And so she tried to find a book on menstruation at the school library. She was not afraid of librarians and asked them flat-out for what she wanted, and they usually found it. So she told her she was looking for a book about menstruation and the librarian nodded her head and referred to the catalogue. There may have been the least bit of womanly warmth in the librarian’s eyes, but she was a professional and did not talk about what the students were looking for, unless they wanted to.
“I don’t want the biology part.” Violet said. “I know about that. I want menstruation literature and mythology.”
She came home with Are you There God, It’s Me Margaret and a book called The Wise Wound. She checked the books out without shame. She didn’t really care if anyone saw them. Books were books and could be read by anyone. The pads on the other hand were like dirty Kleenex or bandages in war, they spoke of evil body fluids and strange secretions.
That evening her mother came to her in her room.
“How are you doing, Sweeties?” she asked. “Do you want to talk about how it was for you today, the first day of your period?”
“It was OK,” she said. “I didn’t like it much.” Her mother sat down on the edge of Violet’s bed, the coverlet still had rabbits on it and Violet realized it looked like the taste of a small child.
“It’s hard to get used to at first. But it really is a very neat thing. It’s how women can make babies.” Her mother frowned when she was talking or maybe that was just her face. Sometimes when Violet asked her if she was angry she would reply, no, that’s just my face.
“I know all that,” she said, frustrated.
“I know you know.” Her mother said. “I’m just saying, it’s amazing like a miracle going on in your body.” And now her mother smiled, big and hard and with what seemed like great effort to Violet.
“Well, I checked out some literature on it,” she said. “Hopefully it will help.”
“I was thinking about the ceremony. Maybe you could have a few of your friends over and their moms and we could have a meal to celebrate.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Why not?” her mom said. “I wouldn’t do anything to embarrass you. Maybe you could drink a little glass of red wine, just a thimbleful.”
“I’m not telling anyone,” she said.
“Not even your friends, honey?” Violet touched her phone in her pocket, but did not take it out.
“I don’t have any true friends,” she said, “not since Hannah is gone.”
“Oh,” her mother said, “is this about Hannah not being here for this? I’m sure that makes you sad.”
“Not really. Hannah doesn’t care. She is gone.”
“Baby,” her mother said. “I’m sure some of your other friends would be interested.”
“I just want to do this alone.” Violet stretched back on her bed and put her hands over her face. “I just want to be alone.”
“OK, let me know if you change your mind, Sweetie.” She shut the door softly behind her, taking one last look at her daughter.
On day two at school Violet had an accident. That something like this could happen to her seemed impossible. She wore the thickest pad her mom offered her and had changed it often, but somehow after recess her underwear had gotten bunched up and now there was blood on the back of her pants.
In the bathroom stall she realized it and did not know what to do. She sat immobilized on the toilet. She could not return to class like this. If she had a jacket she could wrap it around her waist, but she had told her mother she didn’t need a jacket that morning, a fatal mistake. Why was she so stupid? She sat and sat on the toilet and feared that the teacher would send someone looking for her since she was out on a hall pass and supposed to return in ten minutes. She decided to sit there the whole day. She was looking through the little crack in the door, being a poop-snooper as some of the more disgusting girls called it, when she saw someone come in and throw their hoodie on the counter and go into a stall. And then she did something that she would never imagine that she was capable of. She got up quickly, opened the stall door, grabbed the hoodie, rushed down the hall to her room, wrapping the hoodie around her waist as she walked. Thank God the hall was empty. Her heart was beating like crazy and she had the fear that at any moment someone would point to her and say, thief, thief.
When she got to her room and sat down, her heart was beating so hard. It was English class and she was usually the best student, but she just prayed that Mrs. Rumple wouldn’t call her because all she could think about was the fact that she was a criminal now and what a horrible thing it was to steal something and was there any justification in the fact that she did it to avoid mortal humiliation? All day long she feared that she would be confronted by the victim and found to be a thief.
Her heart was beating like crazy and she had the fear that at any moment someone would point to her and say, thief, thief.
That night she hardly talked to her mother and read her books and brooded on the new tragedy of her life and the fact that it had also turned her into a criminal. She didn’t want to be a woman, hated the fact of this nasty blood coming out of her, and did not feel like it was something to celebrate. It was gross. It hurt. And maybe if her father was still around, her mother would not be making a big deal out of this and embarrass her. She could not go to school again and risk the humiliation of the blood getting on her clothes again. That night she read The Wise Wound. Part of it was about menstrual huts that women went into when they were bleeding, a place of solitude and complete isolation.
In the morning she had put a sign on her door that said “Menstrual Hut Off Limits.”
Her mother tried to open the door. It was locked.
“Don’t come in,” she said.
“What’s up?” her mother said. Standing in front of her daughter’s doors, she noticed that there were still some pirate stickers on the bottom that she had never scraped off.
“You can’t come in,” she said, “I’m menstruating.”
“And so I can’t come in? Unlock it. I want to see you.”
Violet was sitting on her bed with a makeshift tent over it and had a book about menstruation in front of her.
“Some societies have the women go to menstrual huts and be all alone,” she said. “I read about it my book. I’m staying in here.”
“Until school starts,” her mother asked?
“No, all day.”
“You can’t miss school,” her mother said.
“But you said it was important. You said I deserved a ritual. This is the ritual I want.”
“Well, I said a celebration.”
“This is what I want,” her daughter said, her voice firm.
“Fine,” her mother said, “but you’re not coming out of there after school starts, and I need to go to work. I don’t want you running around. How will I know that you stayed in your hut all day?”
“Tape the door shut,” she said. “Give me some food and water, and then tape it shut.”
“OK, “she said, not sure if this was crazy, but she was late for a client and didn’t want to argue.
She shoved a package of cheese, a loaf of bread, yogurt and juice in the door and then taped the door shut with painter’s tape, saying, “If there is an emergency Sweeties, you can just open the door, the tape will break open.”
It was gross. It hurt. And maybe if her father was still around, her mother would not be making a big deal out of this and embarrass her.
Inside her menstrual hut, Violet felt relief. She lay in the corpse pose, the only yoga pose she ever remembered, and tried to make her mind blank. She would not have to face anyone today and worry about the bleeding and she could lie in her hut all day and do nothing. She tried to bring up a memory of her father. He had returned to his native Greece when she was five and she only had little memories of him here and there. She decided that she would lie in the dark all day and see if she could picture him.
She remembered being on a ride at a carnival with her father, when she was maybe three-years old. She had wanted to go on the ride with her mother and screamed and cried, but her father insisted that he would go on the racecars, and he pushed the pedal to make the car go fast that she felt dizzy. It was strange that one of the only things she could remember about her father was rejecting him. She tried to remember something else, and she shut her eyes and tried to push past first memories into other memories. She remembered being at her grandmother’s house and going swimming with her father in a lake. It was warm and he threw her into the water and she was laughing. He was laughing too and so big, with his arms on her, his eyes a dark, warm brown—like hers, everyone said. The memory made her happy, but then she wondered for the millionth time why he had left them. Why?
The evil part of her thought that he left her mother because she wasn’t smart enough, and if he had only stayed around he would have seen that she was smart, like him. She was not mystical like her mother. Her mother told her that he was homesick for Greece and so he returned. He worked as a research scientist in Athens and Violet often pictured herself there, having conversations with him about things that interested her, like parallel universes and what was causing all the honeybees to die. She knew that there was something in her that was like her father and not like her mother, a desire to find an answer for everything. Her mother seemed fine to let weeks and months go by without answering things. Sometimes she would tell Violet that it was better not to think and just to feel what was happening, but there was no magic key that Violet held that turned off her mind.
She fell back asleep and had a dream about a man who gave her rice pudding. He was very handsome and all he wanted to do was feed her. She kept eating and eating the rice pudding and then when she said that she was afraid that she was getting fat, he took her hand and walked with her down a long hallway and entered a ballroom and danced with her. He held her against him tight when they were dancing and she looked at him and he was her father.
She woke up feeling happy, for some reason, out of nowhere, just happy. The cramps were gone and she didn’t seem to mind that she had her period anymore.
She decided to text Hannah. She was nervous. They hadn’t talked in a few weeks, which seemed like an eternity, and she was sure that Hannah had a new best friend.
Biggish news, she sent.
What? Hannah replied right away. Maybe she did still care for her, Violet thought. Period
You got it?
You are lucky
I want it!!
Dunno just DO!
OK give you mine
How are you
Yes new school= hell
Got 2 go
Call you ltr
Love you 2 bye
Violet ended the conversation feeling elated and knowing that she shouldn’t. She was happy that her friends’ new school was hell and that her friend was miserable. She knew it was a bad way to feel, that we should wish well for her friends, but the sheer relief at feeling needed and knowing that she still had a best friend felt like a drug in her system.
Inside her menstrual hut, Violet felt relief. She lay in the corpse pose, the only yoga pose she ever remembered, and tried to make her mind blank.
When her mother got home from work she knocked on her door, saying, “Come out Violet, please come out. I remembered why I don’t like the menstrual hut,” she said, “it isn’t a positive ritual. It’s something they do in cultures where women are thought to be unclean. You’re not unclean.”
“I don’t feel unclean,” she said, “well maybe a little I had to pee in a Mickey Mouse jar because I couldn’t go to the bathroom.”
“Oh Jesus,” her mother said, opening the door and ripping the tape. “This is too much.”
“Yes,” her daughter said, “you’re right. I need to poo.” She walked to the bathroom.
When she came out her mother said that they needed to talk. “We don’t have to have a ceremony Sweeties,” she said. “I just wanted you to feel good about it because when I was a girl I felt sort of dirty and depressed when I got my period.”
“Well I feel kind of dirty and depressed too,” her daughter said. “So if you felt that way, why can’t I?”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, “but I found out later that it was a beautiful thing and I just wanted you to feel that.” Her mother had a silly smile on her face.
“How long did it take you to feel that way?”
Her mother stopped for a moment. Her eyes went up in her head as if she was really thinking.
“Oh, let’s see, in college, feminist studies, maybe eight or ten years.”
“I guess I have a while,” Violet said. And her mother laughed.
“Yeah, “ she said softly, “that’s true.” She touched Violet’s hair. “Sorry. Do you want to go out to dinner to celebrate, just me and you, no ceremonies?”
“Yes,” her daughter said, suddenly realizing that she was starving. “Let’s get sushi.”
Her mother noticed the hoodie hanging on her doorknob. “Is this yours?” she asked her, “I don’t recognize it.”
“I brought it home by accident,” she said. “I’ll take it to the lost and found tomorrow.” She felt relieved knowing that it would be as simple as that, she would return it and no longer be a criminal. She tried the hoodie on one last time. It was a nice brick red color and she liked the way it smelled, the strange smell of another girl, like watermelon mixed with honeysuckle and sweat.
Jenny Bitner’s short stories have been published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Sun, PANK, The Fabulist, Fence, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Writing That Risks. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Anything That Moves, Utne Reader, Men’s Health and other publications. She is a hypnotherapist and teaches classes combining trance and writing. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.