Story from Janus 118.
Mary Jo had pledged to stay celibate until she married. But she broke the vow. Now they had to vote on whether she should be caned.
It wasn’t often you saw Huck Jefferson in church, and on his knees. Not that he was praying. No he was peering, slit-eyed to where Mary Jo knelt beseeching God to make the large congregation vote ‘no’. He felt a mite sorry for her because he knew most of the townsfolk would vote ‘yes’. In front of these very people she had vowed to remain celibate until she married but then, two years later, broke the vow. That wasn’t smart in Baptist middle-America — redneck Baptists think the Bible says pre-marital sex is a sin.
When she promised to remain virgo intacta Mary Jo put on a ring. She also agreed to a condition that if she broke her vow, the congregation would be asked to decide whether she should be punished. On the day Mary Jo stopped wearing the ring there were townsfolk who insisted it was as a good as a confession. It hadn’t taken long for the Reverend Shaw to hear of Mary Jo’s ‘crime’. There were always God-fearing citizens who were happy to ingratiate themselves before the church and the good Reverend. One of these was the uptight Jessica Langer, a middle-aged spinster, chapel organist, and Shaw’s faithful ‘lap-dog’. She was the first of more than a dozen who were quick to relay the news.
The kneeling congregation were now being asked if the transgressor should be forgiven — or be caned.
Huck knew the cane weren’t nothing to be laughed at. When Shirley Lopez got it, she hollered, bucked, and blubbed like a baby. Reverend Shaw doled out the punishment and raised weals on Shirley — he knew how to cane and did it real hard. For days after it happened she walked careful and slow. Mary Jo should’ve been warned.
Although he hadn’t been the one who caused her to break the vow, Huck could forgive Mary Jo anything. He just stared at the slender hips, willing her wholesome sweetness the power to overcome the congregation’s righteous indignation. He wished he could see her face, but it was hidden by the curtain of honey coloured hair which hung down to the small of her back. He could picture her lovely fair lashes closing over the cornflower blue eyes; the soft lipstick-free lips moving gently. She swayed slightly and was slim and willowy, with grapefruit round breasts, a tiny waist and hips like a boy. Her high-necked dress hid a lot, but Huck remembered her in her cheerleader uniform; white pleated mini, white boots and college sweatshirt, her sweet mouth chanting support for the football team — his team. Most of all though, Huck remembered her high-kicking legs and cute, white-pantied butt. Playing on the team was the only way he could get to be near her. But it wasn’t him, he didn’t do the deed. He just wished he had.
One kiss from Mary Jo’s honeyed mouth and he’d vote ‘no’. She was too creamy and soft to cane. Huck’s only chance of a kiss was to work a miracle with the votes, then she might see him as something more than a friend. But there was nothing he could do, so she’d have to pay the price. Maybe it would’ve been better if she’d said who it was. It had gone against her.
Reverend Shaw dipped his iron grey head and gave the blessing. On the way out the good folks dropped their discs to the right or the left. At the evening service, which Huck and plenty of the others attended — though it was rare for them to go to church twice of a Sunday — the verdict was announced. Mary Jo whimpered, dropped her head and put a small handkerchief to her eyes. Nine of her best friends wanted to forgive her but 147 other folk said no. She had broken a solemn vow and earned her retribution.
Huck could have wept with her. It was real bad for Mary Jo because she had no folk of her own. She’d lived with old Dan Ritcher and his wife Beth ever since they took her in from the orphanage. Maybe the congregation’s vote was as much to do with the Ritcher’s isolation as Mary Jo’s transgression. They weren’t God-fearing citizens like the rest of the townsfolk. They farmed a tiny homestead and kept themselves to themselves, always sending Mary Jo to the store for anything they needed. In all the year’s Mary Jo lived with them, Huck only saw the Ritchers twice.
Everyone filed out and went to the Congregation Hall. The good Reverend took Mary Jo by the arm and led the way. Huck followed just a few paces behind, noticing how she kept her head up. Mary Jo was real proud and defiant. He wanted to tell her she was brave but when their eyes met he looked away. He was more frightened than her.
The congregation filled every straight-back chair in the hall, some folks even stood at the back to watch. At the front Reverend Shaw was standing to one side of the small table and Mary Jo the other. Huck sat no more than a few feet from the good Reverend. When everything had gone quiet Jessica Langer came in with a cane, and other stuff, and gave the instrument to the Minister. Huck noticed how the old bitch was smiling when she handed it over.
Shaw sent Mary Jo out back to the kitchen to change and Jessica gave her the other stuff which included a dressing-gown. Just before she turned on her heel, Mary Jo looked straight at Huck. She didn’t smile, she just looked sweet and scared.
Reverend Shaw was in two minds. He told the congregation, who were witness to the chastisement, he was sad Mary Jo had to be caned. But he wasn’t too sad. No girl was better-looking than Mary Jo. Men looked at her plenty, though some reddened when she caught their eye, but she never flirted. The Reverend would have liked to date her, except his 54 years were too many for her 19. Now he was going to put the rod across her butt. Knowing how her butt made him feel, he was pleased to do it.
Out back, in the tiny kitchen, Mary Jo was anxious and it was hard for her to hurry. Her fingers trembled as she undid her dress, it took several tries to push each button from its hole. Fear had driven the colour from her face and her tummy felt tight and empty. Her mouth was so dry she fetched a glass of water and sipped it nervously. She’d better brush her hair, because she wouldn’t be able to do it when it was over. She’d just fall into bed, no hair combing, no teeth cleaning, no pyjamas — it would be a night spent on her tummy.
Conversation seeped back to her, low murmurs with coughs and silences. She could hear the Reverend’s loud voice booming on about lost innocence, fleshly desire, devilish temptations, teenage immorality. Once upon a time she had accepted all that stuff. Now she was too old, too curious, too beautiful, and too thoughtful to believe in virgin brides. Virginity on your wedding night meant a husband who hurt you when he went in, and then came too soon. You wouldn’t come at all, were too shy to ask for his help and spent your wedding night aching with frustration unless you slipped to the john to ease yourself.
She tied the dressing gown and breathed deeply, hoping this might ease her fear and tension. The light switch was like a rifle shot when she turned it off. Her steps echoed on the wooden floorboards and when she appeared in the hall every face stared at her.
There was no sympathy anywhere, apart from Huck Jefferson who sat right in front with a pained look on his long face. Her eyes searched for the cane, but no-one was holding it. She knew Reverend Shaw would do the work. Girls who’d had it from him reckoned he was a beast and well-skilled in inflicting the worst.
Jessica Langer stepped forward and helped Mary Jo off with the robe. Many of the menfolk averted their eyes as the butt-naked teenager walked defiantly to the table and bent herself over. Women looked at their menfolk and seethed inwardly at Mary Jo’s beauty. But Huck was spellbound, his face reddened and his reaction to Mary Jo’s charms was stronger than ever. His nervous and uncomfortable cough was echoed by fifty others.
Mary Jo turned her head, settling her cheek against the hard wood. Jessica Langer searched for her hands and placed them on the far side of the table. She had to hold the edge and grip, and as she did so her hips were against the rim, her bottom-cheeks jutting up, round and firm.
Huck gawped. He had to. He should’ve believed his buddies when they ribbed him about her looks. Her bottom was firm and tight with a pencil-line shadow dividing it, each cheek perfectly round, flowing down into curvy thighs and long legs. She was really something. It was natural men wanted her. Maybe they should’ve forgiven her…
Reverend Shaw drew himself up to his full six feet and prayed for meekness in Mary Jo’s mind. He told the watchers it was her way of saying sorry. He said anyone should leave the hall if they had no mind for severe punishment. The door closed and they all felt easier when some of the womenfolk had gone. Shaw muttered, ‘thank you, brother’ to someone and Mary Jo guessed he’d been handed the cane. She saw Huck shift uncomfortably in his chair and she knew.
A tear rolled across her cheek onto the table and she wanted to blow her nose. She was about to sniff when the air whirred and pain seared like fork lightning across her naked bottom. She gasped, momentarily fighting for air, then her face screwed up, her mouth dropped, eyes widened and she yelled. Real loud. Her heart pounded and she remembered years ago that dreadful moment in the swimming pool when she had got in out of her depth — like she was now — and she went under and couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe now. She struggled for air and sucked desperately. Finally her lungs filled, she gulped, swallowed and then weeping filled the hall.
Shaw didn’t have to hear Mary Jo shriek to know he’d hurt her. That was only right, the girl must expect the worst. Her bottom flattened when the rod struck and he enjoyed the way she clenched her bottom-cheeks in an effort, he supposed, to fight off the pain. No chance of that, no matter how desperately she tensed and wriggled; cane pain was not the kind to be squeezed away. It ate into flesh, gnawing and scalding and seeking out the depths of resistance. No, cane pain meant redemption, but only after the thrashing was complete and the sinner lay awake, blood pulsing through the lines laid across the sinful flesh.
After her first loud howl Mary Jo kicked back from the knees, just once, but enough to make Shaw decide to increase the number of strokes if she did it again. Then she lifted one foot then the other in a kind of shuffling dance, brought on by the pain of the stroke. Many of the watchers, dyed-in-the-wool Creationists who had never been young, nodded approval at the severity with which the caning had begun and trusted it would continue that way. Huck almost cried in sympathy though, quickly averting his eyes from her lovely pain-wracked face. But it was just for a moment. Some awful compulsion made him turn back to watch hopelessly — and as helpless as Mary Jo. Shaw did his work well. The girl would think twice before she gave herself to another man. The first stroke had brought her to heel.
Shaw secretly wondered if he had been specially chosen to do this humbling work. Certainly he had the approval of his doting flock. Most came to each punishment which they were pleased to do since it was always a pretty girl who was caned. But not Huck. It was his first time and he was suffering, not as much as Mary Jo, but it was real hard seeing the sweet girl being punished.
The Minister appraised Mary Jo, drew back his arm and laid into her bottom again. His second cut fell just below the first, already a red stripe edged with white. Four more like that, spreading down to the crease at the top of her legs and she would be his. He’d have her on her knees each Sunday. He’d approve the men she dated. She would take no lover until she knelt in church with her husband-to-be and the wedding ring was on her finger.
Huck was already beginning to think things had gone too far. It was all very well for Shaw to punish the girl but after the second shriek he was sure Mary Jo repented. They should stop at three. He hadn’t been happy about this from the start. When he heard Mary Jo’s third shriek he nearly jumped up and told them it was enough.
For Mary Jo it was more than enough. Pain fused with anger and rage. Damn the vow, damn their verdict, especially damn Shaw, his strictures and his cane. He had even devised a silence rule for when the punishment was over. No girl was allowed to talk about it afterwards, whether she wanted to or not. Shaw said misery and shame were private, not the subject of conversation even to close friends. He made this rule to show how much he cared. Once everybody knew talking was taboo nobody felt they should ask, so none of Shaw’s fierce punishments could be talked about first hand. He also decreed that if any girl broke the rule she’d have a further caning.
Mary Jo knew the rule was made for a different reason. Celibates had to promise that if they broke their vow the congregation would decide their fate. Always, they voted for the cane. If all the girls realised how bad the cane was, they would never put themselves in jeopardy
Shaw lashed down a fourth time. Mary Jo writhed across the table, legs scissoring, knees weakening, feet drumming, hips ramming into the table. The watchers gasped as she absorbed the rod but Shaw was determined to give her six. They had to be hard and mark her, and render her contrite with pain. She could cry herself out later, while he walked back with the watchers, assuring them it was for the best, and as Baptists they had a duty to raise their daughters in fear of the rod.
The fifth stroke landed on untrammelled flesh on the underside of the buttocks, but not yet on the most tender spot where they joined the tops of her thighs, he was saving that till last.
There was a pool of tears on the table-top. Mary Jo’s eyes were awash and she believed she would weep forever. There was a rule about not crying too, they invented it to make a girl feel guilty when the tears rolled down her face.
No honourable man would inflict punishment the way Shaw did it. Not knowing when the cane would land made it worse. She knew that when the rod whirred down it indented both buttocks leaving an indelible mark of accusation. She had taken five. He had slashed gradually lower and the fifth stroke had sliced across her underparts. She knew that by the nature of things his last stroke would slash into the crease between buttocks and thighs so that when she walked every step would chafe her. Only a huge sense of guilt kept her lying across the table, waiting for more.
Shaw knew he had to aim well if he wanted to make the last cut the most painful. He must land the cane exactly where Mary Jo’s bottom-cheeks joined the tops of her thighs. There was a natural crease there, easy to see but not so easy to hit with the cane unless you swung accurately. He changed position so he stood in the best place to deliver the cut. He paused and quietly took several deep breaths to calm himself. His attention was also being diverted by a faint but positive stirring which might grow immensely pleasurable later, but which he would never mention to a soul.
He scanned the swelling bottom, striped with his rod, felt for the balance on the balls of his feet, lifted his arm, fixed his eye firmly on the spot he wanted to hit, and swung the cane. He sliced perfectly into the underswell, the rod reaching well along the ridge of tender flesh. Mary Jo, who had been expecting the cane on the very place where it fell and prayed that he wouldn’t be able to hit it, bucked in pain. Howling at the top of her voice she drummed her feet on the floor, crying oh,oh,oh,oh,oh, as she tossed and shook her head, hair flying like a corn blizzard.
Huck bit his lip, he was feeling pain in the heart, unlike poor Mary Jo. Her hands had flown to her bottom in a desperate attempt to protect herself. She had been told not to but the pain was unimaginable and the body moved by itself, ignoring the mind. Hurt consumed her and the watchers, understanding how cruelly the last stripe had been laid, began to stir. One of them pushed his chair back, caught Shaw’s eye and indicated that it was a good time to end the flogging. Shaw did not mind, he was elated at having struck the girl’s most tender spot. He had delivered the six she deserved and was happy to stand back.
Mary Jo howled on, no sign of letting up, the flames licking inward now invading even her most private part. She had tried to keep her muscles clenched throughout the punishment, feeling it might somehow protect her from the worst. After four she could squeeze no longer and she took the fifth and sixth with her bottom relaxed. When they cut in, every part of her lower cheeks flinched. Now they just burned.
Her buttocks quivered involuntarily and an exhausted shudder ran through her. Mary Jo could count her pulse rate from the throbbing of all six weals. She knew the watchers were standing to leave, she could hear the scraping of chairs. Perhaps they expected her to get up but she was beyond caring. She damned them to hell. How could they watch her take such a beating and not say, long before the end, she had had enough. The betrayal filled her with anger and resentment. She’d tell every girl who thought to take the celibacy vow, not to. Or if they did, then not to agree to any sanction if they slept with a boy later. Love never deserved a thrashing, never warranted the pain, the weals, or the burning agony on tender flesh.
None of the congregation had left, but most were standing, including Huck. For a few seconds there had been silence, but now they were all talking, conversation increasing in volume until the hum filled the small hall. Huck stood alone in the crowded hall, bemused and inches from Mary Jo. He could have touched her. He wanted to but he didn’t.
He watched her rise painfully from the table, old Langer smirking as she draped the dressing-gown around Mary Jo’s drooping shoulders. For just an instant the tear-streaked eyes lifted and looked pitifully into his. Huck gulped, feeling hopeless and inadequate. He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication and she stumbled forward, almost throwing herself between them. He clasped her to stop her falling, clutching her strongly against him. Her sweet nakedness burned into him setting fire to his sensibility. His head reeled with heady elation. Mary Jo in his arms. His arms.
All around Huck there was silence. Every face in the hall had turned to look at him. He saw the accusation in Shaw’s eyes, and maybe there was jealousy there too. Mary Jo sobbed, trembling against him. Muttering started to fill the hall again.
Huck looked wildly about. Their eyes bore into him. Him? No, no, no, it wasn’t him.
He stepped back, flushed and panicking, clean away from her. Mary Jo’s sobbing eyes were pleading.Huck Jefferson turned and ran.