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#80

Cult-ure



              The sun had set hours ago, just as supper ended, and a full moon had risen to flood the valley with pale, reflected light, the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding mountains glowing as if lit from within. Christine sat on the floor by the wood-burning stove in the living room and read entries from the diary she’d kept when she was younger. At thirteen, the spelling errors and naiveté of her ten year old self struck Christine as hilarious.

                She hadn’t seen her father, her brother, or the anthropologist since supper, and even then they’d rushed through the meal she’d prepared in their hurry to get back to the goats. It was the night of February 7th, which, for mysterious reasons, many of the cults that lived in the mountains had decided was a sacred night, a night for feasting and dancing and sacrifices. A night that required a lot of goats. In recent months, the cultists had become more and more brazen, stealing one or two goats a week for some ritual or another. Perhaps if there had been only a few cults nearby, Christine’s family could have spared them the occasional goat, but there were at least a dozen cults within a ten mile radius of the farm, and though they all seemed to loathe each other, the one thing they agreed upon, other than the need for regular ceremonies, was the ceremonial significance of goats.

Recently, Christine’s father and brother had taken to guarding the goats at night in three hour shifts, one of them always riding the perimeter of the farm on horseback while the other slept. The anthropologist rarely accompanied them on guard duty. He didn’t seem to believe guarding the goats had much cultural importance. But tonight, because of its significance and the likelihood of multiple goat-stealing attempts, perhaps from several sides at once, Christine’s father and brother intended to stay up all night, both of them patrolling the goat pens at the same time. Even the anthropologist, sensing the excitement, had spent all afternoon napping so as to be able to stay up with the men and take notes from what he called a “safe vantage point,” though Christine didn’t know where he’d find one of those.

Christine was in the middle of an entry her younger self had written about all the reasons she hated goats, a phase she had thankfully grown out of, when the front door slammed open and her father, in his long black coat and wide-brimmed hat with a vulture feather in it, came into the room, sweating and breathing hard, his long shepherd’s crook in his hand. “Christine,” he said. “Get dressed.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Christine, getting to her feet. She saw one of her boots sitting by the rocking chair, but she didn’t know where the other one had gone.

“The anthropologist is hurt. I need to take him to Dr. Mishlow. I need you to help your brother guard the goats until I get back. Hurry up!”

“How did he get hurt?” asked Christine, finally locating her other boot under the table in the kitchen.

“He was climbing the ladder up to the hay loft in the barn so he could get to the roof and watch us from a safe vantage point, but he fell off the ladder on the way up and hit his head on the floor. He’s unconscious and bleeding, but he’s still breathing.” There were dark circles under Christine’s father’s sunken eyes and he was chewing three toothpicks at the same time.

Her boots finally on her feet, Christine took her heavy coat from the peg by the door and pulled a knit cap down over her ears. “What do I do if cultists come, dad?”

Her father turned and clumped down the steps into the front yard, striding over the long frozen grass toward the barn as Christine trotted beside him. “Make noise and wave the crook. Call for your brother. Call for me too, and it might trick them into thinking I’m still around. Most of the cultists are cowards, Christine. They’ll scramble at any sign of resistance.”

The family truck was parked just outside the barn door, the anthropologist already in the passenger’s seat, his wounded head leaning against the window, his neck bent at an awkward angle. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” said Christine’s father, handing Christine his crook and climbing into the truck.

“Where’s Micah?” asked Christine. Her father’s crook was too big for her. She felt clumsy and weak with it in her hands.

“He’s guarding the East pen. You guard the West pen. And remember, shout for him if you see anything.” Christine’s father started the truck. “Be respectful of my crook, Christine. Remember to never drag the curved end in the dirt. Stay safe. And don’t lose any goats. Without goats, we’ve got nothing.”

 

                The goats were restless. Christine crouched next to the fence at the North end of the West pen and listened to their soft bleating and the scuffle of their hooves on the hard mud. She scanned her eyes back and forth across the dark valley, looking for anything moving among the pines or across the icy meadows, anything that might be a cultist with designs on a goat. The distant chugging and puttering of the cultists’ old fashioned cars and trucks echoed down from the treacherous mountain roads and through the valleys, a sound Christine had grown used to falling asleep to on nights when the cultists were especially active, executing raids on each others’ compounds and skirmishing in the forests.

                An old white goat came over to Christine and sniffed at her through the planks of the fence. It nibbled at her coat sleeve. Christine pulled her arm away and petted the goat’s nose with the back of one finger. She’d gotten over her childish disgust for goats and she really liked them now, though not for any particular reason. She didn’t think there was anything inherently wonderful about goats, but they had been important to her family for generations and she considered herself a loyal person.

                The goat, when it realized that Christine wasn’t going to let it chew her sleeve, wandered away to join the rest of the herd in the middle of the pen. Christine hoped the anthropologist was going to be okay. He hadn’t looked well at all in the truck, his fleshy face pale and sunken, his mouth hanging open. He was the third anthropologist who had stayed with Christine’s family in the last six months and there had been many more who had stopped at the farm for directions or information or to use an outhouse one last time before continuing on into the mountains to study the cults. Christine didn’t know where all the anthropologists were coming from and she couldn’t remember any of their names, not even the ones who had stayed on the farm, but this most recent one had been less irritating than the others. He, at least, had shown some token interest in goat-farming as opposed to only asking questions about the cults like the others had. Not that he hadn’t been curious about the cults too, but Christine had enjoyed showing him how to tell the difference between the various breeds of goats and explaining their dietary habits to him. Some of the goats even knew tricks and the anthropologist had seemed sincerely impressed when Christine had coaxed three of them into forming a pyramid, the smallest of the three standing on the backs of the other two as they stood side by side.

                Just as Christine was about to stand up to walk around to the other side of the pen for  a change of scenery, she became aware of a noisy, sputtering engine that sounded as if it was close and getting closer, though she couldn’t tell from which direction it was coming. She crouched low again next to the fence, her eyes flitting back and forth, staring into the deep shadows cast by the moon. The engine stopped and, other than the far-off growl of another car way up in the mountains, the night was silent. Christine realized she wasn’t breathing and she let out long sigh through her nose, squeezing the shepherd’s crook in her hands. She thought she saw a flash of movement, a ripple in the dark, and she sat up a bit higher. Had she seen something? The goats bleated and edged toward the back of the pen. What was bothering them? Maybe they were just sensing Christine’s nervous energy. But she hadn’t imagined the engine noise. That had definitely been close. Hadn’t it?

                Then Christine saw something she knew she wasn’t imagining.  Two black shapes were scurrying across the meadow towards the goat pen in a broad swath of moonlight, moving in a stuttering gallop. At first she couldn’t tell what she was seeing, but as they drew closer Christine realized that the shapes were two men in long black robes running on their hands and the balls of their feet like animals, their breath puffing out of their deep hoods in quick, white bursts. Christine was paralyzed with fear, but when the cultists were almost to the pen, she remembered her duty and stood upright, waving the shepherd’s crook back and forth with both hands and shouting. “Stop! Get away! Get away from our goats!”

                The cultists stopped, panting and, Christine assumed, looking at her from within their hoods, sizing her up. After a moment they scrambled forward again, standing upright to climb over the fence into the pen, the goats bleating frantically and clustering in the corners of the pen as far from the cultists as they could get.  Christine remembered her father’s instructions and shouted, “Micah! They’re stealing goats! Micah! Dad! Come over here quick!” The cultists didn’t seem concerned by Christine’s ruse as the goats scattered before their approach.

                “No!” shouted Christine. “These goats aren’t for you!”

                The two cultists had managed to corner a frail, young goat that was trying to leap and paw its way out of the pen in its panic. One of the cloaked figures lunged at the terrified goat, wrapping his arms around it, and then standing up on his feet with his back bent and the goat in his arms, the cultist ran back across the pen in the direction he’d come from with the other running along beside him still on all fours.

                “Micah!” screamed Christine. “They’ve got one! They’re getting away!”

                There was no response from her brother. Christine saw no one running across the barnyard to her aid. She watched as the cultists, having cleared the fence with the goat, bolted across the moonlit meadow toward the dark line of tall pines where they must have parked their car. The plaintive bleating of the goat pierced Christine’s heart and, without stopping to consider a plan of action, she threw her father’s crook to the ground and took off after the escaping cultists, her feet flying over the brittle grass.

                Christine didn’t know how fast she was since the only person she had to compare her speed to was her brother, who was a boy and four years older than her, but she was surprised at how quickly she gained on the cultists, although the fact that one was carrying a goat and the other was running on all fours may have had something to do with that. Neither cultist bothered to turn around to see if they were being followed, apparently believing themselves to be clear of danger. In fact, once they reached the shadows of the trees, they stopped running and continued on to their car at a breathless walking pace, Christine trailing just a short distance behind them, stealthy and silent, her lungs aching from holding in the cold air in her effort to keep her breathing quiet.

                After walking a short distance into the trees, the cultists, with Christine creeping behind, came to an ancient, battered black convertible with its top down parked in a clearing at the end of one of the rutted dirt tracks that passed for roads in the mountains. The goat, as if it had finally abandoned all hope of rescue, had stopped making noise and it allowed itself to be loaded into the back seat of the car without a struggle. The cultists climbed into the front seat of the car and started it up without turning on the headlights. Christine, seeing that the cultists were about to get away for good, darted out from behind the tree where she had been hiding and sprang silently into the back seat of the car, curling up in a ball on the floor next to the goat which, though trembling, nuzzled her arm in greeting.

                Then the car, clanking and rattling as if it was about to disintegrate into hundreds of little gears and springs, lurched off up the track. As the car navigated the hairpin turns of the switchbacks leading up the side of the mountain, Christine lay on the floor and looked up at the bare tree branches passing over head, a messy, scratchy tangle against the silvery purple of the night sky. She could feel the goat chewing the sleeve of her coat, probably out of nervousness, but she didn’t stop it. This was no time for something as petty as the preservation of her coat sleeve. She curled her arms under her head to cushion it against the constant banging and bumping against the hard floor. Sometimes, over the roar of the car’s engine, she could hear the two cultists speaking to each other in the front seat, but they spoke in a harsh, primitive language she didn’t recognize and their words meant nothing to her.

                The drive went on and on and Christine, stiff and sore from lying cramped on the floor of the car for so long, wondered if she’d made a mistake. She knew she couldn’t let the family down by abandoning the goat, but she still didn’t have a plan. When the car arrived at its destination, the cultists would certainly find her in the back seat when they came for the goat and she didn’t know what might happen then. They might decide that she had ceremonial significance too, for all she knew, and then the family would be down a goat and a daughter and sister, which meant that Micah and her father would have to pick up the slack for all the chores and duties she’d no longer be able to perform while dead or, at best, enslaved.

                The car shuddered and bumped to a halt. Christine, from her spot on the floor, heard other voices speaking in the same language as the cultists in the front seat. Looking straight up, she saw warm, flickering light and she realized that there must be a bonfire or torches or both nearby. The goat fidgeted next to her. She heard a long grinding noise that sounded like metal scraping over rock. It sounded like someone opening a gate, maybe. Christine was trying to decide if now was the time to make a move or not when a hooded figure carrying a torch appeared over the side of the car, looking down into the back seat.

                Christine was petrified for a moment. Neither she nor the figure moved. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she could feel him staring down at her as if trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

                “Yah!” shouted Christine, and she wrapped her arms around the goat and jumped to her feet. The cultist staggered backwards in shock and dropped his torch in the dirt. Standing on the back seat of the car with the goat in her arms, Christine was aware of at least a dozen more cloaked cultists surrounding the car, some of them on all fours, some of them standing upright, some of them holding torches or long, twisted tree branches. Turning her head, she saw that the car had stopped just outside of the cultists’ compound, which was enclosed by a tall fence made of wire, felled trees, and scraps of sheet metal. Through the open gate, she saw an enormous bonfire blazing in the middle of the compound with more cloaked cultists scurrying around it on their hands and feet.

                “Run!” shouted Christine, dumping the goat over the side of the car. “Run home, goat!”

                The goat, to its credit, ran, darting between the outstretched arms of the cultists and disappearing into the trees. Christine leapt over the side of the car to follow the goat, but before she even hit the ground, the cultists in the front seat of the car had grabbed her from behind, their grip on her arms brutal and strong. The goat was on its own.

 

                The cultist’s compound was not as big as Christine had first thought. There were, at most, fifty cultists inside, though it was hard to tell since they were all wearing the same cloaks and Christine couldn’t see their faces. Around the inside of the fence was a collection of haphazard lean-tos and huts, some of them noticeably sturdier than others. Along one side of the compound, eight ancient cars were lined up next to a hut that, from what Christine could tell, housed the cars’ respective keys and cans of gasoline. Christine was sitting on the ground about ten yards away from the bonfire with a huge ceramic plate on the ground next to her on one side and a stump carved into a shape that vaguely resembled a pair of lungs on her other side, though Christine wasn’t sure that was what it was supposed to look like. She turned and looked over her shoulder at the cultist who had apparently been chosen to guard her. He was sitting on his knees and smoking a cigarette. Whenever he took a long drag, the tip of the cigarette flared up and Christine could see his face. He looked a little like one of their neighbors who’d once come to the farm asking for advice on how to deal with termites. That was the only time Christine had seen him. She wondered if this was the same man, if he’d given up farming and goat-herding to join the cult, although looking around, Christine couldn’t understand why anyone would prefer this low, squalid existence to life on a farm. And she didn’t get why the anthropologists found the cults so interesting if this was how they all were. Maybe this was the worst of the cults and the others were much more fascinating, but still, how much could one really learn from a bunch of goat-stealing weirdoes bickering amongst themselves, not grooming, and accidentally driving their cars over cliffs. It seemed like a waste of time and effort. If the anthropologists really wanted to study someone, Christine felt like she and her family, for example, had a lot more to offer.

                While she was thinking, a cultist wearing an expressionless white mask inside of his hood came over on all fours to talk with her guard. This new cultist was the fattest one Christine had seen and walking on all fours seemed to be more of a labor for him than it did for the others. Christine suspected that when no one else was around, this cultist did a lot of walking upright. After mumbling a few incomprehensible words to each other, the two cultists turned Christine around to face them and pointed at the ceramic plate.

                “What?”

                The cultists pointed at the plate again. It was at least three feet across and Christine was impressed with how clean it was compared to everything else in the compound. “Yes,” she said. “It’s a nice plate.”

                The cultists pointed at her, then at the plate, at her, then at the plate.

                “I like it,” said Christine. “It’s nice.”

                The cultists’ body language suggested to Christine that they were frustrated with her. They spoke in their language for a few moments and then looked around as if to see if anyone was watching. Then her guard said, “Listen, kid, just lie down on the plate real quick so we can see if you fit.”

                Christine looked back and forth from her guard’s shadow-obscured face to the other’s white mask.

                “Why do you need to see if I fit?”

                “Just do it, OK? Hurry up. We’re in enough trouble as it is.”

                The cultist in the white mask kept looking around, clearly nervous about something.

                “I don’t want to get eaten,” said Christine, suddenly on the verge of tears. “I don’t want to be a sacrifice for your stupid cult.”

                “Just get on the plate!” said the cultist in the mask. “I don’t have time to explain every-

                He was interrupted by a commotion at the front of the compound. Christine turned and saw a bearded man with glasses and a puffy coat pushing open the gate. The cultists stood still wherever they were, watching this strange man open their gate without opposition. When the bearded man had opened the gate all the way, he turned and beckoned to someone outside of the compound. A moment later a pickup truck with three young men in the cab and six more riding in the back drove in through the gate, stopped, and the young men began to pile out, notebooks in hand, eager expressions on their semi-intelligent faces.

                “Remember!” shouted the bearded man. “We are only here to observe! Do not interfere with the sacred ceremonies in any way! We must respect the culture if we hope to learn anything from it!”

                “Oh, come on,” Christine heard the fat cultist mutter behind his white mask. “Not anthropologists again. Not now.” He turned to Christine’s guard and said, “Don’t do anything interesting. Nothing sacred, nothing strange. Don’t give them any material. We don’t want to encourage them.” Then he turned to Christine and said, “Just stay put and keep quiet until we can get rid of them. Understand?”

                A fresh-faced young man with a broad forehead and a pinched mouth strode up to Christine and the two cultists, looking down at the three of them sitting on the ground. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just go about your rituals.”

                Christine got to her feet. “Actually,” she said. “We just finished.”

                “Oh, you speak my language!” said the young man. “What a pleasant surprise! Would you mind explaining the ritual to me? I’m working on a paper and anything you could tell me would be of great assistance.”

                “I can’t,” said Christine. “It’s forbidden.”

                The young man sighed. “I suppose I understand.”

                As Christine walked past him, she looked back over her shoulder at the two cultists still kneeling on the ground, their hands clenched into fists as they watched her go with eyes she couldn’t see. Everywhere she looked, young anthropologists were striding after fleeing cultists, scribbling furiously in their notepads, shouting out encouragements to continue as if they weren’t there.

                “Remember!” shouted the anthropologists’ bearded leader as Christine strode out of the compound and down the road. “Our ways probably seem just as strange to them as theirs do to us!”

                Within an hour, Christine overtook the goat on the road, trotting along towards home. She picked it up and carried it pressed against her body with both arms. A short time later she came across another group of anthropologists surrounding a truck in the middle of the road.

                “Engine trouble?” asked Christine.

                “It just needs to cool down,” said one of the anthropologists. “We’ll be on our way again soon.”

                “Better hurry,” said Christine, scratching the goat under its chin and continuing on her way. “You don’t want to miss anything good.”




Discussion Questions

  • Would you rather be a goat-farmer, a cultist, or an anthropologist? Why?



  • Are all cultures worthy of respect? Does it depend on how strictly you define the word “culture?”



  • Do you ever think about how even scary-looking, sinister, possibly murderous people who deliberately give off an evil vibe probably have a favorite pizza topping and maybe even buy birthday gifts for people they know? I think about that, sometimes.



  • Do you doubt the importance of the work of people more educated than you at every available opportunity in order to avoid feeling as if you are inadequate?



  • Do you ever tell people that you think a reality show about your life would be really good? Do you think people would find your daily routine engrossing and informative, especially when compared to the kinds of shows that are already out there? Is that why you’re writing a memoir that you hope will be adapted into a movie? Are you aware that everyone believes this about themselves?



  • Based on what you know of the cult that captured Christine, what name would give their religion/belief system? Why?