Monday, December 7, 2020

The Journey to Hell by Rosemary Johnson

Rosemary Johnson's character is inducted into a polygamous religious cult at the tender age of five.

I need to do this alone.

I daren't look back, yet my ears insist on straining for the click of an opening door or the snap of a window catch. Nothing. The breath I'm holding hisses from my puffed-out cheeks and out through tight lips.

I slip behind the line of trees along the path, spindly trunks encased in orange plastic coverings, just enough to camouflage an anonymous silhouette, a bonnet and a grey full-length dress. We have planted every one of these saplings, the other virgins and I. As Ashley T Berger informs us, by live video-link every Sunday, "The Berger Community is passionate about the environment."

We live in a beautiful place. This is one of the things we in the Community keep telling one another. As I run to the gate, my eyes feast upon the radiant colours of the red and purple dahlias and yellow roses in the flowerbeds. For the last time. The red Victorian brickwork of the high wall which encloses us glows in the summer evening light. We have everything we need here: school, clinic, communal refectory meals prepared by the Cooking Heroines and our grey uniform stitched by the Needle Heroines. We donate all our money to the Community when we join, because we have nothing to buy. I've lived here almost all my life. Everybody I know resides within these walls, kind, loving people, in Heaven already as we say. Most of them, anyway.

You're leaving, Purity.



Well, you think you are.

My memories of the sinful world are distant. We lived in a tiny flat, my parents, my brother and me. I have a picture in my mind of an empty plastic bowl, with a cartoon character on the base, smeared with tomato sauce. Mum was telling us we couldn't have any more because she didn't have another tin of spaghetti hoops. Just before bedtime, Dad, wearing a black T-shirt with writing on it which I was too young to read, roared off on his motorbike, amidst clouds of dust, gleaming steel throbbing with its own generated sound. I charged back inside, hands clamped over my ears, as Mum screamed after him, "You care more about that fucking bike than you do about me and the kids." I can't remember his face, only his Dad smell of sweat with petrol. And the shouting.

With him gone, Mum started accompanying her neighbour, Karen, to worship on Sundays at the Ashley T Berger Community, where everybody smiled all the time. Women in bonnets gave my brother and I orange juice in plastic beakers, biscuits and doughnuts, as many as we wanted, and at the back of the sanctuary were more toys than we believed existed - all our Christmases rolled into one, spread over a large mat.

One of the worship leaders, Elder Brian, was paying attention to Mum. "I'm naming you 'Serene'," he told her in front of everyone one Sunday. "I love you. I want to marry you."

Mum's face flushed red, beads of sweat forming on her forehead. "Yes. Yes, please."

Laying his arm across her shoulders, he beckoned my brother and I. "Your son shall be called 'Job' and your daughter 'Purity'. I love them as my own children." His bristling upper lip scoured my mouth when he kissed me.

We joined the Community and Mum became Elder Brian's third wife. At the wedding the other two wives stood beside him at the altar, beaming up at him in adoration. My brother and I hovered in the background, uncertain who, in our childish parlance, would 'look after us' during the ceremony

Afterwards Brian said to me, "When you get married, my little munchkin, it'll be to someone special." He winked. "You see."

I didn't understand. I was only five.



That was ten years ago. I grew up here. It was all right. I was a scaredy-cat who tried to do everything right, but we girls lapped it up when Verity, the rebel, answered back to elders and matrons. We used to cluster around her bunk in the virgins' dormitory, giggling at everything she said. Between us we devised ever more ridiculous schemes for running away, involving clambering over roofs and shinning up and down drainpipes. Verity and I became best friends at about the time my brother, Job, was expelled from the Community for being 'disrespectful'. I've never worked out exactly what Job was supposed to have done, and, when I asked Mum, she shook her head and rattled off one of our Berger Values. "The Community is more important than mere individuals."

"But Mum -"

"You should keep our Berger Values in your heart, Purity. And pray."

"Will Job go to Hell?"

She looked away and picked up a stack of dishes. We'd just finished our communal dinner and she was clearing away. Whatever she said by way of answer was drowned by the clattering of crockery and tinkling of cutlery through the open door to the kitchen.

Next day, as we were planting yet more trees in Berger Hall grounds, Verity asked me, "Why is my best friend in the world so sad?"

I told her.

"Everybody's brother is sent away. Haven't you noticed?" Verity lifted the bag of compost from the barrow and dropped it on to the ground with a thud, splitting the bottom of the bag and spraying the hems of our grey dresses with black dust. "The elders don't want fit young blokes around, do they?"

"Why not?"

"Purity, you are so naïve. The older men want to marry us themselves, don't they? That's why they find any excuse to throw the boys out." "Noo. Noo." I shook my head hard, my bonnet strings striking my face. "Job must've done something -"

"It's all about sex, Purity. All about sex."

I looked around, checking who was in earshot. Virgins weren't supposed to say that word, and things got back, always.

"Noo. Noo. Not at Berger Hall. We're good people, kind and gentle. We love one another."

"Don't we just? They'll be expecting us to go up the aisle soon."

Verity was fifteen and I fourteen and a half. Having been brought up in the Community, I anticipated this, but I wasn't worried because Brian, my stepfather, kept saying that he had someone special lined up for me.

Verity picked up the garden fork we were using and thrust it into the ground. "I'm not getting married."

"What else could you do?"

She glared down into the hole we'd just dug, the sweet smell of cold, fresh earth rising into our nostrils. "I'm leaving when I'm sixteen," my friend said in a low voice.

I felt my eyes spring open, stretching in their sockets. "But you'd go to Hell."

"Really?"

Elder George, aged fifty-five, with a paunch and a beard, was already paying Verity attention. "I love you. I want to marry you," he said.

"I'm too young. I'm not ready." Most virgins rattled off this modesty litany, but Verity didn't demur after a few days, as other girls did. She told me and the other virgins in the dormitory that Elder George was 'gross', 'had BO' and she wasn't going to marry him. Called in for 'counselling' with the elders, we heard her screams through the door, rage mangling her words. Later she was taken to the clinic, because of 'mental health issues'. An empty silence hung over our virgins' dormitory. Nobody dared mention Verity. I simmered under my duvet in a hot sweat.

I didn't see my friend for many months. When she reappeared at Christmas, she was quiet and dreamy, a gold band on her third finger and a bump under her grey dress.

Shortly after New Year Elder Brian called me to his office beside the sanctuary. He called a cheery 'Hello' whilst reaching down to rummage in the drawers beneath his expansive paper-strewn desk. A small cross balanced beside his computer. On the wall behind him, the familiar perfectly aligned white teeth of Ashley T Berger beamed down upon us from a framed poster. "Purity, it's time you were married," he said, pulling himself up at last.

My heart leapt. "You have someone special for me?"

"Of course. You can marry me, Purity." He smiled like one conferring a massive favour.

"But you're married to my mother." The words burst out of me.

"Does that matter?" He pulled open the drawer on the other side of his desk and looked inside it. "In the Berger Community, we are all fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, to each other."

My stomach churned. The room swung in front of me, Ashley T's irritating grin, the lattice of the window-frames. Anger and hurt bubbled up into my brain. This was wrong, wrong, wrong. Of this I was certain, even after ten years in the Berger Community.

I didn't know what to do. I lay awake, wringing my pyjamas into tight coils. I said nothing, a mistake, because he interpreted my silence as assent. I went through the modesty protest, playing for time, but time ran out. Elder Brian was Elder Brian and he got what he wanted.

Weddings happen quickly in the Berger Community. We don't bother with banns or licences, for obvious reasons, nor do we hold big and elaborate events. I tried to talk to my mother but she always had something else to do. The evening before the wedding, in desperation, I went up into the matrons' corridor, meaning to beg her to ask Brian to back off, but it appeared she was in the shower.

Grace, who told me this, winked at me. "Who's a lucky girl then? Your husband-to-be certainly knows how to get a girl going." I squirmed. Grace was old enough to be my grandmother. She jerked her head towards two other matrons standing in doorways. "As we all know."

They sniggered as I blushed bright red and my step broke into a scuttle towards the bathroom block. Seeing my mother's head above one of the cubicles, I waited. When she emerged at last, she was wrapped in a blue towel with threads hanging from it, possibly the last remnant of our life outside in the sinful world. "Hello Purity. I'm so happy for you. We'll be sister wives."

"But Mum, please, listen -"

"Wedding nerves, love. That's all."

I slunk back to my bunk in the virgins' dormitory.

The Berger marriage ceremony is short and takes place at the end of our normal worship. The bride wears a white dress and bonnet instead of the normal grey, and we eat cake and orange juice afterwards. Everybody smiles throughout. I creased my face too, as was expected of me, but my head was full to bursting with my developing plan. I should've carried it out the previous day, but I'd been gathering into my gut every scrap of courage, and stamping upon doubts which rose up like worms in freshly dug ground. You've got it all wrong, Purity. Look at all these people you've known all your life, so lovely and kind. You don't want to go to Hell. "Congratulations, Purity." "Congratulations to you both." "Congratulations. Wishing you every happiness." Never had I felt so alone. Verity sat at the back, cradling her baby in her arms, her face set in what she used to call The Berger Rictus.

I should have got out last night. Before the wedding night. I tried to tell myself that it was only sex and other women, including Verity, had done it. Yet I couldn't stop thinking of Brian doing it with my mother.

After putting off joining him in his bedroom for as long as possible, I found Brian sitting naked on the edge of the mattress, stretching out his hands as if in blessing. "Come on, my dear. Don't be shy." His flaccid man-boobs dangled from his chest. His pudgy white flabby thighs spread under his weight like two puddings.

I shrank from him. I flattened myself against the wall, steadying myself with my flat palms, longing to blend with the flowery wallpaper. We weren't married, not by law or in the eyes of God, but the doubts rose up again like the fountains in the rose garden. Come on, Purity. You know where your duty lies, with Ashley T Berger, the Community and God. Tears welled up in my eyes. I cried and cried until the white thing between his legs drooped.

Only then did my plan become a reality in my head - hell or no hell - but it's taken me until this evening to get to this point. Me, goody-goody Purity, doing what rebel Verity never did.

I'm going to go to my brother's place. That's my plan. Job's okay, at college, doing plumbing, and living in a hostel. He's allowed to write to Mum once a month and I have in my bag one of his letters, with his address at the top.

I've reached the gate now. Its iron bolt is rusty with disuse. The Community is not locked in, but the sinful world kept out - another of our sayings. You can't do this. Go back in. No, no, you can't. Last night you avoided Brian with your shenanigans, but he'll try again tonight.

I burp. I burp again, but my hand is reaching for the bolt. This is not happening. You're not doing this, Purity, not you. The bolt's stiff. I pull harder. It releases suddenly and noisily, sound waves bouncing off the garden walls. Yet much louder is the rapid and vigorous thumping of my heart, shaking down my legs to my toes, down my arms to my fingertips.

Through the open gate, traffic roars along the road, taking no notice of me. I lift my foot - one foot - over the threshold. A sharp wind cuts through the thin material of my dress. A shiver shimmies down my spine, vertebra by vertebra. Just tell them you wanted some fresh air. When you go back.

No. I lift the other foot and set it down on the uneven pavement. I start walking. On the way to Hell.

9 comments:

  1. The level of explicit detail makes it work well, it's claustrophobic and terrifying. Could have left out ""I start walking. On the way to hell" at the very end however.

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  2. Hmmm, I commented as bluesky with my Google account (see above). I didn't mean to do that, I don't want to be anonymous or hidden. sorry!

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  3. A moving tale. I grew up in a not dissimilar commune/community (Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, a Chicago suburb). Though less reclusive, it went through a greedy cult phase. Its virgins (called "single people") were a lower class. Always embarrassed me to be associated. Anyway, that's why this story affected me. I'm glad she was able to escape, as I was, but would have liked to see more revenge exacted on the elders.

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  4. A powerful and believable story. Purity exhibits heroic bravery. I have much sympathy for Verity, less for the mother (though her joining and staying with the cult is made understandable).

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  5. Good job addressing an unsettling topic. Some sentences seemed a bit wordy, but good descriptions overall.

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  6. Sounds like a story from the Bountiful commune here in Canada. A number of books have been written about this place by women who left. I also felt sorry for Verity. Ashley T Berger described very well.

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  7. There's a lot going on in this story. Purity was brought up within Community but managed to maintain her individuality and sense of right and wrong. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

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  8. Purity's terror was well-executed...a slow burn of mounting anxiety as she becomes more and more aware of her fate. Makes me wonder if she would have had the courage to escape if she hadn't been paired specifically with her mother's husband...seemed like that was the tipping point in her decision.

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  9. Thank you all for your comments. I found this story unsettling to write, because of the intensity, I suppose. I'm glad it resonated.

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