Content warning: violence, references to sexual abuse, and language.
Humble was coming, and he would keep them warm. They called themselves Unity. On January 6th at precisely 10:00 p.m. Unity crowded into the compound’s central tent, and the North Dakotan air frosted their bald heads. No one complained—no one dared speak—they all knew the rules.
Beckett Gorman, Humbles second in command, prepared to start his “unloading.” He paced naked behind the tent. I’m going to die tonight, Beckett thought. The sharp winter winds drilled into him. Why isn’t Humble here yet? Did he discover what I did at the “stoning pits?” Does he know what I’m planning? No, he can’t know. I didn’t even know until this morning. I hope he overdosed. That would make tonight much easier, Beckett thought. Beckett unfolded his “errors and arrogances” list, and he read it over, again.
Humble shuffled into the tent, and his twenty wives followed behind him. Unity plunged into hysterical applause. Humble waddled around the tent shaking hands. Blake, Beckett’s best friend, caressed Humble’s cracked and ashy hands. Blake started “seizing the glory.” He convulsed violently on the ground.
Beckett’s wife Shondella bowed when Humble approached, and Beckett saw—everyone saw presumably—Humble grope her breasts. Shondella smiled, it was the only polite response. For that alone, I’ll destroy him, Beckett thought.
Humble and sixteen of his wives found their seats. The remaining four wives left him, and they joined the rest of the “original thirty.” Rachel sat next to her ex-husband, Blake. They were happily married, but Humble reclaimed her six months ago. Humbled waved his hand, and Unity fell silent.
Beckett’s feet slapped against the cement ground on his way to the front. Naked on stage, Beckett faced Unity, and he looked at the only people who ever loved him. They must see it. They must know that Humble isn’t a god by now, Beckett thought. He bowed to Humble. Keeping his head down, Beckett waited for Humble’s permission to begin. Humble whistled. Beckett snapped up his head, and he approached the podium.
“I stand before you naked with nothing to hide,” Beckett said.
“We see you,” Unity said. Beckett wrapped his frozen body in a heavy robe.
“I have committed ‘errors and arrogances’ against ‘Overall’ and Humble his servant.” Beckett said. Good Humble looks high. I’ll just tell my story as normal. When he nods out, I’ll take my shot, Beckett thought. “They weigh me down.”
“‘Unload’ them. We will share your burden,” Unity said—in unison.
“I request space.” Beckett asked.
“We will remain silent,” Unity said.
“Humble, you too, cool?” Beckett asked. Humble fumed behind a displeased scowl, but he nodded.
“Nu,” Humble said. The congregation must remain silent during ‘unloadings’, but a few years ago, Beckett introduced “the new rule”: congregants may say “nu” during an “unloading.”
“This is the coldest ‘unloading’ since Georgie’s stoning,” Beckett said. “Man I hated letting him go. I’ll ‘unload’ that one first. I ‘unload’ this ‘error’: I failed to kill Georgie.” The congregation clapped once together. Blake stepped away from his seat and punched his chest a dozen times. An “unloader’s” best friend always shared the first penance.
“I was a pathetic boy,” Beckett said. “Don’t worry, my mother reminded me daily. I give her that much credit—she never lied to me. So when the other kids rejected me, I was not surprised. My life was a crash course in ‘gratitude in context.’
“Deep inside me, at my base, I desired answers. I asked mom, about many things: I asked about the world and the tides, I asked how things worked, but mostly I asked about God. What powers did he have? Where did he come from? Does he care about me? Mom was an illiterate idiot. She tried to answer, but she babbled trite slogans instead.
“She signed me up at the Jewish Community Center, and told me to ask them my stupid questions. The teachers didn’t have any answers either. During the car ride home, I told Mom all about the kids I met, my new very best friends, and the hike they planned for the next week. A few days later, The teacher called mom, and he told her that I wasn’t invited. Apparently, I made the other kids uncomfortable—story of my life.
“When it came time for my bar-mitzvah, we joined a Synagogue. I loved my lessons with the Rabbi. Rabbi Shulman had plenty of answers. I thrived there—for a while. During shobbos services, Rabbi Shulman told the entire congregation that I was a brilliant student, and mom lost her mind. She shouted, ‘I guess he’s smart for a half Jew who still wets the bed.’ Mortified, I ran home. I ‘unload’ this ‘error’: I resented that bitch.”
Some in the crowd hummed “nu, nu, nu,” and the “original thirty” shared his penance. Three times they punched their own chests, hard. How can I betray these people, my only friends? He looked at Shondella, and she winked encouragement.
“Sprinting out of the synagogue, I crossed the street, ran down a hill, and lost my breath. I decided never to go back. I was alone again. A brown sedan skidded to a stop near me. The driver shouted, ‘Nice hat, Jew boy.’ Two men exited the car and rushed me. The driver snatched my yarmulke, and the other guy kicked me into the gutter.
“He lifted his straight laced Doc Martin to kick me again, but the driver held up his hand. ‘hold him down,’ the driver said. He dunked my yarmulke in gutter water, bunched it up, and shoved it deep into my mouth. ‘How dare you walk through my neighborhood? Don’t cry damn it, we should kill you, but because we are good Christians, we’ll just teach you a lesson, this time.’ Vomit pored out of my nose. They kicked me, one after the other, until I passed out. I never cared for Christ much—I’ve met the company he keeps.
“I walked into school that Monday, ready to fit in, ready to be unassuming. I recognized my new homeroom teacher as the driver of the brown sedan. I asked to be home schooled after that. So I spent the rest of my childhood alone—with only self pity to keep me company. I ‘unload’ this ‘error’: I allowed fear to run my life.”
Unity started another chorus of nu, and the original thirty slammed themselves thrice in the chest and once in their guts. They’re gut punching early. I should’ve warned them, Beckett thought. Humble’s eyes drooped.
“Somehow by the time I started college, I convinced myself that I could make friends,” Beckett said. “Within my first week on campus, a professor had promised to fail me, I lost my scholarship, and a pack of people followed me around with signs. I found out later that Humble watched as they chased me around campus, but he didn’t see a misogynist, or any of the other nasty things written on those signs, he saw a frightened boy who needed help. Humble sent Blake to beat those guys bloody. Thank you, Blake. I never thought I would have a friend like you. I ‘unload’ this ‘error’: I didn’t punish those jerks myself.” Beckett’s friends laughed before they beat themselves. “I’m serious, it was an important thing to learn.
“That night, Blake took me to the Hughes building downtown. My first ‘giving’ blew me away. Humble, that guy, had answers. Humble brought out the big guns and assigned Rachel to be my ‘reason to return.’ I recognized her, of course, her picture was everywhere. ‘Overall’s sake,’ her ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover wallpapered my phone. After the ‘giving’ she sat on my lap, just like our young girls practice with new guys today. She saw the picture on my phone and showed everyone. No one humiliated me, no one rejected me, we just laughed about it. Everyone knows that Rachel was the best at ‘answer accept.’
“The first thing I asked, ‘Do you guys call him Humble as like a joke?’ I was so oblivious. She was all, ‘No, how dare you?’
“Isn’t it like Robin Hood calling his friend John, little?” Well, Rachel abandoned ‘answer accept’ her technique could be better described as ‘answer accept...except.’ But Humble let me off the hook. ‘You have a unique ability to alienate people,’ Humble said, and with those seven words he summed me up.
“I actually asked, ‘Why do you think that?’ Humble came right back, ‘Mostly your personal protesters.’ Humble and the rest of us laughed for a long time at that one. ‘Hey, I love you for it.’ He loved me not despite my disposition but because of it. I stayed at the old Unity Club that night. I intended to go back to the dorms, but Rachel—um—persuaded me to stay.”
“Nu, nu, nu,” Blake said. The meaning was clear to Beckett (Enough about my wife).
“Hey I promise, I’m not banging her anymore—he is.” Beckett pointed at Humble. The tent fell silent, save for the thrum of the microphone, and that damn North Dakota wind. Unity—every one of them—stared at Humble. I hope this works. I need Blake on my side. If I convince no one else, I’ll survive if I can get through to Blake, Beckett thought. Humble smiled, he shrugged, and he pitched out a few comical grunts. He’s taking it on the chin? Damn it, he’s good at this, Beckett thought.
“He let me off the hook again,” Beckett said. “I admit to a ‘first degree arrogance,’ Humble I am sorry.” Beckett leaned his chest closer to the microphone, punched his chest thirteen times, and the power of his punches reverberated off the tent walls. None of the ‘original thirty’ looked satisfied with his penance, so Beckett darted to a tool rack near the left of the stage. He grabbed a shovel. Make it good, Beckett thought.
Beckett grasped the shovel’s handle, a loose wooden bar, in his right hand. He extended his right arm fully, and the shovel fell out and away from him. Then he curled his wrist. The shovel’s blade snapped up and thwacked Beckett on top of the head. Becket used the shovel as a cane, and he limped back to the podium. That’ll cost me if I end up at the stoning pits, Beckett thought.
“I ‘ascended the tree’ and completed all my ‘upper branch lessons,’ and you guys started to come to me for advice. You guys loved me, trusted me, and convinced me of my worth. I love you all.” Beckett watched Humble fall asleep for a moment and snap awake. Almost there, Beckett thought.
“Now we turn to my Shondella. One spring day, she walked off the free retreat bus, and everything around her faded away. The world became a dark stage, and Shondella entered spotlit. I tried to hide, but she walked straight up to me. I li-ter-al-ly held my breath. In that moment, I learned what Breathtaking meant. When you encounter something truly perfect, you don’t dare breathe. You are afraid that if you move at all, you might scare it away.” Fear accosted Beckett as Humble slumped and passed out. Here I go, Beckett thought. “After I took over all the day to day stuff, Humble started to change. He started slamming heroin daily. You all have seen the track marks on his hands.
“I’m so sorry, Shonny, but Humble sat me down last night. I guess, ‘Overall’ wanted Humble to reclaim you. I begged ‘Overall’ for wisdom, and he came to me in a vision,” Beckett lied. “Humble has drifted from ‘Overall’s’ path. He pigged out on the power bestowed upon him. ‘Overall’ demanded that I replace Humble because I will return Unity to the original ‘tent poles’. One man, one wife—all of them.” Sarah, Humble’s first wife, shook Humble awake. “You may not have my wife—you fat ass-hole!” Beckett said.
Many things happened in quick succession: Humble whispered in Sarah’s ear, she sprinted out of the tent, the crowd erupted into fits of screaming, and the original thirty—who were now twenty-nine—linked arms. They stepped together, buzzed through their teeth, and stalked closer to the stage. Why did I think that would work? Beckett thought. He picked up the shovel.
“Fine, let the damn stones decide,” Beckett said into the microphone. He tossed the shovel, and it landed near the edge of the stage. Blake swooped down and picked it up. The original twenty-nine herded him out the tent.
Blake shoved Beckett into the stoning pits.
“Who dug the hole already?” Humble wheezed.
“I did. Why did I ever think you knew the future?”
“Shut up,” Blake said, and he dropped into the hole.
“Humble is nothing but a junkie con man. Isn’t that right Lavonte?” Beckett said. Blake wrapped his hands around Beckett’s neck.
“Don’t you dare kill him, Blake,” Shondella said. The crowd booed in response. “You will rob me of a chance to do it my-damn-self.” She raised a bolder above her head and whooped.
The mob brayed, “Let the stones decide!”
Blake stopped and climbed out of the hole. She bought me a chance. If I get out of the ground alive, they have to let me go, Beckett thought. So it was that Unity dibbled Beckett Gorman into the dirt up to his waste. They lightly packed soil on top of his hands, a stoning must be fair.
The mob threw the first barrage. Most of them missed. The few stones that were on target collided; however, Shondella’s stone sizzled through the air, and It bludgeoned the top of his head. Beckett managed to lift his hands out of the dirt.
Beckett knew he had only a few moments before the second barrage. He pushed down against the earth and rose a few inches. The next barrage, at least forty stones, fell down on him. He covered his head with his arms. His left forearm fractured. Beckett shrieked in pain. With one desperate shove he escaped the hole, but his forearm snapped and bone pierced the skin. Beckett screamed, and the sound contradicted itself. The scream was one half the wail of a concussed man in unbearable pain, and the other half was the joyful elation of a man who defeated death. I cannot believe I survived. Just like Georgie, Shonny and I will start a new life soon enough, Beckett thought.
Sarah ran up to Humble, and she handed her husband his shot gun. Unity scattered out of range. He leveled it at Beckett.
“I’d give you last words, but I think you’ve said enough,” Humble said.
“Shonny, I buried...” The shot gun boomed, and Beckett fell dying. Unable to move or speak, Beckett watched Humble drag Shondella up the hill. As Beckett died, he thought, Thank you, Overall. Thanks an awful lot.