The last cars of the train rolled quickly ahead him as he stood on the platform for the last time. Jimmy Erasmus felt the train leave before he actually saw the caboose and thought about how the world was laughing at him. What a pathetic way for this to end, he thought. This is really the last one for me… He rolled his suitcase to an empty bench and sat for a moment. There was no other announcement on the PA. The day was over for his plans.
But was it over for the rest of the them? Jimmy was a part of a particular sect that had no sense of humour about the modern world, the opinions of the media (very obvious over the last month), and…lateness. One thing that struck him was how he could always tell when the Brothers and Sisters were ready to perform certain tasks. Food distribution always began at six; clean ups and sortings took place at eight until ten; the discussions and debates were limited to one hour; lunch at noon to one; the resting was two hours (some debate was taking place as to whether this was too long); final meetings for an hour; dinner at five; free thought at seven; bed at 9. That was a system that had worked for years. That was a method of organizing their lives and it succeeded… “It works, Erasmus, so we keep the method going.” Brother Rabelais made him believe in it. The method always worked.
And now, it was all over.
Why had he been chosen, anyway? Jimmy had a good family, some stability in the rest of his life, a brain that was open-minded, well-studied and useful to others. The first time the group spoke at his community centre, there was no reason to believe that there was anything special about him.
“You should definitely talk to them if you have a chance.”
Mr. Michaelson was his favourite teacher; the only one who could teach literature and not sound like a robot when he had to recite poetry or passages from ancient novels. The man was one of the few people of passion at Geremy Ford High. Jimmy listened to what he had to say.
“You think so, sir?”
“Sure.” They were still in the classroom as the lunch bell rang and the other students took off for the cafeteria. “They seem like decent people who have a very interesting manner and means of living. Never hurts to look.”
The man was so smooth, so well-dressed, so convincing in that moment. Jimmy – his James – should have known that something was off about the whole thing. There was plenty of proof that Mr. M. was already a part of the group: lack of a spouse; mannered speech; interest in religious texts beyond anything needed for his courses.
But Jimmy did take a look.
There was a table set up in the gym for the curious. Some loophole in the local laws allowed most of these groups to have at least one day per month for such a stop and attempt to find willing volunteers (Jimmy did remember when the Satanic Church lobbied along with the Local Skinheads 101 to have a moment of their time; no one wanted to be seen in the gym – even the janitor decided to take a break outside, not in the nearby boiler room). As he had expected, it was very quiet in there; too quiet. Jimmy wondered if he should have asked a friend to come with him…and then he remembered that he had no close friends at the school. No one was there to cover the sound of the door opening up and the squeak of his shoes as he walked over to their long and well-covered table.
The friendly man behind the table was dressed in a very simple suit – jacket (one button); simple black hat (no sun could get to the face with that in the way); one pullover shirt (no buttons); a complete uniform – and he was flanked by two other women that Jimmy guessed were his daughters (the one on the left was dealing with a flush of acne on her chin; the one on the right seemed a little older and maybe…bolder?). The man put his hand out, stretching over the table and grasping Jimmy’s weak arm. “Welcome!”
Jimmy wanted to leave now, staring at the hand on his arm and wondering if the bell would ring.
“Thanks. I was just…”
“You were just interested in what we had to offer! I completely understand, brother. You are a young man who wants to find out why he exists in this world and what the plan is for you and all the rest of us. And I think I see it in you.”
He could not help himself as the man loosened his grip. There was something there...
And then the rest of it began. Jimmy guessed that these people had a rehearsed speech and probably said the same thing to everyone who approached their group. The brochures and speech were effective enough, but it was meeting them that really drew others in. This was not the case for Jimmy. He learned that he was the only one who walked into the gym (no surprise); the only one to take the time to talk to them (again, of course, no surprise); the only one who wanted to know more (he was surprised). Mr. Michaelson, again after a long class, saw James with his copy of the brochure and looked overjoyed.
“Ah, you did go to see them!”
He almost jumped over the table to shake Jimmy’s hand.
“And how do you feel about it?”
He thought it was an odd question, even for his oddest teacher.
“It, sir? The group?”
“No, no. The whole initiation and practice thing. Y’know…the process…”
Jimmy was holding the brochure in his hands, but he had not opened it (there were many pages and subsections he would look at soon). The best thing to do was to play along.
“Oh, it sounds…very interesting, the process. The whole thing.”
Mr. Michaelson, single, devoted to his job and literature, and long-term bachelor, hugged Jimmy…and were those tears soaking into his favourite student’s shirt?
It was now ten years after that first chat, and he had learned so much more about the group. The name Erasmus was not his choice, but they told him that they always had a name they used with the public (much more interesting than Smith, anyway). Jimmy had given up on school and told his father as much. The old man was disappointed, but understood that his son was eighteen, had grades that were best for community college, and did not want to be a plumber. The group that he mentioned impressed him, leading to one question that surprised Jimmy (his father actually did some research on these people).
“So, are you really gonna get naked?”
He sat on that platform for a long time, hearing trains leaving, steps parting and other noises growing in the background. Jimmy was feeling very nostalgic for the past that seemed like ancient history. It was soon going to be over and he could take some time with his memories.
“‘They were naked and they were not afraid.’ ”
He read it; he knew it; he thought about it.
“Brother, you must enter in and be one with us.”
And that was Ivanhoe. Jason was about Jimmy’s age, and he had gone through the whole process many times. In that part of the village, they were standing beside a barn that was well-disguised as such, but actually housed a rather sophisticated set of pools, baths, showers and what he was told was “the Transformation Spot”. The brochure had shown all the pictures, but there was very little revealed in them. At least they were not doing this in the winter.
At least he was allowed to do this alone.
“Yes, apologies. I just want to know about the other step. The one where you are allowed to go out into the wider world for a year before you truly become a part of the community. I have not done so, and I wonder…”
There was some giggling coming from inside the building. Some sort of ventilation system allowed those noises to escape. Jimmy stared about the expanse of dirt and paths leading past them to their homes. Did he really have to do this?
“I know, Brother Erasmus. You will be sent out into the world after your…initiation.”
A surprise grew in his mind. Hadn’t he already done everything that qualified as an initiation? The new name, the clothes, the meetings and introductions, the private space for “the only goods you will need in this world” (Brother Ezra was at least kind about this) – wasn’t that all he needed to belong?
Oh, right. The nakedness came next.
James smiled with that thought as a porter passed him by. There were more people approaching now, ready with their tickets and luggage, neatly or at least warmly attired for this time of year. A few faces stared at him – to be expected – but most of them were ready for their journeys and had plans he could only guess at (there was one couple with a Lonely Planet guide; Hawaii would be nice at this time of year).
Anywhere else would be a real treat…
But there he was, inside a changing room, preparing himself for the bath. They called it their “Great Change” and he knew that there was some truth to their line: “Once you go in, you wash away all sin.” The chant played in his mind as he passed down the assigned wooden hallway, separated a curtain and heard the laughter begin again in the dimly lit space.
The tub was filled with six women.
Now, he did not run away or avert his eyes quickly. Jimmy had very little experience with women and noticed that the ones there were all ages, all sizes, and all waiting for him. He was as naked as they were (some small mercy, he thought). And they were smiling, so…
The problem was that the women rarely spoke to the men and did not really play any role outside of their work within the walls of the community. They were there, modestly dressed and with polite and simple gestures during services and meetings. They were there during the talk about the initiation. But there had been no talk about them playing a role; not a word about them being there when he went for the bath.
They were waiting for him.
“Welcome to you all…sisters.”
They did titter, their light voices echoing slightly as he slowly walked down the worn steps into the very warm water. There were six of them in there and he became “their seven” (a very important number to them). And with the haze of heat and steam in front of him, he recalled that time in the gym. The first brother and the two ladies… The one with the acne…
She was the one who looked much different now…It was she who welcomed him.
No acne, anymore. No, no, no… That haze of red blemishing and bumps did not last. Instead, her body had flowered and developed extremely well. Too well, he thought. He was in a warm pool of water with a woman he knew from his teen years, and many others he had only seen in passing. Jimmy was quite sure that she was single (wives were sequestered, he had been told; doubtful any one of them here had a husband at home who would approve of this…moment).
“Are you ready for your moment?”
The other much older ladies ringed around him smiled and stared. Their nudity did nothing for him at the time, but he would always recall how they felt no shame in that large wooden tub.
“Am I in the right space?”
Again, they tittered, and they refused to answer his question (and they were not afraid, he thought).
“Are you ready?”
Well, thought Jimmy, if this was the initiation, he was ready. Let them throw him out now, if that was what they needed to do.
A good story that would stay with him forever, he thought, staring at the few faces now gathered around him. His hat gave away his identity and the ones staring knew that he had tried to head back to his home. That space… The one that was now on the news; the one that authorities had decided was now ready to be investigated…
The one with her in it…
His first love was Jenna, the daughter of the man he met in the gym and the one he promised to return to as soon as his year outside the gates was over. She was the girl in the tub, the one who remained with him when the others left, and the one he knew would be the harshest critic of anyone who dared to attack what she had known her entire life.
“Look at the world out there and all the misery and pain in it. And look at what we have achieved here.”
They were now alone in the tub. Jimmy could hear the other ladies in the hallways moving along the wooden planks as they went into the changing rooms (another part of the initiation, he soon learned). It had all been a plan to leave him with a girl that was ready for a wife’s life.
“You do have that right.”
“Of course I’m right. And you have made a brave decision, Brother Erasmus. The bravest I ever saw.”
“Not really brave to stay below the water.”
She laughed at his thought, much more boldly than anything he had heard before. Her body bobbed up and down, a force of nature that he was trying not to stare at…and failing miserably at the effort.
“Silly. Not this. This is natural. It is the world out there that is the problem. And you will be out in it for a year when this is done.”
She touched his cheek and he tried to tell his body to shut up.
“You are scared?”
“Of so many things.”
And he discovered that he was lucky enough to belong to a group that owned its own hot tubs and knew what they were for.
They really did know. That was the problem. The world knew about it, too.
It was not his fault that they were there. People had known about these practices for ages. It was a well-known and long-running source of amusement for the media. The plan was to get back and to be a part of the controversy and accept his arrest and conviction.
And today, he did not even have that.
The hotel was wonderful. The group owned it and was well-known to cover expenses for all its members through certain investments that the press investigated. Of course, none of it was totally legal.
But who really was surprised by that?
It was only when he woke up late and saw the news on his personal computer that he knew what was really going on and he quickly packed his bag to get to the station.
And now that was all over.
The hat was all that remained.
Off his head, and on the bench beside him, he could see just how silly it was.
A young man, maybe eighteen, saw him alone on the bench among the few other passengers who left him alone. Jimmy noted his clothes and the manner that he addressed him.
A new recruit or just curious… Did he even watch today's news?
“You missed it, didn’t you?”
The boy had the one suitcase they provided for them, along with the trousers and coat that he received. The only thing that he did not have was the hat.
“Yes, I did. But it is not too late for you.” He picked up the hat and passed it to the boy. “You can still be a part of it.”
The young man took it from Jimmy’s extended hand and smiled.
“An honor, sir.”
“Oh, yes, sorry… I’m Michael.”
Of course, that would be his name.
“Nice to meet you.”
“And you, sir…brother.”
Jimmy stood up, looked at the young man’s face and went back to the main gates. There was something he knew that he wanted to say, but he could not place it in his thoughts. That boy, still smiling and waiting, had to wait for whatever was about to come his way. Jimmy had other things on his mind.