Cult Illustration #1, ball point pen on paper, 11" x 8.5"


        This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either
      the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


The Sub Coordinator was a petite, middle-aged woman wearing a jean mini skirt and spike heels that showed off her toned legs.

“Sign in over there,” she said with a husky voice while throwing out a heavily-jeweled hand.

“Where’s your name badge? Wear it in front at all times so everyone can read it,” she clipped as if speaking to an obstinate teenager.

The new substitute teacher fumbled with her plastic clip-on tag which was carefully obscured under a flap of clothing. How had this fox terrier keened in on my scent, she thought with a sudden chill. These are high schoolers. If they google my name, they’ll see photos of me on the Foundation’s website standing next to the Guru and his wife.  They’ll see imagess of bloody, decapitated goats and think I’m a part of it, a member, never mind that I’ve been fired. A cult, that’s what they’ll call it!

It took far too long for the new sub to print her name and other required information on the clipboard. She backed away as two drowsy, well-dressed people sauntered in with a familiar air. She found herself nestled in the shadow between two book shelves, a perfect place to scan the densely packed office. A dainty lamp in the corner was the only source of light, giving the place a bedroom feel. A little puppy-dog lay at the foot of the Coordinator's desk, curled in a basket.  The new sub was startled by its presence until she realized it was fake, a pit bull, the school mascot. As she waited, various teachers passed in and out. Some of the younger ones lingered to whisper with the Coordinator in what seemed to be a 30 second therapy session. 

She watched as another woman entered, signed in, picked up a map, and quickly located her room before exiting. Suddenly aware of her, the Coordinator barked out a few directions in a way that was meant to say "get out of here, now!". Quicker than was necessary, the new sub grabbed a map and instruction packet and was in the hallway, scurrying. The place was deserted and cold feeling and dirty with invisible germs. The masses would enter at the very last second, timed perfectly to be there only as much as they had to. She stopped to scrutinize the photo-copied map in order to see where her assigned classroom was located. The map was so small and so recopied that the room numbers appeared as black blobs and the new sub got it into her mind that she would deliberately misspell her name, or at least make it illegible when she wrote it on the board. She slowed her gait, trying to look casual.

She passed a glass encased exhibit with pictures of teams in shiny nylon uniforms, standing straight in rows with smart looking adults on each end. She paused to view a case filled with tiny plastic soldiers, a mass of drab green, and yet each piece was carefully placed upright on its podium. Above, hung photos of young guys in uniforms, looking serious. Next to each picture was a hand written letter from a parent, replete with patriotic slogans and tearful pleadings for their heroic, but dead children. They had sent these things, along with monetary donations to a teacher who was the sponsor of this exhibit. The new sub was not sure how she felt about it, as a display that is, but even more confusing, she did not understand what she was supposed to feel about it.

She stepped lightly through the hall, her mind drifting back to the subject of curious teenagers.  Once they passed around links to the Foundation’s website and saw pictures of the Guru and his wife ripping heads off chickens, they would conjure the worst of Hollywood’s satanic images. She stopped. Frozen. Staring down the dark hall, she imagined gaggles of outraged parents and teachers. Livid and confused, they would place her on a very special death row. Their bloodlust insatiable, at least until they could witness her suffering. The new sub could see those well dressed, straight backed people sitting in a way reminiscent of close family members honored with a front row seat in a theater of execution. Their upset would fuel the kid’s view that the new sub was, indeed, something wild and powerful and good to be near, just as she had viewed the Guru and his wife. She mused. Unmasking was the price for cultivating a life at the margins of society, yet almost metaphysically, she had avoided detection in every conventional job she held. I’m protected, she thought.

She came to an intersection of halls and caught a glimpse of a mural. Approaching it, she studied the images. Cartoon pit bulls wearing jerseys and cleats, posed on their hind legs ready to pass or kick a ball. But the dogs wore bewildered expressions. One dove toward a tennis net, as if it were a swim pool. The new sub studied the images until she realized that the artists were making fun of the jocks. She turned quickly and headed towards the exit, anxious for a reprieve from the fetid hallway. The carpeting or maybe it was the walls, smelled of stale alcohol, and sweat. Outdoors, she was confronted by a series of what the Coordinator termed portables, though they were called trailers in her day. They were illogically numbered as she scanned them quickly, walking determinedly towards her unknown destination.

She was not a pretty elder woman, but her features were symmetrical and this gave her face an elfish quality. Her chin was long and pointy, her eyes piercing and fierce and her brow heavy so that she seemed masculine to most observers. Of average height, most people mistakenly described her as tall. She was muscular, but wore such baggy clothing that it was hard to know just what shape she had.  Those who knew, found out by embracing her or watching her work outdoors. She favored floating tunics and billowy slacks. These she preferred over fashionable tops that grabbed her armpits, or tight slacks that wedged her crotch. She felt her body a giant sensory organ, demanding her attention, constantly, the messages unimpeded. She also thought herself more dignified and elegant when her extremities were draped, yet she had a habit of wearing cheap and wrinkled fabrics. As a Substitute Teacher, however, she endeavored to dress appropriately. She scrapped her old things and purchased new clothing that resembled what other teachers wore, only they were a size and a half too large and worn in layers, giving her a bulky, armored look.

Her assignment was World History, 11th grade, for Mr. Horton, in the portable outdoors farthest from the school. She entered and stared at the TV mounted on the stout wall in the corner. It was turned on to a sports channel, playing softly. The florescent lights were on too, making the room dull.
She moved to the Teacher’s area, a group of tables, defensive like, flanking a desk which had stacks of folded t-shirts, papers, magazines, and binders lying crosshatched, piled in a precarios mound. Jumbled sticky notes peppered the horizon, and on a corner, a formidable collection of DVD’s, with one marked for her use. On the other corner, a box of tissue shared space with a cleated shoe. She felt as if she might touch something wrongly, and the whole assemblage would collapse. She gingerly picked up her sub folder from its perch on the stack and began to study it as she slowly descended into the teacher’s chair. It was backless, on wheels, and took the shape of a giant bicycle seat. As she made contact, the chair jerked away and she almost fell on the floor. Insulted, she steadied herself and exchanged it for one of the student’s hard plastic jobs, and then she read Mr. Horton's  instructions.

Number one, introduce yourself to the students. Number two, write your name on the board. These first two commands made her dislike the author immensely and confirmed her feeling that the atmosphere in the trailer was odd. She decided she would not write her name on the board. She would write Ms. X.

She rose from her seat, approached the white board, picked up a dry erase marker and wrote Ms. X, angling the letter just a little so that it could also be interpreted as a lower case "t", which was in truth the first letter of her last name. She thought about it for a moment and decided that she would sometimes tell the students that she was Ms. X and sometimes she would be Ms. T. She repositioned her name badge so that it hung behind the lapel of her jacket. She took tape from the teachers desk and carefully adhehered it there, and with jerky movements, tested its viability. It peeled free after several extravagant dance moves and caused her to conjecture about the use of fabric velcro tabs.

A young man flung open the aluminum door, startling her. He entered swinging a heavy black bag. The door slammed behind him. He took a look at Ms. X and without speaking dropped the bag on the floor, thud! next to the teacher's desk (a procession of these unannounced fellows would be in and out throughout the day, usually bursting in, heaving their bags on the floor, and leaving with a clatter. A few stopped in with plastic trays loaded with cafeteria food. They sat between the real students, who were reading, and devoured the mess in a minute, and then swaggered out with a loud clap).    

When the history students arrived they were respectful, a different breed, greeting Ms. X, quietly taking a seat, and reading the assignment on the board. They did not seem confused by the name she had scribbled there, Ms. X or Ms. T, and they did not ask about it. They called her ma'am and she supposed that was a very good thing. The students did what they were told, answering questions on paper from a chapter they were assigned to read. This was done from the textbooks which were scattered around the room. The trailer and its inhabitants were silent and Ms. X was able to read the Teacher’s Manual which had all sorts of answers to the questions and good ideas on how to teach the main concepts. She studied it thoroughly so that she could “talk” to them about their assignment the last 15 minutes of class. And so she began.

“How did Alexander the Great get his men to follow him for 11 years, through horrible weather conditions, camping outdoors and fighting off parasites and pestilence, in order to continue killing, stealing, destroying, and invading other people’s lands?”

No one responded so she continued, “What was it about him? Why would so many men do it? He had something about him,” she said pausing, “how much was charisma and how much was greed?” She looked around to see a few sets of eyes and maybe a smirk among the disinterested, sleepy students.

“Alexander was bent on fulfilling his father’s dream to conquer Persia. Does anyone know what country Persia is today?” They looked at her, bored. She waited and then someone answered.

“ Eye - ran.”

“Yes,” she said and then she pronounced it the way she felt it was supposed to be pronounced,   

“Ih -  ron”.

“You mean eye - ran,” said another student.

“No,” she said, “I mean Ih-ron. I once knew a man from Iran and he used to get upset with me because I said it your way. His name was Abbas, he always corrected me, he said “ih - ron” and she said it softly with love as if she herself had been born there. Then she continued. 

“Alexander the Great wanted to attack and control that place just like someone else does today!” she said in her comedic voice that was meant to sound sort of like a black woman. She paused and looked at them to see if they understood who she was talking about and one boy scoffed at her. What she meant to say was that it was all connected, those in power who create the wars, the cult of consumerism, the cult of distraction, the cultish belief on a massive scale, that North Americans own the world. She wanted to say that she too had a cult like experience. It was all in her mind a reflection, one thing upon the other, and even she herself was part of this strange hologram, standing in front of them trying to tell them about the things they should be able to see.

And so period one was followed by period two and by that time, Ms. X had given up on the excitement of World History.  She felt bored at her teacher’s desk so she got up and began to study the walls of the portable. She found that she was entombed in a kind of shrine to Mr. Horton, the Track Coach. Entire walls were papered with faded news articles about his success with young men; photos of handsome beaming faces and sweaty muscular bodies, victorious after the race. These were his disciples. Dusty trophies sat on shelves, photographs and ribbons were posted in a rather undisciplined way, like a scrapbook hung in haste, without a true designer’s eye. Ms. X noticed a number of pictures with Mr. Horton hugging his students, almost smothering them so that it was difficult to see the younger man’s face beneath the hunched older man. She was seized now with a heavy feeling. It was hot in the portable and she had trouble breathing.

She began to visualize the Guru’s wife as she rose on her toes with graceful want, her arms too rising like bent claws. The wife clasped a large man, the client, and sunk into him and began to sway back and forth. The swaying, Ms. X knew, was reserved for the Foundation's special guests -- it was a kind of double hug.

A hug of some sort, be it large, small, or done on the side, was required of those who actually made the journey to meet the Guru. The wife was the social one, in charge of making clients feel welcome, and yet this first hug appeared to Ms. X like a gentle way of saying “you belong to me”. It was an awkward thing to witness and quite uncomfortable to perform, Ms. X knew. She herself had had to learn to hug the wife in a comfortable way.

There was another way to greet at the Foundation, known as the traditional salute. it was not a hug at all, but a formal gesture that was taught to workshop attendees. The salute was considered somewhat esoteric and acquired by those “in the know”. The Guru’s wife instructed her protégé’s to approach a priest such as herself with deep respect, bowing and touching the ground near her feet before standing straight to face her. Then she said, “Cross your arms over your heart, with the palms of your hands placed on opposite shoulders. “ The next step was reminiscent of a move in the popular 70’s dance called The Bump, where the client and the wife touch shoulders quickly, opposite each other and then repeated it on the other side. This was done with prayers, said in a foreign language, (unintelligible to a native speaker of said language, of course, but that didn't detract from the avant guarde experience). The wife would then embrace the client for a few minutes and upon release, look them straight in the eyes, and smile.

Ms. X remembered herself, many years ago, giggling uncontrollably when the wife coaxed a young man, to bow down and touch the floor at Ms. X’s feet.  Ms. X lost her composure, and could not regain it until the giggles had worked their way through her body. Worst yet, Ms. X never learned the salute correctly.  She didn’t feel comfortable with it, as it seemed unnecessary and probobably unsanitary. The wife was not pleased with Ms. X’s lack of integrity on this issue and she always made it known with a dour look.

Standing there in front of Mr. Horton’s bulletin board, Ms. X remembered something she had almost forgotten, the last hug. While in her arms, the wife tapped Ms. X on the back impatiently as if to say “you are a duck now, not a goose, so you cannot chase me anymore,” (after the old children's game called "Duck, Duck, Goose!") It was a relief and a reprimand all in one and as Ms. X was released, she felt burdened with her freedom.  

How was it she had been such an insider, helping the wife with the women’s groups, offering herself as an expert on things such as menopause, even though she had no real symptoms to report. It was as if it happened anyway. Ms. X in the throes of menopause just like the wife who was 5 years her senior. Their symptoms overlapped, mimicked one another. Ms. X willingly gave speeches at workshops for disciples, long talks about the owl as a harbinger of this treasured experience, this dark night of womanhood. Yes, the owl, which the wife was finding more frequently, dead on the roadsides. It was indeed something special. The feathers were gleaned and used in sacred objects and sold on the internet, but carefully, as she had no First Nation blood, though she looked the picture of a Hollywood Sacajawea, with her dark almond eyes, black straight hair, and dusky skin.

It was several years later, after Ms. X’s expulsion, the real pain of menopause came. Nothing spiritual about it, she would think as she lay awake at night, slicked from head to toe with sweat.  She would lay there thinking about the way she had been seduced by the future, leaving her hometown in Ohio, escaping to the rugged woods of Florida. The journey started with the disposal of possessions. Then, the untying of knots, leaving friends forever. There was nothing left to be friends about. She had the Foundation to fill all roles, friendship, work, spiritual fulfillment, community. Life would be perfect.

She should have known it would end badly. Should have had an inkling anyway, the day the wife leapt across the kitchen with a yowl, snatching a costly wooden bowl out of her hands. Ms. X was slathering it with dish soap. A bowl so expensive that soap would defile it! Yes, she should have been tipped off, early on, when the wife complained bitterly about the Guru’s lazy habits, gesturing to the man in the distance reclining in an easy chair, puffing on a cigar. Ms. X only wanted to show her understanding of the matter when she pointed out that he also left a bloody knife and rooster carcass on the ground. The wife looked at her contemptuously, a look that was meant to forbid Ms. X from speaking of him in such a manner. Or the time when she proffered the spiritual question of a person’s birth circumstance, did they not choose their parents in some esoteric way? The wife, who had been shockingly abused as a small child and repeatedly into her teenage years, (no secret, as she openly discussed it as if it were a shamanic rite, a predisposed factor for her role as healer) replied with a curious coolness,

“I wouldn’t get all wigged out about it.”



Cult illustration #2, ball point pen on paper, 11" x 8.5"


© 2017 Lea Atiq, all rights reserved