Shibboleth

Issue 39 by Mekiya Walters

Shibboleth

I’d been hard at work eliminating redundancies in the latest antidepressant survey when my phone started buzzing, Zoë’s name on the screen. Laptop and binders all across the kitchen table, dirty dishes piling up, half-drunk bottle of cab on the counter, even though I don’t drink, not while I’m working, not usually. But this week wasn’t usually. The disappearances had me on edge, for one thing—at first just background noise, but then I heard a name on the radio, someone I used to know in grad school, and it had started seeming very real and very wrong. And as if the Rapture—what the talk show hosts were calling it, though none of them could explain why God was only taking people from the Research Triangle area—weren’t enough, the survey’s deadline had come and gone, and now pharmaceutical reps were calling the research center day and night; and I should have said to hell with it and sent in what I had on Friday, never mind the glaring structural problems, the nontransferable questions, the holes. That’s what my supervisor had told me. I’d shot back that that would make me lazy and ethically bankrupt, and then I’d gone home and started drinking.

Now it was Sunday, and the survey still wasn’t done, and Zoë’s name was lighting up my phone. Zoë who’d dropped off the face of the earth.

I pushed accept before I could stop myself and said, “Hello?”

“Hey,” she said, “Marian?”

And already I felt disappointed. Already I felt aggrieved. A greeting like that from someone with a lexicon like hers—inadequate after all these years, insulting, almost; but of course that was absurd. Honestly, what did I want her to say? Salutations? “Yes,” I said, and the word came out with that faint, hard curl to it, like bark peeling off a burning log, that you sometimes hear in the voice of someone whom you’ve wronged.

“How are you?” she asked.

I wouldn’t give her anything unless she offered something first. “I’m fine,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Good. I’m glad. It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, it has.”

I should maybe pause here to explain that there was a time, five or six years ago, when Zoë and I might as well have been conjoined twins. She’d majored in anthropology at UNC, me in sociology, and we’d had three or four classes together before I found out that she knew my name. We’d ended up rooming together senior year, and then again for the next three years of the Master’s program in applied linguistics that we’d done together. After we graduated, she’d moved out, gone to live with a boyfriend, and I had stayed and filled her room with books and exercise equipment that I didn’t use. Over three years had passed since then, and we hadn’t had a falling out, exactly, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten so much as a text on my birthday. All of which had left me feeling somewhat—I don’t like the word bereft. Let’s say unsettled.

“You know,” Zoë said, “I’ve been thinking about you.”

So maybe there’d been something in the air. Some song we both used to like on the radio, a subliminal cue. It worries me sometimes, how little our inner lives truly belong to us. But in this case, I had to admit, I found it gratifying, too.

“Where are you?” I asked. “Still in Chapel Hill?”

“No,” she said. “But not far. Actually, I’m exactly where I need to be.”

“What does that mean?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Zoë—”

“I’ve just been thinking,” she said. “Marian, do you remember that special topics seminar we took with Bergamot?”

I did, of course. But I suspected that what she meant was, Did I remember it the way she did? And the answer was surely no. I recalled the scent of asbestos, and the laconic whir of the radiator that used to switch itself on at unpredictable hours all year round, and the professor, one venerable Something Something Something Something Bergamot, who’d sat at the head of the table, his voice stentorian, his beard Dumbledorian, sipping home-brewed kombucha from mason jars that he brought from his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains and elaborating on the wondrous properties of the wedge and the schwa, the East African click consonants, the exotic Czech rhotic, and, of course, his beloved uvular fricatives. He’d taught himself French, rumor had it, just so he’d have an excuse to use them.

Zoë had talked me into taking the class—Phonology and Nationalism: A Historical Survey—and week after week, I and five other students had sat around the rectangular table, watching as she’d challenged Bergamot’s stance on uvular fricatives, insisting on the superiority of another speech sound. Mastery of the retroflex tap, she’d argued, offered far greater benefits, ranging from lingual dexterity all the way to psychic discipline. “There’s a reason,” she’d once declared triumphantly, “that Sanskrit speakers wrote the Upanishads and the Kama Sutra!”

That had been early in the semester, and giggles had gone round the table. None of our classmates had known then whether to take it as performance art or something more serious. I’d taken it as a little of both.

As the semester rolled on, with Zoë and Bergamot circling back time and again to the same debate, we’d all found our initial bemused indifference eroding, especially once Zoë brought up her childhood, hours spent in her father’s dusty, sunlit office at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, practicing speech sounds. For as long as she could remember, she’d known that she would go to college in the U.S., and for as long as she could remember, her greatest fear had been not fitting in. At seven, she’d started spending three or four hours a day watching American television, lip-syncing with the actors on screen, practicing her accent, memorizing slang. One day, while surfing the web on her father’s computer, she’d stumbled on an interactive IPA chart, and from then on she’d made it her mission to master not just every phoneme in American English, but all the other speech sounds, too.

“I knew I had to learn to fit in anywhere,” she’d told us, a captive audience by then. “Drop me in Cuba, drop me in Afghanistan, I’m gonna learn the language, the culture, how people think and live and love and die. Give me six months and you won’t know I wasn’t born there.”

At first she’d hit walls, unable to wring certain sounds from her tongue. But one day, she’d startled herself by producing a perfect retroflex tap. A key in a lock somewhere had clicked. Things had started seeming possible.

Her voice came breathy through the phone. “I was just thinking,” she said, “that seminar. There was something special about it. Being around like-minded people. It’s hard, you know, finding that kind of community.”

“I think it was like that more for you than me.”

“What do you mean?” She sounded almost indignant. “No, Marian. You were part of it, definitely! It wouldn’t have been the same without you. You kept me going.”

She used to drag me to parties and introduce me to strangers by grabbing my shoulders, pushing me forward, and announcing, “This is Marian and I couldn’t do it without her.” Even then, I’d known better than to take her at her word.

Then I remembered the name I’d heard on the radio. “Did you hear about Sadonna Summers?” I asked. “She went missing.” Sadonna had taken that seminar, too. She’d sat on Zoë’s right, across from me.

“Listen,” Zoë said, “I’ve been wanting to talk with you about something. Are you free?”

I glanced at the clock on my laptop—10:48 p.m. “I’ve got this thing,” I said. “This survey. It’s got to be done by morning.” The laptop’s screen had dimmed, and my brain, assuaged by wine, had, too, but walking away from it now seemed wrong.

“You’re agonizing over it, aren’t you,” Zoë said. A strain of something in her voice—affection? Or a sharper edge? “Let me guess,” she said. “You’re trying to get it just right. Every word. Because it’s got to be perfect, doesn’t it, Marian?”

I couldn’t help but bristle at this: Zoë, high queen of phonetic minutiae, mocking me. In my profession, linguistic precision matters. Those of us who take methodology seriously—and we’re the minority, unfortunately—aren’t the ones with something to be ashamed of. How many times had I seen colleagues cut corners, letting absolute and double-barreled questions slip through while I bloodied my own work? Yet even after all my labor, the survey remained Frankenstein. Reliability would have been a blessing at that point. Validity was out the window. They’d only let me test the new questions once, on one group of volunteers—nowhere near sufficient for calibration—and I’d flat-out refused to pull questions from equivalent surveys designed for northeastern urban populations, but I knew perfectly well that my work would go up the chain whether I liked it or not, and they would use the data as long as it said what they hoped it would say, and if it didn’t, they would run more surveys.

“Let’s say you get it right,” Zoë persisted. “You get all the questions worded perfectly. What then?”

“What do you mean, what then?” I demanded. “We’ve got more data, right? We—look, it’s not about one survey. It’s about—I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“There’s something I want to show you,” Zoë said.

“What is it?”

“I don’t want to get into it on the phone,” she said. “Some things have to be in person. Can you meet me?”

“Now?”

“Not tonight. Finish your survey. Get it out of your system. But can I count on you to meet me?”

You don’t have to keep promises you haven’t made, Zoë used to tell me. I still repeated that to myself sometimes when people at the office tried to guilt me for not taking on projects that no one else wanted, or when men answered radio silence with genital portraits and aggrieved indignation. I’d promised Zoë nothing, owed her nothing—less than nothing, really. If anything, I was owed.

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe we can get coffee sometime.”

“I’ll arrange it,” she said. “You just sit tight. And Marian—just wait. This is going to blow your fucking mind.”

“Huh?”

“Oh, and hey. Remember the Parsley Massacre.”

Then she hung up.

I left my glass in the kitchen, went into the bedroom, and lay on the bed. The undulating ceiling told me that I’d drunk more than I’d meant to. I knew I should get up and drink some water, but the kitchen seemed so far away. The survey wasn’t getting done.

The Parsley Massacre.

The way she’d said it let me know that this was information I ought to have stored, and the phrase did seem to ring a bell, but I couldn’t pinpoint where the ringing was coming from.

Had I ever mocked Zoë? Diminished her obsessions, the hefty emotional vectors she’d assigned to particular linguistic obscurities, as she’d just diminished mine? Not that I could recall. Maybe I should have. No one else was going to do it, after all. No one else would even begin to know how to call her on her bullshit. She’d always had a way of winding people round her fingers. But of course there were sides to her that others hadn’t seen, that I myself had only caught glimpses of. Like the shouting matches between her and certain male professors—never Bergamot, but others—after hours, behind closed doors, that I’d overheard when I’d stayed late compiling data sets in the computer lab. Like the rent that she sometimes simply hadn’t paid. I’d quietly covered her from my own pocket on more than one occasion. And then there’d been the time I’d walked in on her in the bathroom, slumped sideways on the edge of the tub with her head against the tiles, and for a few seconds we’d stared at each other, and then she’d said, in a hollow, very un-Zoë voice, “I don’t think anyone has ever loved me.”

I’d just come home from a long day of grading—I’d had a TA-ship by then—that had ended at the auto shop where, after forty minutes in the grubby waiting room, a mechanic had come out and told me I needed a new air filter, and I’d almost agreed to let him put one in—I’ve never been good at saying no—but at the last minute I’d asked myself, What would Zoë do?, and I’d told him no and gone straight to Walmart and picked one up for a third of what they would have charged, knowing somehow that Zoë would show me how to install it even though she’d never owned a car, and I don’t know why I would have carried the air filter into the bathroom, but I swear I remember still having the box in my hand. We’d stood like that for a few seconds, and then I’d dropped the box and crossed the bathroom, grabbed her and hugged her, and I’d wanted to say, I love you, but I hadn’t. I’d choked. And into that silence, where my words should have been, she’d said, “Except my dad.”

Her father who’d disappeared. Who’d been kidnapped, her family would learn, by the Boko Haram.

I wondered if Zoë had heard about the Rapture. Her brushing past my question about Sadonna Summers meant that probably she had. Maybe she knew other people who’d gone missing. She’d always had larger social circles than mine. Maybe she’d been following the news more closely than I had, or maybe she’d blocked it all out the way she blocked out things that might remind her of her father—or anything else, for that matter, that she didn’t want to discuss. Living with her had often felt like occupying a house with invisible furniture. I’d had to memorize the locations of certain topics and skirt them carefully, and if I ever brushed up against one by mistake, she’d punished me, giving me the silent treatment for days and then dropping little lies into casual conversations, like that we were out of cereal when there were three boxes on the counter, or that one of our mutual friends had started fronting a band when in fact she couldn’t sing, for no reason but to destabilize my reality the way I’d inadvertently destabilized hers. Sometimes the tripwires were so fine, the lines of cause and effect so blurred, that I couldn’t tell whether it was my missteps provoking her behavior or something else—like the time our friend David announced that he was starting a nonprofit, something about pro-bono speech therapy for kids in low-income schools, and the day before the first meeting, Zoë had come home and told me that it was cancelled, the whole thing had fallen through, but later I’d learned that the meeting had not been cancelled, that she’d attended it and several more, but by that time she and David had started dating—he was the one she moved in with, eventually—and I’d been too embarrassed to try and get involved.

But—no. Come to think of it, that had all come a few weeks after I’d tried to broach a subject that I’d known better than to broach—though usually the fallout came immediately, not a few weeks delayed. Maybe I’d resisted putting these pieces together before now. I must have, because the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became. Around that time, I’d begun to realize just how unhealthy our dynamic had become. I’d never really known how to talk about certain things—I was raised in a conservative household, used to silences surrounding matters of the body—but deep down, I’d always hoped that Zöe might break me out of that shell. It had finally begun to dawn on me that we’d strayed into deeply dysfunctional territory, that our friendship couldn’t limp along like this forever, and that Zöe had other people to turn to for intimacy, plenty of them, and I had none. And so I’d confronted her in the kitchen one morning, determined that she would at least acknowledge what had happened between us. Which was this: we’d come home late from a party a few nights before, both a little past tipsy, and instead of going to our rooms, we’d curled up on the sofa together. The television had been on, but we hadn’t been watching. Over an hour must have passed. The pace and rhythm of our breathing had become synchronized. And somehow—I say somehow because there’d been no lead-up whatsoever, no foreshadowing or flirtation: after all, we weren’t lesbians—but somehow, we’d started kissing.

We might have gone on kissing indefinitely, alcohol dragging time to a standstill, if Zöe hadn’t drawn back abruptly and demanded, “What the hell are you doing?”

For a few seconds, I’d felt as if we were skating over the surface of something, and then she’d spotted a hole in the ice and, with a good hard push, sent me careering toward it. What was I doing?

“Your tongue,” she’d said. “It’s like a dead fish or something. You’ve got to get that thing under control.”

“I—”

“Nope! Uh-uh. You’re not going around kissing people like that. Not on my watch. I know you’re drunk, but you’ve got to put a little effort in. Come on. Like this.”

She’d spent the next forty-five minutes tutoring me in a complicated series of lingual exercises that she’d personally choreographed and planned to market eventually—CDs, YouTube videos, the whole nine yards—and I’d floundered along, unable to keep up, though desperate to please. Finally, sometime after two a.m., she’d run out of patience, squirmed out of the depression we’d made in the cushions, and announced that her ass had gone to sleep and that it was time the rest of her did, too.

For a couple of days, she’d said nothing, and I’d said nothing, and we’d gone about our lives like that, denial curdling the air, silence building up inside me, building and building until I couldn’t stand it anymore and, a few mornings later, cornered her in the kitchen and assailed her with sentence fragments: “So, the other night,” and “You know, that thing that happened,” and “Is it?” and “Do you?” and “Those exercises, do you have, like—a sponsor? Or something?”

And she’d looked at me as if she couldn’t imagine what I might be talking about. “I’m about to be late for class, Hon,” she’d said. And then she’d slipped past me and out the door, leaving me alone in the kitchen, alone in a life that I’d assumed the two of us were sharing.

That must have been the beginning of the end.

I closed my eyes, and nausea crept over me, not quite strong enough to propel me to the toilet, but strong enough to make me feel even sorrier for myself than I already did. And then I slept, and I don’t remember dreaming.

I woke late the next morning. 10:37. Slivers of light came through the blinds and cut my eyes. My phone was blinking, full of voicemails. Where was the survey? I called the office, said I was sick. Promised I’d send it soon. Dragged myself out of bed. Took the blanket with me. Went to the kitchen. Opened the survey. No point in tinkering. I sent it, then sat at the table with a glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee, trying to get my heartbeat out of my temples.

In the shower, I decided I wasn’t sick after all. On my way to work, I had to squint against the light, even though the sky was gray. On the radio, they were talking about the Rapture. It had been going on for weeks now, but finally seemed to be winding down. No explanation, no word from anyone who’d gone missing, just fewer and fewer reports of disappearances. Someone called in, said it couldn’t be the Rapture, his neighbor had been missing since Tuesday and he was a good-for-nothing heathen. Ha. Ha.

I turned the radio off and stopped for more coffee, and as I waited in the Starbucks drive-through line, it came to me. The Parsley Massacre.

At the office, I did a Google search to make sure I had the details straight. Rafael Trujillo. Check. The Dominican Republic. Check. 1937. We’d covered it in Bergamot’s seminar.

Trujillo, who’d run the DR, sometimes as president, sometimes as puppeteer, from 1930 to 1961, had gotten wind of one too many Haitians crossing the border from the barren western end of Hispaniola to trade and sew crops in more fertile Dominican territory, and he’d decided that something must be done. But how to differentiate the populations? The Haitians were darker on the whole, but there were loyal, swarthy Dominicans, too. And so he’d turned to the Bible, to Chapter 12 of the Book of Judges, which told of the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, historical enemies. In one seminal battle, the Gileadites had routed the Ephraimites and sent them into retreat across the River Jordan, and some enterprising Gileadites had circled around the retreating forces, armed with spears and ears of grain, and sealed off all the bridges. “What is this?” they’d asked everyone who came across, holding up the ears. Travelers who answered “Shibboleth” proved themselves Gileadites and were allowed to pass. But the Ephraimites, whose language lacked the postalveolar fricative, sh, could only answer “Sibboleth.” They were thrown into the river, relieved of their hands.

And so Trujillo’s troops in the borderlands had gone from door to door. “Qué es este?” they’d asked, holding up sprigs of parsley. Dominicans knew the herb—a symbol of health and purity featured on their flag—as perejil. But when the Haitians, raised on strict diets of uvular fricatives, attempted to answer, their rs scurried to the backs of their throats, and they were thus betrayed.

I sat back in my office chair and mulled things over, but this new information did not, as far as I could tell, illuminate any hidden schema. I tried working my way back through the conversation with Zoë, but it felt like staring at a set of promising Scrabble tiles, unable to triangulate a seven-letter word no matter how I rearranged the pieces.

I reviewed the methodology used by a partner company to collect data linking toothpaste to cancer and deemed it inconclusive. Mocked up a scatterplot. Returned phone calls. Whenever a client didn’t pick up, I imagined that they’d gone missing. I penciled their names on a yellow pad and scratched them out again when the calls came in. I did web searches. Nothing new. I found a list of names, everyone who’d disappeared, and there was Sadonna Summers. I scrolled down and spotted another name I recognized: Cody Simmons. I’d known him in undergrad. Had Zöe? I tried to remember. I couldn’t recall ever seeing them together or hearing her mention him, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as they say. I could feel my heart kicking into high gear as I scrolled, my nose too close to the screen. And yes, there, another name I knew: Bailey St. Claire, who’d worked at the rec center, whose nametag I always used to stare at when I went to swim laps, admiring her name for its elegance.

Was everyone on the list affiliated with the university? Further digging revealed that most were, but not all. There was a physician who’d gone to school in California but practiced in Cary. And a librarian from the public library. And a plumber. So maybe not the university—maybe they had something else in common. Maybe Zöe herself was the central node. She must have a doctor, after all, and surely she went to the public library once in a while. But I couldn’t imagine her calling a plumber. If she had a burst pipe, she would teach herself to fix it.

Maybe I was seeing patterns where none existed. Maybe this was just what happened when you lived in a college town.

I thought of all the people without appetites, all the people checking the news compulsively, crying in showers and putting on brave faces while they toweled off, taking turns not letting down whomever remained in the house, not letting on how frightened they were. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in Chapel Hill, I thought. Then I remembered it wasn’t supposed to happen at all.

I left work early, drove home through office parks and endless ticky-tacky condos. My house, red brick fronted by laurels, sat on a residential corner on a hillside, all maples and cherry trees. I parked on the sloping curb with the parking brake on, left my briefcase with my laptop and files in the passenger seat, had to double back to retrieve them. When I unlocked the front door, something caught my eye, white on the threshold. A corner. An envelope, slipped under the door, bent by the welcome mat. I crouched to retrieve it. Anthrax? Don’t mind if I do.

I fingered it open. Read the three lines twice. An address. Heard her voice in my head again: You just sit tight. I’ll arrange everything.

Now my heart was really thumping.

I switched stations on the radio as I drove, not knowing what I was looking for. Music? All I could find were conservative talk shows. Then liberal talk shows. Then NPR. I skipped channels that were talking about the Rapture. I couldn’t handle it. For the first time, I thought I knew what it must have felt like for Zöe when her father went missing and there was nothing she could do, nothing anyone could do, not even grieve, because these things happen, apparently, and if it’s inevitable, is it even worth getting upset over?

But of course I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine.

I turned the radio off.

The GPS put me on Interstate 40 heading west. The landscape stayed flat for a while and then began to bunch on both sides, hillocks undulating as the road wound through blown-out rock facades flanked by trees that shimmered with the ghostly nests of caterpillars. My ears popped. The day announced its departure with a mediocre sunset, a few splotchy clouds shot through with lavender and salmon. Then dusk, the jagged, silhouetted tree line sawing at the sky’s pallid underbelly.

Off the interstate, onto narrow, curving roads. Farms every few miles, here and there a handful of cows. With every passing minute, signs of civilization dwindled. At first, the sharp curves in the road made me nervous, looming abruptly in the headlights, but as the evening rolled on, I gained confidence, put more trust in the accelerator. When I hit a long, straight stretch, I floored it, pushed the Camry up a hill, let it hurtle down into the trough, and had to pump the breaks hard when the GPS announced that my turn was fast approaching, nearly fishtailing as I yanked on the wheel. I gripped it hard, adrenaline coursing, and carried on down an unpaved road, high grass and wooden fencing pressing in on both sides. In my gut churned the first hints of nausea. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d entered a leafy tunnel between my world and some other, more sinister dimension, and that something was waiting for me at its end. Not even enough room to make a three-point turn.

And then the landscape opened out again, and before me stood a barn looking jagged and haunted and about to fall down. Hay bails littered the flattened land on either side. I had arrived.

At first I didn’t see the figures in the road, not until my headlights panned across them, and for a few seconds I thought they were scarecrows, a trio of effigies arranged before the barn’s tall doors. Then I saw that they had legs beneath their rippling black cloaks, and feet, and that raised hoods obscured their faces.

I eased off the accelerator and let the car coast to a halt a good fifty yards from the barn. Somehow I’d driven out of reality and into a horror film—not even the opening scene, but the middle where the tension’s mounting and the audience is whispering no, no, no, no, turn around, go back. I could still make a U-turn, I told myself, could still yield to the panic rising up behind my sternum and watch this eerie scene recede in the rearview, taillights painting the figures crimson until the night closed around them. I could still return to my comfortable home on my suburban street, and do my work, and get my bills, and pay them.

One of the figures stepped forward, raised its left hand, and beckoned.

I swallowed hard. The envelope with the address in it sprouted from the cupholder. It was from Zoë, it had to be, and it had brought me here. Unless it wasn’t from Zoë—but if it wasn’t from Zoë, then who could it be from? And what reason could they have had to think I might actually come to the address? Her hand had to be in this somewhere. Anything else seemed statistically implausible.

I wouldn’t get out of the car, I decided. I would roll down the window, but I wouldn’t get out of the car. The air was cold. I wished I’d brought a jacket, something heavier than my blouse and loose-knit cardigan. Also pepper spray, or a Taser, or a gun. The only weapon-like thing on hand was the ice scraper in the pouch on the driver’s door—not really heavy enough, but it had corners and would do damaged if gouged into a throat or an eye socket. I reached for it, chin still raised above the steering wheel so that I wouldn’t come up and find a hooded figure looming at the window and groped around until I got ahold of it.

The figure in front, realizing, probably, that I wasn’t going to get out of the car, approached the car. The other two followed, maintaining formation. My grip on the ice scraper tightened. I felt for the gearshift, eased the car into reverse, my foot still on the brake. The figure in front came close to the window, and panicky laughter threatened to come racing up my throat—as if I were at a drive-through, as if he were taking my order. A stranger, an elderly man with a graying mustache and a receding hairline.

“Hello, Marian,” he said.

“Hi,” I said. I nearly giggled.

He reached into the fold of his cloak.

I flinched.

He brought something out and asked, “Can you tell me what this is?”

I looked at the thing in his hand, and at first it didn’t make sense. It was a grass blade. Just that. Pale yellow, gone to seed. I wanted to say something childish, wanted to point at his hand and laugh.

Then I understood. Making sure to emphasize the sh, I said, “Shibboleth.”

The man nodded. With dignity, he slid the ear of grain back into his cloak and retreated.

The one on his left came forward—a young woman in her mid-twenties, maybe, wisps of blond hair fluttering under the black hood—and held up a sprig of something green. “And can you tell me what this is?”

“Perejil,” I said. Spanish has never been my strong suit, but I managed to roll the r to satisfaction.

She nodded and withdrew.

The third figure came forward, and for an instant I felt sure that this was going to be Zöe, but when she got close to the window, I saw instead a middle-aged white woman with a lined face and horn-rimmed glasses on a chain. No one I knew.

“We would like to extend an invitation to you, Marian,” she said. “We have it on good authority that we can trust you. We’d like you to come with us. This is a very special offer we’re extending, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One that very few others have had.”

I don’t like being sold to. Words congregated in my esophagus, all jostling and refusing to let one another through.

“However,” she added, “there are two conditions. You must let us drive. And you must agree to wear a blindfold.”

“Nope,” I said, shaking my head hard. “No blindfolds. No, thank you. No.”

The woman pursed her lips—the spitting image of a disapproving librarian, I thought. But one in executioner’s garb. “You’ve come quite a long way already,” she said. “After all this, you’re not just going to turn around and go home, are you?”

“I’ll follow you,” I said, “but I’m not wearing a blindfold. And I’m not getting out of the car.”

The other two glanced at each other, caught off guard by my resistance, evidently—which struck me as rather presumptuous.

“We have very specific orders,” the librarian said. “You’re to come with us, and on our terms. We don’t reveal our final destination, not to anyone.”

I didn’t like the sound of final destination.

“Zöe put you up to this, didn’t she?” I said. “How come she’s not here? Is she here?” I glanced toward the barn, half expecting a quick movement, someone ducking back into the shadows. Nothing. “I want to talk to her,” I said. “Put me on the phone with her, at least.”

The way they were looking at each other, totally nonplussed, sent a fresh bolt of uncertainty through me. Maybe Zöe wasn’t behind this. Maybe they didn’t know who I was talking about—but that made no sense—but making sense makes a good deal more sense when your survival isn’t on the line. I couldn’t afford to take my time and reason my way through all the clues, not if these people weren’t who I’d thought they were; I had to get the hell out of there.

“You’re going to come with us,” the librarian declared.

I slammed my foot on the accelerator. The engine revved, but I hadn’t put it in reverse. I fumbled for the gear shift, the parking brake.

“Wait!” The librarian reached for something. My hand on the parking brake. Hers coming from under her robe, plunging into my car, which lurched backward, tail swinging out, the smell slamming into my brain, chemical, pungent, and then darkness, and I was falling—

Softness. Darkness. A bed. A room. A wall, and through the wall—I couldn’t understand the sound coming through. Rhythmic, relentless, swelling and rolling like bullfrogs, like didgeridoos.

A touch on my shoulder. I jerked. Pain in my neck. Pain in my head. Worse than a hangover.

“Shh,” she murmured.

Zöe.

She sat on a chair by the bed, hair relaxed and partly bunned, backlit by the dirty yellow gleam of a table lamp turned down low. “You’re okay,” she said, a hand on my arm.

“Zöe.” The room sloshed around me. I had to sink back into the pillows to waylay the nausea. “Where are we?” I asked.

“A safe place.”

I squinted at the wallpaper, columns of tiny gold flowers on a background of cream. An odor that I couldn’t place tickled my nostrils, faint but pungent. The figures. The librarian. The skull-ache that she’d pressed to my nostrils. My car swerving backward. And here was Zöe, Zöe was here, but that could only mean—

“They got you, too,” I said.

“What?” she said. “They? No.”

Directly opposite the bed, a huge framed painting of a man in lotus position with psychedelic tufts of color sprouting from his hair. Looking at it made my head throb.

“What is this place?” I croaked. “Who are they?”

“Let’s get you something to drink,” Zöe said. Patronizing as hell—as always—as if talking to a child. She rose, patting the bed, and headed for the door. The noise grew louder as it opened and muted again when it closed. I tried to sit up, but collapsed back against the headboard, pummeled by the acrid taste in my mouth and the pain in my temples. I knew the smell now: the tart yet musty bite of vinegar. Two more doors opened off the room—a bathroom and a closet, I guessed. Not promising. Blunt objects? An alarm clock on the nightstand. Nearly half past five. It had been after eight when I’d arrived at the barn. The clock looked heavy enough to do damage if used as a bludgeon, and I could hide it under the bedclothes if I had to. I lunged across the bed and seized the clock, but of course it was still plugged in. The cord snapped taut as I yanked, overturning the table lamp.

“Marian,” Zöe said, “what are you doing?”

I rolled back over and lay gasping like a fish out of water. Zöe came around the bed, pushed a glass of orange juice into my hand, and crouched to rescue the lamp.

“I was trying to see what time it was,” I said limply. “Where’s my phone? And my ice scraper. Where’s my ice scraper?”

She looked at me as if trying to remember everything she’d ever read about concussions.

“My car,” I said. “Where’s my car?”

“You drove it into a ditch,” she said. “They had to leave it. Jim says he can get it out with his truck later, once he finds some cable. You hit a tree, so the back’s pretty banged up, but it’s not totaled.”

“Jim?” I asked. And, “How did I get here?”

“He drove you.”

Jim—the old man with the ear of grain. But then he wasn’t them after all—or Zöe wasn’t us. I looked at her, said her name, as if to cleanse the other flavors from my mouth, tried to work out how long it had been since I’d seen her, but my thoughts felt thick and clotted. I couldn’t count, couldn’t translate time into numbers. “You put the address under my door,” I said. “Didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said. “Well, not me personally. One of my associates.”

“But why? Why the barn—”

“I didn’t know if you’d come alone,” she said. “We can’t have word getting out, not yet. We figured this way we could head off any unwanted company. That’s why they brought the ether, just in case. They were never planning to use it on you. Marian, you always make things more complicated than they need to be.”

“I make things more complicated than they need to be?” I struggled to sit up straighter against the pillows. “What about your fucking Blair Witch welcoming committee?”

“We can’t be too careful,” Zoë said. “And I can’t stress enough how exclusive that invitation was. This, Marian, is what I want to show you. Can you sit up?”

I could, with her help. The bed was surprisingly deep. I worked my knees around until I got my feet on the floor and maneuvered myself into a seated position. The orange juice in my hand felt cold. I wanted to drink it, but I no longer knew how I felt about ingesting anything Zöe had given me. I closed my eyes and bent forward, set the glass on the floor and put my head between my knees, and when the dizziness passed, with Zöe’s help, I stood.

Gray light hit me when the door opened. The volume rose. I stood on the threshold of a spacious room, one wall taken up by a sliding glass door looking out on a deck and a backdrop of blue-tinted mountains. People sat around a large, circular rug, cross-legged, twenty or so, all dressed normally enough, jeans and button-downs and polos; but their arms were outstretched; they held each others’ hands; their eyes were closed, and they were chanting, chins tipped upward, faces radiating bliss, as if I’d caught them mid-séance, as if they’d set their hearts on levitation. I couldn’t see everyone’s faces, some had their backs to me: but, yes, there was Sadonna Summers; and there was Bailey St. Claire; and David, sitting next to the librarian who’d put me under, who no longer wore her robe, just a long floral skirt folded over her knees.

“Zöe,” I heard myself saying, “seriously, what the hell is this?”

The last syllables of the chant died, and my words fell into the silence, pulled twenty heads in my direction, twenty faces hesitating for a half-beat, then lighting up like plugged-in Christmas lights.

“Marian!” Sadonna shouted—several octaves more excited than she should have been, I thought. We’d barely known each other. “Welcome!”

A chorus of voices echoed: “Welcome.”

“Marian,” Zöe said, holding out a hand as if introducing me to Scott from the IT department, “I’d like you to meet the Order of Babylon.”

I said, “You’ve started a cult?”

“Not a cult,” Zöe said. “It’s a movement.”

My knees felt like water. I groped for the doorframe.

“Marian,” the librarian said, reaching out to pat the nearest part of me, which happened to be my left ankle, “I just want you to know, we’re really sorry about the ether. We—”

I jerked my foot away. “Don’t touch me!”

“We just had to improvise.”

“Who the hell are you?” I demanded. “Zöe, who the hell are all these people?”

“Visionaries,” Zöe said. “Activists. Dreamers.”

“No,” I said. “No, I mean—I mean—who are these people?” I’d backed into the corner without hardly realizing it, hugging myself for protection. “How did you get these people—”

“Marian, are you okay?”

“No!” I shouted, because if I didn’t shout, I was afraid that I was going to cry, “I’m not okay!”

Zöe reached for me. I smacked her hand away, tried to backhand her in the stomach, but she caught my arm. “Marian,” she said, “Marian, hon, calm down. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay.”

“Why don’t I get her some water?” David said, starting up from the circle.

“Did she drug you all, too?” I demanded. Blank faces. “So, what,” I pressed, “it was just me? Am I the fucking guest of honor or something?”

But no—clearly I was not the guest of honor. I was the last to arrive—last in line behind the librarian, the plumber, the rec center receptionist. An afterthought. I knew it was absurd, a ridiculous, self-indulgent twist to my anger, but I couldn’t help it. She’d brought all these people here—acquaintances, strangers—and only after weeks had she bothered to reach out to me.

“Don’t worry about it, David,” Zöe said. “I’ll take care of her. You guys just do your thing. Marian, let’s go in the kitchen. I’ll get you some coffee—”

“I don’t want coffee.” I did want coffee.

“All right. But let’s go to the kitchen.”

“I’m not a child,” I hissed, hunched forward, hands on my knees. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child.”

“Fine. Put your big girl panties on and stand the fuck up, then.”

I’d nearly forgotten that I stood an inch taller than Zoë. I straightened, looked down on her, fixed her with my most contemptuous glare. “I want to watch you make the coffee,” I said, “so I know you’re not roofying me.”

Everyone in the circle settled back down, took each other’s hands.

“Come on,” Zöe said, a hand extended. I refused to take it, brushed Jim roughly as I passed and didn’t say excuse me, followed Zoë round the edge of the circle toward a door. In the kitchen, the vinegar smell was even stronger. Zöe set about spooning grounds into a French press, and my resolve to peer vulture-like over her shoulder, so urgent mere seconds before, deserted me. I sank into a chair and watched her, half-hypnotized by the motion of her shoulder blades. On the other side of the door, the chanting had started up again, even spacing between consonants and vowels, the same long a sound repeating, the odd mixture of familiar sounds and foreign ones—and then they launched into the clicks, a weird, cacophonous chattering, like rain on the roof, like someone dancing on bubble-wrap, like beat-boxing crickets, and I knew.

“The IPA,” I said.

Zöe came to the table with a mug in each hand. “I was wondering how long it would take you.”

“Zöe,” I said, “you’ve got to tell me, what the hell is this place? These people? Why—”

“This used to be Bergamot’s summer home,” she said. “I was renting it when he died, and I guess he didn’t have any next of kin to leave it to. I ended up with the deed to the property.” She sat catty-corner to me. “We’ve scaled up his kombucha operation since then, and we’re working on putting up greenhouses, solar panels. In a couple of years, this whole place is going to be sustainable. As for the mantra, think of it as inoculation.”

“Inoculation?”

“Against the shibboleth.”

I shook my head. I didn’t understand.

“You know the story of Babel, right?” she said.

I did, of course. But of course I didn’t know it the way Zöe was going to tell it; and anyway, I’d only prepared for questions about the Parsley Massacre. The study guide she’d given me was defective.

“They say God tore the tower down and split the people into tribes to punish them,” she said. “And they’re not wrong. But that’s not the whole story. It wasn’t just a punishment. It was a test. A challenge.”

Only Zöe could do this. I didn’t want to sit and listen to another bullshit story. If I had to be there at all, then I wanted Zöe to own up to everything, to apologize and make amends for the very wrong thing that had been done to me—the series of very wrong things—but somehow none of that mattered. I listened.

“I’ve heard they’re calling this the Rapture,” she said. “They have no idea. This isn’t the Rapture. This is only preparation. We’ve had thousands of years to put the pieces back together, but we’re only just starting to recognize the puzzle for what it is. When God comes back, Marian, what language do you think He’s going to be speaking?”

I opened my mouth.

“English?” she said. “Swahili? French? You think He’s going to choose one?”

I said nothing.

“No,” she said. “He’s not going to choose. He’s going to be speaking the Original Tongue.”

“Zöe,” I managed, “Zöe, you’re talking like you actually believe this is going to happen. Do you—” I stopped. The question was too sprawling, too unruly for words. And it was not a question that I should have had to ask, not of the woman I’d lived with for nearly six years; but then, there’d always been other Zöes: the Zöe who’d slumped on the edge of the tub, whose voice had rung hollow; the Zöe whose father had gone missing—her fault; the Zöe who’d kissed me. Doors that she’d kept bolted, rooms of her I’d never seen, and I’d always walked past them, deliberately oblivious to whatever might lie on the other side, because—but here things started breaking down, the line between my needs and hers.

“Let me ask you something, Marian,” she said. “Do you think our species can afford to keep on going like we have been for the last thousand years? Because I don’t. Not with nuclear weapons, not with overpopulation and climate change. We’ve got to beat this clock together. And that means we need a language that everyone can use, a language anyone in the world can learn without losing any of the nuance and wisdom and beauty of their own, because it’s all in there somewhere.”

I had no language to oppose her. I was dumb.

“Let me put it another way, Marian,” she said. “What do you believe in?”

What flustered me most, I think, is that Zöe doesn’t ask questions like that unless she already knows the answers, and yet in that moment, I myself had no idea what the answer might be. It’s one thing to be entirely in someone’s power, but quite another to realize that they know things about your inner life that have utterly stumped you.

“What do you believe in?” she pressed. “Do you believe in big data sets? How about the companies buying the data sets? How about surveys, Marian? Do you believe in those?”

“That’s not the same” was what I meant to say, but instead I said, “That’s not fair.”

“Nothing’s fair,” Zöe said. “Nothing’s ever fair. And maybe we can’t fix everything, but we have a chance to make things a little better. Maybe we start small, ten people, twenty, but once God gets involved, the message’ll spread like wildfire. We’ve got a chance to get people all over the world working together, thinking together, thinking about God in a way that’s gonna help instead of hurt us in the long run—”

“Those people,” I said, nodding toward the living room door, “whatever you told them to get them to come here—do you believe it?” A crack in my voice, a fissure.

“That’s the wrong question,” Zöe said.

“I want to know if they believe what you told them.”

“Everyone needs something,” Zöe said.

I think my face said more than any words I could have marshaled then.

“I get that you think this is crazy,” she said, “but from where I’m sitting, Marian, your life, your whole outlook, that’s what’s crazy. You know your work’s bullshit, but you still give a hundred and ten percent and burn yourself out following rules that no one else gives a shit about, and you know better, Marian, you fucking know better, but you just keep running in your fucking wheel, and you never even stop to ask yourself if any of it’s beautiful.”

“Is that why I’m just now hearing from you?” I asked. “I’m too basic for you? Is that it? I’m not radical enough to be on your team?”

Her face changed. I couldn’t say exactly how, couldn’t read it, but it changed. “Marian,” she said, “I wanted to make sure this was going to work before I got you involved. I didn’t want to bring you into something only to have it collapse on both of us. You mean more to me than that. Your time means more to me than that. You know that, don’t you?”

“You disappeared. You ghosted.”

“I wasn’t in a good place,” she said. “You know that better than anyone. But I promise, it wasn’t about you. I was stuck. Trapped. I couldn’t see anything but dead ends. Sometimes you’ve got to cut yourself off from everything you know before things start to open up.”

“Thanks, fortune cookie.”

“And this,” she went on, “do you think I could have done any of this four years ago, in the place I was in then?”

“I still have no idea what this is,” I said.

“It’s a better world in the making,” Zöe said. “And—Marian, I’ve really missed you.”

“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t do that. Don’t kidnap me and drug me and then tell me you missed me. That’s some grade-A stalker bullshit right there.”

Her lips twitched—a smile, maybe? “I guess I won’t do the whole asking-for-forgiveness thing, then.”

The dryness had worked its way down from my mouth to my throat and up, it seemed, into my brain. I pushed my mug toward Zöe. “You drink first.”

She half-rolled her eyes but raised it to her lips and sipped. I knew she hadn’t put anything in it, but I had to make a point of it anyway.

“What if I don’t want to stay?” I asked.

“Then go.” She said it a little too quickly, but then weight seemed to gather around her eyes, like dark matter, like sadness, and I knew that in spite of herself, she meant it.

“How?” I asked.

“We’ll go get your car,” she said. “Jim’ll get it out of the ditch. Marian, I’m not going to make you stay here against your will. Seriously, I just wanted you to see.”

All those times she’d introduced me—“This is Marian and I couldn’t do it without her”—all those times it had come out so light, so breezy, and I’d had no trouble dismissing it as a figure of speech, then, a sweet little lie.

I didn’t know what to say.

She put a hand on mine. Fresh-from-the-dryer warm. I didn’t pull away.

“I don’t want you to go,” she said. “I want you to stay. I want you to be part of this. But it’s up to you.” She patted my hand.

“Zöe,” I said, “this really isn’t normal.”

“I know,” she said. “Normal was never the goal.”

“I just don’t think I can stay.”

“Okay,” she said. She seemed to hesitate, as if trying to decide whether to gather herself for a final sales pitch, but then she stood and said, “Come on. Let’s go get your car.”

I sat in the passenger seat and Zöe rode in the middle, one of her sit bones digging into my thigh, while Jim drove his galumphing gray truck down the mountain. We passed more cars along the driveway: a red Dodge pickup, a silver Nissan, Subarus in orange and green, a black Toyota. In the side mirror, a band of sunlight glinted off the sliding glass doors behind which sat a circle of chanting devotees, bringing water to my eyes.

A cedar had shattered the Camry’s left taillight and knocked loose the bumper, but Zöe was right: it was drivable. I stood by while she and Jim hitched chains to the bumpers, and then she got in the Camry and started the engine while he put the truck in gear. For a few seconds, tires churned. Then the Camry came surging up from the ditch, and Zöe had to throw the breaks on to keep from rear-ending the pickup.

“There you go,” she said, getting out and leaving the driver’s door open. “Looks like you’re almost out of gas. There’s a station not too far down-mountain, just before you get back on the interstate. You should make it till then.”

I nodded. Drenched with sun, draped with garlands of birdsong. The whole scene felt wrong.

“Marian,” Zöe said, “we’ve worked our asses off to keep this place on the down-low. You’ve seen for yourself, we’re not doing anything wrong, but if it goes public in the wrong way—people have seen too many Jonestown documentaries. And I don’t know if we’re strong enough to weather that storm just yet. Please, don’t tell anyone.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

Jim watched from the truck, an arm on the rolled-down window.

I hugged Zoë. She wore black, and the sun had warmed the fabric. She felt alive in my embrace, and bony, and more fragile than I’d expected or remembered, and she didn’t pull away. For several long, excruciating seconds, I didn’t either.

In the car, I pulled up the GPS, plugged in the phone jack. I couldn’t look at Jim or Zoë as I executed a three-point turn, aware of the lopsided, trailing bumper. I wanted to close my eyes, block out the sun and whatever was careening through me, but of course I couldn’t do that. Not while operating a motor vehicle, not responsibly.

At the gas station, I filled my tank, faintly nauseated by the smell of glugging fuel. Visible through a gap in the trees, a blue-gray miasma coating sensuous hills. I stood with a hand on the cold steel nozzle, arrested by the middle distance. Did I have an obligation to break my word? Go to the authorities, let them know the missing persons’ whereabouts? Certainly I had to think about their families. Maybe I could reach out to them somehow, anonymously, to let them know that their loved ones were safe, that they’d disappeared of their own volition. But that would only raise more questions. That would be worse.

If I did what was right, if I did turn them in, would there be any chance of salvaging my friendship with Zöe? Even now, it felt tenuous, threadbare—but still there.

But who was I to say what was right and what was wrong? They were adults, after all. They’d made their choices.

I still had to make mine.

I could go to a therapist, purchase an hour, two, and secrecy. Or I could break my word, talk to a coworker and incur an incredulous stare. I could even stop by Pet Smart on the way home, buy a comrade to confide in. A goldfish.

My options were limited.

Did anyone in the world love me?

I returned the nozzle to the pump, got back behind the wheel. Dust and bird shit on the windshield. I squeezed the handle to release a jet of cleaner, switched on the wipers, but they only smeared the glass with a layer of sludge. I didn’t feel like getting out to clean it. Exhausted, drained. I leaned my forehead on the wheel.

If I could only figure out which was the path of least resistance, I would take it.

I’ll arrange everything, Zöe had said. You just sit tight.

At some point—I didn’t know precisely when—but at some point, I’d made myself forget how it felt to be hugged by Zoë: how warm she could be, how all-encompassing. And I’d made myself forget, too—and before that ignore—the possibility that had always been there: that she’d been telling the truth all along about needing me. What did it say about me that I wouldn’t believe—that I couldn’t believe—that she was being honest, that I might loom as large in her life as she always had in mine? And if I did, and if she cared that much, and if she’d waited, tried to make things perfect for me—what then? I’d always been the one trying to make things perfect, and she’d always been the one not sweating because she didn’t have to. But maybe there’d always been another always under that one.

Who was I to think that I was smart enough to know?

I left the gas station, the question that I used to ask myself so often, that barely even broke the surface of consciousness these days, thrumming loudly through my brain: what would Zoë do? A mantra, mine. But I couldn’t use it anymore, not to point the way. An image from nowhere: an old captain running his thumb along a busted compass.

I turned off the GPS before it could tell me to proceed to the route. I drove back up the mountain.

About the Author

Mekiya Walters

Mekiya Walters is a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas’s MFA program in fiction and lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His short fiction is forthcoming in Chautauqua Literary Magazine and Sunspot Literary Journal.