A vow of silence was the defining characteristic of the group known as The Silent Solstice, and compliance was strictly enforced among the members Jack was sitting in a leather chair that squeaked noticeably as he braced himself by the armrests and looked around the room, which had once been the Abbot’s office, high up on the fourth floor of the former monastery. The space was now the inner sanctum of the Mother Superior of The Silent Solstice. Jack could still see the outline where a crucifix had once hung on the sunlight-bleached wall. The desk in front of him was cluttered with papers and featured a telephone with a greasy handset to the side. These features contrasted with the organization Jack had become accustomed to during his time with the cult.
Jack, an investigative journalist on an undercover assignment, knew the room was bugged like a KGB agent’s wet dream, as audio surveillance was the cult’s primary modus operandi for keeping its members quiet. He turned and looked at Jill in the seat next to him. Within minutes the Mother Superior would arrive and they would be called to task for their scheming. Jack suspected his punishment for infiltrating the group would merely be expulsion; too many questions would be asked if he disappeared. He’d explicitly told his editor to attempt no contact, but to send a search party if he hadn’t returned in three months. He’d been in the compound in the mountains for 87 days.
Jill, on the other hand, he wasn’t so sure about. The cult elders were all armed, and he had seen abuses firsthand, but uncovered no evidence of actual murder. There were five rather questionable deaths associated with the group, in which people had been stomped to death by horses, but this was explained to the press as inexperienced horse-handlers overstating their skills in an attempt to curry favor by being useful. In the statement they issued they said that while they weren’t glad the deaths had happened, they served as important reminders of how pride goeth before the fall.
However, Jack had come to believe that certain members of the group, primarily the ones deemed at risk of leaving, were being bussed offsite to a location south of the border, never to be heard from again. He feared that Jill would meet such a fate. Having discovered few answers, Jack had underestimated how difficult it would be to conduct an investigation while unable to ask questions.
He had also underestimated how comprehensive the security systems in place would be. Every square foot of the compound was under watch by powerful microphones tuned to detect the frequencies of the human voice. The dogma of the group dictated that only by being silent can one hear the voice of god, which is Nature. Furthermore, they believed that only those who adopted a doctrine of silence would hear the coming of Leviathan, which they believed was the personification of Nature’s wrath, who would arrive during a time of great environmental upheaval.
The group factored elements of mainstream religions into their practices, which Jack believed were deliberately placed in the dogma as a foothold of familiarity into the minds of the people they preyed on. They dressed in all white, and upon arriving at the compound from downtown Utica, on a bus with blacked out windows and screens in the seat-backs (playing a looping video about what they should expect, depicting happy people planting in the fields, eating apples, and riding horses), Jack had been relieved of his garments and given “raiments,” that consisted of an undershirt, hoodie, pocketless sweatpants, socks, and cheap sneakers, all bleached and blazing white. His own clothes would be sent to the thrift shop run by the cult, which was one the group’s revenue streams.
An attendant had written “Jack” on each article of clothing, including across the breast of his hoodie. It was not uncommon to see groups of The Silent Solstice downtown, festooned with white phylacteries strapped over their snow-white clothes. Upon deciding to infiltrate the group, whose controversial presence had upset a small upstate town, Jack had dressed shabbily, put one of his fake IDs in his pocket, and wandered until he had found such a gathering.
Ambassadors of the cult are allowed to speak, and a beautiful, young woman had asked him if he felt lost. He nodded, because, truth be told, he did. A year prior, he had infiltrated a group of militant animal rights activists, expecting to expose a dangerous new front of domestic terrorism. Instead, he’d been shown evidence that he was part of a system that benefitted from wholesale cruelty on an unimaginable scale. As a progressively minded person, he had considered himself to be opposed to all forms of violence, and to realize he was the violence had set off a bit of an identity crisis.
He felt both radicalized and hopeless. Regardless, he had abandoned the story, too fearful to risk the movement, which he had come to admire, getting negative attention. He had ghosted his new friends, whom he regarded as heroes, ashamed at the thought they might discover his “Ten Best Bacons Made in New York” article that, to this day, was the most successful piece he’d ever written. Six months into a new vegan diet that consisted mostly of whiskey, he decided to pull himself together and investigate The Silent Solstice.
As Jack looked over at Jill, sitting next to him in the Abbot’s office, he gave her a significant look, part of the complex code of nonverbal communication that had developed. He dipped his head and gazed at her inquisitively as he raised his eyebrows, conveying “Are you okay?” with a glance. She blinked once, the sign for “yes,” and he heaved a sigh of relief. Their plan was to “deny, deny, deny,” and he believed it would work. He then effected a look of fear on his face, and raised his eyebrows, asking “Are you afraid?” She blinked twice, indicating “no.”
He had detected a deep empathy in Jill the day they’d met, while planting apple seeds in the far reaches of the orchard. Nearby, on light poles set into the dirt, were arrays of microphones. At the time, Jack had been there a week and had not spoken a word, discounting the ten minutes of chanting in tongues they had done during one of the mandatory church services. The code of silence seemed extremely important to these people, and he had resigned himself to observing it at all cost.
Jill had bumped into him twice, as they hoed away at the dirt. The first he had taken for his own clumsiness, but he caught a wry grin as they made eye contact after the second time their hips collided. An hour later she got close again and scratched the word “BEES” into the dirt with her hoe. He met her at sunset by the apiary, emboldened by the fact that it would take some time for the tired work crews to make their way to the cafeteria.
He found Jill between two of the tall, white boxes set in rows, each containing a hive that generated honey that the cult sold, while simultaneously housing swarms that pollinated the apple trees. Above them were wires, from which dangled microphones. Only a week into his stay with the cult, Jack had been made well aware of how recordings of those who transgressed their vows of silence would be played each day as an act of public shaming, and so the shunning, or worse, would begin.
Jill handed Jack a beekeeper’s hood and tucked her hands into the sleeves of her hoodie. As soon as it seemed they were as protected as they could get, she kicked several of the wooden boxes hard, agitating the bees inside until they buzzed cacophonously. Leaning in, her lips close to his ear, Jill explained to Jack that she’d come to the compound a year earlier with her younger sister, who hadn’t fit in. Some months ago her sister had disappeared and she needed his help to escape. She told Jack that she could tell he didn’t belong here, and seemed both relieved and disappointed when he revealed that he was a journalist, not the police.
Since then, they had only ever spoken at the hives, though that did not come without a price. One time Jack got stung ten times, and stifling his screeches, which might have been detected even over the bees, had proven difficult. Still, he looked forward to their meetings. He had come to believe that if he could save her, he might be able to bring down the whole organization, or at least assuage some of the lingering guilt he felt from his last assignment.
Jack craned his neck and looked past the mark of the crucifix until he could see the clock set above the door behind them. The ticking sounded like drumbeats in the silence. At first, such quiet had been unnerving. The whole monastery and all of the grounds were devoid of the normal buzz of conversation punctuated by laughter that one would expect in a building full of so many people. Of course there were footsteps, and the sounds of doors being opened and shut, and the whole place would creak in the wind, but the absence of human speech made one feel as though they were in a haunted house.
He had gradually become accustomed to it, and even had to admit that his senses felt sharper after his time at the compound. Yet, as he waited for the arrival of the Mother Superior, the silence felt like an oppressive force hanging over the room. The clock was pounding away behind him, while nearby he could hear Jill’s rapid, shallow breathing, the pace of which made him anxious, as it served as a reminder of how much was on the line. Jack had barely admitted to himself that he loved her, yet he could feel the sort of weightiness surrounding their predicament that only emerged when someone you care deeply about is in danger.
He turned back and looked at Jill, examining the face he had thought beautiful from the first time he had laid eyes on it, and which now featured heavily in his thoughts each night as he fell asleep in his bunk. She looked at him and offered a specific wink that tugged at the corner of her mouth, conveying to him, in their secret language, everything is going to be okay. Jack smiled and nodded as a hiss of air escaped his lips. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath, and the exhalation sounded like a steam whistle in the quiet.
It was seven o’clock on the nose, and the late summer sunset was streaming through the windows. Jack knew the Mother Superior would be coming up soon, having just ended her session with the new members who had arrived today. He looked at Jill and returned the particular wink. They had every reason to believe that their plan would work, knowing this day was coming. It was inevitable that they would eventually be called to task, probably for their liaisons by the bees, but they had been as careful as possible, and barring some terrible surprise, Jack felt that simple denial would see them through the ordeal.
The plan had been to maintain for as long as possible, awaiting rescue from Jack’s editor, who would inevitably come looking for him soon. If suspicion grew too much, and they were called in for questioning, Plan B would go into effect. This called for eluding the guards and meeting at the stables at midnight, where they would retrieve horse blankets to throw over the barbed wire that surrounded the property. A week before he’d sought entrance to the group, Jack had driven up and buried a shoebox by a stone wall in a farmer’s field a mile from the compound. Inside was a cellphone, a charger, and batteries.
Jack had every reason to expect they’d be free by the time the sun came up, riding back to Utica in his editor’s car, which always smelled of dogs. He thought about what might come next. In his fantasy, Jill would stay with him, and realistically, he couldn’t think of a better choice for her. She’d need somewhere to live while reestablishing contact with her old life and setting on the likely arduous path of finding her sister.
He wondered if she might come to see him that way, or perhaps she already had. It was hard to form meaningful relationships in the silence, and many of the congregants wore loneliness on their faces. Jack understood. It was hard for him to connect, even with the ability to speak. He considered himself a man of letters, but found that words often failed him. He’d had girlfriends, of course, but his relationships often petered out when he became too absorbed with an assignment. That sudden lack of attention would hurt them, but what really stung was the meaninglessness of what had replaced them.
Jack would never forget what Nataly had said as she’d stomped to the door on her way out of his life, “You’re impotent, Jack, not in your dick, but in your heart. You have no character.” He had stood there, frying bacon, knowing he should go after her, but with a deadline approaching, he had dozens more samples to try if he was really going to generate a truthful “Best of” list. He had let her go, but her words had stuck with him.
He thought about how, after they escaped, it would be impossible for Jill to see him as impotent and without character. He had looked for, but failed to find, the hero inside when provided an opportunity by the animal rights activists, but he was finding that hero now. He was going to dismantle this oppressive cult, and truly believed that, with Jill’s help, might restore meaningful lives to the hundreds held hostage here. Jack was hoping she would choose to stay with him, so they could write a book together. He thought that, with her deeper connection to the group, she could help arrange interviews with former members. He didn’t know if the adventure they were going to have rescuing her sister would be part of the story or a book unto itself. He was wondering if it would be in bad taste for them to both wear white at their wedding when he realized he was getting ahead of himself.
Suddenly the door behind them opened, sounding like a cannon shot in the silence. The Mother Superior strode into the room, flanked by two hulking guards with police batons, spray painted white, dangling from their white belts. Jack was afraid, but calm. The Mother Superior took her seat behind the desk, and sat silently. Jack could hear the breathing of the men behind him like twin locomotives at idle. He thought about other angles for the book, how these people had taken the idea of a surveillance state, which had insidiously become a hidden fact of life in the so-called “real world,” and turned up the dial until they had total control. He also thought about how their apocalyptic doomsaying was founded in truth, and thought that he might have the opportunity to say that, while certainly misguided, The Silent Solstice offered some valid warnings.
Jack began thinking about where the scene he was currently experiencing would fit into the story. He tuned into the atmosphere of the room, knowing that if he could really capture what life was like in the compound, he could be rich. Seizing the moment, he turned to Jill, and offered something in their unspoken language that he had not heretofore tried to convey. I love you, he said, trying to catch a gleam of the day’s dying light in his eyes, which suddenly brimmed with tears. Jill looked at him and barked a sudden laugh.
“A reporter this time?” asked the Mother Superior, producing a pack of cigarettes from a desk drawer. Jill blinked once. “Well, at least it’s not the cops,” she added, lighting a smoke and inhaling deeply. She exhaled across the desk right at Jack, her sooty breath stinging his eyes, which watered even more. “I spotted you a mile away. It only took a week to send Jill your way, because at first I wasn’t sure which way you swung,” the Mother Superior said, “It’s a little late to cry, Jack,”
Jack started to speak, but found that, after so much silence, he could not form a single word. “Good job, Jill,” said the Mother Superior, tossing the pack of cigarettes to the girl Jack thought he knew. They both laughed, though the men behind Jack remained silent. The Mother Superior picked up the phone and punched in some numbers. After a moment she said “Get the special horse ready,” and hung up. Jack felt rough hands under his armpits as he was lifted to his feet. He tried to scream, but no sound came out.