I was dozing when she knocked on my door. The sun had long set, and I should have been looking into my dreams, but I was waiting for her.
“I didn’t want to wake you!” she whispered urgently.
“You didn’t,” but we both smiled, knowing it wasn’t the truth. “I expected you earlier.”
“I know, I know! I tried.”
And then she hugged me.
We hadn’t seen each other in years, not since after she had married Joseph. Not since he had made her choose; her marriage or her friend. I never understood what he’d meant, calling me a bad influence. But over the years, I started to have an idea. I was honest with her; honest in my feelings that he wasn’t safe, honest that I thought he was controlling, honest in the manipulation I thought I saw.
We lived hours apart, so it was easy for him to stop us from seeing each other. We still talked, and still texted, but it had become less and I missed her. I had hardened myself to him, and because of my hurt, to her as well.
“Does he know that I’m here this weekend?” I asked.
She was quiet and I knew the truth.
“Where does he think you are?” I asked.
She pulled her bag into the small hotel room. A room, that if I kept the curtains shut, I could believe was in the middle of a forest or out on a lake. The walls were lined with knotty pine. It didn’t feel like a room in the middle of a parking lot in a little, out-of-the-way, mountain town.
She dumped her bag in the corner and threw herself on the large bed we’d agreed to share, a giant sigh.
I sat on the corner and then pushed myself up to lean into the pillows.
“He knows I’m at a women’s conference, but he thinks I’m here with my sister. She knows if he calls to check in, not to answer. She doesn’t particularly like him either, so she doesn’t mind.”
“What kind of women’s conference does he think you’re at?”
She flashed her brilliant smile at me.
“Why a leadership conference, of course! That’s what we’re here for, right?’
“Absolutely! There will be nothing hippy or spiritual or… whatever it is he calls me.”
“Hippy. You got it right the first time. You’re just a big ‘ole hippy bad influence.”
“That’s me!” I laughed, but it didn’t reach my heart.
“The chef made sandwiches for people arriving late; it’s in the fridge if you want it.”
Her face, lined at the door, smoothed as her eyebrows raised.
“Oh my God! …Should I say ‘Oh My Goddess’ at this thing?” Giddily, she rolled off the bed and found her sandwich. Each bite was a delight for her. “Oh my God… this is fucking amazing. Amazing!”
“Too bad you missed dinner, it was pretty fucking amazing too.” She heard my tone and even though I was trying to hold in my irritation at her lateness, she knew. She always did.
“He took my car,” she said, between bites.
“What do you mean?”
“He took my fucking car.”
“How did you get here?”
“Oh! He brought it back, but not until it was so late that he expected I would just give up and come in the morning. But I wasn’t going to miss this. Because you know he would have done something in the morning to keep me there!”
“I really was worried. There’s hardly any cell reception up here, and there’s no reception on the roads on the way up.”
“Excellent! No cell reception! He can’t call me, can’t manipulate me to come home, can’t even find me!”
“Why do you stay? If it’s that bad?”
“Because my job is there. I love my students. I love my house. I love teaching.”
“You can get a new job. You can get a new house. Teachers are needed everywhere.”
She looked at me seriously now.
“I don’t know what my life would look like without him. It’s been so long. Even though he’s terrible, he loves me and there is a part of him that I still care about.”
She shrugged and shoved the rest of the sandwich into her mouth.
“Fucking delicious!… Alright! Tell me everything I missed tonight!”
“Not much, honestly.”
I told her about meeting the other women, meeting the speakers, the dinner; the delicious handcrafted soup and bread that seemed earthly while still being otherworldly. I told her about the musician there to serenade us through the weekend and how she seemed to pull out more and more unique instruments. How she would play them close to you to feel the vibration, sometimes even pressing it against your skin.
“You’ll meet her in the morning. I like her already.”
And then, after a few giggles, we both fell fast asleep.
I woke before Cait the next morning and shook her to let her know I was going to an early yoga workshop; optional for the gathering. She cracked an eye, her mascara smeared down onto her cheeks and onto the pillow.
“You look sexy this morning!” I said.
“Mmmm, fuck off.” She pulled the pillow over her head and I laughed, walking to the door.
“Coffee?” I heard her call to me.
“Coffee maker in the kitchenette,” I responded, “and if you get your ass out of bed, I’m guessing there will be coffee at the lodge too.”
She grumbled, “Wait! Where is this hippy-dippy event we’re going to?”
This is going to be fun, I thought, not trusting that this was really the best way to reunite after so many years. Was I going to need to hold her hand today? I invited her, was I now responsible for her?
“Across the parking lot. Across the street. Straight out from the door. If you walk in a straight line, you quite literally can’t miss it.”
“K,” was all she said as she pulled the covers over her head.
Cait wasn’t there when I finished yoga, and as I sat for breakfast, surrounded by women that somehow seemed to be glowing, still there was no Cait. We cleaned up our tables and walked to the couches lining the attached open lodge space. The talking was quiet and as the organizer went to the front of the room, I felt a hand gently squeeze my shoulder. I looked back, and there she was in her black sunglasses, coffee held in her other hand like a treasure she would never let go of. She was buried in her baggy sweats, her hair piled on top of her head in a messy knot.
I offered to scoot over, to make room on the couch, but she shook her head at me.
The organizer, her name was Indigo, began welcoming us to the first full day of our women’s retreat.
“Be open to the unexpected!” she called out. “Be ready for change. Say yes to this time for yourself.”
And then she lined us up in two lines; two lines of women facing each other. Faces young and unlined, faces deeply grooved with long grey hair. The fashion of loose clothes and layers, silks and wool, wraps, and yoga pants. The faces were mostly clear of makeup and the hair was generally long and braided and twisted. There were shaved heads and an abundance of tattoos and crystals and beads. I stood next to Cait and squeezed her hand. Our solidarity.
Indigo had the two lines move closer and closer to each other until the space between me and the woman across from me was only inches. I focused on the ring in her nose. There were giggles down the line as we all felt the anticipation.
Indigo’s voice called out over us all.
“We are a team here today! A community of women! We are here to love each other, to be reborn into our confidence! We are women and to be reborn is to come down through the vaginal canal. To fight your way!”
We heard giggles and gasps from where her voice had been.
“Do not make it easy for me! Being reborn is hard!”
And suddenly she was pushing her way between the two lines of women, pushing between me and the woman across from me.
I turned to look at Cait, still hidden behind her glasses. Leaning into her I said, “Are we the vagina?”
Imperceptibly, she nodded her head and her lip twitched, trying not to smile.
The giggles had toned down now as I heard our fearless leader call from the far end of the line, “The next person in line! Push your way down! Be reborn in your sisterhood!”
One by one, women made their way down the two lines of their sisters. There were giggles, there were gasps. Some stopped when they met resistance, and others fought their way down. Then it came to Cait. We were now at the head of the line; everyone before us had gathered at the far end to keep the ritual going. Only once everyone had been reborn through the line of women, would we be ready for the next event.
Cait pushed her glasses to the top of her head, her eyes were lined and red. She pushed her way beyond me, between the two lines of women, being jostled back and forth.
And then it was my turn. With arms around me, I couldn’t control my steps or my motion. I was moved by a wave of energy, the energy of women. I passed Indigo and she kissed my cheek. Finally, I was born of the lines, and Cait gave me a hug, holding me tightly. I could feel her shaking, but her glasses were back in place.
The last of the women, the women who had not yet completed the ritual, pushed their way through.
We were given a break—coffee, tea, snacks— and then invited back to the circle. There was a low wave of conversation. Cait sat beside me now on the couch.
Indigo moved again to the front of the lodge.
“I want you all to be seen and to be heard. I want you all to know, you are not alone. Only participate if you feel comfortable. Watch for a bit if you need to. Participate when you are ready.”
The room had quieted and no one spoke.
“Raise your hand,” said Indigo, “if you feel alone in life.”
Almost every hand went up.
“Look around at your sisters, and see that you are not the only one.”
“Raise your hand if you have been abused by a loved one.”
Hands went up. More than I would have expected. Cait’s hand went up.
“Raise your hand if you have been sexually abused.”
Hands were raised.
“Raise your hand if you have been cheated on by a partner.”
“Raise your hand if you have cheated on a partner.”
“Raise your hand if you ever prostituted yourself.”
“Raise your hand… Raise your hand.”
Both of our hands were up and down, sometimes the same, sometimes different. There were times when the whole room raised its hand and other times when only one or two did.
I felt the shaking beside me and saw the tears leaking out from under her black sunglasses.
It was noon. Collectively we went to gather our lunch. There had been a shift; everyone seemed to know everyone. We had each pushed through to be reborn, we had shared our secrets. I watched as Cait had women around her, talking animatedly, her glasses on the top of her head. The chef had prepared organic food, garden fresh, gluten and dairy-free options. It will filling and warm, and while I spoke to the women at the table around me, I kept an eye on my friend.
We were given two hours to meet with the vendors; psychics, artists, tarot readers, massage therapists, and henna artists. Each of the speakers had their own booth and offered initial price options; 15 minutes with the trauma specialist for only $40, a consult with an intuitive financial planner for only $100, speak with the psychic, the first 5 minutes free, only $2 a minute after that. Special introductory rates. Even the musician was doing private sessions of reiki through music. They had sign-up times through the rest of the weekend and I pondered if any of these things were meant for me.
In a corner was a pile of fabric squares with baskets of permanent markers. Women were drawing and writing words of affirmation on the panels and then baste stitching them onward and outward from a centerpiece that said, “Love Yourself and Be Reborn”. One panel, already attached, was in Cait’s handwriting and I recognized her style of drawing, an eye with a tear. Her panel said, “I want to be loved.”
Cait had disappeared and when she returned, her sunglasses were gone and her eye makeup was perfect. Her hair had been brushed, her sweats had been replaced by leggings and a crop top. She looked strong and healthy. Beautiful.
She caught my eye and smiled, a twinkle of the girl I had first met in college.
The afternoon was full of more programs; learning how the body held pain, learning about reiki, meditations, free dance, and moving into the body instead of living solely in the mind. There was a special event that evening and we headed back to our rooms after dinner. We were told to dress like Goddesses, but to bring something to swim in.
I hadn’t seen Cait for a while, and thought perhaps she was in the room. I found it empty and laid down for a bit of a nap before I changed. I was mostly asleep when she burst in, full of energy, and startled me out of my nap.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were sleeping.”
I was still between asleep and awake, trying to pull my mind together when she threw herself on the bed next to me. She was shining every bit as much as those first women I had met earlier.
“I just had the most amazing experience!” She was speaking quickly, full of excitement.
I nodded and laid my head back on the pillow, quiet.
“I met with the psychic, you know the one with the black hair?” Cait didn’t give me time to answer. “She said that I have something big coming, something special.”
I didn’t want to be a downer and tried to be optimistic when I asked, “Doesn’t that seem like something she could tell anyone?”
“No! You don’t understand! She knew about my dogs when I was little. And she knew how they died. She knew about my grams and my dad, and she knew all my frustrations with Joseph.”
“How much info did you give her while you were talking?”
“None of it! I swear, she just started telling me all the stuff, and she was right! She said that I have more to do in life than the marriage I’m in, that he’s stopping my growth.”
“Well, that I’ll agree with.”
Cait smiled at me, her eyes were misty and wistful.
“She said to pay attention tonight, that I would get some sort of insight, either at the water ritual or while I slept. That I needed to pay attention to the message and don’t be afraid to make a life-changing decision. Her words, it’s time to ‘upgrade my life, upgrade my frequency’.”
I didn’t want to be skeptical, and I didn’t want to ruin her high, so I smiled as honestly and as hopefully as I could.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be watching tonight and if you get any insight, we’ll talk through it.”
“I love you,” she said. “Thank you for making me come to this.”
We were all dressed as Goddesses, whatever that term meant to each of us. For me, it was a silk wrap skirt twisted over my one-piece bathing suit, a necklace of beads, my hair loose, and my feet bare. Cait wore a sequined mini dress and spiked heels. There was belly dancing attire and silks, dangly jewelry, flower crowns, and one woman dressed like an Egyptian priestess.
We were each given a round candle and asked to form a line. Indigo walked down the line and asked us each to say a silent prayer while she smudged a bit of essential oil on our brows. Her assistant followed, lighting each candle.
Once everyone had been anointed, Indigo asked us to follow her with our lighted candles. We walked through a part of the lodge we had not been to, outside and down a long flight of wooden stairs. I could hear water flowing and began to see a creek in the distance.
At the base of the stairs we saw a natural pool, steam rising. We circled the pool.
Indigo said, “You all created a prayer when I anointed your forehead. We are going to go around the circle and say what it is we prayed for. When you bring your prayer into the universe, you will put your candle into the pool, so that all of our prayers will join together. If you are not ready for us to know your prayer, simply put your candle into the water.”
Indigo spoke first, “I pray that you all find your path.”
Her assistant repeated, “You pray that we all find our path.”
Indigo put her candle in the water and it floated toward the center of the pool.
Indigo’s assistant said, “I pray that I bring what I’ve learned this weekend into my daily life.”
Indigo, and now a few others, said, “You pray that you bring what you have learned into your daily life.”
Her assistant put her candle in the water.
The next woman said, “I pray to feel safe.”
And now everyone understood the assignment. “You pray to feel safe,” we all said, and her candle joined the others.
“I pray to know what to do with my life.”
“I pray that my husband sees me, really sees me.”
“I pray that my children grow old.”
Finally, it came to Cait. She was silent for a moment and I wondered if she would share or simply release her candle to the water.
“I pray… I pray to release my ties to my husband and to have clarity on my next step.”
The circle of women repeated her words and her candle joined the others.
When it was my turn, I simply said, “I pray to be brave.”
When our prayers were finished, Indigo pulled her dress over her head and walked into the heated spring fully naked. Others began to join her, even the ones who had brought bathing suits, stripping down to nothing. I wasn’t that confident, not yet. I was surprised to see Cait pulling off her bikini as she stepped into the water.
The water was hot on my skin and the air was cold. The women were respectful of the candles, swimming beneath them and around them. The women leaned against the rock edges, talking, watching the flames as they slowly burned out. As the candles flickered and died naturally, the wax was reverentially removed from the pool.
The moon was full overhead as women slowly returned to their rooms.
I asked Cait as we walked, “Did you get your message?”
“If I did, it certainly wasn’t clear.”
The next morning, Cait shook me awake.
“I had a dream!”
I held up my finger, give me a moment it said.
“It was my message, I know it was!”
“Do you mind if I pee first,” I asked?
I stumbled out of bed to the bathroom. When I returned, Cait was in the kitchen starting water for my tea and coffee for her.
“You ready for it?” she asked.
I grabbed a blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around my shoulders, sitting down at the little table.
“Let’s hear it,” I said.
“Okay,” she came and sat down at the table with me. “I was walking through a field and I was feeling really sad and really lonely. I was thinking about Joseph and how I hate the way he makes me feel. Suddenly, I started coming across these tall purple flowers, and they were so pretty. They made me feel a little better, you know?”
I nodded my head but didn’t speak.
“So I reached down to pick one, but my hand wasn’t my own. It was a monkey hand! And then I realized that I was a monkey. But it was okay, I kind of liked being a monkey, like it didn’t freak me out or anything. And then I thought that being a monkey might be kind of fun; I could climb trees and shit like that.”
Now I was smiling, wondering where this was going and what her interpretation of the message was.
“So, I kind of start running through the field, and in the middle of the field is this big, rough rock. Naturally, I climb it. It’s so easy and fun, and I’ve forgotten all about Joseph. I feel really happy and really free. Well, once I get to the top of the rock, I look out and I notice there is a flock of turkeys around the base of the rock, all hens, no toms. Every single one of them is just staring at me, not moving. And then I see more coming through the flowers in the field. They surround the rock and again just look up at me.”
“Suddenly, the rock starts to grow, almost like an elevator? It feels like it’s lifting me up. The higher I go, the more turkeys I see. And they are all bowing to me!”
“Like Lion King?” I ask.
She starts to laugh.
“Oh my God! I didn’t even think of that! But yeah, kind of like Lion King.”
I start to giggle, and suddenly we’re both snorting and tears are running from our eyes.
“Stop!” she finally manages to gasp. “This is serious. I think it was my message!”
“That you’re going to be King?”
“Well, no. I’m not sure exactly what it means. That’s why I need you, You’re good at this stuff.”
She was right. I was pretty good with dreams, but not because of any standardized dream interpretation, or really, anything special about me. I simply understood that dreams are individual to each of us and if we can identify the symbol and our relationship to it, we can generally find the message.
“Fine,” I said. “You’re walking through a field and you feel sad… so that’s your feelings of being alone and your thinking of Joseph and now you’re on this journey. Yes?”
“You find some purple flowers, they distract you from your sadness, only to discover you are a monkey. But you’re okay with being a monkey, it’s pretty fun and you get to leave behind some of life’s seriousness. But why a monkey? What do you think of monkeys?”
“Well, they’re super smart, funny, and can be a little tricky.”
“That sounds a bit like you!”
Again she smiled but was now a bit more thoughtful.
“As a monkey, you joyously find this rock pedestal. And you climb it because it’s fun, not because you have any ulterior motives, right?”
“Yes,” she says. “It was just fun, and I wanted to climb.”
“Suddenly though, you’re surrounded by turkeys. What do you turkeys mean to you?”
“I know they are one of your favorite animals!” she said.
“True, but this is your dream, not mine.”
“Yeah, but I’ve never given them much thought… other than how much you love them. You’ve told me that they are like earth’s bird, and they are connected to the land.”
“Yeah, I connect them with Goddess energy. They move as a community. They are deeply connected with the earth. But they are bowing to you. How did you feel when they bowed?”
“Honestly? I felt powerful. I felt like I had something important to say.”
“Well, there you go. You have something important to say. I think your dream is telling you that women specifically will listen to you. And that the population of women listening to you will grow as you grow, or as more discover what you have to say.”
Suddenly the twinkle in her eye was bright, and maybe not so pure.
“I know what I’m going to do. I know what I’m going to do with my life!”
“And what’s that,” I asked.
A smile spread across her face.
“I’m going to start a cult.”
The gathering finished around noon, although the vendors stayed a bit later, providing services and filling up their sheets of future clients. I watched as Cait connected, and talked to, and hugged every woman. I saw her animatedly talking to Indigo, and Indigo excitedly talk back.
I went to pack my things and as I loaded them into the car, Cait hugged me from behind.
“I’m not going home,” she whispered in my ear.
I turned to face her.
“What do you mean? Where are you going?”
Her cheeks were flushed.
“Like, you’re following her in your car to her next gathering?”
“Nope, I’m leaving the car here. That piece of shit can come to find it if he wants it. My name isn’t on the papers. He wouldn’t let me because he didn’t think my credit was ‘good enough’. He likes to rub my nose in it, so fuck him.”
I looked at her, completely unsure of what to say or how to respond.
“Don’t look at me like that!”
“How am I looking at you?”
“Like I’m making a mistake.”
“Well, what about your job? You can’t just leave your job. I thought you loved your students.”
“I do! But that’s the thing! My students make me feel like I’m on that rock and I have something important to say. That’s the only reason I like teaching. I can do so much more if I travel with Indigo. There are women who want to hear what I have to say.”
“Cait, it was just a dream.”
“But it wasn’t! Don’t you see? The psychic told me I would get a message, and I did. This is what I’m supposed to do!”
I hugged her. I knew there was nothing I could say or do to change her mind, no matter how ill-advised I thought it was.
“I love you,” I said. “Text me when you can, and let me know you’re safe.”
“I love you too. And of course! Thank you, sincerely. This weekend changed my life.”
It’s been almost five years now; five years since I have seen my friend in person. She was true to her word and the women who follow her are called “Caities”. She has a book about diet (Listen to your body and only eat what it tells you it wants. That is what your body needs!) and a very popular podcast about relationships and sex. Mostly sex. (Listen to your body and it’ll tell you who it wants to fuck! That is what your body needs!)
I call them, The Cult of Cait.
Clearly, this prompt wanted me to write about a Chef who bastes monkeys and turkeys and has a special connection to fashion, which is exactly why I refused to write that story. I told my daughter, who we’ve begun to call my brilliant idea generator, that there was just nowhere to go this week and I was completely uninspired.
She said, “No. This prompt clearly wants you to write about a Con Man, in a fancy hotel. Trump Tower…”
She always gives me somewhere to start and I’m so grateful for her. When she goes to college, I will be parked out front yelling, “but I don’t know where to go with this prompt! Help me!”
Anyway, she said Con Man, and then I started to list the non-traditional careers. Upgrade is an interesting word… upgrade how? What would a God or Goddess want a new career in? Could a Goddess upgrade? Upgrade through dying? Reincarnation… bigger story of midlife? And then I remembered a Disney Cartoon in Fantasia–the one about the Volcanic Eruption and Mother Earth coming and bringing life back to the land. Suddenly I wanted to watch Fantasia…
What about a Cult Leader? Would they become a cult leader or is that the old job they are wanting to leave? And then the words of one of my dearest friends echoed through my head; “I want to start a cult.” Yes, she’s said it more than once and suddenly she was the subject of my story.
The girl in this story isn’t exactly my real friend, of course. This is a fictionalized version of my friend Cait. (Not her real name.) And certainly a fictionalized version of myself. It’s also a fictionalized version of an event that we actually went to, combined with another event we went to, combined with a whole lot of other life experiences. There is a lot of truth amongst this fiction. Including that I love wild turkeys and I’m pretty great at dream interpretation.
I write this in her honor, and I hope she sees it that way. I love my Cait and I love the things we’ve gone through. I love her thoughts and her excitement and her dreams. I love that she tells me that someday she’s starting a cult.
Currently, I’m listening to the podcast “Twin Flames” by Wondery. That influenced this. My personal experience at women’s gatherings and retreats influenced this. My feelings around the “cost” of spirituality influenced this.
The cost of spirituality… I’ve come to feel in the last few years a deep sense of manipulation by “spiritual influencers.” I’ve seen this in the “Twin Flames” podcast as well as my own life experiences. This is not to say they they aren’t doing amazing and wonderful things, it’s just that the monetary cost is often not in alignment with the work. There is a constant repeating phrase of “ask for what you are worth” and then if you then don’t pay what they want, you must not see your own worth. The cost of enlightenment often seems to be as big as your pocketbook.
Please know, I think people deserve to be paid for their work. And they can ask for any amount they want. I just don’t like being made to feel that I’m not respecting my own worth because I am unwilling to pay an amount that seems exorbitant to me. (And I honor the fact that what is too high for me may be cheap to someone else. At the same time, what is affordable to me, may be far out of someone else’s price range.) I’ve just come to know where my personal line is at as to what is appropriate for me.
Beyond the monetary cost is the life cost. You can see this in the Twin Flames podcast; you can see this in the Guru podcast (also through Wondery). You can see it in the division of family through political ideation that moves towards idolization. You can see it in the cult of personality and the devotion to becoming an “influencer”.
I’ve gone to gatherings like this. While fun, I have asked myself, “Wait. Is this cult behavior? Am I suddenly in a cult?” I’ve felt the pressure to participate because everyone else is. I have a strong sense of who I am… but I’ve also been pushed down the two lines of women in a rebirthing experience. Yeah. That part was true.
Thank you so much for reading this far! If you liked this story, I hope you’ll share it with someone you love. If you’re interested in reading more, I hope you will sign up for my newsletter here. I send out an email every Friday.
9. A midlife career change
Include: chef, upgrade, monkey, turkey, fashion, team, harden, noon, elevator, baste
Read my writing partner, Bridgette’s Tale here
Next Week in 52 Weeks
Week 10. A ghost story
Include: tango, diversify, blog, invisible, missile, glitter, scuff, balloon, bird cage, grizzly bear
Wondery’s Podcast, “Twin Flames”
My 52-Week Journey So Far
What is the 52-week short story challenge?
One Reply to “The Cult of Cait | A Short Story”
Intriguing! I am one of those who has somewhat of a fascination with stories of grifters and con”men,” and I like this take on how someone might arrive at intentionally starting a cult. I appreciate the backstory on how you came to write this and agree that the often-exhorted connection between one’s valuation of self and amount paid for services to expand self-realization is suspect–this story seems like the beginning of an interesting way to explore that concept