Good cults all start with good soap.
That’s what Teryn’s dad believed back in the day. He would tell her the best cults had fluffy towels, too, to really reel you in. But, those are hard to come by, he would always remind her.
They moved a lot back then, Teryn and her dad. From cult to cult.
The people in the cults didn’t call themselves cults, of course. Many would say they were ‘collectives’ or ‘ministries’ or ‘havens’ or ‘communes’ or ‘movements’.
Teryn’s dad wasn’t a man of belief. A man of means, to him, the best means of living was in a cult.
Teryn remembers only a brief stint outside of cult life, right after they’d been chased out of the cult of Nonbelievers by a man in a flowing gold dress screaming “Menuk, you better watch your back, asshole! You will die for this, mother fucker!”
Menuk wasn’t her dad’s name. It wasn’t until Teryn was nearly 16 that she learned her dad’s real name. That was how Menuk worked, though, so she wasn’t surprised. He never showed his hand, even to her.
After they’d been chased from that cult, they had to, in Menuk’s words, “hole up for a bit.”
Teryn was still too young to drive, but much too old for diapers, and remembers only a little about the hole they lived in except: it was how she learned what he meant by ‘hole up’ and the diamond-draped chandelier in the main room. There were only two rooms, including the bathroom, and, for some reason, the main room had a chandelier. It hung off-center, in a way that Teryn found uncomfortable.
Still, she would lay on the floor below the chandelier, contently watching the light twinkle from the diamonds and thinking it sparkled as if stars had been strung from their ceiling.
Only one of the four sockets had a light bulb and it stayed that way for a while, till, as Menuk said, he could find some “low-hanging fruit to grab up.”
When he brought home fried chicken and light bulbs and good soap, Teryn knew Menuk had found that low-hanging fruit.
Her dad handed her the pack of bulbs, got a chair to stand on, and put out his hand for a light bulb from Teryn. She handed him the first bulb by the glass. As he screwed it into its socket, she pulled out the next by the base.
When Teryn held the next bulb up for Menuk, it was glowing, warm, incandescent, 60-watt light.
Menuk slowly got off the chair, and stared at the bulb in Teryn’s hand. They both stood, quietly mesmerized, mouths agape, frozen.
Teryn handed the light bulb to Menuk. The light went out.
He handed it back to Teryn. She grabbed it by the bulb and nothing happened. Then, she held it by the base.
Menuk had told Teryn that they found “an extra string in their bow and just better take it out for a performance.” Then he grabbed her by the shoulders, kissed her forehead, and told her he was glad she hadn’t left with her ma.
Standing on the boardwalk with a bucket at her feet and a light bulb in her hand, Teryn started to wonder about her ma and whether she’d chosen right. Menuk always knew what to do and where to go, but usually she just had to follow along, not be the one doing the work.
Counting up their collections from the day, Teryn figured she’d chosen right. Her ma would never have thought to have her stand on the boardwalk for money.
But Menuk, a man of means, said, while this was good funding, they needed to use what they know and live their best means of living.
Menuk got Teryn a blue, sparkly blouse and pants that were long and silken, like a genie would wear. He had similar pants, but his shirt was just white and long, like a curtain.
Going to different spots each day, they stood on the boardwalk for a few more days; Teryn in her outfit holding a light bulb, Menuk holding a sign that said: “The Decree Says the Power is Within.”
After making what Menuk said was probably enough money, they took the bus to a place up north, where cows and birds and trees were plentiful. Teryn assumed he’d found another cult for them to live with so she was looking forward to good soap, because they’d used up what they had while they were holed up. And, Menuk said there was no need to buy any more.
As they rode north, Menuk told Teryn to say this to herself again and again until it was all she really could remember to say: Extraordinary is born of ordinary. All things are possible, if you follow The Decree. I am The Decree.
Teryn asked what ‘The Decree’ was and Menuk told her it was her.
Mulling it over as she repeated the phrase under her breath for hours, Teryn couldn’t figure out if she alone was The Decree or if all people were The Decree, too. She kept practicing her lines, certain that this phrase meant something for the next cult. She was getting excited to get to a new cult with fresh food and good soap.
When they arrived, though, she realized she wasn’t going to a cult — Menuk had taken her to an empty farm with several, huge cardboard boxes of mint-lemon zest soap.
Teryn was old enough to drive, but not old enough to drink when she decided to kill Menuk.
It wasn’t that he’d hurt her exactly.
And, Menuk’s followers were fine. They were well-behaved and appropriate with her. Some were a bit too obsessed, she felt, but she was The Decree, and in her experience with cults, there were always some who were obsessed whatever was the source of belief, so she couldn’t blame them.
Instead, she blamed Menuk.
Each day, her energy drained. She found fee role in his game burdensome. It was exhausting to be the True Source of Light. Yes, they used candles in their private abodes, and most of the ordinary duties in the community buildings and halls were powered by a large generator.
But Daily Toast had grown impossible. Toast for 167 meant two hours of holding two toaster plugs. And, Evening Light meant three hours of holding that damn light bulb — longer if the bulb burned out and they had to start over.
The goal, she reminded her dad one night after a particularly long Evening Light, was to have good soap and fluffy towels. To have a cult they could call home. Not to perform daily shows for a captive audience.
Sadly, Menuk, though he’d always a man of means, had become a man of belief. He no longer called his daughter Teryn; he called her The Decree, bowing, arms over head, hands together, pinky and pointer fingers pressed together pointing upward, at first meeting each day and at days end each night.
Menuk no longer sought new cults to call home, no longer sought the cult living offering the best living. He no longer preached the importance of making it by faking it. He didn’t even use the term ‘cult’ anymore. He called their cult a ‘fellowship’.
At some point, and Teryn wasn’t sure when, Menuk drank the Kool-Aid he’d told her they were serving their followers in those early years.
Teryn never wanted to believe and never wanted her dad to either.
She wanted freedom from the burdens of becoming a deity. She wanted out.
That night, the night she reminded him of their original goals, she realized she could never completely get out unless she was no longer The Decree. She knew she could only stop being The Decree by stopping the cult’s leader, The Decree’s creator, her father.
In a sudden shift, she asked Menuk to forgive her for being selfish and asked that he go with her for a Second Light. He, thrilled to feel the energy of an intimate prayer in the light of The Decree, suggested they gather some of the elder followers; Teryn stopped him by saying she was hoping it would be just the two of them.
Menuk used to tell her when they first started the cult that “a nod is as good as a wink to a blind man.” She simply nodded and he followed to his fate.
Menuk never knew all Teryn was able to do with her ability. He’d been so enthralled by her power, he just used what he knew to give their followers the simplest rituals to follow. He never stopped to ask what else she might do or be.
Teryn didn’t know what she wanted to do or be. But, she knew she could do more than power a toaster or a light bulb with her abilities.
She’d once started a cow’s heart again.
She’d once killed a pig.
Both just by touch. In a way.
She’d gone through some trials and errors, but she found her ability accelerated by touching something, anything, that was powered by the cult’s generator. Though, most of her errors were with smaller creatures — a chicken, a squirrel, a frog — the pig was different…. she’d tried for hours to bring the pig back to life. But, the generator ran out of gas.
Over time, she’d gotten better with her unique use of her ability. Growing more comfortable and adept with saving or killing, as she chose.
So, that night, Teryn and Menuk headed to the Light Fellows Hall for a Second Light. Teryn took Menuk by the hand as they walked toward the front of the Hall. She thanked him for being her father and for providing for her all these years. Menuk cried and said he’d never really wanted to be a father and hoped she could forgive him for that. He bowed his head, letting out sobs of heavy guilt, as Teryn, gripping his hand tighter and turned on a lamp plugged into an outlet powered by the generator.