Joining the Vespers
JJ waited until after Easter and April to head north. He sold most of the stuff he had collected: a refurbished computer, iPod, some pots and pans and dishes, his bed and bed covering. He knew he was going to miss that goose down comforter. He gave most of his food to his third roommate. The rest he took down to a church pantry. At the Bank of America he withdrew his savings, nearly $30,000, in cash. He thought about selling the car, but, needing wheels, he decided to keep it.
It was May 1st and a beautiful day when he left the grimy Windy City behind. He took the Kennedy Expressway in heavy traffic and crossed the border at Beloit. "Escape to Wisconsin" a big sign read, and it made JJ wonder, would he be escaping to Wisconsin from Chicago or would he have to escape from Wisconsin? There were also lots of signs for cheese. He'd have to try some. Leaving the flat, nondescript farmland of Northern Illinois for the better roads, rolling hills, and prosperous looking farms of southern Wisconsin in the blooming springtime was a welcome surprise. Things did look a lot better here in the country. He said to himself. We'll see if they really are.
Near Janesville he stopped for breakfast at one of those garish looking places selling cheese. Everything on the cafeteria line looked good so he sampled a bit of it all. He bought a couple of small pieces of cheese for later and drove off feeling about 10 pounds heavier. He had hoped to see Madison, but was past it on the interstate almost before he realized it, although he did see the state Capitol dome far off in the west at one point on the freeway. He took I-39 north at Portage and watched the rolling farmland turn to forest as the highway leaped the Wisconsin River several times. The lush green grass set against the trees leafing out in shades of green and yellow punctuated with brilliant white, purples and pinks from flowering trees added a festive character to the landscape that he hadn't seen since springtime in Virginia. He was beginning to like Wisconsin.
Around noon, he pulled up to the Bank of Auburndale. It looked locally owned and not part of one of the huge banking chains that dominated banking. That suited him just fine. He asked to see the manager and was soon greeted by a mousy looking man with thick glasses and a style that was at least a generation old. "I'd like to deposit some money in a savings account." JJ greeted him cheerfully.
"You don't need me for that young man. You can open a savings account over there at the window. What did you say your name was?"
"John Jacob Olson, I go by JJ. It's a lot of money, Sir." JJ’s military training slipped in as he pointed to the duffel bag he was carrying.
The manager suddenly seemed more interested—crossed his arms. "Olson, eh? Well I'm Richard Olson, President of this little bank. You can call me Dick. I don't recognize you. You from around here?" They shook hands and Dick Olson signaled for JJ to follow him to his office. The sign on the private office door read, President.
"So, Mr. Olson, just how much money is it that you're going to invest in my bank?" His eyebrows furrowed to match his seriousness.
"$25,000." JJ opened the duffel bag and started to pull out stacks of hundreds neatly bundled by the bank in Chicago and stack them on the Bank President’s desk. "I need to keep about $5,000 out to get me started."
Dick Olson’s eyes widened at the sight and the pitch of his voice seemed higher when he spoke. "I see what you mean now about not wanting to show that kind of cash at the window. We get a lot of young people like you in here buying cars with no credit, but I rarely see anyone coming in here trying to deposit this kind of cash. Where did you say you were from again?" His suspicions were raised
"Northern Minnesota. Left home two years ago to make my fortune in Chicago. Worked in an Internet café until I couldn't stand the city anymore and decided to try Wisconsin. These are my savings." JJ pulled out his savings book and showed it to Olson. The last entry was a withdrawal of $29, 783.45. Olson stared at the entry a bit as a smile replaced his frown, a looked up ready to do business.
"So what are you going to get started at. Ain't much work or business around here for a young man like you. That's why most of them go to the city -- you know, to find work."
"Well, I thought about being a farm hand. But then I heard about the Vespers and thought I'd give them a try. You know where fire marker W-134 is?
"I sure do. You take 10 out here to the west side of town, and then turn south on 186 until you pass Arpin and 186 turns east for couple miles, and turns south again until it gets wooded on both sides. Follow the numbers on the west side until you reach W-134. You can't miss that entrance. Actually, long before you get there you’ll see that cathedral rising from the bluff. Mind if I ask you a question? What in the ah... ah... would a smart young guy like you want to join up with the likes of Pius One? He's a big investor here in the bank, but I don't trust him. There's something sinister about that man, you know--people disappear. Everyone's talking."
JJ smiled. "No, I don't know. Seems like a nice guy to me. I'm really looking forward to the discipline. Also need to get closer to Jesus."
Olson got that serious look again. "You can do what you want. It’s a free country. But, by trusting us with the lion's share of your money, I don't think you are fully committed to them. That's good. That way, if you ever get tired of whatever it is you're talking about, you'll have something left to fall back on. Smart move. Say... I dabble a bit in the Markets. While you're off hanging out with Pius One, why don't you let me invest a little bit of what you're saving. I'm sure I can do better than the 3% to 4% your savings account’s going to bring. What ya say?"
"Sounds okay to me."
"Oh, and that savings book. Wouldn't want it to fall in the wrong hands. Since you're such a big investor, I'm going to give you a free safe deposit box to put your book in. We'll give you some code words so that you won't have to show any identification to open it, okay?"
"I was thinking of trying to find a hiding place for it. Your safe deposit box sounds much safer. Thanks for thinking of it for me."
“Yup. Nobody in their right mind hides money under a mattress any more. Tornado or fire might come along and your savings is up in smoke. I’ll throw in an insurance policy on that safe deposit box. Don’t forget the codes now—ya hear?”
“I won’t.” JJ got up to leave and Dick came around his desk to shake hands with him again. "Don't worry, Mr. Olson. The Bank of Auburndale has been around a hundred years and we fully intend to continue that way. You are a wise young man not to let your hard-earned money fall in the hands of a man like Pius One. Take care now--ya hear?"
"I will, and thanks for everything. Any good place to eat around here?"
"Sally's Place. Just a half-mile that way near the edge of town. She serves great hamburgers." It’s a bar, too, so have a beer with your burger. Only one. Wisconsin frowns on drunk drivers.” He smiled slyly.
Dick Olson walked JJ all the way out to his car. As JJ started to pull out of his parking space, Olson leaned over one more time and said, "You take care. That Pius One isn't what he seems to be. First sign of trouble, you hightail it back here and get your money and get out of town." If JJ ever needed a surrogate father, he knew where to find one.
Five minutes later, JJ pulled up to Sally's Place. He ordered the hamburger special with a Bud and wasn't disappointed by either the price or the meat. Except for a couple of old-timers the place was nearly empty. Sally, herself, looked to be over 60, a wrinkled version of the plain woman she always was. There weren't many places like this left in the country. Having had his fill of good food for the day, JJ was ready for the austerity he expected in the compound.
The drive down was on a quiet country highway with little traffic. He started spotting Mennonite farms and with their unpainted barns and houses graying in the sun. Prosperous farmers had large white barns with lots of outbuildings, some red, some blue. Original farms invariably had red barns with field stone foundations. Everywhere, the skyline was punctuated with dark blue plastic-looking silos that rose above the tallest trees in groups of two, three, or more. Above them all and far ahead, he could see the shining spire of steel and glass that was becoming the cathedral for the Vespers rising from the top of a hill.
It grew more wooded, just like Dick Olson had told him, and, he finally arrived at fire marker W-134. There was a place to pull in, but a tall barbed wire fence and gate blocked his way. He rolled down his window and looked directly into a camera that was looking directly at him. "Who goes there in the silver Honda and what you want?"
Like speaking to a carryout window at a fast food restaurant, JJ spoke out, "I'm John Jacob Olson, following the Pius One's instructions. I am here to join the Vespers."
"When you hear a buzz, I will open the gate. Please drive directly to the circle drive in front of the compound. Stop there and wait for me. My name is Hector Two. I will be dressed in a brown monk's robe." With that, there was a buzz, and the gate opened. JJ drove through and the gate closed behind him. Before him lay a sight he had never seen before. The road ran straight, straight through the middle of a mature forest. The trees were tall and blocked the sun. On either side an undulating blanket of white lay under the trees. It reminded JJ of the dogwood trees in the Virginia forest in springtime. He wanted to stop and take a closer look, but he dared not.
The drive was long, nearly a half-mile. Finally, he came out of the trees and was struck by the size of the steel and glass structure that was rising like a phoenix out of the forest ahead. He couldn't see it all, because a large flat roof building that looked like a barracks loomed directly ahead at the base of the hill. As instructed, he took the circle drive to the front. He put it in park in front of the fencing protecting the entrance, left the engine run and waited.
As expected, a young man in brown monk's clothing came out of the building and to the passenger side. He opened the door. "Hello, Mr. Olson, my record shows we were expecting you. May I come in?"
"Yes, hop in. Please excuse me, but I couldn't help admiring the white flower that blankets the forest from here to the entrance. What is it?"
"Those are trilliums -- a Wisconsin wildflower -- they are quite rare now because we don't have as much mature forest here in the central part of the state as we once did. They only produce three seeds, so it is illegal to pick them and once destroyed, hard for them to reestablish. They are more common in the northern part of the state. Drive forward please. We will take the first right beyond this building. I can see that you followed our instructions. So many don't and bring a lot of junk with them. You know that we will sell this car?"
"Yes, I know. I sold everything that I had and am most happy to give the proceeds to the order."
"Do you see that lot over there where those cars are? Please drive to the gate."
JJ drove to the lot and stopped at the gate. Once again, it was fenced with a lot of barbed wire that was electric in strategic places. Hector Two got out and opened the gate for him. He drove in, and following Hector Two's hand signals, parked the car. It was obvious that the order wanted to secure the cars and not make them available to anyone to drive away from the compound.
JJ started to get out of the car, when Hector Two approached again. "Please open the trunk," he said. JJ obliged. All that was in the trunk was his suitcase with a change of clothes and the money. Hector Two opened the suitcase in the open trunk and took a look. "Good," he said. "I don't see any problems here. Do you have anything else?"
"No, that's it." JJ wondered if he would be allowed to leave if everything hadn't been in order.
"Okay, lock the car and give me your keys. Please follow me with your bag to our check-in house over there. He nodded to a mobile home parked alongside the larger, barracks-like building. Hector Two waited and watched until he had done what he was told. And then he turned, leading JJ to the mobile home. The questions began.
"You don't have any implants, do you? The order does not accept augmented people. Pius One wants the pions to be as pure as possible. That means no tattoos, piercing, or jewelry of any kind. No plastic surgery. You aren't circumcised, are you? His Holiness despises Jew boys."
JJ silently sighed. "No, my mother read that it was neither necessary or good for me to have it done. Fortunately, I didn't get into tattoos or piercing like many of my friends were doing in high school. I believe you will find me as pure as a newborn baby."
"We'll see." There was an ominous tone to the way that Hector Two said it. They arrived at the mobile home and Hector Two opened the door to let JJ in. Another brown robed young man was inside. "This is Amos Four, he will help us process you through."
JJ said, "Hello" and nodded to Amos Four. Amos Four didn’t respond.
They took his suitcase, opened it, and started removing his clothes. "Please disrobe over there." Amos Four pointed to a chair next to a large machine. Hector Two was counting JJ’s cash.
JJ had stripped to his briefs when they asked him to remove those, too. Having been in the military, he wasn't embarrassed. His clothes and the cash all conveniently disappeared into bins. He was ushered into a big machine and asked to lie down. It was apparently a CT scan machine. He was asked to lie quietly while it completely scanned his entire body. He was glad he didn't lie about implants. After the scan, they continue to examine him, including his penis and scrotum. It seemed a bit over-the-top, but he let them do it.
"That scar on your shoulder, that is typically where they place implants." Hector Two spoke matter-of-factly, but JJ detected that ominous undertone again.
"Oh that's an old scar from track. Fell down and got spiked while running hurdles."
"Doesn't look that old to me. But you don't have any implants and that is good. Pion, it looks like you're going to pass all of the physical tests. You know, we send most wannabes home. Just don't measure up to our standard. Spies and journalists, well they...." He had said too much and shut up. The pained look on Amos Four's face said it all.
They handed him a pair of brown boxers and a yellow robe. Told him that the yellow color was a sign that he was a poin in training. He would get the brown robe upon completion of that training. JJ surmised that the bright color was used so that any escapees could be easily tracked down. The sinister aspect of the Vespers was becoming more apparent with every minute he was there. He didn't know the half of it.
After his thorough inspection, JJ was taken into the barracks. There was a large dining hall in the center, and along the walls what appeared to be stalls. Some of them had padlocks, others didn't. Lights were on in some and he could see movement through the barred windows. Actually, they looked very much like prison cells or cattle stalls. The dining hall had a kitchen at one end and JJ could see three guys in brown robes working in there. The middle of the room contained long wooden tables with benches instead of chairs. Bouquets of trilliums festooned the tables at equal intervals. State law didn’t count here. There was a large, flat screen monitor at both ends of the dining hall, but JJ didn't think it was for television. His two companions took him to a stall near the end of the long hall. To his astonishment, they locked him in.
There was a cot and a desk, with writing paper and pencils and a bookshelf packed with what looked like propaganda from the religious right, and, of course, two or three copies of the Holy Bible. The stall was smaller than the dorm room he had at the Academy, but there was no hay on the floor like he had pictured when he first saw it. To familiarize himself, he took down some of the books and pamphlets and started reading through them. He vowed to himself never to write anything on the pads that could link him to the Lancers, his former life, or anything that Pius One could use against him.
JJ found the reading material to be rather bland and somewhat reactionary. Still, he tried to take out phrases and key points that he could use later to impress the Pius One. Smells from the kitchen came wafting through the bars, and he grew quite hungry. He was quite thirsty, too, but there was no water in his cell. What if he had to pee? He was glad that he didn't but knew that he would have to learn soon what to do if he did. A monk's life was going to be interesting. Like the Academy--only tougher.
There was no clock in his cell, but eventually, young men came shuffling in from various work sites on the farm. The strong smell of manure accompanied their presence, letting JJ know that he was in dairy farming country. Regardless of their work or their work clothes, in the dining hall, they all wore the same dark brown monks outfit, complete with hood, right out of the Middle Ages. A few had the yellow robe like his. Finally, Hector Two came and let him out, motioning for him to sit at one of the long tables.
Most of the pions were young, younger than JJ. With their hoods down off their heads at the table, they all had short, Marine cut hair, like JJ's -- a youthful, clean-cut, look. No one was talking. They all looked directly ahead and seemed to be meditating, or at least, chanting to themselves. Taking this clue, JJ followed suit by looking straight ahead and pretending to chant. His mind was racing on other subjects, like, what was he getting himself into? What he had seen so far seemed very sinister. No matter how much crap they threw at him, he vowed never to give in. The trick was, could he do it with them watching? Would he give himself away?
The large screens on either end of the dining hall came to life. There was a large V-shaped symbol on screen, superimposed on a cross dripping blood, presumably the logo of the Vespers. Gradually, an ancient chant grew from the speakers and all of the pions joined in. It was a deep, guttural sound that JJ found easy to imitate. Soon, he was chanting with the best of them this ancient incantation from the Middle Ages. The chanting grew in intensity until it filled his chest cavity causing it to beat like a drum. He wondered if heart attacks could be brought on by such intensity. Finally, after what seemed like a half-hour, the chanting leveled off and subsided, only to be replaced by the image of Pius One, resplendent in white like the Pope, spouting dogma like the best of them. Finally the One ended with, “And, may the blessings of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the three seeded triangle of Mother Mary, be with us all.” The symbolism to the trilliums on the tables was unmistakable.
After the message from Pius One, everyone got up from their benches and lined up at the kitchen windows. The plates and bowls were hand carved from wood as were the crude forks and spoons. Since he was near the end of the line, his utensils were especially worn and cracked. JJ made a mental note to help them carve some more. He didn't have to worry because the food was all vegetarian, overcooked and clearly from the farm. The only consolation was the juice, which had a distinctly fermented taste that reminded him of a light wine. Probably used to keep the pions in line.
It was hard to enjoy the food when there was so much ranting going on on a screen. But JJ blocked it out and ate. The fare was bland and mixed in some sort of gruel or stew that someone had imagined they ate in the Middle Ages. JJ wasn't sure that he would get enough protein, but he was sure that he was getting his vitamins. About 15 minutes after commencing eating, all of the participants pushed their empty plates forward and began to chant again for another half hour. At the end of that chant, everyone shouted, "Amen," and stood up at the table. Silently, they all shuffled off to their stalls. Obediently, JJ followed. The lights stayed on until about nine o'clock, when they suddenly went down. Through a tiny window high in his stall, JJ could see that it was still light outside. He stopped reading and tried to go to sleep. It was hard because he wasn't used to going to bed that early in the light through the window bothered him. Finally he drifted off to sleep.
JJ was jarred awake by the sound of a wooden spoon being dragged across the bars of his stall. He was groggy, but he got up. His door was open and he was in his boxers because it was warm in the barracks. He noticed the others shuffling by in their boxers and he followed suit. At the end of the dining hall there was a large, commercial style bathroom with stalls without doors and a group shower. JJ really had to go. Since there were no urinals, he rushed to a stall and relieved himself like so many others did. Everyone was taking off their boxers and hanging them on hooks and entering the group shower. Once again, JJ followed suit. He was shocked to find that the water was ice cold. They all began chanting again as the water rushed over them and they took their cold showers without any soap.
After five minutes in the shower, everyone left, shook the water off, and put on their boxers, still wet. They all went back to their stalls to put their robes on. They then returned to the tables where they continued chanting to images on the screen until the chanting subsided, and, Pius One once again, occupied the screen in their minds. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal with milk and heavy cream. There was maple syrup and honey for sweetening. There were raisins, nuts, and dried apples and pears. It was quite good, actually. Once again, they were only given about 15 minutes to eat. And then, as if automatically, groups of four or five would get up together, go to their stalls and put on boots, and then leave the barracks. JJ guessed that they were on various work details.
Hector Two came up to him and handed him a mop. The floor from the bathroom was still wet from the showers everyone had taken. His job was to mop the floor and clean all of the toilets in the stalls and all of the sinks. Most of the pions had come back to the bathroom to relieve themselves and brush their teeth before their work assignments. Cleaning their mess was a big job that took JJ most of an hour. Hector Two came by periodically and checked on him. When he was finished, Hector Two took him outside to a huge pile of wood. He was given an ax to split the wood into manageable pieces and stack it neatly on piles that were already formed.
At noon a chime sounded from the unfinished cathedral tower. Not knowing what it was, JJ continued splitting wood. Finally, Hector Two appeared and asked him to follow, "Hurry! We're late!" JJ planted the ax in a block of wood and followed. He had to jog to keep up. When they got to the barracks door, Hector Two put his finger to his lips and carefully opened the door. They slipped in as silently as they could, but everybody was watching. The pions were already lined up getting their food. Hector Two and JJ joined the end of the line. A chill came over the whole hall as though something very bad had happened. JJ was so busy eating quickly that he didn't notice how upset Hector Two was. He just didn't know.
He went back to work splitting wood after lunch. By that time he had formed blisters on his hands. They were pretty sore, so he found some cloth and wrapped it around his hands to protect them. It was strange cutting wood in May. But if they used wood to heat the buildings it would take a lot of chopping. Maybe this was just their way of breaking in new recruits. By the time the chime rang again his hands were so sore that he was unable to split wood at all and the rags that he wrapped around his hands were all bloody. He put down the axe and hurried to the barracks. This time he was among the first to arrive and dutifully took his place at a table. Before long, the others filed in and the screens lit up. Instead of a video, this time the real Pius One appeared--live.
"My dear fellow pions. It has come to my attention that our newest recruit, Amos Six, has sinned. He neglected to heed the call to join the pions in the midday repast. It is with much regret that I must have him confined for two days in his cell with only the comfort of the good books for him to read. Does this please the pions?"
The pions all rose modestly at once, and somehow in unison, declared: "Yes, your Holiness, it does."
With that, two pions that Amos Six did not know came to him, and, since he was already standing, grabbed him by the elbows and escorted him to his cell. The door was closed behind, and he heard the clunk of the padlock being snapped in place. Later, someone brought him bread and water. That, and infrequent breaks to go to the toilet was all he had for two days. Amos Six didn't mind, it gave him time for his hands to heal and to read some of the propaganda that Pius One had placed in his cell. It was all pretty innocuous -- watered down so even the almost illiterate could read it. Standard religious dogma with enough repetition so that it would be drummed into the young minds that read it. JJ took it upon himself to read this material as a research project. Trying to figure out what Pius One was really all about. The reading material gave little clue except for constant reference to the purity of the chosen people. Clearly racist.
Hector Two came to his cell on the third morning and opened it. This time, after breakfast and chanting, he joined many others in the fields. There was lots of planting, fertilizing with manure by hand, hoeing, and weeding to do. Besides raising almost all the food they ate on the farm, the Vespers had their own brand of organic foods that were distributed nationwide as being free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides. JJ could attest to that because he spent many hours collecting or stamping out bugs they found on fledgling spring plants. Farming like this was very labor-intensive, and one would think, expensive. Still, the early lettuce, radishes and scallions they were harvesting were disappearing as fast as they could harvest them.
It was hot working in the fields with that heavy yellow robe on. But everyone did. After two or three days Amos Six's nose got sunburned but the rest of him stayed pure white covered with all that robe. His hands toughened and hardened and he felt that he could now split wood without getting blisters. He liked the work and fell into the routine easily. Pions were really no more than slaves to the Pius One, but they didn't know it. Amos Six knew. He kept it to himself. He had little in common with these kids, most of whom were running away from home or from failures of one sort or another, whether in the relationship, work, or school. They were a pathetic bunch, but then, the kind that make easy fodder for machines like the Vespers. Everyone had a biblical name. Since the names were used over and over, they were numbered. Amos Six knew who the high-ranking pions were by their low numbers. It was obvious that Hector Two, his mentor, was one of those. Hector Two was the only one allowed to talk to him. Except in response to questions from Hector Two, other high-ranking pions, and the One, himself, Amos Six spoke to no one. Another form of control.
Everyone seemed to look forward to the Sabbath, the day of rest. Six days of hard, hand labor made it so. Not that they rested. They still rose at 5 a.m. and began rituals that lasted the entire day. Although he had seen Pius One on video many times, in the three weeks since he arrived, JJ had not seen the man in person. He would soon find out why.