Masturbation and sex were anathemas, especially when we girls broached the topics. We could never talk freely about it with anyone without being condemned—censured to the point of living in ignorance; forever made to dwell in unawareness; stumbling around blindfolded from one room to another, hands outstretched attempting to live in a house built by men that had no clue how to build or maintain or to navigate. Historical romance novels somewhat solved that conundrum; at least, they did for us. Frequently though, the writers felt as blindfolded as I was as they scrambled to place words on paper. I never understood the need to treat virginity as some sacred ritual and sacrifice. It felt archaic and incurious—passive and austere. To me sex was an adventure into the unknown; a quest to climb Everest or sail across a flat sea while those around you kept hollering you’re gonna fall off the edge demanding you go no farther. I didn’t care; I sailed forth and climbed anyway. Sexuality became a crusade of knowledge and a subject to research and investigate without judgment. I didn’t understand that desperate willingness to embrace ignorance and unawareness.
There was experimentations with the cousins; nothing horribly egregious; kids being kids kissing and touching. Since the adults had avoided extending us any type of sexual education, we were left to explore on our own being careful not to venture too far from home, utilizing our own vigilance when needed. From reading historical romance novels, the severity of the rebukes women were forever made to feel if they did go too far, were cruel; not to the men, but to the women; women were never allowed to sexually explore; men were given leeway to do whatever they wanted with a woman’s body regardless of how the women felt about it and women were often left with the products of whatever transpired between, consensual or not.
I was forever pointing this out to Natalie who just shrugged it off. It didn’t seem to bother her as much as it did me. I often wondered why.
Laying on the swinging bridge in the shade reading, I closed the last pages of the book I finished. Frustrated, I recounted the narrative of the historical romance set at the tail end of the Crusades. Pissed and baffled at how the author—a woman—could write so casually about her character’s betrothed raping her before he even knew she was his betrothed then writing a story of her falling in love with him and living happily ever after, I hated it, but I loved it, and I couldn’t stomach that I loved it. Nat ignored me and continued reading while I yammered on and on about it. It’s the way it is, she replied just as casually, which sent me off on another rant. She put her book down and looked at me: Your father beat your mother, you loved him, she said blandly. You are daddy’s little girl, aren’t you?
It felt like a slap. We didn’t talk about my dad, and his history. Ever.
Natalie was good at this; listening, waiting for the perfect time to insert some breezy comment that carved up my heart. It would take me a few minutes to respond and sometimes I never would so hurt was I from the knife she had stuck between my ribs. Occasionally, I would counter with a question: Why? Her indifference was brutal: Some girls aren’t as strong as you, or variations of that sort based on the initial conversation that I both pondered and fretted over. But, I wasn’t strong, and she knew that. She used those carvings as a weapon of irony and condescension, not as a tool of wisdom and compassion.
Am I supposed to hate him, I asked. She shrugged and we moved off the subject entirely avoiding the confrontation of anything further seemingly like it wasn’t worth her time or care. I swallowed the hurt and carried on.
Natalie and her family deemed themselves superior to that of the rest of her father’s family—mine and my mother’s family. I glimpsed those acts of superiority through fogs of longing—a longing to be loved. The shade was there: the disdain for the act of visiting mawmaw and pawpaw’s house to that of hanging out with the other cousins. Oftentimes, the contempt was open and unguarded and I was pressed to join in the distaste of the rest of my family or I too would be mocked and derided thus shunned. I realized later that all this hate must have originated with Uncle.
Uncle—having been raised around five opinionated sisters and their equally demanding mother—dripped and spread his misogyny to that of those that he could control; most notably his wife and daughter and two sons. I felt this battle within himself each time he looked at me. He was forever combating and straddling the line between being a virtuous person or the orthodox male that was—nine times out of ten—standard in these parts of the world. I wondered later if Natalie had felt that same struggle. What about Aunt? Had Uncle’s grandchildren, the girls, felt it also. As Natalie birthed only boys, I was positive it no longer occupied her thoughts. She had nieces though—Cody and Ben’s girls; had she thought about them. I did.
I was ashamed to admit that sometimes I was guided by the self-serving and not the principled out of need of love and acceptance. I told myself later that I had been a child and to stop hating what I couldn’t change—accept and acknowledge the actions I didn’t take. It was all good in practice until confronted with those all those many deeds on repeat. There were those that accepted that burden as a lesson of the past and those that avoided it entirely out of some prideful or foul cause.
And here was Niko to show us our mirrors.
Niko started her freakish documentary-type movie with a voice-over she added while standing behind us in the shadows. Introducing this narrative to us as we sat there looking on sheepishly, her voice was light—bemused and disinterested all at once which quickly escalated into…something else.
In the year 2020, the prison industrial complex T29, along with the US government, bombed and transformed West Virginia into one of ten prison states—an antecedently expansive shift in the growing private prison slave labor industry. The czar of this complex lives in the Greenbriar where a conference of the governing elite cabinet of czars and the president will gather. As a member of the resistance, Jayden is resurrected and recruited to conscript and initiate five members of a dead opposition to cultivate and champion into soldiers for this resistance. She chooses three cousins and two friends from her youth she was once very close to that had ultimately rejected her.
I sat to the side overlooking the dark room lit only by the ambient light of the window-screen. The rest of them sat motionless staring straight ahead waiting for the story to unfold. Their faces and bodies rigid with anticipation and tight with concern and caution, even resentment.
Niko walked around them towards the front of the ship’s provisional movie theater continuing her narrative while also modifying her voice to sound more like those deep breathy promo voice-over narrators that peddled in melodramatic previews.
Plucked from the past, reliving it along the way, their consciousness imprinted onto mutated clones, they struggle against Jayden’s leadership and the choices they’re asked to make in opposition of their ideological values. Led by an unknown mysterious crew of a vanquished commander from the future—she pauses looking off almost wistfully—fighting her own monsters—then continues as before—Jayden tries to convince her initiates the honorable course of a history that’s already been experienced and lost. Or has it.
An awkward silence before I busted out laughing—the sound grating, loud, and graceless—doubling over in such mirth, my side burned with pain and tears flowed liberally down my face. After a beat, I sat up noting the eerie silence. Niko stood looking at me and for a brief moment, through the dark, I saw her vulnerability almost overtake her. It disappeared quickly into amusement and delight. She had so exposed herself to this small group of antagonists—how many times and at what cost? I felt her thoughts hit me in a surge. I stopped, shaken by that blast and removed all humor opening myself up to her.
I was just another antagonist. I was not the protagonist, the liberator, the savior or whatever colorful brands white people like to call themselves in situations like these. I was another cog in the overall con of what I ultimately represented. Niko knew this. We all did.
Shame showed on my face and the sternness in my abrupt posture. All eyes on me, the silence resounding, I mumbled an apology; an authentic hoarse one into the anecdotal coldness. Please continue, I practically pleaded.
I and the others sat riveted to the exceedingly large screen as the credits rolled. Niko listed herself as the writer, director, and editor and Tinta and Bian as the executive producers. From our Frankenstein-like future technological origins to the Groundhog Day foul-like repetitive scenes of violence and brutality, the brilliance of each act—the production and edits—was mesmerizing…and disturbing on an entirely other level—one that had never been presented in such a way to us before now. The hideousness of our truth and the unawareness of our defects over and over again as we desecrated each other and the world around us. It was like some 21st century arthouse horror flick—Jennifer Kent, Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers—I was a fan of all of them back in the days before it all went to shit; but nothing touched the roasting and sinister-like creation of what the talent of this one scientist from the future had so masterly staged and created.
Shock resonated through the room as each scene exploded truisms all over us. A thousand times better than a Tarantino or Coen brothers or any of Hollywood’s toxic white boy films; this was an ode to 20th and 21st-century horror films pure and simple. The horror? It was a disease we didn’t name. Even now.
© 2018-2019 Pamela Gay Mullins