Sunlight after prolonged darkness blinds before it illuminates, burns before it warms, frightens before it soothes.
Most people who ask me what it was like to live at the Seven Divines compound have no context for such an existence which, in part, fuels their curiosity and leads to questions that have razor sharp ends, comments that bind, words that suffocate.
“Excuse me,” I dismiss myself.
It’s been over a decade since the children of the Seven Divines were rescued, but some days it feels like less time has passed. I can still smell the inside of the cage–a dark cell we were sent to be punished–its thick sulfur fumes, ammonia, rotting flesh, and vomit still make me nauseous, make my eyes water, make my mind whirl. Select members sat outside the cage, reading long passages from books we were told were greater than law, books printed on home copiers, bound with long plastic spirals that instead of making it easier to turn the pages, made it harder. Twenty-four hours a day, members took turns sitting outside the door reading, and at any time they could ask us to repeat the last thing they had said. Every missed question meant an additional day in the cage. And in the beginning, I missed all of my questions, which meant more days and finally a visit from the leader who ordered my release, a cold shower, and a meal, followed by thirteen lashes before sending me back to the cage.
I was only thirteen, but I knew giving up my mind would be the end for me, as it had been for my mother when Irene entered our lives, bringing kindness, support, adventure, material goods we couldn’t afford, pamphlets and meetings that promised a better life, a better way if we submitted. All burdens would be lifted, and we’d enjoy life’s abundance. So my mother signed over our belongings, the key that unlocked Irene’s true intentions. And I watched our lives unravel as the people who had been caring and inviting unzipped their skin suits, exposing slimy monsters with an insatiable hunger for the vulnerable. We were picked up in a white van, driven blindfolded to meet the family, and put to work immediately, children on one side of the field, their mothers on the other, too far apart to find comfort, close enough to hope that the distance wasn’t permanent, but for many it was too late. They were already dying, their brains washed in ideals they were afraid to live without, familial bonds sacrificed for what sounded like redemption but felt like hell.
When they read to me, I let my mind travel back to our old life, the brown house on the south end of District City, where my friends, Courtney and Zaria sat on the steps waiting for me, where our neighbors Roy and Troy played music on their porch, where the Bailey’s dog, Lennox, chased us and gave away our hiding spots. I thought about school, my teachers. I counted, recited my multiplication table, recalled dates from history, remembered stories we had read, panicking when I couldn’t pull up words in my mind, spell them the way I had before. The idea to actually listen to what the members were reading popped into my head but with one caveat: I would only reflect on the meaning of the word, not its context, create a kind of duplicity that allowed me to preserve who I was and also spare myself the pain that came with rejecting who they wanted me to be. This time when asked, I repeated back their words and embraced the darkness because now I knew how to manipulate it.
After a few weeks in the hospital, where I was treated for malnourishment and a myriad of traumas, I went to live with my aunt and uncle on the north end of District City. They gave me my own room, but I spent most days alone on the balcony because it felt safe: no one on the outside could reach me there, and yet I wasn’t trapped.
“Let us know if you need anything,” they said everyday, a well meaning offer that somehow, after everything, felt hollow.
Some days I still feel like I’m back at the Seven Divines compound. I still feel their words, the intonations and rhythms like a scalpel scraping against my tongue until I taste blood. So I stay silent, honor the parts of me I no longer recognize and find comfort in knowing light reveals what darkness hides.