Professor Wendell began working through his tell-tale signs moments before announcing a sadistic assignment. He’d flick his pen back and forth between his index and ring finger twice – three times if it was particularly devious. “Oh no, there he goes,” I whispered and nudged Frank Scelto, my only friend in the class. Frank looked up from whatever he was doodling before class began. The last few students took their seats, but only about a third of us were keenly aware of what was to come. The other lined up in rows, lambs readying for the slaughter.
Frank’s green eyes turned to a glassy white. His pen halted, draining ink into a darkening splotch on his paper. “Oh please no, not again.” But sure enough, Professor Wendell paused his pen pointed towards the ceiling. Wendell planted both feet on the ground, leaned forward and ran his free fingers through his curling mustache, down through his beard. When his hand flicked off the end of his graying facial hair, he revealed his sharp smile as if he had just thought of an old joke he knew would be a hit – in a way it would be, but only to whatever demons swam inside his head.
“I was supposed to go to the movies with Lacy this weekend. Can he just let us finish the semester without another –”. Frank’s rolled then shut his eyes. I nearly giggled at Frank’s frustration but I dare not make a peep interrupting Wendell.
Wendell bent into those planted feet inside his shining shoes. My stomach knotted, but I knew I was freer this weekend than Frank. Sometimes I enjoyed Professor Wendell’s projects, but I wouldn’t admit that to anyone in the class.
“Good evening everyone,” he boomed. Wendell removed his black leather gloves and placed them neatly on the desk before beginning his stroll across the front of the room.
“Oh shit, that’s how you know,” Frank muttered.
“I’m assigning you each a different historic cult to research. I want at least a ten-page paper, but no more than 15 – I have a family you know. It must be MLA cited and on my desk by Wednesday. In the paper I want you to not only research the cult you are assigned, but provide justification for the cult’s most heinous practices. I want you to immerse yourself, feel what must have been going through the minds of those involved.”
At such an assignment, you would have expected the class to break out into chatter or emit an exasperated moan. Not in Professor Wendell’s class – nobody dared show anything but enthusiasm. Wendell always said that if we didn’t love learning all aspects of anthropology, the accounting department was always looking for CPA candidates.
As Frank continued to roll his eyes he said, “Well, that’s just another weekend Frank Scelto remains the 25-year-old virgin.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” I began. “you wouldn’t have gotten laid either way.”
Frank stuck his tongue out at me and faked a laugh as sarcastic as he could muster.
Professor Wendell began making his rounds, handing out folded index cards with the name of a cult on each. My chest fluttered. If you’ve ever researched cults before or even heard of one, you’ll know some have more information on them than others. Some have been rung clean in every way imaginable, not one more unique word could be written about them. I could just hope for an easy one like Heaven’s Gate, or the Manson family – hell I’d even take Scientology. But there were plenty more nobody wrote about, never mind made movies and “South Park” episodes for.
Wendell made his way to the second row of desks and then approached me. He made brief but deep eye contact with me, then slapped an index card atop my notepad. “Good luck, Ms. Offre.”
He dropped a card on Frank’s desk, then Derek’s without saying a word. Frank turned his card over and unfolded it. His expression quickly changed, he pumped his fist through the air and let out a hissing “yes”. He turned the card to me. “The Branch Davidians. All I have to do is watch the Netflix show.”
How could I forget about the Branch Davidians? I would have killed for that card. I gulped, knowing at least one of the easiest cults was already taken, hoping for the best. I split the card with my turquoise finger nails, softly prying it open. For a moment, I didn’t recognize the cult’s name – not a great start. I turned it towards Frank for assistance in jogging my memory. “Dahomey?” I said inquisitively.
He smiled and shook his head. “Man, I feel so much better about this project now. That’s that African kingdom from the 17th and 18th centuries. Good luck finding any information on it, Dana. I tried once – believe me it’s not out there.”
“You do remember you have to justify the religion, right?” I jested back. Frank dared not emit anything resembling a disgruntled noise since Wendell was still close by, but his face did all the work for him. “Exactly. Good luck with that, bud.”
He breathed out harshly through his nose. “Says you. How are you going to justify…you know.”
The Spring of 2017 marked my final few months at grad school, studying for my doctorate in anthropology. As I neared the end of my time at the university I spent just a little too much time at, I began to look forward to my life beyond. I could almost smell the end, my ambitions in full fruition like the first bloom of the season. Perhaps I’m being dramatic, but it was truly what I always envisioned from the time I was six years old. It started out as an obsession with dinosaurs, then morphed into a love of history, and then finally I discovered my true passion: anthropology – the study of humanity, human behavior and above all in my case, human societies.
In a few short months I’d begin my travels abroad. The way I imagined it began in Israel helping out with some archaeological dig sites. Once I had enough credibility in the field, I dreamed of spending a few years studying the Korowai of New Guinea and living among them. Their culture is my childhood dream: living in tree houses.
Like anyone else, I hoped for an easy last semester. I hoped to drive off into the sunset of the doctorate program cruising all the way…but Professor Wendell had other plans. He gave me a little more than a short run for my money in our last religious studies class. But I suppose it was nice having one difficult class left. It helped me live in the moment.
Right when I arrived home that night I began my research. Frank was right – it wasn’t going to be easy. I’d have to immerse myself in a religious cult for which there was little to no information. It was as if nobody ever studied them before I did. I can’t say I blame those who’ve tried. I scoured the web for a short while, looking for the most heinous practices the Dahomey ever partook in. I’d need to justify whatever it was, so I was hoping it wasn’t too much a stretch. But based on Frank’s reaction, I’d have no such luck.
Quickly I found it – human sacrifice. Well out of earshot of Professor Wendell in my apartment, I let out a crackling groan. Human sacrifice? How was I supposed to justify that? And that whole semester I thought Wendell was into me – that all evaporated in a hurry.
Human sacrifice had to be the most heinous act I could have been assigned. The only thing worse I could imagine at the time was some kind of rape cult – but even then, I could justify it by saying they had to make more conforming babies to keep their demonic cult alive. But human sacrifice crossed a line for me – or so it did at the time.
What was I supposed to do – fail the class? I wanted to start a life, get out into the real world. At least that’s what I keep telling myself: I didn’t have a choice. And so, I began diving into the sick outdated practice.
The first thing I had to do was identify their reasoning – what exactly did human sacrifice stem from in their case? What was the basis for such horrid conclusions?
At a surface-level, the Dahomey Kingdom was a primary hub of slave trade to Western civilizations. I was hoping to spin that into a justification of human sacrifice, but of course it couldn’t be so easy. As I read on I learned the cult Wendell assigned to me was one of the largest scale human sacrifice cults in history. They would ritualistically murder anywhere from a few people to four thousand at once – mostly in a bid to continue their militaristic dominance or preserve their king’s health.
I shook my head and threw back a swig of scalding hot coffee – immediately regretting my haste. I ran my tongue over the charred roof of my mouth. I thought about the people – those sacrificed to save the king. It was always that way, wasn’t it? Even today. The rich and powerful would climb with their polished shoes off the backs of the poor, the hard-working. But in this case it wasn’t just torturous labor, it was death. As I read more, I initially found it harder to justify. Now I wouldn’t just have to side with human sacrifices, I’d have to side with the ruling elite.
Or would I? I sat up in my chair, the computer screen dazzling my zonked face and burnt lips. I came to the Dahomey’s commencement of the 17th century – overthrowing their King, Adandozan. Their reasoning? He refused to continue the practice of human sacrifices.
It baffled me at first, as I’m sure it did for you. Imagine a society, consistently watching poor innocent people sacrificed in massive waves to some higher power just to benefit the longevity of the king and military. Initially I didn’t imagine I’d tolerate such a practice, much less fight to preserve it. The whole thing seemed counter-intuitive at the least, but more accurately demonic. What could possess a civilization to want to be sacrificed?
After all my years of studying anthropology, I suddenly felt hopeless, like I’d learned nothing. If I was unable to understand the Dahomey, what right did I have to live in trees with the Korowai?
But…it didn’t take long. Soon it all made sense to me. Not an hour later, I began to understand. The Dahomey understood like all of us that there is a ‘give and take’ to life. Even Newton’s Third Law of Motion states just the same: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every sip I take of my cooling coffee, I become slightly more energized despite the time. For every hasty sip I took while it was scalding hot I would be awarded burns in my mouth: play stupid games, win stupid prizes, I told myself. For every time I insulted my ex, I would receive an equal, if not harsher insult back.
I shook my head. I was thinking too small – much smaller than the Dahomey did. I was only allowing myself to consider immediate microcosmic actions and reactions. A burn from coffee, a heated exchange with Luther, a lick from my dog after I pet him. The Dahomey considered something greater – life itself.
I sat back in my chair, realizing I didn’t need to research anymore – I had to do what I do best: total immersion. I closed my eyes and imagined life among the Dahomey. I was one of them. I wore a colorful garb my husband had made for me. I haven’t seen him in years, but I heard he’s coming home from the war today. I wait eagerly amongst the rest of the women, children pushing past us as the troops approach. How blessed I was to have such a glorious husband. He cares deeply for his nation in addition to myself and our seven children. As long as he was around, our nation would be forever safe and prosperous. I panted and sweat in the crammed crowd waiting to spot his face.
Not many returned, much less than I expected. And those who did return were battered, covered in dried blood, holstering blunted weapons. Nonetheless they all stood tall, grins of victory engulfing their cheeks.
The last few troops entered Abomey. Among that final few was my husband. I clutched my trembling lips and let out a low whimper. He made it, the gods had aided us once again. Overjoyed and forever grateful for the success of my nation and family – I had to give back.
I opened my eyes. As one gives back to their church today through community service, or one takes care of their dying parents – we always have to give back. In my studies I grew angry with myself. What had I given back to deserve what I had? All I did was go to class, hangout with friends and get ingest enough alcohol to knockout an elephant on the weekends. What did I do to give back? These sensations were sudden, overwhelming, washing over me with twenty-five years of regretful gluttonous consumption. If I didn’t act soon it would all come crashing down one day, setting my life ablaze to reach the existential equilibrium it was destined to return to.
It was too late for simple hugs, too late for community service, too late for even a substantial donation. And what better sacrifice to give than…
I have been gifted an exceptional life thus far, and I know I wouldn’t be a leading anthropologist today without doing what I did, but nobody can ever know. Days after I turned my paper in, Professor Wendell approached me more delighted than I’d ever seen his sinister face before. He told me he’d use my paper as an example in his future classes, he told me he’d help me join an archaeological dig in Israel. It…worked. Nobody could tell me it didn’t. It was meant to be, as was my career, as is love, as is the earth’s constant rotation.
Fate would hand me this assignment via Wendell’s hand when I needed it most. Fate would guide my whole life towards anthropology, to that very moment. Fate would seat me next to the purest form of human: the virgin.
But as I roar further through my mortal life, I can feel the equilibrium break stride once more. It loosens like the buttons on an old pair of jeans. And like those jeans I’d either be thrown out or make the necessary repairs myself. It is almost time now – it is almost time to water the graves again.