In my younger days, I was in a cult.
The cult was the cover story for a secret society that I don’t mind talking about because it is the kind of thing that no one really believes could exist. The stuff of stories, not something your barber is also a member of. Not that he’d tell you if he was a member. We have—
There I go. I’ve left both the cult and the society. Really. I’ve left all that behind me.
When I was a member it was layered, and most members were in the outer few layers where secrets are kept fairly obsessively. If your barber were a member, he’d likely not know any of the other members he met, and would almost certainly not have even seen their faces. Before the cowls came off, you had to advance through lots of levels and pass lots of trials. By that point, joining the cult and fully shedding your outside life was an easy choice.
It only took me three years to reach that point. I was running my own section, recruiting occasional people, but in ways that left me ignorant of their place in the Unity, and almost certainly left them equally ignorant of my advanced level. My section was high level, but still outside the compound.
Then I was summoned.
As is our—their— practice, the summons was a message delivered by tea leaves. It may very well have been the second or third attempt to summon me that I noticed as I had been in the habit of nursing a cup of tea of mornings, and as often as not leaving it cold half full rather than emptying it to the point of noticing a message. I rather suspect that was the case, as this time my napkin also held a message: “Read your damn cup!” was scrawled on it in a spot that I only saw by accident after I spilled the tea. Then I saw the summons.
I found that after anticipating this moment for years, when it finally arrived I was unsure if I should obey. By the higher ranks, we were starting to see that the harmless social club of nameless and faceless members probably had a dark core. That made me nervous.
But I was young, so I followed the map in the tea.
It led me as usual to a private lobby where I could pull my robe on over my clothes and settle the hood over my face as was now a comfortable ritual of transformation from just a barber to one rising in the hierarchy. I knew that the protections it offered were both real and limited. Not many would know for certain who I was outside, so I was still somewhat safe from repercussions. But if this interview went as expected, all that would change.
And yet, was I really a member?
Does The Unity really exist?
Or, perhaps, am I really just sounding you out to see if you’d be intrigued enough to spend some time on Tuesdays and Fridays at a meeting where no one will know your name?
You might have to join yourself to know for sure.
Or will you know even then?