I’m the Director of an Insane Asylum located in the woods of Western Canada. This area has a lower population now than it did one hundred years ago. Likewise, I am the only inmate at the Asylum of which I am the chief employee. A book keeping error has allowed me to keep getting paid for almost thirty years now. I’m not about to blow the whistle on this sweet deal.
For the first decade or so I kept the lights on and the doors open in case someone came by seeking treatment. No one ever came. The doors did, on occasion, blow open and the cost of heating the place during the coldest months became prohibitive, so I shut most of it down. On the front door there is a notice asking anyone seeking mental health treatment to call my phone number. My phone has not rung in over twenty years.
I have come up with no good reason to call anyone, so for all I know the phone is no longer in service. Maybe squirrels ate the wire. Maybe an ice storm took down the telephone lines.
You may wonder how I sustain myself here in the middle of nowhere. I am still eating the canned rations that I found on the day I first arrived. As far as I can tell, I would have to live to be three hundred before I consumed all the canned beans, beets, tuna, peas and soups. During the warm weather months, I eat vegetables from my garden, and apples, cherries, pears and apricots from our orchard. The fruits are not doing well. Someday soon, I expect that the last fruit tree will die. They don’t live forever, you know. I have saved seeds from those fruits and will start planting new trees next year, if I live that long.
I’m almost seventy. There appears to be nothing wrong with me, but I know that from this point on it’s not unheard of for people to simply die. Sometimes there’s a warning and other times, not much. Years ago, one of my healthiest friends died from pancreatic cancer when he was in his prime. Three weeks passed from diagnosis to death.
I have never been extraordinarily fit or healthy. Simply puttering about the grounds gives me a modicum of exercise. When I pass, no one will notice. If I have some warning, I think I’ll try to go outside, so my body can be consumed by animals, insects and birds. I would hate to leave a mess inside.
Although it’s hard to imagine now, I used to be quite a party animal. In graduate school, I was the clown who tried to get everyone drunk on a punch laced with pure alcohol. I’d steal ethanol from the lab and a liter was enough to bring a large group to its knees. I thought I needed lots of friends and that they needed me. Now I realize that was simply a convenient fiction. It worked for that time in my life.
I pursued graduate work even after I got my medical license to practice psychiatry. Hospital administration was the wave of the future, and I rode that wave right here, to the woods of Western British Columbia. I had a wife for a brief time back in Vancouver, but we parted ways before I was offered this position. In fact, I never would have applied for such a job if I’d been happily married.
We have a car here at the institute, and I used to drive it into the nearest city, an eighty mile round-trip, back when my sex drive was more pronounced. There was an establishment on the edge of town, a sort of bar with rooms upstairs and women who would accommodate men in my position. After a while, my trips grew less frequent, then stopped altogether. Oh sure, I had the money and could afford it, but the desire had waned. Likewise, I found there was less and less I desired to buy in stores. We had a Fred Meyers store that sprawled over several acres, but I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy.
When I first realized that I would probably have no clients and nothing to do, I thought about raiding the pharmacy for drugs that I could either ingest for my own entertainment, or sell. But since they pay me well and I have no expenses, I keep accumulating money through the direct deposits of my paycheck into my bank account. Eventually, I diversified my holdings by buying stocks, bonds, and precious metals. But even that activity failed to hold my interest.
Most of the drugs we give psychiatric patients are no fun at all, and run little risk of being used for recreation. As I methodically went through our inventory, I tried to imagine myself enjoying them, and could not form a concrete image that would induce me to do so. If I tried to sell them, I would risk arrest for no meaningful gain. So I abandoned this pursuit, and instead decided to put my energies into exploring the woods that surrounded our Institute.
At night I can hear wolves howl. Most of the time they are far away, but sometimes alarmingly close. Last night I howled with them, sticking my head out the window and looking up at a full moon. The woods are pine and appear jet-black at night, a mass of howling darkness that flows in every direction.
I have a shortwave radio in the attic. In this day of the Internet, it seems horribly outdated, but it still works. I can pick up signals from Russia and Asia quite easily. On a cold night, sometimes the radio waves skip across the globe like stones on a pond. Even though I no longer have a license to transmit, I do, using my call letters from fifty years ago. There’s something exciting about going against the grain and resurrecting an old technology. Sure, I could simply email someone far away, or post on a forum, but what’s exciting about that?
Deciphering words through the crackle of static caused by a thousand thunderstorms over the Pacific seems a noble pursuit. It was doing this that I first came into contact with Olga. A medical doctor who no longer practiced, she lived alone in Siberia near Lake Baikal. Her English was quite good. After we talked for a few days, she confessed she didn’t have an amateur radio license either. As crimes go, this seemed a small one.
Because we were simply talking and there would be no trace of our conversation unless someone were making an audio recording, I opened up about my absurd situation here at the Institute. Being used to Soviet and now Russian bureaucracy, she wasn’t surprised. It turns out that unlike many of her friends and neighbors, she was not impoverished. Her late husband had done well in the oil and gas business. Like me, she was somewhat embarrassed by her riches. She didn’t think about them much. It’s only when you have no money that it becomes the central fact of your life.
We talked every evening for over one month when she proposed that she come for a visit. She could fly into Vancouver and I would pick her up at the airport. I had no idea what she looked like, nor did it matter. I told her my age, and so I imagined she had some idea of the old man she would be visiting. Sex didn’t promise to be an important part of the equation.
She arrived the next week. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a trim woman in her fifties who seemed as relaxed and witty as she had been over the radio.
I guess I had been fooling myself about the sex part, because it became the glue that held us together. Once she arrived we jumped straight into the sack and didn’t come up for air for almost a week. It turns out that she had a three-month tourist visa and we could extend that easily by a trip to the Russian consulate.
We were set. We were a couple. Everything had changed, yet we still had nothing to do. As anyone who’s been single for a long time and then is suddenly coupled, being with someone else doesn’t necessarily solve anything.
That’s when Olga came up with a plan.
“We will start a group, a cult, a religious society based on high ideals. You will be our head, but you will not talk. I will do all the talking. We’ll invite people from all over the world to come here and live together, working towards some lofty goal,” she said.
“I haven’t gotten that far yet. But from what I know of human nature, if you offer people a way out, some will choose to take it. We can start with Russians and then expand our scope.”
It turned out to be just that simple. Within a month of her posting an invitation on several social media sites, we had twelve Russians who had made the journey. Within another month, we had a Brazilian couple, a man from Vietnam, a woman from Malaysia, and a family of four from South Africa. We capped enrollment at twenty to see how it would work out.
She named the group “Revolution from Within.” It seemed a clumsy title to me, but since my role was to be a silent presence, I said nothing. During our meetings I would wear a long, white wig. I looked like Johnny Winter. She would talk about whatever interested her. We would sing simple songs and dance a little. She was very interested in getting input from our members.
Our activities involved working online. Fivver, that sort of thing. Our members wrote articles, did artwork, recorded voice-overs, anything that someone needed to be done and willing to pay for. At first, the money was not much, but then with higher approval ratings they could raise their rates, and they did.
Our first members were a bit lopsided gender-wise, as we had too many females. So we recruited a few more males of varying ages. We advanced cautiously. After six months, we had lost a few members but gained an equal number. Our crowd was a bit long in the tooth. Young people didn’t find us sexy enough and took their communal instincts elsewhere. One of our older men was obviously mentally ill, but so long as he didn’t bother anyone, we let him stay. He was aware of his condition and had been asked to leave other communities, so he kept a low profile.
Two middle-aged Danish women were obviously in a lesbian partnership and all went well until one started to transfer her affections to another woman. The abandoned party did not take it well. She threatened violence, and then threatened us all with going to the police and complaining that we were a sick, sex cult. We let her make her complaint, but the police never came. She left in a huff.
We never grew above thirty members. Our weekly meetings became too tedious and complicated when the group got too large.
I busied myself studying the history of the Asylum of which I was Chief Operating Officer. It turns out that the man I replaced had been quite a colorful character, especially by Canadian standards. In addition to running the Asylum, he was a Boy Scout leader, but ran a troupe that adhered to fundamentalist Christian principles. They would walk on their knees through the woods, and then rub their bleeding knees on a special rug, which they kept in a darkened room under the stairs. They worshiped the statues of the U.S. Presidents at Mount Rushmore, and made a pilgrimage once a year. He was the Canadian yodeling champion and built harpsichords in his spare time. His death was quite unusual. During a summer theater production of the Canadian-Mounty-themed musical “Little Mary Sunshine”, in which he played the part of Mary, he burst into flame onstage. Spontaneous Human Combustion. They brought down the curtain and used fire-extinguishers to quell the flames, but at the end, all that was left in the pile of ash was one femur.
Olga was doing a good job with the congregation, though a faction developed that wanted to codify our beliefs. What was our creed? On what could we all agree? Since we had no sacred text, it was up to us to create something that would unify us and focus our efforts.
At first, I tried using an application that I found on the internet, which created nonsense phrases that sounded like New Age wisdom. “It’s not about synchronicity as much as it is about a diversity of viewpoints.” “People cherish that which promises entanglement but delivers freedom and obligation in equal measure.” “Death is merely a mode of objective silence in the face of random noise.”
We tried using these to inspire a meeting, but they fell flat very quickly. Instead, we found that simply taking familiar concepts from the writings of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, and then rephrasing them in modern language after adding a dash of obfuscation did a much better job of focusing our meetings and inspiring our group. By the way, we never called ourselves a “congregation.” That sounded too religious. We were a “group.” That sounded therapeutic.
I suppose we were one of those watered-down religions that believe that we’re all gods, and no one has any more direct path to the divine than any other. People should be kind to each other and there is no such thing as sin, much less a demand for its forgiveness. On this we could all agree so readily that we never had to spell it out.