Prompt: Your MC gets a new job at a new place in a new city. The tight-knit family running the place welcomes them with open arms and then invites them to take part in an eerie cult ritual when they close at night. Your MC is scared but overwhelmed by curiosity. What happens next?
Behind The Gates
“Harlot! Dare you spew poison about my son!”
“You’ve disgraced our family, Penny. Don’t sully our doorstep again.”
“I’m sorry, my child, I’ve some pin money saved. Take it, but you need to leave.”
“The church is no place for those who sin.”
“Aaah yes, you are welcome to stay. I can well accommodate your needs if you do mine.”
“A young, unmarried girl looking for shelter. I can’t have a viper in my nest, you see.”
And the door slammed closed in her face. Again. The night was upon her, and Penelope had run out of options. She spied a light in the last cottage at the edge of the village. Sending a fervent prayer upwards, she knocked on the ramshackle door furtively. The door creaked open, and a wizened old face, puckered with age and labor, peeked at her. Almost on the verge of exhaustion, Penelope held on to the door.
“Mistress, please…My name is Penelope. Can you offer me a place to stay tonight? And a morsel if you have some to spare.”
“I’m Gertrude. I’m sorry. I’ve nothing to give you.” Saying this, she opened the door further. Penelope saw faces, young and old, hungry and pale, looking up at her. Gertrude offered her some dry bread and a handful of wild berries.
“I thank you…” Penelope was overcome with emotion.
“It’s the least I could do. Why don’t you seek asylum at the nunnery? It’s merely a mile to the left.”
Penelope opened her mouth, but she could not explain her plight. No house of God would let her in.
“No matter what, don’t go towards the Gates.” With an ominous whisper, she bid her good night.
Penelope pulled her cloak close and huddled near a thicket of purple thistle at the roadside. Gusts of wind whistled an eerie tune, pricking holes in her paltry cover, chilling her bones. Sleep and exhaustion clouded her senses, but the gnawing pit in her stomach halted her droopy eyes. She had more than herself to think of. Penelope gingerly touched her belly. A soft glow erupted from her core, warming her inside out.
Her baby. And Walter’s. He was tall and hulking to her dainty, petite frame, dark to her freckled paleness, and exuberant to her soft, shyness. A love so deep and undying, until a freak carriage accident, snuffed Walter’s life and shattered her dreams. A few days after the funeral Penelope realized her womb had quickened with Walter’s child. A fatherless bastard in the eyes of the world and their families.
Penelope wiped the tears that gushed over, as was the case lately. She nibbled at some bread and sipped some water from her moleskin. Her weary body curled up in a fetal position to preserve what heat remained as the wind continued its assault.
“What is she doing alone?”
“Is she dead?”
“Looks like a poor beggar girl.”
“Let’s take her along.”
Hushed whispers infiltrated Penelope’s foggy brain. Her eyes, swollen and crusty with her tears, opened in a slit. She was being carried in a horse-driven cart. The steady clopping of their hooves and rolling wheels lulled her back to sleep. A remote corner of her mind registered the sound of large wrought iron gates closing behind them with a clang.
Penelope felt warm. Too warm. She awoke with a start and looked around jerkily. It seemed like a dormitory with several straw pallets stacked up against the wall. Penelope threw aside the blankets and arose unsteadily. A sharp wave of nausea hit her hard, and she tottered towards a corner. After dry heaving for a few moments, she wiped her cracked lips, looking askance.
“Oh, you are awake!” A high-pitched voice exclaimed. “Let me call the others.”
Before Penelope could react, an array of women, young and old, all dressed in white linen gowns, ushered themselves in. Looking over her curiously, they let loose a volley of questions.
Penelope let them finish patiently. “I… I thank you for giving me a place to sleep last night. My name is Penelope, and I’m from the village of Shrockton. I’ll gather my belongings and be on my way now. Thank you again for being kind to me.”
The women exchanged long glances. One of them, a stout matronly woman, came forward. “My name is Marge. You can stay here with us. You have no one to look after you. You almost froze to your death last night. And in your condition…”
Penelope panicked and covered her belly protectively with both her hands.
“We know. Between us, we have raised many children. We are one big family here at Elysium Gates you see. We live together, grow our food, and share every task and turmoil. You’ll find a place here.” She patted Penelope affectionately.
It was too much for her. Ever since her condition was known, no one had touched her with such love. She only received flak and curses. Penelope couldn’t control her tears and collapsed in a bumbling heap.
“Don’t worry, you are part of us now, and we take care of our own.” Marge cooed softly, holding Penelope close.
The women went about their tasks and Marge took Penelope under her wings to show her around the massive property that was Elysium Gates. A large two-storied house surrounded by a smattering of hutments and bordered by barns, cattle shed, cold house, and privies around the far edges. A narrow stream bordered the northern edge just before the dark, dense woods. Barring the stream, the entire property was barb-wired, culminating in large wrought iron gates that stood looming and sentinel.
Penelope could feel her anxiety ease out of her body and mind. “How can I help? I’m good at sewing and hemming and can help to clean the house.”
“That’s perfect! We have a lot of smocks, shirt sleeves and gowns to be mended. But let’s get some hot gruel for you.” The women headed to the kitchens to break their fast.
Months passed, and Penelope happily settled into the bustling household. The women kept the house and the kitchens, whereas the menfolk tended to the farm, cattle, and the butchery. Penelope floated on a cloud of contentment, cocooned in a shared camaraderie with other housemates. Before she knew it, she was halfway along.
Late in winter, a palpable wave of excitement surged through the household.
“He is coming. And just in time for the birth.”
Penelope’s curiosity bubbled over, but she received only snippets of information.
“The lord of the house, Mr. Raphael. He’ll be here by the end of the week. Just in time for Emily’s birthing. She is due any day,” said Marge.
Who was Emily? In all her days, she was yet to meet an Emily.
“You’ll meet her soon. She is in confinement due to her delicate condition.” Marge replied, sensing her confusion.
For the next few days, the house was abuzz with excitement. People thundered through the corridors, cleaning, scrubbing, sprinkling the yard, and cooking up a storm.
At last, the day arrived. The mammoth gates opened, and a horse-driven carriage approached the house, meandering around the huts and the barn. The carriage door sprung open and out stepped Raphael, a tall, lanky man with a presence so captivating that the air stood still. He was a sight to behold with long, flowing ebony hair, cerulean eyes, pristine white untucked tunic, and billowy pants.
People cheered and bowed to pay their respects. He perambulated, parting the sea of admirers, patting and shaking hands, kissing their foreheads. Penelope stood transfixed as he held her hand briefly before moving on. He had an enigmatic aura that pulled the throng towards him like ants to a sweet. The crowd disassembled and Marge pulled Penelope along with her to prepare for the birthing ceremony.
“Ceremony? Isn’t birthing supposed to be private?” Penelope inquired.
“Oh no. Now that our lord is back, every day will be a celebration. Birthing, death, marriage, deflowering are celebrated like they rightly should be.”
Penelope stared aghast.
“There is nothing to be shy or ashamed of. Life is to be embraced with a full heart and a wild abandon.” Marge spoke dreamily.
Penelope entered the barn just as the eventide sky turned shades of gray. The haystacks and the tumbleweed were shoved away to the far corners. Indecipherable chants rang in the air as men and women alike gathered in a wide circle holding hands, swaying in tandem to the beats. A makeshift bed was raised in the center. Penelope stumbled back as her eyes caught on the occupant of the bed.
Emily was no woman but a frail, blue-eyed girl younger than Penelope’s eighteen years. She whimpered and thrashed around in agony. The baby was too big for her. Her screams clashed with the humming chants creating a cacophony of peace and anguish. But that wasn’t the most shocking aspect of it all. Whom Penelope thought as the midwife, bent over Emily trying to maneuver the baby was in fact…
Penelope turned away in shock. Having a male doctor deliver a baby was not unheard of, but watching it so closely, scandalized her. She could not look back upon the scene. Instead, she prayed fervently for the baby and Emily. After what seemed like hours, she heard a faint cry followed by a piercing screech. The crowd whooped and rejoiced in unison.
Penelope turned around as Raphael raised a little bundle, gooey and bloody in the air. Praises and blessings were showered upon the little boy. Penelope’s face broke into a tumultuous smile and her eyes searched for Emily.
She lay motionless in a pool of blood, her body contorted at an awkward angle, her clothes askew and her mouth open in a silent scream. Running towards her prone form, Penelope patted her pallid cheeks, rubbed her hands, and tried to sense her breathing.
A puff of air peppered her finger.
A miracle. It was nothing short of one.
The celebrations continued every night hence. Emily and the baby recuperated in a dim room. The residents of the house spent their days praying and nights drinking and dancing. Guests, dressed finely arrived in opulent carriages, every other night.
“They are sponsors that donate to our community graciously,” was the answer received when she asked one of the women.
Penelope observed it all from afar. She felt pulled and pushed at the same time. What she witnessed was beyond her understanding and unpalatable to her conservative upbringing.
Raphael sought her company after Marge introduced them. He was always chivalrous towards her, enquiring about her health, her appetite, and her feelings. His voice, deep and soothing, calmed her nerves. Once he spent time talking to the baby and it kicked in her belly for the first time. Penelope felt such joy, that for a moment she found her way deep into Raphael’s embrace. As they pulled apart, their eyes held on to each other, refusing to let go.
Her body and mind were assaulted with inexpressible emotions. But she felt at home despite the quirks and weird rituals. There was a sea of people to surround her and ensure she delivered safely.
Or so she thought.
The winter frost waned, and spurts of early spring made an appearance. Penelope, far along, waddled around the house. After being away for a few months, Raphael was back home. The feasts were underway, and people strolled about the yard merrily. Marge invited Penelope over to the barn citing an important chore. Raphael was waiting for her with a wide smile. His raven locks were tied with a ribbon. Dressed in his favored whites, he beckoned her over.
“Penelope, I understand it is too soon. But I feel strongly for you. Will you allow me to cherish you for life, my dear Penny?” His face turned expectant.
Penelope beamed with joy. It had been only a few months, but the joy and comfort he offered warmed the cockles of her heart.
“Yes, my lord. I’ll be honored.”
Raphael clapped with glee. And the crowd cheered them on. “You shall pledge to me before your birthing.” Penelope’s eyes shone with tears.
“As one of my concubines, you shall have all the privileges in running this household as the others,” Raphael said with a flourish.
Penelope’s heart skipped a beat. “One.., of your…concubines? I don’t understand.” She could feel a chill run down her spine.
Raphael laughed aloud. “Nobody told you? I thought you knew by now. Look around you.”
Penelope waited for him to drop the jest. “I didn’t know…. who are others?”
“Well, all of them.” He turned to look behind him.
A wall of solidarity erupted at his back. All the women of the household stood behind him, from the youngest to the oldest, all with a face of acceptance and peace.
Penelope’s eyes widened in horror. “They are your concubines!!! Marge?” she looked towards her closest confidante, who stood solemn and stoic. “And the children?” She turned around to where the kids played chase.
“All mine, of course.”
Penelope felt sick to the stomach. It was unfathomable. There were about thirty women in the house including…Emily!
“I don’t understand. What about all these men?”
“They are related, of course, but in their past lives. They were fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands to them. Now they have taken an oath of servitude and celibacy.
Penny, love? How does it matter how each of us arrived here? It only matters that we are one big family, bonded together with love and desire. Would you rather spend your life in ignominy?”
Penelope was stunned to the core. His words were eloquent and laced with reason, but there was much left unsaid between the lines.
A part of her mind urged her to turn away and run, but the other stood still, not knowing where to go. She had every comfort here. And a roof for her baby. She only had to be… a mistress?
A few days later, Penelope walked to the northern edge of the property, in a trance, her body and mind dragging with tumultuous thoughts. She arrived near the stream; the soft tinkling water soothed her senses. She stood there, taking her fill, and that’s when she spotted a middle-aged man. He was standing near a raised mound of soil. She walked towards him, clearing her throat softly.
“Miss Penelope, I didn’t see you arrive.” He bowed.
“You are related to Emily, right? Her father.” Penelope recollected.
Tears stung his ruddy eyes, his unkempt face falling further.
“Yes, I was.” He whispered, touching the fresh soil on the mound.
Penelope recoiled in shock. What was he saying? That Emily lay-…Was it her grave?
“But she was fine just the other night. I saw her serving our guests.”
The man composed himself. “Go on now to the house, Miss. You walked too far. Not safe.”
Penelope was appalled. What else had she missed? Looking at the place closely she saw faintly tilled soil in many places. It wasn’t just one grave; it was a graveyard. Hard to know without any marker or tombstone.
There was a darkness lurking beneath the pristine brightness. Blinded by the light, she failed to notice the quagmire she had walked into.
The night before her ‘pledge’, Penelope lay in her pallet feigning anxiety as the celebrations reached a crescendo. The pale faces of countless Emilys that might have been sacrificed in this bizarre ritual, haunted her. She lurched up and hobbled to the window for some fresh air.
“Of course not. It has no place in my house.” She heard Raphael’s urgent voice.
“But my lord, it will break Penelope.” Marge beseeched.
“Remember, we take care only of our own. The bastard spawn she carries has no place here. Tell her it was born dead and get rid of it while she recovers. I want her ready for Mr. McAllister in no time. The old fool is bewitched by her curves and is ready to wait a couple of weeks but not more.”
“No, not after what he did to Emi- ”
“Shut it. Do you forget your place?”
Penelope did not wait to hear further. It was divine intervention that she heard what she did.
Not my child!
She had to save her baby. But how could she escape? She closed her eyes and prayed. An image flitted across her mind – Emily’s unmarked grave. The poor girl was a beacon of hope even in her death.
Armed with a seductive smile and a glowing candelabra, Penelope made her way downstairs.
Raphael held her close, his foul breath making her gag. “I know of ways to allay your fears, my love.” He slurred and cajoled her, leading Penelope inside an isolated barn on the northern edge, away from the eyes and ears.
Minutes later, his inhuman screams, the smell of burning flesh, and an acrid smoke rose in the air, alerting the merrymakers who ran towards the barn.
No one noticed a lonely form wading through the stream towards the dark woods. Penelope stumbled, panted, and clutched her belly in agony.
She ran through the woods until the pain was unbearable. She collapsed on the forest floor as wave after wave of bone-cracking pain racked her shuddering body. The howling wind muffled her hoarse screams. She bit her tongue bloody, as a final scream split through her gnashed teeth.
Blood, gore, and a keening loud cry. Her baby!
Penelope fought the shroud of darkness with all her might. With a last ounce of strength, she croaked, “HELP!”
In the distance, a spot of light emerged, slowly growing close. Penelope strained her eyes to see a familiar old face, running toward her – Gertrude!
With a soft prayer, she gave in to the deep, eternal slumber.
Disclaimer: All characters and places are fictional and any resemblance is unintentional.
Loosely inspired by true accounts of cult communities.
Author: Mithila Peshwe
Team: Punz N’ Prosez
Cover Pic: MabelAmber (Pixabay)