After his introduction, I lead the mantra. May I be Free from Pride. May I Live in Integrity. Through the Grit of Sand, may I become a Pearl. The faces below tilt upward like flowers to the sun. Smiling, I shift my gaze to Arnold, but he stares ahead, his lips turned down. It wounds me deeply, his brusqueness, because I know that I disgust him. I disgust myself. Thirty-two years with Arnold Burgstaller and I am still slow to learn.
“Perhaps, Bronwyn,” he says, looking at the students in the front row, “you could allow me to finish speaking before you jump in. Just something to remember going forward.”
My face burns. “Of course,” I say. He is teaching me. I must be Humble. There is no Freedom from Pride without Pain.
New students sit in the front row, wearing vials of Sand around their necks, the pendants I gave them on the dock as they disembarked yesterday. Through the Grit of Sand, may you become a Pearl. So many young, pretty people. Arnold says it’s important to focus on the attractive ones. The privileged ones. They are the most prideful, the most in need of his Method.
Arnold’s translucent eyes never left me when I was young and beautiful; they drank me in, but it was I who became intoxicated. He filled me with his every word; he lulled me with his soft gaze. The warmth of his attention left me light-headed, receptive. Free.
“You’re very wise, Bronwyn. You are special,” he used to tell me. “No one understands me as you do.” I typed as we talked late into the cool island nights, and together we conceived the famed Burgstaller Method. After a year together, Arnold anointed me. “Through the grit of Sand, you have worked. You have listened. You have learned. You are the first Pearl.”
I’ve sat at his side ever since. He is Captain, and I am Vessel.
From the front row, the Australian girl with the glossy hair raises her hand. Arnold holds her in his ice-blue gaze for a moment before nodding, signaling for her to speak.
“Captain, how will I know when I’m In Integrity?” Her admiration is naked, her long, white neck exposed to him. I imagine fangs, puncture marks, blood running down that virgin throat. I shake my head to dispel the image. I’ve been having more and more of these lapses, random and unbidden. I fear I’m going backwards. I know what my visions can do.
A feline smile slowly spreads across Arnold’s face. “See me after,” he speaks softly to her, as if it’s only the two of them in the packed conference room. “Come to my library.”
Panic threatens to overtake me, but I stop it. Both the stopping and the going are the Method. I stop my thoughts. These girls go. Most girls will go again, willingly go again, like I did. Some will wear the Pearl one day. Some will leave, not understanding his Method, and some will cry and say that they’ve been hurt and misused.
“Those people,” Arnold says, “don’t want to bring Joy into the world. They wish to remain Ignorant. They choose to be Victims.”
When they leave in Ignorance, Arnold tasks me with sending a warning letter, typed on heavy paper, reminding them that we hold their secrets. That their secrets are their bond.
Next year, I will be fifty years old.
When I was eighteen, my mother asked, “Why can’t you be happy with things as they are?”
“I’m a seeker,” I told her. “I know there’s more to life than this.”
She blew air out through pursed lips. “Don’t be stupid, Bronwyn.”
On this island, I am Vessel. I am the first Pearl. I am important. People look up to me, and Arnold protects me.
I have sacrificed everything to be here. It has been worth it. I say this too like a mantra.
The Australian girl’s name is Leah, and she is from Melbourne. She found the Burgstaller Method on YouTube, like many others during the lockdowns. After the session, she grasps my forearm and looks into my eyes. “You’re awesome.” She asks me where in Australia I am from, and I tell her. She says, “I want to be a Pearl like you some day.” I finger my pendant and pretend for a moment that she is my daughter. Oh, what a Joy it would be to have a daughter! I stop the thought, stop the feeling, let the grief wash through me like water through a sieve, just as Arnold teaches us. This is the secret of the Burgstaller Method. You can control anything. It’s all your choice.
“Welcome to our family,” I say to the beautiful, glossy-haired girl. I flood her with my warmth, with the smile I wear that strains my face, with my eyes on her, intent with Love, as Arnold teaches.
Leah opens like a rosebud. “Thank you, Vessel. I’m honored.”
“You are a wise woman,” I tell her. “You will go far if you follow his Method.”
She asks me to show her to Arnold’s library and I do, trying to banish the tight ball forming in my chest. Why shouldn’t young Leah go through what I went through, have all that I have?
I stand at the end of the path until she enters the hut. Arnold’s silhouette briefly fills the window as he closes the blinds.
When I was twenty-five, Arnold said, “Prepare yourself to have a child. What a Special One he will be.” I was filled with Joy. I wanted nothing more than to have children with Arnold, the most brilliant man in the world – I couldn’t imagine a greater Mission. But when I went to him again, the door to the hut was locked, the blinds closed.
Later, a new Sand, a Dutch girl, was sitting on his lap. Arnold said to me, “You’re not ready for a child. You’re too dependent, too weak. You’re out of Integrity. Imagine the damage you could do to a child, with your mind.”
Instead, Yvonne was given the Mission. “She is of better stock,” Arnold explained. But six months later Yvonne with her bulging belly disappeared. The private investigator couldn’t find her in the Netherlands or anywhere else.
“Her family says she cut them off.” The PI’s voice sounded like it was coming down a long tunnel. Communications with the mainland has always been fraught. “They seem to think she couldn’t be found ‘cause she didn’t want to be found.”
When it was clear that Yvonne wouldn’t suppress his Method, Arnold invited me to the library. I am back at his side in every way, I thought. But Arnold left the blinds open and sat on the coffee table, across from me.
“Did you have a vision about Yvonne, Bronwyn?”
I whisper. “I Handled her, Arnold. She was a Security Risk.”
He stared at me for a very long time. Finally, he said, “You may go,” and he never invited me to the library again.
I live as a nun.
And there has never been a Special One.
My father gave up on me. I couldn’t learn the letters. I couldn’t read the words. My brother read Go, Dog. Go! before he went to kindy, but I couldn’t. My father looked over my head and said to my mother, “Let’s hope she grows up to be beautiful, ‘cause she’s as thick as two bricks.” And then he laughed.
I imagined stabbing him in the chest with the kitchen knife, again and again, blood bursting from him in thick spurts. Then one morning as I watched him in the garden, my father fell over, clutching his heart. The water from his hose surged above him like a fountain.
I am capable of terrible things.
Arnold found me in Surfer’s Paradise during Schoolies Week. My friends were dancing, and I was at the bar, alone.
He said, “You look like someone who’s seen all this before.”
“I’ve not been out of Tasmania ‘til now.”
He laughed. “I mean, you look wiser than your years.”
I followed him to the beach, and we sat on the warm nighttime sand and talked until the sun rose over the water. By the age of twenty-four, Arnold had lived in six countries, spoke four languages fluently, and he was already formulating his philosophy.
“I’m a dummy when it comes to language,” I told him that night on the beach, explaining that I’d been diagnosed with dyslexia. Arnold held me in his eyes for a long moment, and the world dropped away. I didn’t hear the waves. I forgot about my friends back at the pub. I didn’t care about the sand sticking to my thighs. It was just me in his eyes. Held, caressed, understood. Loved, like I’d never been loved before.
“You have been conditioned to believe that you are defective, Bronwyn, when in fact what they call ‘dyslexia’ is your Gift. You’re a Power Processor. You innately understand what others don’t.”
He transformed me in that moment by filling me with his regard. He made me solid, whole. And I talked so much that night! I told Arnold about my brother and how he was always better at everything. I told him that my father called me his ‘pretty airhead’ and how the teachers at school had given up on me too, like my father had.
Arnold’s eyes grew shiny with his Compassion as he listened. “Ignorance,” he sighed. “There’s so much Ignorance in the world.”
And that’s when I told him my secret, the truth about my dark visions, and how I feared that I’d caused my father’s heart to fail.
The crease between Arnold’s brows was not so deep then, but I could see that long furrow shadowed by the light of the moon. As he listened to me, his ghostly eyes never left my face. “Bronwyn,” he said, wiping the tears from my cheeks with his thumb. “You killed your father.”
He put his strong arm around me. “You didn’t know. You were too young. Your visions are part of your Power. Stay with me, Bronwyn. I’ll teach you how to use your Power. I’ll teach you to wield it judiciously.”
He kissed me, and we arranged to meet in Sydney the following week so I could apply for a passport. I went back to Launceston to say goodbye to my mother. My father was long dead, my brother was studying overseas, and now I had somewhere to go. I left my mother standing alone at the top of the stone steps, frowning at me.
She died in July, I heard.
A woman is crying. Arnold’s deep murmur. Feet running on gravel. The scent of jasmine. The door of the hut closing. I lie still in my bed. The window is open, fresh sea air sucks the curtains in and out. Insects buzz and bang against the walls. I close my eyes and chant the mantra over and over.
At dawn, I go to the dock where Leah stands alone, her thin arms wrapped around her.
“Why are you here, sweetheart?” I approach her slowly, hold out my hand. “Come. This is the day of the Intensive when everything comes together, when his Method becomes crystal clear.”
I search her pretty profile. Her rounded cheek is blotchy, stained with tears. I step closer, and she winces. Why cower from me? I did nothing to her.
“Come,” I say again, as if to a child. I wiggle my fingers at her. “Let’s go to the conference room together.”
“You people.” She starts, her voice shaking. “You promote this as a peaceful retreat, a place to get to know yourself better and recover and grow. But you’re liars.” She turns to glare at me, “You’re evil.”
My face is frozen in its warm smile. A gust of dank air rises from the sea below. “You’ve misunderstood the teaching,” I say, stepping closer.
“He said I was special.” She looks away again. “I thought he was going to help me.” With a snort, she turns to me with a twisted, ugly expression. “And you knew.”
My body begins to tremble. How dare she? I am Vessel. She is just Sand, Ignorant. Blind.
On the horizon, the small white triangle of the ferry appears. “You need to come to the conference room with me,” I say. “And speak to Arnold.”
“I’ll never talk to Arnold again.” Her eyes blaze. “But I’ll talk about him. And you. I’ll post about all of this.” Her white hand flutters over the wooden dock, the tranquil sea. “I can guarantee you that. I’ll make sure no one else makes the mistake I made in coming here.”
My body vibrates from its very core. She must be Handled.
She is perched on the edge of the dock like a little bird, a city sparrow, a stranger to this island. I imagine her falling, toppling over, into the gentle water below.
“You gave us your bond,” I say, stepping forward again. I am looming over her. My tall shadow in the morning sun covers her, stretches past her, darkening the water below. “You are a Security Risk. You don’t understand the good work we do here. You are Ignorant.” My voice is low, growly. I hardly recognize it.
She raises her arms as if to protect herself. I take her by her tiny shoulders. I could crush her. I could snap her sapling throat. Then I thrust my arms forward until they jut over the water. Her skull cracks on the piling with a comical pop and then she slithers silently into the ice-blue sea. Her hair dances around her pale face as she drifts under the dock and disappears from my view.
I take a deep breath. May I be Free from Pride. May I Live in Integrity. Through the Grit of Pain, may I remain a Pearl. I walk back to the conference room and take my seat.
I wait for Arnold.
Leila Wright writes short stories and creative nonfiction and is currently completing her first novel. Her story “Green Grass” will be published in the upcoming issue of MONO. Born in Flushing, Queens, Leila came of age in post-punk, biker meth southern California. For the past 28 years, she has lived in relative peace in Australia with her very good husband and a series of excellent dogs.