(Author’s note: ‘Soybeans’ was the winner of the 2014 John Marsden/ Hachette Prize for Fiction, a competition for Australian Writers aged 18-24. It tells the story of a pair of teens navigating sex, love, and faith against the backdrop of Peoples Temple in California, sometime in the early ’70s.
(Reading about Peoples Temple, I’ve felt particularly drawn to the California years—partly because California of the ’60s and ’70s is such a fascinating setting in its own right, and partly because (from an outsider’s perspective, anyway) this seems to have been the Temple’s heyday. I’ve also felt drawn to the stories of young people within the Temple, and more generally to the theme of coming-of-age within radical systems of belief.
(‘Soybeans’ is a story that engages with both these inspirations. Though influenced by countless articles on this site, I’d like to give special mention to Jordan Vilchez’s ‘Insight and Compassion: Vestiges of Peoples Temple’, which so strikingly captures her experiences of being young in the Temple, and from which I borrowed the soybeans motif.
(First published in Voiceworks #99 (December 2014), ‘Soybeans’ was more recently reprinted in Award Winning Australian Writing 2015.)
I’m sitting in the sun eating dried soybeans when I feel Wayne’s eyes slipping over me. It’s a strange feeling, hot and damp, which makes me want to break into a smile and crawl into myself all at once. I look down. I swing my legs on the fence. There’s movement everywhere—light and shadow, little kids riding ponies, bigger kids like us idling with pails and bridles. But somehow, the only movement I’m aware of is Wayne weaving through the tall grass toward me.
Wayne is black and beautiful. His blackness makes his beauty brighter: the whites of his eyes, his smile, the sweat glinting on his muscles. I see Wayne’s sweat and can’t help thinking how different he looks from Father, sweating at the pulpit. Wayne’s sweat is like crushed violets. Father’s sweat is just like sweat.
‘Lazy ass.’ Wayne swats my leg once he’s close enough.
‘Ow!’ I say, making my face ugly. It feels good to look ugly, after all that admiring. Not that I’m pretty or anything. Wayne’s always teasing me about having a boy’s name and a boy’s face to match. It’s something to do with my chin sticking out and my eyebrows being so much darker than my hair, which is long and yellow and the only pretty thing about me. I rub the place on my leg and keep glowering at Wayne.
He shrugs and grins. ‘There was a horsefly.’
‘Horsefly for a horse’s ass. You better watch it, or those kids are gonna start ridin’ you.’
I make a grab for Wayne’s shirt but he’s fast, leaving me with a fistful of air. He touches my leg again, softer this time, inspecting a smear of dried white paint just above my knee.
‘Uh, did a bird shit on you, Bobbi?’ he asks, poker-faced.
I’m on the painting crew right now, helping to fix up the older cottages. They say it’s because I’ve got artistic sense, but I don’t see anything artistic about slapping white paint on wood. Even if we do get to add some color later, I’d rather be doing Wayne’s job. He’s going to be a veterinarian someday, so he gets to work with the ponies.
‘Paint. Uh-huh,’ Wayne says vaguely. His hand stays on my leg some seconds too long, dark against light. He sees me noticing and drops it, embarrassed. Then he reaches into my crinkled brown bag of soybeans.
I don’t mind sharing my lunch with Wayne. Sharing is what we’ve been brought up with and, besides, crunching on the beans gives us something to do together. Father says soybeans are the best food to prepare us for the nuclear holocaust, since there’s some chemical in them that acts as a force field against radioactive particles. While most American kids are being made weak by a diet of sugar and fast food, we’re making ourselves strong for the days to come. I think of Wayne and me surviving together and it’s a nice thought.
It seems Wayne can’t go a minute without teasing though, because he nudges me. ‘You know, the way you’re scarfin’ these, you’d think the nuclear holocaust was gonna be tomorrow.’
‘I’m just sayin’, it’s cool to build up your force field and all, but people still have to live with you, y’know?’
‘That smell.’ He pinches his nose. ‘I’ve been around horses all day and you still smell worse…worse than horse ass.’
‘Worse than horse shit.’
‘Well, you don’t even need a force field.’ I snatch the paper bag away. ‘You’re like a cockroach that’s gonna crawl out when everything else is dead. An ugly-ass black cockroach.’
As soon as I’ve said it, I know how racist it sounds, and shut my mouth. Wayne pinches my leg and calls me a horse’s ass again, but I know he’s hurt. I scrunch the bag of soybeans tighter in my hand and turn to look at the ponies, moving slowly through the field like something in a dream. A minute later, Wayne tugs on my yellow ponytail.
‘You even look like a horse with this damn thing,’ he says. His voice is bitter, but I can hear a note of something else in it, forgiveness maybe. It still feels too soon to face him, so I keep looking at the ponies.
‘I thought I looked like a boy.’
‘Not a boy.’ Wayne gives my hair another tug. ‘Hell no, not a boy.’
Wayne and I both come from big families, who joined Father’s revolutionary church in its earliest days. Father has watched us growing up more closely than our own parents, whose capitalistic tendencies must be kept in check. There are few things more capitalistic than the nuclear family, and the one-man one-woman attachments that go into making it. Father doesn’t have such selfish attachments and doesn’t preach them. He is Father to us all and we are all his children.
We are all Father’s children, which makes Wayne and I practically brother and sister. It makes there even more reason for us not to touch.
It starts innocently enough, with teasing and play-fighting out in the fields. We’re not the only kids who act this way—there are thirty-odd of us living and working on the ranch, so plenty of hormones flying around. Father is willing to look past some flirtation, so long as it’s not too focused on one person and not going to end up in sex. Because sex is what makes our parents weak. It makes most adults weak, distracting valuable energy from the Cause.
I think I’m more devoted to the Cause than I am to Wayne. On the cross-country bus tour over summer, I wear red shirts and long black skirts like a communist Chicana. Wayne wears black like a Panther. I read the books that Father prescribes for revolutionaries aged fifteen to seventeen and so does Wayne, but often our eyes find each other over the pages.
There’s thirteen buses in Father’s fleet but many more of us than they can sleep comfortably. The seniors get priority seating near the front and Father’s staff travel with him in lucky bus no. 7. For the rest of us, it’s either cramming into the back and middle sections or squabbling over the luggage compartment, which is the best place for stretching out on your own and sleeping. After all the shuttling from city to city and pamphleting in the heat and long revival meetings, we’re all hanging out for some rest.
On the road back west from Philadelphia, I win the coin toss for the compartment on bus no. 13. I’m so wiped out I don’t even hear the tires grinding out of the parking lot or feel anything of the road ’til our next pit stop. It’s there that Wayne lifts the door and nudges me awake. ‘Get over, Bobbi. I need to crash.’
‘Nuh-uh.’ I yawn. ‘No way.’
‘I’m not even kiddin’ you, honky. It’s wall-to-wall farts up there.’
‘Don’t call me “honky”,’ I bitch, but I make room for Wayne just the same. He crawls into the compartment and narrows himself to shut us in. There’s an awkwardness as his long limbs brush against mine. For something to say, I ask, ‘Where are we?’
Wayne starts telling me about what’s outside and then some things that happened on the bus, how they were pitching sunflower seeds and blasting Jethro Tull ’til one of the seniors made them turn off the music. When the bus gets rolling again, the motion and exhaust fumes soon send us back to sleep. The next thing I know, we’re cuddled together and opening our eyes at each other’s faces. There’s more awkwardness as we adjust our bodies.
‘Sorry,’ says Wayne. The whites of his eyes gloom over briefly, like an eclipse.
‘That’s okay,’ I say.
For a few minutes, we just lie there, listening to each other’s breathing and the thudding of the road. The awkwardness still hangs over us, but there’s something nice about it, honest. Or maybe it’s the silence that’s honest, so different from Father’s prophesying, Father’s noise.
‘Do you ever wonder…?’ Wayne begins. He stops. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Like…when it’s all gonna happen?’
By “it”, Wayne could mean many things: the revolution, the holocaust, or maybe even this thing between us that I don’t want to name.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, but softly, like I’m really saying “yes”. A second later, Wayne’s fingers are trailing through my hair and I’m not surprised, not really.
‘I like your hair,’ he says. Then: ‘I like you.’
‘I like you too,’ I say.
The road keeps rolling beneath us. I don’t know where we are, only that we probably shouldn’t be here.
When us teenagers were little kids, Father used to read our minds all the time. All he had to do was walk past us and he’d know what was in our heads, every shameful or dishonest thing we’d done since he last checked: using cuss words, cheating at school, hoarding candy, pushing in front of seniors. All those bad deeds would scream inside us and Father would tilt his head like a curious crow to hear them. Then he’d crouch down and tell us what he had heard, in the gentlest voice imaginable, his sunglasses reflecting our faces back at us.
As we got older, we talked about ways to keep Father from reading our minds. Some of them involved turning our thoughts into gibberish or silently singing over them, as loud as we could. Others involved making our minds as empty as possible. The way that worked best for me was to stare at something nearby, say a wall or a sofa cushion, and think of nothing but its color till Father had passed me by. Of course, he always knew when we were trying to block him, but he seemed to appreciate the effort, and almost forgive us on that principle alone.
I’m doing my color-hypnosis thing now, staring at the white of the refrigerator, even as I stand listening in the crowded kitchen. Father is on one of his twice-weekly inspections of the ranch and has called in at the cottage I share with Jasmeen, Mary, Louelle, and Louelle’s two foster sons. The report we give him is a mix of good stuff, like our vegetable harvest, and bad, like how one of Louelle’s boys was overheard calling another kid a nigger. For the good, Father praises us, and for the bad, he gently cusses us out, letting us know the ways in which we’ve failed him.
‘…Louelle, honey, I’m not sayin’ it’s your fault, but fact is, it don’t matter when it happened. I don’t give a shit when it happened, and the fact you’re blamin’ Mary ’cause it happened on her watch? That’s goddamn pettiness. You’re killin’ me, sweetheart. It must be a dozen times I’ve told you by now how much I suffer from pettiness…’
Louelle is crying a little and agreeing with Father, and Jasmeen and Mary are nodding their heads, saying how they remember Father’s talk against pettiness. I nod too. I also remember, though my head is still full of the color white. Our reminiscing makes Father laugh.
‘Now’s you three are being petty. I don’t need to hear that you remember. What the hell good does that do me?’ He laughs again and points to his temple, where a sideburn grows thick and raven-black. ‘I remember. It’s all in my psych, uh, psyche. Louelle, come here. Dry your eyes. I don’t mean for you to feel gangbanged. You know that, don’t you?’
I watch Father take Louelle into his arms and for that second my concentration is broken. I remember being in Wayne’s arms not two nights ago, the slender blackness of them branching over me. Father releases Louelle. He adjusts his sunglasses and I see myself reflected in them. I look back at the refrigerator, too late.
What passes from then to the porch is a blur to me. I know Father’s read my mind, that there’s no use in my psychic defenses. Still, I keep glancing around at colors, trying to hold them in my mind. As he’s taking leave of us at the door, Father touches my arm and asks me to step outside with him a moment. It’s the first time he’s laid a hand on me since Wayne. I wonder what other secrets my flesh is giving up.
‘Bobbi, sweetheart, do you have something you want to tell me?’ Father turns to face me in the afternoon light. Even though he’s not as beautiful as Wayne, there’s something about Father’s face that makes you look: the fullness and the frog mouth and the eyes that only show you yourself.
‘Nothing at all?’
I shake my head. Father takes his hand from my arm and strokes his chin, wets his lips with his tongue. Then he looks me up and down, like he’s noticing me for the first time: my bare feet, my skirt above my knees, my long yellow hair.
‘I’m disappointed, darling,’ he says, and sounds it. ‘It seems to me, and I’m rarely wrong, but it seems to me you’re, uh, maybe not so serious about the Cause as you could be.’
I say nothing. Father strokes his chin again. ‘Let me phrase this as a question. Bobbi, do you like it when members of the male…when male members look at you?’
‘I…I don’t know, Father.’
‘Yes or no? It’s a simple question. You know, I can see inside you, so it’s only as a courtesy I’m askin’, to give you a chance to be honest with your leader. If you don’t want to be honest, well…honestly, that’s proof enough that you’re not the revolutionary I thought you were. And that pains me. Right to my heart, that gives me so much pain.’ He touches his heart through his breast pocket and gives a short cough. ‘So, yes or no, do you like it? An honest answer, Bobbi, that’s all I want.’
‘I guess…sometimes I do.’
‘Hmmm? Sometimes?’ Father cocks his head in that crow-like way. ‘So, uh, it depends on the male?’
‘I guess so.’
‘I can see, remember. Depends on the male. You like them your own age, don’t you? Sixteen, seventeen…?’
This seems like an obvious thing to me, and I guess my face shows it. Father laughs again. ‘Oh, you’d be surprised. You’d be surprised how many hold a, um, more fatherly type up as the standard. Not you? That don’t matter. I’m just sayin’, some do. Some do…’
Father trails off and for a long time I’m left alone with the smell of him: sweat, brylcreem, strong cologne, and a sweet something I can’t pinpoint that makes me feel queasy. Then he looks square at me and says, ‘Young black males. That’s your depending. You want them lookin’ at you. Huh?’
I know he wants an honest answer but my tongue doesn’t want to give it, furred and tingling heavily in my mouth. Father watches me struggle for some moments then puts his hands on my face, gently closes my mouth. It feels good not to have to talk, to leave the speaking to him.
‘You want to serve the Cause, I see that. But you gotta forget this being looked at bullshit.’ In his glasses, my reflection is small and pale. ‘If you want to live through this revolution, you can’t be distracted. You gotta give yourself completely…’ His hands move to my long hair, stroking, appraising. ‘I see you, darling. I see what you can be. I’m the only one who’ll ever see…’
I feel the night breeze on the back of my neck before I feel Wayne’s eyes, lingering over the delicate bones and shorn yellow. It’s hard to know whether to feel more naked than before or less. I don’t turn to meet his eyes. I don’t look down. I don’t swing my legs on the fence, just sit plain and rigid.
Wayne says my name. He passes a confused hand through my short haircut. I expect a comment about looking like a boy, but instead he hoists himself up on the fence beside me. He sits for a minute with his head hanging down and his hands folded in his lap. Then he reaches into the bag of dried soybeans I’m holding open.
‘I don’t give a damn,’ he says quietly, pinging a soybean across the field.
I watch it fly out from his fingertips then disappear in the dark. I think of Father watching us, always watching.
‘I don’t give a damn,’ Wayne says again, louder. He pings another bean.
‘I don’t give a damn.’
That’s when I realize I don’t either. I don’t give a damn if we survive this holocaust.
(Laura Elizabeth Woollett is an Australian writer. She recently signed a two-book deal with Scribe, an Australian publisher, for her short story collection The Love of a Bad Man and her Peoples Temple novel Beautiful Revolutionary. Her other contributions to this edition of the jonestown report are the companion articles From Carolyn to Evelyn and Life Lessons With Peoples Temple. Her guest blog for the Melbourne Writers Festival about her research trip to the United States is here.)