“Stop! You’re hurting me!”

Sophia crying out only made me strike harder.

“Oi! You gotta loicense to be that pretty? Spare me the theatrics—I know your koind. I know what you want.” The whip’s tendrils ripped her creamy flesh over and over as I lashed, and sure, other masters’ reprimands were more subdued, other slaves’ pleas for mercy more restrained, but those sorts of interactions are way more one-sided and boring. If you’re going to dissimilate, dissimilate. Do the bit. Another lash landed on Sophia’s exposed shoulders and she turned, looked back, threw bedroom eyes that pierced to the bone.

“God, please, make it stop! What kind of monster are you?”

Some context as to what exactly is going on here is in order I suppose.

Obvious larping isn’t always so obvious.

Breaking Chains is a non-profit NGO masquerading as an outreach program affiliated with the Underground Railroad Museum, which is affiliated with area universities and varying corporate enrichment action committees, and that’s why I was there that day. To be enriched, programmed. Whatever. The ostensible reason for being there was to participate in a class field trip designed to create awareness, heal old wounds—all that jazz.

The walk began at Eden Park.

“All right, folks! Let’s keep ranks,” McGibs boomed into the bullhorn. “Six by six, on the path. Don’t let the atonement and reprisal process get too out of control. I want seriousness.”

Up in the treetops blue jays sounded to robins what territory was theirs. Early spring skirmishes that were part of an infinite war flamed on with no end in sight, as the women watched helplessly, nesting, girding themselves against the prospect of having to fend for their offspring alone. Lines of demarcation were clear. Where they belonged and whom they belonged to was not something up for debate or subject to scrutiny in their world.

Such talk was something the fowl above would’ve blithely shit all over.

Slave hands were bound behind their back by plastic zip ties and tethered together by thick corded rope. This, along with the log resting on the back of her shoulders like a barbell, forced Sophia to arch her back, thrust her chest forward—forced every curve of her shapely form to be accentuated perfectly. For the record: the bullwhip I held was comprised of some cheap stick made of plastic and black papier-mâché. And there was no blood gushing from Sophia’s exposed shoulders, but she winced in feigned agony each time the braided vellum cords struck—eyes closed, expression somewhere between pleasure and pain—and then she’d look at me. She threw me that evil eye that said, “More, keep going.”

And God how she worked herself up into a serious emotional frenzy—a glorious spiritual lather. This only forced me to step up my own game, because I’d be damned if I let some silly white girl out-larp me. No denying she had chops though. You could almost pretend she was doing a casting couch routine, trying to sell herself to the producers, directors and writers on the other side of the glass, except none of those elements were present in this scene, making the whole dog and pony masturbatory and hollow.

My commitment to the role was unflinching.

Not necessarily because of Sophia, either, or my kneejerk attraction to her, no—it’s because I’m happiest when LARPing (live action role playing). And there I was, doing the ultimate larp, out and about on this retreat where not only was I asked to soft-soap as a slave master for an hour or two, but I was also lucky enough to get lined up so that almost all of my attention was levied on this absolute smoke show in coffle stocks. With the dark hair and purplish eyes, the pale skin, the high-freckled cheekbones and pouty lips, the dimples and soft chin. The way she snuck smiles and schemed laughter into our scene.

It was all so inviting, so invigorating.

“Alroight, alroight. Simmer down now, missy. Let’s not pretend I’m supposed to have any sympathy for you barbaric heathens.”

There were about 100-120 performers in this piece of theater. If you were white, you were inside the coffle stocks, no questions, except for professor McGibbons, who helped lead the procession like some neo-Obergruppenführer with a megaphone so loud, the gods themselves could hear his bidding. Drummers drummed, chanters chanted, and two wizened black women led the march, singing spirituals with our portly prof in tow, each wearing traditional West African garb they’d purchased online—the best any Thai manufacturer could make.

“I want authentic atonement, people,” McGibs blared. “Real expressions of contrition and remorse. Real acknowledgement of privilege and power from all of my slaves. And masters, please, do not hold back. Do not spare your slave any verbal indignity. This is the path to healing, the path of righteousness, and everybody has a role to play.”

On my wrist was a white rubber bracelet that had the word “forgiver” etched in black lettering across it—they were distributed to all slave masters at the beginning of the walk. We were allowed to wear the clothing we showed up in, while slaves were forced to wear black sweatshirts that had the words “I’m Sorry” emblazoned across the front and back in white lettering.

All slave masters were black, like me.

There were a handful of Arabs, Indians, and Hispanics, but we were all people of color. For some reason, East Asians were forced into the stocks as well, but they didn’t seem too bent. Grin and bear it. Get the course credits and move on. Was it their fault these silly baizuo-rats were drawn to the smell of cat piss?

No, it wasn’t.

Some of you might be yawning at this point, understandably, but recognize, this outing represented much more than just a few classrooms full of college kids coming together to recreate a slave drive/auction. Deeper layers of substratum must be mined from this moment in order to do it justice. Bear with me briefly, and please, do not take the information I’m about to give you personally, because there’s a not-quite-yet dead horse we must return to.

Before we go any further, you have to accept you’re suffering from brain damage.

Some form of it at least—probably multiple forms.

Right now, there’s every chance in the world subatomic tachyzoites have infested the brains of you and/or your loved ones, all completely unbeknownst to those involved. Save for the parasites, of course, but they too are operating on biological determinants—ancient, coded language that nobody seems to understand anymore, but that’s spoken all the same. There’s a strong probability that tiny protozoa have nested themselves deep down in the grey matter of your brain. They enter through your nasal passages when you breathe, through your mouth when you eat, and then pass through the frontal lobes, past the basil ganglia, boring straight through until they reach both hemispheres of your amygdala. Tiny cysts have already formed and are negatively impacting your brain’s functioning.

Nine out of ten doctors counter-signal people who say they’re experiencing symptoms.

Nobody wants to hear about the lateralization of emotion and tend and befriend conflict resolution strategies, especially your average general practitioner.

They’ll tell you to go home, that you’re fine, even if you force the issue and make them administer the blood test. The results can come back showing high measurements of the IiG antibody, but you’ll still be summarily patted on the head and told to take a spoonful of sugar. Half the world’s population has toxoplasmosis.

Can’t be that bad, right?

That day, taking the “reconciliatory walk,” the day I met Sophia Cone, it typified the type of brain damage I’m talking about. Everybody here was looking for some way to cope.

“Who’s a bad girl? This one’s a bad girl. You can tell by that fiendish look in her oye. Absolute beast this one is.” The paper cord brushed against her cheek. I slowly pulled the whip back, letting each little fiber of pulp caress the side of her face and neck, and, briefly, she moaned.

“Only one thing to be done with a vixen such as yourself. Just wait till we get you to base camp. Foind a tent, get you proivate and teach you some manners. We’ll have you speaking the Queen’s tongue before the night’s through we will.”

The accent I affected was sloppy, but still, the bit provoked giggles.

Giggles that eventually drew the hot, laser-like stare of McGibs. It may have been unseasonably warm that last day of February, but it wasn’t by any means hot. Not nearly warm enough to explain the lakes of sweat that had pooled up under his arms and the folds of his man-boobs. You’d think the guy would wear darker colors, but no.

“Serious acts of contrition you two, okay? Save the flirting for your own time, Marcus.”

As we crossed River Road to get down to the banks of the Ohio, two of Cincinnati’s finest were there to block traffic for us. A layer removed, behind the safety of their windshields, many of the motorists laughed at the absurdity of our procession. Horns honked and heckles were hurled, all of which only reinforced the perceived notion of moral superiority the performance artists felt. We were the ones who were enlightened. We were the noble victims, the brave and resolute.

Those rednecks in the white work van, their time had passed.

Down on the banks we stomped along the viscous sand and there was a chill on the wind, but it was warm under the sun. Our final destination was a fake auction site that had been erected. Fake slave ship, too, but it was a pretty decent replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon to be honest. Chattel gently fell to the ground, guided forward by the slave masters, each one ending up with their foreheads pressed down against the soft muck.

“Come on people.” McGibbons shouted through his bullhorn. “Keep it moving. I need masters sectioned off by at least one coffle stock length. Drummers, dancers, singers, kill all the noise.” He waited for the clamor to die down, until he knew he had everybody’s undivided attention. “The reconciliation walk is now over. The atonement and reprisal section of the outing is complete, and now it’s time to repent. It’s time for those of us who’ve benefited from our white privilege to formally apologize for the transgressions of our ancestors and seek the forgiveness of our oppressed classmates.”

The weather-beaten elders flanked the podium occupying center stage. McGibs handed off his bullhorn to one as he took to the lectern. “Good afternoon everybody. Thank you for coming out and participating in this great moment of healing.” The officiousness, the self-righteousness, the air of contempt with which he held himself over the crowd as he opened his prayer book to today’s prepared sermon.

It was so fucking cringe.

“What we’ve accomplished so far today is simply amazing and goes great lengths toward mending the wounds members of the African diaspora have suffered—and continue to suffer—at the hands of Western, imperialist overreach. What we are—we, the educated and enlightened—we are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and it is us who are choking on the poisonous gasses of carbon monoxide, also known as hatred and intolerance. We remember Trayvon. We remember Michael Brown. We remember Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and all of the nameless, faceless African-Americans who’ve died and who die every day under the brutally racist conditions of an unapologetically racist society. Unapologetic, save for us, and the good people who do God’s work here at Breaking Chains. These places, these moments, they’re necessary, to remind us. Remind us of what we once were, what we could still become. Remind us what’s brought us together in this place, so that with the benefit of an enlightened perspective, we can take the correct measures toward healing the wounds of the past and moving forward from a starting point of true social equity.”

McGibs paused, giving masters time to clap, a cue we dutifully took.

“I don’t delude myself into thinking we’re going to fix everything that’s wrong with this country today. After all, men like Donald Trump can still run for president.”

Spiritless laughter swirled about the beach.

“But outings like this are a positive step forward, and I hope everybody takes this as seriously as I do and makes the most out of this opportunity as they possibly can.”

More mechanical clapping followed McGibs walking off the stage.

One of our shrunken sages took to the rostrum next as the fin-flapping died down.

She tapped the microphone three times to make sure it was still on, causing muffled thunder and static to sound through the speaker system. “Thank you, Professor McGibbons, for leading our group today,” she said in a thick Francophone-African accent, “and for your continued support of the Breaking Chains project. Your commitment to this event is so heartening for us as a group, and we greatly appreciate your continued support of our mission.”

The wilted maga coughed, cleared her throat, gathered herself.

“The Ohio River served as a magical bridge for African-Americans during the period of U.S. slavery. One side of the banks offered freedom, opportunity, while the other offered bondage and cruelty. Cincinnati became a city where many African-Americans sought refuge during that period of time. It served as a symbol of freedom during the Abolition Movement, and we’re proud of the work we do with the city today to make sure we never forget the horrors of our shared past…”

The maga’s speech faded into a vision of Sophia on her knees, face down. All that remained was the yoga-pants-accentuated poetry of her form—the inward curvature of her lower back, the downward slope toward where her chest and shoulders broadened.

“Many of our organization’s critics say to us ‘what’s the point? Why go through all of this trouble to painstakingly reenact what it was like for slaves to be led to auction and then chained inside the transport ships? Doesn’t this just perpetuate a victim mentality? Doesn’t this create unnecessary resentment toward whites?’ And these are fair questions to raise. What our research has shown, though, whether it be from the feedback we receive here locally, or the reception the project has received in other parts of the world, is that by reenacting this horror,” the maga stopped, looked down, held back emotion, “that by reenacting this horror, and by reversing the roles in so doing, we create a unique opportunity for both sides to heal from the trauma. Whites can know what it was like to be taken against their will, sold as animals, removed from their families and communities to foreign soil by foreign peoples…”

The feeling of eyeballs staring me down wrenched me back to unwelcomed lucidity. That feel when being watched intensified, until eventually I looked up, pinpointed the sniper placing me in his site.

Professor McGibbons stared from across the rows of kneeling slaves.

“…African-Americans can know the guilt and shame the white man carries to this day, for he is the one who so cruelly wrought the whip, who built the ships, and who so callously thought the best way to supply labor to his industry was to kidnap and enslave human beings who lived the expanse of an ocean away.”

McGibs knew what I was scoping—i.e. Sophia’s physique—but he didn’t say anything about it. His gaze went from my eyes, to Sophia, back to my eyes, before returning his attention to the podium.

Then his cheeks went red and his gaze hardened.

“Today, our Western culture is sick and overly individualistic. Generation after generation, though, as we integrate together more and more, we shed ourselves of that mindset. Still, the hyper-individualist thought process lingers in our collective psyche today. You—and by you, I mean white people—you think, ‘I was not personally responsible for the horrors of slavery.’ ‘PERSONALLY,’ you angrily say.”

The priestess’s mouth got too close to the mic as she emphasized the word, causing a loud reverb to echo throughout the audience. My fellow slave masters yawned and shifted about on their feet, waiting for the service to be through.

“No. You may not be personally responsible, but you enjoy the privilege that remains over one-hundred and fifty years removed from our so-called emancipation—privilege that acts like poison to your system. But, through education, compassion, and forgiveness we will end the multigenerational destruction of racism and bigotry. Then, and only then, can we usher in a truly inclusive society that embraces the need for individuality, but never forgets that it takes a village.”

A final round of labored applause brought act two of the ceremony to its close.

“Masters, let’s get our slaves back up on their feet,” McGibbon’s blared. “Form a neat line leading up to the podium. Slaves stay in their stocks. Hands remain bound until after the confession and absolution are complete. Slaves have about sixty seconds to announce their acknowledgement and make their confession. Then you’ll walk over to the ship where you’ll be unchained. I can’t stress this enough, people, keep it brief.”

Coffle by coffle participants were led up on stage.

The elder cleric held the mic up to their mouths and they said, “I’m so sorry.” They said, “Forgive me for the sins of my father and my father’s father.” They said, “I pray that you can find it in your heart to forgive me so that we can move forward as brothers and sisters, united, so that we can move forward as one race—the human race,” before disappearing into the saturnine belly of the ship. Some expressed what appeared to be sincere sentiments, but most folks were clearly just going through the motions. Numb, half there, detached, longing for the service to end so that heads could fall south, find the warm glow of smartphone screens. One by one slaves parroted their lines and then shuffled in to see Ms. Hershmiller, where iron rods securing heads in coffles were removed.

Where zip ties were deftly sliced by X-Acto knives.

Now the participant was free. The slave emancipated and the master forgiven.

“I’m so thankful to have had this experience,” one guy said when it was his turn. “I’m blessed to have for one day, just these few hours, experienced what it was like to undergo this most wicked form of oppression known to man. And, having walked in these ancient footprints, I feel better armed to combat the remnants of the mindset that made this horror possible. I feel better prepared to refute and educate those in our society who continue to hold bigoted and hateful worldviews. To our esteemed hosts and the good people with Breaking Chains and the Underground Railroad Museum—thank you so much for creating this space and organizing this event. Please, from the bottom of my heart,” his voice was tremoring, “I beg for your forgiveness. I’ll spend the rest of my life humbling myself before you if that’s what is required, so long as the wounds of slavery are healed —”

The maga cut the kid off with a hard smile and politely removed the mic.

When it was Sophia’s turn to repent, I watched as her pretty face spat out how she could, “Never truly repay my African-American brothers and sisters for their suffering and loss,” and how she would “spend the rest of my life fighting racism and bigotry whenever and wherever I encounter them.”

I meandered toward the craft service tables after she was done, satisfied the bit was over.

An array of complimentary snacks and bottled beverages lay before us.

After snagging some kind of Hostess double-square snack cake deal and a bottle of orange Gatorade, I skulked about the edge of the crowd, watched as Sophia entered the nucleus. How effortlessly she blended, became part of the whole. How drawn to her everyone seemed to be, which worked to my advantage and provided ample opportunity to leer from across the proverbial room. Our sights met, briefly. Eyesight networks became Bluetooth compatible, but I didn’t have the nerve to penetrate the cellular membrane and affect action, sync WI-FI signals. The larp was through, and I was rendered Mark, plain and tall—far cry from the dashing thespian of the previous hour.

Worlds away from the bad-boy slave master for whom all good girls low-key pine.

Not being one for social graces, I ate my cake, drank my juice, and moseyed down the ole dusty trail toward the parking lot. I still had biology and chemistry that afternoon, plus I needed to hook up with TJ before my 6-to-close shift, and I had to factor in my daily fight with 75-N traffic.

Right before I got to my truck I heard from over my shoulder, “Were you going to just leave and not say bye like that? That’s how you roll?”

I knew it was her before I turned around.

And when I did, I had nothing to respond with but an awkward smile. Standing there like an absolute simp, I shuffled my feet and put my hands in my jean pockets, took them back out, tried to wave, but probably ended up looking like I’d been afflicted with some weird palsy instead. And it’s not like I’m always this crippled. It’s the whole whiplash effect of coming down off the high of a serious larp—the weird, chimeric feel you get after finishing an intense scene.

“Hey, uh, what’s up? How are you?”

She smiled back, a gesture which spoke a language, a distinct grammar, a mixture of sympathy and seduction. Here I was, this lost puppy, this stray kitten. There she was, this lonely traveler, seeker of souls.

“Not what I expected,” she said. Speaking at me, not to me, like I was an abstraction, something not real. “What happened to the witty guy with the British accent? He was…confident. I liked that guy.”

“Yeah, that, well, I’m not sure. I just, uh, we were playing a game back there, so…”

There was a pregnant pause, one Sophia happily filled.

“I’m sorry, this is probably way too forward.” She stepped toward me, reached her hand out. “Sophia Cone. You can call me Sophie.”

“Mark,” I murmured, semi-thunderstruck, and we shook hands. Nothing evil coursed through her palm chakra, nothing that set off alarm bells. Her desire to love and be loved in a free and honest way rang true-blue through her energy fields.

“Nice to meet you, Mark. I saw you looking at me, and I know that gets dicey for guys these days, wondering if they’re being too eye rapey, not eye rapey enough…”

“I’m sorry if I —”

“No, you’re good, you were fine. I’m just saying that, you know, between the whipping and S&M stuff,” Sophia stopped, giggled, strategically brushed back a loose strand of hair, “you know, you sorta got my attention, and I would’ve wondered ‘what if’ had you left without us at least introducing ourselves to one another.”

More weighty dead air followed before I finally responded, “All that back there, that was acting. Just me being weird and getting caught up in the moment.”


“Yeah, like stagecraft.”

“So you’re a thespian?” she teased.

“Something of one. Call me a nerd or whatever, but I like doing stuff like this—was in theater in high school. Played Kenickie in Grease my senior year.”

Her giggling graduated to laughter. “What, you couldn’t pull off Travolta’s moves and go full Danny?”

“Nah, I don’t have the right kind of hair.”

And then her giggling earned its doctorate in bent-over-belly-laughter. We’re talking about the type of cachinnation that can provide a fog—a psychic mirage—one we shared in our ever-narrowing orbit. I wasn’t moving toward her, that’s for sure, but somehow, we found ourselves within the two-foot zone, down to within inches. Down to where you’re looking square into one another’s eyes, hesitating, wondering “is this it?” Wondering, “Do I make the first move?”

Swear to God I thought maybe she was going to bite for half a second.

Swear to God there was this flickering image of sharpened canines piercing flesh, of blood being sucked from my jugular out of two straws made from bone, and I blame my hands to be honest, because had they the wherewithal to simply reach around and embrace and pull her in, those first few pecks would’ve leveled up to tongue action and the moment would’ve gone where she wanted instead of being as blundering as it was.

“Whoops, my bad. I didn’t mean to get too close to you like that.” My sidestepping her approach only added to the awkwardness factor. Sophie’s cheeks ran red, illuminating the embarrassment she felt at the fact her solicitation wasn’t met with fevered enthusiasm.

Launch status: failed.

I laughed nervously as we both assessed the damage the moment had wrought.

“I’m sorry, this is truly embarrassing,” she spluttered. “I can now see you’re a lady of good character, which makes this matter all that much more mortifying. I beg you can forgive me for trespassing, and I do hope I can earn your affection right and proper during future encounters.”

That whole spiel: delivered in the most mesmerizing Southern belle accent.

With a pivot and turn she relit the fires of the larp just enough for the moment to recover.

“Wait, stop. Don’t leave. It’s my bad,” I said. “I’m a nerd, and awkward, and —”

“Now you’re being too hard on yourself. Based on our limited interaction, I’d say you’re only one of those two.” We didn’t need laughter to fill the next pause. Strange how a softhearted smile can transcend the eminently superior quality of sound.

“Alright,” Sophie plowed. “Since you’re a total freezer, tell me about yourself, Marcus. Let’s break that ice, get you warmed up. Where do you go to school?”

“UC, my sophomore year. What about you?”

“XU. Being there keeps my old man off my back. He thinks UC is just a party school.”

“Shit, that’s any school.” We shared another second of laughter.

“So what do you study?” she asked.

“I’m undecided on my major, but I’m leaning toward Biology or Anthropology.”

“What are you going to do with that?”

“I don’t really know. It’s just what I’m interested in. Probably nothing.” The sublimity factor of our shared smile and conversation perished in a passing breeze, leaving again the all thumbs essence of silence.

“Well, listen. Apologies again for coming at you all Ted Bundy, but I’m glad we met.”

“No, I’m glad you did,” I responded. “You know, the whole Ted Bundy routine, that’s cool. It’s always cool to, you know, like, meet new people.” Brilliant, right? That’s verbal Spanish fly if it ever existed.

“Anyway.” She reached in her back pocket and pulled out an iPhone 6 Plus, one of the huge ones that resembled a small tablet. “Why don’t you throw me those digits? I can call you some time, teach you how to talk to girls.” There was no question in her mind as to whether or not I was going to give her my contact info. All of that existed as a given.

No was not an option. It wasn’t so much a question as it was a demand.

“513-291-3737,” and as I fed her the numbers, I could hear the click-clack of a text message being typed, then the rushing roar of a jet taking flight, followed by a buzzing sensation against my buttocks and the single chime of a bell. My hand moved toward my back pocket on autopilot.

On my wallpaper was a message. “513-459-6623…Sophia.”

I sat there and stared like an idiot, smiling that stupid smile people make when they don’t know how to react, and when I finally looked up from my phone, she said, “Keep that whip hand strong.”

Fast as a flash of electric cane-crack she pivoted and turned, accentuating the shake of her hips and shoulders as she walked away. You have no idea how emasculated I felt in that moment, knowing I could be eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes out of that ass right then and there if I wanted. That is, if I’d had a more neurotypical reaction to her advances. We’re talking about major league chump status, standing there, watching that tick-tock watch of a booty disappear into the distance. Sure, it’s not like I had all the experience in the world, but I’d been around the block a few times. I’d had a few girlfriends. The mechanics of the moment by no means should’ve been lost on me, but yet, there I was, not the farmer taking the wife, but the cheese standing alone.

The way women do that though—that walk—it’s hypnotic. Sorcery. Thaumaturgy. Add the yoga-pants-effect into the equation and most men are rendered momentarily helpless. Frozen. Central nervous system overridden—nothing more than a fleshy puppet working off instinct. You can almost understand why barbaric men would see that kind of walk outlawed.

You know, so they could think clearly.


This is an excerpt from Max Lethe’s new novella, Memecoming this Friday from Terror House Press.