by Jennifer Shumate

A woman wrestles with the meaning of her very long life, her memories of her long dead family, and the missing memories of nearly everything else.

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They are burning crosses again. I am sitting at a bar across the street, watching the flames flicker across the faces of uniformed officers. A life-sized crucifix is at the center of the fire, the flames melting Jesus' plastic face and distorting it into expressions of agony. Statues of Mary and Buddha, menorahs and Hindu diyas litter the ground at Jesus' feet. The gray uniformed men are armed, but their guns hang idly from their shoulders. They do not expect any resistance. The vote to ban religion was as good as unanimous. I did not bother to vote. It would have been like voting Democrat in Texas a few decades ago. I still voted Democrat then, but you learn to recognize futility after a while when you're as old as I am.

We are living in the age of reason, after all. The mysticism of religion has no place here. Even before the ban, the churches were falling down and decrepit, their statues of Christ covered in dust and cobwebs. Jesus probably wouldn't have minded, though. He was not about pomp and flash. He was a regular Joe, who happened to be the son of God.

It is because of Him that I am so old. Though I don't look a day over thirty-five, I once offered lodgings to a simple traveler who turned out to be so much more. He was never one to forget to show His gratitude. To thank me for my kindness, he gave me a wooden carving of a fish. In later centuries, it came to be known as the "Jesus fish," and people liked to tack it on the back of their cars to show that they were Christians. Back then, though, it was our secret symbol to identify other followers of Jesus. The Romans hated Him, after all.

"You shall have everlasting life," He told me the next morning. "You shall endure as long as this carving does."

I didn't think much of it at the time. I thought he was promising me entrance to His Father's kingdom when I died. Twenty years later, I hadn't aged a day. By the time I buried my husband and my children, I had figured out what he really meant.

Now the fish dangles from my neck, twenty-one hundred years after the birth of Christ. I am the only one who still believes. The rest of the world has been on a science binge that started at the end of the twenty-first century and is still going strong. Every church, synagogue, and Buddhist temple has been burned to the ground. They are celebrating their freedom from religion, and I am clutching my necklace in the fear that it will be discovered.

A group of young people are dancing around the fire, skipping in a circle around the fire while they sing. Their long hair streams behind them as they dance. When did we become so jaded? We have gone from the days of the Spanish Inquisition when any blasphemer was put in the rack and tortured to death, to a world that is run by blasphemers and believers are put in the rack and tortured to death. This is not a good time to be a Christian, especially an immortal one.

The next day, the news announces that all of the old monuments have been destroyed. People party in the streets behind the announcer. The next phase of Operation Enlightenment is to remove the smaller artifacts owned by individuals, so that we can be truly free of the ropes that choked humanity into submission for so long. The authorities will go door to door, asking people to voluntarily surrender their religious artifacts so that they may be enlightened. My stomach churns at this news. Compliance is rarely voluntary these days.

I do not know my name anymore. I have changed my name and moved to a new city hundreds of times to avoid detection. I would not know my own name if I saw it in a history book. Sometimes I wonder if I did anything great in all of these years, or if I have just been wasting my time. I try to remember the early years sometimes, but some of those memories are over two thousand years old. I don't think the human mind was designed to hold memories for that long.

I remember my husband. He was a kind, gentle man with blond hair, a hearty laugh and a paranoid fear of spiders. I used to tease him because I had to be the one to kill the spiders that sometimes found their way into our home. The other women climbed on chairs and waited for their husbands to kill the evil eight-legged creatures that had invaded their homes. For me, it was the other way around. My husband pouted at my teasing, but he is the only one I ever loved.

I remember my son. He was like his father, with the same laugh and the same eyes that twinkled when he smiled. He was like me, too. He was too outspoken for his own good. You could not help but to forgive him for whatever he might say on account of that sweet smile. And he was not afraid of spiders.

I remember my daughter. She was the most beautiful girl in our village. As soon as she was of age, men started trying to negotiate marriage contracts with my husband. But he was an unusual man for his time. He believed that marriage should be founded in love, just as ours was. My daughter selected her own husband, the only girl in the village to have such a privilege.

Most of the rest is a blur. My mother, a rich aristocrat, had never been around much. Elites back then did not take care of their own children. Consequently, I don't remember much. That is her fault, but I do not blame her. It was how things were back then, just as religion is a dead thing now.

I am running late for work again. I am a history professor at the local university. I can't recall how that happened, but I remember that I took a great deal of interest in the field when it first started to explode during the Renaissance. How I made the transition to full-blown university teacher is a mystery to me. When I finally get to my classroom five minutes late, disappointed faces try to look like they haven't been watching the clock in the hopes they would get to cash in on the old "fifteen minute rule."

I didn't prepare for class today. Last night's tequila and the fire in the town square left me too brain fogged to attempt to make any notes. I rummage through my briefcase until my hands land on the class textbook. My students watch me in expectant silence as I scan the table of contents, trying to remember where we left off the last time.

The Holy Crusades. A series of religion-driven military campaigns waged by much of Christian Europe beginning in the eleventh century and lasting until the thirteenth century.

European colonization of the Americas, also known as the New World. Typically dated to 1492, but now known to have been first settled by the Vikings during the eleventh century.

The American Revolution. Refers to the political upheaval during the last half of the eighteenth century, in which the thirteen colonies of the British Empire overthrew the British monarchy and became the sovereign United States.

World War II. A global military conflict during the twentieth century which involved a majority of the world's nations, organized into two opposing alliances and culminating in the detonation of the first nuclear bombs.

The Ameur. The global currency established near the end of the twenty-first century, combining the Euro and the Amero in an effort to promote free trade across all nations.

World War III. A worldwide revolution during the early twenty-second century, triggered by severe economic depressions across that globe that resulted from the devaluation of the ameur.

My finger rests on this last entry in the table of contents as I finally remember where we'd left off at the end of the last class. It is now ten minutes after class was supposed to start. The students have gotten restless, and are chatting with one another. It takes a couple of tries at clearing my throat to get their attention.

My heart is not in this today. The lecture begins, as though it is a thing apart from me. I am rattling off facts without remembering them, memorization without meaning. I am like a robot, cold and detached from the whole of human history. The students look as bored as I am. We are going through the motions.

"When the lunar mining industry collapsed," I say with little enthusiasm, "thousands of men lost their jobs. This sector was a giant in the stock market at the time, which meant that the unemployment rate was nearly 50%. Workers had been flocking to the industry for years due to the spectacular wages, which in turn led to the industry's collapse."

One of the students tentatively raises his hand so that it is level with the top of his head.

"But Professor, what happened to those who were still on the moon when the crash happened?" In a flash, his arm is back on the table, his fingers threaded through the fingers of his other hand.

My knuckles change to the color of ripe strawberries as my hands clamp onto the edges of the podium. I claw through the pages of my mental filing cabinet, searching out those men on the moon. The industry collapsed, the men lost their jobs, and then? The book says the collapse happened overnight. One day men were shipping out to the moon, and the entire operation was cancelled the next day. But what happened next? Were the workers stranded on the moon? Did they subsist up there, forgotten, until they ran out of rations? Did the mining companies send shuttles to pick the workers up and take them home to their families?

More importantly, why don't I remember? Why am I relying on a textbook for the answers?

The student is still waiting, expecting me to pull the answer out of a magic hat and dangle a rabbit in front of the class. That, too, has been lost to the pages of time. My cheeks are on fire, their eyes leaving cigarette-shaped burns across my face.

"I don't know." I cannot face him. I am the embodiment of history, and I can't remember a goddamned thing. "Class is dimissed."

* * *

A few days later, I attend a wedding. The bride, Bridget, is one of the staff members at the university. I arrive in time to slip into a seat in the back row. The music cues up and everyone turns to watch her walk down the aisle. It is the same music they've been playing since the nineteenth century. It is a marvel that this radical society has not replaced it with something new, but I suppose that some traditions never die.

I am not watching Bridget. I am watching the groom. He has the same blond hair as my husband, the same dimples and the same twinkle in his eye. Every man, every couple reminds me of him these days. It is obvious that he loves her. He is nervous, fidgeting with his hands and his coat. Aware that he is standing in front of two hundred people, he tries to stop himself but fails. When Bridget reaches the front door of the room, he grasps her hands in his and guides her into position. He never takes his eyes off of her.

After the ceremony, I try to creep away without being seen. Between me and the exit, Bridget and the groom are greeting people and thanking them for coming to the wedding. She is breathless and giddy, beaming so hard that I am afraid her face might crack. When she sees me, she squeals and bounces a little.

"Jane! I am so glad that you could make it. You don't know what it means to me that you are here. We are just so very glad that you could make it." Bridget is gushing, too overcome with excitement to slow the pace of her words into something that is intelligible. I am amazed that even though she has given the same speech to the seventy-five people before me, she still manages to make it sound sincere.

I give her a quick hug, and say something vague about how happy I am for her. At the reception, I exist on the perimeter. My assigned table is full of people I don't know, and don't care to know. Everyone else seems to be on friendly terms. I pick at the bland chicken in front of me while the other guests kiss and hug one another, seemingly delighted to see each other. Aside from Bridget's enthusiastic response after the ceremony, I am not the recipient of any such affections.

While the bride is dancing with her father, I make my excuses to the groom and leave. When I get home, I flop on my bed and flip on the transceiver. The news is still covering the burnings.

"The Cleansing has proven to be enormously successful," a rat-faced reporter tells me. "Authorities are calling for the voluntary surrender of all religious artifacts. Individuals complying with the new statute, which bans possession of any type of religious artifact, will not be subject to either imprisonment or fees."

I turn off the transceiver and burrow underneath the covers. Sleep seems like such a welcome friend today. Four thousand years of memories seem to have disappeared, and I have never felt so alone in all that time. Within minutes, I am asleep but I do not have sweet dreams. I am holding my husband in my arms, his silent aged face cradled to my still-young breasts. He is dead, passed away while I slept unaware next to him. Then I dream of my son, his body at the top of a funeral pyre. Fire crawls across the tree limbs of the pyre and up to his lined face. The women there are looking at me and whispering. The scene changes to a similar one, but this time it is my daughter on the pyre. The whispers have grown louder. I know then that I must leave the city. After a hundred years, I leave Rome and head into northern Europe.

When I wake up, my body is covered in sweat and my fist is clamped around the fish necklace. I am crying into my pillow, the agony of losing my family as fresh as if it happened yesterday. I sob and wail for an hour, until I have no more sobbing and wailing left inside me. The edges of the fish dig into my palm, leaving splinters woven into my flesh.

When I have dried my eyes, I remove my fish necklace. It drops with a plunk onto the dining room tabole, and I sit across from it. With a pair of needle nose pliers, I remove the splinters one by one and lay them each on top of the fish. With a strike of the match, I burn each of the splinters. Pain sears across my skin as though the fire were consuming me instead of the splinters. I pull out another match for the fish, but I hesitate. My stomach churns at the thought of death and the unknown. Death might be inevitable for all of us, but most of us are terrified of it. Even after all of these years and the realization that I have nothing to live for, that fear is not diminished.

A painting of Jesus stares at me from the living room wall. He is smiling, His face kind and patient as always. What am I supposed to do? Did He really want me to live forever? Am I destined to live out the rest of human history, until I really am as alone as I feel? He does not answer my questions. He never does. He is still smiling, still kind and patient. That smile is not comforting right now. It is infuriating.

There is a knock on the door. I know who it is, but I look through the peep hole anyway. Four men in gray uniforms are standing on the other side of the door. The fish is still in my hand, so I slip it into my pocket and open the door with my most welcoming smile pasted on.

"Ma'am, we're looking for religious artifacts." The man's uniform is decorated with an assortment of brightly colored medals. His chest is an explosion of purple and green and gold and blue. "Do you mind if we search the premises?"

I nod my head and open the door wide enough to allow them to enter. One of them removes the smiling portrait of Jesus from the wall. Another gathers up my Bible. They rifle through the drawers in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the bedroom. They are careful not to make a mess. Everything they find goes into the large black bag. The grip on my fish tightens, and my stomach ties itself into knots again. They are still busy collecting the relics of my life while I watch calmly from the sidelines. A black-beaded rosary, a booklet on the Stations of the Cross, a statuette of the Virgin Mary. It all goes into the bag.

At last, they are finished. The decorated man pokes through the contents of the bag, and looks at me with one eyebrow raised. It is a lot of artifacts for one person, in these times when no one believes in God.

"Is there anything else?" the decorated man asks. If I say no, he will believe me. His men have searched every corner of my home. They have no reason to think there is anything else left to be collected.

"There is one more thing," I say as I swallow the lump in my throat. I pull my hand out of my pocket, and open my hand so that the fish tumbles into view, dangling from the black cord it has hung from for so long. "This is the last of it."

The decorated man slips the necklace off of my fingers and drops it into the bag. He gives me a curt nod and says something about how much the State appreciates my cooperation in this matter. The men walk through my front door and onto my front lawn. They move on to the house next door to mine. I watch the black bag as they move away, feeling my fish bounce up and down on its way to the neighbor's house. Every step they take brings us closer to doom.

I close the door and sit on my couch. There is a framed drawing of my family on the coffee table. I drew it many centuries ago, when their faces were still fresh in my mind, before I had to make guesses at the shapes of their eyes and their mouths and their noses. I lay down on the couch, clutching it close to my chest.

"I am coming home," I tell the drawing. "We will be together again." I realize that I am crying but they are tears of joy. I fall asleep to dreams of my husband and my children as they were twenty-one hundred years ago, before a simple traveler gave me a wooden fish.




Copyright © 2009 Jennifer Shumate

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Jennifer Shumate: I live in Austin, Texas, with my husband and our fifteen hundred DVDs. My husband is always my first reader and my biggest cheerleader. In spite of my mother's best efforts, I was introduced to the joys of science fiction at a young age by way of my father's bookcase. I work in the IT department for Borland Software, where I get endless amounts of inspiration from my colorful co-workers. I have also received a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Texas State University. My fiction has previously appeared in New Myths Magazine.

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