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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.