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art by Shane M. Gavin

Sacred Artifacts

Greg Leunig holds an MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. His fiction has appeared in The Colored Lens, The Washington Pastime, and 10Flash. His poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons and been nominated for a Rhysling Award. He shares Woody Allen's ambition not to live forever through his work, but to live forever through not dying.

You stand in line outside the Federal Mandate building, shuffling towards the religious loyalty checkpoint. It is a gray day, but then, it seems like that's the only kind of day anymore. Between the regular smog and all the smoke from Vancouver, a constant shield of clouds hangs heavy in the sky, moisture clumped onto smoke particles.
The guards, four men in white and gold uniforms, look bored. They usher everyone through the loyalty checkpoint quickly. Your heart always pounds when you wait in this line. There haven't been many executions in Spokane, but they have a lot in Seattle, and ever since your mother, it's no surprise that you can't get through one of these without some flutters.
An older man at the front of the line stumbles halfway through the checkpoint, falls to the side. He is hauled up roughly by one of the guards, stammering apologies. You think he might be shot on the spot, but he is simply yanked back to his previous position. He finishes quickly. You wonder if he is secretly Jewish, if he stumbled at the likeness of Moses because of a sudden flash of guilt. Or if he is just an old man, his balance failing him.
When you get close enough to see the plates, sacred images from every major faith but Christianity, you wonder for the thousandth time if the irony is lost on the government that this is the same technique used to root out Christians in feudal Japan.
And then it is your turn. The guards are not really looking at you, they are perhaps thinking about what bar they will go to tonight. The first plate is a likeness of Charles Darwin. Talk about irony. No atheist has ever refused to walk on Darwin's face. Indeed, you like to think that there is a Church of Darwin somewhere, and that the first commandment is to step on his face in order to preserve your genetic material.
You would laugh at the irony, but for your mother. You will never forget how she went through the first checkpoint, stepping on every plate, then getting off at the far end and taking a Bible out of her purse and placing it on the ground, and stepping on that too. That was in the beginning days of the Office of Religious Loyalty, before they knew how many dissenters they would have. She had a cursory trial, and was executed by hanging. Whenever you want to laugh you instead see her standing beside fifty others at the gallows, head high.
After Darwin is the Buddha. You step on him too. Then comes the goddess, Shiva. The destroyer. You wonder if this is planned, of all the Hindu gods and goddesses, and suppose it probably is. Next comes Moses, and you step on him. After this is an image of the prophet Mohammed. This is the last plate. You hesitate. You are certainly not a Muslim. From a very long, very white line of Carters and Jamesons, you're a staunch atheist. You don't know why you hesitate. Perhaps this is a little piece of your mother inside you. Or your father. You remember how after your mother, your father made you promise not to dissent, not to get yourself killed. How he told you he couldn't bear to lose you, too. Then you went away to college, and while you were working on your degree, he was writing an underground atheist newsletter.
Paused over Mohammed, the guards are now taking serious notice of you. "Is something wrong?" one of them asks, fingering the safety on his rifle. You shake your head. Ten days before you were to come home for Christmas, your father and his newsletter were discovered. When you got home, he was gone. You did not realize what had happened until you found a hidden copy of the first issue in a little box that the MPs hadn't searched. "I can no longer live," your father wrote, "in a world that I do not wish to live in. I must change it or die trying." You remembered what he said about living quietly so as not to make him suffer your loss, and tried to feel betrayed. But he was so right, that you could not.
You shake your head again, and the soldier points his rifle at you. Often, there are still trials for people who fail the checkpoint. Sometimes, these individuals are even allowed to retake the test in court. But for failing at Mohammed, the penalty is almost universally a bullet to the head on the spot. The administration is very strongly against Islam.
You want to pick them all up: Mohammed, Shiva, Buddha, Moses, and Darwin. Stack them all and hand them to the guards. Then, when the bullet destroys your gray matter, you will know your life had meaning, even if only because of a pointless protest in front of an emotionally broken crowd, who are right now watching you blankly and wondering if they will see another execution today.
You step on Mohammed, with the intent of stopping at the end, like your mother, and beginning your protest there. You will turn around and pick up all the plates. But when you step off Mohammed, your knees shake. Your heartbeat is rapid and you are sweating. The feeling you experience when the guard lowers his rifle is so powerfully good, you do not turn around. You do not pick up any of the plates. You sign the fourth guard's checklist and walk away. You obey an obsolete promise to your father, even while his words echo between the dreary sky and your own head. "I can no longer live in a world that I do not wish to live in. I must change it or die trying."
And the days of your life stretch long before you, like ten thousand sacred artifacts, awaiting your dirty soles.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Author Comments

In my last years as an undergrad, I was assigned a short story written in second person. It was southern Gothic, and "you" was a freshly-released-from-prison convict, picked up by "your" father with a hooker in the back seat. It (the story) was quite a ride, and I was fascinated with the way that, by the end, the second person had seemed totally to vanish. This is the great struggle with second person, wrangling that "you" into a real human being, and not just a Choose Your Own Adventure Book reference to the reader.

- Greg Leunig
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