Jonathan K. Horn
I think I always knew I would end up here. Waiting... In a shame cell. Waiting to be put to death in the heart of my city. I remember the day in our temple, the holiest day of our planetary cycle, when I knew my father had seen my eyes linger on her just a little too long. I can never forget his searing stare, my face suddenly on fire. After that, my father never showed me the kind of affection I had grown up taking for granted. He knew.
I was 14 seasons old; one season away from pairing. It was the time when that year’s pairings were being consecrated: the boys with the boys and the girls with the girls. It was during this most sacred ritual that I knew I loved a girl—not a boy, not the boy that my family had negotiated for me just days after my birth. I had known my promised one from as far back as my memory will go. Each year, we were allowed to sit together at the pairing ritual and afterwards at the banquet, we participated in the dance of the couples, touching only our fingertips together to symbolize our bond to each other. No other physical contact is allowed until one’s own pairing ceremony, at which time promised ones consummate their union according to the traditions.
My love’s name was Nyah. She was a distant relative that I had not seen for many seasons. Her family had been living on Segret, our largest moon, but had returned to the planet and were to live in our city. I don’t remember much about her until that day, when she entered the temple with her promised one. She was so beautiful that I could scarcely contain my admiration. When we greeted each other, she looked deep into my eyes, not the way a girl looks at a boy, I thought. Was it just me? I prayed it was. I hoped it wasn’t. It was, fortunately or unfortunately, the latter.
Her name was Nyah. She did the smart thing and found a way to strangle herself in her cell yesterday. Smart because she avoided the agonizing and humiliating death that awaits me and the several other abominations at noon tomorrow. “Please! Don’t let them stretch me!” was the last thing she said to me when we were caught in bed and arrested. We both knew I could do nothing. We have all seen as many stretchings as we have seasons remembered. In all cities, the entire population is obligated to watch and cheer that the Most High is a great and just god. Enforcers from the Keepers of the Writings watch the crowd. If they determine someone is less than enthusiastic, they will be stripped and lashed forthwith. When I was eleven seasons old, there was an abominable couple who refused to repent, thus guaranteeing themselves a much slower death. Throughout the several hours that it took for them to die, they screamed “I love you!” to each other, over and over through their agony. Now, here, I know what it feels like to love with all my strength. I am relieved for Nyah but am bereft that she will not be there tomorrow with me.
My family came to the prison yesterday. It is forbidden for them to see me before the execution. The families of abominations must participate in the stretching so they rehearse with the death squad the day before. I only know they were here because I could hear someone say that the families had arrived. I don’t know how many. The number varies from year to year. I have seen as few as two and as many as two dozen. My heart aches so deeply. I will never again feel their embrace and hear their loving words. My mother passed to the next realm when I was still very young. I am grateful that she won’t have to be there. Or will she? My father and siblings have probably discretely ingested the potion. It is forbidden, of course, but it takes away the emotional agony, at the stretching, at least. They have surely also had the ritual of un-naming, the revocation of the naming ceremony. I no longer have a name. I am simply an abomination. I am nothing.
I have the unique dishonor of being the first in my family. I have never had to put a loved one to death. I have heard many accounts of friends who have. The day before the stretching, in addition to rehearsing at the prison, the entire family meet with the clergy. They are instructed that evil energy has taken over the person and that they are no longer part of their families, nor even part of our society. They are allowed to grieve for the lost one but are assured that stretching is the only way the abomination’s soul can have any hope of salvation. Through stretching, the evil presence is separated from possessed but death is the only way to truly be sure that the purification has been achieved.
My love for Nyah is not evil. I know that as much as I have ever known anything. We were meant to be together. Of this I am certain. When we spoke, we frequently completed each other’s sentences. When we lay together, our souls merged into one. I feel that still, even though she is gone. We completed each other. I am ready to die because I know I will join her on the other side. I know!
Long before the Writings were established, they say that we were like the beasts: males fornicating with females. We are different. We are not animals. Only the ceremonial tube of male seed is permitted to enter a woman under the precise rules of the fertilization ritual. It is only those who have fallen into the way of beasts that violate this strictest of commandments. I do not know when or how these things were decided, or by whom, I only know that our sacred laws are never to be questioned. Death awaits those who reject them. Death and damnation. I have bitten my lips, sometimes drawing blood. So many times my rebellious heart has silently screamed. Yes, even before I saw her that day.
I cannot sleep. Even if I wanted to. These are my final hours. These are my final breaths. I will take them alone until I am dragged to the stretching scaffold under the ocean of jeers and curses from the swarming crowd. The day of cleansing is the hottest day of the year, when our two suns are highest in the sky. The giant, concave mirrors will gather their heat and focus it on the extended bodies of the abominations. The light and warmth that gives us life will be the agency of death. Those who confess and repent will be allowed a mercifully quick end, relatively speaking that is. Even the most expedited stretchings last at least an hour. The others are left to suffer for as long as it takes, sometimes even until the next day, amid a concentration of pure loathing on the part of the witnesses. There is no pity for these, the greatest of all sinners. They have chosen this sin, according to the Writings, and therefore deserve no compassion.
I did not, would not have, chosen this. It chose me. I do not yet know what I will say when the question is put to me by the priest-executioner. If I say that I have decided to be this way, I would be lying. Our hearts did this without our knowing. Our hearts obey their own laws. I think something inside me knew she was coming, as if we were already connected by some invisible filament that glowed in an unseen dimension. Nyah and I had always been connected. Do I say this? Do I choose to let them cook me slowly? Do I give them the satisfaction of despising me even more than they do now? Do I give them perhaps the equal satisfaction of affirming and validating this brutal and unjust law? I cannot decide. I do not know what I will say.
I am absolutely alone.
I remember the many happy times with my family, the feast days, the birthdays, even the pairings. As families, we are commanded to rejoice in what is good. Our celebrations are marked by the outpouring of our love for one another. Yet now, I have been excluded. Excluded and despised. My father and siblings will howl at me in disgust tomorrow. They will spit on me and pummel me with their fists as I am chained for death. It is not required, but they may empty a pot with several days of their waste onto my head as a public gesture of disgrace and disowning. The question put to them will be: “How much do you hate this abomination.” It is left to each family to decide how it will answer that question. They must discuss and plan. Families that do not enjoy a high social status generally make the greatest spectacle of malice, lest they be seen to be of lower morality. My family is among the elite. Not to be outdone, those of higher standing must set an example. I can only speculate as to what expressions of anger and betrayal await me by their hands and words.
Daylight has come although I cannot see it. I hear the busy rustling of activity as final preparations are being made. The executioners and their helpers will soon gather in the temple to ask the Creator’s blessing as the time is close at hand to obey the commandment. They humbly ask that no feelings of empathy befoul their hearts as they go about their sacred duties. They will abdicate their free will and turn it over, entirely, to the Creator, thereby receiving absolution from our almighty, all-knowing, and supremely just god. I suppose I should be happy for them. Yet, even though they will paralyze their faces into adamantine scowls, I wonder. Will some deep stirring of horror disturb the quiet waters of resolve within their hearts? Will even a small pang of remorse cry out? Are they really such unfeeling stones that they cannot know pity? If so, I cannot fathom how we have become this way. I do not wish to live among them. I welcome death. It’s the dying I dread.
I can now hear the doors to the cage block opening. In a very few moments the guards will come for us. I have not seen any of the other abominations. I can hear the cage doors being unlocked one by one down the row. The pleading and shrieking, especially of the younger ones, echoes off the unfeeling walls of this dungeon of shame. I hear the pleading wails of a young girl. I know it is not Nyah but I feel the screams as if they were hers. I can see enough from my cage to know that clothes are being stripped off and thrown into a pile. The corridor is thick with black-clad guards opening cage doors, subduing the condemned. I am next. I will not cry out.
I know there is little chance anyone will read these words. I will hide them the best I can in hopes that they might be read by someone. If you are reading this, please know that I will have died believing that I am not an abomination in the eyes of the Creator.
I now know what I will say when the question is put to me.