She is beautiful. As the day she was born. I can’t look away because I know I’ll never see her again once permitted to leave. Love, anger, despair; they fill my soul as my eyes burn every detail of her perfect face into my mind. She’s writing. It fills me with dread and helplessness yet I stand up from her bed and walk toward her tiny, furious fingers. Do they pinch the pencil like it’s a sabre, or an innocent, memorial tool of a young girl? I must know what she’s writing. The words creep over her shoulder like demons I hoped to defeat.
They said you’re evil, but I think you’re heroic. They said you’re a terrorist, but I think you’re a warrior. They said you’re the shame of Chrallaweh, but I think you’re the pride of Australia . . .
Her blasphemous words, however accurate, fill my eyes with terror as I gaze at her fragile reflection in the desk’s mirror. The words look like guns pointed at her, like nooses around her neck, like starving dogs poised to rip her to shreds. But I’m helpless, I read on.
. . . You destroyed the church daddy. It burned like it was consumed by Hell. Mummy said she’d tell me one day why you did it, what went on in that building, why you said I should pray to God at the home shrine, under the gaze of His Eyes. But I don’t like those cameras daddy, I want to pray where I want, when I want, but mummy said it was either His Eyes or the bad men at the church . . .
Frantic, I begin looking around the room for a sign of her intentions. A match, a lighter, a fucking pair-of-scissors, but I find nothing. Thoughts black as the Devil’s soul creep into my head as it occurs to me what those bastard Priests will do if they find the note. The countless hours I sacrificed subverting the evil hypocrisy which had been creeping over my country since I was a boy; could God possibly allow my daughter to pay for sins I committed in the pursuit of righteousness? No. He does not control the actions of the wicked.
‘Candace?’ whispers a voice from the bedroom-door.
I follow the turn of Candace’s head, and remember my love for the slender blonde within the door-frame. Jennifer.
‘How’s it coming?’ she asks.
‘You encouraged her to do this?’ I think in disbelief.
‘Ok, I guess. I miss daddy.’
‘Keep going honey. You’ll feel better when you’re done. I miss him too.’
Jennifer leaves and closes the door behind her. ‘I miss both my ladies,’ I think, before returning to Candace’s note with increased foreboding.
. . . I’ll never forget what you said, daddy. That religion’s denial of evolution is ironic because religion is entirely the product of the evolution of mankind. That every civilisation since humans first sowed seeds and caged cows has invented ever more intricate, far-reaching and, eventually, monotheistic religions. You said religion has a necessary place in civilisation as a source of hope and comfort for those with no other, but religion should never control the two most vital pillars of mankind: government and science. You also said I’d one day understand your words. I still don’t, daddy. But I believe them, like everything you said, with all my heart, forever . . .
Despair. Love. The two bi-polar emotions fill me like simultaneous fire and ice and I fall to the floor, paralysed by helplessness. I begin screaming for answers: ‘Why am I here!? What possible purpose is seeing my daughter nail her own coffin meant to achieve!? What is she going to do!? If she puts that note in her draw I’ll never forgive You! If she does that, she’s doomed, and You might as well leave me here to see her tortured and mutilated, because I will never forgive You.’ Candace drops her pencil. It lies in front of my face and behind it, under the desk, sits an aluminium dustbin. As she retrieves the pencil, I crawl under the desk and peer into the bin’s cold-interior. A packet of matches lies conspicuously, and blessedly, at its base. ‘Thank You,’ I mutter, crossing myself, and raise back up to read the remainder of my beloved child’s memoir. Relieved of much of my anxiety, the eloquence, intelligence, and passion—especially the passion—of her writing hits me with my greatest regret: that I should miss seeing this precious girl grow up, that I should not bear witness to her achievements. Was it all worth it? I look at Your son’s photo on the wall, cruelly disfigured with the words “God loves you, and God will punish you” and realise, yes, it was. Then I look at my daughter, and remember the world of my youth, the world she or her children might one day be lucky enough to know; a free world. Certainly, yes.
. . . I told them I hate you daddy. I told them I hate you for what you did to the holy place, but the truth is, the truth is daddy, I don’t hate you. I’ll never hate you. They said your soul is now burning in the depths of Hell, but I think you’re in Heaven. And until I see you there when I die I’ll miss you every day. I love you daddy.
Burn it. Burn it. Burn it, I whisper. She raises from her chair, walks to the window and welcomes in the frigid midnight. She returns sleepily to the desk, pulls the aluminium dustbin from beside her feet, and withdraws the packet of matches from its depths. She hesitates. After dragging her index finger down the length of the page, with me urging, willing, compelling her to follow through, she lays it into its furnace and follows with the first-struck-match. And, after the thin note erupts into flames fiercer than my hatred for those I can no longer fight, I drift toward Heaven with its smoke.
Exegesis (this story was originally a university task, and this exegesis serves the purpose of academically analysing the work for my tutor’s benefit):
• My fear is that it’s counterproductive to its quality, or it simply doesn’t show to the degree I’ve intended. Regardless, this story contains elements I’m very passionate about;
• The novel 1984 changed my life, for good and ill. This story is heavily inspired by that book. The idea of an evil, religious oligarchy controlling Australia fills me with terror. In many ways the unnamed central protagonist in the story is me, because I know I would do anything within my power to keep religious extremism from controlling this country;
• At this point I must make one point clear: this story is an argument against extremism, not religion. I’ve known many religious people, some good, some bad, and my biggest problem with both good and bad religious people I’ve known is they often allow their religion to subvert their reason. Faith can destroy people if it’s wildly and impossibly optimistic, or full of zealotry;
• Candace writing her thoughts is a direct, though much more innocent, homage to Winston Smith from George Orwell’s classic. Her unnamed, ghost-father’s terror is in many ways a homage to the part of Winston’s brain which knows he should stop writing, that the slightest act of treason means death;
• The story is a social criticism of an imagined world I hope is impossible and, thankfully, currently far from ever being realised in this country. In many ways it is also a criticism of Orwell’s imaginary world. A nation, like a person, requires balance. While an Australia—or Chrallaweh (pronounced Kra-la-weh (a combination of Christ, Allah and Yaweh))—controlled by a religious oligarchy terrifies me, the opposite, a purely political oligarchy such as Big Brother’s bent on absolute control, terrifies me also. Entities such as this tend to outlaw religion, because it detracts from worship of the leader or party. While I’m agnostic, I recognise religion’s need to exist in balance alongside other social influences;
• I want to challenge people to think when they read this. Things like: ok, I’m religious, I’m not religious, regardless, do I think I’d enjoy living in a world such as this? I want people to think about whether the people who have power over their lives deserve to have such power. And also what is being done with that power, and what kind of person are they because of this powerful influence. Perhaps it’s the journalism student in me, but I believe it’s important to always challenge, always criticise others and oneself. Not attack. It must be based on reason and calm argument, and as much as possible avoid verbal or physical abuse;
• The story is set in the present day, or near future, and is most certainly dystopian. I couldn’t write about a utopia unless it was heavily ironic. Australia is a secular, anti-oppressive, diverse place. Unfortunately, I was unable to paint a full picture subverting that for the purposes of entertainment, but I hope the hints in this short story are well-conveyed.