Democracy is perishing, the rights of women are being crushed. A totalitarian religion is taking over the planet. Tais, a rebel at heart, is forced to marry its leader. In the midst of tragedy, Fadi appears, the Heir to the Light. Is he really an ally? Or will he lead her to ruin and death? Is his l
1 The wedding
Under the screen of virtue that covers her face, Tais’ tears smudge her make-up. The blue centres of her eyes are ringed by burst blood vessels. She has been crying in her mother’s arms all night and has yet to stop. Her face is swollen, her cheeks are puffy, but what does it matter? Today she ceases to exist. No-one can see her, nobody must notice her. From now on she is merely a shadow, one more slave.
The huge black armoured car is waiting outside the door of her house, itself a beautiful and luxurious Art Deco building perfectly restored. The clouds are low and obscure the sun, autumn is fast approaching.
It is time to give up all freedom. For how long, she does not know. She has to leave everything behind. As of now she must pay attention to every movement, every word, every thought. Any mistake would be fatal, not only for herself but for everyone involved.
Her mother gives her a hug and the young woman gets in the limo which is surrounded by bodyguards. This will be her new reality. One of the guards closes the door behind her. Forward she goes, alone with two of the armed men who are perched silently in the front seats. On the right sleeve of their black coats of piety there are three gold stars indicating their rank. They are forbidden from looking directly at Tais. The fluorescent rings around their left iris turn them incandescent with menace. Tais does not feel in the slightest protected, she is aware she is among predators.
Now she knows what it means to no longer exist.
Behind them follows another armoured car. It comes to a standstill outside the door allowing the rest of the family to get in. The two armoured vehicles are sandwiched between a further convoy of security. There are TV cameras everywhere, the entire world has its eyes on the unfolding events. The whole planet is celebrating simultaneously.
The streets are filled with the devout, dressed head to toe in uniformal black. They are oozing menace. The screens of virtue of the faceless women reflect the measly light that the clouds reluctantly let through. An entire universe that has run out of colour and diversity.
As they cross the city, the faceless mobs choke the streets and escort Tais into a world of murk and shadows. The throngs obsess themselves with hell so much they have unwittingly created a replica of it on earth, grafted from their own paranoia.
The armoured limousine stops in front of the temple, a new building with chiselled glass walls. The pillars are curved and white, like the skeleton of a whale. The walls are as high as a cathedral, the vast cupola ends in a tip resembling a diamond. It strives to reach for the sky and catch a little hope, a little of its glow. The decorations are made with beautiful modern materials designed to reflect light. Under its walls lies the tomb of the national library, destroyed ten years ago by one of the Fraternity’s terrorist attacks. It marked a turning point in history. A year later construction began on the Temple of Light. Contemporary civilization’s knowledge was symbolically destroyed by a band of radicals whose sole aim was to impose their beliefs and hallucinations that stretch back thousands of years. The ashes of millions upon millions of books are now part of the ‘sacred’ earth. All that culture is now replaced by one single text, the ‘Book of Light’, a book so ancient that no-one understands the language in which it was written. Ignorance now reigns over a resplendent past. The building that houses it glares with insolence.
In the name of tolerance, progress has let itself be crushed and freedom has been consumed. Tais is the incarnation of what happens when a culture nourishes itself purely on blindness and idealism. It allowed them to advance further and further, like water creeping into the pillars that carried a civilization of equality, freedom and democracy, causing them to crumble and fall apart. Now everything is about to end.
Tais steps out the car, her legs wavering, threatening to give way, while the watching crowds admire. They all try to imagine her face, only seeing the reflection of their own faces on the screen that covers the identity of the soon-to-be ninth princess. The grey tunic moves harmoniously following the cadence of her young body, she appears to float over the ground. Her scarlet trail is the only exception to the greyness of the scene. The dark shadows of faceless women, behind their husbands, cheer at her arrival. Are they happy?
Under the immense black marble arch defining the temple entrance he waits for her, huge, imposing, a terrible predator. Adored by the masses, he bristles with pride, his chest out. His black tunic is almost golden with embroidered suns radiating his predominance over the rest of the faithful. His headpiece is the symbol of succession, resembling the crown of an emperor.
As Tais mounts the stairs, her footsteps leave a red trail in her wake, like a gush of fresh blood after a slaughter. It is a symbol of the passion which in this marriage is completely absent, of the love every woman ought to feel on her wedding day. But ‘falling in love’ is not recognised by this religion, since the existence of women as anything other than ‘things’ does not feature in the official clerical doctrines.
What on earth happened? Why has democracy slipped through their fingers? Tears well in the eyes of Tais’ father while he looks on from within the heavily armoured limousine behind. Dan Vanweg is the country’s Education Minister, the same country that is the base of operations of Cyrus, the Successor. By subjugating himself to the Fraternity, Dan had wanted to simply reverse the tide of events. But instead he has found himself, and his whole family, sucked further into ever more vicious currents. Now his cherished little girl is being swallowed by a maelstrom of destruction, ignorance and barbarity. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and dries his tears, readying himself to feign joy while a fury against himself consumes his entrails. How he wishes that it were the despised leader’s funeral and not the marriage of his daughter!
Cyrus’ blue eyes shine from afar, steely and cold, his gaze cuts without mercy. His sturdy, pronounced features are downright frightening. As a young man he would have been attractive, but the crags of his soul have sculpted his face over time and fixed his wrinkles in an expression impervious to mercy. That’s what works, what fascinates his followers. The believers are enchanted with this man as if they were in the sublime presence of a lion, a tiger’s roar, or the shadow of a dragon flying overhead. The Patriarch is what they all want to be, their archetypal aspiration.
Ruby, Tais’ mother, takes Dan’s hand and squeezes so he feels her compassion. The tall woman’s elegance and beauty match that of her daughter. She knows that the intentions of her husband were noble. But his illusions have proved lethal.
“We will find a way out,” she says before one of the guards opens the door.
They exit the car, hunched from the emotional pain. They are afraid, but they have to pretend. Their movements are slow and heavy, their steps sting, their joints ache. The believers merely interpret it as a sign of humility.
Adam, Tais’ younger brother climbs out of the car after them, his blond hair and tiny body make him stand out. Just fourteen, he does not understand everything around him. Disoriented, his eyes dart anxiously. Though he is accustomed to the cameras, even liking them, this time it is different. He would rather be elsewhere.
For the first time Ruby is grateful for the screen covering her face, hiding behind it. Her eyes fizz with repulsion and tears. At least she does not have to act, that would be too much.
Dan’s belly contracts in spasms, every step is cringe-inducing. He fights against his sudden facial flinches. He has already been in this same temple when he converted, but this time it’s all so much worse. The memory of the National Library is nothing compared to this image. Inside, his crying disperses into a total emptiness. On the outside he forces a smile. He could die right there.
How much will Tais be able to take? In front of her lies death, a gigantic looming crystal death.
There is no return now. Dan can only carry on with the farce. He started it, hoping it could save democracy from being strangled by a social freak show whose mere existence is almost impossible to accept. He knows now, he got it wrong. And his daughter has to pay the price for his negligence, his fantasies and his obstinacy.
With a proud and arrogant gesture Cyrus greets the crowds, turns to the corridor leading to the altar and waits for the bride-to-be. She must stand behind him. She is less than him, less than nothing.
Mid-day draws near. The prayer hall is heaving. The silhouettes of anonymous women congregating at the back show the distinction of a higher rank, each carrying a symbol in the right corner of their coat. It is the sign that helps their husband identify them. There are groups of five, three, four with the same mark.
Up front are the leaders, ministers, generals and big businessmen, all devoted to the Fraternity. Their coats carry simple lined epaulettes, the number indicates their rank.
The ruffling of coat sleeves accentuates the corrupted silence. Occasionally Ruby’s muffled sobs let themselves be heard from a distance.
Tais’ chest contracts, her breathing fades to soft panting, she can feel her heart thumping and struggling for space. Her lips are dry, her mind is empty. She does not want to think any more. She only wants to surrender to the hypnotic rhythm of her steps and stop feeling altogether.
Her hands, adorned by a pair of red gloves, are intertwined in front of her belly. She is fighting to conceal her fear.
The overly spicy perfume used by Cyrus complements the smell of aggression that emanates from his impressive body, the same body that excites so many women. For Tais it is the smell of death.
The altar is white and shiny, made of a transparent material which is illuminated from the inside. It appears incandescent. The black marble floor reflects the whole scene as if it were a parallel reality beneath their feet. There is no music, for music is banned. They say it keeps them away from the truth. The only harmonies permitted to these pious ears are the sacred chants, which are monotonous, empty and terribly desolate.
A man dressed all in white appears and looms over a balcony on top of the arched entrance of the temple, his back turned to the crowd. His deep and imposing voice begins to resonate. Without hesitation the zealous throngs unite their voices. It is as simultaneous as a dam overflowing. The resonance is powerful, the gust of sound pushes skyward as if it could raise the huge glass dome. Cyrus, at the top of the stairs, is listening intently without singing. He is the only one allowed to climb to that level. Tais, being a woman, must stay a step behind.
The prayers are in Rani, the official language of the clerics. Tais can understand, but with difficulty. Since her early childhood she has had an unwitting aversion towards this language that was mandatory at school. Each new word she learnt felt like another soldier forcing its way into her mind with a mission to obliterate everything, mirroring how the real flesh-and-blood terrorists were wreaking havoc in society. She was petrified of becoming like them. Never could she have imagined that one day she would have such need for this revolting language. Never did she imagine things would end up like this.
What are all those women thinking behind their screens? Do they envy her? Do they feel sad for her? Do they admire her? Have they been harangued to be there by force? Do they feel proud of having no face? Are they happy to be reduced to the level of property, of goods? There is something that does not make sense, something Tais fails to understand. They say that women are the main victims of the Fraternity, but they are the first to join it. Tais just can’t get it through her head: the sacred texts are so clear about how they are going to be treated, and still they choose to convert? How can they be so deluded? What is happening in their minds?
Tais’ stomach ties itself in knots and there is a rush of adrenaline. Maybe she will also end up a believer, totally convinced and faithful. Will they convince her of the Light’s supremacy? Of the idea that this all-powerful divinity wishes and ordains that she, Tais Vanweg, be reduced to the equivalent of a mere vessel of procreation? Will she believe and preach like them?
Her head pounds and spins, making her lose balance, but the wobble drags her back to reality. ‘Focus,’ she urges herself.
The priest’s incoherent murmuring echoes against the cold glass walls. The hum of the faithful dies down to make room for some preaching.
Tais’ mind slips into remembering the first time that woman came to her home, primed to instruct. Her faceless silhouette dominates Tais’ memories, the way she sat in the room without taking off the screen and proceeded to give a religious discourse. The woman’s voice had trembled and warbled, she appeared to be in a trance. She was so convinced that if they did not subjugate and follow the sacred laws then they would go to hell. There they would be eternally tortured, and blood would gush from their eyes until the end of times.
The faceless woman’s words had given Tais uncountable nightmares. Was that the ‘peace’ promised by the Light? The young blonde did not know whether it was the story, or the vision of the woman teetering on the brink of madness which disturbed her more. It was most likely a combination of the two.
The priest’s voice and the content of his sermon intermingle with the memories.
“Life is but a test to determine whether a man be worthy of eternal happiness. The path to salvation is one of total obedience, obedience of man to Light, obedience of woman to Light and acceptance of man as her keeper. Our great Prophet, the Last, the Great and Merciful said: ‘If it were not forbidden to worship earthly entities, then woman would have to worship man.’ Man is her protector and so woman owes complete and utter obedience, those are the orders of the Light. Those are the laws that ensure our peace, our virtue, our eternal life,” recites the man, dressed in a shimmering white robe. The final words boom like a judgement of life imprisonment.
Ruby lets loose another sob, this time loud enough for heads to turn toward her. The Vanwegs cannot contain their terror. Adam takes his mother’s arm and squeezes hard. He feels the horror of discovery bearing down.
“If such loyalty or abnegation is broken at any point then we are lost, doomed to eternal torture in the Shadow Realm. The Light helps us by gifting its laws and rules which must not be challenged. Never forget that stepping back means death.”
Dan’s spine shivers. He knew this but never took it seriously, just like his colleagues didn’t. Yes, he had always known, even before joining the Fraternity, that there was no going back. But his blind hope that things could be kept under control has now condemned his baby. Being an atheist, the idea of eternal punishment after death had never really bothered Dan. But living through hell in this life, and making his own daughter live through it, is unbearable.
His eyes begin to moisten, his tears are about to leap forth. His chest is compressed and does not let him breathe. He must fight, he must pretend, he must show, somehow, that he is happy. The life of his family depends on it. But he is not able.
The time to show obedience is nigh. Tais has to bow and show her respect. Her young mind tries to escape, her body tries to rebel. ‘For the resistance,’ ‘for the resistance,’ she tells herself. Her hands are trembling. Finally she kneels down in front of the huge incandescent sun altar.
Cyrus takes her hand and lifts her to her feet, the crowds are thrilled, myriad sighs fill the air. Is this beauty? Is this their definition of love?
A man next to Dan gets up, walks along the back of the altar and places a chest on the sacred stone. He opens it wide. A gold chain adorned with diamonds glints on a cushion as red as splashed blood. The man, in his sixties, takes the chain with both hands and raises it to the heavens while softly pronouncing some words. He rises to the level of the altar, kneels and moves on his knees toward the couple. The jewel is in the shape of an eight, and is designed to unite the two hands of newly-weds, a symbol of obedience. Cyrus threads Tais’ hand through one of the eyelets and then repeats with his own.
They are husband and wife. It is done.
Tais’ head is directed toward the floor as it is forbidden to look into the eyes of men. But her face is covered and she disobeys. Without moving her neck she slowly lifts her gaze to that of her new owner. She wants to cleave her eyes into his unknown soul without him knowing, and steal everything inside. That is her act of rebellion. She wishes her young irises were two knives ravaging everything that protects this supreme leader, leaving him naked, impotent and ruined in front of all his followers. She wishes to rip out everything that’s hidden in the caverns of his soul: plans, strategies, ideas, beliefs, weaknesses, she must take control of it all.
A force like that of a brave general before waging battle takes over her body. This social nightmare must end now, the delirium needs to clear. And now is the time to start. Her veins pulsate and throb with fire, her hatred for this man transmogrifies into an unstoppable determination. Even if she wanted to, there’s no way she could contain it.