"To Die a Martyr"
A short story
Persecution of the innocent has been one of the most deplorable aspects of
our history as a species. People need to hate. It's not personal, except
for those who are persecuted; it's just that some people would rather find a target
for their fears than change the negative qualities in themselves. If they can
project that which they like least in themselves onto others, then they can expunge,
eradicate, those things with a clean conscience. It's kinda like metaphorical
self-therapy. To put a face, name and body with "evil" makes it easier
to "fix," even if the face, name or body in question is beyond reproach.
And so it is with me. I stand here, in front of this firing squad, for doing nothing
wrong to anyone. My crime? Apostasy, hereticism; I am a heretic, so named
by the powers that be. Do I believe in God? Certainly! Absolutely, yes! Praise
God, He is God! Do I believe in equality? Why, only a cohesive
society can enjoy longevity, of course. Love? Oceans of it, for all people-
despite even this. Justice? The Laws of God are my prime directive, and even
so, I must also obey the Laws of the Land in which I find myself. Truth?
It lights my steps and guides my way through all dark valleys. I live by the Truth,
even if I don't agree with it or like it.
And yet, here I stand, staring down my dozen-muzzled death, triggers at the ready,
a heretic. Am I afraid? Yes. Yes, I am. Will I cower and plead and recant my
faith in things that are good and honorable? I am afraid, but I am not that
afraid! I understand that my faith will not protect my mortal shell, but I believe
that it will calm my soul. I am afraid of the unknown, but in truth I am
curious and even eager to move on.
The people holding their guns, waiting to take careful aim, stare coldly at me,
their hate almost seething at my stubbornness. They don't want to kill me for
my beliefs; they don't want to kill me at all. But because I won't recant, just
in word alone, they are forced to do so by the rest of society, and that
is why they hate me. If I would just renounce my faith, then they wouldn't have
to pull the triggers. After that, I'm free. What they fail to realize is that
by pulling their triggers, for whatever reason, they're granting me the greatest
freedom of all.
These gunmen aren't soldiers. They're not even government officials. They are
simply average people who had the misfortune of discovering me. They will probably
have trouble sleeping, nightmares do that to people, but I will not deny
what my mind and soul tell me is right. I'm sorry, but I won't. And what's probably
worse to them is that I won't go blindfolded and whimpering. If I am to die this
way, then I shall do it with dignity, aplomb, peace and my eyes wide open.
They don't have to shoot, but they will- it's their duty to their
beliefs, not the Law of the Land, but what they perceive to be the Law of God.
The plain simple truth, though, is that they are going to murder me. They will
disguise it as a dutiful execution and they won't be found out because no investigation
will be started- my body will be disposed of in a way that won't point to them.
I'm aware of these facts in a dispassionate and clinical sense, but that doesn't
bother me a bit. When I'm dead I don't think I'll be in a position to complain.
I won't feel a thing by then.
The lead executioner steps forward, as is part of the traditional execution. I
smile warmly at him, courageously and with care. And why not? They're about to
send me to the Abha Kingdom. I should think that I've never been so lucky as
to be released from this hell we call Earth. "Do you have any last words?"
he asks. "A final request?"
I shake my head slowly. "No last words, but a small request, if you will
be so kind."
His body stiffens somewhat in surprise. He wasn't prepared to find me so calm
and collected. Most people, when faced with being executed or death of any sort,
usually can't remain coherent. "What is it?" he asks with a measure
"When I fall, when I'm dead, please say a prayer over my body. Doesn't matter
what prayer you choose, but please say one for me. I've done no one here any ill,
so it's a very small thing, don't you think?"
He looks at me for a long time. Perhaps he's trying to decide how his fellow believers
would react if he granted me this final wish. Would they persecute him,
too? Would they merely ostracize him? Would they even think twice about it,
assuming that he was giving me Last Rites? Last Rites were certainly allowed
in his religion, even for criminals, as well as in many other religions, so it
wouldn't raise suspicion of his character. Besides, in a sense, Last Rites are
exactly what I'd asked for. Finally he nods his head in silence and steps
away from me coldly. If I had asked for my favorite meal, sex, alcohol or even
a cigarette, then at least he'd be able to despise me for indulging in creature
comforts during my final moments on Earth. Instead, though, I asked for a noble
prayer- without even specifying what kind of prayer- one from his religion
or mine, didn't matter to me. I left that completely to his discretion.
The way they set up the firing squad was simple: a dozen rifles, eleven blanks
and one live round, in a random weapon. I suppose that made it easier for them
psychologically if they were unaware of who actually killed me. Being part
of a firing squad was hard enough for any man. A guilty conscience can be downright
devastating. Definitely, it was the kinder, gentler thing for them to do- as for
me, I am doomed regardless, so I never entered the picture of consideration except
as a target. Each of the gunmen are practiced and experienced hunters, so I would
make a very easy target indeed since I am standing still. My hands are unbound,
but where would I run?
The leader raises his arm. "Ready!" he calls out. His voice didn't carry
the conviction of the order and cracked. I suppose his is still shaken up by the
prospect of praying over me. Will he actually do it? Is he having second thoughts?
Again, I'll be dead by the time he's faced with that decision, so it's not like
I can complain if he changes his mind.
I turn my attention to the gunmen. I can see the uncertainty in their eyes as
they raise their guns. I wonder if that's how electric chair executioners feel
just before they throw the switch? Oh, wait. There hasn't been an active electric
chair in a decade, has there? These days the "state" strictly uses
lethal injections. They say it's more humane that way. A humane method of
killing someone is an oxymoron, in my honest opinion, but no one bothered
to ask me.
"Aim!" Yes, he's definitely nervous. His voice jumped an octave higher,
making the order sound like a strangled squeal. I mentally say a quick and silent
prayer for God to give him courage and strength to remain steadfast in this. It's
the least I can do for him, if he'll pray over my corpse.
On the heels of that prayer, I mutter a short phrase in Persian. "Yah
Baha'u'l'abha." Thou Glory of glories. According to my religion,
we should say that if we're aware of impending death. It's supposed to let the
Abha Kingdom know that we're on our way (arriving in the Next World unannounced
should be considered rude, shouldn't it?) and, as a spiritual bonus, it
calms your soul for the event. Another side effect that I don't count on is that
it reminds my executioners of why they're killing me at all: I am a Baha'i,
a follower of the glory of God, by literal translation.
In the pregnant pause I look into the eyes of the gunmen. Some of them appear
thoughtful, as though they're finally considering the weight of the situation.
I notice one, just one, looking directly back at me and going pale with
realization- he's about to take a human life. He blinks away the distracting thought
and reacquires his target: me. Which one of them has the live round, I wonder?
I push that curious thought aside and exhale. I'm not entirely certain why
I do this, but a little voice in my head says that it's a good idea. That little
voice hasn't led me astray before (I don't consider this as being led astray,
despite the fact that my "little voice" is what compelled me to become
a Baha'i in the first place, which ultimately led to this moment), so I obey
I've had a good life, really. I was born to loving and understanding parents
who were, themselves, Baha'is and raised me to be a kind person. I've fallen in
and out of love with a few women on occasion, but my love affair with life
itself never ended- until now. I've held honorable jobs and learned the lessons
that I could recognize. I've done good deeds for as many people as I could. Yes,
a good life indeed. I'm proud of it, entirely. If I had to do it all over
again, I wouldn't change a thing- even the tough stuff.
I wonder what the Next World will be like? Did I really live a good enough
life? I've made my fair share of mistakes here and there, but I feel
good. That has to count for something, doesn't it? Will the Abha Kingdom be as
astounding as I've come to believe? Nearly all religious scripture is
sketchy, at best, about life after death. I certainly hope it's worth the
sacrifice. All I have to go on is my faith; that's always been enough for me.
"Fire!" I glimpse the fall of his arm out of my peripheral vision.
His arm dropped like dead wood, almost reluctantly. He's really concerned about
that last request of mine. God bless him.
My pupils dilate at the command, taking everything in completely. My
ears get a little keener, too. Someone standing by and watching, a spectator,
gasps in horror, grief and astonishment. I can actually sense that woman
in the fraction of a second I have left to live. She's a Baha'i, too, here to
witness my martyrdom in relative secrecy. Yes, my dear fellow believer, they
actually did it. Did you really believe they wouldn't? We've been under intense
persecution in this country for dozens of years. This world is no longer the
one we grew up in. That world was dark, yes; this one is far darker.
Don't worry for me, my friend. This won't take long. It took a long time for Mankind
to reach this point, but my ordeal will last a heartbeat or less.
The firing squad does as they're told, some closing their eyes as they do so.
It will take a quarter of a second for the only live round to reach me, drilling
a new hole in my head. The firing chambers flash and smoke and I can actually
see the bullet's point of origin: third gunman from my left. He'll never
know it was he because he's one of those who closed their eyes. Good. As I said
before, a guilty conscience can be devastating.
The bullet makes no noise as it rushes toward me faster than the speed of sound
across thirty feet of packed dirt. And suddenly it strikes home, entering my skull.
I can feel the pressure of it invading my head, but there isn't any pain. Not
a thing. Someone might as well be pressing his or her finger to my forehead. A
nudge and that's it.
My vision disappears instantly as my cerebral cortex (where'd I learn that
from?) is obliterated and scatters outward behind me. Motor control is gone as
well as any real sensation of my body. Nope, still no pain. No sight, but
no pain. My equilibrium fails me and my knees buckle. I can feel the
ground as I fall down, but it doesn't hurt a bit- like falling on a bed of feathers.
My hearing begins to fade and my breathing capacity ceases. No death rattle,
which I guess is good. Maybe that's why I exhaled before they shot me-
so that there'd be no disconcerting death rattle in my lungs. I've seen people
die of old age right in front of me and that last breath always seemed
painful to me. Bliss.
There's enough hearing left to notice the shuffling of feet. Someone is kneeing
beside my body, probably to check my non-existent pulse, but I'm beyond feeling
the contact to my skin. My spinal column, the nervous system, tries to send out
some alarming notices to my body that something is desperately wrong, but
the "lines of communication" have been severed and it doesn't know
what's happening. The nervous impulses simply fizzle, causing my body to twitch
and convulse slightly. I must admit, that feels better than a good massage!
It feels like I'm turning into energy, just crackling to break free (which is
probably quite true and apt).
Is this it, nothing more than this to the process of dying? Man, that
wasn't so bad after all! Actually, if people knew that dying could feel this
good, they'd be lining up for miles to do it. What's left of my semi-conscious
mind finds that thought terribly amusing: hundreds of thousands of people die
every day, so in one sense, people do line up for miles just to die, whether
it's against their will or not. That seems ironic to me. I wish there
was enough energy left in me to smile, but I feel sleepy just now. Good thing
my eyes are closed. Maybe they aren't. I am blind, after all, so how would
I know one way or the other?
Suddenly a sensation of being immersed in water rushes over my entire being. This
is it! My soul is departing from the body! I can see! The lead executioner,
God bless his soul a million times over, is praying over me- with a
Baha'i prayer, too! That explains his uncertainty: he was trying to decide which
prayer to say. It warms me to find that he knows a Baha'i prayer at all. Good
for him! If he ends up in the same place I'm going to, wherever that may be, I'll
be sure to thank him properly!
Oh, would that I could speak! This is truly wonderful! I'm dying at last! What's
next, Lord? Show me to it, whatever it is, I'm eager to see!
If I still had use of my jaw, it'd drop open in a little "o."
Oh. God. Wow.
Death should last an eternity, it feels so good. Think, then, how beauteous
the Next World will be!