January 28, 2009
The prison priest sat alone in his chapel, staring up at a stained-glass rendition of his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The solemn-looking man who gently coddled a lamb in his arms stared back with accusing eyes, as behind him the light slowly faded. The prison priest shrunk under his supreme majesty and released a long, shaky sigh. Humanity was damned. Of this he was sure. The world was corrupt, and the Lord was disapproving. The gospel he preached so enthusiastically was falling upon deaf ears. The country wanted reform. They were no longer interested in obeying the laws of the Divine Command. “I’ve failed you,” he muttered tiredly. The prison priest continued to stare with vacant eyes until he was shaken out of his disheartening reverie by the sound of approaching footsteps down the hall. Vaguely interested, he turned to see the gruff, brutish prison guard leading a prisoner down the hall to be locked in a cell. He craned his neck further in an attempt to catch a glance of the prisoner. Somewhat to his surprise, his eyes fell upon a serene looking girl. She was young, not much past twenty, perhaps, and absolutely beautiful. She caught the prison priest’s eye and gave him a tentative, sort of sad half-smile. The prison priest nodded his head and, embarrassed, turned back towards the familiar comfort of his stained-glass Saviour as he began to pray a prayer of redemption.
The prison guard steered the fragile girl brusquely down the hall towards her cell. She had a small, measured stride and seemed to be taking in her surroundings with wide, interested eyes. The prison priest regarded her careful observation as memorization. Ha! he thought. So the simple wretch thinks she can escape her impending doom. Not in my prison. Still, he was not consoled. She remained calm and unafraid. Her indifference enraged the prison guard. She should be crumpling beneath him with fear. He gave her a few rough shoves that went unanswered. She continued at the same dawdling pace and her face remained set in smooth marble. When at last they arrived at her cell, he gave her one final forceful push that sent her sprawling on the floor. Still, she refused to acknowledge his authority. She simply picked herself up, nodded slightly in his direction, and made her way towards the small bed as she dusted herself off. The prison guard grunted, slammed the door shut, locked her in, and stormed down the hall. I am a symbol of fear, he thought. She will feel my wrath.
Kezia heard the dreadful sounds emitting from the room beside her own and tucked herself further beneath her scratchy wool blankets. She shuddered as her father, in a fit of drunken rage, released a string of cusses upon her poor, defenceless mother. She could picture her, shrinking in defeat before his huge, husky figure. Kezia covered her ears, but there was no escaping the thwomp! and smack! of hands on flesh, no way to drown out her mother’s pained cries and sobs. She laid still until at last there was silence. Then, after a few moments: footsteps, soft and cautious. Kezia’s heart raced as from beneath the blankets she heard her door slowly swing open. Her entire body went rigid with fear until she heard her mother’s soft voice curse her husband’s name in a whisper that was barely audible. The small woman began making her way hesitantly across the tiny room to where Kezia lay, but stopped abruptly, with a sharp intake of breath. Without seeing, Kezia knew her father was there with them. She fought back the sobs that so desperately sought to wrack her tiny frame. She endured the next few minutes—which would bring about the most life-altering event Kezia would ever know—screaming on the inside, but not daring to make a sound or move a muscle. There must have been a weapon of some sort, perhaps a club. She mustn’t have put up much of a fight either, for it was over in minutes. For some time after she could hear her father’s panting. When at last there was silence and she assumed her father had left, Kezia dared to poke her head out of her blankets. She saw her mother’s limp body in the corner, bludgeoned and unmoving, and knew instantly she was gone. Her eyes filled with tears as she scanned the room for some sort of indication of what exactly had happened. She jumped slightly when her gaze met her father’s lonely gray eyes. Kezia stared back defiantly. Her father raised his eyebrows with contempt and gave her a wry little smile before the flesh peeled back from his bared teeth. It continued to peel back in all directions until the entirety of his familiar face was gone, exposing a demon within. Horrified, Kezia tried to scream, but her lungs were empty. The hideous creature began to move towards her, with teeth the size of piano keys and eyes that burned hellishly. It was just inches from her now, and—
Kezia awoke in a cold sweat. Her breath was coming in shallow, ragged gasps and her heart was pounding in her ears. She lay on her back staring up at the ceiling, waiting for her breathing to slow and for reality to sink back in. When at last she got her bearings, she was able to calm down enough to walk to the window on shaky legs. Her fourth night in her jail cell, and she was still having nightmares. Of course, it’d been that way since that fateful night fourteen years ago. Kezia sighed and settled in to watch dawn break over the beautiful French countryside.
The prison priest’s entire life had been built on a foundation of faith. Born into a catholic family with a priest as a father, he was introduced to the teachings of the Bible at a young age. It is this very book that shaped his morals and governed his decision-making process in all of life’s endeavours. It was an easy decision, then, for him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a priest himself. For twenty years the prison priest dedicated his life to his Holy profession. He was quite content to work in the prison, condemning criminals to death in the name of his faith. Not once did he ever question the ways of his religion or stop to consider alternative modes of thinking, for he had never endured a faith-testing experience. Now, he found his life at a stand-still. He was only getting older, and nothing was changing. He would never marry, nor would he conceive a family. He would die alone and forgotten. The fulfillment he used to feel by spreading the word of the Lord was no longer enough to keep him occupied. He had given his life to God, and God had left him aging and lonely. He had been abandoned by the very person he dedicated his life to. Now, as he stood before the group of prisoners at Sunday mass, he felt exposed for what he considered himself to be: a fake. As he spewed his sermon, their eyes seemed to pry and accuse. You are not righteous, they whispered. Somewhere above, he knew God was thinking the same thing.
The prison guard stood on duty outside the jail cells, gun at the ready. Ever since the arrival of the female prisoner, whose name he’d learned was Kezia, he had been particularly irritable. As far as he could pin-point, this annoyance was fuelled by her refusal to fear him. Most of the time, he was willing to cast this behaviour off as bothersome because, by not acknowledging his authority, she was disrespecting him. However, it was nights like these, nights where he was stuck working the late night guard shift that he made time for critical thinking, perhaps because he was too tired to dismiss it. What he learned about himself on such nights often scared him and he therefore usually chose to deny it once the morning came. On this particular night, the prison guard experienced something along the lines of an epiphany. While considering why he was so offended by Kezia’s actions, he discovered that he was simply not used to having someone act friendly towards him. Throughout his entire life, he had used violence as a means of releasing his anger. His career as a prison guard had not exactly helped his popularity. He was a scape-goat for the social justice system; the executioner, the one everyone blamed. He simply could not accept that one of his prisoner’s would not see him as a threat to their well-being, but rather regard him as an actual person with feelings and emotions. He couldn’t fathom the fact that Kezia was able to see past his façade and acknowledge that he was only a man doing his job, especially when it was his hands at which she would meet her maker.
During her time spent in prison, Kezia would often lie awake well into the night and lose herself in nostalgia. Tonight was no exception, and so she recalled the way her father became a man of few words after the murder of her mother. With a sad smile she remembered the way she would meet his watchful eye with hostile defiance. She knew he regret his actions; he must have. But there was still no room in her heart for sympathy. The anger still burned like a fire within her, fuelling her actions. She had been a loose cannon for those eight years before she set out on her own; a thundercloud with intent of making the guilt gnaw at her father’s insides. Thinking of her father, she wondered if she’d ever see him again. Kezia had been tried a few days previous and had been sentenced to death for being a “threat to the unity of the state” for her participation in the fight for women’s rights. Because she was a threat to the state, she was to be executed by firing squad, not by the guillotine, as the trend was these days. Kezia had been pro-revolution, but apparently was not a welcomed supporter. She sighed and reached under her pillow for a small writing book and ink. The writing utensils had been a gift to her from the prison guard, who seemed to have had a change of heart in regards to Kezia. He had presented them to her with a goofy sort of grin late one night while she sat up thinking and he stood guard. Kezia had accepted them with a warm smile which made him blush. She had greatly appreciated the gift as she was able to chronicle her thoughts, which had always been a coping mechanism for her. She wrote:
Upon the death of my mother, I was a changed girl. I was aware throughout my childhood that my mother was a defeated woman who merely put on a brave face for my benefit. She allowed herself to be walked over by my father and her end was therefore inevitable. I see this in many women, and I wish it to change. I believe women are equal to men and should not be forced to live in fear. It is for these reasons that on the day of my mother’s death, I vowed to fight for women’s rights. I endured the next eight years with my father, whom I had grown to despise. At the young age of sixteen, I set out to join Mary Wollstonecraft’s School for Girls in Newington Green, for it was and continues to be my belief that education is central to liberation. Mary was an inspiration to us all, and when she left the school 1785, it became difficult to stay positive. However, I continued to study at the school for a few years before it was shut down. By this time it was the year 1789. I was intrigued by the news of the Revolution in France and decided to depart from England immediately in order to advocate my cause. In France, I partook in many endeavours in the name of equality, including the March on Versailles and many other women’s gatherings. I met inspirational women such as Olympe de Gouges and even had some of my own work published. However, the State, although desiring reform, was not interested in altering the rights of women. I was arrested on September 6th, 1794 for partaking in what officials deemed to be a riot.
Kezia stopped writing. She was used to disappointment and had learned to cope with it in a positive manner, but there were times when she was overwhelmed by the futility of her situation, of the situation of women at large. Kezia replaced the book beneath her pillow and dozed off into an uneasy sleep, which was once again haunted by ghosts from her past.
The prison priest learned that the female prisoner, known as Kezia, was to be executed for crimes against the state. He, of course, would be the one to ask her for her final words. At this point, the prison priest felt that this was something he simply could not do, for he had lost all his faith. He was a fake, a phony. When he spoke the word of the Lord, he was no more than a parrot, preaching a scripture that he himself did not even understand. He could not ask God to save Kezia’s soul; He would not listen to a man as unholy as he. In the weeks leading up to the execution, this is what chewed the prison priest up inside until it became almost unbearable. He was going to snap.
The night before her execution, Kezia was permitted a last meal to be enjoyed with her friends and family. Although Kezia claimed to not have a family she was close to, many of her friends came out, most of which were her colleagues in the battle for women’s rights. It had been a heart-felt meal with lots of exchanged words and many tears, images that now haunted the prison priest as he lay alone in his bed, begging for sleep. As he dozed in and out of his uneasy slumber, the prison priest dreamt frightening renditions of that night’s events in which Kezia crossed the room of her soiree, approached him, and began to peel away his skin, exposing him as the fake he was to everyone in the room. Enraged at his willingness to pretend he was a holy man, it was decided that the prison priest would take Kezia’s place in front of the firing squad. The prison priest begged for God to save him, but God would not answer his plight. As the bullets ripped through his flesh, he felt his soul depart for another world, a firey one beneath the ground where he would spend all of eternity. When he arrived, he was greeted by Satan himself who laughed maniacally at his panicked state of mind.
When at last the prison priest awoke, the soft, pink light was just beginning to break over the horizon. The prison priest sighed and made his way to his chapel to make one last desperate effort to ammend his relationship with God.
When the prison guard arrived at Kezia’s cell on the morning of the execution, Kezia was slumped on the floor by the window. Seeing this, his stomach turned for a moment before he confirmed the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest. He took a deep breath and fetched the cell keys from his pocket. Kezia awoke to the clanging sound of metal on metal, startled. Rubbing her eyes warily she said, “Pardon me sir, I have not slept in ages and must have drifted off at last.”
The prison guard could only nod, for the lump in his throat restricted any attempt to speak. He discovered that Kezia was shaking from head-to-toe. She finally feared him, feared her fate. This did not give the prison guard the slightest bit of satisfaction. In fact, it made him miserable. For a moment he was compelled to step to the side and allow her to run past him to freedom. Instead, he followed his inherent sense of duty and began walking tentatively towards Kezia to bind her tiny hands in a knot from which she would never escape. She must have seen the sweat beading on his furrowed brow while he performed his task as she smiled that sweet smile at him reassuringly. “I know it is your duty,” she said. The prison priest attempted to smile back, which resulted in something closer to a grimace and a small, pained sigh. He took her gently by the arm and steered her down the halls towards the prison’s backyard where she would spend her remaining minutes.
The prison guard could not focus on the words pouring from the prison priest’s mouth. He was aware, however, of the priest’s erratic hand gestures, of his choked voice and profuse sweating. Apparently the prison guard was not the only one feeling pressure from the impending execution. When it came time for the priest to ask for Kezia’s final words, however, the prison guard was all ears. He listened intently as Kezia straightened up a little and said, “I’ll always be Kezia, so long as any hope remains.” The prison guard felt his stomach twist. His head began to swim and his ears started to ring. The sound built to a deafening roar as he responded with automated ease to the firing squad’s commands. Ready… Aim…
Kezia stood blindfolded before the firing squad, awaiting the bullets she knew were only seconds away from ripping through her flesh and bringing about her death. Although only moments ago she had been absolutely panic-stricken, she suddenly felt a wave of calmness washing over her. She had come to terms with how she would die. She hoped to inspire others, to instil in them the sense of rage she felt towards the unfair treatment of women. Kezia would pay with her life for speaking her mind, but it would not be in vain. She would be made an example of, a sign for women everywhere to keep fighting in the name of equality. She was more than willing to die for her cause, for her mother, and for all other women who died at the hands of men. She knew with time women would no longer be treated subordinately, and she had made her impact in this constant battle. Finally achieving peace of mind, she thought to herself, I’m coming, Mother.
After the execution, the prison priest felt such guilt at his involvement that his mental stability began to slip, and he was in fact sent to an insane asylum within weeks. It has been said that he has been noted to mutter things about Kezia exposing him as a fake, about her peeling away his skin. He also began to act like a parrot, chirping away in his padded cell and repeating the words of people around him. The prison guard also felt remorse at his involvement. After her death, he snuck into Kezia’s cell and stumbled upon her notebook, which, by the time of her death, detailed her life story from the time of her mother’s murder to the morning of her execution. The prison guard chronicled his own description of his experiences with Kezia and had the book published before taking a gun to his head in Kezia’s empty prison stall. Included in the book were his feelings towards Kezia’s execution and a description of the guilt he felt for his involvement. It was concluded that this was his reasoning for killing himself. However, the book became quite popular, especially amongst women. It became an inspiration for feminists throughout France and England. Kezia had certainly left her mark in the battle she dedicated her life to.
The French Revolution raged on for about five years after Kezia’s execution. Unfortunately, women were still not granted the rights they desired. Still, Kezia’s death and the death of all others who fought for gender equality continued to inspire a whole new generation of young girls with the hope that one day things would be different. Kezia’s legacy was established and her story continued to empower women for years after her death.
In the prison yard where a brave young girl once stood blindfolded in front of a firing squad, a flower garden now grows; a garden that began with a single sprout poking its head insistently through the dust and rubble, reaching for the sky.