My story begins with a five year old, her sister, and a book of fairytales.
She presented the hefty book to me with a flourish and a smile, a strange delight making her eyes sparkle. I gazed at it in awe, my eyes feasting on the elegant tome. It truly was beautiful: cursive silver lettering set against black leather binding, with shining gilt edging on each page.
She heaved me onto her lap, and began to flick through the book at random, pointing out each picture as she came to it. ‘See here, baby?’ She gestured at a picture of a beautiful lady leaning out of a tower window, her long blonde plait trailing down to the ground. ‘Isn’t she pretty?’ I sighed my agreement, pressing my face to the page. I wanted to breathe her in, devour her, keep her beauty within me forever. ‘Her name is Rapunzel.’ She smiled down at me, and kissed my forehead. ‘Isn’t that just gorgeous?’
I frowned up at her, my small brow furrowing in concentration. ‘What’s a name?’
She blinked down at me, confusion briefly crossing her features. Then realisation dawned, and a slight sadness settled over her eyes. ‘Oh, you poor child.’ She clasped me tight into her chest, burying her face in my hair. ‘They have taken you completely, haven’t they?’
I squirmed in her fierce grip, repeating my question. She turned me to face her, peering solemnly into my wide and innocent eyes. ‘A name, sweetheart, is something that people call you. It’s special, and belongs only to you.’
‘Like how we call all the ladies Sister, and all the men Brother?’
‘Something like that.’ She bit her lip. ‘Except that everyone has a different name. Just like Rapunzel has a different name to Snow White, who has a different name to Cinderella.’
‘Oh...’ I looked back down at Rapunzel, tracing the outline of her face with a pudgy finger. ‘Do I have a special name, then?’
‘No, baby.’ She smiled sadly, stroking my hair. ‘No one born here does.’
‘It’s what the Leader says, darling, and we all have to follow his rules.’
‘That’s stupid.’ I sighed heavily, making her giggle. I grinned, and entwined my fingers in her long, blonde locks. ‘You have hair like Ra... Ru... Rapunzel. Is that your name too?’
She smiled again. ‘No, baby.’
‘Well, do you have a special name?’
‘I did, once. Before they,’ she pronounced the word with surprising venom, ‘brought me here.’ She sighed gently. ‘But it was so long ago. I was your age, and I’m seventeen now. Too many years passed, and I just forgot.’
‘Oh.’ I wove her hair into a clumsy plait, copying the girl in the fairytale. ‘So then, what do I call you?’
‘Baby, you just keep calling me Sister.’
‘I call every lady Sister, even Mummy.’ I paused. ‘Are you my real sister?’
‘Yes I am, darling. We have the same mother; I was there for your birth.’
‘So you’ve known me all my life. Five years.’ I proudly displayed five fingers. ‘Onetwothreefourfive. I’m really good at counting, aren’t I?’
‘Yep. Just as good as me.’
I nodded gravely, satisfied with her answer. ‘Can you give me a special name?’
‘I would baby, but if someone heard me calling you by a name, I’d be punished. Very, very badly.’
‘Because we must always obey the Leader.’
‘Okay...’ I wrapped my arms around her neck. ‘I don’t want you to be punished, Sister.’
‘Now, why’s that?’
‘Coz you’re my best friend.’
She pulled me into an affectionate embrace, and I could feel her tears pressed against my cheek. ‘Well then,’ she murmured softly. ‘I guess we have to stick together.’
He grasped the pulpit with both hands, glaring at each one of his congregation in turn. ‘What,’ he bellowed, ‘is a name?’ His thunderous voice echoed off the high vaulted ceilings, and made the delicate stained glass windows tremble as though in fear. ‘A name is deceptive; it may seem harmless, but it is really the work of the Devil himself!’ He paused for breath, his broad chest heaving with exertion.
‘A name turns us into an individual! With a name, we reject that we are one unit, all the same, none of us different. None of us are special, none of us stand out of the crowd. We are all CHILDREN OF THE LIVING GOD.’ Here he broke off, reaching for a handkerchief as a fierce cough racked his body. Ugh, he would kill for a cigarette. But no, must keep up appearances.
‘If we reject this truth and try to lead separate lives, we will no longer be part of God’s chosen flock! Names will send us to Hell, to be mocked by the Devil FOR ETERNITY!’ He snarled, scanning the crowd once more. His eyes came to rest on her again. She sat perfectly upright, her blank expression barely concealing her disgust. Damn her. It was bad enough she haunted his dreams, but this ill-disguised contempt made him sick.
She held her younger sister on her lap, occasionally soothing the irritable child with loving whispers. The sight of her gentle words and caresses filled him with inexplicable rage, and he pounded his fist against the pulpit.
‘Call each man Brother, and each woman Sister, for you must never forget that we are one and the same! ONE FAMILY, ONE CHURCH, ONE BROTHERHOOD!’