Amos arrived outside his home alarmed to hear no noise coming from the inside. It was a small, single-story house just outside of the downtown limits, with a pale blue exterior and small vegetable garden in front of it.

Amos knocked on the front door, even though he had the key. There was no answer. Frowning, he opened it hurriedly and rushed inside.

Immediately, he felt a warm body pressing against his legs. Two others followed.

“Papa!” the voices cried out.

Amos looked down to see his youngest children Emily, Rebecca, and Johnathan. Both girls wore plain white dresses, while Jonathan had overalls and a red shirt. All under the age of seven, they clung to his thighs like enormous ticks. He put down his things and knelt to give them a long embrace.

“Where are your older brothers?” he asked.

“Still at school,” Jonathan said. “They’re coming home soon!”

“Why didn’t you answer the door?”

“We wanted to surprise you!” Rebecca exclaimed.

Taking him by the hand, they led their father into the kitchen. Mrs. Cavendish was there in her work dress, preparing supper. She was much younger than Amos, 15 years his junior. When she stood up from her kneeled position near the oven, she revealed herself to be almost as tall as Amos, with long brown hair that hung down both shoulders, like two streams of frozen water cascading over a cliff.

“How was the meeting?” she asked.

“As expected,” Amos replied. “The archbishop wanted me to vote, but I didn’t.”

She said nothing, as if waiting for him to say more. Instead, he went over to the kitchen table and sat down. She boiled water for tea and brought a cup to him, a face full of questions that she kept to herself as she resumed preparing the meal. However, the three children had no reservations surrounding him and peppering him with questions that had nothing to do with the other.

Rather than annoyed, he answered them all with whatever response felt suitable, all of them in jest. While he played with them, he looked up at the many paintings hanging on the kitchen walls depicting rural landscapes and city life. The largest was that of Cambridge Hall after its restoration. Each of them was signed at the bottom: Amos Cavendish.

“Thomas and Richard should be here soon,” Mrs. Cavendish said.

“Very good.”

Minutes later, the two elder sons arrived at the house. At 17, Richard was the eldest, but Thomas was less than a year younger and at that point resembled their father the most. Unlike their siblings, they entered the kitchen discreetly in their pale brown suits and announced their presence with calm voices. Amos greeted both with a respectful handshake before they sat at the table, while the younger children helped Mrs. Cavendish set the table. Richard and Thomas were exempt from house chores, since they assisted Amos with other work that required physical strength.

“We heard about the vote,” Thomas said. “What was it like to be there, Papa?”

“It was thankfully a short meeting. The Commonwealth still has to vote before it becomes official.”

“Do you think they will make the Church the new government?”

“The only way to do know is to wait until they vote.”

Mrs. Cavendish took the dish out of the oven and set it on the kitchen table. After a prayer by Amos, it was passed around, starting with him. While they ate, Amos had Emily play the recordings of songs Mrs. Cavendish had written and played for them last Christmas on the guitar.

“Our teacher was discussing the constitution today,” Richard said.

“I’m sure,” Amos said. “The Church funds the education courses, including his salary.”

“They had us talk about it.”

“But we had to watch what we said,” Thomas added. “The school’s code doesn’t allow any impugning of Church Council motives.”

“Seems natural,” Amos said.

Thomas put down his fork and looked carefully at Amos. “We also discussed the laws that the Commonwealth have already passed, including the one you enforce.”

Mrs. Cavendish worriedly glanced at her husband. He seemed unmoved as he continued eating.

“Some of the kids were wondering if we should have it,” Thomas said hesitantly. “They also wondered if the Church’s proposed constitution is the right one.”

Amos kept eating.

“Do you like the idea of a theocracy, father?”

“What’s the alternative?”

“I know the councilmembers from Worchester County want to propose their parliamentary system. There’s another faction from Learmouth that might propose a constitutional republic. But they also want to do away with the Commonwealth’s Common Decency Act. They say people should just leave each other alone.”

“And what happens when one of them doesn’t leave the other alone? Then what? Where’s the line, and what happens when it gets crossed?”

“But forcing people to do the right thing doesn’t make them good, does it?” Thomas asked.

“No, it doesn’t. But my concern is ensuring this family is protected and able to practice our faith in peace. If it is necessary to accomplish that, I don’t care if forcing people to do the right thing makes them good.”

His plate empty, Amos pushed it to the side and addressed Thomas in a way that his other children knew to pause and listen. “I’ve never been much into reading. That’s why I’m glad to see you all getting a good education through the parish. However, there are things in life that don’t come in books. One bitter lesson I’ve learned is that it’s always better to have a government intolerant of something you’re opposed to than have a government that forces you to embrace it. There are some who think the government should remain neutral, but I do not think that is possible. What always happens is if something that is prohibited becomes tolerated, it then becomes accepted, and finally it becomes mandatory.”

“How do you know?” Thomas asked honestly.

“…that is how the Turbulent Era happened.”

Sensing the increasing strain on Amos’ scarred face, Mrs. Cavendish discreetly signaled to Thomas not to continue the discussion further. However, Amos noticed the wordless exchange and forced himself to smile.

“Enjoy your youth,” he advised. “Idealism isn’t such a bad thing. Appreciate your life. You live in a wonderful time. Our nation is peaceful. We can celebrate who we are without fear of persecution or repression by the government. Its duty is to the church, because it is the church.”

“If that is the case, why are we not attending the celebration tonight?” Richard asked.

“Because I do not want to celebrate something that has not yet happened.”

After the table was cleared and dishes put away, Amos led them into the family room to the family altar placed on the wall near the fireplace. The room was also decorated with artwork, but unlike Amos’ paintings in the kitchen, it was all amateur, primitive, and each signed in the corner by one of his children. A narrow bookshelf by the fireplace contained handwritten poems and short stories composed by both Amos and his wife. One of his wife’s poems was framed and hung by itself on the wall.

Taking the Bible from the altar, Amos was reciting a Psalm when he received an urgent message from Laurence. Normally, he tolerated no interruption of their private worship. However, this he could not ignore.

“We’ve got the location of the theater,” Laurence said.

“Assemble our men at the hall and have everything ready by the time I arrive,” Amos replied before ending the call. Sighing, he put the Bible back on the altar and apologized to his family for leaving. He embraced each of his children and then gathered his things at the door while they watched anxiously. Thomas and Richard seemed ready to join him, but not self-assured enough to propose it. He hoped they never would.

As he was leaving, he held Mrs. Cavendish’s tightly as he kissed her.

“Come home,” she whispered.

“I will.”

***

“Breaching!”

Jedidiah activated the tiny explosives strapped to the sealed doorway. With three brief, loud bursts, the explosives blew off the hinges on the other side. Jedidiah was ready with the ramming device, pressing it against the door. Pressing the button, he steadied himself as the internal device produced a powerful blast that reverberated against the door and blew it down.

Amos was the first to go, joined closely by Jedidiah. The rest of the men followed at a distance to ensure they weren’t attacked from behind. A lone guard was placed at the entrance to keep out any meddlers.

The corridor was dark and humid, lit only by makeshift fixtures dangling from the ceiling by their wires. When they reached the end, Amos gestured for them to wait for a moment. Hunched down, they listened to the sound of laughter and applause that had likely muffled noise from the explosion.

Confirming all were ready, Amos rushed out of the corridor and into the large room, tossing a flashbang grenade. He and the others then covered their eyes temporarily as it produced a powerful blinding light. As soon as it had dissipated, he readied his rifle at the crowd sitting in front of a ramshackle theater stage.

“Nobody move!”

His words felt superfluous. Most of them had been thoroughly immobilized by the flash. Jedidiah and the others went to work placing restrainers on their hands and ankles of the spectators, while Amos did the same with actors on the stage. As they recovered their senses and realized what had happened, a great moan rung out.

“You can’t do this!” one of the actors protested. He had a shrill voice and unkempt haircut.

Amos ignored his comment, demanding to know where the play’s script was located. When the actor spat on him, Amos wiped his face and walked away without saying a word. Eventually, the script was found in one of the side rooms. Reading it page by page, Amos proceeded down the stage into the center of the room.

“This theater and its occupants are acting without a license,” he said. “By the authority of the Commonwealth, we claim the bounty placed on you for violating the Common Decency Act. Have you anything to say?”

“It’s nobody business what we’re doing here!” a woman screamed as she sat at Jedidiah’s feet. “Get out!”

Amos continued reading the script, nodding his head approvingly as he paced back and forth. He then held it up in front of their prisoners. “Who wrote this?”

There was a long pause.

“I did,” one man answered.

Amos approached him. “I’m actually impressed with this play. The writing is excellent. However, I can see why you didn’t get a license to have it performed. Polyamory is not an acceptable thing to promote in one’s art.”

“That’s for me to decide, not the Church.”

“What you can decide is whether to remove that part of the play. If you do, I will let you go and recommend it to the license board myself. Is that agreeable to you?”

The playwright gaped at Amos in disbelief, before snarling defiantly. “You can go to hell! I’ll never let you bastards censor my work!”

“That’s not in your power to decide,” Amos declared angrily. “And by God’s grace, your people never will have that power while I live.”

He had his men lead them out of the corridor into the back of their transport vehicle while he and Jedidiah searched the rest of the theater. They eventually came across a room filled with column-like piles of books, plays, and artwork.

“Incredible,” Jedidiah muttered as he scanned salacious book covers and adult magazines in disgust. “These people are such degenerates. We should burn it all.”

“Don’t speak so hastily,” Amos said. “You don’t know if it is all worth destroying.”

“Of course it is! Why else would they hoard it here?”

Amos picked up the framed painting of a nude young woman bathing along the banks of a river. He held it in front of Jedidiah. “Should this be burned?”

“Certainly!”

Amos shook his head.

“How?” Jedidiah demanded. “It’s smut!”

“You don’t know art.”

“I know what smut is.”

“You don’t know that, either. I’m certain you aren’t alone in this regard. And that’s what concerns me.”

“How can a painting of a naked girl be acceptable?” Jedidiah exclaimed bewilderedly. “How is that honoring to God?”

“Because it’s beautiful.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s immoral.”

Amos gave him a saddened look. “You look at something like this and see only immoral desires. I don’t. I look at it and clearly see that the painter is celebrating female youth and beauty. He’s also celebrating simpler times. Notice her depicts her bathing along a riverbank, not in a shower or bath. He’s evoking a time when people spent much of their time out in nature, not in homes. Also note her pose, the way she’s concealing herself while looking at the water and not outward toward the viewer. It’s not meant to arouse.”

Amos gently put the painting down. “It is important that we know the difference. If we don’t, we will destroy what is lovely along with that which is ugly, just as a gardener removes the rose with the weeds because he cannot tell them apart.”

“Then how can we shut down these theaters and arrest people for performing these plays? What have they done wrong?”

“Because it’s sorcery,” Amos said matter-of-factly. “Mind you, it’s sorcery when they use words in the form of stories, particularly good ones, to normalize evil things. It’s not the script that’s witchcraft, nor the theater or the actors. They misuse something meant for good to do the Devil’s work, just as it is when they sing songs with wonderful melodies but the words celebrate vice.”

“How can you tell?” Jedidiah asked.

“The fact that the playwright refused to remove those portions of his script says everything. It was such an integral component of the story for him that he prefers to face imprisonment rather than having it performed for a much larger audience. It was the entire purpose of his writing. I have no doubt that painter, if he truly sought to convey the values I see, would have been willing to alter his painting to satisfy legitimate concerns over the nudity.”

“I just don’t see how it honors God, sir.”

“Depicting and celebrating beauty honors the one who made things beautiful.”

Jedidiah seemed unconvinced as he left. “Well, the Archbishop will decide what to do with it, anyway, won’t he?”

Amos went to leave, but stopped and looked at the painting. He then picked it up and covered it with spare cloth he found in the room, bringing it with him up to the surface. His men had finished loading the prisoners into the vehicle and were ready to depart.

“The Commonwealth’s men will meet you at the hall to take them,” Amos said to Jedidiah, handing him a copy of the play. “Make sure they are informed of the writer’s identity.”

“I don’t understand. Aren’t you coming with us, sir?” Jedidiah asked, noting the painting at his side.

“No,” he said as he hailed a car service. “I’m going home.”

***

Mrs. Cavendish had a warm drink prepared for Amos when he returned. By then, it had been dark out for hours. He took off his coat and gave it to her as he entered the kitchen, sipping on the drink by the kitchen table. She sat down to join him, but he did not sit.

“Was anyone hurt?” she asked.

“No.”

“We prayed for your safety.”

“Thank you. I did not want to leave you all tonight, but it was a good bounty. The Commonwealth pays well for them.”

“How bad was it?”

Amos sipped his drink. “Nothing different from before. Except this time, I brought you a present.”

“What?” she asked.

“This,” Thomas said as he stood in the kitchen doorway holding the painting.

Mrs. Cavendish looked at him, then the painting, then at Amos. “It’s very…well, it’s very well done.”

“Isn’t it illegal?” Thomas asked.

Amos took the painting from Thomas and put it against the wall. “The Common Decency Act wasn’t written to prevent someone from painting this.”

“What are we to do with it?” Mrs. Cavendish said, perplexed.

“We’ll keep it in the attic, for now. But it’s an original, and I did not like the idea of it being burned or destroyed along with the rest of the things it was found with.”

“Do you plan on displaying it ever?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Amos answered. “I don’t like the idea of ruining good art.”

“Some say that’s what the law does to plays,” Thomas said. “Some other students think the ban on theaters hurts art.”

“No,” Amos said. “It protects it from corruption.”

“How is a play about sex different from a painting of a naked girl?”

“Thomas!” Mrs. Cavendish admonished. “Show your father respect!”

The young man lowered his head, his fist clenched. “I just don’t know what to tell the others when they find out you’re a puritan. Nobody says anything outright because they’re afraid of getting in trouble, but I can see it in their eyes. They think the Commonwealth has gone too far already. They think the Church is going beyond its reach. They think men like you are going after people who have done nothing to deserve prison.”

Amos glared at his son. “Have any of them lived in a society that allowed a child to be violated by adults on a theater stage during a performance as part of a scene written in the script, while the prevailing critics called it ‘high art’ and threatened to get anyone who dare utter a word against it fired from their jobs, stalked at their homes, and harassed everywhere they go?”

Thomas was mute, while Mrs. Cavendish covered her mouth with both hands.

“No?” Amos said rhetorically. “Well, I have lived in such times. It’s what happens when you don’t set boundaries on what is acceptable, and vigilantly enforce those boundaries. It’s why the Church must govern, because when you throw God out of the equation, there is no difference between that and sexual relations with a robot programmed to act like a child. My generation fought to ensure yours never have to confront something like that. But it’s precisely where your classmates’ logic will eventually take you and this society!”

Setting his drink down, Amos stormed out of the kitchen and went to the master bedroom. He sat on the side of the bed, the faint sound of voices in the kitchen before footsteps he knew to be that of his son returning to his own bedroom. Moments later, Mrs. Cavendish came in the room and stood in front of Amos with hands held in front of her.

“I’m sorry he upset you,” she said. “Some of the students have relatives who were deported by the Commonwealth for one reason or another. They’re feeding his mind poison out of revenge.”

“No, he takes after me. I wasn’t that different from him then.”

Mrs. Cavendish kissed him and knelt beside him, placing her head in his lap. “You must know how proud he and the others are of you. I think Thomas is merely afraid of not being his own man, so he wants to see things a bit differently from you. If he only knew what it was like for you during those times…”

“No,” Amos said. “I don’t want him, or even you, to know the things that happened. It isn’t fair to burden any of you with that knowledge. I don’t want them to have such images on their mind forever. Besides, they wouldn’t believe me if I told them.”

“But they won’t truly appreciate what they have if you don’t.”

“There has to be another way,” Amos said as if praying. “If we don’t, it will just start all over again someday. I hope the Church can accomplish that. We’ve achieved so much. All we have to do is put things in place that ensures it stays this way for good.”

“What if that doesn’t happen?” Mrs. Cavendish asked as she brought her face close to Amos’.

He was silent as she lowered herself against his chest.

“That’s we didn’t go to the celebration tonight,” he said. “It’s not yet time to celebrate. Something could always go wrong before then.”

***

For all installments from The Pilgrim’s Digress, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1
  3. Chapter 2