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July 15, 2024

A Trophy for the Inquisitor

By Dan Mulhollen

Charles Gilmer knelt beside his tractor, carefully listening to the engine sputtering. He shook his head and then smashed his fist against the side of the machine. Instead of getting the field plowed, he'd have to waste the day waiting for a maintenance crew. He could fix it himself -- if he had the parts. But he'd fought the bureaucracy long enough to know such self-reliance was frowned upon. So he turned off the engine and shoved the key into his shirt pocket.

As he stepped onto the front porch, Leena Gilmer, a thin, graying woman of fifty, ran outside. "Charlie," she said, "the radio just said the Inquisitor landed in town today. I'll pack your things, and you can be off within the hour."

"Ma," he said, looking up at her. "We've talked about this before. I can't go running off every time the Inquisitor comes to town."

"But Charlie, you know the danger you've put yourself in." she pleaded. Then she noticed the Model T pulling alongside the house. "Maybe they'll talk some sense into you."

Charles's wife Jenny and their neighbor, Will Hutchings, stepped from the car, carrying groceries. "So," Hutchings said, "ya hear who's in town?"

"I've tried warning him," Leena said.

Hutchings walked onto the porch. "I hear he brought the disintegrator with him and everything this time. Yup, he's lookin' to add another vase to his collection."

"What do you mean?" Leena asked. "Haven't heard about that?" Hutchings asked, ignoring Charles's attempt to interrupt, "You see, there's always a pile of ashes left after disintegration. He has them mixed with clay and made into a vase. They're all numbered, the last I heard, he was up to three hundred and two.

Leena, almost in tears, turned and ran toward the house.

"You couldn't have been a bit more blunt," Jenny said, shaking her head. She glanced over at Charles, and then went inside.

Hutchings leaned against the wall. "You still don't think you're in any danger, do you?" he said. "But y'know they don't take kindly to criticism."

"I don't think the Inquisitor reads the letters section of the town newspaper," Charles said."

"The mayor and his people do. And I gotta believe they ain't fond of what you're sayin' about them. Even if it is the truth."

"Listen, I appreciate your taking Jenny into town for groceries. But I have to call the maintenance people to get my tractor fixed. Not the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon."

After Hutchings left, Charles went inside. His mother was sitting at the tall vacuum tube radio nervously waiting to hear any more about the Inquisitor's visit.

Walking upstairs, he found Jenny sitting at his desk blindly gazing at the clutter of papers. "Are you afraid for me too?" he asked.

"Would it make a difference? Would it have kept you from writing those letters? Would it stop you from writing your pamphlet? Would it make you content to be just a farmer?"

She got up from the desk and looked at the empty crib in the corner of the room. "Yes, I worry about you," she said. "I know you so well. But there's something inside you. A locked door, one I'm afraid to open."

Charles walked over and put his arms around her. "It frightens me too," he said. "Can't pretend it didn't come open last year."

"Why is writing the pamphlet so important to you? If you haven't already caught the Inquisitor's attention ..."

Suddenly they both turned toward the window. There was an odd humming sound coming from outside. It grew louder into the unmistakable whirl of a helicopter. A siren and bullhorn joined in, seconds later. The noise quickly became deafening.

Heavy footsteps shook the bedroom floor. The door flew open and three soldiers entered the room. One of them handcuffed himself to Charles's right arm. The second cuffed his left arm. And the third stood behind them pressing the barrel of his assault rifle against the base of Charles' skull.

They led Charles outside into a sea of olive drab. A platoon of soldiers, their rifles readied, lined the path between the porch and the police van. An attack helicopter hovered overhead, scattering dust and making it impossible to hear. As they got to the van, the soldiers removed the handcuffs and shoved Charles into the vehicle.

The door slammed shut and the van started down the driveway. It pulled onto the road and headed toward town, followed by the troop trucks. The helicopter circled the area before flying off. Jenny and Leena, surrounded by neighbors, stood there stunned, unable to speak.

Less than an hour later, Charles was standing in the back of an austere white courtroom. A few fans had been set up. But they only pushed warm air around the chamber. The gallery was filled with townspeople who cheered and booed the proceedings, as though at a ball game.

On the witness stand, a scrawny old man begged for his life. Only then did Charles notice the solemn black-robed figure sitting behind the bench. He saw the gavel slam down and the old man being dragged off to his doom.

The bailiff motioned to the guards. They pushed Charles forward. The spectators cheered mockingly as he stepped onto the witness stand. Then the bailiff opened a folder and began to speak. "Charles Gilmer, you are charged with the capital crime of heresy. Documents written in your hand were received and printed by the newspaper of this town. Do you deny that fact?"

"I wrote them," Charles said.

"Then can you offer any reason why this court of inquiry should not turn you over to civil authorities so you can be executed?"

"What about my rights as a free-born citizen?"

The gallery roared with laughter. The bailiff started to answer. But the Inquisitor motioned for him to step back. He looked down at the witness box. "In ecclesiastic matters," he said in a firm but aloof voice, "my office supersedes written law."

Charles looked up at him. "Farm reforms are ecclesiastic matters?"

"Anything affecting the social structure must be looked at in that light. Many a great nation have been ruined by unsupervised progress."

"And how many have been ruined by stagnation disguised as security?"

Most of those in the gallery were still laughing and expressing sarcastic encouragement. But few had become quiet, having become interested in what Charles had to say.

"Mister Gilmer," the Inquisitor continued, "I suggest you watch your demeanor. That remark came rather close to contempt."

"What do I have to be contemptuous of? There is a lot I'd like to do with my life. But I was born the son of a farmer, and the way your precious society's structured, I'll die a farmer."

The gallery was now silent.

"But tell me," Charles continued, "what did your father do for a living? For you to be where you are, I doubt if he was a farmer."

The Inquisitor began to speak. But he stopped himself and collected his thoughts. "Tell me, Mister Gilmer, are you a religious man? If so, how can you be so disrespectful to this holy office?"

"I've realized that one can be religious even though realizing the ranks of the clergy are filled with scoundrels and lunatics."

Nervous laughter trickled from the gallery. "Mister Gilmer," the Inquisitor said, alternating his gaze between the gallery and the defendant, "you have been found guilty of the charge of heresy and the added charges of blasphemy and contempt. You will be turned over to the authorities with the recommendation that at dawn tomorrow you die by disintegration."

His voice then became softer. "However, if you recant your statements -- both printed and spoken -- I will consider changing my recommendation to imprisonment and speak on your behalf to the regional powers."

A crowd had gathered outside the courtroom. Word of Charles' defiant testimony had spread throughout the town. They watched silently as a condemned heretic now passed before them. They wanted to see the man who dared question the Inquisitor.

Charles was taken to a musty cellar and locked in a windowless cell. He felt his way around, and then sat down on the dirt floor.

It would be a sleepless night. Townspeople spent hours discussing the trial. Some found copies of the newspapers where the fatal letters had been printed. The condemned man's wife and mother waited in a small antechamber hoping for a chance to beg the Inquisitor for lenience. The Inquisitor spent most of the night seated at the mayor's desk studying the letters and an investigator's report on Charles Gilmer.

And there was Charles himself, without a clock or a view outside. Alone in a timeless oblivion. Only knowing that the end of his life was drawing nearer.

Then he heard the door opening and several people coming inside. "Gilmer, cover your eyes," the guard ordered, unlocking the door. He did so, and immediately became aware of light in the room. He slowly took his hand away from his eyes. He saw a guard holding a battery-powered lantern. Then the Inquisitor entered the room.

"I will be all right," the Inquisitor said. The guard put down the lantern and walked outside. "I've just spoken to your family," he said, turning toward Charles. "They're quite upset. But I could only tell them what I've told you. That you've only to recant and you'll be a free man within the month."

"Why am I so fortunate when there are so many you'd execute without a second thought?"

"A pack of sociopaths and opportunists of little consequence. But you," he said, pointing his finger at Charles, "you have a brain. A rare commodity today. It is sad that we couldn't have met under better terms. But it sometimes takes upheaval for talent to show itself."

"I'm afraid I don't follow you," Charles said flatly.

"Oh, you'll need some schooling, but the equity on your farm is more than enough to secure a loan. After graduation, there are any number of avenues you could explore. Business, politics, perhaps even the clergy."

"All that or death," Charles said.

"Really not much of a decision, is there? You see, there are some provisions for flexibility built into the firm fabric of our society."

"But tell me, why is disagreement considered heresy?"

"Out of necessity," the Inquisitor said. "You see, our social structure is beautiful but fragile. Many years ago, it was decided a stable economy could be achieved if each segment of society existed in an idyllic but isolated state. Heavy industry was relocated to a replica of post World War Two-era America. Artist live in a re-creation of 1967 San Francisco. Farmers, like you, at the beginning of the twentieth century."

"And your post?"

"Why," the Inquisitor asked, pleased by the question, "the Medieval Church, of course. In fact the entire government is based on the Medieval Papacy. As head of this holy office, I might hope to someday be elected Pope. Power, wealth, a good dozen concubines, perhaps one or two catamites -- should the mood strike."

Charles emitted a single, weak chuckle. "And the military? I've noticed a number of odd weaponry."

"The 1980s, the era of small, painless police actions. Grenada, Panama -- you see how well it all worked?"

"But there were problems."

"Yes," the Inquisitor said. Then he took a deep breath. "The problem was to keep each region at a level of development comparable with its historical model. It worked for several decades. But eventually there was change. And with change came those calling for more change. My office was formed by Pope Kenneth to combat such populist imbeciles."

"And then there are the Anachronists."

"I'm not surprised you've heard of them. They are the worst. Moving from area to area, talking about wondrous inventions which existed just beyond the boundaries."

"For being of such little consequence, they seem to have you rattled."

"Fools!" the Inquisitor said, stamping his foot. "They see only their situation, ignoring the effect they have on society."

"Like diseases that aren't fatal -- if where you live is in the right era."

"Yes," the Inquisitor said, with a deep sigh." I know about the loss of your little girl. That is an unfortunate aspect of our society, but a necessary one. You do not appreciate the lovely balance that exists. Do you not appreciate the benefits? Unemployment and poverty, once great blights on society, now obliterated?"

"All I see is a self-important, conscienceless bureaucrat."

"Then you refuse my offer?" The inquisitor said, genuinely surprised. "You refuse my offer of a better life for yourself and your wife?"

"I am a man of conscience. I could never be content knowing my actions were causing so many others to live in unrelenting oppression."

The Inquisitor walked to the door. "Guard!" he shouted. Then he turned to Charles. "Oh, you are an intelligent man, Mister Gilmer. Unfortunately, your intelligence is corroded by terminal idealism. But," he said leaving the room, "this evening, I received a request I've yet to fill."

A moment later, Jenny entered the room. Her eyes met with Charles' and a wave of unspoken emotion passed between them. Five years of joyous springs and desolate winters. And the acknowledgment of who they were and why they'd come to this point. Hope and resignation melded into a single, undying entity.

It was now dawn. A drum major rolled a swift, precise cadence. Charles was taken from his cell and put into the procession. They marched through town. The streets were filled with spectators -- most were silent, but a few wept openly.

They made their way to the town square where a grandstand had been erected. The Inquisitor, in his finest velvet robes, sat at the place of honor. He raised his hand and the procession stopped.

He stood and faced the condemned man. "Charles Gilmer," he said, his voice strained, "yesterday afternoon you were sentenced to die. At that time you were given a chance to recant. This morning, you were given a second chance. Now I allow you one last chance to save your own life. Will you comply?"

"Your social order is evil. I will not become part of it."

"Then," the inquisitor said, struggling to retain his composure, "die with your conscience unsoiled." His breathing became heavy as Charles failed to show any emotion. "Die with your idealism intact," he said as the guard escorted Charles away from the grandstand. "Just die, damn you, die!"

A large slate-gray box was wheeled out. Two oval-shaped holes were on one side of the box. A small toggle switch was on the other side. Charles' hands were each placed in one of the holes. A guard flipped the switch and stepped back.

Charles's skin became luminous. The glow increased to a dazzling white. Then it grew less intense until only the translucent shape of a human body remained. It slowly became transparent until only a faint image was left. Then the image collapsed into a small pile of ashes. The process was complete.

A guard swept the ashes into a paper cup and then went over to the grandstand. The Inquisitor took the cup and looked at the ashes. "All your idealism," he mumbled, "reduced to this." His hand began to tremble. He tightly clutched the cup and then, with all his might, threw the cup into the street. The cup rolled down the street, spilling ashes as it went. The ashes were then scattered by the breeze.

That evening, Jenny Gilmer arrived home and immediately went upstairs. She sat down at her husband's desk, brushed the tears from her eyes, and stacked all the notebooks and loose pages into a single pile. She took all of her husband's writings downstairs and threw them on the fire.

Then she returned to the desk, took a blank sheet of paper and pen, and started to write. After finishing the first paragraph, she examined the handwriting. She smiled. Charles himself would have thought it was his handwriting.

The pamphlet would be written. It would contain the facts and statistics Jenny had committed to memory, as well as the anecdotes she'd heard from her husband's conversations with the leaders of the Anachronist movement. The people of would learn about airplanes, about computers, about antibiotics. About all the things that existed elsewhere.

But there would be differences in this pamphlet than the one Charles wanted to write. It would talk about the people who'd given their lives for what they'd believed in. And it would contain a new title. It would be called Resurrection.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-09-02
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
3 Reader Comments
12:26:29 PM
Thought provoking piece. Well crafted.
Holly J
03:47:04 PM
Resigned, tragic, seemingly futile, and yet... with a glimmer of hope. I wonder if anyone will read the thing, after all that.
Sarah Ito
04:47:36 PM
Something haunting about this write - I can't quite identify it, but I like it very much, on many levels.
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