The cell smells of decaying bodies and spirits, an accumulation of centuries of human misery and despair. Beads of moisture seep between the stones, merging into rivulets, and then forming runnels that stream down the wall, not unlike, I consider, the progression of thoughts melding into ideals and forming principles.
The raucous voice of Mrs. Boggs intrudes on my reverie. “Supper is served, Yer Lordship. Would ye be ‘avin’ white or red wine wit’ yer meal?” She cackles at her drollery, exposing the blackened remains of teeth.
She almost tosses the bowl of congealed gray lumps at me, and I thank her.
“I suppose yer high and mighty manners is a habit, eh?”
Responding to her sneers is futile.
“Enjoy yer victuals, Yer Lordship.”
She calls me Your Lordship, but I am only a simple teacher, and until recently, endeavored to pummel mathematics into the resistant minds of boys, who are yet more enthralled with sailboats and kites than the freedom offered by education.
Was I ever aware that indulging my pleasure in the written word would place me in a forgotten cell in a damp dungeon, incarcerated for reading forbidden books, material deemed immoral and irreligious, even heretical? Did I realize the literature I had chosen would lead one to moral downfall and spiritual decrepitude?
The possibility seemed absurd at the time, and even more so now, as the volumes I had studied had proved to be enlightening, taking me beyond the confines of the city’s stinking, noisy streets.
The trolley rattles by on its return voyage. Mrs. Bogg’s grotesque visage appears in the door grate.
“Yer Lordship, do yer fine manners include investin’ a well-placed ha’penny, perchance?"
My mouth waters at the thought of buttered bread and hot tea, or even a basin of clean water, but bribery opposes my sensibilities, and besides, I have no coins.
“Hmph,” grunts Mrs. Boggs, disappointed, and she bumps the trolley away over the slick, uneven stones. Other prisoners bawl out to her, making coarse and obscene suggestions, and I wonder again on the likelihood of literature causing moral decline, when the illiterate and ignorant have mastered vice and crime quite admirably without availing themselves of any written works whatsoever.
A church bell peels, announcing the hour of Vespers, and I give myself to thoughts of God and Heaven and the decree that the blasphemous writings oppose His omnipotence and preeminence. Yet, He and His magnificent creation are exalted on every page I’ve read, from the marvels of the cosmos to the splendors of the earth.
I learned of heathens in far away lands where grow strange fruits and trees, and about odd animals with peculiar appendages and curious habits. I read stories of sublime love entwined with great tragedy, revealing the determination and perseverance of humankind.
How could I resist reading of such wonders? To deny myself would have been choosing to wallow in a slimy midden flowing through the middle of a street, rather than stepping above the muck and stench. There would have been no greater poverty than to remain rutted in my foolish assumptions and prejudices.
Perhaps that is why such books are forbidden and burned, why the daring are arrested, to keep people mired in muddied and narrow thoughts, entrenched in smallness and ignorance, lest they acquaint themselves with truth and become subversive by implementing what they’ve discovered, even contemplating a world in which one is free to explore, invent, and experience. Yes, it is indeed subversive!
Even so, the mystifying and the unfathomable are being destroyed by those who do not understand.
I pick a louse off my arm and scratch several bloodied scabs. The straw on the floor is damp and foul from the overflowing bucket in the corner and crawling with ravenous vermin, yet I am grateful for its meagre comfort, and I burrow deeper into the moldering heap.
It could be worse, immeasurably worse.
Some have been executed.
I do not know if I shall see the sky again, beyond the blue rectangle high in the wall, but one thing I do know.
My thoughts leap through the walls of the stronghold, unshackled and unhindered by stones and mortar. I fly on the wind, like an eagle aloft, my eyes sweeping across vast oceans, over richly timbered forests, along great expanses of snow, and into the heavens, where I circle the stars and touch the face of God.
My mind cannot be imprisoned.
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