The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
Ursula LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
Raven’s feet hurt.
She’d been walking for years, since she had reached her fourteenth summer. She thought that she might be eighteen now, or twenty. Perhaps thirty. She didn’t know for certain — it was hard to tell the time out here on the plains. She’d worn through the bottom of her last pair of shoes, right at the ball of her foot, but she felt that she should keep them on; she was, after all, civilized. Even if the nights were getting cold again, even if she was thinner than she had been last winter, even if she’d been unable to find the golden gates of the city again.
Selfishly, she’d wanted to. Heavy and tired, her limbs blue and numb with cold, she’d wanted to find Omelas again and go home, back to her mother’s arms, and try to forget that in Omelas, happiness had a price.
A light shone up ahead — a fire, bright-hot against the night sky. She broke into a run; people, actual people. The worst they would do was to tell her to keep walking; the people who walked from Omelas were not unkind, but they were not kindly. She could handle being told to keep walking.
Voices carried in the still air.
“Hush,” a man said. “I will not have you get cold.”
“I will not have you catch a chill just to save me a little discomfort.” The responder was another man; the warmth in their voices was enough to outstrip that of the fire.
“If I am chilled, I’ll come and share your cloak.”
“Share my cloak anyway.”
“As you will, love.”
“Hello?” Raven called as she approached. She could see the two men silhouetted by the fire, and she could smell the sweet smoke of the moss and broad-leafed plants of the plains. There were no trees out here, no shelter, nothing but the sun and the stars and the flat earth and the never-ending path that ran along the river.
“Hello!” came the reply, cheerful and bright. “Do you walk, sister?”
“I do,” she said, making her way across the rocky ground.
“Then join us,” said the man. “You must be cold and tired. There’s plenty of room by the fire.”
“Do you walk?” she asked.
“We travel together,” said the other man.
“But from Omelas?” asked Raven.
As she got closer, Raven could see that one of the two had been bundled up in a ludicrous amount of fabric, a swathe of silk in jewel tones. Yes, they were from Omelas — probably recently, too. Once you’d been walking for a while, silk tended to fade and flake until it dropped away like snakeskin, piece by tiny piece.
“Is it still beautiful?” she asked, a little nostalgic. She wondered what the man would do if she reached out to fondle his cloak. She settled for dropping her pack and sitting by the fire with him, her stool a large, flat rock. She could see, now that she was closer, a tent set up nearby — it was the same blue and yellow silk as the cloak. It looked spacious and warm, and Raven wanted.
“Not in the way that you mean,” said the first man.
“Why?” she asked.
“The golden gates have melted,” said the other man. “They’re gone.”
“What?” asked Raven. “That’s impossible.”
“It’s not,” he replied, tending the fire.
“Stop with us awhile,” said the other, extending a pale hand to her from under his ridiculous cocoon of fabric. “You can. You’re forgiven.”
“No-one can be forgiven,” said Raven.
“Anyone can be forgiven,” he said, taking her hand in his. “Charles. And this is Erik.”
“Raven,” she said. “Did you walk?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Erik.
“But you said that the golden gates were melted?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” said Erik, and he looked satisfied.
“Shall I tell you a story?” asked Charles. “I like to tell people stories, and you’ve nowhere else to be.”
It was true. She walked, but she didn’t walk to anywhere — she’d needed to escape, but she hadn’t thought much about what happened after.
“Can I stop here the night?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Charles. “Erik, stop fussing and come sit by me.”
The man — Erik — did. He wrapped both arms around Charles, drawing him close. “I need to cook our dinner,” he said, and Charles smiled.
“There’s enough for three, isn’t there?” he asked.
“There is,” said Erik. “Assuming that Raven eats fish.”
“I eat fish,” said Raven, unable to remember the last time that she’d properly eaten.
She had a pack. She’d packed it when she left, full of things that made no sense now — a doll, some books, some clothes. A bracelet made of string and bright stones. Things she couldn’t bear to leave behind that had become meaningless in the intervening years.
Erik kissed Charles’s temple. “There,” he said. “I need to make our dinner while you tell your story.”
“I can help,” said Raven.
“No,” said Erik. “You need to listen to him.”
We travel together, Erik had said. Raven closed her eyes. Could it be? It couldn’t. That was an old walker’s tale.
“Then tell me,” she said.
Charles smiled, stretching a little.
“It’s an unusual story; you’ll need to listen carefully,” said Charles. He cleared his throat. “There once was a boy, and he knew kindness.”
“That doesn’t sound so unusual,” said Raven.
Charles shrugged. “What is usual for you,” he said, “is not always usual for others. This boy knew kindness. He had the gift of seeing the thoughts of the people around him, and so he knew the hearts of the people he met. He met a lot of people, and in the hearts of almost all of them, kindness grew like a great blossoming garden. But every garden has weeds, and so does every heart.”
“People aren’t kind,” said Raven.
“Aren’t they?” asked Erik, from where he was scaling a fish for their dinner with his knife.
“People are kind. Very kind,” said Charles. “But people are also scared, and complacent, and selfish. The boy who saw their hearts saw this, too. He saw the friend who lied, the parent who was neglectful, the child who stole. None of these people were evil, and if you’d asked them, they would say that they were happy, and they were kind and caring. And it was true. The happiness that the golden gates of Omelas enclosed was indeed true happiness, but tempered with all of the pettiness of humanity, as happiness must always be.”
“No-one is kind and good in Omelas,” said Raven.
“That’s not true,” said Charles. “Many people are kind and good. It is true that those who have pure, good hearts often leave — the ones who tend to their thoughts and keep them well-trimmed — but they are still selfish. The child in Omelas was never guarded effectively. There was one door, with a sturdy lock. But a crowbar can break a lock; they could have taken the child.”
“That’s not selfish — that’s ensuring that Omelas stayed prosperous,” said Raven.
“They could not stomach the sight, but they did not act,” said Charles, turning his clear blue eyes to her. “And the boy who saw kindness saw them leave, and wondered, and hoped that one day one of those kind people might act.”
“Is that why Omelas fell?” asked Raven. “Because the boy who saw kindness rescued the child?”
“The boy who saw kindness was too weak to rescue anyone,” said Charles. “It was someone else who rescued the lost child of Omelas; someone who did not have an extraordinary amount of kindness in him, nor did he have a pure heart. He was selfish, and often hurtful.” He smiled. “We should call him the boy who questioned. He asked questions; he wanted to know how the child of Omelas secured peace and prosperity. Why it would be that the suffering of one would make peace for many? The boy who questioned was not any more or less than any of the people who had come before him, but his questions had no easy answers. It troubled the kind people of Omelas. Better, they said, that one should suffer than many. Better, they said, not to tempt fate. What would happen if all of society broke down?”
“They learned,” said Erik, setting the fish over the fire. He washed his hands with water from a flask, and then came to sit beside Charles.
“This is my story,” said Charles, leaning into his embrace.
“Then tell it,” said Erik.
“The boy who questioned didn’t stop there. He asked questions, questions, questions. He asked those who walked where they were going, and why they went alone. He asked them why they hadn’t taken the child with them. Surely, he asked, if they were going, it didn’t matter to them that the city fell?”
“But our families are there,” said Raven. “I—you couldn’t doom your family.” Silence. “Please, go on.”
“Did the lost child have a family?” asked Erik. “Did he cry at night for his mama, or his sister?”
“I don’t know,” said Raven. She felt small in the spotlight of his scrutiny.
“Or did you just not want to upset the status quo?”
“Erik,” said Charles, gently. “There’s no need.” He ran a soothing hand along Erik’s thigh. “Anyway. The boy who questioned quickly discovered that there are no easy answers. That no-one can tell you if you ask why it is that one would have to starve to keep many happy, or why no-one ever tried to see what happened if you released the child. That people talk about risk, and utility, and the greater good. It is perhaps for the best then that the boy who questioned was selfish and rash, or he’d never have broken the child of Omelas out.”
“He broke the child out?” asked Raven. “How?”
“Walked in there and took him,” said Charles. “Took him home and washed him, dressed his wounds, put his own clothes on the child. And they left.”
“They walked?” asked Raven. “Didn’t anyone stop them?”
“No-one recognized the child. They’d spent years pretending that he didn’t exist,” said Charles. “They left together, out through the golden gates.”
“I don’t understand,” said Raven. “What happened to the boy who saw kindness? Did he leave Omelas too?”
“He did,” said Charles, glancing at Erik. “And he didn’t walk alone.”
“Never, love,” said Erik. He stretched. “Dinner’s ready; no more stories. They’re bad for digestion.”
“But—” Raven began.
“No more stories,” said Erik, and then they were eating the hot flesh of the fish, the silence of the plains filling in for conversation. Raven felt like there was something she was missing, something just at the edges of her mind, but then there were shooting stars and Charles singing for Erik, and she forgot it somewhere in the night.
“We’ll walk with you,” was the only thing Erik said to her next morning. They’d let her sleep in the tent, on the silks and furs that they carried, while they slept opposite, Erik curled up with his head pillowed on Charles’s chest, Charles stroking his hair as Raven watched them drifting off to sleep.
The tent packed down to a small backpack that Charles carried, a distinct spring in his step. He seemed to delight in walking — he bounded ahead of them, stretched and hopped from rock to rock whenever they made their way up onto the low hills that punctuated the heavy, flat plains. Erik watched him with an expression of idle indulgence; it was clear that anything Charles desired, Erik was only too happy to give.
It was Erik who chose their camping spot, Erik who caught the fish, Erik who gathered the firewood. Charles pitched the tent, doing some sort of magic trick to pull that much fabric from that small a pack. Charles lit the fire, sitting close to the light as the sun dipped below the horizon. Erik stopped in his tracks, going to Charles’s side.
“Love,” said Charles. “I’m all right.”
“Humor me,” said Erik, both of them facing the fire, Erik’s arms around Charles’s waist, Erik’s chin tucked over his shoulder, whispering unknowable things into Charles’s ear. Eventually, he left Charles close to the fire and made their dinner, the three of them eating in silence. Raven looked across the fire to Erik. His face had turned ruddy and peaceful in the warmth, stars over his shoulder as bright as the diamonds of Omelas.
“It’s your turn,” said Charles, wiping his fingers on his thighs.
“Whose turn?” asked Erik, handing Charles his handkerchief.
Charles finished wiping his hands. “Thank you,” said Charles. “And yours, love. I’ve told my story; you need to tell yours.”
“I don’t need to,” said Erik.
“You do,” said Charles. “Raven needs to know it.”
Erik sighed. “There was a boy,” he said. “And he knew darkness.”
“Don’t,” said Raven. “Don’t tell me that story.”
“You think this is about the child of Omelas?” asked Erik. “No. It’s about the boy who didn’t walk alone.”
“Didn’t Charles tell me that last night?” asked Raven.
“Not being alone would seem to beg two sides to the story,” said Erik. “There was a boy, and he knew darkness. Not the kind of darkness that you’re thinking about. The kind of darkness that lies in the people we love. The kind of darkness that happens when you don’t know the answers to the question why. Because he had seen the child of Omelas, and he knew the secret.”
“So he left?” asked Raven. “That’s not exactly a new story.”
“He didn’t leave,” said Erik. “Because he was stupid and selfish, and he wanted to believe better of the people that he loved. Surely his mother, his beautiful, loving mother, couldn’t sanction it? But she did. She believed that the child of Omelas was unreachable, unable to be saved, unable to understand or be understood. That if anyone did try to save the child from captivity, society would crumble and fall. She told her son this, and for a while, he was happy.”
“Happy?” Raven asked. She could take that as a tiny point of pride, she supposed — she’d never been happy, not once she’d learned the secret.
“He was happy, but he was curious,” said Erik. “He did what some people do; he went back to see the boy.”
“I don’t think I could have done that twice,” said Raven.
“It wasn’t twice,” said Charles, nestled close to Erik. “It was hundreds of times.”
“Every day,” said Erik. “He was curious, because he wanted to know if it was true. Was the child unreachable? What did he do, there in that room, that kept Omelas safe? How did it even work? It seemed improbable that the imprisonment of one child kept a whole city safe.”
“Did he get answers?” asked Raven.
“No,” said Erik. “Because there were no answers.” He held out his hands to the fire, flat-palmed, warming them. “So he had to think of what to do himself; the answers from his mother were clearly wrong. The answers from his teachers were wrong. The answers from his friends were full of fear. And he didn’t want to walk alone. That didn’t make sense either — why walk, if the child was still imprisoned? Might as well stay in Omelas than turn your back and walk. From what he had seen, it made no difference to the child.”
“I think we all realize that,” said Raven. “There’s a lot of time to think, when you’re walking.”
“It’s a little late, once you’ve left,” said Erik.
“I know,” Raven replied, looking at her lap.
“It’s never too late,” said Charles.
Erik shook his head. “Only you, love,” he said. “Only you.”
“Tell the part about how he rescued the child. That’s my favorite part,” said Charles.
“It was an ordinary day,” said Erik. “And the boy worked out the solution to his problems. He wanted a companion, and there was someone who he didn’t want to leave behind. So he got up, ate his breakfast, and went up to the attic to find some of his old clothes — something that would fit a scrawny, underfed child. He laid them out on his bed. And then he went to the child of Omelas, and took the keys off the hook, opened the shackles that had grown into his wrists, and let him go.”
“Was it that easy?” asked Raven.
“It was,” said Erik. “Everyone was so busy looking the other way; they were all so confident that no-one would do anything, that no-one would dare.”
“And then they walked?”
“Not quite,” said Erik. “He took the child home.”
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” Raven asked. “Couldn’t the child have…done something?”
“Why would he?” asked Erik. “That makes no sense. He was frightened and weak; what could he have done?”
“I don’t know,” said Raven, looking at her lap.
“The child was dirty, and he couldn’t walk. He cried when his wounds were cleaned. But he ate a little and he was thankful — he tried to speak, but his voice had been worn away to nothing from screaming. It took him many years to get it back fully; he could say a few words here and there, but a conversation took time.”
“How did they escape, then?” asked Raven. “If he couldn’t walk, how did they leave?”
“They left three days after the child was released, out through the golden gates,” said Erik. “The gates melted at the touch of the one who had been brave enough to steal the child of Omelas. He carried the child on his back.”
“Where did they go?” asked Raven, looking around. “Are they still on the plains?”
Erik laughed. “No,” he said. “There’s a difference between those who walk from Omelas, and those who walk to freedom. The boys knew that they must find a safe place to stay, or the lost boy would die. They walked to Liria, which is beyond the sunrise hills.”
“What?” asked Raven.
“When people leave Omelas because they can’t stand to know the secret, they must go somewhere,” said Erik. “Otherwise they’ll wander in the dark forever.”
“What happened to the boys?”
“They were strong,” said Erik. “They were determined to survive; they caught fish in the rivers, and gathered leaves to eat. They curled up together at night and the gods of the plains were kind to them; they sent warm nights and mild days. When they reached Liria, the people there welcomed them. They took the boys in gladly, and cared for them both as if they’d been born into freedom.”
“Did the child survive?” asked Raven.
“The child of Omelas? Yes,” said Erik. “And once a year had passed, rumors came from the west, from Omelas, that the city had fallen.”
“What happened?” asked Raven. “I always imagined when I was little that the sky would crack and the city would crumble.”
“Nothing happened,” said Erik. “The loss wasn’t reported until the child was to be fed again, and the guards found him gone. It was decided that a new child would be selected, just in case.” He kissed Charles’s temple, Charles resting a hand on Erik’s knee. “And still nothing happened. The sky did not fall, the economy did not collapse. People argued, though, about how to choose a child. How do you give up your son or daughter, knowing what you would give them to?”
“But if nothing happened…?” said Raven.
“Yes,” said Erik, with a dangerous smile. “If nothing happened, then the child never needed be imprisoned. If nothing happened, then the people of Omelas had left one of their young ones in filth and horror for no reason. If nothing happened, then all of the good, kind people of Omelas were monsters. It ate at them, sharper and harder than the guilt about the child ever had before.”
“What about the child?” Raven asked. “Did they choose a new one?”
“No,” said Erik. “They could not agree. They split into factions; they were no longer happy as they were.”
She shivered in the night air, moving closer to the fire. “And the boys? Did they at least have a happy ending?”
“The time they spent together was precious to them,” said Charles. “And they formed a bond so great that neither could bear to be without the other, even for a few days.”
“Now Charles, this is my story,” said Erik. “But he is right — they couldn’t bear to be parted. And in Liria, they weren’t.”
“They weren’t?” asked Raven.
“They weren’t,” said Erik, leaning close to Charles. “But they weren’t happy to stay in Liria. That’s the price of living in Liria — you know what darkness the world is made from, and it is not enough to let it be without light. So when they were both well again, they returned to Omelas. They did not tell the people there who they were, but the boy who saw kindness still saw kindness in the people, and the boy who asked questions still asked questions…”
Raven sucked in a breath. No. No. It was impossible that the lost boy of Omelas was one who had seen kindness in others; it was too shameful.
“…And the strange thing was that questions can bloom like kindness,” said Charles. “And the questions moved through the people, and fed the kindness in their hearts in different ways. I think they’re happier now.”
“Most of them,” said Erik. “But there were still the people who walked the plains.”
“There were,” said Charles, and he yawned. “There are. I’m tired.”
“Then sleep, love,” said Erik. “I’ll protect you.”
“I can protect myself,” said Charles, stretching. “Come and sleep beside me instead.”
“Your will,” said Erik. “Good night, Raven.”
“Goodnight,” said Raven, glad of the respite from their conversation.
Raven watched the fire as they left her. She’d seen them that morning, curled together under silks and furs, stuffs that were far too fine to be the bedding of travellers. They were dressed and accommodated like princes. Perhaps they were.
She sat and watched the flames a while longer, until guilt was gnawing at her insides. She had seen the child too — they’d all seen the child. And the others who left their footprints in the dust, all heading from the same centre to a million different directions, had seen the child.
“What are you thinking?” asked Erik, from behind her.
“Where are you going?” asked Raven.
He hunkered down beside her. “I didn’t know, at first,” he said. “It was Charles who made the decisions.”
“Charles?” she said.
“Does that surprise you?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I suppose I’m surprised that it’s not a surprise.”
He laughed, loud and clear into the night. “He seems to have that effect. Come and join us.”
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“Walking with me.”
Erik smiled a grin that, in the wrong light, could be dangerous. “Because it’s lonely to walk alone,” he said. “And you seldom get anything useful done.” He offered her his hand. “Come on. It’s time to turn in. Charles doesn’t like to be alone in the dark.”
Raven was starting to know them, even after such a short time together. Charles was never alone — he was always within eyeshot of Erik, and most of the time he seemed to be within reach. It would be too easy to say that it was all Charles, although, like Erik had said, Charles certainly didn’t seem to like the dark. Yet it seemed more to be that Erik needed to reassure himself that Charles was safe; that he wouldn’t be taken by the night, or seduced away by the blue sky.
“It’s your turn,” said Charles, sitting close to her, sharing his cloak when she shivered.
“I don’t know any stories,” said Raven.
“Not any?” asked Charles, putting an arm around her. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Sometimes, I meet someone on the road,” said Raven, thinking hard. It was difficult to think about stories that weren’t the princesses of Omelas that had populated her childhood. She didn’t think that Charles would want to hear about those. “And they tell me a story about where the walkers go.”
“Then tell me that story,” said Charles.
“The plains aren’t real,” she said. “That’s what an old man told me. That there’s thousands of us here, and we walk to and fro; we pass through each other like shades, never really able to rest, never able to see each other. We pass alone.” She looked deep into the fire. “And sometimes, we see a fire on the deep plain, but it might as well be as far away as the stars, for all the good following it will do.”
“So what is real, then?” asked Erik. He was cooking again. When she’d asked about it, he’d laughed and told her that Charles was a dreadful cook; he’d never learned as a young man, and his palate was too unrefined to make anything even remotely edible.
“Once a year, the travellers come,” said Raven. “And they’re real. They’re not just walking — they know where they’re going. They know that the walkers on the plains come from Omelas, and once a year they choose one of us to take the test. If you fail the test, you’ll walk forever. That’s what the man said.” She swallowed. “He said that if they came for him, he would fail.”
“Why would he fail?” asked Charles.
“Because he didn’t know where he was walking to,” said Raven. “Just that he needed to escape.”
“The curse of Omelas,” Charles said. “To run without destination.”
“I don’t blame him,” said Raven. “I saw the child. I don’t know how many years ago, but I saw the child. He was tiny — he could only have been eight or nine — and he smelled like death and shame. He told me I had a good heart, and that if I took the key from the top of the highest shelf in the council chambers, that I could let him go.”
“You didn’t,” said Charles. “Because you were afraid that if you did, more than just you would hurt.”
“I didn’t,” said Raven. “Because I thought that if I left, I could escape unscathed.”
“Could you?” asked Erik.
“I didn’t know that you had to go somewhere when you escaped,” said Raven. “And that once you’re there, life doesn’t stop. That you don’t cease to make choices, even though your journey has ended.”
“You do now,” said Charles, and he hugged her properly, pulling her close to his chest. She clung to him like a child; how long, twenty, thirty years of being a child who walked? How long since she’d eaten, slept, aged?
“Is this a test?” she asked. She didn’t ask if she’d passed. She suspected that if she had to ask, then she never would.
“There is no test,” said Charles, his voice resonant in his chest. “A test is no way to prove your worth. People fail tests.”
“Surely that means something,” said Raven, wiping her eyes.
“Yes,” said Erik. “It means they failed a test.”
Charles kissed her hair. “Life is infinitely more complex.”
They sat close until Erik served them their dinner, and then, reluctantly, Raven disentangled herself from Charles. There were no more stories — there were stars instead. The night was so clear that she could see the hills silhouetted against the sky; if she squinted, she thought that she could see a light beyond them. A city, not a fire. She hadn’t seen a city for so long.
It wasn’t Omelas. She barely dared to hope.
“Raven,” said Charles, when the fire had burned low. “It’s going to be chilly tonight. Come and sleep by me.” He drew her close, close enough to whisper in her ear: “There once was a child who protected a whole city, but one day someone decided to protect him instead. And they lived in joy together, and neither had to walk alone.”
“Is that the happy ending?” asked Raven, twining her fingers through his.
“No,” said Charles. She heard Erik shifting on Charles’s other side, and the sound of a chaste kiss, probably a press of lips to a cheek, or a temple.
“No?” asked Raven.
Charles squeezed her hand. “Of course not. Our story hasn’t ended yet.”
Raven woke alone on the bare plain, the fire cooling beside her, a long silken cloth protecting her against the first frost. She sat up.
“Charles?” she asked the empty air. “Erik?”
The last stars hadn’t yet gone out, the sky still shading from indigo night to the flushed pink of dawn. Someone had left four neat little packages of fish sitting on the rock where she’d rested her pack, tied firmly in the leaves of the low plants that lined the plains. Four days of food.
But there was no tent, and no footprints. Nothing else to say that for three nights, Raven hadn’t walked alone. She packed the neat little parcels into her bag, looking around. The plains were as empty as they ever were. She pulled the silk close around her shoulders.
“The sunrise hills,” said Raven, shouldering her burden. “All right.”
The sun made a path like flame on the dry dust, and her shoes had holes in them. But she had food in her pack, and a direction to walk in, so she traveled out of the flat emptiness of the plains and into the light.