Today I realized I should just put this story up here, free to read and easily accessible. “Those Who Return” is my loving response to Ursula Le Guin’s famous “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” (Content Warning for the Le Guin: child abuse.) Many, many, many writers have written responses to Le Guin’s story. I started mine in 2017, the first of my very new types of stories. I completed “Those Who Return” as part of my 2018 Minnesota Artist Initiative Grant, and read it at my public event.
This story started me on my new, better path as a storyteller. It brought peace, joy, tears, and hope to those who heard me read. I want to bring those things to you as well, all of you. In this time of crisis, we’re all seeing the truths of our reality more clearly, and we’re seeing what we want and need and could have instead. The story is very short, only 2450 words.
Much Love & Solidarity,
Those Who Return
For Ursula Le Guin, who I hope would be pleased by abolishing the concept of the scapegoat. I have taken up your challenge and will commit no more treason.
The trees and grasses burst forth with blooms, nibbled here and there by goats, sheep, cows, dogs, and cats, the flowers visited by bees and birds, some of the people of Flourishing. The human people of Flourishing tend to the gardens where they’ve planted fruits, vegetables, beans, and flowers in gentle curves, in an abundance of peas near tomatoes near zinnias. The human people of Flourishing throw clay and carve wood and recite poetry and paint beautiful murals and study maths and generally do any number of invigorating, interesting pursuits. The ones who enjoy gardening do the gardening. The ones who enjoy cooking do the cooking. The ones who enjoy building do the building. The ones who enjoy animals brush their coats and check their feet.
Most of them enjoy art, so most of them make art. All enjoy their turns at cleaning up, since they don’t do more than an hour a day, so what would be tedious in a large dose is instead an hour spent in content contemplation or pleasant conversation while the floors get swept and the dishes come clean and the laundry hangs to dry, and each person can see the fruits of their labor, the job well done that benefits all.
The town of Flourishing is one of many towns of Flourishing in the mountains and valleys to the north and west of Omelas. It’s been said the towns of Flourishing are unimaginable. It’s been said a person cannot describe them at all: that they might not exist. But they do exist, and more than exist, they flourish, as their names suggest. The peoples of the towns of Flourishing live lives of contentment and meaning, of peace and connection to their needs. They do not harm each other. They would not want to. There is no need for strife when everyone is encouraged to do things they find meaningful, to learn medicine or gardening or cooking or building, when everyone has time for art, whether it’s painting or sculpting or carving or poetry or telling stories about the ways our environments shape us, shape how we see the world and what we want and what we need.
Everyone has plenty of good food to eat and adequate, beautiful shelter built to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Everyone has friends to chat with over meals or help them reach a tick on their back or play a song together. Most of the time, anyone who wants a lover can find a lover, and when they can’t, they accept this fact and waste no energy brooding or trying to coerce someone else. Some people in Flourishing choose to partner exclusively while others don’t, and everyone accepts the autonomy and choices of their fellows. The people of Flourishing spend no time ranking things or people or experiences or labeling things good or bad or better or best. Such pursuits are trivial and foolish and take away from meaning, from the nature of reality.
The bells have rung in the south, and the people of Flourishing know The Festival of Summer has begun in Omelas. Several people quiver, seized by terrible memories they are often able to forget, but that surround them each year at the sound of the bells, as if they’ve been gripped in a vise. Other people rush to them, hold them in strong, loving arms, whisper, “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. You are safe.”
Other people grab a large cart, place in it water, soft blankets, food. They carefully add a variety of beautiful, soft hats of different sizes to the cart’s contents, to protect delicate eyes from the sun. They pluck a bouquet of flowers and bring their flutes or drums or violins and set off on the path down the mountain, knowing what is coming their way.
Other people put on water to boil for baths, collect herbs that disinfect wounds and herbs that make wonderful, comforting scents. Other people spruce up spare cottages, gather clothing of various sizes and decorate the rooms with delicate animals carved from wood and stone and soothing paintings of the lush forests and gardens.
An old man and woman find each other and hold hands, matching flutes slung on cords across their backs. She quivers, but smiles, a few tears escaping her bright eyes that mirror his and his tears. They walk together to the edge of the gardens, sit on the soft grass that’s been shortened by the ungulates. The man remembers the day decades ago when he played his flute for the Festival, sitting in a conspicuous place, keeping his features rapt, not wanting anyone to suspect a thing, especially not his fear.
His sister sits next to him, their thighs pressed together. He’s considered many times the possibility that she could be his sister by blood, though how would he ever know? Any stranger could be a relative. Any stranger can become a relative. And ultimately, everyone is everyone’s relative. He almost misses his parents, though by now they are likely long dead. He waits for his sister to lift her flute first. After the initial bars of the Welcome Peace Safety song vibrate out of her soul, he lifts his flute and joins in, the signal to the people of Flourishing, who begin the song, some singing, some adding their chosen instruments.
The people of Flourishing don’t only play music together on the day of Omelas’s Festival of Summer. The people of Flourishing know the people of Omelas can hear them when they play and sing as one. The old man remembers catching snippets as a small child, but when he’d ask, people would only tell him the sound came from somewhere unimaginable, somewhere that might not exist, that the sweet music might very well be a trap, for the city of Omelas was the happiest, best city in all the world, and nothing could exist outside of it that was better.
Tears stream down the brother’s face as he thinks of how much sooner he wishes he’d known. How much sooner he wishes he could or would have acted. How he cannot and does not understand to this day how most of the people down there, away from the mountain, live with themselves—how they live with the false choice, the false binary. The ones who merely walk away are always surprised to realize their terrible mistake. Many of them keep walking, in shame or penance. The ones who aren’t too late, who merely walked, sometimes walk back, eyes and minds on fire with their new knowledge, their new vision and clarity in not believing everything they’re told, and then they return, carrying their joyous burden.
Tears stream down the brother’s cheeks, tears of joy and sorrow, a yearly catharsis. But his sister is not crying, not now. There is light in her eyes, a joyful anticipation. She knows how long a recovery can take, but the recovery always comes, and she will be there, helping. Not all who quiver choose to directly help with the recovery of others, but some, like the sister, are always on the front line, always there to hold tight and whisper, “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. You are safe.”
Of course it is many hours that the song goes up before anyone returns. The ones who walk away often wait until most of the city is dreamy on drooz, a drug the people of Omelas claim only a few use and only rarely. Everyone is on drooz in Omelas, even the children. How else could they live with themselves? How else could they feign happiness? How else could they go on telling their lies, repeating their myths, the reason for the bargain always vague but non-negotiable, the belief springing up whole that they must, they must, they must, or else? How else could they continue to believe their lies in spite of all evidence to the contrary? All these decades and decades later, they still never put a guard at the door, don’t seem to care at all that the bargain that must not be broken is broken again and again, and yet the city carries on.
Not that the ones who walk away carrying a burden know this fact. They are always jumpy, terrified of pursuit, terrified that they have brought misery on many by making a simple, correct choice they’ve been told is not a choice at all.
The brother remembers well his fear and grief, as well as his determination. With the simplicity of a child, he understood immediately that it was not his bargain to keep, that he would and must save one wretched person who had been given no choice, even if that meant wretchedness befell others who had never known a moment of misery. Except the truth was they’d all experienced misery already, because the knowledge of the pact was misery, his parents trying to calm his tears and flailing limbs by telling him she was too far gone, too imbecilic to live a normal, healthful life. She was destined for misery and would not appreciate anything else. There was no use. All was as it must be.
He had cried, “But she’s my sister!” So his parents had brought out the drooz pipe and when he would not accept it, blown the smoke in his face and ears until he’d quieted into a stupor of sobs. And so he’d waited for the Festival of Summer, quietly making his plans while pretending to understand, to be complicit, so they would not continue to douse him with drooz until he could no longer think.
When the sun had started to set and the people were all stupefied on drooz, he’d snuck into the basement of the grand train station, pushing a cart full of soft blankets, expecting someone to stop him, expecting that at his first kind word to the wretched scapegoat, the city would tremble, begin to break apart, would dash to bloody pieces in front of his eyes, because of his choice, and yet, nothing but the soft sobs of his sister, the gleam of intelligence in her eyes as he hid her below the blankets, near the food and water for the journey, to where, he wasn’t sure, away. They needed to be away.
He’d gone in the direction of the singing in the mountains that filtered through the quieting of the city. He’d dragged the cart up and up a small road, his young muscles aching, barely up to the task, but he’d pulled her on and on, occasionally stopping to catch his breath and hold his sister, stroking her greasy, patchy hair, crying and whispering, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” as if he could make up for the years of starvation and isolation, the seeping wounds, the misery enforced on one for the benefit of everyone else, a devil’s bargain.
And yet, nothing had changed in the city behind him. He later learned that the stolen is always replaced by another already in the wings. Where? None could say. His sister and the others could not remember how long they had been that way before they were recued or where else they might have come from. All the people of Flourishing know is that one escapes every Festival of Summer, and others escape periodically throughout the year, and yet all are easily replaced by wretched beings already accustomed to wretchedness.
How far his sister has come! She has shrugged off the misery and wretchedness and plays her flute and sings to the goat kids and helps discover new maths and carves wonderful little figures of winged foxes and horned horses.
The old woman’s eyes are light, are hope. She believes that some day, the cart will hold bountiful surprises. She believes that some day, all eyes will be open to the truth, to the nature of reality, to the necessity of Flourishing and contentment and meaning and love and peace and safety, to the fact that such things are neither indescribable nor unknowable, to the fact that evil is banal and pain boring and both are unnecessary for art. That Flourishing can and does exist and could spread over the entire world, bringing contentment and meaning and love and peace and safety for all.
By now the entire mountain is singing the song of Welcome Peace Safety together. The valley hums in accordance. Tears stream down the old man’s face as he remembers everything that came before. Whether it’s the drooz or a firm dismissal of the nature of reality that prevents the people from Omelas from admitting to the existence of the towns of Flourishing is unknown. The evidence is everywhere, and yet, the city of Omelas carries on in its fashion, and the towns of Flourishing carry on in theirs.
The sister jumps up from her place in the grass, as if she’s still decades younger, seconds before her brother does the same. They rush to the cart making its way back up the road. The sight is incredible, unprecedented. Eight children of various ages ride in the cart under hats of all sizes. A line of people streams behind the cart. Not the usual one or two, occasionally three to five, but dozens, maybe hundreds, winding around the mountain trail. Some hold in their arms infants and toddlers in hats, whose eyes are only a little leery, a little questioning, a tiny bit aware of the fate they have narrowly avoided.
The new people strain to sing the song of Welcome Peace Safety, their voices breaking and mumbling, their eyes averted to the ground. They don’t yet know all the words, but they are learning them now, getting the hang of the rhythms and melodies, letting the possibilities lighten their steps, a little, brighten their faces, a little, though shame hangs, tearful and fearful still, sharp lines and quivering muscles in their disbelieving bodies. The sister knows that recovery will come for all of them in time. She runs first to the children in the cart, then from person to person in line, hugging each one close, whispering sincerely and with passion and love to each and every individual who has walked away from the lies and the horror and misery, walked toward something completely imaginable and real and describable, “You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. You are safe.”