Once They Walked Away

Those who walk away usually follow the river past low white houses beside apple orchards and into the hill country south of Omelas. The woods are full of edible plants and small game. In the summer the weather is mild. Plus Omelas is a rural town and Omelians are a practical people–a lot of carpenters, cooks, and farmers. Childhood gambols by creeks and everybody hunts deer. After a week of sleeping rough, an exile from Omelas thinks, there’s no reason I can’t build myself a cozy home out here. All I need is lumber, a hammer, a knife, some pots and pans…You might make it for a month before you start to run out of food. Maybe your first time outside in a thunderstorm–so pleasant when watched from a front porch back in town–will provoke the first true doubts. You’ll sit, filthy and exhausted, water running off your chin, and fantasize about returning, apologizing for the grandiose self-regard that masqueraded as virtue, and throwing yourself upon the mercy of your old friends and neighbors. But you know that they would have no choice but to avert their eyes and shuffle away. Failure to shun one who has walked away is at best a kind of walking away itself, and at worst a breaking of the Original Deal. Details are fuzzy, but it is clear that there would be consequences for all of Omelas. It is empathy for another person that drove you away in the first place: you can’t now go put everyone at risk. Once you walk away, there is no turning back.

Those who survive walking away from Omelas do so by finding others who have also walked away. Squatters’ camps ring the city: fire pits, vegetable gardens, and boosted tarps. As a new exile you might approach one in the morning, mist burning off the ground, heartened by the squalor–these are the people who can afford to show me kindness–but soon sense that something is not right. People evaluate you with a brief, unreadable glance, then return to whatever they were doing. Finally three men approach. They stand directly in front of you and one smiles. “Are you walking out?” he asks, the out of where being clear. You nod. “And now you’re walking in?” A glimpse around to indicate the camp.

“You couldn’t take it?” This from the biggest of the three. Maybe fifty years old. Bearded and completely bald. “You looked in the basement, saw the Child, and knew you couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep the Deal?” You want throw your arms around him and cry, but then the smiling one speaks again. “Guy’s got a big heart.” He steps closer. “Big heart.” His hand rests casually on the handle of a machete hanging off his belt. The bald one nods. “Lots of love,” he agrees. They’re standing so close now you can feel their breath on your face when they speak. Every pair of eyes in the camp is fixed on you. You feel them as prickles on your back. Who are these men

A new exile might go from camp to camp for weeks trying to walk In. Sometimes you are given food and directed to another camp a day’s hike away, only to find the reception so stony that there is nothing to do but walk away as quickly as possible. Ethnic differences that had seemed quaint back in town now became vitally important. Some people get lucky and are taken in by a distant cousin who had walked out years before. Others reach a level of exhaustion where the intimidation ceases to register, at which point they are given a job gathering firewood or digging latrines, welcomed reluctantly In, another mouth to feed. This part is hardest on young women. The young men in the camps circle, solicitous and predatory. There’s five of them and one of me. Of course it’s going to happen now. It was always only a matter of time. Then someone, you can never predict who, will step up and hiss “We’re better than that” and the moment will pass.

For those who manage to walk In after walking away from Omelas, something like a normal life eventually resumes. There is always too little food and a cold that never leaves your bones, but at some point the camp starts to feel like home. It’s only then that you start to think back on what brought you out here in the first place: the dingy basement, brown light trickling in through ground-level windows, the Child. That moment you first saw the Child, terrified, lying in its own filth, and knew that your whole life in Omelas had been a lie. Later, sitting upstairs in the living room on those dilapidated yellow chairs, the adults explained how the Child stays in the basement and we live. And when the Child dies there has to be another Child, picked at random, and don’t worry you’re already too old. You looked around the camp and knew that everyone had sat in that living room on those particular chairs, and felt–what? Not just horror, because everyone felt that. No, it was the unshakable sense that what was being done to the Child was also being done to you. Walking away was not protest, it was sheer self-preservation. But in the end even the worst horror dims and you resolve back into yourself, finding your way through what is still just your life.

In these camps there are hierarchies and rivalries, a politics that is opaque to one who has just walked Out. One of the first things that falls away is that tiresome Omelian piety about not being soldiers. Here everybody fights. With scarce resources comes stealing, punishment and retaliation, justice rough and improvised. Nobody wants violence (we’re better than that) but there are constant standoffs. Sometimes fists and clubs, the occasional shotgun. There’s also the matter of the farmers who live far south, at the edge of the camps. No one bears them ill will, exactly, but they’re not exiles, and they have stuff we need. Two exiles broke into a storage shed at the edge of a field in the middle of the night and, amazing luck, found an axe. But when they emerged from the shed the farmer was standing there, holding a lantern, his family huddled in the doorway of the house behind him. He could afford to lose the axe, but if he just turned on his heel went back inside, that would be helping an exile, wouldn’t it? The one with the axe took a step forward, face hard, ready to take a swing. Nobody wanted this, but everyone sensed that a plausible show of hostility was required, as part of the Deal.

In the evening smoke from the fire pits drifts up to a dark blue sky where it is blown northward by soft winds, back up the river. For some the camps become their life, the town fades like a dream. For others, Omelas looms ever larger in its absence. Some of them scheme about how to make a return: what kinds of contact might be permissible, how the Deal could be subverted, everyone reunited. The Happily-Ever-Afterers. Others still fantasize about commando raids to free the Child, spirit it off to the camps, where it will be shown love commensurate with the horrors it has known. This would certainly be a breach of the Original Deal with dire consequences for all of Omelians, in and out. Good, say the Bring-Down-the-Housers, let the town burn. Theirs is an elaborate eschatology that sees everything–Omelas, the Deal, the Child, exile–as inevitable necessity leading up to them, sitting in grim circles around low fires, steeling themselves for the moment when they venture out to bring it all crashing down. But they are in the minority. Because what would happen then? Would the town actually burn? Would its residents wander south, stunned and bleary-eyed, needing charity? And how do you walk outside of that?

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