The Child is Chosen: a Story of Omelas
With a clamour of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city. Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.1 Joyous processions make their way down cobbled streets, passed moss-covered gardens to the banderole festooned race course at the Green Fields. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune. As he plays, the child is dreaming of his father. The notes are meant to call his father home. He remembers running to meet his father at the end of a day. How his joyous greeting went unanswered. How the father brushed unseeing passed his boy and walked out of their garden and into the street. The boy followed his father through the streets, the scents of supper drifting from the windows of houses he passed. The boy ran but could not catch up to his father. He called out, but his father did not turn aside. His father kept walking, passed the great houses, and kept walking, through the tree lined avenues, and kept walking, straight out of the city of Omelas. The boy stopped at the boundary of the city, he knew he was not allowed to go any farther. The gates of Omelas looked very beautiful in the evening sun, their opalescent glow causing the boy to shield his eyes as he watched his father’s solitary figure until it was out of sight.
The boy finishes his song and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute. As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. At its sound the boy looks up to see two figures approaching. They are dressed in the long stiff robes of mauve and gray that mark them as masters of their crafts and elders of Omelas. The older one holds out a hand to the boy and with a grave smile leads him away from the crowds and back towards the heart of the city. His flute falls unnoticed from the boy’s grip and lays in the grass for a moment before its trampled beneath the feet of the surging crowd.
Nearby, An old woman, small, fat, and laughing is passing out flowers from a basket, the child’s mother smiles as she weaves the flowers into a coronet and places it on her hair. She looks over at her boy, but he is gone. As she turns to search for him, an arm encircles her waist and she is pulled unresisting into the joyful, dancing throng.
The cobbled streets are quiet. All of Omelas are busy making merry at the Summer Festival. Overhead the sky is a deep, hard-blue and a breeze sweeping off the harbour brings the fresh scent of sea as the trio make their way passed the magnificent Farmers’ Market, its busy stalls closed for the day of the Summer Festival. They turn toward the empty train station and the boy wonders if they are going on a journey. He doesn’t like to ask and since he is flattered by their attention, he skips merrily along thinking what a grand story it will be to share with his mother when he gets home.
We look on as the child skips merrily to his doom but remain silent, it is the way of things, what can we do? You mustn’t feel culpable. There is no guilt in Omelas, though many are guilty. Omelas. City of happiness. The cornerstone of its foundation is pacta sunt servanda 2 and as every school child knows “For every action. There is an equal and opposite reaction.”. When the guilty walk away from responsibility. The innocent pay the price. “Not Fair!” you cry. Omelas isn’t fair. Omelas is Just.
As they walk through the rotunda of the train station the boy looks up in wonder at the beauty of its frescoed dome and the sun shining through stained-glass windows set high on its walls. At the end of a dim passage they come to a thick wooden door. The younger of the two elders pulls out a set of keys and unlocks the iron bolt revealing a stairway lit by a single candle, it’s hot wax dripping down the bricks to join a cold, dry pile that has formed on the steps. The stairs twist deep beneath the station. A dank and fetid smell increases as they descend, and the boy begins to feel uneasy and tries to pull away but the grip on his hand tightens and he is propelled into a low cellar filled, like most cellars, with various bits of this and that, all of it covered by thick dust and skittering insects. On a low table by a door resides a jug and a chipped bowl holding the crusted remains of some food. Again, the keys and again a lock is unbolted. Putrefaction emanates from the open doorway and a dark horror settles on the boy. Already I have described this room to you. You are familiar with its excrement smothered foulness, the far corner with its two clotted mops and its rusted bucket. Do you suppose those unnerving implements once had a purpose? Were they used to make clean the station floors for the citizens of Omelas? Happy thought. Noble purpose! The putrid smell is like a colour and the boy wretches at it, adding his lunch to the slimy mess beneath his feet. The door slams shut, and the boy is alone in a dark like he has never known before. He doesn’t understand. He twists round hoping to escape but loses his footing and falls to his knees in the vile muck. He crawls through it and pounds futilely, clawing at the door and crying, “I will be good!”. In the deafening silence that follows, the boy remembers, those are the same words he called out as he watched his father walk away from Omelas.
1 bolded sections taken from The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
2 pacta sunt servanda: agreements must be kept, and contracts must be honoured.