NARRATOR: Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
ME: I don’t know.
NARRATOR: Do you get it, though?
ME: Oh, yeah, I do. I get it. That’s not the issue.
NARRATOR: About why they have to leave, the ones who walk away from Omelas, even though it’s the most beautiful perfect city in all the land? And how theirs might be, perhaps, the better choice?
ME: Right, right. I get it. I just think –
NARRATOR: Because it’s society.
ME: No, I mean, I get it.
NARRATOR: Do you, though?
ME: Yes. It’s clear. I am 100% picking up what you’re putting down. But, okay, leaving aside your weird antipathy for helicopters –
NARRATOR: There are no helicopters in the great city of Omelas! And yet they are not children. Is it not marvelous?
ME: I –
NARRATOR: The beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine soufflés to the hunger of the needy!
ME: Yes, yes, it’s all a rich tapestry. No helicopters, sex soufflés. Got it. There’s that whole bit that is just, I think, a description of a RenFayre, there’s only one drug available, and it’s impossible to get addicted to it, which I think is frankly cheating, and no one seems to have a job of any kind.
NARRATOR: The city of Omelas is a wonderful place! And yet there is a dark secret. The beauty of Omelas comes at a terrible cost. But…is the cost worth it? Only those who walk away from Omelas know the answer!
ME: RIGHT. I GET IT.
NARRATOR: But do you?
ME: I WOULD LIKE TO ASSURE YOU IN THE STRONGEST OF WORDS THAT I DO, AND ASK YOU PLEASE TAKE MY WORD FOR IT, AND STOP TRYING TO EXPLAIN IT TO ME.
NARRATOR: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.
ME: I’m not offended. I promise. I just…you have made your point, and do not need to keep making it.
NARRATOR: The city of Omelas has a terrible secret.
ME: Right. About that.
NARRATOR: “The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
ME: Jesus. Yes.
NARRATOR: If the child were to be freed, or even spoken to kindly, all the glory of Omelas would be lost! You find it hard to believe, perhaps, that the city of Omelas could truly depend upon the suffering of a single child? To which I would answer you: Look at your own soc –
ME: Society. Right. No, that part’s clear. And I’m totally willing to accept these terms, city has to have one horribly abused child in order to exist as it does, I get what you are trying to say about utilitarianism, please do not explain it to me again.
NARRATOR: Eventually, each citizen realizes that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy.
ME: That seems awfully convenient, and also morally reprehensible, to suggest that someone who has been abused would not enjoy the feeling of joy if they were to be treated kindly! I’m not against your making whatever point it is that you’re trying to make, but don’t try to solve this fucked-up moral calculus by suggesting this ten-year-old is too broken to be worth trying to help. If that were really the case, who would feel guilty about not helping him or her? If someone were truly incapable of experiencing happiness, how could anyone feel guilty for leaving them in the dark?
NARRATOR: Ah! Then you, perhaps, are like those who walk away from Omelas! They –
ME: Yeah. Is, uh, is that actually a functionally different choice?
NARRATOR: They walk away!
NARRATOR: Who knows where they go?
ME: Right. But they still don’t do anything. About the child. They just move.
NARRATOR: They seem to know where they are going!
ME: You mean to tell me that in a city of presumably thousands of people, there are only two reactions to this child? “Deal with it and become hypothetically more compassionate before the next flower-festival or whatever,” or “grimly leave town”? No one in this entire town has ever rejected the premise entirely and tried to take the kid with them? These people are angry and upset enough to reject the city itself, but they don’t decide to tear it down with them when they leave? “Fuck this, everyone can go back to subsistence farming and doing their level best”? That’s never happened?
NARRATOR: I – No. They just leave.
ME: That’s ridiculous.
NARRATOR: Wait! Don’t leave yet! The merry ten-year-old has another pan-flute solo before the next yearling race! Then we’re all going to take public transit to the Farming Collective Museum after the gentle orgy –
ME: Jesus, you’re insufferable.
[MALLORY walks away from the City of Omelas.]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.