With a clamor of church bells to set the blood pumping, the Annual Festival had come to Ocabos, that glorious city of gleaming gold and pristine white spires. The festival began with a clamor of car radios and headphones, the jovial fuss of parking, and rental vehicles and taxicabs ferrying their smiling passengers past restaurants and jazz-themed shopping districts to a central hub deep within the city.
Of course, some merrymakers were solemn and guardedly hopeful. They walked together on golden streets, making a little small talk with their companions and pointing out the many points of interest. They walked in the shade, under vast banners that could not hope to block out the beatific Light shining down on the vast city. That Light skipped across the pure blue waters of the bay to the east and south, flits through the wings of white seabirds as they scree and wheel through the air above.
Other festival-goers threw caution to the winds to explore (source), hoping to find some of the infectious joy permeating every golden wall and cobblestone. Sprightly music buoyed their spirits every step of the way.
They kept careful eyes on their timekeepers, though, because no one wanted to miss the beginning of the festival. This was, after all, the reason they were there.
Time! O time at last! The entire city turned out in their finest white linen to the central amphitheater of the festival’s central hub.
There, their voices high and carrying far, the choir sang. Fruit trees smelling sweetly of citrus grew around the singers, encircling them like an embrace. As they sang, they lifted shining faces to the Light they adored. Sometimes, they raised their arms to hold their palms aloft in praise. More and more festival-goers filled the amphitheater around them. None could sit, not with the incredible emotion filling them all. Even the oldest found enough vigor in their joints and bones to rise to their feet and join the song.
The notes of the song carried far, far overhead. If the Lord of Light heard them—and oh, how could He not?—perhaps His brilliance increased just enough to send discernible warmth flowing down upon the festival.
The Light turned the gold spires to glorious mirrors. One by one, the people in the amphitheater began to dance for joy. “Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest,” they cried, over and over.
I could not tell you how long the singing lasted. It was the kind of singing that makes one forget everything. Among so many singers, all those voices thrummed through every cell in every singer’s body. If you wish to imagine that some stopped to take a sip of the most perfect, refreshing water that ever existed, then you certainly may. But here, in this perfect place, not many needed do that.
Finally, the first speaker at the festival ascended a tiered, faceted dais of crystal and limestone and gold. His pulpit, too, was cast of gold, with the symbol of the Light on its front to dazzle the festival-goers.
The speaker, Rebrab, was a gently-benevolent old man with kind eyes. He was the Lord of Ocabos’ hand-picked representative. So perhaps it is fitting that first, Rebrab gave praise to the Light for bringing them all together in the city of Ocabos. He praised the city’s beauty and grace; he raised his hands in supplication that every person there would return to their lodgings lifted in spirit.
And then, he praised Ocabos itself. Not its beauty, not its grace, but the people who made the city what it was.
As bunting and banners slapped in the breeze above their heads, Rebrab spun word-pictures that danced and gamboled in the crisp, cool air about how faithfully the people of Ocabos served the Light. About how, when they left the city on the Light’s errands, they always fulfilled those requests with joy. About how truly blessed and fortunate they felt to return to Ocabos, rather than having to remain one unnecessary moment away from the golden city on its perfect hill.
He praised the people of Ocabos for helping each other whenever they needed it. For going above and beyond in that help. For forming a network of hands clasped in love and protection around each other.
It was a stunning speech, and it gave the festival-goers even more reason to love Ocabos and its incredible, life-giving Light. Others followed Rebrab, of course, but only after more singing. The festival had made time for songs, since the festival-planners of Ocabos knew that when a heart feels that much joy, it must express it. And what better way than song?
One speaker wept as he described how Ocabos drew in new citizens (source). And it did, you know. Oh, so many. Imagine their faces shining with tears and happiness as they enter through the narrow pearly gates and behold the Light for the first time. As crowded as you might think Ocabos would become with all these new citizens, it never did. Somehow, it always had room for more citizens.
Another, a red-faced fellow whose voice felt like an ocean wave, described the beautiful clarity (source) of Ocabos’ message of safety. He paused then, and sighed happily. His voice soft and sweet, he recounted the love and community he’d found in Ocabos.
These two were followed by many, many others. Almost all of them had much the same to say. The people of Ocabos were loving and kind, its leaders wise and compassionate, its city so glorious that entranced people were drawn to it from many months’ journey away.
Does this festival set your own heart a-flutter? Do you start to wonder how to find Ocabos, so you may see its golden towers for yourself? Do you start to yearn for this clarity, this camaraderie, this community?
Then let me tell you something else.
Far beneath the very dais the speakers occupied today—oh, far beneath the golden cobblestones of the streets, beneath the twisting of underground rivers of perfect, crystal-clear water, beneath many feet of soil so fertile that it barely even needs seeds to produce crops of every kind imaginable, through tunnels accessible only through the central festival-hub—is a strongly-padlocked storage basement.
These warehouse doors slide open with sullen, rusty creaks. Once open, visitors see a filthy cement floor, pocked stone walls covered in stains, and dripping water stains on the industrial paneled ceiling. The air stinks of every foul stench that human bodies and mold can possibly produce. The only noise audible down here is dripping water…
… And the labored, rasping breathing of a forlorn and stunted child.
This child could be anywhere in age from toddler to about twelve, though it’s hard to judge due to the malnutrition and cruelty it has endured. It is covered in caked-on dirt and scars. Its hair is unkempt and lanky. Its feral eyes are desolate of all hope. It sits alone, staring at nothing, not even looking up when visitors come to gaze upon this room.
An empty, dirty, rusted metal tray near the child’s feet indicates that someone must be bringing it something to eat, though whatever it gets is neither good nor plentiful.
Every single person in Ocabos knows that this child is here. Every festival-goer knows, too. The rapturous sounds of their singing and merrymaking can’t reach down here. However, the glorious Light at the heart of the city trickles in somehow—so the Lord of Ocabos knows the child is here as well. Not everyone comes through the labyrinth of tunnels under the golden dais to see the child personally, but everyone knows that the child is here.
Everyone knows. Usually, they learn as part of their own growth from childhood to the endless summer of their adulthood.
They know that Ocabos is what it is because of that child. They’d never have the clarity, the camaraderie, the community without Ocabos, and Ocabos cannot provide that without also making the child its prisoner. Worse, Rebrab and all the previous Speakers for the Light have always known about the child far below the dais. Every person ascending the dais to speak knows about the child.
The people of Ocabos are always sickened and disgusted at the sight of the child. But they react to this news in a few different ways.
Some rage and weep all the way back home, all the way back up through the tunnels, all the way along the golden streets, all the way to their comfortable, spacious beds with their view of the Light and the glittering waters of the bay below. And then, they sigh sadly. Perhaps the child’s fate is already sealed. Even if they could rescue the poor mite, which they’re sure they couldn’t, it’s not like there’s a path to an illustrious engineering degree in its future. That kind of damage is too deep to fix, even for their Lord and Light. At any rate, Ocabos cannot pare away the child, and its citizens cannot pare it away either. To have the one, they must accept the other.
And there’d just be another child down there anyway soon enough.
Others weep in confusion. They don’t understand that everyone knows the child is there. They think that if they can only raise awareness, force the people of Ocabos to understand, then everyone will reject whatever foul force allowed the imprisonment and abuse of that child. Afterward, Ocabos will still have the clarity, the camaraderie, the community—minus the child. But eventually, these confused souls will understand that Ocabos cannot exist without that child. To have Ocabos, its people must implicitly accept the fate of the child living under its golden dais. To reform it would mean to scatter its golden spires like driftwood. And then, the laborious process of building something better. And what could be better than Ocabos, the city blessed by the Lord of Light himself?
Others still rage and weep too, but they do not go home.
They do not return to their beautifully-decorated, tastefully-furnished lodgings in Ocabos. Nor do they return to their far-flung colonies to spread the glorious clarity of the message of Ocabos’ camaraderie and community.
Usually, the person not returning home is young—someone who, after years of blissful ignorance, has only just learned of the child far below the dais. But sometimes, it is an older person who returns from the child’s room and is eerily quiet for a day or two afterward.
Young or old, quiet or raging or weeping or not, they walk away from Ocabos. They take nothing with them from the golden city. They walk on bare feet through the narrow, pearly gates. And they walk alone. They head west, to the purple-cloaked misty mountains in the distance, or to the north where the skies glitter like aquamarines thrown in snowfrost.
These places are not known to the denizens of the City of Gold and Light. They’re almost mythic in nature, far more so than the city itself. Maybe the people leaving don’t know exactly what they seek or where they’ll end up. But they do seem to know where they’re going, these ones who walk away from Ocabos.
(With admiration and apologies to Ursula K. LeGuin, who wrote “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”)