Note: This is my favorite thing I've written. I usually call it my "Le Guin fanfiction"; it is a reimagining and expansion of "Those Who Walk Away From Omelas", Ursula Le Guin's most famous short story. I break some of the "rules" she sets forth in the beginning of that work, but only to make a functioning story with commentary upon the important message set forth in the original. ~BJC
At the first, stories of the shining city of Omelas always centered around the festivals. The lavish, the luxurious. The libidinous. Then, the child. Pools of black ink have been strung into line after miserable line about this squalid closet containing the ultimate miserable waif. Then there were stories of those who turned their backs on the artisans, the courtesans, the colored vessels, and the bright gold. Only after we spoke of these, the ones who walk away, could we begin to write about the ones who tried to help. The mother, who on the day of the Grand Parade finally could not bear to see her son in rags and scabs. She pulled him from the so-called “chamber”, only to be accosted and murdered by a ravenous mob—her act of pity had caused the procession to falter into shambles though blocks away, and the citizens knew the deeper meaning of that. The crowd immediately repaired to the chamber, and were in no means surprised to find that the Child had been released. He was reinstated after having seen his mother die savaged by a hateful mob.
Before, there were no guards outside the “chamber”. The closet was in the terrace level of a building that served as an auxiliary to the street market, and those few who had not heard of the proceedings at the Grand Parade were surprised to find men volunteering to watch the door of which few ever spoke. Citizens were still allowed to visit the Child, even encouraged to do so, provided they made the proper arrangements.
Some decided that the way to help, the way to calm one’s heart on days when the sun hung high in the sky, and the gentle haze of the drooz had parted on a brief glimmer inside one’s own mind, was to visit the child more personally. Of course, many came—many had always come to see the Child. Some spit upon him or her, or otherwise abused him or her. Others wept with pity, then went back to their peace and pleasures. Still others walked away, some forever. And then there were those who came to try to cheer the Child. While they knew this person was doomed to misery for many years hence, they thought a small cheer could help the Child, and in turn dull the pain of self-inspection and keep them from crying or running out of the city into the wastes forever. These found it difficult, because it is a property of the “chamber” that anyone within it becomes miserable, and after half an hour’s time, most visitors were the as despondent as they had ever been, or would ever be.
What has not been written is this: the Children are released. The Operators of the chamber know this. They are given the wisdom to select a Child and to release a Child, when her time has come. Most released Children do not lead normal lives. Many of them return to the city as orphans, their parents unable to remain in Omelas for pain, but unable to retrieve their child for the guards, and unable to return to claim her for shame. Many Children die, even as they’re released. Re-feeding problems, the doctors of Omelas would say. Brittle bones, they might add. Many are so stunted they can never re-master the Omelasian tongue, or stay trapped forever in the mind of a young child. Many are deformed and scarred, some dependent upon parents or guardians, or (of all injustices) the state, for life.
Some grow to adulthood. A few of these have walked away into the wastes forever, believing that great heresy, The Rumor of Altrop Camp. A very much smaller group have tried, in vain, to save Omelas and the current Child at the same time. These have brought delights from the Market, dolls and games, medicines from the shops. But if these have worked to relieve the Child’s suffering momentarily, they have not lasted. Nothing good can last in the chamber. Some of these visitors have stepped upstairs for fresh air, returning to find fruit rotten and molded, dolls shredded to bits, medicines turned thick and black.
Most Children that grow to adulthood, though, support Omelas as best they can. Some are respected pillars of the community. Nearly all of them stay, and nearly all of them respect and attend to the advice of what has come to be called the Chamber Regime. It is not a government, per se, as Omelas boasts of a particularly fair and respectful democracy consisting of a fairly-elected mayor and an upright, caring City Council, who act as right conduits of the public will. The Chamber Regime is a group of Operators that has been charged with overseeing the chamber, so as to ensure its continual, efficient, and humane function and non-intervention in city life. One Child in particular, was eventually selected to accede to the role of Chamber Regent. In the beginning of his tenure, the other Operators found him, if anything, too severe, too effective. They have tempered him, but he recently convinced them of some small items of chamber business that they agreed should change.
Iila Talov is a Child. She is twelve years old and has been released from the chamber for now almost eight months. She is walking again, eating regularly (though nothing too sweet and no red meats yet), and restarting her reading lessons. She doesn’t run well, and trips on her own legs often, though the doctors are glad she hasn’t broken them in any of her misadventures. She has made remarkable progress in speaking, and lives with her adoring parents. She is very frightened of small spaces, darkness, mops and brooms, and loud noises. So, she sleeps in the living room with lamps lit, and plays in the sunshine while her father or mother cleans the house.
One morning, a crier came to the doorstep, dressed in green. He was young and sprightly, and was not the fat, loud crier Iila had seen in the Market during the summer. The door was open, as Father had been to the yard collecting firewood for a morning burn. The man in green stared in. He shouted “Ahoy!” and Iila was the first to stride awkwardly to the threshold. The man looked at her as if he were watching some hideous cuisine being made before his eyes. He lost his train of thought for a moment.
“Dear, is your mother home?” he said with some fear.
“She will be here in a moment,” said Iila in perfect Omelasian. The man’s face lit up briefly, then drooped into sadness. Mother arrived.
“A crier,” she said, “At the door and so early! What news, friend? I hope it’s good.”
“V-very good,” said the man, now tripping on his words. “New wisdom from the Regent.” He held out a paper.
“You’ll forgive me if I bid you farewell, sir,” said Iila’s mother. Her voice had become stony. “And read it on my own time.”
“Not at all, ma’am,” the man’s eyes pointed at the ground. “May fortune be with you.”
“And to you as well, good sir.”
Mother and Father read the notice together, seated at the small table in the parlor. They did not respond to Iila’s attempts to ask questions about its contents, or assist her in reading the hard words. She writhed on the top of the chair trying to get a better vantage. Father said, holding Mother, “Perhaps this is for the best.” Mother wept uncontrollably. Iila begged explanation once more.
“No,” said Mother through her sobs, “No. You are a beautiful and special child, and everyone in this world owes you a great deal. And I cannot hurt you or cause you to come to hurt. And there are some things I must hope that you can continue to forget.”
This was strange language, but it had become something of a pattern: when Iila asked for things that she couldn’t have, or to do things that she couldn’t do, her Mother often told her how important and special she was, forbade her gently from having or doing the thing, and picked up weeping. Iila imagined it was very difficult for mothers to say no.
As for forgetting, Iila knew there was something missing in her mind, as it felt like she was new. As if her life had started in the late spring, and before then, she was a baby or a child wandering the woods. She could remember a bit of her life as a small child, but those memories appeared to her as stories told by a fire, or last night’s dreams at the end of the next day.
Something stirred in Iila’s heart late that bright morning, after a romp through cold puddles while her parents did small cleaning chores after breakfast. She was determined that her mother should not have to cry after reading just a small paper, and that if she could find out what was on the paper, perhaps she could help. Perhaps her mother would let her have sweet things, or at least not sob after telling her no.
So she took the paper, and went to a place where she knew she would find a smart reader: the Market. People at the Market were very smart. They knew the price of rhubarb, and of blueberries, and of onions. Sometimes they were so wise, they had enlightened discussions, heated discussions, as to different opinions on these prices. Surely one of them could read her the letter, which she now noticed bore a sigil and design and very large letters at the top.
To her surprise, this design and sigil, and the very large letters, were also posted at the market, on the side of a small building she had seen merchants duck into for a towel or one of those terrifying mops. She compared her small letter to this much larger version stuck to the wall. She peered at the paper, then at the poster, and found that, as far as she could tell, they were identical in every manner except size. An old man stood reading the large one.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Iila. “Can you read for me the letter that has been pasted to this wall?”
“Oh, child, you cannot read?” said the old man. “That’s unheard o—Oh,” he said, with a look of recognition. “Certainly.”
He cleared his throat. “A Recommendation of the Chamber Regent, for the benefit of all citizens of Omelas: In days past, we have seen an increase and multiplication in misfortunes and small accidents. Goldsmiths have burned their hands at the refinery. Fruit shipments have been infested with worms. Carts have overturned. It is the considered opinion of the Chamber Regime that this is due to the increase in so-called ‘compassion’ to the Occupant of the Chamber. As a result, the Regent recommends that any such supposed assistance to the Occupant should cease. Visits may proceed as normal, but please do not bring in outside food or material, and do not stay longer than five minutes. Respectfully your servant, Orob Sill, Regent of the Chamber of Omelas.”
Iila stood puzzled. She thought if she had understood the letter, she would understand her mother’s weeping. But she could not comprehend these words at all. She begged an explanation of the old man. He turn to her, and his eyes shone briefly, and not the shining of tears.
He repeated the saying that is well known to all of the people of Omelas. Most of them have heard it at school, at about the age that Iila had reached now. Iila, of course, did not go to school and had never heard the saying. It is a poem, without rhyme, and without verse. It is the ugliest verbiage that can be spoken in Omelasian. During his recitation, just before the part that begins “There is a chamber and a child,” he sat upon the ground, on the raised brick that surrounded the three sides of the small building. He finished, “...and upon this lies all the beauty and the craft of Omelas.” Iila stood, and barely comprehended.
She was fortunate that this saying didn’t restart her memories immediately, or she couldn’t have proceeded. She did proceed, however—she pointed at the stairwell of the small building with a quizzical look, and the man nodded. So she descended the staircase past two large men in red, and the door to the chamber of Omelas was closed. A smell filled her nostrils, a heavy darkness filled her lungs and heart. She lurched up the staircase and vomited just beyond the men in red. She lied in anguish in the white daylight and then wept, not sobbing, but screaming. She saw a person from the market approach her, and she scrabbled away. The thoughts were dashed from her head. She thought nothing of Mother or Father or even knew her name or her home.
She found herself in the Green Fields, abandoned for the time because of the cold of winter and because children were being taught in their schools. The bright sky began to darken with clouds, and a cold mist came. Then, at the tenth hour, the early dead dark night of winter began to fall. Still Iila screamed, and wept, and sometimes retched. She didn’t know it, but her parents were concerned about her, but not surprised when she didn’t return home. They knew she might one day join those who walked away.
By the eleventh hour, it was black as pitch and terribly cold. Iila would have died of cold if it weren’t for the old man from the Market, who found her underneath a tree in the green field, reduced now to sobs because she had lost strength to scream. The pain of the afternoon subsided briefly when she saw his face, and the humanity returned.
“Why was it me, old man?” she shouted hoarsely, “Why did they do this to me?”
“I am sorry, Child of Omelas. I am truly, truly sorry. But there is more I need to tell you, for I can see now that you may prove different from those who have gone before you. You may yet free us all, but you will need bravery and the tongue of Omelas.”
Thoughts of her parents and her home returned, but they did not bring the comfort she was used to. They were confusing, dark, mysterious, and tainted now.
“There are those who walk away from Omelas, too hurt by the sight of the child in the chamber. They do flee in all directions, but many have followed the river beyond the Eighteen Peaks. Those who followed our River Omelas to where it empties into the river in the north, which is called Great, they have built a camp, where they seek to be free, to build and craft and court and grow brave children, without the foul magic that shames us. This is called Altrop Camp, and if you follow the flow of our river, you will reach it.”
Iila sobbed deeply, as if to swallow the man’s words.
He continued, “And there is a book, wherein is written all the names of the children whose lives have been diseased for the health of the city. The Roll of the Chamber is its name, and it is found in a small hole, at the bottom of the staircase, near the doorway to the chamber, in the building where we met in the market. This book will tell you where all of them live. All of them, even the ones who have fled to Altrop Camp. Even the ones who have fled to the nations of the barbarians. Even the ones who live among the bears in the wilderness. Go now, daughter, and go in peace.”
The word “peace”, sosso in the Omelasian, provided the only respite Iila had known in hours. Her mind was clear now, and the path was clear also. It was still the first watch, but dark and still and cold and damp. The mist continued. Iila returned to the market. Now there was only one man guarding the entry into the building, and the chamber. He sat on a wooden chair, old and beaten with time, and though it was early, his eyes seemed to be swimming. The child was stealthy. She stole into the doorway, which, of course she was allowed to do—visits were permitted any time of day or night. She crept down the stairs. She braced herself for the shock of pain she knew she would receive.
But she wasn’t ready. This time, as her feet fell on the landing of the staircase, and she righted herself to search for the book, she was hit by a stronger stench than before. It smelled of disease, of pain. She lurched with her remaining will to look for the book, and as she turned, she saw the door was, strangely, ajar. She saw in the flood of lights from the street lamps above, a small boy a few years younger than her. He did not turn, but he gave a small, drowned whimper. Iila shuddered forward, but did not vomit. She turned her head away, and found in a dank rectangular hole to the left of the doorway, a battered, ancient book. She wrenched it from its place, and turned back to ascend the staircase, tears now rolling and falling, leaving craters in the dust on the floor. She must have made another sound, because she heard the boy turn and then he uttered a scratchy, wispy, pathetic cry.
Iila bolted up the stairs, and ran. In days past, this would have almost immediately caused a fall, but now she put one foot in front of the other beautifully, gracefully, quickly. The guard was roused by the cry but paid no attention to the girl, running, already far away from the door. She wasn’t the Child.
When the running was over, Iila gently collapsed onto a knoll beside a schoolhouse. She would need to find a place to sleep, or risk freezing. She was already so cold. She tried a small door on the side of the school house. It opened into a kitchen. She curled up on a sack of potatoes and fell into a fitful sleep. She awoke in the first hour, before the sun would even rise. She found a pantry and ate two large hunks of dry bread. She left as the sky began to light, dully, not knowing that today was one of the three days in ten that the children would not be attending.
In the morning, she returned to the market, raised the bucket of the Market Well, and drank deeply from the common cup. She found at one stall a small canteen, and promised to pay the vendor for it after “a short trip to the mountains”. He looked at her. His face showed recognition, then sorrow, and he hesitantly took her deal. She smiled grimly and was off.
It was a small mercy that the day was much warmer than the previous. Iila wandered through the streets nearest the market, embarrassed to ask where the River Omelas flowed through the city. She saw a crowd of robed figures all headed down through what looked like an alley. She followed, and found that the alley opened onto a large thoroughfare, and that across the street there stood the tall, white, gleaming guildhall. Between the hall and the trees next to it, she could see coursing water. Iila was struck with a mindless fear that one of them might somehow divine her plan. Careful not to be seen by the passersby near the guildhall, she headed north through the side streets for several blocks, then up through the mansions and oaks, and back to the riverside.
On the east side of the river, there is a track that follows the bank of the Omelas, at times diving under a bridge, at others, weaving around a house. At the end of the track, about the eighth hour, she came to a farmhouse, then a very long field of newly planted winter wheat. The track had diverted Iila onto the side of a wide road.
About the ninth hour, Iila heard a cart pulled by a lone horse. She prepared herself to talk to its driver, thinking she might find something to eat, for she was very hungry, and somewhere to sleep, for she was already very tired, and some sort of blanket or cloak, for she was very, very cold.
“Ahoy,” she shouted. It came out tinny and hoarse. The cart moved past her, and she ran to try to catch up. “Ahoy!”
The cart stopped. Iila ran up to it, and peered at the driver. He was seated on a bench in the front of the cart. A woman and a young girl no older than six, were seated in the back, along with a number of wooden objects and dry goods. “Whence do you come, child?” asked the driver.
“Omelas, good sir. I’ve only just left!”
“What is your intent? Have you no family?”
“I have, sir. I am leaving Omelas in search of Altrop Camp, and I have no food and I travel without a cloak. I am cold, and I have no guide nor mount. I beg lodging, if you be headed toward some farmhouse in the riverbank, perhaps.”
“We, too, are leaving Omelas for Altrop. We have brought little in the way of food or clothing, but we do have bedclothes and some small bread. I’m afraid we intend to sleep in the cart tonight, no matter the cold.”
“It is too great a thing I ask, but may I travel with you? I will strive to do my part of the work, but I have no other means by with to pay you.”
“What is that book you have?”
Iila thought. She considered lying to the man, worried that even those who walk away from Omelas would not approve of her theft of that relic of the chamber. Instead, she told them. “It is a book called ‘The Roll of the Chamber’. I took it from the chamber of Omelas, in the building of the Market.”
“That is most unusual. Alight, tell us your tale, and we will consider that recompense. I am En, this is my lady Opon, and our young daughter Ippi. Welcome to our journey.” Ippi had tracks of dust stretching from her eyes to the corners of her mouth. Opon looked almost too young to be her mother, and had eyes that gleamed bright green even in the dropping sun. En’s back was facing the cart as he drove, but Iila could see that he had a red beard from the parts of it that extended beyond his cheeks, and broad shoulders with a dark blue cloak.
In her stilted speech, Iila told of her day at the market, her realization, the pieces of memory that shook her, the old man and his message. Ippi burst into tears at the story, and Iila could see that the tracks on her cheeks were where her tears flowed. When Iila’s telling of the story reached the word sosso, Omelasian for “peace”, as spoken by the old man, Ippi’s tears and sobbing immediately stopped. She spoke to the party.
“This is the girl who will stop the crying!”
Opon spoke gently to Ippi. “What do you mean, love?”
“I have told you of my dreams, of that horrible closet with the crying boy. What I have not told you is that I have heard a voice saying sosso to him, and he quieted and went to sleep. This must be the person who will quiet the boy!”
Opon’s voice cracked with love, “Dear Ippi, if she can quiet you, if she can help you sleep, she will be nought less than an angel to me. Continue, guest, and tell us what you intend.”
Iila told of her plan and Opon and En asked many questions. In the end, they both remarked in their way that they found it to be a wise plan, especially from a child, and that they wished it would succeed for the sake of all the people they had left behind in Omelas. Unbidden by Iila, Opon told of the reason that the little family was undertaking the journey.
It is that little Ippi had picked up the habit of crying and screaming every night, and had done so for forty nights. Every night, father and mother would console her as well as they could, and every night, they would worry over her as they helped her obtain what rest she could. The nightmares were always the same, and they always revolved around a scene of the chamber of Omelas. They sought help from as many doctors as would visit, and none could help her sleep. They worried—Ippi had never seen the chamber, and as she was too young for school, it seemed unlikely that she heard it from schoolyard chatter. The fortieth day was the day of the regent’s decree. In the afternoon, En and Opon told Ippi of the reality of the chamber and its function. She burst into tears, and they decided at that moment that they would gather their things, purchase a mount and a cart, and leave, for they had heard the Rumor of Altrop Camp. This they did in order to save their child.
The moment they passed the last bridge of Omelas, Ippi began to sob and sputter, rather than bawling outright. When they saw their first farmhouse, she quieted and began to speak normally again. En said she had always been the most talkative and sunny girl he’d ever seen. Opon said she had been a gift of mirth from the gods. They both said they thought no price too high to bring that countenance back to their daughter.
That night, En gathered stones, Opon built a fire, and they slept in a barren field in the cart with the fire blazing nearby. Iila caressed Ippi’s head and wished she had a sister. They all slept more deeply than they had in a long time. The winter morning came late as always, but very brightly.
The southern approach to Altrop takes sojourners away from the River Omelas and up a small hill before descending back into the valley. This is because the banks of the river become sandy and impassable, especially in the rainy winters. En urged the horse along, through thick firs and maples, through a corridor of barren rosebushes which certainly would have been glorious to see in the summer. The cart crested the hill, and through the limbs and trunks of the forest, the party caught its first glimpse of Altrop Camp.
Or better, Altrop City, for it looked to be even as large as Omelas. As the forest thinned and the view became clear, Ippi’s joy overflowed. Altrop was larger than Omelas, by half! And it gleamed all the brighter! The girl laughed for half an hour straight through. Iila could not help but smile, but she was caught up in bigger things. Namely, reading the Roll of the Chamber to find the names of those who had once been imprisoned, but had been released and had walked away to here, to Altrop City.
This task presented the same difficulty that reading always did, but Opon was as patient as any Omelasian teacher, helping when the words were confusing or difficult. Over the following few hours, Iila and Opon had narrowed the list to three prominent-looking Altropites that were old enough to help, and looked to be engaged in prestigious professions.
Iila closed the book and hid it under the blanket on the cart as they approached the South Gate of Altrop City. Two guards in blue approached. It was the ninth hour, and the sun was slipping downward through distant trees.
“Good sir,” one said to En. “We pray your business here. If it be no trouble to us, we shall welcome you to our humble city.”
“Humble, indeed!” said En with a smirk. “We few have traveled two days over the southern route. We have elected to walk away from the shame of Omelas.”
The guard’s face was alight with joy. “Well it is, good sir. We always welcome those whose conscience has driven them from the land of suffering. A thousand welcomes from the Council of the Altrop Camp! We hope you will find this place,” he gestured behind him to the city gates, “a pure and loving ground on which to raise your two lovely daughters.”
En nodded and made as if to urge the horse on, but Iila spoke. “Oh, good sir, but I am not their daughter. They have been so kind as to take me from the shame of Omelas, but I have a mother and father in that city as of right now. I hope to return, to bring them here, and to set right a thing in Omelas which has been so wrong.” The words came out, without announcing themselves to Iila’s mind beforehand.
“Oh,” said the guard, with a puzzled look, “This is unusual. We have had many a young person flee Omelas for the peace of Altrop in the past, but never one so young. What are your years, young one? Eight? Nine?”
“Please sir, I am the better part of twelve years old. I appear small and weak because I have been a child of the chamber of Omelas myself. I am come on a mission, and I dearly hope the people of Altrop will support me in my endeavor.”
“Oh dear child,” the guard said and he knelt. His companion knelt. “Our warmest welcome to Altrop, and our deepest sorrow at your pain. Know this, that there are people in our city, though you may not know who they are, who have shared your lot. They are our most honored citizens. We would be most grateful if you joined them to increase the peace and glory of our city.”
“And I shall, sir, but I must attend to my quest first of all.”
The guards directed the party to an inn, where the keeper had the habit of promising a room for anyone leaving Omelas behind. This keeper was a beautiful woman about Iila’s mother’s age, taller than any woman Iila had ever met. Taller than En was, even. She spoke to En about the guildhall, and at what hour the guild of carpenters met (for En was a carpenter), and where there was space to build a house. That night, Iila slept with En and Opon’s family for the last time, and on a bed for the first night in three.
The next morning, Iila awoke before anyone else, crept out of the chamber, and approached the innkeeper while she was laying plates on the table. She asked about the address of the first of three names she had chosen with Opon’s help. She was very obliging. Because she knew who lived at that place, she informed Iila that the silversmith didn’t often rise before the third hour. She held up her long right hand, and explained that she knew this because she had sought him to repair her ring one early morning and was turned away rather gruffly. It was better to wait, to take a big breakfast, to see the city perhaps. But Iila swore her matter would be serious enough to convince the smith to give her audience.
“I am sure I know nothing of bond between two children of the chamber,” said the innkeeper.
Iila was nonplussed. “How...?”
“I have known that our smith was a child of the chamber for many years. You, well—you bear the marks of the chamber still. Do not worry, child, for you will outgrow them. You will rise and your star will burn bright here in Altrop, far away from the stain of your past. But for today, what do you say to that breakfast?”
“No thank you, madam, but I will return at noon-time.”
The smith’s home was not a mansion by any means, but it was imposing, on the side of a rise where the northern road had been worn down by years of rains. A stone staircase connected it to the walkway. Iila climbed it.
“Ahoy!” she shouted from a few paces from the door. Nothing stirred inside the house. “Ahoy!”
There was a small rustling, a clomp, another rustling, and hollow booming sound.
“Ahoy! My name is Iila Talov and I have just come from Omelas.”
“I don’t care!”
“I found your name in the Roll of the Chamber.”
The door opened. A man in an undershirt and trousers stood in the doorway. He was about Iila’s father’s age, but with wild hair and a scruffy beard. He peered at the child with water-blue eyes.
“You what, my child?” he asked, with contained anger.
“I am a child of the chamber of Omelas. I was told of the Roll of the Chamber by an old man, and I am come on a mission to purge the stain of Omelas once and for all.”
His expression softened. “Well. Come in,” he said with resignation.
The parlor was not well-appointed. It did bear a tapestry with some kind of battle scene woven into it. The seating was worn, the rug was frayed. Iila sat on a single chair which had certainly once been the showpiece of a carpenter’s shop, but had since fallen into disrepair. The smith sat across from her on a chaise.
“Would you like tea? I have shortbread from a recent gathering. I have some fruit,” he said.
“No thank you, Master smith,” she said. “I would rather tell you of my mission.” And she told him of her story, including the holy word sosso and her travel, including the dream of the daughter of Opon. She continued:
“Only a child of the chamber such as yourself can understand the suffering of the chamber. We alone can understand the pain, and we alone can end it,” said Iila. Her words began to come unbidden, flowing as the River Omelas, directed by a force outside of her little body. “We must gather the people of Altrop, as many as are willing, led by children of the chamber. We must return to Omelas in our number, stand on a high place in front of the guildhall, reveal the pain of the chamber by our own account, and demand that the child in the chamber be released, no matter the cost. If they will not agree, we must enter and destroy the chamber and its magic.”
The smith was stunned. “This is quite a mission,” he said, smiling, “for one young as yourself. What makes you think that the people of Altrop City, having left Omelas behind forever, would return with you to the place of that misery?”
Iila stared at him. She had not expected this. She had thought that for certain no child of the chamber would be so cowardly, so inure to the pain of that place. So weak.
The smith continued, “I, for one, cannot return with you. I cannot face Omelas or its chamber, for it haunts my dreams every night to this day. I wish you naught but the best of fortune in your journeys, but I must bid you farewell now, before the specters of that place come back to me.” He walk to the door and opened it. Iila rose, teary-eyed, and left. She turned back to him before he closed the door.
“At the very least, might you help me find this woman?” she asked, and held out a small slip with the next address written on it, in Opon’s hand.
The smith looked pitiful. “Of course.”
The next name was a woman in her middle-age, a player in the troupe at the Blue Theater near the public square. Again, Iila was rejected.
“Dear child, don’t you see that I can do great things in the world of Altrop? I can use my fame here to inspire people to be kind to one another, to redress grievances and to live with peace in their families. In Omelas, I am unknown, and while it is truly terrible the thing they do there, it is but one injustice. Here, I can repair many.”
In the end, the player had Iila out before she could ask about the third address. She returned to the inn to ask the innkeeper or Opon for help.
The keeper was clearing the board as the last breakfast guest was leaving. Iila was glad to see her, but the woman’s eyes were sad. She swept the dining room and tried to sound cheery.
“I assume you’ve had a little bit of a setback, my star?” she said sweetly.
Iila’s power of language left her, and for the first time since seeing the chamber, she set to crying again. The innkeeper held her close, and she was calmed.
“It should relieve you, then, to hear that Opon’s family has already found a place to stay until their home is built. I offered them a room here, but another man came to find them. He has a home near the City Forest, and I urged them to take that for now. Soon, they will build near the home of the master of the carpenters’ guild. I get the feeling that one day, En will be master himself.” She sighed deeply after speaking.
Iila, still feeling unable to speak, held out the slip with the third name, and looked imploringly.
“Oh, my light, I am so sorry for your sadness. I will tell you how to get to Opon’s house, and from thence to this man’s house on your paper. Perhaps seeing Opon and En and Sister Ippi will brighten you before you resume your task.” And she described the route.
Iila wandered slowly and without purpose to Opon’s home. There, across the way from them, was a stand of enormous firs. This must have been the City Forest, which was an unusual thing to see for someone who had grown up anywhere but Altrop. En was outside the house, carrying a wooden chair into it. The house was largely barren, but cots could be had from another carpenter or from sellers in the market for a fair price. En, to be sure, would build a board fit for their meals very soon. Opon saw Iila from the window and ran outside to embrace her.
“Oh, daughter, come and live with us,” she said.
Iila straightened up and tried to look as though her mission had been a success. “I couldn’t, you see. I am to return to Omelas and complete my task. But I do envy this,” and she gestured at the house. “Where is young Ippi?”
“She is a-bed for an early nap. So, tell me how is your quest?”
“It is well,” Iila lied. “How is your new home?”
“Very well. Ippi has been calm, and her nap has been uninterrupted. We are so fortunate to have seen the truth of Omelas and to have been able to leave. Not everyone has been so lucky.”
“Indeed,” mumbled Iila, and she looked down.
After taking leave, Iila resumed a slow walk to the last address, an old lawyer who was kinder than the player, but who insisted that he was far too old to undertake such an endeavor, no matter how just. Iila walked away from the lawyer’s mansion dejected again. She decided to return to the inn directly, to respect Opon’s family’s new life with her distance. Bothering them with incessant inquiries about names from the Roll of the Chamber seemed a poor way to help Ippi move on from the horrors in her former dreams, no matter how much she would like to live with the family. Beside that, she considered her own mother and father and how much they would be missing her. There was no time to start a life in Altrop.
It was the seventh hour, and the midday hunger was upon her, but Iila decided to wander a bit before returning to the inn. She entered the City Forest and explored the paths winding through the trees. It was cold and beautiful, as the weak winter sun prodded rays through the branches where the moss grew thick and pale.
She must have been in the wood for half an hour, and beginning to feel very acutely the need for a meal. There would be time to return to this magical place later, but the inn called her now. She wandered back to a familiar seeming path, and found a large boulder which caught her attention, well away from the network of paths. She struck a deal between her curiosity and her hunger, that she would see what was beyond the rock and then make for the inn straight away.
Behind the rock was a small home.
It was unlike any home she had seen in Omelas or in Altrop. It filled her with an unknown emotion, the alloy of curiosity and fear. The door was weathered, and the timbers that made it were too small, cracked, and uneven. The walls weren’t fitly made either—there was lamplight bleeding out from them and into the dark of the forest. The roof appeared to be made of inches-thick moss and fallen branches. It was gray. It looked cold.
Iila approached the door, and though she was afraid of who she might see on the other side, she tugged it. It gave with a crack like sharp thunder and suddenly her eyes were filled with the dull light of flame. The house was small, but for some reason there was a family in it, as gray as the faded wood. A father and a mother, both short and hunched. Two children, ageless and small. Stunted. A baby, wailing like a wounded animal. The adults stood, talking near a cooking hearth in muted tones. The mother held the screaming baby while she stirred a brown, thin soup in a pot on the fire. The children tugged joylessly at two pitiful toys: a small wooden horse and cart, and a ragdoll. As she approached the children, the eldest, a boy, met her eyes briefly, then looked down. The girl did not even bother.
Iila tried to speak to the boy, then the girl, then the mother, then the father. Everyone’s eyes were wet with tears. The feeling of a pit opening began to fill Iila’s stomach. She was arriving at an understanding of what this place was. Kinder perhaps, but still the same mechanism. She addressed the family with urgency, shouting over the baby’s wails.
“Are you being held here against your will?” she asked.
The boy looked up into her eyes again, managed to hold contact for a few seconds, and again looked away.
“Is your suffering being used? Is there a great poem telling of the beauty of Altrop Camp and when they speak of your home, do they say ‘upon this lieth all the beauty and the craft of Altrop’? Are you cursed?” she shouted.
They said nothing, and Iila’s stomach pit began to rage. Her innards felt as though they had inverted, and hot tears began to flow. Iila wanted desperately to stay, to fight this urge to flee that was flowering in her, but there was nothing she do for them. Not by herself. Until this moment, the only memory of the chamber she could conjure was one of the pure emotion of suffering, devoid of detail, but now one episode rushed at her mind:
She sat, stone faced, but wailing, in the chamber. Her mother bawled at her side. She was vaguely aware of the passage of a certain amount of time: an hour or so since her mother had come. As she stood to leave, Iila’s weeping intensified. She had become used to her mother’s visits, each a few minutes longer than the last. As her mother departed, Iila heard her say, “Goodbye again, my love,” barely able to speak through her sobs.
Iila rushed from the house. She couldn’t survive being in that place, much less with a flood of clear terror in her memory. She caught her breath on a fallen log near the trail, and followed the daylight out of the woods, in whichever direction it was closest. This happened to be the direction of Opon’s house, and she stumbled out onto the lane and into the light. As she rose to her feet, there stood in front of her a man. He was old and familiar—he looked like the man from the market in Omelas. He uttered the word sosso. Iila’s eyes closed for a moment, and when they opened again, he was gone. Beyond where he had stood, there was a crier in green, walking from house to house carrying paper rolls. Iila looked back as he shouted “Ahoy!” at Opon’s door, and walked on to the inn.
At the inn, Iila was heartbroken and speechless for four days. She embraced the innkeeper every morning at breakfast, and spent the rest of her time sleeping, or sitting on the bed staring through her window. On the fifth day, she regained her speech.
“I’m going back to my mommy,” she said. That forceful feeling of words pushing themselves through her throat, of sounds making her tongue move as if controlled from elsewhere, was gone.
“I understand,” said the innkeeper. “I love you, child, but there is no love in the world like that of a devoted mother. I imagine your mother to be kind and patient.”
“She is,” said Iila. “Do you know about the house in the woods?”
“I have heard that people have seen a ramshackle house in the City Forest. Remnants of the early settlers of Altrop Camp, is what I hear.”
So Iila told the innkeeper of what she had seen in the house, and how she had felt. The old feeling of eloquence returned in fits and starts during her tale, and in the end the innkeeper sobbed with her.
“I will return you to you mother,” said the innkeeper. “After two days for me to pack and sell the inn.”
“But no,” said Iila, “You do so much good here for those who leave!”
“Young Iila, you begin to sound like the player who rejected you!”
Iila sighed. She knew there was no way to return the words she had said, and that someone who had seen and quartered the throng of people leaving Omelas, including children of the chamber, could never abide the Secret of Altrop Camp for long. She would have to go into the forest, into the barbarian countries, or into the snowy mountains.
“Do you know where you will go?” asked Iila.
“No, child. We here in Altrop Camp do not have a Holy Rumor of a place free of the dark magic of the forest house, for we do not know of the dark magic of the forest house. You may not understand, child, but I am very angry. The angriest I have ever been, even angrier than when I was told the truth of the chamber of Omelas.”
“Will you tell the others?”
“I cannot say as yet. I will decide. Perhaps I will flee before I can tell. Perhaps I will not have the heart. Perhaps I will become so angry that I stay in Altrop all my days, preaching the truth of the forest house—a wild prophetess.”
In two days, the innkeeper and two of her hired hands took Iila to the outskirts of Omelas. They would not enter the city, neither by the path of the river, nor by the East Gate. The innkeeper kissed Iila and handed her the Roll of the Chamber and said by way of parting: “Fare thee well, child of glory. Be free and be loved. I only lament that your mission was not realized.”
“Fare thee well, lady,” she said. “But know that my life is long enough to yet do it.”