The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Download PDF

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
by Ursula K LeGuin

Note from John: Ursula K LeGuin may be known primarily as a sci-fi writer, but I love nearly everything she has written, including this brilliant piece, based on an idea explored by Dostoyevsky, William James, and surely others, too. But I don’t believe anyone has done it better than this story. Enjoy!

“The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat“, writes Le Guin, “turns up in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven’t been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I’d simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James’s ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,’ it was with a shock of recognition.”

The quote from William James is:

“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition … that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

—————-

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city of Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and gray, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding throughout the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become archaic. Given a description such as this one tends to make certain assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians, I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. There were not less complex than us.

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?

They were not naive and happy children–though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however–that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.–they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it. I incline to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming to Omelas during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station of Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the magnificent Farmers’ Market. But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas–at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the gory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcane and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: This is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life. I don’t think many of them need to take drooz.

Most of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvelous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign gray beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. 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, thing magic of the tune.

He finishes, 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. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering. “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope…” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No?
Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. 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 in 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. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

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.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize 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 real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

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.

 

Please support wonderful writers like Ursula K LeGuin at your local bookstore or here.

Rage

Download PDF

Rage
by John Carter

“Anger is a killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before – it takes something from him.”
– Louis L’Amour

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.”
– William Congreve

Notes
At about 1:30pm on October 12, 2011, 42-year-old Scott Evans Dekraai entered the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, California, where he shot and killed his ex-wife and several other people, before surrendering to police.

The story was all-too-common, but the comments posted online were what I found most disturbing. The comments below are all real, posted online in response to the original news article. Even accounting for those trouble-making “Web trolls,” the number and content were amazing. Here are just a few examples:

– – –

“Women in a custody battle have lawyers and family court. Men have righteous anger and guns. Let’s see who wins.”

“She deserved it.”

“Let this be a lesson for all you psycho mothers who keep children away from fathers. Too many mothers are being allowed to poison children to hate their fathers.”

“There is blame for everyone. But only he will take the fall. His desperate act of wanting his own justice only masks the true injustice of ‘family court’.”

“We are seeing a lot more people (primarily men) that are tired of the de facto decision of ‘She gets to take your name, children and half of everything you have accumulated’ parsed out by judges that don’t see that granting one person is tearing another down. Today’s fathers seem to be a lot different than the absentee ones of a generation ago. Again, there is no justification for this, but you never know how some one is going to respond when everything (or the most important things) are taken away from them.”

– – –

The headline of the story was, “Seal Beach shooter, Scott Evans De Kraai, was angry because he thought he’d lose his son.”

And so he has. Not only lost his son, but taken his son’s mother … and father, and who knows what else? The article also said that “Friends and neighbors called Dekraai a doting father and good samaritan.”

“I don’t want people to think he is just an evil monster. He’s a nice guy, but he must have snapped,” said neighbor Stephanie Malchow. “If he was in a custody dispute, that would explain why he snapped. He loves his little boy more than anything else in the world.”

I had no idea where this story would go when I started writing it. It ended up with no conventional plot – a kind of Raymond Carver “slice of life,” or I should say, more properly, something in the style of Raymond Carver, from a writer who would love to be half as good.

One final irony … at the time, the eight deaths were the worst mass killing in Southern California since 2008, when nine people were killed … at a Christmas party.

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy!

– one –

Two men are seated in a comfortable room, talking. If we didn’t know that it’s a psychiatrist’s office, we might think they are old friends from college, a lesser Ivy, perhaps. They could be New Hampshire neighbors, college professors that took a sabbatical from an afternoon of raking leaves to have a drink.

Are these incidents getting more frequent?

How can I answer that? You don’t let me see all the papers.

But as far as the news that you do see … do they seem more frequent?

It’s probably a function of more people and more information … math, murder and 24/7 news. I do agree with you that the comments posted about the stories are the more interesting phenomenon. But we’ve talked about all this.

Not much. At this stage, why are you still so reluctant to talk about it?

Because the most boring people in the world are a) on a diet; b) have just found religion; or c) are going through a divorce. Talking about it is counterproductive. Self-indulgent. And ultimately, boring as hell.

How do you define not talking about it?

As the best of a bad set of options. Can it possibly be good to conjure up the darkest, angriest, most frightened version of me imaginable? How intensely can I hate? How frightened can I be without my heart stopping? For the last few years, before I left her, I used to experience this weird sort of mini-hallucination. When I’d come home from a business trip – or even sometimes at night moving through the house towards the kids’ rooms – I’d have this horrific image of them all … slaughtered, butchered, ruined. Everything I loved, tossed into the corner like a pile of bloody rags. I’m talking about one second, one slice of a second … snap! … and the vision’s gone.

When I’d been away … well, you know how it is with kids … they’d hear me coming in, so there’s one or all of them running towards you – daddy, daddy, daddy – and I’m safe again. I used to believe that they never saw that look of panic – of completely debilitating fear – just before I hid it.
(looks up, nods slightly with frightened eyes and adds, sotto voce)
You know? That terror?

It’s alright. I understand. Try to relax. Do you think you understand what it all means?

I don’t know. I’ve read that when we dream, all the characters represent us. The heroes, the villains, the character actors and cameo roles. I wasn’t really afraid that she would hurt them physically, but I knew that she was crippling them emotionally every day. And I was letting her do it. I could only parent so much. At some point, I had to go to work, to travel, and she could do a lot of damage during those times. Well-intentioned people say, “Why didn’t you do something”? What could I do? Kill her? Take them and run? I don’t buy that those parents have good intentions and “do it for the kids.” I think they’re usually mad because they lost a battle to someone they now hate. When people say that Life’s not fair, this is what they mean. There are some things that can’t be fixed. All you can do is wait. And hope that time can heal instead of poisoning you. I don’t have those visions anymore, thank God. That part of me is all gone.

– two –

The psychiatrist is alone now. He begins dictating notes, starting with the date, time, the patient’s name. But as he begins, another man – his boss at the hospital – enters the room.

How is he?

As he always is. Intelligent. Fascinating to talk to, really. He still avoids the topic of divorce, and even when I push him, for the most part, he sounds like an angry, but fairly reasonable, man.

Still in denial?

Completely. He talks about the murder as if it never happened, even condemns violence in similar situations.

What do you think would happen if you showed him the newspapers from when it happened?

My best guess is that he would see someone else in place of himself. Even if we pushed him to acknowledge the crime, he wouldn’t see himself as the killer. He’d fabricate a surrogate. Maybe the key is in a broader investigation of the phenomena. We learn what drives this in general and work towards the specifics of this case.

You can’t forget the comments, can you?

It is one fascinating element of the Internet age … immediate feedback from the public on these things.

But you said some of them are pranksters, right? What did you call them? Ogres?

Trolls. They make the most inflammatory posts possible, just to set people off. And probably some of these posts are from trolls. But not all of them. Some must be from genuinely angry men. My expectation was that because he had crossed the line to such an extreme, his support would evaporate, but the comments noted their admiration for how he was “finally standing up” and “refusing to be disrespected.” Tragic as it was, no single crime could frighten me the way those comments did.

What if it’s just a vocal, angry minority?

It’s not.

– three –

Now we see the psychiatrist getting into his car in the hospital parking lot. Before he buckles his seatbelt, he opens a leather briefcase and puts his latest dictation into an envelope marked “For the Police.” He’s always tried to finish every case, every project … or at least leave it in some kind of order, and he sees no reason to change that now. Especially now, with so much uncertainty. The police might kill him. He might kill himself. Once one decided to strike out into this undiscovered country, the future got very fuzzy.

He opens the glove compartment and checks the pistol there. Loaded. Ready. He knows their children will be with his in-laws at this time of day. And he knows she’ll be at work.

He is, if nothing else, methodical.

– four –

Two men are seated in a comfortable room. If we didn’t know that it’s a psychiatrist’s office, we might think they are old friends from college.

I had to stop her. She was poisoning my children, and I’d tried every legal method. Everyone said I had to do something. And I agreed. So much of life is calculation. Don’t you find?

How so?

Every choice is a rejection of every other choice available. Risk-reward ratio. Cumulative distribution. Probability. We’re given so many options. How can one be more moral than any other?

Some don’t hurt other people. Some even help – help others and yourself. You know that most people find that satisfying.

Not me. Not anymore. But I remember that man I used to be. He’s far away now.

Far away?

Yes. The primary feeling is one of distance, remoteness. When I left the hospital that day, driving to kill her, I drove past a green lawn covered with beautiful yellow leaves from a ginkgo tree. We had one in our yard when I was a child, and I’d play in huge piles of those yellow leaves every fall. I drove by in slow motion, and it was like remembering someone I once knew but had forgotten. I knew that boy.

I knew him well … a boy who took pleasure in those things, some type of quiet, but deep, satisfaction. But on that day, and now, on this one, they’re just yellow leaves on a green lawn. Like the memory of a photograph. The recognition of beauty without any emotional content.

I’ve left all that far, far behind.

Whitney

Download PDF

Whitney
by John Carter

Note: All poem excerpts are from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Greek and Latin are from the introduction to “The WasteLand” and translate as follows:

“For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle,
and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want’?
She replied, ‘I want to die’.”

 

APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Her name was Whitney. A timid girl, homely, I suppose. But a lot of that came from being poor. She dressed in near rags, tattered hand-me-downs that screamed “uncool.” A cheap pair of big, thick glasses sat astride her face. And even they were damaged, with gray duct tape on the right side. She hid her crooked teeth by never smiling.

Her lunch, when she had one, was brought in an old paper bag that was as rumpled as her clothes, faded from days of being carried to school and home again. These inadvertent faux pas made her a magnet for the teasing of the popular kids, who made fun of her poverty and plainness by calling her “homemade” and “sack lunch.”

I didn’t participate. I was the adolescent version of Sweden in 1939, safe in my neutrality, never guilty of anything more than lacking the courage to take a stand and help her. Afraid to put my own popularity at risk by the simple act of trying to be her friend, even though I now believe that she might have been a good friend if I had given her that chance.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Whitney sat in front of me in Ms. Williams’ class, both of us right by the windows. The day I remember most clearly was one of those beautiful Spring days in central Georgia, the middle of April. We had been allowed to open up the windows while we were given some quiet time to finish reading two T.S. Eliot poems and write a brief essay on each. I finished early and sat watching a ladybug inside the window screen, navigating her escape. At first, she crawled back and forth with so much energy and determination, I felt myself cheering her on. But as she failed to find her way out, I could see the weight of futility start to wear her down. The little legs slowed, and she took more frequent rest breaks. I noticed a small rip in the screen that offered escape, but the ladybug couldn’t seem to find it.

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

I remember the moment when I realized Whitney was watching me … and the ladybug. Time slowed, and I could see every detail of the ladybug’s bright wings. The slight breeze through the open window was thick and slow as molasses, and the warm sun glinted off the left lens of Whitney’s glasses, illuminating a small crack that I had not noticed before. I sat still as a stone, a spectator in this dance of life and death, a moment pregnant with potential. I could feel our futures stretching out before us, pulling us toward some resolution that we could not yet divine. And I could see Whitney’s destiny. College was not even a dream for her, nor happiness. She would be trapped, too, in some trailer park, caring for her parents, and later, an abusive husband.

In that instant, my young mind seized upon the certainty that we do not seek happiness in this life, but consistency. We turn again and again towards that which we know. All Whitney had ever known was poverty, torment and sadness. And no one would save her from their comfortable, if weathered, embrace.

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere,
et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.

Just as the ladybug seemed about to give up, to lie down and die. Whitney touched the edge of the screen’s tear with the end of her pencil, pulling it open just enough. The ladybug saw her chance, and she crawled to the outside of the screen. She seemed to flex her wings a few times in a tiny victory dance. Then … zip, she was gone.

Whitney looked at me with sad eyes behind those big thick glasses. She pulled her pencil out, let the tear close, and turned back around.

At that moment, I saw Whitney for the first time. A pretty young girl, really, with a kind, wistful smile. She could only dream of cheerleading and sports, dates to the prom and valentines that never came. Trapped in a sad life of desperate poverty and the most cruel teasing, she was still kind enough to take a minute to conspire in the escape of the bright and the beautiful.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

That moment was over 50 years ago. I am an old man now, and most of those who loved me and were loved by me are gone. But I think of Whitney often and wish I had shown her the same kindness that I saw from her in that moment a lifetime ago. I hope she found her way to fly to a life away from all the sadness that I never had the courage to help her face.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.