Would you believe me if I told you that they all live together in a house by the sea?
It would only be fair, if they did.
They can’t live in the City, of course. Can you imagine? You’d be walking somewhere, maybe proceeding past the parks and public buildings, perhaps accompanied by a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, perhaps on your way to an orgy or a debate or to watch television, and you’d see one of them, and you’d know (of course you’d know, not that there would be anything different, not anything you could point to specifically, there’d just be something, that look—maybe it’s their shoulders?—that look that people have when they’ve spent their childhood locked in the basement for the sake of a utopia). And once you’d seen one of them, of course you’d spend the whole day thinking about it. You’d think about that one awful field trip you took as a child, seeing them locked in a basement, mewling and promising futilely to be good, and you’d spend the whole rest of the day feeling unreasonable and guilty and ashamed. You would get no joy out of the orgies, or the parades, or the philosophy, or the remarkably good television.
And would that be joyous? Would it be the happy city we live in, the happy life we enjoy?
No. Obviously, they can’t live in the City.
So, if you’ll believe me, they live together in a house by the sea.
It’s not a big house—it’s not a mansion—but it’s big enough for all of them to live in comfortably. Everyone gets their own room, and there are enough bathrooms even if some of them are touchy about sharing (some of them are touchy about sharing). They have a library and a living room and a television that doesn’t get all the channels. Outside, there is a garden, and a little trail down the cliffs to the beach.
Do you believe it? Does it seem unreasonable? It wouldn’t be too much to ask—don’t you think?—for them to have a house to themselves with a garden and a library and a television that doesn’t get all the channels.
What did you think happened to that child in the basement? What did you think happened when that child grew up?
Would it help if I told you there are a surprising lot of them living there, in the house by the sea? If you think about it, there must be. It has to be a child, crying alone in the basement that no one talks about. A baby crying in a basement is just a baby crying. An adult crying in a basement probably did something to deserve it (not that there are any prisons in the City, of course, but still).
There is, in fact, a very narrow range of suitable ages. Three-year-olds are much too young, and by twelve, honestly, how innocent could they be? Four through ten is just about right. Right now, in the house by the sea, there are nine of them, each separated by more or less seven years. The youngest is fourteen years old, the next twenty-two years old, then twenty-seven years old, and so on. The oldest is in her sixties.
Once a day an old woman comes out to tidy up, cook a meal, and stock the freezer with burritos in case someone gets hungry in the middle of the night. It isn’t her job, of course. In the City, no one has a job, except the sort of job that is meaningful and personally fulfilling, like medicine or writing novels. Still, she comes out from the City every day. Who can say why? She is an immigrant; she has her own story.
Each of them has their own routine. One of them wakes up before anyone else, walks the little trail down the cliffs to the beach, and dives into the cold gray morning ocean, alone and without fear. Another one gardens. One is writing his fourth novel. He still finishes them, revises them, sends them off, and every publishing house in the City returns them unread. Two more spend their days in the library, reading the encyclopedia out loud to each other. One watches the news. She remembers back before they had a house, and she has strong opinions about municipal politics. She makes every one of them vote, every year.
Some of them just sleep all day. Sometimes, especially when they’ve just arrived, they don’t even leave their rooms. They cry and spit and punch holes in the walls. Most of them come out eventually, but some don’t, and that’s okay. No one bothers them, except sometimes to offer them a burrito.
They don’t leave, although they could. Why would they?
Do you believe it now? Can this really be how they live out their lives, so close to the City that they can hear the bells clamoring and the processions proceeding? Can they really live together, in a house by the sea? No?
Let me tell you this, then. There used to be a doctor—a nice man with a real white doctor’s coat, who still lives in the City—who came out to their house every Wednesday to check up on them, but that didn’t work out, because he kept feeling uncomfortable and trying to euthanize them. So now, whenever one of them gets sick, a woman comes in on the train from Vallcoris. She doesn’t have a doctor’s coat. She just has a sweater. She doesn’t know about the basement, she doesn’t know about anything, not really. She just takes their pulse and asks them to cough, and leaves them with prescriptions, and no one tries to euthanize anyone.
Is that enough to convince you? Is it still too impossible, that they might just live together in their own house and their own time?
Should I tell you, then, about how they die? You see, it used to be, whenever one of them died, some nice people came out from the City to take the body away. But they were so upset—so apologetic and mumbling as they refused to meet anyone’s eyes—that now no one bothers calling the nice people from the City. Instead, they bury their dead in a small plot behind the garden. They get the old shovels out of the shed, pick a spot in the garden, and begin to dig. Each of them digs, some just a shovelful, some working the whole night, sometimes together, sometimes alone. By the next day, the hole is deep enough to be a grave. They don’t say anything. Not one of them needs instructions on how to mourn.
Can you believe me now? Can you believe that they live their lives and die their deaths in some semblance of peace? Can you believe that their lives are more than the basement we locked them in?
Would you like more? What more would you like? Would you rather imagine them suffering, even away from the City, away from the basement, even in their own house by the sea? Would you like to hear about screams, or nightmares, or the new one, beating herself bloody against the walls? Would you like to imagine that the house needs extra mops because, sometimes, even though they hate mops (and all of them hate mops), they can’t sleep through without a mop or two to be terrified of?
Or is that not it? Are you missing something else altogether?
Would you rather hear about marches, political protests, public shaming and human rights laws? Even though we both know that never happened and we both know that it never could happen, would it comfort you, to imagine them fighting back? Would you rather hear that they all walked away from the City and never came back? Or do you prefer to pretend that they might someday return—returning, not like you did when you were fourteen and walked away and then slunk back two weeks later—not in shame, but in anger, with tank columns and cluster bombs and chains of command and theories of legitimate violence?
Believe those things, if it makes you happy. I, though, will believe that they live alone, together, in a house by the sea.
© 2018 by P. H. Lee