When I was younger than I am now, I was a traveler: a woman with short calves and bones too close to the soles of my feet. In my country, we all are, for a time. We are sent out with joy in our adolescence, and our parents hope we return with respect, calluses, and perhaps a child of our own, or someone to make one with. Perhaps one in ten does not return. Much to my parents’ dismay, I am one of these.
The rules are thus: you must go until not a single person knows your name, and you may only return once you have obtained one of their songs, one of their meals, and one of their hearts.
We do this for many reasons: to bring back new ideas with which we can improve ourselves, to experience new climes and vistas, to grow, to adventure. But what no one tells the children, and yet we all go forth to learn, is that the real reason we do it is so we will appreciate the place we came from, so we will feel gratitude for our homeland. Usually, this works. And usually, this is why we return.
I set off to the West in my eighteenth year, towards the mountains. It is a path few take. I was one of four in my year, but I had always wished to see snow. It was my grandmother’s path in her day, and she spoke often of it. We are allowed to speak only of the road, and the things we bring back, and nothing else. Now I know why.
The path was beautiful, and cold, and for the first time I learned the weakness of my body, learned that the air and breath itself was a privilege. I was glad for my companions and their warmth, but once we reached the other side, we parted ways, for we knew each other’s names.
I passed the first country I came to without a glance. I feared it was too close to home. I wanted to be like my grandmother and be the one of my year to bring back the strangest song, but by the time I reached the second country, my back was a ball of pain, and I feared if I did not stop, I would never sing again, so dry and empty was my throat from the weeks of silence and disuse. And so, I entered.
At the border, I was met with endless questions:
“Where are you from?”
“What is your business here?”
“Do you believe everyone deserves a good life?
“Should we all work together?”
“How long do you wish to stay?”
The only one I did not know the answer to was the last, and when I said so, my interrogators frowned, and exited the room. I was alone for a very long time, perhaps longer than a day, and my stomach gnawed at me and my eyes grew weary, my head jerking suddenly up in repetition though I never remembered bowing it. In the end, they returned and said I could stay, so long as I worked and could ensure that my body followed my mind’s values. I was given the keys to a small apartment, already stocked with pre-made meals that only needed to be unpacked and then warmed or hydrated as the case may have been. I was also given a work schedule and a map. It was a comfortable enough place, though the faucet leaked and the toilet often clogged, but I was in no position to complain about their hospitality.
In the morning I rose and set off for my work as it was marked on the map. The morning mist there was not like that of my homeland but was instead an acrid fog. As I approached the spot it grew more dense, until I was almost swimming in it, and I found myself coughing, like I had in the mountain when my lungs grew tired. I was led to a line of workers and assigned to feed parts into a machine which assembled metal vehicles.
The other workers spoke without speaking, reciting lines. The beginning of each day would go like this:
Someone would say, “Hello comrade!” or “Good morning comrade!”
And their fellow would respond in turn. Only for the first fellow to say, “Are you ready for the day?” and the response was always, “Always ready!” The tones were jovial, and the words merry, but the undercurrents and silences were made of naught but weariness.
No one ever greeted me. Instead, they looked at me with suspicion whenever they thought I wasn’t looking back.
At the end of the first day, a woman about my age whispered to me in the pretense of picking a shard of metal from my hair, “They are watching you.”
As if I hadn’t noticed.
Days passed and were much the same. Already I had been gone three months from my family and my homeland, all journeying, and it would take me that long to return home again. Most of us return within a year, and if not a year, then two. If we do not return after three, then that is usually the end of things. Yet I had learned no songs, and no meals, and I had not even come close to touching a heart, let alone stealing one, for no one ever wanted to open their homes or their lives to me. We subsisted and produced, but otherwise there was so little of everything my country prized.
In my fourth week in that country, the girl who touched my hair on the first day told me her name was Mara, and invited me for a drink at her home. I accepted. Her apartment was a mirror image of mine, falling apart in small places, but the pantry was full of the same stock of carefully designed meals as mine was. The only difference in her home at all was the plethora of alcohol, stocked neatly in a row above her icebox. She poured me a generous glass.
I had had liquor before, but never so much, and had never even seen so much in one place. Her cheeks had the barest flush to them, but nonetheless, she was steady, and so I took a sip, taking care not to grimace.
“Thank you,” I said, graciously, “for this, and for welcoming me to your home.”
But she had none of my niceties. Instead, all she remarked was, “You know they won’t let you leave. No one leaves.”
I didn’t understand at the time. I had never thought that perhaps some of us didn’t return because we couldn’t, so used as I was to my country’s relative peace and openness of borders. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“How do you stand it? How do you stand being here?” she responded, pouring herself a glass and drinking quickly.
Truthfully, I had never thought about it. I was there to learn, to grow, and to become an adult who could bring things to my people. So, I pondered a moment, thinking. Life was not so bad there, although the work was hard and the clocks the work ran on were harder. I saw little of the country besides my own apartment and the factory, and so I had little to base my assessment on. I had enough—a roof over my head, food in my belly. It was a life, albeit a life in grayscale. And so I told her this.
She drank again, when I had finished, and barked, “For you this is a vacation. It’s different when there’s no end in sight. You just haven’t realized that there isn’t an end for you either.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly worried. Suddenly beginning to think of my elders who had not returned.
“Everyone here watches you. Yes?”
“Because we are all taught to. Because evil cannot thrive under a watchful gaze. We must be vigilant against evil. It is the enemy. Just as those who let it in are.”
“What does that have to do with leaving?” I asked.
“If you leave, you will not be from here anymore. You will not honor here. Will not produce or contribute to what happens here. And places that are not here, well, they do things differently. We aren’t supposed to know this, but we do, because of people like you, when we are allowed to get close. I shouldn’t be approaching you this soon. If people knew, they would talk. They would suspect. But I need to leave this place. I need you to take me with you, back to your country.”
It seemed as though I had stolen a heart after all, without noticing, without trying. Still, a heart alone was not enough. I explained my people’s customs to her.
“You need to provide things from other places or you can’t return?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” I responded. “It’s how our culture grows. It is how we learn to love home.”
“I see,” she said. “I could give you a song then, too. We have songs. Just none we’re allowed to sing out loud. I could teach you on the road.”
“And what of a meal, something traditional? Perhaps something your mother made you on special holidays?”
She shook her head. “We have always been fed according to prescribed nutritional requirements. We make nothing ourselves. We have no means to do so.” Then, she paused for a moment. “But it was not always like this. Not my mother, but perhaps one of the grandparents or great-grandparents may remember something. I’ll see what knowledge I can dredge up.” She pours another cup and downs it. “Leave now. Come again tomorrow, and you can tell me more of your country. We can make plans.”
She fumbled as she closed the door behind me.
Despite her words, she was not at work the next morning, or the day after, or the day after that. Nor could I gain admittance to her building when I came to call. I asked one of our comrades about her, only once, and was answered with frightened, buggy eyes. After that, I went home and ate my food, and drank like she drank, and decided it was time to leave. I had learned enough to know I would not get what I needed here.
In the wee hours of morning, I stole through the streets- empty save for the smoke that billowed from the factories. Thirty paces out, the dogs began barking, and heavy steps pounded behind me, followed by a pattering of something that whooshed past me with great force. I scrambled over the metal gate, the twisted toppers sharp and wicked, slicing my leg, opening it to let the blood trickle out. But on the other side it all stopped. They could not interfere, could not dare to open their gates lest in bringing me back they let something else out.
Down the road, I found Mara’s body, stiff and white. On her arm she had scrawled in the dirt, “that was our song,” and in my mind I heard again the guttural barks, the whooshing particles, the slow whisper of blood trickling down my leg, and I shuddered, hoping I would find something else to replace that melody before it was time to return home. I buried her and upon the burial mound I placed little white stones that spelled out those last words, and then set off on the road again.
The road felt like home, if only a little, but it was not a place where I could find what I needed, and so I went on to the next country. The next land I came to had many footsteps leading away in many different directions, and so I felt safe entering. When I came to the border they asked no questions, save if I was willing to do my civic duty and help to shape their nation. I said of course, not really knowing what they meant, but still, they grunted and let me through. They left me not with a home, or food, or purpose, but instead with a set of blocks they said I would need—one was marked “yes” and the other “no.”
That night, I laid my head down to rest on a soft patch of grass in a nearby park, determined to find friends and work the very next day, for Mara’s face and my own hunger both gnawed at me. It seemed that no sooner had I fallen asleep than I was awakened again by the sound of bells and people walking past where I lay sleeping, moving in a crowd together towards the square in the middle of the park. I roused myself then and followed them.
A man ascended to a lectern, cleverly carved into the side of the bell tower, and spoke. “I bring forward a motion for us, the citizenry of Mahory. My boy was injured yesterday.” He gestured to a young boy, perhaps nine or ten, who stood at the side of the stage, looking shamed. Perhaps that was the point. “Roughhousing. The boy will not listen to me, but perhaps he will listen to you. Here, we ban fighting between adults, and I ask you, why does this not apply to children? We can prevent these injuries, train good citizens, if we and our enforcers are able to stop this sort of behavior as it happens. If you are with me and wish to standardize the law and ban fighting and roughhousing amongst our children, I implore you, vote in the affirmative!”
At this, the crowd clapped politely and set to deliberation over their tiles, before forming a queue to head up the bell tower. The child off to the side wept quietly. I looked at my tiles, unknowing which to drop into the box. It all seemed too simplistic, too heavy a measure, especially when I thought back to my own childhood and how we would learn our own strength through wrestling with others. I thought of the injuries I had: scrapes and bruises, a sprain. I remembered how some of my comrades had broken things too, but I also thought of how all our scars told stories of a joyful youth. After many long minutes, I joined the queue and put my “no” tile in the box. A person stood there and directed me to place my other, unused tile into a firepit, before giving me a new set, with the same inscriptions but in a new color.
The next day a poster went up. “All playfighting and roughhousing, even amongst children, is now banned. Please report any incidences to a local enforcer.” I frowned but took little note of the poster or those that appeared to linger in a stack beneath it. I had found a job in a local bakery, having applied at all the food institutions first in the hope that I might gain one of their recipes. For now, I was only a dishwasher and cleaner, but more would come in time, I was sure.
I settled in. The work paid decently enough, and I could support myself and try to obtain what I needed to return home. Every few days the bells would ring and we would go to the square and cast our votes. Usually it was small matters: whether houses could be painted blue, if shops should be closed one day a week, if an annual parade should be implemented. Sometimes though, they weren’t.
One day, a woman came to the stage to plead for medicine for her grandson, for all children. He was very sick, and frequent visits to the physicker and apothecary were beyond her means, for she was elderly and arthritic and could no longer work.
“Where are his parents?” the crowd whispered. “Should it not be their responsibility? I can’t afford to pay anymore than what I already do. The enforcers are expensive.”
Nonetheless, we queued, and while I voted in the affirmative, her motion did not pass. They did not tell us how close it came. They never did. The majority was all that mattered.
Then, after my shifts, I spent the days wandering the city looking for the grandmother. Eventually I found her in a small shack near the river. The smell and the damp could not have been good for either her or the boy, let alone for the others who dwelled in that slum—and there were more than I would have thought. Still, they were few enough in number, and enough of them were children that I supposed they could largely be ignored when the bells rang and the counting happened.
I knocked on her door, which almost fell over when I did. She opened it, tentatively, and did not introduce herself. So I introduced myself.
“Hello, my name’s Amiana,” I said. “I saw you in the square the other day. I want to help you and your grandson if you’ll let me.”
“And what of your life and the lives of your children?” she scoffed. “I couldn’t imagine imposing such an expense on you.” Her words were sharp, her face grim, her mouth tight.
“I have no children,” I responded. “I’m a traveler, only here to learn what I can for a time before I return home. I have no needs beyond a place to lay my head and food to eat. I have brought you all I’ve made that goes beyond this.” I held out a modest bag of coins to her. I knew it wasn’t much, not even as much as my apartment for the month, but it was something.
She looked at me suspiciously.
“I will bring more when I can,” I added.
She took the bag and opened it. She seemed surprised to find that it was indeed full of coins. “Thank you,” she said, “but we may not be here when you return. We get shuffled about, here at the wharfs.”
The boy coughed from inside the shack behind her, and I could feel the damp and mold settling into my own lungs, though I had not been there long. And so, I did what I could—I offered to share my home with them, small and inadequate as it was for two people and a sickly little boy. She begrudgingly accepted.
We carried him home together, and he coughed as though his lungs were made of cheesecloth, though it got better as we left the damp. Sometimes, compassion is as good enough a cure as any.
We lived in comfort, despite the lack of space. I learned the grandmother’s name was Elaine, and the boy, Jared. She taught me how to make an herbal soup for him that eased his troubles, and we were able to afford a doctor’s visit and a little medicine besides. All would have been well.
Then the rent was due, and when I went to pay it, the landlord complained of the boy’s coughing, and said the apartment was only safe for at most two people, and that I was violating a code. She told me that I had to make them leave. I paid my dues and begged another month to find someplace that could accommodate us all, but I could not afford anything adequate on my salary, not now with three mouths to feed.
I told Elaine nothing, for Jared would see the worry on her face, and he was only just now starting to be well. Instead, I went to the clerk’s office and turned in my voting chits for the day, as it was my turn to ring the bells, get up at the lectern, and make my case. I told my story to the populous: how I wanted to share my home and make it safe for those who could not afford a home of their own. I pleaded that surely it was safer to have an overcrowded home than none at all, but then my time was over, and it was time for them to cast their votes. I held my breath the whole time and only let it go when the results were reported to me. When they were, and I let it out, it was like a gut-punch, the “no.”
So I returned to my home, and all Elaine said was, “I’ve started packing up our things.”
But my mind was already made up. I had Mara’s song, sad as it was, and Elaine’s soup, and I was ready to go home. “No,” I said, “come with me, back to my country across the mountains. My people will welcome you and your boy. You can leave all of this behind. You will have shelter, and food, and medicine.”
She placed her hands on me then with such tenderness, tenderness that I had only ever seen her show to Jared when he was in the worst of his fits. She looked into my eyes and said, “I would not make the journey, and I do not think you could carry him alone.”
Her words stung me, but I knew that they were right. It was a foolish, hopeful thought, but still, I needed to do something. So I announced, “Then I will sleep outside for now and work until I can afford a place with room for all of us. Perhaps come spring we can find someone to help us make the journey.” She nodded sadly, and in time I came to know why. Our future together was not to be.
I slept comfortably outside as I had on the road, and the woman always made sure I had company and a hot meal in the evenings. But then the bells were rung once again. This time, it was a petition to keep vagrants from public lands like the parks and the wharf, and unlike my request for mercy, this law was passed, and so I had to go.
I left Elaine and her grandson with all the savings I had—perhaps enough to keep her and Jared through the winter, and I promised to write. Then I set off once again, looking for a heart and love that I could bring home once and for all.
When I came to the next country, it seemed that they had already found winter, so white was the ground around their borders. But when I drew closer, I saw it wasn’t snow but ash, strewn between two great walls with miles between. What I had thought was one snowy country with walls around it was in fact two nations with desolation between. I approached the nation on the left because I saw great towers above the wall. In the tops of them were fountains, and I watched many marvels as I approached: towers of confections, singing children who sometimes flew, and dancing. So much dancing. There were also great light shows above the wall as at night, and all of the people’s garments were works of art. Surely, it was a place in which love blossomed. I wondered at the second country, off to the right, and the ash, but largely put it from my mind.
Soon, I came across a great line of people—women with children tucked under their coats, children with no one at all, men battered and missing pieces, all with haunted eyes and ashy skin, as though they couldn’t muster up the will to brush it away. I followed the line until a man decked in the garments of the land came along the line of those that waited, slumped against the wall.
He came to me and asked for my name.
“Amiana,” I answered.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Bramalea, beyond the mountains.”
“That’s a relief,” he said.
I puzzled at that but knew better than to ask questions at borders.
“What’s your business here?” he asked.
“Travel, culture,” I responded.
He scrutinized me, but only for a moment. Then said, “Come with me.”
So I did, and he led me past all those who lingered, and as he led me closer to the front of the line, and the middle of the wall where the gate was, the people who waited grew more sickly, and there were less children and more tears.
“Why are these people still waiting?” I asked finally.
“We don’t want them. We leave them here to return to their homes.”
At this, an old man shouted, “We have no homes! Our homes are death!” And I thought then of the falling ash and the other wall far across the field, the one with no marvels above the reach of its wall.
I talked to the guard then. “I saw your splendor from beyond. Surely you can spare some shelter, some room, a little food for those here who wait? Surely they wouldn’t endure this ash and the oncoming of winter if they didn’t have need. Surely—”
The guard cut me off before I could say more. “If we spared, then we would not have what we do. We would not be who we are. You came here because something where you are from was lacking. Should we also be like other places? Poor, violent, morally corrupt? Now, come if you will. Bramaleans are welcome here—you are not so bad as some, but if you wish to dally further I must shut the gate.”
I thought then of what I could learn, what I could bring home, what secrets and wonders there were beyond the gate. I thought of the luxury that I could linger in, so different from the places I had been before. But it would only be different for me, not different for those who would wait forever outside of the wall. They would be like Mara, like Elaine, and I had had too much of that. “I’m sorry, but I cannot come,” I said.
“As you will,” he responded, and closed the gate behind him.
“Idiot,” grumbled a teenager, perhaps two years younger than I. She would almost be ready to set out on her own travels.
So I turned to her, and asked, “Why do you wait here, if they will not let you in?”
She shrugged and looked around before waving me over to her and responding in hushed tones, “Some make it over the wall. Few, but enough. Sometimes we scrounge enough to bribe passage for one or two of our number. Children are easier.”
Walls to keep people in, walls to keep people out, invisible walls, and yet all of them the same kind of poison. I boiled. “Why not go elsewhere?” I asked. “There’s a whole world of countries.”
“Our families are here, or near. We have no food, and many of us are sick or ill, but the kindest within the walls toss food, medicine, and toys over the side from time to time. We survive.”
I wanted to take them all home with me then, back to Bramalea, back with Elaine, and Jared, and poor dead Mara. But even I did not know if Bramalea’s tolerance would extend to all these hearts. The world had led me to doubt, and Elaine had taught me the mountains were not an easy obstacle to overcome. I did not know if Bramalea, with its rules of talking of other places, short of what those places gave to us, could be a place for these people who had left so much behind.
Since I could not take them with me, I stayed with them. We huddled together through the winter, watching the ash fall along with the snow when it was time, leaking tears of joy when baskets fell from the sky. I always took my share last. I taught them a kinder version of Mara’s song, and one from my mother, and they shared theirs as well. When we had enough of the ingredients, I made Elaine’s soup, and it soothed their souls as it had Jared’s cough.
In the spring, I started a whisper and a hunting band. I asked what skills they all had and told them stories of all the lands between the countries and all the time I had spent travelling in no place in particular. Their elders took up these stories and added tales of their own from a time before either wall was built.
We moved slowly away from that place, away from the walls, and when there were none in sight, we stayed and did not build our own. We built fences only to keep in animals. We built houses but no guns or factories or elections. We cared for each other like family, like we were still huddled outside the wall. People came from other places in time, and Jared and Elaine were brought to this new city we built. She was laid to rest in our fields, and it was not the journey that killed her.
They have all stolen my heart, and so I can never go home. Still, Bramalea succeeded. I have learned to appreciate the country I come from. I have built something not in its image but its shadow. I hope that we do not have to send our children away to learn the same, and I hope that we do not need to steal from other places to become better than we are. Perhaps our city too will one day fail: find its own toxic rigours, alienate its own citizens with rules that are too rigid to fit around all the peoples’ love and need. But that day is not today. And I know that if that day comes, our home will not be lost, it will simply emerge somewhere new, made of all the good things the people bring there: their love, their food, their stories, and most of all, their hope that something better can always be built.
© 2023 Lynne Sargent