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the happy few

A lucky encounter

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 10 Mar 2023



          As the plague still took a large, weekly toll, our city kept pulling in its boundaries.  Many times whole acres of glasshouse facilities had to be piece-by-piece relocated.  The areas given up were burned and then razed to the ground so that no illegal use was made of them.  There were no fences put up, not even any rules forbidding us to wander off.  But it was understood that this was our world and that to leave it meant entering a dangerous and lawless wilderness; a land, we were told, from which there was no return, a land of human beasts, wolves and certain death.

          So I kept to my post while two years rolled by and it might have been forever, had not that fateful meeting occurred at one of our ceremonies.  When my university colleague recognized me and clasped my arm, he didn’t let go.  He was beside himself with joy at finding, as he termed it, "a dear, old friend."

          That very day he procured my transfer and walked me through his "Department of Records," proud to show it off.  That evening he took me to his spacious house, and every evening following, to reminisce about old times and old friends.  We’d talk on the subject for hours, and in a joyful glow, as if we were replaying a favorite movie and enjoying our remarks on all the players and scenes as it rolled.  He had none of that clogging regret that swelled up in my throat as I walked away.

          He’d recently lost his beloved wife and wanted company the few spare hours he was home.  But he was extremely happy and excited about his work.  He was a true convert, with the task of building up a whole records department out of nothing.  In our private meetings he often showed me the techniques and mediums and even some of the special symbols they were developing to perfect their office.  I think that he looked upon my own dejection as merely the result of my unfortunate work assignment over the last two years and hoped that it would soon vanish with the easy tasks he had in mind for me, along with his own contagious good cheer.

          Our get-togethers became less frequent after the first month, after we had fairly talked ourselves out on our memories of youth.  He was also getting over the loss of his spouse, though he never mentioned that.  But he still kept up a sincere, big-hearted liking for me and clapped me on the back whenever we met in the hallways of his bureau.

          He also continued to give me good advice in dealing with my immediate superiors.  He’d take me up to his private office on the top floor of our four-story building and tell all that he had heard about me informally, with pep-talks and hints on how I might improve my standing.  Even his singling me out in the halls gave me an unspoken stature.  I was treated better than the other messengers and excused for my habitual morosity, because my bosses looked for their own promotions to the very same favor I enjoyed.

          My new job involved riding a bicycle back and forth across the city delivering messages, sometimes verbal and sometimes written, and I had ample opportunity to see just what sort of developments were going on.  The whole town was in a frenzy of reconstruction.  Except for the nightly burning of the dead, a ceremony which took place after the twilight service, and a very somber spectacle, the city was in a happy mood.  People everywhere were singing as they worked and working as long as light permitted, almost every day of the year.  In fact days and years had already been abolished, blurred into one unending march towards purity, towards the clean, white light of the universe.

          I was surprised at all this zeal in what I considered a slave state.  The people's efforts and the buildings going up all around were honestly impressive, and my eyes actually ached at the end of each day from all the white facades I stared at.  But I was not drawn into this folly.  I shuddered each night thinking about it, and our lost world.

          Most impressive of all was the temple complex.  It was easy to get lost in its endless corridors.  It covered at least ten square blocks and the plaza before it another ten, of what had recently been downtown Oakland.  It was a fort-like structure four stories high, with its own central square.  It housed all the hundreds of priests and nuns, and their offices and meeting chambers.  A wide, front gate was set beneath a tower, built of large blocks, that stood perhaps nine stories high.  At the top of it was a smaller bell tower with a roof of silver leaf that was continually being polished.  It was by far the tallest structure around and looked across the bay to its one sister tower of the temple in White Sans, two lonely pillars of two cities that had once been a forest of skyscrapers.

          Almost equally tall was the bridge still joined these two administrative units.  But this was all that was left of what had been a sprawling Bay Area.  I would estimate that the population of our city at this time was about a hundred thousand, and that of White Sans the same.  One corner of the island of Alameda was still populated, though shrinking, and our old harbor front was now a vital hub of commerce.  The hills behind us, where my own university once stood, were dotted with glasshouses.

          To the north and south, where Albany and Hayward had been, there was a flat, man made wasteland.  Every structure had been burned and then tumbled.  I drew up to the fringe of this abandoned zone on my bicycle one day.  It was a horrible sea of crushed and charred objects, tangled metal and concrete, like a dump that had been bulldozed.  A wild dog was standing on a low heap not far away and staring at me.  Perhaps he was still waiting for the return of his master, or wondering, like I was, what had become of him.

          In stark contrast to this, everything within our city limits was in the whitest state of repair and usefulness.  While I toiled in a dim kitchen basement, the skyscrapers were all taken down.  The Church didn’t want a single structure left standing that it couldn’t use.  And since the power that drove the elevators had ceased to flow, these looming giants were doubly useless and offensive.

          The hard task of whittling them down was taken on with as much civic pride as had gone into their creation.  Though I didn’t see it, I heard the constant clanging of hammers and dust drifting in through the bars of my window each afternoon.  They were demolished mostly by hand, with saws and acetylene torches, the beams lowered one at a time by ropes.  At first there were trucks and probably cranes in use, but they soon gave way to long lines of wheelbarrow crews winding through the streets, and horse-drawn carts for the heavier loads.

          This lack of power equipment seemed to give our people a glow of health and vigor.  Because of the plague, I think, and to spite it, people had taken a renewed interest in fitness.  The tight-knit formations of lickers jogged through the streets from one assignment to the next with a unity that would have impressed a Roman general of old.  At the competitions groups cheered for their teams and their favorite athletes with an equally Roman gusto, and the winners were talked of for days afterwards and honored by all, like heroes.

          This was the sunny side of the new order.  But the weather was actually a dull gray and I didn’t share in the enthusiasms around me.  It wasn’t just my deep-seated sympathy with the past.  There seemed to be a rebel in me that dwelled upon the one thing it was forbidden.  I’ve sometimes thought that if things had turned out differently, and a new society had sprung up that more than ever doted on the past, I’d probably be the non-conformist crying out for innovation.

          There was no pleasure in this obstinacy though.  It cut me deeply, and made me feel like an outcast, like one robbed of his inheritance by a cheat, with no judge to hear my cause.  I'm sure there were others like me, but I had no way of finding them.  Our feelings had to be carefully masked.  The one thing our religious leaders did fear was our thoughts.  They preached against what they termed "idol worship."  But under this head they persecuted any sign of sympathy with the past, wherever it could be found, in any loose talk or old habit, or secretly preserved relic.

          And the punishment, when they did arrest some unhappy wretch, was swift and merciless.  There was no trial, just interrogation.  If the crime was slight, there was a demotion.  If it were anything more than slight, or twice repeated, there was forced confession and a public burning.

          These burnings were given the name "purification," and were designed for the sick, as well as the guilty.  A procession started every evening at the end of the service.  It set out from the temple square to a steep, little hill plainly visible to us, a few miles north, right by the bay in Emeryville.  Those who were very sick were carried in litters, but most tried to walk, at least through the square, where they were congratulated and cheered by all for their good fortune in receiving the light.

          Even the convicted ones were cheered, not like criminals, and so warm was this sending off that sometimes others, perfectly healthy, joined in the progression to the sacrifice, with an enthusiasm they would never have time to regret.

          A bonfire was lit on top of the hill as night fell, and while we prayed for the souls to be received by the light we watched their "illumination."  A high platform stood above the bonfire.  Here the volunteers were one by one doused in flammable spirits and ignited by a torchbearer, to leap or be shoved into the flames far below.  From where we stood it looked like little spits of fire falling against the dark curtain of the night sky, recalling the falling stars we could no longer see.  We sang songs of celestial reunion all the while, and many of those around me actually looked forward to the hour of their own rendezvous.

          This is what I learned from what I saw and from the talks with my old friend.  He warned me often that I was around watchful eyes, looking for any signs of discontent.  Even the talks we had in his house, he told me, were an indiscretion.  He bid me keep them between us, though he did mentioned that his own stature and connections freed him from the worst rigors of the law.

          I’ll not forget the help he gave me.  I would certainly have perished miserably without it.  I sometimes think of the disappointment he must have felt when I ran away.  But sometimes I surmise that he knew all along, for he knew me well.  Maybe he even facilitated my escape by the long-distance mail service he arranged to me.  I’ve no way of knowing, but I still think about him with fondness.

          I can’t add much more to these annals.  For one thing, I’m out of paper and forced to end this prolix history.  But I'm glad to be done with it too.  It took many years before I began to recover from the shock of these early events, a recovery still not complete.  If I acquire the means I'll go on and finish the rest of my story.  It carries me, though not my fellows, through saner times and years where I remember I was even once and awhile happy to be alive.”

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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