I wrote this story for my creative writing class last fall. It was a little outside of my usual writing style, but I enjoyed writing it. So, I present to you, this dystopian allegory “Lanterns”.
Day or night, the City was always alive. Never silent, never still. A long stream of hunched people snaked away from the factory gates. Smog filled the air above the factory section, obscuring a bright moon.
Diamond had never seen the towers so closely before. The sleek towers rose above the smog layer, home to the people who could see far enough to rule. They built the factories and paid the workers. And they built the roads across the river.
Afraid to be caught staring, he ducked his head.
The column shuffled to the side to let another pass. Workers for the factory. The next shift. Their thin coats were buttoned to their chins, and they studied the cobblestones beneath their feet.
Diamond stamped his boots impatiently and rubbed his cold hands together. He winced as he traced the bandage on one palm. His work had given him a cut ready to turn into a scar.
The column lurched forward again. Buildings hunched along the streets, their narrow windows glowing orange from the furnaces within. The ashy, sharp smell of industry faded as they broke out of the maze of streets.
Outside the gaslit factory section, the cold air tore at the workers. Water from the swollen riverbanks seeped into their shoes. They straightened slightly at the soft light that met their eyes. The lights here came from lanterns, set in niches along the wall.
“Almost ‘ome, aren’t we?” a raspy voice ventured.
“Yeauh,” another answered.
Diamond looked back at the towers. Their lights were far away now, and he shook off the oppressive feeling he had known all day. It was new to him. Just like the factory job and the itchy sweater he was wearing.
He glanced at the others, still plodding in a line. They weren’t waiting for work or food or pay. No wardens had organized them; it was all they knew to do. They passed the first niche in the stone walls that held the river back from the bridge. Lantern light glowed on the tired, sooty faces.
Diamond stepped out of line and broke into a run. The cool air felt good on his cheeks, and he lifted his face to the moon. He passed another lantern before he slowed to catch his breath.
“Not tired, that one,” an old man in two coats remarked.
A young man glared at the sky from under his hat. “Give him a few more days at the factory, and he’ll walk like the rest of us.”
Diamond shuddered inwardly at their words. Between the wardens and the towers, he already felt tired when he worked. It was a temptation to let the work slide like others did. They all got paid the same no matter. He shoved his hands into his pockets.
The wind was picking up, and the column began to hurry a little. A few anxious faces tore themselves from the path to look at the sky. Diamond ran again. Mother was waiting for him with listening ears and hot soup. Perhaps she had something to soothe his cut.
He stopped running once he was alone, but his thoughts caught up with him. They demanded he sort them out. “I don’t like the wardens, but no one does. They watch too closely like they think we want to make a mistake.”
Diamond kicked a loose stone. “My work’s all right,” he told himself. He pressed on his bandage to relieve some of the pain. “It wasn’t a bad first day.”
A gust of wind slammed into him from behind, and he stumbled forward. He sat down slowly, leaning his back against the wall and holding on to his shaking knees. He blinked. The lanterns had flickered out.
The river rushed on the other side of the wall, and the stones were cold through his sweater. Diamond shut his eyes. It was no darker than if he had been sleeping. There was nothing to fear. He just had to think. A muffled sob broke the stillness, and he realized it was his.
His eyes sprang open. Maybe the moon would guide him home. Only a sliver peeking out from behind the cloud, just enough to prove he hadn’t gone blind. He took a cautious step forward. Then another. Two more before he hurried into a walk.
A loose pebble turned under his heel, and he fell to his knees. The tears were back again. Silent but desperate. They ran down his cheeks and slid off his chin. “Help me, please. I can’t get home.”
Diamond reached out to touch the cold stone wall. “Help me.”
The wind whipped at him, stirring his hair with its freezing blast. He shivered and shoved his hands into his pockets. Pulling himself to his feet, he felt a small something shift in his pocket. A match! His fingers closed around it. What was it doing in his pocket?
He reached his bandaged hand out to the wall and slid his fingers along it, taking hesitant steps. The eerie quiet amplified the pounding of his heart. It skipped a beat when his hand touched nothing but empty air. A niche. With trembling fingers, he drew the match out of his pocket and struck it on his boot. The end burst into flame with a sizzle.
He looked at the rusty, steel lantern, puzzled. It was already open. He shrugged and lit the wick. A gust of cold wind rushed down the road, and he shoved himself against the niche to shield the lantern. It died down in moments, and he ventured to look at the lantern. The flame still shone bright.
Diamond shut the lantern and took it by the handle. The soft light illumined the road around him. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I can go home.”
The way before him was bright, but he ventured a glance behind him. So much swallowing blackness. Diamond’s heart sank when he remembered the column of people. He looked toward the light and back to the blackness. So many were lost just like he had been.
He turned his feet away from home and broke into a run. The precious lantern swung by his side. He heard a gasp and a shout as he rounded a bend in the road.
“Where did you get a light?”
“May we borrow it?”
The voices scrambled over each other. Faces questioned and pleaded in the flicker of his lantern.
Diamond caught his breath. “We must walk together.” He helped lift an old woman to her feet. “The light is meant to be shared.”
He shone his light on hunched workers staring listlessly at the silver thread of moon. More stepped into the light. The old man with two coats let a tired mother lean on his arm. A few others carried children, and they all followed Diamond down the cold stone road.
“Who is it?” A harsh voice spoke when the light seeped up the shadows. A young man leaned against the wall, snarling. His hat was pulled down tight over his ears. “Wardens? Come to take us to the endless halls. Bad workers we’ve been, eh?”
“No, it is only Diamond and the others,” he spoke out. “I have brought a light.”
The man’s laugh mocked. “A light, eh? How long will that burn?” The man gestured to the empty lantern in the niche near him. “Something or someone put out all the others.”
“I found a match in my pocket. A gift, I don’t know how. The others weren’t closed against the wind before, but I made sure mine is,” Diamond explained.
One of the workers spoke from behind him. “Tary, does it matter? He has a light. Come with us.”
Tary shook his head. “Follow the kid, fools. I’m staying here. I enjoy the darkness anyway.”
“Let us light your lantern then,” Diamond pleaded. He reached forward, but Tary pushed his arm away violently.
“I said that I enjoy the darkness,” he hissed.
Diamond could feel the workers behind him tense. He sighed and turned away. There was nothing he could do. Still, he couldn’t believe someone would refuse this gift. Not after the terror of waiting in the dark.
The group grew larger than the circle of light, and they lit another lantern from its blaze.
Diamond turned. “Do we have everyone?”
“Everyone but Tary.” The words were low and dismal.
“Where’s Byona?” the old woman asked.
He found himself surprised that they knew each other’s names. “We’ll find Byona and then we’ll turn toward home,” he decided.
They found the girl near the entrance to the road. The tower lights glittered like eyes, and she shivered in their gaze. The old woman hobbled over to her.
“Byona, Diamond has brought us light.” She let go of her cane and laid a withered hand on the girl’s shoulder.
Byona brushed strands of hair out of her eyes. They were large in the glow of the lantern. She fixed them on Diamond but spoke to the woman. “He has?”
Diamond nodded. “It is for everyone who will follow it. A gift.”
The girl smiled and stood up. She put her arm around the old woman’s shoulders, and they melted into the group.
“Now we go home,” Diamond whispered. His words hung on the air as the clouds parted to show the moon.
The people were no longer a column when they reached their quarters. They were a huddled mass of humanity, sharing the gift they had found. Joy and gratitude formed into words. Neighbors called a hearty goodnight by name.
Diamond was alone again when he trudged down the street to his row. He climbed the steps to his flat. Leaving the lantern on the steps, he looked out into the night.
“Thank you for the gift.”
Copyright 2018 Kate Willis