'Tis the season of choice and commerce. In the wake of a new wave of voter supression and the rise of women of color in the House, what home grown paradigm shifts are you cooking up to make this season bright?
Art by B Von Hoene
Wagner A. Horta
It was a dark night in town. The tall, stygian towers of the skyscrapers seemed to reach up into the sky and cage me between its alleys, its streets and its sharp, distressing lights. No stars shone in the firmament, a sea of deepest black. I’d always loved to live in this place, but for some reason tonight I felt like the entire city had become a hunting ground, and I was the favored prey. Sure, things had gotten bad before - but never like this. I’d been here for five terrorist attacks, two suspected pandemics and one bomb threat in the mall across my house, but tonight, for no particular reason other than the shadows that rose from sewer grates and alleyways to strangle my heart, I well and truly felt like the city had become a nightmare in which I was trapped. Every one of the few poor devils still sharing the sidewalk with me was a suspected boogeyman, and every wandering mutt a hellish bloodhound out to get me. Every unseen street corner was an ambush, and every light post wasn’t the reassuring sentinel it should be, but a small island of relative safety amidst an endless fog of relentless uncertainty.
What was causing me to feel so uneasy? What is it that had put me in such a state of disarray, my mind filled with broken thoughts and the reassuring warmth of my soul nowhere to be found? As I walked dazedly down that twisted, zig-zagging road, I noticed a few small patches of pretty white flowers scattered here and there by the sidewalk, an old effort by the city to break up the dreariness of urban concrete. They had six petals of the purest white, circling around a golden center. Even at night the flowers still shone with the light cast by the streetlamps - small and doomed bastions of purity in that blasted maze of concrete and steel. Once but no longer, seeing them along the streets gave me comfort and made me smile at the fact that at least someone had tried to make the city a little prettier, a little brighter. That was many years ago.
Back then, the world made sense. Men and women were good, and their intentions clear. Children laughed and played, and we played with them. Our leaders were men who knew what they were doing, our soldiers protectors of peace and warriors for honor. Priests spoke of faith and we believed them, looking forward to a life we knew laid beyond the one we lived now. Around us were the fruits of the labor of many generations, hard-earned spoils in our battles for progress and harmony, our unflinching march towards the stars. And yet now...all of that had begun to fade away into the distance. No, now it wasn’t about peace, or harmony, or honor and much, much less faith - that sad lie we once clung to. Now it was about power, and the men who held it. A city was no longer a hub of freedom and progress, it was a prison. A dark, gargantuan labyrinth turned into a communal padded cell for the madpeople living inside it. Here and there some still resisted, remnants of the flickering flame of sanity in a mad age - but those too were fleeting, and those too the darkness would swallow. Back then, it made sense to try to make the world more beautiful. Now, why bother?
The winding path I was in, many years ago, had been given the name of St. Jude’s Street. That the patron of lost causes was also the namesake of the road I walked wasn’t lost on me. I knew all too well what a lost cause was: a fool who once had a head full of dreams and saw them shattered by a hard, uncaring world. Too weak to try again, too deluded to try believing anything else. I was a lost cause. Everyone elseI knew was a lost cause too, even if they wouldn’t admit it to themselves. Hell, the entire world was a lost cause at this point, a horde of failed dreamers doomed from the start. And the sad thing of it is, considering our sins, we are probably only getting what we deserve.
At some point between the start of the last century and now, mankind lost its sanity. We looked into the mirror, and the ravaging wraiths of our own uncertainties and failings looked back at us, smiling. On that moment we broke, I think. All that was certain went down the drain - faith, honor, laughter and peace becoming only bitter memories. When we were forced to look upon our own fragmented visage, broken by the weight of our contradictions and darkness, the dream that we aspired to shattered into a thousand pieces. Our centuries of progress had been made only upon a legion of slaves, the bedrock of a secret Babylon we didn’t even know to live in. The light of reason and faith that we had thought would lead us to the stars turned out to be only the false reflection of a cosmos too vast to care and too benighted to to be truly understood. We saw our best hopes for the century be reduced to broken fiends and faded stars, destroyed by the impossible weight of existence. Our every noblest aspiration was lost amidst a sea of broken dreams and shards of evil deeds. What was left for us was our slow, inextricable march towards oblivion, towards the maw of the abyss. Just like me, our entire species was a lost soul walking down a road made for them - leading nowhere.
Where is hope? Where is faith, in these dark times? What is there that is worth to be believed in? When our kings are tyrants bent on forging their dystopias; when our soldiers are killers without honor; when faith turns out to be a lie and reason leads nowhere; when children are as bad as we are, then what is it that we can cling to? Was anything ever worth believing in?
These dark thoughts raced through my mind as I walked down the winding road, descending deeper and deeper into the urban Hades I called home. The sidewalk under my feet was of dark gray and cracked concrete, littered with paper and rubbish. The white, shining flowers still growing from this or that crack in the concrete were a mad last stand by nature against the implacable enemy of the reality we had created - a reality that had no place for color, only the familiar greyness of our own apathy. To take a stand, as they were, was an exercise in futility. The weight of our own sins was bound to bring all down sooner or later. We were all lost.
Suddenly, from an alley lodged quietly between one house and the next, a little girl stepped into the sidewalk I was walking on. She was very short, reaching only up to my waist - and I’m not a tall man. She wore a faded pink dress and had a single, tiny white flower held up on her left ear - one she had probably just picked up on her way down the lane. I thought she was going to ask me for money, or try to reach into the pockets of my coat. Yet no, what she did was extend her outstretched small, delicate hand, full of small, delicate fingers, and handed me a small square of black leather.
“This is your wallet, mister.” She said. “You let it drop at the corner with 5th. I tried to reach you to give it back, but you were just walking so fast that I had to run through the alleyway just to catch up.”
I took a dazed second to look at the girl. Her eyes were of the purest whitish-blue I had ever seen, two big clear sapphires on her small round face. Golden hair curled around her head and almost down to her shoulders. She was wearing some old, hardened sandals and - most unbelievable of all - she was smiling at me, her mouth full with pearly white teeth (save for one which still hadn’t grown back). She had absolutely no reason to trust such a dishevelled fellow as I, and yet, against all reason, she was smiling at me.
I smiled back and, oddly enough, in that moment my head seemed to clear.
Suddenly there was no darkness in the world, no evil. There was just a little girl who gave me back my wallet when she didn’t have to. A small gesture, but one to me of endless significance. One person was still willing to do good without being forced to and against the cruel logic I was beholden to, and that strikes deeper than a thousand redeeming words.
Maybe there was hope for this world after all, and some good yet left in it too - thus making it worth fighting for. Our dreams may often be broken, but the quest to make them a reality is not truly lost until we stop believing in them. And maybe, if enough people believe, we can put their pieces back together and bring the world back from the brink of the abyss - through hope, through faith we may yet see that there is Truth behind them.
This is a hard world we live in. But it is worth fighting for, and though there at times seems to be precious little beauty in it, our struggle may yet reveal much that was hidden and carve something fine out of its hardness. Now and then, darkness must well and truly rule the land. Only then can we make a choice to either fall into that darkness or hold on to good at the last and most critical time, the very act that’ll allow us to pull ourselves up from the brink and repair the world we broke.
I thanked the little girl and handed her a twenty - the only thing of worth in that wallet. I walked her home, quite a few houses up the road, and said my merry goodbye. When I walked down that same road again, the only thing I could think of were the flowers - those silent, comforting watchers on my way back home. They heralded the path back to my house, and towards a new dawn that was yet distant - but sure to come.
My name is Wagner A. Horta, I'm currently a third-year student at Lake Forest College, a small institution in Illinois. I heard about the Stay Project recently and was very interested with the proposal you guys espouse. So much so, in fact, that I thought it would be a good fit for a text I wrote recently, which deals with some of the troubles our world has been going through and what I think would be necessary for us to turn the tide back towards the light.
From the artist:
Attached is an untitled collage for consideration in The Stay Project. Thanks for taking the time to look at my work, which has increasingly focused on scrutinizing my own male whiteness. How do I respond to white cis-male patriarchy in the US? How is my imagination a privileged space—or is it? Should I stop making and writing? Claudia Rankine said, “That what white artists might do is not imaginatively inhabit the other because that is their right as artists, but instead embody and examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power…” In making these collages, I made a conscious attempt to try and address Ms. Rankine’s suggestion by examining the invasion of whiteness into spaces.
Doug O'Connor’s prose and poetry have appeared in Paper Darts, decomP magazinE, Ayris, Quarter After Eight, The Tusculum Review, and others. Doug earned his M.F.A. from the New Hampshire Institute of Art. His story, "Understanding the Family Language," made the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2017 list.