Jon Davis is the author of six chapbooks and three full-length collections of poetry: Preliminary Report, Scrimmage of Appetite, for which he was honored with a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry, and Dangerous Amusements: Poems, for which he received the Peter I.B. Lavan Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Recent projects include two limited edition chapbooks, Thelonious Sphere and Loving Horses, and a limited edition art book in collaboration with the artist Jamison Chas Banks, Heteronymy: An Anthology (La Nana Creek Press, forthcoming 2015). Dayplaces, which Davis translated from the Arabic with the author, Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan, is forthcoming from Tebot Bach Press in 2015. Davis’s short stories have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Versal, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and the anthology Flash Fiction Funny. He is director of the low residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abigail’s Defiance

posted Feb 17, 2015

It’s true what you’ve heard. I live in The Village of Happy People. Hearing this, if you are like most people, you are immediately suspicious. We who live in The Village, as we like to call it, are used to this. When we travel, as we rarely do, outside the picket fences and dirt roads of our village, we are often met with incredulous looks. “The Village of Happy People,” the outsiders repeat when we tell them where we are from. “I’ve heard of it,” they say, “but I thought it was a joke, a myth, something somebody made up to sell something.” When we go on to tell them about The Village, how we spend our days arranging flowers and listening to Mozart, painting along the roadsides, shopping for fruits and vegetables and coming home with a single baguette sticking out of our bags like the flag of a peaceful, neutral nation, they scoff.

Our mayor counsels us to keep our origins secret. She believes the world is full of naysayers and pessimists, and that the outsiders will never understand our happiness. They will always look for an explanation. They will insist that we are merely in denial, that our village’s happiness is based on ignoring some dark secret about human nature, about our own history. But no, our happiness is based on the Universal Code of Happiness, a code we each adopt into our hearts when we turn eighteen. We adopt it willingly, knowing there are other choices, knowing we could walk into the paved and overlighted world beyond the edge of town and never return. We, each of us, come before The Board and weigh our choices there. And The Board is quite generous and understanding. Some take a full year to decide, coming again and again to The Board with their questions, their worries, their deepest concerns. And our wisest, happiest villagers sit on that board. Such serenity one can witness there! Such calm even in the face of the most troubled eighteen year old! Villagers are invited to attend the Board’s discussions and many do. They bring a baguette to chew or a glass of spring water. Whole families attend the Deliberations, for it is good to reinforce our commitments by listening to the concerns of those considering adopting the Universal Code.

So, you may ask, what is The Universal Code of Happiness? And hearing you ask this question, I suddenly wish I could take you into the tunnel below our town where The Code is kept. I wish you could light the torches at each side of the glass case and lift the glass and touch those pages as each of us villagers do once a year when it is time to renew our vows. I wish you could run your finger along the words as we do, reinscribing those phrases in our hearts. For I am certain you would be amazed at the wisdom of our ancestors. I am sure you would fall to your knees as we often do, and weep for the beauty, the simple beauty, of those words. And you would want to come and live among us, to enjoy the peace and happiness among our lilacs and roses, our parks and gardens. You would want to slip into the seat of one of our paddle boats and pedal yourself around the pond on a summer evening while the thrushes call from the deep woods and the dragonflies alight on the pond lilies and arrowheads, and, on the distant shore, some young man strums a guitar and sings a love song to his beloved.

Alas, I cannot allow that. It is forbidden for anyone not born here to read those words. We have few rules, but that is one. Were I to take you there, I would be banished forever. It is a risk I cannot take. For happiness is a kind of drug. And once one tastes it, breathes it in, one wants more, though it is a delicate wanting, a wanting like wanting to hear Mozart again. There is a lightness to this wanting, and that is one of the secrets of The Village and of The Code. This desire we feel--for a life without desire, the wise ones say, is a life not worth living—is more like a light breeze or the wake of a paddle boat slapping lightly at the dock. It is, most of all, a civilized thing, this desire. Not the hurricane of wanting we see when we travel outside. For we desire merely the next page, not the entire book at once. But I have said too much already. And you want a story.

My story begins many years ago at The Board’s weekly Deliberations. This was in the time of the Great Turning, when most of the young people who came before the Board were turning against The Code. This was also, not coincidentally, the Age of the New Lights, when the horizon to the west of our village was suddenly flooded with bright and brightly colored lights that shone all night long. The New Lights were hypnotic at first, and drew the young ones away. There was great concern among the villagers and among the board members about the plight of the young ones, but, as I have said, we have few rules and are loathe to institute rules for we learned long ago that one cannot enforce happiness. Happiness is a choice, and not all will make that choice, for it requires a certain self-regulation and an ability to gauge long-term consequences and to see that the imaginary contract implied by acceptance of The Code benefits everyone. Although we villagers are not normally given to judgment, during the Age of the New Lights, the Board’s concern caused some rather un-Boardlike behavior. My particular story concerns a young woman named Abigail.

Abigail Newfound was among the youth who were visiting the Lights almost every night. At midnight, she would slip out of her house on the eastern edge of The Village and quietly, like a moonshadow, wend her way through the homes and dirt roads until she reached the western edge. Witnesses who came before the Board during our village’s one and only Inquisition say she would pause and totter there, like a girl who had suddenly found herself on an unforeseen cliff’s edge on an otherwise pleasant forest walk. One could see the lights playing across her face like bright sunlight on a rippling lake in that moment before she’d close her eyes and take the fateful step beyond the bounds of The Village. Once outside, her walk would change, witnesses said, until her hips swung freely and her shoulders were loose and she’d fling her head back, shaking her blonde hair free.

All we had finally were the villagers’ accounts of Abigail’s exploits. Rumors circulate freely in The Village; they are a way of keeping us aligned with The Way of Happiness. The rumors about Abigail were like the rumors about the other young people during those times when we’d wake to gather flowers for the morning table and discover a denim-clad sixteen year old boy or girl sprawled in the garden, mouth open, breathing the roughened breath of the drunken or drugged. In such cases, we’d step lightly around the bodies, cutting the mums, clipping the dead flowers, brushing the Japanese beetles off the peonies into the mesh bag that the Gardening Bureau gathered each Friday to carry across into the U Zone, the name we gave for that place where the unhappy dwelled. But though we had a name for that place, we never, in any of our public pronouncements, judged the inhabitants for their choices. We understood that among them were some of our own children--banished forever from The Village, it’s true, for practical reasons--who had seen some . . . glimmer in that land of monstrous desires. A glimmer that drew them away.

But Abigail was a special case. We all thought Abigail was certain to accept The Code. Although gambling is discouraged officially, many of us will wager lightly on such a sure thing as Abigail’s future, and so I was among those who placed a small sum naming Abigail’s birthday, October 31st, as the date of her acceptance of The Code and the Way of Happiness. Many bet that she’d need to return once or twice; nobody was willing to wager that she would leave The Village. You see, Abigail was the daughter of our mayor and her husband, the librarian. Annika and Lars Newfound were the happiest people in a very happy town. Each year, on February 1st, they led the Happiness Parade; she in a dignified pantsuit and he, because he was the unofficial jester of the town, in some costume taken from the books that he loved more than anything, except, of course, his daughter, Abigail. And Abigail seemed like a model citizen of The Village of Happy People. At school, she played sports and was acclaimed by all of her teachers as the brightest, happiest, and most studious young woman they had ever taught. She volunteered at Bright Acres, singing the songs she wrote for the old people there, and delivering the residents here or there in the modified golf cart they kept for that purpose. Abigail also had a boyfriend, Charles Lightfoot, captain of the chess club and class president. Everything seemed secure and peaceful and, yes. happy. But, as I said, this was in the Time of the Great Turning, the Age of the New Lights. What happened next surprised everyone.

In those days, The Deliberations were held in the central garden. The board members would seat themselves in the gazebo and the young people who were considering The Code sat in the grass in a half circle facing The Board. Behind these candidates for citizenship, the rest of the townsfolk spread blankets and picnic baskets, excitedly waiting to hear The Code of Happiness celebrated and affirmed once again. The meetings took place at dusk, and the fragrance of roses and peonies would grow stronger as the moist evening breeze picked up, curling along the ground like a tongue of wind. The mourning doves would call from the low elm branches, and the robins would make their roosting chirps and trills. The meetings were timed to coincide with the full moon. This particular night, the flowers were in full bloom and the moon had never shown more brightly. I remember in particular the way it caught Abigail’s hair and the side of her face when she stood to address The Board.

“Abigail Newfound,” said Gerald Storch, the Chairman of the Board at that time. “You may address The Board.”

“Sirs and Madams,” Abigail began, very formally as she was captain of the debating team at school and well trained. “As you all know, I want very badly to accept The Way and The Code. I was raised to believe in happiness, and I have seen that happiness at work in my own family.” She turned at this point to acknowledge her mother and father who occupied the blanket next to mine. “But I have been reading some books, books about the outside, the U Zone, and, in those books, which are full of great joy and romance and love, there also seems to be great misery. These books make me wonder if, perhaps, this thing we call happiness is, I don’t know, something else. For their happiness--those people in the books--seems most powerful and lasting when they have returned from great agony. It’s not about flowers on the table and pretty music floating through the room. It’s not.” She turned pensive. “Not at all.” She paused as if she had not come to the end of her story, but couldn’t find the words for the rest. A murmur passed among the other young people; some flashed knowing smiles at the others. Then Abigail concluded her speech, her hands fluttering gracefully in the air beside her face. “So, I’m . . . just . . . confused, I guess.”

A visitor might expect The Board to address such concerns directly, to set her straight about happiness in philosophical or scientific terms, but those of us familiar with the wisdom of The Board knew that they would not answer her question. We knew they would instead pose a greater, less answerable question. And so they did. Or rather, Board Member Storch did.

“Which is happier?” he asked the young Abigail. “The hand or the glove?” To which Abigail stood and replied, “Why the hand, sir. Of course.”

“And which is happier,” Mr. Storch continued, “the bird that flies from the perch or the perch itself?”

Less certain, Abigail looked at her fellow youths, who met her inquisitive look with blank stares. After a long silence, she straightened and said, “The bird?”

“I want you to think about these questions,” Board Member Storch said, “and return to me next full moon with the answers.”

As there were no further questions that evening, we were treated to an accordion concert and magic show by Lars Newfound. He played beautiful love songs that, were one not already happy and fulfilled, might make one long to travel to exotic lands and fall in love. We all felt this like a tiny tremor in our hearts, a feeling like the first bright tang of blue cheese on the tongue. But, as I‘ve told you, our desires, while full and rich, are without the dire intensity that overwhelms those in the U Zone. In this way, our response to life is much like the outsiders’ response to art. You may wonder how I know this. As a youth, before I accepted The Code, I visited the cities in the U Zone. I was particularly interested in art, as many of The Village’s citizens spend their days along the roadsides, capturing with their brushwork our glorious vistas. In my youthful rebelliousness, I scoffed at those paintings because they seemed mere copies of the landscape and, as I told The Board one night, Why do we need copies of the landscape when we can go view the real thing at any moment?

So when I slipped outside The Village that first time, I went straight to the museum. Oddly, it was not the art, much of which seemed coarse and angry and, yes, unhappy, that intrigued me. It was the way the outsiders moved through the museum. I saw one man stand before a painting, a simple portrait of a ballerina, for a half hour. At one point he clasped his hands as if in prayer. He seemed so clearly moved, I thought he’d never move on, but then he did. He lifted his little satchel and moved to the next painting, a dark cityscape, and now seemed full of a morbidity where there was a brightness. Now I thought he would die before moving on, but he simply lifted the satchel, slid over and entered another world and became another person. I learned almost nothing useful about painting on that trip, but much about happiness, about desire and happiness.

Lars Newfound’s accordion music was a perfect complement to the moon and the fragrance of flowers. We didn’t want it to end, but when it did, we let our desire for more accordion music go quickly and found the magic tricks equally entrancing, especially when he invited Abigail on stage and kept finding doves everywhere—in her hair scarf, under her armpit, even in one of her shoes, which she handed to him in full view of the audience and which, of course, her foot had been the sole occupant of not seconds before. We applauded heartily, we people of The Code, as the doves wheeled above us, white doves in the white moonlight, circling and circling.

At the Tea House the next day, the talk was mostly about Abigail’s question and Board Member Storch’s mysterious response. No one questioned his wisdom. No one wondered what the correct answers to those questions were, if indeed there were answers at all. For we understood that happiness is a great mystery, where it comes from, where it goes. But we were concerned for Abigail, who seemed tempted by sadness and misery and anger and great passion. These were all emotions we knew a little about, though we also knew to look too directly upon them was always a danger. Occasionally even a person of The Code would be drawn down the Path of Passion. For this reason, The Code teaches us a set of procedures to stave off great passions. Were I able to show you The Code, you would see how useful, how sensible, these procedures are. But Abigail had not yet seen The Code. Abigail, we all understood, would need to make her own way, strengthened by the example of her parents’ happiness.

Some of us, though, expressed grave concern about Abigail’s reading habits. We have never banned books, for we understand that one cannot enforce happiness, so the library was full of the great classics and many famously unhappy tales. Few of us ever read those books. I, myself, entertained a brief interest as a teenager in those books, but when I took, for example, Anna Karenina from the shelves, thinking I might read it, I saw the blank card at the back, the card I would have to sign, and lost my nerve. Abigail, my friends reported at the Tea House, had no such fear. Her name was now signed to hundreds of books about, as near as we could tell from the dustcovers, passion and love and and adultery and murder—in short, unhappiness of every variety. And so we worried.

The month after Abigail’s bold question was a month of shocking turmoil. It’s still, even now, years later, unclear which of the events were Abigail’s doing, though the villagers were quick to blame everything on her. Still, it was the Time of the Turning. To some of us, the villagers’ willingness to attribute every late night howl, every act of defiance, to Abigail seemed unfair. But I’ll let you judge for yourselves.

Less than a week after Abigail’s Defiance, as it has come to be called, someone scrawled a painted slogan on Board Member Storch’s stucco house. “Happiness,” it read, “is a warm gun.” Now, of course, we know that this is a quote from a musician from the U Zone. Then, however, we were extremely alarmed. Whoever painted this slogan broke no rule, of course, since we have few rules, and certainly we never anticipated needing a rule concerning painted slogans. Nevertheless, we thought something should be done to address the situation.

But nothing was done. Instead, talk in town turned to the meaning of the slogan. Some believed that the gun was warm because it had just been fired; other, more cheerful souls, thought the gun may have been left out in the sun on a summer day. Either way, we all wondered how it could be that happiness could be a warm gun. A warm gun, no matter how it became warm, we reasoned, is used to kill things. What sort of person would equate happiness with killing? Was the speaker made happy by the warmth of the gun? Or did happiness somehow kill people? When we latched onto this last question, people began leaving, though whether because it was an idea they refused to entertain or one that was too painful or too absurd in its implications is hard to say. Board Member Storch, who was fond of conundrums, waited until everyone had left the square to speak up. We were alone when he finally addressed me.

“You’ve spent some time in the U Zone,” he said. “What do you think the slogan means?”

“I think it is spoken by someone who likes to fire guns,” I said. “The fact that he has just fired it makes him happy.”

“But what if it’s not,” Board Member Storch said. “What if there’s something about happiness that damages people? The way a gun can kill or maim someone? What if that’s what the slogan writer was trying to say?”

“I’d say that was an interesting idea, but not a true one,” I said. “I’d say the slogan writer’s reach exceeded her, or his, grasp. That she was too concerned with her own cleverness.”

Then Board Member Storch did something that was a sign of the chaos that was to come. He furrowed his brow—I’d never seen him do that—and muttered to himself, “How is this possible, that happiness could damage people?”

He walked off then, absorbed, obsessed you might say, with the slogan and its implications.

Things had taken a strange turn, but there were still stranger turns to come.

After that encounter with the slogan, Board Member Storch’s grasp on happiness became like a loose tarp, staked, but not adequately, flapping noisily in the wind. And Abigail, or someone else, continued to loosen those stakes, whether intentionally or not, until the unexpected, shocking event happened.

We all secretly awaited the full moon and the next Board Meeting at which we expected Board Member Storch to further enlighten Abigail about the wisdom of The Code. But a lot can happen in a month, and that month was the longest, most eventful on record.

In the days after the slogan appeared on Board Member Storch’s house, there were rumblings about a band of young people who were wandering the streets arm in arm late at night, singing and laughing. This was unprecedented in the history of The Village. Certainly we knew of the young’s rebellious behavior in the U Zone. Some of us had engaged in such behavior. But no one had dared return to The Village with their revels upon them. The silence always seemed too sacred, even to those who would eventually challenge or reject The Code. But now, late at night, the young people could be seen stumbling down the streets, could be heard singing. “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar,” they half sang, half-shouted. “Oh, don’t ask why. Oh, don’t ask why.” But we did ask why. And we looked around at our community, at our beloved gardens, our music-filled houses, our parks and tea houses, and were filled with incomprehension. Or, rather, a mixture of incomprehension and . . . doubt. For we are a fair people, empathetic to a fault, and so we inadvertently began to feel the young people’s confusion. This empathy led, for some of us, to an agonizing reappraisal, a secret reappraisal at first that gradually began to show on our faces, in the furrowing of brows, in the narrowing of eyes, in a quick, questioning glance at a villager too caught up, say, in the care of his roses or one whose love song seemed a little too sentimental, a little too unrealistic. Nobody was more caught up in this inadvertent reappraisal than Board Member Storch. Always the wisest, fairest, most open Board Member, it was natural for Storch to be moved by the young. So he took an interest in Abigail’s plight. At first, he simply kept one eye on her whenever she appeared in the Tea House with her stack of books. Occasionally, he’d ask about her current reading, and Abigail would answer politely and thoroughly. Sometimes too thoroughly for the others gathered at the Tea House. But Storch would listen intently, withholding judgment, as was his way, to the most sordid tales of loneliness and adultery, of suicide and murder, and, to be fair, great tenderness and passion and love. We would not know for a month what was happening in Board Member Storch’s heart, but it began there, I’m sure, on those mornings when Abigail would read a passage that particularly moved her, and Board Member Storch would listen and, it seems now, in retrospect, be similarly moved.

The sole witness to the midnight paddle boat races, Board Member Storch chose not to intervene and instead stood on the shore and watched the teenagers untether the boats—all ten of them—and race to the middle of the pond, where they tossed water on each other and rammed the boats together, shouting, cursing, and giggling drunkenly. One can even imagine, now that we know the extent of his sympathy for Abigail and her friends, Storch smiling at the reckless revelry in the midnight pond. In the morning, the boats were everywhere—grounded in the marsh, adrift in the middle of the pond, overturned in the tall grass.

Board Member Storch led the group of villagers who gathered them together, cleaned and repaired and repainted them. Villagers who helped out later reported an odd smile on Storch’s face, a sort of wonder and admiration at the odd locations, the awkward positions the boats had achieved—as if he’d been surveying the aftermath of some natural disaster, a hurricane or tornado, and not the results of some childish prank. And Storch’s half-smile came to mark his face when he heard the other reports—of the erratic high speed bicycling in the night, the loud music coming from the gazebo until dawn, the naked swimmers in the pond. But even as he smiled at the teens’ antics, Storch himself seemed to grow less happy. Rumors of discontent between he and his wife began circulating. When Abigail was absent from the tea house, he seemed sullen and sat alone. Several nights, he was seen sitting alone in the gazebo late at night.

Nobody knows who did it, how it happened, and whether it was a harmless prank or something more sinister, but in the week before the full moon and the monthly board meeting, Allie Shackley entered the tunnel to renew her vows to The Code. This was not unusual, though many had noted the increased activity in the tunnels as the events in town threatened to become unmanageable. But when Shackley emerged from the tunnel she was shaken. Word spread through The Village that something was amiss. Board Member Storch called an emergency board meeting for that evening. But even before the meeting, word spread that someone had removed The Code from the reliquary. This news caused a near-panic among some of the villagers.

At the emergency meeting, Board Member Storch held aloft the book that was put in The Code’s place, a book called Steppenwolf by a man named Herman Hesse. As evidence of the subversive nature of the act, Storch read from the page that the book had been opened to: “It is just this contentment that I cannot endure. After a short time it fills me with irrepressible hatred and nausea. In desperation I have to escape, and throw myself on the road to pleasure, or, if that cannot be, the road to pain. When I have neither pleasure not pain and have been breathing for a while the lukewarm insipid air of these so-called good and tolerable days, I feel so bad in my childish soul that I smash my moldering lyre of thanksgiving in the face of the slumbering god of contentment and would rather feel the very devil burn within me than this warmth of a well-heated room. A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal, and sterile life … For what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism.”

Storch, like most of us in The Village, was not a judgmental man. And, while he seemed visibly upset about the desecration of The Code, he did not scoff at the words he read. He read them dispassionately, the way one might read an account of how to assemble a porch swing. But like others of us who debated The Code as teens, Storch no doubt heard his own youthful objections echoed in the words of Herman Hesse. Contentment, healthiness, comfort. Above all, optimism. These were the pillars upon which the great thinkers, the founders, had built The Code. And they had proven themselves adequate. But contentment is not bliss, and the bliss seekers, as we have seen, are rarely content.

In the half-moon’s thin gruel of light, Board Member Storch finished reading and held the book aloft, so that we could all gaze at the cover, it’s title carved there in ornate lettering. “This book,” Storch said, “was checked out from The Village’s library three weeks ago by Abigail Newfound.”

Everyone turned then to gaze upon Lars and Annika Newfound.

“Perhaps,” Storch continued, “Lars and the honorable Mayor, you might entreat Abigail to return The Code, if indeed she is responsible for this . . . what shall we call it? For this youthful prank.” Storch paused. “And tell her,” he said, for he always believed it best to leaven even the most grave moments with humor, “tell her the Board voted unanimously to waive any fines associated with the late return of her book.” And we chuckled as a group and were reminded of The Code’s various injunctions to laughter, how humor unites us, how laughter is a kind of assent to The Code, a reaffirmation. For a moment, all was well, our optimism restored, but some of us noticed that, as everyone turned to chat and exchange greetings after the meeting, Storch brooded alone, flipping the pages of the book as if the secret to our troubles could be found there.

In the final week before the monthly Deliberations, the shocking news spread quickly: Board Member Storch was seen crossing into the U Zone in the company of Abigail Newfound. Allie Shackley, who had been unable to sleep soundly since discovering the missing Code, was the first to report the news to the regulars at the Tea House. When I arrived, she had already gathered a sizeable group of Villagers to her table.

“He was trailing that Abigail Newfound girl like a shelter puppy hoping to be adopted,” she was saying. “For her part, she was ignoring him, walking arm-in-arm with two friends, laughing and chatting, going on about some foolishness that had happened in the U Zone.”

All this was said with a mild scolding tone, a kind of signal or wave we would all send out to Board Member Storch, as if the collective scolding would bring him home, draw him in like some mysterious magnet, calling him to The Way and The Code. We sent out our signal and we waited. That was our manner.

People die, of course, in The Village. Others slip away into the U Zone. And we mourn these losses proportionately, with a fatalistic reserve, dabbing our eyes and blowing our noses lightly when the minister delivers the eulogy or a family member recalls some anecdote the point of which is the absent villager’s great happiness and contentment. We expect the contentment in the afterlife to be a continuation, almost indistinguishable, of the contentment we feel in The Village, and we understand the role fate plays in our lives. So, when we walk off afterward in our loose groups, it is not in sadness but in a growing commitment to happiness, a renewed commitment to joy, a faith, if you will, in goodness, though we practice no particular faith and worship no particular god, for particularity, The Code reminds us, is one source of contention and contention is an assault on the Vault of Happiness. But here I have entered dangerous territory. I have said too much about The Code.

On the morning of the full moon, the day of the Board Meeting, we Villagers took our customary walks or set up our easels in the park or paddled our boats gently on the dawn-flattened lake. There was a tremor of excitement, it’s true; one could feel it at the Tea House when we regulars gathered there. Oh, some were weary of the month’s events, worried lest the balance that seemed suddenly fragile would be upset further by the night’s meeting. But all of us secretly enjoyed, if that’s not too strong a word, the shift from our usual talk about the weather or a particularly well-limned watercolor or the exploits of this or that young chess player. Some of us speculated out loud what Abigail’s next move might be or what new happiness koan Board Member Storch would pose. Little did we know what awaited us that gorgeous, moonlit night. We all arrived to a lovely romantic accordion song that most said was French in origin. Lars Newfound was wandering among the crowd with his accordion, playing and smiling at each of us as he passed. On the gazebo, the Board had begun to assemble. The moon, huge where it sat on the eastern horizon, threw shadows of the gazebo railings onto the grass where the young had gathered. The boys there were pulling clumps of grass and tossing them at the girls. Some tried to stuff the cool, damp grass down the backs of the girls’ shirts as the girls wriggled to get free. As the time passed for the start of the meeting, the murmur began. Both Board Member Storch and Abigail Newfound were absent.

The Board opened the floor for questions and challenges, but the young people assembled that night just looked at each other and shrugged. After a long silence, Board Member Shackley cleared her throat. “Has anyone . . . seen Board Member Storch? Is Board Member Storch here?” She shaded her eyes and gazed out at us Villagers scattered on our blankets. Luckily for all of us, the silence was filled with the sounds of capering children and katydids creaking. Eventually, though, the children tired and the katydids slowed and Lars Newfound played us another song.

Days later, some Villagers would claim they’d seen Storch and Abigail step out from beneath the cherry trees, the full moon bright on their faces for just an instant. Storch reportedly was scruffy, unshaven, collar up and loose in his stance. Everyone who saw her says Abigail was beautiful in her furious defiance, caught in the chiaroscuro, her face carved by moonlight and shadow into a pale marble cameo. For no reason that anyone can name, nobody called attention to them, and they slipped back into the darkness and were never seen in The Village again.

The inquisition that followed was inconclusive, unremarkable. We are nonjudgmental people, we Villagers. A few clamored to know the truth, so halfhearted testimony was heard about the graffiti and the missing Code, but nobody had seen anything conclusive, and we were mostly treated to the various rumors we’d already heard. When Storch’s wife found the original Code while cleaning out his office, the Inquisition was disbanded. We understood—or thought we did—what had happened.

*

Happiness is not a warm gun or a cold gun. Happiness is not a gun at all. And if Board Member Storch somehow lost his way, if happiness is a tarp, and his tarp became unstaked, and if he was drawn away, if those nights in the tunnel, poring over The Code again and again, somehow did not reignite his faith in The Code and The Way, that is not an indictment of The Code, but a comment on Board Member Storch’s own tenuous grasp of the enlightenment that The Code promises. That he was wise is incontrovertible, but his wisdom was the wisdom, finally, of the head and not the heart. His faith was shakable because it heard the thin arguments of reason, the insurgency of the well-made argument, but we Keepers of The Code and Lovers of the Way know that the heart’s reasons are unassailable. Our hearts are locked up, sealed against reason and rational argument. And our desires are like the lapping of waves from the paddle boats against a dock on a sunny day in The Village of Happy People. And so our lives continue and the lives of our children, those, anyway, who choose The Code of Happiness.

Sometimes we think of Abigail. When we see a bright child slip out of the library, a thick tome in her hand, a book about passion or the miseries and pleasures in the city of lights. And we remember Abigail’s Defiance and feel the dazzle of her presence. And we see her aglow with something beyond happiness, but like all things aglow, she burned brightly and faded suddenly, as the image of her does even now in our minds, in our hearts. Abigail may have been right about happiness, but she was wrong about us, the citizens of The Village of Happy People, Keepers of The Code, Lovers of The Way.

And Storch? Rumor has it that he and Abigail became good friends, traveling companions, seekers of knowledge in the U Zone. Eventually, so the stories say, she moved on, deeper into the Zone, following a boy who made an art of spray painting bridges and abandoned buildings. Storch took up the guitar again, just as he had as a young man in The Village. Villagers who have heard his songs say they are beautiful—heartbreaking, but beautiful. A beauty, in other words, we can live without.

And, now, you will be the first to know this: I, myself, saw Storch a year ago. He was lurking on the edge of The Village. Who knows why? He wore sunglasses. His hair was long and loose. His battered guitar was slung across his back like a weapon. I almost did not recognize him.

When he stepped across into the Village and I hugged him, he was jittery, wired. Holding him was like holding lightning in my arms.