A post-apocalyptic reimagining of Shirley Jacksons, “The Lottery”
The morning of June 27 th, 2215 was clear and sunny with the heavy heat of a summer’s day after the Apocalypse. Hibiscus blossomed profusely, as they grew around office building ruins. Palm trees were richly green. Despite the initial feral chaos after the nuclear bombs, new tribal communities formed. Human nature is to work together-whether it be towards good or evil. Survivors of the village of Los Angeles had found their path. They began to gather in Plummer Park. Between the bombed out community center and gutted playground. Around ten o’clock. In some towns, there were so many people that the Loteria took two days and had to begin on June 2nd. But in the hamlet of Los Angeles, where there were only around three hundred survivors left after the initial nuclear cleansing, the entire affair took less than two hours. It could begin at ten in the morning and finish in time to allow villagers to be home for dinner at noon.
The children with their radiation deformations assembled first, of course. Sporadic tutoring took place over the summer. A feeling of liberty lingered uneasily with the children-as it did with the adults as well, for the bombs destroyed the jobs. The children gathered quietly before they broke into boisterous play. Their talk was full of the nomadic tutor Matias Viegener and CalArts legend-of books, zines and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of twigs and matches. Other boys soon followed his example, selecting the finest and lightest tinder under the fig trees. Bobby, Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-survivors pronounced his name “Delaquwah”-eventually made a large pile of branches in one corner of the playground and guarded it against the raids of other boys. The girls stood aside talking amongst themselves, looking over their shoulders, rolling in overgrown grass or clinging to the hands of their older half-brothers or stepsisters.
Soon the cis men, butches and trans men gathered, surveying their own or shared custody children, speaking of fallen fruit harvests and rain, bicycles and bartering. They stood together-away from the branch pile on the corner. Their jokes were quieter, and they smiled rather than laughed. Hearty wallops on shoulders and handshakes were things of the past on the most serious of days. The enbies, intersex and gender fluid entered next in all-purpose midnight blue smocks. Between male and female-doing the work of both. The cis women, trans women and drag queens, wearing faded pre-empire dresses cut and sewn to new shapes, repurposed for greater practicality, came shortly after their folk. They greeted one another and exchanged gossip as they joined their poly partners. Gender had already become a construct in pre-Apocalypse America. In this Brave New World that the bombs created, all were free to choose which direction on the spectrum would now be theirs. If even for a day. Soon, mothers called to their children, and stepchildren reluctantly followed-needing to be called four or five times. Bobby Martin ducked under his stepmother’s grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of branches. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quick and positioned himself between his father and oldest brother.
The Loteria was conducted-as was the Lithia picnic, Yule caroling and Samhain ritual-by Mr. Summers, who devoted his time and energy to tribal activities. He was a round-faced, jovial man who ran the solar panel business. People felt sorry for him because he had no children, and his second wife was a scold. When he arrived to Plummer Park, carrying the big pink furry box, there were conversational murmurs among the urban tribe, and he waved and called, “little late today, folks.” The carrier pigeon keeper, Mr. Graves, followed him, carrying a milk crate. The milk crate was placed in the center of the park’s nearby parking lot. Mr. Summers set the big pink furry box on top of it. Villagers kept their distance, leaving space between themselves and the milk crate. When Mr. Summers suggested, “Some of you fellows want to give me a hand,” there was hesitation between the two men. Mr. Martin and his oldest son Baxter came forward to hold the box steady on the crate while Mr. Summers stirred up the pre-empire newsprint scraps inside of it.
The Loteria’s original paraphernalia had been lost long ago. The pink box now resting on the milk crate had been put into use even before old man Warner, the oldest man in Los Angeles, had been born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset as much tradition as there was about the big pink furry box. There was a story that the present box had been on the television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”-before the Apocalypse, when television was still around. Now we just watch each other. It’s like reality television. Every sun cycle, after the Loteria, Mr. Summers discussed the possibility of getting a new box, but every sun cycle, the subject again subsided, and nothing was resolved.
The big pink furry box grew shabbier each year. By now, it was no longer solidly pink but faded by the sun. The upholstery was ripped along its side exposing naked wood beneath, and it was stained in certain places.
Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, held the big pink furry box on the milk crate until Mr. Summers stirred the newsprint scraps with his hand. Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten, Mr. Summers had been successful at having the newsprint substituted for squirrel hides that had been used for generations. Squirrel hides, Mr. Summers argued, were all very good when Los Angeles was tiny, but now that the population was more than three hundred and likely to keep growing due to immigration and breeding, it was necessary to use something that would fit easier into the pink box. The night before the Loteria, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves made the newsprint scraps and placed them into the box. It was then taken to the lockbox at Mr. Summers’s solar panel business and protected until Mr. Summers was ready to transport it to Plummer Park the next morning. The rest of the sun cycle, the box was stashed way-sometimes one place, sometimes another. The box spent one year in Mr. Grave’s bike kitchen and another year underfoot at the carrier pigeon rookery. Sometimes, it was set on a shelf at the Martin booth on Saturday Market and left there.
There was a great deal of fussing before Mr. Summers declared that the Loteria was open. There were lists to make up-of families, heads of households, members of each family. There was the proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers by the carrier pigeon keeper a.k.a. Capitan of the Loteria. At one time, survivors remembered, there had been a kind of performance by Capitan of the Loteria-a driving, rhythmic chant that rattled off each year. Some people believed that Capitan of the Loteria stood alone while he declared or sang it. Others believed that he promenaded among the people, but sun cycles and sun cycles ago, this detail of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had also been a ritual salute with an athame, or ceremonial knife, in which Capitan of the Loteria used to address survivors who approached to draw from the box. This also changed with time; now it only felt necessary for Capitan to speak to each person who came up. Mr. Summers was benevolent during all of this-in his clean white tunic and brown boots, one arm resting on the pink box. He seemed polite yet imposing as he talked endlessly to Mr. Graves and the Martins.
Just as Mr. Summers finally left off talking and turned to the assembled urban tribe, Mrs. Hutchinson came hurriedly along the path to Plummer Park-patchwork sweater thrown over her shoulders-and slid into place in the back of the gathering. “Clean forgot what day it was,” she remarked to Mrs. Delacroix, who stood next to her, and they both chuckled and murmured.
“Thought my partner was out front fixing his bicycle,” Mrs. Hutchinson uttered. “Then I looked out the window, and the kids were gone. I remembered it was the twenty-seventh and freaked out. Ran down here as fast as the drought would allow.” She dried her hands on her patchwork apron repurposed from skate sweatshirts. Mrs. Delacroix spoke, “You’re in time. They’re still setting up, up there.”
Mrs. Hutchinson looked out onto the tribe of survivors. She found her second husband and stepchildren standing near the front. She lightly kissed Mrs. Delacroix on the side of her face in goodbye and made her way through the tattered group. Survivors kindly separated to let her pass. Two or three people commented, in slightly raised voices, “Here comes your wife, Hutchinson,” and “Bill, she’s here.” Mrs. Hutchinson reached her man. Mr. Summers, who had been standing there for a while, pronounced benevolently, “Thought we were going to have to go ahead and start, Tessie.” Mrs. Hutchinson mentioned, smiling, “Wouldn’t want me to leave my lemon pie in the oven, now would you, Joe?” Light laughter rippled through the amassed survivors as the tribe stirred back into place.
“Well,” Mr. Summers stated calmly. “We’d better start, so we can get it over with and get back to hunting coyote. Is anyone else not here?”
“Dunbar,” someone hollered. “Dunbar. Dunbar.”
Mr. Summers looked at his list. “Clyde Dunbar,” he pronounced. “That’s right. He fell off his bicycle, didn’t he? Who can draw for him?”
“I will,” a woman piped up. Mr. Summers turned to see her. “Wife draws for her husband,” Mr. Summers remarked. “Don’t you have a teenage son to do it for you, Janey?” Although Mr. Summers and everyone else in Los Angeles knew the answer, it was the business of Capitan of the Loteria to ask personal questions publicly. Everyone knew each other’s business the way things are now, living in such small groups. Mr. Summers waited carefully while Mrs. Dunbar responded.
“Horace is only sixteen,” Mrs. Dunbar commented sadly. “Guess I must fill in for my partner this sun cycle.”
“Okay,” Mr. Summers remarked. He drew a check on his newsprint list. He asked, “Young Watson drawing this sun cycle?”
A tall young man raised his hand. “Here,” he resounded. “I’m drawing for my mother and me.” He crossed his arms anxiously and lowered his head as a few voices in the group voiced things like, “Good job, son.” and “Best of luck to you.”
“Well,” Mr. Summers expressed. “Guess that’s everyone. Did Elder Warner show up?”
“Here,” a man announced. Mr. Summers nodded.
It was quiet all of a sudden. Mr. Summers grunted and looked at the list written on old
newsprint. “All ready?” he called. “Now, I’ll read the names-heads of families first-and the male-identified come up and take a paper from the box. Keep the paper folded in your hand without looking at it until everyone has had their turn. All clear?”
Survivors had done this so many times after the drought that when it became necessary to institute the Loteria, they only half-listened to directions. Most of them were quiet. Wetting their lips. Not looking around. Mr. Summers raised one hand high and declared, “Adams.” A man disengaged himself from the crowd and came forward. “Hi, Steve,” Mr. Summers greeted, and Mr. Adams replied, “Hi, Joe.” They smiled at one another without any real mirth. Mr. Adams reached into the big pink furry box and took out a folded newsprint scrap. He held it firmly at one corner as he turned and went hastily back to his place in the group. He stood somewhat apart from his family-not looking down at his hand.
“Allen,” Mr. Summers listed. “Anderson … Bentham.”
“Seems like there’s no time at all between Loterias anymore,” Mrs. Delacroix remarked to Mrs. Graves in the back row.
“Seems like we got through the last one just last week. Now that the drought is worse, it’s just so necessary to deal with overpopulation.”
“Time goes fast,” Mrs. Graves observed.
“Clark … Delacroix.”
“There goes my partner,” Mrs. Delacroix uttered. She inhaled sharply while her husband went forward.
“Dunbar,” Mr. Summers remarked. Stoically, Mrs. Dunbar went to the box while another woman commented, “You can do it, Janey.”
“We’re next,” Mrs. Graves noted. She watched as Mr. Graves came around from the side of the pink box, greeted Mr. Summers with seriousness and selected a paper slip from the box. By now, in the midst of the crowd were male identified, butch and trans men holding small folded newsprint scraps in their hands. Turning them over and over nervously. Mrs. Dunbar and her two sons stood together, and Mrs. Dunbar held a paper slip.
“Harburt … Hutchinson.”
“Get up there, Bill,” Mrs. Hutchinson prodded. Survivors near her laughed.
“They do say,” Mr. Adams shared to Elder Warner who stood next to him, “that over in the village of Orange, they’re talkin’ of givin’ up the Loteria.”
Elder Warner snorted. “Idiotic whippersnappers,” he decided. “Listenin’ to young folks, nothin’s good enough for them. Next thing ya’ know, they’ll be wantin’ to go back to livin’ in apartment building high-rises, workin’ office jobs, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying: ‘Loteria in June, figs be heavy soon.’ First thing ya’ know, we’d all be eatin’ stewed watercress and grass. There’s always been a Loteria,” he added. “Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there jokin’ with everybody.”
“Some places have already quit Loterias,” Mrs. Adams shared. “San Francisco, Portland.”
“Nothin’ but trouble in that,” Elder Warner criticized firmly. “Pack of young fools.”
“Martin.” Bobby Martin watched his father go forward. “Uberdyke … Percy.”
“I wish they’d hurry,” Mrs. Dunbar whispered to her older son. “I wish they’d hurry.”
“They’re almost through,” her son noticed.
“You get ready to run and tell Dad,” Mrs. Dunbar instructed.
Mr. Summers called his own name. He stepped forward and selected a newsprint scrap from the pink box. Then he called, “Warner.”
“Seventy-seventh year I been in the Loteria,” Elder Warner commented as he waded through the tribe. “Seventy-seventh time.”
“Watson.” The tall youth moved awkwardly through the tribe. Someone remarked, “Don’t be nervous, Jack.” Then Mr. Summers comforted, “Take your time, son.”
After that, there was a long pause-a breathless moment-until Mr. Summers, holding his newsprint scrap in the air, declared, “All right, folks.” For a minute, no one moved. Then all slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, the women spoke in unison, saying,”Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then, other voices responded, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill.” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar instructed her older son.
The tribe of survivors began to look around so as to view the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson stood quietly, staring at the paper in his hand. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers, “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie,” Mrs. Delacroix called.
Mrs. Graves concluded, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson demanded.
“Well, everyone,” Mr. Summers proclaimed, “that was done pretty fast, and now we’ve got to be hurrying to get done in time.” He consulted his next list. “Bill,” he voiced, “you draw for the Hutchinson family. You got any other households in the Hutchinsons?”
“There’s Don and Eva,” Mrs. Hutchinson yelled. “Make them take their chance!”
“Eva remarried and is now drawing with her husband’s family, Tessie,” Mr. Summers expressed gently. “You know that as well as anyone else.”
“It wasn’t fair,” Tessie whined.
“I guess not, Joe.” Bill Hutchinson remarked regretfully. “My ex-wife draws with her husband’s family-that’s only fair. And I’ve got no other family except the kids.”
“Then, as far as drawing for families is concerned, it’s you,” Mr. Summers explained in explanation, “and as far as drawing for households is concerned, that’s you, too. Right?”
“Right,” Bill Hutchinson confirmed.
“How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked.
“Three,” Bill Hutchinson noted.
“There’s Bill, Jr., Nancy and little Dave. Then Tessie and me.”
“All right,” Mr. Summers expressed. “Harry, you got their tickets back?”
Mr. Graves nodded and held up the slips of paper. “Put them in the box then,” Mr. Summers directed. “Take Bill’s, and put it in.”
“We should start over,” Mrs. Hutchinson murmured, as quietly as possible. “I tell you, it wasn’t fair! You didn’t give him time enough to choose. Everybody saw that.”
Mr. Graves selected the five slips and put them in the box. He dropped all newsprint scraps, except the five, onto the ground. The summer breeze caught them and lifted them off.
“Listen, everybody,” Mrs. Hutchinson said to the people around her. The tribe ignored her and shifted uneasily where they stood.
“Ready, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked. Bill Hutchinson, with one quick glance around at his wife and children, nodded.
“Remember,” Mr. Summers suggested. “Take the newsprint scraps and keep them folded until each person takes one. Harry, you help little Dave.” Mr. Graves grabbed the little boy’s hand, who then willingly followed him up to the box. “Take a paper out of the box, Davy.” Mr. Summers advised. Davy put his hand into the box and laughed. “Take just one paper.” Mr. Summers instructed. “Harry, you hold it for him.” Mr. Graves took the child’s hand and removed the folded paper from his tight fist and held it. Little Dave stood next to him and looked up at him wonderingly.
“Nancy next,” Mr. Summers declared. Nancy was twelve, and her communal tutoring friends breathed heavily as she went forward swishing her skirt, taking a slip daintily from the box.
“Bill, Jr.,” Mr. Summers said, and Billy, his face red with his oversized feet, nearly knocked the box over as he retrieved a paper. “Tessie,” Mr. Summers remarked. She hesitated for a minute, looking around defiantly, then tight-lipped, she went up to the box. She snatched a paper out and held it behind her.
“Bill,” Mr. Summers voiced, and Bill Hutchinson reached into the box and felt around, bringing his hand out at last with the scrap of newsprint on it.
The tribe was quiet. A girl whispered, “I hope it’s not Nancy.” The sound of whispers reached the group’s edge.
“It’s not the way it used to be,” Old Man Warner observed. “People ain’t the way they used to be before the Apocalypse. We didn’t used to have to do this. We did it in different ways.”
“All right,” Mr. Summers announced. “Open the papers. Harry, you open little Dave’s.” Mr. Graves opened the slip of paper. A collective sigh was heard in the crowd as he held it up for everyone to see that it was blank. Nancy and Bill, Jr. opened theirs at the same time. Both beamed and laughed, turned to the crowd and held their paper slips above their heads.
“Tessie,” Mr. Summers declared. There was a pause, and then Mr. Summers looked at Bill Hutchinson. Bill unfolded his paper and realized it was blank.
“It’s Tessie,” Mr. Summers said, and his voice was hushed. “Show us her paper, Bill.” Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper from her hand. It had a black spot on it-the same black spot Mr. Summers made the night before with heavy pencil in his solar panel office. Bill Hutchinson held it up. The crowd stirred.
“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers advocated. “Let’s finish quickly.”
Although villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original pink box, they still remembered to use sticks and tinder. The stake was set up behind the gutted playground. This tradition of death-by-fire was first enacted during the Salem Witch Trials. It served well for a dramatic, satisfying death and motivated the tribe towards another year of production. The stick pile made earlier by the boys was ready. Sticks on the ground were surrounded by blowing scraps of paper which had come from the box. Mrs. Delacroix selected a log so massive that she had to pick it up with both hands. She then turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she heaved. “Hurry up.”
In his hands, Mr. Dunbar held a frayed piece of thick rope and tied Tessie’s hands behind the stake. Children threw twigs onto the pyre-amid her skirt. Someone gave little Davy Hutchinson the first match. He held it aloft-first light of an overcast afternoon to begin cleansing by fire.
Mr. Dunbar wound the rope around and around, until Tessie Hutchinson was one with the stake-and her fate. He carefully poured hoarded lighter fluid about her head, shoulders and apron. She held her desperate palms out as villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she begged over and over. Her words drifted away. Ignored. Like smoke from the match her son held high.
For the collective good of the village of Los Angeles, Davy flicked his lit match onto the pyre. Suddenly, quickly, all branches and her womanly body, were aflame. A blazing column lit up the lazy afternoon haze. Old Man Warner chanted, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams stood in the front of the crowd, with Mrs. Graves beside him. Orange fire flickered and reflected in their eyes, as they watched the traditional blood sacrifice unfold again. Such had always been the punishment for women who stepped out of line. The deed was fitting. To all villagers who watched Tessie die in flames.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed. Her final words howled upwards into the uncaring toxic air. Her burning body became one long wordless scream-echoing over decaying office buildings and palm trees swaying in the calm breeze. Lips rouged by raspberries the last to burn to cinders. Thus ended her howl of perdition.
“For in blazing fire is the fate of the Scarlet Woman,” said Mr. Summers. “All is as it should be once more.” Blackened fragments, silent on the stake, blown ashes covering faces of gathered villagers. Blessing them. Cleansing them. Renewing for another year.
Originally published at https://www.lotteryproject.lt.