The City On a Hill
Placetime coordinate: somewhere, sometime. Neither here and now nor there and then, but rather there and here and then and now. The lively ruins of a city on a hill. A forest grows round it. Waters cut through it. Monsters burrow in and out of it. The shape of the city is a termite’s tower. Or a pinecone. Or a radio mast. Its image is always changing. It matters if you view the city from the corner of Hope and Angell, or through a telescope on a satellite orbiting in outer space, or while standing on the deck of a ship. Sometimes, in some places, the termite’s tower looks as if it is about to crumble; other times, from other vantage points, the tower gleams with a fresh coat of chrome.
When the angel lands in the city, they land like lightning striking a tree. There is a lot of noise and a little bit of smoke. That they land in this place at this time was never guaranteed. Their descent from heaven was an infinity of zigzagging possibilities. The physics of what led them to the city on a hill are unknown. Some might call it attraction. Some might call it providence. But amidst all this uncertainty, a moment in spacetime erupts in plasma, and the angel lands in the top branches of an old American chestnut, though by the time they have gathered their wits about them, the times have changed, and the tree has a different name, wompimish in the Narragansett language, but then they are falling, toward the ground and into the future, or far into the past, for the tree is no longer there to hold them up. The tree is dead, felled by the blight, or perhaps it is yet to germinate.
Placetime coordinate: a college on a hill, October 2018. The angel gets up, dusts themselves off, and begins to walk to class.
They are naked, for they forgot to pack clothes before leaving heaven, and this is cause for both great mirth and alarm on campus. The naked body of an angel is really something else to see. A couple people faint as the angel passes, others quake in spontaneous ecstasy, some giggle, and still others call the police. Every few meters an atheist bursts into flames. As they pass another immolated student, all the angel can think is thank goodness they at least remembered to pack a body.
Only a few people are unfazed by the sight of the naked angel. They are older female professors, mostly. One of them is named Sandra, and she teaches in the anthropology department. There is just something about Sandra. The angel notices her right away. She is wearing a long ugly dress with a paisley print on it. Her gray hair has a single dyed streak of mauve. She walks through the city like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Looking at her, the angel worries they might suddenly burst into flames too.
They follow Sandra into a building hung in ivy. Inside, they take a seat at the back of a vast lecture hall while Sandra makes her way to the front. The angel moans as they watch her throw off her coat. The noise disrupts reality itself. Things that were once discrete are shattered into transparency by the vulgar mewls of an angel. Suddenly, the whole lecture hall is without clothes. Everyone can see everything, right down to the bone. Where one body begins and another ends, no one can say, for there is neither fabric nor skin nor space to separate them anymore, though the angel is certain they can discern the transparent and beautiful form of Sandra from all the rest. Sandra starts to lecture. She refuses to indulge her students’ panicking at the sudden collapse of a preconceived ontology. She only has 55 minutes to get through the day’s material. There is no time to waste. She tells the void of voices and bodies to quiet down so they can get to work.
The angel speaks into the senseless void. “What class is this again?” they ask. The void whispers back, “Sex, Gender, and Science.” Perfect.
“Today we’ll be discussing the social construction of sex and the ways in which modern biology has reinforced a heteronormative view of sex difference,” sings the voice of Sandra, or rather the voices, for she is no longer just one thing, but many. “But before we get into that, I’d like to start with a discussion of the various strategies of reproduction across all organisms. Sexual reproduction is, in fact, relatively rare.”
The angel is rapt. They aren’t really listening, for neither sex nor gender nor science mean much of anything to a primordial being such as themselves, but Sandra is rife with possibilities, and the angel cannot help but entertain them all. They imagine Sandra as a queen. They imagine Sandra as an assassin. They imagine Sandra as an ethereal being as ancient as the universe itself. They imagine Sandra holding their hand.
After class, reality starts stitching back together, and the discrete shape of things returns. The angel, still naked, wanders to the front of the class where Sandra is packing up.
“Can I help you?” Sandra asks, not even looking up. The disinterest sends a shiver down the angel’s spine.
“I was wondering if you had a moment to chat,” the angel says. “I have a question about the lecture today.”
Sandra finally looks up at the angel. “You mean you want to have sex with me,” she says matter-of-fact. The angel hadn’t realized this is what they wanted, but now that Sandra has said it, they know it’s true. But then Sandra looks down, and her eyebrows furrow. “Does your species even have sex?”
“I’m an ancient celestial monster,” the angel replies. “I don’t belong to any species that participates in reproduction or inheritance of traits of any kind.”
“Hmm. That’s kind of hot.”
The angel blushes. Sandra pulls out her wallet. “Here’s a hundred bucks,” she says. “Go buy yourself a nice dress for tonight and then meet me in the lobby of the Hippo Grand Hotel downtown at six-thirty. We can continue this conversation there.”
The angel accepts the money and watches Sandra strut out of the lecture hall. After a couple minutes, they follow, back out into the city. They don’t know where to go to buy a dress, so they just pull a slightly charred one off one of the immolated students. They leave the hundred bucks next to the body. With the dress on, the angel can reimagine themselves as Sandra, or a part of Sandra, or a noble attempt at Sandra. They sigh, and the city ripples all around them.
Placetime coordinate: October 1718. A city on a hill built by slaves. Stone by stone, body by body. A slaving ship returns home after two years away. The angel stands on the deck. The wood of the ship is stained in blood and gold. This ship has made a man rich. Maybe one day they’ll name a university after him. No one knows the names of the people whose blood stains the ship, but the angel does. They were with them when they died. They shepherded them on to heaven. They wish they could have done more. But angels won’t save this city.
After docking, the angel disembarks the ship and wanders the embankment. It is a Sunday. The bells of a church are tolling. Church bells are the angel’s one mortal weakness. They cannot refuse the call of a church bell. They wander into the sanctuary of the church. It’s a Baptist affair, which isn’t the angel’s usual cup of tea, but what can they do? They take a seat in the pews and listen to a sermon on the role of Christian charity. It crackles with hypocrisy. The angel has half a mind to unleash their wings, rise up from the pews, and smite the pastor with a bolt of lightning, but instead they do nothing. Angels don’t even have wings anyway. They just sit and listen and watch in silence.
Though the other churchgoers can’t tell, the gaze of an angel is upon them. A court of a million heavenly eyes watches the city on a hill, and it sees everything, and it judges everything, and it knows everything, and even the toll of a church bell cannot blind it. An angel will not save this city. And no matter how much they might like to, an angel will not destroy it. But there are angels living in this city, everywhere, and though they might not have wings, they have eyes and mouths and tentacles and hearts. They know how to make and remake cities. They can remake this one.
Placetime coordinate: October 2018. The city on a hill cannot be mapped. At least not by men. The angel realizes this after asking for directions. They are lost. They have a date with Sandra, and they are running late. The man they ask about the location of the hotel seems very certain of himself, but his instructions make no sense. The angel stops in a HippoMart to cross-reference the man with an atlas. What they find is no more reliable. There is no way the city on a hill is shaped like that. Cartographers have tried to map the city and they have failed. All their fancy technologies are useless. They use drones, GPS satellites, surveying equipment, and their own eyes, but nothing works. Every time a man on the street attempts to map the city, it comes out looking like a tree. Lesser road sprout off greater ones, and that is that. There’s no turning back, no later intersection. One wrong turn in the city on a hill and you are hurtling forward to infinity, history left behind. According to these maps, there are only one-way streets in the city.
It takes the vision of an angel on high to lay the city on a hill down flat upon a plane. An angel can see everything, not just from above, or from this corner or that one, but also from below and within and beyond. They have far better vision than the God’s-eye view of the cartographer. They have an earthworm’s vision. The angel doesn’t just view the earth from heaven, they tunnel through it, and the earth tunnels through them. The results of this kind of mapping are much more accurate. The angel realizes that if they want to get to their date on time, they will have to do some mapping themselves.
They aren’t too happy about it, because they know they will probably get their dress dirty. Mapping can be a messy business. The angel gets down in the mud and starts to find their way.
From the point-of-view of an angel, the city on a hill tangles into all its possibilities. The angel begins their map with a sketch of the city’s outline. What they find is not arboreal but chthonic. Next comes the topography. They are surprised by what they discover. There is the hill, of course, but also plains and valleys and mountain ranges and canyons and rivers and lakes and marshes and deserts and volcanoes and islands and tundra and ocean. There are cities within cities on top of cities beneath cities. Here, an old-growth forest. There, a cattle ranch. The angel maps a lot of wheat and soybeans and corn. They also map all the carbon emissions, the algae blooms, the desecrated mountaintops, the landfills, the nuclear waste, the restored mansions of cotton plantations, the denuded timber forests, the Superfund sites, the rusting steel mills, the bleached coral reefs, the coal plants, the flood zones, the chaparral on fire. When they are finished, the image of the city is vast and overwhelming. But the angel now knows where they are going.
They arrive in the lobby bar of the hotel fifteen minutes late. The bodice of their dress is ripped open and their hair is caked with soil. Sandra doesn’t seem to mind. She has already ordered the angel a drink. They walk up to where Sandra is sitting at the bar and drown the cocktail in one gulp.
“Sorry I’m late,” the angel says. “Traffic was pretty bad.”
“Let’s talk about sex complementarity,” Sandra says, and the angel’s knees buckle. They can’t resist this woman. Sandra reaches down to help heave the angel off the floor and whispers close to their face. “Sexual dimorphism is just a fiction used to reinforce the patriarchy,” she says. Her breath smells like cinnamon mints and brandy.
Sandra leads the angel from the bar out onto the street. A few meters from the door, an older couple is arguing over a map. As they pass, the woman stops them. “Excuse me!” she says. “Can you tell us how to get to Giovanni’s Fine Dining Experience?”
“I’m sorry,” Sandra says, frowning. “I don’t think I know where that is.”
But the angel knows where Giovanni’s Fine Dining Experience is. They mapped it just a few minutes earlier. They reach into their body to extract the map they made. They keep it inside like an earthworm keeps earth inside. The map comes spilling out of several holes, splattering onto the pavement in a slurry of information. It glistens on the concrete like a puddle of water and oil. A shining map of a city on a hill.
The woman shrieks. Her male companion swears. Sandra steps back a bit so the map doesn’t splatter on her heels. “Here it is,” the angel says, pointing the restaurant’s location out, but the couple isn’t paying attention. The woman pulls on the man’s arm, and they turn and run away. They must be in a hurry. Sandra and the angel watch them go. “C’mon,” Sandra says. “I made reservations for seven.”
They arrive at Giovanni’s Fine Dining Experience and are seated at a candlelit table in the corner. The couple that asked for directions doesn’t seem to have found the place. Sandra orders them a bottle of wine. The angel downs it in one gulp too when it arrives, so Sandra orders them another. Her wedding ring glimmers in the candlelight, and the angel starts to feel a little woozy.
Next Sandra orders a charcuterie plate for them to share. The angel has never experienced charcuterie, or meat or cheese or food of any kind, really, and so sharing their first meal with Sandra is a revelation. Every bite leaves them hungrier. They want Sandra to know just how much this is affecting them. “You look so fucking hot eating that prosciutto,” the angel tries out. The tables at Giovanni’s Fine Dining Establishment are packed pretty close together, so several of the diners nearby hear the angel’s outburst and start giggling, or choking on their cacio e pepe, or blushing. Sandra doesn’t blush. She takes another slice of the meat, chewing it slowly with her mouth open for the angel to see. She knows she looks good.
“Let’s get out of here,” Sandra says, and she pulls the angel out of the restaurant by the hand. Her left hand. The angel can feel her wedding ring against their skin. Sandra leads them across the city on a hill to her house. They stumble into the bedroom. Sandra’s husband, Marty, is already asleep on his side of the bed. Sandra holds a single slender finger to her lips, telling the angel to keep quiet. The angel wants to bite that slender finger off and chew on it like Sandra chewed the prosciutto. But then Sandra whispers, “Let me freshen up real quick,” and disappears into the bathroom.
The angel watches Marty snore for a couple minutes before they feel a pair of arms wrapping around their middle. They feel Sandra pressing soft kisses on their neck. They smell Sandra’s perfume. They also smell charcuterie. Then Sandra’s hands start wandering, and soon the angel’s muddy dress is on the floor, and so is Sandra’s blouse. They crawl into bed together next to Marty. It’s a tight fit, but it’s cozy. They lay facing each other, nose to nose. “Tell me about heaven,” Sandra whispers.
The question surprises the angel. They haven’t thought much of heaven since coming to the city on a hill, and they hadn’t guessed Sandra was someone who’d be interested in that. They realize there is still so much they don’t know about her. They realize they think they are in love.
“I feel very far away from heaven in this city,” the angel says. Sandra frowns a little. “Even with me?” she asks. The angel thinks for a moment. “Even with you,” they say eventually. “But that’s not a bad thing. There are no Sandras in heaven.”
The thing about heaven, the angel thinks but doesn’t say, since now Sandra is kissing their mouth, is that it’s not a place any human could ever understand. Heaven is a hole in spacetime itself. Not a black hole or a wormhole but a God-hole. A hole without time or space or history. Humans yearn so desperately for heaven because they want to flee history, but the angel knows that the God-hole is neither freedom nor justice nor peace. The God-hole is nothing. In heaven, all the angel knew was loneliness. The city on a hill has an ugly history, but it is also beautiful. Sandra is beautiful. Sandra has holes. The angel likes them better than the God-hole of heaven.
Placetime coordinate: Narragansett territory, October 1618. The city on a hill is a wilderness. Or so it seems. The chestnut trees are still standing, and the gray wolf has yet to be extirpated, and there is not a single piece of synthetic plastic in the whole universe yet, and certainly not in this place. But the angel still has their map, and they know from studying it that even in this spacetime, the city on a hill is not pristine. They retch their map onto the ground so they can orient themselves in this new, unfamiliar time. They try to find Sandra on the map, but she isn’t there. Sandra is history now. All they can see on the map are a pattern of movements, human and animal and mineral and plant. Hunting and cultivating and burning and crafting and trading and family-making and worshipping and warring and death. They find a lot of death on their map, for smallpox has come to this place. It will be used to try and make a wilderness out of this ancient civilization on a hill.
Placetime coordinate: October 2118. The city on a hill is haunted. The angel sees ghosts peering out of windows as they walk down the street. They see ghosts lurking behind lampposts. They trip over a ghost in the pavement, its gut cracked wide open and spilling an ectoplasmic sludge of moss and clover and detritus onto the concrete. In these overgrown cracks, the phantom of a paved-over history. The angel is spooked.
They flee into the safety of an old library. It is a library dedicated to preserving the local literature of the city. A lot of twenty-second century hipsters come here to work. The angel picks something off a bookshelf at random and sinks into a dusty armchair. Their ten thousand hearts beat rapidly with the aftershocks of seeing a phantom. The book they picked up is not a book but a magazine. It is called Weird Tales. It smells like a ghost. They open it up anyway and read.
In another corner of the library, a young man is reading an old horror novel. His name is Raphael. He is not afraid of ghosts, but maybe he should be. He glances up from his book and notices the angel. In this time and in this place and from his perspective, the angel looks like a labyrinth. Raphael loves a good challenge. He works as an engineer for the Hippo Corporation. He understands how the universe works, and he’s good at making it work for his employers. But the labyrinth is a problem he hasn’t solved yet. He doesn’t even know if he could solve them, and he’s suddenly excited by the prospect of failure.
Meanwhile, the labyrinth is reading a short story in Weird Tales. It is about a sad and lonely (but very clever) man living in the city on a hill. One day he is visited by a maleficent alien from outer space whose vastness is so unthinkably terrible that the lonely-but-clever man’s brain dissolves into goop. The labyrinth doesn’t really get it. They know from experience that the author’s understanding of immensely ancient celestial beings is wrong, and so too, they can only assume, is his understanding of human neurobiology.
While the labyrinth puzzles over the strangeness of the short story, Raphael approaches them from across the library. He approaches them like lightning approaches itself. Opposites attract, cloud to ground, ground to cloud. Stepped leaders meet upward streamers, and the electricity of their union buds lightning flowers. Or lichens flower. Lively patterns etched into the skin. Raphael and the labyrinth will never be the same.
“I love that story,” Raphael says as he peers over the labyrinth’s shoulder. “I’m a big cosmic horror fan myself.”
“I’ve read worse,” the labyrinth says, even though this is the first story they’ve ever read.
“Do you want me to show you my computer?” Raphael asks. He doesn’t usually do this, but there is just something about the labyrinth.
“Of course,” the labyrinth replies. “Is it big?”
Raphael leads the labyrinth to Tower 8 of the Hippo Corporation New England Campus at the top of the hill. The building flickers in and out of reality. It is clad entirely in transparent glass, right on the spot of a former university lecture hall on a former Narragansett hunting ground on a future ocean built by slaves. The place continues to reverberate with the moans of an angel. Raphael swipes an ID card and leads the labyrinth inside.
His computer is big. It takes up half his office. The labyrinth can’t help feel a little anxious wondering how it would fit through the door. Raphael starts pushing some buttons, trying to explain how the machine works, but the labyrinth isn’t listening. They are too caught up in their own memories. They think of the last placetime they were in this space. They think of Sandra. But they can’t remember Sandra. Whenever they try to picture her face, the image eludes them. All they can see is Raphael. They suppose he’ll have to do.
They walk up behind him and wrap their arms around his body, just like Sandra did to them so long ago. Raphael stills, stops talking, and then slowly turns around so that they are face-to-face, noses touching. “You’re an alien, aren’t you?” he whispers. The labyrinth licks their lips. “I knew it,” he says. “You’re so beautiful. Like straight out of smutty Lovecraft fanfic.” He moves in closer, pressing his mouth against the labyrinth’s ear. “I want you to fuck me until I go insane. I want you to fuck me until my brain turns to goop.”
The labyrinth acquiesces, even though they don’t really think it’s going to work. They push Raphael up against the window, but reality flickers again, and they end up falling through the glass onto the garden below. They start fucking amidst the hedges. Raphael runs the path of the labyrinth. They start slow, for the hedges are high and overgrown near the entrance and Raphael really has to hack his way through them, but as he goes along the hedges become more pruned and the path widens and the pace speeds up until Raphael is at a jog, panting and shouting and whole-body-spasming at every turn. It goes on for a while. Raphael misjudged the labyrinth, for the labyrinth is a labyrinth with no center, no endpoint, no moment of self-actualization. The labyrinth is a prison, not an escape. Not even an engineer like Raphael can crack it open. So he keeps jogging down the path. At each turn he runs up right to the brink, thinking this turn will be his last, this turn will be his release, this turn will turn his brain into goop, but it never happens. Each turn in the path leads to more path. The path is neverending. Raphael keeps running until his legs give way and he can’t run anymore.
When they finish they collapse together on the grass, and Raphael immediately falls asleep. A group of his colleagues have descended from their offices in Tower 8 and formed a crowd around them. They are taking pictures and videos with their phones, and the labyrinth starts to feel a little claustrophobic about the whole thing. Their body itches. They scratch at it, but it just makes them feel more restless. They need to take their body off.
Placetime coordinate: somewhere, sometime, in an era without humans. The city on a hill is underwater. The labyrinth is an angel again. Raphael has been left behind. The angel floats along with the current. Here, in the water, they feel safe enough to uncoil into their celestial form. The ocean is just another kind of outer space, after all, so they stretch out and become an entangled bank of tentacles and mouths and brains and stomachs. For a moment it feels as if they are back in heaven, but then the sea carries them onward, and they reach the ruins on a hill. The forest of chestnut, maple, and elm has been replaced by a forest of kelp and plastic. The kelp grows tall and dense, but it is tangled up in plastic bags and wrapping and other ancient refuse. It shall be so tangled for millennia. The angel cannot stop their trajectory. They float into the forest, but they are a forest themselves. They tangle with the kelp and the plastic. There is no unravelling from the history of this place. There is no escaping the labyrinth.
Tangled up in this place, the angel feels like a monster out of Weird Tales. But weirdness is just an adaptation to loneliness. Loneliness is a state of unfulfilled desire. Desire is a process of reimagination. Here, lonely in this forest of plastic, the angel reimagines the city on a hill. They reimagine it as a colony of weird creepy-crawlies, a great swarming hive of tunnels and passageways and hidden chambers. Like a labyrinth. There is no center. The angel loses themselves in the reimagination. In this city on a hill, Raphael’s leg is still entwined with theirs, and Sandra is still kissing their neck. In this city on a hill, the angel still feels weird, but they are less alone.
Not all beasts that are lonely are weird. Creepy-crawlies crawl-creep weirdly because they are made of plastic. Their plasticity is what allows them to adapt. Like the dandelion that orients itself differently depending on whether it grows in sunlight or shade, or the wolf that has coevolved into so many strange breeds of dog, weird creepy-crawlies know how to work with their environments. They know how to make and remake their phenotypes when nature calls for it. In this, weirdness is synthetic like plastic. Weirdness pollutes. There is no weirdness in nature, but nature is full of weirds. Like any good biologist will tell you, as soon as life enters a lonely space of nature, weirdness will subsequently evolve. It is a vital adaptation. And as time passes in this outer space of ocean, the angel only becomes weirder.
One day, a hurricane comes to the city on a hill and lightning strikes the water. For a moment, the city shines like a ghost, but then the lightning is pulling the angel out of the water and into the God-hole of the hurricane. Into the clouds. On the journey up the angel can hear church bells and anthropology lectures and computers humming and slaves revolting against their captors and men and women conversing in the Narragansett language and then, just as they reach the lofty height where earth and heaven meet—