We’ve noticed a golden glow out in the badlands southeast of town. A second sunset, it shines even at night—especially at night, in the blue dark. Everyone’s pretty sore about that. Things like “night” and “day” used to be so simple. We aren’t sleeping well. Thus, the investigation.
What we find: a city, or something like it. The idea of a city, imagined as an architecture of terraces and balustrades and flying buttresses, towers and pinnacles and arcades and spires, all manifested from marble and gold and rosy quartz and silver and clouds. It’s a city drafted by an architect who has only known churches.
A high stone wall encloses the complex. The sole entry is a wrought-iron gate, housed in a grand archway. High on the arch above the gate, a neon sign spells out for us in humming pink:
THE ANGEL IS:
The word IN is blinking.
We remove our hats at the great iron gate, keeping them pressed to our chests as we pass beneath the humming neon sign. It’s about a dozen of us in all, an ad hoc group of pals and peers who’ve taken it upon ourselves to sneak out and see what’s what. We spread out slowly, peeking down alleys, whistling and clapping to hear the echo. The buildings are empty, like painted eggshells. Like they were built for no other purpose than to create shape, to embody volume, to be a frame upon which beauty might be hung.
On the gold and silver cobblestones we find arrows of inlaid mother-of-pearl. The arrows lead us down silent avenues toward the heart of the city, where the spires of the grand cathedral pierce the clouds. Stars of daylight glitter above us. Squinting at the glare, we realize that an enormous shroud of silver netting has been strung from spire to spire, enclosing the city. To keep something out, or maybe to keep something in.
At the front steps of the cathedral we kneel to pray. Once finished, we look between ourselves in silent agreement: we’ve realized how flat and empty all our life’s prayers have been. The marble archway framing the door is as wide as a school bus and three times as tall. Full of richly detailed statuary in high relief, with figures as tall as men and as small as mustard seeds, the portal tells a story. It’s a story we have known our whole lives, have known from the moment we were born. We see our whole world in that story, the way a fish pulled out from the waves on a fisherman’s line might glimpse the ocean’s wide expanse.
At the far end of the cathedral, where the altar should be, the angel sits at a writing desk. Distance makes the angel small, but no less radiant: in the halo’s glow, the thousand candles behind the angel are pinpricks of meager, grey light.
“I’m sure you all have questions,” says the angel.
We have plenty of questions, the obvious ones that anyone would ask an angel, given the chance. We ask if Heaven is as cold as hell is hot, we ask if you’re stuck up there looking the way you did on earth and if so how can you call that Heaven, we ask if God has actually foreordained our salvation or if He’s just making things up as He goes (we wouldn’t blame Him), and we ask if dogs go to Heaven, and if there are dog-angels, and if the dog-angels are the best friends of regular angels.
The angel’s answers please us.
I ask about the arsenals of Heaven. I want to know what weapons the heavenly host wields, if any, and which of these our own visiting angel has brought to earth, if any. I say I would love to grip an angel’s flaming sword and swing it around above my head, describing a burning rainbow’s arc in the air. I stress to the angel that it would please me very much to do this.
The angel seems distracted by some minor discomfort. They rub their ear like water’s stuck up there after a swim. In a quiet moment, when the initial rush of questions subsides, the angel confides in us that the source of this discomfort is a grey, paresthetic aura behind their left ear: a hissing phantom limb of knowledge lost when they came to our plane.
We change into our new clothes, manifested for us by the angel: coarse, salt-white robes. They have not offered or even suggested that we do this, but we’d asked the angel quite nicely for them anyway. Something to mark the change—it just seems right.
We venture further questions. The angel turns on a green-shaded desk lamp, picks up a fountain pen, and begins recording our questions on delicate stationery. I peek at the letterhead, and blink like I’ve glanced at the sun.
Tom Kominski, buoyed by a tide of inspiration, begins composing a hymn, right there on the spot. Just like that! I don’t know much about music but he seems to have an ear for the stuff, because it turns out to be the kind of thing the angel likes. The angel closes their eyes and rocks in their chair, so we let Kominski continue, and pretty soon we all join in, flooding the cathedral with harmony.
When I come home that night, I let my family know we’re going to start taking our relationship with the Lord a bit more seriously. My wife asks me where it was I’ve been all day, and my daughter, Charity, wraps her arms around my knees and shrouds her face in my new white robes. Grabbing her beneath the armpits, I swing her high up above my head and take her into my cradling arms.
“Guess who Daddy met today?” I say, ignoring my wife. “An angel!” I kiss her golden locks. All of a sudden they remind me of something, her locks, and I try to think of what.
My wife crosses her arms over her apron. “An angel, huh? Cherub, seraph? What was its name? Every angel’s got a name, right?”
“Well, Penny, I actually don’t know,” I say as I put down our daughter, “and even if I did know, I’m not sure I could tell you. They’ve got kind of strict rules about what we do with the answers they give out.”
“And what’s with the robe? Where are the clothes you left with? I mended those hems for nothing, then?”
I nudge Charity toward her bedroom. “The robe symbolizes my spiritual rebirth, Penny. It’s my uniform; I’ve need for no other vestment.”
Penny sits down on the loveseat and I light the lamp beside her. She asks me questions and I answer them, if able. I describe the resplendent, useless city the angel has built, but Penny cuts me off.
“Tell me more about the angel,” she says. “Four faces, four wings? Wheels spinning within wheels?”
I try to describe the appearance they have assumed, which is more or less what a person would look like stuffed with goose down. A perfectly regular person, just with golden feathery edges. I get so far as the halo and the incandescent skin before I give up. Maybe that’s for the better. Perhaps whatever Penny imagines will come closer to the truth. Once I’ve doubled back to describing the city, she asks about the angel’s arsenal, and I tell her I’d asked and while the angel hadn’t said yes or no, it sure seemed like they hadn’t brought any sort of weaponry.
“Of course, they’re a being of divine nature. The angel might have no need for such crude devices,” Penny is quick to point out. She’s smart like that, my wife. This is something to ponder, and the blue-gold twilight beyond the window, that confluence of the city’s heavenly glow and the encroaching night, invites contemplation.
After a normal amount of contemplation, I hear Charity in the hallway, demanding a bedtime story. I pluck the King James off the bookshelf and leaf through it until I find Ezekiel. On my way to Charity’s room, I draw closed the blackout curtains that keep out the city’s golden light.
In a lull in their schedule, when they’re caught up with their queue of petitioners, I convince the angel to take a walk with me. All that city to enjoy, and the angel spends every moment of their time in the cathedral behind that desk of theirs. I thought it might be nice.
Outside, walking the boulevards, the angel is hesitant, glancing up at the sky every few steps. I soon see why: a sudden breeze catches them in the middle of their stride, and it manages to bear them aloft for a few feet before I grab them by the heel (it burns my hand like a hot iron) and drag them back to earth. Now I understand the city’s great silver net.
The angel thanks me and apologizes for the burn. I take the opportunity to ask their name, and they tell me it’s Matt. I ask if that’s “Matt” as in “Matthew,” as in “The Gospel according to,” as in the Hebrew Matityahu, translated as “Gift of Yahweh”—you know, that “Matt.”
“No, just Matt,” says the angel. “It means something else to us,” which is the first time they have really talked about other angels, or suggested a society of angels. Casually, like I’m not really paying attention, I pluck at one of those silver flowers that sprout up between the cobblestones, and I ask what “Matt” means, in the angel language.
“I don’t remember, anymore,” Matt says, looking more mournful than usual. “And even if I did, you wouldn’t understand.”
Our language is stifling, they tell me, too linear. Angel language spreads out in every direction all at once. It is words harmonizing upon words, it is time containing time.
“But we all must make adjustments,” sighs Matt.
On another day, I wait in the queue for my turn. When I finally arrive at the desk, I ask if it hurt.
“If what hurt?” Matt says.
“When you fell from Heaven,” I reply.
Matt thinks for a moment and says No, but in a way that tells me Sort of. They tell me what it was like to fall: sunlight peeled away in resinous sheets from their body as they fell from Heaven to Earth. They watched the wind carry the sunlight over the countryside, where it spread across the fields and settled over the forest canopies in drapes. Tender shoots, green and new, sprouted from black dirt. The oaks and sycamores groaned toward the light, and a golden residue of sunshine hung from their boughs, twinkling. When they finally stood on firm ground, Matt shook off the last flakes of light like a wet dog. Where the light dusted the earth, a halo of wildflowers bloomed around their feet.
To be here on earth, Matt had to squeeze into three dimensions like an old, snug suit. And the leather sandals chafe, they tell me. This is nearly as uncomfortable as having feet to begin with, those crude, blunt things that club the earth. Matt tells me they adopted this form because it’s what’s familiar to us, their audience. They could have been anything. They could have been a talking dog or a column of blue light lancing through fog or they could have been nothing at all, a passing thought, a sudden yearning, a whisper on the breeze.
I had assumed Matt was a herald of change. In a sense, I wasn’t wrong, but perhaps naively I had thought my daily prayers for prosperity, for fortune and so on, would become, I don’t know, super-charged, extra-potent. Here was a direct line to Heaven, and I imagined my prayers marching right up that line to the Big Guy’s ears, like the current flowing from the outlet to my toaster. And I know God’s not a toaster, but I’m upset—well, not upset, maybe annoyed, maybe miffed—that it’s been weeks since the angel arrived, and we have so little to show for it but a few scraps of divine revelation that don’t make much sense to us anyway. We’re not even allowed to write it down and sell it.
Nor, for that matter, can you charge admission. If you block off the entrance with a ticket booth, a new arch opens up in the wall like a yawn.
You can’t carry out anything except your new robes, not even a candlestick or one of those little silver weeds. If you try, it all returns to ashes, dust, etc.
All the photos you take come out overexposed. Nothing even fit for a postcard.
A few lucky businesses in town got a bump from tourism, sure. Within weeks Todd had made plans to open up a second gas station, and Howard raises the rates at the hotel every week and still has to turn folks away. Even Kominski’s cut a record, Tom Kominski Sings… the Angel’s Favorites (New & Selected Choral Standards).
One thing tourists do not need is dry cleaning and alterations. They come out of the golden city in their white robes (custom fit, of course) and toss their old clothes in the trash. The robes themselves don’t even get dirty, but if they did, I’m sure they’d be machine-washable.
“A dry cleaner. You had to be a dry cleaner. Why not a hotel manager?” Penny says, which gives me an idea.
My sacred madness has come to an end. The city—the empty space, and the gilded shells which adorn that space—has become quite handsome to me. Glamorous, inviting, ripe.
I know they won’t admit it, but some folks are a little put out by all the hubbub. Folks like me, who didn’t get a cut of the goods. The cobblers, the garbage men, the librarians. I know Kominski, for one, has begun to feel like the angel’s aesthetic preferences impose limits on his songwriting. He feels stifled. His career has stalled.
I gather them up and outline our final act of grace.
“Matt has confided in me,” I explain, “that this third-dimensional existence has grown oppressive.”
I tell them that it breaks my heart—and surely breaks theirs, as well—to see our friend, an angel, shackled to this chain gang of mortal time. One second following another, ever forward, never knowing what the next would bring. “Matt’s divine temperament is not suited for the endless shocks and assaults we sustain in this life of not-knowing,” I say.
“They are modest, they suffer with humility and grace—they would never ask for their return. I propose that we assist Matt, and send them home.”
Kominski takes to the altar with the choir and begins the hymn. The plan calls for a work of supreme elegance and sophistication, and Kominski delivers his masterwork. (I must also give credit to the architect, who built the cathedral hall with unparalleled acoustics.) Matt freezes in place, enchanted. Through stained glass, dawn casts a pale glow over the pulpit.
A four-strong force—myself and three others—bum-rush Matt and hoist them above our heads. Where our oven mitts touch Matt’s flesh, thick black smoke billows out. The smoke trails behind us as we sprint to the door.
“What is the meaning of this? Stop this at once!” implores the angel, beautifully.
A third team had spent the night cutting through the silver net above the city, and now the limp cobwebs of its remains hang over the buildings here and there. We rush, palms burning, to the courtyard. Above us, nothing but blue sky. On three, we launch, and the angel sails upward like a lost balloon. Matt babbles and shrieks, but the wind catches their words and carries them off in unintelligible snatches. I imagine they might be saying something like, “Wait till our Father hears about this!”
Call it curiosity, call it science, call it a test of theology: I’ll confess that my desire to see what would happen played no small part in this plan of mine. It’s my last question, and there’s only one way for Matt to answer.
It happens like this: their meteoric body gathers light into a fiery cocoon, first a hazy red, then orange, then yellow, then finally a piercing diamond-white. They are a single point in the sky, a daylight star brighter than our very own sun.
When they suddenly wink out, I hear something almost like a muffled Hallelujah!
At the moment of Matt’s departure, our white robes dissolve into ash. Now, nude as the day we were born, we wander the avenues of our new city. The silver net must be cleared away, but the skyline cuts a grand relief against the sunset.
We’ve brought with us the tools of the surveyor’s trade, and the incense of speculation wafts through the air. I had believed we’d divvied up the property fairly, but disagreements boil over as each owner attempts to stake the boundaries of his claim. Insults and epithets echo off the hollow walls, brawls break out in the empty streets. The nude men grapple and writhe, crushing silver flowers into ash beneath their rolling bulk. A window shatters; its shards dissolve into mist before they hit the ground. The scene makes me miss Matt, just a bit.
I put it all behind me and follow the main boulevard back into town. Stepping lightly on the cobblestones, my spirits start to rise. I feel so holy I could almost float. I’m picturing the look on their faces when I lead Penny and Charity into the grand cathedral, when I rip off their blindfolds and say, “Welcome home!”
Well, what the others do with their lots is their own problem, I’ve decided. So what. Everything else seems to be coming together. Once converted into a bed-and-breakfast, the cathedral’s bound to bring in more than enough to live on, and with the town’s holy vestments drifting away on the breeze, I foresee a bump in the dry-cleaning business. On my way out, I pass beneath the great archway. The neon sign above casts down its pink haze, now flickering in the twilight. “The Angel is OUT,” it reads. I take one last look at the sign before I head home, before its light winks out for good.
The sun’s almost down, and the approaching night feels darker, richer, more blue somehow. It takes me a moment to realize why: the city’s glow has dwindled, and seems to grow darker still. The light that had kept us up is finally gone, and although I’m looking forward to my first good night of sleep in weeks, I’m unsettled, somehow. Perturbed. The fights in the empty avenues, that same old darkness whose weight is now so huge and unfamiliar.
A smidge of Matt’s heavenly wisdom might set things right. I reach back and try to summon a homily, but in my memory where there once was revelation, I can only sense a dim haze. I ask myself, what would Matt say? I decide Matt would say, drop the subject: it’s blasphemy to put words in an angel’s mouth.
Carl Harris lives in Los Angeles. He is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. You can follow him on Twitter @NightlifeMingus.