When we came to City of the Stars, you said you had a good feeling about the whole thing. As we drove, you talked about your fondness for places with “City” in their name that were by no stretch of the imagination cities. You named Gloucester City and Egg Harbor City, and then you invoked King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and I looked at you and let the question hang, and you said that it was an honorary non-city “City.” And that was good enough for me.
It seemed like a good place to move. We had tired of city life, and we’d heard good things from friends who had stayed at a bed and breakfast there in the days before it shuttered. We were told that there were great views, that the river nearby was clear, that it never got too humid–something about a valley or a mountain, some quality of the landscape. We heard that artists lived there: painters and writers and filmmakers. At least,one or two lived there. Or one or two had bought property there, but hadn’t actually moved there all the way, not yet. Stories were told about an art-house theater and decent galleries. The rumor mill seemed promising.
Our house was on the outskirts of town. It was the summer when we first got there, and we would sit on the back porch and drink wine. As twilight fell, you started to work on the series: the camera on the tripod pointed at the same stretch of woods; the high-ASA film pulling in the trees, evergreens all, as they rested against the sky. A month in, you developed the roll, each photo seemingly replicating the one before it. I said something about us saving money and just getting copies of one made on glossy stock and you just looked at me.
Not far from us was a church. We were never churchgoers, but we drove past it one day, trying to piece together its denomination. “Boxing lessons in the basement,” read a sign out front, below “Sermon Sunday 9:30” and a Bible verse. Apparently, those were our closest neighbors. They seemed quiet, even on Sunday mornings. Perhaps, we joked, they skipped the service and went straight downstairs, donned gloves and mouthguards, and got to it.
Taking photos of a static space was something we’d also done in our old apartment. We spent one roll on a view of the fire escape and one roll on a view of the air shaft. One night we’d been blessed: we caught a drunk neighbor shattering empty bottles as they fell, and the blurred glass looked like an impossible waterfall. I sat looking through the month’s worth of photographs of the evergreens one night and saw something, a flaw or a rupture. Everything lined up, every photograph a duplicate of its successor and a duplicate of its predecessor. But then, one varied: the trees were out of line. Not by much. They weren’t different trees; they hadn’t grown or shrunk. But their position had shifted, at least for a night, or part of a night. I called you in and I pointed it out. You posited that one of us had bumped the camera. And I asked: then who bumped it back? A trick of the light, we decided. An earthquake. A family of squirrels. A curious deer. Something, at least, that could be called plausible.
The first snapshots fell on the front lawn the morning after the first leaves of autumn touched the ground. We had bought shirts from a local store, the phrase GREETINGS FROM CITY OF THE STARS emblazoned across the front. It seemed noble. It seemed a vote of confidence in our new home. We knew friends back in the city would likely envy us. We wondered just how many of these t-shirts had been bought by bands and those looking to tap into the well of cool of a city that had never been cool. We wondered that. Personally, I liked wearing the shirt when I raked.
Beneath the first layer of leaves were a few Polaroids. None of the people in the images were people we knew. They held up signs, but the flash used to take the photograph had wiped out any trace of what had been written on them. I showed them to you, and we decided to collect them. An art project, we said. “Found Images of City of the Stars.” It sounded like a gallery show. We could see it as a gallery show, whether bearing your name or mine. Or both of our names. We could collaborate, we decided. It could work.
We passed another church on the way to shop for groceries one day. It wasn’t a large town, we noted, and yet: two churches. (We’d later see a third in the downtown.) A placard outside of this one listed the times for Wednesday evening and Sunday morning services; it also advertised kickboxing on Saturday nights. It was tempting, and we discussed it on more than one occasion. Our shared dislike of being preached to held us back. Exercise, you said. It could be great. It might, I said, but there’s always jogging. And so, instead, we jogged, limited circles, never getting too far, always winded from the hills.
We kept finding photographs below the leaves that fall. For a little while, the camera that had recorded the trees each night was deputized for surveillance, to see if someone was climbing onto one of the trees at night and secreting Polaroids in the branches, or walking softly onto our lawn in the small hours and tucking them in among yellow and orange leaves.
One morning, we got the idea to dust one of the photos for fingerprints. We ordered a kit designed for children–I’d played with one as a kid, you had not–and sprung for overnight shipping. We tested one of the photographs and then we tested more, but none bore swirls rising from dust. We discussed scenarios: gloves or tongs or discreetly utilized tweezers.
We had a drink on the back porch and then we went out for a walk. It took us twenty minutes to get to downtown City of the Stars. There, we looked in some shops and pondered taking up fishing. There was a small bar that we caught sight of and we walked in and each had a beer and sat and talked and didn’t see anyone else come in or exit. And we walked back home, the sidewalks of the downtown giving way to semi-worn pedestrian paths through roadside grasses, and then we were home, and we decided to go back out to the back porch for one last drink, because the cold was coming, and because we might not be able to enjoy the casual outdoors quite so much the next time. We sat out there, drinks in hand, and you told me, you swore to me, that you had seen the trees in the distance move.
The leaves kept falling, and with them came the photographs. Still the same people, still the same washed-out signs. Learn how to use a flash, I found myself saying to this absent photographer. Finally, one Thursday morning, we realized that we could make out the word on one of the signs held in the photo. That word was “Fight.”
We kept walking to the downtown. There was the bar, and there were a few shops, and that seemed to be it. There were law offices every block, it seemed; we’d had no idea that we’d relocated to a hub of barristers. (We were self-confessed Anglophiles. It had been a part of our courtship.) The art-house theater had a sign out front mentioning that they were closed for renovations. The galleries all seemed to be between exhibits: we’d read about them, plan to go, and find that they’d closed the weekend before. It made for a strange and halting routine.
On one trip, we saw a man walking with a peculiar t-shirt. There was the whiff of something religious about it–we’d both gone to high school with fellow students who had evangelized through slogans on their clothing. “Afterlife Title Bout,” it read in a font that almost, but didn’t entirely, emulate an old boxing poster. We wanted to ask him what it meant, but we suspected we knew where the conversation would go, and we held off on approaching him. Instead, we walked to the bar, had a drink, and went home.
The photographs kept falling. Not many leaves on the trees remained, and we talked about what might happen in the snowy season, if we’d find waterlogged Polaroids poking out of the snow like some sort of readymade crocus. One Wednesday morning, we went on what had become a pre-work ritual and gathered up those that we could find. It was a day of luck, we decided: two more words, in this batch, had been written in a way that was now legible. One was “You” and one was “If.”
I had also begun to notice something off with the evergreens. I hoped it was something psychological, some sort of side effect of the move out of an urban space and into one more rural. It was a phenomenon I hoped to categorize, hoped to capture.
The last legible word on the Polaroids turned out to be “Die.” In this one, the anonymous models had a look of anger on their faces; possibly frustration: Haven’t you pieced it together yet? We still had no idea. The images now filled a shoebox. We felt a burgeoning terror. Seeing the word “die” will do that to you.
“If you fight, die,” was our best guess as to what it all meant. We didn’t know the context. It seemed like a warning. For a moment, we imagined roving bands of angry photographers in the trees. It was one last time to laugh, apparently.
We looked out the back windows one night and saw the evergreens shifting. This was no surreptitious mouse darting out from under a kitchen cabinet: it was in the open. We drew lots as to which of us should investigate. We then realized that, for two people, lots made no sense. We rock-paper-scissored. Three turns yielded rocks attacking rocks. On the fourth go, I went with paper and you went with scissors. You got the backpack and the flashlight and the digital camera. You said you would text me every fifteen minutes once you got there, then revised that down to ten.
Twenty minutes later, the first text came, telling me that you had arrived. There wasn’t another. And so I walked there, knowing it would take most of the remaining night, wanting to see what had become of us.
There were arcs of grass dead from friction. It was like a forest growing up inside crop circles. Of course it was. It wasn’t clear how long they stretched; were there vast circles in which clusters of tall evergreens would meticulously rotate? At the edge of the circle was a door, and through that door stretched a ramp, well-illuminated, stretching down.
Many steps below the surface was where the Polaroids began to emerge. A line of them. It looked like trim; a border above which you could put wallpaper. It would have been quaint. In them, the same four figures, the same half-visible words, but finally in a coherent order: If you die, fight. Soon after that, the tracts began, a library of them, all based on the idea of traveling into what’s beyond after death and fighting to get back home, of a literal rebirth as the result of an endless brawl.
The light outside of the ramp was steady and pale, fluorescent bulbs bought at bulk discount decades ago and preserved. There was little to see at first, just something vast, something that dwarfed museum dioramas of whales and megafauna. Leviathans stood up there, the gears that turned and moved the forest above.
I walked under the gears then, and I waited, and I walked and I flinched and I wanted for an attack to come. I waited for the attack, and I waited to die so that I could walk into the afterlife with hands clenched into fists and spend a timeless time punching through everything that stood there until I ended up encased in flesh again. I had been reading that philosophy around town for months, and now I was ready. And I stepped through a gap in the gears and I saw you, and I saw your eyes did not know me; and then I saw what lay beyond, and that was how we came to the city under City of the Stars.