It had always been the case that the city moved in whatever direction it wanted. All across the land this city was famous for acting on its desires. It was a stubborn, headstrong city. As a result, nobody, least of all its inhabitants, was particularly surprised to discover that the city had promised itself to a god none of them had heard of. They were, however, troubled by the violence of its conversion. Though the inhabitants were an easygoing lot, they also had their limits.

The city threw itself heavenwards as if it were competing in a furious sprint. The inhabitants, struggling to keep up, tried to reason with the city. A cavalcade of citizens filed into what they continued to call the old town square, although by now the city had no centre. They pointed to the empty new skyscrapers and the long winding staircases that went nowhere. The city should slow down, they said. The city was leaving them behind. Consequently, the city was ceasing to make sense. After all, what would it be without any citizens? 

As the city sulked, the inhabitants reminded it that they had tried to be accommodating. This was true: the neighbouring cities, towns and villages were papered with advertisements encouraging others to immigrate to the city, promising growth—more growth than anyone knew what to do with. But rumours of the city’s heedlessness had arrived first, and the inhabitants of other cities were not inspired to swap their lots for another. That city was becoming unsafe, they whispered among themselves, nodding their heads reprovingly. Meanwhile, the slow trickle of people seeking better lives was insufficient to fill the city’s many new chambers and the yawning apartment blocks hastily thrown up.

Finally, the inhabitants said, the city ought to remember that it was a unity made up of many disparate parts. As the crowd of citizens dispersed, a noblewoman’s daughter threw a pensive glance at the building that she thought might be the city’s heart.

But the city knew what it wanted. The higher it rose the holier it felt. No matter that within it unhappiness grew. The new towers blocked out the sun. At night the inhabitants felt the weight of the empty rooms pressing down on them from above. The lower reaches of the city became increasingly inaccessible, swallowed up by its relentless fortifying of its foundations—the surging bedrock. The inhabitants were forced to keep pace with the city and its machinations, lugging their households upwards every other week. The population dwindled. The city refused to pay attention. Somewhere in the corners of its bright stone mind, the city decided that the inhabitants were slowing it down, cramping its style.

Still, it was a surprise to the city when it discovered their plot against it. For some time it had focused only on the warmth of a nearer sun glancing across its high towers and metal scaffolding, but now the city became aware of a pain in its lower extremities. The pain was dull and unrelenting. It peeled its gaze away from the white sky and its glinting god, and hurtled downwards.

There! In a welter of old buildings and churning substrata the city spotted a tunnel. The inhabitants were gone—the city had been abandoned, though it still continued to think of itself as a city.

Because the tunnel did not belong to the city it couldn’t peer down it. But crouching at the tunnel’s mouth the city could hear the shrieking of children and the lowing of domestic animals. It heard markets, feasts, christenings, and weddings. It heard legal courts and the pealing of church bells. It heard hammers clanging and new structures being hollowed out. It heard pickaxes and digging, and the voices of the inhabitants, laughing and singing as they worked. 

Beneath the city, a cavern was emerging. Another city was spiralling downwards, another kind of city altogether, part of the old city but something else too, and the city didn’t know when it would stop.  

the espoused city

missouri williams