It is an everyday. It will never be any other day.

The story below was written not for 9/11, but for 4/19. And yet, it holds true for all such tragedies, here, and around the world.

For the victims. And for the survivors. May we all find peace.  Shalom aleikhem.

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Harvey & Fifth
A woman sits curled on a bench near the Survivor Tree, her legs tucked under her, arms at ease by her side. Her spine is curved gracefully, the impression of repose. Jeans, boots, black tee and windbreaker don’t seem enough to warm her slight frame but she gives no indication of being cold. The fingers of her left hand flex periodically, as though grasping for something. Other than that, she does not move.

Too much silence.

Bear witness, it says. Bear witness.

Sunlight dapples through, stroking the cold granite, illuminating office windows no-one gazes out of any more. In the spaces between open walls, voices are hushed, steps are slowed. Cars mute themselves when they drive past, construction sounds whisper, sirens whine. This is a place of the living among the dead.

May you be in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

The sun shifts, the air cools. She stretches her legs, wincing. A couple walks slow through the orchard below, hand in hand, silent. Their steps are muffled in the grass. The woman leans her head against her companion’s shoulder, turning her face to his suit jacket. They are twenty-something. They may not even remember, any more…

It has been that long. It has been no time at all.

“Have you ever seen the face of the devil?”
“No ma’am, I have not. But I have seen his handiwork.”

They run the tapes in the museum next door. Interviews. Arial shots. Commentary and scholarship. The guard walking his path below believes in the devil with a human face. “God has his plan,” he says, as though that explained everything.

Sometimes, God blinks.

Sometimes, the devil turns aside.

There can be no other reason why she’s alive.

The kaleidoscope inside her turns and turns, and the light is always broken. She laughs when she should mourn. She mourns…endlessly. This is not her first visit. Every year, she swears it will be her last. There has never, for so many years, been anywhere else she was. There’s a space within her that always tells Oklahoma time. 9:01. 9:03.

#

Dusk never arrives; one minute it waits, the next it is there. Lights shine from the ground, carefully placed, illuminating up. In the shadows you can see outlines of what was: if you squint…

She can see it all.
She can’t see anything at all.

5-6-7-
all good children go to heaven.

Heaven, she thinks, must be a very boring place, if only the very good were let in.

She turns then, folds her arms on the cool curving stone wall, rests her chin, sighs. She shouldn’t be here. There’s nowhere else she can be. Let midnight be the witching hour. Twilight is when the barriers fall. And tonight —
Tonight.

Bear witness, this place murmurs. Bear witness.

Tonight, the rules change.

#
Slowly, the grounds clear. The couple is gone; the lone walkers bundled into cars, home or to hotel rooms. Only she and the guard remain. Darkness enfolds the tree, sharpening the lights surrounding it, leeching colors into matted silver.

Somewhere, distant beyond the cityscape, a church bell rings the hour. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.

A scuffle, a giggle from somewhere in front of her, the sound carried in clear dark air. Her breath catches, holds until it burns. Please. Oh, please…

In her entire life, this is the only thing that’s healthy.

#
The silence is less now; trees speak, water listens. Shadows tumble and twirl. Under low-scudding clouds, shadows race to touch the cool water of the shallow-running pool, sprinkle it at each other, look in hope for minnows or frogs. Some clamber on chairs, lights winking out then reappearing as they pass. Giggles, fidgets, pushing and shoving.

One, larger, more curious, more aware, looks up at the sky, tracking the in-and-out game the silver-red moon plays behind clouds.

Do they remember? Do they know?

If Heaven is perfect, it must be so very, very dull.

To die, to sleep;
To sleep; perchance to dream, ay, there’s the rub…

She rises, walks down the shallow steps, her breath frosting slightly in the air. Shadows slipslide, scatter. One paints its face with tiger stripes, pulling a tail into being, prancing on two feet as though on four. Another shakes a cape out from narrow shoulders, manages to soar a few feet before landing on soft brown grass, shaking in giggles of triumph.

In the pass of the moon from one cloud to another, a menagerie of animals and creatures emerge: a spaceman, a cowboy, a princess, a clown. Two aliens poking each other with ray guns, waving their green and gold antenna at each other. A ghost, a firefighter. A black cat and a striped one, and a great-eared shaggy-coated dog with a tail that doesn’t wag. And more, dancing in the October night wind, shaking out soft shadow-bags and dashing about.

A larger shadow here, there. Perched on granite steps, Lucite chairs. Watching. Guarding. They know she’s there, a tacit truce for the night, for the hour. She fights the urge to lunge herself at them, to be enfolded in nonexistent arms.

Their arms can not catch her when she falls.

A whispersoft sound behind her. Down the steps, into the harsher light of the street, careful to stay on the sidewalk, holding hands. She follows, hands shoved into pockets, clenching. Candy corn left in small plastic bags, woven in the wire of the external fence, tucked among cardboard signs and cloth mementos. Small fingers pick them, squabble, move on. Their hands trail the fence, staying close, not venturing too far out from the comfort zone.

The tiger discovers candy bars. Bite-size, nineteen left in a neat pile on a plastic plate. They are doled out with careful consideration, each disappearing deep into bags and pockets. Then soft racing footsteps up the shallow steps, back through the archway.

Some pull towards the children’s wall, others push for the far archway, the broken stones. A pause – they will not separate. A small shadow strikes out and the others follow, streaming up the stairs to the Tree.

A box of apples wait, a hand-scrawled note attached, unread. Quarter-sized pieces of toffee are in a basket tied with an orange and black ribbon. One, two, four apples disappear. All the toffee is taken. The ribbon is released into the air.

For thereby some have entertained angels unawares…

The woman sits heavily on the bench, watching the taffeta tangle in the breeze, coming to rest on the sere branches of the elm. She feels like that, too often. Released, but unable to stray.

#
Children left the first candy. A Mexican sugar skull, the newspapers reported. The next year, a bag of Sweet Tarts, a handful of Hershey bars. Eventually, it got out of hand; too much, too much generosity. But despite restrictions, the offerings still appear. The guards look the other way, collect what’s left in the morning.

They don’t forget.

And they never wonder where the missing pieces go.

Bear witness, the wind tells every living ear. Bear witness.

And in the chilled night air, a woman crouches on a cold cement step, and weeps chocolate tears.

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© 2003  Laura Anne Gilman  First published in FLESH AND BLOOD #12
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