Fire Comes Down

Eleven years ago to the day, I woke up to my father rousing me out of bed, the radio muttering to itself in the other room. Bleary with sleep, I pulled on a robe and staggered into the other room, where the noises coming out of the radio didn’t make any sense to me no matter how much I shook my head in an attempt to clear it, and how much tea I drank. I turned, even then, to the Internet in the hopes it would bring order and logic to chaos, but instead our dialup connection talked to the server and the server talked back just in time to serve up a grainy, jittering video of a tower falling.

When I flew into New York City alone for the first time only to be overwhelmed by sound and noise and largeness, because New York is a large place, I remember looking out the window of the shuttle I took to the Port Authority building and fixing on the one thing in the landscape I recognised. Hey, I thought to myself, I know those. They occupied an outsized role in a larger-than-life landscape and I craned my neck to track them until I couldn’t see them any more, eaten up by the swell of buildings and people and vehicles around me.

There was a sense of isolation that morning, as we watched and listened to things through a distant, inverted lens while rumours and panic swirled around us. A sense of grave instability swelled in me and there was nothing I could do to fill the growing hole in my consciousness and my understanding of place. All the circuits were busy and the Internet choked and struggled and fought and when we drifted into town to join other small clusters of confused, isolated people, we traded information, much of it meaningless.

There is a photograph somewhere in my father’s belongings of him holding my hand in front of the World Trade Centre, both of us looking up at the looming buildings before us. His hair was still blonde then and mine was much fairer than it is now, a halo of white gold around my head. The picture must have been taken by his friend who worked in the Towers and took us on a tour of his office. It was shortly after we came back from Greece, and thus I remember almost nothing of it, too overwhelmed by the transition from an island village to the heart of US commerce and imperial power.

Where were you when you found out, people would ask each other, and when people drifted out into the street to find out what was going on there would be the occasional moment of awkwardness and murmurs—you didn’t know?—and everyone would hem and haw in an attempt to decide the best way to break the news. A slow, steady ripple effect through a pond that had been still and quiet only hours before. Turning over this new information, they would attempt to fit themselves into the puzzle, to understand their role in the unfolding narrative.

I never went back to the Trade Centre after that. It wasn’t exactly like I had business there, and most of my trips to New York involved moving through the city on my way to somewhere else. Too large and overwhelming for me, it wasn’t a place I enjoyed being, or one I would seek out by choice. Stranded overnight by an airline once, I hid in the hotel until the shuttle came to collect me in the morning. People asked me what I’d done with my unexpected day of vacation in New York and they were shocked and appalled that I hadn’t done anything at all.

The desire to connect themselves with something large and terrible happening just beyond their reach led to the revelation of stories large and small, the search for any kind of connection, no matter how tenuous, with the people, the place. Those with the actual connections, the ones waiting to hear from family members and friends, mostly remained silent, as though saying anything would place a jinx on things. As long as they pretended everything was at a remove from them, perhaps this wouldn’t turn out as terribly as they thought it might.

People used to laugh at my distaste for New York, widely considered by its residents to be the greatest city on Earth, but it was just entirely too much city for me. On that same visit to New York with my father’s friend, we must have gone to the Statue of Liberty, the Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all the places you take tourists, especially those attempting to reacclimate to the giddy funfair ride that is the United States. If we took pictures, they’re long gone now, and I don’t remember any of those places. What I do remember is standing in front of the towers and asking my father’s friend, in all seriousness, how something so tall could stand upright.

The spell had to break eventually as the day wore on and people were forced to break away from the televisions and radios, the impromptu gatherings in the street. They drifted back into their homes and turned on their televisions and radios there, talked around the dinner table in serious tones, speculated in the same tones used by the pundits whom they allowed to shout at them across the airwaves over dinner. Everyone was reluctant to go back to sleep, because who knew what we would wake up to on Wednesday morning.

They started to weave a new narrative, a new mythology, that day, a Pearl Harbour of a new generation. There was a concerted attempt to make it our story, one specific to the United States alone, but even that morning, I knew that these things do not occur in a vacuum, that where there is smoke, there is fire, and that we were about to rain down fire in the name of a nebulous political ideal as camouflage for vengeance.