Beautiful Ashes: Madison Smartt Bell


Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here


“Fall on Me”


Rewind: the blocks and steel and window frames roll up from the belly of their collapse.  They reassemble, fall in place.  There it is: so simply, easily, reordered and resolved.  The bloom of flame is reabsorbed into the building.  The fire unburns.  Thumb down tighter on the button.  Pull the poisoned barb of the plane’s hooked turn.  See the plane sucked backward, off the screen.  Away, unthought-of.  Unimagined.  Thumb down tighter.  The day hums backward.  The towers lift their empty faces into the blue sky of the dawn.

Gerald Ryder rockets upward in the elevator, cradling a paper sack with coffee, light and sweet, a poppy seed muffin he shouldn’t eat, should have bought bran.  From the other hand dangles a slimline briefcase containing Palm Pilot, cell phone, CD-player he takes to the gym before work.  Still a burn in his arms now, from the rowing machine, and he’s still sweating lightly, through the oxford cloth of his striped shirt.  Half-blind to the other passengers in the box, he nods to one or two or he knows, not looking at them.  Someone’s yakking, a pair of women, the dominant voice grating and shrill I told her if she’s just going to let him get away with— Ryder shuts it off, repeating his mantra, silently behind dulled eyes, we’re going up up up up up we’re going straight up to the top because this is the moment when the acceleration of the elevator gives that thought its power, and with that lightness, looseness underfoot and in his legs Ryder always thinks of the last bit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the elevator blasts right out the top of the building and sails away into the wild blue; sometimes he wonders what a therapist would say to that if he was fool enough to waste the money or had the time to visit a therapist.  Never happen.  Now a lurch of the stomach and the lightness rising to his head as the elevator slows and stops.  The doors open.  Ninety-ninth floor.

As he goes in, he shows his smart card to the scanner, this card that makes him findable anywhere in the building, since Gerald Ryder is just that important to the firm.  Inge looks up at him, cool smile, neutral good morning in her precise British accent, not bothering to mention his name.  She’s a Kraut, despite the accent, ridiculously good-looking, something like the Saint Pauli Girl on the bottle, but more sophisticated, finer-lined, and far less welcoming.  Very much less welcoming.  For the last week or so Ryder has been a little nervous of her, though Christ, she’s only a receptionist– but she did appear soon after the whole company was bought out by the Krypto-Krauts, as Paul and Ryder like to call them for a joke, and maybe Inge listens to jokes like that, remembers them.  One day Ryder was leaning over her station, showing her how to do some operation on the system, his left hand casually placed on her left shoulder, only because he was stooped forward, tie swinging over the keyboard, and needed to lean, it could have been.  Though he put no weight on her shoulder.  Her top had a flat round neck and his thumb and forefinger overlapped the cloth and registered the warmth of her skin.  Also her perfume is expensive as hell, same kind as Ryder’s wife’s is how he knows– one thimble-full of cat-piss costs damn near as much as a Porsche.  All the time he’s explaining, instructing, supervising, no reason to make anything of the touch, but Inge straightened, stiffened, beamed down on his hand such a superhero laser glare that Ryder practically expected to draw back a smoking stump.  He’s been a little shy of her since then– so easy nowadays to get strung up for sexual harassment, or what if she was a spy for Baumgartner, even his mistress– who knew?

The light of sunrise spills from the tall windows across the empty carpet, bathing the teak reception desk, Inge’s loosely waved blonde hair.  Too much glare to check the view.   He pads across the floor, glancing back once, for a quick unnoticed appreciation of her nicely turned calf, attractively trussed in the straps of a high-heeled shoe….  Through to the back, he reaches his cubicle, sets down the briefcase on the floor, deli bag beside the cable keyhole, snaps on the beast.

 What up, Ger? says Paul, half rising to peer at him from two cubicles across.  You tell me, says Ryder, as his screen lights up.  Paul’s been getting in here earlier, not stopping at the gym.  The whine of a vacuum in the next room distracts him for a second. They’ve been building new workstations in there for most of the month.  At least the contruction part is done– no more hammering and sawing and drilling, just a handful of cleaning crew temps in there today.  Ryder slings his coat over the back of his chair and sits down.  The fold of his midsection sends a spurt of acid into his esophagus.  He uncaps his coffee; the coffee won’t help.


Timothy Thompson twists sideways in his seat, edging an inch or so out into the aisle.  That puts his shoulder at risk of being clipped by the drink cart when it rolls by, but there’s nothing to be done for it; he’s got nowhere to go.  No midget he, but he’s been outpositioned by the outrageously overweight woman in the middle seat, unconscious and complacent, her flesh billowing above and below the armrest, touching Thompson at all points, since he has no room to shrink away.  Actually she’s got the middle and the window seat both, but still somehow it’s not enough for her.

Ridiculous.  The flight’s half-empty.  How did he get himself stuck here?  Somebody screwed up the seat assignments and packed everybody together in the front.  As soon as the seatbelt sign goes off, he’ll be able to get up and move.  Just a few more minutes of misery.  Even his thighbones are too long for this situation, with the seat in front reclined just a notch or two, now that the plane has finished the initial climb.  He’s a tall guy, Thompson; maybe he played high-school hoop, not quite good enough to start on his college team.  Too tall for coach seats on these cheapo airlines.  Tall enough for first-class, definitely, but not rich enough, not yet.  Well, frequent-flyer miles should take care of that, if he stays on this run.  He’s only like six seats back from the curtain to the first class cabin.

He cranes around, checking the rest of the sardines packed in his area of the can.  Across the aisle a black dude with cornrows, maroon sweat-suit with a racing stripe, winks toward the fat lady, gives Thompson a sympathetic look.  Dude is in better luck than Thompson, because his row-mates are a woman and a nursing baby, so there’s nothing in the middle but a kid seat.  And behind, a row of sour-faced Third World types, and in back of them, there starts to be plenty of empty seats.  Soon enough he’ll head back there.

Thompson faces forward, loosens his tie some more.  Feels his feet beginning to swell, already.  A flight attendant is creeping his way, leaning over to repeat the usual question, scratching the answers on a notepad.  As long as they don’t roll out the cart,  Thompson’s outside shoulder is safe.  So far so good.  His eyes rest on the flight attendant while he considers: orange juice, or go for the screwdriver?  His meeting’s what, eight hours away?  He sees himself striding into the building and up to the desk: T. Thompson, expected at four.  He doesn’t like to tell people Timothy, though the first name is printed on his card.  Just cut it back to T.  Kids made a joke of his name in grade school– Tim-Tom, Tim-Tom, till he couldn’t get that sing-song out of his head.

So maybe a screwdriver.  A little early to be starting, though.  Especially considering West Coast time.  The girl is actually kind of cute.  What is it, casual Tuesday for flight attendants?  But Thompson likes the outfit– white blouse, short black skirt, or maybe it’s culottes, long pale legs, not great, not bad.  What makes it is the shoes, the little black loafers with little white socks.  Given the angle, Thompson’s eyes naturally go there; he’s got on sunglasses so no one’s apt to notice how he’s scoping her.  Maybe the screwdriver, after all.  The legs are kind of childish, actually, but maybe that’s what makes it all work.  Not much up top that he can see but wrinkles in the blouse.  A wave of black hair falls over her collar.  Her face is pretty, somehow a little small for the rest of her, small fine features, a little pinched, and older too– that face is over thirty for sure.  Two little lines between eyebrows and nose are where her headache started, just before take-off.  She’s waiting for the Anacin to kick in.  What’s her name?  You have to know her name.  Thompson never will.


You’ve achieved Ryder; he’s solid enough, his cufflinks, suspenders framing the start of the paunch that his gym time is not quite enough to prevent, his oxblood shoes.  Still reasonably nice-looking at forty-two, beginnings of a bald spot in his neat reddish hair, a few veins popped in the crease of his nostrils, cholesterol just beginning to rise.  You can see him, touch him, taste the acridity in the back of his throat.  A swallow of coffee pushes it back; it’s stronger when it returns.  He’s cabled his Palm Pilot into the desktop, watches the colored numbers scrolling down the screen.

“Reeks,” Paul says, passing behind his chair.  (What color is his hair? his tie?) “Just totally reeks, you know?” and Ryder glances up with a not-very-happy half of a smile, then points his nose back to the screen.  The market is not going up up up like the Chocolate Factory elevator.  It is falling like a feather falls on a gusty day, when vagrant currents of the air waft it upward half the time, but one way or another it always ends up lower than it was.  What to do?  Excepting a few really crappy days, it’s been a bull market for practically all of Ryder’s adult life.  So he’s not sure.  Go short.  There’s a movement to go short on a bunch of airline stocks and he’s watching that, not sure if he ought to get with it or not.


Reversed, the jumpers all appear to fly.  A flight of larks shooting up the face of the tower, or no, a fountain of dark butterflies, with a few bright markings below their heads (from neckties fluttering in the sun).  They hover before the mosaic honeycomb, in every cell a life.  A dozen lives.  How are they to be numbered?  Building towered foresight isn’t anything at all.  All those souls stacked up upon each other, unaware.  Unconscious of each other, of what power holds them up.  The exhausting force of concentration it takes to recreate their being, and all the while you must contend with recurring thoughts and images of the incident, increased fear and anxiety, difficulty in maintaining a daily routine, feelings of guilt, feelings of loss or grief, reluctance to express feelings, difficulty concentrating, problems with memory, emotional numbing, sense of helplessness, anger, irritability, hyper-vigilance, moodiness, increased sensitivity, depression, sadness, nightmares, sleep disruption, startled reactions, fatigue, low energy, social withdrawal, feelings of loss of control.  Understand that these symptoms are normal.  Limit your exposure to media coverage.  Realize that it takes time to feel better.  Be patient with the Anafranil; it may take weeks for improvement to show.


By now, Tim Thompson has pretty well capitulated to the idea of the screwdriver.  The girl is almost to him now.  Just finishing up the row ahead.  Of course with the system they seem to be running on it’ll be a while longer before he actually gets the drink.  And now that the decision is made, a whole lot of cells, receptors, whatever, have lined up to expect that first passage of mix into metabolism.  Thompson swallows; his throat’s gone dry.  Here comes another delay: the Third Worlders are making a commotion, all getting up and blocking the aisle.  Seatbelt sign’s still on but it doesn’t seem to bother them.  All four of them shouldering their way past the flight attendant, rude, the way those people so often are.  Her face expresses this opinion ever so slightly as they thrust past her.

Do they all think they’re going to get in the bathroom at once?  So, probably that’s how they live in whatever miserable country they come from.  But Thompson calls the last thought back.  It’s a pattern; he’ll think ill of people, then repent it.  One of the three turns back toward him.  Over the flight attendant’s shoulder, Thompson gets a glimpse of his drawn and yellowish face– unhealthy color.  It’s like the guy means to acknowledge Thompson’s mental apology, but instead he lifts the wave of dark hair from her collar (which is something Thompson has idly thought it might be nice to do) and she what’s her name! has only time to begin to register the authority of the unexpected touch, then the yellow-faced man with his other hand unzips an invisible seam on her throat so that all the blood comes out.


Micheline, her head in a bandanna, bulb-shaped body zipped into a dark coverall, sponges cleaning fluids over the new-made cubicles, the odor crisp in her nose.  Jeannot is wiping smudges off the wallboard, and Etzer vacuums sawdust from freshly laid carpet, still fuming from glue.  Micheline tastes glue on the roof of her mouth; her head aches from it also.  She runs her sponge around the black plastic ring on the desk top through which the wires will be strung.  The wires have not come yet but when they do the computers will be attached to them and the Americans will use the computers to pull electricity out of the walls and turn it into money.  At Friday’s end, three days from now or four days counting this one, Micheline will receive a fraction of this money transformed into a cheque, which she will convert into green dollars to be sealed in the red and gold envelopes she gets in Chinatown, or hidden in the boxes of tape cassettes, or slipped between the leaves of Jehovah’s Witness tracts translated into Haitian Kreyol, then to be mailed to her six children in the care of her two sisters who still live in the Carrefour section of Port au Prince.

A tongue of sunlight licks through the man-high panes of glass at the lower end of the remodeled room.  A blade of light lies on the floor.  Etzer shuts off the vacuum and prostrates himself on the carpet, hands outstretched in the direction of the sun.  In a low voice, he begins to utter long strings of strangling sound.  Micheline and Jeannot also stop working, straighten up.  They reach for their cups of weak, milky coffee, thick with sugar.  Jeannot has the idea of miming a kick toward Etzer’s somewhat comically upraised buttocks, to see if the gesture will make Micheline smile, but then he thinks that it is better not to mock.

Li fou,” he says, to Micheline, He’s crazy, but his tone is tentative.  Micheline does smile, but distantly, over the steaming rim of her paper cup, her other hand pressed in the aching small of her back.

“It is langage he is speaking, maybe,” Jeannot says, thinking of the tongues some Vodouisants may utter when the drums have put them in possession of their spirits.

“No,” said Micheline.  “It is Arabic.  Etzer learned this religion from the Arabs who came with the blue helmets in ninety-five.”

“I remember them,” Jeannot says with grin.  “It was they who ate up all the goats.”  Micheline is talking about the Pakistani soldiers who arrived among the U.N. forces who put an end to the Haitian coup d’état six years before.  Certainly they had laid waste to a great many goats in the short time of their stay, because their religion did not allow them to eat pork.  The Pakistani soldiers were strong in their religion and they persuaded some few young Haitian men to join it.  Jeannot remembers those days very well.  He used to joke then that it was foolish to join a religion that forbade the eating of pork at a time when the population of goats had been almost abolished by the Pakistani soldiers, but of course there were few enough Haitans who could afford to eat any kind of meat.

“Well, maybe this religion strengthens his spirit,” Jeannot says.  “One ought to respect it.”

“It is so,” says Micheline, believing it; for when she knew Etzer in Carrefour he was dissolute, with no order to his soul at all; he took whatever drugs leaked out of the huge transshipments from South America, and seemed on his way to becoming a bandit, but now that he has this Muslim religion, he will not even drink a beer, but stays quietly at night in the corner of Micheline’s room in Bushwick, turning the pages of the Q’uran under the oval glow of a flashlight.  Now he too saves green dollars and sends his portion to the family in Carrefour.  Micheline, who has been here for nearly three years now, introduced him to the cleaning crew, where Jeannot had introduced her before.  By the grace of God, the cleaning crew pays minimum wage, much better than the sweatshop money, although, regrettably, they also take out taxes.

As if her words had been his signal, Etzer bounces onto his feet.  He is a tall young man, no longer so emaciated as he was in Haiti, though still very lean.  As soon as he got money in America, he got his hair carved into a high canted shape like the bow of a Caribbean cruise ship, which makes him appear still more tall and thin.  He stands in the widening band of sunlight, smiling at the other two, a little self-consciously.  The floor slams upward, or rather slaps– just a little jolt for Micheline to receive in the soles of her feet.  As if Etzer’s movement has rocked the building, though that, of course, is impossible.  It’s only a slight dislocation, like the very small earthquake shocks she has felt sometimes in Carrefour, but the others have felt it too, and for a moment there is fear in the room, an entity separate from the three of them.  Fear turns their eyes from one another, as it would do in the coup d’état time, if by some misfortune the macoutes should visit your house, for example.

“It’s nothing,” says Jeannot.  And it is nothing.  Nothing more comes.  With a nod affirming what he’s said, Jeannot goes back to wiping the walls.  At first Micheline was terrified to climb to the heights of the towers.  In the elevator, her heart would rise to fill her throat like a frightened dove trying to fly out a chimney.  But since those first days she has had many jobs here.  In all the world, she knows, there can be no building so mighty, and she feels no fear when she comes up now, only a kind of pride.  The same quiet feeling moves among the three of them, as Etzer turns on the vacuum and Micheline picks up the squirt bottle and the sponge.

            Allahu Akbar! Hamza hears his own voice overlapping with the other shouts– God is great! — as he pulls the box cutter left to right, across the soft neck of the infidel woman.  The triangular cutting point moves almost without resistance; it is new and razor-sharp, to prevent unnecessary pain as much as for efficiency.  No cry but the shouted affirmation of Allah.  His hands are wet.  The woman relaxes into him, her legs collapsing, surrendering her will to his.  She is dead.  Hamza is launched toward Paradise, there is no turning back.  For this he was born; it has all been written.  The infidel he faces, over the dark crown of the dead woman’s hair, have not yet comprehended anything.  One touches a blood spot from the lens of his glasses, then looks at his fingertip, unbelieving.  The breath of the infidel has stopped.  Only one, an infant, cries.  The mother exposes her breast to quiet it.  Hamza averts his gaze from the impure sight.

His eyes find the eyes of his brother Ahmed, who has reduced the male flight attendant, down in the tail of the plane.  Then he glances over his shoulder: they have control of the cockpit.  Hamza takes a step backward.   His heart muscle flexes vigorously, forces blood to every surface of his skin.  The box cutter is a numb inconsequential chip in his right hand.  He turns toward the first class cabin, letting the woman fall in the aisle.  Thompson’s gaze is still fastened to her legs, his mind still attached to ideas which have now become irrelevant.  He won’t get his drink.  He won’t be able to change his seat.  The flight attendant’s face is turned to the side, hidden in a spill of hair.  Her head has moved more freely than it should.  Her pale limp legs remind Thompson of the limbs of a sleeping child.  But she’s not sleeping.  Her blood has sprayed over his shirt front, his glasses, his face, the fat lady next to him who seems to be hyperventilating, more or less quietly, with a hiccuping rhythm.  Thompson would like to do something to calm her, but he can’t stop looking at the overturned black loafers, the little white socks, while Hamza is moving to block the passage to first class and the cockpit, turning to face the infidel passengers in coach, to oppose them in the case of need, though none have heart to rise.  To hold himself calm he recites in silence, Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of his light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star), and Thompson’s mind skitters across the jumble of his impressions, thinking there hasn’t been a hijacking in the States for twenty years, longer, thinking statistically (because Thompson is trained as an actuary): few hostages in hijackings are actually harmed so the odds are good that he will be safe, that ninety-nine percent of them all will be safe, maybe as good as a hundred percent, once they have endured a period of discomfort, uncertainty, and fear.  With this thought he has courage to take the small damp hand of the fat lady next to him (whose name might be, improbably, Cymbeline, she may have flown this very morning from Portland down to Boston, en route to L.A. for the birth of her first grandchild), press it, comfort it; the P.A. crackles and a clipped voice, begins to say remain in your seats remain calm remain in your seats we are going back to the airport.  Thompson hears a very slight but unfamiliar accent, is that the pilot’s voice from before?  The black guy in the sweatsuit wriggles in his seat, broadcasting a whazzup wid dis? expression.  Thompson is inspired to take his hand as well, reaching across the aisle to do so, and Hamza’s adrenalin gushes upward when he sees this movement, though he does not twitch a hair; only his eyes move, and even that movement is slight.  If the sheep were to charge everything might be undone but being sheep they will do no more than bleat, a few of them, as they go to the slaughter.  Hamza looked down the length of the tube to meet the eyes of Ahmed again, imagining that Ahmed is also silently telling the words of the Sura of Light.  Now Thompson would like to wipe the blood-speckles from his glasses but his hands are engaged and he does not want to relinquish his connection with these other lives, this contact improved now that the black guy has taken the free hand of the nursing mother beside him.  In Thompson’s mind the same bothersome clip replays: the yellowish hand pulling back a sort of grey tag, like the tab of an outsized zipper built into the flight attendant’s neck.  It doesn’t seem to fit that such a small movement should have such a large result of blood and death, and it is a wrong result also; it’s messing up his calculation.  According to the calculation they shouldn’t yet have killed anyone. They shouldn’t have killed anyone at all.  The hands press tighter; the verses unroll in Hamza’s mind an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it and his eye lingers on the nipple just relinquished for an instant by the infant’s mouth, which somehow reminds him of the olive, the oil, the lamp within the glass and the glass within the star, though he knows this chain of connection is wrong and he must have no wrong thought when he is fifteen minutes from Paradise.  Ten minutes.  Under the blue scarf she wears over her hair, the eyes of the young mother rise toward Hamza, more calm than his own and amazingly clear and the trouble is there are too many such moments, and look how little you’ve accomplished– there are fifty-nine more people on this airplane and you must hold them all aloft at once, create them and sustain them with your mind.  Children are peculiarly difficult; you know that certainly there are children old enough to be alarmed by what is happening, but it is difficult, painful, to pull them back: their faces, names, their distress and fear (these latter feelings are the occasion of your pain) but maybe the children have been reassured by people who are thinking as Thompson thinks and maybe it is better to leave the children a little vague and ill-defined– you may simply assume them while instead you concentrate on the mother and infant and the cycle of nursing that brings perfect comfort and reassurance to both and even has a little to spill over and be shared through the connecting hands of the black man with the cornrows (what’s his name!) with Thompson and his seatmate.  Allah guides his light to whom he will.  And Allah strikes similitudes for men, and Allah has knowledge of everything.  Five minutes.


End of the tape.  The buildings have fallen.  Silence has fallen.  Afterward, days afterward, the structure somehow is still there, described in vapor.  Men and women all transparent as if they’d just been poured in glass.  The different paths of their descent described like contrails on the sky.  In China a butterfly perturbs the air with an adjustment of its wings and from the small unfolds the great.  From that almost invisible swirl this vision-devouring vortex has been born.  In the days that follow, the images appear, a page or two here and there on a wall: a face, a name, a line of description, the hair the clothes the occupation, the relationships with others; then there are many, many more, till finally there are no walls at all but only a card castle built of all these sheets of paper which describe the names and faces of the lost, connecting with each other, depending on each other, beginning to exfoliate with the fractal logic of a fern, a crystal, a mountain or a coastline.  From this exquisitely sensitive dependence on that so-delicate first condition, the towers will be reassembled, raised again where they once stood.  You want to make yourself feel better.  You want to make yourself feel.  Your mind holds up the towers.  Be patient with the Anafranil; some weeks may pass before it takes effect.  Be wary of obsessive thoughts: if you hadn’t stepped on this crack or allowed yourself that small unseemly notion, all of it would somehow be prevented.  Always in your mind the towers reappear.


Ryder is having trouble keeping his mind on the business.  Nose to the flickering, wavering screen.  How long ago did that begin?  For a while, anyway, he’s been more vulnerable to small distractions, while his diversions don’t seem to divert.  The morning workout wears him out instead of energizing him.  His marriage has been stale for a decade, it seems.  The thing with Inge– well, forget it.  He barely sees his children.  The screen keeps slipping out of focus.  Ryder’s been having some trouble with his eyes.  Reeks was Paul’s word.  No doubt about it, middle age reeks.  Not that old age won’t be worse….

He can just see the top of Paul’s head across the partition wall.  Does the guy know he’s getting dandruff?  When the alarm went off ten minutes ago, Paul never budged from his terminal.  He was right, of course, since it was a hoax.  False alarm, anyway.  Ryder himself got no further than the mill in front of the elevator bank before the loudspeakers sent everybody back to work.  What was the hoax?  An airplane hit the north tower.  It actually has happened in the past.  Small planes– you’d think they’d see it, wouldn’t you?  Ryder had the impulse to keep going.  Ride down the shaft, walk out the door and then?  Who knows….  A walk in Battery Park.  A trip to Cambodia.  Something.  But he went back.  Wouldn’t do to get behind.  Can he keep doing this for the rest of his life?

He’s looking at the top of Paul’s head, the flakes of dandruff in the black hair, thinking that Paul is always there when he arrives, and usually still there when he leaves, so Paul is probably up to something, plotting to get ahead of Ryder, edge him out.  Oh, it reeks to be thinking that way, when Ryder and Paul have been buds since biz-school, but still, it’s probably true.

There’s poppy seed crumbs all over his shirt, and the brown irregular splotch of a coffee stain.  That happened a few minutes before the alarm; the coffee just seemed to jump out of the cup.  No sense to it.  Actually, Ryder wonders if he’s coming down with something.  Now the colored bars on his screen resolve and he remembers what the plane hoax made him think of: that short move in airline stocks.  Let’s look again, see where that’s at.  But now another distraction: whispering, snickering, and Ryder swivels in his chair to see the cleaning crew coming out of the new room like some kind of a West Indian parade.  The woman in front, with her mop bucket riding on the top of her head, balanced on the crown of her yellow bandanna, and her empty hands flowing easily around her hips, like Ryder has seen with the old Chinese that do Tai Chi in Columbus Park.  The two guys behind her are the ones snickering, but somehow they’re also marching along.  Ryder’s never looked at this woman before, and she’s certainly nothing much to look at now, but there’s something in the grace of her movement that makes him get up and follow.


Nothing more has happened, and Thompson is thinking that’s good, that’s good; another minute gone by with nothing bad happening, and another and another and soon enough minutes will have piled up that the whole nerve-wracking experience will be behind him.  Behind them.  His hand still connects to the black guy across the aisle who’s slipped into the kind of slack-limbed relaxation Thompson has always envied in guys like that, the way they seem to switch themselves off, and by the window the crying baby has gone to sleep on the mother’s breast and the mother appears to be sleeping too or at any rate has her eyes closed and her head lolled to one side on the headrest.  Everybody’s got their own way of handling the stress.  Behind him, people are making cell-phone calls and Thompson wishes they wouldn’t do that because what if it upsets the hijackers, makes them do something.  But they don’t stop it.  It doesn’t seem to bother them.  They said they were going back to the airport.  Thompson feels somewhat anxious for the plane to land already.  When it has landed they will all be safer and the whole episode will be closer to its end.  He gives the fat lady’s hand a quick pressure.  She’s calmed down now, a good way down, the hyperventilation reduced to a froggy twitch in the loose skin of her throat.  But when Thompson looks past her to the window he gets a real jolt– that was the Empire State Building going by, astonishingly close.  Was it?  So fast, and Thompson doesn’t know the New York skyline all that well.  Still, it rattles him.  What airport are they going back to?  He looks up at Hamza, the only hijacker he can see, and Hamza glances back to the open cockpit and sees Marwan and Fayez are at the staggeringly complicated controls– every inch of the cockpit a dial or a switch– and feels a wash of love for them, the years of devotion and study and discipline that make what they are doing now possible therein glorifying Him, in the mornings and the evenings, are men whom neither commerce nor trafficking diverts from the remembrance of Allah and when Hamza turns back to face the coach section Thompson derives from him the reassurance he was seeking, because Hamza is now the person in authority– not that Hamza smiles or nods or acknowledges Thompson in any way, yet Thompson deduces from Hamza’s calm posture that for Hamza everything is all right, and so it must be.


Ryder follows the parade out to the lobby, where Inge looks up to appreciate this spectacle– black woman walking with a bucket on her head, and a welcome break in the seamless monotony of Inge’s morning.  A plastic bucket of cleaning supplies– it ought to be absurd, but it’s not, because the graceful concentrated ease with which the woman bears it up organizes everything around her into harmony.  It is as if she walks on air.  Harmony is what’s missing from Inge’s life, she thinks as the two male cleaners pass, strutting, capering behind the woman who leads them.  Inge’s life has become stupid, sold to this job where nothing matters but her looks and clothes and her cool manners.  Sold for an absurd amount of money it is true but still, always the discord that she feels.  It must be corrected.  She will do something, certainly, perhaps return to university, and Ryder, at the end of the parade, not quite part of it, just shuffling along behind, catches Inge’s eye and a whiff of her mood and thinks suddenly, what if I apologize to her? –then all this daily discomfort might end.  There’s a person inside her good looks, after all, and we could just be two people doing our jobs. There’s a hum in the background, an increasing drone, and Micheline turns a little too sharply toward the sound, so that the bucket loosens from her head and she must raise one hand to steady it, and Ryder sees her eyes widen, whiten, and Ryder turns to see what she sees beyond the wall of windows.  Remain in your seats remain calm we are going back to the airport, and though this ought to be reassuring Thompson’s heart has started beating TIM-tom TIM-tom so obnoxious make it stop.  Where’s the airport?  It must be near, though he can’t see it, for the plane has lurched into a sickening sort of bank turn that foretells a rocky landing and now, finally some people are screaming And as for the unbelievers; their works are as a mirage in a spacious plain which the man athirst supposes to be water, till when he comes to it he finds it is nothing; there indeed he finds Allah, and He pays him his account in full— Hamza’s tongue has gone thick in his throat his excitement now so great that he has to cling to the bulkhead to hold himself up he is thirty seconds from Paradise for now when he looks through the cockpit door between the dark heads of his beloved and beautiful Marwan and Fayez he can see the target the building the windows and the people standing behind the windows seeing the unbelievable spectacle of the jetliner rushing toward them: Ryder, Inge, Jeannot, Etzer, Micheline and the (approximately) four thousand nine hundred and ninety-five others that your mind can’t capture, conjure or sustain.  The mind of God is in all believers.  Not in each but in all.  The mind of God is in all believers.  You know it to be true but somehow now today this instant the truth has been inverted, perverted, reversed.  Something has gone wrong with what it means.  It is too late; it can’t be stopped.  The plane has already entered the building.  The fireball has already illuminated each body to the ashes of its bones.  Now they have all been revealed to each other.  Hamza has no time to finish his prayer.  The steel has already begun to soften; soon it will release its load.  No one of these will ever leave the moment where they all hover now.  They are all to be fused together, forever.


                                              …they are as shadows upon a sea obscure

                                                               covered by a billow

                                                            above which is a billow

                                                           above which are clouds,

                                                    shadows piled one upon another;

                                   when he puts forth his hand, wellnigh he cannot see it.

                                             And to whomsoever God assigns no light,

                                                                  no light has he.

Stop watching. Stop watching the tape.  Stop rewinding.  Don’t watch it again.  Just let it stop.  It was no slip of your attention that let the towers fall.  It never was the concentration of your thought that held them up there to begin with.  Leave it to skyhooks and the grace of God, the exhaled breath of baby birds.  You might have been looking; it wouldn’t have helped.  Nothing could have been prevented.  But still you know that somehow something wasn’t watching.  Something let attention lapse, releasing everything that follows, as the weight falls from the air.


Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985),Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fearan album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes,was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries.  Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007.  Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009.  His most recent novel is The Color of Night.