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For many years after 9/11, I did an annual archival vigil, working through the events, trying to grasp their contexts as grief and as history, even as I witnessed its racist and xenophobic political uses, the grotesque ways in which we clung to the most lurid accounts. Speaking to my children, watching how they process 9/11 and other events which are historical to them and experience to me, I wonder what it will be like to them when people not yet born ask them, "What was 2020 like?"
Whenever I think about collective memory and how we wield it, I always think of K. Tempest Bradford's story, "Until Forgiveness Comes."
Tempest takes her love and study of Egyptian history and gives us a parallel world, where clerical magic has allowed the country to collectively relive a terrorist attack over and over, long past its time. It is in the form of a radio report, the perfect medium for the scope of the story, necessitating vivid descriptions and a spread of individual stories and opinions.
The events of 9/11 inform this story, but it is only a layer. The intensity and beauty of the world created in such a short span of words, the myriad experiences of grief and its many retreating circles, witnessing personal stories as entertainment and flagellation, and most of all, the desperate need and human wont to turn memory into archive into mythology—these are what make this story timeless, even as it evokes a very specific time.
Of all the pieces I have read in Strange Horizons, this is the one I reread the most. At least once a year, not always on 9/11, but sometimes. I've been trapped in its retelling. Maybe that proves its point. —Vanessa Rose Phin
National Radio News
Mourners Gather at New Central Terminal for Twelfth-Anniversary Haitai
by Sylvia Aloli
Audio for this story will be available at approx. 1900 KNT
Morning Edition, Akhet, Thuthi 19, 4511 The ceremony started at exactly six o'clock this morning when the clerics of Anpu, Iset, Seker, and Nebet-het stood at the four corners to create the sanctified square. Inside New Central Terminal, families and participants listened to the invocations and chants on loudspeakers while frankincense-infused smoke hovered over the still and silent mourners. Once the square was established, Sadana Manu, under-cleric of Iset, gave the sign for mourners to station themselves near the main blast sites for their glimpses of loved ones long gone.
In the twelve years since Red Seteshday, the clerics have perfected the haitai ritual to the point where participants know the script by heart and no longer need much direction on where to go and when. Still, Sadana manages a rotating roster of family members and survivors, reminding them of the correct verses to chant while invoking the highlights of that tragic day. Every year she stands on the memorial dais at the center of the Main Concourse, marking the time for prayers and the time for reading the names of the dead. Even if she weren't an officiant, Sadana says she would find some way to participate.
"Having something to do gets me through the day every year. It's my way of honoring Beke."
She lost her partner of four years that morning. Both seminary students at the time, they were planning to spend their lives serving Iset together. Bekeshe was on her way back to Nubia to spend time with family before her acolyteship began. Every year Sadana watches a faint trace of her stride across the concourse with her bags, searching for the train to the airport, just as the bombing began.
Though the day is painful, Sadana feels that her dual role as mourner and officiant has helped her minister to the families over the years.
"I know exactly how everyone feels. We all lost someone we loved. Had them ripped away by hate. We share a bond."
She helps eleven-year-old Marcus KichiAkak up on the dais. This is his first year as a reader, though he has attended every anniversary haitai. His mother, Decima, was eight months pregnant the day her husband Titus died on his way in to work. Marcus has only seen his father's face in pictures and on the anniversaries when Titus's ghost returns to relive those final moments.
"My mom brought me to the station each time, but I didn't get to go down to the platform until I was seven and told her I was ready."
Titus Nootau died next to train number 710 that morning. He was in the car with bomber number one, who waited until the train came to a full stop before setting off the explosives strapped to his body. Several passengers in the car were blown out onto the platforms, and that is where Marcus has watched his father struggle for breath and expire every year for five years.
"It's hard to watch. But at least I get to see him this way."
Sadana chimes a bell at 7:07 and then thirty seconds later to mark the first two bomb blasts, both from trains arriving in the station. One long, silent minute later a third bell signals the moment when bomber number three detonated in the middle of a large, confused crowd of commuters on the concourse.
Most family members stand on the balconies above the main floor. Even from a distance, the invocation of this moment stirs feelings of claustrophobia. The entire hall, filled with faint, translucent shades of the dead, suddenly feels crowded as the ghosts snap into focus. Panic erupts as some are thrown several feet through the air while others, dying from their injuries, scramble to escape. Many victims were trampled, or trapped by falling debris.
"That moment … It's very hard."
Aemilia Nebibi lost her sister to the chaos that bomber number three unleashed.
"The first year, you didn't really get a sense of it. They had these platforms we could stand on in the middle of the excavation, but you couldn't follow people the way you can now. When the reconstruction was finally done and we did the invocation, people nearly panicked when it happened. The immediacy of that moment never goes away, even though you know you're not in danger.
"I used to feel sort of bitter about the people who didn't stop to help the injured and, basically, stepped on them to get out. After that ritual I understood. It was hard not to bolt myself."
Sadana leads a group of incense-bearing acolytes downstairs where Hannadotter Frida and J. C. Granger stand on opposite ends of the Dining Concourse and ring bells simultaneously to mark the point when bombers number four and five blew themselves up on the main stairways, killing dozens instantly and trapping hundreds more.
"This is my last year, I think. I've seen this too many times. I don't want to see again."
When asked why she came this year, Hannadotter says she did it for her mother.
"I promised her before she died that I would come. She knew, because of the cancer, she would not make it this time. It was important to her, so I am here."
Hannadotter is one of the few who didn't have to wait for the anniversaries to see the details of her father's death. His video camera was recovered from the rubble two days after the attack. The original tape showed bomber number five blocking the stairwell and a view from the floor of the aftermath. The archived version, with the bomber's face and name removed, is now part of the Red Seteshday memorial.
"I ask my mother every year why we come. We had seen his last moments. He even spoke to us in the camera. He said he loved us. I want to honor him, but maybe this is not the way."
Others have also raised concerns over the ongoing nature of the haitai ritual. Though performing it after the first or second anniversary isn't unheard of, most clerics don't recommend it. Wassirian cleric Anes Mshai is an outspoken opponent of further Red Seteshday haitai.
"Bringing closure and allowing family members to say goodbye is healthy. Especially in the case of such a massive disaster. But reliving and recreating the event over and over again every year may be keeping them from moving on."
Anes works closely with Bel-Leuken of the Interfaith Coalition to quell the violence that inevitably arises as the anniversary approaches.
"Doing this ritual every year, long after the event, is like ripping a scab off a wound so it can't heal. It's not just the families, either. Twelve cities from here to Khmet to Britannia effectively stand still on this day, and the anger comes fresh again and again."
Leuken says a year has not gone by without a member of his congregation reporting an altercation or worse.
"People still don't understand the difference between Paesdan Belnos cultists and the average Auvergni. Everyone in Auvergne shares a desire to have Gergovie under sovereign rule, but the majority is against the use of violence to achieve that end."
Anes agrees that the ritual is what sparks the fresh wave of conflicts, rather than the anniversary itself.
"Of course we should never forget those who died and why they're gone. But the haitai is not the way."
The families in attendance mostly disagree with her assessment, but a few have expressed similar sentiments.
"I come here every year to mark the day, but I only went downstairs once."
Mihram Rivera survived the blast upstairs only to find out later that her daughter died when the ceiling collapsed on the Dining Concourse.
"I saw her and I said goodbye and I was done. And that was hard enough. I lived through this. I don't want to experience it again, even if it's just shades and shadows. Why do we have to call up the past? Just commemorate it."
Since the third anniversary, members of the sect of Yeshua-Horu have protested the haitai. Standing silently outside of the station until the ritual is over, they hold signs or wear shirts embroidered with the ancient sign for ba.
"By forcing the ba back into this world we're denying these people the ability to pass through the door into the next life."
The group echoes an old belief that the ghosts the ritual invokes aren't just shades, but the actual ba of the deceased. Out of respect for the dead, they refuse to interfere with the haitai, but they petition the clerics to refuse the request each year.
"We don't know—we can't know the effect this has on the dead. Are we making them relive the pain and fear and anguish of dying all over again? The Father and Son wait for them on the other side of the door. How long are these people going to keep the dead from the next life? I mean, no one can undo what was done, so what's the point in reliving it?"
Sadana has heard all of these objections before, but dismisses them.
"They completely misinterpret the fundamentals of the haitai. The ba can travel back and forth, yes, but it's the sheut we invoke. An imprint left on this world, nothing more."
She also contends that closure can never come until the source of the victims' pain is eliminated. Years after the coordinated bombings in twelve cities, Khmet has still never brought Arverni Vercingetor to justice. Paesdan Belnos still operates, though in a weakened state. And the military is on the eve of invading another Gaelic country accused of providing aid to the organization.
For some families it isn't about global concerns, but about their own personal grief.
"My son struggled to hang on to life."
Nadie Tanafriti leaned against Sadana for support as she rang the sixth bell on the subway platform where bomber number six, a transit employee, delivered the final blow.
"Claudius crawled into a nook and tried to stop the bleeding. But he was alone and the shrapnel cut him too deep and his life just slipped away. Before he died, he said, 'I'm sorry, Mom. I love you.' I had a lip reader come the year after I finally found him. He said it over and over to make sure I'd be able to see and understand. How can I not come every year and be witness to that? He needed me to know.
"There was a young lady who died right over there, trapped under these big chunks of … Sorry. It breaks my heart because I saw her for two or three years, then she just faded. There was no one here to invoke her, to bring her back and remember her. So now she's gone, maybe forgotten, forever."
Others who died have also faded from the ritual over the years—most notably the bombers themselves, who were often the target of fruitless attacks by grieving survivors. All but one are gone from the square now. Only bomber number two remains. His widow, Deirdre, stands in front of the place where he appears each year, flanked by three Mawt-Kom City police officers. She never speaks and has never taken part in reading the names or ringing the bells.
In earlier years, some families and survivors protested her right to take part in the haitai, making well-publicized threats. Sadana has advocated on her behalf since the beginning, finally bringing about an uneasy peace between the mourners. Deirdre's grief is private, some families concede, and of a different measure than theirs.
Each year she stands close enough to see into her husband's eyes, to mark the moment when he went from partner and father to martyr and murderer. When asked, six years ago, why she came, she said she was looking for a way to forgive him. And she'll keep attending, she says, until that forgiveness comes.
Sylvia Aloli, National Radio News.