Joseph Bathanti is the author of six books of poetry: Communion Partners, Anson County, The Feast of All Saints, This Metal (nominated for the National Book Award), Land of Amnesia and Restoring Sacred Art (winner of the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize). His novel East Liberty won the 2001 Carolina Novel Award. His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. His book of stories, The High Heart, won the 2006 Spokane Prize. He is the recipient of Literature Fellowships from the N.C. Arts Council in 1994 (poetry) and 2009 (fiction); the Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, presented annually for outstanding contributions to the fine arts of N.C. over an extended period; the Linda Flowers Prize; the Sherwood Anderson Award; the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize; the 2011 Donald Murray Prize; and others. He is professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University.
My sister’s daughter, Katy — my niece and godchild — graduated in May of 2001 with an undergraduate degree in business from UNC-Chapel Hill. Come September 11 of that same year, she was employed by Merrill Lynch and working in the World Financial Center, adjacent to the World Trade Centers. There was a subway stop she used under the Towers; a tunnel connected the two complexes. September 11 was her seventh day as a citizen of New York City, her fourth day on the job. She had turned 22 just six days before.
After the first plane crashed into the North Tower, Katy called her brother, DJ, and told him that she was safe, that her building was being evacuated. Just minutes later, the second plane struck the South Tower and all communication halted — seemingly forever. The screen went blank, except for the television screen to which I, like everyone else, everywhere, stayed glued.
My sister, Marie, and I hatched a plan. We would each scan a different TV network in hopes of spotting Katy among the thousands and thousands of panicked people stumbling through the streets of New York. In the meantime we incessantly, obsessively, dialed Katy’s various phone numbers, including her suddenly nonexistent office number.
The day wore on and on. The news kept getting worse. There was no sign of Katy. I suppose I refused to think about anything but my assignment: surveying for my niece among those shocked and tattered mobs parading in front of the cameras, while absurdly attempting to reach her by phone. What my sister and her husband thought is unthinkable. They sat helplessly on their couch in front of the TV — like all those other people hoping and praying for the deliverance of someone they loved, someone they couldn’t bear the thought of losing.
Much, much later in the day, Katy, after a harrowing barefoot odyssey (what an understatement), called her mother and father from her apartment on the Upper East Side. She was clearly a kid no longer (another epic understatement).
Thank God, Katy was one of those who somehow, for whatever charmed, blessed reason, was allowed to return, to cross back over. Anything else is unimaginable. Yet, as we clearly know, there are countless folks out there who have had to endure for these past 10 years the unimaginable.
In thinking hard and heavy about my beautiful, beloved niece today — and giving thanks — it’s impossible not to think in a similar vein of all those others, beloved and beautiful, many of them gone, never to be forgotten, who were with her 10 years ago. –Joseph Bathanti
After the first plane,
Katy phoned her brother.
She was safe, in another building.
They were evacuating. DJ thought
she had said the other building –
the South Tower – crashed into
by United Flight 175 at 9:03,
moments after the line went dead.
That’s all Katy’s mother, my sister,
Marie, could tell me when I called.
All we had to cling to:
a single syllable, separating another
from other, negligible, mere nuance,
the difference between escape
and incineration – a seam
charmed for her in the secret
ether, to pass through unharmed,
should she stumble into it.
Tuned to different networks, to cast
wider our search, Marie and I watched
for Katy among the fleeing hordes.
They had talked the night before
about what she’d wear to her client meeting:
a brown suit, a black bag; her black hair
was shorter since last I’d seen her.
All day, into evening, I peered
into the TV – punching the cordless:
Katy’s office, home, cell, office,
home, cell – scanning faces unraveling
diabolically like smoldering newsreels,
smeared hallucinatory with smoke
and ash, wave upon wave,
leagued across the avenues:
the diaspora into John’s Apocalypse.
Those on their feet staggered.
Others lay in the street snarled
in writhing weirs of fire-hose.
The firmament had been napalmed:
orange-plumed, spooling black, volcanic.
Somewhere beyond the screen,
inside that television from which we all,
that day, received, like the Eucharist, the new
Covenant, for all time, was my niece:
her brown suit and new haircut, her purse –
outfitted for her 7th day in Manhattan,
4th day at the World Financial Center,
6 days past her 22nd birthday.
I would spy her, coax her back to us
through the TV’s lurid circuitry
into my living room. Our perfect girl,
my princess – she had lost her shoes –
wandering the skewered heart of the future –
finally arrived, black-hooded, afire,
eerily mute – toward the Upper East side:
a bus, a shared cab with an old man
who befriended her, then barefoot blocks
untold to her apartment on 89th Street
where she dialed her parents and announced
with the modesty of saints
that she had made it home.