By Brian Doyle
September 10, 2014
Originally published in Winter 2001
A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped. Jennifer Brickhouse saw them falling, hand in hand.
Many people jumped. Perhaps hundreds. No one knows. They struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.
The mayor reported the mist.
A kindergarten boy who saw people falling in flames told his teacher that the birds were on fire. She ran with him on her shoulders out of the ashes.
Tiffany Keeling saw fireballs falling that she later realized were people. Jennifer Griffin saw people falling and wept as she told the story. Niko Winstral saw people free-falling backwards with their hands out, as if they were parachuting. Joe Duncan on his roof on Duane Street looked up and saw people jumping. Henry Weintraub saw people “leaping as they flew out.” John Carson saw six people fall, “falling over themselves, falling, they were somersaulting.” Steve Miller saw people jumping from a thousand feet in the air. Kirk Kjeldsen saw people flailing on the way down, people lining up and jumping, “too many people falling.” Jane Tedder saw people leaping and the sight haunts her at night. Steve Tamas counted fourteen people jumping and then he stopped counting. Stuart DeHann saw one woman’s dress billowing as she fell, and he saw a shirtless man falling end over end, and he too saw the couple leaping hand in hand.
Several pedestrians were killed by people falling from the sky. A fireman was killed by a body falling from the sky.
But he reached for her hand and she reached for his hand and they leaped out the window holding hands.
The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, wrote John the Apostle, and the elements shall melt with a fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.
There is no fear in love, wrote John, but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment.
Their hands reaching and joining are the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against such evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.
Their passing away was thought an affliction, and their going forth from us utter destruction, says the Book of Wisdom, but they are in peace. They shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble.
No one knows who they were: husband and wife, lovers, dear friends, colleagues, strangers thrown together at the window there at the lip of hell. Maybe they didn’t even reach for each other consciously, maybe it was instinctive, a reflex, as they both decided at the same time to take two running steps and jump out the shattered window but they did reach for each other, and they held on tight, and leaped, and fell endlessly into the smoking canyon, at two hundred miles an hour, falling so far and so fast that they would have blacked out before they hit the pavement near Liberty Street so hard that there was a pink mist in the air.
I trust I shall shortly see thee, John wrote, and we shall speak face to face.
Jennifer Brickhouse saw them holding hands, and Stuart DeHann saw them holding hands, and I hold on to that.
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel The Mighty Currawongs & Other Stories.