Light and Dark
July 4, 2013 | by Ethan Hauser
It has been almost three months since the Boston Marathon bombings and the riveting manhunt that followed: less than a hundred days, a fraction of the time needed to understand what happened, what will happen. Still, that searing week lingers vividly in our consciousness. A runner crumples on Boylston Street, paralyzed by the blast. Medics rush against the tide of a fleeing crowd. A helicopter outfitted with heat sensors tracks the shadowy movement of a man under a tarp, stowed away in a boat moored in the inland backyard of a place called Watertown. It has all the contours of a dream: precise in some places, blurry in others, tantalizingly real and unreal.
In early May a woman in Virginia with no link to the bombers found a cemetery that would accept the older brother’s body, after many had refused. She had no connection to the Tsarnaevs, or at least no more than the rest of us wrapped up in this unfolding. Asked why she made the effort, she told her interviewer on National Public Radio: “Jesus tells us to—in the parable of the Good Samaritan—love your neighbor as yourself. And your neighbor is not just someone you belong with but someone who is alien to you.” She lives along the same Eastern Seaboard, 550 miles south of Boston, in a state with its own prominent place in the birth of our nation.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were reportedly planning to detonate their bombs on the Fourth of July, a date that was moved forward because they finished building them early. Fireworks and bits of metal and a humble kitchen appliance and the alienation of outsiders catalyzed into desperation. It’s virtually impossible to escape the symbolism that ripples through every mournful tangle of this saga. Patriots’ Day: the new day they chose. Independence Day: the original holiday they wanted to strike. The finish line of a marathon whose most famous stretch is christened Heartbreak Hill. Two brothers, one leading the other: a legend as old and fraught as the Bible.
The list goes on: among the runners that day was a group memorializing the shooting victims of another New England locale, Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six miles for twenty-six slain, most of them children. Two of Massachusetts’ more notable educational institutions wended their way into this tale, too: Cambridge Rindge and Latin, the high school the Tsarnaevs attended; and MIT, where Sean Collier, one of the final people shot, was a police officer. This unbelievable spool of a story simply keeps unwinding, with nary an answer anywhere, just one startling, terrible detail after the next.
The bombings took place only several blocks from my own alma mater, founded by a very different kind of iconoclast. He used his vast fortune to start a high school with a single rule: no roller-skating in the hallways, which was said to translate into “Don’t act like a damn fool.” It was a canny strategy, the illusion of freedom. Most of us were the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and professors, overachievers all, and we had enough rules in our heads to police us far more effectively than any fat handbook would.
That small area of Boston is littered with the landmarks of my youth: the pizza place we skipped class to go to (see, we did break that one rule, in embarrassingly timid ways); the building that was once Tower Records, where I applied for a job one summer, mostly for the employee discount; the John Hancock skyscraper, whose original blue tinted windows sometimes spontaneously shattered in high winds. That kind of danger seems almost quaint these days. At least with violent wind gusts there is no one to blame. And then there is the wide, parklike median that veins Commonwealth Avenue, a legacy of graceful urban planning. We walked under its dignified trees and sat on its benches and tried to figure out our crushes. How close we could get, what we could say, and what we needed to keep tamped down. What we could risk. That danger, too, so punishing and consuming in the moment, seems like a luxury. The younger, surviving brother, Dzhokhar, is just nineteen.
Boston celebrates Independence Day with a concert at the Hatch Shell. (When I was a boy, I always misheard it as “half shell,” because it looks like something sliced in half.) The Pops play patriotic standards, a segue into the fireworks blooming in the sky. You can see their manic colors skating on the glassy surface of the Charles, the river that borders the concert grounds. On the rooftops of Back Bay, neighbors gather and stare, their cheeks lit up from the fiery reflections, the wine, both. The music and the bursting flowers high in the air—its exuberance, unbottled, for just a night, a footnote of a night.
In Richmond there will be celebrations, too, and in so many cities and towns in between. The air alight, the rivers and lakes aglow. We are still at the beginning of this story, and already it is huge and complicated and deafeningly sad. The stranger from Virginia who arranged for Tamerlan’s burial explained that she was guided by scripture: “Love your enemies,” she said, quoting the book of Matthew, in the New Testament. Her choice was brave, and no doubt wildly unpopular to many, but she wanted to put at least some small coda on this devastation.
Who knows whether she will be on a town green tonight, under a sky turned loud and mesmerizing. Those echoes reach far and wide; you don’t have to be directly under the choreographed stars to hear their thunder. Some of them fishtail downward and burn out right before they meet the earth. Who knows, in fact, what any of us will hear in the reverberations. A celebration, certainly, but a requiem, too, for this violent season still too fresh to comprehend.
Ethan Hauser's first novel, The Measures Between Us, will be published on July 9.