On Wednesday I get inside. Thunderstorms have helped Wednesday keep the crowds away, washing and blowing them into the East River and leaving a settling sky and rain that’s more than sprinkles. Streets jammed with people are now easily passable and free of strollers. Lower Manhattan has the feel of a plains downtown cleared out after work, a few restaurants defying the void.
Our passes are checked, checked, again, again. We go through airport-style security that a clutch of non-English speakers find especially challenging. The place is under construction with a long walk by a chainlink fence looking out on earthmovers and plywood stacks, the grey earth churned to lumpy smoothness. People clothed in 9/11 Memorial logos and a few bored cops wave us on indifferent to the signs exclaiming passes must be out.
The two pools are at some remove from the temporary entrance. The negative space is a surprise in the way that opening a door to a dawn brighter than you expect is a surprise: no shock but a silent volume. Water roars but normal speech is possible. The air, gratefully, is no longer heavy.
The nearly 3000 names are grouped by time (victims of the February 1993 bombing are included), building, employer, rescue unit. Flatscreen kiosks provide directions to the individual bronze panel. The letters are cut with exacting precision. Rain runs through them, another set of voids with light shining through.
Inside the trees and water, on even the busiest days there will be silence and space. Falling water roars but is contained inside holes that keep falling. There is no bottom. This place is an absence held. The effect is profound and beautiful.
The effect is perfect, poetic. In the heart of the city is an absence as measured and inverted as the absence created in violence. The void created has been created again without commemorating the destruction. The fountains go down, not up. Each hole is a double hole.
Memorials confuse time and space, deliberately. The space point at the edge of the bronze names is the same space point as the thin steel columns of each tower, but they do not coincide in time. Leaning on the edge is to be leaning on those few moments of solid transforming to ash. The water collapses in on itself, forever falling into the void. In that moment, then, there is only falling. Now, in this moment, there is also falling, but instead of the noise of falling, silence. This is the energy you feel.
On some summer day in middle school we are in a field. Somebody says something about ten years ago these houses weren’t here, and before that there was no road. The wind blows through the pounding heat and all of time slides back and forth like a record scratching. A hundred years and no railroad, maybe a field and cows. Five hundred years ago only snakes and Comanches. Fifty thousand: saber toothed cats? Dinosaurs, seas, back to volcanoes. We are all quiet with wide eyes then, the exurban nowhere momentarily immense. Forward from the dead grass and crickets, nobody knows. Forward is where we were headed, then.
In another twenty years this spot will be something else kids are trooped to for suffering through important lectures. In fifty it will be resigned to books, possibly paper ones. People will sit on the grass and eat their lunch in immense oaken shade. Maybe they will have found the money to finish it by then.
In a hundred years it will be worn out if well-maintained, just a hole if not. Maybe it will be a reservoir, or another tower’s basement. Maybe in a thousand years the city will be an abandoned relic with everyone returned to the fields. People stay away for some reason, scared off by ghosts and strange glows, and the deer and coyotes forage unmolested in the ever-strengthening green. Nobody knows the future. The future is where we are going. Right now the water is always falling, and right now it will always be falling, over and over again.