After the disaster, we were shuttled in busses to the elementary school. We were a soft-footed herd. They turned us towards the entrance, combating the mass distraction of our frozen thoughts. We were demagnetized compasses, nothing but spinning needles.
Inside, the gymnasium was assembled with rows of metal chairs not quite parallel to each other. They didn’t number enough for all of us and we didn’t want to sit anyway. There was no comfort in remaining still, forcing our bodies to bend in half. We wanted to be our tallest, on our feet and ready. We wanted to see them again.
We hadn’t seen what they aired on the television. We had been delivered the suggestion we head down to the stadium from a neighbor whose set we heard through our shared walls. “You can’t even tell what you’re looking at. A bunch of people with nowhere to go.” She told us of the deep piles, so many bodies as to camouflage the ground. Different colors, hairs, clothes, shapes swirled in a mass. If they could have found the right way to fit together, they could have figured out how to live, she said, as if it was all just a puzzle.
Inside the concrete walls and waxed wooden floor of the gym, we broke up into families, not officially, but just naturally made our own groups. The painted stripes of a basketball court made for our own makeshift pens. We waited for our names to be called by those in uniform. It didn’t matter how long it took. Everyone felt the same eternity. That was our uniformity.
We shuffled in a line after our name was called. The hallway was dark, the lights on a dim setting. The school was not used to having people inhabit it at night. Like us, it was ill prepared. We approached the classroom. The door opened as another family was leaving, listening to whispers of how to proceed. An officer explained something about forms. A man muttered, “No, which way do we get out of here?”
In the room, a chalkboard ran the length of the front wall. It was a dark green swath dusted in corners with residue. It resided from our waists to inches high above our heads. Scotch-taped to the board were all the victim’s polaroids.
We inched closer to the closed-eyed headshots of the dead; some looking asleep, some looking battered and bloated. There were even some whose cheeks puffed up and hair stood straight up, as if they were taken upside down and then the photo was turned right side up again. There were degrees of death, as if that mattered. We had to search for our loved ones. It was the only way, the police had decided. There were too many of them, and too many of us and this would be the most efficient course of action.
The pictures were arranged in a sort of hierarchy. The patchwork quilt of photos was a study in the gradation of color. All of the white victims were atop the totem pole. The creamy tan victims took up residence below. Then the brown ones. Then the black ones. We asked why this was so before the officer could step out. “Easier isn’t it? When everyone’s in order.” The officer left us alone and told us to come out with our photo when we were done. We were told to take as long as we liked. We didn’t understand what “like” had to do with anything. Words were like those photos, all the same, so nothing anyone said meant much besides the tone they expressed.
Finding someone in that display was as difficult as finding them in a pile of bodies. Maybe science would save us all, and give us the delineation of our genes on a map of the disaster so this would be unnecessary. Our loved ones have no names; just a code and they can be found in such-and-such quadrant on the X plane. Rather, where we found ourselves was in front of a mounted collage and for all the organization of color and sex, all these photos looked the same because they were all death. They had become an image of a state and not a captured former existence. There was no being-ness, all nothingness and nothingness was consistent if it was anything at all.
Pencils kept upright in a washed out aluminum can on the teacher’s desk reminded us of how we learned to shadow in art class; starting light, barely touching the paper until we tried to impart total blackness without breaking the tip of our lead. We had learned to press down hard, coloring over what we had just colored, layering the gray and deepening the darkness. We had made our papers shine with a black that was not the night; it was a black of void, nothing as beautiful as the sky. All shadows were voids, where we once were, but left.
We needed randomness again, because life did seem random to us. We picked out a photo, any photo our hand was near, gently ripping it from its perch on the wall making sure not to tear the tape. We looked at the dead, often for a stretch of minutes. We waited until we could be sure this was not who we were looking for. Even when we were sure, we kept looking. We saw hand-knitted scarves in team colors and we tried to recall if that was the team our loved one had rooted for. We saw a young black man, maybe still a boy, his sweatshirt hood worn like a halo. We saw a woman with a head wrap that perhaps was Muslim or maybe it was for warmth. We weren’t sure and looked at where the photo had been placed on the board as some clue of what we should think of her. We held on to each photo like we were given an object no one had ever seen before and it was our job, no our duty, to give it a name and a place in the world. We would have taken this task seriously and soberly, if we could understand anything beyond the basic functions we needed to maintain. I would remind others in my family to breathe. There wasn’t much we could do beyond finding our missing.
When we were assured that a photo was not our property, we re-taped it to the wall separate from the chalkboard. We started lining them up, affixing them near the door below the light switch, the longitude of the equator of our space. We added each new image we were done with as if it was the next word in a sentence we were forming. Left to right, each death portrait added to the idea; they formed an explanation of the disaster.
We went through each photo, never seeing anything familiar. We’d never seen our loved ones dead, how would we know what to look for? Through our examination, the chalkboard no longer contained a grid. It then only held the row of polaroids we had added to our sentence spread around the room. Some were taped to the unbreakable windows capturing the shadows of the thin metal wires diamonded inside the double panes. We taped them to construction paper valentines in reds and pinks and even yellow hearts, with crooked arrows drawn in crayon piercing the cartoon muscles. We taped them snaking over the maps of all the countries in the world no one had ever been to and now never will. We will never fly to Venezuela in memorium for the pale freckled boy whose eyes swelled shut and purpled who we taped over South America. We will never see the Pyramids as solidarity for a bearded brown man who died with a smile that now covers northern Africa.
The last few we poured over we taped on the door close together and crooked. We didn’t want to overlap to the wall where we had first started. That would be too much. That would be the death of us. We would have had to barricade ourselves in the classroom and die on strike, piling on top of one another, suffocating each other as a kind gesture. We had already forgotten that all those faces we looked at were waiting for other families to come and find them. We somehow thought we were the only ones until we had seen how they covered the entire circumference of the room. We set about searching for our family again. We knew this is where they had to have gone.
We began to trip over each other, unaware of the space each of us took up. It escalated as we shoved at shoulders and spit out names. We had finally felt something that broke us out of out motionlessness. We were angry and we could push each other down and raise ourselves up on each other’s backs. We could breathe the good air. We fought to be the tallest, the highest. It became a game of who could be the hero and find our dead. Who could be the top of the grid, because there is always a winner. Desks toppled and some tape, weakened by repeated reapplications, didn’t hold. Some polaroids flitted to the ground. They slid under chairs and became trapped under the tables befallen by our tussles. Open markers threatened to graffiti their blank faces. We squelched our anger and set about reclaiming the fallen. We were lucky we had a shared task. We were fortunate to have the space and the time to perform it. We cooled down, we warmed to each other. We were all over the place.
As the dead once again completed their sentence around the room, we let our stoked bellies sharpen our thoughts. Our eyes focused. We were glad the pictures all could finally breathe again, no one on top of them, no one trying to climb up over them. We ripped down who we recognized, passing the polaroids around to make sure we all could agree, that we all could remember, what was ours.
We knocked on the door, even though we were inside. The officer entered and took our polaroids and made a notation on a pad. He noticed the mess we’d made of their organized chart of the dead. Gone was the order, gone the ease. He took a moment, bit his tongue and queried what we had done to the photos. We weren’t articulate before the disaster. We couldn’t expect to be so after. But we all generated enough strength that we could try. We swallowed. We blinked. The horizon is endless.
Melissa Ragsly is a fiction writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017, Joyland, Green Mountains Review, Epiphany and The Rag. She is an Assistant Editor at A Public Space. More information can be found at melissaragsly.com.