By John Thomas Tuft
The rolling hills covered with deciduous forest and fields of wildflowers is not all there is to Somerset County in Pennsylvania. Not by a long shot. There is the town of Berlin, home of Snyder of Berlin potato chips and other snacks. There are the slopes of the Seven Springs ski resort area. The county seat, Somerset, is full of old houses, and an even older courthouse. Up the road a ways lies tiny Shanksville. Beyond Shanksville, the Lincoln Highway meanders through the Laurel Highlands. And if you are on Lincoln Highway north of Shanksville you inevitably cross through 2200 acres of national park. And you are very fortunate indeed if and when you stop in to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial, the insistent wind is disturbing the huge chimes in the Tower of Voices, sending their sonorous echoes across the acres of open space, through the hemlock and red maple groves, along the wall of names, and through the gate to the sacred ground: where the plane hit the ground. The point of impact of the fated flight is marked by a huge, rugged boulder. It is a solemn daylight trip, to be sure, that reinforces the fragility of all we hold to be dear. As well as a monument to the effects and consequences of despair and desperation. There is more than enough to go around.
Bagger Adamah, a tall, quiet man with pain in his eyes, stands beside me in a grove of tall trees as we wait for the sun to set over the ridges behind us. Bagger tells me his ancestors summon him to this space regularly while we wait for lengthening shadows to meld into midnight. “If your ancestors have never summoned you to a particular place in your life, more than likely it’s because you are not paying attention,” Bagger adds with calm assurance. I ask him about his last name. “It’s the name of every single human being who has ever walked this earth,” he responds, tossing it out casually as though I have raised a kindergarten level concern. “Kings and carpenters, rulers and rabble, wealthy and wistful.” The rising moon reflects in his dark eyes as he leads me through the trees. The park is deserted. The moans of the chimes undulate on the wind as it curves and dances through the marble panels making up the wall of names.
“Your people have a saying: history is written by the winners.” Bagger stops walking and spreads his arms wide, taking it all in. “So, tell me, what was won here?” He takes a seat on the large boulder and motions me to sit beside him. “Despair and desperation lead to despair and desperation. Please tell me, how do despair and desperation make someone an enemy of the state?” I shift uncomfortably. “They were terrorists.” He sighs, thumps a fist against the rock. “So say the ‘winners.’ You have been at war for decades. Is there any less despair and desperation in the world? Is terror gone?” In my mind’s eye I see marchers in the streets, fences and walls, angry faces and babbling fools, mass disease and disquiet. Cry after cry for justice, to be fully visible. Fully known. He looks me up and down. “This is the sanctuary of the Midnight Shepherd.”
The moonlight casts a silvery haze over the wildflowers growing beside the rock. The wind dies down and the moaning of the Voices grows quiet. “Who is this Midnight Shepherd?” I finally ask. “The Midnight Shepherd shows me a part of me I never see.” Bagger’s words hang in the still air. “Is life about defeating enemies so we can write the history?” he continues. “In families, neighborhoods, cities, nations…?” I interrupt him. “We have to protect the vulnerable, all that we have, all we have built, a way of life.” He says, in a voice so low I have to lean in, “Blessed are the weak, the meek, all those who seek the home of the Midnight Shepherd. Is that not a way of life, as well?”
We sit for a while, not speaking. The stars completely ignore such goings on taking place on the third rock from the sun. “Saeed al Ghamdi, Ahmad al Haznawi, Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al Nami. Their names are not in the history of that wall, but making someone invisible does not mean they do not exist.” He sees the question writ on my face. “The names of those on that wall are people who dealt with their despair and desperation. Forced into it by others driven by despair and desperation. We cannot pretend they do not exist.” He adds, almost as though speaking to himself, “What part of me do I never see?”
My head is bowed by the force of his words. When I bring myself to look up, Bagger is gone, and the morning sun glints off the huge chimes of the Tower of Voices. The wind picks up and in it I hear the call of others, like Bagger, like all of us. Asking me if I will listen. In response, I whisper on the sacred ground hoping the Midnight Shepherd hears my voice, as well. “What part of me do I never see?”
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.
(I have started work on my next novel, but I will try to post when I can, to those interested.)