by Taimur Ahmad
As she lay on the hospital bed in the throes of labor, Aisha felt surprisingly light. Almost like she was hovering just a bit over the sheets. Whatever pain she should have been experiencing seemed dull and distant. She pushed and strained and squeezed when the doctor and nurses told her to, and the more she exerted herself, the more she felt like she was being inflated with helium.
The hours rolled by in a blur of heaving muscles and then, with one last effort, a baby girl slipped out of Aisha’s womb, supported by the hands of the doctor. Aisha felt her weight return all at once and sagged deeply back into the bed. The doctor placed the squealing baby, wet with amniotic fluid, into Aisha’s arms. The mass of her was palpable, and Aisha’s biceps tensed with the load. She looked down at the child.
“Noor,” she whispered to the baby, stroking her red-flushed cheek with her fingertips. “It means light.”
Aisha coochee-cooed and made faces as she cuddled her newborn. Noor grimaced, but went silent and balled up her miniature fists. Aisha slipped an arm out of her hospital gown and held the baby to her breast. Noor sucked contentedly, a blissful look settling onto her tiny face. The more she drank the more peaceful she became, and Aisha found the weight on her arms lessening. And lessening. Surprised, Aisha eased her grip. And then Noor floated upward. Fixed by her gums to her mother’s breast, she resembled a blimp at anchor on a tower.
Noor hiccupped and, cut from her moorings, rotated in a circle in the air before suddenly regaining weight and plummeting leadenly down into Aisha’s lap with an indignant howl. Aisha shhh’d her and held her tight, and within a half minute Noor had fallen back to sleep and seemed no heavier than a normal baby.
It was New York City, where people have seen everything. Over the next few years, no one seemed particularly startled at the common sight of Aisha carrying Noor in her arms while walking down the block to her apartment or to Noor’s preschool wearing a backpack filled with cast-iron skillets and a couple of phone books. As Noor got older, her weight swings became more dramatic. By the time the girl turned five, Aisha had started practicing deadlifting to stay strong enough to pick Noor up when she was moody, and was beginning to get tugged off her feet on Noor’s happy days, even with a backpack filled to the brim. Noor had never yet floated totally out of reach, but the effect became stronger every year. And kindergarten would start in September.
One summer night in Noor’s bedroom, Aisha sat and read her Goodnight Moon. Noor, tucked into the blankets, was slowly levitating with each passing page. When Aisha got around to “goodnight mush,” Noor giggled and spun in her blankets in mid-air, cocooning herself and bumping up against the low ceiling. Aisha finished the book, sighed, smiled up at Noor, who was looking down at her like a bat.
“Are you excited for school to start, dearest?”
Noor nodded. “You said the teachers will read to us a lot.”
“I’m sure they will . . . Noor, honey, you know I won’t be there with you.”
Noor dropped an inch or two down. “I know.” The two were quiet for a moment. “But will you still tell me stories at night?”
Aisha stood on Noor’s bed and reached up to the ceiling, wrapping her arms around the blanketed bundle and pulling it down a foot or so. She hoisted herself up and curled her knees to her chest, fitting her body in with Noor’s. They revolved slowly in the quiet space.
“Of course,” Aisha replied.
Though an inconvenience, Noor’s peculiarity didn’t interrupt her schooling in a substantial way until she entered fifth grade. True, her teachers had to put a harness on her and clip her to a bunch of sandbags when they read stories she particularly liked. And she could never really get into playing with blocks because the minute she started enjoying herself too much she floated away from her pretend-castle. But it was not until a frigid, snowy January morning when Noor was eleven that she actually had to miss a day of school for something besides a cold.
Aisha came into Noor’s room to find her balled up under the covers, making a crater in the bed with her heaviness.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” The ball shuddered a bit. “Noor?”
A whisper: “I had a nightmare.”
“Oh, dearest . . . Do you want to tell me about it?”
The bedsprings compressed into tight coils as Noor shifted. Aisha reached out and pulled down the covers until Noor’s eyes stuck out from under them, glancing left and right, followed by her nose and mouth.
“I was standing on a big cliff, and everything was beautiful. There were birds and butterflies and lizards and all sorts of animals running around, and I chased a lizard to the edge of the cliff, but then it climbed down the side and when I looked over it was just dark, and there were all these rocky spikes at the bottom, and I was scared and stood up and started to back away. But when I turned around there was a boy there, and he smiled at me, and then he pushed me, and then he pushed me again, and I told him to stop, but he wouldn’t and then he pushed me off the cliff and I fell and I tried to grab on to something, but I couldn’t and then I kept falling and I tried to think of happy things and good things, but I couldn’t and I was scared so I got heavier and heavier and I kept falling faster and I couldn’t think of anything good and then I was going to fall into the spikes and then . . . I woke up.”
Aisha leaned down and kissed Noor on the forehead.
“It was just a dream, sweetheart. You’re here now. Come on into the kitchen, and I’ll make you some cocoa and oatmeal.”
Aisha got up and walked over to the door. She looked back. Noor hadn’t moved.
“Do you want to stay in bed a little while longer?”
Noor shook her head.
“Come on then, dearest.”
“I can’t. . . .”
“I can’t get up.”
Aisha went back over to her and sat down, putting her arm on top of Noor’s head.
“I know it’s hard, after a bad dream like that.”
“No, I mean, I can’t get up. That was the worst part. I woke up and I was beneath all my blankets, and it was dark and hot and I couldn’t see anything. And I wanted to get up and go get you, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t move at all, just my hands and head and feet a little bit, and I thought I would be stuck here, and . . .”
“Shhhh . . . shhhh. Listen. Do you remember when we went to the park last summer, and we ran around in the sprinklers and then lay out on the grass in the sun and dried off, and had Mr. Softee on the way home? Do you remember what you said the ice cream tasted like?”
Noor thought for a moment. “Like clouds with sugar and vanilla . . .”
Aisha laughed softly. “Yes! And what happened to my cone?”
Noor gave a small smile. “A seagull snatched it.”
The springs eased up just a bit as Noor lost some of her heaviness.
“Do you think you can get up now?”
Noor dragged herself to the edge of the bed, pulling with her hands and pushing with her feet.
“It’s still so hard,” she whispered.
Aisha cupped Noor’s face with her hands. “You know what . . . let’s play hooky today.”
Noor smiled, wider this time. Slowly, she wriggled her legs out of bed and planted her feet on the ground. Aisha squatted down and took Noor in her arms. Straining, quadriceps sizzling as arcs of energy snapped between muscle fibers, Aisha picked Noor up off the ground and hugged her.
“Let’s go sledding,” she murmured, as the load in her arms grew lighter.
After that day of hooky, and in anticipation of Noor being old enough to go to school by herself and to hang out with friends unsupervised, Aisha and Noor started a regimen at home. On days when Noor had trouble getting out of bed, Aisha would coach her.
“Tell me about something good.”
Noor closed her eyes, thinking. “That feeling when you get into bed all clean after running around and sweating all day. When you are so tired you could fall asleep anywhere, but your bed is the most comfortable place of all because you know it.”
“Mmmm . . . Now tell me about something beautiful.”
“When I saw that old lady in Prospect Park, sitting on the bench and feeding the pigeons, and she looked so quiet, and then she smiled at us.”
At other times, Aisha couldn’t let Noor out of the house for fear of her floating up and getting lost in the clouds. Aisha didn’t see anything wrong with Noor being happy and certainly didn’t want to bring pain into her life, but Aisha wouldn’t be there forever, clinging to Noor and keeping her from disappearing into the sky. Something had to anchor Noor to the world. So one quiet evening, when Noor neither floated nor sunk, but settled on the floor just so, Aisha sat down on the couch next to her daughter while she read.
“How would you feel if I vanished one day?” Aisha asked her suddenly.
Noor looked up from her book. “What?”
“How would you feel if I just didn’t come home tomorrow?”
Noor looked puzzled. “Why would you do that?” she asked.
Aisha shook her head. “That’s not the point. How would you feel?”
“Mom . . . this is weird.” Noor tried to retreat behind her book, but Aisha stood up and plucked it out of Noor’s hands.
“Noor! I’m serious. This is important.”
“I don’t know! It would never happen!” Noor was beginning to sink into the cushions. “I don’t want to think about this. Give me my book back!”
“Noor, it could happen. It could happen to me. How do you think I would feel if you floated off one day and got blown away by the wind and fell somewhere I would never find you? If you went too high and got lost in the clouds and never came home?” Noor looked off to the side, unwilling to connect with Aisha’s gaze.
“I want you to be happy. I want you to be able to go as high as you can, and I never want to drag you down. But I also want you to come back to me—when you’re ready.”
Noor looked up. Aisha’s lips twitched. “Or maybe I should just get a pilot’s license.”
By the time she was a teenager in high school, Noor could comfortably float a few feet above her friends as they strolled down Houston heading toward Chinatown for cheap bao on a Friday afternoon. If she felt particularly buoyant that day she might have to shout down to be heard, but if Noor ever got too high she just took a deep breath and thought: about some small fear, or a melancholy memory, or how her mother would feel if she evaporated into the sky. Before she sunk too low she would stop, breath again, and remember why she had been happy in the first place. Noor understood her emotional ballast, knowing how to turn the burner up and rise, and how to sink back down when she needed to.
But of course she still let herself go. Some days—on Rivington Street in the spring when the sky was just too blue, and all the trees were putting out those little white flowers that made drifts like snow, with the smell of coffee and pastries curling up into her nose from the café—Noor let herself rocket up, up, spinning around and laughing, breaking through the clouds and twirling off the moisture that clung to the fine hairs on her arms. When she felt ready, she thought, not of sad things, but of things just as they were—that the clouds, so fluffy and sweet, were also cold, and that the sun, so warming, could also burn, and she drifted downward, still happy, finding balance.
It was a sunny September morning when Noor got off the subway at Chambers Street and started running to class. She was late, so she had a perfect view when the first jet vanished in fire and smoke against the side of the North Tower. Noor stopped, too shocked to be horrified into heaviness. And then she ran, this time toward the smoke. Strong from the weight she’d carried on and off for sixteen years, she sprinted hard and joined the throng of office workers, students, fire fighters, and police that had started gathering near the base of the towers. When the second plane hit, the noise of the explosion couldn’t overwhelm the screams and sobs of the crowd around her.
They watched impotently as men and women poured out of the towers’ entrances, and as firefighters rushed back in. Smoke spread through the blue sky like ink thrown into water. The fire that had started with the first plane’s impact was speeding through the tower, and Noor could see little dots up above the flames, too small to be human, but they were, they were people, trapped by the heat and crowding the windows trying to find air to breathe, waving their coats and shouting mutely for help, so far away. Reams of paper fluttered down through the sky like grotesque confetti, and Noor could only watch as one miniature person chose to jump instead of burn or suffocate.
The body fell absurdly fast, blowing past the floating paper and impacting the ground soundlessly as the crowd moaned and shrieked in unison, as though it were a single organism.
I can help, Noor realized. I can rise, I could go up there, I could bring people down, they don’t have to jump. A man staggered past, head lolling, face blackened by soot. Sirens bellowed incoherently, the sound mixing with the smoke.
I can fly. Please let me fly. Images flashed through her mind before turning to dust. Sunshine. Blue sky. Aisha cuddling with her up in the air above her bed. Playing hooky and sledding. Flowers swirling through the air on Rivington Street. Shaking droplets of water off as she shot through the clouds. The sound of the mass around her became fuzzy and indistinct.
Noor, Noor, it means light . . . How much goodness was there all around her right then, even in that very moment? How much bravery and grit? Noor saw firefighters rushing into the burning tower, grim and stone-faced. She saw a woman in a torn suit carrying her dog in her arms as she sprinted out into the sunlight. Above, she thought, the people still in the building must be fighting their way upward, pulling each other higher, hand over hand, away from the choking smoke. Noor closed her eyes. If she pretended away the storm of noise, all she felt was the sun: warm and gentle on her skin that mild morning, soothing and basic and good.
I can fly.
In her mind Noor pictured herself beginning to rise. She skimmed over the heads of the crowd and flew toward the sun, joy radiating from her, joy from the sureness of the fact that she could make a difference. She saw herself soaring up toward the sky like she was diving into a pool backward, buoyed by every atom of hope and speck of courage in the crowd below her and in those still in the towers. She arrived at a window and reached down, beatific, taking a desperate hand in hers. Noor opened her eyes again.
I can fly. I can—
Another body tumbled through the air like a mannequin. And another, and another, one still on fire, vomited out of the windows with the billowing smoke. Even from hundreds of feet below, Noor could see the blackened flesh. Noor’s knees slammed into the pavement as weight overwhelmed her.
Get up and fly. Get up . . .
Then the first tower imploded. The head of the building consumed the body as it chewed through floor after floor before finally impacting the base, churning up a tsunami of ash and dust that blotted out the sun and surged down the street, devouring everything and erasing lower Manhattan from view. The tower’s ribcage, splintered open in the crater, spilled out steel girders from the rubble like discarded organs. They stuck out of the ground, ghostly in the sudden darkness.
Noor crumpled as the wave broke itself on her leaden figure. The weight of her shoulders dragged her backward until she lay staring upward, arms splayed out on either side and legs twisted under her. The smell of vaporized flesh and carcinogens shoved its way into her nostrils and down her throat, staining her insides. Noor’s weight pushed on her lungs like it never had before, squeezing the air out. Her eyelids were too heavy to close, her lips too heavy to bring together, so the floating particles settled on her corneas and in her open mouth. Buried in dust, she stared at the greyness, could only see and taste the greyness. It muffled her and choked her and consumed her and slithered into every pore of her body, bits of burnt paper and pulverized steel and powdered skin. She could not feel it when the second tower fell.
Grey, everywhere. Throbbing, somewhere. A sound, distant. Her name?
A touch. Grey powder sloughed off Noor’s body like rotten flesh.
“Noor, oh . . .” the “oh” exhaled as if it were sucking all the oxygen from Aisha’s body. Aisha knelt down next to the dust-covered form. “I searched and searched, I was so worried, I was so worried you can’t imagine, they said you never came to school. Can you stand up?”
Noor could not move her head. Some of the grey flakes spilled off her face as her mother brushed them away. Aisha gripped Noor’s shoulders and hips. She heaved, putting her back into it more than she ever had and managing to roll Noor onto her side in a cloud of grey before her arms gave out.
Noor lay there. Aisha stretched out next to her in the ash so that they were face to face.
“We’ll have to use a winch to get you off the ground . . .” she said with a trembling attempt at a smile. The two women kept still while people ran around them with dampened footfalls. “I wish I could just take some of that weight . . .” Aisha mumbled to her.
Noor blinked. It felt like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together as the hundreds of bits of microscopic fiberglass embedded in her eyes splintered against each other. The pain brought tears, which dripped down Noor’s face, making a slimy track in the caked-on dust. Aisha smoothed back Noor’s hair. She put her palm flat on Noor’s cheek and kissed her forehead, coating her own lips in ash.
Neither moved for a minute, ten, an hour, as they lay alone with each other. Aisha hummed and crooned bits of nothing into Noor’s ears. The sun wheeled across the sky and as the air settled patches of blue began to seep into the grey. Eventually the sun dipped low, and as the last of the airborne particles dissipated or sunk into the mounds already piled up on the street, stars flared into being high above.
“Noor,” Aisha murmured. “Look.”
Noor’s eyes swiveled in their sockets, focusing upward.
“The stars haven’t changed. They’re still there.” Noor closed her eyes and kept them shut. “And I’m still here.”
Noor dragged her lips together, flexed her tongue. She opened her eyes and looked at Aisha. She tried to rasp out a sentence and coughed.
“Shhhh,” Aisha whispered. Neither moved nor spoke. The stars inched across the sky. Noor’s eyes followed their path.
Aisha touched her forehead to Noor’s. “Noor. Do you believe me when I say that I love you enough for you to get up?” Noor sucked up air and dust in a rattling gasp. “Because I do.”
Slowly, slowly, Noor drew her knees up to her chest. She dug her fingers into the dust and gripped onto the seams and bumps in the broken asphalt below.
“I really do,” Aisha said simply.
Noor pulled, trying to right herself. She could feel her skin tearing from her fingertips as she strained and failed to roll over on to her knees.
“And I’ll wait here with you.”
Noor pulled again, rocking her body ever so slightly.
“For as long as it takes.”
Copyright © 2018 Taimur Ahmad