The bombs that went off near the finish line at this year’s Boston Marathon have so far taken the lives of three people, one of them, reportedly, an eight-year-old boy. More than a hundred and thirty-two people were wounded. CNN offered a count of lost limbs: ten. More than seventeen thousand runners had already crossed the finish line by the time the first bomb exploded; another forty-five hundred runners were stopped: the race was called off. Most everything else has been called off, too, partly out of precaution but mostly owing to heartbreak.
The Boston Marathon started in 1897. It’s held on Patriots’ Day, a Massachusetts state holiday marking the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Patriots’ Day is the kind of holiday that even people who hate holidays love. Runners come from all over the country and all over the world—their flags fly over the finish line—and many of them are raising money for charities. Schools are closed, and reënactors wearing tri-cornered hats tramp all over the place, their woolen cloaks and cowls billowing as they stride. Patriots’ Day used to be the day of the Red Sox home opener, which meant that, if you wanted to see both the game and the Marathon, you were in a pickle. It’s hard to get around the city on Patriots’ Day: the subway cars are packed and the streets are so thronged with people that you can’t even thread your way through them on a bike. The baseball season has since gotten stretched, and Patriots’ Day is now more of a weekend than a day. This year, I went to see the Red Sox play Tampa Bay on Sunday. It was a glorious game. Clay Buchholz nearly pulled off a no-hitter. But the best thing about it was that the stands were filled with marathoners. They wore their official Boston Marathon robin’s-egg-blue track jackets, and everyone clapped them on their backs, and wished them luck.
That night, after the game, I went to Old North Church, in Boston’s North End. (There were marathoners all over the North End, too, eating spaghetti and risotto.) Old North has been holding a lantern ceremony every April since 1875. It commemorates the night, on April 18, 1775, when the church’s sexton risked his life to light two lanterns in the belfry. That signal set Paul Revere off on his ride and, in 1860, inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to sound another alarm, in a poem he wrote on the eve of the Civil War, about how,
…borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
At Old North’s lantern ceremony, a fife-and-drum band plays eighteenth-century music and the church’s vicar, Stephen Ayres, talks about what the lighting of the lanterns means to his church, and to the city, and to the country: they’re beacons of courage. This year, Pam Cross, a Boston television news anchor, read Longfellow’s poem, and I read a letter written by Jane Franklin to her brother Benjamin, about how terrifying it was to hear, from Boston that night and morning, the shooting in Lexington and Concord. “The distress it has ocationed is Past my discription,” she wrote him. Massacre is always beyond the allowance of reason.
I didn’t go into town to watch the Marathon this year. I stayed home to prepare for class. I heard about the bombs while walking to a drug store to buy pens. I was crossing Massachusetts Avenue when the news burst onto my phone—frantic texts about explosions. Head down, heart sinking, I nearly ran into a towering figure in black: a reënactor, Paul Revere on a speckled horse. He was riding to Lexington, a ride forlorn.