‘Seven Bridges’, Francesca Forrest

Illustrations © 2014 Carmen Moran



 [ Bridge 1, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

(1)

It’s a highway bridge, over a wide river, but it’s closed. A huge chunk has fallen off one of the supporting piers, and there are deep cracks running through several others, not to mention the noticeable bowing on some of the steel trusses. Funds must be voted before repairs can be undertaken.

“Nothing but crooks and mobsters on the bridge project—it hasn’t even been ten years since it was completed, and look at it,” says a man, an urban planner, to his guest, who is an engineering student from another land. “Substandard materials, slipshod work… They milked this project for all it was worth.”

“Where I’m from, the bones of children are buried at each end of a bridge,” the engineering student says, “and there’s blood in the cement.” When the planner turns horrified eyes on her, the engineering student curls her lip and says, “I’m speaking figuratively. Figuratively.” Her host laughs uncertainly, ashamed of his credulity, abashed by the bitterness in the student’s voice.

(2)

 [ Bridge 2, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

A much smaller bridge, a wooden bridge, also closed. Several of its long beams have rotted away in places, but it still gets foot traffic, despite the cement barriers at each end. Kids walk across, peer through the holes to the river below. Right now, a brother and sister kneel on either side of one, their heads touching as they look down, their faces lit by the reflected sunlight.

“Dragons live under the bridge—I mean, not dragons, but a kind of a, a kind of a lizard—or salamander? Salamander,” the brother says. (He’s thinking of geckos, but the word salamander is so beautiful in the mind, so beautiful in the mouth, that it’s what comes out.) “They walk along upside down, on the underside. Sometimes they come up through these holes.”

The brother looks up. “They want to grab you,” he says, growing more sure of his story with each word. “They reach up through the holes. Their hands are sticky.”

The sister slides her knees away from the hole but leans forward, trying to see not the river but the underside of the bridge, with its kind-of-a lizard, or salamander, hiding in the shadows. Up through the hole comes a rustling sound, and sister and brother both jump to their feet. The sister’s hands are stained and sticky from the creosote of the bridge beams. She stares at them, eyes wide.

I’m a salamander, a bridge salamander, she thinks to herself, and the intuition fills her with terror and joy—so strange and special a destiny.

(3)

 [ Bridge 3, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

There have never been many bridges on this river—traffic moves along it, not across it—which is why now, years into civil war, underwater moored explosives sway like aquatic plants along its length, ready to take out canoes and barges.

Rather than risk crossing by canoe, guerrillas make the simplest of temporary bridges: two ropes shot into a tall hardwood on the far shore and anchored on this side. Just now such a bridge has been made, and a guerrilla is crossing, bringing with him a reporter—his cousin, in fact, who made it to school in the capital and is now a stringer for the regional branch of an international news agency. An international news agency! Life is strange—who does fortune pluck up, and who gets plunged further into the mire? Grabbing hold of the upper rope to steady themselves, the cousins step onto the lower rope, which dips and sways under their weight. The swaying grows worse when, on the far side, a misshapen figure also steps onto the lower rope and begins to cross.

“Go back! Turn around!” the guerrilla shouts in three languages, but the figure keeps coming. Now the reporter can see it is a woman, and not misshapen: no twisted spine or hump, just a large child—older and bigger than the toddlers more usually carried this way—tied to her back and peering over her shoulder with an unblinking gaze.

“Damn spirits,” the guerrilla says, voice shaking as he adjusts his grip on the upper rope and gets ready to fire his rifle singlehanded.

No—

The word is stopped on the reporter’s tongue by the rifle’s report. The woman and child fall and are carried away by the current.

“They rise up out of the water, the ones killed by the river mines. They rise up and make trouble.” The guerrilla’s words are trembling at the edges. His cousin is thinking about the incorporeality of spirits and the solidity of the body that took those bullets. “Did you see,” the guerrilla continues, “how she had nothing below the shins—just stumps—and no right arm? That’s a mine that did that.”

Had the woman’s legs been like firewood, ending in charred points? Had there been nothing below her right shoulder, just the long torso and gangly legs of the child? As he tries to recall, what the reporter remembers is how there was no splash when the bodies fell, how the river accepted them without altering by so much as a ripple.

“This river is cursed; it’s thick with spirits now,” says the guerrilla. He and his cousin have reached the far side. He cuts the ropes with a single sweep of his knife, and the ends trail in the water like long fishing lines.

Cursed, cursed, cursed. As they hurry on, each step the reporter takes seems to voice that word. Years later, his footsteps continue to indict him.

(4)

 [ Bridge 4, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

“I found him stumbling around, thought he was drunk at first, but he’s burning up. I thought maybe you could…”

In the last light of the setting sun, an old man pushes a disoriented foreigner, a backpacker, judging from his gear, gently toward the woman known hereabouts as “the doctor.” There’s no permanent clinic in this village, but the doctor has had nursing training in the capital and offers medical advice and such treatment as she can manage from the house she inherited from her brother.

“I feel lousy. I think I need to get to a hospital. There’s no hospitals on the island, right? I need to get to the ferry. I need to see a doctor. Christ, I think my head’s gonna explode. Jesus H. My head is exploding.”

He’s toweringly tall, his face mottled pink and shining. Curling yellow hair lies plastered in scallops along his forehead; golden down covers his trunklike legs. Sweat has created a dark V at the front of his green T-shirt and two damp columns along his sides, where his arms fall. He raises his hands to his head and turns away from the doctor, as if to go back out into the evening, then turns round again. The doctor’s nieces and nephews, whose care she’s had since her sister-in-law died, peer at him in fascination from the back room.

“I gotta get to the ferry,” he insists listlessly.

“There is no ferry until tomorrow. Please come in. Please sit down here,” the doctor instructs, drawing on the foreign language she hasn’t used since returning to the island five years ago. Then she turns to the old man, who has been waiting expectantly, and thanks him and wishes him a good night. He nods, relieved, and hurries off.

The foreigner lets his backpack slide from his shoulders and sits down heavily on the narrow wooden chair. He’s too large for it; his thighs spill over each side. He leans forward, resting his head in his hands, elbows propped on his legs.

“Christ,” he mumbles. “My head. You got water? Bottled water? How about Tylenol, you got any of that?” He rubs the back of his hand across his nose, and it comes away with a smear of blood across it.

“What the?” He wipes his hand on his shorts.

“I have water, safe water. You can sleep here.”

The doctor has two cots that she keeps for just this purpose—people who are brought to her who are too weak to return home in the same day. She brings the foreigner a cup of water, draws up one of the other chairs and starts peeling a guava on a small plate resting on her lap.

“Eat this too. Guava is good for dengue.”

“Dengue? You think that’s what this is? Sure as hell feels worse than when I had it in…” He catches himself wiping his nose again and freezes, a look of horror on his face. “Oh holy shit, I’ve probably got the hemorrhagic version this time. Oh Christ,” he croaks. “Christ, I’m gonna die here.”

“You won’t die. Eat this.”

He takes the plate and eats the sliced fruit with shaking hands. As he lifts each piece to his lips, the doctor can see red pinpricks along his arms and around his nails. Could be heat rash, or could be caused by subcutaneous bleeding. But in spite of his fears, this man will not develop a serious case. The doctor is sure. She has never seen a foreigner struck down by serious illness. They are invulnerable. Not like the people she usually treats, gaunt men and women, their thin limbs quickly consumed by fever’s fire, or silent children, pained eyes luminous in serious, exhausted faces.

The doctor sets up one of the cots near, but not directly beneath, the window, and hangs a mosquito net from a hook in the ceiling.

“I really need to get to the ferry,” the foreigner repeats, even as he stretches out on the cot.

“No. Rest here now. When your fever goes down, you can catch the ferry,” the doctor says.

Music floats in through the window, growing louder every moment—a truck packed with passengers, bouncing along the dirt track that passes the doctor’s house, its radio blasting to keep the driver awake. The strains of a local song, one of the doctor’s favorites, are followed by an English-language song. The foreigner raises his head.

“ ‘Hotel California’? You gotta be kidding me. On the other side of the world, in the middle of effing nowhere, and they’re playing ‘Hotel California’?”

The music fades as the truck continues on its way.

“Why couldn’t it be ‘Seven Bridges Road’? If there’s gotta be an Eagles song in every effing corner of the globe, why not that one?” His head falls back heavily on the cot. “Guess you probably don’t know ‘Seven Bridges Road,’ huh.”

But the doctor does know it, thanks to an American medic who led a training session on rehydration therapy at the hospital when the doctor was there. The tune rises to her mind. Tentatively, she hums the first few notes. The foreigner looks dumbfounded. A moment later he joins in.

“It’s a real place, you know, Seven Bridges Road,” he confides, after they’ve finished their duet. “I wanna go there one day… see those seven bridges.” His eyes are closing; his face looks relaxed. “Tell you what: if you ever come to the US, you—” (he yawns deeply) “—look me up, and we’ll go there.”

And then he’s asleep. Through the veiling of the mosquito net, the doctor watches his chest slowly rise and fall. She tries to imagine being on the other side of the world, and ill, and having someone sing her favorite song with her, but the starting premise is too absurd. Outside, dogs are calling to one another. She takes a last look at the foreigner, then retires to the back room, where her nieces and nephews are waiting for her.

(5)

 [ Bridge 5, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

On a beach, a five-year-old has made a tunnel in his sand heap, has hollowed and widened and shaped until he has created two distinct towers, connected by an arched bridge.

“Look, Mommy!” he crows.

“Beautiful!” she says, and she does find it beautiful, not merely as a mother, but as a civil engineer. Several years ago she was an engineering student, but she has earned her degree and married since then, and settled in the foreign country she came to for her education. That was never her intention, and the urge to return home, something between personal longing and an external imperative, troubles her like an old injury. At least for a short time, maybe an engagement as an adviser? But she’s never brought it up with her husband.

Her son has never stood beneath the wide skies of her birthplace. Her parents have traveled here and kissed their grandson and exclaimed over him, but it has always been difficult or inadvisable for the young family to make the opposite journey.

Under the mid-afternoon sun, the sand is drying, and cracks are forming in her son’s bridge. As the engineer debates whether or not to suggest a preemptive fix, it crumbles at its highest point.

“Ohhhh.” It’s a single syllable of frustration, but prolonged and musical: it rises, then falls.

“Oh no! Your bridge collapsed!” The slightly theatrical expression of sympathy comes from the engineer’s husband. “It was just a little too long and thin,” he begins to explain. He too is a civil engineer, but a local: he played on this beach himself as a child. His son is scowling, and catching his wife’s eye, he gives up on the tutorial, decides on distraction instead.

“Want to see something cool? There’s a team working on a sand sculpture up the beach. It’s a dragon, breathing fire.” Maintaining an air of wounded dignity, the boy nods and lets himself be swept up to a seat on his father’s shoulders.

The dragon’s bulging eyes and curved teeth, its banner of flaming breath, and its long neck and most of its torso are finished. The team is now working on the wings, hind legs, and tail.

“Whoa,” breathes the boy. Then, catching sight of a form that the team is using to shape the wings, “Hey, no fair… is that fair?”

“Sure, it’s fair,” his father says. “It’s just a tool. The better your tools, the better job you can do.”

Two men lift the form up, revealing a slender, batlike wing of pressed sand.

“I don’t have tools like that,” the boy murmurs.

A woman in turquoise shorts and a fluttering off-the-shoulder top sprays the wing with a mixture of glue and water.

“See, and that’ll help keep the sand from drying out so quickly,” says the boy’s father.

“If we had that spray, your bridge would still be standing,” his mother says.

“Can we get some?”

“We might be able to make some.”

“Everybody who wants to build something out of sand should have that,” the boy declares. “Otherwise it’s not fair.”

“Mmmm,” agrees his mother. Her thoughts move from fairness and tools to things that crumble without reinforcement. Without preamble, she says to her husband, “We should visit my parents next summer.”

His eyebrows fly up. “I’d like that too, but—well, but—”

“And I was thinking about work opportunities over there. Not long term, not forever. But with an NGO or something. We could do it as a family.”

“That’s a wonderful thought, but—”

“Or I could go by myself for a year.”

Her husband’s lips are parted, but the heat of her gaze desiccates his words before he can utter them.

“Okay. Okay. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it,” he finally manages.

(6)

 [ Bridge 6, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

Twice a day a passenger train speeds across this bridge, under which passes a winding country road. Freight trains lumber across more frequently. The steep sides of the cleft in the hill are shored up with great blocks of stone, neatly fitted, and steel girders stretch the span, on top of which are laid railroad ties and then the rails themselves. The bridge is still strong some seventy-five years after its construction, but time has made inroads—crumbling earth here, wildflowers and ferns between the stones there.

There’s a teenage girl who likes to sit just below the span. She slips underneath at one end of the bridge, a hand gripping the edge of a girder as she positions herself—some might say precariously, but she knows she’s secure—on a ledge on one of the great stone blocks, just inches beneath the wheels and weight of the passing trains. She claims this spot as her natural habitat because she is a self-declared bridge salamander, has been for half her life now. The ledge is a good place for private contemplation and offers respite from the incomprehensible social rules of high school.

The few drivers who pass by on the road below have yet to look up and see her. Every now and then, people will attempt to walk across the railway bridge while the bridge salamander is crouched below it, but she gets rid of them. She once drove away three fourth-grade boys by saying “Warning, this area is under police surveillance” loudly and mechanically, and a handholding, giggling couple abandoned their crossing when the bridge salamander stuck a stalk of burdock through a gap between the railroad ties and poked their ankles.

Sometimes, however, people cross from the other side. Then the bridge salamander just has to sit tight until they’re successfully across and on their way. Today is one such day, but whoever’s up there seems to have stopped a few footsteps onto the bridge. They’re not moving. The bridge salamander waits.

“You know, it’s dangerous to stand on a railway bridge,” she finally shouts up. “A train might come.” Though in fact it’s some time before the next train is due.

No response, no steps forward or back. A grim thought occurs to the bridge salamander.

“Are you… um…” But the bridge salamander doesn’t know how to broach the subject of death deliberately sought. “Okay, actually, the next train isn’t coming for another half-hour,” she says instead.

Still nothing. Is it possible the person can’t hear her? Maybe their ears are plugged with personal music. The bridge salamander scrambles out from her hiding place and hoists herself into the aboveworld, brushing the dirt from her palms and the seat of her jeans.

At the far end of the bridge, frozen just a few feet onto it, a white-faced boy her own age.

“Are you okay?” she asks, and then mentally berates herself for posing the stupidest of questions. Clearly he’s not okay. Almost imperceptibly, he shakes his head. The bridge salamander has come closer, but before she’s within arm’s reach, he shakes his head more strongly.

“Don’t!” he whispers.

“You’re not going to jump, are you?” The unspeakable question slips out easily after all.

Again he shakes his head.

“Terrified,” he gasps.

“Of… the bridge?… Of heights?”

He nods. “And danger. And risk. I came here to beat it, but I got this far out, and—” A tiny shrug of the shoulders.

“Want me to help you back?”

He shakes his head.

“I need to cross.”

The bridge salamander bites her lip. She admires his determination. And yet, long as half an hour is, eventually the time will be spent, and then the promised train will arrive.

“Would it be cheating if I helped you?

His eyes meet hers. In his expression, the bridge salamander reads surprise and wistfulness, and something else. Wild hope, she decides.

“I think that would be all right,” he says.

She holds out a hand. He swallows. She sees the sheen of sweat on his forehead. He manages to extend his arm. Her hand closes on his. Step by step, they cross the bridge. When they reach the rail bed on the other side, the boy seems dazed.

“I feel like I’ve changed my destiny,” he says. The bridge salamander nods and smiles.

“I feel like I’ve fulfilled mine,” she says.

(7)

 [ Bridge 7, © 2014 Carmen Moran ]

It is a slightly arched cement slab over a river of gravel, an imitation of a slightly arched stone slab over a shallow pool in a famous garden, which in turn was created to call to mind a famous view—a spit of land spanning a bay.

This second-order imitation, however, stands divorced from its ancestry. Here in the courtyard of a prestigious graduate school of journalism, its plaque reads merely, “The bridge to international understanding begins with our shared stories.”

A new visiting fellow has escaped to this courtyard from the noisy cheer of the welcoming buffet laid out for him and his peers—journalists-turned-students from around the world. He’s not the only haunted one, just the one whose reserves of affability are lowest. In the courtyard, he reads the plaque and exhales through the nose, not strongly enough for a snort, but heading that way.

“That doesn’t say the right thing about the bridge.”

A preadolescent boy calls out this point of information from a seat on a bench in the far corner of the courtyard. The journalist is surprised and not particularly pleased. He’d thought himself alone. The boy slides off the bench and approaches, a heavy-looking book under his arm.

“It’s supposed to be this,” he explains, opening the book to a glossy two-page photo spread. He shares the bridge’s multisyllabic name, adding, “it means ‘bridge to heaven,’ but my dad says heaven is a complicated concept. Here’s another picture.” He fumbles with the pages, looks up and slightly past the journalist.

“It’s okay for me to be here,” he says abruptly. “My dad is a professor here. He’s at a buffet.”

“I just came from that buffet,” says the journalist.

“Why? It’s not over yet. It won’t be over until 9 pm.”

“I needed some fresh air.”

“Do you want to go over the bridge? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t really take you to heaven.”

“For it to do that, maybe you need to die on it,” the journalist says. Instantly he wishes he hadn’t, but too late is too late, as he discovers repeatedly in matters large and small.

The boy shakes his head vigorously.

“I’m not going to try that.”

“No. I don’t recommend it.”

“But you should test your hypotheses. That’s what Ms. Garcia says. That’s how I know it won’t take you to heaven—while you’re alive, at least. I tested.”

The journalist shifts from foot to foot and hears cursed, cursed.

From the building comes the sound of a heavy glass door opening. The boy and the journalist look up. The journalist has been introduced to the professor who holds the door ajar, though he can’t recall the name just now.

“Liam. Can I see you here a minute?”

“I’m not bothering him,” Liam says, but the professor frowns, and before the journalist can say anything, Liam is walking toward his father. At the door, he turns and waves.

“Bye!” he calls. Over his son’s head, the professor smiles apologetically. He leads the boy inside and lets the door swing shut.

The journalist does not believe in bridges to heaven, or in heaven itself—a complicated concept. But what about the mother-and-child spirits forever beneath his feet?

Time to test a hypothesis, he thinks, and steps onto the bridge.


© 2014, Francesca Forrest

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