by Bryan Harvey
The river flowed between two nations—one younger and one older—but the river no longer reached the ocean, although it once did.
On either side of the river was a town. In these towns lived people of disparate clans. The people were strangers, but before that they were distant cousins and before that close cousins and before that, quite possibly, they were siblings, sons and daughters of the same mothers and fathers.
On one side of the river, the most popular pets were dogs that looked like coyotes. On the other side, the most popular pets were dogs that looked like wolves. Some people, but very few, on both sides of the river owned bright blue and green birds. But, again, this occurrence was a very rare thing indeed, for birds are prone to give flight and venture beyond the horizon lines of the many visible worlds that exist on the borders of antiquated waterways.
Sometimes these people built bridges, but sometimes they tore down the bridges. This is a story about one of those times: the building or the tearing down.
The men gathered stones and set them in the mud downriver from where the women bathed the town’s children and washed their clothes. The stones piled high until they reached the heights of the bank, and then the men wove hemp ropes together and threw them across the river. The great braid floated high in the air, possibly even in the path of a blue and green bird flying beyond the lines of the visible world, but ultimately the great braid landed on the surface of the moving water and coiled and uncoiled like a snake in the current. The men pulled in the rope and tried again. After several tries, the men managed to lasso a stump protruding from the soil on the other side. Then, holding onto the thick braid of hair, they crossed.
Once on the other side, the men built another stone tower, braided more ropes, and made the bridge easier to cross. When the bridge became easier to cross, more and more people crossed. People crossed in both directions, and some people forgot upon which side of the bridge they had originated. Men and women would go to the custom houses on either side and ask to see the record books, but the books only proved that the bridge had been crossed many times by many peoples and that origin stories made about as much sense as ghost stories.
In fact, people were haunted by the invisibility of their own origin stories as the howling of their dogs that looked more like wolves and coyotes grew louder and the flights of green and blue birds decreased as the bird population within the realms of the visible worlds dwindled with each setting sun and each rising sun and the overall passage of time. In the end, however, some people began to feel frustration over the cloudiness of the past and how it had come to resemble the brown murk of the river where they cleaned their children and washed their clothes. And, with this mounting frustration, meetings were called on both sides of the river.
At these meetings, people complained about the bridge almost as much as they had once complained about the lack of a bridge. And, in this complaining, the two towns hatched two plans which were really part of a single plan. When night fell and as the dogs howled and no birds flew, people passed on the bridge like the hints of shapeless shadows. Hidden in their coats and stowed away in their bundles were all sorts of tools: shovels and picks and hammers and dynamite.
When they reached the opposite sides from where their journeys began, they winked and nodded to one another in the darkness and took out the same tools that the build-ers of the bridge had used and they began to tear it down. They removed the stones with a great deal of clamoring grunts and metal on stone. They severed the braids and even lit them on fire. The coils floated downriver like great flaming snakes—orange furies against the blackness that eventually hissed gray smoke. Then they blew up the found-ations, and those who had not woken to the sounds of metal clanging on stone awoke to the sound of artificial thunder.
But each of the two plans had a problem, which really was the same problem. They left themselves no way of return. They were stranded. And, because history still would not share its grand secrets, they did not know if they were stranded on the right or the wrong side. This realization struck them like lightning, and they panicked because what they realized was that they knew nothing other than how to destroy the one thing they understood. And it was this reasoning that led each group to construct out of the rubble of the old bridge a new bridge. So, working from a single plan that was really two plans, each group set about building a bridge, which was really two bridges.
When those responsible for the tearing down of the first bridge and the building of the second and third bridges passed from the visible world, the same problems arose in their sons and daughters. People were bothered by crossings and unclear stories and so more bridges were destroyed.
Yet, the destruction always left the same problem: no escape from the wrong or right side of the river. And it was often as the dust and smoke settled on the moving waters that the deserted looked towards the sky, hoping to witness a blue and green bird in flight, and found themselves howling—either like wolves or like coyotes—at their loneliness reflected in the moon’s yellow eye.
Such was true of the first bridge, and such was true of the last bridge. And such was true of all the bridges in between. And somewhere in all that building and not building the river was lost.
Bryan Harvey lives and teaches in Virginia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming
in FlashBack Fiction, Moon Park Review, Hobart, No Contact Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, The Florida Review's Aquifer, and Cold Mountain Review. He tweets at @Bryan_S_Harvey. Most of his rough drafts begin on long runs and are never finished.