To the Berginlight Bridge
by Jeffrey Greene
All able-bodied men in late middle age must attempt the Journey to the Berginlight Bridge. They leave their villages with only what they can carry, without even a dog for company. Only men are summoned, and they are given no map, only the admonition “to head north for a moon, then east to the sea.”
Now Simon must leave his village and the people he’s known all his life. On a rainy morning in early winter, he begins his lonely trek, knowing that, like all the men before him, he will never return. However, he will find he is not alone and that his Journey has an ultimate meaning for both men and women and for life itself.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
It is one of our oldest and most rigidly-observed customs that when a man’s youth is well behind him and old age not so far off, then the time has come for him to attempt the Journey. The day will arrive when he knows that he must leave his village, taking only those provisions that can be carried on his back, and he must go alone, without even a dog for company. Although he has no map and the way is unmarked, the destination is always the same: the Berginlight Bridge.
The ancient land is vast and sparsely settled, and travelers are rare, their stories difficult to verify. Some confirm the Bridge’s existence, others demur or claim ignorance. That the many men who have left our village over the years have not only reached the Bridge but entered into its mysteries is, of course, a matter of faith to those left behind. It is a fact that no man, once departed, has ever returned, but this doesn’t discourage us, since the Journey is so ingrained in us that our lives would seem not merely incomplete but meaningless without it.
But neither do we look forward to it. It’s no easy thing to leave behind wife, children, friendships, home and village, knowing that one will never return. How do we know when it’s time to leave? For some there is a dream or vision. Others wake up one morning with a portentous feeling that often expresses itself as nausea. Sometimes a glance in the mirror is all it takes.
When a man has fully accepted the Journey, but never until that moment, he soon finds himself attended by the spheres or, as they’re sometimes sardonically called, the Honor Guard. He is accompanied by them wherever he goes, except indoors: as few as four and never more than eight balloon-like things, always in even numbers and of uniform size, like mated pairs, that iridesce in all the shades of green, denser and more opaque than a soap bubble, but seemingly as airy and insubstantial, floating some nine or ten feet off the ground, and following closely behind him.
From a few inches to more than a foot in diameter, the spheres never make a sound, nor do they allow one’s touch. They simply hover when you stop and follow when you move, day and night. Are they watching, one wonders? Might they be the remote eyes of some beings far away? It can’t be that they are merely attracted by purposeful movement or warmth, for then everyone in the village would have his own floating entourage.
What are they, these marbled agates of the air, colored in swirls of deep evergreen that quicken with the heat of day to the vibrant shade of spring grass? Living individuals, a school of creatures with a group mind, or perhaps the gigantic spores of some form of life as yet unseen? Where do they come from?
They are never seen wandering the countryside; they just seem to appear when a man has accepted the Journey. Do the small ones grow to the size of the larger ones, and if so, what do they eat? And the most puzzling question of all: how do they know when a man’s time has come? Since no one is able to answer these questions, we’ve gradually lost the habit of asking them. Only the children are still curious, but too soon they grow up, and like the rest of us passively accept the world as they find it.
Whatever they are, the spheres are a benign but insistent reminder that one has been marked out, that like it or not, one’s old life has ended. Almost overnight, the behavior of the man’s family and friends changes completely. He is not shunned, exactly, but he has the distinct impression that he is being written out of their life story, that they are already teaching themselves to forget him. Such is the power of culture.
The marked man’s family members never insist on coming along or try to prevent him from leaving. Feeling his changed status, the man hastens his preparations, knowing that if he doesn’t leave willingly in a few days he will be driven out, and some of the stones thrown at him might come from his loved ones, although this is rarely necessary.
On the morning of his departure, the entire village turns out for the Farewell Ceremony. Formal words are spoken by the members of the ruling council, and then small presents — a knife, a wooden spoon, a broad-brimmed hat, beef jerky, a skin of wine, a brick of cheese — are given to the seeker to help him on his way. They gather at the dirt roadside, waving goodbye as he heads north, always north, watching him until he ascends the hill just outside the village and disappears from view. Then they all go back to whatever they were doing.
There are many old women in the village, but the only old men to be found are those too sick or lame to attempt the Journey. The Honor Guard only comes to the able-bodied — another unsolved mystery.
* * *
And then one day in early winter, it was my turn. A cold, steady rain was falling that morning, the red clay road a morass. I was in a foul mood as I turned my back on my home and started walking, by turns resentful, afraid, self-pitying, lonely, though grateful in a sense at not having to leave behind anyone close to me, since my late wife and I had been childless.
No longer used to hard physical labor and feeling my age as never before, I kept shifting the weight of my heavy pack, favoring the aching bunion on my right foot, my creaky left knee. Beyond the traditional advice given by the council at the farewell ceremony, to “head north for a moon, then east to the sea,” I had no idea where I was going.
My weapons consisted of a sheath knife, a small hatchet for cutting brushwood, and a wooden staff. In under two hours, my feet and back hurt, and I took off my pack and sat down on a mossy log to rest. My faith in the Journey and the Bridge had always been tenuous, and as I sat there shivering in the rain, peering uneasily into the dense forest on both sides of the road, it was hard not to be skeptical.
This supposed quest to find the Berginlight Bridge could just as easily be a convenient myth concocted generations before by female elders to get the older men out of the way and maintain their matriarchal control over the village. In all likelihood, I thought, the only thing awaiting me and all the other fools who’d gone before me was a lonely death in the wilderness, either by hunger, cold, wild animals, or highwaymen.
A movement at the corner of my eye reminded me that I was not alone. The eight spheres hovered among the bare branches of maple and oak saplings, showing the somber spruce-green that was their color on sunless days, silent reminders that there were forces at work here beyond my understanding, that the possibility existed that something or someone unseen was interested in the outcome of my journey. If that were so, was this curiosity passionate, impersonal, morbid?
There was one old man in the village — one of the few, since he’d lost a leg years before — who thought that the spheres were carrion eaters, waiting for the seeker’s death in order to feed; and another, an asthmatic, who believed that their nourishment was mental or spiritual: the thoughts, fears, even the dreams of the pilgrim. Or maybe, I thought, they were intended as companions, even a form of protection, since their alien behavior might act as scarecrows to keep off wolves, bears and mountains lions.
I was beginning to understand, on my first day of travel, that even such strange and silent company as the Honor Guard was better than none at all. It had never been clearer to me than now that I was neither stoic nor self-sufficient, just a scared, aging man already hungering for the sound of another human voice.
All of that dark, wet day I walked north on the road, glimpsing a few animals, but no people. The road had no wheel or foot tracks other than my own and, not for the first time, I wondered why this country where I’d spent my entire life had attracted so few explorers and travelers and, other than our small village, so few settlers. We knew there were other villages, because the rare traveler had described them, but we’d never seen one, since travel for its own sake, or even for trade, had never been a custom among my people.
This was the first time in my life that I’d ventured more than a mile from town and, although not really expecting to find people, I was still shocked by the rarity of humans in a world with such abundance of game, timber and open land. This and many other questions weighed on me as I trudged through the rain, my cloak draped over my pack to keep it dry. It seemed that for fifty-eight years I’d lived in a tiny outpost of humanity — less than a hundred of us — surrounded by wilderness, and yet our essential lack of curiosity hadn’t really troubled me until now.
What had I been doing all those years, other than cohabiting with a gentle woman, tending animals, growing crops, doing carpentry? I felt like a man waking up from a long, complicated, yet uneventful dream, who feels, even before opening his eyes, the whole intricate machinery turning to dust in his memory.
I tried to recall my wife’s face and, with a panicky feeling, realized that I couldn’t. The name of my village, the people in it, all that I had done and said over those many years — it was gone. I knew my own name — Simon — and supposedly why I was here, but that was all. Had something terrible happened to my mind, an illness in my brain? My body felt the same, and my thoughts didn’t seem confused or disordered. But it was as if my old life had ceased to exist as soon as I left it behind. I wondered if this happened to all the men who left the village.
Who had made this road, and when? Did it make sense to build a road so little used? It was just a narrow dirt track, not cobblestone. So why hadn’t the grass and weeds grown back over it? I realized that I was upsetting myself with questions to which there was little hope of getting answers, at least for the time being.
A great many things seemed wrong about this journey to the Berginlight Bridge, but one thing was certain: I had no choice but to continue. My life in the village of — I really couldn’t remember the name — was over, and if my porous memory was any judge, it might as well never have been at all.
And there were more immediate problems to deal with. Dusk was gathering, and I had to find shelter for the night. A dry cave would be too much to hope for, and it seemed unwise to venture very far off the road, so I looked for a stand of large trees near the road whose branches would provide at least some protection from the rain, and there I set up camp.
A fire would have made my camp almost pleasant, but what wood I could find was soaked. After a frugal meal of cheese, bread, and a swallow or two of wine, I crawled into my sleeping bag. I spent a cold, miserable night, twitching at every sound but, aside from the many doubts and questions assailing me, I was left alone.
* * *
I awoke at dawn from a kind of nightmare. I was with my wife, not the village woman whom I had buried years before, but someone much younger, the sight of whose beautiful face had brought me to tears, because I hadn’t seen her in so long and had believed she was dead.
“Here are the children,” she said, handing me two faded, crumbling photographs of a man and a woman, both at least eighty years old. I couldn’t get a firm grip on the pictures; they kept slipping from my fingers, pieces of rotting paper breaking off each time I tried to pick them up.
The rain had turned to sleet during the night, and ice crunched under my boots as I stepped out of the tent. A frigid, clinging mist hung suspended among the trees, and I stamped my feet and clapped my hands to get the feeling back into them, but the eight spheres, whatever they were, didn’t seem to suffer from cold, and there was no frost on their glass-like surfaces. They hovered as I ate a cold breakfast, then broke camp, hefted the pack and set out on the road just as the sun was rising. I looked back to see them following in a tight group above and behind me, precisely matching my pace, and I lifted my hat and offered them a friendly nod, grateful for their silent company.
Animals are about their business in early morning, and I surprised many, unused as they were to the sight of a two-legged creature. A large black bear crossing the road a hundred feet or so ahead startled me, but he merely stopped, looked me over, sniffed the air, then ambled into the woods. A murder of crows monitored my progress with loud warning caws seemingly meant for all the creatures of the forest. The deer, rabbits, skunks, groundhogs, and foxes I encountered didn’t flee at the sight of me, but kept a wary, curious distance, disturbed, no doubt, by my otherworldly entourage.
I knew that at some point in the near future I would run out of food and have to hunt and fish for my meals but, at the moment, in the instinctive joy of dawn, I was happy not to have to kill and could remain a harmless onlooker, at least until something large and hungry found me more appetizing than frightening.
It was a lovely day, sunny and clear, though with a chill wind, and what little ice there was on the ground and coating the bare branches had soon melted. My feet were sore, but my knees seemed to benefit from continuous use, and I felt that my wind had already improved. The farther I traveled from my village, the more unreal my past now seemed. I might have always been walking alone on this road.
It occurred to me that if there were other villages like mine, I might meet others on the same journey, and early that afternoon, as I entered a narrow valley through which a stony creek ran, I met my first traveler. It wasn’t the man that I saw first, but his honor guard hovering in the air over his head: six vividly scarlet spheres. Even from a distance I could tell that they were larger than any I’d seen in my village.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene