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
Not surprisingly, the man was about my age or a little younger, dressed in rough, homemade clothes and animal skin boots and smoking a pipe as he sat on a large flat rock by the stream. He looked very different from the people of my village; his skin was a dark, ash-tinged brown; his hair short, gray, and of a tightly curled, wiry texture. His nose was wider than mine, with large nostrils, and his dark eyes were big and intense, though not unfriendly.
He stared apprehensively as I approached, even as he returned my wave of greeting. I spoke a few words to him, but could see that he didn’t understand me, and he replied in a language I’d never heard before. Like me, he seemed glad to have met another human in this wilderness, pointing to the eight spheres behind me and smiled as he counted them on his fingers. I did the same for his spheres.
When I said, “Berginlight Bridge” and pantomimed walking and looking at the horizon, he nodded eagerly. That we were fellow travelers on the same pilgrimage pleased us both, and nothing could be more natural than to continue on our way together.
After eating lunch by the stream, sharing our simple food, we set out on the apparently endless clay road, both of us curious over the fact that our respective spheres didn’t commingle, but segregated themselves into more tightly organized clusters, although not very far apart.
And then a strange thing happened. I’m not sure how long we’d been walking before we realized, with shocked laughter, that we’d been conversing together for several minutes. But we soon felt uneasy, having recalled — if somewhat vaguely now, these many hours later — that we’d begun our association in frustrated silence.
“What language are we speaking?” asked my companion, whose name was Omar. “Mine or yours?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “The farther we travel from our villages, the less we seem to remember.”
“But you and I needed a common language, and now we have one.” He gestured at our respective escorts of spheres. “Maybe they had something to do with it.”
“You know as much as I do.” Then I noticed something. “Look, Omar.” He looked and saw that we had each lost a sphere. I now had seven, and he had five.
“So they do have a purpose,” he said. “And probably not just one. It seems they’re here to help us along, adding skills or assistance as needed.”
Our former lives, as sketchily as we both recalled them, were eerily similar. Omar had also been born and raised in a small village with no trade from outside and very few visitors. The land around his village was wild and trackless, except for the road on which we were traveling and the land used for agriculture.
The men of his village received the same signal of departure as mine did, the only difference being the color of their spheres, and our common destination, the Berginlight Bridge, was a half-mythical place, about which nothing at all was known beyond the vague promise that something of great significance would occur if one reached it.
And surely it followed, I thought, that if he and I came from isolated villages set far apart in this wilderness, then there must be others. How many, one could only guess. Were they all, I wondered, similarly cut off from one another, with a matriarchal council and an iron-clad rule that men in their fifties must leave at a certain moment and Journey alone to the Berginlight Bridge?
Why were the women not also required to travel? Why did each village remain ignorant of all the others, and why did the memory of our lives in the villages fade so quickly as soon we left them? If nothing else, Omar observed, our shared amnesia of both the recent and distant past compelled us as nothing else could to continue our Journey; we not only had no homes to go back to, we did not even have memories of those homes.
I was beginning to understand why no man of our village, once departed, had ever returned. My life could now be summed up very simply: I was an aging man named Simon, traveling on a red clay road with another gray-haired man named Omar. There was nothing else to tell, except that we had a common destination, along with a growing uneasiness.
* * *
“Were there no philosophers in your village?” Omar asked me, later that afternoon. “For there were none in mine.”
“Not in mine, either,” I said. “Life was accepted without question, though now I ask myself how that was possible. I was a carpenter. That’s all I remember. I lived, I worked, the years passed. When the spheres showed up at a man’s door, it was understood by everyone that he’d soon be leaving, willingly or not, and never coming back.
“The spheres themselves didn’t stimulate much curiosity or conversation. They came for the man, they left with him. They harmed no one, and no one cared enough to ask what they were, where they came from, or what they signified. It was as if we were all in a trance or a dream.”
“From which we’re now waking up,” Omar said. “There’s clearly a plan or procedure that we’re being compelled to follow and have been since birth. We may not have thought that when we lived as villagers, but I think we felt it. Didn’t you? That there was something strange about life in the village? Something—”
“Artificial,” I said. “Unreal.”
“Yes, unreal. But not unreal like a dream. This world seems solid and consistent, bound by natural laws. I believe in it. The sun rises and sets, the days come and go in an orderly fashion. No, it’s not this world that’s wrong, Simon. It’s us.”
“Wrong in what way?” I asked. All my life, it seemed, I’d been waiting for the chance to have this conversation. Surely my wife and I had never spoken of such things.
“Doesn’t this seem to you like some kind of ongoing test or experiment, and we’re the subjects?” Omar said. “Look at the spheres: apparently, they’re color-coded for each village, and they come only to able-bodied men of late middle age and follow them on the Journey. Besides helping in various ways, maybe they also see and record everything we do, feel, even think.”
“Why do they occur only in even numbers?”
“Proliferating mysteries are another prod to keep us moving,” he replied. “We don’t know much of anything, really. These floating things may be alive, maybe not, connected to some other intelligence or are themselves intelligent and interested in us and our Journey.
“We’ll keep looking for the Bridge, not only because we literally have nothing else to do, but because there might be answers waiting for us at the end of the road. It’s a brilliant scheme.”
“Or something. I haven’t decided what it is, yet.”
“I wonder what would happen if we didn’t try to find the Bridge,” I said. “Just picked a spot and settled down.”
“Interesting idea,” Omar said. “But also dangerous. There must be some contingency built into the system to deal with the unwilling or faint of heart.”
“As we near the coast,” I said, “I suppose we’ll meet more amnesic ex-villagers on the Big Journey.”
“Who’ll be as confused we are. You know, the only explanation for this custom that makes any sense at all to me is that this world — the human part, at least — is a house of cards, a fragile illusion too easily jeopardized by people like you and me.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Well, besides a more visceral awareness of mortality, what’s the predominant experience of late middle age?”
I thought for a moment. “Disillusionment?”
He nodded. “And the Journey to the Berginlight Bridge is the ideal method for removing us — the subversive element — from society.”
I had reservations. “A woman can become as soured on life as any man.”
“True, but she’s inherently more settled, more rooted in the world than a man is and thus more likely to accept life as she finds it. No, the most volatile element in the mix is man, and the cultural imperative of the Journey — which may be a euphemism for exile — removes him from his village at the age when he’s most discontented and full of dangerous thoughts.”
“You sound like an educated man, Omar,” I said.
“So do you,” he said, rubbing the gray stubble on his chin. “The weird thing is, I don’t remember going to school. Do you?”
I shook my head, and we walked on in silence, more troubled than ever. With each passing mile, it seemed, the falseness of our lives was being revealed, as if successive layers of callused skin were sloughing off, leaving us newly sensitized to our predicament. And yet the world around us, as Omar had said, felt real.
Our lengthening afternoon shadows glided over windblown clumps of brown grass, the woods on both sides of the road seemed endless, trackless, and the creatures that belonged there regarded us with the same wariness that we had once regarded the rare traveler to our village. Man was too scarce an animal to have left any more than the lightest of footprints in this land, and of all the curious aspects of the day and the Journey, that fact was the most jarring to me. It hadn’t bothered me before. Our tiny village, cut off from the rest of the world, had seemed normal and natural, the way things were meant to be. Now, it no longer felt right.
This rarity of my kind could be true only in some mythical past or distant future, either well before or long after the human species had come into its prime. I had no basis for this conviction. This road had probably never been paved because it hadn’t needed to be. And yet this world where I’d spent my entire life now seemed deeply implausible, less like some rudimentary beginning or weary aftermath of civilization than the disappointingly thin fantasy of some beleaguered urban imagination longing for a radically simplified existence.
* * *
That night, after we’d pitched camp in a grove of ancient oaks, beech, black gum, sycamore and tulip poplar, and shared our cold provisions and a cup of wine, we sat facing each other across a warm fire, our respective Honor Guards hovering silently behind us.
“Dark,” I said, peering into the blackness massed on all sides of us, just beyond the firelight and the huge trees at our backs.
“Not very friendly dark, either,” Omar agreed with a smile. “But easier to face together.”
“And all we have for protection is this fire and our retinue of camp followers.”
“After today’s little miracle, we shouldn’t underestimate them,” Omar said. “They gave us a common language. Maybe they can protect us, too.”
“Has it occurred to you, Omar, that the Honor Guard didn’t just come to us because it was our time to leave, but because they come only to the living?”
He stared hard at me across the fire, then nodded. “Yes, it has. Especially since we started forgetting friends and loved ones barely an hour out of our villages.”
“What if those people were just phantoms, illusions, designed to make us feel... what? Normal? Acquiescent?”
“Maybe they were there to provide us with a personal history, consistent memories. As stagnant and unreal as the villages now seem to us, they didn’t while we were living there. We accepted our life there as we accept our dreams. But why did we accept it? Why was it imposed on us in the first place? And why did it become necessary, so late in life, that we be exiled from that imposed existence?”
“We spoke of this earlier today,” I said. “You had a different theory, then.”
“That’s true. I said that the jaundiced viewpoint of middle age might contaminate the fragile calm of the village, and the Journey was a kind of cultural antibody to that virus of disillusionment. But my ideas keep changing from one hour to the next. I’m afraid that the changes taking place inside me are outpacing my ability to make sense of them.”
“I feel it, too,” I said. “There’s a pressure building in me. An almost unbearable need to know what I’m doing here. It isn’t pleasant.”
“But not boring, either,” Omar said with a laugh. “Well, let’s see if we can’t get some sleep.”
“I don’t know if I can,” I said. “My thoughts are racing.”
Omar stretched out on his bedroll and pulled his bearskin blanket up to his chin. “We’re not in control, Simon, not of any of this. Whether we wake up right here in the morning or inside boxes with air holes punched in them, it is out of our hands. But one thing is certain: we’ve been walking all day and need rest. I think you’ll sleep if you lie down. Anyway, good night.”
“Good night.” I crawled into my one-man tent, took off my boots, and lay down, realizing only then how exhausted I was. Sleep soon overwhelmed my jangled thoughts. I must have overslept, because it was Omar’s voice, rather than the morning light, that woke me up.
He was kneeling over me, his hand on my shoulder. I was so groggy that, for a moment, I had no idea where I was. He said something I didn’t understand.
Stiff and sore, I slowly roused myself. “Good morning,” I said.
He looked at me with a bewildered expression, then said something else I couldn’t follow. We stared at each another, realizing with shock and something close to grief that our common language was gone. Apparently the linguistic gift bestowed by our spheres was temporary. Having no other choice, we quickly reverted to sign language.
Omar pointed to several large animal tracks — clearly those of a big cat — in the damp earth around the campfire and in front of my tent, then to my Honor Guard. There were six spheres remaining, evidence that a hungry mountain lion had visited our camp sometime in the night, picked me out as its next meal, and then had been dealt with in some way by the Honor Guard. Besides the tracks, there wasn’t a trace of the lion anywhere. I looked at my friend and shrugged. He smiled, pointed to his bearskin, then held his nose, conveying his own explanation for why the lion had chosen me instead of him.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene