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
We ate a quick breakfast, then broke camp and set out. It was getting colder. We had our first snow that day, several inches’ worth by evening, which slowed us down. And something else happened, too. We found the body of a man, lying face down in the snow on the side of the road. He hadn’t been dead long enough to freeze: an older man like ourselves, bearded, outfitted for winter, carrying food, water, a knife, a hatchet, a walking stick. We assumed he’d died of natural causes, for there were no marks on the body.
His honor guard was nowhere to be seen. Where did the spheres go when a man died before reaching the Bridge? It seemed proper to bury him, but Omar reminded me with a gesture that the ground was frozen and we didn’t have a shovel between us. So, rather guiltily, we left him there, after dividing his food rations between us, then covering him with his cloak and some rocks to hold the cloth in place.
Food was a looming problem as time passed, and it soon became apparent that Omar was the better hunter and fisherman, though I was better at fashioning snares and spears. His skill at roasting meat on a spit was complemented by my eye for edible fungi, but the time of year worked against us, and hot meals were at best irregular. Hunting, fishing and gathering slowed us down considerably, but if we consumed only the preserved foods we carried, we would starve long before we’d “gone north for a moon,” much less “east to the sea.”
As it was, we were becoming steadily thinner and hungrier. Most of our water came from melted snow, and we crossed many creeks and rivers, always careful to boil river water before drinking it. We had by this time begun to encounter other small groups of travelers, both camping and on the road. Their spheres came in all colors and sizes up to about eighteen inches in diameter, but their number, like ours, never exceeded eight.
The travelers themselves varied greatly in hair, eye, skin color and personality, but I found the sameness of our situation appalling. Why send so many aging men on a forced march? It seemed pointless and cruel. But that was a rational view, a villager’s view, and the world we were coming to know had revealed itself as inaccessible to mere reason.
By the time the road turned east and headed for the sea, we had each shed three more spheres, but without their aid we certainly would have died. Once, when we were lost in a snowstorm and very close to exhaustion, one of my spheres detached itself from the others and, acquiring a greenish glow that was sufficient to see by in the near white-out conditions, it led us to a dry cave.
We were near starvation a few days later when we came upon a deer with a broken leg standing unsteadily in the grass beside the road. Even in our weakened state we were able to bring it down with spears. It seemed sheer luck, but one of Omar’s spheres was noted to be missing soon afterward. We fed on venison, both fresh and dried, for days.
We suffered injuries on the journey: I twisted an ankle, and Omar severely cut a finger. Both healed overnight, at the cost of one sphere each. Tempted by the limpid purity of a mountain stream and very thirsty, we both drank from it without boiling the water first and soon became ill. We were well in twenty-four hours, leaving me with two spheres and Omar, with one.
* * *
We passed the time on the road by teaching each other our respective languages, at which Omar excelled and I didn’t. More than a month into the journey, our pace and endurance had steadily improved, and very little snow fell during that time. We were able to cover many miles between sunrise and sunset, and in less than two weeks we had reached the sea.
We labored up the soft sand of the dunes and saw for the first time the crashing surf, the endless horizon, smelled the salt air and felt the sting of sand on our faces from the almost gale-force winds, and tasted the shocking saltiness of the water. We were overcome with joy and amazement.
It was premature, even delusional, to think that the worst was now behind us, but the unimaginable spectacle of the sea so intoxicated us that we had to remind ourselves that the traditional directions to the Berginlight Bridge were incomplete. After traveling north for a moon, we’d come east to the sea, and now stood before it, both enraptured and daunted by its vastness.
But there was no Bridge in sight, nor any sign directing us north or south. Would we have to guess which direction, or wait for other travelers, who might know the way? In any event, it was late in the day, and we decided to camp on the lee side of the sand dunes. Someone, or some inspiration, might come to us in the night.
* * *
It may have been the unfamiliar sound of breaking waves that kept me awake, or the cold wind off the water, but what sleep I had that night was fitful. Near dawn, I had a dream that was decidedly un-dreamlike in its continuity and clarity. I was in a longboat overloaded with men, the gunwales only a few inches above the waterline. We were all rowing toward a huge object in the distance, rising hundreds of feet out of the sea, the shoreline fading behind us. It had seemed to be an island but revealed itself, as we drew nearer, as the broken piece of a massive structure that must have once begun on land. It was made of some black stone or metal anchored to the sea floor with gigantic pylons, and it extended about a mile.
Beyond its broken edge — in the dream I could see it very clearly — across a wide stretch of open water, another, much larger, piece of what we now realized was an immense bridge continued to the horizon, and who knew how far beyond?
I looked at the faces of the men with me and realized that they were all familiar, people I’d known my whole life. I saw my father and grandfather, my oldest friend and his father, men I’d worked with and then, at the other end of the boat, I saw my son, a son that in waking life I did not have. His back was to me, and he was rowing like the others, but I knew who he was, even though he was as old and grizzled as I.
We were already in the shadow of the bridge, staring up at it, awed by its stupendous size. A stairway leading up to a mouth-like opening high above seemed to begin at my feet. The bridge, we all knew, was no ordinary bridge. It spanned the ocean, or at least, it had at one time. It was enclosed, and there were small windows in the black, stone-like metal, occurring at irregular intervals, almost at random, and from these windows a dim, greenish light emanated.
When I awoke, I saw Omar lying in the sand across the extinguished driftwood fire, amidst waving stalks of sea oats, his eyes open and troubled. I spoke his name, and he turned his head and sat up. I told him my dream. By now he understood my language well enough to need no repetition and, when I’d finished, he told me that he had had the same dream, except that the longboat contained all the men he had ever known. Our dreams had cost Omar his last sphere, and I had one sea-green sphere hovering above my tent.
“North,” he said, almost in a whisper, and I nodded. “North.”
* * *
We tried walking on the beach, but too often the soft sand impeded our progress. We looked for a path through the scrubby undergrowth that grew right up to the dunes. It was slow going until we struck a well-worn trail that must have been used by generations of travelers on the Journey.
For three more days we walked, camping out in the open, eating what we could catch: the scanty meat of sand crabs, and a slow-moving possum that came into our camp, probably smelling what was left of our stored food. Its gamey flesh tasted better after being brined for several hours in seawater before Omar spitted and roasted it over an oakwood fire.
The trail led us through coastal forests, flat grasslands, high bluffs. On the fourth day, it turned east into a muddy path through half a mile or so of salt flats at low tide, then climbed one of the highest dunes we’d seen yet, and as we topped it, we saw for the first time the Berginlight Bridge.
Or what was left of it. A mountainous pile of black rubble and one titanic pylon projecting from the sand was all that remained of what once had anchored it to the land. Beyond that, about a mile out to sea and uncannily resembling our shared dream, was the next piece, and miles beyond that, another section continued to the horizon.
Omar and I silently embraced, then slowly descended the dune and walked toward the sizeable crowd milling about the ruins. Almost all were men like ourselves: filthy, bearded, exhausted, and anxiously awaiting their turn to travel the last leg of the Journey.
But a few, we were surprised to see, were women, none of them young, and a number much older than any of the men. These women seemed to act as guides, either positioned behind the wooden counters of several high-walled tents erected just above the high-tide mark, or helping the travelers into rowboats lined along the beach. The women smiled and bowed to each of the men lined up at their counters. Most travelers had only one or two spheres left, and some had none.
We stood near a sky-blue tent, its walls rippling in the frigid northeast wind. A blue-cloaked woman was standing behind a counter, her thick gray hair in a single braid that extended almost to the ground. She welcomed each traveler in the same ritualized, almost sing-song greeting in a language that, strangely, we all seemed to understand: “Welcome, friend. Accept this token of our great esteem.”
And she would hand the miserably grateful man a generous slice of dense black bread and a cup of red wine, at which point his remaining spheres diminished to points of blinding light and disappeared so fast that the eye could hardly follow them.
She would then gesture behind her and say, “The boats are waiting, Traveler, to take you where all questions are answered. Fair journey.” We hadn’t tasted fresh bread in weeks, and the smell was intoxicating.
Like all of the half-starved wretches impatiently waiting for their ration, I ate greedily when my turn came, washing the bread down with the wine, which, as sour and musty as it was, I could have gone on drinking for hours. But seconds weren’t being offered. With a nod of thanks to the woman who’d served me — a handsome, spare-fleshed elderly lady with kind, faded green eyes — I headed down to the water, trying to spot Omar, who’d gone ahead of me.
I could almost laugh at the confused expressions and shambling gaits of the dozens of travelers around me, all of us moving uncertainly among the massive piles of black rubble half-buried in the brown sand, toward the waiting boats. Bewildered and exhausted by all that had happened to them since leaving their villages and having not the slightest idea what lay ahead, the travelers seemed stunned into a meek compliance with the female caretakers’ gently phrased orders.
That these women — these functionaries of the Bridge — knew perfectly well what was going on was as obvious as our own complete ignorance, and it was brought back to me with renewed force how elaborately strange all of this was and had been from the very beginning. There wasn’t a whisper of rebellion among these worn-out men. Instead, there was an almost unseemly haste to be done with it all, to meet whatever was about to happen to them, as long as it meant some final traveler’s rest and not another round of suffering.
After much privation, Omar and I had reached the goal for which tradition had prepared us since birth, and the fulfillment of our lives supposedly awaited us scarcely a mile offshore. But even as I walked toward the long line of wooden boats slowing filling with pilgrims, I felt a strong impulse to veer off and run hard in the opposite direction. Some buried part of me was screaming a warning that I could only feel as profound uneasiness. At the same time, the momentum of such a long journey seemed irresistible, especially when our goal was literally in sight.
I told myself that it was cowardly and foolish to hesitate now, after all we’d gone through together but, even as I spotted Omar and waved to him, I knew somehow that finding the answers we had so arduously sought would bring something else, too, something unlooked-for and dreadful. I wondered how I knew that, but there was no time to dwell on it, for Omar and I were already being directed into one of the longboats, along with six other men. We observed that the departures were staggered, two boats leaving every quarter hour.
A dozen or so tall, strapping women, none much older than fifty, directed the men to their places in each boat, and four women went along to help row and to bring the boat back when its eight passengers had disembarked. They wore robes of different colors with hoods to protect against the bitter wind off the water, and all had strong, deeply lined faces and eyes that looked on their passengers with kindness, melancholy, and a certain resignation, but never contempt or impatience.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene