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
I’m quite sure that all of us were not only intensely curious about our destination but, in varying degrees, terrified and doing a poor job of concealing it. However, very few men asked the obvious questions of their guides. In any case, the women politely fended off all inquiries as to the specific nature of the Bridge’s interior, responding only in reassuring generalities and metaphors.
No, a smiling, silver-haired woman with formidable hands and shoulders, said to a man near us who couldn’t stop questioning her that nothing violent or terrible awaited us, only wisdom and understanding. When pressed, she acknowledged that death was one of the possible outcomes of entering the Bridge, but only if the traveler willed it.
“Who built the Bridge?” Omar asked the same woman. “And when?”
“No one knows,” she said. “Only that no human hands built it.”
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“Because every part of the Bridge, from the tiniest grain of the black substance of which it is made — which is neither stone nor metal — to the largest pylon, functions independently of everything else, as if it were alive. Perhaps it is. Even the rubble behind us is still warm to the touch, and gives off a glow on moonless nights. Each piece of the Bridge is a totality; though the sections might be hundreds of miles apart, they are what remains after centuries of destruction by hurricanes, undersea earthquakes and tidal waves.”
“Why build an ocean-spanning bridge?” another man asked. “Why not a fleet of ships instead? It makes no sense.”
“The human mind is not the only measure of sense,” she replied.
Two burly women pushed us off, and we rowed through whitecaps and a heavy swell toward the Berginlight Bridge. It was a short trip but for me a queasy one. And then we were in the Bridge’s immense shadow, and the woman in the bow had tied the line to a rusted iron ring driven into one of the frighteningly large pylons.
I wondered if every man in the boat had had the same dream of being here now, gazing up at the gargantuan structure, shaking with several terrors: our own insignificance, the sense that this one piece of the greatest of all engineering marvels was sufficient to swallow up all the exiled, aging men in the world, that none of us had ever had any real hope of resisting the inexorable machinery behind this Journey to which our entire lives had been tending, and that whatever waited for us up there was separated only by a black, spidery-thin stairway coiling up to a height of at least two hundred feet to a mouth-like opening. We craned our necks upward, trying to see inside, but none of us moved.
Then the woman in the bow turned and spoke to us. “What we call the Berginlight, named for Madame Bergin, the great scientist who first explored the Bridge and described it so many centuries ago, is a dim green radiance that emanates from the material of which the Bridge was made. It seems to have no power source, and we don’t know what its purpose was, or even if it had any purpose other than to light the way for whoever, whatever, travelers used the Bridge to cross the ocean.
“All we know is that the illumination is constant and radiates a low level of heat, and that when men — for some reason, it has no effect on women — are exposed to it, revelations occur. Buried memories are revived, dreams revisited, choices offered. There is nothing harmful here, nothing to fear, I promise you. Now who will be first to climb the warm stairs and find his answers?”
“Does no one ever return?” a man near her asked.
The woman looked at him kindly. “Yes, many do, but not the way they came.”
“So the Journey ends up there?” Omar asked, pointing upward. “We don’t travel from here to the next section of the Bridge?”
“Man can bear only so much,” she replied.
“What if I — what if someone — refuses to go?” I asked.
“We return him to the beach,” the woman in the bow said. “But he always comes back, eventually, and climbs the stairs.” She stepped out of the boat and onto the gently sloping pylon, then turned to address us all. “Would you turn back now, Travelers, after all you’ve endured to get here? Would you have chosen not to be born? The truth is, you must go. I can’t tell you why. It has to be experienced.”
She stepped forward and extended her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, the man nearest her stood up and grasped it. She helped him out of the boat, pulled him to her in a quick, almost impersonal hug, then took him by the shoulders and gently impelled him to the spiral stairway. When his hand touched the black railing, he looked back at us and smiled. “It’s warm,” he said, then turned and began climbing.
* * *
One by one we joined him, accepting the woman’s big hand and formal embrace before beginning our climb. The warmth of the black substance was odd but comforting to my numbly cold hands, and the stairs, in spite of their narrowness and apparent fragility, as if built to accommodate children, were rock solid, not even swaying with our combined weight.
I looked out over the ocean as I climbed higher, and at the Bridge that seemed to follow the earth’s curvature, diminishing to the width of a black ribbon before plunging into the horizon. I didn’t want to leave this world but, at the same time, knew I didn’t belong in it; some other world, possibly, but not this one.
As the man above me neared the opening, which was far larger than it had seemed from below, the fear spreading through me seemed to center on my heart, already racing from the strenuous climb, but there was no thought of pausing to rest or delay, for the five men below made me ashamed of my weakness. I looked down and saw Omar’s resolute face. He waved, as much in farewell as acknowledgment. I waved back, then turned and entered through the maw-like portal into utter darkness.
Just before the man preceding me had entered, I heard him call out to the man in front of him. Now I heard nothing. I was in a soundless black void, completely disoriented, afraid to move. I turned around, certain that I’d taken no more than a step or two from the door into the Bridge and expecting to see the sky outlined by the opening, soon to be filled by the next man on the stairs. But only blind silence enclosed me on all sides.
I called out, my voice feeble and muted, as if the room I was in was small and low-ceilinged, not the cavernous space that the Bridge appeared to be from below. No one answered my call, and I knew I was alone. Nothing is more isolating to a sighted man than complete darkness, and I stood quite still, not daring to move for fear of falling into a pit or impaling myself on some sharp object.
But as I stood there in the clammy sweat of near-panic, feeling entombed by the the most absolute blackness in my experience, there occurred a gradual and very subtle mitigation of its totality. It took several minutes before the almost subliminal sensation of light — a green so dark it was almost black — suffused the air, and I began to see the faint outlines of a room, a very small room, no larger than fifteen feet to a side. It seemed to have no doors or windows, and my panic began to rise again. Then I heard voices, almost inaudible at first, and as I listened, they came closer. I could hear them now.
“Alan. Alan, wake up. It’s past seven. You’ll be late again.”
“Yes. I’m getting up.”
“What’s the matter with you? This is the third day in a row you’ve overslept. Are you feeling all right?”
“I don’t feel sick. But no amount of sleep feels like enough lately.”
“Are they pushing deadlines again at the office?”
“No more than usual. I’m just tired.”
“You need to see Dr. Chimeyev. I’ll call and get you an appointment.”
Her pale face above me, a triangular wrinkle between her fine black brows, dense fall of black hair brushing my face. I know her now: the beautiful woman in the dream, who had said, “Here are the children.” The decrepit children of Alan and Margaret Touhey. Was that my name? Alan Touhey? Did we even have children?
“Where are the children, Margaret?”
“What kind of question is that? Where do you think?”
“Now I’m really getting worried.”
“Don’t be. I’m fine. A little disorientation is normal after a bout of African Sleeping Sickness.”
“That’s not funny.” But she smiles, and I think I must have lived for that smile.
* * *
I don’t know where I am, couldn’t even find my way out of this poorly-lit room with its paper-covered examination table, a leather couch for the patient — a warm touch for such a dry man — and for the old doctor a hardbacked chair. Chimeyev is serious, as always, maybe a touch more so than usual. That faint trace of Moscow in his reedy tenor.
“How long have you had this tiredness, Alan? Think carefully before answering.”
“Let’s see, I think it started, yes, two Saturdays ago. I noticed I was sleeping in more. Nine, ten hours, and feeling like I could sleep even longer. I’m tired all the time now. Struggling to say focused at work.”
“You say you feel tired. Not weak? Low energy?”
“No, just sleepy, like I can’t fully wake up.”
“Have you been thirstier than usual? Dry mouth?”
“Anybody in your office or circle of friends with the same symptoms?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Why, is it catching?” I smile, but Chimeyev doesn’t. “Okay, doctor. Are we talking some kind of encephalitis?”
“We have to rule it out. You won’t like it, but we’ll need an MRI, blood work, a spinal tap.”
“Jesus. Is there something going around?”
“I’d rather not say until I’m sure. Like to get you in for the MRI today, if possible. Right now we need to draw some blood.”
I’m on my back on a gurney, being wheeled out of the — I’d thought doorless — room, lit by a subterranean green glow, and into a claustrophobically small chamber that bombards me with oscillating waves of noise. Again the struggle with panic, the sense of time passing, Margaret holding my hand as I lie in bed in a hospital ward located by necessity in the basement, packed with mostly sleeping patients, dozens of us, all men. An IV is taped to my arm, Margaret speaking in a raised voice to keep me from falling asleep.
The epidemiologist is a tall, stooped, grim-faced woman with long gray hair in a thick braid. She’s talking to Margaret while I struggle to keep my eyes open, a losing battle in spite of the amphetamines being pumped into my bloodstream.
“We know the virus is gender-specific, though we still don’t know why it attacks only men. Like the flu virus, it’s airborne and easily transmitted by touch and proximity but, unlike influenza, it has an unusually long incubation period, two to three weeks, during which the patient grows progressively more somnolent as the inflammation of neural tissue stimulates the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, inducing a constant sleepiness. This is the first stage.
“As soon as the patient enters a coma-like sleep, which can be delayed for a time with stimulants, the virus triggers a systemic auto-immune response. It’s devastating, to say the least. The immune system literally goes to war against every organ in the body. The patient, mercifully comatose, dies of multiple organ failure within seventy-two hours of this second-stage onset.”
“All I want to hear is what you’re doing to stop it.”
“Massive doses of immunosuppressant drugs can keep the patient stable, at least temporarily. What’s needed is a vaccine and, at the moment, we don’t have one. I have to be candid with you, Mrs. Touhey. Your husband is gravely ill, like every man in this room. We’ve got ninety thousand cases in this city alone, and it’s spreading rapidly. The situation is far from under control. Mr. Touhey was one of the earliest cases diagnosed, which is why he has a bed at all. Most of the new cases are being treated in sports arenas and warehouses, though quarantine has been ineffective thus far.”
I can hear everything she’s saying, but keep nodding off, only to be jolted awake by another infusion of methedrine. I must have slept through the rest of the conversation, because I’ve lost track of time.
I’m drifting now, as if on a current of warm water, moving through dim chambers lit by a sullen green light that never brightens. Attracted to the voices — all female — like a moth to a light, I follow the threads of many conversations. Their faces I can no longer see.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene