CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Under the Bridge
I have a follower, a man with eloquent eyebrows, miniature in stature. When first he appeared in front of my bi-box, I thought him mad, though his face was plump and his beard professionally shaped. He hailed me then, as he has every night since, with his ritual formula: Hail, slave! Hail, slave of ignorance! I am here to lead! To lead you to truth! I follow you so you may follow me!
He is no ordinary follower: He wears the blue-flecked gown of the cloudwatcher.
I did not greet him that first night, nor on any other; I would not even were I able. I am surly with him, in fact, but that is expected of Traitors, and by now I have spent my native courtesy.
I shall not reproduce his harangue for you: It is enough that I must listen.
Tonight, the deluded man follows me to the wishing bridge, as he does every night—though follow is not a rightful description of his movement: rather, he follows then periodically exercises his little legs to land in front of me so as to achieve the lasting eye connection which is so satisfying to people in these parts. I must then avoid bumping him, for touching a cloudwatcher is cause for limb alienation. Avoiding such collisions takes an unforgivable amount of energy—I find it difficult enough to trudge, walk up stairs, and stay awake. All the more so now that my knee is swelled and I must walk with the aid of a broom. I hobble around him, snorting and coughing brown bile to make visible my pique.
The man will watch me at the bridge, haranguing me all the while.
My only consolation: that he will soon be blind, for such is the way with cloudwatchers.
He is exhausted by evening, his clouds being most eloquent at sunset, yet he follows, knowing that it is at night that I must wander. He does not care that I walk with pain, my knee barely supporting my (diminished) weight. Driven by zeal, he cares only that I see the truth, which, for him, appears daily in cloud form.
He wastes nary a moment, immediately sharing with me his cloudy, his cumulous, his ever-accumulating message: augurs of wheat, brave Kingly acts, pap of that sort, all based on his daily reading of the clouds.
A crude method of conversion, I’m sure you’ll agree, singing one’s creed into the ears of a nightcrawler, but after years pursuing more subtle means I cannot claim my path the superior.
As we approach the bridge, my follower sings of the great Cloud Ceremony! Where new cloudwatchers make themselves known! Glory glory!
His face is rapt: eyeballs nearly rolling into his tall forehead, his cheeks, if this is possible, even pinker than before.
The wishing bridge is where the devout bring their animal pets to die. I must choose one, but not take it away until it is fully expired.
I must roast animal pets in my brazier, I who in my own land never dreamed of eating flesh.
I have no idea why this simple stone bridge, spanning a muddy rivulet, should be sacral to the people of this land, but it is. I am not the only Traitor exiled here, nor the only nightcrawler, so I must compete for my meal.
In a different world, we Traitors might be allies, but here we care only to obtain meat for our brazier.
Others have followers, but I am the only one to have attracted a cloudwatcher. Ordinary followers shout their scripture, The Book of Future Knowledge, which is nothing more than an evolving amalgam of cloudwatcher wisdom, selected by the King. They may not sing scripture, for to sing scripture when you are not anointed is blasphemy.
I live in a land where singers risk limb alienation.
The other Traitors are not from my land, but my cloudwatcher must cause them to suspect my former status, because as yet I need only be tolerably quick when the gate opens to obtain my meal. At the same time, I am careful not to provoke: I endeavor to escape their notice with quiet demeanor, and am largely successful, being neither young enough nor strong enough to grasp the largest of the animal pets, or the most tasty, nor condemned by infirmity to grasp only the smallest or most feeble. The Traitors reserve their scorn, their malevolent glances, their most vicious shoves, for the strongest and the weak. I who drag a self-made broom, who must hold up my breeches to keep them from falling, who do not grumble or whine, am considered inconsequential, if possibly at one time mighty. The Traitors offer me long-lasting looks but only to keep me in their sights, as they do everyone, as do I.
My stratagem is well calculated: Most Traitors do not last two monsoons in this treacherous land: The strongest are cut down, the weakest crawl off and die. Those who care for others—the young or the sick—are quickest to expire, and none do mourn their passing. I have been here under the bridge seven monsoons, I alone.
Every night at the gate to the bridge, I call upon Knowledge to keep me alive: Allow me to be quick and to choose my beast wisely. Allow me to hold it firmly as it dies. Allow me to remain awake through its expiring. Allow me to pass unnoticed.
Tonight I call on Knowledge to help me walk straight, to not appear weak.
It is essential they do not see that I am crippled at the knee.
As we wait, I exchange long-lasting looks with other Traitors: The mother and child have returned, as has the old man; every day I am surprised to see them. To my left is the buxom mistress; also a new man, redheaded and of uncommon height and girth. He is laughing and mouthing words to himself, or maybe to those proximate. He catches my eye; we do not like what we see: I, because I see him for what he is: a man who kills not from necessity or belief, but for pleasure; he, because he sees that I see, though he takes no pains to hide what he is, but rather makes it plain. His long-lasting look is not polite: He broadens his chest and lifts his elbows as he glares at me, that I might see the power of his arms. My gaze is level: It says, Do not underestimate me; though he may as well, for I have no defense against him.
The priest takes the pets one by one from their grieving masters, pocketing coins and muttering heathen rites, as the masters sing songs of farewell. We exiles watch them, and him, and each other, from behind the iron gate, trying to disguise our hunger and engaging in complex private reckonings: Which animal pet shall I target? The fattest? The closest? The one that seems closest to death or the least diseased? If I am beaten to that pet, to which shall I lurch?
The priest rests each animal pet reverently on the ground, and when every tearful master has left, he lifts the gate, and leaves. I rush forward, as do we all, jostling, and grabbing, and pretend that each step does not cost me anguish. Sometimes there is a discreet stomping on naked feet; once a child was felled and trampled in the rush. It is only the presence of followers that keeps us from murder. The rush sets the followers to haranguing. It is loud, then, under the bridge, a chorus of zeal ricocheting off stone into water.
I know that I must keep the redheaded man within my sights, even if it means choosing a lesser meal; I must never give him my back. Then I must quickly set myself in my usual place, which is at the perimeter. Behind my place is the only clear exit, unencumbered by rivulet or gate; I am surprised the Traitors do not fight me for this advantage. I quickly choose a turtle. It is mine now, he shall be till he dies, then he shall nourish me. Until then, I cannot leave him, I cannot choose another. If I seem to offer it less than full comfort in its dying, the others—Traitors and followers alike—are free to separate my aching limbs.
There is a name for this ritual killing: They call it “limb alienation.” The people are well practiced in its exercise: It is what they do when their sensibilities are outraged.
The redheaded man, who has grabbed a goat, sees my choice of ground too late; unlike the others, he registers its advantage and stares at me rather wildly. He is a maddened warrior of some kind, an outlaw, a mercenary—born to or ruined by battle. He wears leather gauntlets, a strange luxury in these parts, but they shall help him grasp pets, and withstand their biting. It is easy to imagine him with warrior’s helmet and spear, easy to imagine his boots drenched in blood.
He makes a show of displaying his teeth to me, they are sharpened to points—he is a warrior from the South, then—I was not wrong to know him as fierce and without pity. Then he laughs—perhaps my face has given me away, revealed some small part of the trepidation I must feel. The gesture he makes with his fingers is recognizable in any land.
The turtle is a good choice. I am, by now, adept at removing this animal pet from its shell, whereas I remain squeamish about plucking feathers from a shooting fowl. Also, I recognize its sick, its dying eyes—it will not be long now. Further, it could not crawl far should I sleep during its expiration, unlike last night’s wretched cat.
I once thought to make of the shell a savory soup, but learned that what a shell does for soup is squander coal, for soup requires much boiling, and shells do little to improve the taste of water. I once thought to save the shell, and fashion from it a stool, so I might sit on other than my pallet, but I could not rid the thing of its turtle smell.
I must whisper words of transition to a turtle as it dies. Go, little turtle, go in peace! Go, brother turtle, that I may eat your meat!
Except, of course, I do not whisper, I cannot. I hum, instead, and my hums must console—no small feat!
An animal pet can last many hours in its dying. The wise Traitor evacuates his bowels before choosing one.
During these hours under the bridge, I ignore my cloudwatcher, who does not cease haranguing, and think about survival. How may I cook this pet so as to preserve my coal? What route shall I walk home to minimize exposure to outraged citizenry? On this night, however, I watch the redheaded man. He has not harmed us, yet I see it in him, a willingness to harm—though he is strong enough to grab the choicest, healthiest-looking pets, and can have no use for ours. Because he is young and strong, he can also be patient: He can wait out the longest dying if the animal pet is plump enough. I started with a deficit, I am always hungry. I must choose animals that die without too much ado.
The redheaded man grins his sharpened teeth at us as we console, and laughs, rolling his head and gesturing rudely. We are each of us his enemy, and he ours. We watch our pets, we sing or hum consolingly; we also watch the redheaded man.
He gestures to my turtle, makes chomping motions with his pointed teeth. And laughs.
And then my cloudwatcher becomes strange. One moment he is singing When the sun is light, the trees shall shed, and up shall rise the flower—his usual muck. I cannot say I listened with attention. But then he fell to his knees, holding his eyes as if in pain.
He was in pain.
Aiiii! he cried out. He pulled himself up, which involved grabbing the arm of a stupefied Traitor who consoled a standing deer. He then commenced to lurching about the underbridge, his arms outstretched, as if he could not see, though his eyes were open and blinked as if working.
Perhaps this is how it starts, I thought, the blindness of the cloudwatcher. Perhaps it was not a gradual phenomenon as I had without evidence assumed; perhaps it comes upon them in a moment, like this, with attendant pain and crying out.
But he seemed to focus then. You! he cried from across the underbridge. He ran to me and reached me. You will save us! he cried out, falling at my knees. You and the golden child!
I scarce think he knew what he was saying. Spittle flew from his mouth, he who was usually so fastidious with his pronouncing. His eyes could see now, yet they seemed to see something other, something not yet arrived. He called me all manner of thing: exalted one, redeemer, savior of cloudwatchers, leader of the blind, friend to those who prophesy.
Oh high one, blessed one, fulfiller of cloud tales!
He touched me all over, as if to remember my hair, my features, my bony shoulder and arm. He had plainly lost his mind.
Oh rescuer! I see now what I did not see before! Sing a song of the rescuer, exalted one who leads the blind!
The other Traitors gaped—the redheaded man, the bosomly woman from the north, the mother and her child.
The other followers, sensing all was not right, skulked off.
My cloudwatcher didn’t notice, he had no idea anything was wrong. He danced about me in joy and reverence, and humming a consoling melody to my turtle.
Then he fell to the ground, as if dead.
I held my turtle to my breast and kneeled over him to test his neck for electricity.
He lived, and in fact breathed freely.
The red-haired man was not happy with this performance. Emboldened by the absence of followers, he strutted to me, dragging his dying goat by one leg.
Who is this esteemed pisspot? he shouted. Who is this high ’n mighty man, so much better than we and me here, so much more interesting to this cloudwatcher here? You a bigtime man, you?
He laughed, taking care to bare his sharpish teeth.
You got a big turtle dere. Big big turtle. So good, a big big turtle. I wanna big turtle fer my brazier. You wanta gimme dat big turtle t’eat wid my goatie here? We do this transaction, huh?
He laughed some more. He was the only one present who dared ignore his animal pet as it died.
The cloudwatcher sat up and commenced to singing: Oh, Questioner redeemer! Questioner savior! Sing a song of the Questioner who saves us all!
The other Traitors gasped, and my cloudwatcher again collapsed.
It is one thing to suspect that I am, or was, important in my native land, quite another to know I was a Questioner.
The others were silent. They wished to look upon me but did not.
The redheaded man looked uncertain, but how could he stop?
Whoa ho, you big scary Questioner? he said, sounding a mite less the cock. You don’t take so many Questioning now, do you? Whoa ho!
I shook my head, as if indicating disbelief at his wild accusation, but they knew it was true, what they already suspected, what I am, what I was.
Any of them might have been expelled from their lands by a Questioner. Any might be here, branded and alone, because of someone like me.
Sing a song, the cloudwatcher sang from his slumber, as if in reply: Once was Questioner, now is liberator!
Whoa ho, the redheaded man said, shifting from one foot to another. He didn’t quite know how to assimilate this new information. Whoa ho!
The cloudwatcher groaned.
I stood up suddenly, and the redheaded man, despite himself, jumped. My turtle, mercifully, had died. Maybe I pressed its neck. I am loathe to do such a thing, but I gave it to the mother and child. Then, risking death by limb alienation, I took the man in my arms and, ignoring the twinge in my knee and the prodigious shaking of my limbs, I carried him away.
I know not where I shall eat on the morrow.
Rachel Cantor is the author of two novels: A Highly Unlikely Scenario, published this year, and Door Number Two, forthcoming in 2015 (both Melville House). More than two dozen of her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.