The Bridge is a story submitted by one of our readers named Jennifer Harmon, a student from Louis School in Dundalk Co. Louth.
John O’Connor lifted his coat silently down from the rack and shrugged it on. He checked the coast was clear – that neither his daughter, his son-in-law, nor the grandchildren had noticed him leave – and then pulled the latch on the door. He was careful not to utter a sound as he eased the door closed though it was difficult to control it with his hands so warped. He hadn’t been able to straighten his ring or pinkie fingers in years, something to do with his tendons or whatever. His eldest daughter, sweet Maria, always told him he ought to pay more attention to what his nurses and doctors were saying, but he argued that they made the temptation to switch off his hearing aid too strong to deny.
But John made it out of the house without a peep. He didn’t bring a key with him. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be needing one.
By the time John had made it halfway through the treacherously uneven field behind his house, he was already out of breath, an echoing rumble wheezing around in his lungs. It was an odd sensation no non-asthmatic would understand, like a golf ball being lightly dragged across a cheese grater. Yet it was nothing a good hefty cough couldn’t fix. He continued on, careful not to thrust his foot into any hidden rabbit holes. That would be the end of his new hip.
By the time John began tracing his way down the age-old, overgrown pathway in the woods, the sun had settled lower in the sky. The forest was enveloped in a dense chilling fog, yet shafts of sunlight broke through the canopy of the trees, adding a tranquil beauty to what otherwise may have been an eerie setting. His shoes filled footprints he’d embedded in the soil countless times before, since first coming this way into the woods when he was six years old. This was his track. This was his forest. And that . . . was his bridge.
John couldn’t prevent the automatic smile that parted his lips at the sight of it, nor did he want to. He had far too many good memories there not to grin just looking at it. From where he stood on the right bank of the river, he could see it all, the whole height of it. The bridge was quite long because the motionless stream was so wide. The stone bridge itself was quite narrow and was covered in moss, its sides suffocated with ivy. What was unusual about it was its shape. It curved up more than the average bridge, so much so that it almost had a pointed summit. And together with its reflection in the still water, it created a perfect circle.
He got wheezy just thinking of the climb, but he decided to worry about that when he got there. He wasn’t at the foot of the bridge yet.
He recalled the day he’d discovered the unvisited bridge. It was the day he’d gotten into his first school fight. The class bully had been making fun of him because he didn’t have any shoes. One severe nosebleed later, the teacher contacted home. After having his dear mother called in – may she rest in peace – and having to deal with Father and his belt, John had gone charging out of the house seeking an escape. That was when this place had saved him. Somehow it had a knack for taking his troubles away.
He took the first step, his shoe making a vague dry scraping sound against the rock. He reached for the wall lining the side, knowing he needed the assistance. The wall flattened out at the incline of the bridge, so that as the climb got a little steeper, he would have to tackle it alone. He remembered that being a challenge when he was fourteen. It was the day of his first kiss.
He’d led his friend Helen into the woods. He wanted it to be special. As they neared the bridge, and just before it had come into view, he’d blindfolded her with his hands. On the bridge, that proved even more difficult as she had nothing to hold onto to lead her up, and he had nothing but her face to tow him along. It wasn’t a very graceful idea. They had reached the centre of the bridge in the end, though, and it had been as magical as he could have ever hoped.
John reached the spot where the wall became too low to hold and his heart almost immediately kick-started into a faster pace. He was beginning to feel too hot under his jacket, yet his hands remained dry and cold. He cast his physical form entirely out of his mind and looked at the loose stone his brother Tom had never failed to trip over every time he brought him here. He thought about the Halloween night he’d spent up here with his cousins from Bristol and the horror stories they’d told surrounded by candlelight. He spotted the scorch marks where they hadn’t noticed a candle had tipped and singed the stone.
He picked out the exact place he’d been sitting when deciding to break up with Helen, when pondering what he could do to help when his brother got sick, when dealing with friendship issues, family issues and even when choosing what he wanted to do for a living. That was his thinking spot, right up there. If only he could reach it . . .
He hadn’t been to the bridge in a while. His family all thought him senile and incapable and refused to let him out of their sight. What kind of life was it to spend his last few years as a distrusted prisoner? At least here he was free.
He finally noticed that all the sound he was hearing was dead and muffled, so he reached up to his ear and turned up his hearing aid. The clarity that came, as a result, was surreal. His footsteps sounded clearer though their echo was absorbed by the mist. He could hear the birds in the trees and their rhythmic, unified calls. It reminded him of the evening he brought his bride-to-be there at sunset. That was when he’d proposed to her.
He did it on the opposite bank of the stream after chasing her playfully across the bridge. In his youth, that’d been an easy task. He got down on one knee right at the water’s edge and had taken out the ring, which was then nearly swiped up by a magpie.
Nearly to the top.
The next time John and his wife had had an experience there with magpies was quite possibly one of the greatest days of his life. He’d been able to tell that Bernadette had something important she wanted to tell him, but instead, she’d put it off, deciding to sit back to back at the summit of the bridge and toss sticks over the side into the water and watch them bob, while chatting away about anything and everything. That was until three magpies all at once had landed delicately next to them. The saying had been the very first thing to jump to their minds: One for sorrow, two for joy . . . three for a girl. Bernadette had instantly turned around to him and confessed her news: She was pregnant.
A tear trickled down John’s cheek at the beautiful memory. He’d cried in that moment too though he never admitted it when Bernadette retold the story.
He gasped for oxygen to satisfy his wheezy lungs. He staggered momentarily for balance. The muscles in his body and the bones beneath them demanded his attention, begging him to halt and turn back. Descending would bring sweet relief.
No, he thought. I’m going to finish this.
He carried on, ignoring the burn of his lungs and all his aches and pains. He forced one foot in front of the other, again and again, determined to return to the place where his most important, and frankly only surviving memories originated.
I’m going to get up there even if it kills me, he decided.
And in fact, it did.
John took the last step and reached the very centre of the bridge. Then he collapsed on his stomach, his heart giving up entirely. The fog stayed hovering in the woods. The birds continued to chirp. The treasure-like sunlight carried on creating diagonal beams through the cloudy mist. The cool, stone bridge remained steadfast. And John O’Connor died a free man.