By Sydney Bleil
Photos by Alyson Kuennen
Everything about this place— its pale blue light that emanates from each lantern, its village houses cozied against the base of the mountain, its intricately overlapped bridges— is familiar to him. It’s familiar in the way some injuries are— the ones that are both old and common, so that he can never tell if the pain is phantom or not.
This spot here, where the water is full of leaves and petals, is his left knee; the one he has fallen on, tripped over, torn and bruised and broken until it belonged on someone much older. The bridge has been swept recently so that the dark stone glares against the mottled yellows and greens of dying plants in the water. Another petal drifts from the tree, this one not marred by the cold. Its crisp lines still hold shape like curled hands. The tip of it is sweet pink, the base clean snow. It lands on the cluttered surface, and it is dead but it still looks young.
He lays his hand on the rough stone of the bridge so he knows he’s real. His skin, tan and scraggy with scars, feels more object than person. It’s not fair, he thinks, that this spot should be a broken promise, a lost future, a fallen lover.
He wasn’t there when she fell. He should have been, but he wasn’t; someone had needed herbs from the mountain top. He had gone, and she had stayed, and he had heard the inky black war horns from his camp near the brook. One moment here, the next not. He cannot understand a world without her.
He does not want to be here.
If he closes his eyes, this bridge will shift to another season, a softer moment. It isn’t the time, but oh it is so easy to give in. It is not cold, and without the flowers to brighten the lines of the world, the water blurs into the bridge. Black on blue, both so dark they could swallow him whole. The water gives way to orange and white fish that dissolve back into nothingness.
In another time passed, he stands here with a girl. A girl with cold hands and a warm voice. She wears blue across her chest, a ceremonial sash, marking her future as the best of them. They watch fish come to the surface, peak their ribbed sails over the top of the water before rejoining the multiples. The tree is full and alive above them. It is too early for the blooms still, but the leaves sprout broad and deep and waxy. In the weak light of the moon the tree is painted blue, even the leaves which he knows to be a pale minty green.
She is the only thing that isn’t dipped in the shadows of night. She stands in the moonlight and her features are so clear. Her pale hair is tied back in an intricate mass of braids and curls. An apple sits between them, brought from the distant islands and brushed with golden pollen. She doesn’t touch it, but she stares at it as they talk, at her fingers nearly reaching it. He waits patiently for her decision, for the moment she picks it up and takes the first bite. They do not talk about the apple, but the future hovers on the edges of conversation, laid beneath each word.
If he stands very still he can recall the buttery sweetness of words passed between their lips, like the candied vanilla beans of their childhood.
When he opens his eyes the shadowy bridge almost sticks. But then he shifts his weight and his knee twinges, and the world turns pink and green and cold. The phantom disappears from his vision but sticks in his knee. He is alone again, in a future in which she is not the best of any of them. He can feel her absence in his knee, in his ribs, in every part of himself.
Behind him the funeral songs begin, the last of many. He is supposed to speak, to lay an apple and a ring beside her. He thinks about closing his eyes again, pretending he can’t hear it, can’t feel its red hot sourness. He wants so badly to sleep. He wants to lay with her as they did in the times before.
She would shake her head at him if she were here, smile at him with her hearth mouth and brook eyes, drag him out of these thoughts. She would pinch his ribs, if she were here, scold him for even thinking it. If she were here—
But she’s not.
Slowly, he shifts his weight back off his hands, into his feet. Slowly he abandons the bridge, dreams of returning to her.