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The Bridge Fugue: Variations on Emptiness

Daniel Ausema's work has appeared previously in Daily Science Fiction, as well as Strange Horizons, Diabolical Plots, and many other places. His novel The Silk Betrayal is the first of a trilogy, published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series. He lives with his wife and children--masked and isolated--in Colorado at the foot of the Rockies. Thoughts: This story came to me almost whole in a single image--an impossible bridge, a heavy fog, and a solitary person who tries day after day to cross it. And day after day fails because of the unpredictability of the bridge. While it may seem to be a metaphor for quarantine and lockdowns, it was written before any of that became a reality, or even something I was aware of as a possibility.

It is false that a bridge has exactly two points of contact with the world, one precisely here, and one at a specific there.
At least, it is false of this bridge. The rusted girders hold an aging bridge firmly to my island. So that makes one point of contact. Clear, certain, unequivocal. Litter blows against that point. The detritus of... somewhere. Old newspapers discolored with soot. I can't decipher the writing, even what language it might have been written in. Tin cans, jagged-edged, float across the sludgy water and pile against the girders.
One point, yes, but the other? I do not see another, across the smog. The bridge is lost in a soup of foghorns and shadow. If I stayed here, I might believe that it has one other point, one ending, as logic would have it. Or I might believe it has none, that somewhere in that blind distance the bridge ceases.
But I have attempted to cross, and I know. I know that its other ends are limitless. The points of contact are infinite.
And each as empty as this--this barren strip of an island, concrete and mud with dry grasses taking tenuous root between the cracks.
Yet I try again. My footsteps on the riveted grating of the bridge are metallic, but the echoes die away in the smothering fog. Cotton swathed stillness. I drag my feet forward. The handrail is a wire cable, slack between posts. A wind tries to push the cable away, but its weight is too much. I pull myself along.
A boat passes beneath me, low and fast. I see no human driver, but a camera swivels to watch me. Cautious that I would try to jump on board? At least it might take me to someplace less barren, but I make no attempt. I think I've tried. I have a recollection of falling, of breaking through the oily surface, of scrambling to shore wearing that oil.
But it is a distant memory and uncertain. I might have dreamt it. Might have wished it had been real because it would mean I hadn't always trudged along the same span, day after day.
The smog constricts around me, tightening my lungs. A ghost of a building stands at the midpoint of the bridge, with no doors, only a high window smaller than my head, covered with a metal mesh. Mesh and glass both are painted the same color as the building--gray as far as I can tell in the fog. I wheeze as I plod on past.
My chest grows tighter as the other end of the bridge comes into view. A cement wall holding back the water. A crack in the wall spills bite-sized bits of concrete into the water, forming a triangular spit of land that just breaks through the surface. Barnacles, or the encrusted remains of barnacles long since dead, turn the spit of land a grayish white.
An island unfamiliar and barren.
The bridge comes down above that spit, anchored into the sea wall itself. I step out, knowing already I'll find nothing. Still I look. The wall tapers away a few paces to either side. Great mats of seaweed and litter are pushed up onto the beach by the listless waves. I step onto a glass bottle, noticing it only as it shatters beneath my heavy boot. Shards of glass make a bright tinkling noise before all is swallowed by the thick air.
A few steps above the sea wall is the foundation of another building. The charred rocks are all that remain.
Maybe I should sleep here. I'll be out of the wind. And what happens when I wake up here? Will this become the one fixed point, and the other end full of infinite variations on emptiness? I make myself a bed in the corner of the foundation and pull my hood over my head. It isn't night--probably--but I have nothing else to stay awake for.
The smog attacks in the night.
The constriction becomes tentacles of air. The stink of factories and carrier ships take on flesh. The crumbled concrete rises up to form a body. The litter swirls around, forming a head. Oil from the surface of the water is siphoned into the colossus, powering its pistoned movements.
I shall fight it. At least it's something, not emptiness. I stand, groggy with sleep, put up fists as if they will do anything against such an entity. One tentacle wraps itself around my arm, pulling it down and back with a force I can't resist. A second tentacle slaps my back so hard the sting drops me to the ground, the entrapped arm still raised up in the air.
I pull, and my arm comes free. Scrambling away from the next tentacle, I hear the metal thud as I collide with the bridge. A limb of the smog being strikes the metal with a deeper thrum that reverberates through the fog.
I crawl onto it, its grating sharp against my knees. I can't keep going. I don't dare stand. A noise in the air above my head warns of another tentacle whipping the darkness. Lifting my knees, I scuttle away, past the ghostly gray building. I already know, before the darkness opens to reveal it, that it is still my own island. Back to the barrenness I know.
I collapse and fall asleep. I should avoid the bridge in the morning, stay here, give myself to the polluted water if I can't remain in one place. Maybe I'll find somewhere to swim to, some place no bridge has ever touched. The idea chases me through my dreams, without images or any idea what I might find.
In the morning I gaze at the oil sheens, pale rainbows in the slight sun that never breaks through. I place one foot into the water and pull it away. Climb the bridge one more time, wondering what I might find on the other side today.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 15th, 2020

Author Comments

This story came to me almost whole in a single image--an impossible bridge, a heavy fog, and a solitary person who tries day after day to cross it. And day after day fails because of the unpredictability of the bridge. While it may seem to be a metaphor for quarantine and lockdowns, it was written before any of that became a reality, or even something I was aware of as a possibility.

- Daniel Ausema
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