Great Whales

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📅 Published on November 20, 2019

"Great Whales"

Written by Ian Downes

Estimated reading time — 8 minutes

The man approached the bridge as he normally did. A crimson book tucked under his left arm, a dim lantern held in his right. His eyes alighted on the young woman perched on the steel guard. A slight breeze rustled her dark hair. As the man stepped closer, his soles clicking against the asphalt like a freshly shod horse, the woman froze. The light danced over her features, etched into a primal mask of embarrassment. The man didn’t seem to take notice of the pained look; he simply cleared his throat and stared out over the edge of the bridge. When he finally spoke, it was with the voice of a patient librarian: the kind that doesn’t need to help you with finding the right book, but went to get it for you anyway,

“This old mill bridge is haunted, you know. No one in town, old side or new, would say otherwise. Everyone knows someone whose soul has been taken by the myth of this place. Despite its multiple repairs, the ramshackle construction seems ancient within its landscape. These pillars that used to be support beams, carrying the weight of the original wooden covering, stand as charred reminders of the history of the bridge. Various names inscribed on these pillars memorialize the dozens of people who have lost their lives here. They’re all carved in the same writing; the kind that requires a tremendous amount of effort to etch deliberately into the surface of the weathered oak, and a lot of emotional toil from the carver, haphazardly inscribing the name of a loved one whom they’d never see again.

Emily Jones was one carver, a mother in her early forties, whose son had been found in the brook below. The red Camaro had torn through the old oaken barrier of the bridge, and had shattered below. Right down there. The bridge’s side rails were rebuilt, this time with that cold steel you’re gripping so tightly. They used to be oak logs. The hole was there for a while though. It served as an example for others never to drink and drive, as the three boys who had been killed were coming from a party in new town. Their grandparents wouldn’t have approved of their companionship, but that’s at the back of most people’s minds when they’re invited to a high school party. When they had finished their night out, Alex Jones claimed with neither slurred speech nor unbalanced step that he was okay to drive. Nobody questioned him. He had then proceeded to shatter a bottle of red wine onto the white living room carpet, staining it with a deep crimson splotch. And even as the host poured salt over the rather minimalistic white carpet, trying desperately to exorcise the stain from the pattern of rivulets in the rug, the other two boys, George Reynolds and Michael Smith, got into the car with Alex anyways. He was the designated driver after all. Children who trudge through the creek for fun still find pieces of the red paint chips and glass from the car’s frame around the banks of mud, scattered as they are like flecks of blood rising up from the dirty waters, despite the time that’s passed.”

The woman shifted slightly. Not enough to move herself from the edge of the bridge. But enough to count it as a shift, rather than a tremble.

“The fall will kill you. You know, if you’re still wondering about that.”

The gurgling water echoed up to the unlikely pair, piercing the silence that followed.

“Underneath the bridge are solid walls of rock, with mud banks that never quite touch near the edge of the creek, and of course, the pillars of concrete and steel that support the old bridge. The bridge creates a cavern that children can spend hot summer days under, the kind of day when you so much as step outside and your clothes are already stuck to your body in slick sweat, and drinking a glass of ice water seems like a blessing from on high. They would play in the thick air that settled in that creekbed, even though parents would warn them of it when it seemed like rain. ‘The waters rise quickly underneath the bridge and you might be carried off like Evelyn Rose,’ they’d say, but children don’t listen.

When new town was first coming into its own right as part of old town, there was a rigidness when the children played. The children knew they looked different from one another, and while old town parents whispered fiercely to their children when they came home about the trouble-makers across the creek, it didn’t stop them from returning. The bridge wasn’t there yet, just the two banks of stone that created a miniature canyon to be explored. Those early explorers didn’t mind who was what color, as long as everyone followed the rules, but when they grew into adults as the bridge was finally being constructed, they learned the hatred from their parents. Perhaps it was one of them who carved “Genesis 1:21” underneath the bridge into that stone, but there’s no clear way of knowing. Covered in moss and skittering creatures that were slimy to the touch, the inscription seems ancient at this point, as if it were a secret from the gods of old, which had lost all real meaning connected to the reality of the bridge. It’s just a part of the legend now.

It’s surprising that such an ill-omened structure exists here at all. Over there’s the old presbyterian church with that enormous, steel cross right at the side of the road, as a sort of lighthouse for those needing aid, and on the other side of the street, St. Francis Catholic Church, whose name always has to be capitalized, but whose parking lot is much smaller than their neighbors. Across the creek, on the new town side is the black baptist church, and you’d almost miss that it was a church if you didn’t see the single wooden cross that stands unornamented along the driveway. We’re right between three churches. Don’t let them scare you though, you won’t be sinning on hallowed ground here.”

The churches being spoken about had no lights on in their windows. The buildings were dark shadowy structures looming in the distance, the only light being a single spotlight aimed at a large steel cross. Moments passed filled with only the slight gurgle of flowing water.

“When the original concrete foundations had been poured, a series of young women in the community had gone missing. No ransom notes were ever posted, and not a single one of the seven had ever been found. In 1923, the people of old town didn’t expect this kind of tragedy, they blamed the other side for their missing girls. and there were rumors that the bodies of the women had ended up in the concrete foundations. These rumors reached the police and the foundations were ripped up, but no bodies were found. It caused the original construction of the covered bridge to be delayed, but sure enough, the moment the new concrete foundations were in place, the rumors flew wildly again. Hushed muttering in town hall meetings were as violent as the waters below the bridge during the flooding season. As people called for another search of the foundations, the rumors poured forth, uncensored and violent. The construction company wouldn’t let them do it again. The new bridge had to be built to connect the new half of the town. It was a matter of infrastructure. It needed to happen.

There was almost an eighth girl who went missing way back in 1923, but the soul of the bridge claimed her as part of its own, nice and clear. When the bridge was finally finished, there was an opening ceremony, and the mayor was the first person to drive over the bridge, unifying old town and new town. His daughter, Catherine Moore, was waving from the backseat. She went to the white school in old town, and this would be the only time she ever visited new town. She wasn’t one of the children who played in the creek, she was the Mayor’s daughter after all. She wore a beautiful dress with sunflowers on it, and a wide-brimmed hat that made her look like one of those movie stars: Edna Purviance or Jane Winton. They found her body hanging from the bridge’s overhead rafters with a coarse rope around her neck, still wearing the same dress with sunflowers on it. They seemed to move as real sunflowers should move when they found her, swaying in the wind, dancing toward the beams of the flashlights. There wasn’t any sign of a struggle, but people couldn’t imagine it as a suicide. Not her. Her name was the first name scratched onto the bridge. Apparently eight was enough to blame someone, anyone, for the missing girls. The police arrested Jordan Brown for it. He was given the death penalty for it. The police had to catch a criminal somehow. It needed to happen. It was a matter of infrastructure. His name was put on the bridge out of spite by someone almost thirteen years later, right above Catherine Moore’s. It needed to happen.”

The woman opened her mouth. The man paused. She closed her mouth. He checked his watch. Moments passed filled with only a slight gurgle of flowing water and an indistinct ticking.

“The original covering of the bridge made it seem like the maw of some great monster, it’s mouth open wide to swallow the next poor soul. The empty darkness that lingered in that space of the road always felt colder, and one could imagine, as they lingered in that space, that they stood breathless at the bottom of the ocean. It always felt like there needed to be an extra gasp for air when one emerged from the bridge in the darkness. The dead air didn’t sit right in the lungs. When the covered bridge caught fire in 1988, people originally thought that was going to be the end of it. They thought maybe the fire would clear up all the spirits resting in those timbers, as if they were simply bats hanging from the roof. “The bridge didn’t need to be covered in the first place anyway,” most people claimed, knowing that they would miss the archaic symbol of the town. The hopes that maybe the bridge wasn’t still haunted went away when official reports came out about the arson.

A young man, high on some kind of hallucinogenic – seeing demons only he could see, but everyone knew lurked under the roof – set the roof ablaze with a makeshift torch. Matthew Halter had imagined himself as some sort of saint, exorcising the spirits trapped there. You should have seen him that night, eyes wild and fierce, a man on a mission. When he lit the structure, he hadn’t expected the rage of the inferno that consumed the bridge. One might have seen it as the gates of hell opening to swallow this courageous fool, who had believed he could alter the devil’s structures himself. The way the fires licked the supports, crackled through the ancient timbers, and devoured the dry wood brought down the roof far sooner than Halter had anticipated. There wasn’t much left to identify his body from how the fire ate away at his form, but there was enough. Enough to be able to write his name on one of the remaining pillars. People considered not writing his name on the pillars, since he had tried so hard to cleanse the bridge. But his name had to be written all the same. It needed to happen.”

The woman’s arms were trembling slightly. Her gaze didn’t leave the darkened riverbed. The man traced the charred edges of the beam with his finger. The lantern’s candle had run low, but was still burning merrily. He opened his crimson book, and began leafing through the pages.

“They’re thinking of rebuilding the bridge. Just starting over. It won’t happen of course, because it’s the only real connection between the two parts of town for a ways. It’s hard to create a detour that takes you ten minutes in another direction. But, the idea is there. It feels colder now, don’t you think?  If they replace the bridge who knows what’ll happen to all those names. They might get put onto the new bridge, but that doesn’t seem right, does it? For all those names to be lost like that? So, back up a bit won’t you? I don’t know what might happen to your name.”

Moments passed. The river gurgled below. In the distance, far from the bridge, a light shone up on to a steel cross, casting its shadow into the sky. There was an indistinct ticking, and the sputtering of a candle. And majestically, like some great whale breaching the surface of the waves, the woman clambered over the rail in one slow motion. And a crimson book snapped shut.


Credit: Ian Downes

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