“The Bridge” by Gregory F. DeLaurier

The Bridge

Gregory F. DeLaurier

Early December and the trees in the forest had lost their leaves. Walking through it was like being in a cemetery, or among some ancient obelisks a lost people had erected eons ago, with a strange sadness over what once had been green, fully alive.

He knew the forest well. He’d grown up in a village just at its edge, and considered the forest his own playground, his friend, his teacher. He learned the forest was itself a village in which the trees did not live solitary lives but communicated with and nourished each other. He learned that everything else in the forest was a part of that village as well.  Birds, bugs, the earth itself lived by and for each other.  He learned you could hold a honey bee in your palm and it would not sting you.

He also knew the forest would be back to greet him in a few months, green and lush, but he was never certain of this and feared the forest might remain as it was now, dark and barren.  He was old now and felt the forest might indeed return, but perhaps he soon would not.

Still, every day he walked through it. He knew every path through the labyrinth of trees; he knew each tree, their appearance, the feel of their bark—some rough, like the Oaks and Maples, some smooth, Like the White Birch, saplings competing with the ancient ones for a bit of sunlight. He knew where the mushrooms hid and where the moss grew thickest. He would lay down on the moss, looking up at the leaves blowing in the wind. They would listen as he told them things he did not tell others; about his loneliness and fears, about how weak he was and bullied, how he liked that red hair girl who sat in front of him in fourth grade, about how his father would drink and sometimes beat him. He would tell them about the rabbit.

To ’make a man of him’ his father took him hunting, only once. This he did not want to do, to bring danger to the forest, but he wanted to avoid the danger from his father more. So early on a Spring morning they went into the forest, rifles in hand.

They didn’t see much to kill, but there, under his favorite tree, a tall ancient Oak as old as Methuselah he imagined, was a rabbit.  It was eating away at the bit of grass around the Oak.  It was small and had that way of rabbits being seemingly still yet always in nervous motion.  But it did not see or sense them.

“Shoot it,” his father said.

He asked him why.

“Because that’s what a man does when he hunts, he kills. And you are going to be a man. Shoot it.”

So, reluctantly he raised the .22 to his shoulder, took aim, and fired. He hit the rabbit, but did not kill it. It seemed to just roll over on its side, clearly moving, clearly still alive.

“Shoot it again,” his father said.

He did, but still it lived.

“Shoot it again.”

He did but still it was alive.

“Shoot it again.”

“Shoot it again.”

“Shoot it again.”

“Shoot it again.”

But the rabbit was still moving.

“Goddammit, you are useless.”

His father walked over to the rabbit and shot it once in the head. It was dead. He began to cry.

“Crying? Crying over a damn rabbit. You are useless, I’ll never make a man out of you. We’re going home.”

And so they did.

Later as his father was passed out on the couch, He grabbed a shovel and went back to the rabbit.

The great Oak was silent, its leaves not moving. He had betrayed it and the whole forest, bringing death and cruelty into its midst.

Beside the great Oak he dug a hole and placed the remains of the rabbit in it and buried it.  He said over the grave, “I am sorry I shot you, I am sorry you are dead. I will never again bring harm to the forest. I hope you can forgive me.”

He picked up the shovel to return home, but looked up at the great Oak.  It’s leaves now were blowing, and he had been forgiven.

This was long ago.  He was eighty now, his father dead fifty years, but still he hated him and what he had made him do. But the forest made him forget his anger as he kicked the dead leaves in his path, making small clouds in the air.  He would, when he was young, sometimes pile them up high and make great leaps into them. The trees seemed to enjoy this homage to what had once been and would be, he hoped, again. But he no longer did this.

As was often the case, mist enveloped the forest, making it hard to see where one was going. But this did not bother him, knowing the paths and the trails so well.  But suddenly he stopped short.

He could see through the mist, something he had not seen before, or perhaps he did not remember as he found himself forgetting many things these days, little things like where the car keys were, more frightening things like his name, where he lived.

It was a bridge. He walked to edge of the bridge. He could tell it was very old, just a simple foot bridge with railings on each side. The wood had turned gray with age and the walkway was worn down from being stepped on, he presumed, by many travelers.

He did not know if it was safe, but he stepped on it anyway.  No creeks, or moans, or movements. It seemed a sturdy old bridge, so he kept walking. Through the mist he could not see where the bridge ended.  He stopped and leaned over one of the railings, testing it first…strong and solid.  He looked down, but the mist hid whatever was below the bridge, nor could he tell how high up he was.

He walked on, still not being able to see where the bridge ended.  As he looked back from where he came, that too was lost in the mist. But suddenly out of this mist behind him appeared the rabbit. It was hopping, but slowly. It didn’t seem injured, only to not be in that much of a hurry.

It hopped past him, showing no awareness, much less fear, of him, and kept on heading to the hidden end of the bridge.

As it began to disappear into the mist ahead, he followed him.