Monday, May 12, 2008

'The High Bridge of Rohm' ~ by Burgess

The smell of ozone was unmistakable. A storm was brewing in the deepening dusk. Flashes of lightning lit up the underbellies of clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Already, there was a drizzle. David wrapped his coat closer to himself, while his horse Atars followed continuously.

For two days they had cut through rugged terrain in a desperate bid to reach Mohsoon, his town on the eastern plains. On the first night, they had barely five hours of rest with little to eat. And now the mountain of Yevgern lay before them.

David, a twenty-one year old, by nature forever cautious and wary, had never cut through the mountain to reach Mohsoon. He had always used the long, safe road that went around Yevgern’s base. This time, however, he had to take to the mountain road, for that course would save him two days. The quicker he reached his old ailing mother, the better.

By the second afternoon, they were mastering the slopes of Yevgern. His attention was riveted on the steep gradient and the unfamiliar terrain with its many curves and bends. Presently, he noticed the western horizon darkening. He paused for a while and peered into the distance. There was a storm approaching.

As he rode on, he worried the storm would overtake and hinder him. He purposed to reach the eastern part of the mountain and camp there for the night. Somewhere along the way – he did not know where exactly – the deep Gorge of Rohm had to be crossed. A wooden bridge spanned the gorge. He thought briefly about the stories he had heard regarding travelers who attempted to cross that bridge after dark. Not that David gave much credence to them – but he was in no mood to test the truth behind such legends. He beckoned Atars to increase speed. The steed heeded his master’s pat and lengthened his stride as much as sure-footedness on a precarious incline would permit.

Some parts of the road were strewn with sharp stones, and David did not catch the moment when a flint cut and wedged itself in Atars’ foot. By the time David realized that his horse was limping, the damage was done. He examined the hoof and extracted the shard. The winds were now picking up. Now how could they ever reach the eastern slopes on time? Hoping against odds, he proceeded on foot with Atars trotting behind him.

For half an hour they trudged through gusty rain, even as torrents washed down their pathway. Fringes of the approaching storm shrouded the mountain. David could not see what lay fifteen feet in front of him. He blamed himself for having abandoned familiarity and for having come this strange way. If only he knew how the elements would turn against him! But then, images of his old mother flashed up in his mind. He pressed on – nearly blind, cold and wet.

The evening was getting older. Abruptly, the road turned and seemed to fan out. This part of the mountain was relatively sheltered from the winds. Almost no cloud had penetrated here. The air was relatively clear. It was a wide area of level land which held a cluster of cottages fenced by shrubs of redberry, with pine trees towering in the background. There was one cottage, a little away from the cluster, which was illuminated and had smoke rising from its chimney. Hoarse laughter came from it at intervals, as if its inmates were having a jolly time. It looked like the right place to ask for help, he thought.

Yevgern’s Table, read a sign on its doorpost.

Leaving Atars at the entrance, David opened the door, went in, and closed it behind him. He stood there dripping wet. Three middle-aged men were sitting around a round table drinking frothed beer. They dropped their animated conversation and gawked at the stranger.

‘I am David from the western plains. I need help to reach Mohsoon,’ David met their inquiring looks. ‘My mother is grievously ill. I must reach her by evening tomorrow. But my horse here is injured. So I need another one to continue my journey now.’

His explanation was received with more silence. All of them had round faces, bulbous eyes and big moustaches. They almost looked as if they were brothers! ‘There are no horses here that we can spare,’ replied one in his husky voice. ‘But some hot soup we can! Come, warm yourself by the fire and lodge here for the night.’

‘I must rest for the night on the mountain’s eastern face. I absolutely must reach there. I have no choice. I absolutely must!’ David said, sounding awkwardly desperate.

‘Look, son – you say your horse is injured. The evening light has almost faded and a heavy fog hangs outdoors. The mountain is being gathered into the grips of a storm. Even if you could go on, would you risk crossing the High Bridge of Rohm at this hour? It’s a mile from this spot and dangerous to cross at such a time, in such weather. Take off your mantle and hang it by the fire place. Take a chair and knock that silly idea out of your head. Dolly, pour the handsome lad some of the pea soup you made. Or would you rather have beer?’

The storm grew wilder as he spoke. As the old man had said, no corner of Yevgern was spared. There was a barn behind the cottage, and Dolly – she looked barely fifteen, though her demeanor bespoke that she was much older – said David could keep Atars sheltered here. She brought a bowl of soup and placed it before the young man, who neglected it while he sat buried in thought. How circumstances had conspired to block his progress! He felt hopeless. What could he do? He could attempt to move on, but Atars was wounded. He felt the crushing weight of guilt and despair over him, because now he sensed he was failing his mother. He grew restless. There’s just got to be a way out. I cannot stay here!

‘Come!’ said Dolly in a soft voice. ‘Let’s proceed to the bridge. I shall take you there. First, eat up your soup for strength. I have also tended to your horse. He’s doing better now.’

‘Do you plan to lead the lad to his death, Dolly? Are you insane? But of course, you are!’ hollered one of the three.

‘If the man must reach his dying mother, shall I not help him by all means?’ she asked in a tone that was more ambiguous than assuring. Suddenly, there was a white flash of light, and instantly after it, a sound as if the very sky above them was rent in two. The mountain convulsed for a few moments. David felt the blood curdle in his veins.

Moments of deafening silence followed. ‘A part of the mountain must have broken away. It happens,’ said one of the three men with a wave of his hand. David gobbled his soup. Everything around him had an eerie feel to it. The tempest had swallowed Yevgern entirely.

‘Are you ready?’ asked the young girl.

David nodded.

‘Then bring your horse and follow me closely. Clouds linger outside. The road ahead of us grows narrower. Stray a little and you will plunge to your deaths,’ she warned, wrapping herself in dark cloth. She carried a lighted lantern and led the way. The pathway held water that was ankle deep. For what seemed like half an hour, they walked. Presently, the storm was losing power. The fog was lifting. That brought hope to David.

‘Who are you? Where are your parents?’ he inquired, feeling his spirits rise.

Yevgern’s Table is my home. My parents owned it. They died when I was three. I am a maid to the village of Yevgern. I manage my living.’

They went on for half an hour more. The storm had left Yevgern, leaving its air cool and clear. Dolly kept on walking without a word. Her hand never tired of carrying the lantern. All of a sudden, she froze, and David wondered why.

‘The gorge has taken the bridge. See!’ she said. She gave more wick to the flame and held the lantern higher. In the better light, David could see the gorge. They were standing on the edge of it. There was a gap of at least twelve meters to the other side, and goodness knows how deep to its bottom. There were signs of a rock fall which may have torn the bridge away and destroyed it. Only a few broken beams remained to show where the bridge once was. David groaned. Thunder mocked cruelly in the distance.

‘There’s only one way out for you now,’ she said. ‘Take your horse and leap over to the other side.’

‘But that’s suicidal! It’s a treacherous jump even for a horse in good condition. And Atars is injured!’

‘What choice do you have? Trust yourself. Trust your horse. He will jump clear if you believe. Fear is good. It can lead you to do either of two things: To retreat, or to confront the difficult and conquer it. You have played safe all your life, David. Which one will you do now? Retreat or confront?’

There was something about her piercing gaze and her soft voice that made him feel uneasy. Awe came up over him. ‘Your parents – how did they die?’ he asked, with a tinge of suspicion.

‘They were crossing this very spot, on a night such as this one. The gorge took them too,’ she said. Suddenly, the flame leapt in the direction of her face, and in the increased illumination it afforded, he noticed her face was almost blanched –– bloodless. A strange fear ran down David’s spine. He quelled it and turned to Atars. He put his arms around his neck and spoke closely to him: ‘The bridge is gone. The gorge is deep. We need to jump high and clear to the other side. Let’s both keep away our fear and pain. You and I – we will make it!’

He rid himself of all unnecessary weight to ease the burden off his horse and mounted him. He nodded in gratitude to Dolly. She took a step back and kept the lantern down on the ground, just a foot away from the brink of the abyss, saying, It will light up your way to the other side.’

With those words ringing in his ears, he rode Atars seventy meters away from the edge of the precipice, in preparation of the run that would propel them to leap over to the other side. The road, fortunately, was relatively straight and smooth, with almost no gradient. They had a chance of leaping over.

Atars broke furiously into a gallop, his hooves drumming awesomely upon the mountain road, as if he was going in for his final charge into battle. With each stride, the lip of the gorge drew near. The darkness on the opposite side looked terrifying. For a moment, David thought of aborting the leap, but even that moment of decision passed out of his hands –.they had crossed the point of no return. The lantern was so very close now.

‘Up, Atars!’ he cried shrilly.

The horse was airborne with astounding grace. The gorge, it seemed, opened up its jaws to receive them. But now they were flying over it, rebuking its yawn. They were one – the rider and his horse – indistinguishable in the perilous gloom. The other side drew within reach. Atars landed on it in triumph, almost as if he never needed the bridge, and galloped on.

Their hearts were pounding. With jubilation, David stopped to turn and see where his young friend had stood on the other side – but she was not there – only the burning lantern remained. Perhaps, she was in a hurry to return home.

The moon came out from behind the clouds. Soon, he reached a large village where he chanced upon a few people at the gates. They welcomed him. Among them were the village elder and his son. How did you get here in the tempest? But the High Bridge of Rohm is broken! It was torn away some hours ago by the tempest. Oh, so your horse leaped over the gorge! Amazing! Anyway, welcome to Yevgern. You can come and stay over in our cottage. We have a chamber that’s hardly used. Like a storeroom it is, but cozy enough.

Yevgern?’ repeated David. ‘There are not two villages by that name on this mountain, are there?’

‘There’s only one and this is it,’ the elder’s son replied. ‘In fact, this is the first village a traveler would come by on his route from the west.’

‘But there was a village there on the other side – and an inn called Yevgern’s Table. I had soup there. And there was Dolly, the young girl who befriended me...”

It seemed that his words fell upon deaf ears.

David rested for the night in the house of the village elder. It was a beautiful dawn after the storm, and he woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. The old man was most kind. After breakfast was done, he saw his guest on his way. ‘You know, not many believe in stories such as these, but I had it from my grandfather,’ the old man started to say, even as David prepared Atars for their descent into the eastern plains. ‘Two hundred years ago there was a family who lived on the mountain. What maddening circumstances drove them to cross the Old Bridge of Rohm on that tempestuous night, no one knows. But William was a fine man, they say, always heartily welcoming weary travelers into his inn. His wife Rhoda was as lively and lovely as a young woman could be. Theirs was a terrible destiny! They had their young child with them – Dolly. She was in the arms of her mother while they crossed –– the night the Old Bridge fell.’