For a long time, we lived on an island. Then, as a community, we decided to build a bridge, to connect ourselves to the great metropolis that lay close by, on the other side of the river. No longer would we be isolated. Boats and ferries, we decided, were no longer good enough. No, we needed a bridge. Then we could simply walk, strolling like demigods through the air, above the surface of the water.
Once we had made this decision, the building of the bridge commenced. And since we were bound together by this single decision, the construction was surprisingly easy. Quickly the bridge arose. At first, with its incomplete cables, it only looked like the outline of a bridge, like a child’s tracing. But soon enough, the bridge was complete: solid cables lashing the two banks of the river together; solid ironworks and solid stone.
While this work was taking place, there were of course a few isolated cranks and grumblers, people who saw no need of a bridge. “For centuries we have lived as an island,” they said. “A bridge is unnecessary. If we have to travel to the city, a boat or ferry is sufficient.” Some went even further: “A bridge will make us one with the city!” they cried. “But we need no intercourse with the city, with its crime and tenements and decay! For we are an independent people, an island people, proud of our unique ways.”
And then there were a few others who did not voice a protest but had their own private concerns about the bridge. These people asked themselves: where are you when you are on a bridge? For you are not a part of the water or the land, neither still are you a part of the sky, since your feet remain tethered to the roadway of the bridge. It seems — these people thought to themselves — when you are on a bridge, it seems that you are neither here nor there.
At any rate, all of the public grumbling was ignored and soon the bridge was completed.
On the day of the bridge’s completion, a marching band paraded across its surface, blaring jovial music. Our mayor made a happy speech. And a beautiful girl cracked a bottle of champagne against one of the piers of the bridge — christening it, treating it as though it was a ship, not a bridge.
When the stone and iron bridge was completed, it was a beautiful sight to behold. Though on certain days, foggy days, mostly, when its battlements rose out of the fog, the bridge could appear fearsome: like an incomplete fortress, its spires and arches looking cruel as they rose out of the grey. “Like Pallas Athene,” said a local poet. “With her beautiful eyes shining. Beautiful but stark; dangerous.” But this was of course a minority opinion and pretentious to say besides, and the local consensus was that the bridge was a rousing success. And especially during the daytime, no one could deny the life and vibrance of it: the crowds promenading back and forth, the subway cars racing along its edge, above the rolling waves of the river.
…One night, having nothing in particular to occupy my mind, I found myself nodding over my work in my office.
I had stayed late to catch up on some paperwork, but my head was nodding, slipping sometimes through my fingers as I tried to prop myself up. Through my office window I saw the bridge.
I had visited the ceremonies for the opening of the bridge, but never had an opportunity to walk across it, since my work rarely required me to visit the city.
Now, staring through the window, I saw the streetlamps in the moonlight, and the grey bulk of the bridge looked inviting. Why not take a brief stroll over the bridge? The fresh air would restore me, help me focus my attention on my work when I returned.
I left my office and strolled onto the bridge. The air was quite crisp and the night was pleasant. I bent over the edge of the bridge and stared down at chopping sparkles of the waves beneath me.
Suddenly I had a sensation of not being alone and so I turned. A man, dressed similarly to myself — grey overcoat, black pants — was standing on the opposite side of the bridge, the city end. He was staring down into the water with a tranquil expression that reminded me of my own pleasant reverie of just a few seconds before.
He could not have been more than a hundred feet away from me and so I called out to him on impulse–
“Hello!” I said. “A beautiful night, is it not?”
The man jerked his head up, startled; he had thought that he was alone. Then he froze in that awkward posture.
“Sorry!” I called. “I didn’t mean to frighten you!”
At this, he rushed to the edge of the bridge, suddenly bracing his entire body, as though he meant to throw himself over the railing. Then he backed up, began edging away from me, then rushed quickly in the other direction.
Without thinking about it, I began rushing towards him. My brother, my double! Either I had frightened an innocent man, or interrupted a suicide at the very moment of his decision. Either way, I felt the need to apologize.
When he saw me following him, he began to run even faster. He reached the end of the bridge and disappeared into the blackness. As he exited from my view, I heard startled cries, and a word that sounded like the word “Police!”
I froze. What to do? If I fled back to the island, I risked looking guilty, like a common criminal. If I continued toward the city, I looked like a man in pursuit of his prey. Stay away! I thought, but through indecision and sheer momentum, I continued to the other side, to the city.
When I reached the other side, there was nothing to greet me. Just darkness, grass at the edge of the bridge, and a few decaying tenement buildings. No man, no police. I could have returned to my office in safety but instead I began to wander down the gravel road. The section of the city near the bridge was very poor, but as I walked, the road improved beneath my footsteps, becoming finer and paved. The buildings improved around me as well, and soon enough I found myself in the heart of the city. I had visited it before in the daytime, but never at night. The skyscrapers! The street cars! The crowds!
I lost myself in the crowd and wandered aimlessly, wondering what had become of my friend from the bridge: my brother, the suicide. Had he screwed up all his courage, only to be interrupted at a crucial moment? Did he live here in the heart of the city, in a small apartment, perhaps, on one of the floors of the monumental skyscrapers?
As I was thinking these thoughts, I heard a voice behind me, very clearly. “Stay away!” the voice said. I turned, but there was nothing, only the anonymous backs and blank faces of the crowd around me. Or was that the tail end of an overcoat disappearing into the crowd? Or had I misunderstood everything, picked up the stray end of someone else’s conversation?
I looked up. The lights of the skyscrapers drowned out all natural light, so that the night sky was black and blank, without any visible stars. But the windows of all the skyscrapers had globes of light shining in them, stars closer to the ground, and it seemed to me — in that tense instant — that we had lost all the old gods, and bent the sky itself down to our will.