It would happen this way. Every evening, just when the sun was dripping honey into the horizon, I would walk down to the river near my village. This river was wide enough and had a strong enough current to need a bridge, but the one that had been there had been taken away and never replaced. Instead of a replacement came guards, whose backs faced the river on either side and whose faces held us in where we were. Every night I would walk down to the river, not to cross it, but to see if it were still so, if the guards were still there, if the bridge were still gone. Sometimes it seemed a dream, and in the dimness of twilight two worlds collided, what was and what should have been. If I were lucky, I thought, I might just step through a hole in the fabric and be able to cross that bridge again.
Every night I would pass the guards, those impassive faces turning to gargoyle granite with the fading of the sun. Every night I would see my counterpart on the other side of the river, doing the same as I. Our movements mirrored each other, we took the same steps, passed the guards at the same places, glanced at each other’s progress from time to time. As we walked together on opposite sides of the river, a knowing grew, reaching out across the broad band of moving green to meet in the middle. It was a bond, a shared experience of time and place. I relied on my counterpart’s presence each night as sign that there was still hope. I hoped strongly that one day I would be able to walk with my counterpart on both sides of the river, and not have to step out of the path to avoid the guards. I knew my counterpart felt the same.
By and by, slowly, there grew signals between us. A hand held to the mouth meant, “I’m tired, slow down.” A face lifted to the sky meant, “I’m happy to see you.” A hand placed over the stomach meant, “I’m hungry again.” And a hand over the heart meant another death. The guards seemed aware of our growing bond but did little to stop it. After all, how can two people become a threat if there is a river between them, and sentinels to hold them back?
My counterpart and I shared much. We saw the night shadows bleed over the land, heard the birds shout and parry, felt the grass shift and sigh. We saw the guards change, listened to the river speak, saw the endlessness of the universe and the vastness of the folly that was being repeated in front of our eyes. Our hunger, the deaths, our situations, we understood and through this understanding my counterpart became my sibling, even though we had never spoken, had never touched. My counterpart became someone I could lose my life for, without regret. Sometimes my counterpart would step down to the bank of the river, where the soft mud melted into the tea-colored water. The guards would twitch, watching carefully, waiting for the move to jump in, to cross. I would stop and wait. But my counterpart only cupped both hands and splashed water to the face.
Once, a piece of cork was furtively dropped, and it carried on the current, spinning, to my side of the barrier. I found it the next evening’s walk. I wondered briefly if my counterpart knew it had reached the other side. Any gesture to inform would be too much of a risk, I decided. I kept the piece in my pocket and held it loosely in my hand through these walks. It was a physical connection, something we had both touched. Soon it became smooth, rubbed to a shine like a stone.
One evening, I sensed there was something different. My counterpart’s gait did not match mine in the manner it had. It was stunted, wrong. I felt sad knowing that my counterpart was hurting, but was unable to console, or to help. I placed my hand over my heart and lifted up my head in question, but my counterpart’s head shook in a negative reply. The sorrow leaking from my counterpart’s eyes told me it was beyond our rudimentary hand signals. The pain had exceeded simple, had become a complex network of origin and result.
After that night, my counterpart began to visibly reduce. It happened in small increments, noticeable only to one who had been attentive. But the reductions grew and built upon each other, like a slow-moving avalanche that threatened to swallow us both. The shoulders began to bend, the back to hunch. The once-firm gait became unsure and shuffling, and I felt my own spirit struggle.
I watched as it happened, night after night. As I saw my counterpart crumble, so I saw the guards become taller, broader. They seemed to grow with the shadows, stretching like inhuman beings, silent and grim. Fear began to thread through my heart with a cold needle, pinching and anaesthizing. I could not stop it.
I began to fantasize, a dangerous thing in controlled circumstances. Nightly, thoughts snaked into my dreams. Images of running and catching, of bodies falling through the sky like dead birds. Of myself running through the carnage, arms spread, thinking that if I just ran fast enough I could lift myself off this fallen place. My counterpart’s presence was there, and I knew if our hands could touch, I would wake from this dream having stumbled through that hole in space and time, and I would wake in a different world, where what should have been could be.
I would start from these dreams with the feeling of being crushed. My chest tight. My breath harsh. And I would think about trying to escape. I would imagine sneaking into the river, floating with it until I was out of this place. I saw myself in the most implausible of schemes, knocking out a guard and stealing his uniform, running along the road at midnight, not stopping ever.
I don’t remember the last time I saw my counterpart. The disappearance was quick, a razorblade sever. I wondered if we had ever seen each other at all, or if my counterpart was just a trick of light I had fashioned into a companion. I went to the river. I knew that my counterpart was gone. The knowing was no longer there.
I continued along our usual route, hoping my intuition was wrong, that my counterpart had only been delayed. I slowed my steps. I stopped. I waited.
A glint tugged at the corner of my eye – a shining thing trapped in an eddy on the bank of the river. Carefully, secretly, I stepped down and picked it up with the water I used to splash my face.
It was a vial, and inside a note. As I walked, I fingered the cork still in my pocket. I waited until I was back in my village, in my quarters alone, before extracting the piece of paper.
Laura Fitch is a skilled linguist, a cunning wordsmith and a general practitioner of good living. She’s been in Asia since 2000, and lordy, does she miss home. Check out her writing and photography at www.laurafitch.com.