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He saw before him the bridge. It was a dark, flaky brown, signifying centuries of rust. It groaned continuously, a menacing groan yet strangely welcoming. He stared at the steel support beams that loomed several of yards above him. Lowering his gaze to eye level, he saw the engulfing blackness across the bridge. Breezes pulsed in and out like a breathing creature, and he saw the movement of the night. A hand stretched forth, a chalky white hand that seemed to have been worn over the years. With its palm upwards, it moved but a single finger to usher him forward. Without the will to resist he followed, and saw just above the hand a pair of crimson eyes staring at him. Everything seemed distorted as he struggled against himself, trying to pull away. The darkness faded as he approached the owner of the red eyes and ashen hand. He could not look at first, then began to raise his head.
Feart Xanadu shot up in his bed with a gasp. His heavy breathing was shaky, and was drenched in sweat. The small wooden room seemed to close in around him. A whistle from a breeze through the window carried a strange horror. He looked down at his pregnant wife, Alla, who was lying peacefully next to him. Her steady breathing comforted him, and he lowered himself again. Dark shadows lined the uneven ceiling as he looked up, and he thought he could see the crimson eyes staring at him.
The next morning he awoke to the pale morning sun. Cold breezes flooded into the room, battling with the blazing heat of the fireplace on the wall opposite Feart. Winter was coming on fast, and he would have to harvest the remaining crops out in the field before the first snow. He looked over to find that his wife was already up and in the kitchen. Feart still felt shaken from the dream he had had that night, but the light of the sun scattered his fears away.
Dressing quickly, he walked out into the short hallway connecting all of the rooms upstairs. Several quick bounds put him in front of a tall wooden door, much the same as the rest of the doors in the house. With a painful creak of the hinges, he peered inside the room. There lying in the bed on the opposite wall was his daughter, Lily. Her eyes were staring at the door in anticipation. When she saw Feart her eyes lit up, crying “Daddy!” She hopped out of bed and rushed over to him in her small nightgown, wrapping her small arms around Feart’s kneecaps.
“Daddy’s here!” he said, trying to mimic Lily’s tone. He scooped her up to his shoulder and looked her in the eye. “I’ve got to go now, Lily. I’m going to be out in the fields.”
The gleam in Lily’s eyes faded somewhat, “When will you be back?”
Feart, not wanting to disappoint her further, struggled furiously to find a way to see her at lunch. “I’ll be back before lunch, okay?”
“Okay…” she responded.
Feart laid her back in the small bed and promptly left the room. When he arrived downstairs, he found Alla making eggs over the fireplace. “Won’t you have some breakfast?” Alla looked at him and gestured with the pan holding the eggs. Her eyes flowed with genuine concern. She knew what Feart had endured. Almost half of the vegetables and a good portion of the livestock had either died of disease, malnutrition or from the freezing cold. There was hardly enough to sustain the family through the entire winter, and with a new baby coming, it would get even harder. Feart walked forward and kissed Alla, holding the embrace for a moment until she pulled away. Feart then saw a gleam of remorse and sorrow, but she blinked and it was gone.
“I’ve promised our daughter that I would be back by lunch, and I’ll need all the time I can get to harvest the remaining crops.” Feart laid a hand on Alla’s stomach, “Take care of our children. Both of them.” Then he turned and left through the front door, throwing on a light coat and grabbing his shovel and hoe.
“Take care,” Alla whispered behind him.
Feart walked quickly out into the lengthy field behind the small house. No tree rose from the ground for miles, giving Feart the time he needed to think. He walked along a winding path, his mind wandering past the trees and the mountains that encircled the tiny village in its tiny valley. He soon arrived at the bridge, which stretched across a ravine at the other end of the valley. His dream returned to him once again, and he saw those piercing eyes. In his mind he walked past them and into the darkness beyond. No one who went across the bridge ever came back. But somehow the stories did. Stories of great buildings, towering hundreds of feet above you, of machines that rolled along, even uphill, with no horses to pull them. There were even stories of flying machines, with huge wings that spanned a hundred feet, and they glided through the air like a bird. Feart could never bring himself to believe in these stories, even though a large portion of him wanted more than anything to believe in such magical things. He awoke from his daydream to find that he had stumbled upon his last remaining turnip crop. He set to work immediately, using both of his tools to uproot the plants
The cold air had solidified the soil, making his job very difficult. As he dug up the first turnip, Feart immediately saw that it had frozen. Now it was inedible. He threw down the plant in frustration and released a terrible bellow. The sound echoed through the field, like hundreds of farmers crying out in aggravation. He began again on the opposite side of the crop, but to no avail. All the turnips had frozen over, signifying a years worth of time wasted. Only about two of the plants survived, and these he cared by the stems. With his attitude boiling, he made his way through the cold of early November.
When he had arrived back at the house, Lily was sitting on the steps picking at a daisy. Strange, that a daisy would still be so vibrant even this late in autumn. She stroked the pedals lovingly, as if they were alive. The innocence in her gaze poked at his conscience. What will he do in the dead of winter when she has to go to bed hungry because he couldn’t feed her? Feart walked over to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him with her round green eyes. “Daddy,” she said and jumped up to hug him around the leg. It took him a moment to respond, for he was lost in his own thoughts of the fast approaching winter.
“Daddy’s back,” he whispered quietly as he propped her up on his shoulder.
With Lily leaning against his head, Feart made his way through the front door and into the narrow kitchen. There was barely enough room to fit a table, so usually Alla cooked outside by a large fire for important meals like lunch and supper. But she was sitting there at the table with the meal already laid out, a slight smile on her face and her arms lay out across the table. Feart sat adjacent to Alla and placed Lily down in the seat across from him. They ate in silence, as was custom, and only began to talk after everyone was finished.
“So,” began Alla, “How are the fields?”
“Good, good. Everything is going well.” From the look in Alla’s face he could see that she did not believe him. Lily looked at both parents with intense eyes, trying to see the reason for Feart and Alla’s tension, but to no avail.
“Today I found a meadow of flowers,” she began cautiously, “There were pretty blue flowers, but the white ones were my favorites.”
Feart looked up at Alla and then to Lily, “That’s great Lily. Where was the meadow?”
Lily’s eyes brightened at this comment, excited that her father was interested, “It was in the forest, next to a long path and a big brown bridge!” Her eyes were large as she spooned some soup into her mouth. Feart felt the dream rush back to him again, seeing the old rusted bridge before him, moaning, and the dark figure standing before him. Then his mind wandered off beyond the dark behind the figure, and the great things that were supposed to be there. “Daddy?” Lily’s voice pierced his thoughts, “Daddy, are you okay?”
Feart blinked his eyes to find that he was still in the kitchen with Alla and Lily. Alla was looking at him concernedly, and Lily was looking at him with curiosity. “Are you okay Feart?” Alla came over to him and laid a hand over his forehead. “No, you don’t seem to have a fever. You were staring off in to space for almost ten minutes.”
“I’m fine,” he responded. The small kitchen seemed a little darker now. Feart rose from his chair and kissed Alla softly. “Ten minutes? If that’s the case, I have to be off now.” Feart went over and hugged Lily. She stilled seemed curious and didn’t complain at his leave as she normally would.
“Okay,” Lily looked at Feart.
“Ten minutes? Is that all you take to eat lunch?” Alla grasped Feart on the shoulders and laid her chin on his shoulder. “Don’t take too long at the tavern.”
Feart smiled. “You don’t need to worry. I won’t.” Alla rolled her eyes.
“How many times have I heard that?”
Feart walked through the main village, taking in the sweet smells of the bakery. Smoke billowed from chimneys and the smith’s furnace, warming the air around the area. The noise and the light stream of people moving around was enough to draw Feart’s attention away from his thoughts. He wanted more than anything to be free of them.
He entered the tavern, and as soon as he did he was blasted by the warm air of the fireplace. Gerlon, one of the town elders, was in the middle of one of his famous stories, of the times before the famine, and of great things that went on in the valley before most of the clients in the tavern were born.
“… and I struck it down with all my might, only to find that it had fled into the forest in that moment of hesitation. To this day, it may yet inhabit the woods around the valley.” A moment of silence, then a great applause. Feart joined in, even though he had no idea what the story was about. With a beer in hand, Gerlon began another tale.
“This one is called â€˜the great war between the vegetarians and the carnivores.’” Feart had heard this one before, about how the village had split in two. One side was the vegetarians, who only wanted to eat plants, and the other was the carnivores, who only ate meat. The war began when the vegetarians stole all of the animals from the carnivores, trying to save them, and the carnivores attacked the vegetarians with torches and spears. Feart listened until Gerlon was finished, when the vegetarians and the carnivores had finally agreed to stop fighting each other, and finally everyone moved back with each other.
“Ah, Feart, it’s good to see you. I was just recounting that ale to the younglings who hadn’t heard it yet.” Gerlon took a seat next to Feart. He had a somber look on his face, as if he had something heavy on his mind. “What’s wrong?” he thought, and his mouth worked simultaneously . Gerlon seemed startled by the question.
“I’m just worried about the village.”
Feart pursued further. “What’s wrong?” he repeated.
“The villagers, Feart, the villagers. They’re all going over that rusted bridge. If anyone else goes over the bridge, our village will collapse. The smiths and craftsman will starve and in turn the farmers will wear out the tools they are using to farm and starve themselves.” Gerlon placed his head in his hands. “So many people are leaving. Just this month almost twenty went over the bridge, looking for a greater living, trying to escape the temporary famine.” He put extra emphasis on the temporary.
Feart didn’t know what to say, so he remained quiet. How could he have been so unobservant? Twenty people in a month and he thought that the village was just fine. He might have even gone over the bridge himself because of the lack of food.
“I’m putting a night guard on duty, to try to stop people from leaving. We simply can’t afford it, we simply can’t…” Gerlon began to weep and left the tavern.
Feart sat there until nightfall, listening to the stories that the other elders told, his mind never wandering from what Gerlon had said. Gerlon loved the village like his own, always looking out for its good health. Now in this time of strife, he has no power to change what has happened
Feart slowly opened the door to his home. Both Alla and Lily were asleep upstairs, and he had no intention of waking them. He crept slowly up the stairs, flinching at every creak. He slowly opened the door to the master bedroom. Alla was curled up under the light blanket. The moonlight shone through the only window, giving her milk white skin. Suddenly he saw the ashen hand, ushering him forward, and suddenly he had no will to resist.
“Feart, Feart.” Alla sat up in bed. She was fully dressed in thick winter clothing. “Could I talk to you?”
“Certainly, Alla, what would you want to talk about?”
Alla rose from the bed, “I want to take a walk.”
They walked outside, arm in arm, but Feart felt dread build up in him. The hairs on his neck stood on end. Why would Alla want to talk to him in the midst of the night, walking in the blistering cold. They soon reached the bridge and Alla looked over longingly at it. Feart immediately saw what she intended to do, and he pulled away with all of his might.
“No, Alla, you wouldn’t.” Alla gripped his arm tightly, holding him against all of his strength. He did no want to fight her, in fact, that was the last thing he wanted to do. He stopped struggling.
It was like the dream.
Alla released him and walked onto the bridge. Feart followed her silently.
Alla’s pale skin shone in the moonlight, and her eyes appeared crimson in the dark. “Please, Feart, come with me.” She had one hand on his forearm, and the other was placed across her pregnant belly. He had an obligation to that baby, and if he were not there when he was born, it would be an irreversible blow to his pride. Her loved Alla, more than anyone. Feart’s gaze drifted back to the village. It looked so peaceful nestled on a hillside in a small valley nestled between the mountains. The snow covering the rooftops and the smoke billowing from the chimneys never looked so appealing. He pictured Lily in her bed, sound asleep. He loved Lily as well. The bridge moaned under their combined weight. Shouts and cries came from the path below. One of the night guard must have spotted both he and Alla go up the path to the bridge. It would have looked very suspicious, a couple walking up the path to the bridge in the middle of the night. The villagers would never allow another farmer to slip out of their midst. Feart would not be able to go to Lily and bring her back with them. “Please, Feart, please. We don’t have much time.” He looked again at Alla. She beckoned him to go with her, tears streaming down her cheeks. He looked back at the village on the hillside. “We don’t have to go far. Once we make it out of the woods, the people on the other side will be able to tend to our every need.”
Yes, Feart would like that. The sound of the villagers grew louder. “Please!” He again pictured Lily, crying when she found that her father had abandoned her, but wouldn’t the baby Alla was carrying do the same? Feart Xanadu bent down and picked up a flower from the ground adjacent the bridge.
It was a lily.
So, dear reader, which did he choose:
The valley or the bridge?