Christmas Eve: THE BRIDGE—A Short Story

 

Down the old streets of Zurich, a young lady walked reluctantly on Christmas Eve.  She was uncertain, unsure of the course of action that she had planned.  I will know for sure, she reassured herself.  I will know before it is time.  I must know for sure!  Her soft footsteps, caught by the icy winds from the silent, Alpine mountains, echoed among the city’s quiet surroundings.

Preoccupied with her troubled thoughts, she failed to see the clouds, draping the night sky, as mysterious and ominous as an Agatha Christie’s novel.  A single moonbeam broke through the turbid clouds and fell before her snowy path without notice.  She had determined to press on to her destination.  Nothing would detain her.

Her footsteps faded slowly as she neared the abandoned waterfront.  She had reached her quest.

Before her loomed the Münsterbrücke Bridge on the Limmat River.  Its massive stones and iron railings seemed endless as they protruded into the night harbor.

Here I am, she said to herself.  I must go on.  I can’t turn back now.  She felt herself trembling not from the winter night, but from her own fears and uncertainties.

As she walked onto the bridge, she reaffirmed to herself that it was real and not just a dream.  I have thought so much of this night, she mused.  Now, it is here.  It seems like a dream, but no, it cannot be.  I feel the cold wind, and in dreams you don’t feel.  Slowly, she walked along the walkway until she reached the center of the mammoth structure.

Gazing into the undisturbed flow below, her mind drifted into a mystical trance.  This is the place, she thought.  This is the point of departure, the terminus of life.  The word ‘life’ eased from her quivering lips in a vapor of breath that floated silently across the harbor.

Unconsciously, she clutched her long, beige, Tibetan lamb coat closer to keep out the winter sting.  At the same moment, her flowing, blonde hair clung tenaciously to the back of the coat.

Although, she stared intently at the water, her face seemed expressionless, except for the glimmer of sadness in her soft, porcelain blue eyes.  Those eyes bespoke bitterness and deep sorrow beyond human expression.

She had come to the bridge for a definite reason, and now, being released in the recesses of her mind, her decision approached the moment of its life.  As she pondered the decision, her breathing became rapid.

The icy winds lifted her hair with uncaring caresses.  Their harsh touch awakened deep emotion within her.  Tears, hot and bitter, glided down her chapped cheeks, transforming her face from expressionless to agony.

Out of her distress, she believed, she saw the waters swirl.  In their swirl, she glimpsed shadows from her past.  She wanted escape from her past and escape, she vowed, she would have, no matter the price!

As she gripped the iron rails of the bridge with ungloved hands, she hardly noticed their almost, human, sardonic coldness.  All her thoughts focused on the frigid waters moving below.  They seemed so lovely, so peaceful, she reasoned.  They summoned her to a place of solitude, a fortress whose existence evanesced into eternal night.  I shall find peace at last, at last, I will be free, she believed.

Her decision matured as the moon light flooded through the morose clouds.  Startled by its reflected brilliance in the waters beneath her, she lost her hold on her decision.  Everything below appeared so beautiful to her fogged, tormented mind.

Quickly, she regained her composure.  She prepared to make her decision a reality.  Her hands released the iron rails as her body prepared to execute her last wish of life.  Pressing her body against the railing, she began to climb the rails slowly.  Their slipperiness prevented a firm hold, but she pushed herself with determination.  There can be no turning back, she reassured herself.  This is my fate.  There can be no other.

Suddenly, out of the silence, a voice spoke to her.  The voice, like the moon before, shook her back into the present.  She practically fell from the rail as she descended to face a person only ten feet from her.

“Fraulein Wyss, is anything the matter?”  A young man queried.

Resentfully, she said, “Herr Gustavson, what are you doing here at so late an hour?”  Anger filled her at this intrusion by someone she hardly knew.  How dare he interfere with my plans, she thought.  Why is he here?

“I came to talk with you.  May I join you?”

Her steady gaze held him in place for several seconds.  She felt an unusual, unexplainable attraction to him.  He just seemed so warm, so friendly, standing there in the moonlight.

At the same time, she was frightened, unsure of the meaning of this interruption.  Hesitantly, she stuttered, “Ja.”

Before she realized it, he stood at her right side.  It became apparent to her that he did not intent to break the silence.

“What do you wish to talk to me about, Herr?”  Her voice was tense and tired.

“A dream of hope for tomorrow since it is Christmas,” he answered gently.  He saw shock suddenly register on her face.

Thoughts of the past and the present tumbled through her mind.  Should she continue this conversation with a stranger, a man whom she met only a few hours earlier?  She reflected, but could not find a definite answer.  As they stood on the bridge, minutes passed in silence again.

Finally, she decided to respond, “Please explain what you mean?”

He smiled.  “Do you remember this afternoon in the Inn where you work?”

“Ja,” she answered in a perplexed manner.

As he began to recall the afternoon, she relived it.  It was so vivid in her mind as he told it.

At a table in the Limmat River Inn, a young man sat watching the fire.  The burning pine logs started his imagination racing.  He thought of the many years those pine trees had lived.  If only the trees could relate the sounds and stories of the forest, it would be a grand tale like Hans Christian Andersen’s “THE FIR-TREE.”

As he pondered, a blonde barmaid walked over with his order.  He was oblivious to her presence as she placed the food and cutlery on the polished oak table.

Softly she said, “Herr Gustavson.”  He awakened from his meditation.

“Ja,” he replied.

“Your food is ready.”

“Danke schon,” he said.  She smiled and prepared to leave, then hesitated.  Turning toward him again, she looked puzzled.  He smiled at her confusion as he asked, “Ja?”

“I can understand why you ordered Soupe au Pistou and apple-date strudel, but why a goblet of hot water?”  He pulled a small package from his heather gray coat pocket.  Tearing open the package, he poured the contents into the cup and mixed it with his spoon.

“Taste it,” he suggested as he handed it to her.  She complied.

A surprised expression sprinted across her face as she declared, “It’s milk.”

“Nein.  It possesses the same nutrient value as milk, but it is non-dairy in composition.”

“I do not understand.”

“I am allergic to milk, but I enjoy the taste.  This product is made by the laboratory complex at which I am employed.  He proceeded to give additional details of his work.  During the discussion, she asked a few questions and found him to be charming and intelligent company.

Fraulein Wyss interrupted the flashback.  “Surely, Herr, I said nothing that could be interpreted as a cry for help.”

“Let me add a detail.”

After their conversation, she had turned and walked away.  As he watched her, a misty form appeared before him.  He thought he saw a drowning woman but he could not be positive.  He shook his head to clear it.  Everything returned to normal.  He finished his meal wondering what he had seen.

Returning to the present, she stated, “Surely, Herr, you do not believe in visions, especially ones so unclear?”

“Nein.  But let me tell you what happened after I went to my room to sleep.”

A few hours later, as he slept peacefully in his room, wails of terror flooded his mind.  Waking at once, he knew this was not an ordinary nightmare.  His experience in the Inn convinced him of that.  Hurriedly, almost feverishly, he dressed and rushed out into the night.  He had to find the person in his vision before it was too late.  An inward compulsion drove him to the bridge.

At this point they rejoined the present.  She stood anesthetized by his strange account.

They both felt the increasingly biting winds.  As the winds grew harsher, the waves struck the bridge’s massive granite pillars with a sad, moaning echo which invaded the man and the woman’s minds.

About them the icy fog began to settle over the city.  Once again the moon hid in the night clouds.

Around the city’s bridge section no life stirred.  No auto lights and few building lights illuminated that part of the town.  On the bridge silence enveloped the two people.  Finally, she dared to speak, “Do you believe that I am the person in your dream?” She asked without a tinge of emotion.

“Ja.  I believe that you are.”

“I do not need assistance, Herr Gustavson.  I am twenty-five years of age and the arbiter of my destiny,” her tone was one of defiance.

“One of humanity’s many idiosyncrasies is that we are unwilling to seek assistance.”

“I am an adult!  I don’t need or desire assistance from anyone,” she spoke emphatically, angrily at his presumption.  Who does he think he is?  She asked herself.  Just who?

“You seem to be fighting to keep your tears at bay, Fraulein Wyss.”

“Tears!”  She exploded.  “What tears?  You are mistaken!  I am not about to cry.  I have no reason to cry!”

“Fraulein Wyss, you wrote a note to your employer, informing him of your decision to end your life tonight.  You arranged for him to receive the note in the morning.  By then, it would have been too late for him to act.”

Shock etched itself on her face; she glared at him in disbelief.  There was no possible way for him to know that, she thought.  I gave it in a sealed envelope to a friend this afternoon, just after I wrote it. A word forced itself from her trembling lips, “How?”

“It is not important for you to know how I know.  What is important is that we discuss your situation, Fraulein Wyss, tonight.  Please give me a chance.”

“I guess, I have no choice,” she conceded.

“Please tell me what is on your mind?  Why do you want to end your life?”

“What do you do, when you are totally alone?  My whole life has been one rubbish pile of mistakes and failures.  I believed the waters would be the only solution,” she groaned tearfully.

“You could escape reality that way, but your beautiful life is too previous to toss casually into a winter river,” he stated kindly.

“You are an American with a totally different background than mine and know nothing of the problems which plague my daily life.”  She seemed to be pleading for an end to his intrusion.

“I’m Austrian and only work in America.  However, I agree.  I probably do not fully comprehend your situation, but I do know that we all have problems of some nature.  We are human, and to be human is to have problems.”

“Ja.  It’s true, but I feel so lonely.  My loneliness seems like insanity to me.  I hurt so much most of the time.”

He gently placed his right hand on her shoulder and said,” Ja. I know what you mean, Fraulein.”  His touch seemed to penetrate her coat, and it felt so warm to her.  “Have you ever been in love?”

“There was a man who loved me once in my late teens, but I spurned him because I wanted wealth and power.”

“Why did you want wealth and power?”

“I grew up in a poor family of seven children. It was so hard to live.”

“Did you find wealth and power?”

“I lived with an older man who degraded me to simply an object of his pleasure.  Finally, when I failed to meet his desires and fantasies, he replaced me with a newer model.  He threw me in the streets with my clothes to be forgotten. The owner of the Inn found me and took me in.  He gave me a job. That was three years ago.”

By this time, the fog engulfed the city, like a dark gray lining of a winter coat.  The mountain winds had ceased, and for the moment, the waters rested peacefully below the bridge people.

“Your life has been soiled by uncaring and unloving hands.”  A warmth spread through her body as he said those words.

For the first time that night, she looked directly into his eyes and found them to be so warm, so understanding, and so peaceful that she had to know more about this wonderful man.  So she asked, “If I may be so bold, are you married?”

“Nein.  My wife died during the war.”

“I am sorry.  I am sure you and your children miss her greatly.”

“We never had children, Fraulein.”

“I believe you would be a tremendous father.  You seem so tender.”

As he gazed into her soft, pained, azure eyes, he felt a warm glow inside.  He could not explain it, but at the moment, it did not matter.  There would be time to explore it.   “I appreciate the compliment.  What about you, Fraulein?”

“Children!  Nein.  I do not.”

“Fraulein, you have a child.”

“Nein.  Herr, I do.”  She paused as she remembered that lying was fruitless in his presence.

“She is a lovely child, Fraulein.”

“She has a good home and more important, she has love, much love,” she stated smiling.

“True, but Fraulein, the main question of our conversation remains unanswered.  Did you expect to find your solution in death?”

“I do not really know.”

“So you planned to take the only genuine substance you possess, your life.”

“It is the only possession that I can claim as my own.  When I was a little girl, I lived in my private dreams of growing up and being rich.  To me that was what life was all about.  Perhaps, I never became a mature woman.”

“Many people never grow to maturity because they cannot accept life with its raucous reality.  Dreams can never take the place of reality.”

“To me it is a living terror to think about tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“If I examine my past, what hope is there for my future?  I have never found true love.  My child, my child, I will never share her love or hear the word ‘mother’ from her precious lips. I am a lowly barmaid with no future, no hope.  I’m twenty-five years of age, and I have never truly lived.

“Your hope is in your child.  Your hope is in the Inn’s owner who treats you like his daughter, the daughter that he always wanted but could never have.  Your hope is in yourself.  You are a beautiful woman with a potential beyond your dreams, don’t waste it in death.  You must value who and what you are.”

“Can we know who and what we are, Herr?  Can I know?  I must know to live!  I must,” she pleaded.

“I have a friend whose philosophy of life runs like this: ‘Live today, know it, cherish it, love it, enjoy it, value it but do not waste it.  Today is a resource that cannot be replenished.  Once it has passed from the scale of time, it is lost forever.  Today is to be lived as you believe best.  Only you can decide your destiny, only you can experience the joy of life, only you, only you.  Live today to its fullest and have no empty tomorrows.’  Do you comprehend, Fraulein?”

“Ja.  I believe, I do.  Your friend sounds like you.”

“Don’t we choose friends who are like us?”

“Ja.  Herr Gustavson, we tend to do that.  May I ask another question?”

“Ja.”

“What is death?  I know that sound strange coming from someone who wanted to experience it.  Do you have any insights on it, like you do on life?”  Her fascination with him was growing, and she hoped that it would lead to something beauty, something precious.  She did not know if it was her heart or her mind that desired this reality.  At the moment, she would not concern herself with details.  Only this previous moment mattered.

“Death is like quantum physics.  No one has complete insights or answers to it.  If I may turn the question, what did you expect death to be like, Fraulein?”

“As a young girl, my mother would tell me that death is a corridor between two doors of an opposite nature.  As we close our eyes in darkness, we open them in light.  Does that make sense?”

“Ja.  We all must travel that corridor between darkness and light at some time.

Do you believe the right time has come for you?  If you do, I will not stop you from leaping into the river.  It is your decision to make.  Twenty-five  is a bad time to die, but it is a grand time to begin living.  I would be saddened if you chose to die, very saddened,” there was a plead in his voice.

Their eyes once again met.  As she pondered on his comments, she became aware of her surroundings.  By now the winds blew faster.  In the fog ice crystals formed, and snow began to fall.  The ivory flakes speckled the night fog.

To her ears came the chimes of the old bells in the stone clock tower.  They were a lovely melody, she thought.  Life seemed different somehow, she couldn’t explain, but she knew it was.

“Life,” she said slowly.  Smiling, she said, “Herr Gustavson, I will think on what you said.”

“In that case I will bid you a good night.  See you for breakfast?”  There was an earnest longing in his tone.

“Ja.”  Walking across the bridge, she headed toward the Grossmunster Cathedral while Herr Gustavson moved toward the Inn bathed in a warm glow.

I know what I need at the moment, she mused.  A place of solitude and warmth, with the aroma of perfumed candles, to think about my new life.  I know a nice place.  In a way, I wish breakfast time was here, but I will have all night to think about how glorious tomorrow will be!

Suddenly, Herr Gustavson heard the shriek of tires and an ominous thug.  Turning quickly toward the cathedral, he ran across the bridge toward the accident scene.

“Herr,” the driver began, “I did not even see her!”

Herr Gustavson bent down to the heap that had been human.  There was still a flicker of life in the crushed body before him.

“Is she dead?”

“Not yet.  I will take her to the cathedral out of the cold.  Find help!”

As the man went for help, the cathedral bells commenced ringing.  For some reason, they were late signaling the midnight hour, the dawn of Christmas Day.

Picking her up carefully, he carried her into the cathedral.  Once inside, she opened her eyes and looked about at all the beauty.  She breathed deeply the perfumed air for a few seconds and said, “Thank you,” she coughed.  “I am sorry that we won’t have,” she stopped again and coughed.  “Breakfast.”  She tried to speak again but could only cough.

She died in his arms before he could reply.  He placed her on a vermilion velvet cushion in the foyer between two seven foot high, golden candelabra.  The perfume seemed to drip on them from the candles.

Brushing the snow from her face, he kissed her warm lips.  As he stood to his feet, tears cascaded down his cheeks.  He rushed out the double oak doors and encountered the night.  Something caused him to pause.  From where he stood, the falling snow made the bridge like a wool tapestry, etched in a fairy tale which could have no unhappy endings, yet this tale had an unhappy ending.

He shouted into the winter night with passionate anger.  “How can Fate be so cruel to one so young, who had so much to live for now?  I demand an answer!  Why?  Why did she have to die?  It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair,” his words fell silent as he dropped to his knees and cried.  Tears streamed down his face and made indentations in the snow.  With his face buried in his hands, he felt a warm hand on his left shoulder.

As he looked up, he found himself at his dinner table in the Limmat River Inn.  Fraulein Wyss stood before him with a concerned look on her lovely face.

“Herr Gustavson, you haven’t touched your food.  Is anything the matter?”

He stared at her for a moment, a long moment, in unbelief.  Shaking his head no, he said, “Everything is fine now, Fraulein.  I believe tonight is going to be just wonderful.  I would like to talk with you about something.”

“May I ask about what?”  She asked positively with a smile.

“A dream of hope for tomorrow, a reason to live for tomorrow.  I thought you might need someone to talk with you about that tonight.”

She smiled.  “I will be off work in an hour.  I had planned something, but your suggestion sounds much better.  You couldn’t possibly know how much better it sounds.  I will be looking forward to it, Herr Gustavson,” she sighed with joyous relief.  She felt drawn to him, and she did not want to resist the drawing.

As Herr Gustavson looked out the window, the falling snow in the setting sun made the bridge like a wool tapestry, etched in a fairy tale which would now have no unhappy endings this night, Christmas Eve.

G. D. Williams © 2017

POST 743

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