Devil’s Bridge by Wendy Oleson and Kate McIntyre
"I’ve written a blason. I think you’ll like it, Devil, sir.”
"On my bridge, I decide what I like," the devil said. He dangled scaly ankles over the edge of an open platform he’d built of pine under the very center of his bridge, Devil’s Bridge. The platform extended several feet beyond the bridge's edge. To move from bridge to platform, the devil hopped down to the platform's edge. To ascend, he hooked a claw on the bridge and hauled himself up—though only at night so the sun did not hurt his delicate eyes. When the devil stood on the platform’s edge and looked straight up, he could not see who was on his bridge. But when he turned his scaly head down the bridge's length, he could spot crossers where bridge met land on either side. This knight had dark hair and a red vest under his armor. He rode a black horse. The devil craved goat. Why couldn’t the knight be a farmer leading a fat she-goat to market? "You believe your blason is good enough to get you over my bridge?"
"Why, yes, yes, sir."
A confident fellow. The devil was intrigued. He wiggled his toes. "Then start, dammit."
Whose charming red lips menace all?
The one whose hair grows thickly down the forehead,
The one who takes pigs four at a time in gaping maw,
Whose shiny hooves dance
As he roots in a corpse for sweetbreads.
In the moment when the hopeful crosser's voice first rang into the still air, the devil nearly felt joy. And then the poem fell flat, just like all the ones before. Still, he bid the knight cross. It was a slow day on the bridge, due, perhaps, to some earlier accidents.
The devil lost sight of the knight as he approached the platform. That was the great sorrow of the bridge. Such a bad thing to no longer see the man he aided, just when the man traveled above his head. The devil’s mother never had much patience either—countless times growing up, he'd had to hide in a bone pile or a stack of skins to escape her wrath. Frustration brought out the devil in him. When the knight had traversed the 300-foot chasm halfway (which the devil discerned by the sound of horse hooves), he raised a long-nailed finger and unseated the crosser. Not to do harm, never harm. More just to ease tension before it overmastered him.
The knight clanked hard onto the stone above. A rolling brown eye—much larger than a man’s—appeared inches from the devil’s face. The devil jumped—it took him a few seconds to understand what he saw. It was the horse, sprawled above. He felt the stale hay breath. The horse wore silver plating on its long nose. As it strained to rise, it lost balance. Over the edge it went, nearly taking the devil’s head with it. The devil watched the horse fall. Down, down, down. Below lay a narrow river gorge skirted by oak forest. The horse landed in a treeless spot beside the river. To the devil, it was nothing but a black smudge among a sea of white smudges. Bones.
“Your blason lacked rhythm. The rhyme scheme was a disgrace,” the devil yelled up to the knight. So long ago, his mother would have scratched her young devil if she'd heard him sing like that. She had trained him to recite blasons extolling her beauty, her intelligence, her forbearance. When he presented an inferior effort, she made him bleed. Her method was not kind—not gentle, certainly—but wildly effective. The devil’s verse improved fast. She was a sweet creature, too, aside from the quickness with her claws. Once or twice, the devil had caught her in a moment of repose with an almost sweet mien. Or perhaps the unsteady light of the cave fire had given him that impression.
The devil waited for a response from the bridge. That knight knew better than to argue the merits of his blason. To rhyme forehead and sweetbreads! The devil preferred a poem that glossed over his appetites, highlighting his construction skills instead.
The bridge was only a month old, so perhaps it did not deserve praise yet. A bridge was one of those purely functional objects whose true quality would only be known centuries hence, once it had withstood wind storms, scouring sand, hard rain, and thousands of crossings by young men with freshly killed lambs draped over their shoulders like shawls, old chandlerheaded to market wearing tallow to the elbow, and sweet children hoisting porous bags of beet sugar, the blood and fat and sweat dripping down on the platform where the devil could lick it up with his forked tongue.
A year ago, when he first drew blueprints on his cave floor, he’d planned to let people cross in peace. He fancied the conversations he might have:
“Crossing a bit early today, eh?”
“Yes sir, I have to get these juicy hoglets to market, and they were quicker to slaughter than I’d expected.”
“I’ve found that with hoglets, too. So easy to squeeze the life out, to slit the jugular with a fingernail.”
“Haha. Very true, though I use a cleaver.”
“Haha. A fine tool for the job. Good day, then.”
“Good day. Here is a hoglet I saved just for you, the most tender of the lot.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Devil, for erecting this wondrous conduit.”
Most devils lived in caves with stout boulder doors, but this devil tired of cramped darkness, of only leaving his cave at night to feed on bats and sleeping children. He wanted to live on the air.
The devil shouldn’t have assaulted the knight. Now he must send him to the bone heap—useless horse, meet broken rider. Maimed crossers told tales, and the devil didn't want a bad reputation. His nostrils twitched. The knight smelled smug. He also smelled gory: the devil heard the knight swallow back blood from his lacerated tongue.
"Haugh shaugh I craugh?" The horseless, bloody-tongued knight asked.
"You are in a pinch." The devil's nose itched from all the sniffing. He would spare the knight. Perhaps that unworthy man-at-arms might still give his bridge a favorable report amongst the other squires and sires. Besides, the knight was made of old, tough meat. The devil could smell the gristle from his platform. He said, "Return with an animal if you still want to cross."
The knight must have righted himself; his armor clanged. A breeze brought the devil another whiff of the man's misery.
"For shame. You shat yourself," the devil called. "Come back on a goat."
The devil listened as the knight clanked back toward the other side.
A half hour later, the moaning crawling knight again came into the devil’s view. He was near the place he’d delivered the blason an hour ago. A happier time.
“I would have done the same thing even if the blason were impeccable,” the devil called, “if that makes you feel better. It’s just the kind of mood I’m in. That horse surely was skittish. Did he have a name?”
The knight, alas, ignored him. He wouldn’t be back with a goat anytime soon. Perhaps the devil should have captured the knight and made a tight cage for him on the platform. The knight could read poetry and sing songs about beautiful maidens. Each time a cart loaded with grog rolled by, they’d steal a few barrels and enjoy them all night. Maybe the knight would take his armor off and allow the devil to nestle up against his soft manflesh. Maybe the knight wouldn’t mind the devil’s prickly fur.
But not now. Not after he’d killed the knight’s horse. A knight’s horse was his… the devil would say castle, but that was stupid. A knight’s horse was very important to him. And now the knight would go back to his round table and tell everybody how mean the devil’d been. The devil reflected on this until the clanking stopped, and then for a while after. He saw the knight scrabble back onto solid ground. The knight lay in a heap for ten minutes or so then went on his slow, sad way. The devil regretted the knight. What good was a bridge with no crossers?
The devil pretended to enjoy the lull. He reached into his cubby, the sheltered place where he stored his most precious things, and curled his hand around the first item he felt. Ah, his stein! Not long ago it had popped off an anxious crosser's belt and landed on the devil's platform. The delicious lips that must have been pressed to that stein! And it still smelled sweet inside—it had held the sort of nectar that complemented goat meat. The devil grew hungry. He didn't know for what he hungered more: the steady beat of an animal's heart against his or its flesh in his stomach.
Quiet, stomach, the devil said. He thought—yes—the devil spied three young women nearing from the other side of the gorge. At least they appeared young to his rheumy eyes. They smelled young. And their words scurried and curled like the newborn rodents that had taken refuge in a knot on the devil's platform. Those rodents had been warm friends for an entire afternoon. Their mother, however, was too hairy. He’d given her the old heave-ho and told the little rodents he’d be their new mother. They hunkered at first, but he lured them with a wheel of cheese he’d lifted off a shopkeep with poor meter.
But these maidens! So much plumper than rats! More to love. Tabitha, he heard. Oh, Tabitha. One was called Tabitha. Evelyn. And Prenderghast. What kind of a name was Prenderghast for a young lady? Perhaps the devil had misheard. His selfish stomach shivered for their blason. But it wasn’t hunger. Now he knew it—he didn't want meat: only poetry would sate him. He’d eaten the rodents in the end—the devilish appetite always won. They were so young their bones went gummy between his teeth.
The maidens skipped toward the place where he’d lose sight of them—Prenderghast and Tabitha locked arms and gained speed, the ribbons in their hair whirling in the wind. Wait for Evelyn! Why hadn't they begun their blason? They had taken more than fifty steps, which, based on a hand-lettered sign the devil had erected at either entrance to the bridge, meant the blason should begin immediately. But the devil did not push. He got bashful around ladies, and he hoped they'd be a trio of sopranos. Little birds to brighten his cage with their song. Pretty birds, all his. He would show them his shiny stein. All his pretty things.
Color rose in his cheeks. He brought a hand up to feel the pleasant warmth. Except that in this innocent gesture, his long nail, his pushing-knights-from-horses nail, his hideous and loveless nail nicked the corner of his cloudiest eye.
"Blasted blasonless bitches!" The chatter from above stopped. Delicate footfalls got hard and fast. The ladies found the bridge's blind spot, but the devil reached and darted his arm until it met silk and flesh. He pulled his prize down to the platform. She arrived in a ball of skirts, which he peeled away layer by layer. She quivered. He might have found this sexy if he had desires in that area.
“Which one are you?”
She shook her head and pushed against his grip.
“You must be one of them. I heard you.” He shook her for emphasis. And that damned claw again. That damned claw caught her at the neck and popped her head clean off.
A comet of purple ribbons among fawny-blonde curls and an almost celebratory spray of arterial blood: the maiden’s head flew above the bridge, drawing gasps from the remaining ladies. He caught it on the descent. In his palm it was heavier than he’d have thought. He put it aside and turned to the body, which lay framed in a bloody pool.
He drew a silver necklace off the neck stump. It was engraved, but the devil couldn't make out the word. He assumed it spelled the woman's name. Her name around her neck, like a dog. The name no longer mattered, for no one would call it again. He wanted to know, though. People had names; devils did not. He could call her name in the night, call it down to the bone heap, hear its music echo off the femurs and mandibles.
Above, the living maidens’ footsteps retreated. "Excuse me," he said, twittering with embarrassment. All he wanted was to know her name, and then he would show these living ladies his heart's remorse. What happened had been an accident. "Could one of you help an old devil? I need your young eyes."
Two gasps. They misunderstood.
"Not your eyeballs proper. What do you take me for?"
"A devil," one muttered.
"You then!" He plucked her up, a lucky blind grab. "You can tell me, Tabitha," he guessed. "What’s it say on the silver? I'll bet it's 'Prenderghast.'"
The mutterer dry heaved once. Twice. The devil had placed her squarely before the headless body, whose great artery still fluttered.
"Mitzi. That's all it says." The woman who was possibly Tabitha vomited onto Mitzi's skirts.
"Mitzi?" He dabbed his pinky into the vomit and sniffed it. "That's a terrible name. And you, Tabitha, eat too much goat meat." Devils could never get enough goat meat, but young ladies were supposed to supper on fruit and biscuits.
"Her name wasn't Mitzi," the goat-eater said.
"You lie," said the devil, and oh, this is where his terrible temper took over. He’d been lied to before by bridge-crossers, and it was a grave insult for Tabitha, who'd just stuffed herself on goat meat, to lie to an empty-stomached devil. How fresh he recalled the sting of the cave fire on his face, his mother saying, “Lying devils burn, lying devils burn,” pushing him ever closer to the flames’ black center.
"If it wasn't Mitzi, who was it?"
Tabitha pursed her lips until they purpled.
"Speak!" Damn tight-lipped girl. Why wouldn’t she say? He dug his claw into her belly, unspooling her bowels with quick turns of his wrist. Why, why, why? She made a sound like, “Why,” too. The question on everyone’s lips.
"Thirty feet of goat meat," he said. He smiled. A good rhyme. Tabitha’s eyes rolled foreheadward, never to twitch again. He heaped the coiled bowels in the platform corner.
Above, the pattering of leather-soled slippers quickened. That third maiden—probably Evelyn—was getting away. He reached for her wildly, his claw cutting the air with bright whooshes. She panted like a dog.
"You! Don't you know it's bad luck to flee before you've delivered the blason?"
She dodged his swipes, one after another, and he enjoyed the tympani of her little jumping feet.
"Evelyn has the spirit!" he sang. "I’ll compose a blason for Evelyn!"
First, however, he needed a nip of goat meat. With his clawed hand he gave one mighty swipe that swept the lady off her feet. She’d stay put for a while. He raised the good end of Tabitha's dainty intestine to his red lips. He was hungry, and as his mother'd once said—how generous she could be!—even a naughty devil deserved food. He sucked the intestine and wondered if Tabitha had cavorted with the knight who'd soiled himself. He sensed something common between them. Perhaps they'd dined on the same goat.
The thought of Tabitha and the knight making merry saddened him. He wanted a dinner companion. Was that too much to ask? Dinner and a companion? If he could coax Evelyn, he'd share Tabitha's goat meat. He hoped he had not severed Evelyn's feet with his swipe. She might have bled out by now.
He would sing to show her he cared. The devil breathed with his diaphragm, but his blason was so heavy, its music barely rose. Could Evelyn hear:
Whose skirts quiver, flounce and flow?
The one who's hiding dear skin.
The one whose ribbon-wove hair gently blows,
Whose leather sole won't let me in.
He waited and waited for a response. Was she moved beyond words?
His shoulders slumped. He put Tabby's bowel back in his mouth. Not bad. Her stomach acids had dulled the goatmeat’s gamey flavor. An idea? Might goat meat intestine be packed and sold cave door to cave door? Would other devils appreciate its portability? Probably not. The other devils had no love of travel, or poetry or language either. They grunted and ripped flesh to communicate, even his mother. The devil had run away from the cave when she tried to scratch his eyes out with her beautiful, honey-scented claws. That’s why his eyes were so bad. Maybe his mother knew the pain of the world and thought blinding might spare him. He still missed that honeyed smell—like sunlight through a crack in the cave wall.
He reached for Evelyn again but missed; from a distance it might look like he was waving to her. Hello. Goodbye, Evelyn, who lunged left and by now had picked up at least ten yards. Her footfalls grew faint. Even so, they were beautiful music. Tender, soft music that played for the devil alone. He let her go. She’d tell everyone. Her high bird voice would squeak when she described the arc Mitzi’s head had made. No one would ever cross.
The devil heaved both parts of Mitzi off the platform, followed by Tabby, sans bowels. He watched them touch the earth below. The gentle meeting of corpse and earth.
The devil hadn't built his bridge so high. Would it hurt if he leapt from his platform? The soft ground undulated: its deep greens and blue-blacks motioned for the devil to join them. We've built a bed for you, a place where your jagged claw can finally rest. His hard parts would bleach, his bones would mix with those of the humans who’d trusted him: Mitzi's pelvis a nest for the devil's warped tibia, his seven-ribbed cage catching one of Tabitha's clavicles. But a devilish appetite could never be sated. His bones would yearn to consume their fellows, the devil’s mandible gnawing Mitzi’s hip socket down to chalky dust.
He reached into his cubby; he wanted to touch his precious things. One baby rodent tail, leathery now. Crumbling wax from a wheel of cheese. A role of catgut he fashioned into jewelry—he set that next to his silver stein. And a piece of his mother's nail, all its scent sniffed away long ago. He put the nail on his tongue and sucked so hard it cut. The devil was good at killing things. Even if a devil wanted, he couldn't fill his stomach with music. Now he tasted his own blood as he wiped his nose with a hairy arm. He didn't look down, just turned to the platform's edge when he heard it:
“Whose bridge stands most erect of all?
The one whose face shines bright and clear.
Steadfast builder, lover, and sentinel,
Who sits like a prince in a kingdom of air.”
Did the devil's ears deceive him, or was that a blason? A blason so fine, it arced the sky and sliced clouds. Who? Who, the devil squinted to see, had delivered such a song?
Kate McIntyre's work has appeared recently in Denver Quarterly, Cutbank, and the Cimarron Review. She has a Notable Essay in this year's Best American Essays. Wendy Oleson's recent prose appears in Washington Square Review, The MacGuffin, and The Journal. She placed second in Carve Magazine's 2014 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.