A story by William Goyen
Do you remember the bridge that we crossed over the river to get to Riverside? And if you looked over yonder you saw the railroad trestle? High and narrow? Well that’s what he jumped off of. Into a nothing river. “River”! 1 could laugh. I can spit more than runs in that dry bed. In some places it’s just a little damp, but that’s it. That’s your grand and rolling river: a damp spot. That’s your remains of the grand old Trinity. Where can so much water go? I at least wish they’d do something about it. But what can they do? What can anybody do? You can’t replace a river.
Anyway, if there’d been water, maybe he’d have made it. the naked diver. As it was, diving into the river as though there were water in it, he went head first into moist sand and drove into it like an arrow into flesh and was found in a position of somebody on his knees, headless, bent over looking for something. Looking for where the river vanished to? I was driving across the old river bridge when I said to myself, wait a minute, I believe I see something. I almost ran into the bridge railing. I felt a chill come over me.
What I did when I got off the bridge was to draw my car to the side of the road and get out and run down the riverbank around a rattlesnake that seemed to be placed there as a deterrent (the banks are crawling with them in July), and down: and what I came upon was a kind of avenue that the ri-ver had made and paved with gleaming white sand, wide and grand and empty. I crossed this ghostly thoroughfare of the river halfway, and when I got closer, my Lord Jesus God Almighty damn if I didn’t see that it was half a naked human body in what would have been midstream were there water. I was scared to death. What ought I to do? Try to pull it out? I was scared to touch it. It was a heat-stunned afternoon. The July heat throbbed. The blue, steaming air waved like a veil. The feeling of something missing haunted me: it was the lost life of the river—something so powerful that it had haunted the countryside for miles around; you could feel it a long time before you came to it. In a landscape that was unnatural flowing water was missing—everything else seemed unnatural. The river’s vegetation was thin and starved-looking; it lived on the edge of sand instead of water: it seemed out of place.
If only I hadn’t taken the old bridge. I was already open to a fine of five thousand dollars for driving across it, according to the sign, and I understood why. (Over yonder arched the shining new bridge. There was no traffic on it.) The flapping of loose boards and the quaking of the iron beams was terrifying. I almost panicked in the middle when the whole construction swayed and made such a sound of crackling and clanking. I was surprised the feeble structure hadn’t more than a sign to prohibit passage over it—it should have been barricaded. At any rate, it was when I was in the middle of this rocking vehicle that seemed like some mad carnival ride that I saw the naked figure diving from the old railroad trestle. I dared not stop my car and so I maneuvered my way on. mechanical with terror, enchanted by the melodies that rose from the instruments of the bridge that played like some orchestra of xylophones and drums and cellos as I moved over it. Who would have known that the dead bridge, condemned and closed away from human touch, had such music in it? I was on the other side now. Behind me the music was quieter, lowering into something like chime sounds and harness sounds and wagons; it shook like bells and tolled like soft, deep gongs.
His hands must have cut through the wet sand, carving a path for his head and shoulders. He was sunk to his waist: a figure with its head buried in the sand, as if it had decided not to look at the world anymore. And then, as I watched, the figure began to sink, as if someone were pulling it under. Slowly the stomach, lean and hairy, vanished; then the loins, thighs. The river, which had swallowed half this body, now seemed to be eating the rest of it. For a while the feet lay, soles up, on the sand. And then they went down, arched like a dancer’s.
Who was the man drowned in a dry river? eaten by a dry river? devoured by sand? How would I explain, describe what had happened? I’d be judged to be out of my senses. And why would I tell somebody—the police or—anybody? There was nothing to be done, the diver was gone, the naked leaper was swallowed up. Unless somebody had pushed him over the bridge and he’d assumed a diving position to try to save himself. But what evidence was there? Well, I had to report what I’d seen, what I’d witnessed. Witness? To what? Would anybody believe me? There was no evidence anywhere. Well, I’d look, I’d search for evidence. I’d go up on the railroad trestle.
I climbed up. The trestle was perilously narrow and high. I could see a long ways out over Texas, green and steaming in July. I could see the scar of the river, I could see the healed-looking patches that were the orphaned bottomlands. I could see the tornado-shaped funnel of bilious smoke that twisted out of the mill in Riverside, enriching the owner and poisoning him. his family, and his neighbors. And I could see the old bridge which I’d just passed over and still trembling under my touch, arching perfect and precious, golden in the sunlight. The music I had wrought out of it was now stilled, except, it seemed, for a low. deep hum that rose from it. It seemed impossible that a train could move on these narrow tracks now grown over with weeds. As I walked, grasshoppers flared up in the dry heat.
I saw no footprints in the weeds, no sign of anybody having walked on the trestle—unless they walked on the rails or the ties. Where were the man’s clothes? Unless he’d left them on the bank and run out naked onto the trestle. This meant searching on both sides of the trestle—Christ, what was I caught up in? It could also mean that he was a suicide, my mind went on dogging me; or insane; it could also mean that nobody else was involved. Or was I suffering a kind of bridge madness, the vision that sometimes comes from going home again, of going back to places haunted by deep feeling? Had anyone ever told me the story of a man jumping into the river from the trestle? Could this be some tormented spirit doomed forever to re-enact his suicide? And if so, must he continue it, now that the river was gone? This thought struck me as rather pitiful.
How high the trestle was! It made me giddy to look down at the riverbed. I tried to find the spot where the diver had hit the dry river. There was absolutely no sign. The mouth of sand that had sucked him down before my very eyes had closed and sealed itself. The story was over, so far as I was concerned. Whatever had happened would be my secret. I had to give it up, let it go. You can understand that I had no choice, that that was the only thing I could do.
That was the summer I was making a sentimental trip through home regions, after fifteen years away. The bridge over the beloved old river had been one of my most touching memories—an object that hung in my memory of childhood like a precious toy. It was a fragile creation, of iron and wood, and so poetically arched, so slender, half a bracelet through which the green river ran. The superstructure was made more for a minaret than a bridge. From a distance it looked like an ornate pier, in Brighton or early Santa Monica; or, in the summer heat haze, a palace tower, a creation of gold. Closer, of course, it was an iron and wooden bridge of unusual beauty, shape, and design. It had always been an imperfect bridge, awry from the start. It had been built wrong—an engineering mistake; the ascent was too steep and the descent too sharp. But its beauty endured. And despite its irregularity, traffic had used the bridge at Riverside, without serious mishap, for many years. It was just an uncomfortable trip, and always somewhat disturbing, this awkward, surprising, and somehow mysterious crossing.
Some real things happened on this practical, if magical, device for crossing water. For one thing, since it swayed, my mother, in our childhood days, would refuse to ride across it. She would remove herself from the auto and walk across, holding on to the railing, while my father, cursing, drove the rest of us across. My sister and I peered back at the small figure of our mother laboring darkly and utterly alone on the infernal contraption which was her torment. I remember my father getting out of the car on the other side, waiting at the side of the road, looking toward the bridge, watching my mother’s creeping progress. When she arrived, pale,
she declared, as she did each time, “I vow to the Lord if my sister Sarah didn’t live in Riverside I’d never to my soul come near this place.” “Well you could lie down in the back seat, put the cotton in your ears that you always bring, and never knowit, as I keep telling you.” said my father. “I’d still know it,” my mother came back. “I’d still know we was on this infernal bridge.” “Well, then, take the goddamn train from Palestine. Train trestle’s flat.” And, getting in the car and slamming the door. “Or stay home and just write to your damned sister Sarah. Married to a horse’s ass, anyway . . .”
“Mama,” said my sister, trying to pacify the situation. “Tell us about the time you almost drowned in the river and Daddy had to jump in and pull you out.”
“Well, it was just right over yonder. We’d been fishing all morning, and . . .”
“Aw, for Christ’s sake,’.’ my father said.
On the other side of the bridge, after a crossing of hazards and challenges, there was nothing more than a plain little town of mud streets and weather-faded shacks. The town of poor people lived around an ugly mill that puffed out like talcum something called Fuller’s Earth. This substance lay on rooftops, on the ground, and in lungs. It smelled sour, and bit the eyes.
As I drove away toward that town, haunted by the vision of the leaping man, and now so shaken in my very spirit, lost to fact but brought to some odd truth which I could not yet clear for myself, I saw in the mirror the still image of the river bridge that had such hidden music in it, girdling the ghost of what it had been created for, that lost river that held in its bosom of sand the diving figure of the trestle that I was sure I had seen. I was coming in to Riverside, and already the stinging fumes of the mill brought tears to my eyes. □