The cracking of a frozen river below ricocheted like the reports of a rifle up through the canyon, as Sous-Terrain slowly limped down the middle of the long bridge made entirely of ice. The sun had passed behind a veil of cloud, changing the surface on which he advanced into a dull mirror. In the glassy blueness of it, he observed his own reflection, moving amongst those milky internal folds, although the other Sous-Terrain was blue and blurry. His skull had deep shadows for eyes.
For twenty years, Sous-Terrain had, while asleep, envisioned his death. In the cold and silent dark, his wife had lain just next to him. Her body had been eaten away by disease. He had felt his own features, and they, like hers, had more than half dissolved in the casket lined with brittle flowers. Sous-Terrain closed his eyes. Death had not yet come, and dreams no longer particularly caused him pain. Memories of his wife while living had been all but replaced with the image of a corpse.
The wind whipped him with flurries and carried them up to the highest peaks and, beyond them, the blank distance, into which the iced river slid away. As a boy, he had once been made to kill a white goat he had named Cyrinus. The Devil uses these stupid animals as his ears, his mother had told him. Do not let yourself get close to them. But after he stripped that pathetic hellspawn, he had loathed only its raw, sticky musculature and the gore on his knife, which dried into a flaking brown crust.
What sorts of meals had he shared with his wife, and what had they said to each other, across the worm-eaten oak table by the fire that blackened their hearth? Sous-Terrain had terrible difficulty recollecting as he watched his double within the ice bend and change. He saw the lined forehead and thin, silvery hair possessed by his late father, who had failed to survive the epidemic—and he saw the skeletal form of old Abbot Naïçey, who had survived only as a witless, drooling monster.
Sous-Terrain was suddenly also aware of having strayed off his course. A step more would place him on the slippery precipice and, subsequently, drop him into the grey and dimly flashing abyss, to be ground up by the glacial movement of the river. More than three quarters of the bridge lay ahead untrodden. Sous-Terrain liked to imagine Nello having already reached the other side and calling back, Stop acting like a startled bird! Nothing down there cares about tearing you from your high perch.
Nello had liked to welcome winter by going out before daybreak to the tributary to crack the ice, then dip each of his naked arms up to the elbow and lift the water to his mouth. It’s a small gesture, he had explained, to demonstrate to God that I resent none of His inhuman designs. Sous-Terrain had also drunk, though largely out of friendship. Perhaps Nello, if had he been present today, would have thrown off his coat at the end of the bridge and romped around in the snow, like a white ermine.
Surely, he would not have seen vanishing into it as a bad end. He had, in fact, preferred sleeping outdoors even in the swamp where, throughout the nights, warm sulfurous rains made the earth a slime into which anybody might sink and lose his life. While Sous-Terrain stumbled forward to the other side, the ice beneath him moaned and creaked as rifts shot through the inverted world in which the warped, colored shadows of things both alive and not inhabited the same flat plane.
—Gregory Kimbrell is the author of The Primitive Observatory (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. He is currently working on a book project making use of material from his magnetic sci-fi/horror haiku, which can be found at gregorykimbrell.com. He dreams of someday inhabiting a derelict mansion and caring for orphaned tigers and lions.