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Lighting the Bridges

In Watermelon Sugar

By Richard Brautigan

Book One: In Watermelon Sugar

In Watermelon Sugar

In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as

my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because

I am here and you are distant.

 

Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to

travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon

sugar. I hope this works out.

 

I live in a shack near iDEATH. I can see iDEATH out the window.

It is beautiful. I can also see it with my eyes closed and touch it.

Right now it is cold and turns like something in the hand of a

child. I do not know what that thing could be.

 

There is a delicate balance in iDEATH. It suits us.

The shack is small but pleasing and comfortable as my life

and made from pine, watermelon sugar and stones as just about

everything here is.

 

Our lives we have carefully constructed from watermelon

sugar and then travelled to the length of our dreams, along

roads lined with pines and stones.

 

I have a bed, a chair, a table and a large chest that I keep my

things in. I have a lantern that burns watermelontrout oil at

night.

 

That is something else. I'll tell you about it later. I have a

gentle life.

 

I go to the window and look out again. The sun is shining at

the long edge of a cloud. It is Tuesday and the sun is golden.

I can see piney woods and the rivers that flow from those

piney woods. The rivers are cold and clear and there are trout

in the rivers.

 

Some of the rivers are only a few inches wide.

 

I know a river that is half-an-inch wide. I know because I

measured it and sat beside it for a whole day. It started raining

in the middle of the afternoon. We call everything a river here.

We're that kind of people.

 

I can see fields of watermelons and the rivers that flow

through them. There are many bridges in the piney woods and

in the fields of watermelons. There is a bridge in front of this

shack.

 

Some of the bridges are made of wood, old and stained silver

like rain, and some of the bridges are made of stone gathered

from a great distance and built in the order of that distance, and

some of the bridges are made of watermelon sugar. I like those

bridges best.

 

We make a great many things out of watermelon sugar here —I'll tell you about it—including this book being written near iDEATH.

 

All this will be gone into, travelled in watermelon sugar.

Margaret

 

This morning there was a knock at the door. I could tell who it

was by the way they knocked, and I heard them coming across

the bridge.

 

They stepped on the only board that makes any noise. They

always step on it. I have never been able to figure this out. I

have thought a great deal about why they always step on that

same board, how they cannot miss it, and now they stood outside



my door, knocking.

 

I did not acknowledge their knocking because I just wasn't

interested. I did not want to see them. I knew what they would be about and did not care for it.

 

Finally they stopped knocking and went back across the bridge

and they, of course, stepped on the same board: a long board

with the nails not lined up right, built years ago and no way to

fix it, and then they were gone, and the board was silent.

 

I can walk across the bridge hundreds of times without stepping

on that board, but Margaret always steps on it.

My Name

 

I guess you are kind of curious as to who I am, but I am one of

those who do not have a regular name. My name depends on

you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.

 

If you are thinking about something that happened a long

time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you did not know

the answer.

 

That is my name.

 

Perhaps it was raining very hard.

 

That is my name.

 

Or somebody wanted you to do something. You did it. Then

they told you what you did was wrong--"Sorry for the mistake,"--and

you had to do something else.

 

That is my name.

 

Perhaps it was a game that you played when you were a child

or something that came idly into your mind when you were old

and sitting in a chair near the window.

 

That is my name.

 

Or you walked someplace. There were flowers all around.

That is my name.

 

Perhaps you stared into a river. There was somebody near

you who loved you. They were about to touch you. You could

feel this before it happened. Then it happened.

 

That is my name.

 

Or you heard someone calling from a great distance. Their

voice was almost an echo.

 

That is my name.

 

Perhaps you were lying in bed, almost ready to go to sleep

and you laughed at something, a joke unto yourself, a good way

to end the day.

 

That is my name.

 

Or you were eating something good and for a second forgot

what you were eating, but still went on, knowing it was good.

 

That is my name.

 

Perhaps it was around midnight and the fire tolled like a bell

inside the stove.

 

That is my name.

 

Or you felt bad when she said that thing to you. She could

have told it to someone else: Somebody who was more familiar

with her problems.

 

That is my name.

 

Perhaps the trout swam in the pool but the river was only eight

inches wide and the moon shone on iDEATH and the watermelon

fields glowed out of proportion, dark and the moon seemed to

rise from every plant.

 

That is my name.

 

And I wish Margaret would leave me alone.


Fred

 

A little while after Margaret left, Fred came by. He was not

involved with the bridge. He only used it to get to my shack.

He had nothing else to do with the bridge. He only walked

across it to get to my place.

 

He just opened the door and came in. "Hi," he said. "What's

up?"

 

"Nothing much," I said. "Just working away here."

 

"I just came from the Watermelon Works," Fred said. "I want

you to go down there tomorrow morning with me. I want to

show you something about the plank press."

 

"All right," I said.

 

"Good," he said. "I'll see you tonight at dinner down at

iDEATH. I hear Pauline is going to cook dinner tonight. That

means we'll have something good. I'm a little tired of Al's

cooking. The vegetables are always overdone, and I'm tired of

carrots, too. If I eat another carrot this week I'll scream."

 

"Yeah, Pauline's a good cook," I said. I wasn't really too

much interested in food at the time. I wanted to get back to my

work, but Fred is my buddy. We've had a lot of good times

together.

 

Fred had something strange-looking sticking out of the

pocket of his overalls. I was curious about it. It looked like

something I had never seen before.

 

"What's that in your pocket, Fred?"

 

"I found it today coming through the woods up from the

Watermelon Works. I don't know what it is myself. I've never

seen anything like it before. What do you think it is?"

 

He took it out of his pocket and handed it to me. I didn't know

how to hold it. I tried to hold it like you would hold a flower

and a rock at the same time.

 

"How do you hold it?" I said.

 

"I don't know. I don't know anything about it."

 

"It looks like one of those things inBOIL and his gang used

to dig up down at the Forgotten Works. I've never seen any

thing like it," I said, and gave it back to Fred.

 

"I'll show it to Charley," he said. "Maybe Charley will know.

He knows about everything there is."

 

"Yeah, Charley knows a lot," I said.

 

"Well, I guess I had better be going," Fred said. He put the

thing back in his overalls. "I'll see you at dinner," he said.

 

"OK."

 

Fred went out the door. He crossed the bridge without stepping on that board Margaret always steps on and couldn't miss if the bridge were seven miles wide.

Charley's Idea

 

After Fred left it felt good to get back to writing again, to dip

my pen in watermelonseed ink and write upon these sheets of

sweet-smelling wood made by Bill down at the shingle factory.

 

Here is a list of the things that I will tell you about in this

book. There's no use saving it until later. I might as well tell you

now where you're at--

 

1: iDEATH. (A good place.)

 

2: Charley (My friend.)

 

3: The tigers and how they lived and how beautiful they

were and how they died and how they talked to me while they

ate my parents, and how I talked back to them and how they

stopped eating my parents, though it did not help my parents

any, nothing could help them by then, and we talked for a long

time and one of the tigers helped me with my arithmetic, then

they told me to go away while they finished eating my parents,

and I went away. I returned later that night to burn the shack

down. That's what we did in those days.

 

4: The Statue of Mirrors.

 

5: Old Chuck.

 

6: The long walks I take at night. Sometimes I stand for

hours at a single place, without hardly moving. (I've had the

wind stop in my hand.)

 

7: The Watermelon Works.

 

8: Fred. (My buddy.)

 

9: The baseball park.

 

10: The aqueduct.

 

11: Doc Edwards and the schoolteacher.

 

12: The beautiful trout hatchery at iDEATH and how it was

built and the things that happen there. (It's a swell place for

dancing.)

 

13: The Tomb Crew, the Shaft and the Shaft Gallows.

 

14: A waitress.

 

15: Al, Bill, others.

 

16: The town.

 

17: The sun and how it changes. (Very interesting.)

 

18: inBOIL and that gang of his and the place where they

used to dig, the Forgotten Works, and all the terrible things they

did, and what happened to them, and how quiet and nice things

are around here now that they are dead.

 

19: Conversations and things that happen here day to day.

(Work, baths, breakfast and dinner.)

 

20: Margaret and that other girl who carried the lantern

at night and never came close.

 

21: All of our statues and the places where we bury our

dead, so that they are forever with light coming out of their

tombs.

 

22: My life lived in watermelon sugar. (There must be

worse lives.)

 

23: Pauline. (She is my favorite. You'll see.)

 

24: And this the twenty-fourth book written in 171 years.

Last month Charley said to me, "You don't seem to like making

statues or doing anything else. Why don't you write a book?

 

"The last one was written thirty-five years ago. It's about time

somebody wrote another book."

 

Then he scratched his head and said, "Gee, I remember it was

written thirty-five years ago, but I can't remember what it was

about. There used to be a copy of it in the sawmill."

 

"Do you know who wrote it?" I said.

 

"No," he said. "But he was like you. He didn't have a regular

name."

 

I asked him what the other books were about, the twenty-

three previous ones, and he said that he thought one of them was

about owls.

 

"Yeah, it was about owls, and then there was a book about

pine needles, very boring, and then there was one about the Forgotten Works, theories on how it got started and where it

came from.

 

"The guy who wrote the book, his name was Mike, he took

a long trip into the Forgotten Works. He went in maybe a hundred

miles and was gone for weeks. He went beyond those high

Piles we can see on clear days. He said that there were Piles

beyond those that were even higher.

 

"He wrote a book about his journey into the Forgotten Works.

It wasn't a bad book, a lot better than the books we find in the

Forgotten Works. Those are terrible books.

 

"He said he was lost for days and came across things that

were two miles long and green. He refused to furnish any other

details about them, even in his book. Just said they were two

miles long and green.

 

"That's his tomb down by that statue of a frog."

 

"I know that tomb well," I said. "He has blond hair and he's

wearing a pair of rust-colored overalls."

 

"Yeah, that's him," Charley said.

Sundown

 

After I finished writing for the day it was close to sundown

and dinner would be ready soon down at iDEATH.

 

I looked forward to seeing Pauline and eating what she would

cook and seeing her at dinner and maybe I would see her after

dinner. We might go for a long walk, maybe along the aqueduct.

 

Then maybe we would go to her shack for the night or stay

at iDEATH or come back up here, if Margaret wouldn't knock the

door down the next time she came by.

 

The sun was going down over the Piles in the Forgotten

Works. They turned back far beyond memory and glowed in

the sundown.

 

The Gentle Cricket

 

I went out and stood on the bridge for a while and looked

down at the river below. It was three feet wide. There were a

couple of statues standing in the water. One of them was my

mother. She was a good woman. I made it five years ago.

 

The other statue was a cricket. I did not make that one. Somebody

else made it a long time ago in the time of the tigers. It is

a very gentle statue.

 

I like my bridge because it is made of all things: wood and

the distant stones and gentle planks of watermelon sugar.

 

I walked down to iDEATH through a long cool twilight that

passed like a tunnel over me. I lost sight of iDEATH when I passed

into the piney woods and the trees smelled cold and they were

growing steadily darker.

Lighting the Bridges

 

I looked up through the pines and saw the evening star. It

glowed a welcoming red from the sky, for that is the color of

our stars here. They are always that color.

 

I counted a second evening star on the opposite side of the

sky, not as imposing but just as beautiful as the one that arrived

first.

 

I came upon the real bridge and the abandoned bridge. They

were side by side across a river. Trout were jumping in the river.

A trout about twenty inches long jumped. I thought it was a

rather nice fish. I knew I would remember it for a long time.

 

I saw somebody coming up the road. It was Old Chuck coming

up from iDEATH to light the lanterns on the real bridge and the

abandoned bridge. He was walking slowly because he is a very

old man.

 

Some say that he is too old to light the bridges and that he

should just stay down at iDEATH and take it easy. But Old Chuck

likes to light the lanterns and come back in the morning and

put them out.

 

Old Chuck says that everybody should have something to do

and lighting those bridges is his thing to do. Charley agrees with

him. "Let Old Chuck light the bridges if he feels like it. It keeps

him out of mischief."

 

This is a kind of joke because Old Chuck must be ninety years

old if he's a day and mischief has passed far beyond him, moving

at the speed of decades.

 

Old Chuck has bad eyes and did not see me until he was

almost on top of me. I waited for him. "Hello, Chuck," I said.

 

"Good evening," he said. "I've come to light the bridges.

How are you this evening? I've come to light the bridges. Beautiful

evening, isn't it?"

 

"Yes," I said. "Lovely."

 

Old Chuck went over to the abandoned bridge and took a

six-inch match out of his overalls and lit the lantern on the

iDEATH side of the bridge. The abandoned bridge has been that

way since the time of the tigers.

 

In those days two tigers were trapped on the bridge and killed

and then the bridge was set on fire. The fire only destroyed part

of the bridge.

 

The bodies of the tigers fell into the river and you can still

see their bones lying on the bottom in the sandy places and

lodged in the rocks and scattered here and there: small bones

and rib bones and part of a skull.

 

There is a statue in the river alongside the bones. It is the

statue of somebody who was killed by the tigers a long time ago.

Nobody knows who they were.

 

They never repaired the bridge and now it is the abandoned

bridge. There is a lantern at each end of the bridge. Old Chuck

lights them every evening, though some people say he is too old.

 

The real bridge is made entirely of pine. It is a covered bridge

and always dark inside like an ear. The lanterns are in the shape

of faces.

 

One face is that of a beautiful child and the other face is that

of a trout. Old Chuck lit the lanterns with the long matches

from his overalls.

 

The lanterns on the abandoned bridge are tigers.

 

"I'll walk with you down to iDEATH," I said.

 

"Oh no," Old Chuck said. "I'm too slow. You'll be late for dinner."

 

"What about you?" I said.

 

"I've already eaten. Pauline gave me something to eat just

before I left."

 

"What are we having for dinner?" I said.

 

"No," Old Chuck said, smiling. "Pauline told me if I met you

on the road not to tell you what the dinner is tonight. She made

me promise."

 

"That Pauline," I said.

 

"She made me promise," he said.

IDEATH

 

It was about dark when I arrived at iDEATH. The two evening

stars were now shining side by side. The smaller one had moved

over to the big one. They were very close now, almost touching,

and then they went together and became one very large star.

 

I don't know if things like that are fair or not.

There were lights on down at iDEATH. I watched them as I

came down the hill out of the woods. They looked warm, calling

and cheery.

 

Just before I arrived at iDEATH, it changed. iDEATH's like that:

always changing. It's for the best. I walked up the stairs to the

front porch and opened the door and went in.

 

I walked across the living room toward the kitchen. There

was nobody in the room, nobody sitting on the couches along

the river. That's where people usually gather in the room or they

stand in the trees by the big rocks, but there was nobody there

either. There were many lanterns shining along the river and

in the trees. It was very close to dinner.

 

When I got on the other side of the room, I could smell something

good coming out of the kitchen. I left the room and walked

down the hall that follows beneath the river. I could hear the

river above me, flowing out of the living room. The river

sounded fine.

 

The hall was as dry as anything and I could smell good things

coming up the hall from the kitchen.

 

Almost everybody was in the kitchen: that is, those who take

their meals at iDEATH. Charley and Fred were talking about

something. Pauline was just getting ready to serve dinner.

Everybody was sitting down. She was happy to see me. "Hi,

stranger," she said.

 

"What's for dinner?" I said.

 

"Stew," she said. "The way you like it."

 

"Great," I said.

 

She gave me a nice smile and I sat down. Pauline was wearing

a new dress and I could see the pleasant outlines of her body.

The dress had a low front and I could see the delicate curve

of her breasts. I was quite pleased by everything. The dress

smelled sweet because it was made from watermelon sugar.

 

"How's the book coming?" Charley said.

 

"Fine," I said. "Just fine."

 

"I hope it's not about pine needles," he said.

 

Pauline served me first. She gave me a great big helping of

stew. Everybody was aware of me being served first and the

size of the helping, and everybody smiled, for they knew what

it meant, and they were happy for the thing that was going on.

Most of them did not like Margaret any more. Almost everybody

thought that she had conspired with inBOIL and that gang

of his, though there had never been any real evidence.

 

"This stew really tastes good," Fred said. He put a big spoonful

of stew in his mouth, almost spilling some on his overalls.

"Ummmm--good," he repeated and then said under his breath,

 

"A lot better than carrots."

Al almost heard him. He looked hard for a second over at

Fred, but he didn't quite catch it because he relaxed then and

said, "It certainly is, Fred."

 

Pauline laughed slightly, for she had heard Fred's comment

and I gave her a look as if to say: Don't laugh too hard, deary.

You know how Al is about his cooking.

 

Pauline nodded understandingly.

 

"Just as long as it isn't about pine needles," Charley repeated,

though a good ten minutes had passed since he'd said anything

and that had been about pine needles, too.

The Tigers

 

After dinner Fred said that he would do the dishes. Pauline said

oh no, but Fred insisted by actually starting to clear the table. He picked up some spoons and plates, and that settled it.

 

Charley said that he thought he would go in the living room

and sit by the river and smoke a pipe. Al yawned. The other

guys said that they would do other things, and went off to do

them.

 

And then Old Chuck came in.

 

"What took you so long?" Pauline said.

 

"I decided to rest by the river. I fell asleep and had a long

dream about the tigers. I dreamt they were back again."

 

"Sounds horrible," Pauline said. She shivered and kind of

drew her shoulders in like a bird and put her hands on them.

 

"No, it was all right," Old Chuck said. He sat down in a chair.

 

It took him a long time to sit down and then it was as if the chair

had grown him, he was in so close.

 

"This time they were different," he said. "They played musical

instruments and went for long walks in the moon.

 

"They stopped and played by the river. Their instruments

looked nice. They sang, too. You remember how beautiful their

voices were."

 

Pauline shivered again.

 

"Yes," I said. "They had beautiful voices but I never heard

them singing."

 

"They were singing in my dream. I remember the music but

I can't remember the words. They were good songs, too, and

there was nothing frightening about them. Perhaps I am an old

man," he said.

 

"No, they had beautiful voices," I said.

 

"I liked their songs," he said. "Then I woke up and it was

cold. I could see the lanterns on the bridges. Their songs were

like the lanterns, burning oil."

 

"I was a little worried about you," Pauline said.

 

"No," he said. "I sat down in the grass and leaned up against

a tree and fell asleep and had a long dream about the tigers, and

they sang songs but I can't remember the words. Their instruments

were nice, too. They looked like the lanterns."

 

Old Chuck's voice slowed down. His body kept relaxing until

it seemed as if he had always been in that chair, his arms gently

resting on watermelon sugar.


Date: 2015-12-17; view: 501


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