Where You Came From by Anjali Sachdeva
The bridge stretches over the river, its span a cuprous green gone to rust. But before the rust, cars poured across, from coal mine to brickworks and back. Before the cars, the trains. Before that, a ferry, and before the ferry, horses feeling their way across the muddy bottom of the Youghiogheny until the water was too deep, current surging against the buckled muscles of their chests, the riders turning back. The river churned and chuckled its denial: go back to where you came from.
To the northeast lies the town of Layton, a house with peeling siding, a teenaged girl in the kitchen with her hands pressed over her ears. She stares out the window like a sailor searching the horizon for a ship. Her father sits at the table, tapping cigarette ash into his empty cereal bowl, while her mother paces and rages. Useless; lazy; stupid—even through the flesh of her hands, the girl can hear the litany of complaints and offenses. Her father points the remote at the television on the counter and turns it up. The girl’s pulse drums in her ears: every. day. every. day. every. day.
The bridge was designed by a man named Thomas Pratt, son of an architect who filled Boston with churches. Thomas went off to college to become an engineer, but never graduated. He was invited to become a teacher at the college, but he would not. Instead he went to work for the railroads, sending iron horses out across the country. Wherever the land and water said turn back, he looked for an answer built of steel and stone.
The girl sits in the cafeteria eating a slice of dry bread and an apple. Empty seats spread around her, as though her loneliness is infectious. She presses the spine of a book with the palm of her hand, hunches toward the words. This week the pages are filled with blizzards and ice storms, a boy with a wolf for a companion. She shivers in the imagined chill and just then the book is torn from her hands, lobbed across the room in a burst of laughter. She glances up for a moment at the expectant faces of her tormentors and then pins her gaze to the table again, chews her bread methodically. To react is to invite further attack, and there is no wolf here to protect her.
When she comes home the girl fills her backpack with books, stories of people living lives so unlike hers they seem like science fiction: missionaries, painters, knights, engineers. She hefts the weight of the bag with one hand and is satisfied. She leaves her phone on her dresser, holding down a note. She refuses to do it all again. Not one more day.
Thomas Pratt was meticulous in his craft. His works were promises to those who relied on their solidity. But not everyone was so particular. The year after Pratt’s death, a train was crossing a bridge in Ashtabula, Ohio, one hundred fifty miles from Layton. A bridge of a different design. The bridge collapsed, and the passengers fell into an icy river banked with snow. Soon, the coal heaters set the wooden rail cars ablaze. For many there was no escape.
The girl walks across the rail of the bridge, night gathering around her. She holds her hands out for balance as the ground falls away. The trees on either bank are leafless, fringed in dead grass. The rail vibrates beneath her feet every time a car passes. The passengers would only have to look out their windows to see her face, but she knows they won’t. It is not a town where people gaze from windows and imagine the lives of strangers. The girl turns to face the water, the Yough a flat silver in the dying light, feels the heaviness of the books at her back.
Thomas Pratt pored over designs, over calculations: steel here, wood there, inversion of the diagonals. He wanted his plan to be perfect. It will last a hundred years, he thought. It will last two hundred. What he did not think of was a girl on the bridge, barely older than his own daughter, who would curl her toes over the rivets and look down into the river and try to measure its depth with her eyes. But he knew what a bridge could mean to those who longed to go farther.
The girl looks down. From this vantage the water seems to have its own gravity, pulling at her fingers, her feet. The current must be snow-cold this time of year. The river calls to her, sings its same old song. She knows there is no going back.
But she is not a jumper. She is a walker. Nothing sudden or swift about her, but her momentum is unstoppable. She will leave this town if she has to walk every inch of the way. Thomas Pratt and all who knew him are gone to dust but the steel is solid; the chords press against the diagonals in a cycle of pressure that keeps the span aloft, just as Pratt intended. She moves farther along and the sound of the river and the jeers of her classmates and her parents’ voices fade from her ears with every step. She wraps her fingers around the money in her pocket, around the bus schedule and carefully written phone numbers. She has reached the other side of the bridge and she does not spare a glance back for the little house, the school, the rushing water. She stops only long enough to brush her fingertips against the pale green steel in thanks. What else is a bridge but defiance of a river?
ANJALI SACHDEVA’s fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Yale Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Augustana College, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh. She also worked for six years at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, where she was Director of Educational Programs. She has hiked through the backcountry of Canada, Iceland, Kenya, Mexico, and the United States, and spent much of her childhood reading fantasy novels and waiting to be whisked away to an alternate universe. Instead, she lives in Pittsburgh, which is pretty wonderful as far as places in this universe go.