The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 11, No. 2

Bridge of Sighs

by Pinckney Benedict

From the darkness of the barn, my father lumbered out into the yard, blinking like a baby in the sunlight. He shaded his eyes with a flat hand until he saw the farmer, a fellow by the name of Woodrow Scurry, standing in the stiff mud, still as a scarecrow. That was what he looked like, Scurry, a scarecrow, with his too-big overalls and beat-to-shit steel-toe boots, his hair sticking out like straw from under his ball cap.
     He was leaning far forward, like whatever was holding him up was about to give. He'd been standing that way since my father went into the barn. He'd been standing just like that for a full five minutes. I was keeping an eye on him. Sometimes they went a little batty.
     "I count thirteen head in there, Mister Scurry," my father said. He looked at the clipboard in his hands. "So we're four short." It was always a mystery, how many animals these fellows were hiding. It might be a couple steers, like Scurry, or it might be a dozen. It was always some, though. They couldn't help it, trying to keep something back. They didn't know how serious it was, or they pretended not to know. They were shifty and ignorant, and they were a danger to us all.
     "Is that right?"
     "There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed," I said. It was the first thing I had said since we got there, a thing my father always told me after he'd finished work at a place like this. "Neither anything hid that shall not be known."
     "What's that?" Scurry asked. He turned to look at me—I don't think he'd even noticed I was there until that moment—and his cheeks were hollow, his eye sockets filled with shadow beneath the bill of his cap.
     I was sitting on the hood of my father's big black Chrysler Imperial, long as a limousine. Most cars you couldn't sit on the hood without dimpling the metal, but that Chrysler might as well have been armored. We had ridden up here to Scurry's place from the county seat, my father and me, listening to Cowboy Copas loud on the radio and singing along with "Tragic Romance" until we lost the signal among the rocky hilltops. I was tall enough that year that the heels of my Dingos touched the chrome of the bumper. The hood ornament, the Imperial eagle that my father had ordered specially, sat calm and solid beneath my hand.
     The massive motor poured out waves of warmth, even though it wasn't running. My butt and the backs of my legs tingled from the heat and ran with sweat. The bright light of the sun made my head ache, but it couldn't fill the darkness where Mister Scurry's eyes ought to have been. The metal of the engine block ticked as it cooled. Under that I could hear something else, a soft whispering like many voices. The sound of water running over rocks. I was suddenly thirsty.

The epizootic was running mad in those days, sweeping through the highlands like wildfire, threatening to clean out our valley as well. It was like a charnel house up on those high farms. And we were lucky, where we lived. In other places it had arrived earlier and traveled faster, and there was nothing left. We heard about it on the radio. Places where there were no cattle anymore at all, no pigs, no sheep. Places where poultry barns—long white buildings holding, some of them, as many as a hundred thousand birds—had simply been set alight and burned flat.
     Places where it had wiped out the dogs. I tried to imagine that, a world without dogs, but my imagination just wouldn't frame it. I thought about all our dogs, swarming the Chrysler as they would when we pulled into the yard that evening, barking into their own reflections in the bumpers, the chrome wheel wells, the hubcaps. Standing on their hind legs, grinning in through the windows at us with their tongues out, their spit flecking the glass. My father would shout at them to get out of the way, promise to run them down if they didn't shift, and they'd ignore him. A world without dogs. It was impossible.
     And in some of those other places, we were now hearing, the epizootic had made the leap over into human beings.

"Thirteen," Scurry said, turning back to my father. The corners of his mouth came up in a tight, lopsided smile. There was nothing here for him to smile at. He looked embarrassed. Sometimes they were belligerent, the stockmen, sometimes they were confused, sometimes they were just humiliated and wanted to get it over with. The belligerent ones were easiest, my father said. You didn't mind doing what you had to do when a fellow argued with you. "Do you have to kill them all?" Scurry asked.
     My father looked at him, then at me, peering at us again from under the visor of his hand. He had sensitive eyes and was all the time squinting against the light. "I need them all," my father said. He waved the clipboard in Scurry's direction.
     "That's all I got is right in there," Scurry said. "You can look around the place if you want. All the good it'll do you." He gestured around him, at the barnyard, the barn, the house that stood crookedly, as crookedly as Scurry himself; at the pastures and the woods that stretched everywhere.
     The sound of running water seemed louder to me now, and I swallowed in a dry throat. There was a creek nearby. I had spent a good part of the summer looking for a mud puppy, one of the fat brown mountain salamanders, big as your hand, and I wondered if there might not be one in some shallow cool-water pool along Scurry's creek, lurking among the stones and the ferns.
     "This doesn't give me any pleasure, Mister Scurry," my father said. "I don't do this for the enjoyment of it." He was talking to me, not to Scurry.

Some of the extermination men liked their job, and some of them that didn't care for it at first got to like doing it after a while. Not my father, though. He came from a farming family himself, and killing livestock cut pretty close to the bone.
     "You know what it is, don't you?" he asked me on the way up to Scurry's farm. "This epizootic, these germs they talk about. It's the Gadarene Swine. We've been told this story. If we don't stop it in the animals, it'll kill everything. This fellow"—he glanced at the clipboard that sat beside him on the wide bench of the Imperial—"this Scurry, he'll say, 'Please don't do this, mister.' He'll beg me. But will I listen to him?"
     "You won't," I told him.
     "No, I won't," he said.

I hopped down off the hood of the car and went around to the trunk. My old man had opted for the Flight Sweep trunk lid, the one with the shape of a spare tire stamped into it. It was supposed to be fancy, but it looked like a toilet seat to me. He cared for it, though. He got everything extra there was to get on that car. He said he felt like he deserved it, with the work he was doing. He could afford to, I guess, with the bounties from the epizootic. We never had anything like that Imperial before. I popped the lid.
     The Exterminator sat in the trunk, goggling up at me with its cloudy glass eyes. It gave me a thrill to look into them, like looking at death and seeing myself reflected there. Twice, once in each lens. The Exterminator had a long, flexible snout, like an elephant's. Skin like an elephant's, too, thick and gray and wrinkled. No mouth. Massive sausage-fingered hands.
     My father didn't do the killing. The Exterminator did the killing. It kept the demons off of him, and it did the killing for him, and it kept him clean and safe inside it, no matter what went on outside. He was like Jesus, in a way.
     My father was talking to Scurry in low tones. Explaining to him what was about to happen. Showing him the paperwork on the clipboard. Explaining how it was good agricultural hygiene, and it was the only acceptable way, and it was the law. Scurry just kept wagging his head. I laid hold of one of the Exterminator's legs and dragged it out of the trunk. The rubber was heavy and cool and slick. I put one foot on the ground behind the car. The leg stood up by itself, folding over at the knee. I got the other leg, stood it beside the first. Then I went after the body, the coverall and the apron. Assembling the Exterminator: that was another one of my jobs.
     I wouldn't touch the head. That was the one part I wouldn't do. The head just lay there in the well of the trunk, right next to the star wrench and the rear evaporator and the bolted-down spare tire with its brand-new tread. The head peered up at me as I worked. It seemed like it wanted to tell me something, but with no mouth there was no way for it to speak. What kind of voice would it have, if it could speak? A voice like the crunch of dead leaves under a boot, I thought, soft and mean and brittle.
     The Exterminator made my father look like something other than my father, made him look like a giant insect. But really he was a good and happy guy, always whistling and humming around the house. My mother loved him, and she would never love anyone bad.
     "You just sit up there on your porch," my father told Scurry. Scurry stood with the paperwork clutched in his hand. The hot sunlight was getting to him too; he was a thin, dried-out-looking guy, but he had big sweat stains down his back and under his arms, darkening the fabric of his shirt. It was hard to believe he had that much water in him to lose. The papers he held were wrinkled and damp. I was still thirsty.
     "It's hot as blazes out here in the sun. Be cool," my father advised him. "Be comfortable."

They always hid the animals, but they never hid them well. It wasn't in their nature. My father always found them. Usually they just put them in an unused shed or barn. Sometimes we'd find a calf or two bawling and half-crazed, standing knee-deep in the water of a cistern. I think the farmers knew my father would find them, or somebody, the sheriff if we had to call him, so they didn't go to a whole lot of trouble.
     One guy hid a bunch of Angus in an abandoned saltpeter mine at the back of his farm, and it took my father the better part of a day to figure out where they were, trudging across the fields, peering into empty outbuildings and tilting silos. They were miserable, those half-dozen bulky steers huddled together in that wet, shallow cave. Their moaning sounded like they were trapped in a tin can.

The humane killer stayed in its box next to the jack. I didn't touch the killer either. It was off-limits. The head of the Exterminator wasn't off-limits; I could have touched it if I wanted to. But it gave me the shivers, the way it looked at me. Its missing mouth, its snorkel nose. The flat black circles of its eyes.
     The killer looked like a long, skinny hammer. Stamped into the handle were the words W. W. GREENER LONDON & BIRMINGHAM. The Greener company made the killer, and they made shotguns too. Expensive shotguns. Fancy, like the Imperial. My father had started talking about one day buying himself a Greener 12-gauge side-by-side, for bird hunting. A Greener with a tight choke on it had a long reach, he told me. Pick up those whitewings far down the field, the ones that were always getting away from him.
     Below the maker's stamp it said GREENER'S .455 HUMANE CATTLE KILLER. When I was younger I thought it said "Human Cattle Killer," and that was an idea that gave me nightmares. For a while I saw a lot of people like that. The Fuller Brush man when he came to the door to sell trinkets and to sharpen knives, he was a sad-eyed Jersey. The man behind us in line at the post office, looking at my mother, his nostrils flared, his head tossed: a Brahma bull. The men in the barbershop sighed and grunted like the gentle Herefords just up the road at Seldomridge's. But then I asked my father, and he explained to me that "humane" just meant kindly. Gentle. After that I didn't see the human cattle so much anymore. When you're a kid you'll believe anything is possible.
     None of the other extermination men used a killer like my father's. Some of them used what they called captive-bolt pistols, and most of the rest just used a rifle behind the ear. One great tall man used nothing but an eight-pound Master Mechanic's sledge. But my father used the Greener, which seemed like a privilege, since it had come so far and from such a prestigious manufacturer.
     A fellow named John Keeper gave it to him. My father had worked with him at the big state abattoir up at Denmar. The slaughter line was the job my father had before he took this one. They recruited almost all the extermination men from their jobs at the state slaughterhouse, but they never got John Keeper. He just walked off one day: handed the Greener to my father and got in his truck and went. And then the Greener was my father's.
     My father struggled into the Exterminator's hip boots and lifted the rubber apron out of the trunk. He nodded at me and I retrieved the disinfectant sprayer, sloshed it back and forth, the gurgle in the canister telling me that we had plenty. That was another one of my duties: spray him down after he had done the job, pump the disinfectant—the sprayer looked just like a big bug sprayer in the cartoons—all over the Exterminator until it was shiny and wet and gave off a smell like ammonia and licorice.
     That disinfectant smell, which could beat the odor of the demons, the stench of blood and brains, of shit and fear—that smell had come to mean the end of the day's work to me. It meant getting in the car and driving back home, back into the valley. Cranking up the air conditioning and turning on the radio and singing along at the top of our lungs as we rolled along the narrow blacktop, back toward our house and our yard and our dogs. Maybe Pee Wee King would be on the air when we got back in range of the station. I loved good old Pee Wee King.
     After we got home, my father would do the job a second time, pin the Exterminator up over the clothesline and scrub it down with a long-handled, stiff-bristled brush. The dogs would loop around his legs. I could almost like the Exterminator then. It looked harmless, pinned to that line with its gangling arms outstretched, its mouthless face tilted toward the ground as my father went after it with the brush, sweating and grunting with the effort. It was really getting the treatment then, and I could feel sorry for it.
     But right after the job—right then, as I pumped away at the sprayer as hard as I could, working the piston until my arms were sore—then I often pretended that the choking cloud I was soaking it with was acid, that it would melt the Exterminator down, melt it like a lead soldier on the stove and leave just him, leave just my father standing there in the puddle of it.
     "Keep him company, you hear?" my father told me. He meant Scurry. I lowered the disinfectant sprayer, which I had been holding like I was ready to use it. But the job wasn't done yet, the job hadn't even begun. To Scurry he called out, "My boy here has some stories he can tell you. He doesn't look like much, but he can spin a tale." Thirteen steers was going to take him a while, after which we would have to find the hidden ones. He touched the side of his nose with one of the Exterminator's gross gray fingers, and I knew that meant I should find out where the remaining steers were.
     He pulled on the head of the Exterminator, fumbling a little because the gloves made his hands clumsy. He twisted the head from side to side until it sat comfortably and he could see out through the goggles. He gave the top of its skull a funny little pat to show me that he was still in there, shifted his shoulders to loosen them, and then set off with the Exterminator's sloshing gait toward Scurry's barn.

We were sitting around watching TV one evening, about the time my father left the state abattoir, my mother and father and my little brother and me. A cartoon was on, and it was a surprise and a pleasure to be able to watch a cartoon in the evening, because mostly it was just news programs about the war and other things I didn't much care about. The epizootic was just beginning to get a grip around that time. Most people didn't even believe in it yet, I don't think.
     The cartoon was funny at first, and I enjoyed it, two men that hated each other fighting in various ingenious ways, ways you'd never think of, with magnets and rockets and matches and rubber bands, hurting but never killing each other. I had the idea it was a very old cartoon of a sort they didn't make much anymore. We were all enjoying it, even my mother, who hated anything violent or cruel, and my little brother, who was scared of most things. It was the difference my father marked between us, because we were only a year apart in age. Similar in size and appearance, and people often mistook us for twins: I was the one who didn't get scared, and my brother was the one who did.
     But then the cartoon changed. It seemed like the two men had run out of inventions and ideas for ways to hurt each other, and they just began hitting each other over the head. Wham, wham, wham, with these hammers, great wooden mallets. I knew about the man from the abattoir who killed with the eight-pound sledge. This was how that man spent his days, I thought. On and on. He had grown a hump, a big ridge of muscle between his shoulders, from swinging that sledge.
     My mother and my brother were fixated. I could see them out of the corners of my eyes. My father was sitting in the big chair directly behind me. It seemed like the two men hitting each other was going on too long. I'd been sitting cross-legged in front of the television for hours, watching this one thing over and over. My face ached from smiling at the cartoon, and my lungs hurt from laughing. My mother and brother were laughing too. Tears were shining in their eyes. The music was strange and full of foreign, shouting voices and sounded like it was made out of metal; "The Anvil Chorus," I have since learned it's called, an Italian song. I tried to blink, but my eyes stayed open.
     I wondered if my father was trapped the same way we were. Was he watching? I couldn't hear him laughing. If I could get him to understand what was happening—that the cartoon wouldn't end—then he'd figure some way to free us. He'd switch off the TV. Above the metal music that was whamming away, I could hear the wind rising. It was howling around the eaves of the house. The ground started chattering under me, as though it were trembling from the cold. I felt sick, and I was still laughing and grinning.
     I cranked my head around. I've never done any harder work than that: the air was as thick as oil; I thought at any second the bones of my neck would crack and splinter. And I saw, sitting in my father's chair, the Exterminator, its glass eyes reflecting the television screen: the bright colors, the hammers rising and falling. My own body in the center of each eye, flat like a cardboard cutout. I stopped grinning. I stopped laughing. I screamed.
     My mother leaped up. My father gaped at me—it was him and not the Exterminator at all. My little brother ran from the room. They had not been laughing. I turned back to the TV, and it was easy to move my head this time. There was no cartoon on the screen. It was the news. On the news, a man with a flamethrower strapped to his back was burning out a bunker while other soldiers watched. They were smoking cigarettes.

"That's a terrible story," Scurry told me.
     Bang. And Scurry jumped. It had started and it wouldn't stop. Twelve more times, and I knew Scurry would jump every time. They never got used to it. We sat on his porch. I wanted to ask him for something to drink, because I was thirsty beyond belief, but I knew it wouldn't be right to ask him for a favor while the Exterminator was killing his cattle.
     "You ought not to tell stories like that," Scurry said.
     "I made a mistake," I said. "I thought it was a cartoon on, but it was the war. I thought everyone was laughing and enjoying theirselves, but they weren't."
     "Do you make a lot of mistakes like that?" Scurry wanted to know.
     "I used to," I said, "when I was little. But I've learned to tell the difference a lot better these days. Between what's happening and what I think is happening. My father helps me with that."
     I was pretty sure that this conversation was actually taking place between us. Scurry's words matched up pretty well with the movement of his lips. I could hear voices too, little quiet voices in the distance—no idea what they might have been saying—but they didn't worry me, because they sounded like the voices that come from a radio that's on with nobody paying attention to it, way in the back of a house somewhere. Maybe it was the water I had heard earlier, the creek. I licked my burning lips.
     Bang. Scurry jumped again. "What happens next?" he asked.
     I didn't know exactly what he meant. Did he mean what happened next in my story? Next my old man picked me up and shook me and my mother cried and my little brother cowered in his room like the scared pissant he was. Next my old man told me, Don't you ever scream like that again. You're frightening your mother. You're frightening your brother. That's what happened next: exactly what you might expect.
     I didn't say anything about the cartoon, but my father seemed to know. He knew that the world had stopped matching up to itself for a while, and now that I had screamed it was matching up again, rolling along just like it was supposed to. He knew that sometimes it stopped matching up. You didn't need to scream when that happened. You didn't need to look around. You just waited for it to start matching up again.
     These were all things my father told me later, when we took to riding in the Imperial together. About the world jumping its tracks, and how you just held on until it came back onto them again. Not to scare the women and the little kids—that was half the job, when you were a man and the world got trapped in itself, turning over and over and seeming like it would never stop.
     Was that what Scurry meant when he asked, "What happens next?" Or did he mean what would happen next on his farm?
     Bang. Jump. That's what.

I asked my father what happened to John Keeper after he handed over the killer and walked out.
     "He crossed the Bridge of Sighs both ways," my father said.
     The Bridge of Sighs was the ramp of steel grillwork that led up onto the slaughter line. It was where the animals came to be slaughtered, shouldering one another out of the way to get to the other side like they were getting on Noah's Ark or something, the stock handlers sticking them with poles and electric jolts. The metal incline clanged and echoed from the blows of hooves, and the bellowing and wailing rang off its surfaces. It was the way the workers came in as well, the men who stood on the slaughter line. They wore rubber hip boots, and their feet made no sound on the bridge at all.
     You never crossed the Bridge of Sighs both ways. That was what they said. The animals, because when they went in, they died. And the men, because when they went in, they never left. Maybe their bodies did, but not their minds. They stayed in the state abattoir forever. All except John Keeper, who handed the Greener Humane Killer to my father and strode into the outside and was never seen again.
     "But you left," I said to my father.
     "No," he said. "I'm still there."

"It's not him that's doing the killing," I told Scurry. "It's the Exterminator." When he looked at me like he didn't understand, I added, "The suit. The rubber suit."
     Scurry shook his head. "No," he said. "It's him. He's doing the killing all right. The suit just keeps the blood and the gore off him."
     I decided not to argue.
     It was then he asked if I wanted to go down to the creek. He said he had something he wanted to show me. I hoped he meant a mud puppy even as I knew he didn't. How could he have known what I had spent my summer looking for? He just wanted to get away from what was happening in his barn. Still, I asked him, "Do you have mud puppies along in there?"
     Bang. But this time he didn't jump. I liked him for that. He was getting used to it.
     "Mud puppy?" he said. "You mean those big lizards?"
     "Salamanders," I said.
     "Yeah," he said. "We call them water dogs up this way. But we've got them. Keep your eyes open and you might see one."
     We followed a little gulley that opened beside his house, followed it as it deepened, became a steep, rock-sided ravine. An easy climb down but a tough climb back up. I wondered how Scurry would handle it.
     The voices in the creek sounded pleased to be talking. They never seemed to repeat themselves. I wanted to kneel down and get a big drink. The water was clear, the rocks of the streambed smooth and clean beneath its moving surface; it looked cool. The sunlight wasn't so bright here in the shadow of the trees that grew along the banks of the creek, broken up as it was by the branches, with their hefty loads of leaves. I wanted to lean down and cup handful after handful of the cold water into my mouth.

My father jumped out at my little brother and me from behind the front door of our house. We'd just come home from school. He was wearing the Exterminator, the first time he'd put it on, and he thought it would make a good costume to surprise and scare us. My little brother disappeared for a couple of hours, didn't even make a sound, just vanished back through the door. I stood like I was rooted as this thing, this bug, lurched toward me, its arms outstretched.
     When it reached me, it swept me up in a great big embrace. It lifted me up high, and my head brushed the ceiling, exactly the way it did when my father picked me up. Even through my clothes, the touch of the Exterminator was clammy and dank, like something freshly dead. It smelled like a public swimming pool as it nuzzled its face against my cheek. I was stiff. It was trying to kiss me, or eat me, one or the other. It bashed me in the eye with its short, swaying trunk of a nose.
     My eyes were near to its eyes. Up close like that, the eyes didn't reflect. I could see through them. I could see inside the head of the Exterminator, into its skull, into its brain. And what I saw, behind its blank eyes, were the fond, familiar eyes of my father. I suddenly thought, This is what it's like to be a grown-up man.
     My mother drifted through then, scolding my father, slapping at him, her hands making wet noises against the flabby skin. "Put the boy down, for the Lord's sake," she said. "Can't you see he's frightened to death?" I wanted to laugh, but my tongue was still caught against the roof of my mouth. I couldn't say anything. "What gets inside you?" she continued. "I swear I don't know."
     Then she noticed that my brother was gone, and the search for him began. We didn't find him until well after dark, hiding among the foliage of one of the great silver maples in the back, twenty feet off the ground. It took my father another hour and an extension ladder borrowed from the people across the road to finally get him down.

Scurry didn't seem interested in that story either. It always made my father laugh to think of my brother way up in that tree. He was not much of a tree climber, my little brother, either before or after that first encounter with the Exterminator. But Scurry didn't smile or anything.
     "There's not really any mud puppies down here, are there?" I asked him. He shook his head sorrowfully, like he regretted having told me an untruth.
     "There used to be, when I was a kid," he said. "I don't know what happened to them since then."
     Bang. Very muted and far away. I had lost count, but it had to be pretty near the end now. My father would come back out of the barn and he'd be looking for me to have the disinfectant canister out, ready to spray him down and help him get out of the sweaty, foul-smelling Exterminator. He would want me to put it back into the trunk of the Imperial, where it belonged.
     We came to a point where the creek shallowed and broadened, parting around a small, sandy island in the middle of the current. On the island stood the missing cattle, bunched together and gazing at the sheet of water that passed near their hooves. I should have guessed they were what Scurry wanted me to see. Sometimes that happened: the farmers just gave in and took us to their hidden animals. I was glad I hadn't drunk from the creek, downstream from the beasts as we had been. Cholera, diphtheria: it would all be in the water from their waste.
     The little group of cattle broke apart when they saw Scurry. They thought he was bringing fodder with him. They were well fed and sleek, and I knew how much effort it was, bringing feed down to them in this rocky place, so far from his house. How hard he was working to keep them alive and safe on their little island.
     And I saw that there was something else on the island with them. Something small and terrible in the shifting green shadows beneath the trees. Something that had been hidden behind their bulk. One of the mutants that I had heard the epizootic could bring about. Misshapen: six legs, maybe seven. Grotesquely twisted body. Two heads. My breath stopped in my throat, and I felt the world begin to unhinge. A monster. Time would stop, down here by the island. Who knew how long I would spend in this ravine, with Scurry and his horrible calf. Maybe an eternity.
     "You see?" Scurry said to me. "They're not sick. These ones aren't. You can see that, can't you?"
     The water was talking. Or maybe it was my father, calling out from the barnyard. He had probably wrestled the Exterminator's head from his own, the job done, and he was wondering where I had got to. Me and Scurry. Maybe he was even a little afraid, alone like that. One of the monster calf's heads wailed, and the other answered it. Their bawling bounced crazily off the rock walls around us and drowned out the voices of the water.
     Then I looked again and saw that it was no monster. It was just two spring calves, two little bulls standing folded together, twins and small for their age. One of them trotted down to the edge of the island and sank its muzzle into the water and started to drink. My dry throat tightened.
     Scurry's voice was loud in my ear. "Nothing," he said. My father would soon find us, the way he had found my little brother, way up in that tree. "There's nothing at all wrong with them, is there?" he said to me. He wouldn't be satisfied until I said it. My saying it would do nothing, it wouldn't change what had to happen, but he wanted me to witness, to tell him what he already knew. Nothing was wrong. Nothing wrong at all.

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