Dornan Bridge

 

 

 

 

 


On a shelf in the upstairs studio was a shoebox full of toothpicks, peppermints, q-tips, several tiny packets of salt and a lock of yellow hair twisted up in a rubber band. There was also a package of birthday candles and an envelope of overseas postage stamps and a dozen or so photographs and postcards that I suspect the artist had wanted to paint. There were pictures of clouds, trees, puddles, crumpled paper, wrinkled blankets and even one of her bathtub, filled to the top with water but otherwise quite empty.Of the photographs that made any sense to me were several that I recognized as common landmarks: the crooked green barn off the Marcola highway, the statue of St. Jerome downtown and Mare's Point at dusk; and then there was another odd photo of somebody's cow. But not every picture was familiar. There was one photo in the box that was older than the others. Its paper was thicker and more brittle and without that laboratory gloss we're used to nowadays. It was a picture of two women I hadn't seen before standing on an old bridge just north of town and decked out in fishing gear straight from L.L. Bean. They may have been dressed for a fishing trip but they looked like they were modeling for the spring catalog instead. They could have been twins: each one was wearing a short- brimmed fishing cap and pleated khaki shorts and vests still pressed right out of the box with gabardine oxfords that would have gone well with a black coat and tie. One held a wicker bait box that looked more like a sewing kit and the other brandished a six foot fishing pole dangling a lure more gaudy than a native-American earring.

Although the photograph was old, the women in it were young, early thirties perhaps, maybe even younger. Of course I concluded that the prettiest one was the artist I imagined living in my house, or at least whose spirit was, observing Sister and me living there like squatters not worried that the master of the house was walking up the hillside, anxious to be coming home after years abroad in a strange, unwelcoming land. But I don't believe she'll ever come home, not in the flesh anyway.

I don't suppose they expected to catch anything. I believe they were expecting something else, maybe just a good conversation or a little piece and quiet. After all, fishing for one person may be something entirely different for another. I think they knew that and trusted in something else to make the experience worth while.

One Saturday morning I decided to find the old bridge myself. Like the women in the photograph I had hoped to find an experience worth recording, not in a photograph exactly, but an experience worth having nonetheless, an experience worth remembering.

 

The Friday before I left, Mr. Soals told me how to get there. The road to the bridge actually began on private property and ran more or less north and south. For a while in the mid �60s the property was gated to deter aberrant teenagers from doing their thing there, and by the time the estate was purchased by the county, people had forgotten about it and used the interstate instead. It was rumored that Geoffery Dornan sealed off the road to keep inquisitors away from his farm where he supposedly kept the usual farm-variety livestock and a couple or more wives that nobody knew about. They say a flood virtually destroyed the place in �69. Some say the whole Dornan clan and two mules and a turkey washed over the old bridge and drowned. Three weeks later their station wagon and horse trailer was reported found but empty three miles downstream; the remains of two mules and a turkey were never recovered either. There haven't been any Dornans around since. But the old farm house is still there, boarded up of course...to deter aberrant teenagers from doing their thing there.

Not more than six miles stood between my house and the old bridge. The morning was lovely so I decided to borrow my neighbor's bicycle and face the elements alone no matter how gentle they were. So I oiled the chain and pinched the tires and rolled onto the street. Once again I was eight years old, for it had been ages since I last rode a bike. We wobbled a bit at first, but by the time I reached the end of the street we were old friends again.

Most of the journey was through the countryside, parts of the valley with little, if any, human history and intervention. About a mile past the VFW nature had begun to reclaim the valley and was attempting to cover old scars made by Valencia's early settlers. The surface of the old road was cracked, and in places the earth bubbled up and spilled out in waves and dips like an old man's chin. Weeds instead of whiskers grew up between the boils of old blacktop which I handled carefully, standing on the pedals, absorbing the heavy bumps and listening to the wheels beating on the dead road.

Oddly enough the gate to Dornan's farm was still standing and locked, but the fence was gone on one side and lying flat on the other against a pillow of grass and clover. I didn't even have to get off the bike, I just steered around it and rode carelessly past the old house along the gritty highway that, more or less, resembled your typical, rural driveway. The house was engulfed in ivy and thick blackberry patches that blocked every conceivable entrance. I doubt that a field mouse could get past it. Even the plywood covering the windows had weathered to match the house's exterior, and yet I could just see peeking through the brush a few neon lines of yellow and orange paint—evidence that others had been here before me, even before the blackberry and ivy, and perhaps before the Dornan's station wagon was discovered downstream. It was difficult to imagine what the old place looked like when the two strangers in the photograph rode through the gate, ringing the bell on their handle bars and waving at the front window on their way to the old bridge "to fish".

The road bent westward a hundred yards or so past the house. From there I could see the old bridge just ahead beside a few poplar trees and a meadow of sage and purple sorrel or anemone. Its wooden arches were still healthy, bowing humbly above the heavy road. The bridge had shoulders, it seemed, with a four-foot wall on each side, cross-stitched like an old, wooden roller coaster. And after all these years every line was straight, every supporting truss and timber gave the bridge a form like sculpture. But without a clear purpose, it was just another piece of neglected art, unobserved and tucked away in a dark attic.

The old bridge looked like it was built when Valencia was nothing more than a campsite, when the shallow river it covered irrigated the adjacent orchards that are today desiccate and abandon. Today the old bridge stands about 12 feet above a tiny river that only floods in the winter when rain is more common. But this morning, in the coolness of late summer, I could hardly imagine this passive river's torrential and deadly past.

Spider webs as old as the bridge still hung on in corners along the sides. No natural force could destroy them, but my shirt tail, rising in the wind brushed gently against them, tearing apart each thread as I leaned over the wall, looking for something to watch in the stream below. I could almost see my own reflection, but clouds reflecting in the stream averted my attention to ripples and bubbles on the surface and before long I was lost. I didn't even notice the rain falling on my back. I had escaped to somewhere calm and soothing, where concentration was more like sleep than thought.

Aquatic grasses moved like eels in the current, waving in the rain spilling over the bridge. At times I could have believed the artist was swimming there, her long hair stretching out below me. I could have imagined her drifting under the bridge and singing, unaware of me standing outside in the rain. I could have entered the water with her. I could have drowned holding her, feeling her long and slender body against me, her long hair wrapping and twisting itself around me, dragging me breathless into the dark deep.

 

It's not good to look at water for long. It has that drugging affect; it hypnotizes with its glistening rings and edges. Its gossamer texture begs to be touched. And even in the darkest waters there are things to be seen, or to imagine, things to fear and to touch in spite of their danger. The water itself can burn, not withstanding the images we may beneath it perceive. But its renewing nature is seductive, it lulls the brave ones to touch it, to trust its promises like Icarus who followed its music to the bottom of the sea.

 

Just by standing there under its musky arch—cold and historic, hard and stern, dripping with that wet, dewy scent of England—I was transformed, mettled, forged into something stronger than myself. The experience transcended that universal invigoration that keeps you warm when you're wet and cold standing outside in the elements although there is no particular reason to keep you there. I experienced that Norseman/Highlander strength, that eulogized strength of deceased heroes that embeds itself within you and fossilizes you into the environment. And so for that brief moment, I was stone, rock, dark, damp and cold.

My curiosity and the desire to keep dry finally drove me under the bridge. I somehow managed to slide down the grassy slope without falling or skidding into the river. From the ditch, the old bridge showed its age, and I worried some that a car might try to cross it while I was trapped underneath. So much wood held the whole thing together, or at least kept the road from crumbling down into the small river. I probably worried a little more than I needed to, after all it's lasted this long.

It was colder below the bridge and darker too. The ditch was littered with beer cans and bottles and cigarette butts. There was even an old tattered armchair and a reading lamp, shadeless and bulbless, standing on an altar of cinder blocks. Closer to the river was a small fire pit; its charcoal ring muted with age looked more like a circle of mud than anything. A few charred logs still remained in the center; everything else must have been washed away last winter.

I couldn't believe the ditch was like this when the artist was alive. Surely there was a purity here she had known—the pristine elegance of nature embodied in the mud as well as the sky. I tried to imagine what it was like then, what the people were like who settled here when survival alone was their only objective, when it was too much work to vandalize nature. It was easier then to respect it, to mortalize it and engender it mother by giving her a heart less ethereal than spirit or soul. For a moment I was ashamed of my own generation and wished for a better understanding of the artist and those who lived here before me. And by thinking so, I felt tougher, harder, less vulnerable to nature but more so to my own past and future—a delusional future I feared to imagine.

 

Water poured from both sides of the wooden truss above me, forming beneath it a solid membrane of rain like the spackled face of a waterfall. While retreating further beneath the bridge, I stumbled on the berm and startled a small toad in the process. The toad leapt into the miniature flood and kicked its martian feet maybe twice before darting through the waterfall and into the deluge outside. I could not see through the water's frosty exterior and if there was any definition of matter, form or color outside, I could not discern it.

The shower ended in a few minutes but I stayed under the bridge, crouching in the berm. I looked down the flooded stream but saw no sign of the toad. If it had found more privileged shelter outside, I could not begin to guess where. I saw no sign of the artist either. But I knew she was nearby. I couldn't go anywhere without her, without dragging her along, without hiding her in my pocket just in case I tried to leave, tried to escape, thinking there was somewhere else to go. Like the toad in the river, I run from things I'm afraid I'll find and likewise of things I'm afraid I'll lose. And so I wondered, if only the toad could see the difference, he might never be afraid, he might never run again.

Grackles roosted on the support beams above me. The ugly birds were not as fainthearted as the toad. They had no intentions of leaving. They bullied me from their perch and I backed up on the berm and sat down, still aware of them turning around to face me, to heckle and harass me. I tossed a few stones at them but they just looked at each other and squawked. They liked the rain less than I did and continued to act as if a stranger had just walked into their living room. I ignored them and stared into the water, but it was too dark to see anything but a trace of reflected sunlight spinning like sparks in the current. The grackles seemed not to notice or just not to care. What did they see, I wondered. Was there anything below the bridge that questioned their independence or their ability to fly? Are there phantoms in the river that only they can see, do they follow them into the sky?

 

I could have fallen asleep there buried in the sound of the river and the rain splashing over the bridge onto the limestone and granite berm and the cool summer breezes rushing through the ditch like a storm through a canyon. The lack of color and sunlight made it easy to relax; even the grackles became necessary, their cawing so naturally blending with the other cool, gray sounds around me. Being trapped beneath the bridge let me hide from life's spotlight, undisturbed by the bright, sunny songbirds outside or on the parapet at work. I was glad to be free from the colorful distractions of Valencia 's orchards and gardens. I was glad the rain came. I welcomed the chance to lie back against the berm, take off my glasses and look around the ditch with a lazy blur that softened the environment like a painting where elements fuse together in a surprisingly refreshing mess.

When the rain stopped, the grackles left their perch and flew out into the open meadow. The river began to slow down and whisper. Sunlight once again reflected off the surface and I stepped into the light, climbed out of the ditch and walked onto the bridge to where the artist stood to fish.

 

I considered returning another day to try my luck at fishing from the old bridge and to experience Valencia 's most recent affirmation of nature's dailiness—her ability to be beautiful regardless of the hour or circumstance. Maybe I will go back to the old bridge someday and wander along the riverbank. Maybe I'll be consumed by the invigoration of childhood and spend an hour skipping stones across the surface or counting tiny minnows along the water's edge. Maybe I will return to the bridge to just think—something the artist may have done to free herself from duty, work and responsibility, and to reacquaint herself with the comforting nature of thought.

Earlier this morning I had hoped to learn more about the artist I'm becoming more curiously obsessed with. But often while exploring, I return without an experience worth recording. Like sentences and paragraphs, images I often catch in the most inspiring places, are worthless, are only caught to be thrown out, to be dismissed as though the experience itself never occurred. I walked most of the way home, rolling my neighbor's bicycle beside me. The old road didn't seem so bad this time, the clemency of its condition appealed to me more contritely than before. It reminded me of being a boy again and dropping sticks off another bridge and into another river not unlike the tiny one here on the edge of nowhere.

I suspect that fishing makes a similar appeal. It conjures up the same curiosity that compels a boy to skip stones across a stream and a man to stand behind a fishing pole when all he really wants to do is think. Fishing from the bridge didn't seem like a bad idea. The old bridge seemed just as good a place as any, I thought. But from what I had observed beneath the bridge, the odds were more favorable for catching trout in a bucket. Even the toad knew that. But then again, I suspect that every one knows that. Fishermen are honest; false pretenses are made by the river, and those who misunderstand the value of the catch.