On Sokolov’s Bridge
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are super short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This second story was inspired by the painting above – “All Hallow’s Eve” by Jakub Schikaneder – which I saw at the National Gallery in Prague and wondered who the old woman was waiting for, and why she looked so sad. I hope you like it!) 🙂
On Sokolov’s Bridge
In late October, 1799, Franek’s mother sent him to Sokolov’s Bridge to pull a bucket of water from the cold, deep lake below.
“And don’t fall in,” his mother warned, but Franek did.
It had been an accident of course. Franek had hurried along the dusty road between the tall autumn oaks, hoisting the heavy wooden bucket with him. He ran as fast as he could, because he had an entire evening of good things to look forward to, and they had not included going to the lake for water. Dusk was falling. The air held the first cutting edge of winter. Franek arrived at the place where the earth dipped down steeply toward the lake. He started across the bridge, which was very long and crumbling. In the middle of the bridge was the winch and the rope for the water-bucket, and he climbed the little steps along the rough stone wall that hedged the bridge’s sides. He heaved the bucket after him, put it on the sharp iron hook at the end of the rope.
And that was when he fell. There was no particular reason for it. Franek had fetched water from the lake a hundred times before. But today he looked down, and just as he was about to lower the bucket, he thought he saw something in the water below. He could have sworn there were faces peering up at him, a dozen or more, and a shape moving in the depths, a ripple, like the pearlescent spine of a great fish pushing up out of the ebb, a thin, sleek form twisting just under the surface and falling away again.
He tottered a moment at the edge of the bridge, a confused look on his face. Then he fell, very quickly, and the water rushed up to meet him.
When Franek came to, he was lying in a little cave with a rotting wooden door, and carpets over the rough wet rocks, and a diamond-paned window that looked up onto the underside of the lake
A woman was sitting across from him. She looked not a day over eighteen, dressed in a plain white shroud. There were rotting flowers in her hair, and spots of mould on her cheeks, and she was watching the boy sharply.
“Good evening,” said the woman, when she saw Franek returning her gaze.
“Good evening,” said Franek.
Now, Sokolov’s Bridge was one of those very old bridges that, by virtue of its age, was also the prison of a water witch. Her name had been Margosha once, and she had been bound to the foundations of the bridge a hundred years ago, for it was thought that if you mixed a bit of human in with the mortar and stones, your construction would remain strong through war and high-water, storm and earthquake. To move the road around the narrow, twisting lake would have taken years. And so one day in spring, Margosha was lowered into the water, her hair full of flowers, her eyes full of tears, and they walled her into the foundation pillar at the centre of Sokolov’s Bridge
She died, of course, slowly and cruelly, while her townspeople watched solemnly from the banks. She saw their faces as she sank into the dark, the baker who had given her ginger cakes as a child, her parents hand in hand, her betrothed, stony and upright. She saw them all turn to shadows against the sun, as her eyes blurred and went out like candles. But she did not leave the place she died. She haunted it, a water witch of the icy depths.
Margosha grew old and bitter as time. She watched the women and children come and draw their water. She saw the foxes and the birds passing by on their secret journeys. Peering up with her lidless, milky eyes she saw the merchants, and the soldiers, the highwaymen and the thieves, and her cold, wet heart grew hungry for revenge.
Every few years or so, a fool would dip into her waters: pedlars stopping to bathe before the village, lazy old fishermen in their boats, women with their sacks of laundry; all of them vanished, never to be seen. And when Margosha saw Franek teetering on the edge, she stirred in the depths and watched him fall, and gathered him up once he did.
“You may have three wishes,” she said now, in her dripping lair beneath the lake. She smiled a green smile full of snails and weeds. Sometimes a tiny fish would squeeze its way out of the corner of her eye and drop to the floor. “But not for you. You may wish for anyone in the world. And then you will stay here in the dark, with the ones I have taken. You will lie in the water and watch as the dreams of others come true, as they pass over the bridge with their children and grandchildren, as they go to markets you will never visit, and see sights you will never see, as they live on and on in the light.”
Because that was what she had done and what she had been: a wish, a lucky penny thrown into the water for the good of others.
“Why can’t I wish for myself?” said Franek, who had been planning to be very clever. He had planned to wish his way out of the lake and onto Sokolov’s Bridge, with a pail of water and perhaps a few toffees for the road home, and now the witch had ruined everything. But Margosha knew what he would wish for. She was not a stupid witch.
“Because I couldn’t,” she said with a smirk. And she gestured down a hallway of her lair. Its floor was covered with puddles, and in each one lay a dark shape, a jacket or a heap of petticoats, or a heavy suit of rusting amor. Puddle after puddle stretched away, and face down in each one was a man or a woman, their clothes all soaked to the bone, their bodies swollen and pale. “But the bridge still stands! No war or fire has broken it. That is sacrifice, is it not? All for the greater good.”
She watched Franek, her eyes glittering with fury. “Come now. Don’t you want anything? I have such a lot of trinkets and coins saved up for wishes.” She ran her long fingers through a chest of coins and ribbons and locks of hair, rattling them together.
Franek thought of himself staying in the cold lake forever, floating there while everyone forgot he ever existed. There had been no choice presented; he would stay here, wishes or none. The witch simply wanted the satisfaction of watching someone wish for things he would never enjoy himself. But Franek was not sure he minded as much as she thought he did. He wished for a new cow for his mother, and he wished his friend from the old schoolhouse could walk again. With each wish, Maryzska dropped a coin away into the water that lapped at the floor of her lair.
And then Franek had an idea: “I wish you weren’t imprisoned here,” he said. “I’m sorry the wicked people threw you down the well, but I wish you could be free again. I didn’t throw you down the well. I wish you well.”
Margosha pulled back in surprise, and suddenly she looked like her old self again. The snails dropped from her teeth, and a flood of fishes fell from under eyelids and slithered into the water.
“But will you allow me one thing?” Franek asked. “If I’m to stay here forever, let me come up on All Hallow’s Eve. Let me look out of the water and go up on the bridge.”
The water witch nodded, her eyes as green as the seaweed in her hair. And then she was gone, sliding and wriggling out of the water and running off beneath the red oak trees, and then above them, on and on toward the moon.
“And tell my mother I’ll wait for her there!” Franek shouted after her. “Go and tell her! Please go and tell her!”
Margosha never returned to the bridge. But All Hallow’s Eve did, swinging round like a great brass pendulum and dragging with it the smell of oak-logs and fires and hot cider. And every time it did, the door opened in a cottage not far from Sokolov’s Bridge, and a woman came out with a little bag of things, and a fine new wreath, and went to Sokolov’s Bridge, and waited all through the day, hunched and alone, for nighttime.
In late October, 1843, Franek looked up from the bottom of the lake. Seaweed slithered across his pale forehead and wound through his hair. Moonlight reflected in his eyes, turning them to silver coins. High above, an old woman was peering down at him, laughing and crying and waving. Franek waved back, his hand moving slowly through the water. And now he felt himself rising, breaking the surface and floating to the edge of the lake, climbing the mortar of the ancient foundations. They embraced for a moment on Sokolov’s Bridge, a boy forever eight, and an old woman, cut out against the bright cold light.
Then the moon shifted, and the clouds returned, and Franek climbed the little steps to the old iron hook. He fell away again into the water, just as he had before. His mother blurred, a rippling shape up on Sokolov’s Bridge. And as Franek sank, he watched his mother turn slowly, and shoulder her wreath, and trudge away into the night.