I recently read something called a bridge story, a story designed to tie together two larger, more dynamic pieces of writing. After that reading, the writer challenged me to write a bridge story—a challenge I have considered every day since I finished reading his story, unashamedly letting tears trace my cheeks and fall on his dining room table in response to his memory woven one well-chosen word at a time into a story that made my soul ache to read more.
Not many writers have the gift, the talent, or whatever it is that allows them to reveal life’s truths while telling what seems like an entirely different story. It is only when the tale is over that the reader sorts through feelings that have rearranged themselves somewhere deep inside him or herself and discovers that he or she sees life a bit differently. Writers like Karen Blixen, Norman Maclean, and John Steinbeck generate these cosmic shifts in which shadows beneath trees appear a shade darker or lighter than they were before the story. The trill of a bird or the humming of insects resonates at a different pitch than one noticed before.
Everything is different, yet everything is the same. This writer that talked to me of bridge stories, that let me range about among his memories for a few short days, this writer left a partially constructed bridge that I am still figuring how to cross.
We, my husband and I, went, we thought, to help with summer haying along a
Montana river, at the
foot of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The
company we joined, the cooler climate, and the locale was enough to justify the
long drive from western Kansas. But as we drove from the busy highway to
through a barely visible gate into an old growth forest of towering ponderosa
pines, I knew I had crossed a bridge from one world into another.
When I stepped out the car to stretch travel weary bones, I noted the knee-high timothy and orchard grasses ticking at my calves. Directly under the ancient trees, the grass barely grew, but everywhere that sunlight could snake and worm its way to earth, the grasses grew lush. I noted five buildings, five log buildings dotting the meadow where we parked. A large log two-story log cabin nudged itself into the base of a hill that would have gently melded into the meadow without the cabin’s presence. A huge pole barn and ancient corral leaned and tilted to the south and west of the big cabin. Directly west of the larger building stood three good-sized log structures, one with an inviting front porch.
Through the next few days, I learned that not only could the writer write, he could build log cabins, barns, and corrals, including hand cut shake shingles. Examining his handiwork, I saw love in every notched corner. He had built this world in a place he loved for a woman he loved. The south exposure front porch flanked by a sturdy lilac bush and huge pine was a gift to a woman who needed a tangible hope of the coming spring and summer in the meadow outside her big windows. Even though she’s been gone a while, I sensed her presence as I gazed out at her and his spread, at her lilac bush, at bird feeders filled with hummers and chickadees and intrusive squirrels, at his corral where she watched him return after packing into the Bob Marshall.
Though the guns, photos, and books belonging to the old man line the walls of the house, her presence lingers, a bridge to a happier past. Old tunes from the war years reverberate morning through night from a tape player sitting incongruously atop an old wood stove, a stove you know still burns hot on a winter morning. A stove you know the old man could teach you to stoke and bake a loaf of crusty bread in. A stove that would warm a belly as well as a room. Now sultry lounge singers croon love songs across the years, bridging past to present in an old cabin in an ancient meadow far from civilization and fancy dance halls.
The old man never misses a beat of the music and notes the intricacies of the music and the voices themselves, marking that the singers used their voices as a well-trained musician would play an instrument. I imagine cold nights by the wood stove with the two of them serenaded by voices from the past. It is a cozy and comfortable imagining. I wonder if they danced as they watched the snow falling and filling their meadow with a winter that seemed like it would never end.