The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne

Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts



Week Four:

in which Charlotte slurps her tea, again, and does not ask Lt. Atchison if he found confederate treasure.



Ursula handled things. Much of her time in the past was spent picking up, often mending or concealing, various objects the Worthington girl destroyed. She found them hidden behind drapes, under overturned cups in the kitchen, and kicked to the sides of the walkway leading to the front door. She bitterly fixed or disposed of the pottery, buried the small killed creature. These days, Miss Charlotte stayed out of her way.

Ursula handled the help. It was she that kept the maids on task and paid the Sweep Master, that odious Elias Tuckett. If it weren’t for Mr. Worthington’s obsession with fire disaster prevention and a monthly sweep of the chimneys, she could have avoided Elias Tuckett’s greasy presence for six months at a time. But it wasn’t Ursula’s place to question. It was her place to arrange, to handle, but only to a point. It was the chimney girl who handled the dirtiest of things.

 Ursula avoided her. And watched.

*

Charlotte sat opposite Atchison that evening before the parlor fire and deliberately took the pale blue note from its marking position in her book. Through her lashes she watched him slowly turn the page of his own book. She sighed. He coughed once. She did not read so much as bore holes through each word, and had no rational explanation for why his inattention irritated her.

He coughed again and long enough to justify her asking if he was alright. He waved her off and re-crossed his legs.

“I’ve dealt with a reoccurring chest condition since the war. Made it through nearly the entire conflict without a scratch or illness but it was the damp darkness of a cave we’d taken shelter in that got me.”

She should have said how awful or I’m so sorry. Instead she replied, “What sort of cave and shelter from what?”

He closed his book over his finger and considered her for a long uncomfortable moment. “I’d been separated from the others during a storm. Well, me and two others. The cave wasn’t empty when we found it.”

She waited.

“Are you going to ask if we found gold and treasures and strings of pearls like pirates in a novel?”

She shrugged. “It’s your story.”

There was another testing silence, and though she did want to ask now, her resolve not to was greater.

Atchison’s mouth relaxed and he pointed his chin at the note playing between her fingertips. “I’ll tell you about that instead. That is of value to me.”

The fire between them cracked.

“In ’65 when we were making our way back, we cleared debris from a farm road. A girl sat off to the side under the trees. Very thin, very young. She’d seen a hard time of it, that was for sure. She sat there in the dried-up grass, just staring. The other man with me was called to another area closer to the barn, leaving me to finish. I dragged beams and charred bits of furniture off the road, sweating, cussing, hungry, but the work felt better than talking and I was glad to be left alone. For whatever reason, the girl under the tree made me angry. My being there, hauling her burned belongings off the scorched road made me angry. Her placid staring at nothing while the breeze moved her dark hair around her face made me angry. I threw bits of crockery and timber off the road toward her. I tried to ignore her and heaved a larger beam across to drop at her feet when she came close. She didn’t seem to see me but bent down to pick something up, squatting on her heels the way babies do. It was a broken wooden box, metal latches still attached on one end but the two halves came apart in her hands. ‘There used to be letters in here,’ she said. I kicked some smaller timber out of my way to get back to work. It was like she suddenly noticed I was there and she said ‘Good morning.’ Like we were passing in a market.

I hadn’t heard a soul greet another with those words in what seemed like a hundred years. I was startled– which angered me too. Bedraggled and homeless in her blue gingham skirt: no family, life destroyed even more than mine. ‘What the hell is good about this morning?’ I spat.

Squatting there, she tilted her head oddly and placed the broken box gently back on the pile.

‘I think,’ she turned her face away from me and spoke to the hills down the road, ‘maybe I won’t be here tomorrow. Nothing to miss here now. It’s a good time to go.’ She turned back and looked up at me, squinting in the light. ‘Morning’s the best time to make decisions. That’s what mama said.’ I knew there wasn’t much chance of her getting far on her own. Thin, young, and hapless as she was. She said, ‘It’s a lot of work being alive, isn’t it?’ then got up and walked back to the shade of her tree and sat back down. She just sat and watched me.

Over those couple hours, I’d gotten used to her weird silent company and I didn’t want to go back to the men and the seemingly endless parade of preparations for things that may or may not happen. Death was just a thing that might transpire after lunch. Like the possibility of rain.

We travelled over a covered bridge the next day, and I saw her again. Through the cut-out squares, flashes of blue near the creek edge below. Flashes of dark shining hair closer at every blink. Face down in the little creek. Her dark hair floating in with the rocks and moss at the bank. Her blue skirt soaked and clinging to her small form. I don’t know if any of the others saw her, and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to bury her. I didn’t want to watch the men bury her. As I passed over that bridge, I wished I’d said something kinder to her. And as we continued up the hill through the woods, I decided I would say good morning to someone. That’s how I buried her.”

Charlotte’s relaxed her furrowed brow and felt her ears pop as if reaching a new depth. Or height. She was about to ask how starting the day with a burial was valuable but realized she started her day with a similarly morbid routine.

The coughing that came next would not be stifled. With a brief wave of his hand and creased brow to say it’s nothing, Atchison excused himself and the barrage of coughing carried him out of the parlor.

She’d almost forgotten she disliked him. The parlor flickered in the firelight; familiar furnishings stared back at her. Same silver vase, china blue velvet drapes. Same underlying smell of tobacco and floating bits of dust showing up in lamplight. Same feeling of being alone. But now she felt lonely. Now she minded.

*

Worthington nodded for his cup to be refilled as he adjusted the newspaper where it separated him from the breakfast table he shared with Charlotte. Lavinia adjusted the place setting for the as yet unmaterialized Atchison.

“William Harris told us the most extraordinary thing. His family had lost many valuables during the war when the pillaging was at its worst. Can you believe this—a pocket watch, engraved with his father’s name was mysteriously returned to him recently. Found in a coat pocket of all places! No idea how it came to be there. Fascinating.” There was no response from the table. He eyed his daughter. “Mr. Porter came to call? How was that?”

Charlotte ignored him and put a dainty bite of poached egg in her mouth, chewing with deliberation. Her father grimaced and fluttered the pages again.

Atchison’s arrogant step approached and Charlotte prepared her defenses by adjusting her napkin and washing the egg down with an audible gulp of tea.

“Really, Charlotte! You’re not a child! Sip like a lady.”

Charlotte finished with a loud slurp.

“Good lord,” her father glowered.

Atchison had seated himself, darting a cautious glance between the two of them.

“Nearly twenty and still youthful to a fault,” Worthington dripped.

Atchison sniffed and made a detailed study of the table’s offerings.

“When I was 19, I’d already seen friends killed beside me, been consumed with rage, sunken to the depths of utter hopelessness, and discovered a hot cup of coffee really does have the power to change a man’s entire life.” He coughed into his napkin and seemed to enjoy her squinted expression as she decided whether or not he was looking for pity.

Worthington blinked at him, smile frozen on his face.

Atchison scooped an egg onto his plate and dropped a slice of toast beside it, shook his napkin into his lap, and looked up at each of them as if they had just joined him. “Youth is strangely defined.”

Charlotte stared at him, lifted her small cut crystal water glass, and slowly slurped.

*






Join us Sunday of the Twenty-Fourth, for Week Five:
in which Charlotte and Lt. Atchison sit in each other’s chairs at the fire. 

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





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