The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne presents
a serialization in 14 parts

Week Five:
in which Charlotte and Lt. Atchison sit in each other’s chairs at the fire.

That evening, Charlotte was in Atchison’s seat by the fire. She thought of it as his seat in any case, as she hoped he did. As she hoped it would irritate him by her being in it.

His step was deliberate as his expression was blank when he came through the parlor doorway. She kept her eyes on her book, her senses radiating out of her forehead, her shoulders, the tips of her toes, all invisibly collecting information on how to best portray her total lack of interest in his presence. The message she received was disappointing: surrender. Misfire.

Atchison sat in her seat, at least she thought of it as such, and did not cross his legs but stretched them out toward the fire. She raised white flag eyes and sighed in a long-suffering sort of way.

He was relaxed, languid even. There was a glass in his hand which he lifted as he spoke, as though they had paused in conversation.

“There was a rumor we were near the end of it all. It was April, the weather was warming but the rain was relentless.” His words took on a soft drawl as his bearing dropped away inch by inch. “We’d been separated from the rest of the men during a storm and found shelter in a cave of sorts. Fell into it, actually. It was dark and raining in the worst of disorienting ways. The ground just gave way under us all at once, but not too deep, thank God. It was more of a slope, we saw the next morning, down into this cave entrance or cavern perhaps. We didn’t have the strength or inclination to explore at that point. Anyway, there were three of us, huddled in the dark and damp, confused and afraid. I was 20. The oldest and the leader they turned to. I’ll tell you this, I had no idea what I was doing. In battle, I had what training I’d been given or figured out on my own. But soothing nerves and quelling panic? Neither was my forte. 

“We stayed there all night, built a small weak fire as far in as we could get. We talked a little at first, but one of them, just a kid, hardly a whisker on him, he was good and scared. Wanted to run. Said the storm was the perfect time to do it. Said the Union soldiers wouldn’t waste time looking for three of us, not if the rumors were true and we were surrendering anyway. The more he talked the more it sounded good to us. And that scared me more than anything else. So, I punched him and told them both to be quiet and go to sleep.”

He half-smiled at the fire and lifted the glass again. Charlotte closed her book.

“I told you we didn’t explore,” he went on. “That’s not entirely true. While they slept, I took a bit of wood from the fire, such as it was, and tried to make my way back further into the cave. Anything was better than sitting there feeling responsible for the two of them and certain none of us would make it much longer…I didn’t make it very far, but from what I could see it looked like someone had been there recently. I didn’t think much about it at the time, being concerned as I was with my immediate future as a prisoner, or dead, but I’ve given it a thought or two since.

“The next morning when the sun was nearly up, I realized I’d fallen asleep and the kid was gone. Miller and I climbed up out of that muddy slope and ran straight into a gang of what had to be deserters, though they didn’t admit to it. We were all so out of sorts nobody asked too many questions, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I reckon that the sacks those men had and the direction of the cave in which they were heading add up to stockpiling plunder.

“The chaos we were heading into was worse than the war itself.” Atchison’s eyes flickered back and forth, reading lines on a page Charlotte could not see. “Men try to keep order. I guess we think providing rules will provide direction. From what I can discern, the only thing placing rules on chaos accomplishes is providing opportunity for creative disappointment. Good does find a way. But Evil finds a way too. Just has to work a bit harder to get there.”

He looked at her. She tried to read his face, but she never did have an eye or ear for other languages.

“I heard later the kid who ran off on us was caught. I can’t see as how it ended well for him.” He finished the drink.

Charlotte’s hands were folded in her lap. She understood being forced into a life she didn’t choose. The impulse to run away, to escape. She hoped the young soldier had made it to safety. More than the tale itself, what fascinated her was the complete alteration in the teller’s mannerism. His language, his posture, his features—everything relaxed. And now, apparently completed as his confession was, Atchison sucked all suggestion of failure back into himself. His back straightened slowly, legs aligned, jaw tightened, eyes pulled away from the fire, forged. She was sorry for it.

“Thank you for indulging me, Miss Worthington. I’ll burden your evening no longer. Good night.”

He was halfway to the stairs before she could fashion her composure into something between nonchalance and benevolence, something like what a priest’s would be.

“What was his name?” she asked before she could stop herself to analyze the repercussions.

But Atchison was gone.

In her room, Charlotte sat at her little desk and plotted assassination. The deserter’s story was her story. The end would not be satisfying, but maybe it could yet be hopeful. It didn’t matter. It would end the same as it always did, eventually, destroyed by her own hand before it had a chance to be seen or changed. She stayed up well past her usual time and was shocked to hear the downstairs clock chime one. The rule, her rule, was one page. It had been a difficult night, inflicting all of her wounds onto one page. “Creative disappointment,” he had said about placing rules onto chaos. Is that what she did? Had that become the sum of her days now? How vexing.

She was climbing into her bed, placing the page on the gallows of her nightstand when she heard a soft step and the gentle creak of floorboards outside her door. She gripped her covers and held her breath. The lamp was still lit beside her. He would know she was not asleep. It was him, surely. Who else would it be? The terrifying thrill shot through her, as the light whish of the note slid under her door. Seeing it there, pale, blue, eggshell thin, doused her in coolness as the racing of her heart slowed. She waited an appropriate moment or two before leaping out of bed as silently as possible and pouncing on it. Before unfolding it, she pressed an ear to the door. Nothing. She opened the note.

His name was John Selber.

Join us Sunday of the Thirty-First, for Week Six:
in which Dr. Ridgeway is unsure if the ladies wish to attend the exhibit he has already invited them to, and Charlotte finds it difficult to be bored in the parlor of Number 14 K Street.

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

Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
Bonafides/ home

Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Welcome to
Defenestrationism reality.

Read full projects from our
retro navigation panel, left,
or start with What’s New.