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A Ghost Story for Hallowe’en: ‘The Yawning, Colorless Chasm’

A drifting couple leave their bustling Chicago neighborhood to photograph a covered bridge outside of the wife’s rural hometown. Desperate for money, they are being paid to spend the night at the supposedly haunted spot, photograph anything unusual, and return the pictures to an eccentric anthropology professor. The husband’s bitter cynicism and the wife’s open-hearted curiosity only increase the stress on their rickety marriage, but when strangers arrive at their overnight photo shoot, violence, ritual murder, and trans-dimensional experiences will change how they view themselves, each other, and the shape of the universe.
T H E Y A W N I N G , C O L O R L E S S C H A S M
DEDICATED TO BRIAN O’CONNELL,
My friend and faithful fan
“The Ceylon Covered Bridge is located on CR 950 S. at Limberlost County Park in the county area outside of Ceylon and Geneva. Originally and historically known as Baker Bridge, it was built in 1879 by Bridge Smith Co. of Toledo, Ohio, and was one of 23 covered bridges spanning the Wasbash River. Today, the Ceylon Covered Bridge is the last remaining covered bridge over the Wabash, and was added to the National List of Historic Places in 2007. Running 135 feet long, the Ceylon Covered Bridge was fabricated using a Howe Truss design.
“…this bridge is often found on lists of haunted placed [sic] in Indiana. One such story tells of a grim event happening there, although there is of course no factual proof. Local lore states that a group of teenagers performed a séance on the bridge many years ago. During the séance, a body supposedly fell through the roof, leaving a large blood stain on the floorboards by the pentagram drawn by the teens. Perhaps this is why it needed restoration. [Many locals avoid the area today, and some claim that a portal to another world was opened during the séance, and that it remains open to this day — REDACTED SINCE AUGUST 2018].”
— Town of Geneva Website, www.townofgeneva.org/ceylon-covered-bridge
“Throughout history and literature, from the supernatural flights in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Tam O’Shanter’ to fairy tales like ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ and the ‘Cry Baby’ bridges of urban legend, bridges have been viewed as areas with unusual supernatural activity. They are places prone to haunting and notorious for dangers both real and imagined. Many scholars identify this association with bridges’ perceived ability to defy natural law, allowing mortals to cross areas which nature never intended them to span. Conscious of this break in the natural order, superstitious cultures believed that bridges were capable of attracting the interest and fascination of dark, outer powers.”
— Millennium Book of Folklore, Superstition, and Mysticism, pg. 125

The interstate reached out between two shaggy bands of maples and ash trees, rising and falling along the humps of hills, carrying the small electric car east – away from the vivid frenzy of Chicago, towards the slumbering prairies where her family had been settled for four generations. She did not welcome the return, but it paid money and they needed money. More than anything they needed a distraction. Her husband sat behind the wheel, looking distantly over the dashboard as if watching every yard of pavement disappear under their bumper with the bored desperation of a man longing to pull over and walk off into the woods. He reached over dully and turned the radio up, returning his hand to the part of the steering wheel where it had rested without prior interruption for the past hour. His eyes returned to the pavement, counting the yards slipping under their tires.
She hadn’t made him come back to her hometown since their wedding – that was four years ago – and he had been perfectly content keeping five hours between them. They Skyped into her family get-togethers and sent cards for Christmas and birthdays, but other than her mother’s triannual visits to Chicago, they hadn’t been forced to leave the liveliness of Wicker Park where his vegan donut shop had given them plenty of excuses to stay put: the holidays were busy times; he had to be up by 3:00 am six days a week; Saturdays were the only day he had off, and he needed it to unwind. It wasn’t that her family was obnoxious or even unpleasant, but they were backwards and ignorant and infused their family reunions with subtle obligation and guilt.
He wasn’t a practicing vegan – sometimes he ate fish, or eggs, and once a year or so he might have free range chicken – but her family always made a fuss out of presenting him with a special salad when they visited. She was a strict vegetarian, so also attracted a degree of confusion, but at least she could put ranch dressing on her salads, and could eat Aunt Jenny’s whipped cream-saturated dirt pudding. She had promised him – after five years of living together – that if they got married he wouldn’t have to visit home unless it was an emergency. Now Aunt Jenny was dead and more of the grandchildren had moved away – to Denver, to Columbus, to Nashville, to Minneapolis, to Houston – and Christmases and Thanksgivings were mostly for the parents and grandparents. They had been freed of their obligation to pretend that the past was the present, to be anchored to the ignorance of obsolete generations and dying elders.
Instead, they spent the majority of their time travelling – seeing the world and living out of hostels. The excuse about his workload was a lie; he had two managers to run things when he needed to leave town, and the vegan pastries were impossibly popular with the Wicker Park community, keeping money flowing into their coffers. She was a photographer focused on boudoir photoshoots for single women, elopements in the Lake Michigan area, and photoshoots of couples on vacation. This took her out of town and all over the country, and most of the time she brought him with her; he had majored in Business with a minor in Photography, which is how they met: she was a teaching assistant for one the professors in her department and he was finishing his thesis for the minor – a black-and-white study of drapery in abandoned houses – and she was drawn to his vision; he had a taste for delicacy that struck her as unusual for a man, and spent the semester trying to get to know the moody, bearded junior with the green eyes. Since then they had been inseparable – they shared everything: a love of travel and photography, of ‘80s music and postmodern art, of whiskey and cigarettes, of road trips and dive bars. They burrowed into the lush frenzy of an itinerant life – roaming spontaneously – and were fused by their shared passions.
But the past four years of legal marriage brought with it a solemness – an end of adventure and wonder – that haunted them with monotony. This only grew heavier as they neared thirty and began to realize the weight of their debts; three backpacking trips to Europe in the last four years, a vacation in South Korea, and a week spent in India had come at considerable cost, and while they both tried to work hard enough to afford their adventures, the income from the donut shop and her photoshoots was just enough to support their life in Chicago and on the road, but it hardly left enough to cover two overseas journeys a year.
And that was why they were driving east – towards her hometown on an assignment: take photos of the Ceylon covered bridge at sunset, night, and sunrise. The overnight commission brought with it a staggering price tag of $5,670 – enough to pay off their last trip to Amsterdam – and easily excused the necessity of leaving the lights of the city for the dust of the Heartland.
II.
To find the bridge in this story you will need to go to a town in northeastern Indiana that used to be a wilderness called the Limberlost Swamp. The swamp itself – largely drained but still alive on the outskirts of the town, going so far as to hug the sides of Highway 27 as it heads south – has a strange history. The American Indians had a name for it which the Yankees pronounced “Loblolly” – a pretty word that sounds like summer and youth, but its meaning in the Miami language is “stinking bog” – an allusion to the sulfuric odor of rancid vegetation and decomposing animals. To the Miami tribe the Loblolly Swamp was a place to be avoided – never to be entered too close to dusk, and never to be hunted in alone.
A tangled, buzzing marshland known for its blend of beauty and treachery, it gained its English name during the infancy of Indiana’s statehood after “Limber” Jim Corbus disappeared in its thorny clutches. Limber Jim was a popular hunter and lumberjack, known for his skill in traversing the bogs and woodlands, and yet one day he entered the swamp with a rifle over one shoulder, and it never let him out. Days later the lumberjacks’ calls of “Turn out! Limber’s lost!” were heard booming amongst the labyrinth of trees, but the search was a failure, and the swamp where Limber was lost became a source of superstitious anxiety until it was gradually drained and dominated by human ingenuity: whatever had taken Limber from the realm of the living surely need not be worried about any longer. As the swamp water receded into ditches and rivers and lakes, dirt roads were cut through the drying woodlands, and in 1879 a bridge was constructed over one of those gorges – a fat, lazy projection of the winding Wabash River as it snakes its way through the Hoosier interior – and although the road has been diverted since the 20th century, the old bridge still stands.
To make your way there you will need to drive north on Highway 27 until you pass through the town of Geneva, turn right at the Ehre Farm Stand just outside of town, where they sell tomatoes and peppers in the summer, and pumpkins and onions in the fall. This road will twist its way through a village called Ceylon – a loose collection of houses gathered on an informal grid of streets with tree names like Elm and Maple – a town who lends its name to the covered bridge that you’re looking for. The road will crook and jerk until you are clear of Ceylon, upon which you will find it heading east with fallow fields on either side of you. In recent years the trees have begun to overtake the land where the swamp used to live, and you will likely notice the horizon’s dark tree line and how the fields have become overgrown with saplings. I haven’t been there in years, so I imagine that the saplings have now turned into young trees, and that the thick brush that I can picture reaching its arms towards the road on either side have now become thick with newer saplings as the reclamation increases its gains.
As the road claws eastward, you will soon notice a flash of red and white: the walls of a covered bridge surrounded by the deep greens of the Wabash woodlands. Shortly after you recognize the white outline of its rounded mouth, you will find yourself pulling off the road on a gravel path leading up to the bridge. Off to one side – surrounded by swaying yellow grass as high as a man’s elbow – there will be a decaying pavilion, a rusted iron water pump, and a sun-faded sign announcing that you have arrived at Limberlost Park, and that you are now in the shadow of the Ceylon Bridge. Those who grew up in southern Adams County either saw the bridge as a historical curiosity that smacked obnoxiously of rural sentimentality – the sort that adores split-rail fences, Amish buggies, and paintings of barefoot children fishing – or were familiar with its strange past, and harbored a fearful respect for it.
As you exit your car and walk up to it, you will quickly realize that there are many people who have not developed this somber reverence: while the exterior walls are a deep, heavy red, the interior is unpainted, and the grey, aging lumber is brilliantly laced with four decades worth of graffiti. Most of it consists of lovers’ names paired with dates or encircled in a quickly sprayed heart. Before the advent of spray paint, names were hacked in the wood with knives, then written in pen, then markers. While the majority of the writing is in this romantic vein (Kim + Andy ’84; Jennifer and Kendall Foreva 8-9-97; Lizzie Luvs Tyler; etc. etc.), a great deal take the much darker route that can sadly be expected from rural Indiana graffitists. Swastikas, Klan emblems, pentagrams, anarchist symbols, and sinister runes blend in almost invisibly amidst the harmless oaths of eternal love. Some of the more obscene comments have been spray painted over in dark grey (the work of the parks department), but these grey blobs are tabula rasas begging to be defaced with new slurs. The bridge is lovely on the outside, interesting on the inside, but unquestionably disturbing under close scrutiny – a museum of human emotions, a gallery of personal passions, it has been a touchstone of the area’s collective unconscious for 150 years, and its power to elevate petty, shallow love and deep, resounding hate on equal pedestals has made it a psychological curiosity for tourists who are expecting a quaint covered bridge only to find themselves standing in the Temple of Id.
I cannot verify if the legend of the séance is true or whether any living people claim to have been present at it. It is said to have taken place before I was born – some say in October 1985, others in October 1988 – and since the pentagram was drawn in chalk (if it was drawn at all) it has long been sponged away. If a portal was opened by some esoteric ritual that night, it would be surprising: rural Midwestern teens aren’t usually known for their scholarship or their attention to detail. But if something did happen like the legends say, the Miami tribe would not have been terribly surprised: the Loblolly was always considered a portal to the spirit world, and while the tribe chose to bury their dead in a more favorable area – one that didn’t reek of sulfur and swamp gas – they felt that the spirits of the unhappy dead roamed the thickets and briars of the Loblolly bogs. But this is still more folklore that can’t be verified by historians or scientists.
It is true that there have been a high number of suicides in this place; seven since 1968, most of whom shot themselves in the parking lot, in the pavilion, or inside the bridge itself, although two managed to scale the rafters and hang themselves from the ceiling. Romantics like to imagine that a supernatural energy preys on weak-minded or weak-willed people – vulnerable types who are unfortunate enough to drive past the bridge, or to have a flat tire in its vicinity. Realists are more likely to think that the solitude of the unfrequented park is less of a spiritual magnet to the emotionally damaged than it is a tremendously convenient spot to perform an act which would otherwise be difficult to accomplish in one of the surrounding small towns.
It is a quiet place to park a car without attracting attention, and far from any houses, unlikely to be patrolled by police, and a public site where the body will be easily noticed in the morning, making it attractive to loners who would prefer that to having their body scrapped off of their easy chair three months after the fact, and to family people who would prefer their remains to be found by a passing patrolman rather than a spouse or child. Indeed, most of the suicides were committed by married parents who drove to the lonely spot in the middle of the night instead of running the errand they were entrusted with. Five were women in their thirties or forties, and two were men in their middle age. The papers have always been discreet about these events, but gossip flourishes in rural towns like these – the stories are officially repressed, but this only leads to stronger interest and more gruesome details.
The first modern suicide was by a father of two – separated from his wife and recently laid off from his job at the furniture factory – who drove to the bridge on an October morning while the milky mists rising from the Loblolly Marsh had hidden all but the spine of its roof from view. Two hours later a driver noticed the orange glow of headlights peering through the fog. Expecting to find a stranded motorist, he instead found an abandoned truck, and the police later found his corpse in the river. He had drowned in the shallow slime at the base of the bridge’s foundation; his eyes, nostrils, and throat were stuffed flush with yellow mud.
In October, 1998, one woman – a single mother of three – had hanged herself from the rafters over the exact spot where the pentagram had been drawn during the infamous séance which was said to have opened an interdimensional window. Only 25, her nude body was found two days later by a couple who had come there to picnic. It was a dark, overcast day, and they abandoned their picnic to take cover in the bridge when a storm blew in. In the murk they didn’t see the body turning above them until the male felt her toes graze the top of his head and looked up. Years later a middle aged mother drove there in the middle of the night and shot herself in the head two weeks before her favorite daughter’s wedding. She left no note and had no recorded history of depression. Her traumatized daughter skipped both the funeral and the wedding, and moved away to Denver without a word to her widower father or stunned fiancé.
III.
This is what drew people to the bridge – a love of the macabre, a fascination with the occult, maybe even a soothing hope for something bigger than themselves. Something very different and far more material was driving the couple who were headed there from their Chicago apartment. Neither of them cared for or were remotely interested in ghosts or witchcraft or true crime. They needed money, and they hoped to get it by feeding another man’s obsession with the occult. It was an autumn afternoon with feathery gold traces of vapor brushed across a radiant blue sky, the sort of day when life seems suspended for a moment as if sinking slowly into water – so slowly that you don’t notice the descent. The trees were burning with color; a general blurring of ochre and sienna into a sparkling bronze, occasionally punctuated with bursts of scarlet and lilac, and as they passed through Plymouth, heading southeast down Highway 30 (then turning due south on Route 5), it was just warm enough that they could roll the windows down and drink in the fragrant air of cornfields and woodlands.
“Scott said he’d pay you next Monday?”
It was the first thing he had said to her since they had driven through Rochester.
“Yeah. That’s what he says. He said if I can get the editing done by Saturday he would add $130 to make it an even fifty-eight hundred.”
“This is weirdly important to him. I hope he doesn’t expect to make a lot off of this book.”
“He says there’s a niche market for it.”
“Maybe now. Maybe with old white people. I don’t know anyone under 35 who would want to read about rural superstitions.”
“Scott is an old white man. Well, old-ish. Fifty-six… And someday you’ll be an old white man,” she laughed. It was the first time she had laughed during the entire drive.
“Technically. But no one will think of me that way. Just a chill guy with grey hair who digs Prince and doesn’t skimp on pot with his friends.”
“But you will be old…”
His face seemed to harden and settle. He didn’t like the thought of aging, as if he would somehow sink into the past like her dead Aunt Jenny. Especially now, as they drove past small towns with weather-stained siding and tall grass – past farmhouses with bowing roofs and boarded windows. He missed the city already. But not just that; he loved driving through the red deserts of New Mexico or up the craggy hills of Colorado, or through the forested ridges of Vermont. It wasn’t the country exactly that annoyed him – it was the energy of this particular part of the country: resistant, negligent, insular, and deluded. The people living in these towns were content with their lives – small, empty, visionless lives – and he hated them for it. How could a person house something as grand and expansive as the human spirit in their brain and find nothing insane about being raised in a town without a building over three stories in sight, living in that same place for the rest of their life, and then bringing children into it. The cycle repeats itself, and so – he thought – did the ignorance and stupidity.
“When is Scott publishing this thing? Are you getting any of the royalties?”
“He said next April, and if I agree to do any other shoots he said he’d write up a contract.”
“What other shoots?”
“Well, the book is about superstitions and folklore all over the Great Lakes Region. There are probably sixty or fifty sites that he’s writing about.”
“And he needs an overnight photoshoot for each goddamn one!?”
“No,” she said sternly, “The only reason this one is overnight is because he wants me to watch it and see if I… see anything…”
“Holy shit. You’re not serious; this is a ghost hunting trip? In 2018. And the two of us with college degrees. Why doesn’t he get one of these Holy Roller yokels to do it? They believe in all kinds of bullshit just like this – Zombie Jesus, water into wine, Holy Ghosts. Get someone who doesn’t use logic in their daily life for Christ’s sake.”
“He didn’t say I had to believe in supernatural things. Besides, the photoshoot is commissioned whether or not there are any pictures he’s interested in. He wants shots of it at sunset and dusk, shots of it at night, and shots of it at sunrise. He just wants me to take pictures of anything strange if something strange happens. The rest of the places he’s writing about aren’t as important, I guess. He says this one is going to be the centerpiece of the book.”
“I don’t know how a scholarly published writer with a masters and a PhD can possibly consider this a good use of time. His other books are sensible enough – anthropology, politics, history – why is he bothering with this superstitious B.S.?”
“You’ve only met Scott twice. I’ve been to his house three or four times when I was doing the photos for his last book, and I can tell you that superstition isn’t a random subject to him – it’s a huge part of his research.”
“What do you mean?”
“His house. It’s full of esoteric art and books and artifacts.”
“He’s an anthropology professor.”
“Yeah, but a lot of them aren’t just arrowheads and tapestries – a lot of them are… occult, I guess.”
“Pentagrams and goat’s heads?”
“Stranger than that. I can’t describe them, really. You just know when you see them. Especially the statues he has. They’re weird. But he’s always been super friendly. He has a positive energy about him. I think the supernatural stuff is just an outlet because he’s always so positive… But yeah, he thinks this book will sell well in some kind of niche, occult market. He says a lot of people know about the bridge and its backstory, and he was like, really interested when he heard I grew up nearby.”
The sun was setting soon – it was October 13th, which fell on a Saturday that year – and the sky was aflame with scarlet light as it became cradled in swathes of violet clouds. The sun still hung softly in the middle of the sky as they drove through the shady town of Berne, over a few miles of woody farmland, and across a bridge spanning the Wabash River (at a point where two strange, muddy islands seemed to be fusing beneath the span). Less than a mile from this spot was the Ehre farm stand with fat golden pumpkins and bundles of cornstalks gleaming in the golden light. Here was the turn onto First Street, two blocks east and then a left onto Third Street, two blocks north and then a curving right onto High Street, which turned into Covered Bridge Road and lead them through the Loblolly Swamp to the dark glen of Limberlost Park.
It wasn’t long before they saw the bridge – a scarlet box with white paint around the entrance, like teeth lining a mouth. It peered at them from a distance, growing larger as they drove on. The road crossed a modern bridge parallel to the wooden structure – some forty yards south of the spot – and a pair of iron posts stood squatly in front of the entrance to prevent vehicles from trying out the 150 year old span. She immediately felt a kind of warm affection for it – the first she had seen it in at least twelve years – as if she had arrived home after campaigning in a years-long war.
She had in fact not told any of her relatives that they would be in town, and they had packed their breakfast in a cooler to keep them from needing to stop in town for anything. It would be a brief, overnight pause. They would camp – legally or not – in Limberlost Park, sleep for a couple hours at a time, eat breakfast in their car, leave as soon as sunrise had melted into daylight, and probably grab lunch in South Bend on their way home. But it was still nice to be home for her. Like visiting a grave of a long-forgotten grandparent or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time in fifteen years: something stuck to her, drew her in, accepted her.
His experience on getting out of the car was vastly different. At first he stretched his arms and legs, arching his back and bending his head back, feeling the cramped muscles tighten and tenderize. But in this brief moment of relief something happened – he felt the weight of his body disappear, as if the pressure of gravity was suddenly disengaged. He opened his clenched eyes and for a moment all he saw was cloudy, brown air enveloping him. He reached out and realized that he was on his back – falling gently through the brownness. One arm shot out – another swung around frantically. Then light, then sound, then weight – she was standing over him.
“What happened?”
“I think I slipped while I was stretching out – the blood just went to my head.”
He was on the ground, looking up at the red and white face of the covered bridge that spanned the remnants of the swamp where Limber Jim disappeared on a hunting trip. He felt that there was something far too face-like about its gaping mouth and cavernous throat. Sitting there as it did, next to the modern bridge with the paved road, steel guardrails, and painted yellow stripes, he felt a disgust for it rise in him; it should have been demolished decades ago. What sick nostalgia had caused it to outlive its usefulness? What twisted fascination with death and dead things had kept it from being destroyed and the old wood burned in fires?
The past shouldn’t be preserved like an impaled moth drying on a cork board or a mummy refusing to decompose in its golden box. He loathed the idea of a modern town (and county; and state; and nation) paying money to maintain a bridge that had no use – it was unnatural, unprogressive. It was like keeping an old person alive long after they have outlived their natural end – foggy with drugs and dementia, a curiosity piece appreciated only by a small group of selfish family members who aren’t brave enough to deal with death. “Let the old man die,” he thought to himself, staring at the bridge…
“What did you say?”
She looked at him strangely. Had he said that out loud?
“Nothing. So you need to get started now or can we relax a bit?”
She was already setting up her gear and peering through one of her lenses.
“You can relax, but I’m getting started.”
IV.
The sun was setting almost directly opposite of the bridge, turning the deep crimson of its walls to a flaming scarlet. The haggard, grey floorboards glowed like amber as the light spilled down its length. But there was a spot in the middle of the floor – halfway down its length – that (it was so strange to say, but it truly seemed like this) the light skirted around, as if something round and tall was casting a shadow there. She looked at the spot almost hypnotically with her naked eyes, then in a brief moment of wakefulness she raised the camera in her hand and shot. Four, five, six shots. Staring through the lens it almost seemed as if an old man in black was squatting there, sitting Indian style with his legs crossed and head covered in black cloth. She pulled the lens from her eye and looked again. Why had she thought “old man”? It had looked somewhat like a person, but there was no face to see, and – besides which, and most importantly – nothing was there now: the sun had gushed through the west end and was rushing east in an unbroken, golden flow.
She snapped more pictures and backed away, capturing the bridge from different angles and attitudes. In some ways it seemed small and weak – a cast-off relic of a bygone time – something redundant and dying. In others ways it towered over her with tremendous presence and powerful energy. The heaviness of the massive beams frightened her, and the obvious age of the gashed, colorless wood intimidated her. Here was something that reached its hands out to a time period before Abraham Lincoln was president, before women could vote, before her parents’ house had been built or their street even laid out. It held hands with the 19th century and 21st century, and when it had first been erected, its foundations had been laid in the heart of a country that had frightened the Miami since the days before French explorers and fur traders could be seen canoeing down the Wabash and White Rivers, before the clash of a flintlock had ever echoed across the hills and ravines of the Loblolly Marsh.
She had a sudden idea that this ancient-seeming structure – one which had survived Susan B. Anthony, JFK, and Nelson Mandela; Michael Jackson, Tom Petty, and David Bowie – was impossibly young in another context; a mere child by comparison to the time-worn shores of the Wabash or the sandy slopes of the marshland surrounding them. In a flash – as she looked at the scarlet walls looming above her – she simultaneous experienced the clatter of horse hooves rushing down freshly-sawn floor boards; of bearded men clothed in wool cloaks and beaver pelts wading through the marsh with muskets and powder horns held above their heads; of tall, brown-skinned men with dark eyes making strange gestures and holding up talismans as they carried a bleeding deer through the grass; of wild tornadoes twisting and gyrating over unpopulated meadowlands; of solemn, tomblike glaciers – dominating walls of green ice – scratching through a frozen wasteland like a great, grim god, leaving rivers in its wake. And then she was back. She was staring at a covered bridge in a lonely corner of Northern Indiana. And was it now a small bridge or a large bridge? Compared to her it seemed a giant. Compared to the universe it was a fleck of dust. And what was she now?
The sun was dipping behind a line of trees, stippling their brown leaves with molten light. She raised the camera again – automatically rather than intentionally, her dutiful, professional self overriding her awe-struck existential self. The shots were taken: of the bridge, of the sandy marshes beneath it, of the skeletal logs and trees drying out in the autumn air, of the wooly foliage, the tangled briar patches, and the still, black water sluggishly winding its way under the bridge without a ripple or splash. And now the sun began to sink, the night began to spill over the landscape, and violet light transfigured the park and the bridge and her husband into nocturnal duplicates of their sunshine selves.
She looked over at him and realized that he had hardly moved since she began working. He was sitting at the picnic table under the pavilion, a stone’s throw from the bridge. There in the shadow, silhouetted against the purple sky, she saw him leaning over the table – leaning on his elbows, hands folded in front of him – and was surprised to see that he was looking straight forward, and even occasionally nodding. It was as if he was having a conversation. She had expected to see the blue glare of his phone illuminating his face, but instead it was only darkness and the pale orange glare of the streetlamp that had flickered on in the parking lot.
It frightened her a little. She remembered being frightened by her last visit to Scott as well. Just a little though. He was so nice and friendly, but his collections certainly leaned towards the macabre. As she had said earlier, none of it was campy – no pentagrams or goat’s heads or inverted crucifixes – nothing familiarly dark. That was what made it so uncomfortable – the fact that it seemed to archetypally speak to her, communicating its evil through an unfrequented, vestigial channel to her brain. Pre-Columbian statues of shapeless masses leering with eyeless faces; gnarled totems removed from Indian burial mounds; leather wall hangings from Viking lodges embroidered with scenes of running men and swirling orbs; heavy velum books with Latin, German, and French titles – heavy-looking letters pressed with gold foil into red, leather spines – that seemed to glow at her through the glass.
Scott had commissioned her to photograph most of his collection after they met while she was photographing an archeology dig at an Oneota burial mound in Southern Illinois. Her first job with him was cataloging pottery for the Anthropology Department at Northwestern University, where he taught. It was a year later when she was invited to shoot his private collection of occult arcana, and while she appreciated his gentleness, patience, and hospitality, she remembered feeling relieved when she left his house – not even then: she didn’t feel entirely relieved until she had made it back home, slept through the night, and saw the sun coming through the windows. Something about the maroon walls, dim lighting, and black trim that defined his house – a house swimming in shadows – that made her uneasy. She had caught a glimpse of him – when he thought she wasn’t looking – standing across from one of the tall, ebony statues, looking it in the face, bending his head from time to time, sometimes moving his large, pendulous lips, mouthing silent words. Then he turned back to her – green eyes magnified by his horn rimmed glasses – and smiled innocuously. But there was something in the smile, something dark and quiet that terrified her in that moment.
Maybe this would be the last time she worked for Scott. But they needed the money. The trip to Scotland had almost devastated their finances, and for them to have gone to Spain so shortly afterwards… She loved travel – being on the run, on the go, on the lam – but standing in the shadow of this bridge, on the soil of her hometown, made her feel a sort of dizzying vertigo, as if she could sense how fleeting everything was, how silly it was to run (how far, how hard, how long, before you are finally overtaken?), and how small her ego was in comparison to the Dark Things that lived in the dusk, the Dark Things in the statuary, the totems, the leather wall hangings, and the gold-lettered folios.
Suddenly she felt her heart clench and instinctively held her arm over her chest and throat. She had seen something moving on the bridge – there in the shadows which were mottled with orange light coming through the crisscrossed windows under the eaves. There were street lamps on either side of the river, and the opposite entrance was sharply outlined by red-tinted brush and foliage, outlined in deep blackness in the shape of a square with rounded top corners. Something – a long, willowy shadow – had momentarily flitted between her and the reddish brown cameo. It was on the bridge, seemingly in the very middle of it – in the spot where she had heard a séance was aborted during the ‘80s after a body fell out of empty space, bleeding out over a pentagram chalked on the grey floorboards.
Ten years later, when she was still in elementary school, she remembered hearing about the single mom of three who was found hanging from the rafters over the same spot, and seven years after that Eileen Connors had driven there in the middle of the night and shot her head off in the parking lot, weeks before her daughter’s wedding. She looked over at her husband to see if he had noticed anything, but all she saw was the red glow of a cigarette and the stern silhouette of his motionless head. She held her camera ahead of her and walked towards the bridge. If she needed it, she would use the flash to bring light to the pooling darkness.
Walking towards it she felt as if she were approaching a great idol from antiquity, something grim and heavy and timeless. It wasn’t the simple Mennonite architecture of the span, though – in the daytime it was quaint, bordering on kitschy. The barn-red walls, unimaginative white trim, and almost childishly simplistic 25 degree pitch of the roof all seemed like something out of a grandmother’s calendar, or folk art on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. But now, in the night, in the thick swamp air that was now rising steadily from the yawning hollows of the Limberlost Swamp, it seemed to take on a different, hidden character. It was as if someone built a little white church on the site of a concentration camp or an Indian massacre. She felt as though she could smell the rotten blood weltering like rain puddles in the wheel ruts and potholes, and the gassy vapor rising out of the swamp seemed sweet with the pork-like odor of charred human flesh.
She stepped onto the rising slope of ground that led to the bridge, taking careful strides without taking her eyes off of the blackness between the two openings…
V.
He watched her leave the secure, orange glow of the parking lot light and walk slowly towards the bridge with her camera extended from her body like an altar boy carrying a crucifix or a censor of blessed incense. He wasn’t surprised anymore that she seemed so awed by such a backwards superstition. Really he knew all along, ever since they met, that she was probably not as sensible as he was. She came from a shitty little town in the boonies, after all, and he grew up in a bustling brownstone in the heart of Chicago. His parents were proud atheists, proud progressives, and proud humanists. His family believed in the corporeal, the here, and the now. And even if she had developed leaps and bounds beyond her provincial parents who still believed in supernatural creatures – gods, angels, and demons – who still thought that men could walk on water and raise the dead to life, and who still held that there was an invisible world overlapping our own, she could hardly be expected to outgrow thousands of years of continuous superstition in one lifetime. He was ashamed of her intellectual weakness and lack of conviction, and he began to think about what would happen to his life if they ever divorced: how would it impact his business, what friends would he not mind losing, what restaurants and clubs would he probably have to avoid, who would keep the car, who would take the dogs?
It was the first time he had openly entertained the idea, although no one – not even their most casual friends – could deny that marriage had changed them. It had turned a gallivanting adventure into a plodding duty, and he sometimes wondered if he had married beneath him. What would his next relationship be like, he wondered. Someone with a less rigid background, someone whose parents weren’t a chore on Thanksgiving, someone who maybe didn’t even want to ever marry, or even be exclusive. There were women at his yoga class who were openly seeing multiple men who were in turn seeing multiple women. Try as she might, his wife just had too much of the stench of age on her – not the years of her life (he might even be interested in an older woman in his next relationship – he knew a very interesting professor of African American Studies at Northwestern who was twelve years older than her), but the centuries and millennia that she had managed to crawl from – the very swamp where they now found themselves.
The reek of time seemed to perfume the air like an old woman whose sugary stench hangs in the air for fifteen minutes after she has left a room. He drew long and deep on his cigarette and tapped his fingers impatiently. He would wait until they had made enough to pay off the last three years of vacations before he told her that he was considering leaving, but then again they were planning to see Peru in December (a reliable excuse to avoid seeing either of their families over the holidays), but he couldn’t afford that without her income. He would need to ponder this more. Maybe it was good that Scott wanted her to work with him; as much as he loathed anyone stupid enough to pay any attention to this sort of bullshit he felt like it might be their best option until they had balanced their books. Another long, heavy drag, and his eyes returned to the gravel road leading up to the bridge. There in the dusky, amber light he watched her advance towards the gaping black mouth, and with a flick of his ash he witnessed her being swallowed…
VI.
Her first step on the rough-hewn floorboards was a jolt. It was as if a kind of electricity was surging through the long-dead wood. Once two feet were in contact with it she began to feel a steady hum – a deep, baritone vibration – running up and down the muscles of her body, and something warm and melting started to invade her nerves, detaching her from reality like the tremulous heat of a Jacuzzi or the narcotic languor of fast-approaching sleep. It was now as if she had closed her eyes and was seeing with a different, unused, vestigial organ that sensed sight, sound, smell, feeling, taste, and more in a single, sightless impulse.
She saw the heavy purple shadows on the walls of the bridge scored by lashes of neon light forming into unfamiliar patterns and symbols. She saw the floor glowing from its center where a circle began to form as if traced in green fluorescence by an invisible hand. Inside the circle she expected to see the star of a pentagram appear – but it didn’t. It was a shape she couldn’t describe in language but felt that she could approach its description by making a sound: a gushing “swoosh” made from the back of the throat without the lips. In curious ribbons of light this moving, living sign was gently etched, curving and turning delicately like the strokes of a blind artist sketching the face of the lover of his youth from memory — his liver-spotted, arthritic hands performing a miracle of art as they recreated a long-dead face on the dry canvas.
She was drawn towards the green light which she sensed but did not see. And standing around it she knew there were seven figures in odd costumes – cloaks and headdresses – with faces etched by age and darkened by life under the sun. They seemed to be from different places and times, none a peer of the others, but knitted into one another’s lives like old scraps of cloth sewn into a quilt, or the way that the sweat of Alexander, blood of Goliath, tears of Cleopatra, and drool of the newborn Napoleon had all evaporated into the clouds, forming the rain that fed the grass around her and flowed through the marshlands under her feet. She felt the electric intensity of her agelessness and the transcendent weightlessness of her cosmic unimportance.
Stepping towards the green tongues of light on the floor she thought she recognized Scott’s face on the tallest figure, but Scott was a short, balding man, and this man was like a king of kings. And yet, his eyes, his willful green eyes… But there was something more to it; as weightless as she felt, as timeless as she sensed her soul to be, there was something threatening about the gaze in those green eyes – something challenging and dark that frightened her. There was a purpose for her being here, she now knew, and she wanted to leave it all. What was happening now? What was the tall man with green eyes pointing to overhead?
Her eyes flew open.
When had she shut them? Had she shut them? Nothing was on the walls besides the scrawled graffiti of high school sweethearts, jaded racists, and wannabe comics, and no emblems were visible on the floor other than carved initials and the wear of wagon wheels. She backed up and looked around her. Still nothing. No one. Another step back, towards the very center of the floor, and she suddenly paused. Something had touched her – grazed the top of her head. A strand of her hair fell from her bun as proof of the contact. It had been soft and cold. And there it was again – gentle and harmless, like backing into a floating balloon which sways back and forth from the brief collision. Something was directly over her – hanging above her – but she couldn’t force herself to look up. Nothing could force her to find the courage to see it. It had a stiff but soft feeling, like an old woman’s hand, and she was almost positive that it had felt like a hand – or toes.
Powerless to see, powerless to force herself to see, she began walking away, and with the success of each step, she sped up, ignoring the unmistakable groan of rope twisting back and forth in the rafters above her. She didn’t dare to look back until she was a short sprint outside the bridge and could feel the clammy night air rising from the Limberlost, but when she did she saw nothing: an empty bridge with vacant rafters. Almost as if manipulated by an external power she found herself raising the camera that hung from her neck. Catching the shadowy interior in her view finder, she clicked the button, washing the grey timbers in the flash bulb’s brilliant light…
VII.
He watched her stumble from the bridge and wondered what could have made her run so quickly only to turn mechanically around, take careful, deliberate aim, and shoot five successive pictures with all the calm and professionalism of an elopement photo shoot. She was being very strangely affected by this commission – it was obviously bringing out the worst in her: her paranoia, gullibility, hysteria. He might as well be babysitting a Salem parson at a Halloween party – eyes bugging with superstition and awe when they should be glazing in boredom. He looked over at the Other Man and wondered if he felt the same. What did he think about his wife’s behavior? The Other Man looked coldly out at the parking lot where she had backed up against the light pole, almost as if catching her breath. The Other Man didn’t look particularly well – almost as if he needed to throw up, for his sickly, green pallor and milky, unblinking eyes. But he seemed decent and down-to-earth: dressed in flannels and jeans, his grey hair cut short and tight.
He knew how to make people respect him, surely. He knew how to get what he wanted. The Other Man turned to him with his unfocused gaze, his mottled face smeared with mud, and seemed to agree with him: divorce might not be quick or clean enough. She would take too much. But if he took her camera to Scott, and proved that he was also a capable photographer, maybe he could get the commission. And then he could pay off their debts. His debts. Hers would go with her wherever she went. The Other Man stood between him and the light – looming like a great pillar of stone carved thousands of years ago, outliving hundreds of millions of lives, a stone where human sacrifices were brought and offered up to Dark Things, a stone made brown and oily with the blood of offerings…
She couldn’t see where he went, but she wished he would stop sulking and pouting and comfort her. Why had he been so cold and distant all year long? She knew marriage had sucked some of the spontaneity and romance out of their lives, but on a night like tonight she felt a distant longing for the rooted stability of her parents – her brothers and their wives, her grandparents, Aunt Jenny and Uncle Silas. There was something delicious about the idea of laying down together and being still, like the desire for oxygen in the lungs of the drowning man, or the yearning for water on the tongue of the explorer lost in the desert. Maybe they could lose some of the thrill – the manic pace of their young lives – in exchange for the quiet peace of age.
They wouldn’t live forever, but that wasn’t a reason to speed up the process of dying. Maybe to sit down and say nothing would feed life into them. Maybe to leave the fashionable chaos of Wicker Park wouldn’t ruin their self-worth. Maybe to slow down wouldn’t ensure the misery of a sold-out life. For the first time since her childhood she sense the shape of the universe and saw her place in it – small, brief, uninteresting, unimportant – and it brought a shocking degree of rest to her soul. There was no one worth impressing, nothing worth destroying, nothing worth building – but if she impressed or destroyed or built in her allotted time, all the better. But they needed to leave this darkness. They needed to run from these putrid swamp vapors, from the shadow of the bridge, from the sightless eyes of the leering Limberlost. She looked once more at the pavilion. No sight of his cigarette or phone. No silhouette…
VIII.
The Other Man walked backwards from him, or glided, rather, and he followed. There she was – peering towards the pavilion, not realizing that the two of them were behind her. The Other Man opened his blue lips and yellow water spilled out of them, revealing a fat, black tongue. He spoke to him about things that he had never told anyone – spoke to him about his simmering, long ignored impulses, about his neglected but never stifled desires, about his repressed but never smothered rage. The Other Man spoke to his heart instead of his brain – spoke to his deep, tarry core from his gaping, mud-stained mouth – spoke of longings and resentments and muffled hysterias. The Other Man grabbed his hand without looking at it – his palm was slippery and the skin seemed to move loosely over the bones – and lead him gently like a father leading a son. And they went forward on their mission – a mission of freedom and outrage and expression.
The Father took the Son towards the Daughter. The Daughter was walking towards the weedy bank of the swamp, peering over the side into the black waters, probably wondering if he had gone down there to explore or (more likely) to get away from her. But he hadn’t. He was behind her. Behind her with the Other Man. Behind her with his Father. The Father let go of the Son’s hand, but he still felt the wet, mushy grip on his heart. It tenderized the soreness and squeezed out the black, molten anger that he had been redirecting to so many mindless distractions – slumbering causes and indolent activisms, his half-hearted business and their half-hearted marriage. The Other Man held him firmly by the wrist. Father and Son now ran down their prey.
She was peering into the black sludge along the riverbank when she felt his heavy hands grip her shoulders and drag her down. Who knows what exactly he was planning: to fake her accidental fall and walk away from a relationship that chafed his sense of independence, possibly, or to viciously kill her in a moment of delusional rage. Maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly at all. But when he lifted her by the armpits and drew his elbows back to throw her over the side, she didn’t hesitate to clench her fingers and drive the point of her extended thumb through his left eyeball. It was a sudden, instinctive action that horrified and stunned her – as if something primitive had unexpectedly woken up and taken control of her life. It was cavewoman-like and reflexive, a spirit of animal rage that didn’t pause to calculate what her husband was doing and why, that didn’t pause to consider her love for him or stop to reason with a man who had been possessed by the same swamp-like, primordial element. They tumbled backwards – her on top, him sprawling in pain – and she withdrew her thumb from his eye socket with a revolting sound of fleshy suction.
She scuttled away from him in a series of rapid, alien movements that reminded her more of a spider or ape than a grown woman, and watched him stagger to his feet, watching her with shocked rage through his sole living eye. Where was the Other Man? Where was his Father? He took a shaky step towards her, but felt his head swim with pain and nausea. One leg seemed to buckle, and he overcorrected his balance, causing him to pitch over the weedy embankment, landing facedown in the tarry muck below the bridge. She slowly walked towards the edge and looked at him lying there. She saw the back of his head, the edges of his elbows, and the edge of his heels protruding from the water. It was shallow – maybe six inches – but he didn’t move in it or make any effort to rise up. She thought he was certainly dead, but she couldn’t have known that on landing awkwardly in the mud he had felt a sharp crack in his neck. She couldn’t have known that the brain inside that still, immobile figure was screaming for oxygen as watery mud filled its nostrils and mouth, sucked into its lungs, slowly strangling life out of its burning mind…
IX.
None of this felt important to her, though. In comparison to the monolithic powers that towered over her in the silent night she knew that whatever happened to him, or her, or anyone was entirely inconsequential so long as it fed the deep energies of the Dark Things. She felt the weight of age thickening her blood, sensed the power of centuries in her brain, the wisdom of millennia in her heart, the weariness of eons in her throbbing hands and feet. She knew the fear of a mother hiding her children from Potawatomi raiders, freezing to death in a lonely cave. She knew the rage of a wife watching her husband be dragged off by political zealots – forced to watch him die under the guillotine, and driven herself to fight and die the same death. She knew the love of a daughter eager to die on the altar for her father’s kingdom, rescued at the last moment by the repulsed gods. She felt the pain of sunbaked sand and brittle ice on her bare feet. She smelled the odor of burned villages and villagers. She hungered and thirsted, and was fed and given drink. She fought and was killed, killed and fought. Scraped and slugged and hacked and kicked. She felt centuries of passion and millennia of hope swell through her arteries. She no longer cared for anything in this world. It was as if she had tasted wine for the first time after a lifetime of sipping brown water from stale ponds, and nothing mattered anymore save to drink that flavor once more – to feel the purple fluid filling her mouth and spilling down her chin in clear, fragrant rivulets.
She realized that she had somehow come back to the bridge. Were her eyes closed or opened? She couldn’t tell: mind and body, spirit and flesh were morphing and unmorphing, blurring and becoming clear. Her senses revolted, her mind tore open, her body was flooded with primeval power and deathless confidence – confidence in the power of life-in-death and of death-in-life, in the ubiquity of misery and the meaninglessness of the self, in the pettiness of a single life and the immeasurable grandeur of a single soul. She saw the figures once more before her. Eyes opened or closed she sensed the gleaming symbol on the floor and spoke its timeless name from the back of her throat without moving her lips. She saw Scott remove his hood and kneel at her feet with his green eyes closed in reverence. The others did the same.
Overhead she felt the warmth of the yawning, colorless chasm as it breathed on them. It was a gyrating gulf, a portal or orifice leading to the gates of understanding and completion. She felt her husband’s blood hardening on her hands like drying mud, and she understood that he had had a part in this, too. That he also had a place in the cycle. She saw his brooding, unhappy eyes in the faces of weary hunters in icy pelts, sullen sailors peering hopelessly from the rigging of motionless ships, tubercular poets in cravats and frock coats staring at dying candles. He had a place, too — but it was not with her.
She realized that she had taken off her clothes but did not mind. The breath of the void was warm and comforting. Scott backed away from her with his hands extended in reverence, his eyes averted in awe. How old had Scott been in the Dying World? He was fifty-six. He had been twenty-six in 1988. Where did he say he was from? He never had. But what had it said on the back cover of the book she helped him make? Someplace in Ohio. Montezuma. Thirty-five minutes away, almost due east of Ceylon. But they were no longer in the Dying World. Scott was not fifty-six. He was not from the county across the state line. She remembered the conversation he had appeared to have with the statue of the Dark Thing, remembered his strange blend of gentleness and intensity.
It reminded her of an old, old man with a deceptively powerful past – one who had flown bombers surrounded by enemy fighters, who had spent an entire winter eating shoe leather in a frozen camp in the Rockies, who had watched his ship succumb to French hot shot and survived for three weeks in an open boat. Here too she felt that she understood Scott – the name given him by his parents in the Dying World – and was comforted by his ageless confidence. Who were the people with him? Had they been here in 1988, too? Had they also seen the stitch break in the universe and watched the Dark Thing fall out of the void, expiring on the floor in a pool of its black blood? Maybe. Maybe some of them were from distant times and places. Some seemed unborn – she didn’t know how to express this better – while others seemed to only just recently have awoken from their centuries’ long slumber in the Welsh barrows or the Spanish grasslands or Japanese mountain country.
She felt that she understood, that it would be okay, that it was a matter of losing the Self and gaining the Whole. She stepped forward and her bare feet hardly felt the cold wood beneath her – she was now in the midst of the flaming emblem, surrounded by flickering light, immersed in unquenchable fire. And now she was rising – higher and higher, lighter and lighter – and the barrier between her flesh and spirit melted away like a mud-caked jewel being submerged in boiling water: the clay dissolved in a fury of exploding bubbles and searing heat, the pain shot through her throat and down her arms, scalding her lungs and crumpling her heart, but she didn’t mind it.
She didn’t worry about the momentary agony, because with each jagged breath she sensed the light bleeding its way through her dissolving flesh – the bright, clean, clear, imperishable light of her spirit as it emerged from the restrictions of the dying world. But what was this? The pain had almost entirely bled away and now only warmth and light and power surged through her starving body, and she was falling, falling, falling up – up, up, into the orifice overhead, falling through space and expanding in it – expanding into the timeless, limitless bounds of the naked soul cut brutally from its hiding place in the dying flesh and unloosed into the cyclopean kingdoms of the Dark Things…
X.
The next morning the two bodies went unnoticed, and it wasn’t until their electric car attracted attention that the police discovered them. She was impossible to miss – hanging by a camera strap which had somehow been tied in a loop around the central rafter. His body wasn’t located until the evening when detectives found it floating in the mud where he had drowned. His neck had been broken and one eye was destroyed by a sharp, rounded object like a broken branch. Her camera was searched but found to be missing its memory card.
Both death certificates listed homicide as the cause of death, but no suspects or motives were discovered; they hadn’t been robbed or sexually assaulted, and the nature of her death seemed to necessitate the use of an exceptionally tall ladder and the work of two or more people. Rumors would persist that a Zodiac-like serial killer was working in Northeast Indiana, but ten years would go by without any similar incidents. Dr. Scott A. Cotgrave – Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University – was questioned in connection to the incident, but had been at a party with six close friends in Evanston at the time, who provided him with a staunch alibi. After several rounds of interrogation (requested by the investigating detectives who considered him a possible suspect), he would be crossed off of the list of persons of interest, and by summer the case would go cold.
The following April, Dr. Cotgrave would publish an esoteric work on Folk Magick and Local Legends of the Great Lakes Region with a particular focus on reports of high strangeness, and bizarre theories about alternate dimensions and the multiverse, reincarnation and time slips, and the reported use of Left Hand Magick in opening pathways capable of bridging the void between material and metaphysical experiences — rituals needed to maintain the balance between the Living World and the Dying World, rituals whose regular practice would keep the Dark Things at bay by momentarily neutralizing the ethereal charges that built up over areas prone to spiritual blight.
Such areas — colorless chasms that spanned the divide between the Dying World of human memory and the Living World of cosmic regeneration — were notorious in regional folklore but were often aesthetically unremarkable and easy to miss: a withered thicket in the middle of a Lincolnshire meadow; an abandoned factory in the heart of a rust belt township; a quiet hollow on the margin of a Virginia state park; a disused road in a depopulated Quebecois village. Here the spiritual tissue was soft and easily torn — the barriers effortlessly penetrated.
The rituals he described were intensely controversial and required the execution of a willing sacrifice. The strongest results could only be obtained if the subject had recently made the choice to spill the blood of someone for whom they felt strong emotion — stronger yet if the blood was spilled without malice polluting the act, spilled in self-defense, spilled in a moment of animal fear.
Critically panned by academics as lacking scholarly rigor (and seeming to advocate a superstitious faith in folk beliefs which were better handled with intellectual cynicism), the book would be a commercial success notwithstanding. The first printing would sell out in a month as word of it spread online.
There would be special interest in the book’s unsettling photographs. One series of photos, taken at the supposedly haunted bridge in Ceylon, Indiana by an anonymous photographer, showed what appeared to be a ghostly figure hanging in the rafters. While academics would immediately reject it as a forgery, the resemblance to a woman who died there in October of 1998 was uncanny, and photography experts would be unable to decisively debunk them.