Authors: Tim Pratt
For my family, which gives me purpose.
“You can skin me, Br’er Fox,” Br’er Rabbit said. “Or pluck out my eyes, or pull off my ears, or cook me for stew. Do your worst, but just please don’t throw me in that briarpatch.”
But Br’er Fox wanted to hurt Br’er Rabbit just as bad as he could, so he caught him by the back legs and flung him right in the middle of the briarpatch. Br’er Rabbit hit the bushes and commenced to twistin’ and wailin’ until he dropped down in the vines and thorns, and Br’er Fox waited around to see what would happen.
By and by Br’er Fox heard someone call his name and saw, way up on the hill, Br’er Rabbit sitting on a log, laughing fit to bust. Then Br’er Fox knew he’d been tricked.
Br’er Rabbit hollered out, “Born and raised in the briarpatch. I was born and raised in the briarpatch!” Then Br’er Rabbit raced off as quick as could be.
—from “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby” (traditional)
The night before Bridget walked out of Darrin’s life, six months before he watched her climb over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and dive headfirst into the water 200 feet below, six months and four seconds before she struck the surface of San Francisco Bay with a force of 15,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, dying instantly from the resulting physical trauma, they had this conversation:
“Remember when you said you wanted to drink wine from the small of my back?” Bridget asked. She stretched out face-down on their bed, naked, a pillow under her chin. Candles burned on the dresser, and tinkling jazz played on the bedside radio.
Darrin trailed his fingertips down the smoothness of her leg, past the little scar she’d acquired trying to break up a dogfight as a child, pausing at the back of her knee, one of the many places she loved to be kissed. “I remember. The first night we slept together.” He leaned over and kissed the concavity at the base of her spine, the little cup that hollowed when she lay on her belly. Her skin smelled warm and sweet and like nothing other than Bridget herself.
“That was the sexiest thing I’d ever heard,” she said. “I still get fluttery when I think about it.”
“Really? I don’t remember you reacting much at the time.”
“I was probably too fluttery back then. That was, what, two years ago? My flutters are under better control now.” She paused, piano and clarinet filling the empty space between sentences. “Why didn’t you ever do it?”
Darrin ran his finger in a circle around the little elliptical birthmark between her shoulder blades. “I don’t know. Logistics? I could do it now, if you like. I think there’s a bottle of shiraz in the kitchen.”
“No.” She rolled over into him. “Let’s just sleep. I like sleeping with you. You’re never wiggly or restless. I don’t know how you sleep so well.”
“Just blessed with good brain chemistry, I guess.” He spoke lightly, unwilling to broach the subject of sleepless nights, the principle symptom of Bridget’s anxieties and dissatisfactions. So he got up, blew out the candles, climbed into bed, and she curved against him, into him, in the dark. He felt no trepidation, nor did he feel unusually blessed; they’d slept together this way every night for more than a year, since she had moved into his apartment.
In the morning, he woke alone. She’d taken an overnight bag and a few changes of clothes, and most of her things from the bathroom. She’d left her art supplies, the pressed-flower handmade paper, the glue, the linen, the brushes, even her stash of dried hallucinogenic mushrooms; but she’d taken her good red winter coat, the one he’d bought for their ski trip the year before. The missing coat struck him as strange, because it was spring when she walked out, and warm. For a while, he tried to believe she’d taken the coat because it was a gift from him. She hadn’t left a note, so he had to take comfort where he could.
Bridget was wearing the red coat when he watched her die. That was a colder day, and it was windy then, up on the bridge.
Darrin almost never went into the city anymore, not since losing his lover and his job and his car in one terrible month, so it seemed beyond the range of normal coincidence that he should encounter Bridget for the first time in two seasons on the pedestrian walkway halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge. Had he arrived five minutes sooner, he might have reached her, stopped her, saved her; had he arrived five minutes later, he would not have seen her at all, just the knot of tourists clustered around the guardrail, leaning out, looking at the grey water below. Instead he arrived at 10:17
—he knew to the minute, because his digital camera had a time-stamp for each photo it took—at the perfect moment to see but not intervene in Bridget’s death.
Darrin had not believed in God since he was eight years old, but the fact of his arrival at that moment on that morning was enough, almost, to make him believe in something, some forceful consciousness looking down on events in the world and occasionally manipulating them for reasons of its own.
Darrin had taken a train from Oakland, under the bay, into San Francisco—The City, as everyone called it, as if San Francisco were the Platonic ideal of cityhood, and Oakland a clumsy imitation. Darrin took nothing with him but his wallet, containing a few dollars in cash and his only un-maxed-out credit card, and his best digital camera, the one he’d bought during the last of the good days. He probably should have sold the camera, but he liked to think things were less dire than they were, and taking photos was his current comforting obsession, newest in a long line of passionate diversions that had included brewing his own beer, rock climbing, juggling, Chinese cuisine, designing his own crossword puzzles, and various other mayfly pursuits, each explored deeply, then quickly discarded when he grew bored. For the moment though, taking photos consumed him, and observing the world through the lens provided a distraction from the broken-up mess his life had become. He was going into the city to have lunch with his friend Nicholas in the financial district—where Darrin had once worked himself—and he’d decided to come early and take a few pictures.
It was a day of surpassing clarity, as windy and cool and bright as only a rainless autumn day in San Francisco could be, and he wanted to stand on the Golden Gate Bridge and take pictures of the boats and islands in the bay, the headlands of Marin, and any other people drawn to the morning views. After Bridget left him, after he was fired, after his car was repossessed, Darrin had retreated into himself, into a depression deeper than any of Bridget’s had ever been, but one day, a few weeks before, he picked up the camera and decided to take a walk. By forcing him to look at the world again, the camera had saved him . . . or at least arrested his downward spiral. He wasn’t happy, but he was, at least, awake.
In that first two minutes on the bridge he photographed the hilly headlands of Marin, the dizzying heights of the suspension towers and the thick support cables, the boats in the bay against the bleak profile of Alcatraz. All were photos he’d seen countless times before, but he’d never taken them himself, and that mattered. Darrin moved along the pedestrian walkway, almost halfway down the bridge, and then stopped when he spotted a familiar-looking woman standing twenty-five feet away, her face in profile.
At least he thought it was Bridget, but in the past months he’d caught so many glimpses of women who looked a little like her, and felt his heart leap up only to fall again when he realized they were strangers, that now he resisted his own recognition. She leaned with her elbows on the rail, looking not out to sea but in toward the bay, her blonde hair blowing around her face— longer than Darrin remembered, but the colour was right: the honeyed hue of the best afternoon light. She wore a coat just like the one he’d bought Bridget, red as an arterial spurt, but that was a common colour. Her cheeks were pink from the wind, her gaze seemingly fixed on some point in the distance. Darrin almost called her name, but then lifted the camera instead, zooming the view to make
it was her, feeling a surge of pre-emptive disappointment in his chest.
Her image rushed toward him in the viewfinder, and yes, it was Bridget, suddenly brought into heartbreaking range. He instinctively pressed the button and took a photo—he didn’t do much else these days, and the action was automatic.
Darrin lowered the camera and drew breath to call her name just as she grasped the railing and vaulted nimbly over it, graceful as always—she’d been a gymnast as a teenager, before discovering the joys of alcohol, psychedelic mushrooms, and smoking, all passions she’d retained into adulthood. Darrin didn’t shout, stunned by her action, though he didn’t believe she intended to jump. Bridget had often been sad, but never suicidal. If anything, she wanted
life, profounder experiences, grander passions, greater wonders to behold. She’d talked often about changing her life, but never about ending it.
Bridget steadied herself beyond the guardrail, her footing firm as she held the rail nonchalantly with one hand. Darrin ran toward her, calling her name, but his voice was lost in the wind and the chorus of voices from the tourists, all shouting at Bridget to watch out, to be careful, to come back, some of them starting toward her, to save her from herself. She ignored them all, the expression on her face a sort of determined serenity. Darrin was five steps away, not quite grabbing distance, when she let go and fell, head first, to the bay below.
One of the tourists chanted loudly, as if counting the moments between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder: “One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand,” and then Bridget hit the bay and disappeared. She looked like nothing so much as a single drop of blood striking the water. Tourists crowded around the railing, surrounding Darrin, pressing him against the rail. One of the small boats on the bay manoeuvred to the place where Bridget had struck, but Darrin knew it was hopeless, too late—she’d hit head first, and she was gone.