Authors: Tim Pratt
“We should take backpacks,” Ismael said. “It will take a few hours to get where we’re going.”
She came along, saying nothing as he packed jerky, water bottles, dried fruit, and a first-aid kit—for her, not him, of course—in a pair of high-end hiking backpacks. As he adjusted the complicated straps on his pack, Ismael mused that more engineering had gone into creating these bags than had gone into the construction of bridges, in the old days. The world did change, was always changing, getting better in some respects— fewer fleas now, less slavery. The world just never got good
Ismael opened a closet and gestured at dozens of walking sticks leaning against the walls inside. “Better take one of these.”
Bridget peered into the closet and shook her head. “For a guy who disdains worldly things, Ismael, you sure do have an awful lot of shit.”
Ismael shrugged. “People give me their possessions, sometimes, just before they take the leap. I never ask for it, but it seems rude to refuse. Even this house was a gift from one of my jumpers. I do have a lot of walking sticks but, well, most of those people took a lot of walks with me. Like we’re about to.”
Bridget grunted and took a ski pole from the closet, just to be contrary, Ismael supposed. He didn’t take a stick. He had his ASP baton if he needed to fend anything off to protect Bridget, and he didn’t worry about tripping and falling. He knew every dip and pebble on
path, though he didn’t have the emotional strength to walk it very often. The despair he felt afterward was too great, and paths in the briarpatch could be treacherous.
He led her down his back steps, through his weedy yard, to the leaning wooden shed, full of dust, dark, and spiders. Pulling open the crooked door, he gestured. “After you.”
She shifted her pack and stepped past him, pausing just inside the threshold. “I don’t see a way,” she said petulantly. Well, that wouldn’t last. Ismael considered clubbing her in the back of the head and dragging her into the briarpatch to die or find her own way out. Her disappearance would have the same affect on Darrin as her transition to the light. There was a time when he’d reacted to the insolence of these short-time mortals with that sort of extreme prejudice, but the idea of murder made him tired now. Besides, he liked Bridget, and she would probably come around, once she saw the light.
“Look harder.” He touched her on the back of the neck.
She stepped forward, muttering “I see,” and vanished into the darkness at the back of the shed, a spot where the back wall might have been, but wasn’t, just now.
Ismael followed her into the dark, and through, and out into the light again. They were on an isthmus barely wide enough for the two of them to stand side by side, a natural rock bridge dropping away to chasm on all sides, crushed-seashell soil underfoot. The old wooden shed stood behind them, or else its double did; Ismael was never sure whether liminal objects had doppelgangers here in the briarpatch, or if they inhabited both spaces simultaneously. Maybe “space” was an irrelevant term in this setting. Despite years of curiosity about science and philosophy, Ismael was neither scientist nor philosopher, and his approach to the briarpatch was mostly instinctive. His old friend and travelling companion, the talkative Harczos, had been the one with all the theories about this place, but Ismael hadn’t spoken to him in years, since their falling out in the wake of Harczos’s last great act of cruelty.
A swinging bridge stretched before them, over the chasm, to some unseen shore on the far side. The bridge was a mishmash of metal and wood, boards that resembled those from the shed, patched here and there with scrap metal (like the shed’s tin roof), bits of old lawnmowers (like the one that sat rusting in the shed), with handrails made of chain and rope (like those that hung on the shed’s walls).
Bridget put her hand on the rail, hesitated for a moment, and then started walking across.
Ismael shook his head. She was so brave and foolish, walking into the briarpatch ahead of him this way, with no idea where she was going or what waited for her ahead. When she saw the corpse, perhaps she’d let him take the lead.
The bridge barely swung as they crossed, and it didn’t produce the sorts of creaks and clanks such a structure should have made. Ismael believed it probably wasn’t a bridge at all, certainly not a
thing, but was instead a metaphorical bridge made real by their presence, their act of observation.
A few steps ahead of him, at the end of the bridge, he heard Bridget say “What the
Ismael paused, allowing himself a small smile. “Find something unpleasant?”
“There’s a dead body,” she said tightly, gripping the rope-and-chain railing with both hands.
“Could you be more specific?” Ismael was enjoying this despite himself. He hardly ever enjoyed anything anymore, but this inevitable confrontation with the memento-mori of his jumpers-to-be always pleased him. They figured out things were serious, when he took them over the bridge behind the woodshed.
“It’s . . . it’s fucking
“But does it have a face?”
Silence. Then: “It can’t be. I know what it looks like, but it can’t be.”
“Are you being cryptic on purpose?” Ismael said; it was a question Bridget often asked him.
“It’s me, Ismael. The dead body looks like me.”
“Well, step over it and let me off the bridge. I don’t want to keep swinging in the wind indefinitely. If it’s dead it probably can’t hurt you. Now, if you ever bump into a
version of yourself, that’s a different story. I’ve never heard of it happening, but if it does, I would advise you to run away, and hope your double does the same.”
Bridget did a standing long jump over the corpse. Ismael stepped over calmly. He prodded the dead Bridget-double with his toe. It looked like some animal had torn her up pretty badly. “Sometimes they’re burned almost beyond recognition, but the face is always recognizable,” he said. “People don’t recognize their own arms and legs in isolation, unless they have distinctive scars or tattoos, but they know their own faces.”
“What are you talking about?” Bridget stood a few feet away hugging herself, her back to the path that wound through high cliffs of red rock. She was cold again, probably with fear this time.
“The body,” Ismael said. “Everyone who crosses this bridge finds their own dead body. If two people come, there are two dead bodies. I’ve never brought more than two at a time, but if I brought twenty, I’m sure there’d be twenty corpses piled here. That would be hard to get passed.”
“So . . . it’s just some briarpatch thing?”
“‘Just?’” Ismael marvelled at her. She seemed almost calm. “This is your own dead ravaged corpse, Bridget. If you pulled down its pants—well, the shredded remains of its pants—you’d find that same birthmark you have on your leg. I don’t know why these cadavers appear, if they’re a warning, or a sign that means ‘turn back now,’ or the briarpatch’s idea of a gift, or an apport from some other more or less likely universe, but it’s personal, and it’s meant for you.”
“What’s an apport?” She knelt and looked at the body, her head cocked, revulsion replaced by curiosity.
Ismael sighed, and his voice took on a lecturing tone. “Basically? An apport is an object out of place. Sometimes an impossible object in an ordinary place, sometimes an ordinary object in an impossible place. Spiritualist mediums would make flowers and fruit and feathers ‘appear’ out of nowhere, and claim they were messages from the spirit realm. An apport is anything in a place where it shouldn’t be—where it
be—with the assumption that it must have come from somewhere . . .” He waved his hands vaguely. “
. Beyond the ordinary world. Beyond reality as it’s generally understood.”
“Huh,” Bridget said. “So everyone who comes here sees their own dead body?”
“Yes. Sometimes dead from obvious causes, sometimes without a mark on them. Sometimes they’re wearing wedding rings when their living counterparts aren’t married, and sometimes they’re missing fingers or toes or have different piercings or the lack thereof, but they’re always recognizable.”
“Maybe, if there’s an infinity of universes, there are some universes where everyone is already dead, and the bodies come from there.”
“Makes as much sense as anything, which means, not much,” Ismael said. “This place isn’t about science. This is the briarpatch. Everything you think you know is wrong.”
“Science is just a way to understand the universe.” Bridget stood up, apparently prepared to dismiss the body from her thoughts. She paused. “So where’s your corpse, Ismael? Is there no place in all the vast interlocking universes where you’re not alive?”
“I don’t know.” Ismael kicked the corpse in the ribs while she wasn’t looking. The kick wasn’t very satisfying. “I’ve never found my own corpse here. Perhaps because I come from the briarpatch. Was born here.”
“You gotta have parents to be born, Ismael.”
“I may have had parents, though I suspect not. It’s impossible to say. My earliest memories are walking the forking paths. I think I just . . . came into being.”
Bridget grunted. “Maybe
“The idea has occurred to me. We should keep going.”
“Lead on.” She stepped aside to let him start down the path before her, and Ismael counted that concession as a small victory, at least.
The high cliffs went on for some time, and the sky above was a reddish haze, which Ismael checked often for disturbance or thickening. It rained here, sometimes, and it didn’t always rain water. He’d packed ponchos in the backpacks for just that reason.
They finally emerged onto a roof in Oakland’s Lakeshore district, beside an enormous illuminated sign that said “Grand Lake Theater.” The night was clear, the lights of houses on the hills in the distance glimmering like captured stars.
Bridget took a drink of water and glared. “Ismael, this place is only a few miles from your house. Why didn’t we
over here, and avoid crossing the bridge and walking through dry gulch back there?”
“The briarpatch isn’t linear.” Ismael gazed at the sparkling comet on the sign. “It matters where you start walking. If we’d started from here, we wouldn’t wind up in the same place. It would take much longer to get where we’re going. Days, probably.” It would have also required trailblazing, which Ismael was reluctant to do. Harczos had been the great explorer, not him. Ismael had been lost wandering for years in some of the uglier corners of the briarpatch, and was reluctant to risk such an ordeal again, so he seldom strayed from the paths he knew well. He gestured, and she followed him
the sign, not
it. When they stepped around it, they were someplace else instead, at the top of a long slick spiralling stone ramp, like something from a medieval castle. They descended for a while, then the path levelled, and after a few dozen yards of walking through something like the tunnels in a catacomb, the roof opened up into a dark, strange sky. Bridget craned her neck, staring up at the lights far above, too big to be stars, and finally stopped in the middle of the path. She stood on tiptoe and reached up, extending her ski pole to jab the darkness vigorously, and a few drops of water fell into her upturned face, making her cough and blink.
Ismael scowled. “How did you know poking the sky like that wouldn’t bring the whole lake crashing down on us? You have to be careful here, Bridget.”
“Lake? The sky is a lake? But there are stars.”
“We’re under Lake Merritt,” he said. “Those ‘stars’ are just the electric fairy lights strung along the path that circles the lake, and the lights of buildings nearby.”
“I don’t understand. I thought we were in the briarpatch?”
Ismael nodded. “We are. But we’re very close to the world you know as well. Everything isn’t ‘in’ or ‘out’—many things are in-between. What is the thickness of a border, and where are you when you stand precisely on that border? When you pause in the threshold of a door, are you in, or out? Is twilight night or day? This is a twilight place. It touches the world you know, it is
to that world, but not wholly of it.”
Bridget frowned. “I still don’t get it. How can there be a place like this, a path with air, under the lake?”
“It’s not under the lake, not exactly, not the way you mean. If you swam down into the lake, and dove to the bottom, you wouldn’t be able to get here. If I boosted you up, and managed to get you entirely in the water, though, you’d be able to swim up and out. You just wouldn’t be able to get back down here again.”
“Something to do with multidimensional space maybe,” Bridget muttered.
Ismael was annoyed by her constant need to quantify the mystery, but on some level he could sympathize; the briarpatch was vast and confusing and dangerous, and trying to understand it was one way to create the illusion of control. Next she’d be trying to
the briarpatch, which not even Harczos had been mad enough to try.”You wouldn’t want to swim in that lake anyway,” Ismael said. “It’s full of duck shit.”
“They’re geese, mostly. There’s a bird sanctuary, with some more exotic birds, but mostly it’s geese.” Still staring up, she pointed. “Look. There goes a gondola.”
Ismael looked. A narrow boat passed slowly through the water above them. “How
.” He made the word sound like a skin disease.
“The gondolas on the lake are made in Italy, I’ve heard. By real gondola makers.”
Ismael wondered how anyone who built a functional gondola could be anything but a “real gondola maker,” regardless of their country of origin, but it seemed like a pointless argument to start. Most were.
“Darrin took me for a gondola ride on one of our first dates.”
“Hmm,” Ismael said. “There’s no denying I take you more interesting places.”
“This is the grove,” Ismael said. “We’re almost there.” He paused outside the wood of towering, pale, faintly luminous trees and sat on a flat rock to have a drink and eat some fruit. One of his earlier prospects, a poet, had called this place the Grove of Poison Delights. She hadn’t been a very good poet.