Pine needles flashed orange, then crumpled into gray. Brown trees, charred black, their remaining bark curled into gray suggestions of the armor it once was. This too crumpled at a touch, and above the blazing forest, plumes of black smoke towered. Drop by drop, gray storm clouds forced the devouring red away. In this ravaged world, scars ruled, cutting into all life—black and gray. Always black and gray. And then one day, from the scorched remains, green would once more reign supreme.
Mürg marveled at the pine cone in his hand. Only the heat from the roaring Birthing Fire was enough to make it burst open and release its seeds—ensuring that life would spring anew.
He studied the intricate life fount. Tiny dots, seeds each one delicately connected to a fine feathery wood wing so that it would soar away swooping and falling from the waves of heat to nestle safely, cozily in the rich gray floor. There the speck would lose its wing, awaiting the rain—to grow mighty. Mürg looked at the jagged stumps marking the graves of trees no more. Beside these macabre flags waited the seeds.
Mürg continued on his path through the graveyard of the Great Woods. Somewhere in the gray were his homes. His home that once was, and his home that had yet to be. For the present, he had no home so he walked on to find something in between. A place to live but not a home. His home was in the trees. As he walked, he nodded at his fellow gnomes. Some were in tears, a sign this was a first birth for them. It felt hard, Mürg remembered distantly, the first time you had to build a house. It felt wrong to build somewhere to live when the forest provided all, but they would learn now. It was no different than building a box to store nuts in through the winter.
Some gnomes much older than Mürg, five, perhaps ten times his age did not wander for new homes. He passed them as he moved, but they did not. They were stone. When the heat came before the flames consumed their feast, the elders let themselves be baked. Now they would wait. Wait until the green came again after long days of rain; then the elders too would be restored to life. Mürg wondered when or if he would allow the fire to bake him. Would it be when he tired of building a house? Or when he was too weak to do so? Perhaps it would be once he had loved, built a family and then eventually became once more alone.
Mürg stopped when he came to the Stone Bridge. It was not a bridge made of stone, it was wood. It had taken many trees to build. Solid wood carved and bent, interlocked into itself—it was the Stone Bridge because of this. Like a solid singular stone, it was a solid singular bridge. The Birthing Fires never went as far as the bridge. The treeline ended at a stretch of sand that was as wide as a morning’s walk to the first step of the bridge. The Stone Bridge would always be safe from the Birthing Fires. It would always be dead. The dead do not move, so the Stone Bridge could lead nowhere. No gnome ever crossed it, and nothing ever came over it.
Starll the eldest of the elders told Mürg that when she was young, the eldest-elder of her time, Vört, told her that when he, Vört, was born, the eldest-elder of that time said that on that day, three Birthing Fires before, the last eldest-elder had died who remembered being told how the bridge was built during his father’s time. Mürg stared at the bridge. Only the ground could be older. He wondered what the world was like then, back when the ground and sky were young and the Stone Bridge new. Where had the bridge led then, or, perhaps, what had come over it into the forest? Mürg regarded the Stone Bridge once more and then continued on his wanderings for a house but not a home.
The golden sun yolk grew, and its heavy weight caused it to sink in the sky. Swollen and orange, its glow smeared the sky with soft pink that faded into bright purples and then finally into deep, dark blues the color of all the eldest-elders’ hair and beards. These gnomes were in the final fifth of their life journey. Mürg’s hair and beard were mottled so thickly with flecks of pink it looked as if the orange and pink were intertwined into one color. There were still more Birthing Fires to come in Mürg’s life before his hair and beard were all pink—the sign of a gnome in the third fifth of life. And many more fires before his hair and beard were night-blue.
Mürg watched the white counterweight of the sun rise high into the sky. It was small and light now in its youth and full, aging more slowly than the sun. He recalled a story Starll had told him once about the sun and moon:
Every day the Sun set the sky ablaze hoping to clear a path so the Moon could find her way back home. And over the course of many nights, the Moon shed pieces of herself, bits of light dotting a trail for the Sun so he could find the roaming Moon. But no matter how much each one longed for the other, neither belonged in the other’s world.
Whenever the moon was full, Mürg could not help thinking how sad it must be to grow old slowly and lose pieces of yourself along the way until one night you were gone. One night this moon would die, but during the day its dusty remains would shape themselves into fragments and eventually a new, whole moon would be born. The cycle would continue, the moon journeying away wishing for the sun to follow, and the sun chasing after, begging the moon to return home.
Mürg’s thoughts drifted back to the Stone Bridge. The bridge had been built just like the moon was built, out of many pieces that formed into a single whole. Would the Stone bridge one day fall to pieces so that it could live again? But no one would be left who remembered how the pieces fit together. Perhaps that was why it did not crumble. It refused to break because death was better than laying unfinished, unborn for eternity.
In the morning, Mürg awoke in a gray pile of cinders that served as his bed for the night. Then, he set out to find his house that would not be a home. When the sun reached its midlife, Mürg found himself again at the Stone Bridge. He had not meant to go back in that direction, yet there he was — there it was. Mürg noticed something very odd as he stared again at this Stone Bridge: it cast a shadow.
“That’s not possible,” he said. His chest felt frozen, but his feet trembled.
The sun was up too high, and yet, there it was—long and dark, stretching along the grounds. Mürg looked up in the sky for some other source of light, but the light had to be coming from the otherside of the bridge for it was the steps and front of the bridge, not the sides that cast the black shadow on the sand.
“How can this be?” he wondered.
Always, thick, heavy fog hung so low around the bridge that it was impossible to see the other end of the bridge. Surely, no light source could penetrate that. And even if there was such a powerful sun in existence, even it could not create such a dark, defined shadow. Mürg realized suddenly that he was at the foot of the Stone Bridge. If he reached his hand out, his fingers could have touched the top of the first step. He felt a cool breeze and took several steps back. A breeze, wind coming from fog?
“But the bridge is dead,” he whispered. Even the living air, he knew, could not cross over a dead bridge.
Mürg considered approaching the Stone Bridge again to investigate, but instead he found himself taking several steps backwards.
“No,” he snapped. “The dead cannot move. Nothing is beyond the bridge, only nowhere.”
The next day, Mürg finished setting up his temporary home. It was an abandoned fox den. Likely, the fox family had perished in the Birthing Fire, but it was possible they had survived and built a new home elsewhere. In other forests, Mürg learned from the eldest-elders, gnomes and foxes lived in harmony, working together, helping one another, but not in the Great Woods. Here, the forest of Mürg’s homes, foxes ate gnomes. Still, he did not wish or hope that the fox family had been killed by the Birthing Fires. He was just relieved they were, alive or dead, no longer in his woods.
That evening he went to visit his friend, Thirss. She was a bit younger than Mürg with more flecks and less streams of pink in her hair. Her great-grandmother was Starll, the eldest-elder now turned stone, awaiting the rains.
“Hello, Mürg,” Thirss said, welcoming him into her temporary home.
“Hello, Thirss,” he replied, nodding. “May your golden house stay strong until its first blue day.”
“Thank you,” she replied, an automatic, lifeless smile cracking her soft cheeks. Mürg’s was a traditional greeting for entering a freshly built house. Thirss did not expect from Mürg the more relaxed, familiar greeting between friends, but she wished they could share it one day.
“You did a very nice job on your house,” Mürg said, looking around filled with a mix of wonder and worry.
Building came very naturally to Thirss, and unlike the other gnomes, she quite enjoyed it. If she wanted to, she could build a home that would last forever, even through the Birthing Fires, but she dared not. It was not right to build anything that could last longer than what the forest provided. It was why nothing grew in the sand between the Stone Bridge and the edge of the forest. At least that was what golden gnomes were taught by their elders to believe.
Thirss wanted to say, “It was fun, and I enjoyed it,” but instead she added, “I walked two full days collecting sticks.”
“You made them fit together so…tightly.”
Mürg reached out to touch one of the walls, but at the last moment, he stopped, thinking better of it, or maybe he wondered, fearing what would happen.
“I bet,” he said, returning his hand to his side, “you’ll stay quite dry when it rains.”
“Thank you, Mürg. It took a long time.”
Thirss wanted to add, “Because I was careful not to weave it so tightly that no rain at all or even wind could get through, else I was accused of being a builder,” but instead she offered Mürg some food and something to drink.
They talked for a while, then played a game with pine needles that Starll taught them when they were much younger. When they finished, Mürg started to thank Thirss for the nice visit and say goodbye, but instead he said, “I saw the Stone Bridge cast a shadow when the sun was at its midlife yesterday.”
“A shadow!” she exclaimed.
Mürg barely realized he had said the words before Thirss replied. He had to stop himself from asking how she knew he had seen the bridge’s shadow.
“With the sun at its peak, where was the other light coming from?” Thirss asked. The ideas spinning across Thirss’ face frightened Mürg.
“I don’t…I couldn’t see, but” he hesitated, “it appeared as if it was coming…from the otherside of the bridge.”
“Let’s go tomorrow and see if it happens again!”
Thirss clasped her hand over her mouth, too late to keep the words inside. Mürg’s face reminded her of when they were golden gnomes, and she had scared him by making a pile of sticks and a collection of shed fur look like a fox devouring her. She looked down as Mürg stared at her. How could one face paint so many expressions when the sun and moon each had but one?
“You…believe me?” Mürg said, breaking the silence.
“Of course I believe you, Mürg. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because what I told you I saw is impossible.”
“Last year, you were the only one who believed me when I found the fawn with two heads, starving. Everyone else said a creature with two mouths must be fat not thin.”
Mürg breathed in then pressed his lips together, curling them beneath his small crooked teeth.
“Well,” he paused. He wanted to say, “I thought you were probably mistaken, but I always enjoy walking in the woods with you, and I did not want to miss an opportunity,” but instead he said:
“You seemed so earnest, and you wanted to save the baby deer, even though it’s not our place to make judgments such as that.”
“And you helped me,” Thirss grinned, reaching to squeeze his hand, “And we did save her, and the fawn is now a deer. I believe you. We’ll see the bridge together.”
They met at Mürg’s fox den house in the golden morning because his temporary home was on the way to the Stone Bridge. They ate breakfast as they walked, and when they arrived at the first step of the bridge, they were shrouded in dark shadow.
“Yesterday,” Mürg said, wincing at the memory, “I felt a breeze.”
Thirss reached out to touch the top of the steps, but Mürg stopped her hand, grabbing it in the air.
“We mustn’t touch a dead thing like this.”
“We touch dead things all the time. The food we eat is dead once we pull it from its branch, and dead things touch us too, like when the wind blows ash from the Birthing Fires onto us.”
“Yes,” Mürg replied, letting go of her hand, “but those are dead things we get from the living. There’s nothing living here.”
“We don’t even know for sure that the Stone Bridge is actually dead. All we know is that no one has ever seen anything come across it, and no gnomes in living memory have used it.”
“We shouldn’t touch it,” Mürg said, backing away from the bridge, “And now that we’ve seen the shadow, we can leave.”
“But we know someone or something built the bridge. Maybe a gnome, maybe not, but bridges are built for a purpose, to go somewhere or to bring something back from somewhere else.”
Mürg felt scared. He thought Thirss just wanted to see the shadow or spend time with him—like he had wanted with the two-headed fawn, but now he realized, Thirss wanted to investigate, to explore. If someone traveled to nowhere on a dead bridge, surely, they could not return. He could not bear the thought of losing Thirss.
“I never should have told you or brought you. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s okay, Mürg,” Thirss said, stepping back, “I have an idea. Meet me here tomorrow as early as you can and bring as many sticks and stones as you can carry.”
“We’re not crossing that bridge, Thirss!”
“I promise, my plan doesn’t involve us crossing the bridge.”
Reluctantly, Mürg arrived the following morning, when the sun was still young, with as many sticks and stones as he could fit on a small sled pulled behind him. Thirss saw him and climbed down from the high tower she had made.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“I came back at night to build this so we can see the top of the bridge’s path. We’ll use what you brought to make a balance scale, like the sun and moon. And we’ll use that to fling a rock onto the bridge. We can watch what happens safely from the top of our tower.”
Mürg wanted to say, “This is a terrible idea. Please, Thirss, take my hand and let’s run away from here. We’ll promise to never speak or even think of this all ever again,” but instead he said:
“We were taught that building is bad, Thirss, but you do it so well. What can that mean?”
Mürg’s head shot down as the words fell from his mouth. He could not bear to see Thirss’ wounded eyes from such a nasty remark. It was all the better that he could not see her eyes because Thirss struggled to hide the pride, glowing from them, and that sight would have punctured Mürg’s heart, with fear filling in the deep wounds.
“There are gnomes in other forests who are friends with foxes. Perhaps,” Thirss said, “it means that somewhere there’s a forest for gnomes who are builders. And maybe it’s over this bridge. A bridge built to last forever by builder-gnomes!”
She stopped herself just before adding, “And maybe that’s where I belong. Maybe they built this bridge so other builders could find their true home.”
Instead, she began constructing the catapult, though she did not use that word for it. Mürg sat in the sand and watched. He could not leave her, but he was afraid to help her. Finally, she was finished building, and he followed her, silently up the tower, his fingers looping the end curls of his beard over and over again. And now as the shadow returned, more than his desire to be there with Thirss, Mürg wanted, needed to know what would happen to the stone when it landed on the bridge. Would the balance-scale built be strong enough to launch it through the fog? And if so, what would happen then? What would that mean?
From the tower, Thirss and Mürg worked together to drop a large stone onto the catapult so that it flung a smaller stone high into the air. They watched the arc of the smaller stone as it soared through the air, above the steps of the Stone Bridge. It rose and fell like a gray sun, living and then dying, thunking onto the wooden footpath of the bridge. The sound the stone made as it landed was hollow, a sound of death, not life. Thirss gleamed.
“It did,” Mürg replied, stunned. He had expected the stone to land and then disappear or to not even land but slowly fade away as it approached the end of its arc like the moon at the end of its life.
“Now, we’ll try another stone, but this time, we’ll aim to send it through the fog,” Thirss smiled, already climbing down the tower to get to work the necessary modifications.
Part of Mürg admired Thirss. Watching her work, thinking about how her mind saw things he could not imagine—things he did not think possible. But the other part of Mürg feared for her. Thirss had ideas that should not be real and if the other gnomes knew what she thought, let alone what she could do, she would be forced to leave the forest. As he watched her, Mürg wondered, “would I follow her, go with her if the eldest-elders told her to leave the forest?” Both possible answers filled him with dread and grief.
From the tower’s top, Thirss and Mürg dropped the second stone and watched the next probe fly into the air. It cleared the steps with ease and was still not yet at the zenith of its arc when it passed above the first probe. The fog swallowed this stone in a single gulp. Mürg realized Thirss was holding her breath. Finally, she gasped when they heard the faint sound of the stone landing as if the fog had somehow cradled it softly to the wooden footpath of the bridge.
“It went through!” Thirss exclaimed, hugging Mürg.
Mürg felt a sourness fill his stomach as their embrace ended.
“But what does that mean?” he said. His voice was hoarse, and his chest and throat felt clenched around some stony core, whereas he could see Thirss’ breathing was light, her face beaming.
“That there’s something on the other side! And all we have to do is walk across the bridge to explore it.”
“We? Walk across? You promised!” Mürg shouted.
Thirss held up a hand.
“Not today,” she said, already thinking about what to build for the expedition.
“Not ever!” Mürg slammed his fist into the side of the tower.
“Maybe someday,” she said, staring at the spot where Mürg’s fist had hit the tower. “Before my hair turns to blue.”
Mürg felt relieved. Surely, Thirss would forget all about crossing the bridge, or at the very least, she would grow beyond the desire, like she had grown out of trying to scare him with fake foxes. He reached for her hand, and helped her down the tower.
Many Birthing Fires passed before Mürg’s hair and beard turned fully blue, and more were yet to come before his hair and beard were the deep, dark blue of the night. Flecks of purple still dotted Thirss’ hair, and Mürg smiled anytime the sun caught them and made Thirss’ hair shimmer. She had built their home, and Mürg knew she built it carefully so that none of the other gnomes suspected her skill. Their home withstood the Birthing Fires, but it still let the rain and wind in—by design. None of their children had inherited Thirss’ ability to build, and for that, Mürg was grateful, but he knew it grieved Thirss, although he could not understand why.
Mürg could feel the heat from the next Birthing Fire filling the air. Black smoke blocked out the sun, and the smell of burning trees blew in the heavy wind. Mürg expected to see Thirss already fortifying their home with pasting mud, a concoction of her own making, but instead, when he walked outside, he saw her putting on some muddy leaf suit.
“What are you doing?” he asked, “I came out to help with our home. The Birthing Fires are coming. You know that, don’t you?”
“I made a suit for you too,” she replied, “Today, I cross the Stone Bridge.”
Mürg felt the air being punched from his lungs by the mere weight of Thirss’ words.
“We can’t talk about that now!” He gasped, grabbing for her.
She leaned away, tenderly like a willow branch ruffled in a soft breeze.
“The heat is here. The fires will be here soon.” Mürg clenched his hands together; his voice shook. “The bridge will be there always, leading to nowhere but death. And it’s not your time now for that!”
Thirss turned away from him as she finished putting on her flame retardant suit.
“Please, Thirss, please let it go.”
Mürg reached out to her face, turning it back towards his.
“Our children’s children are colored as we were when we first explored the bridge,” she said, putting her hand over his. “I’ve had my fill of Birthing Fires, Mürg. I’m ready. Come with me, Love.”
They ran through the forest in their green leaf and mud suits. Thirss saw a fox sprinting and in a chittering voice Mürg had never heard her use, she called to it. It ran towards them twitching—scared of the raging orange to come. Mürg shouted for Thirss to keep running as the fox approached, and he searched for rocks to throw at the fox, but Thirss held his hand, as the fox paused beside them just long enough for the two gnomes to climb up. Then the fox raced through the forest.
“When did you learn to speak to foxes?!”
“I’ve always known. What I didn’t learn until late in my pink years was that no other gnomes in the Great Woods are born knowing. I always thought they chose to be enemies with the foxes. I’m sorry I held such an unkind thought for so long.”
Mürg stayed silent as they sped from the fire, but his thoughts thundered inside his head. How had Thirss remembered about the Stone Bridge? Why did she still want to explore it? Why hadn’t she talked to him about it? But he pushed the most terrifying thought from his mind: how she could do and think like no other gnome in the history of their forest—what did that mean?
When they came to the sand, at the edge of the forest, Thirss chittered something to the fox, and he let the riders off, then continued running along the forest’s sandy edge.
“We’ll rest here for now,” Thirss said, “And then once we’re ready, we can walk to the bridge.”
Mürg looked towards the bridge, and expected to see their tower and catapult still there, but instead they were dismantled, and in their place stood a new structure that would allow them to easily ascend the tall steps. The gray sky with black smoke clouds blotted out the sun even this far from the fire, yet still the steps of the Stone Bridge cast a shadow.
“Before my great-grandmother, Starll, died, she told me an odd story,” Thirss said as they rested, holding each other’s hands.
“She said that a long time ago all gnomes were males, and they were born from the acorns of oak trees that survived the Birthing Fires.”
“But that’s not possible,” Mürg shook his head.
“It’s not what we were taught to believe was possible. When female gnomes appeared, the eldest-elders—who were all male at the time—changed the creation story that was passed down and taught to young golden gnomes. But a few of the female gnomes who knew how their origin came to be secretly continued to pass down the truth. My great-grandmother was one of the inheritors, and she passed it to me. I told our granddaughter, Shernn. And now, Love, if you let me, I’ll tell you.”
Mürg stiffened, taking his hand from Thirss’ hold. Soft puddles formed at the base of his eyes. Thirss nodded and said:
“Then we’ll sleep here in the sand together tonight, and in the morning, I’ll walk over the Stone Bridge, and if the fire has stopped, you can walk through the forest to build a house, like the other gnomes, that’s not a home.”
She did not speak with malice, only simply, as if remarking on the weather.
In the morning, the two gnomes walked across the sand together. They talked about their golden gnome years and of their children but nothing about the bridge. Nothing about why they held hands even though when they reached the steps it would be that much harder to part.
In the shadow of the Stone Bridge, Mürg faced his wife. He wanted to beg her to turn back, to change her mind, to dismantle her climbing contraption. Instead he asked:
“You’re decided then?
“Yes, dear. I’ve always been since the very first day I saw its shadow.”
Mürg wanted to say, “I love you, Thirss,” but instead he said:
“I’ll follow you anywhere, but there’s no way to follow you to nowhere.”
“Do you want to hear the true origin story before I go?”
Thirss curled her fingers around a muddy strand of Mürg’s hair and brushed it away from his face. Her fingers lingered behind his ear.
“It was hidden for a reason,” he said, reaching for her hand, then her arm, then her whole body. He pressed her into him. Embracing her so she could not see the first tears dripped from his face. Thirss hugged him back and kissed his face, but the gesture only hurt him, angered him. Why pretend to care for him when she was being so cruel, so selfish? He pulled back from her and said:
“If you didn’t build you wouldn’t, couldn’t be doing this! We were taught building was bad for a reason, and it was to keep folks from crossing that bridge!”
Thirss could not be hurt by his words because she could see how sick Mürg’s face already looked.
“All life is spent crossing a bridge to death, but that’s not where this one leads. Not today,” Thirss replied.
She took his balled fist into her hands and stroked it until she could feel between each of his stubby fingers.
“Not a single male gnome will ever belong in the world over this bridge,” she said, “and only a few female gnomes are born that ever would, but I’ll take you with me and keep you safe and love you always for the rest of our lives together.”
Mürg could no longer hold back; he sobbed like the rain that would soon quench the parched forest, but he could see the fire in his wife’s eyes. No tears would ever put it out, and he had done this to her. He had told her about the shadow cast by the Stone Bridge from a sourceless light through an impenetrable fog. Long ago in the past, he had killed his future wife, and now in the present, he watched Thirss begin to ascend the steps and walk onto the bridge. Mürg felt pieces of himself break away. He knew how the moon felt as it grew old and the pain of losing pieces of himself was unbearable.
“Thirss,” he cried, “I love you! I love you, Thirss. Please, please come back!”
He was not sure if she heard him because she made no answer, or if she did, he could not hear it. Quickly, he climbed the contraption, careful not to touch the actual bridge, to see her, to call her, to beg her with all his breath to come back. But by the time he reached the top, he could only see her shadow swallowed by the fog.
“Noooooo!” he wailed. Shaking, eyes blinded with tears, he fell backward from the platform on which he stood.
He would have broken his back from the fall had it not been for the soft sand. He spent the rest of the day racing back to the forest. Furiously, he collected sticks still with glowing embers at their ends and any remaining dry pine needles or leaves that he could find. Exhaustion seeped through him like water through dirt. He was not tired; instead he was awake, the way mudslides are awake.
It had been a full day by the time he reached the steps of the Stone Bridge this time pulling behind him a sled of protected burning embers. By now, he thought, Thirss would have had enough time to finish crossing the bridge into nowhere, into death. Now, he would burn the bridge down with a Birthing Fire so a new, young bridge could be built, not as long lasting, but stable enough to be alive for one crossing. He would explain to the other gnomes that they needed to build this bridge just this once to rescue Thirss from a death before her time. It would be safe, the new bridge would be alive, and it would lead somewhere, through the fog. It would lead to Thirss.
Mürg brought out the embers and kindling and set them by the steps of the bridge, blowing on them and shielding them from the wind until orange flames were strong enough to eat the steps. Then the fire’s teeth chewed through the rest of the bridge and beyond into the fog.
Thirss and several other women ran in the direction of the smoke. They could feel the heat of the flames on their faces as they watched the red mouth swallow the last few steps. In a few minutes, with no fuel left, it went out.
Thirss looked at the other women. Some of them were as tall as deer, a few, even taller. Yesterday, she had felt out of place among these giants, but now she was big too. Not as tall as a deer, but tall enough to look most of them in the eyes without raising her chin.
“That was my husband’s doing, I think,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
An older woman placed a wrinkled, knobby hand on Thirss’ shoulder.
“I build even better’n that now,” she said, “And some of these women here build better’n me.”
“Mürg wouldn’t even let me tell him the truth before I left,” Thirss said, wiping away a few tears.
“Funny little men and their superstition. Perhaps we build a boat this time, less spooky than a bridge that leads nowhere,” the old woman replied.
Thirss walked across the sand to where the bridge once stood and collected a handful of ash. Then she joined the other women as they walked back to the elf village.
Logan Penna is an emerging writer who is excited to have this piece, “Stone Bridge,” published in Punt Volat—his second work to be published. His first story, “The Architect,” was published in the Bangalore Review. Logan enjoys reading and writing fantasy and science fiction stories. In addition to short stories, he is also working on a full-length novel, which he hopes will become the first book in a series with a focus on protecting the environment.