Tomorrow she crosses the bridge. She’s been out to it so many times. She always looks north to the other side to see if that country is anything like her own, and it seems to be. But the bridge has been too narrow to cross, the deep Ocean on one side and the deep, deep pit of Hell on the other. At the narrow point, it has been like a knife-edge. But it is changing. After every shaking of the earth, the bridge changes a little, gets a little lower. Now there is a tiny stream of water flowing over down into Hell, at least until it dries up on the way down the cliff.
If she waits till the next shaking, the Ocean water will be too strong to resist. And she will have more grey hairs on her body, too. So it’s tomorrow.
She remembers the stories of Hell that she had been told as a child, how hot it was, that it never rained there, that no one could live there, but Hell was her salvation. Family threw her out years ago, when she was little, because she could not bring out babies, and because of the blood. They told her the only reason they had gotten her was to bring out babies. They tried everything they could; every one of the males filled her, often. But every month she had the usual bleeding and stayed in the females’ tent. Then one time the bleeding stopped and everyone was happy, until the baby came out too soon, full of blood. She passed out, and woke up outside the camp, with a few of the females trying to help. “Get strong fast,” they said. “The males say you are cursed because of the blood. They will make you go to Hell.”
She had barely a few days to recover before they prodded her northward, away from the forest. They pushed her three days north, and the trees stopped, and then even the grass. All she had was the waterskin and a little food that the females had provided. “You will burn in Hell!” the males yelled. The pushed her right to the edge, and she could see how fearfully deep the pit was, how dry, how empty of life. And how steep the sides.
But it was the beginning of the cold season, and a storm was on its way. Wonderful to watch, water dropping down from the sky and then disappearing as it entered Hell. But away from that pit, the rain fell to earth, making everyone wet. The males were not prepared for rain, and it was a great storm, so they gave one last push and then ran back for the shelter of the forest. She fell a short distance but dropped to a ledge and there passed out again. She slept for a long time, safe from the rain and the males. When she woke up, she ate and drank, and, so so carefully, pulled her way back up to the edge and out of Hell.
In the cold season, Hell is not so hot. But it can be a place to hide only for a little while, not a place to live. So she walked west a long time following the edge, the forest on the left, the edge on the right. She met no one.
Now she lives in the corner of her world, near the Ocean, where it meets Hell. Now she knows that the storms come from the Ocean, something Family never knew. She can see storms coming and prepare a place to keep dry. She is alone, almost all the time. She has found out how to hunt animals and gather the good seeds and fruit. She feels strong now, not like the time with Family, but sometimes she feels lonely. She found and kept a wolf baby for two years, till it grew up and needed to make her own babies. She would howl when she heard the wolf howl, and sometimes it came with its babies and they greeted each other again.
Sometimes over the years she has met a male or a female of her own kind, alone. She almost never knows their language. They are always happy to meet – the visitor is as lonely as she is. So they spend a night together at a bedplace she makes for two, but not the secret place she has made for herself. A male almost always wants to fill her, and they both like the feel, the smell, everything that loneliness has kept from them. Many times he wants her to go with him, but she won’t do that. She signs that she can’t have babies, and then he turns away. If not, she gets up early before he wakes up, and goes somewhere else till he is away. She never knows where they go, whether they have tried to cross the bridge, or whether they have succeeded or died.
One male spoke a language she almost understood. She asked about Family, and he knew where the camp was but said he saw no one there. He said it was not right to be alone. Not right, or not good, she could not be sure. She said she was Free. Yes, he said, Free but Alone. No, she said to him, Alone but Free. She likes being Free.
When the visitor is female, they sleep together and rub each other. Sometimes the visitor wants to fill her with her fingers, and that is good, or she wants the reverse, and that is good, too. The females never want her to go with them; they want to stay, they say they should be family. It does not feel safe; it seems to intrude on being Free. She does the same thing as with the males, getting up very early in the morning and disappearing till they are gone. This is her home country now, and she knows it better than anyone.
The bridge has always beckoned. She often walks out to the narrow point, looks back at her own little country, and then north to that world. She can see forests. She is sure there will be nuts and berries and seeds there. And, just as here, there will be animals to eat, at least some of the time. When she looks west, she sees the Ocean. As she gets close to the narrow point, the bridge comes down to the Ocean’s level, so she does not go out there during storms. And of course, she looks east to Hell. Sometimes, there are yellow winds down there that blow eastward, but Hell is so big that it is impossible to see where the winds go to. Hell and the Ocean seem to smell almost alike, though the Ocean smells more alive.
The shakings have happened a lot recently, at least once a year, although she never knows when one will happen. They do not hurt her; the trees sway and sometimes a branch falls. And some of the animals get frightened, which means they are easier to catch. A shaking might knock her off the bridge if she is there when one happens. The difference from one shaking to the next is that the bridge gets lower each time. She reminds herself that water has now begun to flow from the Ocean into Hell. It dries up very fast, though, on the steep slide down. There are no rivers in Hell! Yesterday there was a shaking, so today she walked out, and could actually walk through the water just a little. It felt very safe, the flow of water very slight, nice to feel on the feet.
She will get a pack full of water and food to carry on her back tomorrow. She will be gone forever from Family. That feels good, very good, but maybe she will also be gone from all others of her kind. Maybe no one will ever lie down with her again. After she crosses over, that waterflow will become bigger, and unsafe – or impossible! – for others to try crossing. She likes her little country. But she cannot wait any longer. She has traveled so far in her life, she knows so much more now, and she is so much stronger, and just over the bridge there’s still more to see. Tomorrow she crosses the bridge.