Low Bridge! Or The Dark Obstructions

Issue #240

Promptly at seven o’clock on the morning after our wedding, Edna and I boarded the packet boat.

We had quarreled the night before, making a bitter end to a long and exhausting day of wedding formalities and travel, all thanks to the stupidity of the idle-tongued innkeeper. I had slept badly as a consequence, tossing in annoyance all night in my bed as I considered each moment whether I ought to rise and cross the corridor into my new wife’s room, knocking lightly on her door, bearing an apology on my lips—

But I did not.

Instead I rose early and strove to put the bad beginning behind us. No husband could have been more attentive, nor more solicitous, as I stood next to Edna on the canal wall, holding her hand as she stepped once from the dock onto the gangplank and then once again onto the deck of the waiting boat.

And as the old captain in his fine-fitting uniform bowed before the curved mahogany railing of the afterdeck, his brown hand resting diffidently on the smooth wood of the rudder lever, I felt that all might be well after all.

“How do you do, Mrs Canning?” the captain asked. “And Mr Canning? Congratulations on the conclusion of your nuptials.”

At that, Edna had turned to me, saying shyly, “I don’t suppose they greet you like that on the railway.”

For a moment, I felt the color rising in my cheeks and my collar growing tight. For that had been the very subject of our argument, after the damnfool innkeeper had prattled on and on about the wonders of the new railway. Imagine rocketing from Albany to Buffalo in twenty-four hours flat, he had said. A time savings of an entire week!

A week! What a shock that revelation had been to me, who had taken two berths already on the canal packet. Why, to be a week earlier at Niagara Falls, amid the scenery and gaiety and the countless little luxuries that come with a first-rate hotel. Not to mention the chance to be alone with Edna at last in the peach-and-periwinkle silken splendor of the honeymoon suite—

But like a fool, I had felt the need to defend my choice of the canal. I had pointed out the danger, the noise, the smoke, the discomfort of railway travel—untried and untested as it was.

But the innkeeper had been unperturbed, shaking his head as if in wonder. “Noise! Smoke! What are such things to a fellow newly married? But I suppose times have changed...”

Then later when Edna had pulled me aside, urging me to change the reservation to the railway, I had churlishly exploded, venting all the annoyance and resentment that the innkeeper had fired in me upon her...

But as I watched her now, Edna acted not at all put out to find herself on the Erie Canal instead of the Utica & Schenectady Line. I determined to take her comment and attitude as an olive branch rather than a criticism and worked to infuse some warmth into the smile that had grown wooden on my lips.

“Oh, how clever,” Edna continued as we navigated the cramped afterdeck. “A little door to go under the cabin—and a little stair to go up top!”

“Yes, an ingenious use of space,” I agreed as we mounted to the roof and took possession of one of the low benches fixed there. Further along, porters lashed our two traveling trunks to the roof, swapping cheery talk in some unfathomable sailor’s lingo. But beyond them there was nothing but bright open air—blue sky above, picturesque mist on the dark water of the canal below, and a pure country breeze just beginning to freshen on our faces.

“Shall I open your parasol—darling?” (So asked I with a stammer.)

“No, the sun feels lovely just now—dearest.” (So answered she with a blush.)

Then Edna’s hand sought mine, giving my fingers a palpable squeeze. Indeed, I thought to myself, what did it matter how soon we reached Buffalo—a day, a week, or an eternity? We were together already, with our lifetimes ahead of us!

Feeling I ought to say something, I smiled at Edna. “We shall have a pleasant week on this boat, I perceive.”

But Edna’s only reply was to squeeze my hand lightly again. And suddenly I was aware of a searching look in her eyes—half disappointment and half confusion. But it was gone again as soon as it appeared, replaced by a breezy smile, and I understood that Edna had simply determined to make do on the trip, and to put a happy face on what she considered a bad decision of mine.

“Last call!” came the captain’s voice from behind. “Last call for Amsterdam, Fonda, Fultonville, and all ports west!”

And as I stared back at Edna, wondering suddenly how many other brave faces Edna would feel it necessary to wear in the coming years of our marriage, the boat began to move.

For almost two hours, Edna and I remained alone on the roof of the packet boat, having nothing to do but gaze at the scattered farmhouses, or the backs of the horses, or the little wavelets on the water—or, as was most often the case, at each other.

Although anyone watching might have thought that there was nothing to trouble us, I felt my spirits sinking. Had I not been dreaming of this moment for the long months of our courtship? Had I not been yearning to get out, at last, from beneath the watchful gaze of Edna’s ever-present chaperones?

Yet, now that we had at last achieved the unity that we had wished for, I found that there was now some invisible obstruction between us that still separated us—just as our argument had separated us the night before. Would it always be thus? Would there always be this irreconcilable difference of mind that would keep us just an inch apart from each other—but an inch never to be bridged?

Not that conditions were ideal. Travel by canal boat was full of interruptions and reminders of the outside world, including many moments when the boy on the towpath would raise a cry of “Bridge coming!” At which signal the captain (who could see almost nothing of the canal ahead over the top of the cabin and the benches and our trunks, and who piloted apparently by intuition or by memory) would hoist up his speaking trumpet and repeat the call.

“Bridge!” he would cry from behind us. “Loooow bridge!”

And then I would clap my hat to my head and slide down alongside Edna as we watched the approaching masonry. No matter how often it happened, it always transfixed and unnerved us anew when a bridge approached—our eyes were invariably drawn and held by the imminent arc of heavy stone and iron sweeping silently toward us, a shadow falling and then spreading along the boat as it passed above the bow, the keystone barely seeming to clear the tops of our traveling trunks—Edna and I compressing our bodies down smaller and smaller until at last the bridge loomed directly above us, moving at what suddenly seemed like a very fast rate—then darkness and coldness falling instantly together, almost as though we had been a candle flame and a snuffer had been clapped snugly down on us—

And then, even more suddenly—light and air surrounded us again!—and the bridge, receding now behind us, would disappear into the distance down the long straight length of the canal as we floated on, ever forward toward Buffalo at four miles per hour.

It was two hours into our voyage, after one such encounter (one that the captain termed a “Veeeery loooow bridge” and which actually had us prostrate on the roof before our bench, squeezing hands through what seemed like a tomb-cold tunnel), that we heard something fall onto the packet roof a little ways behind us.

Glancing back as I helped Edna back to her seat on the bench, I was surprised to see three other people likewise picking themselves up. Two were young men, a little rough-looking in the way of itinerant laborers. But the third was well-dressed and middle-aged, a frockcoat on his back and a tall hat clutched in his hand.

“How do you do?” asked this man, a little breathlessly, as he brushed his hat against his sleeve.

“How—” I answered feebly, lifting my own hat mechanically in greeting but hardly knowing whether my spoken monosyllable had been meant to be the start of the usual pleasantry, or of the natural question of the moment.

Luckily, we were not long kept in suspense, for the captain peered up over the roof of the packet at the newcomers and then laughed. “Ahoy, Mr Bunyan, what a landing! I hadn’t expected to see you again before Amsterdam!”

The well-dressed man—apparently Mr Bunyan—laughed in return. “I expected the same, my good captain. And indeed, was very sorely regretting missing your departure from Schenectady. But as I rushed down the road ahead of you, I had the fortune to fall in with these two fine fellows, who agreed to teach me this most ingenious method for regaining my berth in exchange for paying their way to Amsterdam.”

And as Bunyan counted out the silver for the fares, the missing facts soon came out. He was an English writer, newly arrived from across the Atlantic, researching a series of articles about daily life in America. After spending a week in the city of New York, he had taken a riverboat up the Hudson to Albany, where he had transferred to the canal packet. But upon reaching Schenectady, he had rushed off to find someone who would post his letters for him and had been left behind.

Soon enough, we were all introduced and settled more or less comfortably again. Bunyan somehow naturally slipped into the role of benevolent autocrat holding court among his admiring subjects, which at first only increased my annoyance. In the presence of such an interloper, not only were Edna and I not likely to have any private words, but it seemed we were not likely to have any words at all.

And indeed, Bunyan talked on and on, describing his frenzied attempts to get ahead of the boat by commandeering a hay wagon and then a goat cart. Indeed, so many times did he go back over the same incidents, trying out new turns of phrase (as if gauging our response to each one) that I suspected him of constructing a sort of verbal rough draft of his next article as he spoke.

But in watching Edna’s face as Bunyan droned endlessly before us, I began to feel that a buffoon of his sort might be just the thing to push us together, if only conspiratorily, in secret shared disdain. Indeed, as Bunyan reached the climax of his tale, I could feel Edna’s fingers digging into mine as she struggled to conceal her mirth at Bunyan’s pomposity.

But Edna’s opinion was not universal. “You have a fine way with words, Mr Bunyan,” said one of the other men (who were both bricklayers on their way to a job in Amsterdam) during a rare break in the monologue.

“I ought to!” answered Bunyan. “I’ve been spinning stories my whole life! Just as you apprenticed in laying bricks—practicing for years at every aspect of that noble craft—so too did I apprentice in storytelling.” Here, Bunyan slapped his thigh. “And I’ve not gone without notice either. No, indeed—I’m gratified to tell you that the public has been willing to pay attention to my tales from time to time.”

Upon learning this, we of course all made the polite noises required of us.

“Perhaps you may know one of my tales,” suggested Bunyan next. He shouldered in closer to the poor man who had last spoken. “It isn’t entirely impossible—no, not at all! I suppose you appreciate a good ghost story, eh?”

“A ghost story?” replied the fellow doubtfully. “Well—”

“Come, come, don’t be shy! Everyone enjoys a ghost story—provided that it is a good one. Naturally, the cheery sunlight and jovial traveling companions that we are all enjoying today do not make an atmosphere conducive to thrilling tales. But perhaps—of a dark and mournful night sometime—you have opened your bedside book and read a tale called—” Here, Bunyan paused and the lowered his voice to a deeper register. “The Specter in the Old Inn Yard.”

The two bricklayers looked from one to the other, and then shrugged. Evidently, the shot had not found its mark. Undaunted, Bunyan tried again.

“Then perhaps you have read instead the story of—” here, the same fertile pause, the same creeping voice “—The Voice in the Birch Grove.”

Again—only blank looks returned to the questioner.

“I wonder why he doesn’t ask us,” murmured Edna in my ear, and instantly I bit my hand to keep from laughing.

For Edna and I were both well acquainted with The Specter in the Old Inn Yard and The Voice in the Birch Grove. Those two books had been rather popular in the city of New York some years earlier, and during the year of our courtship a pair of secondhand copies had finally sufficiently circumnavigated the neighborhood sewing circle to land in the hands of one of Edna’s chaperone aunts.

More than once, our tender lovers’ conferences on the veranda of Edna’s father’s country house in Bronck’s Land had been interrupted by an “Eep!” or an “Ugh!” emanating from the dear old aunt, who was invariably sitting on the other side of a discreet screen with her face buried in the book.

Edna and I had even spent an afternoon in high spirits, quoting passages in the books back and forth to each other. As I recalled, both the stories hinged on highly improbable and extremely cruel surprise revelations that were held back until the very last moment. The ghostly voice that haunted the birch grove, for instance, ultimately proved to belong to the heroine’s wicked (and justly spurned) suitor, who employed frankly impossible voice-throwing tricks to seduce and ruin her. But of course, by the time that discovery was made, the poor girl had already paid the price for her lost virtue and lay dying of a broken heart in a cloistered convent. But all of it was so badly written as to render the effect (to Edna and me, at least) more hilarious than horrible.

“Did I hear you say something, Mrs Canning?” asked Bunyan, his attention darting quickly to Edna and me. Although he spoke in a friendly tone, his eyes studied us in a way that seemed not entirely kind.

But Edna simply shook her head, the look of a perfect angel on her face. “Why, no,” she answered. “I didn’t say anything at all. It must have been the wind—”

Instantly, I bit my hand again, for this response of Edna’s could only have been taken as a reference to the final lines of the story, when the villain is driven from his hiding place (and sent to his destruction over a convenient cliff with a crumbly edge), leaving the birch grove innocent forevermore of any sound but the sighing of the wind—

But luckily the captain intervened before I could give away Edna’s joke.

“Loooow bridge!” he called out to us.

And my laughter, thank goodness, was masked by the approach of the bridge.

Several more passengers joined the packet during the morning, and then there was a general getting-on and getting-off when we docked at Amsterdam for lunch—with the gettings-on outnumbering the gettings-off. A few more joined us throughout the afternoon, until the packet boasted a small crowd of fifteen or sixteen passengers in all.

And yet, almost without fail, each new arrival was almost instantly swept under the all-encompassing umbrella of Bunyan’s social circle. In turn, each one was subjected to the same interrogation about their familiarity with those two particular popular works. Not one in five could give any intelligible answer, but always Bunyan pressed the inquiry on—and on and on and on, until Edna and I found it quite impossible to fully hide our laughter.

When dinner was called and we proceeded down into the cabin of the packet to eat, I judged that it was well past time to separate ourselves as much as could be managed from Bunyan. The fact was that I didn’t like some of the annoyed looks that he had been shooting at me throughout the day. Once as I had passed near him, he had even taken hold of my arm (as if in a friendly manner) then muttered in my ear. “Your wife is in rather high spirits today,” he had said. “If I were you, I should calm her down before she grows hysterical—”

Therefore, I gently steered Edna to an isolated end of the long dinner table, smiling and bowing to the company as I made my excuses. “The prerogative of newlyweds is to be left alone.”

Bunyan smiled back gratefully at me, returning my bow with a slight nod of his own. Although there was no denying that the man was a pompous boor, I began to think of him in almost a kindly way. He had saved me from my sulking, at least, and Edna and I would at last have a few moments of relative quiet alone together.

Those moments, however, were not to bear any real fruit. Due the smallness of the cabin, we could not sit so far away as to be entirely beyond the reach of Bunyan’s voice and it quickly became evident that a very animated discussion was threatening to break out between him and the other passengers.

It seemed that someone had brought up the subject of ghosts or spirits, and that Bunyan had let slip that although he was well-known for writing ghost stories (very well-known, indeed!), he did not himself believe one iota in their actual existence (a lot of spiritualist claptrap, that!). Indeed, he admitted that he had taken up something of a second career unmasking spiritualist charlatans in England, and that he had come to America partly in the hopes of doing the same here.

Then, having set that figurative pail of fish out among the company to stink as it would, Bunyan leaned back with a satisfied look on his face and pretended to attack a plate of cold potatoes. The pretense proved a poor one and he clumsily missed more than one bite, for his eyes kept darting from person to person among the other passengers, as if eager to identify anyone who might have a response or rebuttal forming on the tip of their tongue.

But Bunyan need not have worried, for it took only a moment for the first response to his comment to find form in words, issuing from a cavernous black bonnet a few settings down the table to my right, inside which was somewhere deposited a small and severe woman of an age impossible to determine.

“Is there any ghost story in the Bible?” was her simple, earnest query.

(“Let’s hope not,” whispered Edna in an aside to me, “or Bunyan will find himself accused and convicted of blasphemy.”)

I attempted to discourage Edna from further commentary by ignoring her remark. To my relief, Bunyan seemed inclined to do the same. He merely continued to eat his potatoes as the others talked the question over and eventually determined after a few minutes that, no, although the doubting Apostles at times gave way to superstition among themselves, there were no actual ghosts positively reported in the Bible.

Angel stories, of course. Giant stories, yes. Even a talking serpent—

(“Not to mention a talking ass,” Edna muttered sotto voce, much to my increased alarm.)

Bunyan darted a black eye at me. “What was that, Canning? Back from the honeymoon so soon?”

I cleared my throat, but Edna answered before I found my voice.

“I was just reminding my husband,” she said, all sweetness and innocence, “of the talking donkey in Numbers. But of course there are no ghosts.”

“Setting aside the Holy Ghost,” offered someone as a tentative corollary.

Bunyan’s eye rested on Edna and me for a moment longer, something like a teacher’s rebuke to a naughty student in it, before sliding down the table to regard the new speaker.

“Of course,” Bunyan allowed. “For the sake of our souls and civilized debate, we shall leave the Holy Ghost entirely out of the matter.”

“I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost yourself, Mr Bunyan?” was the next question.

“Certainly not,” answered Bunyan. “Nor have I heard, nor felt, nor smelled, nor tasted one.” Bunyan cocked a brow and held up a corrective finger. “Not without there being some other perfectly ordinary explanation for the sensation, at least.”

“But you must admit that others have seen ghosts. Bloody hands, apparitions, strange lights in abandoned houses—!”

Bunyan smiled serenely. “Must I admit that? Let’s see, I will admit that others claim that they have seen ghosts—and that they have spoken with them, wrestled with them, played blind-man’s-bluff with them, and a great many other things besides.” Bunyan paused and put down his fork, a smile crossing his face. “Why in fact, just last week in the city of New York I happened to see a trance lecturer speak...”

(“I wonder if he was one of the ones entranced,” said Edna to me.)

Bunyan’s eye roved back down to our end of the table, and I was starting to agree with him that Edna really was treading a little too heavily on his corns—especially as a few other passengers guffawed at the comment.

“Thank you for the question, Mrs Canning,” said Bunyan stiffly. “And though I was not one of the entranced in the way that you mean, I admit that the lecturer was a very pretty young lady... A little like yourself, but with brighter eyes and a more gripping voice!”

At this, Edna turned bright pink and I felt my own collar grow scratchy around my neck. But somehow I wasn’t sure if Bunyan’s remarks rose to the level of an insult, or if I should look like a humorless fool if I jumped up and resented them loudly—

In the meantime, the conversation had moved swiftly on (“But surely the lecturer managed to raise some spirits in her experiments?” asked someone else), and soon it was clear that the opportunity had passed and my resentment must remain forever unexpressed. All the same, I found my appetite had entirely disappeared, and in its place my stomach harbored only a sour apprehension that either Bunyan or Edna should push their growing rivalry further.

“Hum, yes, indeed. Quite reliably, in fact,” answered Bunyan. “That’s just why I brought it up. A moment ago, someone said I must allow that others have seen ghosts—and indeed I believe each of the trance lecturer’s subjects reported seeing or feeling spirits, even as I sat in their presence.”

“Well, there!” said someone quite forcefully. “They can’t all have been lying!”

“Lying?” Bunyan stopped, as if to consider the concept. “Lying... No... It’s not a matter of fabrication, exactly.” He stopped again, seemingly choosing his words. “Have any of you by chance heard of an electro-biologist called Buchanan? He has been doing experiments with an organ that he has identified in the human brain—an organ of spirituality, which, once stimulated—as by electromagnetism for instance—consistently creates such a sensation—”

But Bunyan got no further than that, as this line of argument ignited a revolt in the other passengers. “Do you mean to say that spiritual feeling can be switched on and off by magnetic current? That the feelings of these subjects were influenced or manufactured by the trance lecturer herself—electro-biologically?”

Here, Bunyan seemed to waver. “Well...”

“Really!” At this voice, I jumped—for I had been musing to myself on what exactly I found so unpleasant about Bunyan, and I had not expected to hear Edna speak up from my elbow. But there she was, a cross look on her face as she pursued her point. “You can’t dismiss spiritualism on those grounds! Not even if this Buchanan’s theories are all true. Why, a compass can be made to give a false reading as well, but that doesn’t mean it won’t point true if left undisturbed.”

(At this, cries of “Hear, hear!” and “She’s caught you out, Mr Bunyan!” arose from all quarters of the table.)

It was clear what side the general audience was on, and that in their opinion Edna had given a sharp check to Bunyan’s materialism. I gazed in wonder at her, and slowly it dawned on me that Edna had not been waiting for me to resent Bunyan’s earlier remark—no, instead she had been waiting to turn the tables herself.

Bunyan peered down at us and made a nice little bow—but cooler and less affably than I would have liked. The man was not one to be suffer embarrassment lightly, I realized, and I wondered if Edna knew what kind of viper she had trod upon.

“No, no, Mrs Canning. You are quite right.” Bunyan looked around at the rest of the table, smiling again in his infuriating way. “As to the value of spiritualism... It has, of course, a very strong aesthetic attraction for certain less scientific minds.”

“Aesthetic attraction!” This was Edna again, whose outbursts were now starting to make me wish that I were anywhere else but sitting next to her in the line of Bunyan’s fire. Belatedly, I laid a restraining hand lightly on her arm, but she shook me off and forged heedlessly ahead. “But if you are convinced that spiritualism is so much rot, then why write your ghost stories?”

Bunyan let out a very ungenerous laugh at that. I almost thought I could see the fangs protruding from the pink of his throat, the venom squirting from their sharp points—

“Why, because of that very same aesthetic attraction, Mrs Canning. There is something pleasing, you know, in orchestrating the kind of simple-minded coincidences that tales of the supernatural always rely upon—”

(Here there was a general murmuring cry, objecting to the word “coincidences”.)

“Indeed!” persisted Bunyan. “Haven’t you noticed that the greater part of so-called supernatural occurrences are heavily dependent upon subjective points of view? There is never any real evidence! And what appears miraculous to one observer is often utterly mundane to another.”

Another general murmur followed, with half the passengers agreeing and the other half objecting. Meanwhile, Bunyan was looking about, as if searching for an example. His hooded eyes fell upon Edna—as no doubt he had planned all along—and my heart froze in my chest. Instantly my hand was on Edna’s arm again, but how much would I have rather restrained Bunyan instead!

“Well, for instance, consider Mrs Canning herself,” began Bunyan. “Our meeting on this very packet boat this very morning—I don’t suppose you found anything really unusual about it?”

“Unusual?” Edna said, seemingly taken aback. At least she seemed not eager to say anything cutting or witty. “I admit that I had never seen a man jump off a bridge before... But no, nothing really unusual.”

“I thought not,” replied Bunyan. “But to me, it was a very great coincidence!” He turned back to the general company, his voice drawing the listeners all back in again as he related the anecdote.

“You see,” he continued, “at that same trance lecture in New York, one of the entranced subjects seemed, while under the mesmerizing lady’s spell, to catch my eye and to point directly at me—out of all the people in the audience—and to blurt out, quite loudly and clearly—’The red lady! The red lady, a D in her name! Keep your wits, or you’ll have your head snapped off!’ At the time, the lecturer asked me if the prophecy meant anything at all to me, and I told her that of course it did not. I then forgot all about it—until this morning.”

“I fail to see the connection,” said Edna coldly.

“Why you, of course, Mrs Canning!” said Bunyan. “Are you not the red lady?”

“There’s nothing red about me at all!” protested Edna. She was thinking, I knew, of her blue dress and black hair.

Bunyan bowed demurely. “Far be it from me to contradict you, mademoiselle.” He coughed uncomfortably, a play actor to the very end. “You have taken a bit of sun today—in your cheeks.”

“Why I—!” Edna turned to me in a fury. “My cheeks are not red. Are they, Henry?”

“Not a bit,” I assured her, perhaps with more gallantry than honesty. Though I was growing rather annoyed to find the rest of the passengers now laughing along with Bunyan.

“And besides,” returned Edna, perhaps unwisely, “there is no D in Canning.”

“I beg your pardon again, Mrs Canning,” said Bunyan. “But I couldn’t help overhearing your husband saying your Christian name. Edna, I believe it was? There is a prominent D in that.”

Bunyan, it must be admitted, knew where to draw the line. But an impertinent fellow among the passengers finished drawing the final connection for him. “And she’s bit your head off already once or twice, Mr Bunyan! Har har, you should have heeded the warning!”

It seemed well past the point where I ought to have put a stop to Bunyan’s remarks, so I screwed up my face and turned to him sharply. “See here—” I started.

But Edna went on right over me, cold and imperious where I would have been hot and petulant. “It seems a rather weak coincidence, if you ask me,” she said frostily. And I swallowed my own remonstrance as a sick feeling took possession of me.

My wife, my Edna! This icy reproving, from her—! Though I was not the one receiving it at the moment, I had a vision of myself bearing the frigid force of her contempt in our next quarrel—!

But Bunyan only shrugged, seemingly dismissing us from his attention. “Perhaps you are right, Mrs Canning. I am sorry to have mentioned it at all if it distresses you—” His eyes flickered over to me. “—or your husband. But you prove my point perfectly. What one person reports as supernatural, another person finds utterly unremarkable.”

And there was the knife blade at last, delivered almost diffidently, as though Bunyan barely cared to drive it home.

Mercifully, the conversation moved on without us, and soon Edna was draping her napkin over her plate. “I’ve finished with dinner,” she said to me quietly.

Feeling rather like I had failed an impromptu examination, I nodded and helped her up. Bowing stiffly to the rest of the company, we departed the cabin for the roof of the packet once more.

Few other passengers joined us above after dinner, and those that did went below before too long. No doubt they had the right of it. It was a cool night, after all, and every traveler knows how quickly the best bunks are claimed on a busy canal boat.

But Edna and I couldn’t quite bring ourselves to say goodnight and go below with the rest. For one thing, there was the cloth partition that would be drawn through the cabin now that the dinner table had been removed—dividing the women’s cabin in the bow from the men’s cabin in the aft.

For another, there was still too clearly the other partition that lay between us—that dark obstruction that had been made evident by our quarrel about the railway, and which I was all too aware that we had not yet really pushed aside. Ah, to think that if only I had relented and taken tickets on the train as Edna had asked me! We should be approaching Niagara Falls already, having never met that arrogant fool Bunyan!

And so we stayed on the roof, propped against our trunk, our heads resting on the rounded lid as we gazed up into the evening sky, watching the indigo of night replace the blue of day. As we lay there, I wondered if it was too late to explain. Too late to apologize for the explosion of pride that had marred our wedding night.

But before I had determined what to say, Edna muttered from beside me. “The red lady.” Clearly, she was stewing over other matters.

“Hush, hush,” I said soothingly. I had no wish to reprove my wife, after all—not until we had made up between ourselves. So all I could do was beg her to forget the matter until then.

But Edna only snorted and half turned to look at me. “The red lady! Can you believe the impertinence—!”

“Best not to dwell on it, dearest,” I murmured.

“Why, the moon is more of a red lady than I am tonight!”

And with that she jerked her head toward the port side of the canal boat. Turning to follow the line of her chin, I saw indeed the full moon rising in the deep dusk from the horizon, a lattice of black tree branches criss-crossing her huge ruddy face—for indeed, she was quite red that night, the kind of moon that country people call a harvest moon.

I sucked in my breath—it was a stunning sight.

“And there’s your D, as clear as day,” added Edna. “Diana, of course. The red lady with the D in her name. Nothing to do with me at all!”

I smiled back weakly and squeezed her hand. “Shall I rouse Bunyan so he can see who his prophecy really concerns?”

Edna shook her head and sighed. “No, of course not. As much as I dislike the man, I wouldn’t want to see anything really happen to his—”

And then, suddenly, just as Edna was on the point of saying “head”, someone seemed to turn out the moon. It winked clear out of existence, replaced only by a blank blackness—a black so blank that it contained neither starlight nor lamplight nor any other kind of light—

“Down, Henry!” cried a voice from my side—a thin arm wrapping around my neck and hauling me off the trunk as something cold and heavy swept close by overhead, knocking my hat neatly off my head and scraping horribly along the trunk lid as it did so, buffeting the boat down and to the side, leaving it bobbing more violently than usual in the wake of the event—

And from below, at the rudder, at last the belated cry of the captain: “Low bridge! Low bridge! For God’s sake, get down for the bridge!”

For the next few moments there was something like a general panic. The captain had put the rudder over hard and landed the boat against the side wall of the canal, which had drawn the tow ropes taut and pulled the horses up short. And that had finally woken the poor boy who had fallen asleep sitting astride one of those horses—the same boy whose job it was to give warning of the bridges, and who had failed to do so.

With the canal boat at a stop, the captain had vaulted up the steps from the after deck to the roof, a lantern in his hand, a look of sick terror on his face as he glanced around the roof, apparently expecting to find a scene of ruin and destruction.

But Edna and I were both still intact—thanks to her quick movements! For I learned later from the distraught captain that only a few months earlier, a woman on another boat had met a gruesome end in almost exactly the same posture, when the sudden appearance of an unannounced bridge had trapped her head between the masonry and the trunk she had rested it upon—and had crushed it like a grape.

By the end of that tale, of course, we had both gone from laughing at our close shave to trembling as hard as the captain himself.

“Thank Heaven you ducked in time,” croaked the captain hoarsely, his face pale and ashen. “But whatever made you do it?”

“It was Edna!” I whispered, turning to my wife. “It was she who dragged me down—!”

“Why—why, it was that ridiculous prophecy, of course—!” stammered Edna at last.

For she had suddenly had a feeling that the words about losing one’s head were not meant to be taken figuratively. And the sudden appearance of the shadow of the bridge across the face of the moon had galvanized her into instant action—and a good thing it had.

“Get Bunyan,” cried Edna, as soon as the story had been told. “Get that windbag Bunyan so he can hear this!”

But by the time Bunyan could be roused from his bunk, the night had fallen deeper and the moon had risen higher, shedding its red color for a less ominous white. Diana retained her D, of course, but she began to look more like the lady in silver than anything in red.

Neither was Bunyan in any mood to be generous. Instead, he glared at me angrily, as if he considered me fully responsible for turning him out of his bed. Though I wondered if he was not more piqued about having his joke turned into a true prophecy as he was about being woken up.

“Do you mean me to understand, Mr Canning, that you roused me from my much-needed and hard-bought sleep to make me listen to this jumble of nonsense?”

“Not he,” said Edna. “I roused you. And I did so to prove to everyone how wrong you have been. You and your coincidences! Your subjective points of view! What do you have to say now about the spirits that you have been mocking all day, and who have conclusively proved their existence tonight?”

Bunyan only snorted, drawing his dressing gown tighter around himself. “Say? What do I say? Good heavens, Mrs Canning, you are the one who has lost her head. The moon! Indeed! If there are any spirits out there—” Here, Bunyan waved his arm out over the canal and toward the black expanses of farmland that bordered it. “—don’t you think they could find a way to express themselves more directly than with childish riddles? That is what I say about that.” Then he turned his gaze back on me and planted his index finger square in the middle of my chest. “And Mr Canning: I realize that you are new to married life. But take it from me that you will save yourself a great deal of future difficulty if you learn to better control your wife.”

I felt my face beginning to grow very hot and I brushed Bunyan’s finger away from me. “See here, Mr Bunyan—”

But I got no further, for Bunyan pushed back on me, his hands slamming abruptly against my ribcage and propelling me toward the edge of the packet boat. The movement took me so much by surprise that I would have very likely gone over the edge if Edna had not grabbed hold of me in a desperate lunge and dragged me to a stop at the slippery brink of the void.

But Bunyan checked none of his anger at my near-accident. Instead, he continued his tirade at an even higher register, now jabbing his finger in Edna’s direction, even as he shouted at me. “No, you see here. All day I have endured the wheedling and insinuating jokes of your wife. Frankly, I had expected you to take her over your knee hours ago—but it was not my place to interfere. Now that she has gone so far as to intrude upon my hours of rest, I am beginning to think that it is my place after all. Either correct that woman yourself—here, now, before me!—or stand aside so that I may do so myself!”

“Why, you disgusting man!” cried Edna. She was shaking with fury, tears of anger now shining in her eyes. “You should be ashamed to call yourself a man. Why— Why you—!”

Then suddenly many things happened all at once. Quite clearly, I heard Edna call Bunyan a completely unrepeatable (but otherwise perfectly accurate) name that I had never expected to hear from my wife’s mouth.

Simultaneously, Bunyan rushed toward Edna as if to grab hold of her, crying out to me as he did so, “If you’re a man, hold her!”

Having better footing than I did, Edna stepped nimbly aside while I continued to teeter on the edge of the roof. And just when I thought I should have no choice but to absorb Bunyan’s charge in a bear hug that would inevitably send us both overboard into the canal, something inexplicable happened instead.

Before I say anything more, let me first say that “inexplicable” should not necessarily be interpreted as “supernatural”. Please bear in mind that these events all occurred very rapidly and that I was preoccupied with keeping my own balance. As such, I had no possible way of accounting for the movements of every other person who was on the roof of the boat at the time.

The impression that I had, however, was that at the last possible moment something intervened between Bunyan’s body and mine. I saw nothing but rather felt something heavy suddenly pass between us, with the result that I rebounded safely aside into Edna’s arms, and Bunyan instead was deflected alone over the lip of the roof and into the empty space beyond—

I had a clear view of Bunyan’s falling body (his arms grasping at nothingness as his legs pumped uselessly in the air)—and could not mistake the splash that followed from the canal below—

But as I rushed to peer over the edge alongside the others, there was no sight of the man anywhere in the shifting mists that covered the surface of the canal.

“Good heavens,” whispered someone, a quaver in their voice. “He’s vanished utterly! Swallowed up by the night—”

Panic welled in my chest. What did it mean that Bunyan had disappeared? Had he broken his neck? Drowned? Or had he really somehow been spirited away—?

“I didn’t touch him!” I said at last, though I hardly expected anyone to believe me.

An iron hand gripped my shoulder and squeezed painfully. It was the captain, snaking his head around my body for a better view. “We’ll all back your claim, Mr Canning. But no one would blame you if you had—”

“But I didn’t!” I insisted. “Edna knows—”

I turned to my wife in mute appeal. I saw her staring back in shock at me from a few feet away, a look of fear clearly visible on her face as well. And suddenly I realized that I had no idea at all what Edna knew or what she thought to be true—

Or what she wanted to be true—

Perhaps I should have thrown the man into the canal, after all he had said!

“It was them,” Edna said at last, her voice hoarse and quiet. “They are what swallowed him.”

A shock ran through me. Spirits were what she meant, of course. The same insulted spirits whose existence Bunyan had denied. And though I would have sworn just an hour earlier that no such thing was possible, a creeping chill nevertheless took hold of me as the silence deepened and curdled in each of us into dread...

Until, at last, Bunyan was disgorged by the night and mists and emerged sputtering at the surface of the water just below the boat.

The scene that followed was to me hardly any less confused. Bunyan’s shrieks of “Police! Police!” and “Murder! Murder!” continued for longer than seemed excusable by the circumstances—particularly as he was standing in water no higher than his chest at the time.

He only quieted down when it became clear that, far from corroborating his story that Edna and I had together combined our strength to throw him into the canal, the prevailing perception among the witnesses was that Bunyan had obviously been the aggressor and anything that may have subsequently happened to him would fairly be ruled either accident, self-defense, or “act of God”.

But though I was relieved that Bunyan had received no worse than a good dunking from the adventure, I grew only more pensive the more I considered what had happened. And by the time Bunyan stood before us in his soaking wet clothing, still petulantly demanding that I somehow force Edna to apologize, I felt almost ready to be sick.

If I had been in a different mood that day, it might have been easy to shake off such a feeling. If Bunyan had wanted my apology, after all, I certainly would have coolly given it to him and then made a point to ignore him the rest of the trip. So why shouldn’t I encourage Edna to do the same?

Yet, as I remembered Edna’s rebukes to Bunyan, I couldn’t help but wonder if they shouldn’t have also equally been directed at me. What was Bunyan’s original sin, after all, but an inability to admit that he might be wrong, and a swift retreat to bluster and violence when faced with evidence that ran against him?

I was no longer sure that I was any better than Bunyan on that count. After all, hadn’t I too been unwilling to admit that I had been wrong about the train? And worse, had I not even already gone so far as to lay a restraining hand on Edna when I had believed she had spoken too freely? And was that hand any different from the one that Bunyan had wished me to use to restrain her? It was all the same. All very much the same!

What had saved me in the end had been that dark obstruction: that invisible force which had divided me from Bunyan and which had thrown me into the arms of my wife instead. And though I knew that Edna believed the force to have been provided by insulted spirits, I found myself fervently wishing instead that the strange power had somehow in some way bubbled up from the better instincts of my own nature.

I looked back at Bunyan as he stood in his soaked dressing gown, droplets of canal water still clinging to the ends of his whiskers, and I realized that he was still waiting for a response from me. At that moment, I felt that there was only one that I could manfully give.

“You may consider, Mr Bunyan,” I replied, as I pulled Edna close to me in an unembarrassed embrace, “that my wife has spoken for the both of us.”

And with that, Edna and I turned our backs finally on Bunyan and strolled toward the front of the packet boat. I could hear behind us the captain and the other passengers restraining Bunyan as he continued to abuse us both.

As for Edna, I was amazed at how unperturbed and serene she appeared. As she stood on the bow of the boat, she looked like any other young bride contemplating the moon—only more self-possessed than most.

And suddenly I found my tongue loosened, a great many words pouring out of me that I ought to have said twenty-four hours earlier. I won’t repeat them, nor Edna’s reply—but I will say that they concluded with what I consider the first kiss of real understanding between us.

And as we continued to kiss, I was amazed to hear that all of Bunyan’s angry words seemed to fray and fall apart, until I honestly heard nothing but the beating of our two hearts— And the blowing of a gentle wind, that pressed my wife and I together.


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M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and others, as well as six times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. One of his stories was selected for Jonathan Strahan's Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8. He lives in Kent, Ohio, a few miles from the now defunct Ohio & Erie Canal. His website is located at www.mbennardo.com.

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“A Guest of the Cockroach Club” by M. Bennardo
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