Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Approach to the City (1)

By mid-afternoon he was driving through a sinuous valley that wove through a range of low, rounded hills. On the summits and slopes the leaves had just opened and in the uncertain light were still pale and tender and shaking lightly in the breeze. Every few miles the road forded another slow-moving stream or a little stony brook. The names of these watercourses, marked on signs on the abutments of the bridges over which he crossed them, were in a language he couldn't pronounce, but he was sure he passed over some of the same ones more than once. On one of the surrounding hills there was an active quarry -- for gravel or some kind of ore he couldn't guess -- and only a thin protective shell of the lower hillside had been left standing between the pit and the thoroughfare. Other than that he saw few signs of human habitation, though he knew there must be perfectly ordinary little towns not far distant, concealed behind the hills. A solitary red-tailed hawk swooped into view, crossing the highway low and just a few yards ahead of him. Perhaps startled by his approach, all at once it flared its tail and darted higher and out of sight.

He came upon the great river sooner than he expected. The road bent again, and at first he didn't realize that the new green line of ridge that now appeared directly ahead of him in the distance was already the summit of the far shore. The road began a steady descent, but until he was almost at the water's edge the river itself remained hidden from the highway. All at once it opened out, broad and stately and opaque beneath the overcast sky. On the far shore, spreading out along either side of the long, low bridge, were densely packed constellations of red brick or white stone buildings, from one or two to perhaps as much six or seven stories high, alternating with thick clusters of trees. The heights above were unbuilt and green, except in a few bare spots where outcroppings stood open to the sky. A little somnolent marina lay before him, and a flotilla of small white boats puttered near the opposite shore, but the wide gray expanse of the central channel was empty and undisturbed by the wakes of oceangoing vessels, though he little doubted that the river's great depths were ample for their drafts.

From here on he could proceed only by foot. He exited, parked his car in an adjoining, mostly unoccupied lot, pocketed the keys, and crossed to the bottom of the long, concrete ramp that ascended from the shore and out over the water. Avoiding the center of the roadway, disused but in good repair, he kept to the narrow pedestrian lane, bordered by rigging and cables, that traversed its seaward outer edge. Heights did not bother him, particularly -- he had been a bit of a climber in his youth -- but the further out he went the more the wind picked up and buffeted him. His head down, sheltered in the raised-up collar of his coat, he barely nodded at the scant few figures who passed him going the other way.

It was two miles, perhaps a little more, to the other side. Just past the halfway point the climb became more arduous, as the roadway arched up over the deepest part of the channel to allow for the passage of ships. Here the sun broke through the clouds for a few moments, casting a column of shimmering light on the water below. He looked down, and precisely at that moment the river beneath him suddenly broke open and an enormous sturgeon, heading upriver, thirty feet in length if not more, raised its antediluvian snout and arched its massive armored back into the air, seeming to hover on the water's surface for an instant before plunging out of sight. The water rippled out on either side and chopped against the supports of the bridge, but as long as he watched the creature did not re-emerge.

(To be continued...)