The Bridge by Lin Lucas

St. Louis, Missouri
July 5, 1917

The girl stood on the gravel road in front of the municipal quarters where she and a thousand other refugees were being warehoused. The midday sun stung her cheek like a backhanded slap while a long cue of disheveled Negroes prepared to make the first exploratory journey back to East St. Louis. A hawkish looking man from the Red Cross checked their names off a list before they climbed onto the fleet of crowded flatbed trucks that would ferry them back. The National Guardsmen who would accompany them stood alongside the trucks, rifles slung over broad shoulders.

She wondered whether any of the soldiers here had been among those who passively observed the carnage three days earlier. She had heard tearful accounts of soldiers watching as colored women and children were dragged from street cars and beaten; of men stomped, clubbed, and tortured by roving bands of whites armed with whatever they could find to inflict suffering. Survivors told of guardsmen standing by as homes were set fire in order to drive terrified occupants out into the waiting arms of the rampaging mobs. All the child knew for certain was that none of them had come to her aid as she stood screaming her throat raw, pushed along like flotsam by the tide of fleeing black bodies, all the while looking over her shoulder, a forlorn hand reaching back toward her father.

“Let me help you,” an attractive, honey-complexioned woman said as the girl attempted to pull herself up into a crowded flatbed. The woman’s hair was piled high, pinned back in a chignon. Her pristine white blouse, gray skirt, and matching jacket bore no traces of the ordeal that had brought them all there. She extended a patient hand.

The girl studied the manicured nails of the proffered hand, and met the stranger’s gaze with proud eyes before turning away and springing onto the flatbed with determined ease. The manicured woman climbed in behind without a word. A moment later, the truck engine cut the afternoon silence. The huddled passengers lurched forward, and the truck sped away in a cloud of dust.

Three days after the riots, she still stank of fear. Her close-cropped hair was matted with dust and ash. Dressed in dungarees and a red- and white-checkered shirt, she looked like a boy but for her delicate chin and wide, almond-shaped eyes. Perched on the edge of the vehicle, she hugged herself against an inner chill that no amount of sunlight could soothe.  Except for the thin vertical scar below her left eye and a deep purple bruise on her right shoulder, she bore no other visible signs of injury.

Eyes closed, she listened for her father’s voice as if it might be there, filling the dark, guiding her as it had when they performed on stage together. She had been his apprentice for three years. In that time, they had become one of the best magical touring acts in the country, performing a variety of sleight-of-hand, escape, and mind-reading tricks.

On stage, blindfolded with her back to the audience, the girl would use her “psychic powers” to identify personal objects held by patrons. Striding confidently through the aisles, her father would encourage both her and the patron to focus on the object. Fingers hovering over furrowed brow in deep concentration, she would shake her head as though struggling to make a psychological connection with the object. Then, a smile softening her features, she would finally identify the keepsake to the delight of the crowd. No one ever guessed that her papa was communicating with her using a code that they had devised together. All she had to do was listen.

I’m listening, Papa. 

But there were no secret messages in the darkness behind her eyes now. Just the shrill memory of his voice rising above the sound of shouts and sirens, her hand slipping out of his and—

She opened her eyes, thankfully lost for a split second in the blur between night and day. She did not want to look at her fellow passengers. They were piled in the truck like brittle timber, leaning stiffly against one another for support—their ashen faces taut, eyes cast in every direction, swirling in an abyss of collective memory. Some had tried to mask their suffering in clothes borrowed from those who had managed to pack a few belongings amid the carnage that engulfed them. Most women were still garbed in the tattered summer dresses and skirts they had worn to work or market or wherever they may have been when the whirlwind of violence plucked them from the comfort of an ordinary day and into bedlam. The men were uniformly dressed in bloodied remnants of the bib overalls commonly worn by meatpackers and foundry workers.

The truck sped across Eads Bridge toward the smoldering ruins of six thousand lives. Below her dangling feet, the asphalt rushed by; a great white ocean. The girl imagined herself and the others crushed in the bowels of a slave vessel crossing the Middle Passage. Her father had described how imprisoned Africans had thrown themselves into the sea, into the arms of their ancestors, rather than be ripped from their world.

Their uncounted spirits stretch like an eternal bridge between the past and future. The brilliance of their lives illuminates ours. Never forget.

I won’t forget, Papa. 

And then she was falling toward that eternal sea, falling away from the desolate now into the rushing asphalt ocean below. She stopped short of oblivion and looked up from her waking dream.

She was hanging from the truck, torso almost parallel to the road below. The elegant woman in the gray dress gripped her arm tightly in her manicured hands. The woman’s patient gaze had dissolved; given way to panic. She looked as if she might weep. Quickly, she hauled the girl back into the truck and folded her arms around her. The life-death moment had passed so swiftly that few of the other passengers witnessed it.

“Lord have mercy,” someone testified.

The National Guardsmen blew smoke rings toward the blue sky over the Mississippi. The truck sped towards desolation.

“Will you at least tell me your name?” the manicured woman asked the child as they wandered through the ruins of downtown East St. Louis, hours later. The girl said nothing, continuing to scan the debris-strewn roads, empty stoops, and vacant doorways.

The truck carried each of the refugees to what remained of their homes. Survivors sifted through the torched, looted wreckage of their lives, searching for discarded clothing, blankets, remnants of photographs, the remains of personal letters. Small, priceless mementos. One after another, they gathered what they could.

The manicured woman, a reporter, had spoken quietly to each of the survivors during the course of the morning, jotting brief notes in the pad she carried in her satchel.

When the girl had abandoned the truck at the end of their tour and set off on foot toward the heart of the Colored district, the woman had followed her.

“I’m Miss Pearl Van Cleve,” she said as they moved through the ruined downtown quarter. Both were self-consciously aware of the fact that they were perhaps the only colored people left in a city still simmering with hatred.

Face dimly lit with hope, the child gazed up at her companion. “You write for the New York Vanguard. Papa sometimes reads your stories aloud to me.”

“Where is your father, sweetheart?”

Again, a dark veil fell over the child’s face. She backed away, shaking her head, searching either side of the street as if for an avenue of retreat. But there was no solace in the soot-black remains of torched storefronts and homes. She whirled away, stumbling toward the corner of Broadway and Eighth Street, vanishing behind overturned cars.

When Pearl Van Cleve caught up to her minutes later, the girl was standing on the steps of the Divine Light, Holiness Church on Sixth, peering into the gaping darkness beyond the ornate door which hung from one persistent hinge.

“Papa! Papa!” She shrieked, each desperate outcry returning as a cold echo. Pearl remained still, silent as the girl’s screams disintegrated into hoarse whispers and the whispers into barely audible moans. Her proud shoulders collapsed then to her knees. Still, Pearl kept her distance. The child slid to the pavement and convulsed with grief. After a long while, she pulled a folded slip of paper from her pocket and rocked slowly back and forth as she studied it.

Long minutes passed, the distant sounds of the living city—news vendors hawking their wares from street corners, the rattle of trolley cars, the sputter of car engines cruising along busy avenues—intruded like muffled laughter at a funeral.

Finally, Pearl cautiously approached. Kneeling beside the girl, she gently took the weathered handbill from the child’s limp grasp.

An elegantly dressed man with rugged features stared back at her. He was shackled, wrapped head to toe in formidable chains. The girl standing beside the man in the photograph was the child who sat beside her now. In the picture, her arms were akimbo, her head tilted slightly to one side. She looked at the chained man with an expression of feigned skepticism. The text below the image read:

JOIN THE INCOMPARABLE NOBLE DARING AND HIS FABULOUS DAUGHTER OUREKA FOR AN EVENING OF MYSTERY AND MAGIC.

SUNDAY, JULY 1, 6PM TO 8 PM

“Your father?” Pearl asked, placing a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“He should be here,” Oureka said, as if the sun had disappeared in mid-afternoon. “Nothing ever held him for long. Not ropes, or chains, or iron crates. He always found a way out. He should be here.”

Oureka studied her empty palms, as if reading a familiar story thats ending had suddenly changed. She felt her father’s hand holding hers much too firmly. Her eyes burned with the memory of racing through the thickening cloud of smoke that filled the church that night.

Come out niggers!

Come out or burn! 

But more fire waited outside where the streets roared with the malevolent revelry of a Roman circus. Flames engulfed buildings on both sides of the thoroughfare. Without breaking stride, her father had scooped her under one arm. In his free hand, he held a length of pipe that he swung in wide, continuous arcs. She remembered seeing one of the church matrons running naked through a gantlet of violence. Her austere Sunday dress had been ripped from her body by the clawing hands of her pursuers, and what remained hung in desperate ribbons from her waist. The woman’s slender arms were bruised, bleeding. Heavy stones flew from every direction. Even after she dropped, the flurry did not abate.

Oureka could still feel her father’s heart pounding urgently against her own as they ran past brutal tableaus of Old Testament horror.

“We were almost to the bridge,” Oureka explained, her voice nearly inaudible. “Papa put me down. Just to catch his breath. But there were so many people. Like animals stampeding. Crazy scared…” The girl’s voice trailed off.

Pearl reached out, filling Oureka’s empty hand with her own. They stood up.

“We were almost to the bridge,” Oureka said, one last time.

And then they abandoned the stoop to search for shelter.