The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 11
Welcome back to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week, we are pleased to share 'Man's Onward Progress' by Hunter Whaley, a short story that is sure to reach through the screen and guide you through its ominous landscape. Please enjoy!
Hunter Whaley is a graduate of Tisch School of the Arts (BFA, 2018) and a recipient of the Margaret Vandenburg Memorial Award for Excellence in English. Whaley's work has previously been published in the Colorado Mesa University Literary Review.
Man's Onward Progress
He has brought the horse to a halt. Suddenly and without warning. It rears its head and whinnies, hooves stamping impatiently on new-paved cobblestones. Steam rises vaporous from its coat. Twin jets of smoke issue from its flared nostrils. The snows have not yet melted, the river not yet cleansed of the ice that bobs and rolls lazily in the current below him.
The man shifts on the bench of the horsecart. His bones ache. His hands grip tight the reins but make no move to us her the horse on. His mouth works at something unseen beneath the wild briar of his beard, long faded from red to grey. His eyes crease.
Before him is the Bridge. It stretches across the river and into the horizon’s haze. Thick and sagging cables run up like ship’s rigging to the Bridge’s stone tower, rising into the black and befouled sky. The river grows on either side of It, spreading like gull’s wings from the wires and trestles and stone. Rolling on under. The river has changed. The man cannot see below the water, but he knows the current had been altered. Unseen beneath the surface. It is not the same river. It is different now.
He has avoided the Bridge for months. He has avoided the Bridge in its planning and in its birth, during its construction and in its completion. To lay eyes on the Bridge is to admit the Bridge is finished. To lay eyes on the Bridge is to see the horrible success of the venture that fills his slow-beating heart with dread.
Breath comes in short bursts from the man’s nose. His breath hangs in the air. His breath breaks apart like cobwebs. He leans forward. The Bridge leans back. The banshee wind that howls through the towering arches comes like a wild cry of warning from its gaping maw. The man cannot figure what holds the Bridge aloft in its enormity. It is beyond the work of human hands. It is bewitched, bedeviled by pagan stonemasons. But despite Its scale, the man knows Its fragility belongs to the shattered wreckage of antiquity. It will fall as those too have fallen.
Should he push the horse forward, the man knows the Bridge will fall apart beneath him. He sees the cobble stones fall away and sink into the water, the near silent crumbling of the pillars, bending like wax, and the whole Thing will sink into the water where It had come from, taking the man and his cart and his horse.
The Bridge has been completed for many months, humped impishly over the river, and has remained standing. But the man knows it is not safe. The Bridge and where it leads.
He can see the Island on the other side. Low to the steely waters, a terrible hunchback Leviathan that basks in the white of the sun. A beast of the sea, an unnamed devil from the margins of old maps where his forefathers knew better than to venture. And here is such a beast, and a Bridge built to its back, a back lined with looming spines belching foul-smelling smoke, blacker than the peat he dredged from the bog in his youth, blacker than the blacksmith’s kiln-baked hands, blacker than the coal-miner’s coal-slaked face, blacker than the jackdaw, the crow. O, how it stains the sky!
The man tightens his grip on the reins when the horse tugs at them. The Bridge sags low in the middle under Its own tremendous weight. The wind will send It swinging. It will be his doom. And across the Bridge, another kind of doom. There was a time when the man’s sinews were hawser-ropes instead of twine, when his bones were not fish-bones, when his blood boiled and crashed with the vigor of the tempest, when the leather of his skin was unblemished and impenetrable.
All gone to ruin now.
Back then the man had walked uninhibited by the elements, rain dripping from his hat, his jacket soaked a shade darker, his boots squelching in the earth. His nose took in the sweet wet smell of the heather. The mountain sloped down to the bay. He watched the storms move in from the horizon as ships on the return. He could smell them long before they sailed overhead.
The sheep skittered and danced at his approach. They ran along the worn fence and bruited his arrival, staring out with marble eyes. He will shear them in the summer, with all the vitality of his age will wrestle them as if they were children. He will leave them naked. He will sit cross legged in the heath and watch the wool return to their pinkish bodies, day by day, until it is once again time to leave them bare. The shears will stay sharp. He will not sweat.
He stood then at the crossroads with his father, blowing smoke rings from his pipe in the last dying breath of day. His brothers laughed and bit their mouths, snatching the rings from the air. He cannot remember the faces of his brothers. His father’s face hides in his own.
He bent low to shove peat into the stove. The smell rankled his nose. His mother hummed over an immense copper pot. Hot broth, boiling marrow. His mother swiped the hat from his head and teased his hair. He spied his father through the window among the sheep with his crook fast at his side. He smelled the storm before he saw it.
Taking the old road to the top of the mountain, above the fogbank, he heard the sheep calling out below him. He will shear them soon and the shears will mangle the wool with their dullness. They will need to be sharpened. Not even tools of iron can outlast Time.
He hears the low moan of the support beams, an animal’s wearied lament. The man shifts in the horsecart. The ground cannot be trusted. The Bridge rises and falls with his breathing and the river has changed. Where once the blade of his being glided through the fabric of time, his path now grows jagged. He snags and tears his way forward.
His wife is beside him and lays a paper hand on his shoulder. He does not turn to look at her, he can hear the air swimming around her as she bids him to go on. She is different now, just as he is different, as the river is different . . .
He saw her in the tavern beyond the crossroads when he carted the wool into town to be sold. She had a mouth like a hatchet’s first bite, the slash in the tree when it was to be felled. He blew smoke rings from his pipe, enchanted the slash of her mouth to curl and break open. Her laughter drew eyes. Her laughter was not common. His mother had taught him to dance and he showed her the steps as he misremembered them. He capered about and she married him and bore him a daughter. The man does not need to turn around to see that his daughter is not behind him in the horsecart. He has forgotten his daughter’s face just as he has forgotten the faces of his brothers. His daughter’s face is unformed. A baby’s face. Eyes. Nose. Mouth. No feature. Only the pieces of a face with nothing behind it. He held the lambs when they were stillborn and his wife held his daughter when she cried. He knew the earth was rotting before it started to rot. He held his nose to the earth and could smell the decay, the putrefaction coming from somewhere deep below. He could smell the earth was dying and one day it did.
The man held the blight and squeezed black pus into the seams of his hands. He stood at the top of the mountain and could no longer hear the flock for they have gone into the ground with their bellies as empty as his own, as his wife’s, as his daughter’s. He does not shear the sheep for there are no more sheep to shear. The earth in its death rattle sounds like the crashing of a wave in a seashell, quiet and desolate.
He studied the soil’s corruption and asked God why it was so. He held the rot in his hands and studied the black that had grown there.
The machine devil belching black smoke has put disease in the earth.
The graves were wide and deep and were as cisterns for the innumerable dead. The earth opened up for his father, his mother, his brothers. His daughter did not take up much room in the earth. The man looked over the edge and the earth called to him to join but he did not go.
The man left the place where the earth had swallowed all his kin.
Again the Bridge sounds its hideous bellow. The man watches a bird whirl like a shadow puppet across the sky, shrieking and swinging above the Bridge. His wife beside him lays her hand on his hand and speaks gently. She cannot speak louder than the Bridge.
He cannot hear. He is being thrown across the sea. He found purchase in a new shore. The earth to his back was rotten and barren. In this new place his wife bore him two sons. They had his father’s face. They sit behind him and he hears them not. He will not lose them to the bridge.
If he snaps the reins the horse will carry him to oblivion. The Bridge would fold and the man will be carried into the depths of the river, and beyond the depths of the river. Indeed, he sees now that the whole island would sink, capsize like a ship loaded beyond its capacity. Steel is too heavy for the earth. The island will break through to what is beneath, the Bridge tailing it into the open inferno, the furnace at the center of everything, where the flames of Hell lick like wagging tongues. The man would fall into the gears of the world, to be mangled in the infernal machinery, he with his horse and his wife, his eldest, his youngest and their wives and their children.
The man flexes his frosted fingers on the reins and shivers.
The world is not his own. All the earth was sinking. There at the edge of the Bridge he feels how the seams of the world strain against his shoulders, pinch his chest, the buttons of his life hanging by threads. But he knows this to be a falsehood. He had not outgrown the world.
He studied his smallness against the Bridge and worked his gums beneath his beard. The skin of his hands hung loose over his bones and he knew the world had outgrown him.
The horsecart creaks and rocks suddenly from side to side. The man peered out at the figures that walked before him, shadows flowing forward. They swirl about, the sounds of their shoes like raindrops. The man blinked and felt his heart lowered down a well shaft. He is alone in the horsecart. The river ran changed beneath him. The figures grow hazy. His horse stamped.
Under the arch, silhouetted against the dusky haze beyond, his wife turns round and raises her arm to bid him to follow. He whispered.
The man can go no further. The line of his life had been pulled taut and he knew he had run out of slack. He has brought them to the bridge and can go no further.
just a moment
only a moment longer