She looks at the picture and it reminds her of what she’d done to get it. The covered bridge in the photograph is pretty—timber trusses and beams, tongue and groove vaulted ceiling, Burr arch—very New England. Had its sides been wrapped with boards and batten it would be almost as quaint as the historic covered bridges of Vermont. But it’s likely sturdier than most of those old bridges—some of which are too structurally compromised to cross any longer—as it’s constructed to merely allude to a simpler time. The wooden rail, shiny in the left hand corner of the photo that she now scrutinizes, runs the length of the bridge and drops down to road level at either end.
She was in the car. She had just dropped her teenage daughter, Lulu, off at a friend's house, and her husband and son were away, in Lancaster, for the weekend. It was a lovely fall day and she had the evening to herself, about four hours, and she decided that she would stop by Lincoln Woods to take a few pictures in its park, before she headed on home to get some work done. To read, write, clean the house, do laundry. That was her plan, not terribly exciting but she was determined to make good use of her time.
At Lincoln Woods, she parked by the bridge just yards from the entrance. You might say the bridge marks the entrance. The beginning of a serene wooded landscape. It was such a lovely fall she determined there and then, looking around this tranquil setting, that she’d be there a while, would explore the whole park, take as many lovely photographs as possible. Home, these days, was a place of calamity. Months earlier the kitchen had flooded after the dishwasher's no-burst supply line cut loose. Walls and wood flooring were torn away, mold found, construction and deconstruction in every corner, windows, stairs, rugs, furnishings were powdered with sawdust, and she was, she felt, living in squalor. And it had rained earlier and the light was beautiful with early evening glow; the foliage like a slick field of concentrated carotene, ripened pompoms of color. Everything sprouting and dangling glistened and it gave her comfort.
The burnt sienna ground and the red and yellow woods reminded her of the October weekends she had spent with her grandmother, who lived on a dairy farm, and as she peered deeper into the woodland, beyond the bridge, she felt a trace of her childhood awe take hold of her. She saw the woods by the farm, she saw Grandmother and herself hiking through the woods bordering the farm to collect pinecones and other gems—things Grandmother would sometimes have to identify for her—fallen from the enormous conifers. Those autumn woods from which they gathered goods—the smooth boulders on which she had jumped and climbed that seemed to have fallen from the sky, plopped in the woodland’s deep recesses, the crunch of dry leaves beneath her feet as she ran between swaying timber, the smell of fresh pine tinged with the odor of manure from the farm—might well have been these. And the same old childhood sensation, a sort of possession, that she had felt in Grandmother’s woods engulfed her.
She walked across the road, and, near the wooden rail that sits below the Burr arch, looked over the bridge to a silent stream running below. A better view could be gotten from atop the rail—that was clear. Placing her right foot up on the wood rail, which was about three feet high (though it doesn't look it in the photo—in person, it looks a bit higher, or perhaps it looks lower—however high or low, it was something of which she thought she could easily step on) and eight inches wide, she tried to follow with her left, boosting up from my toes, but she didn't have enough of a start since she was standing still. Her shoe choice didn't help—little brown ballet slippers. It wasn't as easy as she'd thought it would be. She wasn't, it turns out, as strong as she used to be and this surprised her. What is this? I used to vault over a leather horse and pirouette across the balance beam in gymnastics. I used to jump from rock to rock. For chrissakes I used to fly across city rooftops when I was a kid. Rooftops!
Annoyed by this bodily betrayal, but only slightly deterred, she worked out another approach: Step back from the rail. Step back, a slight start, just a bit of speed and a hop onto the rail would get her up there. It seemed a plausible plan. A running start and a bounce was all it would take.
Now she asks herself why she did not simply walk over to either end of the rail, where it bows down to the road, bend her foot up onto it and pirouette across its top as if it were a balance beam—a surface on which she had always felt comfortable maneuvering, her balance being impeccable. But this sensible idea never occurred to her. Her eyes locked on the rail, and everything but the rail became a smudge. Standing on the paved road of this pretty bridge, at the edge of luscious and enchanting surroundings, she found herself spellbound, like she did in the her Grandmother's woods all those years ago. An uncontrollable optimism bubbled in her, her body resonated with an old audacity and, in an instant, a full lionhearted transformation took place. She remembered all the hopping and jumping and leaping of her youth, and though she was less nimble than she had once been, hopping up on a wooden rail for the perfect picture hardly seemed impossible. Yes, there was only one option and it was the one thing to which she had naively become attached: the leap.
Looking back now, she sees that she may have gotten more than just a slight start. She may have gotten a bit of a running start prompted by memories of rooftop leaping with her younger brother. Neighbors chasing them away. Hey, get off my garage! What do you think you're doing, I'm going to call the police! And the neighbors certainly could have called the police, at least that is what her brother and she imagined for they were stealing grapes off the neighbor's vines, vines twisted around whitewashed arbors, arbors they had climbed and marauded, and they were giddy with guilt. It was so easy—aloft, breathing in higher altitude, fat grapes in hand, nothing underfoot, rooftop to rooftop. There had been one close call: a toe hitting the edge of a tar shingle, a sudden jolt and then a lunge forward to the safety of a black sea of sandpaper. Except for scratched hands, they never got hurt doing it. But, as we know, that was decades, a lifetime ago. Still, she doesn’t often get hurt. Life is fairly uneventful except for, well, events.
Like the time she fell and hit her head hard while skiing. She probably had a concussion but she didn't see her doctor, didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Back then (that was a lifetime ago, too) nobody paid much attention to a head injury. They shook them off. Nobody signed paperwork confirming they had read all about the danger of concussion. If she had seen her doctor back then, she may have healed quicker. She may not be so fuzzy today.
There in the later afternoon, as the sun lowered, she bent her knees slightly and got her running start under the covered bridge, noting as she ran that the bridge did not have a wooden floor, and too bad, for it would be even prettier and feel softer underfoot had it a wooden floor. Pavement is hard and cold and, on this day, a bit slippery from the rains and the coating of wet crimson and gold leaves. Her stride, though, quickly narrowed to a skip, and she adjusted her body above the hips to match it. Yes, three skips and...
...Ah, a leap!—she was in the air just like between rooftops!—leading with the left (or was it the right?) leg, the other leg trailing, one foot hitting the top of the wood rail. She felt so alive, body in motion ascending upon the top of the rail, right or left leg following, soaring above ground in unison with the mind's intent. Yes, yes, just as planned! The air, sweet with the scent of plump Concord grapes, tasted as it had on those rooftops! She squeezed her iPhone tight like a stolen cluster of fruits, and then her right leg came in for the landing, her knee like a hinge thrusting the foot toward the wooden beam, and her foot stuck to its mount, sliding alongside its mate...
...But just then, in that moment, as she stuck her mount, she felt her knees knock together and she registered with a deep, panicky breath, a sudden and horrifying loss of equilibrium. In the next second, a second, her feet shifted and she teetered, her iPhone still in hand, reaching out to nothing—no wall, no guard, no rooftop—and lurched toward the ground, and down,
She hit the pavement hard, flattened like a grape in a crusher, at a 45º angle from the rail, all the air from her lungs trapped in the same panic she carried from the mount. Her left elbow had dug into her abdomen just below the rib cage and the palm of her left hand was scraped and pocked by small stones. Oh no, oh no, this didn't just happen! The pain was sharp, throbbing, spasmodic, and a long moment passed before she raised herself from the cold ground.
Did anyone see? She was worried. Mortified. She felt as ridiculous as she did when, as a young teen, goaltending in a neighborhood soccer game, she was shoved into surrounding shrubbery and her backside (the part where the sun don't shine) was impaled by a splintered branch. She felt like a child who had done something foolish, only she did not have youth to blame. If she felt too mature for miniskirts or sports cars, she should have felt too mature to caper about bridges. She scanned the landscape and did not find anyone staring her way. In fact, she found no one around, and she was thankful to be alone, for how silly, small and foolish she must have looked.
There was a decision to be made now. She was up on her feet, creased at the waist, gripping her sides with crossed arms around her chest. She bent forward and back, turned from side to side, tiny, painful movements. She wanted to cry but no tears would come, she was too angry with herself. Now what. Now what will become of this weekend? Should I go home? Should I call the police? 911? She didn't dare call her husband—she didn't want to alarm him or her son. She limped over to the side of the bridge, the walkway behind the rail, and made her way to the overhang above the stream where she stood for a long while, gripping her midsection while chastising herself. When it became apparent that the pain would not subside and she would soon have to leave, she lifted her iPhone up to eye level and looked out over the stream, at its dense, leafy fringe of rust and pine hues. She centered the pinhole of the phone above the stream and pressed her thumb to the white circle three times. Click, click, click.
Her decision was to go home. But the pain her body registered overruled. She could barely walk, it hurt to move, to touch her torso, to turn in any direction, and the car took her to the hospital as if it wasn't her decision at all. She writhed in the car as the pain intensified, she moaned, she ran two red lights, drivers glared at her with dirty looks, and several cars honked. So what. Fuck you! Oh man, it hurt. It hurt even if she didn't want to know, didn't want to believe it hurt.
All the way to the hospital the accident looped through her head making her shake incredulously; she simply couldn't believe she’d slipped or done such a silly thing. Now she was worried that she had waited too long to go to the hospital—that she wouldn’t be out by ten when she had to pick up Lu. She was too embarrassed to call anyone for help. Should she turn around? What had happened to her judgment? But now in the hospital's parking lot she was committed, having lifted herself from her car, a nurse in the lot saw her wobbling and walked her to the ER.
Blood work first. Six vials. (Were they checking her blood alcohol level?) X-rays—too many she thought. And to be on the safe side, a contrast dye CAT scan to check for internal bleeding or other injuries. Her pain, tender in the belly below the ribs, had indicated spleen damage, and so the doctor was concerned about the spleen, the physician's assistant confided. She could have severed her spleen. Oh no, oh no, not that, she winced. That would mean immediate surgery. Surgery on a Saturday night! What could be worse? She watched the clock over the nurse's station move its long arm down to the six. It was now eight-thirty and she began to feel a chasm widen, its jagged black walls consuming her. Will I be out before ten? she asked a nurse anxiously. We'll see, the nurse said, staring at a monitor from behind her desk, We're waiting for results.
Shaking the quiver from her voice, she called Lulu—I am fine, don't worry, I'll keep you posted—bit her lip when Lu got weepy, and then dialed up a friend. In the event her spleen had to be removed, her back-up plans were now in order.
Moments before ten o'clock, a languid-looking young physician shuffled beside her gurney just as she was expiring air from a spirometer (precautionary measure to keep the lungs clear, prevent pneumonia) after successfully keeping it in the "good" zone (like the assistant had demonstrated, saying: See good, better, best on this chamber? You want the little yellow cap to float in the best zone. Pretend it's a hookah, breathe in slowly, hold, then out, prompting her to think, a hookah, ha, right!) and she sucked the air in, the cap rising and falling, and then let go the mouthpiece and pushed air out, joking that she hadn't done anything like this since college. Eeerrr, she whispered, holding the blue flexi-tube before the doctor—for comic relief— like she was handing him a water pipe. He smiled lightly with a sort of suspicious look that made her want to say, Kidding! I don't do that anymore, not in thirty years! She was afraid she might implicate herself in something she hadn't done; she was perfectly, perfectly, innocent. (Unlike the woman on the other side of the curtain who was brought in handcuffed and escorted by guards in gray clothing.) Besides they had the blood work to prove it.
Her failed attempt to make light of the situation, to get the young physician to laugh, made her self-conscious. Here she was, dismissing the boring and brutal truths of her advanced age, behaving like a teenager and paying the consequences. She couldn't possibly be more than a half-century-old; she didn't feel it—at least not up until this very moment, when the young physician looked at her with his long face of sympathy, and in that moment she knew it had to be true, she was old, her body was not as strong or as limber or as resilient as it once had been. The doctor straightened his posture and told her that she would be able to go home. Her ribs were badly bruised, contusions was the word, but she would be all right.
She should have been more cheered by these words, but she did not feel all right. Nothing seemed all right—the fall, forgetfulness, moments of ambiguous limpidity—nothing about her felt as sharp or as balanced as before. She was getting the picture now, a timeworn version of herself, like someone in a daguerreotype portrait—dark, silvered, antiquated—the time for miniskirts or sports cars or running around and leaping onto things has most certainly passed. Yes, everything has a time. There was a time she leapt over rooftops, a time she swung from tree branches like they were uneven parallel bars, and there was even a time when she skied five, six months pregnant (but never fell); yes, there was a time when she had done many foolish things, thinking herself invincible, and now was a time to digest the truth. She wasn’t any longer a gymnast or a dancer. She had become a cautious skier—in fact, with each passing winter, she came to enjoy the quiet and peace of skiing cross-country, along wide trails and fields, more so than racing down icy slopes. It took her longer now to read a book, to fill a page with words, to formulate plans and execute them. The truth of the matter is that some things were not as simple as they used to be, and the creeping progression of years had caught up to her; it was time to accept this and adapt to the alterations of mind and body that coincide with aging, embrace new limitations. After all, should we not, in our advanced years, be freed from the need to have to prove anything any longer?
She got in her car and back on the road, feeling like she had regained some control over herself, and picked up Lulu, who, despite being fourteen-years-old, insisted she drive home: I was so worried about you, Mama. What do you think, you’re Spider-Woman? You’re in no shape to drive. Let me, please—I know how to drive! Lu's insistence caused her more discomfort—she didn’t want Lu to think her helpless. She snapped: I can do it, don't worry! I didn't take any pain medication at the hospital! Enough! You will listen! (She was in control, yes she was.) Lu puffed up, saying she ought to be able to drive in emergencies. This is how it went—Lulu playing mother, her playing despot—until they were safely home.
Sunday morning she woke to a terrible headache and a call from the hospital, a doctor telling her that the radiologist had found a fracture in her tenth rib. It was broken but treatment remained the same: as much rest as possible. On the couch, sore and sallow, spirometer in hand, she wondered if she would, or should, ever leap again. She told Lu that she’d never before broken a bone. Lots of sprains, scrapes and knocks, but no breaks, and she marveled hearing herself say these words, how it is that she managed to live through decades without one serious injury. What the rib break indicated, she was sure now, was a brake— a signal to yield to the years.
She looked at Lu and smiled, Is there a Spider-Woman? And she stuck the spirometer’s plastic mouthpiece between her lips, dragging in all the air she could puff, the lemony cap rattling and hovering in the better zone.
Lulu grabbed her mother's phone and scanned the picture of the bridge, gave her a hard look and said, Don't go out alone like that again.