How to Build
a Troll-Proof Bridge
by Kiyash Monsef
Spencer Caffold was eleven years young on the day that would come to define the rest of his life. It was a crisp, crystalline weekend, the sun carving through a scrape of clouds after a week of spring rain. His father, an architect, drove them up to the parking lot at the northern terminus of the bridge, and together they set out to walk the length of the span and back.
It was the first time Spencer had ever felt swallowed by the geometry of a thing: the towers, stacking boxes of pale sky on either side; the gentle, perfect arch of the road; the catenary embrace of the massive suspension mains; the suspender cables tracing the simple vectors of gravity with taut grace. Everywhere he looked, the bridge was supporting him, welcoming him, showing him the way forward.
In the shadow of the northern tower, Spencer found - wonder and serendipity! - a fallen rivet, big as his tiny fist, heavy as a stone, rough with rust and chipped paint. He palmed it proudly - a talisman, a gift from the bridge itself - showed it to his father, who identified it with a smile as a heavy-gauge blind rivet. They both looked up the face of the tower, trying to imagine where the rivet had fallen from. “Do you use these when you build things?” asked Spencer. “Not much,” said his father. His father built houses.
Midway across the span, Spencer paused, as many people do, at the point where the suspension cables dropped almost to eye level. He pushed both feet in between the slats of the railing and leaned his head over the edge to take in the ocean far below. The water was a thick algal color, a rich green-brown that gave away nothing. Cuts of foam and brine appeared and healed themselves in a rhythm that, for Spencer, took the place of time itself.
It was from the time-ocean, then, that the troll revealed itself to Spencer for a moment that would play forever undiminished in the boy’s head, and then sunk back into the past-present-future that washed through the deep channel beneath the bridge. Spencer looked at his father, knew instantly that his father had seen nothing, and understood himself to be alone. He felt in his pocket for the rivet, grasped it tightly.
“I’m cold,” he said. “Can we keep going?”
Later, after they had returned to the car, Spencer’s father told him about the cancer. Spencer nodded silently, as if he’d already known. In another six months, after wasting him down to his foundations, the sickness would finally take the architect. Spencer Caffold spent days staring at the rivet, wondering if something in that eternal moment, some different action, might have saved his father.
Wondering, to be precise, whether it was his fault.
Spencer was seventeen years old the next time. It was a sunny day on the bridge, bright and clear and unseasonably warm for March, but the road that brought him there was dark. There were tourists everywhere, photographs being taken everywhere, and if you were to look through all of them, you might be able to spot the teenage Spencer, trudging like a ghost, receding from every angle. He is the smudge, the cloud, the blur, vanishing even in stasis.
He walked half the length of the bridge, to the point between the towers where the suspension cables were almost at eye level. He rested his elbows on the edge of the rail and looked down at the water below.
It looked cold, yes, but forgiving. There was no wind, so the waves were their own masters, and they rose and fell in shimmering, pristine shapes unsliced by whitecaps.
From his pocket he removed a penny, and when no one was watching, he dropped it from the edge. As it fell, he imagined that he was that penny. He imagined falling faster and faster, the ocean rising up to welcome him. The penny disappeared in its own smallness, and a moment later, a polite ripple marked where it had landed.
He gripped the rail with tense hands and steadied himself. He pictured the motion in his head, imagined the chain of muscle movements that would have to take place, one after the other. The final traces of physics. The eternal dotted line. A strong leap, a pivot of the body up and around rigid arms, perhaps a final push from the hands to clear the maintenance rail. It was simple. He rocked back on his heels, fingers tight around the rail, preparing his momentum for the leap to come … and stopped.
The ocean lay below him, vast, distant, lethal. He felt cold in the bright, warm sun. He felt wrong! Have you ever caught yourself just before saying exactly the wrong thing, moments before offending the widow, seconds before blowing the interview? Those mistaken words sit burning in your belly the rest of the night - all the triumph in the world can’t make that feeling go away: The horror of the reality that almost was. That’s the feeling that was beginning to bloom at the seams for Spencer Caffold. But just as he was about to release the rail, to turn and walk away, the troll appeared.
It floated as if drawn up from the deep on puppet strings, first hands and feet, then arms and legs, then body. It was immense, easily a hundred feet long. It hovered a few feet below the surface. Its skin was the color of drowned flesh, and hung loosely on its harsh, broken bones. Its limbs were bent at their joints, and they drifted limply with the currents. Its slender fingers swayed in time with the waves. It was wrapped in strands of kelp. Its head remained in darkness, its long stringy hair floating up to the surface.
“Hello again,” it said, in a windy whisper. “Welcome.”
“You,” said Spencer.
“Are you frightened?” the troll asked.
“No! Yes. I don’t know.“
“You shouldn’t be,” the troll continued. “I am what you came here for. I am the answer.”
“What answer?” Spencer demanded. “Who are you?”
“I’m the troll. I live under this bridge,” the troll said. The waves had curled its body into a sort of fetal position, and it was twisting gently, hair and seaweed trailing after it as it drifted. “And I am the answer.”
Spencer realized that the troll was saying something over and over again, in another, lower, wind-voice: “Come down, come down, come over the rail, come down, come down, come over the rail.”
“You are lonely, yes?” asked the troll.
“Why should I tell you anything?” asked Spencer.
“Because I will listen,” said the troll. Logic! It was enough for Spencer to continue. Who else would understand, anyway? Where had the last six years started? Right here. With a magical rivet in his pocket and his father silently dying beside him.
So what did Spencer tell the troll? Did he tell it about the drugs? The school suspensions? The fights? That persistent feeling, the world drawing further and further away? The girl? - It’s always the girl, isn’t it, the last resort, the luminous angel young Spencer hoped would save him -
“I don’t think I’m capable of being happy anymore,” said Spencer. “At least, I haven’t felt happy for … I don’t know. A long time." Years, Spencer. It’s been years. Not since your father told you he was sick. Six months of worry and distress and powerlessness, followed by years of guilt and grief. Nothing else counts. Everything else is emptiness.
“Yes, I understand,” said the troll. (“come over the rail, come down …”)
“You knew, didn’t you? You knew he was sick.”
"Spencer” - beware the troll who knows your name! - “you knew, too. You must have known. And all you had to do was take that rivet, and -”
“I don’t believe you.“
"I was there, Spencer. If you think I don’t understand the nature of things, the way this and that are connected, the spiderweb principles of the universe … Spencer, do you know what I am? I’m older than everything. You don’t believe me?" And it laughed - air bubbled through waterlogged lung-sacs. Have you ever heard a troll laugh? No? Consider yourself fortunate. "You could hardly be more insignificant, Spencer Caffold. What you believe is a trifle."
"You want me to jump, don’t you.” Because there were in fact two forces at work here - there was the troll, and there was, Spencer realized, the bridge, which was telling him in the language of structure and form: Walk on, young man. One side or the other, but the middle’s not for stopping, not even to converse with a troll.
"I don’t care what you do,” said the troll. “But my way’s easier.”
And that was it. Sad as he was, hopeless as he might have felt, Spencer still had in him the blood of an architect, and easier was not a path he could accept.
“I’m not going to jump, troll,” said Spencer.
“Of course you won’t,” whispered the troll. “You are weak. That’s why you came here. You’re too weak for the world, boy. You weren’t made properly. You feel too much, and you always will. It clouds your actions. You will fail. You will always fail, boy. And in the end, your life will be strewn with the wreckage of your failures. And you will die alone, I promise you that. And when you die, I’ll be the last voice you hear. Is that what you want?”
Spencer stood at the rail for a long time, feeling its sturdiness, feeling the shoulder of the bridge beneath his feet, while the troll spooled his whole life out before him. Who can tell when a troll is lying? When it opens its mouth? If it were so simple! There isn’t a strainer made can separate the true from false in that emulsion. We must ignore the troll to speak the truth: The world shifted, but the bridge stayed put. Finally, Spencer spoke.
“Yes, it is.”
“Fine,” said the troll. “I’ll be waiting for you then.” And it disappeared into the deep.
Spencer Caffold, with his architect lineage, with his magical rivet enshrined upon his humble mantle, had a calling. He was to build things. He quit the drugs, quit the fights, buried himself in studies of arches and pillars, supports and struts, floors and cornices. He pored over the great works of stone and circumstance: the pyramids, the aqueducts, the temples.
And not just that. He thought of the troll constantly. He plotted. He wrote down everything he knew about the troll, and everything he didn’t. He made a list of questions. He made a plan.
And in doing so, he began, in a fashion, to sketch the structure of his own life. There was a path before him, one that traversed a treacherous terrain. Strong building materials would be essential. Some kind of support system would be needed if his path was to reach its goal. And an understanding of the abyss he hoped to conquer - a careful survey of its dimensions and conditions - was crucial to his success.
When Spencer returned to the bridge, it was not only as an engineer, but also as a spy. He walked its span to the center (noting now the minutiae of load distributions and expansion plates) to the spot where the suspension cables were nearly at eye-level, gripped the rail with practiced intent (noting the exact thickness of the steel) and, looking down into the blue-green water below, rocked back on his heels as if preparing to jump.
After some moments, the troll rose to the surface, its swaying forest of hair again obscuring its face, its body lolling with the tide.
“You’ve come back,” it whispered (“come over the rail, come down …”)
“Yes,” said the young engineer.
“I’m glad,“ said the troll. "I was harsh with you when last we spoke. I regret it now.”
“I forgive you,” replied Spencer. “But I came back because I think you might have been right.”
Have you ever lied to a troll? Can you imagine looking such a creature in the eye, and spinning a fabrication of broken hearts, doubts, fears? These are, after all, the troll’s very sustenance. To substitute sawdust for a sandwich? And to pull it off? To fool a troll? But Spencer Caffold was careful, deliberate, prepared. So elaborate, so rich were his lies, that the troll salivated at their wondrous aroma.
“Come down, my boy. You look tired. It’s much better here,” it said to him.
“I’m considering it,” said Spencer. “But I need to know more. What’s it like down there? Would I be lonely?”
“No,” said the troll. “There are many others here who would be happy to know you. We all understand you, understand your pain.”
“Would I live under the bridge with you?”
“Of course. We all live under the bridge.”
“But how do you all fit? You’re a very large creature. How are you able to be comfortable under this bridge?”
“It’s very comfortable here, my boy,” replied the troll. “There is a deep channel under the bridge. My body fits very neatly at the bottom.”
“And how do you sleep, with all the ships coming and going?”
“I curl myself around the foundations of the bridge,” said the troll. “They’re smooth and cold and comforting, and even when the biggest ships are passing through, I can sleep soundly.”
“I would be concerned about something, if I lived under the bridge with you,” said the engineer. “What about the ocean currents? Why aren’t you swept out to sea?”
“I’m stronger than I look,” said the troll, its limbs dragging lazily, limp as kelp. “When the currents are fierce, I hold fast to the bases of the towers. With my firm grip, no current would ever sweep me away.”
“What do you eat, then?”
“You ask a lot of questions, Spencer Caffold,” whispered the troll.
“I have the answers I need,” replied the engineer. And with that, he left.
The girl’s name was April, and she was a teacher. When he saw her for the first time, it was evening, and he was walking through the city park (a marvel of civic engineering! A thousand paths, a thousand interpretations of the same piece of land!). He was lost in his own thoughts, in his wonder at the multiplicity of crossroads and vistas, and she was sitting on a bench beneath the arch of a streetlamp, eating chestnuts and reading a mystery. To Spencer, it was as if the bench, the streetlamp, the park, and even the crepuscular sky itself were there only to dress the girl who sat before him, as if all the trails and pathways of the city park led to this one quiet pool of light. When she saw him staring, she smiled and offered him a seat beside her. Who can say why? Sometimes a person just knows the right thing to do.
He asked her how she liked the book.
"I don’t like mysteries,” she said.
“Then why read it?”
She thought for a moment, smiled to herself, and answered, “for the moment of finding out you had everything you needed, all along."
Then she offered him a chestnut.
One day soon after they were married, Spencer told her about the troll. He showed her his notes. Though she’d never seen the troll, though she had no reason to believe in the troll, April nodded gently.
"I think my purpose in life is to build a troll-proof bridge,” he told her. “I think that’s what I was put here to do, and I think it can be done.”
“Spencer,” she said softly, assuredly, “if anyone can do it, it’s you.”
He began to thank her, but she stopped him.
“And if you can’t make the troll go away, I’ll still love you.”
“I’m going to find a way,” Spencer responded. “I might be the only person in the history of the whole world who ever knew that this is what I have to do. And if I don’t do it, it might never get done.”
But in those days, they were poor. She was only a substitute teacher with little savings, and so Spencer took his life-sketch and put it aside (he had a strong support, yes, but material was in short supply). He took any work he could find. He built a parking garage, a warehouse, public restrooms, power sheds, corporate parks. The buildings were bleak, bland, sad - the clients were unimaginative, uncooperative, uninspired. These could have been dreary years for the engineer. But there was love. There were candles and street fairs. There was laughter, wondrous freedom. There were years of April. It could have been good enough for Spencer.
But life turns. Sometimes it brings you what you want, especially if what you want is a challenge. A good engineer will out, and Spencer Caffold was a great engineer by any reckoning, even in his youth. And so a government in a far-off part of the world called upon him to build them a bridge. It was to be a massive undertaking that would link two islands for the first time. It was the commission of a lifetime, a career-maker for any young builder. But of course, it was much more than that for Spencer Caffold.
The design of the bridge was a constant topic of conversation among engineers and architects of the day. It was almost immediately over budget and behind schedule, and rumors circulated of strange features and procedures whose purpose could only be speculated. Why, for example, had crazy Caffold insisted on filling in all the deep channels, at great expense, so that the water depth under the bridge was the bare minimum to accommodate the maritime traffic of the region? And what possible explanation could exist for the foundations studded with huge metal spikes, or the intricate matrix of razor-sharp metal crossbars that crisscrossed the bases of the suspension towers? What was one to make of such costly extravagances?
Of course, Spencer had very good reasons for these measures, but he kept them to himself. With the sheer force of his will, he propelled the project forward for five long years, and at last, the bridge was complete. The day it was to open to the public, the engineer walked out alone to the very center and looked down into the pristine, tropical water far below, full of both pride and relief.
And then he saw the troll. It rose to the surface in a dead-man’s float, its long hair bobbing and slithering on the waves.
“You!” exclaimed the engineer. “How did you get here?”
The troll laughed a watery, whispery laugh. “Hello again,” it said. “And thank you.”
“This bridge is supposed to be troll-proof!” shouted the engineer. “The water’s too shallow, the foundations are studded with spikes, and there’s nothing for you to hold on to when the tides are strong.”
“The shallow water lets the sun into my home, and that brings me joy,” said the troll. “I am able to scratch the itches on my back with your spikes. And when the tide comes, I think I shall let my own hair become entangled in your crisscrosses. So I believe I will be very comfortable here.”
“No!” cried Spencer.
“Yes,” whispered the troll. “It is the way of things. Where there’s a bridge, there is always a troll.”
And with that, it receded into the depths.
Spencer Caffold sank too, into a despair deeper than any he had ever known, deeper even than the mood that had brought him to the railing in his youth. The bridge was a folly: the clients were displeased, the name of Spencer Caffold became a cynical punchline. Clients, cynicism he could live with - the architect, remember? That he might never get another chance to build a bridge was harder to take. But worse, the bridge had failed in the one thing it had been secretly built for. Failure of function: This is what keeps engineers awake at night. Five years, and he’d done everything,everything, right. And still the troll had found itself a home there.
Shamed in the profession, privately deflated - did he vanish into drink? Did he slink off into obscurity, never to be heard from again? He vanished, yes, but it was an austere exile. Did his wife worry that he spent all hours working away at drawings of hypothetical bridges and troll anatomies? Would you worry? Of course April worried, but Spencer Caffold never did a thing slightly, and she of all people knew that. And she of all people understood the depth of his disappointment. But she had faith. He was, if nothing else, a capable builder. And there was money left over. The island bridge would be forgotten one day. All would be right with time.
But what’s this? What’s happening back at the islands? The two islands now bound in structural matrimony by that shimmering Spencer Caffold monstrosity - the islands are seeing an unprecedented rise in tourism, much of it due to curiosity about the strange bridge. It’s a boom! The islands, the bridge, a destination! Perhaps, a wonder? Perhaps, some kind of mad masterpiece? And here, quietly, in those cynical circles that were so quick to damn, the conversation is threading a new weft. A cautious, chastened new story is emerging. A re-appraisal.
And just like that, Spencer Caffold was proclaimed a genius.
Judiciously at first, then recklessly, commissions began to come in. More commissions than Spencer Caffold could handle. And a different sort of commission. People wanted him. People believedhim. It didn’t matter what he said. He had ascended, and it was his word and his ideas that the planning commissions, the urban developers, the ministers of infrastructure, came to hear. So, Spencer Caffold got to choose.
And what did he choose? What else! He chose to try again. To succeed where he had failed. He chose to build another bridge.
A lake, flat as a clear sky, girded by mountains. Two villages, one on either side, both of humble means, seeking to connect their meager streams of commerce and community. This is the job the great Spencer Caffold takes on? When he could be building glamorous skyscrapers? When he could be designing entire cities? No explaining it…
Locals took to calling it the Wall Bridge. Why? It looked like nothing more than a wall rising up from the water. Solid stone from road to lakebed, perforated only by tiny holes below the waterline. Holes big enough to allow for the flow of water and the passage of nimble river fish, but far too small for larger things. And again, the cynical murmurs. The disappointment. This simple parabolic path across the lake, built of rough stone and concrete, with no ornament, no memorable surface, hardly any feature at all beyond its sheerness, its impregnable solidness. Shoulders shrugged, but Spencer Caffold had the final word, and the bridge filled in to match his vision.
On the day the last stone was laid, Spencer walked the length of the bridge and stopped in the center. “This is what he does,” his foreman whispered to one of the local hires, who nodded with reverent fascination. Spencer leaned out over the edge and peered into the water.
Yes, the troll was there too. It came this time in the form of an oily ichor, a sickly, iridescent film just beneath the surface, passing easily through the holes in the bridge, choking the fish foolish enough to swim into its poison cloud. It had no body, no face, no long stringy hair, but Spencer recognized it immediately and scowled.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” he said darkly.
“You don’t know anything about anything,” replied the troll. “You can’t keep me away.”
The bridges (because after another quiet re-appraisal, the Wall Bridge became a “haiku of civil engineering” and a “treasure of the mountains”) of Spencer Caffold came to dot the landscape of the world. Here, a spindly span over a dry split in the earth; there, a covered traverse between the fortresses of two powerful financial firms. And where he went, the troll followed. It came as a knot of gnarled roots grasping and weltering from the face of canyons. It circled one bridge as a pestilential carrier wave of deformed sparrows. When Spencer added bird nets and spikes to his designs, the troll responded by appearing as an ill fog. When Spencer covered the cliff walls with concrete, it returned as a damp mold dripping from beneath the span.
At each bridge, the troll mocked Spencer. It told him again and again that his work was a failure. It told him that he was a fraud, that he would be exposed and shamed if he continued his insane quest. It told him to quit the bridges, to go back to parking garages and restrooms. And of course, it told him to jump. Every time.
Spencer listened and didn’t argue with the troll. Did the troll speak his own inner thoughts? Did it call out the disappointments of his life? Was it, in short, right? Maybe it was. Maybe its words gnawed at his heart. Maybe he wrestled these doubts every time a new commission came in, every time he put pencil to drafting paper. But did he show it?
He did not. A good engineer knows how to stand tall. It is after all a mechanical process: shoulder blades squeeze in to reveal the chest, abdomen pulls towards spine to support a lofty carriage of the ribs, arms impend loose but engaged, ready, at the sides. It was the way his father had stood before the sickness had dismantled him, it was how Spencer stood: before clients, before work crews, before the troll. And it showed no weakness.
But there were others, the ones who did jump, from the bridge where Spencer had first met the troll, from Spencer’s own bridges, from bridges the world over. How many every year? Spencer knew exactly. He kept count. He was meticulous. The number itself was a meditation, a mantra, a koan. And what other despair had the troll wrought? Spencer did not know. He could not count how many hearts the troll had broken, how many half-formed ideas and dreams the troll had whispered out of existence from beneath the bridges of the world. He could only imagine the millions who walked through each day, leaking a sadness, a disappointment they could not explain, and yet also could not explain away.
He did ask the troll once, “Why do you do this? What is your purpose, troll?”
And the troll replied, preening its oily feathers with a curled talon, “You shouldn’t doubt, me, Spencer Caffold. I keep your puny race strong enough to survive another generation. This traverse and all others are mine to keep, and my toll is the weakest among you, the most broken. That is the arrangement.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Spencer. “There’s no arrangement. You’re just greedy and evil.”
“Believe what you will,” whispered the troll.
Sometimes - not often - Spencer would shout from his drafting office across the house to April, “I’m thinking about using fish hooks, a whole forest of them. Do you think that would work?” or “We’re going to use underwater speakers to drown it out." Usually, she would come into his office, place her hands on his shoulders, say things like, "You know what I think? I think you’re having too much fun,” and smile.
And maybe that was true too. Spencer despised the troll. He detested its cruel ends and petty means. He thought it small and dishonorable. But he did not fear the troll. And secretly, yes, some part of him relished the challenge. After all, what would he do without the troll? His bridges had a special purpose. Without the troll, they were ridiculous, indulgent affairs.
One day, as Spencer was plotting a new commission, he called to April in triumph, “A perimeter of electrified webbing!”
“Spencer,” she replied, “I’m pregnant.”
Spencer and April had a son. They agreed to name the boy after Spencer’s father the architect. As the baby became a bright child, Spencer began to notice that a flume of dread rose in him whenever he crossed a bridge. And when he spoke to the troll, Spencer’s words caught in his throat. He was afraid! Here was something the troll could take from him. And yet, here was why, at all costs, the troll had to be stopped.
Once, the troll said to him, “You know you’ll never defeat me.”
It was a wooden bridge, in a forest. The troll had come in the form of a twisted knot of strangle-vines.
“Maybe not,” replied the engineer.
“It is the way of things,” it reminded him. “Where there is a bridge, there is always a troll.”
“Yes,” said Spencer, “but there is also a bridge.”
For once, the troll was silent, and the engineer imagined that on its face, a face he had never – save in nightmares – seen in all the years it had haunted him, it wore a scowl of its own.
Spencer had never intended to bring his son into the bridge-making business. If he could have turned the boy in any direction, it would have been far away from the domain of the troll. But the boy was stubborn like his father. Against his father’s wishes, Spencer Caffold’s son found himself on bridges of all kinds, first as a tiny onlooker, watching with awe as Spencer directed small armies of men and women; then later, as a cadet among those scurrying masses, learning the trades of bricklayers, welders, riveters, learning to man the heavy machines; later still as a crew chief; and finally as his father’s second-in-command.
And really, who could be prouder than Spencer Caffold? To be working alongside his own son? His son was as bullish as he, as focused, as driven. He was perhaps even more capable than his father, more accomplished in the trades, more sensible. He bore none of Spencer’s eccentricities. He, for example, would never build a bridge encased in mosquito nets, or one from which depended a massive wrecking ball, or one from which draped curtains of shimmering chainmail from end to end. But he can be forgiven - after all, he knew nothing of the troll.
“You must introduce me to the boy some time,” said the troll.
"Never happen,“ replied Spencer.
"Oh, I don’t know,” giggled the troll, disappearing into the lake.
With each passing bridge, Spencer carried less and less hope of success, less hope that his life-sketch would finish as planned. He had limitless materials (the commissions piled up at his door), a pair of unshakable suspension towers (April, still radiant even in age; and his son), and yet he was still no closer to crossing the abyss. As he walked to the center of each new bridge, he expected to see the troll there waiting for him in some new form, laughing at him, louder and louder every time.
Spencer asked the troll why it seemed happier each time they met.
“Don’t you know?” it said. "Each time is closer to the last.“
Spencer knew the last time was coming. He saw it in his own face, in the way his skin had changed, in the deepness of his eyes. He felt it in his bones. When a commission came for a bridge across a canyon above a wild Western river, he knew it would be his last work on this earth. He hid the pains that wracked his body for as long as he could, and let his son handle most of the daily affairs. But he couldn’t hide forever. The sickness spread throughout his body, and anyone could see that Spencer was failing. His son, fearing for his father’s health, begged Spencer to rest, to delay the construction until he was healthy. But Spencer refused any treatment, and his health deteriorated by the day.
"Listen,” he told his son as they worked on their plans, “nothing fancy this time. No fans, no buoys, no filaments. Let’s just build the best bridge we can, son.”
“Dad,” said his son, “we can wait. We can wait until you’re better. Then, whatever you want, we can put it in.”
“There’s not time for that,” he told his son.
His son was running the entire building crew. Spencer could do little more than pace feebly along the completed sections, and drink tea in their makeshift field office. Sometimes, when Spencer had the energy, he and his son would sit across from each other and study the plans for the bridge together. Spencer would listen as his son briefed him on the crew’s progress. And every time they spoke, Spencer’s son would ask his father to take a rest.
“Let’s just get this one finished, son,” Spencer would say.
And in this fashion, the bridge spread from the ends of the canyon to the center - an elegant span of spiderweb steel that glistened in the sunlight.
As was his custom, on the day the bridge was to open, Spencer walked out alone onto the span, but he was weak and frail, and as he approached the railing at the center of the bridge, his legs gave out and he collapsed. His son came running to him.
“Father!” he cried, “we have to get a doctor!”
“No doctor,” said Spencer, “not yet. Help me to the rail.”
His son objected, but the young man did as he was told. Anyone could see Spencer had very little time left, and the young man could not dishonor his dying father’s wish. He wrapped his father’s arm around his shoulder and raised him to his feet.
“Why did you do this to yourself?” asked the son, tears in his eyes. “You could have rested. Why didn’t you stop working?”
“Listen,“ Spencer fixed his gaze upon his son. "Remember what we did here. We connected this and that. What are we without the connections we make, son? Remember that!”
“I don’t understand,” said his son.
“Walk me to the railing,” said Spencer.
They came to the rail together, and the troll appeared in the river below them. It whispered its old song up at them from the water, “come over the rail. Come down. Come over the rail …” and then it added, "Hello, young Caffold.”
“What is that?” said the son in alarm.
“That,” replied Spencer Caffold, “is the answer.”
For a moment, time seemed out of place. There was the troll. There was a bridge. There was a father, dying. There was a son by his side. There was Spencer, and a man who bore the name of Spencer’s father. And there was the troll. The engineer’s legs buckled, and he slid to the ground again.
The young man rushed away to summon a doctor.
Now the troll speaks to the dying man.
“You see,” it whispers, “it’s just as I predicted. You have failed. Every one of your precious bridges has failed. And now you are dying, alone. And here I am, waiting for you.”
A spark: Spencer reaches an old hand into a frayed pocket, pulls from it the rivet. The magic rivet. The thing that if only he’d, years ago – he grips it tightly in his bony fingers, wheels his arm back, elbow behind shoulder, forearm swiveling for momentum, pivots at the waist. Shoulder leads, then elbow, then forearm, then fingers, and the rivet is aloft, falling through empty space with the weight of lost decades. Is it true to its mark? Can the old man throw?
It is. He can. The rivet strikes the troll where its heart would be, a perfect shot, a deeply rewarding thud that echoes through the valley.
And nothing happens.
Except that the troll begins to laugh. A wispy, horrible cachinnation, the sound of a hundred babies dying.
“You fool!” it bellows. “To think you carried all your petty hopes all these years in this scrap of wasted metal. Do you know why you found it in the first place? Because it failed. It failed in its one and only purpose. You think your little trinket will put an end to me? You think there’s a magic bullet to kill a troll? I dreamed that rivet a thousand years ago, Spencer Caffold. I should swallow your whole family and put an end to your miserable misguided bloodline.”
“But you won’t,” croaks Spencer. “You won't do anything. You never do.”
“I have all the time in the world, Spencer Caffold. I don’t have to do anything. You all come to me eventually.”
And the troll laughs darkly and disappears, and a cold wave of shock wracks the old man. He is alone.
Spencer Caffold summons his final reserves, and speaks his last words to the crevasse. Perhaps it is the power of his voice, or perhaps it’s the particular acoustics of the canyon, that carry them. But the words carry. It is a command, his final command. The workers hear him. All those who have gathered to witness the bridge’s opening hear him. His son, rushing back too late, doctor in tow, hears him. The troll, a-swim in its timeless ocean, hears him.
“Build more bridges!”
The young bridge cradles the old man with infinite gentleness as he slips away. His final bridge will stand for hundreds of years. It is his purest work - simple, strong, focused on nothing more than conveying travelers across the pass. And like all his other bridges, beneath it lurks the troll.
As his thoughts fade into nothing, he is presented finally with the sketch of his life. It is still rough, as rough as it was when he was first learning the engineer’s trade, but it is complete. It is, looking back from the far side on its shape, a bridge. Supported by his pillars of trust, laying steel and concrete and dreams, building with all the resources the world has given him, Spencer has crossed a great divide, and he has arrived somewhere else. Structurally, it’s not his best work. It is tentative. Some segments feel unfinished. Some parts are held together with wooden scaffolding. It wobbles in places. It would never pass a proper safety inspection in most countries. But it does have one outstanding feature, Spencer’s life-as-a-bridge, and it is this feature that warms the final beat of Spencer’s heart.
“So that’s how you do it,” he thinks. And then he is gone.