He delayed himself for weeks with the planning of his jump.
Once the important points were set (shoes on, eyes open, no note, a weekday), parsing the significance of little things became paralyzing. There were a lot of choices to make now that the main thing had been decided: temperatures and water currents and federal holidays were considered while he did the dishes or waited for the train. He felt like he did in the dreams where he’d been put in charge of planning a wedding or directing a play, and was upsettingly unprepared.
Was October too on the nose, with it bearing Halloween and his birthday? September seemed perfect, but couldn’t irony be found there too, in it being the true beginning of fall? He finally allowed himself to settle on a date: he would go on November 8th, and would climb the bridge late at night so as not to traumatize any joggers or drivers.
On the evening of the eighth, he used the pedestrian walkway that looped up to the northern side of the bridge. There was no one else walking, and only a few cars murmured along on the lower level. He threw his legs over the guardrail, climbed over the chain link fence, and shimmied out across the x-ties to the outermost support beams.
He did not realize how frightening the wind would be once he was exposed. It shoved him like a crowd, trying to knock him down before he was ready. He gripped the strut of the bridge, pushing paint and rust into his nailbeds.
The currents in the river looked like floating hair at this height and light. He wondered where he would end up, once he was dead. If the river froze soon, he’d sink to the bottom, no? He had researched this, and yet it escaped him now: was it warm or cold water that pushed you lower? Perhaps the heat of his body and its gases would cause him to rise immediately and then sink. That sounded about right. He did not like the vision of himself embedded in an ice floe, ass up until his discovery.
He should check. He should get down.
A tingling, tipsy feeling reached up from his gut and bloomed through his spine. It did not fucking matter where he landed! It would be over.
A grotesquely white shape floated onto the rocks of the eastern shore, serpentine and twitching. Would he be such a wraith after he died? It unfurled its wings and rose to meet him, settling a few dozen feet above his head on a beam.
He could just see it when he grabbed the strut with both hands and leaned out. A heron! He never realized how massive herons were. He was always a bit surprised by large birds: their ungainliness, the wet whirring noises in their throats, how lizard-like their eyes were.
He wanted to see this one up close, and he felt like he could, like it wanted him to. It would let him touch it if he tried. He set his foot in the cross beam at the level of his chest and hoisted himself up. The heron hopped over a few feet, bobbing its head as if to say “Yes, yes, this way.”
He climbed laterally, aligning himself underneath the heron. It opened its wings. They made a sound like a bed sheet being shaken. The man stepped up on the next strut, and stretched out his fingers for the bird’s foot. His left foot slipped, and then his right. For a moment he hung by four fingers. Then, having forgotten all the small humming things that had drawn him up to the bridge in the first place, he let go.
A man near the rocks watched the man on the bridge fall. The water was moving fast, and closed neatly over the enormous baritone clap the body made.
He’d seen a lot of dead bodies before, but he’d never seen one made. He moved closer to the river to see if he could spot the body’s path. The water was moving fast and steady, repeating itself in befuddling patterns. The body was probably on the other side of the bridge already, and would be down in the bay by morning.
“Another one for Lord Hudson,” he said to himself. He liked the sound of this, and repeated it as he made his way up the rocks to a little barrow on the shore’s cliffside. He tucked himself in to pass through the spindly branches that hid his tent. It was a warm night, and he was in bed early, so he left the top flap of his tent open. He wanted the sun to wake him whenever it rose.
“Whenever you like, whenever you want, whenever wheneveryouwant,” he muttered as he fell asleep.
His intentions had never matched his will, and he didn’t wake until the afternoon. He unzipped his tent and crawled out over the rocks. He made sure always to pee and shit into the water at the same place. After he peed, he began picking over the rocks for bottles and other tradeable flotsam. From the park on the other side of the hill he could hear people on bikes, people walking and picnicking. He did not see the body until he was standing over it.
It was facedown in the water, head and shoulders wedged between two boulders. He watched its hands clench and unclench with the water’s lapping, like little machines. Its hair was beautiful—it fluttered in the water, catching and illustrating the smallest currents. He placed his fingers in the dead man’s hair, but the river was sharp and cold and he could only do it for a few moments.
He could shove the guy off, back out to the river where he’d probably wanted to be in the first place. Who wanted to rot between garbage rocks at 180th street? Plus, the body would start to smell bad soon, and then the man would have to leave his camp. Pushing it out was the best thing.
The man braced his feet and tried to reach under the body’s armpits to lift it, but it was too heavy. As he tried to get a better angle, he heard a wingbeat and saw a bird land several rocks away. It looked at him with hard glass eyes, shuffled its shoulders, twitched its neck. It was terrifically ugly up close: garish orange weapon of a beak, skin like old hands around its eyes and on its feet, red rimmed eyes and a wobbling body. He was pretty sure it was a crane. The man spat at it.
“Go away, stop looking at us!” he shouted, gesturing at the body. “I gotta help this guy here!”
The bird didn’t blink. It turned to face the river and picked at its feathers with its beak, then took a step closer. The man remembered an old cartoon— this bird with a postman’s hat and a bindle in its mouth, carrying children carefully, dopily. He laughed. He threw his hands up and returned to his tent.
“Alright, fucker, you take him home.”
She’d seen the living human a few times before. It reeked of illness and shouted and threw stones at her and her children. The last time she saw it, it stood still, staring at her while it picked up one leg, then the other, trying to synchronize itself with her. When she tired of watching it do this she flew off to where it couldn’t follow. She liked to sit on the bridge and watch the giant sliding bugs pass before she took stock of the fish skittering just below the river’s surface.
She felt very happy to be one of the things that wasn’t stuck to just the ground or the water.
She stared at the human as it screeched and flapped at her. She wanted to see what it was doing to the dead human in the water—she had never seen a dead one before. She’d eaten dead things a few times, but they’d almost always made her ill.
The winter fish had not yet arrived, though, and the river was emptying, which meant worse things than feeling ill. The sick human made a crackling noise and walked away from the dead one. She hopped closer to where it bobbed in the water. It did not smell terribly; it must have been new.
She prodded at it, and drove her beak into its back. It wasn’t as yielding as fish. It tasted horribly, and she felt a premonitory sickness in her gut as she swallowed the first piece of it.
Before she could have another bite, the sick human returned, waving its arms crazily and screeching. It hurled a stone at her as she took off, which smashed into her leg, causing her to waver in midair and cry out in pain.
She landed on top of the bridge. She could still hear the human’s squawks. It was trying to shift the dead human more desperately now. Her foot hurt more than anything she could remember. She held it against her body, and would never be able to put it down again.
The next morning the river was colder, and the winter fish began to arrive. She soon forgot the dead human, and eventually the one who hurt her, but she would never return to the rocks again. When others of her family landed on the shore that winter and spring they were met by the sick, spitting human, who called them herons and threw things until they left. That man didn’t know that he and the dead man were both wrong about what birds they were. But had the egrets known, or had the words to tell them, they would not have cared to correct them.
Honor Vincent is a writer who was born and raised in New York. She works at a place best described as a writer’s retreat for programmers, and is currently working on a graphic novel. Her poems have appeared in Neologism and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.