Qualia

by Andrew S. Taylor

The river has produced a number of extraordinary outcomes. When flowing under the bridge at night, it transforms the objects that float upon its surface. Small pieces of wood, branches and leaves and other detritus — all of these undergo a metamorphosis during the brief moment they pass beneath the crossing. What appears on one side of the bridge to be a discarded leaflet will emerge from the other side as a leaping fish, or a chrysanthemum, or a floating lantern.

These phantom objects are luminous and attractive, but nowadays they usually disappear before our eager fisherwomen can touch them — either by sinking rapidly beneath the surface or dissolving in a wispy cloud. Only if we keep our distance from them do they continue down-river outside the bounds of the city, where they are occasionally spotted from the smaller fishing villages beyond. The river does not produce this phenomenon during the daytime, and examination of the bridge in question — the bridge being of course the central artery connecting the two half-circles of our bisected city — reveals nothing suspect (aside from possibly more than the usual signs of wear, this being one of the oldest structures in the city). A nighttime investigation has not been undertaken out of fear that the transformative process will enact itself upon the observer.

Furthermore, the moon when reflected from the surface of the water near the bridge on either side takes on an unusual amber hue, and its shape appears to waver more than would be warranted solely by the ripples on the surface of the running water. At the urging of City Council a local lens-maker has several times performed an experiment in which the light reflected by the moon from this portion of the river is gathered by a concave mirror and focused upon a prism. The subsequent spray of color reveals a series of thin black lines which move about mysteriously within the spectrum. The lens-maker reports that he had observed no such phenomenon in other substances or light sources.

It was then still a tradition of the City, in the first year that this phenomenon occurred, to celebrate the onset of autumn by filling the river with paper floats in the form of flowers and birds made by the local children. These were placed upon the river from various locations in the up-river regions, which is also the newer section with greater access to the embankment. To mark the occasion, musicians moved about the waterfront, addressing the river with improvised melodies. Food stands and fireworks also lent the night its festive air. The children decorated the river by the thousands, and soon the water carried a thick necklace of particolored ornaments.

The effect of the bridge-crossing upon these offerings was even more dramatic than expected, for each of the paper decorations — all of which depicted some kind of living organism — emerged incarnate. Paper cranes became actual cranes, scaled to the size at which their paper form had been constructed. Folded flowers flushed with color, and released intoxicating odors. One float, which a child had meticulously constructed to resemble his dead mother's face, did in fact become the floating, upturned face of his mother. The astonished crowds which lined the down-river side of the bridge could see the array of her copper hair beneath the surface, followed in the deep-blue shadows by the outline of her naked body stirring to life. When she tried to climb ashore near the edge of the city, she was helped over the wall by local dock-workers who covered her with a robe. She was not introduced to her son, and in fact did not speak at all in the three weeks before she mysteriously disappeared from her room at the sanitarium, except for the utterance of the word "apple" when the moon passed in view through the window pane in her room. She shattered the glass by reaching for it.

The other life-forms, however, took much longer to disappear. The miniature cranes moved freely about the city, feeding upon insects and occasional bits of bread tossed at them from shop windows and park benches. They would swim for hours within mere puddles, and stand unmoving in small clutches of grass that grew between the cobblestones in the derelict neighborhoods. They swooped from place to place with all the slowness and grace of their greater brethren, though they were barely larger than butterflies or moths.

As for the flowers, they lifted out of the water completely, and floated for weeks in the air overhead, continuing to enlarge. They only rarely descended to within reach of the street-dwellers, and often by then had grown to the size of a tea-tray. Many of the city-folk climbed onto their tenement roofs and stood astride charcoal-stained smoke-stacks to brush the underside of the flowers with their fingertips. The method of levitation was never determined but those who encountered them described a sound from within like a raspy breath through a nostril, and noted that the flowers gently rose and fell on the air before them in time to this slow respiration.

Even though the ceremony of the children's paper toys was soon-after abandoned, the citizens of the city continued to congregate on the central bridge over the river for weeks and months following, as they do to this day on subsequent anniversaries of that first manifestation. The citizens of the north side and the south side have always congregated in this manner, but never before in such numbers. Given that the people of the north side cannot draw or create symbols, and that the people of the southern side cannot speak, and since by law it is only through marriage that any person may cross back-and-forth freely as a dual-citizen of both north and south, it is solely by meeting and conjoining along the length of the bridge, amidst bewildered crowds, that a complete history of improbable events can be recorded.


Andrew S. Taylor’s first short story was published ten years ago in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Since then, his fiction and essays have appeared in dozens of publications. His novella “Swamp Angels” is included in the anthology Needles & Bones from Drollerie Press. He intermittently updates his blog. His story, “A Word From Our Sponsors,” appeared in Issue #22 of The Cafe Irreal.