THE BRIDGE by J.S. Breukelaar
RELEASE DATE: June 22, 2021
GENRE: Speculative Fiction / Dark Fantasy
Meera and her twin sister Kai are Mades—part human and part not—bred in the Blood Temple cult, which only the teenage Meera will survive.
Racked with grief and guilt, she lives in hiding with her mysterious rescuer, Narn—part witch and part not—who has lost a sister too, a connection that follows them to Meera’s enrollment years later in a college Redress Program. There she is recruited by Regulars for a starring role in a notorious reading series and is soon the darling of the lit set, finally whole, finally free of the idea that she should have died so Kai could have lived. Maybe Meera can be re-made after all, her life redressed. But the Regulars are not all they seem and there is a price to pay for belonging to something that you don’t understand. Time is closing in on all Meera holds dear—she stands afraid, not just for but of herself, on the bridge between worlds—fearful of what waits on the other side and of the cost of knowing what she truly is.
The Bridge by J.S. Breukelaar is an incredibly deep and dark Fantasy that drew me in from the beginning and didn’t let me go until the end. This is a difficult book to review because it’s something you need to experience for yourself. But, trust me when I say, if this is a genre you enjoy, you’ll love this.
I won’t ruin the surprises, so understand this brief review is only this way because, otherwise, you’ll miss out. I love the writing. Vivid and deep, it was easy to be lost in this story.
This is a new-to-me author that I will be reading from again. I absolutely loved The Bridge. Highly recommend giving this one a shot!!
Thank you to Meerkat Press for the review copy and opportunity to honestly review on the blog tour. All opinions are my own and unbiased.
It should be Kai going on the Father’s errand to pick up the compounds and pharma from the old crone. But Kai is in the infirmary and insists that I volunteer in her place. A glitter returns to her dead-sea eyes as she becomes more and more agitated by my reluctance. If anyone gets it wrong, she reminds me, he’ll be ropable. Everyone knows what the Father is like when he’s ropable. My sister is more convincing even at the edge of death than I am alive.
Lying beside her in the infirmary, I am shocked at how weak her grip is on my wrist.
“You owe me,” she says. “If it wasn’t for me you’d be . . .”
Truth or dead.
Because there are no words for my shame. The shame of what the Assistant wanted from me. The shame of Kai bursting in on it. Her fine face distorted in rage. And then it became something else, beyond embarrassment, beyond memory’s reach—only him lying on the ground, gore where his man-thing should be and Kai’s brown shoes slick with blood. Blood in her hair. Kai grabbing the Assistant’s handkerchief from his pocket to wipe it off. Passing it to me with an urgency that robs her of grace. She jerks toward me, pulls me out the door with bloodstained hands. The call of the ravens outside.
Wash your feet.
She saved me and I do owe her. It should be me lying in the infirmary instead of her. So when Matron comes marching down the hallway with Father’s errand list, looking for a “volunteer,” I am front and center. Matron looks down at the barefoot runt, trying to place me. There are so many of us, and we all look the same to her. Doubtfully hands me the scrap of paper and a small white cooler bag emblazoned with a red cross. She begins to give me directions, but I am already gone.
I don’t know the way but I force my mind back to the times I watched Kai swinging that medical bag across the dusk-slanted fields toward the witch’s shed. Her black hair melting into shadow one moment, an inky flash against the weak sunlight in the next like an on-off switch, ones and zeros. How I’d wait for her to safely return with powdered lichen compounded into antibiotic solutions for the embryos, tree-fern bundles for luck, henna for the Father’s hair (his pride), poppy seed pods for kicks, a myrtle cake for the midnight feast—and a story. No one knows that once . . . Demon lovers and lonely highways and gingerbread houses. Dragons and damsels and ragged mountains. Stories with the twin powers to conjure and protect.
The shed nestles in gangly Tallow woods that rain blossoms on its roof. Tongues of shadow unfurl at my approach, and stones dig into the soles of my bare feet. Mades only get shoes if there are enough to go around, and my feet are too small to fit into most hand-me-downs. The sky behind the trees is fiery and the Father’s ravens track my progress. Even if we were made with any desire to escape, which we were not, our Father’s bird’s-eye view of all he has created, is more of a deterrent than any fence.
Look! Looo-ooook, the ravens cry, at what the ca-aaat dragged in. I limp across the small yard, bird shit in my hair.
The digital layer of my brain snaps into overdrive—details are stark. Colors blinding. I visor my free hand above my eyes. The shed is up on low joists, blooms of corrosion on scrap metal strewn in the crawl space. The old crone stands on a veranda under low eaves. She wears guano-spattered gum boots and a coarse smock, her face in shadow except for agate eyes bright in a slice of setting sun. She beckons me forward. I hesitate. The hut passed from shearers to the pervy janitor who shot himself dead. But here he lounges in plain sight, on a squatter’s chair with half his head missing and the gun held loosely in his liver-spotted hand. Blood and brain matter have soaked the canvas and drip through the boards of the porch and onto the subfloor where a huge silver-gray cat laps at the pudding-like puddle.
Following my gaze, the crone makes a sign in the air and the janitor disappears leaving nothing but stained canvas and splintered pine.
“Him has the Dead-See?” she says, pointing a bent finger at me. It will take me some time to get used to her catch-all hims, thems, and its, unable for some reason, to get her tongue around she, her or you or me. And never I. It will take me some time to get used to never knowing, with Narn, where the act ends and she begins.
From under the shed, the cat glares at me resentfully, pawing at her bloodied whiskers.
“What does crappy twin want?”
I think that I want to be anywhere but here. How did Kai stand it? But I am on a promise. “I have a list from the Father.”
“Where’s other one?” the crone asks. “Better twin?”
I swallow. “How did you make us?”
“Ah. No time for questions.”
“Tell me. How?”
“Narn wanted one,” she says, pointing to herself. “Got two—a crappy twin and a good one.” She points a crooked finger at me, and another one at her heart. “Special words needed to make double-yolker using code and two eggs.” She holds up two fingers. “Long story. Hard work. Plenty shrooms, special words—danger everywhere.”
A magpie warbles sadly. I clutch the medical bag. “How did you hide us, what we are, from the Father?”
“Boss only saw what him wanted to see.” She shrugs, and even then I guess that I will probably never know the whole truth. “Shrooms helped. Magic helped more, even false magic. Problem was two surrogates needed—only one be real, and other fake. One alive, one dead.”
A dead surrogate?
“Many dead surrogates. Narn picked a fresh one.”
Helpless tears of horror prick my eyes. “But the ravens?”
“Too many questions.”
I am insistent. “Didn’t they see what you were doing?”
Her sigh is like sandpaper on rough wood. “Special words for ravens too. Ravens be Narn’s children. Special words for Assistants made him see nothing but themselves.”
I think she’s telling me all this because she’s going to kill and eat me like the witch from the last story Kai told at midnight on the morning before she kicked the Assistant in the thing. The witch lures twins—a boy and a girl—away from their father to her cottage made of candy and cookies in the woods, to fatten them up and eat them. “The Father will be waiting for his delivery,” I say, holding the bag out in front of me.
But now she acts like she doesn’t hear, and her eyes have gone an earthen red as if she is looking nowhere. “One surrogate dead with him baby dead inside. Narn pulled dead baby out and throws him away. Then put crappy twin”—she points to me—“up instead, shove it up real good and then did C-section. Boss likes knives. Knife made Boss see what him wanted to see. Narn said many magic hoo-hah words to keep Boss happy. To make Boss believe.”
“You hid me in a dead surrogate? And her own dead baby—you threw away? The real one?”
“Trash baby.” She beckons, and I start to walk backward instead of forward. “Many babies in trash back in them Temple days.”
Narn half-turns toward the front door. The orange light behind her hut grows surly, making the shearers’ shed seem to move forward, move toward me, like if I won’t come to it, it’ll get me anyway.
“You put me in the belly of a dead mother?”
We aren’t meant to call them that. They aren’t our mothers, or anyone’s. They serve the Father. Never ask about the surrogates. Which ones are . . . which? Because it doesn’t matter. The eggs are harvested at random and implanted in the same way. And the witch knows I’m not asking about that . . . about the surrogate. I’m asking about the eggs, the double-yolker conjoined by the same bridge of broken code.
“Tried to throw crappy twin in trash too—but good twin cried himself almost to death. Made Narn save him sister.”
And she jabs that finger at me again. And then she cackles. And it’s nothing like the fairy tale. At all.
J.S. Breukelaar is the author of Collision: Stories, a 2019 Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and winner of the 2019 Aurealis and Ditmar Awards. Previous novels include Aletheia and American Monster. Her short fiction has appeared in the Dark Magazine, Tiny Nightmares, Black Static, Gamut, Unnerving, Lightspeed, Lamplight, Juked, in Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy 2019 and elsewhere. She currently lives in Sydney, Australia, where she teaches writing and literature, and is at work on a new collection of short stories and a novella. You can find her at thelivingsuitcase.com and on Twitter and elsewhere @jsbreukelaar.
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