People say that everything is connected, but they don’t think about it. Not really. If it’s all connected, a part of everything else – a whole, a wholeness – then everything that ever is, was, the could-be sand the will-bes and the never-weres: it’s all one single moment connected together. Like a spider’s web with more dimensions than we can think, or fewer than we like to think about. I don’t say that to people who tell me that, because there is a truth to it. A poet’s truth, even if it’s not a real one. It’s true in the way that anything is true, if looked at from the right angle. If we don’t look at it too hard.
That’s on my phone. Seriously. Fake diary entries, one a day. In case I become famous, or I’m never famous but die in some memorable way, marry someone famous: in case I ever become someone. ‘Diaries of Kate’, and they’d pick the best entries and make a book out of them. There’s nothing real in them. I don’t trust diaries. The moment lies to us. We’re always writing for an audience, even if it’s just ourselves. I don’t write poems. I never have. But I like to re-read my diary entires each week, try and figure out what I was thinking last week.
There’s a two day gap two weeks ago. I’m trying not to think about that. That’s all I’ve been doing all week, if I’m being honest. I’m half-thinking of doing that, of leaving gaps when important things happens, so readers could piece truth together out of lies. I’m trying to pretend anything Important like that might happen again, wishing it won’t. It’s why I hear them. Two kids, grade five, six, somewhere like that. Boys, whispering to each other in the park, shoving each other in a contest of dares.
“You.” “No, you.” “I said you first.” “You go under the bridge!” “Not gonna: I said you go!” in a frenzy of whispers, a fury of shoves. The larger boy is barely being moved by the shoves, not shoving too hard at his friend. Keeping a balance, forcing nothing.
A fury of shoves. That’s almost a poem. I think we’re all almost poets, and I almost pull up notes and begin new entries. Almost. But they both look off, their movements skittish, unsure. Scared. I put my phone away and walk over. I know scared. I’ve been scared. Scared is when you need someone else.
“Hey.” They both turn and stare. I’m only fifteen, and not tall for my age, but I’m taller than they are. “What’s wrong with the bridge?” I ask.
They fall silent. The one boy scuffs the muddy gravel path with a boot, looks up. “They say there’s a troll living under it.”
“And he eats people,” the larger boy adds in a stage whisper.
Two weeks ago, I would have said it was a homeless person. A week ago, I would have been too scared to think straight. I want to walk away, to point out I’ve been under that bridge many times and it has no trolls at all. To figure they’re just telling jokes, to hear only the surface of things. But if the magician hadn’t paid attention, I’d be worse than dead. He said magic wasn’t about rights, but about duties, obligations, responsibilities. And I said I didn’t want that, and I didn’t. But when the world upends itself, you don’t forget.
You don’t forget, and you can’t ignore. And if you don’t want to spend your life hiding from every shadow-shape, you have to act. Sometimes. Somehow. “Shit,” I say softly. “Right. Stay here.”
They both blink. The scuffy one looks at the larger one. They look back at me and say nothing. I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t know anything anymore.
I walk down the narrow asphalt path, telling myself the park is quiet solely because parents have been scared into not bringing their kids to parks these days. Not everything is weird. Not everything has to have undertones of weird. I repeat that to myself as if mantras have real power. Dad used to do consult for management at companies, before. I think the drinking helped him cope, until it didn’t. I’d tell my friends Dad collected empty glass bottles, because it sounded better than drunkard ever did. They don’t come over often anymore.
It’s an old hurt and a new one, one never gone away. The remember distracts me, helps me keep calm as I walk, reminding myself the world is mostly normal. Dad drinks because of mom and his job and himself: there’s nothing weird about it. People do horrible things all the time, and they do beautiful things as well, and sometimes it’s the same force driving both. Nonsense thoughts, run-on ideas because the mantras aren’t working. The bridge towers, rising over the park. They say there used to be a river, and the bridge was kept even after the river was dammed, the riverbed turned into a winding path through a park. Dead stone to remember live water. The bridge is narrow brick and old stone, devoid of any graffiti at all.
I never considered that odd before. I take a deep breath, walk down into the dark, almost use the flashlight on my phone. “Hello?” My voice isn’t the magicians. There is no power in it, no power in me. I just speak, listen, feeling silly as the silence stretches around me. I turn and look back; the boys haven’t come closer, have even moved away a little. I laugh then, feeling silly, and turn back to walk through the tunnel.
Solid to liquid to solid. My breath is sharp, cold in the air as the side of the bridge moves, flows, reforms into a vast hugeness. The troll towers over me, skin the colour of bridge and earth and the yawning dark. It fits under the bridge but its presence doesn’t, presses down like an avalanche riding a mountain. Teeth the colour of decaying bricks are bared and I fall back one step, another. Somehow not a third.
“You did not see me the last time you passed this way,” the troll says, the rumbling voice deep and soft.
“I imagine most people don’t?” I get out. My voice isn’t steady, but I do manage words.
“You would be surprised. A feeling of being watched, the momentary certainty that a shadow is something else: more sense me than do not, though seldom clearly. Few see me as I am.”
“I have seen shadows that were something else,” I say.
“And that makes you wish to see more, to continue to pull back the skin of the world?”
I don’t even need to think about that. “No.”
“And yet, here you are.”
I have seen impossibilities, am speaking with a monster under a bridge, but all I can do is look away from the compassion in its eyes.
“I harm none who do not invite harm,” the troll continues. “I scare those who would desecrate this place, harm those who would hurt others in the imagined safety of shadows. Few remember what they see, few believe the stories of my kind and bridges. Few have eyes that are a wanting.”
“I didn’t want to see you; I didn’t think you were real.” I look back; the troll has not moved. “What do I tell those kids?”
“That the darkness is not safe. That nowhere is truly safe,” and with that it is simply part of the wall again, folding and falling inward.
I think the boy’s both know that by now, without anyone having to tell them. I continue, walking through the rest of the small tunnel. The park is still quiet but everything seems normal, the kind of normal that doesn’t have actual trolls on bridges.
I walk back through, to tell the two kids that it is okay, and I find myself wishing I could be brave enough to make comments about billy goats, or at least ask where that myth had begun. I tell the boys that it is safe and they don’t ask questions, not even make jokes, just head down the path and under the bridge. Trusting me, though I don’t know why. I saw a troll. I should be sitting, shaking, but all I can think about it how alone it must be, and how sad it would be to be a troll that almost no one can see.
I walk home slowly, trying to think of what kind of gifts I could bring a troll, what kind of friendship I could offer it. I’ve changed. I’m changing. I’ve been marked. But I’m not a magician, not anything like that magician was. I can take a step and not walk down that path. I tell myself that the whole way I walk home. I’m making friends with someone who is lonely. I’m not doing magic. I’m not a magician. And I forget, not thinking it through, that friendship can be a kind of magic as well.
I write no diary entry for today.
It is another three days before I begin to understand what that means.