I wondered if she thought of me while she was falling; sails unfurled, velocity stripping the feathers from her wings. I didn't know how she could jump without telling me what dead would be or that I would never again cross a bridge that wouldn’t sway and buckle.
She had always planned to sink, pacing the spot in her mind like a hot itch scratches itself against a sharp object. When she combed my hair, folded my clothes into their drawers, told me not to slouch my shoulders because I was such a pretty girl, she knew.
I sat on the porch that night hating her until I had never been her daughter. She expelled me like the phlegm of a bad cough and for a long time, I wouldn't remember that she smelled like lilacs; the mysterious odor of mold thick as smog. But I would never forget how cruel children can be pretending to dive from her bridge in swim class, calling out to me, "Catch her. Catch her if you can!"
She became what I feared at night creeping out from the closets, hovering above my bed, her half-blue moons accusing me of loosening my grip. I was much too weak to hold the weight of her. Everyone had expected I could. I heard one night; tip-toeing down to sit in the light of the stairs, Uncle Hans pacing in the kitchen. "Damn her. That little girl was supposed to save her." After that, I would never trust myself to hold on to anything again.
“We need to watch her.” And they did. Their questions and prayers swimming beneath my skin where she swam; sleek and cold and gray. I hadn't known then that they were afraid I had a bridge inside of me, too. Bridges can be passed down, the doctor told them. “The girl could very well inherit her mother's bridge.”
You only jump from bridges if the ghost you carry doesn't belong to you, I informed them. Mine belonged to me, and I swore to it. I knew how to tread water; I could swim five laps at the community pool. Uncle Hans sucked the air through his teeth. “You worry me, girl. Boys might miss their mothers, sometimes they marry a woman like her, but they can never become her.”
So I ran, from tragedy to tragedy to a boy, finally, who lived in the Rhineland; warm and green and quiet. I decided to stay, writing home I was settled down; drug, alcohol, and bridge free. A few weeks later, Aunt Petra sent a small package. “These belong to you. Forgive us for not giving them to you sooner. We didn't know… when was the right time?”
It took me two days to open the first letter. She started writing them before I was born. The envelopes still smelled of lilacs, and I could feel her wrist pressing against the paper, hear the scratching of her pen. “Dear Veronika, you are the only thing I will ever love.” I was certain the words would darken.
My father had promised to send for her after he returned to the United States; there was no allotment from the Army at the time for a family, he wrote to her. She received word in her eighth month he had married a woman in California. They had bought a villa with a view of the Santa Ana hills.
The doctors had found a new medication that worked for her; when she would take it. “If only I could explain how distant from you it makes me feel.” I remembered her slurring words, reaching for things that weren't there, the many nights uncle Hans had appeared from the darkness to fix things. I knew she was exhausted trying to slip her skin.
“At least you were here, Mama.” I was angry again, remembering, because there were days that didn't matter and days that did, but always, I only wanted to look and find her there. There weren't any revelations in her last letter, hastily scribbled as if she were called away from her chores; the kettle she had set to boil had caught fire and burned itself out, her laundry in neat rows across the sofa. She could not have known when the moment would come, but when it called to her, she followed.
Ulrich is good to me and kind. An equalizer. He gave me an anchor to the land, a dark-haired child who smells of crayon and soap; tinkling like chimes when he giggles. Uncle Hans was wrong. That boy was the only thing I had been building.
I don't wonder anymore what she thought as she flew, but I wonder if all of us, at some moment in time, aren't a hair-trigger away from the ledge. If, despite all the strong arms to hold us in the world, we are fragile enough to break apart during a strong wind. Regardless of whether we swim or sink, who has or has not loved us, we will always have been.
“What is wrong with your hands? What has happened?”
Ulrich has always fussed over me, not because he fears heights or deep water, but because I do. Or I did, once. I unfold my ink-stained hands and place more wood into the fireplace. The house smells of pine and lilacs. “Burning down bridges.”