We sang our first bridge, a marvel of twisted cables and soaring towers, when Lucia’s hair was long and I thought love was a promise of always. It wasn’t our best or our strongest, but it was the first and had passion and hope as its support. Because we were foolish, we thought it would last forever, but first songs never lasted that long, no matter how much power the notes held in the making.
We knew our testing would change things, no matter what we said otherwise. Builders did best on their own, especially if their Voice was powerful. We always thought mine would be the strong one.
But we were young.
“Where are they sending you?” I whispered in Lucia’s ear, the night before she was scheduled to leave on her first assignment.
The chirrup of bugs and the scent of white lilies wafted in through the open window. The curtains fluttered in the breeze, revealing a hint of the darkness beyond.
When Lucia rolled on her side, her hair fell over her shoulder in a riot of spiral curls. She took my hand and our fingers intertwined. Her brow creased. “You know I can’t tell you.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“Delanna, I know you’re upset because I’m going, but please, let it go. I can’t tell you.”
She started to rise from the bed. I put my hand on her arm.
“I’m not upset,” I whispered. “I’m just going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
I rolled over and grabbed my glass of wine. “Are you sure you don’t want some?”
She sighed. “You know I can’t do that either.”
I should not have offered; I knew she couldn’t. No cigarettes, no alcohol, no acidic foods. And the musts? A tablespoon of honey three times a day, a scarf wrapped round her neck, no matter the temperature, and a willingness to stay silent.
“Maybe they should keep you in a gilded cage.” My words came out sharper than I intended. Warmth bloomed under my cheeks.
“That isn’t fair,” she said.
“Okay, I’m sorry.” I traced my fingertips along her cheekbones, her jaw, the tiny dimple in the center of her chin, the fullness of her lower lip. “Please, I’m sorry.”
She took my hands away and shook her head. “I have to go. I’ll come and see you as soon as I get back, and if I can call you while I’m there, I will.”
The old stories said the first Voice belonged to a girl who emerged from a whirlwind storm. The storm’s origin, land or water, depended on the teller of the tale. The girl’s name, the same. My mother said the how didn’t matter and some mysteries were best kept that way.
There were still buildings in the oldest section of the capitol city said to be her creations, towering things of arches and alcoves, rooms that swallowed up every sound, every heartbeat. When I was small, I tried to chip away a piece of stone from one—for what purpose, I can only guess—and my mother smacked my hand hard enough to leave a mark of her anger behind.
She didn’t call.
I saw her creation on television—a new dam crafted of pale white stone streaked with grey in a country on the opposite side of the world. I knew it was hers; I could almost hear her notes, her perfection.
My chest ached and my eyes burned with tears. I buried my face in a sweater she’d left behind and breathed in her scent, willing her to come home soon.
Until a few years ago, our builders never sang on foreign soil. Now, though, there were churches and museums and monuments across the world shaped by our Voices.
Some said our gift came from the goddesses below the surrounding sea while others claimed a magic in the air. Still others said Voice was the reason our tiny country had never seen war upon its shores, that no one wanted to taint the beauty of our land or the gift in our blood with hatred and weaponry. Perhaps they were afraid what other talents we might have hidden. Tourists came to see what we’d built but were never allowed to hear the making.
I wondered if they’d altered the rules; I wondered if they’d allowed anyone to hear Lucia’s Voice. A bitter taste filled my mouth, stronger than the taste of tears.
“I can feel it inside you,” she said to me one night when we were half-asleep in tangled sheets.
“What? My heart?” I said with a laugh.
“No, your Voice.” She placed one hand between my breasts. “It’s here.”
I laughed in the darkness. So did she. Then we kissed and all thoughts of Voice disappeared into urgent whispers and the soft sounds of love.
The testing was only a few months away. We still thought we had forever.
A river ran along the back of my family’s expansive property. I don’t know when the tradition started, but a bridge sung by my mother stood not far from one crafted by my grandmother. Traces of older bridges, older attempts, lingered here and there as rubble on the shore, nothing more. Even the best Builders made mistakes sometimes. Especially in the beginning. Love tokens, my mother called them. Even the broken ones.
“You will understand when you’re older,” she’d said.
She was right.
A night after her testing and a month before mine, Lucia woke me in the early hours of the morning.
“Come with me,” she said.
We ran in our nightgowns to the river with our hands linked together, shivering in the chill air. We kissed on the shore then she jumped in the water and swam across to the other side. She emerged from the river dripping wet, her hair plastered to her shoulders and back.
“Sing with me,” she called out.
When her Voice filled the night air, tears spilled down my cheeks. It was pure and true and beautiful. No mere song, but a symphony. After her testing, they told her she had the strongest Voice they’d heard in decades. Anyone who heard her sing would believe it.
It didn’t take long for her creation to take shape. I added my Voice to hers. Our notes mingled and danced and built. When it was finished, she walked back across the bridge, her feet whispering on the stone, and we held each other close.
“We’ll travel the world and build together, but this, this will always be ours,” she said.
I cupped her face in my hands and spoke against her mouth, her lips warm beneath mine. “Always.”
We made love on the shore with our bridge soaring overhead and stars in our eyes.
Three months after the dam was unveiled, she showed up on my doorstep with flowers in her hand. I ran into her arms.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home? I would’ve made dinner. I would’ve—”
She pressed one hand to my lips.
I kissed her palm and spoke against her skin, my words muffled. “How long are you home?”
“Not very long,” she said.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
Later, in the dark, I said, “I saw the dam.”
“You know I can’t talk about that.”
I rolled my eyes. Such an absurd rule. Who would hear anyway? The walls, the pillows? I wouldn’t run out and tell the world. I thought Lucia knew me better than that. I didn’t understand the need for secrecy. We never had to keep secrets when we built at home, even those who built for the government.
“What’s it like?”
There was a long silence, then a smile playdanced across her face.
“It’s amazing, but it’s hard, harder than I thought it would be.”
“That’s it? Amazing? Hard?”
She shook her head. “What do you want me to say?”
“How does it feel, inside?”
“Like I’ve opened a door and all the notes come flooding out. It’s beautiful and scary and. . .” She gave a small shake of her head again. “It’s hard to describe it so you’d understand.”
“Because I don’t know anything about Voice.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
“Not with your mouth, no. I don’t want to fight with you.”
She was gone again when I woke.
Our second bridge was delicate and fragile with carved waist-high railings. It was crooked in the middle. My fault. I’d had too much wine.
We loved it anyway.
Six months later, I woke up to find her asleep beside me. Her hair was cut close to her scalp. I traced the contours of her face until she woke.
“I miss your hair,” I said, “but I miss you more.”
I pretended not to notice that she didn’t say she missed me, too. I didn’t ask her about what she’d built and she didn’t offer. It was better, safer, that way.
But we built another bridge before she left, a beautiful structure that gleamed silver-pale in the moonlight.
Testing wasn’t mandatory. Many people built for pleasure, not profit. There were no laws against building for personal use. My family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in the country, and neither my mother nor her mother chose to test, but my heart wanted a different path. I wanted to mean something. To matter.
Maybe I’d always wanted too much.
Afterward, with my chest heavy with failure, I went to her apartment. She knew the minute she saw my face. When my tears stopped, she wiped my face and kissed my forehead.
“They detected notes of discordance,” I said, my voice thick. “It makes my Voice unstable. Worthless.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into my hair. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She took my hand and led me to the river.
“Sing,” she said.
“Yes, you can. No matter what they said.” She squeezed my hand hard. “And you know you can. You’ve built plenty of things before.”
I tried. I did. But my Voice emerged broken and pale. The stone crumbled. The girders warped. I put my head in my hands and wept again.
I didn’t understand— Had my Voice changed? Had the testing revealed a truth I’d never wanted to see? Was I broken?
Nine months went without a word. I caught sight of her on the news. Never her face or form, only what she’d built. A statue of another country’s goddess, a museum that would soon be filled with the treasures from an archaeological dig, and so many others. They were all so beautiful. So perfect.
I was proud of her, proud of her Voice, or so I told myself in the quiet hours after waking with the memory of her touch still on my skin.
Then I bumped into her at a coffee shop.
She turned slowly, too slowly, her face curiously devoid of emotion. She offered a smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“When did you get back?” I asked.
“Yesterday, but I’m leaving early in the morning.”
I wiped the hurt from my face, but I knew she saw it.
The word came out sharp enough to sting.
I convinced her to come to my house. We made love. When she kissed me, her mouth was hard, and her fingers left tiny marks on my skin. A punishment, perhaps. But for what?
We said I love you; we didn’t say goodbye. But I tasted the truth in her lips, hidden beneath a cold chill.
In the morning, I found a new bridge across the river. It was beautiful, all shimmering cables and delicate scrollwork. I hated it on sight.
The news broke the story of a new prison in a country I’d never heard of, and when I recognized its shape, I turned off the television with a snarl. The Lucia I once knew would have refused.
And why didn’t she leave? Contracts, like hearts, could be broken. I waited for a call. A letter. Anything at all. I wanted to hear her say it was over. I deserved that much.
Standing by the river, I sang broken bits of stone and cables that untwisted as soon as they were made. My Voice was only strong when it was entwined with hers.
I poured over satellite imagery and found traces of her in a sweatshop, a brothel, another prison. Pretty things that could not hide the ugliness of their intent.
Did she want to build such things? Had she been building them all along, even when the news showed the statues and museums? Did they force her?
I hated her.
I hated that I still loved her.
Strangers with long hair and laughing eyes filled my bed. I drank wine and vodka. Smoked cigarettes. Ate chips with vinegar. Turned on the music and sang with my regular voice until it was hoarse. Screamed until I couldn’t speak. Exposed myself to anyone with a cough or a labored breath. Spent weeks with inflamed tonsils and a fever.
I visited all the places she’d loved to go, hoping for a glimpse of her face yet dreading the same. No matter how hard I tried, I could not forget the scent of her hair, the way her body felt next to mine, the way her lips always tasted of honey.
Our third bridge was narrow with no railings, just a shining sheet of marble that spanned the river. We sang our initials into the stone, stood at its apex, and made a wish on a shooting star.
I saw her in the city square the day of the spring festival, half-hidden by the crowd. She was standing with her arms crossed, staring at the buildings built by others a long time ago. I saw a hard glint in her eyes and a strange twist on her mouth. A ghost of someone I once knew.
With a heart full of broken hope, I called out her name. Her head turned in my direction, our gazes caught and held for one quick moment, then she vanished into the crowd.
I ran to the space where she’d been and thought I saw her again, but when I called her name the second time, she didn’t turn around.
Maybe she hadn’t seen me.
I almost believed it.
When I saw a palace built in a country known for its subjugation of women, I unplugged my television. A light rain was falling as I walked to the river with my hands clenched into fists. How could she? Why would she?
I recalled the distant, dismissive look in her eyes. That wasn’t my Lucia. She wasn’t hard. She didn’t hurt.
But maybe I’d only seen what I wanted to. Maybe I always had.
Our bridges stood like silent soldiers. I took a deep breath and sang discordance. Destruction. The night air filled with the high-pitched screech of metal on metal, the twang of sprung cables, and heavy thuds. Steel curled away in ribbons from the framework. The cables tied and twisted into complicated knots. The sheet of marble crumbled into pebbles to line the river bottom.
I left the first bridge alone. It didn’t need my Voice. Time would take its own toll. My tears tasted of honey, of loss, yet buried deep within, a hint of steel and stone. Of strength. And when my sorrow dried to salt upon my cheeks, I walked away and left behind all the pieces I’d unmade.
I slept with a records man in the government office in exchange for information. The stubble on his cheeks left red marks on my breasts, and, afterward, I stood in the shower until the water turned to ice, trying to erase the feel of his weight from my body.
I plugged my television back in and watched countless hours of plastic-faced newscasters. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the look on Lucia’s face. Felt the empty space in the bed. Felt my hands become fists and my chest tighten.
I packed my suitcase.
No grand ceremonies had been held to celebrate the camps Lucia built high in the mountains in a country known for its sordid history. I read the documents that stated they were to help with prison overcrowding, but I didn’t believe them. New monsters often wore old monsters’ faces.
They were no guards, no prisoners. Yet. I touched my hands to the outside wall and felt Lucia’s song buried deep within. Why employ Lucia, why call for her talent, her beauty? Did they need it built quickly or did they want the discretion? I took a deep breath and sang my destruction. I kept my Voice low, but my notes were steady and sure. They rose and fell and crept inside, hiding within hers.
If the government found out what I could do, I would be quietly removed or perhaps put into service destroying on command, like a trained puppy.
Would I become a story? Once upon a time, there was a woman who sang of hurt and broken things. Who tried to fix her heart by shattering the one who tore it to pieces. It didn’t seem like the sort of story that came with a happy ending.
I walked away before the stone collapsed, but I heard its echo. I swallowed my guilt. I’d have more than enough before it was over.
The news said nothing. What she built, I destroyed. Out of love? Out of anger? For justice? Did it matter? I watched a thousand stones crumble, a hundred walls collapse. I waited for someone to discover what I’d done. I waited for someone to discover what I was.
It was too easy. No one ever noticed the lone figure slipping in and out of the shadows. Surely if what I’d done was wrong, someone would have.
At night, alone in strange beds in one hotel after another, I closed my eyes. Saw the look in her face. Would she smile now? Would she hate me?
Would the hurt fade away?
And then I was done.
On a warm day in April, I stepped outside to check the mail and Lucia was sitting on the porch with a wine bottle in hand, no scarf around her neck. All the air rushed from my lungs.
“They terminated my contract,” she said, her voice husky. “Vocal instability.”
I kept my face still. “I’m sorry.”
Her face no longer wore a stranger’s expression, but there were shadows beneath her eyes and hollows under her cheekbones.
She lifted the bottle of wine. “Do you have any plans for dinner?”
Her voice wavered. I wanted to tell her no. I wanted to tell her too much time had passed and I had too many secrets, but instead, I wrapped my arms around her. I’d destroyed enough.
We talked about life. We didn’t talk about bridges or Voice or building. We drank the wine and laughed and pretended the laughter wasn’t strained. I searched her eyes for a sign that I’d saved her. Instead, I saw my own guilt looking back.
Later, when the sun set, I asked if she wanted to stay. She put her arms around me, but like old spoons in a drawer, our shine was tarnished, our hollows empty.
She didn’t look back when she left. I wanted to call out, to tell her the truth, to beg her forgiveness, but my mouth would not make the words. I watched her disappear into the darkness until tears turned the world to a blur.
We should have ended on a different note, a fading trill in a minor chord, perhaps. Something more than silence. But for all we built and destroyed, neither one of us had the voice for goodbye.