The Eight Hundred Legs of the Rio-Niterói Bridge
by Renan Bernardo
Have you seen pictures of the unfinished Presidente Costa e Silva Bridge, with its columns telling stories of falls and drownings like tombstones for the never found and the cemented alive?
I saw many in 1972, soon after Papai vanished during the bridge’s construction, mostly by peering over my mother’s shoulders while she flipped through documents and pictures, sobbing and wondering if some ferryman could’ve rescued Papai. Perhaps a fisherman saw a hand waving desperately for help in the water? How could she be sure without staring into the glazed, distant eyes of a deceased husband? After those days, I convinced myself I’d never look at pictures of the bridge under construction again, those tall columns with their gray, ominous girders jutting out of the stone like the last, frantic gestures of hands begging for help.
Except now, twenty years after the accident, I have pictures of the unfinished bridge scattered over my desk.
The reports are confused and scarce. O Globo mentions a small navy boat sinking under the bridge. Jornal do Brasil mentions a lot of trash afloat near the columns. Both of them mention people or animals walking on the columns’ bases. And less trustworthy outlets speak of monsters swimming along the bay. I flip the pictures, grabbing a few recent ones to jot down numbers on the pillars, marking those where the incidents have been reported. Probably cases of piracy or robbery. Though they’re rare so far into Guanabara Bay, it’s the most plausible explanation. With a little star, I tick the column that was built over the tomb of my father and his colleagues.
Mãezinha and I buried our incomplete grief in the ‘70s, when the government ordered no attempts to rescue the missing people that worked in the bridge’s construction. Accidents were commonplace. Finding the dead? Not so much. The military minds behind the country stated that progress, like a bridge, was a path that needed to be trodden from one end to the other, not a place to linger. Maybe that’s why I’m eager to pursue this line of investigation regarding the bridge, why I’m flipping through the black-and-white photos and the frazzled newspaper clippings over my office’s desk. A silent, personal rebellion to linger where no authorities felt they needed to at the time.
I pick up the telephone and dial my editor’s extension line, seizing the moment to steer my eyes away — even if for a moment — from the multiple versions of the unfinished bridge over my desk.
“Alberto, where can I rent a boat?”
I’ve never been under the Rio-Niterói Bridge — I’m grateful most people don’t call it by the official bridge’s name, that of the dictator — and on the rare occasions I traveled by car across the bridge itself, a queasiness took hold of me. It was like walking over a cemetery, one of invisible, unidentified watery graves. I shudder when the fisherman, Mário, guides us through the straight shadow of the bridge and the sunlight ceases warming my face for a few seconds.
“Which one, Mister?” Mário asks.
“That one . . . ” I point to one of the columns, not Papai’s column. Not yet. The fisherman accelerates the boat and halts it when we approach. Each structure is in fact a set of double, smooth, bland pillars going all the way up to the track above, founded on a rectangular base of similar material.
“Pretty ugly stuff, huh?” Mário says, squinting at the colossus. The damage is clear. Parts of the edges, both on the double-column set and on the base, are battered as if cruelly pounded by pickaxes and hit by hammers. “Won’t they repair it?”
“Hope they do it soon.”
Patches of algae drift over the water, their dark green blades clinging to the base, reaching up as if needing to escape the water. Mãezinha’s voice surfaces from the past, on the phone with friends and authorities or just grumbling to herself. What if we search the bay? Do bodies float? I can row, I can, I think I can. I need to be sure my Edgar is dead. What if he just got tired of us?
I bite my lips, shunning away the thoughts. “Can you get closer?”
Mário shrugs. “Can do, but don’t take long, okay?” He propels the boat forward and it slides to softly touch the stone. “I don’t like the stories of sinking ships.”
I climb to the column’s base, the musty odor of the bay sticking to my nostrils. The first thing I notice is that the rubble is mostly composed of boulders, broken rafters, and steel trusses, all covered with algae and moss. No trash afloat nearby, no people or animals that I can see. No monsters. I walk around, slowly, careful where I step, looking for clues of what might be happening. That rubble wasn’t in any of the reports, at least not with the details any news crew would’ve loved to describe. Then it must’ve been brought here during the previous night.
“Wet . . . ” I mutter to myself. “And their aspect . . . ” They’re not part of the bridge, and by their appearance, they seem to have been removed from the water. The rafters are rusty and contorted, unused for a long time. The chunks of rock are completely taken over by moss and barnacles, their surface bruised by time and erosion. Could cleaning crews be working on the bay? But they’d never leave anything like that lying around, risking serious damages to the structure. I squint at the next base, some 200 meters away. It seems there’s a similar kind of rubble there.
I walk back to the boat, propping my hands on a patch of clear area so I don’t trip. My fingers catch something. A rubber sandal, spangled with specks of algae and a layer of barnacles at the sole. I know that model. It stopped selling in the late ‘70s.
Most people think to build a bridge you need rock and iron, concrete and machinery, but in the president’s bridge, the cement is a mix of blood, bone, and tears. The military government at the time informed the official number of thirty-three dead men. The whimpers and silent protests of daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers accounted for more than 400 missing workers, fed with underpaid promises of glory, concreted without acknowledgment.
The accident that killed Papai happened in March 1972, and it was only one of several. The watertight caissons that enabled underwater construction burst, and the remainders of its structure hurled the workers into a cataclysm of stone and water. If some survived, they were never rescued. No bodies were ever found. For the government, it was an undesirable delay to gather search crews and identify bodies. The country needed progress; bridges needed building.
I open a file and pull the recent news about the bridge. The usual car crashes, a few routine repairs, two broken buses, and the sad news of a man committing suicide. Nothing that would explain the rubble.
The next part of my work — trying to identify the sandal — is more painful. Now I’m not looking at pictures of columns and machines and dead rock anymore. I’m looking at smiles. I sigh, setting five pictures of the bridge workers across my desk, five that I know don’t contain Papai. Here they are, celebrating, knowing they’re going to be seen in newspapers, knowing they’re building history with their bare hands. Not all of them wear hard hats, not all of them wear shirts. Or boots. I stare at the wizened sandal I set aside on a table, protected in a glass case.
Another ship sinks. A navy boat again. Three hurt among the crew, one of them talking about fishes made of stone. The investigations tighten around the columns and reports about the rubble begin to appear in the newspapers. Mysterious Trash Under the Bridge!! All sorts of theories spring up. Vandals, they say; improper disposal of debris; lack of cleaning procedures along the bay. A photograph taken a few minutes before the boat accident shows dark patches along its hull, so authorities say this one was a coincidence. The boat was already damaged. But a question, one that suffused my head in the ‘70s, one that hurled Mãezinha into a depressive state for many years, surfaces again in a different context: Where are the bodies?
Dona Albertina is in her sixties now, and I don’t want her lingering over similar questions again. But I know she reads the news.
“Don’t you know anything, Geraldinho?” Mãezinha asks, stirring tomato sauce and garlic in a pan. I’m putting a kettle with water on the burner so we can make our Sunday spaghetti, a tradition that goes back to when I was a kid. “Being a newsman and all . . . ”
“Probably improper trash disposal,” I echo the main narrative. “They’ll soon come up with answers.”
People say you never get entirely through a loved one’s death; you only grow used to the absence, as if part of you has been taken away, and now you have to learn how to live in this unexpected, uninvited way. After Papai’s passing, I drenched my early teens in a routine of working as a newspaper delivery boy early in the morning, then walking exhausted to school. Meanwhile, Mãezinha had to hop from job to job as a nanny. Geraldo, my son, we’ll have to make ends meet. Mãezinha grew used to Papai’s absence, mostly after 1985. Despite the unaccounted bodies, the redemocratization and the transition to a civil government gave her hope that no other families would have to face what she had.
I see the question in her eyes. It’s best if I don’t answer, but I do.
“It has nothing to do with the . . . ”
Workers. The word wades through the kitchen. A shadow flits over Mãezinha’s face. She stops stirring for a moment but quickly resumes it. Silence seeps in, cumbrous and rough. The despair of a younger mother and wife floats back from the past. Could he be a beggar now? What if he smacked his head and lost his memory of us? Ten thousand workers, why would God pick my Edgar? Has he done something wrong?
“Not enough foremen or engineers, can you believe?” Mãezinha mumbles.
“He took a packed lunch every day . . . ” She starts stirring the sauce faster. “Sometimes I prepared it, other times he did, more rarely the contractors gave them something tasteless. And he . . . ”
I know the story, I revisited it so many times. I remembered Papai whenever I ate something I didn’t like. Papai didn’t have many options, I used to tell myself, sitting on the school’s steps. But I let her finish it. She needs it.
“He and his friends . . . Ah, how I miss them too. Rogério, Denilson . . . Funny men they were . . . They used to eat with their legs dangling way up in the unfinished columns, can you believe? How dangerous it was. Eating and looking at the vastness of the bay, telling jokes as if the next payday could come any faster. And there were never enough foremen or bosses around to organize everything. Everything was scarce, Geraldinho, everything but the money they poured on that bridge.”
“There’s always enough money to pay the workers in projects like that . . . ”
Mãezinha nods. “But they never do . . . Do you know when the wind flutters the bridge’s highway and they have to interrupt traffic for a while?”
The water boils. I blink and quickly turn off the fire, nodding at her question.
“I like to believe that . . . ” Mãezinha giggles, a joyful sound bubbling up in the kitchen. “It’s silly. But I like to imagine Edgar . . . and Denilson and Rogério and all the others are down there, propped against the columns and shaking the bridge, telling jokes, being fussy and laughing with all that joviality . . . ”
Mãezinha doesn’t cry anymore, not after so many years. She gets angry, but her tears have dried a while ago. Not mine. I wipe them out with my sleeves, trying to find comfort in the fact that once I gave him a lunchbox with the words O Melhor Pai do Mundo — the best father in the world. As if a simple item can account for all the years I lived without him. Would he have died if I’d given him proper steel-toe boots instead of a lunchbox? The sandals the workers wore on a daily basis deeply annoyed Mãezinha. Instead, I found a cute lunchbox and spent my money on it. He loved it, but that meant I had to gather more of my scarce allowance to buy the boots. Mãezinha was doing the same with her meager wages. Papai was gobbled before we could manage it.
Two more sunk boats. All navy. None of the civil workers, fishermen, or company boats were even touched. People now speak more about monsters.
I go alone in a rented motorboat this time, at night, when the teams trying to figure out what is happening with the bridge have sailed away for the day. I’m not authorized to go there, not by the maritime patrol nor by my editor. But I decided that if I can find the other sandal to form a pair, or any other item, and verify that it once belonged to one of the bridge’s builders, I can at least acknowledge their deaths with a piece of news.
The words from the Transport Minister at the time the bridge was inaugurated echo in my mind, stained by his grin while he shook hands with Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, eyes roiling with great ambitions but ever evasive from underpaid builders drowning in their inadequate summer’s clothes and sandals, blind to the knives that penetrated young students’ fingernails during the government’s severe oppression. This is, without any doubt, a memorable time. It’s not an overstatement to declare, here and now, the will of a people bound to change the course of history. The revolution, patiently enacted by the patriots and the courage of the Brazilian people, instigated by the nation’s applause, is the birth of an aurora.
I always feel a knot in my stomach when I recall that the hand which authorized the AI-5, the Institutional Act Number Five, officializing the systematic persecution of those against the government, was the same that approved the bridge’s construction under such precarious conditions for the workers. President Artur da Costa e Silva. Both projects signed in blood.
I spit on the water as I drive the boat to Papai’s Column. I fetch a flashlight and point it at the base, decelerating. The scenario repeats itself. Rubble scattered all throughout, battered columns, and —
There are lumps of rubble glued to the column at some points near the base, defying gravity. They shift like black spots provoked by my flashlight. My heart beats fast, but I let the water carry the boat closer to the base. More of the rocky scree shifts. A boulder springs up and ties to the column like a spider finding its web. It’s only when the boat touches the base that I see the unmistakable glint of eyes carved on the rock like prized amethysts.
“Meu Jesus . . . ” I say out loud, and notice more of the glints veering toward me. The creatures take a while to acknowledge me, but soon resume whatever they’re doing, shuffling and lumbering across the base, bumping into each other in seemingly random movements. Some look like people, with well defined stony arms and legs, all crusted with girders and rafters. Others hobble, moss and barnacles glistening with the bay’s water on their slippery bodies.
A shower of pebbles falls on me. I raise a hand, still looking up. They’re nibbling at the stone, chipping it slowly, damaging the bridge’s structure.
“What are you?” I say, trying to remember the reports about people and animals. At least one fisherwoman mentioned she saw a giant armadillo at night. But these don’t look like animals at all. I walk to the bow and approach one of them, pointing the flashlight directly at what’s supposed to be its face. Human eyes, vitreous and surrounded by moss, but alive, squinting at the light. It trundles toward me. It doesn’t have a mouth or a nose, but its eyes are set in a slightly head-shaped rock. A piece of a rafter juts out from its left side and rusty steel cables drag like festoons from its back.
What I think and do next might’ve originated in Mãezinha’s talk about underwater working men laughing and joking, shaking the bridge from the bottom. I fetch the rubber sandal — now washed and clean — from my backpack and raise it in front of the creature. It grabs the object with three thick, rocky fingers and analyzes it.
“It belongs to one of you,” I dare to say, still not at ease enough to understand what I’m trying to do. “Doesn’t it?”
The creature drops it on the column’s base. When I think it will only step away, it tries to fit the sandal into a gigantic, crumbly foot.
I come back the next day. And the next. I don’t speak about the creatures with anyone. I know the authorities will eventually find out about them and take some harsh measures, probably involving their extermination (easy how lives, whatever their nature, can become disposable). I bring newspapers and photographs, all sorts of objects: tools, toys, plants, and even food. None of those things elicits any response from the creatures. They seem to be interested only in the bridge and its columns as if they’re food for them somehow. By the third day, I leave the boat and mingle with the creatures, even sitting with them for a few minutes, feeling more comfortable beside them than I have in a long time.
In my head, theories abound as to what the creatures’ relation to the bridge workers might be, but there’s only one I want to believe. On the fourth night, I prove it’s true. It’s when I meet Papai.
I’m calm. More than I thought I’d be the hundreds of times I daydreamed about meeting him again, about telling him how I should’ve bought working boots instead of a lunchbox, about my graduation in journalism, about Mãezinha’s tears of joy when the last military president stepped down. But I tremble nevertheless.
Have you seen the eyes of a loved one shining in the darkness? Have you noticed how you know it’s them even when all you can see is a silhouette of their bodies?
But it’s not only from his eyes I recognize my dead father. Jutting out from his craggy left leg like a knee, I can still read the words on a smashed, fading aluminum surface. O Melhor Pai do Mundo.
“Hi,” I say. Not the word I wanted but the only one possible.
Papai peers at me. For an instant, I think there’s a bit of recognition in his eyes. But they quickly evade mine. Before he swivels back to his comrades, I touch his back. He turns to me again. And this time, I see something else. That new version of him bears the same kind of distance as when he sat cross-legged on the sofa, eyes too close to the newspaper while looking for jobs. He could do many things, he’d tell me, but he would love to grab some work in one of the government’s civil projects. I’d become part of history, Geraldo. How does that sound, Son? And when he finally got it, I bragged at school — My father is building a gigantic bridge — not knowing that, for him, the bridge would never connect two places.
“I miss you, Papai,” I say, tears brimming in my eyes. “Mãezinha misses you too.”
I come back the following three days to spend some time with Papai. Even though it seems he doesn’t fully recognize me — or not at all — I notice he lingers when I’m around. He doesn’t hop to the columns like the others or wander about aimlessly. I tell him about Mãezinha, about how she got her dream job as a chef after years of working as a nanny. I tell him about the bridge, of how it transcended the delusions of grandeur of its designers to connect so many lives, and how we could finally elect our presidents again, how we could paint our faces and fight and scream without fear that our bodies would be shattered.
But time’s running out for Papai and the workers. Reports of strange armadillos sprout in the news. The authorities are enforcing their patrols. I’m sure they already know and have seen the stone workers and most probably are gathering the necessary authorizations to deal with them. Even Alberto, my editor, speaks of monsters under the bridge now. I don’t say the monsters were the ones who funded its construction.
Another navy motorboat sinks at night, further from Papai’s Column, but a fisherman’s canoe sails through the same region unscathed. It’s when I make the connection. Only military ships are affected. So perhaps the workers still nurture a remnant of conscience, something that associates the ships with the military government of the ‘70s. I try to tell Papai that there are innocent people on those boats and over the bridge they’re slowly nibbling, but it’s useless. Their toil is as incessant as it was decades ago.
Two nights before the Rio de Janeiro government authorizes the bridge’s shutdown to deal with the “problem”, I bring an old document to the base: the list of the Rio-Niterói Bridge missing workers.
“Rogério Assunção da Rocha,” I tell Papai, sitting on the floor in front of him, his colleagues shifting and treading all around me, climbing the columns and diving in the water. I don’t try to provoke anything from him anymore. I just want to talk and be there with him, what I always wanted during the painful ‘70s. “He was your friend.”
I move the flashlight across the document, sliding my fingers over the names.
“I thought of bringing Mãezinha here,” I say, peeking at him. Papai paces about in a semicircle around me, never getting too far. “But I think it would only hurt her more . . . seeing you like this. I’ll leave her with the version of you that’s underwater, laughing and joking, thinking of her spaghetti, bragging about being the best father in the world because your son gave you a lunchbox stating that fact. Oh, look here. Afonso de Braga Nunes. I remember him. The one who knew all Vasco soccer players dating back to 1930? Adenilson Santos, too. Mãezinha laughed a lot with his — ”
Something crackles loudly. I flinch, looking to my side. One of the workers has frozen like a giant toy with no battery. I stand to check him. Where his eyes were supposed to be, only holes in the rock remain. Gone.
Papai’s uneasy, but when I sit, he slows down, his steps softening on the base as if soothed by the sound of my voice.
I read the next name on the paper. Heitor Barbosa Lima Assunção. Not one of Papai’s friends, but a name I think I know. I open my suitcase and fetch the documents regarding the bridge’s latest news. That’s it. Marcelo de Castro Lima Assunção. The man who killed himself last week was the son of Heitor. Whatever made the workers wake up from their tombs of concrete and neglect, it happened soon after Marcelo’s death. Whatever magic awakened them to gnaw back at the bridge they built, whatever roused that posthumous resistance, it must’ve been connected to Marcelo’s tragic goodbye, like a son going all the way to the bottom of the bay to poke at his father, asking him to wake up.
“Heitor Barbosa Lima Assunção,” I say, almost a whisper buffeted by the chilly wind. “May you and your son rest — ”
Another worker crumbles, at the other edge of the base. I walk to him, frowning at the girders bulging out of his head. On a tag protected by a plastic coating, I see a bearded man with black hair and protruding cheekbones. The words “Lima Assunção” still survive on his ID.
Mr. President, I completely agree with the Institutional Act Number Five because I believe there are people contesting our revolutionary process. The Transport Minister was the mind behind the dictatorship’s constructions. His name is the one remembered, as is that of the dictator in the bridge’s name. But those feeble, sickly minds weren’t the true foundations of anything. The legs and arms that still support the Rio-Niterói Bridge — and all the other constructions scattered across the country — with arms of rock and iron, nurtured only by the sight of bread and meat on their children’s tables, belong to those whose names got entombed under concrete.
“Lorival Menezes da Silva,” I yell from the boat, hopping from one column to the next, finding each and every missing worker, acknowledging their deaths. When I find them and see their rubbly bodies ceasing their movements and shutting out of existence, I close my eyes for a few seconds, saying my farewell. “Luís dos Santos Cardoso, Manoel Rivelino Braga de Moura, Manoel D’Ávila da Silveira Neto . . . ”
It takes two full nights, from 8 p.m. to the first rays of sunlight, to acknowledge all the missing bridge workers scattered through the columns.
I leave Papai for last. Alone, in the chilly hours before the dawn of the second day, I lay a pair of steel-toe boots on Papai’s column base. He shifts uneasily all around, weaving through the resting bodies of his colleagues. I sit with my legs dangling and fetch the packed lunch I brought. Mãezinha’s spaghetti. When I start eating, Papai trudges and stops beside me. His rugged, rough body bends, pebbles peeling off of it. He sits with his chunky legs out over the base’s edge and stares at the horizon.
When the leaden colors of the night dissolve into the golden beams of a new day, I say my father’s name.
About the Author
Renan Bernardo is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction appeared or is forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Dark Matter Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Solarpunk Magazine, The Dread Machine, and others. He was one of the selected for the Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest with his story When It’s Time to Harvest. In Brazil, he was a finalist for two important SFF awards and published multiple stories. His fiction has also appeared in other languages.
About the Narrator
Brazilian, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Diogo is an English teacher and the Editor-in-Chief of Revista A Taverna (Twitter @atavernarevista), an online Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine that publishes short stories written by Brazilian authors in Portuguese. He’s been teaching for almost fifteen years and, once in a while, he dares to translate stories from English to Portuguese. His stories have appeared in countless magazines, in parallel universes. In this one, they’re still nowhere to be found. Find him online at: diogolsramos.com