Riddles on the Bridge

Riddles on the Bridge

Chapter 9

As soon as sweet Esther turned back to see Mr. Dauer, he had already vanished. She stood alone on the white bridge and heard only the rustling water underneath. She walked down the bridge and met Marian, Herbert, Aaron, and Balaam at its base. They were busy brushing their pants off, attempting to get clean again. Herbert took his shoes off and squeezed the soggy brown water out of his socks.

“About time you showed up.” Esther smiled, crossed her arms, and leaned against one of the balustrades. 

“Wasn’t our fault,” Aaron whined. “This stupid donkey won’t do nothing but drag its feet and complain.”

“I beg your pardon, sir Aaron,” Balaam quipped. “My name is Balaam, I have hooves, and your sinking sneakers are the cause of our delay.”

Esther giggled when she looked down at Aaron’s white sneakers covered in filth. Huffing and puffing, Aaron balanced on one while attempting to wipe the other shoe in the air. Which made him look like a flamingo that forgot how to balance. The whole group laughed, but not in a mean way, when he finally fell over on his backside. 

After a good laugh, and Aaron cleaned up his shoes, Balaam interrupted, “Now then, where are we going?”

“Where indeed!” An unfamiliar, spry voice cried out from above.

The children looked up the bridge to see a bright red fox wearing a pair of trousers, button-down shirt, and a red pocket-handkerchief, sitting with his legs crossed on a balustrade. His eyes peered from underneath a wool bycocket and playfully danced from child to child. 

“A talking fox!” Herbert couldn’t contain his delight and grinned while he beat his socks into the side of the bridge.

“Where did you come from?” Esther asked. 

“The forest,” the fox replied wryly. “The name’s Pascal, and this is ma’ home.” He leapt off the balustrade and stood on his rear legs like a man. He reached in to his pocket and pulled out a pipe. 

“Hello, Pascal,” Marian replied. She introduced the group while Pascal stuffed tobacco in his pipe and lit a match. 

He fascinated the children, but Balaam remained unamused. “Never liked foxes much,” he muttered.

“If you were nearby,” Esther said, “you must’ve seen the Top-Hat Man.”

Top-Hat Man?” Aaron asked, and Herbert looked up from his socks like he heard a curse word. 

“Yes,” Esther confirmed. “He was just here speaking to me, and then he vanished. Herb knows who I’m talking about. He was there at the library. Remember, Herb?”

Herbert nodded.

“Yeah, I don’t know if I know anything about all that yet, dearie,” Pascal replied, and puffed his pipe. “What I do know is the bridge belongs to me, and no bunch of kids and their half-witted donkey is getting through the Forest without passing the Queen’s riddles.” 

Esther’s eyes widened. “There’s a Queen of the Enchanted Forest?”

“Oh, the greatest Queen anyone has ever known,” Pascal replied. “Alas, she is gone. And I don’t know if anyone will ever see her again. But I stand by her rule and governing.”

“You seem like a very noble fox, Pascal,” Marian said. 

“Eh—noble? No, not me—well, at least not very recent, like. I used to walk on the walls and try to break ‘em down. I’d tell false stories and tricks…” Pascal spat on the ground and turned his pipe upside down. The used tobacco dumped into the river. “But I don’t do those sorts anymore.”

“I don’t buy it,” Aaron said. “Foxes are always up to tricks. And I bet this whole riddle thing is a trick, too.” 

“Only one way to find out, Freckles, cos you ain’t getting by the bridge without three answers.”

The children huddled together, while Pascal leaped onto another balustrade and resumed his leisure. The girls didn’t see a problem with answering a few questions, but Aaron warned them. 

“That’s just how all these sorts of things begin with types like him,” he said. “He gets you thinking and unaware, and suddenly you’ve been robbed and left for dead. Happens all the time. We need to keep our guard and challenge him. Might need to fight him.” 

Fight him?” Marian asked. 

“With what?” Esther added.

“Why wouldn’t he attack us before we noticed him?” Herbert asked. He looked over Esther’s shoulder and saw Pascal the Fox laying on his back, tossing a small stone into the air. “I like him. He’s got a funny hat like Robin Hood and talks nice.”

“Robin Hood was a thief, you—” (Aaron was going to say “dummy”, but stopped himself short.) “Who do you think Robin Hood robbed from? People walking through forests.”

“We can’t fight him,” Marian said matter-of-factly. “There’s just no option for it. We have nothing but a talking donkey on our side.”

“Who has a name,” Balaam reminded.

“Sorry,” Marian corrected herself. “We have nothing but Balaam with us.” 

The talking donkey smiled proudly.

“Can we find another way across the river?” Esther asked Balaam. 

“Let’s look at the logbook again,” Herbert said. 

Marian concurred and removed her backpack. She pulled the book out and flipped through the pages. In the middle, they found the charcoal drawing of the large stone bridge over the water, but the words underneath were no longer in Spanish. 

“I don’t understand.” Marian pointed at the words. “It says: Riddle Bridge.

“Look at that!” Esther pointed at a portion of the drawing above the bridge. “It looks like a fox laying on top.”

“That wasn’t there before,” Marian said.

The children looked at one another and then at Pascal. He was eating a piece of cheese, but stuffed it in his pocket when he noticed all of them staring at him. “Ready for some riddles, kids?” He shouted down at them.

“I think working together and answering them is our only good option,” Balaam said.

The children closed the book, and Marian stuffed it in the backpack. The group approached the middle of the structure, and Pascal dropped down to meet them. 

“Alright, Pascal,” Marian said. “We don’t quite understand what’s going on, but we need to get through to find the Fountain of Youth. What are the riddles?” 

Pascal took his bycocket in his right hand and bowed before them. He recited:

“I’m always ready, while not, though,
I’m too fast, but I’m too slow
You think you need me, but it’s not so
Once you found me, now I go.”

“‘Once you found me, now I go’.” Aaron recited quietly in thought. 

“Poppy-cock and nonsense,” Balaam complained. 

“Write it down and let me see,” Marian said. “I’m not very good at things read aloud.” 

“I’ve got one!” Herbert raised his hand. “It’s a race. Hares and tortoises. Going fast and slow. No—that’s nothing.”

“Keep an eye on your pockets, guys,” Aaron warned. 

“Let me write it down for you, Marian,” Balaam said, and dragged his hoof in the dirt.

“Esther, you’re the good one at this,” Marian said. “Any ideas?”

“Clocks…” Esther whispered to herself. “Clocks that leave when you find them—It’s time!” She shouted. “Is it time?” 

“Very good, dearie,” Pascal said, and smiled grandly at her. “Only two more to go and Freckles will be rid of me.” He winked at Aaron. 

“Give it to us!” Marian cheered. “We’re ready.”

Pascal the Fox continued:

“What strengthens and tears down,
Always produces and destroys,
What’s a cause and an effect,
And births young girls and boys?”

“This one’s weird,” Herbert said. 

“It cancels itself out,” Aaron added. “Produces and destroys. What can do both?”

Esther thought quietly. She wanted to get it first again. 

“It’s time again,” Marian said. “Right?”

“No, it’s worse than that,” Aaron responded. “Violence and Anger.”

“Moms and Dads?” Esther whispered. “What else produces young girls and boys?”

“If I may,” Balaam interrupted. “Begging your pardon, Pascal.” Here, he addressed the Fox on the bridge. “Are talking animals allowed to partake in this gesture?”

“What kind of person would I be if I didn’t allow such a thing?” Pascal answered. 

Balaam looked at the children. “Then the answer is simple,” he said. “Though I suppose it doesn’t make it any less difficult. But I’ve felt my fair share of this in the many more years that I’ve had than you. And one thing I know is that it is something that both greatly hurts and strengthens, develops, and ends. And all mothers know the joy and hurt of it in childbirth. The answer is pain.” 

“Very good, my enchanted friend,” Pascal congratulated.  

The children cheered. Aaron and Herbert patted Balaam on the back. Marian and Esther kissed his neck. Balaam appeared taller and prouder than ever before. 

“I suppose that only leaves one last riddle for you, kids,” Pascal said. “If birds have nests and foxes have holes, what do four little children in an enchanted forest have?

The company thought silently.

“That’s not a riddle,” Aaron critiqued. “It’s just a question with no real answer!” 

“That may be,” Pascal replied. “But I didn’t write the riddle, and neither did you answer it.” 

No one said a word. They each in their own way grew flustered and gave up, sitting down at the edge of the bridge. 

“What do we got?” Marian asked. 

“An obnoxious donkey,” Aaron quipped. 

“Back to nothing but a donkey,” Balaam moaned.

“Just kidding, Balaam.” Aaron smiled at him. 

Marian tapped her lips. Esther wiggled her nose back and forth. Aaron drew his fingers in the sand. Herbert drummed his knee. And Balaam stamped in the dust.

Marian thought about giving up and pleading with the Fox when Herbert slapped his knee and jumped up. 

Each other!” Herbert shouted at the Fox. “We’ve got each other!”

Pascal smiled at him. “I’ve always appreciated your spunk, kid.” 

“Wait,” Esther said, with her hands outstretched. “That’s actually the answer?”

“And one I hope you won’t soon forget, dearie,” Pascal replied. “I also hope the rest of your journey is as easy and pleasant. Though, to be honest, I have it under good authority that it won’t be. However, if you recall the things I taught you, that good authority also believes you will do much better than you could without it.” Pascal removed his hat again and bowed low to the ground. “Children, it’s always a pleasure. I hope to see you again sometime. Though I don’t think I’ll remember when I do.” 

The children watched Pascal leap to the top of a balustrade and scale a nearby oak tree in seconds. Before long, he was a pouncing shadow of red and brown in the tree canopy, and moments later, he was out of sight. 

“I like him,” Herbert said, and smiled. “He talks funny.”

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