Composer Arnold Schoenberg was infamously terrified of the number 13. Born on September 13, 1874, he couldn’t escape the fear that the cursed number bookmarking his life would ultimately doom him. His fear is said to be the reason for the misspelling of one of his operas, Moses und Aron, because when correctly spelled, the title comprised 13 letters. The musician spent his life haunted by every possible variation of the evil integer: multiples, dividends, sums, differences. It followed him; a black cat lurking and weaving through his consciousness. But this was no irrational fear. Arnold Schoenberg passed away at 11:47 p.m. on Friday, July 13, 1951, at the age of 76. 13 minutes before midnight. On Friday the 13th. And, of course, seven plus six equals 13.
I was only three when my great-grandmother leapt out of our moving car.
It’s a story I’ve heard so often, I’m not sure if I actually remember it or if my brain’s conjured up its own iteration of it.
Gran had had a habit of avoiding the train bridge spanning the river on the south side of town. This had always driven Dad crazy; there were no direct alternatives, so the detour added twenty minutes to any drive.
The day in question had been particularly exhausting for everyone involved, although no one seems to remember why. Too tired to put up with the inconvenience of circumventing the bridge, Dad continued straight on County Road 150 instead of turning right onto 625. Gran implored him to turn around, but he refused.
As the bridge’s smooth gray arches peeked through the trees in front of us, her face hardened and she threw open the car door. Dad stomped on the brakes and everyone in the car began screaming (myself included, apparently). Gran, meanwhile, leapt out and began walking away, her white, foam-soled shoes leaving smooth prints in the soft mud along the road with each shuffling step.
Dad managed to coax her back into the car, but not without first promising that he’d never pull something like that again. Twenty-three years had turned it into an odd, amusing anecdote. Remember when Gran jumped out of the car? Or when the butterscotch candies in her purse melted and the five-dollar-bills she gave out for birthdays that year were sticky? Or how she had to be home by eight on Sunday evenings to watch Murder, She Wrote?
I didn’t think twice about it until my friend Rayne and I were driving under the bridge a few weeks ago. I mentioned the story to her, only to glance over and find her staring at me absolutely horrified. “Dude,” she said, “that’s insane. That’s so dangerous. She seriously just got out of the car and started walking? Like, all the way back to town?” I chuckled uncomfortably, worried I somehow said something horribly wrong. “I mean, that was just Gran. She was stubborn. Mom says I get it from her.”
She didn’t let it go. “Why? I mean, that is way beyond some dumb superstition. I was always told all you had to do was honk.” “I…I don’t know. I guess I never asked.” I craned my neck to look at the underside of the bridge’s arch, taking in the water dripping from the concrete and the steel rods breaking through the aged concrete, drooping back to the ground as if attempting to return to their original elements. The air seemed stale and heavy, like when I hid under a thick blanket as a kid, forgoing fresh air for safety from an unseen monster.
Rayne shrugged and turned up the radio, tapping the window. That was the beginning of the end. A few online searches and a visit to the public library revealed a plethora of old newspaper articles that I spent days poring over. If only I hadn’t… The bridge was built in 1931 in the common arch structure. Most of the builders were poor men promised honest work and wages by the train company; men who were told they were doing their part to help industrialize their country. But on Thursday, August 13th, 1931, tragedy struck. While pouring the concrete for an abutment, the scaffolding supporting the workers collapsed, sending them plummeting to their deaths in the unforgiving cement.
Ultimately, the bodies were left in the bridge to avoid the removal costs.
Townsfolk began reporting screams and shouts near the bridge at night. Voices cried for help but faded into silence when called out to. It didn’t take long before the bridge was believed to be haunted by the men whom it had entombed. The town became haunted, too, by the grief and despair left in the wake of the disaster. The collective trauma was passed down in the form of overheard stories and half-truths overheard from their parents’ conversations and whispered amongst Gran’s generation. Stories of full moons and superstitions; of hands erupting from beneath the tracks, grabbing your legs, grasping at your shoes, tethering you to the tracks as a train approached, its horn blasting in vain.
Since its completion, there have been 38 reported deaths on the bridge. Many were teenagers, blissfully unaware of their own mortality, leaving behind grief-stricken loved ones. A few transients, too, unidentified and unmourned, at least officially, their families left to navigate the purgatory of a missing loved one. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the deaths veil the bridge in a dark, ominous storm cloud that will never lift. For days, the screams of the dead invaded my dreams, the screeching of train wheels rang in my ears, imagined horn blasts stopped my heart and sent my mind spiraling. I understand now, Gran.
Yet, at the same time, the terror and horror I felt while reading about the bridge’s gruesome history had somehow morphed into a seedling of curiosity, its tendrils stretching, reaching up through the cracks in the stories like a stubborn plant growing between the stones on a walkway. Misplaced, unidentifiable, yet deeply rooted. This Friday, the 13th, is a full moon. I never made a conscious decision to go; it was as if it had been scripted, predetermined. Cast along with the concrete. Is this what the other 38 had felt?
As I make my way to the bridge, moonlight shines through the leaves and speckles the road in light. The bridge looms in front of me, graffiti glowing against the dark concrete as if it were radioactive. The air seems to whisper, Leave. I pull myself up the side of the bridge using trees and crumbling rocks as handholds. My breath catches in my throat. The track appears abandoned. Branches criss-cross the ties, lending a sense of security.
Clouds interrupt the moon, casting long, obscure shadows. I take a step onto the track. Then two. Three. Four. Five. Nothing. My breath slows. As I lift my foot for the sixth, giddy with adrenaline and relief — courage — something latches onto my ankle, its iron grip instantly numbing my leg. I scream, my voice animalistic and unrecognizable. Echoes of desperation and terror flood the arches.
A light breaks through the deep woods in front of me, flickering between the tree trunks. The moon is no longer the only witness to my trespassing, and the bridge trembles underneath me; the bones inside sharing in my fear. A train is coming fast, too fast, and I can’t get away.
I’m trapped, held in place by the unseen force, a hand, the wooden tie, I don’t know, something strong, stronger than me, stronger than my panic. As it gets closer, the light continues flashing, faltering, despite its clear path.
A number lights up on either side of the unreliable headlight, mocking me until I give up, close my eyes, accept the inevitable, accept my fate.
The number imprints on my mind’s eye; the last thing I see. 13.