<pre style="line-height: normal; text-align: start; word-wrap: break-word; white-space: pre-wrap;">He didn't always see them jump, but the sounds were unavoidable. Some screamed on the way down; some went in dignified silence. But their lives always ended the same - with a loud, sickening splash.
A few chose to go at it alone, but most were grateful for his presence in their final hours. Several talked at length of their lives, although many were content to simply sit quietly beside him until dawn. Then, after steadying their nerves, they launched themselves off the creaking, wooden bridge and into the water below.
He had been told never to watch, but he always did. How could he not? The least he could do, he felt, was to be with them in those final, fleeting moments so they knew that they hadn't been alone, that someone would remember them.
Those who accepted the calling - really accepted it - went without fear. They were the fortunate ones, their calmness and serenity helping them recall what they had long been taught in school - how to hit the water at the ideal obliquity required for the fastest and least painful death.
The screamers were much harder to watch.
They frequently flailed on the way down, hitting the water, hard as stone, at an odd angle, crushing most of their structural bones. Survival instincts always kicked in, and they would splash around in a panic - helpless, thrashing sacks of broken limbs.
Whether they succumbed to the cold water or invisible injuries, eventually, they stilled, often floating in pools of dissipating wine as the impartial river swept their bodies out to sea.
He had seen a sufficient number of jumpers over the years to know which way he would rather go, were one of the random, anonymous letters to arrive inscribed with his name.
The night shift was the worst. Forbidden from saying goodbye to their families and friends, most of the jumpers chose to leave in the middle of the night, while the remainder of town was still lost in restless slumber.
There was not a family among them that did not spend the months subsequent to each new birth in constant worry, and the requisite silence prevented the sort of harrowing, emotional goodbyes as could create ripples of doubt in the logic of what they were doing - of what had to be done. This way, by the time morning came, it was too late.
Their loved one was already gone.
Jumpers were the silent, unsung heroes of their small, secluded isle of limited means, the honoring of whom would be too constant, too fresh, so most became little more than ghosts of the Tangi Bridge that everyone hoped to forget.
He remembered them all - some with more clarity than others, but every face, every name, every denouement they had shared was with him while he patrolled the long, quiet bridge on this cold and bleary night.
His lantern was all but useless as it cast a scattered glow upon the fog that hovered in the space between niveous drifts, and midnight had passed by the time he caught glimpse of a faint trail of tiny footprints that were fading into the snow.
He followed solemnly.
A dark form began to take shape in the mist, and he was able to discern the halcyon figure of a young woman, her long skirts thick with petticoats, staring out across the water.
"Hallo," he said. "Are you all right?"
She had a gentle smile, and there was kindness in his eyes.
They spent hours together, strolling arm in arm in the glistening snow, talking and laughing as if they had known each other their entire lives, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be on the bridge together this night - as if they weren't simply biding the time until her death.
The arrival of dawn the next morning was especially cruel.
But there was nothing to be done.
He held her dainty, gloved hand, diminutive and shaking, as she lifted up her petticoats, knee-high, and climbed over the top of the railing. Her feet dangled there for a moment before she slid down to the other side, trembling, her eyes keenly fixed on the loud rush of water below.
His pulse quickened, his throat tightening as the brisk air bit into his lungs. Had it been this cold all night? He leaned in suddenly, wrapping his arms around her. "Promise you won't scream," he said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.
She managed a small shake of her head. "I won't." She turned to face him, her small, trusting hands steady in his, the soft, fallen tendrils of her upswept hair blowing gently in the cold, bitter wind.
She was shivering now.
They stared into one another's eyes, each trying to live a lifetime in that moment. He bowed his head in reverence and pressed his lips to each of her hands before letting go.
The law was the law. But, for the first time in his life, it felt horribly unfair.