Peter and Geoffrey led the way, running as fast as their skinny legs could carry them down the hillside, locks flying back from their tanned brows.
“We will miss them!” Peter called back to Lawrence who brought up the rear, as usual. “Hurry!”
“Are you not hungry?” Geoffrey was the fastest, and he could have easily reached the bridge long before his mates. But he knew better. One boy could be ignored. But three? Not likely.
“Some of us,” puffed Lawrence, “are not so fast.”
“Some of us,” Geoffrey mimicked, “could go a week without another meal.” Then he laughed.
But Peter refrained. “Just think of all the fresh meats and cheeses — and the bread!”
Lawrence’s stomach rumbled as if on cue. “You are torturing me.”
“You must hasten if we are to reach the bridge together,” Peter broke away.
“Listen to your belly,” Geoffrey imparted before dashing after him.
“All will be gone by the time I join you.” Lawrence quietly cursed the jiggle of his extra pounds.
“I will save you a crumb or two!” Geoffrey called.
In moments, the two faster boys reached the first cobbles of the bridge. Lawrence’s father had been one of the masons to cut these stones from the earth long ago. It was stronger now than when it was first constructed, as time had settled each block of stone against the other so tightly a stick could not be driven between them. Lawrence knew this, for he had often tried.
“I saw them!” Lawrence called, nearly tumbling down the hill and halting to clasp his chubby knees, too exhausted now to climb the bridge to its peak over the rushing river.
“You’ll see better up here,” said Peter with a wave.
“They are loaded full today.” Geoffrey licked his lips in anticipation. “The gods have blessed their harvest!”
The men aboard the barge came from a village upriver, one where farms produced fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, and grains they beat into submission to make the sweetest loaves of bread. Once a week, they passed under this bridge on their way to the docks where the boys’ mothers, wives of stone masons and master craftsmen, waited to purchase from their stores. Often, there were scraps to be spared along the way.
The boys had come to expect it.
“Quick now!” Peter urged Lawrence, who merely raised a hand.
“Give me a moment,” he gasped.
The barge had already swept into shouting distance, and the boys started jumping up and waving their arms, hollering to capture the men’s attention. There were four of them on the barge, big sunburned farmers who, much like the boys, spent all of their time outdoors. They smiled up at the excited faces on the bridge — a familiar sight as of late — with teeth that flashed white against their dark complexions.
“What can you spare?” Geoffrey called down, and the other lads took up the excited chant.
One of the men reached down into a large burlap sack, prepared in advance for the young beggars. But another of the men laid a hand on his shoulder. With a stern frown, this man pointed at the bridge. The smile vanished from the first man’s face as he turned to look.
“What is it?” Lawrence huffed, trudging up to meet his mates. Their celebration had lost its fervor.
“They do not mean to give us anything,” said Peter with a creased brow.
“How can that be?” Lawrence expected some kind of reward for his efforts. This kind of physical exertion was a once-a-week event.
“Hey now! Give us a bit of something!” Geoffrey called as the barge passed beneath the bridge. The other boys echoed similar sentiments.
The men ignored them, instead setting their strange, stoic faces forward with grim eyes focused on the river ahead.
“Can they not hear us?” Lawrence demanded, peering over the side.
“This ought to get their attention.” Geoffrey unbuttoned the front of his trousers and whipped out his willy, jogging to the other side of the bridge. “Take this, blackguards!” He let fly with a golden stream that splattered down onto the roughhewn logs of the barge, the produce, and the men themselves as they reemerged.
Laughing at the spectacle, Lawrence joined in, raining down his contempt in like manner. Only Peter refrained, staring into the distance now in the same way as the bargemen. Curious, Lawrence followed their line of sight to the town downriver, where something like his mother’s serving platter — only massive in scale — stretched across the sky. In appearance, it looked similar to the bridge’s grey stones packed together, but it hung suspended from the air, blinking and flashing with sparks of lightning.
Lawrence spilled onto his shoes and cursed. Geoffrey tucked himself back into his trousers and fumbled with the buttons.
“That will teach them.” Geoffrey spat after the barge and faced his mates. He scowled at their pale faces. “What is it?”
Peter pointed. Geoffrey turned and stared. Words failed him as his eyes came to focus on the strange spectacle among the distant clouds.
“What do you suppose…?” Lawrence trailed off.
“The gods?” Peter gasped.
A roll of thunder shook the heavens, so deep the boys felt it vibrate their chests and rumble their bowels. They fell to their knees. Then a flash of brilliant white lit up the sky above them, so bright they cowered and shielded their eyes. They cried out but could not hear their own voices, let alone each other’s.
When the unnatural light faded, the giant stone platter in the sky was no more. Neither was the barge. It had vanished from the river without a trace — only a single loaf of bread bobbed in the current.
The boys stared down at it.
Lawrence sniffed and rubbed his gurgling belly. “You suppose the gods get hungry too?”
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, writer by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 30 publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, and Macmillan’s Criminal Element. Stop by anytime: http://www.milo-inmediasres.com/.