Three riddles must be answered before a woman can cross the bridge that leads to her ex-boyfriend.
I could see them all from the other side of the bridge. Kids were racing paper milk cartons, couples were canoodling in canoes, and even the ducks were fat and happy thanks to the generosity of picnickers. It was a summer day, and folks don’t take that for granted here.
The north beach of the lake was a cacophony of color and laughter — a whole other realm from the quiet white expanse before the melt. But I could see no one else on the channel bridge. Some poor guy had been found frozen under the surface the winter before. It wasn’t superstition that kept folks away, more of a sense of politeness.
I sat on the stone arch surveying the lake, as if I could peer hard enough to know what Will was doing on his side. With her. Maybe they were drinking mimosas at the beach club or taking a rooftop yoga class. Maybe they were among the trim and tan unstacking kayaks. Maybe they were still asleep, spooned in the sheets I had saved up for special and hadn’t taken with me when we broke up. Because it seemed petty at the time.
My reflection grew more sad and distorted in the channel below. Ducklings skittered under the bridge and the lily pads spun and dispersed. The troll emerged. She was not aging well.
The troll was large, lumpy and the same mottled green as the patches of algae that collected around the cattails. Her nose and ears had grown disproportionate to the rest of her. She had huge pores. With unlikely grace, she swung herself to the top of the arch, her girth spanning the bridgeway. She stomped her feet and spat lake water.
“Who’s that tripping over my bridge?” she roared. “I’ll grind your bones to make my bread!”
But then she saw it was only me, so she stopped with the thundering on. She sat down with a slime-flicking thump that shuddered the bridge.
“Hi Celia,” the troll grumbled. “Trying to see Will again?”
It had been a month since the breakup and I still hadn’t made it across. I just wanted to get my stuff back, or at least that’s what I’d been telling myself.
“Awwright. You know the rules.” Though it sounded like you new the ruse when she said it, due to the impediment of her tusks.
“Answer my riddles three and you may cross. Fail and perish.”
“Or, just go back home,” I added.
“Yeah,” the troll conceded, “die a terrible death or go back to your terrible studio apartment.”
“Okay then… The first riddle: Is she prettier than you?”
“You know who.”
“Is the answer supposed to be, you know, clever? Is this a riddle or just a regular question? I mean do I have to just answer it, or do I have to get the answer right”
The troll’s green eyes glittered. “I think,” though it sounded like fink, “that troll riddles are considered to be quite literal, at least compared to human puzzles… and, yes, the answer has to be right.”
“Well, what if I don’t know the answer?”
“Just try. C’mon, it’s hot up here and I haven’t got all day.”
“Okay then.” I summoned up my courage. “Yes, Will’s new girlfriend is prettier than me.”
“But?” prompted the troll.
“But she tries harder. If I hadn’t let myself go, I’d be the pretty one.”
“Correct!” exclaimed the troll. “Now for riddle two…”
I took a deep breath and put my hand in my pocket, gripping the heart-shaped locket Will had given me for my birthday the year before. I couldn’t really wear it anymore, but I couldn’t let it go.
“Riddle two,” the troll repeated. “If you had to do it over again, would you?”
“Can I? I mean do you have the power to turn back time?”
“No. It’s just a question. If was that kind of magical, do you think I’d still be sitting around here?” The troll tugged on one thick green earlobe and a golden earring caught the light. “Don’t answer that. It’s rhetorical,” she harrumphed.
I thought of the day Will and I first moved into the flat, the sunlight breaking over new sheets, cold beers in the canoe at sunset. “Yeah, I’d do it all over again.”
“All of it?”
“If I could do it again, knowing what I know now, I can’t say I wouldn’t make a few better choices. But mostly I just wouldn’t take it for granted.”
The troll seemed satisfied.
“Awwright. Question three…”
I grasped the locket in my pocket tightly, the point of the heart cutting into my palm.
“Does he still love you?”
I knew the answer but I took my time. After all, it was the last question and on the other side waited a seemingly endless expanse.
“No,” I said.
“But he did once. I do believe that. ‘Cause I have this locket and… and his new girlfriend…”
“… has the ring,” completed the troll.
We were quiet for a moment, the troll and me. Her eyes were impossibly green and I couldn’t help thinking how pretty she must have been before she let herself go.
“You may pass,” she said quietly, but I didn’t move. “You may pass!” she roared.
“That’s okay, there’s nothing there I need anymore.”
“Well, this is awkward,” said the troll.
“Yeah, life is like that. But, sometimes you just have to get on to the next good thing… like this locket. Would you like it? It would go nicely with your earrings.”
I placed the heart and chain in her large purple-green palm. The troll sniffed. I knew that she was going to take the photos out of it and replace them with her own.
I wanted to ask her about her ex, about how long it hurts, about what kind of magic she could do. But I didn’t ask her any of those things because it wouldn’t have been polite.