AUG 2023, SHORT STORY, 4300 WORDS
You are the ferryman. You have no memory of being anything else. Your posture is molded by the whims of the river, your fingers made to curl around the handle of your oar. You know only a certain number of shapes and colors—dark grey for the ground made of stone, black for the river colored with pale shadows. Always moving, the currents guiding you in the right direction. The river always takes you where you are meant to go.
Once, an elderly woman tries to step on the boat. You raise the oar and threaten her—at the time, you are young and still filled with energy, and you don’t yet know threatening isn’t necessary. Her face scrunches at you in its wrinkles. Then, resigned, she extends her hand, a shining obol in her palm. It is gold, like nothing else around the both of you.
After you take it, she steps into the boat, turns her head, and spits. Her saliva dissolves on the water, vanishing to the naked eye, but the river will always carry her disdain for you, somewhere.
Few are so defiant. Most already welcome you clutching the coin between their fingers, tight, as if it could run away at any moment. The obols are warm when they are passed over to you, and as you hold them in your own hand, sometimes you wish the heat were strong enough to burn your palm, to leave a mark there.
You leave no marks anywhere. You are the ferryman—there is no light to cast your shadow, no silt to bear your footprints. As you sink the oar into the river, you pierce the water for a moment, but the current immediately takes over, washes it away. Despite that, you tell yourself it must remember you. It must.
Once, you find a boy on the coast with a package in his arms.
“My sister,” he tells you. He is very respectful, with no intention of trespassing. His voice is reasonable and calm, calculated. When people plead with you, they try many approaches, all of which you’ve seen before. The boy’s tactic is to appeal to your good sense. There was a fire in their house, he tells, and he had one coin in his pocket. He repeats the last part as if it is the most important one, because it is: “I have one coin.”
You extend your hand. He raises the package, and the baby whines. “She weighs nothing,” he says.
“You have one coin,” you say.
“I can hold her all the way through. She’s so light.”
“You have one coin.”
His calm demeanor begins to shatter. “I can carry her. I can carry her with me.”
“I know,” you say.
He turns his gaze to the baby, and you look at the river. You want to tell him he could carry her if she were anything else. A parent, a grown-up son, a large dog, twins. He could throw her over your shoulders and carry her for miles. All of them can. All of them would, if you let them.
After a while, he extends his arms to you. The obol is balanced precariously on the baby’s forehead.
You pick it up before you take his sister. You are the ferryman. You have only one arm to hold her with.
Once, the Lord embarks on the ferry.
You rarely see him, for he is tremendously busy; busier than all his brothers put together. His appearance is that of a common man whenever he travels. Sat on the throne, he must look different. You wouldn’t know. You see nothing beyond the shore.
He asks how work is going. He is gentle, despite the myths, or perhaps because of them.
There are sacks filled with obols all over the ferry. Coins glimmer against the wooden floor, leftovers you haven’t gathered yet.
You say work is good.
He nods and looks at all the gold you have collected. “I’ll come pick it up,” he says. “Eventually.”
The rest of the traversal is done mostly in silence. You don’t enjoy talking, and even if you did, you wouldn’t want to come across as disrespectful. Still, as you approach the shore and he stands up, you cast one look over the coins scattered around your feet, and a thought escapes from your mouth.
“I worry someday it will become too heavy.”
He turns to you with eyes as bright as obols.
“It won’t,” he says.
Sometimes people embark in groups. It’s easy to know when, because the shore fills very quickly, and among people in regular clothing there are many wearing armor. Of those, only a few embark, but they rarely complain, too proud to attempt bargaining.
In those times, whole legions arrive almost at once. They spread around the shore, some sitting down. This side of the river grows more crowded every day.
There is a disturbance, once, when a group of soldiers comes. Their leader greets you as a colleague, and you don’t know what to say back, so you say nothing. They all turn back to their fate on this side of the lands, except one, who steps forward.
He is shaky as he slips a coin out of his armor plate. He extends it to you swiftly, almost as a secret, but it catches you by surprise, and you are not discreet enough.
His commander turns. “What are you doing?”
The soldier does not look back. You pick up the coin and pocket it, and he hurries to embark.
A new feeling arises amidst the crowd, simmering from exclamations of confusion turned into anger.
“You knew,” the commander roars. “You knew we were going to fail!”
The soldier sits down at the boat and buries his face on his knees. You pick up the oar.
The commander screams: “You knew we weren’t coming back alive!”
“Please go,” the soldier tells you.
You row, as fast as you can. As you watch the shore moving away, you hear the soldiers screaming. Coward, traitor. These words mean nothing to you, but you have heard them sometimes over the years, know how they whip at human skins.
Some soldiers throw themselves at the river, after the boat. They sink like rocks, lost amidst the current, not unlike the old woman’s spit.
The soldier is trembling. “Will he punish me?” he asks.
You wish you could say something to comfort him. You wish you could say something to scare him. But you don’t want to lie.
“I don’t know,” you say, because that is all you can say. You are the ferryman. You see nothing beyond the shore.
In the little free time you have, you organize the coins. You store them in sacks. The Lord takes a large part, but he leaves some behind, and little by little, they stack up. You try counting them, but that would demand more time than you can spare. So you reject numbers, and count them by words. To you they sound like names: Few. Some. Several. Many. Plenty. Lots. More.
Playing tricks on you is not advisable, but humans try it anyway. There is a woman who tries to hide her cat beneath her skirt. A young man who tries to pass a stone for an obol. Tons of dead who try to convince you they will pay at the end of the traversal, at the other side.
You entertain none of those tricks. You are the ferryman. Your job is to get the coins up front, take the dead in the one direction they can go, and go back and pick up the next passengers afterward. You have one job, and you do it well.
Some of them get furious, hurl insults at you when you don’t let them embark. Something in the air stops them from attacking you—a protection enforced by the Lord, you’re pretty sure. Still, their despair boils into fury, and they hate you, specifically, more than anything else.
You accept that. You are also there to be hated, to be the one who tells them they can’t cross, the one who takes any gold they might have carried with them in their journey downward. You are there to stop them.
Once, a man with a scar over his left eye attempts an innovative trick. He waits for you to return after taking a large group across, sitting down as if he’s bored. When you arrive, before the next group shows up, he leans toward you, face casual and conspiratorial.
“Must get boring,” he says.
You don’t reply.
“Just… Rowing back and forth all the time,” he continues, as if you didn’t understand what he meant.
You remain quiet.
“I wouldn’t mind helping out.” He gestures to the oar. “Give you a break.”
You turn toward him. “What?”
He shrugs. “Just an idea. If you ever wanted to get out of this place for a while.”
For a moment it is as if he is speaking in an unknown language, which is ridiculous—there are no languages you don’t speak. Yet it makes you look around, to the river, to the stone walls, as if you were seeing them for the first time.
“I don’t mind the cold,” he says. “But it’s so dark here. I’ve only been around for a couple days, and I miss light, nature, plants. I can only imagine how you feel.”
You want to tell him he can’t. You yourself can’t imagine how he feels. You don’t miss plants, or light. You have never seen either of those things.
“I have watched you do it so many times, I don’t think it would be hard to figure out the directions. And it would be temporary, just as long as you wanted to,” he continues. He gestures toward your robe. “If I put this on, no one would ever know.”
He’s lying, of course. He wants you to step out of the boat and give him the oar so he can get to the other side without paying. It’s unusual, but obvious. Yet something about it stirs you, makes you cling to the wooden handle harder than you ever have before.
“Be quiet,” you say. He opens his mouth as if ready to disobey, but seems to decide it isn’t worth it. Instead, he moves away.
On the next trip, the boat filled with people, you think: Someone would know. The boat would feel if someone else took charge of it. The oar would burn in different hands, the mantle wouldn’t fit right. The Lord would know it wasn’t you. He would.
As you row, the river takes you where you are meant to go, and you wonder what plants look like. You have heard of them enough to conjure vague images: Flowers, leaves, roots. You imagine them all very similar in your head, but you must be wrong. There must be many differences between them, every single one special in its own manner. Maybe ignorant beings, like you, would take one look and think they were all the same, but each one must have a particular role, perform a job no one else can do. This must be why they have roots, you think. Because each of them has a place no one else can take.
You imagine the young man wearing your mantle. The hood would cover his face, same as it does yours. Would anyone ever look under it? Has anyone?
When you get to the other side, you look at the silt ground and wonder how it feels to walk on it. You wonder about light. You wonder: where would you go, and when would you come back?
You hurry to begin your return, sinking the oar into the water, the same motion you have always done. It’s a simple gesture, you think. Maybe others could do it, but you’re the only one who can do it right. It has to be you—you are the ferryman. You have one job, and you do it well. You do it well.
Here’s what you know: There’s the boat, the river, the oar, the Lord, and you. In this list, you are not like the oar. You are like the river, the Lord. You are here not because you couldn’t be anywhere else, but because no one else can be where you are.
You place coins in sacks, organizing them for the Lord. Unexpectedly, you think of the old woman and her spit. That had been her way to show her disapproval, her disdain for you. But why? Didn’t she know everything had always been this way, and therefore it could never be different? That you can only ever be what you are?
The sacks pile against your feet. The Lord will soon come to collect most of them, as he always does. The weight of the obols will never become too much for the boat, he promised.
Rowing is more difficult now, but the sacks aren’t weighing the boat down. The blame, you realize, lies with the thoughts of lights and plants, in your head. You have become heavier.
The next person to try bargaining with you is an elderly woman. She asks, shaky, if she can lie down on the boat’s floor, stay there through the entire traversal.
“This way no one would see me,” she says. “No one would have to know.”
You look at her, and, for once, you marvel at their stubbornness. You marvel at their fury, their sadness, their hope. They are tricksters, traitors, martyrs, liars. They can be so many things at once. You are—only, ever, just—the ferryman.
“I can’t,” you tell her.
“All right,” she says. “I understand.”
She goes silent for a moment, then does what they never stop doing, even after all this time: she surprises you.
“It must be difficult,” she says.
“What?” You think you may have misunderstood.
“Just… saying no to everyone, all time,” she says. She points to a bag of obols, next to you. “Most of it goes straight to his pocket, right? I know what that feels like. There’s not much you can do to change things, in this kind of position.”
Your first instinct is to tell her she is wrong. You don’t resent the Lord for taking most of the obols. Still, her words pierce you, fine but precise, same as the oar pierces the river to propel the boat forward.
“May I ask you something?” you say, without thinking.
“Sure, what is it?”
“What do plants look like?”
She seems surprised by the question. “Well, it depends. There are many kinds of plants. I suppose you can say most of them are green.”
“Do you know what that looks like?”
You nod. Some humans have green eyes. You’re not thinking about that, but about what she said before: There are many kinds of plants. They don’t all look the same. Just as you thought.
“Have you really never seen a plant before?” she asks. Something in her voice is different, puzzling—a sadness that doesn’t veer into despair.
“No,” you say.
“So you never left this place?” she asks. Then you notice what is different in that sadness: The direction. She’s not sad about herself, she’s sad about you. It’s not misery, it’s pity.
You shake your head. You don’t want to talk anymore. Human sadness is always a little uncomfortable, but now you find out pity is even worse. It’s compassionate and yet aggressive, assaulting you with something you don’t want to hear.
The next group begins to arrive on the shore, and the woman vanishes amidst them. Like everyone else who stays on this side, she will fade into a shadow of who she once was, and you will never see her again. Yet her words make a home inside you, crawl inside your chest and nest there. They spread roots.
After that, when you pick up humans, you begin to do something new: You search their eyes. You find brown, black, green, blue, grey, and mixes of one and another, resulting in shades you can’t name.
It’s not an easy task, because most of them look away from you. You wonder if it is something in your face, or—and that occurs to you like a whisper, like something forbidden—if it is because of everything else around you. If, in a different time and place, they would just stare back, like they would to any other human.
When you count the obols, next, you name the sacks after the colors. Black. Brown. Blue. Grey. Green. From hearsay, though, you’re aware that there are many other colors, colors that human eyes witness without carrying.
You wonder what they look like.
You lose count.
The next time the Lord comes to take the obols, you’re thinking about green. When he takes most of the sacks, he looks over at you. His eyes are gold like human eyes can’t be.
“How is everything?”
You say everything is well.
He nods, then moves to leave your small pouch in the boat. You shake your head.
“You can have it.”
He looks at you, surprised. “What? Why?”
You don’t know what to say. Maybe you could tell him you have been thinking of colors, and of human eyes, and plants and green. Maybe you could tell him you have been thinking of what the ground feels like. Maybe you could tell him the obols are starting to remind you of human eyes, and you find it unbearable to stand there, over them, feeling their gaze.
“It’s weighing down the boat,” you say instead.
He goes quiet for a moment, and then picks up the pouch. “It is not supposed to,” he says. Then he looks at you. “Tell me if it continues to happen.”
When he goes away you begin rowing to the other side, and the boat is just as heavy as before.
A young woman flings dirt at you. It clings to your mantle’s hem.
Another woman tries to hold her back. She pleads. It’s a litany of the usual lines, so you don’t really hear, letting it wash over you like the noise from the river. Instead, you focus on her eyes. They’re blue.
Other people, equally angry and despairing, join the women. A large group, with no coins. This has been happening more frequently lately, though you don’t know why.
“If you let me go back,” a man tries, “I can get enough to pay you double.”
“I will row for you, sir,” a teenager says. “You won’t have to exert yourself.”
“Please,” an elderly man says. His eyes are brown and misty with tears. “Please, please, please.”
The noise diminishes when a man walks to the front of the crowd. He picks something from his pocket—a small pouch, filled to the brim. His eyes are pitch-dark.
“I have enough for everyone,” he says.
He stretches the pouch’s rim open and passes the coins around. People let out exclamations of joy and gratitude. One man tries to take three at once, but those around him notice, forcing him to give back the extras.
By the end, everyone can embark on the boat. You look at the dark-eyed man when you begin to row. “Why did you bring so many? You only needed one.”
The man doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Because I knew there would be people without any.”
You go silent for the rest of the traversal. You think of his eyes, long after he leaves. Human eyes can be as dark as the river, but something else makes them brighter.
Counting the bags has become boring to you, now. You do it less often, because fewer people bring coins with them, and thus you have fewer passengers. Even so, when you finally have to count them, the task feels obscene. You’re putting a strange imitation of human eyes in bags, counting them, and all you can think about are plants.
In a faint attempt to go back to the simple, easy count of before, you reject colors. You go back to the words that once were all you needed: Few. Some. Several. Many. Plenty. Lots. Enough.
The next time you’re rowing, you do something you have never done, would never have thought of doing a while ago. Something that hasn’t been forbidden, explicitly, but that still feels like breaking the rules.
You turn to a woman right next to you. She has brown eyes that almost seem black in the darkness. She paid, just like everyone around her. It took days for the boat to be filled with a group large enough for traversal. Each time you come back, it takes longer.
“Could you try rowing a little?” you ask.
She seems suspicious. “Why?”
“I’m a little tired,” you say. It’s not a lie.
She hesitates, but picks up the oar when you offer it.
Immediately you feel as if your balance has shifted. You need to hold onto the boat to keep standing, but you don’t fall.
She raises the oar ahead and sinks it into the water. It propels the boat forward easily, and you all traverse the river, as if nothing has changed.
The next time the Lord comes, you tell him everything.
“They don’t even bring coins anymore,” you say. “It isn’t working.”
He sits down by the boat and makes an arch with his hands. “Yes,” he says. “I can see that. I was considering doing something to remind them, but perhaps it is pointless.” He casts a look at the river. “It is never wise to swim against a current.”
You nod, but you are not done. “What about me?”
He frowns. “You? What about you? You are the ferryman. You have to row the boat.”
“Anyone can row the boat,” you say.
You pause. You have never allowed yourself to think the following words before. You are the ferryman, and you could never be anything else. But…
“I don’t have to be here.”
He takes that in. Then he says: “You’re not thinking this through.”
“Don’t you see?” He gestures to the river. “Anyone can row the boat, for sure. But someone has to. If you leave, who will take your place?”
You knew he was going to ask this question.
“Anyone,” you say.
You continue: “They will go in groups. Someone comes back, takes the next group, and then someone else takes over to take the next one. And so on. They can row as well as I do. It would work.”
The Lord looks to the river, but to you it seems as if he’s not seeing it. He’s seeing something else, beyond.
“Someone would have to go back,” he says. “Every time.”
“Do you think they would?” He looks at you. Obols shine in his face, aggressive, challenging. “You have seen them at their worst. Do you really think that, every single time, one of them will come back for others?”
You go silent. You think of spit, betrayal, bargain, eyes.
“I do,” you say.
“Just because you really want to believe something,” he says, “does not make it true.”
“Someone will come back,” you say. “Every time. Even if just one.”
The Lord, the cave, the river—everything is silent suddenly, as if your entire world is thinking, considering how to react to these words. You don’t know what you will say next, if he refuses.
He stands up. “Fine.”
You almost don’t believe it. “Fine…?”
“We will try it.”
He makes a gesture and the land on the shore opens, creating a river path to a new direction.
“If you follow this, it will lead you out of my kingdom. You’ll know when you’ve left it.”
You are shaking when you nod, and you begin to thank him until he raises a hand to stop you.
“Go,” he says. His eyes carry a certain sadness.
When you begin to row, you can hear him behind you.
“If they fail, if at one point no one comes back, even once… I will have to come get you,” he whispers. “Get as far as you can.”
You are the ferryman—for the last time.
The Lord and the shore you know have long faded behind you when you spot the river’s mouth, far in the horizon. There isn’t any shape you can see, for the path is covered by light. You don’t know what colors await you there, if there are humans, or plants. You don’t know how your face will look uncovered by the uniform. You don’t know how this freedom will taste like, or how long it may last.
You tighten your grip on the oar and sink it into the water in a final impulse. The light bathes and swallows your body. You…are.