Even A Ferryman by Nan Wigington
I put up with the dead. Even when they came empty handed and expected to get across.
Look, I'd say, Hell has its economy. I work. I get paid. An obol, please. Or a piece of your liver, a sliver of your heart. But the dead can be so needy. Who wanted their wailing? I began poling for almost nothing – a leg to gnaw, a golden locket, a feather for my hat, twice a diamond, once a pince-nez.
I suppose it was the war of shapes and stars that did me in. Hermes felt the strain. The first load he brought in a great iron box with iron wheels. So heavy, he could only walk and pull it by its long, silvery tongue. Each step sunk him deeper into the sand. A man with wings brought so low. Huffing and puffing. I stood on my wherry in the reeds and scratched my beard.
When Hermes opened the door, such a stench – bitter almonds, a liquefaction of despair. They all had eyes like hollow furnaces, dark and blazing with hunger and thirst. All wore yellow stars. They had nothing to give me, not even complaints.
Hermes stood, wiped his brow, and shook his head. Without a word, he trudged back up the hill. Then he brought more. Thousands more. Sometimes the shapes they wore changed. Sometimes the colors. Never had I seen misery wear so many suits.
There were generals. They'd hide in the masses, but I could see the flesh on their faces, hear the click of epaulets. Sometimes I'd knock them back to shore. Sometimes I'd let them board, steer left instead of right, not to Lethe, but to the marsh where the five rivers meet. There I would abandon them. Such a wide circle of filth they would have to swim, heads barely above water, mosquitoes at their cheeks, birds at their lips.
It was when Hermes began to bring only the parts of the dead – their gold teeth, their wedding rings, once a bucket full of ashes – that I knew I had to quit. Even a ferryman gets tired. Enough was enough. I stuck my pole in my wherry and walked away.
I look different now. I've cut my beard. My hair is long enough to hide my ears, but is never unkempt. It took one hundred years of water, but the muck has fallen from my skin. I dress in jeans, a good work shirt, neatly pressed. I never thought I'd wear shoes, but my feet feel best in solid work boots.
I live in a place called Nevada. It's the perfect temperature. I drive a panel truck. The side reads, “Charlie Shores, Getting the job done wherever, however, no matter how big or small.” I dig graves. I visit casinos, put an obol in the slots, and get a few obols back.