by Pat O’Malley
The Councilman walked towards the light and saw the figure waiting for him at the shore.
To the best of his knowledge, he had been walking for God knows how long in some sort of vast, underground river. He couldn’t remember how he had gotten here, all he could do was stare in bewilderment at the ink colored waves that crashed into the obsidian stones in front of him. A shrill breeze sent goosebumps up his arms as he walked forward to the coast.
Standing in a boat, rocking steadily with the waves was a tall hooded figure in a filthy, reddish-brown robe. Two muscular arms gripped a long wooden pole dripping with seawater. The boat, a ferry it looked like, was a long upturned crescent decorated with what appeared to be human skulls all along the edges and front. At the tip of the boat’s mast, decorated in a pile of skulls, was a large lantern glowing a pale white light. It had been the light that the Councilman had followed.
As he walked towards the ferry, the Councilman struggled in vain to comprehend the ghastly, nightmarish sight before him. Instead, the best that the ether of his reptile brain could do was rationalize the terrifying visage by reminding himself of the romantic gondola ride he and his second wife had taken on their honeymoon in Florence.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Hop in,” a gruff male voice came from under the hood.
“I-uh, hey wait, now hold on a second—what’s going on here? Where the hell am I?”
He was a fifty-eighty-year-old City Councilman from Long Island. The edges of his navy blue blazer flapped with the powerful cold gust of wind that filled this subterranean shore. He was gray-haired with a solid layer of fat around his midsection that had once been muscle. He was a man who liked to be in control of the situation around him so naturally, he was visibly uncomfortable. Even his usual confident posturing that made him so endearing to his voters was failing him.
The hooded man sighed irritably.
“No, I’m not doing this. Either hop in the damned boat and ask all your stupid bloody questions or you can fuck off.”
“Goodbye,” the ferryman started to push the boat off the coast.
“All right! All right!” The Councilman climbed aboard.
Before he knew it, the two of them were off, sailing through the dark rapids in the skull-covered boat. Waves thumped up against the boat, rocking it side to side but the boat held fast and sailed on. When he wasn’t shielding his eyes from the splashing spray of salty dark water, the Councilman tried to make out a better view of the face beneath the ferryman.
From what he could see, the ferryman had a very old, rugged face with a long white beard. What stood out the most though were his eyes. At first, the Councilman thought that the hooded man was blind but that didn’t explain why the eyes were glowing. True enough, glowing with white fire, the ferryman’s eyes were two bright, fiery orbs like shining stars that gazed upon the edge of infinity.
As they sailed into the unknown, the air was filled with an undeniable awkward silence.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you back there. I’m just tired is all,” the hooded man sighed without turning his gaze to the Councilman.
“Forget about it, happens to the best of us,” the Councilman said. “You know, as long as we’re talking; by any chance could you tell me just what the flying fuck is going on here?!”
When the ferryman finished explaining, the politician was hyperventilating.
“No, that can’t be right! Who the hell dies from getting hit by a bicycle?! There’s been some kind of horrible mistake! I just won the re-election dammit! Let me off this fucking thing!” The middle-aged man wailed.
“Get it out of your system. Nothings going to change,” the hooded man’s glowing white eyes held no sympathy.
The Councilman continued to rage and protest but soon enough those ravings turned to sobs. The ferryman steered the oar as the boat bobbed and weaved through the choppy water of what the ferryman had called the River Styx.
“My name’s Charon by the way,” The hooded one said.
“Go to hell,” the miserable politician sobbed.
“Right,” Charon gritted his teeth, stifling a cough.
“What a fucking joke,” grumbled the Councilman. “I mean I thought I lived a good life. Sure, I may have indulged in one or two white lies here and there but I loved my family and I never did anything that I thought would land me in hell!”
“Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not going to hell. Nay, you’re going to the same black void everyone goes to. I’m just the sorry bastard whose job it is to drag every dead soul to the Ether otherwise they’d never get there. You’re one of the lucky ones too. Used to be everyone had to pay me a shilling to get their soul over to the other side but they did away with that. Dead souls rarely carried coins on them. Purgatory was getting too crowded.”
“You do this for everyone?” The Councilman asked.
“Every. Last. One,” Charon grumbled.
“Oh uh, well what’s the Ether like? Is it nice?”
Charon pondered this. “Eh, I suppose its sort of like the void you were in before you were born, only a bit more….seasoned?”
Jus then, the Councilman realized that the sound of the waves against the boat began to sound less like water and more like a chorus of agonized moaning. The sound grew louder, the man cowered in the boat as his ears were filled with the piercing, unholy sound of the damned.
“What’s that sound? Where is it coming from!?”
His answer came from a pair of rotten, translucent hands shooting out from the water. They clutched the edge of the boat directly next to the screaming Councilman. Terrified, he watched as the hands tightened their grip and pulled up the howling, transparent torso of an androgynous humanoid.
“Help me! For the love of God help me!” The phantasm screamed.
The Councilman covered his eyes as the glowing pleading body pulled itself closer to him. As the screaming soul reached for his face, a loud “thwack!” of the ferryman’s oar swatted the howling ghost back into the black water.
It didn’t even splash, just dissipated once it hit the darkness.
“Sorry, best to ignore that,” Charon smiled apologetically.
“What the hell was that?!” The Councilman roared.
“Nothing for you to worry about that’s for sure.”
The skull-ferry lurched forward, knocking the two of them about as more glowing transparent bodies began pulling themselves on to the boat. They were all naked and confused, decaying and healing, stuck between who they were and what they’ve become. All the worse were the confused screams and pleads each one elicited.
“Where am I?”
“It’s so cold! Get me out of here!”
“The horror! The unspeakable, endless horror!”
In a series of rapid swats, each dead soul was smacked back into the dark ocean by the powerful whacks delivered by the wooden ore.
“Go on, get! Shoo! Shoo! Damned things making me work extra hard,” Charon’s frustrated grumbles were in stark contrast to the horrified, trembling Councilman.
“Oh God, oh Jesus. I-is that where I’m going?” The Councilman asked.
“Ah, don’t be such a Mary. It’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad?!” The Councilman cried.
The boat sailed onwards as the moaning pleads from the dead souls gradually died down. Before they knew it, the choppy, narrow River Styx had stretched into a wide ocean. Above them, the cavernous ceiling grew higher and higher until a thousand shining stars appeared where the cavern’s ceiling had been. Wherever they were now, there was no land anywhere to be seen, just the two of them in the ferry, sailing in obsidian while millions of alien stars and planets shined above.
Beneath the heavenly cosmos, Charon hummed to himself as he steered the pole left to right. The awkward silence between the two resumed, only broken by the hooded man breaking out into periodic coughing fits before hastily regaining his composure. There was no possible way of determining how much time had passed. Even so, after what felt like several hours had passed with no destination in sight.
The Councilman was growing restless. “Are we any closer to where we’re going? It feels like we’ve been sailing forever.”
“Pipe down, don’t talk to me about ‘forever.’” Charon sneered.
“Look I’m sorry guy, but is it too much to ask how far away we are?”
The hooded man whipped his head back. The glow of the lantern illuminated his old face but the fiery glow of his agitated eyes burned brighter. Charon’s wrinkled, bearded face was gone, in its place was some kind of fanged ghoulish nightmare that looked like it belonged to a demon from deepest depths of hell.
“Forgive me,” this new Charon snarled. “Perhaps I am mistaken, but are YOU the immortal ferryman whose sole purpose for all eternity is to sail billions of souls to the afterlife? Hmmm?”
“I see, well then if it’s not too much trouble, would your grace allow it if the ACTUAL immortal ferryman did his job and we get there when we damned well get there???”
“I-uh, yeah, s-sure,” The middle aged man couldn’t look at the angry demonic face.
“I JUST want to make sure its okay with you,” Charon growled.
“Fine! Yes! I swear it’s fine!”
“Hrmph,” Charon’s old face returned but was immediately overcome with another hacking cough. His body violently heaved as he coughed and leaned on the pole to steady himself.
“Are you all right?” The Councilman asked. “That sounds like a bad cough and you’ve been doing it for a while.”
“Fear not, it’s only allergies.”
“How can you have allergies down here?” The Councilman asked.
“You are truly a test of my patience. I do free labor for millennia and you’re telling me I’m not allowed to have allergies every now and then?” Frustration drooled from the ferryman’s mouth.
“Fair enough,” The Councilman conceded.
The choppy water splashed against the boat, rocking it back and forth. The Councilman was at least thankful that he didn’t bring his habitual sea-sickness into the afterlife with him. What a nightmare that would have been.
Eager to prolong the inevitable return to awkward silence, the Councilman feigned interest in the ferryman.
“You really have been doing this forever haven’t you?” He asked.
“It certainly feels that way,” Charon sighed. “Feels almost longer than that if I’m being honest. I’ve been ushering souls since the Gods figured out what to do with you. I’ve long since gotten used to the freshly dead souls of men and women. It’s the newly deceased children that will always haunt me. They cry and don’t understand what’s happening. It breaks my heart but there’s nothing to be done. All I can do is tell them stories and try to make them laugh until we get to the end of the line,” he sighed.
“I’m sorry, that sounds awful.”
Charon shrugged. “Yes, well its all the same. The forces of life and death need undertaking. Since my brothers are too busy taking up space someone has to do the heavy lifting in the family.”
Since the conversation began, the thrashing river they had been sailing on had steadily faded. Now, the River Styx has become eerily calm.
Even the terrible sound of the moaning dead souls had vanished. From what the Councilman could see, the boat was gliding silently across a silent, body of water that seemed to stretch on into infinity. The boat looked as though it was sliding on a sheet of glass that reflected the trillions of shining stars above.
Abruptly, the boat stalled, bobbing gently in the dark water. The Councilman craned his head back, he thought he heard the Charon mumble something to himself. If he didn’t know any better he’d swear that the ferryman was looking at their surroundings with a look of confusion burning in the twin sun orbs he called eyes.
“That’s-hmmm,” Charon mumbled.
“Everything all right?” The Councilman asked.
“Fine, just fine,” Charon picked up the oar and paddled on.
For a plane of existence where time no longer existed, it still damn well felt like hours had passed for the Councilman. Even though he wasn’t in a rush to reach their destination, he was growing increasingly anxious sitting in this boat with no land in sight. The anticipation of the unknown was driving him mad. Just how long was this ferry ride supposed to take?
It wasn’t long before the milky way above them disappeared and their surroundings changed. Blood-colored shores began creeping in the distance almost as if the horizon was closing in on them. The icy black water had turned to a scorching shade of amber that bubbled. He rubbed his hands together and patted his thighs, unable to sit still.
What fresh hell was this?
“Quit your fidgeting, you’re rocking the boat,” Charon grumbled.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“I already told you, we sailing on the River Styx to the land of the dead.”
“Has the River Styx always been made of lava?” The Councilman asked incredulously.
Indeed, an ungodly amounts of heat had filled the air. Looking down outside the ferry, the Councilman and Charon watched as the boat sailed undamaged through what appeared to be molten lava. The Councilman ducked as a bubble of magma burst near his side of the boat.
The worst came when the Councilman spied land. On the red, brimstone shoreline, to the Councilman’s horror, were what looked like strange humanoid reptilian creatures covered in green scales standing on their forelegs. A cluster of them stood on land staring at the boat with black, oval eyes. The Councilman tried to avoid their uncanny, human-like gaze and cowered in the boat. The distinct sound of hissing made his skin crawl.
Charon scratched his beard and coughed.
“I suppose it’s a bit peculiar,” he steered the oar, twisting the ferry into a sharp left turn.
It wasn’t long before they had left the brimstone and reptilian creatures behind. The boat found itself back in the chill black ocean underneath the galaxy of alien stars and plants. The moaning howls of the dead in the water had returned too. The ferry was back in the cold sea of dead souls from which they had come.
All of that insanity and they had only made it right back to where they started?
The longer they sailed uncertainly, the worse the Councilman’s anxiety grew. He found himself longing for an actual Hell to reach at least that way the journey would be over. This had to stop. He had to take action. It didn’t matter that he had zero clues where to go, he just had to get off this God-forsaken boat.
The icing on the cake came when the boat abruptly stalled again in the river. With wild eyes, the Councilman stared daggers as Charon once again turned his gaze around with an alarmingly panicked look on his face. It was the same expression the Councilman had on his own face whenever reporters asked him where the money for the community’s budget came from.
“Something the matter?” The Councilman asked, gritting teeth.
“Fine, I’m-er fine,” Charon’s face betrayed his words.
“Really?” The Councilman’s voice was rising. “Because it looks like we just went in one big circle!”
“What? How DARE YOU!” Charon’s demonic face was back and furious.
“You know something, Mr. ‘Immortal Ferryman’ I’m starting to get the feeling that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing!” The Councilman was livid.
“No! I am the shepherd of dead souls! I-,” Charon’s nightmare face shrank back down to normal. He looked like a confused old man as he frantically looked around them.
“I am older than time I-uh-I….,”
Those burning white eyes of his filled with horror. Charon gripped the oar with both hands as if for security. The Councilman had had enough. He got up from his seat on the rocking boat and slowly approached the hooded man, careful as the boat lurched in the waves.
“You son of a-we’re LOST, aren’t we?!”
“Stay back!” Charon cried.
“Give me that damn oar!” The Councilman lunged at the ferryman.
Charon thrusted the oar trying to stop him, but the Councilman was fast enough to duck. The Councilman made a grab for the oar’s hilt, gripped by two old white knuckled hands. Both of them shouted incoherently at each other as the two fought and tugged over the wooden paddle. The sea of moaning dead souls raged around them, sending the boat spiraling unbound in the water.
Thousands of white arms shot out from the ocean desperate to grab on to the boat but the violent waves pushed and pulled the boat just out of their reach.
“Let go damn you! Where are you gonna go?” Charon yelled.
“I don’t care anymore! I just need to get out of here!”
“I said-Let GO!” With a powerful shove, Charon pushed the Councilman to the floor of the boat.
The Councilman was struggling to pick himself up when he heard the ferrymen spasm into another throaty coughing fit. Charon tried steadying himself with the oar as he hacked and wheezed. It wasn’t doing him any good and he was rapidly losing control of the boat.
“Hey, are you all right?” The Councilman asked squeamishly.
Charon tried to say something but the coughing wouldn’t let him speak. After another coarse, raspy cough, Charon’s confused burning eyes met the Councilman’s before keeling over, falling flat on his face with a loud THUMP. The un-manned oar wobbled back and forth uncontrollably as the current of the waves sent the boat hurtling.
Panicking, the Councilman ran to ferryman’s body. He turned Charon over, trying to shake him awake but his only answer was silence. The white-hot fire in his eyes that had fascinated the Councilman had been extinguished. Instead, it seemed as though the white cataracts of an elderly man were gazing up at the Councilman.
“Charon! Charon! Hey, come on, wake up!” The Councilman yelled shaking his lifeless body.
The boat veered sharply sideways knocking the Councilman back. Now what? He looked up to see where they were heading.
Directly ahead of them, was a black swirling, whirlpool that was drawing the current in. The lantern at the front of the boat flickered as the skull-ferry drew closer to certain doom. In the spiraling current of the whirlpool were uncountable waves of mortal souls helplessly flailing in terror as they were sucked in.
“Oh fuck, ME!” The Councilman screamed and held on to whatever he could grip in the boat.
The Councilman shouldn’t have been scared seeing as he was already dead but getting sucked into a whirlpool would be frightening for anyone. The boat was caught up in the pool’s unrelenting current now, spinning uncontrollably down and down until it disappeared into the center of the ungodly drain.
The Councilman’s screams were interrupted as the boat was pulled underwater. A muffled cry of bubbles shot from his mouth in pitch-black water. Everything was happening so fast, the Councilman couldn’t tell which way was up anymore but just as suddenly as the boat was sucked downwards, it was then violently propelled straight up. In a huge splash, the boat shot out from the depths and emerged in an unfamiliar river.
Still holding Charon’s body, the soaking wet Councilman timidly raised his head to see where fate had brought them now. He found himself missing the whirlpool when he saw his surroundings.
This was the land of nightmares and dying thoughts. The boat seemed to be on course for what looked like the entrance to some kind of dark cyclopean necropolis illuminated by a sinister emerald glow.
Large, green flames flickered all around inside the underground lair. The echoing moans of tortured souls accompanied the flames as the boat slowly sailed onwards. In the center of the cavern stood a colossal throne the size of a skyscraper. Beneath the throne, was a seemingly infinite pile of human skulls. Reclined on the mountainous throne, was an enormous, bearded man.
Jesus wept, the first thought to occur in the Councilman’s feeble human mind was that the figure on the throne was a nightmarish, twisted version of the Abe Lincoln Memorial. Before he could get a better look at the giant, several loud, angry barks thundered through the underground lair. Instinctively, the Councilman screamed, covering his ears.
After willing the courage to look up, he felt his jaw drop. Leering and barking maliciously before him was the legendary three-headed hell hound Cerberus. The ferocious guardian of the underworld leered just outside of the shadows beside the giant’s throne. Two of the legendary canine’s heads continued to bark snapping their fangs while a third snarled at the intruders in a boat. In the center of it all was the giant with one gargantuan hand holding a long trident and the other scratching behind the ears of one of Cerberus’ hungry heads.
Curious at this intrusion, the giant leaned forward. A terrible, booming voice drowned out the sounds of moaning souls and the mythical beast.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE, CHARON? WHY ISN’T THIS SOUL BEING DISPOSED OF? CHARON? ANSWER ME!”
The Councilman stared, speechless and trembling. This had been quite the day. There he was, petrified and dripping wet like a drowned rat in some fucked up Greek version of hell, holding on to the filthy soaked corpse of his old’ buddy Charon. The dead ferryman’s eyes, extinguished of their fire stared up at the looming giant with a dead gaze. Charon’s stone-dead eyes might as well have been two white X’s.
“…C-CHARON?” The giant asked uneasily.
“I-uh-well, he-,” The Councilman babbled.
“OH MY-IS HE DEAD? HOW?! HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN?”
“I don’t know!” The Councilman whimpered. “I swear, I don’t know what happened! One second he was fine, the next he just keeled over!”
“JUST WHAT MANNER OF DEMON ARE YOU?”
“I’m not a demon! I’m from Long Island! I was killed by a bicycle! It’s not my fault!” The Councilman cried.
“EXPLAIN YOURSELF,” the astonished giant thundered.
After the Councilman recapped his long, horrifying boat ride, the giant did not look very happy. By his side, the three heads of Cerberus arched upwards, producing a somber howl. Perhaps they were in mourning of the filth covered ferryman who always remembered to bring them biscuits when he visited. Gigantic shoulders sank from the mother of all frustrated sighs as the giant’s large forefinger and thumb rubbed his glowing yellow eyes as if trying to make sense of this mess.
“ALL RIGHT, THIS IS WHAT WE’LL DO. FIRST, DUMP THE BODY.”
Not in a position to ask questions, the Councilman hefted up Charon’s corpse and pushed it into the water. It fell into the black water with a powerful splash, floating there for a moment before finally sinking into the infinite underwater darkness below. Small bubbles trailed off from the body as the Councilman watched it fade to black.
“NOW, SAIL BACK TO THE BEGINNING. RETRIEVE CHARON. RETURN HERE AND WE SHALL PLAN FROM THERE.”
“I AM HADES, GOD OF THE UNDERWORLD. WHAT I AM NOT, IS THE GOD OF REPEATING MYSELF.”
“But that’s impossible! Just how in the hell am I supposed to know where to go? Also, Charon’s dead!”
“SAIL IN THE DIRECTION BEHIND YOU. THE CURRENT WILL BRING YOU TO THE HEAD OF THE RIVER STYX. THERE, CHARON WILL BE WAITING. WHERE ELSE WOULD HE BE? SEEK HIM AND RETURN HERE.”
“Wait, so can I-?”
“AWAY WITH YOU, DEMON SPAWN!” Hades pointed his giant staff into the air.
The river was overcome with the thrashing of a violent current. The Councilman scrambled and grabbed the oar. He had no idea what he was doing. Story of his life. All he could think of was to steer the oar left to right all while trying to keep the boat steady. The dark waves carried the skull-covered ferry away from the green fire, away from the angry Lord of the Underworld and away from the fading sounds of Cerberus’ mournful howls.
Alone and adrift, the Councilman sailed. He clumsily steered the oar to keep the boat straight but fortunately, it was just as Hades said, the current seemed to be pulling him in a specific direction. He had some trouble ignoring the moaning dead souls caught in the black ocean but after some time he surprised himself at how easy he was able to tune them out.
It was impossible to say for how long he sailed. Years? Minutes? It didn’t matter, the Councilman was already dead so he never felt hunger or exhaustion. His willpower was recharged thanks to having a clear objective of sailing back to the shore. It made a world of difference. Now with a task in hand, the Councilman was able to preserve the remaining shreds of his sanity. Or at the very least, for now. Regardless, there were more important matters to attend to.
Meanwhile, Charon walked towards the light and saw the Councilman waiting for him.
Just as Hades predicted, the River Styx’s current had brought the skull-boat back to the obsidian shore where the madness began. The shrill cry of the ocean breeze blew sharply as the Councilman looked down at Charon, standing there awkwardly , with his filthy reddish-brown cloak flapping in the wind. The old bearded man tried to mask the confusion on his face, but even without looking into his worried glowing eyes it wasn’t difficult to see that he hadn’t seen any of this coming.
“Ahoy there,” the Councilman shouted.
“Hello,” Charon muttered uncomfortably, averting his gaze.
“Fancy meeting you here,” the Councilman smiled.
“Yes, this is hard for me to ask but-did I-erm-,” Charon struggled to find the words.
“You croaked, old man. Now hop in the boat. Don’t worry I’ll drive.”
“Ah, so that did happen. Damnedest thing. Well don’t just stand there, help me up.”
Charon took the frowning Councilman’s hand and climbed aboard the glowing skeleton ferry. The long oar pushed the boat off the shoreline and the two of them sailed the River Styx back towards the Underworld. Charon sat in the front, not quite sure what to say as the Councilman tried to look busy by pretending to steer the boat.
“Hey, I’m sorry about that whole “tying to take the paddle” business before. I was under a lot of stress,” the Councilman apologized sheepishly.
“Don’t feel bad,” Charon smiled sadly. “You were right, we were lost. I hadn’t the foggiest idea where we were. For the first time in my long life, the waters were a stranger to me. Still, actually dying? It’s almost refreshing to feel surprised.”
“Yeah, it’s been a very strange day for all of us,” the Councilman murmured.
Charon turned to the water. There a look of sadness beneath his hood.
“I know that I took this job for granted, even became grumpy with it and my passengers. Now, just like that, it’s all over. What happens to people like me after we die? Who will take care of guiding newly dead souls to the Underworld? Maybe souls don’t need that anymore, maybe that’s why I died,” Charon said.
The Councilman considered this for a moment.
“I wish I knew what to say that would make things all right for the both of us. All that’s left now is seeing what will happen when we get there. God knows I’m scared but I feel a little better knowing that I’m not in this alone.”
“Perhaps you have a point,” Charon smiled sadly. “That reminds me, you still haven’t told me your name yet.”
“Wow, ain’t that just the way? We go through all this insanity and I don’t even tell you my name. It’s Alexander; Alexander Stavvros.”
“Ah, a fine Greek name and a politician too. Your ancestors would be proud.”
“Guess I’ll see for myself if I meet them. I bet my obituary must have been something else. ‘Councilman celebrates re-election by getting killed by speeding bicycle’,” The Councilman laughed. “Oh well, I like to think that I did the best I could while I was alive. At this point, that’s all anyone can do.”
Charon didn’t say anything, instead he patted the side of the boat before trying unsuccessfully to stretch his legs.
“It certainly feels different riding the ferry as a passenger,” Charon said.
“Do you think you’ll miss it?” The Councilman asked.
“Eh, you know it’s funny. Sitting here I’m beginning to realize how grueling the responsibility of this duty was. The more I re-evaluate it, the more I think I fucking hate boats.”
They burst out laughing. What else could they do in a universe where demigods were just as vulnerable to fate as humans?No one, man or God could say. The skull-boat’s lantern shined brightly as they sailed on the River Styx closer to Hades. Closer to an uncertain eternity for both of them. Strangely, the current carrying the boat didn’t seem to be in any rush. Who could say exactly just how long it would take them to reach the Underworld?
However long it took, they laughed the entire way.