Short Story: The Ferryman

The Ferryman

The door to the great oven hung open sideways. It looked like an old-style pizza-oven were the pizza’s man-sizes. The interior was a beige, glazed brick that gleamed from the reflections of the outer, florescent lights. Its exterior was plated steel painted a bright, industrial-grade blue with a panel of knobs and big, round buttons of various colors. Above them glowed a small, red-light beside three, darkened others. The white-paint was cracked, half-flaked away to form half a T and “and-by.”

The red light reflected off the white-tile floor that was shined to a high gloss and caricatured the room in its finish. The light taps of dress-shoes and the intermittent squeak of bearings sounded from a door. A gurney crossed the threshold with a somber glide as the steps half-shuffled, half-hobbled behind it. The withered, old frame of Richard Frost maneuvered the gurney into place before the open, oven-door.

His half-hobble worked its way around to the side of the gurney, pulled the white sheet off his charge– a young man who’d partied a little too hard, died of a cocaine overdose. He laid, stark-naked with his eyes closed. Were it not for the obvious discoloration of his skin, no-one would have suspected the man was a corpse ready to be cremated. They might’ve thought him sleeping the best sleep of his life. To Richard, indeed he was.

Richard hobbled to a door beside the oven, stepped in to discard the sheet. He was the last man in a four-generation lineage of crematorium proprietors. For more than a hundred years The Frost Crematorium in Bacatta had stood sentinel to ferry its dead along the final voyage, while the city rose and fell time and again. Like his father and grandfather before him, Richard was raised a future ferryman. He was not given the options nor opportunities of his one-time peers. His future had been burned into stone from the moment he was born.

He stood behind a long, metal table filled with coffee cans of charred screws, bits of blasted pace-makers, and random, metal joint-replacements that dated to charges from the very first ferryman; his great-grandfather Thomas Frost who’d built the crematorium before the city had been even half what it was today. After his death relinquished the business to his son Elliot, he was cremated himself in the very machine that his son later was. Richard’s father had replaced it in the late 1980’s for a new, less-pollutant model, and as his father and grandfather before him, was later cremated in the small room beyond the “parts storage” that Richard currently occupied.

Richard stared out the small window above the table with empty eyes. His vision was fixed somewhere on the distant horizon of Hershman Cemetery and Funeral Parlor’s hilly, tombstone-laden grounds. His work had forced him to this macabre overlook multiple times a day for longer than he cared to remember, and in his old age, it had happened far too often for far too long.

Long ago, when the view was considerably less-expansive, the wide, airy sprawl of the cemetery had given him a reserve to last through the morbid days of work. But some point after his father’s death, perhaps even before, he began to see it with new eyes.

They were darker, grayer than before. All he knew of in the world was the grief of death, and the sound of the ferry-bell as the oven doors slid closed. His only friends had been the corpses and cadavers in their various states of vacancy. With their occasional, twisted or gnarled appearances, he’d had little choice but to become numb to the terror of mortality. So disillusioned was he, that life had never seemed to sparkle as it should; its luster forever soiled by the specter of death that loomed around its every corner.

He heaved a sigh in his usual, lethargic turn, hobbled back for his charge. In truth, he wanted his mortal coil to shuffle off with him. He had wanted it for longer than he had not. It had infected him with a loneliness that kept the luster ever the more soiled. He had never married, was too afraid to grow attached, then watch death claim his lover. For much the same reason, he never fathered children. The thought of ferrying this theoretical spouse or his possible children kept his desires steady, at-bay.

While he’d taken lovers in his youth, he’d been alone since his father’s death with only a few others at the crematorium to handle the business-end of things. Even so, they worked independent of him. The ferry-times were scheduled through-out the days on a sheet of paper, renewed each morning in the small room down the hall. It housed his other charges that waited patiently for their spot on the next outbound ship.

One of the few things he did enjoy about the dead was their patience. Richard had long ago learned of the virtue. It was necessary, expected of a ferryman of his repute. The ferries would have to be properly timed. Otherwise, the families would receive chunks of fat, chips of bone in their urns. Such cases were the gravest disrespect to the families and the dead. Patience was needed to ensure every last bit burned to ash. Only the metallic, medical implements were left behind, too heavy to be vacuumed up during the process, and too solid to burn otherwise.

With his slow gait, Richard angled to the front of the gurney. He gave a heave of his arms against the inner-pan that held the corpse. It slid along its tracks, crossed the mouth of the fiery furnace, hung half in and half-out– just enough to be supported by the oven’s bottom, but not enough for the door to close. As usual, he backed the gurney up, stepped around its side to wheel it back into the “waiting room” down the hall. It was a few moments before he returned, found the dead man as he’d been left.

With a final heave of tired and shaky old arms, Richard readied to ferry the young man across the divide. The door shut with a heavy squeak and a loud click of its lock that sealed it. Richard thumbed the green button, caused a yellow light to come on beside the red. The lettering had flaked off entirely, but the faint discoloration of blues spelled out “engage” above it. The next light wouldn’t turn green for at least two hours, nor would the last button be pushed until then– its lettering and imprint long gone, but the words “disengage” clear in Richard’s memory. The fourth, final light had never lit, and for that matter, he wasn’t sure it ever would. The gleam of yellowed, white-paint was still intact, plainly read-out “Fault” for those supposed times when the ferry would break down. It never had, and likely, never would.

A loud, mechanical fan spun up to a steady thrum. The sound of gas-jets emitted behind the door. Richard sighed. He hobbled back to the window, ready to begin the two hour stare that would give way to another push of a button, and another packing of dust in an urn.

For the second time in his life, his view of the cemetery changed. It wasn’t a visible change, nor was he sure why it happened. Perhaps this was merely the nexus-point of universes, or perhaps a pot of water had finally begun to boil after years of watching it. In any case, he felt certain of the change. He was ready. He wasn’t sure how, but he would die soon. He welcomed it with a thirsty gaze that had settled on a particularly grand tombstone of a mourning angel.

Richard knew of more ways than most to invite death’s call, had seen enough of them to know which were the simplest, most peaceful, and which were the most violent, messy. Self-inflicted shotgun blasts were bad, but nowhere near the level of carnage of an explosion or a fire-victim. The latter seemed the most fitting; fire. Perhaps he would ferry this young man off, prepare his ashes, then ferry himself. It was the most sensible. Why leave another soul to ferry the ferrymen? He would simply pull up his moors himself, sail off across the divide ne’er to return.

A peaceful determination set itself upon him, relaxed him more than anything he’d known. He knew how to bypass the oven’s safety notch. All it would take is some duct-tape and an arm-pin, like the doctors put in broken bones. Then, a press the button, and he’d crawl into lay down, close the door behind him. He would let the fires ferry him over the sound of the departing bell that screamed even now as the oven’s primary mode engaged.

He closed his eyes, smiled. When they opened again, he turned for the door only to have his heart-stop. Before him stood a suited visage of his burning charge. He gave a throaty terror-moan, stumbled backward. The young man frowned at him. Richard fell to his rear, grabbed for what he could, came up with a metal hip-joint.

“Wh-what d’you want?” He moaned in a high terror. “Who are you?”

The ghostly visage of the young man stepped through the door with a sad click of his tongue, “Poor Richard, you know only of life’s pains.”

Richard climbed to his feet, back-stepped with the heavy hip-joint raised high, “G-get back! I’m n-not afraid to use this.”

The man took slow, somber steps forward, came within arm’s reach. Richard’s arm came down, brought the hip-joint with it at the man’s head. It passed through his head and torso, only dissipated them with waves like a smokey mirage in a small wind.

He gasped, back-stepped further, met the room’s far-wall. The young man cornered him, placed his hand on Richard’s shoulder. A cold rocketed through him.

“You’ve ferried the dead for so many years, you’ve become them,” the young man said. “You were born, yet never lived. What fear afflicts you so?”

Richard squeaked, cowered, “Wh-what d’you want? I’ve nothing left for the dead nor the living.”

He frowned deeper with a tilt to his head. The cold hand fell back to its side, “I’ve only a wish to understand, poor Richard. Why fear life so much that your only reflection is in the dead?”

“I-if I speak, w-will you go? Will you let m-me go?”

The young man stepped back, “You fear death, and you fear life, yet you wish for one in place of the other. Why?”

Richard wasn’t sure an answer was buried somewhere in the dead man’s words, but eased out of his cower, rose to his slumped posture. “A-are you a ghost?”

The man turned away, motioned Richard after him, “Follow, and we will speak.”

He headed from the door as a man might, the only difference was that of the smokey opaqueness that conjured him from the ether. Richard’s curiosity thirsted for understanding; had he gone insane? Was he hallucinating? Was he, in fact, now dead of a sudden malady that claimed his physical form? He had to know, hobble-shuffled along the room with his right hand sliding along the table for balance. It fell to his side at the door while the apparition sat in a chair across the room to stare at the ferry. Richard was cautious, but worked his old bones to the seat beside him.

“You are the ferryman,” the young man said as Richard settled. “And you’ve known no other place but that divide between life and death. Why is that?”

“Wh-why d’you wish to know?” Richard managed.

The young man sank in his chair, the wispy edges of his shoulders slumped, “I’ve known nothing but the world. In my short years– less than a quarter of your time upon this earth– I’ve seen countless countries, loved many women, and perhaps through them, fathered a few, bastard children. I’ve driven fast, expensive cars, and sailed across tropical waters for unimaginably beautiful islands where debauchery is a national sport. In all of them, I never had the slightest sense that I was ever destined for anything. I merely enjoyed the journey I was on.”

Richard watched the young man hang his head at the polished floor, his ghostly visage invisible to it. He stared at the reflections of lights where his body should have been.

The young man lamented his loss, “All these things I’ve done, and in the end, here I am, reflection-less. The few souls that remember me now will either forget in time, or cross the divide as I will, taking those memories with them.” He looked up at Richard, “I’ve made no mark but that which has taken me from myself. It is all we are given. Less than we should expect. Even so, you’ve the chance to leave one as I did, but refuse. I only wish to understand why? Have you no dreams? Ambitions?”

Richard was stung by the questions. He stared at the wall between the ferry and the room beside it, hoped to recall any long-forgotten desires for the sake of the dead. That the young man had appeared to ask the questions seemed as important as his patient anticipation that awaited a response. So patient were the dead, and at so great a distance was the long-lost burden, he feared the dead-man might grow angry. On the contrary, the silence was welcomed. The dead man evermore vigilant in it, steadfast through its emboldened duration.

Richard’s memories showed the slow progression of his age as his hair turned from infant brown to adolescent chestnut, grew longer, shorter, then grayed to white with age. The sun rose and fell on a million lost moments in time against a foreground of grammar schools, chocolate malts, and giddy, boyhood pass-times. The light gave way to darkness in mirrors and windows of the aged man as he was passed the title of ferryman. It was with a slow deterioration, like that of his youthful skin wrinkled by time, that he saw himself slump into his half-hobble, half-shuffle hunch.

Richard began to reply, his mouth unable to close fully as his distant stare filled with tears, “I… I remember as a boy… I wanted to see the castles of Europe.” He broke his stare to meet the stoic gaze of the young, dead man, “I clung to that dream for longer than your life, but I could never go.”

He nodded, “Was it a matter of station? Poverty?”

“No… only my own fault. I could never justify leaving my work to wait for me.”

The young man sighed, “Poor Richard, you know as I do we dead are ever-patient. You’ve given so much to us– all the respect any burned man or woman could ask for– and yet you’ve never asked for anything in return.”

Richard was respectful, but earnest, “Young man, what could the dead ever offer me in return?” The young man understood, averted his gaze. Richard continued, “I’ve ferried you dead across your divide my entire life, known nothing but to see you go across that fiery sea, emerge as ash on the other side. Through it all, I’ve never wanted for food or shelter. It would be gluttonous to ask for more from anyone– alive or dead.”

The young man returned his gaze to his marine guide, “Would you not accept a gift were it given?”

Richard thought heavily on it. When he replied, a question gleamed in his eyes, “It would be rude of me to refuse any gift. It is simply not in the nature of a man like myself.”

He reiterated, “You mean to say you are most grateful of any gift you receive?”

Richard hesitated, “Of any gift but that which allows me to continue this perilous existence.”

The dead man frowned, “Poor old man. You’ve been afflicted so heavily by the burden our circumstance has forced on you. Would you not grant us all forgiveness– past and future– for snuffing the flame which warmed your soul?”

This time, Richard couldn’t hesitate, “Young man, I would never blame the dead for what I’ve lost enduring their final journeys.”
Suddenly, the room lit up in front of Richard, nearly blinded him. The young man rose from his seat, stood before him. As his vision returned, the light faded to reveal a dozen more apparitions. He recognized them all as they frowned with guilt: these were the dead in the waiting room, the ones that still lay in their refrigerated cabins down the hall. There ferry-bell had yet to ring for them, but even so, they were here.

Richard’s eyes widened. His jaw slacked. He saw a dozen pairs of eyes swell with tears, a dozen mouths upturned at him with remorse. The young man stood before the specters like him that crowded the ferry-room, spoke with his tone harmonized by the others’ voices, his own louder than the rest.

“Poor Richard,” they said together. “You have our deepest sympathies, as we would yours. It is now that we gift you with that which is most precious to all, and that which we no longer have; time.”

The light flared again. The group disappeared. Richard was stunned in his seat as the ferry-bell sounded again, much sooner than he expected. Either his visit with the dead had lasted longer than he knew, or something had hastened the ferry’s pace. He rose to his feet to as the machine’s thrum died out, threw open the door, confused.

The man’s corpse had been fully burned, its ashes ready for collection in the other room. Even so, what had sped along the process? For that matter, what had his soon-to-be passengers meant about time? He stared in at the glazed brick in the vain hope to understand. A flicker of orange suddenly appeared to the right of his vision.

A voice sounded, that of the young man as though a whisper on the wind, “Accept this gift with the humblest gratitude we can give.”

The orange, “fault” light gleamed bright in the center of Richard’s vision. In almost forty years the ferry had held strong, ready at the beck and gentle guidance of its masters to transport their passengers across the divide of life and death. Now, as though he’d been outright told, Richard understood. The dead, with all of their guilt and respect, had given him the only thing he could never take for himself; time. It would take time to call the repairman, time to deduce the problem with the machine, and time to repair it. It would take even more time then to ensure it was up to snuff, ready to sail again.

In that time, Richard knew, he would not be present. He closed his eyes against tears that welled there. They slid down the once-numb surface of his cheeks with a stuttered breath, his voice a whisper, “I accept your gift.”