The Ferryman

Where am I? wondered Perneus, his jaw gaping as he surveyed his surroundings. Just moments ago he had been home—well, not technically home, but heading back home from the acropolis in Athens—his home city. He could almost still see the magnificent Parthenon in the distance as he trekked down the great hill at the base of Olympus, not exactly like the grand precipices he had seen in his former home by the sea coast, but steep for walking nonetheless. The strain in his legs still lingered from keeping his balance on that incline, looking down the road toward his nearby home at the foot of the hill. The pain in his back, wherever it had come from, also lingered—that was how quickly it had happened (whatever it was), and all of a sudden Perneus found himself in what appeared to be a wholly different world.
Perneus observed this new world with cynical disbelief. Dank grey fog drowned everything in sight with a dismal melancholy that might have chilled the young Athenian's heart, had the thought even crossed his mind that this was real. It couldn't be real. Perneus stepped a pace ahead tentatively, and noticed that his sandals were half submerged in mud. He shouldn't have been surprised, he thought; after all, this was unusual enough already. He almost laughed as he started forward once again, ambling steadily through the dreamlike haze.
It was after only a few minutes of dredging through the mud, pondering where he could be, that Perneus heard the sound of running water. It was very loud, as though it had been there all along and he had just not taken note of it until now. It must have been a river; after all, it would make sense that muddy banks such as the ones he now waded through would flank a river.
Curious now, Perneus picked up his pace a bit, and within moments he saw a shadow in the distance, rippling on what had to have been the river. He had reached it—but now what? Perneus scurried toward the water's edge, and caught sight of a rather small boat only a few yards away. As it wafted toward the shore just next to him, Perneus called to the ferryman.
"Hello, sir," he said in as amiable a tone as he could manage under the stress he tried to cover. "Might you tell me where I am, and how to get back to Athens from here?" Perneus looked in the seemingly stricken eyes of the man before him as he awaited a response.
The ferryman, however, did not acknowledge Perneus' question. Instead, he droned gloomily in reply, "I may ferry thee across the river for a fee of two gold coins." Perneus stared for a moment—had the man not heard his question? Feeling a bit awkward, he reached into his satchel and recovered two unspent gold coins from his trip to the market that day. He placed them into the tired old man's open palm. The man did not thank him, but closed his palm around the coins; and as he did so, the dulled pieces of gold vanished as if they had never been there. Wide-eyed, Perneus caught his breath. How was that possible?
His thoughts could go no further before they were interrupted by the ferryman, who gestured for him to come. Perneus took a deep breath to calm himself, and stepped carefully onto the boat where the man waited patiently. The ferryman took up the long, perhaps mock ivory staff he held with both his hands—leaving no doubt that the coins had disappeared—and pushed off from the river bank toward the opposite edge of the murky water.
Perneus sat down in the small boat next to the still-standing ferryman. He looked up at the droll old man through the harrowing mist that encompassed the area, still curious. Hauntingly empty were the man's eyes as he absently pushed the staff through the cloudy black water. The man himself was ghostly, in fact, pale and ancient as any spectre. He was a thin, rather bedraggled old man, certainly weathered. His beard was long and straggly, and his skin was claylike, opaque, and as grey as the dead—a monochrome man in a dreary, monochrome world.
"Once we reach the other side of this river, what route might I take back to Athens? I'm afraid I've lost my way, and I don't know where I am." Perneus decided to ask the ferryman again. Silent still was the phantom, who continued on ahead with the same dread look in his cold, silvery eyes that sent shivers up Perneus' back and neck.
After what seemed like hours, but must only have been minutes, Perneus lifted his head to the sight of land—they had reached the opposite side of the river. Strange, he thought, since when he first reached the river he could not see the other side—they couldn't have been going that fast. He shrugged the thought away, though, as the ghostly man gently guided the ferry to the bank, where Perneus stood and stepped out. He thanked the man, but with only a slight nod in response.
"Before you go," Perneus said hesitantly, overcome once more with confusion over where he might be and who his company had been. "Might you tell me, at least, what are you called?"
The sage old spectre gave an almost malicious smile then, the smile of a man who knows another's fate. "I am called Charon, ferryman of the River Styx." Perneus' mind screamed. Only the dead could cross the Styx! He whirled around to survey his surroundings once more, for some evidence to support that this was not, in fact, the River Styx. How could it be?
"But—but I'm not dead!" Perneus shouted insistently, turning back around. He called out, but the man had mysteriously vanished like the coins Perneus had given him to gain passage across the river. The young Athenian's eyes were wide with fear and anxiety as they scoped the vicinity in search of the sadist ghoul Charon—the ferryman who had smiled in revealing to Perneus the grim fate that would befall him. He searched, but in vain; the strangely silent old man was gone.
In spite of his skepticism, Perneus was forced inwardly to face what was to come. It all made sense now. Charon and the Styx, being taken from Athens, the mud banks where the dead who could not pay the ferry were doomed to walk—it was just like the legends had told. Perneus could recall nothing of his demise, but nevertheless he knew the truth as he turned—eyes as soulless as the ferryman's had been—and trudged up to the huge, gold-lined black gates he could see so faintly in the smoky fog, nearly deaf to the deep growl of what could only be the Cerberus as he descended into the depths of the underworld.

Author's Notes: Vocabulary assignment, this was, actually. ^^; Hehe, well, I thought it was a neat idea and I stayed up until midnight that night working on it...I think it could have been better, but I'd have to completely rewrite it to achieve that. =P And I won't. Anyways, these were the words I used (8 out of my 10 words): cynical, amiable, stricken, drone[d] (verb), mock (adjective), malicious, sadist, and demise.
There's absolutely no symbolism in this story. Would you believe it!?!? Something without symbolism or a theme coming from me!? XD Well, the only thing difficult to get about this story is the Greek mythology part, if you weren't already familiar with it. So if you didn't know...Cerberus is the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades (the underworld, not necessarily hell). Charon is the ferryman of the River Styx, which the dead must cross to get to Hades. Charon requires a fee of two gold coins (as mentioned in the story) to ferry the dead across the river, so in Greece the dead were buried with two coins in their mouths to pay it—Perneus just happened to be lucky enough to have had some money handy when he died, he wasn't necessarily buried yet (though I suppose you could say that he was, if you like; I guess I didn't specify that ^^;). Anyway, so the dead who do not have any money to pay Charon are stranded on the mud banks and cannot cross the river. That's also mentioned in the last paragraph.
That should do it. ^_^; Yeah yeah, I know, it was long. But hey, I hope you enjoyed it! Don't forget to review if you've got something to say! ^_~ Sayounara! ~MJ
Date of Composition: Wednesday, September 18th, 2002 until midnight on the 19th. ^_^