Short Stories

Those Who Sail the River Styx

Those Who Sail the River Styx

Those Who Sail the River Styx

The drip, drip, dripping of some lost wetness echoed off the cavern walls as the small rowboat drifted through the still, underground river. A bone oar cut deeply into the crystal surface, propelling the sleek frame forward. The old man sighed heavily as he strained to navigate the vessel toward the lone island.

New passengers—just in time for their afterlife.

The thin, bearded man pulled his robe’s gray hood over his wrinkled face. His centuries of ferrying souls across the river Styx had taught him that the effect garnered by this appearance was one of the most important parts of his job. Most people would expect nothing less than the hooded boatman, and he would hate to ruin someone’s death. He leaned into the current and steered for the rickety dock where three men now stood.

 

Who Wait upon the Shore

Ricky looked at his youngest brother, anger flaring up into his eyes. “I told you to go left, Dale!” His deep voice reverberated from every angle.

“You know I got trouble wit’ my directions,” Dale retorted in his usual weaselly tone as he cowered away from his brother, “an’ I don’t work well under stress!”

“Both of you, quiet down. I’ll figure a way to get out of this.”

“Get out of this, Henry?” Ricky hopped with fury, thrusting his fists wildly into the empty sky. “We’re dead! How do we get out of that?”

Thinking back on it, Ricky wasn’t sure how he knew they were dead. It all just seemed to make sense. The three of them had made quite the name for themselves in the Midwest. The newspapers had named them the Three Brothers Gruff, on account they wore goat masks to all of their robberies. Ricky had always hated the name. Figures they would get the only newspaper writer with an obsession for folk tales. Regardless, all of that fame had come to a screaming halt when Dale steered the getaway car straight into the path of an oncoming train.

Henry removed the smoldering, torn remains of his rubber goat mask from around his neck and took his two shaggy-haired siblings by the shoulders.

“Look,” he ordered in his raspy voice, gesturing to the rotting boat steadily approaching the small, sandy island where they stood. “If we’re dead than that there must be the river Styx. It only goes in two directions: one toward life and the other to death. All we gotta do is take the boat and steer it back toward life.”

The other two Brother’s Gruff were impressed, but that was pretty much par for the course. Henry was the smart one, Ricky was the sneaky one, and Dale was the brash, stupid one who runs into trains when you tell him to go left.

With a nod of agreement, they walked over to the small wooden dock and waited for the hooded man to pull the boat forward.


Confronted with the Boatman’s Cry

With a strained kick, the boatman pushed away from the rotting dock. He was disappointed at the three men’s reactions to his message of their untimely demise. In fact, they had almost been giddy to ride with him. It wasn’t until he explained that he could only ferry one across at a time that they showed any hesitance. But in the end, the middle brother had agreed to accompany him first.

He introduced himself as Henry. His stubbly face and wiry hair assured the boatman that this was no good soul traveling with him. He tugged his hood farther over his face and steered on.

In on long gesture Henry kicked his feet over the edge of the boat and leaned his oily head in the palms of his crooked hands. “So, how long have you had this gig?”

Conversation was something the old man was always glad to have. It’s amazing how quickly paddling across a river of forgotten souls gets dull.

“A long time.”

Just because he enjoyed conversation did not mean he was good at it.

“So in all the time you’ve been down here, how many of your passengers have gotten away?”

A grin pulled at the wrinkled lips of the boatman. “In all my time in this pit, I have only seen one man escape his death.”

It was Henry’s time to smile. “Is that so? How’d he get out?”

“I know what you’re thinking,” the boatman rasped, suppressing the most minute hint of laughter. “I was once like you, boy, alive and full of self-importance. But in all my years on this river I’ve learned one thing.”

Henry was on the edge of his seat, “And that is?”

“There’s only one way back to land, my boy, and no one knows it but the boatman.” The old man leaned heavily on the oar and chuckled to himself.

“Well that’s just stupid!” Henry spat. “You said yourself that you’ve seen one person escape, so obviously there’s someone else who knows how to get back.”

“Why do you want to be alive again?” The boatman asked abruptly.

Henry was surprised by the sudden question. He fiddled with a splinter on the rim of the old boat with his fingernail. Pulling it free from the thick wood, he flicked it into the water.

“Um, because it’s better than being in hell.”

The man shook his head and his hood slid up from his face, revealing his bright, blue eyes. “There’s no hell, Henry, only life and ever after. It’s not as bad as you think.”

“How so?”

The old man pushed against the harsh current. “The rest from living is a precious gift. Judging from your death, you were struggling up top, and you look like a smart enough boy. Would you squander a chance at peace for a life of sin? What waits for you on the other side of Styx is a carefree existence.”

Henry was interested. Honestly, he always hated the life he shared with his brothers. He had never been destined for a career of robbing banks. He always thought himself as one of those underwater demolitions experts or a graveyard inspector. A life without the constant planning and stress actually sounded rather nice. Maybe the unfortunate accident was actually a blessing in disguise.

“Are there other people there?”

“Oh yes, everyone who has ever been is there.”

“Is there food? Beer? Women?

“The desires of earth are trifles for the living. Here, simply existing is joy enough.”

“Hmm, that doesn’t sound too shabby. Maybe I should just go.”

“I’d hope so,” the boatman quipped, “because we’re here.”

Henry looked up and saw a vast underground garden laid out before him. Even without the light of the sun, the green hued fields shone with an intense vibrance. Carefully, Henry stepped off the boat and walked into the calm afterlife.

The old man put one bare foot against the dock and pushed off back into the dark current. Another lost soul delivered to eternity. He blew warm air into his cupped hands to renew a sense of feeling and steered the boat back to the shore.


Might Cower Before Their Fall

The second passenger fidgeted uncomfortably, rocking the boat from side to side as he adjusted positions for the hundredth time. The usually comfortable boat ride was now choppy and wild. The old captain did his best to steer along the agitated current.

Dale was struggling so hard because he wasn’t used to thinking with so much intensity. When the boat had come back sans Henry, the remaining two brothers had been stunned. He was the smart one, which was why they let him go first. So as the boat drifted toward a more permanent death, Dale did his best to plan an escape.

The boatman stumbled as the vessel shook harshly to the left. “Would you mind not moving so much? These old bones aren’t what they used to be.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

The long cloak made it impossible to tell the age or strength of his captor. If it wasn’t for his withered voice, Dale wouldn’t have been sure that he was even human. But now Dale was beginning to notice his frailty. A rusted gear grinded to life in his long unused brain and a plan began to form. The waters of Styx were relatively calm even with the rocking boat. Dale was sure he could easily swim its length. All he had to do was lean to the right and jump in before the old oarsman stopped him. He tapped the black tips of his fingernails on his bristly chin. Then, he moved into action.

“Well,” Dale quipped. “This has been really nice, old man.”

“Pardon?” The boatman replied without looking back.

“This ride, very romantic.” Dale braced one large foot on the edge of the rickety vessel. The boat rocked and the ferryman struggled to steady himself with the thick oar. “Sorry to leave so early, but I’m pretty sure this is my stop.” He crouched low and leaped off the left side into the water. An old hand grasped at air as the wide splash filled the empty cavern, dousing the boatman’s robe with water.

Dale surfaced, smiling broadly, and began swimming away from the drenched boat. His plan had been a huge success. The cries of the old man were lost in the falling splashes of Dale’s powerful strokes. Still, he couldn’t help but take a glance back to see the anger on his former captor’s wrinkled face.

His expectations were dashed, however, when his backward glance awarded him the same shrouded visage calling out in fear. A strange reaction, Dale thought, for someone who just lost his charge. That was until he felt soft fingers wrap around his ankle.

Suddenly, hands broke the surface of the river and water-ruined bodies began groping and tugging at the hem of his shirt. Panic rose in Dale’s throat as he struggled to stay afloat, but more of the shriveled, grey hands wrapped their decayed fingers around him. Before long, Dale was dragged under and his lungs filled with icy liquid—which he thought was strange since he was already dead and pretty sure he didn’t need them anymore. For a second time, darkness claimed the foolhardy thief as its own.

The boatman shook his head. “What a waste. If it was that easy then I’d ‘a done it years ago.”

As the last bubbles broke the surface and the old man directed himself back toward the small island, he spoke a final word to the drowned fool. “There’s only one way back to land, my boy, and no one knows it but the boatman.”

 

And Those Who Would Escape Their Fate

“You ever get a break?” Ricky asked, trying to sound friendly.

“No, a ferryman’s work is never done.” The old man switched the position of his hands on the bone oar and leaned into his next push. Ricky watched as the hooded figure struggled to take the oar back into position and grunt as he cut through the water again, propelling them forward. By the look of things, escape might be easier than he thought. It was a shame his brothers were so simple-minded.

“That paddle looks mighty heavy. It must be hard work to navigate this channel all the time.”

“Oh, yes.” The boatman wheezed as he pushed off the water again. “It is tiring work, indeed.”

“I bet. It must really take its toll on those old muscles. If it was me, I would be plain exhausted by now.” Ricky could see a visible slouch in the man’s posture as he stretched these words out. “You know, if you’d like I could steer the boat the rest of the way and you could take a rest.”

The old man stopped rowing. He peered through the shadowy opening of his hood. “You would do that for an old man like me?”

“It’s the least I could do for the person delivering me to my salvation.”

With great effort, the boatman began to lift his paddle from the crystalline waters. Ricky stood, smiling broadly and reached his hand forward. He wrapped his fingers over the cool, smooth surface of the oar and relieved it from the shaky grasp of the boatman.

“There. Now lie down and close those eyes. You deserve a moment’s peace before I receive mine eternal.”

“You are so kind. Please, wake me when we reach the dock.”

As soon as the ferryman laid his head down, he fell deeply asleep. Loud snores echoed off the high cavern walls.

Ricky suppressed the triumphant cry rising in his throat. He quietly hefted the heavy oar back into the water and turned the boat toward the land of the living.

 

Only Hear These Words

The worn boat bumped up against a dock made from thick oaks. The surface was covered with moss and ivy and seemed completely overgrown from lack of use. It had taken Ricky longer than he would have liked, but the rhythmic snores of the old man had assured him that his plot had gone over without a hitch. All he had to do now was sneak past the sleeping lump and he’d be alive once again.

With silent grace, Ricky pulled the oar from the still waters and held it aloft. He stalked over the creaking vessel toward the slumbering captain. The sudden rocking of the boat caused the man to stir.

Ricky froze.

The boatman lifted a hand and wiped his large, protruding nose before rolling over and beginning another melody of low wheezes.

Relief flowed over Ricky’s tense stride, and he carefully lifted his first foot onto the dock. His footstep was muffled by the damp moss and he stealthily lifted his second foot onto the soft wood.

That was it. He had done it! He had outsmarted death himself. He gingerly crept forward toward the bright path ahead when suddenly he stopped moving. It was the oar he still held on to; something had grabbed onto it.

Ricky spun to face his captor, but the old man was still sleeping soundly on the boat. The oar, however, was hovering in midair at the very edge of the boat’s bow. He jerked the heavy pole, but it slapped hard against some invisible force.

“Fine,” Ricky growled. “Forget the stupid oar.”

He spread his fingers and threw it to the ground. At least, that’s what he tried to do. His fingers would not uncurl from the thick shaft. He began jerking his hands back and forth—trying to rid himself from some unseen glue, but the paddle would not free from his grasp and continued to rattle against the invisible wall.

A sound on the boat ceased his frantic struggle. The boatman rose and rubbed his tired eyes.

“I told you to wake me when we reached the dock, boy.”

“What have you done to me?” Ricky shrieked. “I- I can’t let go!”

“Yes, yes,” the boatman waved his hand in dismissal, “that’s the problem, the dead simply can’t let go.”

“I meant the oar, you old coot. Take it back!”

“Now why would I do that?” The old man eyed the frightened thief with an acidic glare. “It looks to me like you’ve taken it up fairly well. Paddled the stream quicker than I could, at least. Faster than the one before me, too.” He stepped forward and hauled his old bones onto the dock, calmly walking by the struggling brother.

“This isn’t fair,” Ricky barked. “I tricked you! I found my way back to land!”

“No. What you did is show your greed. Once you take the oar it becomes yours.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some living to do.”

The boatman strode forward toward the beautiful shining light. He removed his hood and felt the nest of stringy, gray hair on his head thicken and begin to flow shades darker. He felt the skin on his face tauten and smooth. He was even fairly certain he could hear the agonizing screams of the foolish child better the farther he walked, and as he felt the warm light of life take him, he sang to himself.

“Those who sail the river Styx, who wait upon the shore. Confronted with the boatman’s cry might cower before their fall. And those who would escape their fate only hear these words. There’s only one way back to land, my boy, and no one knows it but the boatman.”