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Moroseness permeated Charon's Bay as if a freezing humidity that dampened the warmest clothes and sank permanently into your bones. If anyone had come there by choice, those few were a nameless piece of history best left forgotten by those who knew the lore. Most of the travelers who arrived had been driven by a variety of sources to obtain, however reluctantly, the same destination.

Passage across the violent waters was never promised and seldom recommended. Unless you had been called of course, and then you had no alternative. Across the choking mist and foaming waves you must go, to meet a vague and haunting but assured fate.

Charon's Bay was not a place of clemency. Those who journeyed in front of me were a luckless lot, downtrodden and without the spirit to even acknowledge the course of their mindless tread. But they would find the bay effortlessly, and they moved as if already dead, unfeeling and uncaring.

I had begun following them days before, when I first set out on my mission. Only happenstance allowed me the route to the bay - three runaway soldiers, caught and left by their commander to starve in a snare by the roadside.

Others lagged behind me, some unsuccessfully procrastinating without understanding their lack of volition in the matter. Some sang religious hymns or prayed repetitiously to an unheeding
force. A few struggled, cursing and threatening and kicking their feet, but their defiance slowed them not at all. The pace commanded was decreed already, and any reaction by the participants had no effect.

Occasionally some sped by, often so quickly there was not even a shriek as they passed. And those around me who were still concerned enough to contemplate such things, wondered if speed were a mercy on a journey such as this.

But I was content to follow the three soldiers, whose steadiness of foot allowed me to accompany them comfortably and whose complacency allowed me to consider the measures I must take. My plans must be carefully laid and my disguise well worn. Charon's Bay would tolerate no mistakes.

We reached the sunless shore on the third day and camped there on the grey sands while waiting for our turn. Patiently, we watched those who would cross before us barter with the ferryman as he stood before a miniscule boat and asked for the price of the passage.

A young mother approached our silent group, beseeching us for a piece of silver or some petty token to offer the boatman. She clutched a motionless swatch of blanket, holding it to her breast protectively.

"He won't take her without payment. Please, haven't you something? Anything to offer him? He must take her now. Her time is here. You can't let her stay here. You know what will happen if she stays here."

The soldiers stared right through her with glazed eyes, their pockets bulging with some plundered treasure. She turned her pleas to me.

"Something, anything? You know what will happen."

Indeed, I did know what would happen to the unfortunate who, although afraid to make the journey, had nothing to relinquish for it. I absently passed her a silver coin.

The woman grasped the silver in her palm and scurried off to catch the ferryman, who greedily snatched the money and put the bundle aboard. The woman wandered away without even watching him push off.

The incessant wind's velocity suddenly increased and the sky darkened even more drearily than it had been before. Those in the ferry's care needed not worry; inclement weather was a natural accompaniment on their marinal way. I huddled in my cape and drew my hood over my head.

The trip across Charon's Bay was a desolate one. Those who left were unwelcome to return to the lands where the sun rose and fell. They were traveling to a place where they would be, ultimately, forgotten.

The crossing was inevitable, and eventually everyone must make it. But the mundaneness of it all, the lack of fanfare was what made the whole event so depressing. Unlike the myths, no trumpets blazed, no ancestors welcomed, no smoldering fires blazed in retribution. Charon's Bay was simply a transversing straight into nothingness.

There are, of course, worse things than nothingness. At least after Charon's Bay a person remembers nothing, acknowledges
nothing and is, in fact, nothing. But to those who pay no fare, for example, their fate is much worse. They are suspended somewhere between existence and not, fully aware of their position but unable to do anything about it. A trip across the unyielding waters could even be seen as merciful after a century or so of suspension.

Upon the boat's return, the four of us went to the waters to meet the ferryman. He was an ancient figure, wisps of gray hair emerging from few places on his head and his hunched body bracing itself with an oar stuck in the watery sand. The murky eyes inspected us while his dusty voice demanded fare.

The soldiers emptied their laden pockets into his groping hands. I pretended to struggle with my laced boots, as if I stowed my riches there. I fought with the knots and cursed wet leather ties until the impatient boatman reconsidered.

"All right, you. You can pay me later. At the end of the ride. Just get in. I've got more crossings to make tonight."

I thanked him dutifully and took my place beside the soldiers. The old man stepped through the knee-deep water and pushed the tiny vessel into the current.

As we rode along in the windy night, the mariner became garrulous, speaking more to himself than his passengers.

"Wonder how many this makes. Been crossing Charon for don't know how long. Maybe forever. Probably will be here forever. Nothing for me besides this sailing, just sailing forever. That's me."

And I chuckled to myself.

"What's your name, sailor?" I dared.

He whirled to look at me as if I'd called him something obscene.

"I apologize. I did not mean to startle you."

"'S'all right. Not many ever care to speak to me. Too worried about the trip."

"What's to worry about? Your mighty ship seems worthy."

He laughed in spite of himself and looked at me again.

"You're awful well bundled, mister."

"I wouldn't want to catch a chill, ferryman."
This time he really stared at me as if I had perplexed him with some riddle. But he declined a response and turned himself to his work.

"Don't even remember my name," he muttered. "Been so long since anyone used it. Maybe I never had one."

"Oh, but you must have had one. What did you do before you ferried?"

The old man tried to remember who he had been, and then he caught himself.

"What do you care, young man? Why do you want to know?"

"Just passing the time, mariner. No reason to be alarmed."

"Time will pass as it will," he spat and glared over the side of the boat. "Soon you won't even know what time is."

"Maybe so, ferryman, maybe so."

And to annoy him I continued in a soliloquy.

"Time and Charon's Bay are really contradictions anyway, ferryman. But you, of course, know that better than anyone. You who travel across the waves of change but who alone remain unchanged. You who bears witness to that event of which there really is no record, other than legend and speculation. You who deliver the world to its hapless yet unavoidable fate while risking so little danger yourself. You are a brave man, mariner, and perhaps very wise. To take such a role as this, to ferry across the limitations that humble every other man. Time, space, history, feelings - you are really beyond it all. But to what do you answer, mariner? What was it that ever called you here? And what is it that keeps you here?"

Antagonized, the old man yelled across the tiny boat.

"It's my job! That's all. It was given to me. What do you know of it, or care, stranger?"

The gnarled fingers encased the swinging handle of the dim lantern, clutched more from tradition than utility. The wavering flame flickered and dimmed like the courage of some of those who had ridden these unruly waves. But the slapping waters did not intervene; they bowed before the stern in recognition of their master.

The ferryman angrily eyed me, trying to look within my shrouding cowl. His suspicion fell as ineffectively as an x-ray on a bodiless man. The identity he sought to define eluded him.

"You were called here, weren't you?"

My evasive reply slipped across the sleet to the weathered ears.

"It was my fate to take passage tonight."

His attention turned to his oars, which he paddled easily despite the storm, and contemplated my presence. The soldiers sat like mummies, unaware of their surroundings and uninterested in their destination. The life they once embraced was feebly wound beneath their thin limbs.

He ventured another guess and tossed it back to me over his shoulder.

"You seem familiar to me."

And I smoothly laughed at his nervousness.

"You have never seen the like of me before.”

This response assured him less than the ones before.

"You are too calm, young man. Are you sure you have not journeyed this way before?"

"Fine ferryman, even our brave soldiers are untroubled tonight. And no man, save you, has dared cross this bay but once.”

He drew his oar from the inky water and gripped it across his lap.

"What bothers you, old man? It will be a profitable night, to be sure."

I watched the back of the ferryman, still stiff with apprehension. He suddenly turned to me and, surrendering to his fear, demanded his fare.

"We have not reached our agreed destination," I slowly said.

He brandished his oar and voiced his suspicions.

"You are not who you said you are."

"I did not say who I am.”

"Who are you? And why do you masquerade on my boat?"

"I do not masquerade. Your fear has recognized me well."

"But you said we have not met!"

"I said, ferryman, that you had not seen the like of me before."

With a wide-eyed and desperate lunge the ferryman extended his oar and flipped my cowl from my head.

"Do I look so fearsome? Am I what you quaver at so fiercely? Or do you even know what terrifies you, old man?"

"You are no man."

"How can you be certain? I look like a man."

The old man backed up to the end of the stern and threatened me.

"I'll not deliver you, whoever you are. I'll push you off to struggle endlessly in the bay. I've done it before, you know."

And I tormented him with an easy smile and approached.

"I know, old one, I know what you've done. And I'll not be delivered anywhere. I have reached my destination, and so have you."

His frail frame shrieked with terror as he trembled at the stern. I ventured even closer.

"Who are you?"

I whispered in his ear as I pushed him over the edge.

"I am your replacement."

- Mary O. Fumento, 1991

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