I was a child myself once, though you would hardly believe it to look at my bony, old body and ropy arms. I had dreams before I lost my place and ambitions. I settled for this job.
I do the ferrying of the dead across the river. There are plenty harder jobs. Digging ditches and mines, working in a slaughter house breaking bones, but this is monotonous, ferrying the same boat back and forth across the same thick water. I see all kinds: plump merchants, old people, young soldiers, young mothers, the diseased—somehow I don’t catch their ailments. Still, the job is hard and sad. It’s damp here, and there is no sun. Mold everywhere, and I smell of sweat. Bats skitter and screech above; creatures slither in the water.
The saddest thing I ever saw was an old woman shuffling toward the river bank.
With my pole, I held her back from falling in. She was blind. I took her on the next trip. She mumbled thanks and that she missed her husband and did I know him? No.
I’m very hungry. I cannot abide fish. I buy a little bread, olives, wine—not enough to forget this job. Some people have more: food, desire, ambition. They’ll come to me, too. I take them to a new place, away from emptiness. There are worse things.
Last week a pretty child with dark eyelashes wanted a ride, the saddest thing I ever saw.
Fine shoulders, long legs, swimmer’s legs, but nobody loved her enough to give her the price of the crossing. I don’t have children myself, but she was a pretty one. Fine hands, I would’ve thought she was the child of nobility. Maybe she had been and wouldn’t serve her purpose and was now discarded: would not marry the right man, would not listen to her mother, or her father, or her uncle. I couldn’t tell how she died—poison, disease, a bug bite; something small was enough to do her in. She was small—eight or ten years old.
I touched her soft face—but not like you think. She reminded me of the child I wanted to have once, before tiredness set in, before my back bent toward itself in a hump. But children are a lot of work, too.
I whispered to her, “I work very hard.” Without me, the corpses would be stacked on the shores and their ghosts would cry and wander for a hundred years. I bring them peace.
She reached toward me and didn’t understand that I couldn’t ferry her across the river if she didn’t pay. She wore a white tunic embroidered with laurel leaves at the hem. She stretched her arms and tapped her fingers together in a child’s gesture of “gimme.” She stamped her feet and searched around anxiously and picked up a polished bronze mirror from the ground. She offered it to me and I took it. She mouthed “home.” I looked around and saw the King. I couldn’t break his rules. Across the river, the Queen had tears in her eyes for the child. I shook my head and turned away. I held up the mirror. The saddest thing I ever saw.
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