Nathaniel rose from a deep slumber to find himself lying on a black stone river bank, hearing only the sloshing of ice-cold water. The starless night sky above had no moon or celestial brightness. Only a pale violet aurora of dread, a color out of space, offered a slight glimmer of light behind the clouds that breezed along. Nathaniel gazed far into the distance seeing only desolate, scorched earth and withered black lands. This was a land beyond any semblance of life.
The sound of ripples on the shore was interrupted by the crushed stone of hollow dead wood, which frightened Nathaniel. He quickly jumped to his feet and turned to see a weathered old man draped in tattered robes standing on an old wooden skiff, holding a long oar.
Nathaniel took a moment to collect his thoughts before he asked the old man, “What is this place?”
The old man’s mouth didn’t move, but instead, a disembodied voice answered, “nowhere.”
“Who are you?” Nathaniel inquired at the figure while looking around to find the source of the voice.
“I am that which will accompany you to the end of the river of time.”
“You’re Charon? The Ferryman? You are death—the grim reaper. I died? But I was nowhere near a river, I….”
Charon reached forth his hand to collect payment. Saying only, “Obol.”
Nathaniel padded down his pockets before realizing he had nothing from his life besides his clothing. Nathaniel could hardly stammer out, “I have nothing to pay you with.”
Charon retracted his hand, grabbed his long wooden pole, and began to push his boat away from the dark stone beach.
Nathaniel begged in desperation, “Where are you going? You can’t leave me here!”
Charon did not reply. He only pushed his boat further back into the deep black waters.
Nathaniel continued to shout toward Charon and chased him into the cold water. He scrambled and screamed as he waded through the riverbank mud and eventually toppled into the shallow water. Tumbling forward and sinking into the frigid stream. The water felt vengeful, digging into his skin and dragging him further into its icy depths. A drowning sensation immediately swept over him, numbing him as he sunk beneath its waves.
Charon’s shriveled hand sunk into the waters and dragged Nathaniel back up through the water’s surface and into the boat.
As Nathaniel spat out water, Charon again held out his hand for payment.
After gasping for air, Nathaniel cried out, “I have no money, but please do not leave me here.”
Charon retracted his hand again, placed his long oar into the water, and the boat came to an immediate halt. He stirred the pole, and Nathaniel could feel the vessel turning as he did. The ship started to jostle against the current once it faced upstream.
Nathaniel was confused and asked, “Where are we headed?”
Charon did not reply. He merely steadied the boat against the current and used his pole to press the vessel forward. Nathaniel could feel the cold wind strike against him, his wet clothing tearing at his skin from the freezing temperature.
In desperation, Nathaniel rubbed his arms to warm himself. He looked around to either side of the boat and could no longer see a trace of the river banks.
After a short while, a faint light began to glimmer in the distance. Just enough for Nathaniel to see his breath in it.
A silhouette could be seen in the distance, a figure sitting in a chair. Nathaniel waved an arm and cried out for the figure’s attention. Only when the ferryman sailed them closer did he hardly believe what he saw. It was himself from just a few years prior, sitting in a chair, crying as he filled out forms that cold lonely December.
“Is this a reflection of my life?” Nathaniel asked, but Charon did not respond.
“I was tired and in pain. That’s all I could feel,” Nathaniel explained as he watched his past self. Still, the ferryman did not respond and continued to press forward up the river.
In time, the memory faded as they pushed past, and all other light but the faint purple stream above dissipated.
Nathaniel’s clothes started to dry as he continued to rub his arms.
“Where are we headed?” He asked Charon again.
Again, Charon did not answer. Instead, another light from further up the shore lit up. A small room with cheap holiday decor. Nathaniel saw several forms moving about in it, working over a long table. As the boat drew nearer to pass it, Nathaniel could again see himself, but with two others, a stressed woman laboriously kneading dough while he and another man were in significant disagreement.
“Those were the final days of my bakery. I never heard from them again, Martiál and my wife. They both left me. Together.” Nathaniel could only look for so long before turning away and back to Charon.
“Please, no more. How much further till the end of the river?”
Charon reached forth his hand and demanded, “Obol.”
Nathaniel could only shake his head in response. Charon regripped his wooden oar and pressed onward. Nathaniel felt relieved once the light dimmed and again was enveloped by darkness.
His clothes dried, and the cold breeze died as another light from the shores began to grow. The shadow of his pregnant wife looked on as a younger Nathaniel and Martiál moved in a new thrift couch into their old apartment living room. As the old torn sofa was pressed against the wall, friends and family burst in the door with celebration, bottles of wine, and laughter.
Nathaniel shouted to grab their attention at the top of his lungs, but his memories played on without him.
Nathaniel turned to the ferryman, “We just got into the new apartment with my promotion at Tamberlane Supply right around Christmas. This was before the bakery… and the miscarriage.”
As the cheer faded with the light, Nathaniel could only watch on in yearning of the days that passed by.
Before he knew it, music from his days at university could be heard in the distance, growing bright with multi-colored lights. Dozens of young drunk men and women shouted and danced. A young Nathaniel pressed against his young, not-yet-married bride as Martiál, surrounded by women, stared at them from a distance.
“Martiál could always get what he wanted and always wanted what he shouldn’t have. Those parties were fun, but I only ever wanted her.”
Nathaniel gawked at the raging party as they passed by, peering at it from the distance until he could see it no more.
The ripples under the boat seemed to rise as they pressed forward, and another light was shown. Martiál’s annual family Christmas party at the local pizzeria they owned near their old school. Nathaniel was just a boy. A boy who had finally built up his courage to ask a girl on a date. A girl that would one day become his wife.
Nathaniel could not think of anything to say. His recollection of the night was hazy yet clear. He did not remember the words he used, but he remembered her response, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Nathaniel’s eyes swelled from bittersweet heartache, and the boat moved on.
Soon, another faint glow arose, and Nathaniel didn’t have the strength to look up and focused down at the bottom of the boat.
Only once the boat nearly passed did Nathaniel look up to see a young boy sitting on top of a bright green hill covered with tall grass and wildflowers with a beautiful girl, unaware of how little time they had left.
A tear streamed down his cheek, and Nathaniel turned to Charon, demanding, “What is this? What is the point of all this? How much further to the end?”
The light from any memory faded, and again he was alone with Charon.
The violet aurora overhead gave a subtle hue that it hadn’t before, and the voice from beyond finally spoke again, “You have spent your life, and now you must pay your debt. If you do not give that which is owed, then you must begin again.”
Nathaniel was confused and did not know what that meant.
“Obol,” Charon demanded again.
Another light grew, not from the shore but the river before them.
Charon and Nathaniel sailed into the threshold of the warm, bright light and faded out of time and space.
* * * * * * *
Once upon a time, a little boy sat on a hill and played with the most beautiful girl he would ever meet.