Death and the Ferryman
The figure of Death stood before me, clothed in the thick black cloak gifted to him at the beginning of all things by a long-forgotten god. In his hand he held the Staff of Mortal Doom, which he usually only carried on formal occasions, such as the death of a king, or the retirement of an abandoned god.
“You’re back early,” I said without looking up from my paperwork. I didn’t want to get drawn into conversation. As an immortal, Death has no sense of time, and his ‘quick chats’ have been known to last as long as seven days.
“I SHALL NOT BE COLLECTING THE SOULS OF THE DEAD TODAY,” he said.
I abandoned all pretence of doing paperwork. “I don’t understand. Not collecting the souls of the dead? But where are they going to go?”
“THEY HAVE NOWHERE TO GO. THAT IS WHY I SHALL NOT COLLECT THEM. THE FERRYMAN IS ON STRIKE.”
It is the Ferryman who delivers the souls of the dead to the other side. I know this, because as Death’s PA it is one of my many duties to pay the Ferryman his due.
“THE FERRYMAN HAS REQUESTED A PAY RISE. I SAID ‘NO’ AND HE HAS GONE ON STRIKE. I BELIEVE SUCH THINGS HAPPEN FREQUENTLY IN THE MORTAL REALM.”
“A pay rise?”
“HE SAID THAT ONE GOLD COIN EVERY 1,000 YEARS WAS NO LONGER SUFFICIENT – SOMETHING ABOUT THE COST OF LIVING RISING A MILLION FOLD SINCE THE AGREEMENT WAS SEALED.”
“I thought the payment was just a token sum, a ritual. No man can live off a single coin once per millennia.”
“THAT’S WHAT HE SAID.”
“So what will happen to the dead?”
“THERE WILL BE NO DEAD. NOT A SINGLE SOUL SHALL DIE UNTIL THIS DISPUTE IS RESOLVED, WHETHER IT TAKES A DAY OR A MILLION YEARS.”
“But there must be dead. People die every second of the day. I should know, I do the monthly stats.”
“NOT THIS MONTH. AS OF NOW MANKIND HAS WHAT IT HAS ALWAYS DREAMED ABOUT, IMMORTALITY.”
“But bodies will still die. What about soldiers blasted to a million pieces by a bomb?”
“ONE OF THE PIECES WILL LIVE, EVEN IF IT’S JUST THE FINEST PARTICLE OF FLESH.”
“This can’t be allowed to continue,” I said. “Surely you can afford to pay the Ferryman more.” Death has immense wealth. Many dying people offer him money, even when he insists that it will make no difference to when they die or how they are treated. ‘It’s no good to me’, they say, and vast acres of Death’s estate is covered in a treasure-trove of gold, diamonds and treasures beyond the dreams of man.
“AFFORDABILITY IS NOT THE ISSUE. I COULD AFFORD MUCH, MUCH MORE, A GOLD COIN EVER DAY, EVERY HOUR. BUT I CAN NOT PAY. FOR THE CONTRACT WAS AGREED AND SIGNED AT THE DAWN OF TIME AND SUCH CONTRACTS ARE DESTINED TO HOLD TRUE FOREVER.”
“Let me talk to him,” I said.
The Ferryman lives on the river Styx, though the river has many names. With a flick of his hand Death sent me to him. He was waiting for me in his boat, punt at the ready.
“Thought I’d see you,” he said.
“I’m trying to find a solution,” I said. “We can’t keep the dead waiting.”
“Ah, the dead don’t complain so much. Do you fancy a ride?”
“See the great river. There’s nothing like it.”
“Er, I suppose so.” I don’t like boats, especially boats with a 100% death rate amongst its former passengers. But I could tell that the Ferryman was used to talking only whilst he was ferrying, so I reluctantly agreed and climbed in.
The Ferryman was silent for a while, intent only on shoving us through the waters. The river itself was clear, pure and innocent as mankind was on that first day, at the beginning of time, free from pollution but also lacking in life, still, monotonous even. In the distance – nothing. Behind us – nothing.
“What lies on the other side of the river? I asked, forgetting in the weirdness of the moment that such questions are out of bounds to me.
The Ferryman shook his head. “Us mortals shall never know. At least, not until it is our time to cross.”
“You’re a mortal too? But you’ve been Ferrying for eternity.”
“For eternity and a day so far. But I’m like you, I do not age when I am inside Death’s realm. A million years pass without so much as a second from my time, not a single grain of sand falls from my hour-glass.”
“And your mortal life?”
The Ferryman shook his head sadly. “I have no mortal life, all that I left behind.”
“And you never go back?”
“I would if I had the money.”
“Which is why I’m here. I’m sympathetic to your problems, but Death simply will not negotiate. One gold coin is your fee, and He refuses to pay more.”
The boat drifted silently on for some time before the Ferryman answered. I tried to guess his age, but failed, he had one of those faces that could be anywhere between 45 and as old as time itself.
“It’s still not too late for me,” he said eventually.
“To have a mortal life. To take a mortal bride. But these things, they take gold, wealth, dosh, spondoolicks, ready money.”
I tried to imagine the Ferryman at a singles bar, or his profile on a dating site. Since mankind first arrived on this world he has been Ferrying the souls of the dead, he is as old as our species, he has seen everything, everyone. What would his profile say? ‘Wants to have fun while he still can’?
“There may be a way to satisfy your needs without increasing your pay.”
Instead of an answer he merely looked at me, his eyes as unreadable as waters of the river.
“Many dead people give Death money, a payment for his services. What if Death were to say to these people that if they wished to give a single coin to the Ferryman He would pass it on. Death would retain any amount above the value of a single coin, He shall not be denied payment, but still, many, many people would leave you coins. You would be rich before you knew it.”
“Before I could ferry a hundred billion people across.” He used this metaphor as if it were the smallest fragment of time imaginable.
The conversation ended. Without words an agreement was reached. Without turning, without any apparent change in direction, we were heading back towards the Death Port.
When were reached the shore the dead were already waiting. Death had been busy, in the instant since the deal was, well, mentioned, neither handshake nor words had been necessary for the deal to become binding. In the world of death, of fate, of inevitability, in which the Ferryman and Death deal, contracts come to be binding as naturally as a ray of sunlight illuminates a droplet of river-water.
I climbed, carelessly, out of the boat.
“Good luck,” I said. The Ferryman looked at me, confused. “With the whole mortal thing,” I continued, “you know, your future.”
“Ah,” was all he said, he was already busy with his first customer. In no time at all the Ferryman, his boat and the dead were out of sight of mortal gaze and I found myself back at my desk, the paperwork piling up around me.