by Jacqueline Doyle
Not yet, not yet, I would have cried, but it was too late. The words died in my throat. My tearful wife closed my eyes and placed a coin on my tongue for the ferry crossing ahead. Our children and their wives and husbands and children returned to their quotidian lives. Now I wrap my cloak around me against the chill of the night air. The moon and stars are obscured by clouds tonight. All I can see is the dark silhouette of Charon, looming at the front of the boat. The Styx, an obsidian mirror, reflects nothing. So soon. So soon. There was no time to ready myself. Who would have thought this crossing would come so soon?
I expected Styx, not this boiling river of blood that surrounds us on all sides, bubbling and bursting into flames. We huddle together in the middle of the boat for comfort, though the heat is intense, made worse by the warmth of our bodies. Who are these poor souls submerged in the river? What sins have they committed? Are they to be punished so for eternity? I review my life, filled with unforgivable transgressions it seems, large and small. I could have been a better daughter, a better mother, a better wife, a better friend. Am I headed for damnation myself, or are we just passing through?
The hot sun beats down on my shoulders and uncovered head. I wish we had traveled the River Styx or the River Lethe instead, but the choice was not mine. Arid desert stretches as far as I can see on both shores, interrupted only by rocks and scrubby underbrush. Far in the distance, jagged mountains puncture the horizon. Vultures circle overhead, seeking fresh prey, though nothing seems to stir here but the ominous birds themselves. I can see no one, but the sounds of human lamentation fill the air. Such wails. Such unfathomable sorrow. My eyes water. Tears roll down my cheeks, though I don’t know what I mourn. Everything. Everyone, back to the beginning of time.
Ice floes swirl around the boat, banging against the hull. There are people submerged in the water, some only to their waists near the shore, others to their shoulders and chins. Trust me, a man near the boat implores. Pull me into your boat and I will give you anything. What can he offer us now? Our oarsman pushes him away with a thrust of his long oar. The man’s head bobs as our boat pulls ahead, just out of reach of his outstretched arms. Who are they? Traitors and deceivers we’re told, and I wonder where we are headed ourselves, what small acts of treachery I may have committed in my long lifetime on earth. How many times I asked others for trust without deserving it. How many others said Trust me before I stopped believing them.
It’s a cool night, cold when the wind blows across the water, and I must have forgotten my cloak in the rush of departure. I can’t remember preparing for this trip at all. The stars reel slowly in the vast firmament above me in forgotten constellations. I knew them once, traced them on a large, folding map of the night sky when I was a child. I’ve never seen such a profusion of stars. It should be possible to orient myself by the North Star. Isn’t that the brightest? But I can’t seem to locate it, and can’t recall how to navigate by the North Star, though I used to know. The black water gleams, reflecting the star shine. The rushing current on the side of the boat looks treacherous and icy cold. I can’t remember the name of the river. It’s a cool night, cold when the wind blows, and I can’t remember where we’re going exactly. The sky is so vast. I feel infinitesimally small. I’m having trouble remembering my own name.
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl is available from Black Lawrence Press. She has flash published or forthcoming in Threadcount, The Café Irreal, Cheap Pop, Everyday Genius, matchbook, Wigleaf, and Hotel Amerika. She won Midway Journal’s 2017 flash contest, judged by Michael Martone. Find her online at http://www.jacquelinedoyle.com.