The Charon Line
We lined-up on the shore,
All so silently and patient,
As we waited for the ferryman to come.
The river was so calm,
And the air so deathly still,
And the souls were so sepulchral and so glum.
The sky above was black,
With no moon or stars upon it,
And yet light there was, from unseen candle wicks.
The ripples barely washed
On the river we all knew we knew:
Some say the Acheron, and some the Styx.
The sand beneath our sandals
Was a ghostly grey, and barren,
And was bunched up by the groynes that strutted out.
No birds were seen there wading,
And no crabs were on the scuttle,
And no barnacles or sedges, flies or trout.
Yet offering a focus
Was a short and ancient jetty –
Like a road to nowhere but the endless sea.
And here it was we waited,
With no sense of how long waiting,
For we hadn’t any other place to be.
Then through the unseen nothing
Came the faintest splash and motion,
As a distant dory drifted into view –
And standing at its stern
Was the sternest man left standing,
As he worked his ten-foot ore into the blue.
With a slow and practices action
Of his stroke, recover, stroke,
So his rust-red ferry glided to the shore
With not a punt too many,
He was docked upon the jetty,
As he paintered-up and shoulder-slung his oar.
Bearded and burly
With the bearing of a bull,
Looking old as both the river and the boat.
A loincloth and a cloak
Were his only grubby garments,
With his chest and thighs as hairy as a goat.
He stood upon the planks
And he held his other hand out,
Which we knew was for the taking of the fare.
We reached into our mouths,
And we felt beneath our tongues,
And withdrew the coin deposited in there.
Some could find no obol
And they feared they should be stranded,
And they clutched their worried forehead in dismay
But lo !, they found two pennies
Had been placed upon their eyelids
And they sighed with some relief that they could pay.
The boatman took the money
Which he dropped into a leather pouch –
He never looked, but fingers felt the coins –
He knew which ones weren’t obols,
And he tossed them in the river,
And their owners likewise shoved against the groynes.
Those who proffered pennies
Earned a scowl and muttered whinges
On tradition, change, and numpties who know best.
But rules are rules, and tolls are tolls –
He pocketed the coppers both,
Then waved them on his barge just like the rest.
He only took a dozen,
As we sat on barest boards,
While he stood upon the till and plumbed his oar.
And those who couldn’t pay
Were the stranded of the sands,
Who must wander through the wasteland evermore.
And what was waiting for us
On that other, distant bank ?
We never tell, and you shall never know –
At least, until the day you die
And make the trip yourself –
Unless, of course, you’ve somewhere else to go ?