Kharon and the Lake

This is a quick translation of a short story I wrote in Spanish, "Caronte y la laguna". I really enjoyed the research that went into this story, and I hope that someone with a background in Greek mythology and history will appreciate it, though the story itself is purposefully confusing at first reading. It received 2nd place at a Literary Competition hosted by the MDC InterAmerican Campus Library, and so I published it in Urbana Literary Magazine, along with the 1st and 3rd place winners.

Kharon and the Lake

“Ferryman!” yelled Kharon from the shore, this time without the ire of years past. Neither did he wave his arms urgently when he yelled, like he did the last time. He knew, like in a dream, that now the boat belonged to him, and this knowledge removed from him the old fear.

The boat moved slowly upon the water. The Old Man no longer rowed. He waited for the boat to arrive to shore of its own volition, following the route marked by the last impulse. From the shore Kharon watched; only the beard of the Old Man could be seen. Beyond the boat, only mist and oblivion.

At last arrived the Ferryman, a gaunt man with dark clothes, perhaps thinner than the last time. The boat still moved upon the shore, trying to cling to the humid earth, looking for its place among the rocks corroded by time and the insignificant waves. The Old Man remained on the boat, with the oar between his hands, watching Kharon through his mask. A solemn silence. A cold wind ran between them, raising the water. When the wind vanished, Kharon spoke.

“A long time ago, you denied me passage, Old Man, for not having a coin. You condemned me to wander the banks of the river with the promise that you would return. A hundred years, you said, is the punishment for not having an obol. A hundred years and you would return for me. A hundred years, then, I wandered with the others, searching for a way to cross. Nothing. A hundred years of oblivion in which I lost my life and my most vivid memories. Even my name began to escape me. Only this I remember clearly, a name and a promise: yours. A hundred years passed, Ferryman, and you appeared. There, in the horizon, you let yourself be seen. But you remained there, far away, like a lost child who does not know how to row. You remained there, far away, and you left, without even approaching the shore.”

Kharon spoke calmly while the Old Man watched. It was difficult to know if he understood behind his mask. Kharon continued.

“Now you have returned, and only I remain. The others are now shadows. Only I remain. You owe me passage. I know it and you know it.” These were the words he wanted to say.

“The only thing I don’t understand, Old Man, is why you never returned to shore. Why so many years?”

Kharon paused to let the Old Man understand his words. The old Ferryman bowed his head and removed his mask. He wanted to speak.

“The river is no longer a river, dead Man. The river is now a lake. I discovered this only recently, after so many years.” A wind once again raised the water.

“The day you saw me in the horizon, I was certainly lost. The place from which I had sailed had disappeared. You see, Man, when I arrived on the other side of the river, all things had changed. The color of the earth, the color of shadow. Even the dog Cerberus was absent. I descended from my boat to speak to the Judges. I expected they would give me answers. But they were not to be found. Neither they nor Pluto. I walked and walked through the yellow earth, and I found nothing. Only a grey wind that began to arise, and a black sky, blacker than ever. Blacker than nothingness. Full of fear I ran to my boat. I found it, and I embarked, ready to return to this side of the river. But as I moved the waters changed. From afar a mist devoured the shoreline, and all things behind me.”

The Old Man took a moment to look into Kharon’s eyes. The face of the Old Man produced a feeling of nostalgia in the heart of that dead Man. He felt as if something important had been taken away and lost forever. Words could not explain it.

The Old Man continued his story.

“At last, I arrived on this side, and I saw all of you on the shore. But by then all things had changed and I feared that upon approaching you the waters would disappear behind me. What then would I do without the waters? So I turned around, to see if perhaps I could learn something. I learned many things.

“Dream and Death explained all things. The gods have died. Hades is no more. Those from above no longer believe. They have destroyed all things. That is why, Man, I did not give you passage. I know not where to take you. All things have changed. The waters, once full of ashes and tears, are now as clear as a mirror. I see my reflection upon the waters and I no longer know who I am, or where to go. Forgive me, if you can. I cannot take you to the other side.”

These last words enraged Kharon.

“You dare deny me passage to the other side! They buried me with a drachma under my tongue, because I was loved above others! But you, you wanted a worthless obol! Perverse Old Man! I curse you though I know not your name! I curse your name forever! I am Kharon, and your boat is mine!”

Then jumped Kharon into the boat and grabbed the oar held by the Old Man. The latter did not fight. He let himself be thrown to shore face up, where he fell upon the cold wet rocks. Kharon pushed off from the boat with his oar and began to move upon the water.

“Where will you go, foolish Man?” yelled the Old Man from the wet rocks.

“To the land of yellow earth, you damned Old Man! I will see you in a hundred years!” screamed Kharon from the water, and his voice soared across all the lake and beyond the mist.

He smiled. In his chest he felt the warmth of victory, but in his loins he felt cold, like damp rocks. The sky truly was black, and the water was exceedingly clear. He put aside his oar and looked at his hands. He barely recognized them. He knelt in his boat, sank his hands in the water and shook them. Too cold, the water, but at least he could feel it. He began to remember. He looked back at the Old Man on the shore, standing, static, like a cave or a broken tree trunk, or the shadow of a broken tree trunk in a cave. Then, smiling, he turned his eyes once again to the lake and saw, at last, his reflection upon the water. The face of the Old Man stared at him from the water.
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