Save a Penny for the Ferryman

Note.  This was my attempt at a modern morality tale, complete with my own “everyperson”.  For those who are fans of symphonic metal you will notice that Nightwish was the obvious source of inspiration for this short work of fiction.  Thank you, Tuomas Holopainen for writing great music with lyrics that stir the imagination.

ambroise_thomas_jules_barbier_michel_carre_psyche_la_fontaine_hamlet_fard_venus_enfers_barque_charonThe train rattles down the track, kicking up dust as it hurdles into the nothing; careening into oblivion as the destination nears.  Inside the dining car a solitary figure sits, surrounded by others, on the way to the ferry.  The figure sips on a cocktail and is bemused by the thoughts occupying space and time.   Another figure, a woman of nondescript age, asks if she could join our everyperson, and they begin to talk.

“Pardon me?” the conversation begins.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” the woman asks.

“Not at all; sit where you like.”  Dana takes a chest from the adjacent seat and slides it alongside the stool.

“Thank you.” She sits and extends her hand “Karen” she offers.

“Dana” is the response.

Karen orders a drink and sits quietly for several moments before venture to ask Dana a question. “So, what’s your story?”

“How long you got?”  Dana asks half joking.

Karen looks at the vacuous landscape speeding by and chuckles “I am not sure time matters anymore.”

“Right you are.” Dana resolves, sits pensively, and then begins…

“I have always lived my life by the simple truth taught to me by my grandfather. Save yourself a penny for the ferryman, save yourself a penny for the ferryman. I can still hear him as clear as if he was standing in front of us.  So I did; every chance I got I saved a penny for myself.  Certainly it meant that some went without.  Some called me cold, some called me hardened. But I didn’t care and the final ledger shows my grandfather taught me right.”  The brief soliloquy ends, Dana sits back in silent contemplation, beaming with a pride bordering on smugness.

“Interesting,” Karen responds, “My grandfather said the same, yet I took it differently.”

“Different?” Dana scoffs incredulously. “In what way?”

“That you only need save a penny, and you should spend your life helping. . .”

“Absurd.” Dana declares, not allowing Karen to finish her thought.  “There are millions of children struggling to survive, let them find hope beyond the horizon; but they will find no hope from me.  Why should I help them and potentially jeopardize my own position?  Sure I saw the people ringing bells for pence, trying to make a difference.  Trying to gather together as many of God’s retched fair creatures as they can.  As if we could turn from the path we are on.  I tell you, there is no crossroad, no way to turn.  The blood red path, started when Mother Gaia birthed us, leads only to an everyday hell.”  Dana pauses momentarily as if finishing a thought but then blurts out in finality, “I tell you, this world ain’t ready for the ark.”  Dana settles in and sips on a drink and then pats the chest containing a life of wealth. “This is the only ark I need, and it will carry me over the river.”

Karen sits shocked by the shear forcefulness of the argument Dana presents and the certain doom that was painted.  She pulls the single penny from her pocket; all she has saved from a life of helping others.  She shifts it around in her hand.  Did I waste my life, she thinks to herself.  Has she been fooled all these years?

Dana looks into Karen’s hand. “That’s it?” a dark laugh ensues.  “That’s your life work? A single penny?  I guess you fought the good fight.”  The words dripping with sarcasm.  Dana’s head shakes. “Welcome to paradise, soldier.”

“Next stop, the River Styx.” The train attendant calls out as he walks through the car checking tickets.

“Well I guess I will see you on the other side.”  Karen says with a twinge of doubt.

“You will if your grandfather was right and you truly only need a penny.” Dana intones with a touch of sympathy.  Dana probably has enough to share with Karen, but what if the fare to cross the river is greater than originally thought?  Dana lived an entire life looking out for personal concerns, why change course now.  They shake hands and prepare to deboard the train.

Dana pulls the heavy chest form under the chair, full with the accomplishments of a life well spent.  Karen watches Dana and realizes all she has is her penny.  She looks away and walks toward eternity.

A long que forms and they hurry to find their places.  Karen ends up several spots in line ahead of Dana.  As they near the front, Dana realizes that each passenger is trading in what they have for a single coin given to them by Charon, the ferryman. Karen steps up and Dana listens intently to the exchange.

“What do you have for me my child?” Charon asks Karen.

Sheepishly she pulls her single Penny from her pocket and gingerly hands it to him. “This is all I have.”  She says barely above a whisper.

Charon looks at the coin for what seems like an eternity before looking at her and smiling “It is enough”  Charon puts his hand into his right pocket and pulls out a new coin and hands it to her in exchange for hers.  He then motions to Karen and says warmly, “You may pass, child.

Moments later it is Dana’s turn.

“What do you have for me my child?” Charon asks Dana.

Dana lifts the heavy trunk and opens it for Charon to see his great wealth.

“All of this?” Charon asks.

“Yes, sir.” Dana beams with pride.

“Have you never been told to save a penny for the ferryman?”

“Yes, of course, and here it is.”

“I am sorry you do not have the fare.”  Charon replied dispassionately.

“But you let her through.”  Dana said loudly, obvious shock and disdain clearly showing.

“Of course, she saved a penny.”

“And I have saved much more.”  Dana’s ears betrayed his thoughts.

“It is too much.”  Charon explains.

“How can it be too much?”

“It is too much.” Charon turns his attention to the next person in line, “next.” He declares.

Seeing the moment slip away, Dana quickly asserts a new position.  “Wait, wait!” Dana tries in desperation; Charon turns back to Dana. “I must be able to get passage with all I have.  You must have a coin for me.

Charon sighs before reaching into his left pocket. “If you insist.” He states staring into Dana’s eyes with a chilling glare. He drops the coin into Dana’s palm.

“That’s more like it.”  Dana says mustering as much confidence as possible although the gaze of Charon has left Dana with a feeling of unease.

“You may pass.” The lack of warmth in Charon’s voice is apparent as is the lack of paternalism.

Dana looks down, picks up the heavy chest, now feeling somewhat foolish for having lugged it into the afterlife.  With Charon’s coin pressing in Dana’s palm, the once proud miscreant crosses over the threshold.

Dana meets Karen once again and she speaks first “I was worried for a moment you wouldn’t get through.”

“Ridiculous!” Dana says with feigned outrage.  “I can’t believe that you would be allowed to pass with only one pence and I had to bargain my way through.  And all for what? A practically worthless coin.”  Dana holds the coin up as if to demonstrate just how insignificant it is.  “Once we reach our destination, I will be talking to management.”

Karen looks at the coin and studies it for a moment. “Yours is different from mine.” She snatches the coin out of Dana’s grasp and compares the two.  Dana huddles next to her and looks into her palm at the two coins.  Karen’s coin is imprinted with the face of a child.  No one of any import, no one they recognize; simply a poor child, one of a million who struggle in strife to make their way in the world.  On Dana’s coin there is no face, simply the following inscription: M 25.

“What’s that mean?”  Dana asks pointing at the coin.

Karen shrugs.  Dana plucks the coin from her palm and grumbles something inaudible. “What was that?” Karen asks.

“Have fun in the afterlife having spent your only penny.”  Dana says rudely; turning on one heel and striding away, lugging the heavy chest.

After a time they begin to board the boat.  Charon had moved to the plank and was collecting the coins.  Karen and the others hand him the coin and board.  Dana moves into place and produces the coin with the cryptic inscription and holds it out for Charon.  “That is the wrong coin.” Charon states.

“But it’s the coin you gave me.” Dana becomes incensed once again.

“It is.”

“But it’s different from Karen’s.”

“She had a penny.” Charon says as if this was self-explanatory.

“And I have all of this.”  Dana points to the chest.

“It is too much.” Charon repeats his earlier reasoning

“Clearly” Dana says sarcastically. “What am I supposed to do now?”  Dana asks with a clear vocal edge.

“You fool, you challenged the gods and lost. The next boat is for you.” Charon informs

“Oh,” Dana pauses confused and disarmed, “well, ok.” Dana steps aside and allows others to board; watching while they find places and await their departure.  Once everyone is on board, Charon pushes the boat from the shore and faithfully steers across the River Styx.  Dana watches from the shore as they disappear toward green shores.

“Your boat is ready” a familiar voice startles Dana.  Dana turns and sees Charon standing there next to a second boat.

“How did you get here?  I just saw you leave with the first boat.”

“I am many.” Charon explains.

Having had enough of Charon’s games, Dana waves it off, hands Charon the coin and boards the boat.  A few more people join Dana, all lugging their own belongings.  Charon pushes off from the shore and turns the boat downstream and allows the current to take them into darkness.

~ J.W.McKay – 2013


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