I stand on a river bank. I feel angry.
Instinctively I know this is the river Styx, or it’s equivalent. I don’t know how I know this but I do, just like I know that I’m dead. The last thing I remember was drinking red wine on the porch underneath the starlit sky. The kids had fallen asleep early and I had promised myself a quiet evening with a little wine despite my rule that there always had to be one adult near the kids who had not had a drop of alcohol.
But now I’m dead. I don’t know how, I can’t remember. It can’t have been nice because in this dim, ghostly body that I still do possess I feel a sense of ache above the right ear.
Perhaps Johnny decided to kill me after all. God knows he’s been threatening me regularly since we got married. I guess now it doesn’t matter. Nothing does. I’m dead and I’m still standing and I’m thinking.
Now there’s a relief. I spent a lot of time resenting the fact that I couldn’t believe in life after death. I devoted hours thinking that when I closed my eyes the final time, there would be nothing more. I would just be a brainless, a motionless corpse. It scared me more than I was willing to admit.
So this is a relief, in a way at least because I remember the sensation so well. The sensation of being somewhere, staring at the grass or at my children, thinking that one day it would be my turn to vanish, like my mother did all those years ago.
The kids! The kids are probably laying in their beds sleeping, relying on the fact that their mother is there to take care of them if something comes up. Little May who lisps and has a bit to go before she becomes the beautiful grown up woman I know she will become, Big Boy Thomas with his cars and horse mania and my girl Louisa who is always ready to help. What will happen to them now? Who will they rely upon? Their dad?
Ha! Ridiculous! Or will he rise up to the occasion? I find I recent the idea. This will not be what he needs to climb out of the bottle and take a little responsibility. Or was it his bottle that ended my life? I should call it my previous life because this is some kind of a life, albeit a bit dark and gloomy.
I look around. A soft light comes from the left as if the sun has just set. The river is dark blue and I think I can see something floating in it. Heads? Hands trying to reach for the sky? Or just logs floating around?
I try to see the stars or the moon but I see nothing above me. Nothing at all, just big vast darkness. I sigh. There are mountains in the distance, big dark mountains with something big flying above them. Vultures? Ravens? Dragons? Angels? Demons? It’s hard to understand how far away these mountains are but I suspect the distance is severe.
Someone coughs nearby and I am startled. I look behind me but there is no one there, just a large stone and then a vast black desert as far as the eye can see.
I look towards the river again and that’s when I see him. It is a man in a boat. He is wearing worn blue jeans with a hole on the right knee, a plaided shirt in red and white and a brown cowboy hat. There is a revolver in his belt around his waist and in his hand he is holding the handle of the motor on the boat he is sitting in.
“I’m here to give you a ride” he says softly. “I’m sorry if I startled you”.
He has a deep voice, the kind of voice I always fell for while I was still alive. His hands are big and strong and he has high cheekbones and a broad jaw.
I swallow hard, “where am I going?” I ask him. I am trembling from top to toe because for the first time it hits me that this isn’t a very nice place. If this is the afterworld then I haven’t been a very good girl because there are no fluffy clouds, no harp-playing angels and no godly light.
Have I been so awful that I deserve to go to the other place? I swallow again and I feel the tears welling up in my eyes. It’s not just because the idea of hell frightens me, although it does, but for the fact that I can’t imagine leaving my children. How will they survive without me? Where will they end up?
“I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere” I tell the man in the boat. He looks slightly familiar.
“Who are you?”
“Does it matter?” the man asks carelessly. He turns the boat around, a manoeuvre that takes him only a few seconds but the motor makes a noise so I can’t tell him that of course it matters. When he’s finished he stops the boat again and stares at me.
“You can’t just sit there” he says. “People have tried, it doesn’t work”.
“What do you mean it doesn’t work?” I ask him. “Where am I? Where am I going?”
“You’re going to Dis” he says. “It’s a city down the river” he sighs deeply and stands up. He jumps to the shore, revealing horrendous looking boots with spurs and everything. He ties the boat with an old robe, to an even older looking wooden pole and then he climbs up the bank and draws me to the stone behind me where we sit down side by side.
“You’re dead” he says simply.
“I know that,” I tell him a bit angrily. “I just don’t understand why I’m here.”
“I’m not sure there is anywhere else” he smiles.
“So this isn’t hell?” I ask him. I’m afraid of his answer, terrified even.
“I don’t know” he says and I hear there is a truthful sadness in his voice. “But this is the card we have been dealt” he says. I hear a hint of resentment in his voice but I don’t know if it’s because he’s sitting on this riverbank discussing dreary thing with a former housewife, a former mother (is that what I am?!), a former everything.
I see a small bird, it’s black and white with a red beak, fly around our heads and then it lands on a little stone by the riverbank. It pushes its beak down into the river and then it lifts its head high up in the air. The bird reminds me of Thomas and the way he used to swallow his medicine when he was ill. Always the head up in the air and then he’d look at me as if to get confirmation that he’d been a very good boy.
“So I what will happen if I sit down in the boat with you?” I ask the man whose name I don’t know. He hasn’t asked for mine either. I guess the situation doesn’t allow for such a trivial thing.
“I will take you to the city where you will find your way” he says.
“I can walk” I tell him, stand up but he grabs my hand before I start walking.
“First of all” he says seriously, “there is no road to Dis. Second of all, even if there were roads or a way to get there on foot, it would take you weeks, if not months, to get there”. He sighs.
“And third of all it would put me in the awkward position of having to explain to my superiors that I left you on this riverbank all alone”.
“So you’ll get into trouble?” I ask him and I find myself suddenly concerned for this stranger, that looks so familiar.
“You can say that” he says, “I’m new on the job, you can call it probational employment”.
I nod and sit down again. “So I have to go with you on that boat?” I point and find my words stupid and pointless as soon as I’ve said them.
“From what I hear it’s not so nice to be left alone out here for too long, the desert is fatal and the wastelands are dangerous. There are creatures out there that are beyond description, monsters”.
“Monsters” I whisper. It’s not a question because I knew this before he said it. I knew it before I saw the dark beings in the distance circling over the mountains. I look towards them again. It’s a large mountain chain which seems to end with a single lone mountain that is a bit bigger than the other mountaintops.
“They look frightening but there are other monsters, monsters that are closer by” he says.
“Like you and me?” I ask him. The questions spills out of me before I’ve realise what I’m saying.
“Maybe” he says. “They say that those who don’t make it to the city turn into monsters in the desert” he points behind us, “or in the wastelands” he points towards the mountains.
“What’s beyond the mountains?” I ask him.
“I don’t know” he says. “No one I’ve asked knows” he says. “Maybe hell? Maybe heaven? Maybe something else entirely?”
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“You can call me Charon” he says.
“Charon?” I echo. “Seriously?”
He smiles. “My name is Erik he says. “I used to play in a country band. I think I died on stage” he says the last thing proudly as if that was something to strive for.
“I think I was murdered” I tell him.
“I’m sorry, someone you know?”
“Someone I used to love” I tell him. “It’s what it is, and I’m not sure”.
He nods his head but stays quiet.
“Will I ever know what has happened to my children?” I ask him.
He shrugs his shoulders, “some people say that they know every time their loved ones are happy, sad or something big happens to them. Others say that they know when their children die and they go to greet them.”
“I don’t know if it’s true” he says. “I’ve never met anyone who has met someone from their past life except for one woman who came here with her husband”.
“That’s romantic” I say spontaneously.
“That’s was my initial reaction as well” he says and shakes his head. “I’m not so sure of that anymore though. They bicker.”
“Couples bicker” I say and smile, “especially couples who have been together for a long time and I can only imagine what death does to you.
“They were killed together, apparently. Car accident. Held hands.”
The story of the two couple makes me forget the fear in my chest, if only for a moment.
“What are their names?”
“People call them Romeo and Juliette but their names are Eve and …”
“Please don’t say Adam” I say wide-eyed.
“Anthony” he smiles.
I nod my head and suddenly I know what I’m going to do. I stand up and turn towards the man called Erik.
“How much trouble will you get into if I don’t follow you to the city? Will you loose your job?” I ask him.
He looks at me, rubs his hands together and stands up. “No” he says finally. “I won’t get fired. They’ll interrogate me but the city isn’t for everybody” he says.
“I’m not going to the city” I tell him, “I need to go to the wastelands.”
He looks at me and I see sadness in his eyes, and recognition, as if he was afraid of this, as if he foresaw this somehow. He points towards the boat.
“You won’t get a second chance” he says and I tell him I understand that.
“Will you give me a ride over the river?” I ask him.
“My pleasure, mam” he says and takes his hat off for me and bows just a little. His hair is short and dark and thick and I feel an almost impossible urge to run my fingers through it. It’s almost as if I remember pushing my fingers through that hair. Or did I pull it? I feel my anger rise and subside in uncontrollable waves.
“You’re sure?” he says looking into my eyes. His are green and I see my dishevelled being mirror in them. My hair looks flat and greasy and my eyes look tired. I’m a ghost of a human being.
“I’m sure” I tell him and start to walk down towards the boat. He follows suit.
It doesn’t take much time to steer the boat across the river towards the other bank. The river is shallow there and the boat scrapes the bottom as we come closer. Then he jumps into the water, pulls the boat a bit closer to the shore and then offers to carry me over towards dry land.
“I can get my shoes wet” I tell him and am about to set my feet into the water when he catches me.
“If you’re going to walk in the wastelands you better have dry feet” he says, “you don’t want wet feet in the night”.
I stare at him for a moment, or see through him because all that’s going through my head is one question: what have I got myself into?
“Change your mind?” he asks and smiles slightly.
I look towards the mountains but the sensation is still strong in my chest. There is something there for me. Monsters, or not, that’s the way I should go.
“No” I tell him, “I just realised that my journey might not be so pleasant”.
“I’m sorry” he says. “It is how it is”.
I nod and when he’s put me down on dry land, I take his hand and shake it.
“Thank you, Erik” I tell him.
He starts to push the boat into the river again and then he jumps aboard but he doesn’t leave right away but sits there floating around in the river. I look towards the mountains and sigh. It’s a long way and I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know why either. I just know that I need to walk the wastelands, just like I know I’m dead and that I’m now convinced that I was killed by my Johnny. Probably in a drunken haze and now my children will either be taken care of by a murdering drunk or they will end up in homes, separated and possibly miserable.
A tear starts trickling down my face and I look back at the man in the boat.
“Goodbye Charon” I tell him. “Thank you for meeting me here”.
“Goodbye Ariel” he says. “I hope you find what you’re looking for”.
His words echo in my ear as I start walking and suddenly I remember why he looks so familiar. I used to know him. It’s the man who fathered my oldest girl and then vanished without a trace. The man who ravished me and called me “his Ariel”. He came into me life like a tornado and left a devastation. I hated him fiercely afterwards.
The terrain is harsh, stony, and there is dark devious quicksand and dead desert. I don’t turn around though. There might be monsters but there is little to worry about. I am dead. I don’t need to drink or eat. I don’t need to do anything but walk. I will never get tired. I will never need to sleep. And I will never get the answers to my questions.
I don’t know what I’m looking for and I might turn into a man eating medusa on the way, but this is my way. This is my unpaved road and the mountains are my compass. I walk thinking of my children and of the man named Erik.
I imagine I feel my beloveds ups and downs as a slight tingling in my chest. The memory of their smiles guide me forward but I walk this untrodden path to become someone again. To be someone again. Not a former anything and everything.
And I don’t know when my journey comes to an end but I do know two things. I will see Erik again, somewhere, somehow and the thought makes me happy.
And the second? Perhaps Medusa is just who I need to be.
I will get my revenge.