When did I begin to ferry the dead over the wide river? I cannot remember. It was such a long time ago.
Back and forth, back and forth…. It is all I know, except for a growing longing to be free, which is making my job a hellish suffering.
Today, I ferried a young man over the river who was not like the others. He was alive.
I asked him about his trade, and he said, “I know everything.”
“Everything? Then tell me, why must I keep rowing back and forth across this river?” I asked. “How may I be set free?”
“You will know that soon enough. Wait until I come back.”
Come back? Is it possible that this living man will go all the way to hell and back?
The Hopeful Ferryman in The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, Grimms. Charon Illustration by Gustave Dore.
* * *
…we came to the Thames and all
The bridges were down, the further shore
Was lost in fog, so we asked the conductor
What we should do. He said: Take the ferry
Faute de mieux. We flicked the flashlight
And there was the ferryman just as Virgil
And Dante had seen him. He looked at us coldly
And his eyes were dead and his hands on the oar
Were black with obols and varicose veins
Marbled his calves and he said to us coldly:
If you want to die you will have to pay for it.
Louis MacNeice, “Charon“