by Maggie Findlay
Rain the colour of Cabernet streamed down the windshield of the Styx Taxi, while the dead dude in the back jabbered on about the rad wave he'd owned today. "Seriously, man, it was, like, whoa." Either words could not describe the experience, or he lacked vocabulary. What he lacked, he seemed satisfied to make up. "I just can't wait to rip again tomorrow."
Charon looked down between the girders of the steel bridge spanning the sluggish River Styx below. The dude wouldn't be doing any surfing down there.
He tried to ignore the exuberance of his fare by focusing on the rain pelting down, but his teeth were set on edge by the relentless squeak of the wipers. Three weeks ago he had put in a requisition for new blades. Cutbacks. That was all he ever heard anymore. How could there be cutbacks when he had more fares than ever? He couldn't even keep up with the demand.
He adjusted his sore back on the cracked vinyl seat and felt around for his cigarettes. He tapped one on the dash, stuck it to his lower lip, and then steered with his knee while he struck a match. The tang of sulphur hit his nose, and the first curl of smoke broke against the roof of the car.
"You did not seriously just light a cancer stick in here, did you, man?" Sandy water dripped from the sun-bleached curls that suddenly invaded his peripheral vision, spattering his duct-taped bench seat and ruining his last three cigarettes.
Charon blew smoke through his nostrils like an annoyed dragon and ignored the dude, who sat back in a huff.
"This is heinous, man. My bod is a temple."
Your bod may soon be in a temple, Charon thought.
He eased the taxi over the bump where the bridge ended and the road sagged, wincing as his eroded discs collided and the familiar bolt of lightening hit his spine. The dude's necklace, a five-yen coin strung on a leather thong, started to swing where it now hung from the rear-view mirror. The horde of souls waiting to be judged darkened the fields of Tartarus to his left, hemmed in by the river on one side, a row of black poplars along the back, and the blank wall of Hades's administrative offices on the right, broken only by The Gate. Once he'd pulled the car to a stop a safe distance from the horde, he said, "This is as far as I can take you."
His fare peered into the gloom. "Awesome. Field party." He jumped out of the car and loped towards the horde that had now noticed the taxi. "Par-tay," he whooped, raising his hand to high five but spinning around awkwardly as the horde barged past him and rushed the taxi. As always, they thumped on the trunk, yanked at the door handles, and pressed their faces against the windows as Charon reversed towards the bridge.
Teeth clenched, he repeated the disc-destroying drive over the lip of the bridge. He had lodged a complaint about the repair of the road twice in the past year. Tartarus was full of souls loafing around for years on end. There was no reason one of them couldn't be employed to put down some gravel at the end of the bridge . . . maybe even add a little tar.
Under the wheels of the car the metal bridge hummed, and he enjoyed the relative silence. The knob for the radio dial had fallen off years ago. Not that he cared. He had heard every conceivable kind of music and it wasn't interesting anymore. On second thought, it would drown out the squeaking of the wipers. Maybe he would put in a requisition to get it fixed after all.
Something flickered in the sky above him, and he craned his neck to look up into the dark. Megaera swooped low and buzzed his car with a playful look on her face. If the Furies were out, waiting, his next fare was a murderer. The night could get interesting after all.
Five minutes later, he had reached his destination—a dead-end alley enclosed by the warehouses that contained his patrons. Caged, oblong sodium lights cast a jaundiced glow in the alley and tinted the rain brown as his wipers squeaked it aside. Charon waited for the one moment of each trip that made his old heart skip a beat. White light, brighter than a star, burst from a metal door as it creaked open, making the raindrops sparkle like rubies. Every time he saw it was like the first. There was no remembering a light like that—the mind couldn't conjure up its intensity.
A woman in a cream-coloured party dress with hair to match stood bathed in incandescence. When the door slammed shut, her image, delicate as a sparrow, was burned like a negative into his eyelids. She launched into the taxi as if it were her getaway car.
He turned and held his hand out for her fare.
"I pay now?" she asked. "Not once I get there? I mean, I don't even know where I want to go. Just drive."
"You pay now," he said.
"Well, that hardly seems fair. How do you know how much the ride will cost?"
"It is always the same. One coin."
"That's not very specific. Or very much. One coin?"
Charon sighed. "It is quite specific. One coin. Any coin."
"But I use credit. Who carries change? Especially on an evening out. You can't fit a wallet in a tiny bag like this," she said, swinging the black sequins in his direction.
This line of debate was getting on his last nerve. It came up too often these days. "If you don't have a coin, you'll have to get out. Surely you have one coin in there somewhere?"
The woman muttered and rummaged through her tiny bag. She stopped and sat very still for a moment before pulling a coin from her bag and holding it up. "I forgot. 'Penny for your thoughts,' he said."
"Oh. A man in my fiancé's elevator. I had never seen him before. But he looked at me as if he could see right inside . . . He gave me this and said 'penny for your thoughts.' I'd hardly known I had so many, but I did." She sighed and shook her shoulders loose. "And now I'm rid of Jeffrey. Problems solved. Well, here you go." She handed Charon the penny and tidied her hair not seeming to notice the hole in her temple.
Pinprick tingles danced in his palm, and he closed his fingers on the penny before it changed back into whatever it used to be. It wasn't a penny; it was a talisman—fools gold. He would need to send an inter-office memo to the new Fate who had taken over from Atropos as intermediary between the realm of the living and the Underworld. What was her name? Dahlia. That was it. She would want to know that one of her kin was out there inciting humans to cut their threads early. Dahlia's crackdown on her misbehaving relatives put her at odds with Hades, who was always looking for growth stats, but Charon liked her; he could do with less work.
With his hand held out of view, he opened his fingers to reveal a button, black and matte, the kind you might find on an expensive coat. It had been a coin for a time; it would have to do. He dropped it into the dented tin that held his night's earnings.
With his mind elsewhere, the jolt at the end of the bridge made him swear.
"What language was that?" his fare asked.
"I don't remember," he said as the pain subsided into a dull ache.
At the edge of the horde, he saw a man he had driven earlier that night—the one with the bullet-hole to match the blonde in the back seat. She wasn't rid of him after all. Abandoning his usual impartiality, Charon left the cracked asphalt and pulled up five feet from the man. It would leave enough room for the Furies to pick her up. Murderers' trials were always fast-tracked. The souls on Tartarus had enough to fret about without their murderers in their midst.
"This is as far as I take you." He reached back and popped the handle of her door.
Annoyance flashed across her face. She snatched her bag and swung her slim legs out of the car. As she slammed the door behind her, he heard her strangled gasp, "Jeffrey! What—" But her words were lost in the wind as the Fury, Megaera, with her wild, red hair defying the rain, swooped out of the sky and snatched her by the shoulders. In a flutter of white, the woman was tossed through the air to her nest-mate, Tisiphone, who ascended into the red rainclouds and dropped her prey. The blonde plunged with a shriek into Alecto's waiting arms, only for the game to begin again.
After an earful of the woman's remorselessness, her distress shouldn't have bothered Charon, but it did. He looked at the button in the tin and pursed his lips, thinking. Grudgingly, he gripped the window crank and turned it. The glass started to descend but tipped on an angle and got stuck. Another curse reverberated around the car. He shoved the gearshift into park, but Megaera saved him the trouble of easing his bones out of the car.
"Long night, old man?" She had a way of making it sound like a term of endearment.
Charon wistfully admired the Fury's Grecian-style gown, which clung to her warrior's body in the rain. Her nostrils had the appearance of being permanently flared, giving her face a fierce beauty.
He retrieved the button from his tin and held it up to the window. "That one there paid with a talisman."
Megaera's eyes widened.
Charon nodded. "She was incited to murder."
The Fury looked disappointed. "Just a few minutes more, and then we will take her to the judges."
Charon tipped his non-existent hat at Megaera, who winked at him through the slice of open window. "Oh, Meg. If I were a few years younger . . . Enjoy your work, ladies." He fought the window closed and swung his car back to the road. "At least someone does," he grumbled.
Holding his breath and tensing his leg muscles to hold his backside off the car seat, Charon inched over the pothole onto the bridge. He sighed in relief and then hissed in pain as his sciatica pierced his hip joint when he settled back into the vinyl. He cursed his way across the bridge and hoped for someone entertaining on the other side.
The sound of his tires on wet, gritty pavement echoed against the warehouse walls as he turned the car around and pulled up beside the rusted door, anticipating that moment of brilliant white that would obliterate the sick, yellow glow.
With a scrape, the door opened and light washed over him. He took deep breaths, as if he could inhale it and heal the aches of millennia ferrying the dead to the Underworld.
Sobbing ripped him from his reverie. He groaned, "Not a crier."
As the door opened, the sound of sniffling filled the car. He looked the man in his puffy, red eyes and held out his hand, palm up. "Your coin."
"My what?" the man slobbered.
"Your fare. A coin. Any coin will do."
The man fished a quarter out of his pocket and dropped it in Charon's hand, and then he broke into a fresh barrage of wails that assaulted Charon's skull and started a dull, throbbing headache. Charon reached for his cigarette package and removed one, ready to begin the soothing ritual of tap, insert, light. The paper ripped where the surfer's wet, sandy water had hit it, and the cigarette broke in half. Charon flung the useless smoke across the cab and tried to tune out the histrionics in the back seat.
Squeak. Squeak. The wiper blades added to the assault on his ears. The buzz from the white light had worn off, and he felt something inside him snap.
"Get out! Get out, get out, get out!" Charon reached in his tin and didn't bother finding the man's specific coin, he grabbed a handful and pelted him with them.
The sobbing stopped abruptly, and the man fumbled with the door handle and jumped out of the cab.
Charon hit the gas and screeched out of the alley, the back door of the car flapping. When the door clanged against the steel girders of the bridge frame, he regained his senses and skidded to a stop. He hammered his fists on the steering wheel, filling the air of Hades with a volley of goose honks. Like a deflated balloon, he caved in on himself and rested his forehead against the steering wheel. When he started to feel foolish, he opened his door and levered his crooked body out of his daily prison.
He shook his head in disgust at the 1982 Plymouth Reliant with its dents and rust and ridiculous horn. He missed his barge. Poling across the Styx had been hard on the body too, and he was wet most of the time, but at least it had a bell. That bell had pealed. It had rung out across Tartarus and the Gates of Hades themselves had vibrated with its sonorous note.
The edge of the bridge beckoned. There was no railing. It was never meant to be crossed by foot. He held onto a girder and stared at the slow-moving river below. He couldn't even end it all—he was already dead.
"Hey!" a voice rang out from near the warehouses.
Charon exhaled and barked back, "What?"
"Um. What do I do? Where do I go? I can't get back in!" The sobbing resumed.
I can't even have a breakdown in peace, he thought.
"I don't care!" Charon climbed back into the taxi and slammed the door. "I quit!
There was only one thought on his mind, and it was to forget all of his thoughts. He'd had enough of them. He made straight for the Lethe Leisure club in Elysian Fields and its promise of a day of forgetting.
Bearing left at the crossroads just north of the Fields of Tears, he tried to ignore the sharp jabs of pain from the potholes by enjoying the scenery in the dim, morning light. Not that there was much. The River Lethe was an inky strip of black on his right, and beyond, the City of Pluto stretched out to the horizon. The hardscrabble earth that covered the fields he drove through only supported weeds. He didn't remember much of his time on Earth, but he remembered his first impression of this sphere as a version of Earth picked clean of any useful resources, taken down to the nub until it was red and angry—and a fraction of the size. He could drive around Hades in a day. The proximity of the magma core had evaporated the oceans and left only sluggish rivers. The poplars on Elysian Fields had been a present from Atropos, conjured up from the aether with just enough loam to keep them alive. Everything else was made of bedrock, or volcanic rock, or reconstituted rock dust. Luxury items were smuggled in by gods who didn't want you to know they still existed.
Elysian Fields was a gated community, and very hard to get into. Everyone aspired to it, and it was still the best real estate in the Underworld, but it was very overcrowded, and the souls who lived there had a self-righteous streak he could do without. He preferred Pluto. There you could have a detached dwelling and still have a little room out back to stretch your legs and take in the night stars if it wasn't too steamy or raining. But you couldn't beat Elysian Fields for quiet and relaxation.
A sparkle of obsidian greeted him as the gates came into view. They opened, of course. Charon had the only car in the Underworld. Magnus, Cerberus's son from his second litter, barked and chased the car. The community council for Elysian Fields didn't think he had the right disposition to guard their gate, but Charon thought they were being too stuffy. Magnus livened the place up, even if he did bark too much.
Every road in Elysian Fields was Roman-straight—but wide—and the buildings rose shoulder to shoulder. The main thoroughfare was a boulevard adorned with sculptures of the celebrated dead. Height restrictions were renegotiated every decade as the population swelled. The Lethe Leisure Club was on the top five floors of an obsidian and glass tower. He left his car in the road and limped through the high doorway to the elevator. Gears cranked as souls sentenced to perpetual labour turned the cogs to lift him to the thirty-fifth floor. In reception, a well-groomed young man sat at the glass desk.
"Good morning, Mr. Charon," he said. "We were not expecting you for your massage and hot stone treatment until later in the week."
"My back is killing me, and my sciatica flared up last night. Do you have any openings?"
"Of course, yes, we can cancel one of our other guests." The young man looked very serious. "Keeping souls moving into the Underworld is Hades's top metric this month. Whatever I can do to help us be more efficient . . ." He was fluent in the bureaucratic jargon that the Hades Administrative Council spent their time perfecting, rather than tending to actual business. They could talk about metrics all they wanted, but metrics didn't magically make wiper blades appear or put gravel in potholes.
Charon kept his grumbling inside his own head and smiled gratefully but with the fashionable air of entitlement. In Elysian Fields, people wanted you to be important. Status was measured by proximity to status. Everyone made everyone else so much more important in a never-ending spiral of self-aggrandizement. If it got him a massage, then he could live with it.
"Venerable Charon, bringer of souls," said a girlish voice. "Please, come with me."
A soft hand led him to a room carved out of pumice, with no right angles to sharpen the senses. He was shown to his bed of sand. This moment was one of his favourites—disrobing and lying down on the bed and feeling the silica sand form to his body. There was something special about lying on a bed of pure quartz. It was the brightest-colour he'd seen outside of the light at the warehouse. He felt a pang in his chest as the job stress hit him. He wouldn't think about it anymore. He was here to forget.
The masseuse came back into the room. "Are you comfortable, venerable Charon?"
"Yes," he sighed. "This is so much more comfortable than my bed at home."
"What type of bed do you have?" she asked, making small talk.
"Volcanic glass sand. It's comfortable, but not as smooth to the touch. And it's dark."
The masseuse walked her hands over his back, finding the sites of injury without prompting. He marvelled at that ability. He wondered what he might have been if he hadn't been assigned the job of ferryman. It wasn't as if he was particularly suited to his job. He wasn't a good listener. He routinely despised his fares. And it was just so relentless—soul after soul with no end in sight.
"What type of steam treatment would you like today, venerable Charon?" The room piped in heat from the core of Hades and water could be added for steam. A guest had the choice of water from one of Hades's five rivers.
"I want Lethe water."
The room fell silent but what he noticed first was that the masseuse had stopped working on his back. He torqued his head to look at her stunned face and raised his eyebrow askance.
"The river of forgetting . . . but you will lose your faculties. What about the souls?" With each phrase, his attendant got closer to panic.
"They can wait. Gods, there are so many of them in those warehouses. An extra day will hardly matter."
She looked dubious. He decided to pull out the entitled voice. "Do I need to speak with your manager?"
"No, venerable Charon." The woman hurried to a stone table and chose a glass vial filled with an amber liquid. She removed the stopper hesitantly and poured the contents into the heating vent. Pulling the cowl of her gown up over her mouth and nose, she continued to work on Charon's back.
As the room filled with steam, a pleasant hum invaded his body, making his limbs heavy and warm, not unlike the effect of the wine that Hades served at the palace. His muscles relaxed, and the pain in his back subsided, bringing him sweet relief. But it was the forgetting that he really wanted. He wanted to forget the dude, and the blonde murderer, and the crier, and his squeaking wiper blades, and the broken window crank, and the cracked vinyl, and the broken radio, and the endless trips across the bridge. It occurred to him that he really loved clouds—the puffy kind, not the gloomy kind.
"Sir?" said the attendant in a worried voice.
Megaera finally found him in a black-market Lethe den. He had been missing for a week.
"What are you doing here?" Charon chirped.
Megaera's eyebrows rose into her hairline. She had never seen him so . . . cheerful. "Well, I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. With no new murderers coming into Hades, I have no one to punish." Around her, the floor was littered with limp figures deep in the sea of forgetting.
"No murderers, isn't that strange," he said dreamily. "Isn't that wonderful? Do you think the realm of the living is changing?"
"Nope, I'm pretty sure that's not it."
Charon rubbed the whiskers on his chin. "Hmm. Curious."
"Hmm, not really," she quipped, imitating his tone. She clapped him on the shoulder with hard efficiency. "We need to sober you up."
An attendant bearing a steamy flask of Lethe water arrived out of the gloom, stopped dead at Megaera's dagger-like gaze, and scampered back where she came from. It was a wonder the woman could remember how to do her job—the air was thick with steam. Megaera looked at the customers with their flasks held greedily under their chins and felt a wooziness slide through her. She refused to get stuck in here. In two steps she reached the rusted iron door and kicked it open. "Everybody out!"
Wide-eyed patrons gaped, uncomprehending. She hissed and furled her wings in full Fury. Everyone with any wits left at all wobbled out with their Lethe water cupped protectively against their chests.
"What did you go and do that for?" Charon was more perturbed than bewildered. Megaera thought that was a good sign. The sooner his grumpiness returned, the happier she'd be. Then they could get to the bottom of this . . . this . . . she looked around the dank surroundings . . . this breakdown.
A groaning cut the silence. Megaera squinted at the vague shapes that were still huddled in corners, out cold. A clang made her wings twitch. The door had closed itself. She walked over and propped it open with a stone. The air wasn't completely clear yet.
"Hello?" said a timid voice. The attendant peeked around the corner. She must have thought Megaera had left. Seeing her mistake, her body started to flee before the Fury had time to react, saving her the trouble of opening her wings again in such a cramped space.
When she turned back to Charon, she found him chuckling. It was a good sign, seeing him laugh at someone else's misfortune. The Lethe water was wearing off.
"Meg, you may be the most beautiful creature in Hades, but it does not give you the right to ruin an old man's retirement."
"Retirement? Is that what you call it? Well, I hope you're enjoying it, because Hades is in an uproar. With no new souls coming in, my sisters and I have no work, the judges are rattling around, and the Administrative Council is in a fit about their metrics. So far, Hades himself hasn't found out, but that won't last long. No one wants to tell him they lost Charon." Megaera had to work to keep her wings folded in. When she was upset, her anger had a tendency to go full bloom.
"Can't we enjoy a week of rest now and again?" Charon didn't seem moved by the predicament.
"You gave us no warning, old man. How are we supposed to rest when we're running around searching for you?"
"Oh." Charon might actually have looked remorseful. For a moment. Then it passed. "My back is always under assault from the deteriorating roads, my car is a piece of junk, and if I have to transport one more crier, I'll . . ." But there was no threat at the end of that sentence. He had already done his worst. He seemed to rally. "Look, what does it matter if the souls pile up a bit? I'll get to them. They're not going anywhere."
The scrape of feet caught their attention. In the doorway, Hades stood listening, flanked by Dahlia, the intermediary Fate.
"I think that's the problem, Charon," said Dahlia. The souls did pile up, but when they couldn't pile up anymore, they did go somewhere. They overflowed back into the realm of the living. There are terrified ghosts everywhere. It's chaos.
"My metrics are in chaos," Hades boomed.
Everyone tried very hard not to make a face.
"Tell me about your mother," said the therapist.
"I don't remember her," said a supine Charon.
"Hmm," said the therapist, who noted 'repressed trauma' on his slate.
Charon strained to get a look at the slate and then winced as his spine rebelled. He rubbed his neck. "I do not have repressed trauma," he said in exasperation. "I'm very, very old. What year did you get here?"
"September 23, 1939."
"You're a baby," sneered Charon.
"Do you know who I am?" said the therapist with the enraged entitlement expected in Elysian Fields.
"Yes, it says right there on the door, 'Sigmund Freund'."
"Freud. Freud!" snapped the therapist. "And I am not a baby. I am 83 years old."
Charon rolled his eyes. "Ba-by."
"I will not work with someone who does not want to get better," said Freud.
"I'm not sick!" spat Charon. "I'm sick and tired—there's a difference."
Freud picked up his slate and resumed his listening pose.
"Where is the incentive for me to keep working? I have never had a raise. The car was a nice perk . . . thirty years ago. Now it's a rusted hulk, and, every time I touch a knob, it falls off. Then there's the infernal squeaking. I need lumbar support! And the crying . . . category one: the slurpy nosed cry; category two: the convulsive sob; category three: the siren wail; category four . . . I don't even get a laugh out of categorizing them anymore."
Freud opened his mouth to speak.
"—Oh, and the realm of the living just keeps populating. And they all keep dying and coming here. Why am I still the only taxi driver? Does that make sense?"
Freud put down his stylus and tentatively put his slate aside. He opened his mouth to speak.
"—Don't get me started on the potholes. I know I have the only car, but how can I be expected to drive on that rutted, ruin of a road? It doesn't need to be paved. I'm not asking for miracles, just put down some gravel. Is that too much to ask?"
Freud sat mute.
"I am afraid this is not my department," said Freud. "You will need to speak with the Hades Administrative Council. Now, if you'll just sign here so I can submit my report and meet my metrics."
"Oh brother," groaned Charon.
Charon stood in line at the Hades Administrative Council office. Being retired was no relief at all if he had to spend all of his time talking to people, many of whom were far more annoying than new souls. He might as well be in his taxi. He had spent all day going from line to line, filling out slates in triplicate to make each request: a radio dial, a lumbar-support cushion, window repair, pothole repair, an extension in his benefits to receive an extra weekly massage, and a raise. He also wanted an apprentice, if not to take over, then at least to share the work.
There was one last kiosk he had to visit to write an inter-office memo about the talisman.
Charon approached the wicket with the button clenched in his fist.
"Can I help you?" said the nasal-voiced clerk.
He opened his palm and gave the button a long look. He wouldn't fill out the inter-office memo today. He would try to meet up with Dahlia in person. If she wasn't too angry about the ghost invasion, maybe, just maybe, he could talk her into bringing over a new car. Or dared he to hope, a bus?
"What have you got there?" asked the clerk.
"Oh, this? It's nothing."
But Charon had a feeling it wasn't nothing. It was something. It was the promise of something new. And it had been a very long time since he'd had anything to look forward to.
Styx Taxi Copyright 2014 Maggie Findlay, Photograph courtesy of Wix.com