It was the hottest day of the year. I was trudging just north of Newbury lamenting the fact that I was miles away from a cold ale, when, to my delight, I saw a well shaded pool hidden in a quiet glen. You can hardly blame me for stripping off my dusty, sweaty clothing and plunging in, can you?
Who knew that it would have no bottom? No mud, no reedy roots, only water going down and down, through flickering lights shot through with all manner of colours. They were colours the like I’ve never seen before and you haven’t either.
Why did I keep swimming down? I had no choice! The water drew me down like a lover whispering. All I could do was relax into that irresistible embrace.
Of course I passed out after a minute or two but I didn’t swallow any water. I didn’t drown or how could I be sitting here?
I wake up on this platform, all covered with silks and embroidered pillows like Aphrodite’s own bed. There was some sort of soft music playing, interlaced with the sounds of birds singing. I could smell spicy wood burning on a fire that I couldn’t see. There were sunbeams filtering through the leafy branches of tall trees growing all around my resting place.
I’m was as naked as the day I was born except for a silver chain with a gold coin hanging on it. I picked up the coin and immediately dropped it as though it were red hot. It was my face on the coin! I shut my eyes and tried to think.
“How long you’ve slept, my lord.”
It was a musical voice but pitched low. I opened my eyes to see a breath-taking woman standing before me. Her eyes were a deep blue and her hair raven black and lustrous. She was lovely beyond words to describe her and she was covered from head to feet with small, bright golden feathers, leaving only her face bare.
“Why am I here?” I asked.
“To break the curse,” she said simply.
“How do you know?”
“It is your face on the coin, is it not?”
“What is the curse?”
“How may I break the curse of death?”
“You do not know?” her voice betrayed amusement, as though I were making a little joke.
“I don’t know anything.” And that was very true. She pursed her lips in thought.
“You must speak to my father,” she said.
“I must have clothes.”
She smiled at this, “Of course, my lord. Forgive me. I thought you preferred to go unclad.” She picked up a silken sheet and draped it around me. Obviously her feathers functioned as her clothing because she hadn’t the faintest idea how I should be covered. My cheeks were red as berries as she hung a species of toga on me.
She took me down a hallway into a huge mirrored room with a massive fireplace. In front of the fireplace, his back to us, stood her father, all covered in dull, black feathers. I suppose, given his daughter’s obvious comeliness, I expected to find a handsome, kingly man with a regal profile and a noble bearing. What I saw was a fat, bald man with a turnip-shaped nose and teeth that showed a cavalier distain for dental hygiene. He was holding a joint of roast meat and chewing vigorously and messily. He got right to the point.
“So! The Savior who destroys Death, eh? You don’t look much like a Divinity, in my professional opinion!”
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, I wanted to say. His daughter was appalled: “Father! The sacred Pool delivered him! His face is on the Coin!”
He just picked his teeth and frowned as though I was a sleight of hand artist and he was trying to figure out under which cup I had the peanut hidden.
“Humph,” he uttered finally, peering at me down the expanse of his unshapely nose. “How will you do it, pray tell?”
That was the question of course. How does one destroy Death? The poets say that Death is a necessary as Life, that we cannot see Light without the backdrop of Darkness. I doubted that he was interested in such philosophizing though.
At that moment a handsome young man rushed into the room, saw me and threw himself at my feet, kissing them vigorously. I leapt back greatly startled.
“Get up, foolish boy!” yelled the fat man. The young man stayed on his knees and whispered, “But it is Him, the Banisher of Death!”
“That remains to be seen,” grumbled the fat man. I was in great sympathy with him.
“We must take him before the Council,” said the woman. “They will bring us clarity and discernment.”
“That’s the first reasonable thing you’ve said today,” nodded her father still munching at the meat.
The Council consisted of about sixteen patricians, old and wrinkled and (like everyone else) dressed completely in feathers, gold, silver, blue and black. Half were men and half were women. They were seated at a long horseshoe table covered with scrolls and candles.
After hearing my tiny story and the testimony of my beautiful benefactor, I was asked to leave while they debated the issue. I sat out in the hallway my chin in my fist and wondered what would befall me.
After enough time to imagine a few gruesome possibilities, my golden-feathered beauty came for me, her face wreathed in smiles. She all but clapped her hands. “They will see you now, Wonderful Deliverer!”
The entire Council rose to their feet when I came in and bowed deeply to me. “Behold the Savior!” they chanted.
“Please!” I said, my hands raised in supplication. “I don’t know how to do the thing that you want!”
A grizzled woman with a snaggle-toothed smile raised her arms as though declaiming an ode, “Surely you know the oracles! You must overcome the Ferryman!”
“But who is this Ferryman and where can I find him?” I asked plaintively. There followed a long discussion of things mythical, theological, geographical and not very practical. I will summarize: the Ferryman was Charon whose job it was to ferry the dearly departed souls from our world over the river Styx into the dark stronghold of Hades. Remove the ferry service and you have effectively solved death. Sadly, the Styx, as the boundary between life and death, was not exactly in a place that you could find on a map. It sounded more like it was in a dimension like time. It was expected that He whose visage was on the Coin (me, that is) would be able to do this profoundly mysterious feat. As to how the Ferryman could be mastered, this would no doubt be revealed in time to the Glorious Savior (still me). Not exactly comforting stuff, I thought.
I wanted to tell them that they had the wrong man, that I was ruefully human and entirely without the powers associated with divinity but…
But why was my face on the Coin? Let me be clear here, the face on the coin did not merely look like me in the right light if your eyes were squinched just so. It was me: pock marks, shaggy eye brows, aquiline nose and all. God alone knows why or how.
They threw a great feast for me that night and made numerous speeches of gratitude declaring my various great (potential) feats and my glorious (fingers crossed) qualities. It was as heady as the wine they kept pouring into my cup. By midnight, I reckoned that they might well be on to something. Maybe I really was their savior!
By dawn, carrying on my head the wicked spears of a first class hangover, a more realistic self evaluation came to me. I was doomed.
The last thing the Council had mentioned was that I was to go with three others: a priest, a virgin and a little black donkey. The virgin for purity, the priest for wisdom and the donkey for humility.
To my delight, the virgin turned out to be none other than my rescuer, the golden Beatrice. To my chagrin, the priest was her fat, gravel-mouthed father, Pollux. The donkey had no name so I named him Sylvester.
Everyone from Beatrice’s village came early to bid us farewell. We were wreathed with garlands of bright white flowers and crowned with laurel. They took us to the great gate and ushered us into the wide world.
“Where to, O most noble Saviour?” said the priest with a sneer that belied his words.
“That way,” I said, pointing toward what I thought might be south. We trudged under a laughing blue sky.
“This is the way to the river Styx?” asked my Beautiful Bea after some time had passed.
“Who can know?” I shrugged. “We seek another dimension! How does one get to such a thing?”
“Only one way that I know,” muttered the vile priest. “You must become as one of the dead.”
“How do you do that without tasting death?” I laughed scornfully.
“You cannot find Styx without losing your life; all the scrolls are clear on this,” he said, ever the pedant.
“Is it true?” gasped Beatrice.
“Ridiculous,” I grumbled.
“It is not ridiculous; it is the obvious thing that you do not want to see,” said Pollux.
“How about you?” I said to the donkey, stroking his long nose. “What do you think I ought to do?”
Sylvester brayed comically and then began to speak. “Well, my masters, I’m merely a foolish donkey,” he said, “but I wonder if it is not possible to feign death and thereby attract Charon?”
“A ludicrous idea!” thundered Pollux. “Who would take the advice of a beast? Listen to the voice of wisdom and experience: I have a sharp knife and I am well practiced in the sacrificial arts. Just lay down on the turf and I’ll have you in the Underworld before you can blink!”
“I like Sylvester’s idea much better than yours!” I said to nods of agreement from Beatrice.
“Think for a minute!” said the priest in a more honeyed voice. “You speak of overcoming Charon but how will that happen if you cannot go to him? Charon doesn’t come to the dead, their ghosts go to him.”
“I fear he is right,” said the donkey humbly.
“If he dies then you had better kill me too,” said Beatrice, her arms folded across her chest and her lips pressed tightly together.
“And me,” said the donkey.
“And you must kill yourself too,” said Beatrice. “He must be accompanied by wisdom, purity and humility. You heard the Council.”
Pollux’s face fell into disarray. “I don’t like the thought of cutting my own throat nor my daughter’s,” he muttered.
“Poison then?” suggested the donkey. “We passed a flowering hemlock plant just a few minutes ago.”
We looked at each other. The priest shrugged. We walked back.
We all plucked several leaves and started to eat. I found the hemlock repulsive and difficult to get down.
“How much is enough?” I gagged.
“More,” said the priest.
“Much more,” added the donkey.
You don’t want to know what it feels like to be poisoned, I assure you. Let me simply say that after a number of unpleasant moments all went dark. What was soul in me left my poor old body and started to drift toward a dim light in the distance. I felt no pain, no hunger, no stress.
I was being pulled to the dim light in the same way I was pulled into the depths of the pool a lifetime ago. I could feel something that felt much like warm water come flooding through my being. I glanced at the coin and it was glowing dimly.
I could hear moaning all around me like the sad dirge of mourners. It was like being trapped in a weary monologue by an elderly relative, full of complaint and invective. I joined a long line of ghostly figures all fluttering like creaky moths to the flame.
Charon was a tall gaunt figure who was directing ghosts into his boat. The river, itself was as black as oil and cold-looking. Where were my traveling companions? Maybe they were slower to die?
I got into the boat and sat on a wooden seat. I felt an paddle prod me and I looked up. It was the Ferryman himself.
“Your coin?” he whispered in a sepulchral tone.
“I only have this one,” I said, lifting my coin to him.
He glanced at it, nodded and went to the next ghost. When he had satisfied himself, Charon picked up his long paddle and started to stroke for the dark shores of Hades.
When we were at the midway point, I could feel a warmth on my chest. I glanced down; my coin was beginning to burn. I lifted it up and it immediately started to grow. The weight was crushing and it soon fell from my hand back onto my chest. I cried out but my ghostly body was gaining in brightness to match the coin. I felt myself becoming something substantial, like my bones were taking on sinew and flesh, and then skin. But, understand me, not the mere flesh that had dropped from me on the other side of the Styx but a glorious body, an angelic body!
I was now too big for the boat which started to sink. Charon growled and threw down his paddle. He lunged for me and would have thrown me overboard save that I was now bigger than him and as heavy as a golden statue. Then the boat went down, down, down...
...Down, down, down as though the black, oily waters of the Styx had no bottom.
I surfaced into the little hidden pool.