Athanasia sat heavily in her chair, her joints creaking along with the cords of the seat. She took a few deep breaths, and the room settled back to silence.
The labour had been a long one, and there had been rather more blood than she would have liked, but the child was strong and its mother would, if Athanasia was any judge, recover well. She had assisted in many births over the years. Even the ones that went smoothly – and they often didn’t – were a little frightening. Standing at the boundary to life itself, doing everything she could to make sure that the child would be welcomed to the world whole. And that the mother would stay on the right side.
Athanasia tucked some loose strands of grey hair back into her braids. She was relieved, if tired. Her arms and back ached, but that was surely to be expected after a long night with little sleep. She felt a little short of breath, too, but she probably only needed rest. She closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, she was dead.
She knew it, because she found herself on the bank of a great river. The water was green yet remarkably clear, putting her in mind of the pale green bowl filled with peaches and pomegranates in her quarters. A bowl that, she realised, she would neither see, nor touch, again.
The air was still, and filled with a faintly sweet smell. Silver things flashed below the surface of the river, moving too fast to see. She stood on smooth, pale stone and looked across the water. The river stretched as far as she could see in either direction. In the distance, Athanasia thought she could see a small boat, although there was little against which to judge its size. It might, she supposed, become a larger boat as it drew nearer.
She put her hand into the pocket of her tunic and found a single coin. The metal was cool on her fingers. She let it fall back into the folds of the material and sat down to wait.
Athanasia had no family left of her own, and her thoughts drifted to the new mother and child she had left behind. Had the child been feeding well? Had the mother regained her strength? And there had been another woman with a baby due, she had thought, around the next new moon. She sighed. There was nothing to be done about that, now.
A sound made her turn. She had been entirely alone a moment ago, but now there was a young girl, bare-footed, dark hair falling in messy twists around her face. She looked up at Athanasia with bright, wide eyes. Tears streaked her cheeks.
‘Oh,’ said Athanasia, instinctively crouching down and reaching out. The child put her arms out, in that way that children do, and Athanasia lifted her and held her against her chest, noting that she felt too light. The child rested her head on Athanasia’s shoulder and continued to cry.
‘Shh,’ said Athanasia, rubbing the child’s back.
The girl pulled back. ‘I want to go home. I don’t like it here.’
Athanasia tried to make her voice soothing. ‘I’m not sure you can,’ she said.
The child wriggled then, pushing her legs and arms against Athanasia so that she was forced to put her down. ‘I want to go home!’ she repeated.
‘I know, but, I think you have to go on the boat,’ said Athanasia, pointing across the river. The boat was nearer now, and it did indeed seem larger.
The child stared at her defiantly. ‘I like boats,’ she said, eventually.
‘I’m sure it’ll be fun!’ said Athanasia, pulling her face into a smile and hoping that it would be.
The child nodded, and ran to the edge of the river to watch. Athanasia bit back the urge to tell her to be careful because, after all, what was there to be careful of, now?
She rubbed her cheek, and then realised that others had arrived. A young woman, her belly distended but empty, a man with a dark hole under his left shoulder and a stump where his right leg should have been, a woman with elaborately-styled white hair, her body and face unmarked.
Athanasia had spent her life helping others, and she found she could not stop now. She greeted the arrivals, offered words of comfort, and helped them to the edge of the river. Some were confused, and some were angry. A few wept. She did what she could, and took small joy in being useful.
In time, the boat arrived. It was the long, narrow kind, designed to be propelled by a boatman wielding a pole, and indeed there was such a man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and he wore robes the colour of glowing embers. They matched his eyes.
He stepped lightly ashore. The child Athanasia had first met looked curiously up at him, and then scampered into the boat, darting back and forth until she had decided where she wanted to sit. Athanasia smiled, and helped the one-legged man to also step aboard.
The ferryman’s face was dark beneath his hood. His voice, when he spoke, reminded Athanasia of thunder and freshly-turned earth. ‘Thank you,’ he said, looking at the orderly chain of people. ‘It is usually more… difficult.’
Athanasia nodded. The last of the other passengers climbed aboard and sat, waiting.
The ferryman looked at her, and then at the boat. She didn’t move.
‘What is on the other side of the river?’ she asked, quietly.
The ferryman shrugged. ‘It is not for me to say.’
‘Will those that I’ve lost be there?’ she asked, looking across the expanse of green water. She could see only shadows on the other side.
‘Death is a big place. I only take souls from this edge to that. I cannot say what is beyond the point where I leave them.’
Athanasia paused. ‘Why do you do this?’
His eyes glowed in the depth of his hood. ‘Someone must.’
‘What would happen… if you didn’t?’
He shrugged again. There was a moment of silence between them. Then he said, ‘will you come aboard?’
Athanasia crossed her arms. ‘I don’t think I will.’
‘Then you must stay here, by the river. There is no way back.’
‘I understand. But you cannot tell me what is on the other side. And perhaps if I stay here, I will see some of the people I’ve left, in time.’
‘I cannot say that is so,’ he warned. ‘Not all souls pass this way.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said Anthanasia, ‘I think I can be useful here, and I would like that. It is always best to make the most of what you have.’
The ferryman’s eyes glowed again. ‘Very well,’ he said, after a moment.
Athanasia watched the boat as he pushed it away from the bank and she waved at the little girl, who was holding the hand of the young woman with the empty belly. Athanasia smiled and turned around. Already there were others to greet.
And there she remains, on this side of the river, comforting those whose time has come, and helping them to be in the right place at the right time.
It is said that there are some who arrive at the wrong time, their presence too faint as they hover between this world and the next. Some even find their way back, and have told a story of a woman who waits by the river to greet those who must cross, and when the ferryman asks if she will cross, as he always does, she always refuses, her arms folded across her chest.
I wrote – and read! – this story for an event called ‘Mythmaking: A night of new stories for old objects’, organised by Science Communicator Brian Mackenwells. The idea of the night was to take objects about which we know very little, and which currently have no mythology, and give them new stories. There were seven of us, and we were each allocated one of three objects. Mine was a ‘Cycladic female figurine‘. These are very old – over 5000 years old – and were often buried with the dead, although some have also been found showing signs of repair, suggesting they were also used in every-day life. In this story I tried to tie those ideas together by creating a character that might go on to be represented by these figures. I hope I succeeded!
And they were all amazing! I really hope there are more events like this in the future.
I also want to say a quick thank you to the talented Matt Dovey, who helped me out when I had a beginning and a end but was struggling with the middle!