By the Edge of the River

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.

‘Perhaps.’

‘Perhaps?’

‘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.


Author’s notes
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!

The other acts were:
Robert Holtom
Calum Mitchell
Holly Bathie
Jack Brougham
Charvy Narain
Laura Theis

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!


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© Kat Day 2018

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The only winning move

death-valley-sky-597885_960_720

A landscape of barren, dark-grey stone. Above, a black sky dotted with pinpricks of light – as though someone had taken a piece of paper, repeatedly shoved a pin through it, and then put it in front of a something extremely bright. Like, say, the lights of an oncoming train.

There was no breeze. No sound. No moon.

Since the last thing David Snacknot remembered was playing Go with one of his colleagues at the University, this all seemed rather strange.

“Where in the hell am I?”

“Interesting assumption.”

David looked over his shoulder, giving the impression that while his head wanted to see what was going on, his feet wanted to stay pointing in the direction which might provide a clear run.

He found himself looking at a figure with its arms folded across its chest. Its black robe covered it entirely. Even its face was completely hidden by the fall of the heavy cowl.

At this point, David realised he wasn’t breathing.

He tried to take a breath, and found he couldn’t. Then, more out of habit than anything else he tried to panic, and found he couldn’t do that, either.

The cowled figure pushed back its hood. “Do stop opening and closing your mouth, Professor. You look like a goldfish.”

Unbidden, David’s feet shuffled around as he stared. The face before him was not what he’d been expecting. Not that he knew what he’d been expecting, but whatever it had been, it wasn’t this.

“A-are you… Death?” he stuttered.

“I dislike that name. Such negative connotations,” said the figure. The face was feminine, and it definitely had skin. Admittedly, very pale skin, and skin stretched tautly over angular – one might even say bony – features.

“Er…” said David, then stopped to consider the fact that, despite not breathing, he still seemed to be able to speak. He fought back an inexplicable urge to whistle. Just to see if he still could. Then he had to fight back the urge to giggle.

“I rather prefer Entropy,” continued the figure.

What is it called, thought David, when actors are laughing so much during a performance that they can’t say their lines?

“Because that other name, it’s really not what I do. I don’t actually have anything to do with the D-word. That happens before people get to me. My role is merely to move things forward.”

Oh yes, thought David. Corpsing.

“So,” said Entropy. “Shall we begin? Or perhaps I should say, end? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” repeated David.

Entropy beamed. “That’s the spirit! Hardly anyone laughs at my jokes! Oh! Spirit! Ha ha!”

David smiled weakly. His eyes slid from her face to the surrounding landscape, and something strange behind her left shoulder caught his eye. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.

“What? Ah, yes. Well, once upon a time, it would’ve been a pale horse. But we all have to move with the times.”

“A combine harvester?”

“There are a lot of you these days.”

David nodded slowly. I must be hallucinating, he thought. Just how much did I drink?

“The scythe just wouldn’t be practical.”

“No, I suppose not.” His rational side gave up. If he was dreaming he might as well go along with it. “Er, don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought Dea–, sorry,” he said quickly as she frowned, “I mean, in books and things you’re usually male.”

“How can you tell?”

“What?”

“I’m usually drawn as a skeleton.”

“Oh. Good point.” David resolutely fixed his eyes on her face.

“The people who draw me,” pointed out Entropy reasonably, “are not, generally speaking, people who’ve actually met me.

“Of course, yes. Makes sense. Wait a minute. If there are so many of us that you have to use a piece of heavy-duty agricultural equipment to do your job, why am I here on my own like this?”

Entropy smiled enigmatically. “Good question, professor.”

“Is it?”

“It is.”

“Is it a good question with an answer?” asked David, after a few moments.

“If you flipped a coin ten times, what would happen?”

“What’s that got to do with it?

“Just answer.”

“Well… I suppose you’d get a mixture of heads and tails. You’d expect half of each, but in just ten flips,” he shrugged, “who knows? Could be all heads, could be all tails, could be one to nine, or two to eight, or anything, really.”

“Very good. And if you flipped it one hundred times?”

“Then, assuming you had an evenly-weighted coin, it ought to come out closer to fifty-fifty. But I don’t see–”

“A thousand times? A million? A billion?”

“Closer and closer to an even split. And sore fingers,” he grinned. Entropy didn’t laugh, which seemed rather unfair, all things considered.

“Can you, perhaps, conceive of any other alternative?”

David frowned. “Not if the coin is evenly weighted…”

Entropy dipped her long, pale fingers into the folds of her robe and pulled out a coin. It glinted silver in the non-light. Slowly and deliberately, she pressed her thumb against her index finger, then balanced the metal disc on her thumbnail. With a soft ‘fthick’ the coin leapt upwards, turning over and over in a slow arc. David’s eyes followed it as it reached the apex, and then fell downwards, still spinning.

Clink.

He stared.

“You see,” said Entropy, “you’re like the coin.”

“On edge?”

“Exactly.”

The both considered the disc of metal for a moment, perfectly balanced on its side.

“Are you saying,” asked David slowly, “that I’m somehow between states? I could fall one way, or the other? I could… go back?”

“Perhaps,” said Entropy.

“Perhaps what?”

“Traditionally, in this circumstance, you would challenge me to a game.”

“Really?” asked David, champion Go player, “then I choose–”

“But in this case,” she interrupted, “I think perhaps not, given what happened the last time you proposed a game.”

Memories crawled through David’s mind like a drunk getting back to the house at 3am. They missed the lock, knocked over the furniture and set fire to a frying pan. He’d been playing Go with his friend Jian. And they’d been drinking. A lot. Because, because…”

Entropy shuddered. “Spit all over the playing pieces. Revolting.”

Oh yes. The classic Go variant: I bet I can fit more of these playing pieces into my mouth than you can.

“We’d been drinking,” he protested. “I wouldn’t do that normally.” Thirty-four, he’d managed. Then, before anyone could say Heimlich manoeuvre, here he was having a cosy chat with Dea– Entropy.”

“Traditions,” she mused, “are a very human idea. You spend all this time and energy inventing new and more efficient ways of doing things, but every now and then you insist on making life difficult for yourselves because great-great-grandma would have approved.”

Why had he drunk so much? They’d been celebrating, because…

“I don’t have a ancestors. Or descendants. I remember how everything was done, and I know how it will be done.”

“… brandy. They’d been drinking brandy…”

“And I do have a job to do. I can’t sit around playing complicated strategy games.”

“… because…”

“So with that in mind, pick a number.”

“What?” asked David, jolted away from his fractured memory.

“You say that a lot. Pick a number.”

“Any number?”

“Yes.”

“But there are an infinite number of numbers!”

“I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Can’t you at least give me a, a, range?”

“I can say nothing.”

“What about fractions? Decimals? Irrational numbers?”

“It’s a round number.”

His birthday! They’d been celebrating his birthday! Jian had been meant to be keeping him away from the surprise party he wasn’t supposed to know about!

“Come along, Professor Snacknot, before the universe reaches heat death, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Fifty! It’s my fiftieth birthday! That’s a round number!”

“Fifty is your choice?”

“Yes!” It was an hallucination! His brain had just been trying to process everything. He’d been trying to find a way back to consciousness! Now he’d remembered, he could go back!

Entropy nodded and raised a finger. Arm outstretched, she drew a spiral in the air, the line picked out with glittering silver. The shape pushed outwards, creating a cone-shaped tunnel. In the distance, David thought he could see colours. The brown of a battered wooden desk, the green of an old carpet…

She pointed.

David ran towards the tunnel.

He could see the desk. See the toppled brandy bottle. See his carpet with round, black and white pieces scattered across it. See the two paramedics. See the figure lying prone on the floor.

He was close. He reached out. Almost there.

And watched in horror as his finger dissolved into a thousand glittering pieces.

Tried to cry out as the fragmentation spread up his arm and along his chest.

Felt his larynx splinter before he could make the sound.

The essence of David Snacknot scattered into trillions and billions of particles and drifted away on the silent winds of the universe, never to be joined again.

#

In the grey-stone dessert, Entropy climbed into the cabin of her combine harvester and patted its dashboard. She sighed. Despite what she’d said about traditions, she had rather preferred the horse.

“You’d think a physicist would’ve worked it out, wouldn’t you?” she said to the silent piece of heavy machinery. “There’s only one number where entropy cannot be. And only one number of playing pieces a very drunk, middle-aged man could survive having lodged in his windpipe.”

The combine harvester, of course, said nothing.

“I gave him clues. ‘I can say nothing’ I said. I mean, short of actually telling him the answer, what else could I do?”

The combine harvester rumbled and rose into the air in an upwards arc.

The silver coin toppled from its edge and fell heads up, a single, round disc of silver against the dark stone.


Author’s notes

This story began life as a piece inspired by the Fibonacci sequence. It didn’t really work, and I didn’t like it. But I had a sense that there was something there, particularly in the character of Entropy, so I picked it up again. I ended up gutting the original tale, chopping up and rejigging more or less everything bar the very beginning and some parts of the end. I hope you like it, and if you do it just goes to show: a writer should never throw anything away!


© Kat Day 2016