Fiction by Josh Sampson
My name is Charon. I was once the ferryman for the dead.
My story begins when Christianity came to power. This was when the Underworld began massive downsizing in the employment department. The employment guys were a-holes anyway, but people liked them even less after that.
The problem stemmed from loss of faith in the Olympus Gods. This Jesus character showed up and everybody believed in him instead of us. We lost everything.
Poseidon, for instance, had to foreclose on Atlantis. His nephew, Ares, suffered from military cuts and lost all of his legions, so it was no surprise when he went batty. Last anybody heard, he was flying a chariot into the sun. Even the women got caught up in it. Aphrodite (one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen) ended up at Zeus's Thunder Rod—a sleazy strip joint on Olympus—dancing for the gorgons. I shudder to even think.
I was one of the last to lose my job because old Greek men and women would occasionally shamble by looking for sanctuary after life. Honestly, I didn't know what to tell them because there wasn't much left.
I knew things were going from bad to worse when Hades broke down in front of me.
I had been on break, so I was sitting on a rock near my dog Cerberus, picking the lettuce off my sandwich and reflecting on how little I had done that day, when out of nowhere Hades walked up and started saying something about being confused. Then he began weeping. Cerberus stared at him like he was crazy and I did the same.
“My wife left me today,” he said. Red hot tears flowed down his face, setting the riverside shrubs on fire. “She said I was a loser and I wasn't good enough for her.”
“I think Zeus is going through the same thing, Hades,” I said, trying to make him feel better.
He wiped his cheek and nodded. “Yeah. I just got off the phone with him. He said things weren't going so good on Olympus. He said when he wields a lightning bolt the Olympians just treat him like he's a child throwing a temper-tantrum.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked, taking a bite of my sandwich.
“I don't know,” he replied, looking out over the River Styx. “I don't know.”
A day later I got the call from Hermes, whom I know quite well because he helps Thanatos lead the dead to the shore sometimes. He said Hades had gone missing. I asked him if he knew anything else and, in a tear-laden voice, he responded, “He left a note.”
Basically, Hades was on vacation—permanently.
Not long after that, word got around that Zeus was planning a similar mission. Hermes, during a second phone call, told me Zeus was going to find Hades and live out the rest of his life in quiet solitude. He never made it that far: Hercules found out Zeus was romping around with his wife and lost his cool. I caught the news the following day. Hercules had spiked Zeus with one of his own thunder bolts—stuck him right in the spleen.
Everything collapsed after that. That's when my life went downhill. I spent everyday on the River Styx, Acheron, Coctyus, Phlegethon, and Lethe, and just about every hour thinking about it. That was my life.
It all changed when God showed up.
The first thing he did was go about inspecting the unemployed Olympians. I didn't see him that time, but everyone told me he shook his head and sighed alot. We didn't know if he was going to help us or not, but he did. He transported us to Hell.
It didn't take God long to come up with a plan and, when that happened, we were relieved.
He instituted an unemployment program and most of us got our jobs back. Hermes, for example, who had nothing after Olympus fell, was granted angel status and wings. He gave me a ferry, too, and I was happy for a time. Even so, it was not the same because I had to float over molten lava instead of the beautiful River Styx.
I met Lucifer on my first day. I had known of him from before, because Hera went to stay with him after Zeus died—she couldn't find the malice she wanted in God. I thought Lucifer was a good guy, but he enjoyed being a prick. I guess that's just his personality. Oh, and he loved to piss God off.
One time, Lucifer started zoning in on parts of Heaven for landmark development. What people don't know is that Heaven and Hell are conjoined. I'll leave it to the big man's wise planning on that one. Anyway, God wasn't happy with Lucifer because he planned on building a rather large, sexual statue near the Pearly Gates. Now, one could imagine what that would be like if they came to St. Peter and saw an enormous phallus protruding from the grass to their right. Unsettling.
And so, here was God stomping onto my boat and looking pretty pissed off.
“Hi,” I said, but he gave me this serious look so I shut my mouth.
He looked like what you would expect God to look like. He was part black, part white, part everything. He had piercing blue eyes and long, grayish hair. He wore a white robe of unrealistic brilliance, like it had been woven by angels. I could tell he was going to slap Lucifer upside his head, but even in his rage he still looked wise
He went up the hill to Hell and I could hear him screaming at Lucifer immediately. They argued for ages. When he was done he made his way back to my boat, shaking his head.
On our way to the opposite shore he chilled-out and even asked me to sing. I obliged. I liked singing.
“I went down to the river to prey,
studying about that good ole way,
and who shall wear the starry crown,
good lord show me the way!—”
I was cut short as God waived his hand dismissively. “No, no,” he said. “I've heard that one far too often. Sing something else.”
So, I did.
“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.
Queen never sounded so good. God agreed.
I hit rock bottom shortly thereafter. Even though my life was supposed to have some meaning, it didn't.
I started to visit the Tartarus Pit, the local bar in Hell. It didn't take long to figure out the secret of that place. There were a lot of saps there just like me.
Take, for instance, the Egyptian God Horus. He's the only god I've seen outside of the Greeks and Christians lounging around, but I think he does it for sympathy. He has a serious complex about what he could have been, considering the virgin birth and all that.
“You know all that Jesus stuff was about me, right?” he would say, half-slurred, and always nose down in a bottle of booze. “Yeah, they took it from me! I could be God right now if the right people would've been there at the right time.”
Normally this ended in weeping and one of the cyclops feeling dejected. It's stuff like that that makes me want to run and hide.
I spent a lot of time at the Pit thinking about what I was doing, but I could never come up with an answer. I liked my job as a ferryman, but what I really wanted was a change. Life after the Underworld was dull. The fact I had once been Charon, The Shepherd of the Dead but was now Charon the Ex-Unemployed Loser of the Underworld hurt. It felt like I had been given a hand-out by God.
The day my life transformed was much the same. I was thinking and ferrying along like I always do when I just happened to look up and notice my passenger watching me with interest.
At first I tried to drown out his stare by singing, but he became more engaged at this and introduced himself. He said his name was Leonardo Costello and had been a singer in life. He was in Hell, he said, because he didn't pay his taxes. God was not a fan of tax-evasion.
“I used to traverse the world and sing for people,” he said. “I would go everywhere from New York to Pompeii. I was brilliant.”
I was jealous of this man from the start, so I gave him a paddle with my oar.
“Accidental,” I said, as he rubbed his head. There were only a few reasons I hit people with my oar; one reason was jealousy, another was for being a know-it-all, and the last was for boasting. Smacking folks with my oar was an easy way to keep them in line. I imagined it hurt like hell.
“Well, in Sicily, I was known for my tenor voice. I was paid quite handsomely, too.” He smiled.
“Wow,” I said, still not acknowledging him.
“Yep,” he replied. “I loved it. But you know what? I really loved something more. Shall I tell you?”
“Oh, yes, please do,” I replied, and I hoped he noticed my sarcasm. He didn't.
“I will really miss being a gondolier,” he said proudly.
I had heard many things in my lifetime, which has been extensive indeed, but I had never heard this word. I attribute my density to dealing with ancient people. Gondoliers simply weren't present in the Underworld.
“What,” I said, “is a gondolier?”
Leonardo gave a laugh. “A gondolier is one who ferries a gondola, or boat, almost like yourself, but it is also one who sings whilst doing it.”
I had no idea this job existed. I was stunned. It seemed like my whole existence had been a sham. So, bringing my oar over the boat once more, I bashed him on top of the head for being a know-it-all.
He winced and rubbed his head.
“I can't believe it,” I said, staring off into the lava. “People actually do that?”
“Yes. I did it, and I was great.” He ducked as the oar came over the lip of the ferry again. He was being boastful.
“And where would one go about getting a job such as this?” I asked, interested. The ferry had stopped in the lava river, and I was slouched over my oar.
“Well, Venice is where I worked. Are you thinking about doing it?”
“I don't know,” I said calmly. “I haven't really thought about it.” This was a lie, because that was all I was thinking about.
“Then let me see you at work, Mr. Gondolier.” He stood with his chin up, expecting a serenading.
I gave it to him.
When I was done, he looked surprised. “I figured you had the voice in you. I heard you singing before and thought you were good, but now I know you are. You, Sir, could be a gondolier.”
“Thank you so much,” I replied, and we landed on the other side of the river.
He began to dig in his pockets for a danake, but I stayed his hand.
“This ride is on me,” I said with a smile. He looked at me gratefully. Turning, he jumped from the ferry and walked briskly over the hill to Hell where a demon met him.
“Leonardo Costello?” the demon asked haphazardly.
“Yep, that's me,” Leonardo said with his hands in his pockets.
“Welcome to Hell. It looks like your punishment is to listen to Tiny Tim sing Tiptoe Through the Tulips for a century…”
“Well, that's not so bad,” Leonardo replied approvingly.
“ … while a demon rapes you.”
“Well that's not good at all,” Leonardo responded, frowning. The demon led him by the arm and into Hell where, after a brief silence, a scream began that was drowned out by the strumming of a ukelele.
I, meanwhile, jumped from my boat and went immediately to put in my resignation. I would no longer spend my life toiling away in Hell. I would become a gondolier.