The Ferryman

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Siarhey Bulyha

translated from Russian by Alex Shvartsman

THEY CALL ME the Ferryman, but I can hardly lay claim to the title. Now, my grandfather and my great-grandfather and their predecessors: those were true ferrymen. By the time it was my father’s turn to transport people to the other side, the river had become shallow, and its current had slowed. The water turned dirty, thick with sludge. It became a swamp, impossible to traverse by boat.

My father dragged the boat onto the shore, where it rots to this day. He built a sturdy raft instead. For about a decade he used that raft to ferry people to the other side. By then the water had receded even more, and one day the raft got stuck on a shoal. It sunk slowly into the mire—you can still see some of the logs sticking out of the marsh duckweed. That’s when my father began to carry people across on his shoulders.

My father was strong and broad-shouldered. When paid enough, he could lug two grown men at the same time. I’m no weakling myself: I can carry two people as well, for double the price; sixty coins instead of the usual thirty.

Last Wednesday, when the sun was at its zenith, I was tending the garden. Carrying people across pays well, but the land is more reliable. The land will always feed you. So, I was working the garden when I heard footsteps. I didn’t raise my head, as is my custom. I don’t need them—they need me. I kept gardening until the visitor approached and spoke up.

“Hey, Ferryman!”

I stuck the shovel into the dirt and turned. The man who stood by the fence was dressed well, but not extravagantly. He had that important city-folk feel about him. He carried a saber, and there was a pistol holstered at his belt. I knew right away he was someone important, some sort of earl or baron, perhaps. I spoke evenly, “What can I do for you, Your Grace?”

“Transport me to the other side.” He sounded angry. “Quickly, now. I’m in a hurry.”

I don’t like people who rush me. I brushed dirt from my hands, wiped sweat off my brow, and only then approached the fence. I stopped near the gate without opening it and asked, “Do you know how much it’ll cost, Your Grace?”

“You’ll be well paid,” he said, his voice growing more irritated.

I studied him carefully. He looked like a baron should: rosy cheeks, beady eyes, weak beardless chin, short hair, and a thin mustache cut off above the lip.

“What are you staring at? Haven’t you seen a nobleman before?” He ground his teeth and adjusted his hat.

“Not for some time, Your Grace,” I admitted.

“Well, here’s your opportunity,” he said, some of the anger draining from his voice. “Come, carry me across. What will it cost?”

“Thirty coins,” I said.

“Coins?” He laughed. “No one uses coins anymore, you dolt. These days it’s banknotes. Look.” He reached into his belt and retrieved a small colorful paper with lots of writing and pictures on both sides. I recognized the number ‘50’ written on it. The paper was thick and crisp. “You can have the whole fifty, more than what you asked for. What do you say?”

“No.” I handed the paper back to him. “I don’t know these banknotes. I need coins. It’s what I’m accustomed to.”

“Fool!” said the baron. “I tell you again, no one carries coins anymore. These notes are accepted at any bank, at any market even. Don’t you go to market?”

“No,” I said again. “Why would I? We grow everything we need.”

“Fine,” said the baron. He produced another piece of paper from his belt, which said ‘100’ on it. “Take this one, too.” He suddenly asked, “Are you married?”

“I am,” I said.

“Where is your wife?”

“In our hut. She’s sick. Bedridden.”

“You go to her, and tell her that these two banknotes are enough for the two of you to move to the nearest village, buy the finest house there, then call for the best doctor in the city to come cure her. What sort of coins do you normally get paid in, copper?”

“Yes,” I said. “Pure copper.”

“This is 150 silver. You see this signature?” He pointed at some scribble on the paper. “That’s from the King’s treasurer himself. How dare you look down your nose at it, you buffoon! Go ask your wife, if you still don’t believe me.”

I took the two papers and headed for the hut, leaving the baron to wait behind the closed gate.

My wife is a very sick woman, but she’s also very smart. She almost never gets up, and so she has plenty of time to think about things while I’m busy working. That’s why she’s so much smarter than me.

As soon as I walked in, she asked, “What’s all this racket outside? Is there trouble?”

I told her everything. She shook her head and said, “What an unpleasant man. Don’t argue with him, and don’t delay him. Just carry him over like he wants, and may his bones crumble to dust on the other side.”

“What about the money?”

“Bah,” said the wife. “We won’t get any poorer, and at least we’ll be rid of him.”

“What about these?” I handed her the colorful papers.

She turned them over, this way and that. “They’ll rot here, what with all the humidity. Ah well, maybe they can be of use to our son.” She folded them twice and put them under her pillow. Then she told me to hurry and get rid of the baron already, and with that I left the hut.

The baron was still waiting for me near the gate. I told him that it was a short walk to the swamp, just over the hill and behind some bushes. We set out, with me in the lead.

“What about the swamp itself? Will it take long to cross?” he asked.

“It’s different each time,” I said. “We could cross in five minutes time and barely get my shins wet. Or we can wade for half an hour, waist-deep in muck.”

“Why is that?” he asked.

“I won’t lie,” I said, “I don’t know.”

We walked quietly for a time. When we reached the bushes, the baron asked, “Ever almost drown?”

“Twice,” I said. “But I’ve always made it across, and so did my charges.”

“Is that so?” the baron said in a mocking fashion.

I stopped then, and turned toward him. “It’s not too late to turn back, if Your Grace has changed his mind. I’ll give you back your paper money.”

The baron’s cheeks turned even redder. “Damn the money, and damn you, ferryman. You won’t scare me off.”

“I’m not trying to.”

“Lead on, then.”

I led. We were almost at the edge of the swamp by then. We walked around the bushes and reached the low wooden pier where my wife, back when she could walk, used to wash clothes. Nowadays only I use the pier. It’s convenient—I step into the water and bend my back, and my passengers step off the pier and climb onto my shoulders. I positioned myself thus.

The baron wasn’t paying any attention to me. He stood at the edge of the pier and stared into the swamp, toward the other side. He squinted and shielded his eyes with his hand. “It’s not very far,” he said. “A thousand steps, at most.”

I nodded. “My father said that the other side used to be a lot closer, back when there was a river here. When the river stemmed, it flooded the low-lying banks and became a lot wider.”

“What’s that above the water?” asked the baron. “Looks like smoke.”

“It’s some sort of a fog.” I thought back to how one of my previous passengers explained it. “An evaporation.”

The baron stared at the swamp in silence. “They say a lot of people drowned here,” he finally said.

“Who says?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, but said, “Bend down.”

I crouched. He climbed onto my shoulders. I grabbed his legs, shifted him to fit better around my neck, straightened up, and headed away from the shore. This baron was light and he sat still, making him easy to carry. I walked steadily deeper into the swamp.

I knew just what the baron meant when he asked about those who drowned. Those were the people who came into the swamp on their own. They were too cheap to pay the thirty coins, so they headed in, not knowing what they were doing, and the swamp gulped them down. This happens many times each year. Sometimes, as I carry a passenger across, I see a hat hanging off a branch, or a staff stuck in the bush, or a length of rope floating in the water. People perish over a little bit of money. What a waste!

I’d spit in contempt, but the swamp doesn’t like that. You spit, you might find yourself tripping on what you thought was nice and even ground, and drowning. The swamp is temperamental, not to be disrespected.

“How much further?” the baron asked from above my head.

I stopped and looked around, and said that I didn’t know.

“We’ve been in the swamp for ten minutes,” he said. “I am checking my pocket watch.”

“That may be,” I said. “At least it isn’t deep. We’ve been wending smoothly, keeping almost dry. Could have just as easily been neck deep in the water.”

“Why aren’t we?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, and kept walking. I wondered that myself. Was this a sign? Did it mean that his paper money was real? Ah, what do I care for the money, anyway. I don’t need it, and no matter how much we have, my wife will complain that it’s not enough.

“If we had more money, our son wouldn’t have left,” she always says. Years ago, he left for the city. Said he wanted to enlist, to become an officer, to earn enough money to buy his own village and a title. Since then he hasn’t returned, hasn’t written. Perhaps he’s serving in some army even now, far away from home.

And as I thought about my son, I sighed and came to a stop.

“Are you lost? Don’t you know the way?” the baron said, anger seeping back into his voice.

I stood there, silent.

“What a nasty place,” said the baron. “It seems like you’re just stomping your feet, wading in the water. We aren’t making very much progress at all.”

Now I was getting angry. “Why don’t you look back, Your Grace.”

He turned, and gasped. He must’ve seen just how far we already came.

“What can you see?” I asked.

He didn’t reply. I shifted him on my shoulders and pressed on. There was a lot of thick brush in the swamp and I couldn’t see far. I knew which way to go only by checking the position of the sun. Only the baron could see the other shore, from his seat high up on my shoulders. I knew what he’d see: a marsh overgrown with vegetation and, further up, a forest.

Alder and aspen grew near the water, and spruce a little higher up. At the top of the hill was a pine grove. That’s what the other shore looked like. At least that’s what it looked like from the edge of the swamp—I never ventured any further than that. And I didn’t know what any of my passengers hoped to find there, either.

“Tell me, Your Grace, why do you want to cross? What do you seek on the other side?” I finally asked.

He didn’t reply.

I pressed on. “I heard people say that on the other side lies paradise. But my father explored there, and never found anything. As far as he went, there was only the forest, same as you see. So he came back. But others—they don’t come back. For as long as I’ve lived here, as long as I’ve carried people across, no one has ever come back. Why is that?”

That’s when the baron squeezed my neck hard with his knees. I almost choked. I mis-stepped and staggered. The baron let go of my neck, grabbed on tighter with his hands and said, “Careful!”

I balanced myself, but felt my feet sinking deeper and deeper into the swamp. Soon the water was knee-deep. The baron was shifting around again.

“Easy, Your Grace. Be still, or I don’t know what might happen.”

He shouted, “Don’t you threaten me, boor. Else I’ll cut you deep enough to let out your entrails.”

I grinned at this. I’ve been threatened with worse, over the years.

“Let’s not argue, Your Grace. We have a long way to go yet.” I carried him onward.

It was a very difficult stretch. The water kept getting deeper. The baron shifted and drew in his legs, because the water was almost reaching them. I was now waist deep in the sludge, and breathing heavily.

“You dog,” said the baron in a nasty voice. “You dragged me here on purpose. I’ll tell you why no one ever returns from the other side. They are afraid of you!”

“Why would anyone fear me?”

“Because you’ll drown them, that’s why.” The baron’s voice kept rising. “Rob them first, and then drown them!”

I was amused by this. “Then why did you come here? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll rob you, too?”

“I have no more money,” he said. “I already gave it all to you. And you won’t kill me. If anything, I’ll kill you if I choose to!”

“That’s your business,” I mocked him. “Your Grace must be used to deciding who to punish and who to pardon. Me—I’m just a serf, a commoner.” I turned my head as much as I could to look up at him. “May I have your permission to proceed?”

“Proceed,” he whispered.

We moved on. The thought of throwing him off, of holding his head under the sludge until the bubbles stopped and his body ceased struggling came unbidden into my mind.

I forced such thoughts away. My father told me many times that you cannot become angry while in the swamp. The swamp doesn’t like that. It doesn’t like those who are afraid of it, those who are nervous, those who think they might slip. We cross the swamp because we don’t fear it, Father said. Others fear it, but we don’t. It’s a good thing, too, because if we were afraid of it, we wouldn’t have such an easy, well-paying job.

I calmed myself and saw that the other side was getting much closer. It was difficult to judge distances in the fog, but it seemed that the pines atop the hill grew larger.

“See, Your Grace, it’s not much longer. We’ll be on dry land, on the other side, soon,” I said cheerfully.

An angry reply came. “Don’t you feed me lies, boor. I know your kind.” He grabbed onto me even tighter.

“What about my kind?” I said as I walked. “I don’t hide who I am. I’m an honest man, working in plain sight, like my father and his father and grandfather before him.”

“Plain sight?” The baron was searching his belt. He must’ve been checking for his pistol, making sure it was easy to reach. I pretended not to notice.

“All you travelers look down at me as I carry you across. Countless people—and not one of them would give me an honest answer about what they want on the other side. You all secretly think there’s paradise, but there’s only the forest. My father searched for a long time, and found nothing else there. Nothing!”

It was difficult to speak. I was now up to my chest in sludge, but I would have my say.

The baron only chuckled. “So what if your father had found nothing? It only means he needed nothing, sought nothing, and so nothing was revealed to him. Those with goals and drive can find many answers on the other side.”

“How about you, Your Grace? What do you seek?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I sought only you. For all the good people, all the noblemen you drowned here, you dog. People came seeking a better life, and you murdered them without mercy. You—”

He screamed at me, cursed at me, and I already knew what was to come. He would reach for his pistol, push it up to the back of my head—because there isn’t room to swing a saber here— and fire. I thought I could stop him, grab the pistol away from him. But I misjudged his intent.

The baron drew his knife instead, and sliced deep across my throat, from ear to ear. Blood poured from the wound. I stumbled and fell into the swamp, dragging the baron with me. I was losing a lot of blood, but I hung on to him fast, not letting go, no matter how much he struggled. I was holding him down with one hand and trying to stem the flow of blood with another. But the wound was too deep—so deep, it was a wonder my head remained attached to my shoulders.

The baron struggled fiercely. He was probably trying to scream, but there isn’t much screaming to be done under the swamp’s surface. Soon his body went limp as he drowned. I held him under the water for a time longer, until I was certain he was dead. Then I let go of him, grabbed at the wound with both hands and crawled to my knees, then stood upright.

I couldn’t breathe, so I stood in the water and waited for the wound to close and scab. The blood trickled through my fingers and down my chest. Every so often I reached into the swamp, scooped up some dirty water, and washed the wound. And when the wound finally closed, I turned around and walked toward my home. It was a long, difficult walk, but what choice did I have? I wasn’t about to remain in the swamp along with the baron’s body.

When I finally reached the shore I stopped to wash off as much dirt and grime as I could. It wouldn’t do to drag the mud into my hut. As to the wound, the wife had seen me return with much worse.

When I entered the hut, she glanced at me and said right away that she knew the baron wasn’t a good man.

“How does the earth hold so many bad people?” she added and shook her head.

I said nothing, and thought of the patchwork of scars that covered my entire body. There used to be one on my neck, and now there would be a second. I sat down on the stool next to my wife’s bed. I was feeling heartsick; the baron’s words about me killing and robbing everyone grated at my soul.

It wasn’t true. They attacked me first, lashing out, trying to kill me. I was only defending myself. Those who didn’t strike at me reached the other side safely. Even so, I never heard from or saw them again. Why is that?

My wife took hold of my hand. “It’s okay. These things happen. Look on the bright side—you earned a lot of money today.”

“Paper money,” I said with disdain.

“New money,” she said. She reached under the pillow to make sure the papers were still there. “They may look strange to us—we old people are set in our ways—but the youngsters, they understand. I wish our son would return soon. He doesn’t need to keep serving in the army, we saved up so much money already. Maybe enough for him to buy a village, and become a baron. After all these years, maybe at least one of us will make something of himself.”

I didn’t reply. All these years, indeed. It has been over one hundred years since our son left, maybe closer to two hundred. Countless years more since my father journeyed to the other side. Could it be that there was nothing there then, all those years ago, but now there truly is some sort of a paradise?

Perhaps I should go there myself, and find out. Without any passengers, without a load to carry, just me. I could leave a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, and some onions by my wife’s bedside, and just go . . .

But what if I don’t return? What will happen with the crossing? Who will be the ferryman? No, I can’t do that, can’t abandon my lot, I can’t allow for that to happen.

That’s why I hate them all so much. My passengers have the freedom to go whenever they want, the freedom not to return, but I am stuck here for life. A very long life.

~

The original Russian text of “The Ferryman” (Перевозчик) was published in Russkaya Fantastika 2012. You can read it online at sparkanthology.org/perevozchik.

English version published in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Volume V, translated by Alex Shvartsman.

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About the Author

SIARHEY BULYHA is a novelist and scriptwriter from Minsk, Belarus. He has numerous novels and short stories published in Russian. His fantasy novel Alien Crown won the Efremov Award in 2004. He is particularly known for drawing on the themes of Belorussian legends and fairy tales for his work, as is the case with this story.

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About the Translator

ALEX SHVARTSMAN is a writer and game designer from Brooklyn, New York. His fiction has appeared in Spark Volume IV, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and many other venues. He edits the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous science fiction and fantasy. — alexshvartsman.com

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