The Ferryman by Danielle Ward
Photo Credit: Pedro Kümmel for Unsplash
“How’s the search?” asked Mabel as she wiped off the counter where the bearded man sat with a sigh. She offered him a Cozy Corner mug filled with steaming black coffee. “It continues. Had another dead-beat,” he said disgruntled. “Couldn’t dive deep enough to follow me on the journey. Spent the whole week trying to work with him. But hey, I’m checking out a young woman from Nevada named Ryn. From her email, she seems to be desperately searching for something. Desperation might finally work in my favor.” Mabel chuckled. “You are the crankiest optimist I’ve ever met.”
“Mae, I am seventy-who’s-counting and every blessed day, I get a little hungrier for your buttermilk biscuits and jam. I am desperate to just sit here with a book—pretending to read while I watch you bustle around—all the while building that sweet fatty layer on my tongue before washing it away with the bitterness of the warm black stuff you call coffee.”
“Don’t tease me, Jake Reynolds. You’ve been retired for what? Nine years now? You know I’d gladly make you a heaping plate of biscuits and a tub of jam if you’d come around to stay.”
There was a pause and a look shared between them. Then Mabel quipped, “Besides, when have you ever sat around here long enough to read a whole book?”
“Can’t. Not until I’m re-retired. No time for really enjoying it—any of it—not just yet.” Jake smiled at her, then focused his attention on his coffee, as if the future would reveal itself in the darkness if he just stared long enough.
“I’ll be right here then,” she said as she walked away, “rooting for Desperate Girl to be the one to release you.” She glanced back hopefully, but found Jake absorbed into his phone.
“Always using me for my Wi-Fi!”
He only half heard her as he checked for new responses to his online ad.
Trying not to feel deflated, Jake downed a few more gulps. “Same place tomorrow then,” he said in the general direction of the kitchen before tinkling the chime on his way out the door. It was this sound that started and ended his daily ritual of visiting the Cozy Corner.
The rest of his morning routine consisted of grabbing some items at the general store and chatting with familiar faces before driving back to the marina at Wahweap Bay. As much as he longed to be near Mabel, he was glad to get back to his houseboat.
As usual, he steered the boat towards a quiet cove, then dropped anchor, leaned into his hammock chair on the bow, and chomped a green apple. He relished this pace; certainly beat waking up at five AM to prepare for work on the UDOT ferry. Now, he could make time to take in the view.
The dramatic demarcation between the blue-green color of Lake Powell and the burnt orange sandstone cliffs rising out of it was his anchor in this world. As he stared at a band of white rock near the waterline, he let his gaze soften, focused on his breath, and went within.
After practicing such introspective concentration daily since turning 45, Jake easily flowed downriver in his mind towards a darkened pool full of stars. Here, he let himself float in the warmth of a universal birthplace, each point of light reminding him what had already come and gone, while, paradoxically, what was still possible. His body melted away. His energy multiplied. It was exactly what he needed to be ready for the day.
Minutes, maybe hours, later—hard for him to tell—Jake heard a small voice calling him back from this bliss.
“Are you the Ferryman?”
At the mention of that name, Jake composed himself—gathering body, mind, and spirit together again—and maneuvered in his mind, back upstream, to that familiar spot in the hammock.
“Excuse me, mister,” pleaded the voice. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, sorry. Yes.” Jake said, opening his eyes to see a young boy standing in front of him. “How’d you…?”
The boy sheepishly answered, “I hid under the bed. I’m hoping I got the right boat.” “It is. But my shift hasn’t—”
Without waiting for him to finish, the boy said, “Please, Mr. Ferryman. I need your help. I’ve lost my family.”
The panic on the boy’s face set Jake into action. “It’s alright,” he said in a soothing tone. “Sit down here. Take some deep breaths with me.”
As the boy sat on a bench, trying to calm himself, Jake quickly assessed if this was an earthly concern related to the boy wanting to connect with his family or a spiritual request for the boy himself.
“Tell me what you can remember,” Jake said, watching the boy’s eyes.
“We were driving up the mountain to ski, like we did every year,” the boy started. “My sister—a teenager—didn’t want to spend the weekend away from her boyfriend, but my parents made her anyway. It was snowing. This car came skidding towards us and pushed us over and over. Then everyone was sitting completely still. People were trying to help us out of the car. I don’t know what happened next or where they went. I feel like I’ve been walking around forever.” The boy looked up, hopeful. “A few people told me to find you.”
“Sounds like you had quite a shock.” The Ferryman had heard and understood. “Do you have a coin, son?”
The boy looked perplexed. “What’d you need a coin for?”
“You’re gonna need it to cross the river…to find your parents.”
The boy got excited then. “Oh, like a fare? So, you’ll take me?”
The Ferryman smiled. He was used to unraveling the mystery for folks, but was mindful not to startle the boy.
“Actually, it’s not for me. Once you get a coin, come back to me and I’ll take you to your family. You’ll need to put the coin in your mouth and hold it there until we cross-over. Some say it protects you, but I believe the currency exchange is just a formality. Same as traveling by boat together to the other side. It all helps the mind to process the experience.” “I don’t get it. Where are my parents staying again?”
The Ferryman took a long breath, recognizing the need to be more direct. “The car accident…your family didn’t survive. They’re in the spirit world.”
“You can’t know that!” the boy said indignantly.
“Listen, I know this isn’t something a boy your age wants to hear…or even, I suppose, knows what to do with. But, son, you are also no longer living.”
The boy’s response was quick and cutting. “You’re lying.”
“Wish that were so,” said the Ferryman. “Come on, let me show you.” He walked inside, towards the kitchen and grabbed a green apple. “They are good and tart,” he said, encouraging the boy to come take a bite. Playing along, the boy sunk his teeth into the crisp flesh. He looked down at the bland fruit with suspicion. Next, the Ferryman handed the boy a red onion and gestured to do the same. It was shockingly palatable; he didn’t taste a thing. Lastly, the boy took a peppermint from the bowl. He unwrapped it hopefully, but no sweet flavor could be found. The Ferryman explained, “A spirit like yourself can eat, might even have cravings for a certain food, but they don’t savor it the same way as when they’re living.” The boy stood there, working the mint around in his mouth.
“You’re what, eight?” asked the Ferryman.
The boy corrected him. “Actually, eight and three quarters.”
“Right.” The Ferryman chuckled. “Think. Have you slept anywhere or used the bathroom at all on your travels to find me?”
The boy’s eyes started to get wide.
The Ferryman continued, “Did you find most people ignored you when you tried to talk to them?”
The boy nodded.
“They couldn’t see or hear you. You see, most aren’t like me.”
“This is what it feels like to be dead?” asked the boy in disbelief.
“Yes. However, it’ll feel different once you’re settled on the other side.”
The Ferryman had gotten in. The first and sometimes hardest part of his job was getting a reluctant spirit to recognize their current state, but the boy seemed to accept it better than most. “Now, let’s get you back, so you can get that coin.”
The boy stayed close to the Ferryman as he steered the boat towards the marina. “Couldn’t you just give me a coin?” asked the boy. “Does it have to be a special coin or something?”
The Ferryman explained how a spirit must come to him with their own coin. “It’s the rules.”
When they docked, he guided the boy in the direction of the Cozy Corner café, offering, “There’s always a take-a-penny-leave-a-penny cup on the counter. Go get yourself one.” As the boy walked off, Jake saw someone on the dock wave to the boy as they passed. It seemed to surprise the boy, but not Jake.
“You must be Ryn.”
“And with a boat named Charon, I assume you're Jake.” Ryn responded in a raspy tone that didn’t fit her age or slim physique, but seemed appropriate for her forthright attitude. “Guilty.” The two gripped hands and exchanged smiles as if long-time friends. “FYI,” Jake leaned in, whispering, “I pronounce it with a soft ch- sound, like a woman’s name, instead of a hard k-, like they do in Greece. Got to pay proper respects since a boat carries us like a womb.”
“No arguments here. I love and respect all female energy.”
With that, Ryn met her hands together at her heart and bowed her head before stepping onto the sacred vessel, “Blessings, Charon.”
Jake often felt sheepish showing his recruits their “room,” which was merely a bunk bed with a curtain, but not this time; Ryn threw her knapsack on her bed with an earnest “Cool,” then eagerly asked him if the boy was their next passenger.
Pleased with her enthusiasm, Jake got right to it. “You mentioned in your email you have a natural connection with spirits and that you’ve been studying…Akashic records—did I say that right?”
“Yeah. I explain it like a spiritual librarian. I can access records of past lives from the Book of Life to help guide someone’s path towards their soul’s purpose. I’ve been successful at helping people on this plane, but need to know how to help spirits who come to me asking to cross-over. I want to be of service, yet I’m unsure of the process.”
“That’s a good place to start. The goal is to make the transition as pleasant as possible,” instructed Jake. “Crossing-over should be as natural as being born, but there’s many variables that come into play, freewill being the biggest. If a soul’s not ready and willing to leave this earth, no amount of sailing west will get them there.”
“The soul’s path home is westward. All Ferrymen travel in the direction of the setting sun.”
Ryn asked, “How many—"
“Got it!” announced the boy, unintentionally interrupting the first lesson. He flipped a shiny penny towards the Ferryman. “Let’s find my family.”
The Ferryman pocketed the copper coin explaining, “It’ll take a while to get everything ready.” Then he set the boy up at the bow with a fishing pole and some bait. “Have at it.” As if the two had been working alongside each other for years, Jake handed Ryn items to prepare for the boy’s journey, along with explanations: “Comfy pillows for sitting while listening to stories—memories, desires, worries, or regrets. Some sort of guiding light—in this case sparklers, which also adds a little joy. A smudge stick of white sage and lavender to promote peace of mind and soul.”
Overhearing, the boy yelled back, “Yes! Sparklers are the best!”
The Ferryman grinned then guided Ryn through the ritual of opening the hallowed space. When ready, the Ferryman invited the boy to come sit with them, asking questions that got the boy talking freely as the scent of sage wafted around him.
When the sky glowed burnt-orange, the Ferryman paused as dusk painted the surrounding mountains black, then he started the boat downriver, descending into night. The boy drew shapes and names in the air with the sparklers. When they dropped anchor to continue the journey across the river, the Ferryman gave the coin back to the boy to place on his tongue. The three gathered together at the side of Charon where the Ferryman started their journey. Hand in hand, they stared into the mirrored water. Together they dove in, shape-shifting into salmon—the animal that instinctively swims home. An eagle then swooped down and carefully caught the three fish, soaring towards a mountain on the other side. A man was waiting at the peak. He reached out to catch the fish in his net as soon as the eagle released them. Gently he placed them on dry land where the three transformed into their more familiar forms.
The boy looked up and immediately embraced the man.
“We’ve been waiting for you, son,” said the boy’s father, taking a moment to thank the guides who brought him across. “I can take you the rest of the way. Your mother and sister have been impatient...”
The boy broke away from his father long enough to wave to the Ferryman and his apprentice. Then, grinning, the boy and his father faded away.
Jake picked up the shiny penny left after the spirits dissipated and handed it to Ryn, saying: “You did well keeping up, though that one was easier than most. He had a strong connection with his family.
“That was so gratifying,” Ryn said smiling.
He knew she was hooked.
The two made a good team. Each day, after their visit to the Cozy Corner, Jake passed all he had learned from his teacher to Ryn, gradually letting her lead more of the journey. Nine months later—a seemingly short amount of time, but long enough to birth another being—Ryn announced she felt ready to claim the title “Ferryman” as her own. Jake handed her his box of coins and declared his re-retirement.
Over a bottle of mead that Mabel had been saving for this occasion, the three toasted to this right of passage for each of them. Their faces showed a similar mixture of excitement, apprehension, and hope as they faced a new future.
Jake and Mae drifted into a comfortable routine of biscuits, books, and beautiful journeys together both in and out of bed. Jake, surprised at how content and at ease he could feel, dedicated every day to Mae. Of course, he also offered gratitude to Ryn each morning with his first sips of coffee. Each day melted into the next seamlessly.
Over the years, post-card exchanges kept Ryn in the loop on their burgeoning sunset romance and let Jake and Mae know what part of the four corners Ryn was currently navigating.
Ryn’s morning routine started with suiting up for a chilly morning ride down Eagle River. On this day, however, the kayak felt heavier than usual. After wading into the “wake-up water” and paddling out, she started to center. Nature’s orchestra—lapping water, whispering wind, and chirping trees—was her anchor. A decade of meditative yoga helped her easily navigate the depth of spirit needed to take care of herself and others. Her body melted away and her energy multiplied. She walked amongst a field of sunflowers that bloomed behind her eyelids, a universal place where each flower reminded her of the eternal cycle of yesterday, now, tomorrow, renewal.
It was upon her return, when Ryn rounded the bend, that she saw him.
“It has been too long.” Jake called out.
Paddling faster, she yelled, “Four years too long.”
“Nice digs,” he said, pointing to her camper van.
“It’s as permanent as I get.”
As Ryn pulled closer, she added. “Trying to leave only a tiny footprint for Mother Earth to remember me by.”
“You been enjoying the work?” Jake asked with a twinge of melancholy. “Simultaneous heartbreak and joy…just as you said. But hey, I never feel alone.” She paused before adding, “Wouldn’t mind finding my own Mae someday though. I can feel the wholeness you two have, even within those brief post-cards.”
Finally at shore, Ryn splashed up to give Jake a proper greeting. “It’s good to see you, my friend. You’re looking good! Re-retirement must be going well.”
It was then that Jake flipped a silver dollar in the air. Ryn froze. She looked up to meet his eyes and saw the distant look that confirmed why he was really there.
He shrugged, “I lingered a little too long. Couldn’t leave Mae quite yet. Took me too long to show up in the first place. Didn’t seem fair to leave her early. But then I realized, I’m not any good to her like this... So it seems I need a ride.”
Ryn swallowed hard and came up with a smile. “It would be my honor.”
While she prepared, the two talked through the afternoon about how he put distance between himself and his family, how Mae taught him about unconditional love, how his penance for lives lost in Korea led him to become a Ferryman, and how the legacy he passed on will continue to help others. It wasn’t just two friends saying good-bye, the Ferryman also knew that this old man needed to lay it all down before he crossed.
When the time came, Jake placed the coin in his mouth and stepped into the kayak as the Ferryman placed an electric lantern into the tandem’s deck rigging. With the old man watching the stars in the darkened pool above, the Ferryman paddled West towards the mountains for their final journey together.
Danielle Ward is a graduate of Eastern Washington University's MFA Creative Writing program with an emphasis in fiction (2010). Since then, she has focused on supporting the work of other writers as the Program Director of EWU's Get Lit! Festival and subsequently as the Literary Manager of San Diego Repertory Theatre, where dedicated the last decade to helping develop the work of playwrights from across the country. Now she is working as a freelance writer and dramaturg. Danielle also has a Bachelor's Degree in Dramatic Arts, with an emphasis in playwriting from the University of California at Irvine. She currently lives in Chula Vista, California with her wife, son, mother, and three furry children, sometimes playing a long game of hide and seek in order to write.