Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Part 07: Over the river

Exactly what had changed because of Rachael's ignorance, Nate refused to say. He waved off her questions and began to walk down toward the river, and when she failed to follow, he simply stopped and turned toward her, with all the patience in the world, until she finally yielded to his stoney obduracy and moved to his side.

The silence that engulfed Rachael on the brief walk to the river was neither one of hushed expectation, nor one of growing dread. It was simply empty. As the path sloped gently to the bed of the river, a crowd gathered around her and padded in a silent procession toward the ferry she had seen earlier. Their feet glided across the ground without even the gentle swoosh-swoosh of feet on grass, and if anyone noticed the others, they gave no indication of it. They kept their eyes fixed on where they were going, and moved relentlessly forward with a weary, resigned patience. Not a soul there was disturbed.

Except for one.

To Rachael, the gathering crowd was a vise that tightened upon her heart and lungs with each step. She wiped her hands anxiously on her jeans, and glanced furtively about, looking desperately through the crowd for a familiar or at least friendly face. Not a single eye met hers; it was as though the people in the crowd weren't aware of her.

She could feel the panic welling up within her when she was still a hundred yards away from the bank of the river. By the time she was 50 yards away, she was shaking with a terror she could not name. By the time she reached the bank of the river, it was impossible to move another step. She fell to her knees in the mud and began to sob, hiding her face behind her hands.

In all this journey, no one in the crowd had taken the least notice of Rachael. Now, to her surprise, she felt a gentle hand rest lightly upon her shoulder, and she heard a soft, tremulous voice.

"Are you all right, girl?" Rachael lifted her eyes and saw a weathered, careworn face looking back down at her. It was the man she had seen earlier, from a distance, poling the ferry across the river. He was dressed in a tired gray outfit that had long since lost whatever shape it had once had, and the deep lines on his venerable brown face showed his great age. "It's not often we see someone like you here, but the way you breathe, I heard you coming an hour ago."

"It is willed that she come this way, where such things are willed," Nate began, but the older man brushed him off impatiently, without even a word.

"Where am I?" Rachael asked at last.

The old man smiled mirthlessly, and helped her onto his feet and onto the ferry, but still said nothing. It was as though, at his age, he had long since grown weary of words and the effort it took to communicate things that he felt people should be able to figure out for themselves. Around them the ranks of passengers swelled, more than the wooden carrier should have been able to hold, but still it sank no deeper in the water than when Rachael first stepped onto it.

At some point, though, the ferry must have reached its capacity, because at that point, the old man touched his long pole to the shore and pushed off. The far side of the river was far off, and at the speed they were going, it seemed to Rachael that it would take them all day to reach it. She sighed, and a long deep shudder worked its way through her, and she looked back at the shore they had just left. Already a vast crowd had begun to gather at the edge of the water, and still more people were streaming down the hill in eerie silence.

"Where are we?" Rachael asked the question scarcely above a whisper, not expecting an answer, but in truth she had forgotten that Nate was still hovering right by her. His voice came at once in a high, irritating pitch.

"'She stands at the very cusp of nightmare,
Daring not to admit what already she knows,
Keeping secrets and truths from herself
That could unlock the deepest mysteries
That none but she would keep hidden;
Here where the sun never sets, respite
Forever denied those who suffer 'neath
The groaning burden of their wickedness.
And yet, not there, merely on the edge,
Nearing the very door where faith, hope,
And love lay forgotten, abandoned;
There she rides --"

There was a loud crack as the oarsman struck Nate a staggering blow to the crown of his head with the paddle.

"Shut up, you pest!" the old black man shouted. "I've no time and no patience for your doggerel." His eyes seemed to burn like fire in his head as he glowered angrily at Nate. Then the fire subsided, and he sank the pole into the river, and began moving them once more to the far side. At length, his eyes alit upon a bald-headed man with a gray beard that jutted forth from his jaw.

"You there, balladeer," he said. "We've another twenty minutes to go to the other side. Have mercy on an old man and sing us a song, will you?"

The bearded passenger nodded, though he seemed scarcely aware of where he was or what was happening. It was more as though the oarsman had turned a key in a clockwork and started the passenger walking down familiar paths. Literally from nowhere, the ferry passenger produced a long neck banjo and began to strum it.

"The song I'm going to sing comes from the Georgia Islands," he said. "It was a sea shanty sung by slaves as they rowed from one island to another, but it also told them about freedom in the North, where they could go to escape their lives as slaves. If you know the words, I'd like you to sing along with me."

And then, in a tenor voice, he led the way, joined automatically by almost everyone on the ferry.

Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
That River Jordan is mighty cold, hallelujah.
Chills the body, but not the soul, hallelujah.

There were many verses sung, and they had the desired effect. Although the balladeer and every passenger on the ferry fell eerily silent once the sung had ended, for Rachael – if not for the others – it shortened the ferry ride tremendously. The boat reached the far bank, and the passengers began at once to disembark in the same empty silence that they had boarded in. The oarsman gave Rachael his hand, helped her off the raft, and then began his long journey back to the side they had just come from. For a moment, Rachael had an image of the oarsman, poling the ferry across the river, time after time, through the unrelenting passage of years, and she felt an odd sympathy for the man.

She was aware that someone was buzzing in her ear and pulling at the sleeve on her shirt. It was Nate, of course, but what was unexpected was that he was drawing her attention to someone else who was coming toward them. It was Scott, Mufane's late husband, and he was running toward them as though all the demons of hell were at his heels.

"Scott?" Rachael managed. He was wild-eyed and desperate. "What are you doing here? They told me you were dead. How--?"

"No time to explain," he said. "There's stuff they don't bother to keep secret from you on this side of the river. Rachael, don't trust them. It's too important."

"What are you talking about?" she said. "Don't trust who?"

"I don't have time to explain," he said. There was a commotion behind him, something -- or someone – was coming after him, and it was clear they weren't coming with a friendly intent. "It all comes down to you, that's why they killed me."

"Killed--? Who?" The world was tilting now, making less sense than ever, and Rachael struggled to find some way to balance it again.

Scott wouldn't give her that chance. He leaned in close, and whispered in her ear. "You're still a child, but don't let them use that against you. You have the means to stop them." The clamor was tremendous now, and Rachael saw a pack of massive dogs, straining heavily against their masters, coming toward them. The dogs' teeth were bared, their masters dressed in the austere clothing of those who have power and authority to punish. They would be there in seconds.

"Anorme" Scott whispered, and then without another word, he dived into the river, and before Rachael's eyes he faded from view.

No comments:

Post a Comment