All around me the eerie light played against the walls of the cave as I walked towards the dark river. I could only see a few feet ahead of me, could see nothing but the glow of the water and the dim outline of the boat. When I reached it, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped inside and took a seat. I had done this many times. I didn’t need to look to know exactly where I was going. As soon as I was seated, I raised my eyes.
At the head of the boat the ferryman pushed off wordlessly from the shore. The current grabbed hold of the boat and pulled us into the fast-moving water. Neither of us spoke. For what seemed like hours we rode this way, with the water rushing past the boat and the steady rowing of the ferryman the only sounds breaking the silence.
“You are back again.” Four words. I looked at him in surprise. The ferryman was staring at me, his face shadowy from underneath his cloak. In all of the years that I had been here, he had never spoken to me. I didn’t know how to respond.
I finally nodded. “Yes.” I said. “I am. But that’s nothing new.” I frowned. “I’ve been here many times before.”
“No, it is not.” He rowed steadily, the rhythm of the oars never varying. “But lately, you are here very often. And now, you are here almost all the time.”
I bristled a little at this. “I’m not here all the time. I’m only here every once in a while. And besides, I don’t bother you. You travel this river regardless of my presence on your ferry. ”
He laughed, and the sound was old and worn. “You are correct, I travel along this river regardless of who boards my ferry. My movement is perpetual, I have no rest. I am however, referring to you, not to myself. Do you not feel regret, being here so often?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Why would I feel regret? This place is important to me. It’s where I reflect on things, remember things that were and are part of my past. I want to be here.”
The ferryman nodded slowly. For several moments we traveled in silence. I bowed my head, allowing the rhythmic motion of the boat to relax me. “Don’t they miss you when you’re here?” I shot up in my seat and stared at the ferryman, my heart pounding.
“What did you say?” I felt my stomach clench.
“Them.” The ferryman smiled from beneath his cloak. With one long finger he motioned out of the boat. “The ones who you leave when you come here. Because surely, when you sail this river of memory, when you are in this boat, lost in these dark waters, you are not with them. So I ask you again, if they miss you.”
“I…” I tried to answer and immediately shut my mouth again. I shook my head, my stomach clenching tighter. I felt as though someone had splashed cold water in my face. What about them? I thought to the people around me, the ones in my life. The ones who didn’t join me here, in this dark place of memories. Didn’t join me because they couldn’t, even if they might want to. The ones I left behind when I came here. The ones who were left behind more and more everyday. Had I thought about them? Had I even cared? “I don’t know.” I finally answered. I knew it was a lie…I knew the real answer.
He seemed to know it too, because he chuckled and shook his head. “You know the truth.” He responded. “And I know the truth. Now the question is, will anything change? And more importantly…” He grinned. “Do you want it to? Or do you want to sail this river forever, allowing your time to pass along with the current? Your time, your precious time…”
“No, of course I don’t want that!” I shook my head, beginning to panic. “But I…” I started to defend myself, then stopped. “I get caught up sometimes. I feel like I need to be here, for one reason or another. And then, I find that I can’t leave. I get swept away, by this overpowering river. And I don’t know how to make it stop.” I admitted.
He nodded slowly. “The answer is closer than you may think.”
“What?” I sighed. “You’re speaking in riddles.”
“Listen.” He lifted his hand. “Listen closely.” I frowned and listened. I could hear nothing but the water and the rowing. “Listen.” He repeated again. Their voices. Do you hear them?”
A voice came from the darkness. Faint, but there. And then another. And then there were many voices. Calling my name. They were calling me back. To the here, to the now. To the present. To the world away from this dark river of thoughts and memories. “Stop the boat!” I suddenly needed to get out. Needed to get away from this place, this place where everyone I loved was so far away.
The boat impacted against the shore. I jumped out, and began to run. Behind me I could hear the ferryman, hear his laugh as I sprinted away from the river. And then I was back, staring at the faces around me. “I’m back.” I whispered to myself. “And I don’t want to leave again for a very long time.”
They smiled at me. And I smiled back.