“What the Dead Tell Us About Charon, Ferryman of the Dead” by Brett Ortler

Brett Ortler


Charon is in a hurry, if you can imagine it,
revving the engine of his outboard motor with one hand
and pulling passengers in with the other,
the boat leaning towards water and righting itself
as each steps in and is guided to a seat
or what passes for seats on his ferry—
a lunch cooler, a tacklebox, the lap of a larger neighbor,
and then the boat lurches away from the dock,
black smoke rising from the old engine,
the bow bouncing over whitecaps.

Then, the sudden stop, the engine silent, the waves
steady against the hull, and the dead,
looking away from the final shore for the first time,
see that Charon’s dressed like a lobsterman,
his rain poncho bright as a banana,
with a fishing rod in hand, casting and reeling as fast as he can
because he’s timed the journey there and back,
and knows he only gets a few casts per trip.

And with each cast, he swears under his breath, cursing the dead,
because they keep him from fishing,
because each insists on the storied ferry ride
despite the dozen bridges across the Acheron,
the helicopters, the kayak and canoe rentals.

And every passenger reminds him of the first,
a young Abel with a knife in his back
trying to swim across the wide water. Charon, with a fish on the line
near the lilies, cut the line, though it must have been a big bass,
to help the young man reach the shore.

Abel was quiet at first, and winced when he saw a heron
spear a perch in the water. He sighed before speaking,
then told Charon what to expect, how things had changed,
now there is suffering on earth, and everywhere in between.

from Rattle #31, Summer 2009

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