I'm now hawking my wares on Patreon where, if you want to support my writing, I don't think $1 a story is unreasonable. And you can set a monthly cap! This was written at the request of Andy Goddard, my very first patron.
The Styx is a blue and white river. Before reaching the Underworld, it meanders through planes and valleys, high forested hills, cities of brick and limestone, gold, and granite. In some places, Gothic towers provide a dramatic backdrop for the parasol pleasure-boaters who picnic and wave at the slow ferry of the newly deceased.
Pearl is on board. She died in her sleep, seventy eight, her second husband found her when he woke. He didn't really mind.
Her companions are a woman with a crinkled face and bowler hat, a chatty soldier, and the captain – who scuds their boat over the water with a paddle.
The journey is long.
And a very long time ago, Pearl played in The Rotten Place although her father didn't know. The Rotten Place was five black sycamores at the end of the garden. Pearl would tie a shopping basket onto the end of the hosepipe and swing it up to hang off the high branches. Each tennis ball she got in was five points. Throw enough in and either the basket would come down, or the branch would.
But not that day. She threw a stick. She threw a strop. The basket stayed put.
Muddy footprints up the stair carpet and here she was an imperious silhouette in her younger sister's doorway. Elyse cocked an eyebrow. She was eight years old, doing fractions, and definitely not a coward. The thought of a little tree climbing didn't scare her.
There were a few hold-your-breath moments as branches cracked but Elyse was light and springy. She grabbed the branch which held the basket just as the one she was stood on gave way and fell an inch from Pearl's laces. Pearl shrieked. Elyse secured herself by lifting up her legs and crawling upside down until the basket was in her sights. Kick! and the target tumbled. Below, a thump, another shriek, and a number of quieter, more hollow bouncing thumps trailing off.
and here they are in Pearl's bedroom. Elyse is doing her fractions, Pearl's arranging her books.
Pearl has an idea. She gets out the biscuit tin with her saved up pocket money, chooses two coins and places them on top of her sister and best friend's maths.
“Thank you for your services.”
Elyse's brow furrows until she gets the game. She stands on the bed and bows.
“Of course, ma'am.”
Laughter engulfs them and then, their lesson absorbed, they grow up.
On the Styx, the woman with the crinkly face and the bowler hat sucks a sweet. The cities grow further and further apart. The hills are high and forested. Sometimes a fishing village breaks the monotony. And now the land flattens, it warms, a mist rises. The whine of mosquitoes. And all around the trees are growing black and rotten. Marshland. Men, women, occasional children lean into the putrefying trunks. Their skin is grey. And below in the water and washing up on the banks, the detritus of discomfort. Rusting pitchforks and knives, belts with inward-facing spikes, the leather breaking up. The shade of Pearl squints and guesses that beyond the banks on either side is industry. She wraps her shawl tighter. The skies glow red in the distance.
A noise begins faint but grows, and grows, and grows. A rushing, sucking roaring sound up ahead and she sees an end to her journey. Some sort of stone arrangement? Yes. A structure of bridges and walls adorns a gate that dives into the waters and ground and keeps travellers from falling over the edge.
After the gate, after the waterfall, a chasm. And on the other side: plush fields and sky. A bridge links the two. It's even got a hand-rail.
Other roads lead away from the gate – one left, one right. They loop back round to the rotten places she is passing without any kind of barrier.
Elyse is now forty-four and running. Terraced houses scurry past. She is well paid for services to her best friend and older sister, with whom she still lives, in the same house, in the same room. Taking a plane halfway around the planet will not be a noticeable expense and she has little time to catch the flight.
Her sister had complained to her about an industrial dispute in Argentina which was holding up a delivery. Pearl was too scared to visit and Elyse was definitely not a coward.
Pearl had pressed a couple of coins in her hand before she left and they had collapsed in sisterly best frienderly laughter.
Bus doors close, airport gate opens, and here she is at a Buenos Aires taxi rank.
The dispute has spilled onto the docks. Elyse tries to make herself heard, pushing in among the crowd, loses her balance and falls in the water. The wall cracks her skull.
The captain helps Pearl out of the boat. There are moorings before the gate and waterfall, and stairs lead up to a platform before the bridge. Her legs are stiff and don't take her weight at first from disuse over the journey. She can still feel the tides. Nauseous. Her companions are quicker to recover and lead the way up the stairs. A small negotiation at a tollbooth to the bridge and they pass through in silence. When they reach the fields, their ghosts evaporate.
Pearl get to the platform, and now the tollbooth operator, and now the face of the tollbooth operator.
“Hello,” it says.
It looks like hers: same eyes, same chin. About thirty years younger.
“You're here,” says Pearl.
“I am,” says Elyse. “How are you?”
Some time after Elyse died but actually not that long after, Pearl buttered her toast on the lawn. She had finished mourning and now saw her sister's death as an opportunity. Two women with the same surname at the same address, one dead, the other both alive and distasteful of things like, for instance, international trade law or taxes.
And so Pearl faded from public record and Elyse posthumously grew into it. To thank her for her services, Pearl dropped a couple of coins every now and then outside her sister's door.
Pearl leans on the tollbooth window.
“Is there somewhere I can have a lie-down?” she says.
She makes to step forward.
She looks blank.
“Two coins,” repeats her sister. “Any will do.”
She pats her pockets. Shakes her head.
Elyse looks at her hands.
“Can't you spare me some?” says Pearl.
Her sister shrugs. “You know, I came through and I had some money to spare and, well, it was a lot of money.”
“And I'd never owned property before. I thought now would be a good time.”
Behind Elyse, a breeze rustles the Fields.
Pearl steps forward but where had been a path is now solid wall. She steps back; the wall is gone.
“What do I do?”
“Usually, you go left,” says her sister, “or you can go right. They're similar.”
Pearl can smell mould.
“Elyse. I'm scared.”
But her sister is gone.