The Ferryman’s Wife
On a still November night the water in the creek slipped silently past the village, unseen by black-windowed houses. Two jetties stretched out as if the village was dipping its fingers into the inky water. A low cry from a tar-black clapperboard house at the end of one jetty broke the stillness as Widow Jonas slept fitfully, yearning for her long-dead husband from her bed of camphor and worn cotton.
In a similar house at the end of the other jetty a light burned in the window. Tom Dewey, the ferryman, sat and stared out across the creek. His wife was coughing in her troubled sleep in the back room. Her fever had burned for three days and nights and showed no sign of abating.
Suddenly a light pierced the darkness from the far bank and waved back and forth to attract the ferryman’s attention. Tom lifted his lantern and waved back in recognition, then crept into the next room. His wife’s skin was hot to the touch as he removed the cloth from her brow, rinsed it in the bowl on the washstand and replaced it. He bent over and kissed the top of her greying head and quietly closed the door behind him. In the porch he put on a shapeless woollen coat and a pair of seaboots, the stiff oiled leather protesting as he pulled them on, and walked with unhurried steps down the track to the jetty where his boat was moored.
Tom rowed with the steady strokes of a man who earns his living on the water and with customers who can’t go anywhere else in a hurry. He glanced over his shoulder now and again to get his bearings against the current as he neared the tall cloaked figure waiting for passage. The salty odour of the mudflats cut through the low mist that hung will o’ the wisp on the water so even Tom, twenty years on the creek, could smell it at low tides like this. He brought the boat alongside the jetty, threw a rope around a post and turned to look at his passenger standing above him, hooded against the the chill of the night.
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“Passage is a dollar,” said Tom.
“I’ll pay half now and half when we get to the other side,” said the man. Tom nodded and held the boat steady while the passenger stepped in, made himself comfortable on a bench in the stern and handed Tom a coin. He felt a brief spark of energy pass between them at the moment they both touched the coin, but the passenger seemed not to notice. Tom cast off and bent against the oars, turning the sharp prow of the boat into the current before heading off across the creek.
“What is your business to be out so late on a night like this?” he asked his passenger.
“I am Death,” said his passenger, “and I have come to collect the soul of your wife.”
Tom Dewey missed his stroke, his starboard oar found air not water, and he struggled to keep his seat as Death stretched out a skeletal hand to grip the side of the rocking boat. “Be careful,” said Death, in a calm voice, “I’ve no call on your soul just yet.” Tom felt as if the chill river mist had entered his heart. His breathing became shallow and cold sweat ran down his neck soaking his collar.
“But my wife is not dead,” he said, “I left her sleeping.”
“She has the fever,” said Death, “and she will be dead by the time I arrive.”
Tom regained his balance and dipped both oars into the gloomy water. He took a stroke, then paused and leaned forward on the oars, raising them above the surface so that diamonds of water dripped softly, creating a myriad of circles on the misty creek.
“It’s no good,” said Death, as if reading his thoughts, “you can’t kill Death. There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening.”
Tom’s clothes were soaked with fear. The whole futility of his existence suddenly crowded in on him. “Will you be gentle with her? Will it hurt?”
“She won’t feel a thing from me,” said Death, “I will arrive at the final breath.”
Tom glanced over his shoulder and through his tears saw the jetty and headed towards it. As he drew alongside he shipped both oars and glided beside the rotting piles, slowing the boat until it stopped. “You did well not to get us lost in this mist”, said Death, stretching out his hand with the remaining half dollar.
“I’ll not take money for my wife,” Tom said. He tied up and held the boat steady, and with tears streaming down his face sobbed, “She’s in the back room,” as Death strode off towards the house without a backwards glance.
Tom fell back into the bottom of the boat, his arms hugging his knees in a cocoon of grief, rocking backwards and forwards. “What have I done?” he asked himself over and over.
Eventually he stood up stiffly, climbed onto the jetty and walked up to his house. He took his boots off in the porch and crept into the front room. All was silent. He lit a candle and carried it towards the door of the bedroom, his stockinged feet wet on the dusty floorboards. His wife lay on the bed, her thin form lifeless under the covers. Tom sat on the bed and took her cool hand in his.
“The fever has broken,” his wife whispered, her fingers fluttering in his grasp. She turned her head to look at him with her pale blue eyes.
Tom nodded, lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Get some rest now,” he said, “I’ll sleep on the chair.” He stood up. “Death took Widow Jonas from us tonight. I’m just going to move the boat up from her jetty and I’ll be back in.”