The Ferryman, Part 1

The old ferryman’s words were familiar and well-worn, like the pole in his hands that had smoothed silken over time. Over the years they had shaped themselves into a lilting chant, a call that winged its way over the water.

The ferryman was a faithful soul.

He had lived most of his life within a stone’s throw of this riverbank, and spent most of his waking hours with his back turned to the lush, live landscape to which he belonged. Each day, he issued an invitation over the fog-shrouded water to the worn land opposite, and waited for a summons from the other side.

On many days, only silence met his description of the country behind him, and his words seemed to vanish into the river’s gray mist and the unrelenting lapping of its waters at his feet.

But on other days, a voice would answer.


Through a second’s split in the fog, or in the ferryman’s own patient cadences, a man or woman or child would glimpse the green-gold terrain, and seek passage. He would find them craning for another look as the small ferry arrived.

Rarely were these passengers packed for the journey. Some, laden with belongings, turned back when they saw that the ferry would not bear a load much greater than themselves. Those who did come were drawn by a yearning they could not always explain.

Some were fearful, some curious, some exhilarated, and some relieved, but once on board, all of them asked the ferryman what it was like where they were going. And he would laugh a great laugh like the rumble of boulders rolling, and tell them his own story: how he, too, had crossed the river as a young man; how he’d roamed the sun-dappled foothills and skimmed rippling meadows to fill his lungs with as much crisp, bracing air as they could hold.

Even the air is different up there, he’d say, motioning them close, inviting them to see that it still snapped and sparked in his bright eyes. Beyond the foothills were the mountains, and beyond the mountains even higher peaks, all veined with trails forged by travelers and studded with towns where they had chosen to make their homes. A man could spend years savoring the sights and surroundings of one slope alone. Ah yes, he himself had visited as many villages and overlooks as he could before coming back, content, to settle by the river.

His words were enough to make his hearers smile and spring eagerly from the boat when it docked, leaving the ferryman with the echo of his own voice.

His memories were dimmer now, he knew. He could not recall as sharply the sweet tang of buttermilk cultured from the cows on those thousand hills, or the chill of the gray-blue morning mist… but surely these things were still there.

Once, he had seen them all.



Continued in Part 2. 

1  (thumbnail) The Highland Ferryman, oil on canvas, William Dyce, 1858.
2  Hailing the Ferry, oil on canvas, Daniel Ridgway Knight, 1888.