This month marks the end of an era. My good friend John, he of the Rogue Verbumancey, is discontinuing his Pictonaut Challenge.
For those not in the know, the Pictonaut Challenge was a simple proposition: every month he would find and post a picture on this blog. We would then be charged with writing a story (or poem, or anything) based on the picture he’d found. He would then link to the stories next month and we would reach each others’ entries and marvel at how much better everyone else was when compared to us.
When he first started this, I thought: Brilliant! An incentive to write! Plenty of inspiration! This is going to be great!
I can’t tell you how many Pictonauts I started, but I can tell you how many I finished.
And that’s including the one I finished writing today.
The problem was not lack of material. The pictures chosen were always fantastic, always thought-provoking, always the cause of a spark or two of inspiration in the dusty recesses of the brain.
The problem was not the deadline or restrictions. A month is an excellent amount of time to write a short story, and though you were encouraged to write 1000 words, you could write as little or as much as you chose. As long as it was finished.
No, as always. the problem was me. Too busy, I’d think. Too tired after work. I’ll do it this weekend. Then, this weekend : Too busy. Got to see friends, and hey there’s that film I intended to watch.
The problem was discipline. But that’s fine. I’m not very prolific at the moment, and with good habits that might change. The important thing is that I got one done for the final instalment. One last hoorah, a swansong for John’s project.
I’m grateful to him for starting it, even if I didn’t participate very much. Thanks to him, I wrote Business As Usual, which I’m very proud of despite needing to change the title to something more fitting. Thanks to him, I wrote A Ghoul’s Gotta Eat, which I’m very proud of and has a much better title. And it’s thanks to him that I got the kernel of an idea for a novel, about a steampunk-esque fantasy city built on a mammoth stone head. That’s a long term project, I’ll tell you all about it later maybe.
And now, comes Ferryman Tours Inc, the final story I have written for John and his Pictonaut Challenge. I wish him all the success and joy in the world in whatever creative endeavour he puts his hand to next, and I hope he enjoys my story.
As I hope you do to, gentle reader.
|Landscape_03 by Pervander|
Good evening, thank you for coming, it’s so nice to see you all! Nice to see some fresh faces around
here, a lovely departure from the usual decomposing suspects.
Allow me to introduce myself – my name is Charon, and this is my boat. Don’t worry, it may look small, but I assure you there’s room for everybody. Please, step aboard. That’s it. Lovely.
Right, so how many people have been here before? Nobody? Marvellous, a boatful of virgins! No need to look scandalized, madam, it’s just a turn of phrase.
As I’ve said, my name is Charon and this is my boat. For centuries now I’ve been ferrying across the
souls of the departed from the material plane to the Otherworld, facilitating their spiritual transition
from life to, er, the other thing. That was my role, my function, and I was bloody good at it though I
say so myself.
Of course it’s all computers and machinery these days. Factory production lines, automatic
processing, corpse to spirit to underworld at the touch of a button. Fibre optics and high speed
upload rates. There’s no finesse to it any more, no personal touch.
Ah, but I’m ranting, aren’t I? I do apologise. It’s a bad habit of the old to wax nostalgic, and I am so
very, very old. I’m enjoying my retirement, truth be told, because I’m meeting so very many interesting people. I worried that once the Ferryman position was made redundant my existence would be very dull indeed, but now that I’ve found this new job I’m happier than I’ve been since records began!
But enough about me, you didn’t pay your drachma to see an old man warble about himself. I do hope
you’ve all brought your drachma, by the way. Oh, how charming sir, I appreciate the gesture but
keeping it under your tongue is no longer necessary. Times have changed, and wallets are perfectly
serviceable for that sort of thing. Here are your tickets. Thank you, thank you.
Anyway, as I was saying. You’re here for the Underworld Experience, the whistlestop tour of
everything Hades, Hell, Inferno – whatever you call it, you’ve got it. So, with further ado, it’s time to
shove off! Shove off, madam. No, I do apologise, it’s a nautical term, it means- never mind, let’s just
This is the Styx, that loathsome tepid river that marks the main entrance to the Underworld. Many’s
the soul that has travelled down this way, down to darkness and ultimate doom. As you can see,
we’ve installed floodlights along the banks. It was a little dingy in places, this is much better.
Many’s the century I have plied my trade here, transporting the dearly departed down to – ah, Madam
is most learned and cultured. Yes, the river Acheron is indeed the river on which I sailed. Acheron,
Charon, you can see the connection, yes? The truth is, mostly of the rivers down here all get conflated
into one in the public’s eye. Besides, I’ve done my time on them all. Cocytus was the worst, uch. So
We’re coming up to the main gates now – look yonder, and gaze upon on their mammoth and glorious
terror! They used to be made of bone, but the health and safety inspectors have been in and now they’re papier maché – but we keep the lighting just dim enough around the gates to get the same
effect. It’s much cheaper in the long run, bone gates are surprisingly high maintenance, all those milk
Ah, and here is the gatekeeper himself! Greetings, Cerberus! Another boatful to pass beyond the veil
and into the realm of darkness and despair! Yes, they have tickets. Please show your tickets to-er,
madam, please do not pet the keeper of the gates of Hades, it’s quite undignified. Stop twitching your
leg, Cerberus, you’re embarrassing yourself.
Anyway, yes, that’s quite enough of that. Onwards and downwards! If you’d be so kind, Cerberus?
Ah! Listen to that long, drawn out creak! It’s enough to chill the blood and send tremors down the
hardiest spine! You’d never guess it’s an mp3 recording of the original. They’ve got an iPod hooked
up to a speaker back there. What will they think of next?
As the gates slip behind us and vanish into the foreboding fog that has sprung up as if from nowhere
– or indeed from a smoke machine behind that outcropping of rock, very observant, madam – you may
now feel free to look around you in shock and alarm. Flash photography is permitted, but please don’t
film any video, if hate to see myself pop up on YouTube.
Behold! The wonders of the Underworld! The roiling lake of fire, in which sinners are boiled like
lobsters! The cyclopean towers, home to demons and eldritch abominations from beyond all known
dimensions! The sky, a solid mass of putrid and noxious clouds! All of which you can buy prints of at
the end of the tour.
Our first stop is Elysium, let me just drop anchor here a moment, there. I’m sure it’s the most beautiful
place you’ve ever seen. I’m sure it is, Madam. No, I’m quite sure it is. Oh I’m sure you would indeed
know your mind, I’m just saying that Disney World pales in comparison. Yes, even the one in Paris.
See the majestic rays of light as they twinkle and shine down on the righteous and glorious! Elysium
is where the heroes go, the notables, the thinkers, the movers and shakers. Achilles rests here, as do
many of his fellow warriors. No, sir, Chuck Norris is not among them. Well, primarily it’s because he’s not yet dead, sir, but also because Elysium is reserved for heroes and notables- no, sir, I don’t believe Chuck Norris could best Achilles on the field of battle, and- well, Superman is a fictional character and I feel we’re getting side-tracked a little-
Ah, thank goodness, Socrates! Not a sentence I’ve ever had cause to utter before. Socrates, my good
man, come close! Meet the latest boatload of fine upstanding travellers from the world above!
My goodness, wasn’t all that terribly interesting? He’s such a chatterbox, that Socrates, though I
hardly know what he’s saying half the time. All that about true wisdom and ignorance. Marvellous stuff.
Well, we can’t hang around all day, let’s see what the next area has for us? As you can see, it’s coming
up just ahead. No, madam, the areas of the Underworld are not normally so close to each other, but I
have ways and means. Otherwise you would be quite dead by the end of the tour – and of course this
is a place for the dead, where time has no hold and the laws of physics are considered to be more
Over in yonder field to the left – left, sir, that’s my side, yes – over to the left you can see the colossal
boulders on which was chained Prometheus, the mighty Titan who gifted mankind with the secret of
fire. Every day an eagle would fly to him and eat his liver, and every night that liver would grow back. All this with no anaesthetic. Quite exquisite pain.
Of course, he’s not there any more. Hercules set him free. But if you zoom in with your cameras you
can still see the blood stains. Grisly!
Ah, there’s our next destination. See how the river flows into that cave mouth in the cliff face? Can
you feel the currents taking hold and whisking us inexorably towards it? Well, I can, and it’s quite
chilling. That cave mouth is the entrance to Tartarus, where the souls of the damned are punished for
Please keep your arms and legs inside the boat at all time. That applies to you as well, madam, I can
see you playing with the water, it’s not advisable.
Here we go…
My, wasn’t that exhilarating? I love that part, the whooshing and zooming. And please don’t feel
embarrassed, sir, quite a few people have that reaction, it’s one reason why we don’t recommend
anyone drink the river water.
As you can see, or rather not see, we have arrived in pitch blackness. Tartarus is home to the palace
of Nyx, goddess of night. She likes it dark, especially right outside her house. We’ll be past it in a
In the meantime, one thing to remember : the souls down here are deeply unpleasant sorts. They’re
being punished for a reason. Regicide, Patricide, Infanticide – all sorts of horrible transgressions.
They’re not nice people, is what I’m saying. So please do not interact with them.
Ah! But soft! What light through yonder darkness breaks? Tis more floodlights, and they are like the
sun. And as they cast light about the place you can see the hellish vista in all its glory. Can you hear
the tortured moans of the dead? They’re getting louder the deeper we go. They would like nothing
more than to overwhelm this boat, take your bodies for their own and escape this everlasting
torment. But fear not. As long as you are within the boat, you are safe.
Quickly, look to your right! Do you see him, up on the shore, by the boulder? His name is King
Sisyphus. No, madam, Sisyphus, stop giggling. See his plight. He pushes and strains and heaves to
get that boulder to the top of the hill. Watch. Up, up, up. Always the same. Any moment now- there! It tumbles down, leaving him choking in the dust. And he sets his shoulders. And he trudged down after it, ready to start again. Don’t feel too sorry for him, he’s a nasty piece of work. Do you know he would murder guests who slept under his roof? Not only against the tenets of hospitality, it’s just rude. He also seduced as his niece, and that’s just creepy. Let’s move on.
Over to the left you’ll see Tantalus, incarcerated here for the crime of having a name that sounds a bit
like Tartarus! Ahahah. Just my little joke. Actually, he’s here because he killed and cooked up his son
one day to impress some guests. Very unpleasant fellow, but he knows the importance of seasoning.
As you can see, his punishment is quite tortuous. Tortured Tantalus in Tartarus, hahaha! Ahem. Yes.
Well, look – he stands in the shallows of the river, water lapping about his calves, tree branches laden
down with fruit above him. He hungers, reaches up – ah! The branch snaps out of reach! He thrusts,
bends – and there! The water flows swiftly out of reach. Always starving, always thirsty, his lot is to-
Madam! Madam, I really must insist that you get back in the boat, it’s not safe out there. No, please
come back. Stop! You can’t just scoop up water and hand it to him, it’s not- leave that fruit alone,
madam! Stop! Well, yes, it is awfully sweet that he’s crying and hugging her, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this man killed his own son! And cooked him! And fed him to people! You can’t go
around undoing the punishments of people like that!
Oh no, I’m sorry madam, it’s quite out of the question. Once you have disembarked, your journey is over. Had you stayed aboard I’d be happy to convey you back to the land of the living, but I’m afraid you’ve committed quite a serious transgression and I simply can’t allow you back on. It’s all in the terms and conditions. Farewell, madam, I hope you feel that your act of Samaritanism was worth it. I will doubtless see you again on the next tour.
I don’t know. It’s all this modern thinking. There was none of this goodwill to your fellow man
nonsense back in my day. It was all fire and brimstone – or lightning bolts, more accurately. Gods
were jealous and petty, mortals lived in fear. They were good times. Good times. People knew their
place. Well, apart from people like Orpheus, of course. Swanning in like he owned the place, thinking
we would just give him his wife back because he can hit a few power chords. Silly fool.
But here we have reached our destination – the great palace of Hades himself. Marvel at the spiralled
columns! Gaze in awe at the buttresses and belfries! Seethe with jealousy at his air-conditioned
outdoor swimming pool! He will be performing his killer stand-up routine at tonight’s feast in the ball room, invites to which are for course included in the price of your tickets. Try the veal canapes, they’re to die for. And when you are done, exits are through the gift shop. You can get a little plush doll of me, it’s terribly cute.
And remember to have the time of your life.
But don’t worry if you don’t.
We’ll be seeing you again.
Ferryman Tours Inc by Sam Kurd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://farflungsofa.blogspot.com/2015/02/dont-pay-ferryman.html.