OCTOBER 31, 2016
THE 18TH CROSSING
So anyway, once again Denby lost the annual drawing of straws. It was a Bulwar-Lytton sort of night, dark and stormy and full of portent. The rain had been falling ever since the top of the page. Once again, for the 18th time, Denby had been selected to cross over to the Other Side.
The Editor escorted him out the door of the Island-Life Offices, cigar clenched as usual between his teeth. "Don't forget to find out who is going to become the next President of the United States," the Editor said. "That would be a real coup for our newsroom."
Denby sighed. "Afraid I don't have the hoo-ya spirit right now."
The Editor swished his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. "In that case, pity for you." The man clapped Denby on the back. "Get along now, boy! And best of luck to you."
As the iron bells tolled and the last vestige of summer fled yammering into the cold dark out of which a darker cold breeze blew, Denby put on put on his coat and he put on his hat and so walked out the door, this year the same as the last, with people gathered in fearful little knots, whispering among themselves as he went. "Sure glad it's not me."
As in all Traditions, there is a sense of repetition, of revenance, each time the ritual is repeated.
It had been raining intermittently heavily the past few days, and the pavement remained wet. He thought, with dismal feelings, this was a wretched detail to pursue. The only thing that could make it worse would be if it were raining.
As the clock struck midnight, a leaden assault of water drops pelted down, and Denby pulled up the collars of his raincoat and tucked under his impermeable rain hat.
He could not remember a stone wall being there
From the offices he walked down to the bayside and came to the path that borders the Strand. He follow this for a ways as a wet wind caused leaves to skitter across the pavement. The street extended in both directions from the shadow of trees that hid Crab Cove to the distance hidden by a gray mist thrown up by the rain. No one else walked this path and the beach below extended silent and deserted on this night. Eventually he came to a stone wall. He could not remember a stone wall being there, about two and a half feet high and extending for infinity in both directions, but this one seemed to have been there for many, many years, with scraggly weeds crowding up against lichened stones.
As in years past, as he approached the Portal, the Voice bellowed to him from some echoing deep cavern.
"Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!"
There was no gate or path through, but something called from the dim otherside and so, hesitating a moment to leave the relatively well-lit path, he slogged through the sand before the wall and stepped over into a dark mist and a voice echoed in the darkness a second time, "Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!" and the words flamed inside the skull as if poured in molten steel.
For pete's sake. As per Tradition, dammit.
A large owl, about two feet tall, perched on a piling and scolded him with large owl eyes.
"Hoo! Hoo! Hoooooo!"
Okay, okay. Poor choice of words.
On the other side the ground sloped down as usual to the water for about thirty yards, but he could not see the far lights of Babylon's port facilities or the Coliseum. A dense, lightless fog hung a few yards offshore, making it appear that the water extended out beyond to Infinity. The rain had stopped but the sky above was filled with black cloud and boiling with red flashes of lightening and fire.
All up and down the strand he could now see that countless bonfires had been lit, as is customary among our people in this part of the world to do during the colder winter months along the Strand, and towards one of these he stumbled among drift and seawrack.
Sitting around that fire, he recognized many faces. And many more all up and down that beach.
"si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta"
Strange words in another language reverberated inside the skull: "si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta" echoing and echoing down long hallways of mirrors into eternity
A small child, barefoot and wearing a nightdress ran past and disappeared as quickly as she had come.
At the bonfire's edge a bright familiar voice greeted us, "Denby! Back again so soon?"
A sort of pale glimmer drifted towards him over the dark sands, a woman dressed in white with frizzy platinum blonde hair. She reached out with her left arm. But her hand went right through his arm, leaving a clammy, cold sensation.
"Hello Penny." Denby said.
Several little girls, all between the ages of six and nine ran barefoot across the sands between them and vanished into the misty beyond.
"Well, here you are again," Penny said. "I see from recent events you are approaching closer to the Final Crossing. How is your health?"
"O, I have had a few hitches and such. Be seeing a doctor about things soon," he said.
Penny shaded her eyes as if seeing something inside something.
"That vomiting blood is no good you know," she said. "I always thought you would come here in some way more spectacular."
"There is still some time for that," Denby said. "Any idea who is going to become President of the United States?"
"Depends on the year you are talking about," Penny said. "I don't think it matters much to me, now, so why should I care?"
A little girl dressed in pinafores ran up and said "Boo!" before scampering off into the darkness.
"Some people think its important."
"O don't be so lugubrious!" Penny said laughing. "You are so geeky and inapt."
"Inept. I am told I am inept," Denby said. "And tone deaf."
"Whatever. Come along with me and meet some people!"
Down at the water's edge some people were preparing to go. His friend Michael Rubin had discovered only an hour before the obulus in his mouth and gone immediately down to the landing to wait for the Crossing. Others were holding up the golden coins they had found, the fee for the Passage.
"This seems a great exodus," Denby said.
"Yes, this year has been a year of unusual harvesting," Penny said. "How I long to go with them!"
From across the Strand came a parade of lights. They were the Lights of Earth.
First came The Greatest saying loudly "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I wonder if they ever will remember me."
After him came several others all going down to the landing where the stone pier jutted out into the black river. A man came along with a skullcap and along with him was a man who bore the look of a survivor and they were talking to each other about serious things, matters of State and of entire Peoples.
Then followed a man wearing a large headress of eagle feathers and his clothes were buckskin and he held himself as a king.
There followed behind a number of writers, and then followed musicians who played their instruments as they descended to the quay.
A deep voice started singing:
Hearts of fire creates love desire
The little girls who appeared out of the edge of the darkness laughed and danced in circles around him as he walked down to the stone quay.
After this royalty strode a thin White Duke. He stumbled in front of Denby and when he looked up Denby could see he had one green eye and one blue.
"You must be the man who fell to earth," Denby said and the man laughed as he arose.
"David, Any idea who is going to be the next President of the United States," Denby asked, figuring he might never get a chance to query such a person.
David paused for a moment, thinking. "I am afraid of Americans," he said and then walked on down to join the others.
Don't believe in yourself
I'm not a prophet
The stone quay was crowded now with former lives and from far across the black water came the glimmering of the wheels of fire that were the ferryman's eyes as he approached.
A lean man with wild hair and wire-rim glasses and who had a guitar strapped across his back. approached Denby.
"Hello Denby, said the man.
"Hello Paul," Denby said.
"We met only briefly once before," said Paul. "You ever get that poetry magazine together?"
"Well sort of. It lasted a while and then died away. Could have used that poem you read that day in the Haight."
"Ah well. Life is full of half finished sentences. If you see Chad, tell him I am sorry about the thing that happened with his girlfriend at the time."
"I guess its not serious enough a matter to keep you here any longer," Denby said. "Any hints as to the future for us is up top?"
Paul thought for a minute. "A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You Shortly," he said and grinned as he turned to descend, singing as he went.
A three girls in pinafores ran by barefoot and vanished just as suddenly into the mist.
"Everyone is leaving now," Penny said sadly. And the Ferryman's skiff approached the landing. The waiting souls handed over their obolus and stepped aboard and they were all singing in harmony.
Go take your sister then by the hand
And it's a fair wind
The souls had all loaded on board the skiff. So many. Hard to believe that death had undone so many. And yet the Ferryman stood there waiting, his eyes wheels of fire, when along the Strand came a man with black curly hair and wearing a purple robe that shimmered aloft behind him as he strode along.
Dig if you will the picture
Dream if you can a courtyard
How can you just leave me standing?
The man paid his fee and took his place on the skiff with the others and the Ferryman turned his awful head with a great sweep of sparks and poled away from the stone pier.
Soon only Denby stood there on the shore with Penny, shimmering in white. "Someday I will cross to the other side. But now is not my time." She shrugged. "O well! We should dance after all this music! Come on!" Penny said, laughing. Lighting and thunder split the ragged clouds overhead.
"It is storming up there," Denby said.
"Silly! Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It is about learning to dance in the rain!"
Little girls came running out of the edges of the dark and they joined hands with Penny to dance around the still blazing campfire there.
"Who are these girls," Denby said.
"They are the Daughters of the Dust," said Penny. "They are the ones not yet and maybe never will be, or they were the possibilities never born. They are all yours; are they not delightful!
One lithesome girl of about ten ran up to Denby and stared up at him with big round blue eyes. "Papi!" she said, and Denby fell to his knees. But she was only vapor and quickly melted from his arms.
An iron bell began to sound and Penny broke away from her dancing.
"Time is up already," she said. "For now you cannot stay here. Looking at the way things are going, I am guessing you will be coming down soon enough. If not the Angry Elf's gang then your own health."
"Yeah, well, a lot of people thanked me for saying "fuck you" to that gangster's face."
Penny let out a peal of laughter. "Common sense was never your forte! They thanked you because they were too afraid to say it themselves. And for good reason!"
The iron bell clanged more insistently and the little girls danced in a circle, bare feet flashing across the sand.
"C'mon Denby. Time to go."
The two of them walked slowly up the slope towards the wall.
"I can't go any further," Penny said. "Nor can they unless released." She indicated the girls who had followed them.
"Penny, I should not have let you go," Denby said.
"O don't be so lugubrious! Silly man! Fling yourself into life while you can. Learn to dance, and above all," and here Penny sort of blushed and smiled. "Above all practice your singing. Practice a lot!"
She leaned forward to kiss him as he turned to face the Portal and he felt the wet slap of rain laden wind and suddenly he stood there all alone on the pavement with the rain pelting down and his face all wet and his chest tight as if bound by leather straps, shaking and sobbing.
He walked slowly back through the storm and let himself into the Island-Life offices where the Editor sat, waiting.
"You're wet," said the Editor.
"Sounds like a line from a rock musical," Denby said.
"So, any idea who wins the election?"
"Somehow it never came up," Denby said as he shrugged of his sodden coat and hat to hang them on the rack.
"Rather bad this time, I gather," the Editor said.
"You've been to Hell and back." Denby said. "You ought to know."
"Vietnam was a physical place long ago and it is all changed now," the Editor said as he brought out the scotch and glasses. "But yes, it was no picnic."
The two men sat there in the darkened offices, drinking seriously.
After a while, Denby said, "I just wonder how the hell am I supposed to learn how to dance with my leg all busted up the way it is."
The Editor stared at Denby. "You are a very weird fellow," he said.
"What other kind of person goes to that place year after year," Denby said.
The two remained silent after that, each thinking about the dead and the past and the future.
The long howl of the throughpassing train ululated from across the water where the skeletal gantries of the Port of Oaktown stood glowing with their ghastly spotlights as the infernal wail quavered across the spectral waves of the estuary, over the riprap embankments, over the haunted grasses of the Buena Vista flats, and over the twilight zone of the former Beltline railway; the sound of the train keened through the cracked brick of the defunct Cannery with its ghosts and weedy railbed and hellish chainlink fences as the spooky locomotive click-clacked past the shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off on its mysterious journey to parts unknown and strange.