The pennies slip under my soles as I climb toward the lighthouse. Each step sends a long spill of them gleaming my way back down, sends me clutching for the ragged stone underneath. Silver winks from the copper embrace: nickels, dimes, quarters. Plenty of people come clutching bills tight as rigor mortis too. All the loose-palmed people end up empty-handed and despairing somewhere between forest and bluffs and the absent noise of the surf. Eventually everyone gets desperate enough to snatch a fluttering paper from someone’s slack fingers. It’s a cycle—so they say.
Me, I came down living, solid gold rings on my fingers, and the ferryman spat over the edge of his boat. But he took me.
Nobody tells you his toll isn’t money. What could a man buy, out here on the edge of death? No, it’s something you treasure, something it hurts to lose. He says it’s to dull the blade when it comes—but maybe he’s greedy, maybe he’s envious. Who’d blame him, out here working the soundless ocean as long as the sky stays overcast and the wind stays mean.
So he takes something you love, and it stings, but when you get down to death’s country you don’t even notice all your passion seeping off. And all the while the pile of coins grows, as he flicks them two by two shining into the night and they rattle their way to a resting-place.
Now I’m climbing that slope. I scramble upward. Time means nothing here, but every moment passing is another one to bear.
The doorknob is polished smooth by a thousand dead men’s hands. I wipe my palms on my shirt and try.
Cobwebs cover the windows and dust covers the air. Stairs spiral up, the railing collapsed into splinters halfway through the first turn. I don’t test my weight on them, I just go up.
A skeleton guards the beacon controls: carpals teeter on the console, and on the floor pelvis, femurs, and tarsals are a game of pick-up-sticks. I’m not stupid enough to interfere without obeisance. I kneel, split my skin with my knife, and give blood and spit to the dead.
The hammer in the corner fits my hands. When I smash the beacon’s lens, putting out the light that guides the boat back in, the sound’s the loudest thing I’ve heard here.
Nobody tells you the ferryman doesn’t take anything for the return. The toll coming back is something given: something you looked away from. Something you cannot bear.
I drop the hammer and go down the stairs. One cracks under my feet, rotten, but the next is sturdy. Descending the shore’s easier than coming up it.
The first coin skips three times before it sinks into the water. The second just disappears.
Somebody will be along soon, I’ve no doubt: clutching their money, their vanished dreams, their memories of the lover they’re chasing. Someone should be here to tell them there’s no point in waiting.
Alena McNamara lives near Boston. She doesn’t trust oceans. You can find her other work via alenamcnamara.com.
Illustration by guest artist Jen Muir. More of Jen Muir’s work can be found at http://platypusradio.me/.