Karen studied the coffin she had just uncovered. The lid, once a shiny lacquered surface, was now partially decayed and fell apart as Karen pried it off. Bits of wood turned to dust in her hands as she worked diligently to make an opening. Her arms were tired from digging and the fatigue made it more difficult to be gentle with the rotting wood. She paused to shake her arms vigorously and relax the tension in her muscles and upper body. As she breathed in the chilly night air, she could smell her own sweat mixed with the fragrance of the rich earth and decaying wood. She took a few more deep breaths and turned back to the task of opening the grave. She worked patiently to handle the lid with care and managed to remove a large chunk that was nearly a third of the entire lid. Through the hole she had made she saw the top half of a well-dressed skeleton.
The grave was on the edge of the cemetery in a neglected corner that looked as if it could be part of the adjoining land. The gravestone had fallen over years ago and weathered so much that it looked like an ordinary limestone rock. A few days earlier when Karen recognized that it was actually a grave, she decided to rob it. She was hoping that no one had gotten to it before her.
This particular plot was an older grave from a time when individuals placed ancient coins over the eye sockets of the corpse, although the coins weren’t ancient when they were buried. Most of these graves had already been robbed, but due to the location and lack of distinct marking or some other mystical reason, this one had gone unnoticed by robbers until now. It was almost as if the grave had been hidden until the right person came along. Karen wasn’t the typical grave robber, and perhaps the corpse found this attractive. Regardless of how the grave had remained unspoiled for so many years, Karen was the one who finally opened the casket and plucked up the coins. It was at that moment that Fate appeared.
“You have three days to finish the task,” someone said as soon as Karen had snatched the coins and a few other small trinkets from the corpse. Karen jumped when she heard the voice. It had a rich, mellow tone and resonated with authority. Karen turned around and briefly thought about running, but she decided to stay put when she saw a woman staring her down. The woman had come out of nowhere and appeared to be alone.
The woman was, if nothing else, fashionable. She was very fit, toned but not bulky in stature, and wore clothes of the finest quality. Her boots were Italian leather and the jacket and pants looked like something from a Chanel boutique.
Karen slowly put the coins into her pocket, along with the gold watch she had taken from the breast pocket of the skeleton’s suit, and addressed the woman. Other people might have felt intimidated by the situation. Karen was ready to fight.
“What task?” Karen demanded. “Who are you?” A pocket of night air brushed past and gave her a chill as she waited for an answer. However, she would not let her discomfort show.
“I am Fate, of course. You took the coins intended for the Ferryman. The work is now yours. You’re hired.” The woman stood with one hand on her hip as she spoke with confidence.
“To do what?” Karen glanced around to see if anyone else was nearby. Surely Fate was not alone in the graveyard at three in the morning. Karen had chosen the time based on her experience of when graveyards were most empty. She’d learned a lot since she started grave robbing and knew that the time between when the bars close and the coffee shops open are the most vacant hours of the night.
“This gentleman paid for safe passage to the next life. Your job is to get him there,” Fate explained. “And you’re already late.”
The novelty of the situation wasn’t lost on Karen. She knew the legend of the Ferryman and about how people would be buried with coins on their eyes or lips to pay for a successful journey into the afterlife. She also knew that there were very few graves left where the gold coins were still in place. Karen was unlucky enough to find and rob this particular grave when Fate was nearby and looking for someone to do her bidding. Fate probably just liked the look of Karen. There were few women strong or daring enough to rob graves, and that probably worked in Karen’s favor. She was also physically strong for a woman her size and had a determined appearance in the way she carried herself as she moved. Whatever it was, something had attracted Fate, and once Fate has her eye on you there’s no getting away. Of course, Fate always has a way of putting someone into a situation and then leaving, which is what she did with Karen. Some people would call this poor management. Others call it being smart.
Fate abruptly vanished and Karen saw the ghost that had been standing behind Fate. He was dressed in a black suit with a starched white shirt, a black vest and red tie. His shoes were polished and glowed. He certainly seemed less solid than everything else in the graveyard. Looking at him made Karen’s eyes water, as if she was watching heat coming from a flame. Everything about him was wavy and unstable. He took a step forward.
“I’m Jerome Brown,” the ghost said politely. “Managing partner of Smith and Brown Trading Goods. I ran the general store in town.” When Karen didn’t respond after a few moments he continued, “What’s your name?”
“Karen Irving.” She looked from the coffin to the ghost and then around the graveyard.
“So you’re the one who’s going to take me?” the ghost asked hopefully.
“I don’t know,” Karen replied. She wiped her forehead with her hand, smearing a small amount of dirt onto her face as she did so. “I don’t know where to take you.” She remembered her son, Claude. She shouldn’t have left him home alone, but he was a sound sleeper and the house was locked. She thought she’d be gone for a couple of hours when she left. Now it looked like it would be a bit longer.
“That lady called you ‘The Ferryman.’”
“I’m not.” Karen carefully pushed the pieces of the coffin lid shut again and climbed out of the grave.
“She looked like she knew what she was talking about.”
“Who?” Karen asked, unsure if the ghost had seen everything that she had. She began kicking some of the loose dirt onto the grave. She was starting to feel cold and the activity helped warm her up a bit.
“The bossy one. She just left.” The ghost pointed to where Fate had been standing.
“So, she was real,” Karen said more to herself than to the ghost. Of course, the ghost could have also been a dream. Anything was possible.
“And you’re real?” Karen shoveled a few piles of dark brown earth onto the coffin lid. If she had more work to do before morning, she wouldn’t have time to put things back properly, but she wanted to do something. She hated the thought of leaving the coffin completely exposed. Besides, the feeling of the wooden shovel in her hands was reassuring to her. She was, after all, talking with a ghost. Shoveling seemed to help her feel a bit more normal about the situation.
“As real as you. Maybe mores so, since I’ve been around longer.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. You just stole my watch,” he said with a shrug.
“This watch hasn’t worked for at least a century,” Karen replied as she stopped shoveling. She reached into her pocket to pull out the timepiece for a better look. The gold felt soft compared to a modern watch, and she knew it was high quality. She opened and closed it a few times. The hinges were stiff but still moved even though the hands had stopped. Perhaps it just needed a good winding, but there was no time for that now.
“That explains a lot,” he replied. “I never went anywhere because I thought I had plenty of time.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Karen asked, ignoring his last statement. She threw down the shovel and looked squarely at the ghost. “You put those coins on your eyes. She said it was payment for the Ferryman. What does it mean?” She knew the legend, but she didn’t understand how or why she was supposed to get involved in the process.
“I didn’t put those coins on my eyes. My daughter did that to help me into the next life. You’re supposed to carry me across the river. That’s what a ferryman does. He takes passengers across the river.”
“The river?” Karen asked. It sounded silly to her, but she knew where the river was located. It wasn’t terribly far and the guy didn’t look very heavy. After all, how heavy could a ghost be? It’s mostly air — or some other floaty stuff. If all she had to do was to get him to the other side of the river, she could do that and be back home in an hour before her son woke up.
Getting the ghost into the car was awkward for Karen. After she had placed her shovel and other tools in the trunk, she opened the passenger door and watched him float inside. She wasn’t sure if he was able to manage the door handle, but once he was inside, his translucent fingers began exploring the interior components. At first Karen reached down for the seatbelt to secure the ghost, but then she changed her mind as she realized that it might not work. First of all, he wasn’t made up of firm matter and if an accident took place he was likely to pass right through the belt, anyway. More importantly, safety wouldn’t be a primary concern for someone who was already dead. She slammed the passenger door and ran back to her seat to start the car. The ghost giggled when the engine roared to life.
Jerome enjoyed the ride in her car, which was a completely new experience since he’d died before cars were invented. He was a real chatterbox, too. He kept talking about how much the town had changed, and he repeatedly asked her to slow down so he could get a better look at things. Karen ignored him and kept driving. Whatever weirdness was going on needed to be done before Claude awoke in the morning.
Karen drove quickly toward the center of town and over the large expansion bridge to the other side of the river. All the while, the ghost asked her questions about everything he had never seen before and what these new things were called. She gruffly responded to his questions, enduring the roughness of the ride in her haste to complete the job and get back to living her life. As soon as the bridge ended and she reached the other side she turned to look at the ghost.
“Shouldn’t you be gone?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” he asked.
“You’re on the other side of the river.” She paused to think about the situation and then added, “Perhaps you need to step out of the car and onto the ground to touch the earth on this side.” So that’s what he did, after struggling with trying to figure out how to open the car door. Once it opened, he marveled at the mechanics of the electric safety locks, listening to the clicking noise it made each time he pressed the button. Karen finally urged him to get moving and out of the car. She looked hopefully at the ghost as he made his way out of the car, but the ghost simply continued to talk about how things on this side of the river had changed just as much as they had on the other side. “This is wrong,” Karen sighed.
“You’re telling me!” the ghost exclaimed. “Electric lights. This black stuff on the roads —”
“Asphalt,” Karen interjected.
“Ass fault. What a funny name!” he said with a smile in his voice. “Ass fault,” he said slowly, listening to the sounds of the words as he pronounced them, “and cars with radios. This is all so fascinating. I don’t think I should have died at all. It seems as if life has become wonderful while I’ve been in the grave.”
“Perhaps you need to walk over the bridge,” Karen suggested. “Maybe the car interfered with the process.”
“Do you think so?” he asked. “Although, I’m not in a hurry now because I really like what I see, and I wouldn’t mind exploring more of the town.”
“I’d love to show you the town, but I have someplace I need to be,” Karen replied. She thought again about Claude.
“You don’t have anywhere else to be,” the ghost replied. “I think you’re supposed to be here. Isn’t this your job?”
“This isn’t my regular job. I work for the cable company.”
“A telegraph operator? You’re a very talented woman, I see.”
Karen dismissed his comments as the ravings of a simple-minded ghost from an earlier time period. She wasn’t enjoying this job, but she didn’t enjoy most of the others she’d had. Few people do. There’s something about a thing being called “work” that makes it automatically unpleasant. Although, some more adventurous types who came across a two-hundred-year-old ghost might think to ask a few questions about what life was like all those years ago. Someone else might be scared or might be curious about what it feels like to be a ghost. Karen, however, was short on sleep and long on worrying about her son, and she was too baffled by the weird situation to enjoy any of it.
She still wondered how she had stumbled into the odd situation. She had never planned on robbing graves and had only resorted to the activity out of desperation. At one time she had been a successful college student when she became pregnant. Claude’s father abandoned her before Claude was born, and then Karen struggled for several years to support her son. She had been fired from or quit a series of different jobs over the course of about five years. These jobs ended for various reasons, but most had to do with Karen’s obligations to Claude. Whenever his asthma was acting up or the scheduled babysitter didn’t arrive, Karen was forced to stay home and this made her appear unreliable to her employers. She had no extended family and no partner to help her with the baby.
She struggled financially for a long time and was eventually evicted from her small yellow house with a white picket fence for not being able to pay her rent. One frustration led to another and one day, while walking past the graveyard, she felt herself envying the inhabitants because they didn’t have any problems. It was then she realized that the individuals in the cemetery didn’t have the needs that a living person had and, therefore, had little use for the things buried with them. That night she robbed her first grave. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. It was a job with a flexible schedule and an occasional large payoff. She had never dreamed that Fate would get involved.
“Let’s try walking over the bridge,” she suggested as she started down the sidewalk.
“You walk, I’ll float,” Jerome replied with a chuckle. “I’m just trying to lighten things up,” he said after Karen didn’t respond to his joke.
“Sorry,” she replied politely, “I’m just a little low on sleep right now. I only slept four hours before I got up to head to the graveyard.”
“To rob my grave,” he replied with emphasis.
“I wasn’t planning to rob your grave. It just worked out that way.”
“And here we are.”
“Stop finishing my sentences. We’re not telling a story.”
“Aren’t we?” Jerome smiled, as if having his grave robbed was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
“No. We’re not together in this.”
“You’re the one who entered my grave without permission.”
“Look,” she said, frustrated, “I didn’t plan on this. I wasn’t looking for it. I’m sure you weren’t looking for me.” Karen turned her head to look at the water. There was a constant lapping noise and slightly fishy smell coming from it. Normally these things would be soothing, but things were different tonight.
“Actually I was — ”
“You were looking for someone else,” she replied.
“I was avoiding other people,” he explained as they reached the top of the bridge and continued their descent down to the other side. “I didn’t like the looks of those other grave robbers. You were the first woman who’s noticed me in years and I thought you were beautiful.”
“Are you flirting?”
“If I were alive, perhaps,” he replied, “but as it is, I don’t think we could be more than friends.” He continued to ask questions about new roads and buildings until they reached the other side. Instead of answering him, Karen thought about Claude’s smooth, dark hair and how peaceful he looked when he slept, and she wished she was at home with him at that moment so that she could kiss the top of his head. She had never meant to have a child so young. She was planning to get her career started first, and it had been difficult ever since he was born. She wouldn’t trade him for her career now. She loved the way his whole face and body laughed when he thought something was funny. He engaged in life and didn’t worry about the things she did, and this helped her to remember what was really important in her life. Even though they were poor and she struggled to keep him fed and clothed, he brought her joy. She felt as if his simple presence in her life added more than the responsibility of parenting took from her.
“Are you listening?” Jerome asked. He had noticed that her mind had been wandering. “You’re not much of a Ferryman, are you? You can’t even handle one passenger.”
“We’ve crossed the river again. Shouldn’t you be gone?” Karen huffed.
“If you were doing your job, I would be.”
“Look, I’m new at this. I’ve never done it before so please don’t insult me,” she said, feeling very tired. The lack of sleep and physical effort of digging up the grave were finally taking a toll on her. Instead, she quietly thought about everything she had ever heard about the Ferryman and tried to come up with something that he was supposed to do that she hadn’t done yet.
She remembered that the Ferryman carried his passengers in a boat so that they could cross the river Styx and reach the underworld. Perhaps she needed a floating vessel so that the ghost could be a passenger, but then she recalled that she had taken the ghost in her car. It was pretty much the same thing, except that one went across water and one rode over a bridge. Then she wondered if she should somehow try to physically carry the ghost across the river.
“STOP AND LISTEN!” Jerome shouted. “You’re not listening to me! No one has ever listened to me! Not my wife or children or anyone! I spent my whole life talking without being heard.”
“And a good part of your death, it seems,” Karen replied with a dismissive tone. She was still in thought about how to be rid of the ghost.
“You’re not listening now. You never even asked my name. I had to tell you.”
“I’m sorry,” Karen said after a brief pause, and she meant it.
For the next hour Karen didn’t talk or think about herself or her needs. Instead, she asked Jerome to tell her about himself, and she listened. Karen sat on the cold brick wall at the edge of the walkway that led over the river and she listened, because that was what Jerome needed the most. He just needed someone to listen.
He told her his life story and what he had been thinking about while he was alone in that grave for the past two-hundred years. He had a wife named Elizabeth and four children, all girls. He adored his family but often felt outnumbered and overwhelmed by the presence of women. He was also the managing partner of the only store within 50 miles and knew most of the community. The other business partner, Elias Smith, spent most of his time locating inexpensive trading goods in other cities and shipping them to the store. Jerome had been the one who sold these goods to the community, so he knew everyone in town and also knew their problems. There had been no local tavern with a sympathetic barkeep, and a conversation with Jerome when the store was empty was as good as therapy for the residents. He spent most of his life listening to other people’s problems and needs. He had been a friend to everyone but often felt lonely.
When he finally appeared to have run out of words she said, “Well, Jerome Brown, it’s time for you to cross the river.” She didn’t know how she knew it would work this time, but she was certain that when Mr. Brown set foot on the other side that his soul would finally go to rest. And it did.
As soon as Jerome stepped off the bridge, his translucent form vanished from the bottom upwards. He tried to say goodbye to Karen as his legs disappeared, but he was gone before the words left his lips.
“That wasn’t too bad,” Karen said to herself as she stared into the empty space where the ghost had stood.
“I gave you an easy one to start with,” Fate said. Karen jumped when she heard the voice and turned to see Fate wearing a three piece pinstriped suit, which still managed to appear very feminine on her.
“I thought I was paid to carry him across the river. The job is done. I’m going back to my life.”
“You accepted the pay, so you’re the new Ferryman. It’s a full-time job with plenty of customers, and you’re not done until I let you go,” Fate said. “And don’t try to get fired by slacking off or doing a bad job. It doesn’t work that way.” Karen’s first instinct was to challenge Fate, but she wisely decided that this was neither the place nor the time. She needed to get home.
“Why me?” Karen asked Fate.
“It takes a woman to get a job done right. Some men can’t even die properly without the help of a woman.” She looked away as if she had said all that needed to be said, and Karen knew enough not to push for more. Instead, she addressed what she really wanted to know.
“I got him where he needs to be. I did my job. I want my life back,” Karen said.
“You’re not done,” Fate replied. “You’re done when I’m done with you.”
“When will that be?” Karen asked, angry and confused.
“I’ll let you know,” Fate replied and vanished.
Karen knew that Fate would return, but she didn’t know where or when. No one does. All Karen knew was that this was the beginning, but of what she didn’t know. As she returned to her car and headed home to check on Claude, she realized that the river was a metaphor. It was never a physical river that Jerome needed to cross. That’s why the crossing had been so difficult. She also understood that while death knew no gender bias, Fate did. While the weight of this last realization intrigued Karen, it also instilled a sense of alarm in her about her future and she felt as if the bridge she was driving over was giving out beneath her, allowing her to tumble into the rapidly moving river below.
Amy Neftzger began writing and publishing for various journals in 1995. Her first fiction book, a collection of short stories called Conversations With the Moon, was published in 2003. Her writing style in this book contained elements of romance and whimsy mixed with more literary passages that engaged audiences. She followed this release with picture book for children called All That The Dog Eve Wanted, which is a story about a dog seeking approval from his owner, a little boy named Cole. The book was designed to to introduce children to jazz music and comes with a jazz CD sampler. Curriculum was also developed to be used along with the book in elementary school classrooms and is available on the publisher’s website here.
Often being praised for her abilities with wordplay, she has continued to publish fantasy books for middle grade/ young adult readers and literary pieces that sometimes lean more towards the genre of magical realism. She continues to write nonfiction as well as assist other writers and artists in developing their craft through individual mentoring, leading discussion groups, and classes.