The origins of the boats were lost in time and to begin with it had been totally constructed out of wood. Over the centuries it had been added to and modified. Now the hull was of a dark metal coated in liquid imp. The beast that pulled the hull along the waterways had been replaced by an engine of sorts. Every new skipper added something of themselves to the vessels. I first shipped with one just such as I, to learn the craft.
I still remember when the first canals were dug in the netherworld and to get from one to another would entail following the thin threads of the water supply. I would need to navigate along these slipways, collecting as I went. It was a busy time during the building of the canals. Many of the navigators met a sudden end and needed my help. Those that I missed I would collect on the return journey. Souls were plentiful then and worked until they were judged. Those that had atoned were taken on board and awaited shipment.
As the canals filled with water and joined up together, my passage became easier. A network of interconnected highways spread out across the country. Where an area was closed off, I could follow the water supplies from city to town and back again. I would sometimes meet another boat that was in the same trade as myself and we would travel along together for a while.
Very often I would pull alongside one of the holiday narrow boats from the first world and let my cargo enjoy the company of the living, as we travelled through the locks. We would travel mile after mile, until I stopped to fish some unfortunate soul from the water’s grasp. They were never aware of me, but sometimes the children on board the other boats would become uneasy. When that happened I would pull back and let them advance along the ‘cut’ until they were away from my influence.
I never ventured into the engine compartment. I only accepted that the energies that drove the boat were contained in this place. The bow was a place that I frequented when the journey became over taxing and I needed company. I would tread the outside of the cabin and enter from the double doors at front. This part of the boat was sealed off from the stern and those that I had collected stayed here amongst their own company. Children were looked after and their fears soothed by those who had been lost to their own children. They soon began to settle down as the long narrow boat surged along the waterways.
I was the one who had found them and had been the first for them to cling onto for security. It would be soon that we would part our separate ways as I delivered them all to the designated place. This end of the boat was full of light and the essence of care shone into the darkness as we slipped down yet another tunnel.
During the two great wars my kind had been so extremely busy ferrying our increasing cargoes that we had little time to grieve. So very many of them filled the forward section, the boat had extended to meet the needs of the cargo. The energy that powered the engine increased by the circumstances that we found ourselves. There was so much wickedness stalking the land that my kind had no trouble with lack of engine capacity.
Now in the present day a different type of soul presented itself. I saw the rip in the fabric of reality and the lost souls come tumbling through. The sun had long set and the usual mists crept over the waterways as a fretful dawn began to rise.
My hand lay lightly on the tiller and when the warning hoot sounded, I heaved to in the semi-darkness and lit the beacons. Frightened faces turned towards the light in confusion, as they bobbed up and down in the wake of the boat. I dropped the climbing nets at the front and watched them climb aboard, helped into the bow by the other temporary residents.
An anguished cry rang out in the gloom from a man who could not grasp the nets. Each time he got hold of the mesh it unravelled and cast him off. I watched him come nearer, as the boat slowly surged forwards. His face was full of bewildered fear, as time and again the boat refused him sanctuary. None of the rescued would help him and he slid along the hull unable to scramble aboard.
I un-shipped the boathook and allowed him to grip onto the wrought iron end. When he had gripped onto the hook with both hands I swung him aboard and waited for the confusion to turn to the inevitable questions.
“This is not paradise! I died a martyred death,” he exclaimed, staring up at my huge demonic frame. “Where are the things that I was promised and who are you?”
“I am the Ferryman,” I replied. “I deliver my cargo to wherever it is that they go to. The boat cares for them, but not for you. As the people at the front would not help you, I can only surmise that they were the victims of your fanaticism!”
I could see that the engine hatch was slowly beginning to open behind him. The darkness was beginning to abate and the mists curl away showing the shadow-land country that was ours to see. Already the lights were dimming at the bow and the sounds of questions and answers floated down the roof of the long narrow-boat. Sometimes the anger would fill the air as they began to understand where they were and where they were going. After a while acceptance would take its place and the newcomers would settle down and watch the waters go gliding by. They would be there to assist others that the boat would collect, before I made the turn and entered the final lock. Now I could see the many terrified eyes shining in the dark of the engine hold as the hatch lifted higher.
“Am I dead?” the young man asked. “If I am, why am I not in paradise, with all that I was promised?”
“Paradise, as such it may be, is for the innocent, not for the perpetrators of death amongst them. Killers, murderers, rapists and all the spawn of evil become the fuel that drives the engine of this boat,” I replied and pointed to the raised hatch behind him. “Your place is there amongst others of your kind, to endlessly toil and propel this carriage of the dead to the place of judgement until such time that you are deemed worthy of release!”
As the young man turned to view the fully opened hatch his face filled with horror at the sights that only he could see, as I turned my face away. The deck of the boat rose up behind me so that the young man slid down, down, into the bottom of the engine hold. My ears were deaf to his pleas for mercy as the hatch closed over him.
Changing shape to that of white-haired late middle-aged human I set the tiller onto automatic and walked along the side to speak to my new cargo. I would set their minds to as much rest as I could. At least I could tell them that the young man who had robbed them of their lives on the world that they had freshly departed was suffering the torments of the damned. My heart lifted a little as I wondered if one amongst the passengers would be prepared to be my apprentice. The boats always needed new skippers.