Not many at the wharf knew his name, as few spoke of him, and fewer spoke to him. A long time ago, he used to tell when asked, that he was Charon, come from a village afar, across the river Styx-la-bas. The port-master – who had once been the captain of a seafaring ship that sailed as far as Greece – spelt the name as Kharon in his logs. It was after a character from one of the mythical tales that he told at the bar on quiet evenings; of the one who ferried souls of the dead across a river.
Kharon did not understand all this, having ridden a boat only once, to cross the river and come to the port. He lived alone with his dog Pluto, sleeping on a large table in one of the abandoned office-rooms of the old warehouse. Waking early every morning, he quietly entered the bar, and sat on a stool at a far corner. He stayed there, with the dog at his feet, through the day, with a glass half-full of some drink that the bartender handed him as he came in, refilling it once in a while. When there was no one in the bar, the two worked silently, the bartender tidying up the place, and Kharon staring into his drink, without a thought in his mind. This is the way he got old, over so many years that the bartender could not recall. Of course, he could not also reckon his own age.
Occasionally, the old siren blew – three short sharp tweets. The siren blew only when some ship needed Kharon’s help. Hearing it, he rose, stowed his glass of unfinished drink on a ledge behind the counter, and proceeded to the pier, clutching his flute in the pocket of his faded brown robe. After attending to the call, he returned to the bar, retrieved his glass with the drink, now gone stale, and went back to his stool to resume his brooding. He stayed there until the long evening wore thin, the music died, the band dispersed, and the sailors left the bar one by one. After the last customer had left, the bartender brought him a plate of cold cabbage, or some unrecognizable meat, with some bread, and placed it before him. Kharon nibbled at it. When the bread was too dry, filling his glass he drank water. Halfway through, he cleaned the plate on the floor for Pluto, put it in the sink, sat nursing the glass of water, and finally placing a few seepurs on the counter, retired to his room to lie on the table to sleep.
Sometimes, the siren blew in the night too, its blast flagging in the restless gust of salty sea breeze entering through the broken window panes. He rose, and wiping his perspiration, put on his robe. Then he proceeded to the pier, treading carefully in the shadows, as he did not see very well in the dark. Then Pluto followed him diligently, barking at the sign of danger.
Now, let it be said that, at the wharf, the water was deep enough for the big ships; but, at the mouth of the harbor, even at high tide, the water was not deep enough. There, laden with goods that had increased their draft, some ships needed an extra depth to sail through the shallows. The port-master then sent for Kharon to come and play on the flute his strange tunes for the sea. Hearing the music, the sea uncoiled its waves and swelled. The tide rose higher, heaving the ships on its bosom to give them safe passage over the shallows.
Kharon was the tide piper, commanding with his flute spring tides and neap tides to rise higher. When the ships needed rescue, the port-master blew three short sharp tweets on the old siren. Per ship so rescued, Kharon received 15 seepurs, and permission to sleep in the old warehouse for seven nights.
But, Kharon was getting old; he had been getting old for some time now. He now dreaded climbing to the bridge of the old frigate, made obsolete and moored when the old war had ended. Playing his flute from atop the bridge to a clear view of the harbor, he felt a strange vertigo. Up there, his chest no more filled with as much air as he needed to play the flute, to draw out that continuous wail of tunes, hearing which the sea heaved its bosom. When he climbed down, his knees felt feeble and shook. Pluto pulled at his robe to steady him.
The port-master, a sharp observer, had been taking notice of these signs for some time. Finally, a few days back, he had hooted twice, the three sharp tweets, on the old siren. Reading an emergency on hand, Kharon had hobbled to the port-master’s office. He had received Kharon, seated him, and then told him that he should start thinking about retiring to other people’s care. It was not that the port did not need him anymore. Yes, it was true that the port authorities had drawn up a project to dredge the shallows, to cut a deep channel that would let the big ships sail in and out easily. But, no, that was not the cause for the port-master’s haste. What bothered him was the failing health of the tide piper. His being always short of breath, making his tunes fainter and flatter; it was such that on particularly windy days the strong howling gale succeeded in drowning the tune. Ships had to wait until the gale abated. The post-master, therefore, did not think it was a good idea to let Kharon carry on until he collapsed someday.
Yesterday, last day of the month, Kharon had got up before sunrise as usual. Creeping into the bar, he sat on his usual stool, nursing his drink. The port-master sent for him around noon, handed him a small purse, and shook his hand. Kharon came back to the bar and finished his drink. Placing a few seepurs on the counter, he asked the bartender to wrap a loaf of bread, and some dry fish not too salted. For a few moments, the two mutely stared at each other, hesitating to approach and hug. Then the spell broke. With shy withdrawal, Kharon walked out of the bar into the blazing sunlight, blinking at its unexpected fierceness. He walked. Leaving the port behind soon, he started for his village.
The parting had not been painful, he mused. Pluto started falling behind and barked. At last, he stood still, howling continuously. Kharon shooed him, telling him to go back. Each stood their ground. Then Pluto became quiet, and turning back, looked at the way they had come. Kharon resumed his walk. After some time he looked behind, and saw Pluto had disappeared.
Kharon knew the road. It was the only one to his village, the one by which he had come to the port. Not much had changed. As he progressed towards his village, he began to remember his small village set amidst green fields, over which a soft breeze blew always. Trying to remember other things about it, he walked the whole day, seeking the shade of the trees.
By evening, he reached the bank of Styx-la-bas, at the ferry landing under a grove of trees leaning over the quietly flowing water, exactly as he remembered. As he approached it, the sun was setting. The ferry had just come in and berthed. The last few passengers of the day were getting off the boat. Some boats were approaching the landing, and some had already dropped anchor for the night. Looking across the river, he could not see the other bank, the river being very wide at this point of giving into the sea. Still, he knew that his village was there, across the river. He just had to cross.
There was no other passenger to cross the river. It was just him. He found that the ferry was not going to take him across. No, it was not because of the late hour, or the lack of any other passenger. “You look too ill to take the long boat ride across the choppy water”, the ferryman said.
‘I know how to calm it’, Kharon thought. He tried to argue with the ferryman. The fellow shrugged his shoulders, and pointed to the other boats anchored nearby. Kharon shuffled from boatman to boatman on his tired feet, feeling faint. No one agreed, eying him suspiciously. Obviously, no one wanted a very sick old man on their boat. They just turned him away. A few asked him to come back the next day.
Kharon gave up. Night fell, slowly, and the moon arose – a full moon. Calm descended, except for the crickets, and if one listened carefully, the lapping of water against the boats. A breeze started blowing, initially with some hesitation, gradually becoming wanton and playful. It ran in waves rippling the surface of the water. Kharon found the earth ensconced in a magical bliss. He felt better now, and an urge possessed him to do something to cross the river. Still, looking at the lamps burning here and there on the boats, and hearing the subdued voices and tired laughter of the boatmen intoxicated with the stupor of the day’s tiredness, he waited. He had to try, and persuade them. He knew of the way to persuade them to take him across, though he had never raised the tide in an estuary. Yet, that was his bargaining point. But, before that and everything else, he had to find a suitable spot. He soon saw it, a mound with a clump of trees on it, some distance away. Probably some ruin, now buried in a heap of deserted anthills. He climbed upon it and rested against one of the trees.
He ate some bread and dry fish. Tiredness overcame him and he dozed off. He woke up to the sound of silence, which now seemed to be complete, and full of some portent. With his eyes he swept the scene. Not a thing moved, except for the boats rocking with sleepwalking ripples. The moon was now almost overhead, and the tide had come in. The water, nearly level with the low bank, buoyed with suppressed urge to overflow it.
Kharon took out his flute to play. As he put it to his lips, he looked at the full moon. Almost overhead, it looked like a large butter yellow pie. At one edge, there appeared a strange crimson tinge. He squinted hard to be sure. As the tinge seemed to spread imperceptibly, holding his breath he waited. Finally, he recognized it for what it was, and his feeble hands holding the flute trembled in an unknown fear. The fear tightened its cold fist over his sunken belly, and tentacles of its tremor spread out to benumb him.
His mind raced back to a distant childhood of apprenticeship under clear full moon nights. He recalled what his father had told him about the blood moon. He used to say, “Beware of the blood moon, son! That be a bad omen!”
Pushing aside the anxiety that gripped him, with urgency he started playing. The crimson tinge on the moon spread, and deepened more and more. The restrained water began to seethe, swell, rise and quietly overflow the bank. The boats, as if waiting for the chance, giddily allowed themselves to be first nudged, and then levitated and swept inland. Eventually, the moon, fully covered with the rust of dry blood, looked like the tumescent pupil of an evil eye flushed with the glow of hell. Unable to bear the dread anymore, Kharon piped down and eventually stopped playing. The tide started to recede, gently lowering the boats on the land. Satiated, he closed his tired eyes and slipped into fitful sleep.
He woke up to great noise. The sun had come up. In its light shining on the mud all around, the boats, stranded after the tide had receded, stood listless as in a painting. Stuck in the mud, they were away from the water in ebb now. Trampling in the slush, the boatmen agitated, looking for a clue. At Kharon stirred, the ferryman looked up, and saw the flute in Kharon’s limp hands. As if he understanding what he saw, he stopped dead. Others, following his gaze, became quiet too.
The ferryman trudged up the side of the mound, came up to Kharon, and bent down. Fearful, Kharon tried to hide his flute, but it was too late. With restraining hands, the ferryman grabbed Kharon’s two shoulders, and looking into his eyes, said, “So, you are Kharon, the tide piper, aren’t you?”
Hesitantly, Kharon gulped in agreement. The man stood up and said, “OK. I will take you across. But, put the boats back in the water. Do that first!”
Then he turned and went down the side of the mound. The other boatmen gathered around him. A hubbub arose. Some boatmen looked at Kharon, full of scorn in their eyes. Clenching their fists, they fell silent one by one, and climbed back on their boats, to wait for Kharon to raise the tide at noon.
The day dragged on. Kharon rested under the tree, feeling very week. His father’s words came back to him again and again. Had he done something wrong?
Meanwhile, the crowd of passengers wanting the ferry to cross, swelled, and grew restive.
Kharon must have dozed off in the heat. Someone started snuggling into the pocket of his robe. Waking with a start, he found Pluto had inserted his snout, and was apparently having a go at the bread and fish. The flute had slipped out of the pocket. Startled, he shouted at Pluto, who took out his muzzle, sniffed at the flute and picking it up, ran away. He stopped at some distance, sat down and started licking the flute. Kharon took out the remaining food and threw at Pluto. Pluto picked it and ran away. Kharon went and retrieving the flute, wiped it clean and blew into it. It sounded funny.
The ferryman came up and looking at Kharon, with a sweep of his hand indicated that the tide was coming.
Hurriedly, Kharon stood up, but feeling very weak at the knees, sat down. He put the flute to his lips and blew tentatively. A faint tune emerged. He blew harder. The heat and humidity made him feel short of breath. The ferryman stood at a distance, frowning. The other boatmen came out of their boats and stood staring at him, arms akimbo. The crowd of passengers also turned to see, and an excitement began to simmer.
Kharon filled his chest and blew. The tune that came out was still faint and tuneless. Puffing his cheeks, he blew hard. The flute burst with a faint plop into a sequence of harsh tunes. Something popped out of the flute and fell on the ground. Pluto pounced at it, and started gnawing at it. It was a fish-bone that had got into the flute. Kharon blew still harder. He filled his chest as much as he could, and blew again. Then making a last effort, sweating profusely, he gave a blast. Blowing his last breath, he collapsed, all limp. Pluto rushed to him and spitting out the fish bone he had grabbed, fervently licked Kharon’s face. Kharon did not move. He was dead.
His liberated soul floated up in the air, and the sea breeze blew it across the river towards his village. Raising his head, Pluto followed it and began to howl a long drawn cry. The river started to ebb again.
Indroneer / 27 Apr 2014