I sit at the side of the road and wait for her. I watch the slow, wandering crowd of people shuffle past me, all of them having just passed through the great gate to shamble aimlessly along the dusty lane. I know that she has not come. Not yet. But I must wait. I am patient.
I see her. She walks slowly, dragging her bare feet in the cold dust; she stares ahead of her, with a blank, slightly bewildered expression on her pale, thin face. Her arms hang loosely, limply at her sides. Her hair trails lankly about her slumped shoulders, and may once have been a rich brown, though now it lies drained of its colour. This is what happens to them all. They are like broken refugees, clad in faded rags.
I stand up and go to her, smiling, taking her hand in mine.
“This way, this way. Come with me,” I say.
She says nothing, but that is to be expected. Her eyes flicker to me for a moment, but she turns away almost instantly, her attention lost. She shows no other sign that she has heard me or even acknowledged my presence. But that is to be expected.
I guide her along the road in the midst of the other people, who have all been met by individuals like me. We walk for a long time, and pass fields and woods, hills and pastures, empty expanses of scrubland, and still the road plunges on and on, the bleached sun shining wanly above our heads. It would seem that this land is, or once was, rich, but looking closely the grass is a faded green, the trees are painted a washed-out grey, and no animals roam the deserted landscape. It resides in a curious stillness for all eternity except for the passing of people. There is no sound but the quiet scuffle of bare feet against the sand.
This land is but a shadow of where she has come from.
The road turns, widens, and we come to an immense bank of mist stretching far in both directions. It looks dark after the light, but we do not stop. The ones at the front have already disappeared into its damp and clammy embrace.
As we enter it, a faint frown creases her forehead and she slows her feet to a stop, but I turn to her and smile, squeezing her hand reassuringly.
“This way,” I say. “This is the way.”
She comes then, and I smile at her. The frown leaves her face, but a trace of it remains in her eyes, staring ahead. She says nothing to me, but that is to be expected. They do not usually talk, and it is a wonder that they come with us at all, letting a complete stranger lead them into an unknown land. They must do it because they have changed.
The river materialises quite suddenly out of the gloom. It is a dark expanse of slow moving water, wide enough so that we cannot see the far bank through the mist. The old man waits in his small wooden boat, watching us approach.
We stop. “We must wait,” I tell her. “We must wait our turn.” She says nothing. But that is to be expected.
We stand waiting near the back of the group while the others ahead climb into the boat. Only one person is rowed across at any one time, vanishing into the murky mist. Their leaders smile and turn away, beginning the long journey back to the gate. They already know who they are going to meet.
Her turn draws nearer.
“Have you got your money?” I ask her.
She shifts her gaze momentarily to me, but then her eyes wander away again, and she resumes her blank stare. I smile at her, and reach my hand into the pocket of her white tunic. I pull out two silver coins. I am still holding her hand. She shows no sign that she has noticed me. But that is to be expected.
I lead her to the edge of the water and hand her money to the old man in the boat. He hides the silver away in a small leather bag attached to his belt and gives us his thanks. I help her into the craft and smile at her, letting go of her hand at last.
A faint frown creases her forehead, and she looks at me with a sharp focus uncharacteristic of one that has had her experience.
“What river is this?” she asks. The clarity of her voice surprises even me, but I do not hesitate or show my astonishment. I smile at her.
“The river Styx,” I reply.
All words and images copyright © Jenny Ross 2018