Andreas awoke with a start, lying on his back in a confused tangle of twisted limbs and tattered clothing. He stirred and tried to roll over, but an excruciating pain shot up through his midsection and he gave up on the attempt while he tried to figure out just what had happened. He could not remember where he was before, and had absolutely no idea where he was now. He vaguely remembered being stabbed, but he could not decide if it actually happened, or if he had merely dreamt it. He absently slid a hand under his tunic to the throbbing burn in his abdomen, and was shocked to feel a mangle of ripped flesh and dried blood. He yelped in shock, but the thick air seemed to swallow up his voice.
The wound burned hot and fierce in his innards, but it seemed as though the worst of his pain was already past. He gritted his teeth and struggled slowly to his feet. His entire body felt leaden and the frayed ropes of his muscles creaked and twisted around his bones. He shook the blurriness from his eyes and tried to figure out where he was, and more importantly, how to get back home.
The land around him was flat and featureless, save for the occasional dead and twisted tree to break the monotony. Nothing else grew on the ground; not a single blade of grass poked through the iron-gray gravel. Everywhere around was blanketed in a dense and unmoving fog, and Andreas could not tell where the sun was in the sky for the suffocating thickness of the clouds overhead. It was deathly quiet; not a single bird sang, nor did a single insect buzz. Wherever he was, the swarms of flies that descended upon his town every summer were nowhere around.
Fifty paces ahead of him flowed a broad and winding river of black water. On its banks stood a tall, cadaverously thin man next to a massive rowboat of black wood. He stood motionless, ankle-deep in the waters of the river. He held an oar in one hand, and beckoned Andreas to come closer with the other.
Andreas swallowed and gathered up his courage. But something was not right; he felt uneasy, and the uneasiness only swelled as he drew nearer. He stopped and laid his pack down, three or four paces from the banks of the river. The boatman looked Andreas over as though they were old friends, and smiled warmly in greeting.
All of a sudden, everything came together in a flash. Andreas stepped back and let out an agonized scream, but it thudded vainly against the fog and the boatman stood there, unmoving as a statue. The smile melted from his waxy lips.
"Boatman! This has been a terrible mistake! I am not supposed to be here! I beg you, tell me how to return to the world above."
A look of utter understanding and heartfelt concern broke over the boatman's thin, lined face. For an instant, it looked as though he were about to shed a tear in sympathy, but Andreas had the impression that this boatman had already cried everything out countless aeons ago. He tried to smile again, but chose instead to speak:
"We all must cross this river one day. The Fates ordain it so. Young Andreas, I am truly sorry, but this is the way things must be, and it cannot be any other."
"But this has been a mistake! I am not dead, and I am not supposed to be here!"
"My friend, the lives of all --- divine and mortal alike --- are *punctuated* with mistakes. Rest assured, my young friend, that you shall err no more forever."
"I am not supposed to be here."
"But you are here. No question about that."
"I WILL NOT CROSS!!!"
The boatman seemed unfazed by Andreas' yelling, as though he expected it anyways and suffered it like a father might suffer his son's tantrums.
"Young Andreas, pause for a moment to consider your choices. You might choose to cross this river and remain on the other side till the end of time. It is not an unbearable fate; you shall be in the company of all your dead friends and comrades, till the end of time. Or you might choose to tarry by these banks forever, and argue with a tired old ferryman. What shall it be, my young friend?"
Andreas sighed and let it all sink in.
"I see you have already made your decision. You have chosen wisely, young Andreas."
He held out a long, bony hand. Andreas lifted up his tunic and fumbled around in his money pouch for a single gold coin. The boatman tucked his fare in an unseen pocket of his tattered cloak, and then took Andreas by the hand to help him into his boat. The hand felt icy and metallic to the touch, and Andreas gulped to hold back his fear. But the boatman smiled again, and stepped on board. The black and murky waters seemed as dense as oil, and the boat settled and sank only a little deeper into its muddy surface --- as though the combined heaviness of Andreas and the boatman amounted to no more than a feather's weight against the massive bulk of the boat.
The boatman took up station near the center of his craft and heaved his massive oar into the waters, poling his craft away from the banks. With surprising strength, he began rowing towards the opposite bank, which seemed to be miles distant and obscured by the fog.
A few minutes underway, Andreas cleared his throat to speak:
"Boatman! May I ask a question?"
"How many have you ferried across this river?"
"Uncountable myriads. Sadly, most were your age or younger when they perished. Your demise will be called 'untimely' by those you left behind when they receive news of it, but I assure you, the Fates cut your string perfectly on time."
Andreas sighed uneasily at the thought of his family. How would they fare without him? Who would support his father in his old age? He was the only child of the family, and his father would not remarry, especially at his age.
"Boatman, may I ask another?"
"You may, by all means."
"Have any gone back to the world above from here?"
"No one, but by the leave of King Hades. Not even mighty Father Zeus can pluck a soul from perdition."
Andreas looked away and tried to hide the tears that were trickling down his cheeks.
"But take heart, young Andreas; the underworld is not so gloomy as you dour-souled Romans make it out to be! You shall soon be reunited with your dead friends and compatriots, and in time, you shall forget the life you lived above."
"But I do not want to forget."
"You are already forgetting. Even your body is forgetting the wounds and insults it suffered in life. Look and see."
Andreas lifted up his tunic, and surely enough, the laceration in his belly had closed completely and all that remained of it was a dull red scar that seemed to fade before his very eyes. The pains that wracked him not more than a half hour before were now not much more than a dull, throbbing ache.
The boat neared the opposite bank slowly and the fog seemed to lift somewhat, as the boatman steered his craft towards the beach. He grounded his boat on the grey, gravelly sand and stepped out, his sandaled foot crunching dully on the rocks and pebbles of the beach. With an outstretched hand, he helped Andreas step out of the high-sided vessel and then led him up the strand. Things seemed somewhat more 'alive' here; a few scraggly and unkempt shrubs grew higher up the slopes of the beach, and the air even seemed more breathable here.