The Price

He delivered the bodies to the riverbank at sunrise, when the opposite shore was aflame in the light of a new day. And as he waited for the ferryman to arrive, he lit himself a cigarette and inhaled deeply the poison he hoped would soon make him a passenger on his cart instead of the driver. With the butt pressed between his lips, he fumbled in his pockets for the six coins he’d need. Presently, the palming and patting and clutching grew faster, more furious. The first five had been easy enough to find, but by the time he caught sight of the ferryman dragging her skiff ashore, the sixth coin was still missing.

 

He kept his eyes on the damp hem of the ferryman’s robes until the woman had drawn to a stop and rasped, “They are not ready.”

 

Eyes still focused on the robes, on the sand that had clung there, he said, “I’m one coin short.”

 

“Which stays then?”

 

He looked now at the ferryman, at the pallid, gaunt face she kept hidden beneath her hood, and he pleaded for mercy.

 

The ferryman plucked the cigarette from his mouth and pressed it between her own lips, taking a long, slow drag.

 

“They all must go,” he said. “I am paid to make sure of it.”

 

She handed him back the cigarette, stained at one end by the paint upon her lips. “If you are paid,” she said, “should I not be?”

 

He pat himself down again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I swear I had it.”

 

She took hold of his arms, stilling him with both the strength of her grip and with the iciness of it. “We may yet reach a bargain,” she said.

 

“My soul in place of the final coin,” he guessed, shrugging off her grasp. “That is no bargain.”

 

“But I see it in your eyes,” she said. “I tasted it on that poisoned teat from which you suck. And besides,” she said, taking gentle hold of his hands again, “it is not the whole of you that I seek. It is just a piece.”

 

“And which piece might that be?” he asked.

 

She lowered her hood, squinting in the bright morning light as she did. And then she undid the clasp at her neck and pulled off the robes entirely, holding them out for him to take.

 

He could not help but gawk at the slight form before him, the waif in the white dress who looked positively diminished without her robes.

 

“For how long?” he asked, running the coarse fabric of the robes through his fingers, noticing only now the places on her pale skin that had been rubbed raw by her accoutrements.

 

She smiled at him, and in that smile he saw the truth of it.

 

“Until I am owed,” he said. It was not a question.

 

He watched her dance across the sand as he pulled the robes onto himself. Then he carried the bodies one by one to the skiff and set them inside. And it was only then, as he stepped back to give the cart one last check, one last goodbye, that he saw it laying in the sand, nestled into the print of one of his boots: the final coin.

 

He picked it up, held it above his head, and shouted for the woman who’d worn the robes, but she was gone. Long gone.


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