The Ferryman

It is done; something horrible
Is going to return to the cage of time!
- Lautréamont

The finger teases the locust that clings to the gray overalls.

A leg rises, slowly triggering the chitin joints. An antenna quivers. Two moths, wings folded up into a V, motionless, blend into the gray fabric on one of the sleeves. On the collar of the overalls, forming an inverted V under the weight of the fabric, a green bug is perched.

The finger keeps teasing the locust, which does not react except with a slight movement of its antennae or legs, nothing to do with any external interference. The abdomen is sliced off midway by the incessant stare. The gray and brown mass of its viscera is expanded, free of all constraints, and spreads out on the gray tissue, vaguely resembling a moldy morel. A kind of quiet catastrophe wells up from the scene, which the finger tries to soothe with its caress.

The overalls are suspended from a nail. They hang down stiff to the grassy ground, just a few inches from the tallest plants. Two universes bound by the hands and feet of the ferryman who makes his last crossing on a river of metaphor colors, semaphore blue, ritual white.

During the war, when there still were wars, he had assisted the exile of many people who were fleeing the clatter of arms, the fall of plaster and the hum of military weapons.

The ferryman now looks at his photo album.

First he had poured himself a large bowl of rum. He can admire his young face, the smooth skin on his hands and his black hair. The images show him young against a cracked, yellowed mounting. The photographs are old. And then, perhaps without realizing it, his eyes make a final crossing between the photographic material worn out by the years and his youthful double.

The ferryman leans on the balcony. The wood creaks under his feet, which lift up and fall back down. One by one. To the left, beyond the garden bristling with wild grass, the metal bridge spans the river. For some time now, as if to represent the thickening of days, a pigment of darker and darker rust has overrun its sides. The ferryman blames it on the air, a particular diffraction due to the kiss of metal and mist. Around the rotting house the straggly grass weaves a thicker and thicker jungle. The yard slopes gradually down to the river. The gutted ferryboat is half-swallowed. The back-end, bogged down in the mire and covered with algae, has become a station for frogs and water snakes. The front, gray and dry and burnt by the sun, crumbles as time goes by, devoured by termites and beetle larvae. The ferry, the instrument of crossing, now assures the permanent junction between two foreign worlds. Becomes a place outside of time where two universes can cohabitate safely. Fragile, anastomotic skiff between water and fire.

This morning some driftwood has beached on the riverbank. On one of the fragments a word can be made out in red letters: ARABELLA.

The ferryman has just nailed the jagged piece to one of the doors of the wardrobe. Next to the gray overalls. The gutted wardrobe lies on its side in the middle of the yard.  Many birds have built their nest in it.

The hand draws near, caresses the overalls, gently takes hold of the sleeve and raises it. A big, black spider appears between two folds of cloth. Three of its legs are severed. Two clefts in the form of a cross mark its thorax. The finger brushes the abdomen. A leg rises, caresses the finger and drops back down.

Climbing back up the slope, parting the curtain of scrub with his wizened hands, the ferryman murmurs a strange litany:  Arabella. Arabella. Jean. René. Marc. Serge. Elisabeth…

He remembers.

The hand caresses the glass, slips, feels the air and stops. A light pressure on the crack and the pain is transferred to a drop of blood. The hand pulls back. The yard behind the mutilated window drips with light. The full moon floods the night with sulfur brilliance. And the grass is erect like precious metal sculptures, gold and bronze, copper and silver, finely chiseled.

A form appears near the wardrobe. The ferryman approaches and tells himself that he is dreaming because now he sees an almost human silhouette, scaled down, arachnoid, gripping onto the overalls.

It talks to him.

“I have come to pay you off. I know how hard it is for you to wait here forever. But there really had to be someone. You have helped us all to cross over and you stayed here. You are a hero. Your pay is in one of the pockets of the overalls. I did not want to wake you. Farewell.”

In front of his bowl of rum, the ferryman thinks about his dream. He looks around. And the repulsive state of the room makes him dizzy. Mildew has overrun everything. The walls are covered with oozing fungosity. The floorboards swarm with worms. The rum tastes of benzine.

He staggers out. The light races along his skin. The fresh, dry air cleans out his mucous membranes. Far off beyond the jungle in the yard the bridge is almost black. Charred.

The hand reaches out. The finger fat touches the cloth. The skin slips down and creeps into the pocket. The hand pulls up. Between two fingers appears the corner of a photograph—a postcard?—on which a ray of sunlight gives rise to a little star.

The overalls are covered with dying insects.

At first he fixes the photograph in his album. On the last page. Then he takes it out and pins it to the wall. Across from the table where he has his meals.

Hands clamp the rope. The ferryman is young. He must be thirty. His face is twisted into a painful grin. The barrel of the gun against his temple. The hand that holds the gun is young, too. Of a man that ought to be the same age as him. He wears a black raincoat. They are both on the ferryboat in the middle of the river. The photograph is old and yellowing, but the details are clear. The grain invisible.

The ferryman has sat all day contemplating this image. And now he is sure that the tiny details have changed. His head has moved away a little from the gun and one of his hands does not touch the rope any more.

Outside the moonlit night floods the metal yard.

The hand reaches out. The fingernails grind against the chitin carapaces. And the overall lifts up, rustling with shells.

Dressed in his dying panoply, the ferryman, dreamer, contemplates the changes in the photographic image. The fall of his body. The fingers caress the mutilated corpses. These little beings that wait for him to cross from this world into the other.

A landscape of calm suffering.

That the caressing fingers try to soothe in vain.


Jacques Barbéri

Jacques Barbéri is a French author of more than fifteen novels and numerous short stories. Thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, or the fringes of literature— nothing is off limits to his perpetually mutating imagination. He is also a musician (with the group Palo Alto), screenplay writer, and translator. He can be found on the web at

Michael Shreve

Michael Shreve is a writer and translator currently living in Paris, France. His publications include first English translations by Voltaire, Jean Meslier, Marcel Schwob, and John Antoine Nau, among others. He can be found on the web at

Le Passeur. Copyright (c) Jacques Barbéri, 1983. English translation copyright (c) Michael Shreve, 2010.