Martin sat and stared at the plates of ham and cold pie in front of him. The Earl sighed.
“I am sorry.” He remarked. “I know, I know, it is poor fare but, with the cauldron broken the cooks have lost the will to work. They sit by their cold ovens and drown their skills with the contents of the cellars, the last of the vintage that remains.”
The Earl sat back and let out a great sigh of futility. “Then what is left now but the final draught. Everything is futile, all life is meaningless. For what is the point of it when there is no escape from the grave. Everything that once was great is dead and dying, everyone I loved is gone, everything I gave my life for is ended. This house,” he stared in deep sorrow at the cold shadowed walls. “I spent my life here, tending it, struggling to build it up, to help others. But those I helped. Where are they now?
“My gardens are a wasteland, my halls are empty, my rooms are barren. My windows filmed over and my roof about to collapse. The earth is sucking at my foundations and the air is pulling at my walls. And when I am gone they will fall and the earth will cover this place and not a scrap will remain of my life.
“There will be no one to remember me, there will only be the dry earth. And the waters will seep in again and the swamp will return and the generations of my family will be forgotten and it will be as thought they never were. And only Despond will remain. What is the point of continuing this suffering, this terrible suffering? It should be finished.”
“Wise words, Lord Succour,” one of the guests replied to this speech. “Wise words indeed. You finally understand.” The speaker was seated in the centre of a group of guests. And as he spoke up the room was quiet as the occupants listened. He was a large man, larger than the Earl, with a shaggy beard and a fierce face. Yet now he was smiling.
“Who are you to be the judge of wisdom,” another interjected. Further down the table was the speaker, an ancient woman of indeterminable age. She spoke in a hiss, her mouth empty but for a single tooth. “It is not up to you when it is wise to die. It is when it is.”
“Never madam, never, I refute and reject such an idea.” He spoke cordially, continuing a long-standing debate with his colleague. “I have been telling you all, the only way of coping with this horror of mortality is to end ourselves. To die, and thus to break that suffering barrier between ourselves and those we love. For if we cannot stop our friends dying then we can prevent ourselves living past them.”
The Earl made a final hesitation at this. “But surely there are other friends to make, surely there is something to live for?” yet even in this question there was no hope in his voice.
“Other lives and other deaths and the grave claims us all. Why do we continue in these rotting, walking corpses.” And as he spoke his face seemed to be shrinking and showing his skull at the room. Martin blinked and for a moment the speaker grinned a skeleton grin and flashed empty sockets at him. And Martin shrank back.
“Please, I can’t.” He said. “I can’t.”
“You’re not still scared are you. Not after all you’ve been through. They’re dead,” the great man replied in a cavernous voice.
Martin whimpered and tried not to listen. But he knew it was true, he had faced it, he had finally faced it. The visions of his family lying bloodied by the road still flashed brightly at the back of his eyes. The thump of the wipers, the twisting screech of metal and the soft pitter of the rain on the hot wet tarmac haunted him and his eyes were crying, somewhere far away. He couldn’t stand it. He had tried to ignore it, he had tried to deny the reality of it, to fight it and eventually, eventually he had faced it. And despaired.
And the Earl raised his voice and spoke out. “Bring the waters, I am parched of thirst and I perish.” And a waiter came out from the kitchens with a long face and a long nose and small black eyes and large ears that made him resemble a fierce-faced dog. He came out carrying two jugs, one large in his right hand with an intricate design of a white cypress tree engraved on its side. And in his left hand was a smaller jug.
And for most of the guests they turned to the left and he poured out their drink from the larger jug. But others like the crone and the large fierce-faced man turned to the right and he poured from the smaller jug. And he reached the table and offered the Earl a choice. And the wounded, sorrowful man took the drink from the right, saying, “No, I will take the comfort of forgetting this place. And all it was and all it now is and everything that it will become.”
And the dog-headed waiter offered Martin the choice, and Martin stared, swaying in his seat, exhausted, the scene waving between what was real and what else was real. And the waiter was a man and a dog and nothing but a choice and the jugs were full and they were great pools before him and they were inscribed, whether the pools of water or the jugs, with the legends Leth and Mnemosyne and these words Martin read as ‘forgetting’ and ‘remembering’.
Martin instinctively clutched the larger jug of forgetfulness on the left, clutching at the nothingness of the grave, relief from the desperate tragic knowledge of suffering. For this was what most chose, what most people drank these waters to achieve, for it was the reason they made the choice in the first place.
The jug was poured out into Martin’s cup. But as the occupants of the room threw up their heads and drank deep the room flooded with Martin’s tears and he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t move. This was too much, this couldn’t be the end. He wasn’t convinced. And in this room of swimming bodies and the crash of cups as they fell from lifeless hands the fierce-faced man with the sometimes-head of a skull rose to his feet and faced Martin angrily.
“They’re dead. Can you escape that, can you ignore it or pretend otherwise?” Trying to remain reasonable in his anger, the violence in the man’s voice was barely repressed. Martin shook his head, unable to speak.
“And so just one thing remains. Death. And I think we both know what you’ve chosen. You have wandered helplessly in Acheron, trying to find another way, a way to avoid the truth. And you’ve just ended up back here.” He waved his arms and for a moment Martin imagined another world; a world of bright, artificial lights, of rushing walls and shouting voices, of white and green and the smell of disinfectant and his own vomit.
And Martin imagined this world but the room before him was more truthful, more real. And Martin faced the large/gaunt, rough faced/skull-headed man as he rose to his feet and grinned at Martin. And the crone by the man’s side took her restraining hand from his arm and, released, he bounded forward to Martin and the Earl at the high table.
“You made your decision already, its just time to face it. This house will fall and the earth will claim its own. Now,” he took the cup from Martin’s place and held it out to him, “Drink and with your taste of the waters in this house you will never hurt again, you will never have to see their faces again, you will never have to suffer their loss by yourself in the dead of night when you wake from the nightmare of your heartache.” He thrust the cup to Martin.
“You have already done this once, why do you still hesitate. Why do you remain in Acheron, why don’t you pass on?” And the harsh lights screamed at Martin’s mind and in the distance his name was called but it was too far away to get to.
…he’s crashing…hang on there…clear the room…
And the long, deathly beeeeeep of a machine on the other side of the world as someone’s heart failed. And Martin took the cup to his mouth and the waters met his lips. Yet still he paused, still he refused to drink. And for a moment he thought he saw another woman standing beside the crone, ancient yet younger than the first, a kindly, motherly face, restraining the razor edge of the crone’s scissors that were resting on the fragile thread stretched between her withered fingers. “Wait,” she said, “wait.”
“Wait.” A voice that Martin recognised, a voice he had heard over his bedside when he had been wrestling with the idea of fighting death, of refusing its dominance over him. A stern yet kindly voice that dimmed the lights and silenced the machines.
And the room swam back into view as the owner of that voice now reached out and gently took the cup from Martin’s lips. Lips that were white from being clenched so tightly shut against what the cup had offered. And the crone was ushered out of the room by another, the voice’s companion, a man in a wide brimmed hat who slung the first limp body over his shoulders and took it outside to his waiting cart. And when the house had been cleared the man would drive them over the land of Acheron and take them to the land beyond. And to who knew what lay there.
“Charon.” Martin whispered. And the figure stared at him. A tall man, bald, hook-nosed and hood-eyed in a thick, grey woollen cloak. He no longer appeared as a Doctor, if he ever had. He appeared as himself.
His eyes were sunken deep as wells. Lines were drawn across his ancient face. He gave the impression of having seen everything; everyone who had come this way, everyone who had crossed the lands he patrolled. He placed his hand on the fierce-faced man’s shoulder and pulled him back from Martin.
“Accept your failure Thanatos. He does not wish to die yet.” And the other man left reluctantly, following the crone woman outside.
Charon faced Martin. And for a time they stared at each other. And Martin breathed. And the distant sounds faded completely. And his heart slowed its rapid beat. And the room was real again. Charon spoke.
“You are here for a reason Martin. Most cross this land hurriedly, without thinking, without looking. As they drink these waters impulsively, instinctively. Yet you remain here. You refuse to lay out in the wind for my friend to gather you up. You refuse to stay in the sanctuaries of madness where many become lost for years or for ever. You refused to allow those partisans of death to tempt you to your own destruction even when you were at your most helpless and despondent. And so, while you remain here, I will be your guide.”
“But why am I here.”
Charon stared at him. “You know why. It is why Hypnos did not satisfy you, why the explanations of Ankhor and the activities of Panacea made you flee. Why you kept running from the winds of the moor, why you ran from the philosophies of the men you met. You seek something else. You want to know meaning perhaps. Why your family died. And how you can live on after them.”
“What is the point of life when it ends?”
“Yes.” Charon answered.
“What?” Martin asked, confused.
“That is the question.” Charon said, simply.
“But what is the answer?” Martin cried.
“I do not know what your answer is.” The cloaked man said. “That is for you to discover. For some the answer is Hypnos, for some Panacea or Ankhor or Despond. There are other answers also.”
“But which is the right one?”
“The right one? Who can choose that for you? You have seen the consequences of the choices. And you decided that those consequences were too much to bear. There are many answers and many consequences for choosing them. Yet many people are willing to ignore or accept those consequences.
“There are depths of existence some people are willing to accept. You may consider some more of them. In the end you will choose. You have not chosen this way. Move on.”
“Move on.” Charon insisted. “The winds await you. The furies are sharpening their claws. They have much to say to you still.”
“But I can’t move on. Not back there. I’m so tired. I just want to rest. Please, can’t you help me? I’ll pay you.”
“With what?” Charon asked. “What have you brought but your memories, faded and broken and shuffled together.”
Martin looked around him at the bare tables, the limp food now rotting as though it had been lying there for days. “I don’t know.”
“Then you must travel by yourself. It is a hard journey true, and you are in no fit state to make it. But that was your decision. You chose to leave this journey until now, until you are weak and dying. You could have made this journey any day of your life. But now, now you can barely stand.”
Charon looked at him deeply. “It will be a hard journey,” he said.
And with that the tall figure of Charon turned from Martin. His companion gathered the now dead Earl up into his arms and, with a brief nod to Martin, his eyes hidden under that shadowing brim of his hat; he carried the old Earl from the room. They left and the room lay empty.