The River’s Mask – A Flash Fiction Piece

After a very long absence owing to extensive repairs of my spaceship following a particularly nasty run-in with some space pirates over a year ago, I return to earth ready to resume observing human beings in their natural environment.

As soon as I got here, I sensed a great disturbance in the Force — it was Chuck Wendig’s beard, calling me back to write something for another of his Flash Fiction Challenges.

This story is very much influenced by one of my favourite authors, Robert Holdstock, whose own characters spend a lot of time on chthonic journeys, and who incorporates masks (and other aspects of Jungian psychology) into many of his works. Would recommend you read him for some very beautiful but dark pieces of fantasy/fiction. Also, whilst I was gone, these WordPress people changed their entire layout of… basically everything. So apologies if this looks terrible until I figure out how to fix things. HTML wizardry may be involved.

 

The River’s Mask

It was the first obstacle. The first trial she would face. The thought of being tested did not worry her, but the thought of failing did. So many people were counting on her. He was counting on her, even if he didn’t yet know it.

Stooping into a crouch, she opened her bag and pulled out a crude wooden mask, one she had fashioned only days earlier from the bark of an ash tree. The eyes were two dark holes through which only slivers of light could penetrate; slivers were enough. The mouth of the mask had lips, of a sort, but they remained closed, and the nose was little more than a stubby triangle. Over the face she had rubbed the ash from her last campfire, so that it was blackened as if in perpetual shadow and mourning.

Sarasho.

The name of the mask. The sound of water tumbling over a fall and bubbling in the pool beneath. The beating drum of rain pounding against the roof of her childhood home. The whisper of the babbling spring where it gave birth to all the rivers of the world.

She slipped it over her face and tied the leather strings behind her head. Then she fastened her bag, ignoring the other masks which lay within; their time would come later. If she passed her first trial.

The minutes ticked by as she waited. The minutes became an hour, and then two. On the creaky wooden dock, she did not move. Fear and impatience were pushed away as easily as the aches in leg muscles which had been still for too long. She had waiting ten years for this; a few hours longer made little difference.

A breeze picked up, bringing with it the scent of damp wood and organic decay, accompanied by the gentle sound of the water lapping against something large. She turned her masked face and saw a figure emerge from the tenebrious mist, upon a boat which he guided with a long wooden pole.

Her heart beat rapidly as the boat approached, and she took a deep breath, to still her mind and calm her nerves. When it reached the dock, the boat stopped, and though its occupant did not move to moor it, it hung there unphased by the flow of the river. A chill caressed her skin, and she ignored that too.

I seek passage.” Her words came out louder than she’d intended, but the river swallowed them. The shadowy figure nodded, and when it spoke, its voice was the sound of the wind rushing through the leaves of a tree on a blustery day.

And to where do you wish to travel?”

To the place where souls go, when they have fallen into darkness.”

And what do you offer as payment?”

She stuck her hand into her pocket and brought out a coin clasped between her fingers. Its ancient surface was pitted and scarred, the likeness of some long-forgotten nobleman defaced by time itself. This she tossed at the figure, who caught it seemingly without moving.

He tilted his head to look at her, or she thought he did. “The customary payment is two coins.”

I know. This is for the journey in. The second you will get after my journey out.”

He chuckled, a dry, raspy sound, and the smell of decay hit her more strongly. “Very well. You may board.”

She and her bag stepped down from the dock into the boat, her boots ringing out a hollow beat as she moved to the centre of the craft. When she was ready, she gave the figure a nod, and the boat began to move again, back up the river, carried by the flow of the current.

As she waited, she felt the scrutiny of the boat’s keeper upon her. Closing her eyes, she silently recited the words of wisdom she’d been given by the spirit-master.

You must go to him masked, otherwise he will see into your mind and learn all that he needs to about you. Whilst you’re with him, on the River, you must never remove your mask. If he engages you in conversation, tell him nothing about yourself. But do not lie; deception angers him. If he learns your name, he will claim your soul, and you shall forever be his. This is your first trial. Do not become one of the souls doomed to eternity in the River.

What is your name?” the Ferryman asked, pulling her mind from its reverie.

Sarasho.”

That is not your name.”

It is how you will know me during our journey.”

Whom do you seek in the realm of fallen souls, Sarasho?”

Behind the mask, she bit her lip, forcing herself to silence.

A great general, perhaps? Some glorious leader of armies fallen in battle? Or a lover, somebody greatly missed during the cold, lonely nights?”

A friend from my childhood, actually,” she replied. Then she mentally kicked herself.

Ahh, I see.” Though she could not see his face, she had the distinct impression that he was smiling. “Tell me this friend’s name. Maybe I will remember carrying him—or her—to the Realm of Lost Souls.”

This time, she forced her lips together into a thin line. He let out a low, throaty chuckle like the sound of birds in flight.

Very well, o’silent one! If you do not care for conversation, perhaps you would prefer entertainment. A song or two?”

Eerie voices rose up from the river, and every hair on her body stood on end. Leaning to look over one side, she saw shapes below the surface, moving along with the boat, emitting a soft light that soothed her fears away. They sang a melody of sadness and longing, wordless and beautiful as whalesong. It called to her, tugging at something inside her, something aching and desperate, and she knew that if she reached out and touched them, she would never be sad or lonely or tired or desperate ever again.

Perhaps you would like to sing for me, Sarasho?” the Ferryman asked. “Take off your mask and sing, and I will tell you of what lies ahead for you on your journey.”

She snapped back, standing upright in the centre of the boat, and it wobbled very slightly. No. She could not give in to the music. If she took off her mask, she would fail. Failure was not an option.

Perhaps,” she said, as a thought presented itself, “you could tell me all you know of what lies ahead, and I might consider taking off the mask after that.”

Again the chuckle. “Very well. Very well. You drive a hard bargain, but there is no harm in you knowing. Perhaps you will even succeed, and come back this way to leave the Realm, and offer me another chance at changing your mind.

When we reach the far shore in the Realm of Lost Souls, you will find a forest with trees taller than you could ever imagine. It might seem pleasant at first, but the Lord of the Wild Hunt roams eternally in that place, his hounds eager for the chase.”

What is it that he hunts?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

Souls. He likes them fresh off the boat, when the smell of life still clings to them. Many souls make it through that forest; many, but not all. Perhaps this childhood friend of yours was pulled down there.”

She lifted her chin and frowned beneath the mask. “He made it through. I know he did. He is strong.”

Then he would have arrived next at the Living Maze, which is an infinitely-changing maze of thorns and vines and all things prickly and painful. It is not a gauntlet easily run. But had he succeeded there too, he would have attempted to cross The Plain of Fire, and then come to Sky Lord’s land.”

Sky Lord?”

A mad dictator obsessed with building the tallest crystal spire in the Realm. He enslaves souls, forces them to mine crystal, to fashion it into bricks which are then used to make his spire bigger, and taller. His end goal is to pierce the Veil where he perceives it to be weakest and negate the need for my River; he does not like being reliant upon me.”

Will he succeed?”

The Ferryman gave a soft snort. “Of course not. There is only one way into or out of the The Realm of Lost Souls. But he is mad, and there is no reasoning with a madman.”

I see.” Her heart sank at the thought of all that lay before her. She would need more masks. “Tell me, Ferryman. If the souls here are dead, how can they be harmed by a hunter or thorns, or enslaved by a madman?”

The dead have form, here. They may be mere souls, but here, souls are even more real than you.”

Then… what is to stop them from attacking you? From overwhelming you and stealing your boat and taking it to escape down your river? The river seems so gentle that even a child could navigate it, and you are an unarmed Ferryman.”

He laughed, a sound that echoed across the surface of the river and sounded like an unstoppable avalanche. “Is that how you perceive the River and I, Sarasho?” He gave a shrug. “It is different, for everyone. But here, we have reached our destination. See the dock, just there? And beyond it, the border of the forest where the Wild Hunt roams without tiring.”

The boat pulled up beside the dock and she grabbed her bag and hopped off. But she did not remove the mask. If this was the only way out of the Realm, she would be forced to deal with the Ferryman again. He was still dangerous.

Thank you for the information,” she said, and turned towards the forest.

Sarasho.” He waited until she had turned back to face him. “I have no doubt that you will overcome every obstacle that you face. And perhaps you will be lucky, and find your childhood friend. If you do, remember one thing. Souls do not fall into darkness; they choose it. Just because you find your friend, does not mean he will want to come back with you. Sometimes it is easier for them to dwell here, in the darkness, than to return to the brightness and pain of their lives. I just hope that your friend is worth it.”

She nodded, and pulled her bag over her shoulder. It was something she shared with the Ferryman; the hope that her friend would remember the boy he had been. The hope that after all she was willing to go through, he would let her bring him back home.

12 Comments on “The River’s Mask – A Flash Fiction Piece

  1. Your story is indeed very very um very, very Mythago Wood. In my opinion your writing skill is on par with Holdstock’s. Yes you are a first class writer but I wouldn’t know YOU from an oak tree or an ancient stag, or even a circling carrion eater. I know the ferryman mythology and I know Holdstock’s work. So it felt as familiar to me as a stroll to the local bottle shop. I’m sorry Space man I’ve read your comments on the other writers work and they were so insightful that I had a little bit of drool on the side of my mouth at the thought of reading your work. But it wasn’t what I was expecting. If I hadn’t read Holdstock then I’d think you were a bloody genius or I’d think you where him. Your not are you? I hope the rest of the story is more Spaceman and less Holdstock otherwise someone is going to accuse you of being more than just inspired by his work they might think you were copying.

    Let’s just suspend all reality and pretend I can hold a tune and let me leave you with a serenade….

    ‘There’s a star man, waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and see us but he think’s he’d blow our minds.’

    Like

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      If anybody reading this flash-fiction piece was to enjoy it so much that they’d think, “Hmm, I wonder whether this Robert Holdstock guy that The Urban Spaceman suggests is worth checking out too?”, and was then to go out and buy one of his books and enjoy it so much that they bought more, I think it would be worth some minor potential accusations of copying, especially since this blog is NFP 😉

      I really appreciate your concern, but you don’t need to be worried; the story from which I transposed my characters is a futuristic sci-fi space opera tragedy drama with nary an archetype in sight. Hope this puts your mind at ease!

      Like

      • A futuristic, sci-fi space opera tragedy drama! Thank Glob, I can sleep now.

        “Spaceman, I always wanted you to go into space, man. Intergalactic Christ
        It’s time to terminate The great white world, Morbid fascinations. Television takes control.” Sorry serenading you again, so good you can’t hear my voice.

        Always thought that line was, ‘Intergalactic cries.’ all these years I’ve been singing it wrong. How embarrassing. No I’m not procrastinating, who said that?

        Like

  2. Wow! This was so evocative and imaginative. Although I thought it worked well as a piece of flash fiction, I could see this being the opening to a longer story or even a book. It had a mythical feel without borrowing heavily from any existing mythology, which I feel is a great achievement.

    I would love to read more of your work! 🙂

    Like

    • Hi, rgharry, thanks for the feedback!

      I actually had the idea of Orpheus’ journey into the underworld to rescue Eurydice when I wrote this, but I wanted to reverse the gender roles (oh em gee, women rescuing men!) and doing so conveniently tied in with something else I happened to be writing, which meant the characters were already developed and I just had to tweak the setting. I’m glad you got a mythical feel from it, as I do so love mythology, and apart from the incorporation of River Styx/Charon I also had the idea of giving the protagonist a Kanzeon-type of feel about her. But I’ll have to see whether I run with that idea if I get the opportunity to write more.

      Cheers for stopping by!

      Like

  3. This is a very sweet beginning to a short story or a novel. You managed to put a lot of depth into a pretty short piece. The connection between the friend and the main character. Some of world building with the way afterlife works. Pretty smooth.

    Like

    • Many thanks, Fatma. I’m glad you feel it works well as a beginning, because the idea actually came from the middle of something else I’m working on, and I wasn’t sure if I’d “jumped the gun” and then ended up weighing it down too much with exposition. Glad you thought it was smooth 😉

      Like

  4. Hey Spaceman!

    Good to see you back onworld. Chuck’s Beard calls to me also, but other things have been louder. I was hoping for earplugs for Christmas, but no luck. 😉

    Now this piece was very good. Kinda dark but not too much so for my tastes. Very good descriptions. I’m kinda weak that way, so it’s always good to see how others do it.

    Very quest-like. I hope you are planning to continue it.

    Paul.

    Like

    • Cheers for the comment, Paul, and a pity about those ear plugs. I would lend you mine but my species has rather large, floppy ears and I fear they just wouldn’t fit you.

      This story may continue in the future, but not simply for the sake of continuing it. To be honest, it’s transposed from something else I’m working on; I just gave this piece a different genre/theme. No point inventing the wheel twice!

      See you around the planet/internet!

      Like

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