20. The Psychopomp

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I am the Psychopomp. I have been and always will be. I will be inhaling as you exhale for the last time. I have countless names in countless languages. They have spoken of me in every corner of the Earth since there were mouths to speak and ears to listen. They have called me Xolotl, Morpheus, Volos, Shinigami, Charun, Gabriel, Muut, Anguta, Wepwawet, Eshu, Ogmios, Ankou, Azrael, Epona, Jeouseung Saja. But I was before language and before that. Besides, I am no more my name than you are yours. These are simply sounds that people use to refer to us.

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The middle-place is my domain, the halfwhere on the edge of mist-shrouded dusk, when the shadows coalesce and assume substance. If you’ve seen me, or think you’ve seen me, it has only been a fleeting thought in the corner of your eye. Your direct gaze falls off me in every direction.

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I have often wondered but never known what it is to live. I do not claim to understand why people react to my approach in all the ways they do. To me, life is an ocean I stare out at while standing on the shore. I cannot claim to know much about what comes after either. I have my ideas just as you have yours.

I am the cab driver, the bus driver, the train conductor, the coachman, the ferryman. I am a messenger and the guide. My passengers are always so full of questions and some I can answer but most I cannot. Often the journey is very short but occasionally it is a great distance and takes a long time, although “time” is not known here. Sometimes it is a narrow stream and quickly crossed and sometimes it is the Sahara. Only a handful of times have I made a round trip and then I was the one full of questions.

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Many people remain silent during the trip, staring out the window or over the bow at the fathomless waters. Perhaps they are remembering something or contemplating I know not what. But many people talk to me to pass the “time.” They have told me things.

For millennia, they have told me things. About loved ones and places. About weddings and births. About pets and tragedies. They tell me about the moments that have mattered most. They sing me their favorite songs or cry or describe the homes they have lived in. I try to take in all that they tell me and imagine what it might be like to be alive. And I am always grateful for the conversation.

It’s quite lonely here and it’s nice when someone is unafraid enough to talk to me and to let me talk to them. After all, I am the only inhabitant of this place. It is only me and the ghosts, although they are mostly too sick to speak. So I chat with my passengers and listen to what they say and, for a brief spell, I am glad.

I have come to realize why so many of them fear me. When war comes, when famine comes, when a pandemic comes, I must seem like a dark and terrible specter, rising obsidian-winged in a chariot of coal and fire, to sweep the entirety of the globe into the tatters of my robe, to reap a harvest of unnumbered multitudes and feast on loss and imbibe their wailing! They imagine me as a grinning skull in a black cloak, wielding a lengthy scythe. They imagine me as a devilish beggar or a screaming owl or an ancient, toothless woman, scampering up the fire escape to steal the baby.

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But none of these are true.

When the things of Earth grow strangely dim and the light falls away like an echo, their eyes come into focus and they see me, as I actually am, for the first time. I try to begin with something comforting. I say, “I mean you no harm.” I say, “You needn’t be afraid.” I say, “If it happens to everyone, how can dying be something bad?” I have even attempted to open with a joke but have been told that this approach is disconcerting. My sense of humor is not well developed.

Some come bearing offerings. They give me coins, though there is nothing here on which to spend them. They bring me flowers and fine liquors and eloquent odes. But I particularly enjoy when they offer me an excellent cigar. The taste and the aroma and the thick, silver ribbons of smoke… yes, I find that cigar smoking suits my mood exceedingly well.

On occasion, I have even made a friend, if that is what you want to call it. I remember, two or three millennia past, a certain Grecian philosopher, whose wit and rhetoric were so keen that I laughed out loud. The sound of my laughter, not heard by many, terrified him at first. It must have seemed to him like an earthquake or the bone crack of sky-splitting thunder. I recall a Priestess from the city of Ur, a bejeweled Maharaja, a French peasant woman, a Spanish poet, a rock star, a young prince, a Prime Minister, a Queen. I count one in a billion, perhaps one in twenty billion, as a companion.

Regardless, our voyage always ends. It is with a mixture of surprise and recognition that they first glimpse their destination. And there I leave them. Not one glances back as their forms recede from my sight. I remain. I wish that I could offer a deeper consolation. I wish that I could tell you which stories are true. But, like you, I do not know. Like you, I am only a being suspended between two eternities.

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About psychopompkaleidoscope

Is a mortal who will not live forever.
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