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Fantasy Funny

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 The job description might have suggested bringing a vehicle suited for off-roading. 

Somehow, my sedan survived the overgrown trail with an intact undercarriage. At least I’d brought sturdy hiking boots, which took me safely down a wooded path to a cave.  An aging man stumbled out of the shadows and glanced me up and down.

“Feminism’s scraping the bottom of the barrel for male-dominated professions to infiltrate,” he huffed.

               “Not true,” I replied. “There have been plenty of female psychopomps over the ages. Daena in Persia, the Valkyries, and Amokye in West Africa.”

See? I’d done my homework. I smiled and waited for his praise. 

               “And in Mexico it used to be dogs. Don’t get too proud.” He headed into the cave. 

No need to be a dick about it, I thought, but I followed him through a fissure, navigating rocks, until we came to a sandy stretch with a trickling brook. Two upended logs were the only office furniture. He sat on one and I took the other.

               “So this is it? This is the barrier between worlds?”

               “Not much to look at, is it?” he hooked his thumbs in his pockets.

               I studied him while I waited for more job details. His face was more lined than before, the hair more uniformly white, but he hadn’t seemed quite so cranky. He stared at the water and seemed unaware of me.

               “When people come, what do you do?”

               “Everyone has their own style,” he said. “The Grim Reaper, he was just a keener. They forced him to retire because he made everyone else look bad.  Go out to collect the dying? Why make more work for yourself, especially in times of war and plague? Besides, non-believers see you and just think they’re hallucinating. All you have to do is wait, then hold their hand while they cross. Nothing to it.”

               “That doesn’t sound so bad,” I replied. “There aren’t many jobs where the clients come to you.”

               “Job?” He eyed me. “Don’t quit your dayjob, sugarpie, there’s no money in this.”

               “I didn’t apply for the money.”

               “There used to be. Time was, people were mannerly and left coins on the eyes or in the mouth for folks like us, but not anymore. Now, it’s only embalmers and casket manufacturers who get rich.”

               The gentle echo of the brook was fittingly peaceful. The air was cool and moist, but not uncomfortable. 

“It really is so . . . off, isn’t it, the amount of trouble people go to over funerary stuff? So beside the point. You should spend money on people while they’re still alive. Tell them how much they mean to you when they can hear it. Why put on the big display only after it’s too late?”

               He shrugged. “It comforts them, I guess. Death isn’t the tragedy of the deceased. Their suffering is over. It’s the survivors who have to go on coping.”

               “I’m not sure I agree,” I said slowly. “After the trauma of dying, your last interaction with a living being should at least be a pleasant experience. Life owes you that.”

               “Young people,” he scoffed.

               I sat up straighter. “What’s being young got to do with it?”

               He rose and dabbled his fingers in the water. “Have you ever worked retail?”

               “You know it. My first job was at a grocery store.”

“Dealing with the public is dealing with the public. You imagine the people coming through here are going to be glad for an interaction with you? Just ‘cause they’ve died doesn’t mean they’ve gained any manners. You’ll get everything from blank looks and denial, to cursing, to disappointment that you’re not something cool like Cerberus. A handful are already at peace, but most are no picnic.” 

He stretched out his legs on the sand, his back against the log. 

“There’s a reason there were no candidates besides yourself, and I’m relieved to be retiring. My advice is, just hand them across, get it over with, don’t take it home with you.”

               “Compassion Fatigue,” I said softly.

               “What’s that?”

               “Compassion Fatigue. It affects doctors, nurses, shrinks, even lawyers probably. Those who deal with other people’s problems get burned out, constantly dealing with the grief.”

               He actually laughed. “That’s not it. That’s not it at all.”

               I finally lost my patience. “Maybe it’s high time new blood took over! I’ve come here with a positive attitude, thinking I could make a difference. The last difference in anyone’s life that’ll ever be made. Like the nurses in the palliative ward. They were amazing.”

               He crossed one leg over the other and studied me.

               “You’re sweet and whatnot, but like you already said, once the mortal coil’s been shuffled off, there’s nothing more that can be done. It’s just a reality. The sun rises, and it sets. Summer blazes and winter freezes. There’s no meaning to it. It just is.”

               “Nothing more that can be done?” I rested my chin on my fist. “I’m surprised to hear that coming from you. Haven’t you ever. . .negotiated?”

               He pulled in his horns. “We don’t ask questions like that.”

               “Making a deal with Death has been around for as long as death itself.”

               “For starters, I’m not ‘Death,’ I’m just a guide. For finishers, that’s not a power we’re supposed to wield. Ever.”

               “And yet, there are near-death experiences every year. You never took pity on anyone? A tiny baby, a single parent, someone you just couldn’t bear to see pass on?”

               He was silent a while. “Maybe you’re not suited for this job after all.” He stood and gestured me out. “I can’t believe you even toss around the possibility. Can you imagine the mess the world would be in if every psychopomp went rogue? I’ve never had the high profile of Charon – not that anyone does anymore in this secular age – and I plead guilty to phoning it in, but I follow the rules.”

               “It could be worse,” I quipped as I scrabbled over boulders. “I could demand to sort people into good camps and bad camps.”

               “That hasn’t been in the job description for centuries,” he retorted. “Out you go, out out.”

               “Maybe we need to bring it back,” I grumbled.

               We were back in the clearing, the cave dusky behind us. I turned to face him.

               “You really don’t remember me?”

               His expression changed as he studied my features in full sunlight.

“Why me?” l murmured. “There were lots of kids in that ward. I can’t be the only one who cried and begged, but others didn’t come back. What was it about me?”

He cleared his throat.

“Sometimes, when the doctors are able to revive the patient. . .”

I shook my head. “That’s not how I remember it.”

“Then you remember wrong,” he said and turned back toward the cave. “Enjoy your life, Sugarpie, and find another line of work.”

               “Keep my resume on file,” I called to his back. “They say you should do a career switch every ten years or so, and you’re overdue.”

               “Where’s this generation’s work ethic?” Was the last thing he said before disappearing into the Earth.

               I went to my car and opened the trunk. Inside was a two-by four and a folding chair that I’d had the foresight to bring. I carried both items down the path until just out of sight of the cave entrance.  There were rocks all around, and I found a deepish space between two of them. I plunked the board across the space and giggled at the sound of its clatter. Not much to look at, but it was a bridge. It didn’t always have to be a river or a cave. I’d done my homework.

               “Competition is the feature of all free market capitalism,” I murmured while I made myself as comfortable as I could. This was a pleasant enough office, surrounded by stirring leaves and the occasional skitter of a chipmunk. It was only a matter of time before someone would drift down that path. If they were rude or incredulous, I would wave them along. If they had money and could ask nicely, well, I was only paying it forward. To the palliative nurses who’d been so good to me. To the psychopomp who’d once been soft enough to turn me back.

Some day he would thank me for restoring the profession to the respect it deserved.

October 29, 2023 23:55

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21 comments

Marty B
01:29 Jan 05, 2024

I love the idea of a helper to 'cross over'. 'All you have to do is wait, then hold their hand while they cross. Nothing to it.' That they had met before was an interesting twist. Although Im not sure compassion, and free market capitalism are the same thing... Thanks!

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Humble Sparrow
18:34 Jan 05, 2024

Thanks for reading! They're both flawed characters, for sure, which made them fun to write.

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Graham Kinross
01:47 Nov 21, 2023

I’m had to google what psychopomp meant but now I know it didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. It’s good to learn something.

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Humble Sparrow
19:06 Nov 21, 2023

I had to Google psychopomp as well. :-) I was wondering whether to call it "Modern-day Charon" or what. I'm sure I can come up with a better title.

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Graham Kinross
22:10 Nov 21, 2023

Psychopomp is an eye catching title. Putting the definition in there with it might help with words like that next time.

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Malcolm Twigg
08:23 Nov 08, 2023

Thank you for introducing me to a new word, but I wonder whether (if I actually had to google 'psychopomp') there could not have been a better choice of description - but then, my classical education is sadly lacking. I have to confess this was a little too deep for my comprehension (but see the above disclaimer). However, I do admire the writing, and I did find 'Palimpsest' much more to my liking if only because I too have a work (a cosmological poem) of that title. That particular story really drew me in. From what I have read so far, you ...

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Humble Sparrow
19:19 Nov 08, 2023

Hello Malcolm! Thank you for your kind words, and for reading my back catalogue (such as it is!) I would love to read your poem Palimpsest. Yes, I like cliffhanger endings. I love to leave with a question, not an answer per se. I don't expect everyone to know what a psychopomp is. I had to Google it myself when I was writing the story. If you were curious enough to do a Google search, I guess that means the story was working. :-) I'll check out your work too.

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Malcolm Twigg
12:00 Nov 09, 2023

Be careful what you wish for. Here's 'Palimpsest': PALIMPSEST By Malcolm Twigg The palimpsest of life leafs ever hastening by Page after scouring page erasing the semblance of reality Until only treasured memory remains. As time effluxes each studied page What of the final turn, when all is memory alone And the future but a full stop? When the tome is closed for the last time, Is that an end, or is that full stop but a period? Does the palimpsest rekindle like a Phoenix beyond life itself? And is existence but a chain of causal parenthes...

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Humble Sparrow
21:44 Nov 09, 2023

Whoo! Those last four lines gave me shivers! Thank you for sharing, very thought-provoking. How powerful books are, that they still serve as a metaphor for life. Computer analogies haven't really taken over, have they?

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Malcolm Twigg
12:35 Nov 10, 2023

Thank you. Not shared this widely but I enjoyed writing it

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Belladona Vulpa
16:23 Nov 07, 2023

I loved the references, both the direct and the indirect to various mythologies! :) And, of course, the way they presented the "job description". However, there is more to this story: interesting and lively dialogue that reveals the characters and their relationships. I like the "generation gap" touch you put on those two, to intensify their contrast of ideas. I found the reference to retail incredibly funny and relatable. I didn't have a "favourite" as I was switching back and forth, while curiously reading onward. Nicely spread-out sense o...

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Humble Sparrow
18:26 Jan 05, 2024

Hi, has it really been so long since I was on Reedsy? Thank you for reading and i'm glad it gave you a laugh.

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Tom Skye
15:36 Nov 06, 2023

This was great. Good characters and dialogue. Many people view their lives as mundane. 80 years of Sisyphus' boulder etc. This transcended that with the idea that even those governing that process are living a mundane day to day. I guess if the MC is able to carry out is his duties with pride and enjoyment then he has a achieved what Sisyphus did. Also some very funny parts littered throughout. The complete package. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing

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Humble Sparrow
18:44 Nov 06, 2023

Thank you for your kind words! I had fun writing it.

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Michał Przywara
16:50 Nov 05, 2023

Funny, and it twists in unexpected ways :) And to top it off, it has a great opening that starts with an interesting line, and then dives right into two firm characters that conflict. "And in Mexico it used to be dogs. Don’t get too proud" :) That they had crossed paths before was a neat, unexpected twist - but it does explain the difference in attitudes. Despite his denials then, perhaps it is compassion fatigue after all. The story does raise some questions about that thing we all have at the back of our minds, and pretend doesn't ex...

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Humble Sparrow
15:14 Nov 06, 2023

Happy to hear that. :-) You're very welcome.

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Rabab Zaidi
13:05 Nov 05, 2023

Very interesting.

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Humble Sparrow
19:02 Nov 06, 2023

I had fun creating it. :-)

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Mary Bendickson
04:16 Nov 04, 2023

Interesting. Thanks for following.

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Danie Holland
16:27 Nov 03, 2023

Humble, I loved this angle! “Competition is the feature of all free market capitalism,” I murmured while I made myself as comfortable as I could." - This was hilarious. I loved the grumpy/sunshine dynamic to their relationship. I'd be curious to see this spun out a little longer. I love mythology. Great story this week!

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Humble Sparrow
01:20 Nov 04, 2023

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Mythology re-imagined in a modern setting just never seems to fail, does it? I'll be sure to check out your submission this week.

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