by: Kathryn Ross
Nothing is as it seems on the tempestuous waterways that cut through the Underworld…
It was a cold day in Hell.
A lone man sat, rocking slightly, in his boat on the quiet river. The waters shuddered beneath him as blank eyes and gossamer limbs drifted along, pulled by the slow current. His line hung idly over the edge of the boat, for he hadn’t had a single bite all day. He was beginning to worry he would not meet his quota before the day’s end as he drew his coat more tightly around him and checked his watch. Sighing, he lifted the line and repositioned it on the other side of the boat, as the river continued to whisper and tremble softly as it flowed.
The sun was setting slowly over the black valley where the river sat at the bottom, nestled between the hills like a broken spine. The weak light reached through the red clouds but the man could not feel its warmth – he couldn’t feel anything but the constant hunger in his emaciated gut and the relentless burning of his old skin. It hung off him in rags and his face had the garish look of melted wax. A bitter wind picked up, rocking the boat as it ran past. The man bowed his head and raised his collar as the boat rocked violently around him.
“Damn it, damn it!” he yelled after the wind, watching its lithe feet whip around the corner of the looming hills. It’s laughter, cold and high, was hurled back at him, wrapped in a backwards breeze. “Damn it!” he cried again as, with a muted plop, his line fell into the river. He reached after it but stopped as the handle disappeared beneath the water’s surface. His fingers twitched above the swirling current. He knew better than to reach in, but he could not go ashore empty handed. The man looked around, up and down both ends of the river. He exhaled, then slowly leaned over the side of the boat.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dane.”
Directly across from the boat, standing on the shore, stood a tall figure wrapped in a black shroud. It wore a hood that hid the entirety of its face except for its red mouth, which frowned.
“You know filthy beings like you aren’t supposed to touch the water….lest you get ideas. We might lose our best fisherman,” The figure paused. “Though you’re not doing so well today, eh? The sun is almost set and I see that your boat is empty.”
Dane started, then backed away from the boat’s edge. “What do you want, Adolfoles?”
“Father asked me to keep an eye on you. You’ve been sitting here all day without catching a single soul. What are we supposed to eat tonight?”
“If you’ve been lurking ‘round all day you know nothing’s been biting since I haven’t got any good bait – and my line just fell in! How’s that my fault?”
“You lazy, good-for-nothing, abomination. Not a demon, barely a man – just a scumbag inbetweener. When dinner doesn’t come Father won’t care for your excuses.”
Adolfoles lowered his hood. Dane looked away. He could never stomach the sight of the demons. They were worse, much worse than any monster he had ever imagined as a child. Worse, even, than finding out that Hell was real after he fell asleep beside his wife one night and woke up consumed by fire.
Adolfoles smiled, showing his red-stained teeth. “Getting sentimental?” he crooned.
Dane closed his eyes. Adolfoles laughed. “You’ve been here one hundred years, Dane, and you still can’t stand to look at me. I see the disgust in every fold of your hideous face.”
Dane didn’t answer. He lowered his head.
“Would it be easier if I looked like this?” Adolfoles said as Dane covered his face with his hands, preparing for the worst.
“Leave me alone, Adolfoles.”
“I think not, Dane. I’m here on special orders. Look at me now. LOOK AT ME!”
Dane’s eyes were forced open as some invisible force pulled his hands to his sides.
Across the river he saw not a demon, but his son as a young boy standing on the shore. The boy was smiling, walking forward with his arms out. “Daddy!” the demon cried out in the boy’s voice. Dane stood, transfixed. The boy was too young, too pure to be in this place; it was impossible. His son came forward, closer and closer to the edge, just about to fall into the river when Dane screamed….
But as he cried out the boy became transfigured. His teeth grew long and sharp, dripping blood. His skin turned to black scales and his eyes burned with hellfire. He smiled and began to laugh at his father, loud and maniacal until Dane burst into tears and fell, a weeping huddle, to the bottom of the boat. The boy’s laughter changed and Dane could hear Adolfoles cackling somewhere ahead of him. He could not look; he only whispered, “You’re cruel. You’re sick and you’re cruel.”
Adolfoles continued to laugh. “Where did you think you were, Dane?”
Dane wiped his eyes on his coat sleeves. “Please go,” he said after a while. “Give me more time – another hour – I’ll catch Father’s dinner. Just please leave….”
“You haven’t got a line. Or were you lying when you said it fell into the river?”
Dane closed his eyes. He knew Adolfoles knew he hadn’t been lying, knew the demon
had been there all day, invisible but watching.
“It seems you won’t be catching anything today. So we’ll have to make other arrangements.”
For the first time, Dane looked the demon full in the face. He shook his head. “No, no….just give me a new line and I’ll catch something! Just give me more time!”
“I don’t think so, Dane.”
Adolfoles stepped off the shore and into the river. Immediately the water began to hiss and froth around him, as if hundreds of legs were suddenly kicking, trying to swim away. Dane could not move; he could only watch as the demon came close, carving a divide around him in the water. Soon Adolfoles stood before him, tall even when waist-deep in the river. Dane trembled as he looked at him. The demon smiled.
“I’ll catch the dinner tonight, Dane,” he said, and in one swift movement, he ripped Dane apart with his clawed hands, straight down the middle.
Adolfoles climbed into the boat and the water again went still. He sat, cross-legged, and began pulling apart the remains of the man. He snapped a finger from Dane’s hand and popped it into his mouth. “Ah, I almost forgot,” he said to himself as the last of the light disappeared from the sky. He leaned forward and pulled the fishing line out of the river. A single gossamer hand slid off the end.
“In time, in time,” Adolfoles chuckled. He reached inside Dane’s carcass and pulled out a shriveled heart, the color of old blood. “So, he was more of a man than I thought,” he said to himself as he attached it to the hook. He wound the line, reared it back, and tossed it into the water. A moment or two passed, and then the river exploded with movement as hands began reaching for the old heart – knocking other arms out of the way. Soon a fist closed around the bait and the line was pulled. The river wailed. Adolfoles licked his lips.
Kathryn H. Ross is an LA-based writer, reader, and storyteller. Her prose and poetry have been previously published in Neutrons Protons and Here/There: Poetry, and will soon appear in Unbroken Journal, Dali’s Lovechild, 50 Haikus, and Pidgeonholes. When she is not writing, she is drawing inspiration from her favorite books, movies, shows, and her talented writers group, Thimbleschism.