It was a dull, grey sky that greeted Francis Porter when he opened his eyes. The soft splashing of water against the hull of the ship had woken him from a dream in which he had been falling. As was most often the case, he had woken before ever hitting the ground and as his heart raced he stayed laying, listening to the churning waterwheel of the large steam boat, watching the sun desperately try to find space between the canvas of grey clouds that fit tightly above him.
After a moment, Francis sat up and turned on the worn wooden bench, setting his dove tipped shoes on the deck of the ship. For a moment he felt a bit uneasy, his sudden upright posture had spun his eyes as the ship rocked rhythmically to a small barrage of waves. The sensation passed quickly and after a deep breath Francis stood up, stretched and walked towards the railing that overlooked the lower deck of the ship.
The boat was simple, unassuming by design and those who boarded were always travelling down river, towards the setting sun. She offered mostly standing room, save for a few benches which were rarely occupied as the journey itself was never as long as expected. The white painted iron that comprised most of the ship frame was chipped and flaking in the busiest spots; the stairways, the railings and the bow where most passengers tended to stand during the trip, anxiously picking at the peeling paint exposing the pale iron bones beneath.
The sky groaned and behind the curtain of clouds the sun began its retreat, giving way to the darkness as Francis reached the long rail of the top deck and set his palms carefully on the cold varnished wood. There were maybe twenty-five other passengers on the ship, most on the deck below him which gave plenty of room for him to observe unimpeded. He took a deep breath and felt the early evening air fill his lungs. The sweet fragrance of autumn leaves still on the wind with just a hint of ash was almost comforting as he looked slowly through the other passengers on the deck below.
Men in hats much like the ones he had left behind, a sea of waistcoats and ties, dresses and canes; and all carried themselves with the same air of uneasiness, like grazing herds of cows sensing the impending storm, all waiting to be led into the barn for safe keeping.
“Mind if I join?”
A calm, quiet voice from behind Francis cut through the churn of water and caught him off guard. He turned around to see a young woman in her early thirties dressed in a simple, faded blue dress. She wore a cross around her neck and her hair was piled high, pinned beneath a hat that matched the faded blue of her dress. Her gloved hands pressed softly together in an unassuming and inviting way much like a priest offering comfort.
“Oh of course,” Francis said as he shifted down the large railing offering his spot to the woman, moving more as a welcoming gesture than a necessity. She smiled and stood beside him, taking the same deep breath he had moments ago. Francis buttoned his coat and leaned forward onto his elbows so that he was hunched over the railing. His thinning brown coat and white dress shirt made him appear much lower in stature than the passengers below and nowhere near as elegant as the woman next to him.
“Shame the weather doesn’t want to play,” she said with a smirk, glancing up towards the sky which responded with a growl of thunder; deep and guttural echoing across the sky.
“It rarely does,” Francis said as he began searching his pockets. Bemused the woman pulled out a small hand bag, removed a thin pack of cigarettes and offered one.
“Thank you,” Francis nodded as he removed one and placed it in his lips. Before he could, she offered a light and as he took a long drag the orange flame flickered upon his face in the now mostly faded daylight. She nodded and turned her attention back to the people on the deck below.
“They look easy to spook, wouldn’t you say?” she said playfully, “Ever played mean tricks like that as a boy?”
“A few,” Francis said without hesitation, “We were all young once.” She smiled, her pale eyes becoming bright for a moment.
“In fact,” Francis continued, “I remember one time my neighbour Mr. Bernard was eagerly awaiting a package. My younger sister Cleo and I knew that he was excited for it and so we each took turns rapping on his door at various times that day. Each time Mr. Bernard getting more and more steamed at the mysterious knocking that supposedly was for no reason at all.”
“My goodness that is cruel,” she laughed and put a gloved hand on her chest.
“We caused quite the ruckus that day,” Francis said with a concerned tone.
“And? What came of Mr. Bernard that day? Did he finally answer when the package arrived?” She asked.
His face fell slightly as he recalled. “You know, I don’t remember, I think he suspected something and ended up telling our parents.” Francis spoke flatly as he dismissively tapped the ash tip off his cigarette.
“Parents ruin all the fun,” She said with a frown as she turned back towards the railing and away from Francis who was watching the ash float down towards the lower deck.
The river began to tighten on either side as the darkness finally closed in, the growl of thunder now an expected guest as the purple glow of lighting revealed the cracks in the sky above. Just as the night began to offer its fullest black the ships Edison bulbs flicked on, bathing the two in a soft, amber light.
“I suppose we’re almost there,” Francis said as he drew the last of his cigarette and snubbed it on the railing.
“Yes,” she said and for a moment she made a motion as if to leave but then stopped herself.
“I suppose I didn’t tell you my name,” she murmured bashfully but before she could continue Francis cut her off.
“You needn’t to Miss,” he said, still smothering the last of the embers from his cigarette, “I know your name.”
The boat vibrated loudly, shaking its iron frame as the captain applied pressure to the brake, slowing the large wheel that drove them down the river. A few passengers below began to look panicked as the firelight on the river side came into view. The women’s smile faded as her posture dropped a bit, in the yellow light of the deck, her face looked different, almost clinical. Francis watched the shore line make its approach as she leaned back on the railing and drew a deep breath.
“It’s your sister then, is it?” she asked flatly, her gaze meeting Francis’s as he turned towards her. For a long beat he waited before answering, “Cleo, yes,” he said, his voice cracking ever so slightly before turning away again.
She sighed, and they watched the people below now in a flurry of commotion; some fighting, some crying, others scrambling for the back of the boat as if being farther from the shore meant they could stay. The large iron gates off the river opened revealing the abyssal black beyond as people began leaving the boat and heading towards it.
The woman looked back towards Francis and said “I could sense you didn’t belong here,” her eyes searched his face and then she continued, almost with regret “I will grant you that you seem to be the first that knows who I am. I will give you credit and say that you have a certainty behind your eyes that I have rarely seen, that you are sure of yourself. However,” she continued, her brow furrowing in sadness, “I’ve seen many try what you’re trying, I have seen the strongest men of their time travel beyond those gates never to return, never to achieve what they hope to achieve in bringing a loved one back…”
The boat was almost completely empty as the final passengers on the main deck exited the ship onto the docks, passing through the Iron Gate beyond.
“…you will not succeed at bringing your sister home.”
Francis, who had been watching the passengers leave the boat and move through the gate beyond, met her eyes for a moment before moving past her towards the stairs down to the main deck. He began down but stopped, as if fighting the urge to say more,
“You misunderstand me nymph, I do not wish to bring my sister home,” he paused at the steps leading down, “I intend to make sure she stays here.”
As Francis left the boat and passed beyond the gates that faded into an abyssal dark, the ship left the docks and began back up the river, ready to carry the next load of departed souls to the underworld.