On the Banks of Acheron
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ON THE BANKS OF ACHERON
By Edwin Bjorkman
THE air was still and full of a gray melancholy light, yet the waters of the river boiled angrily as if touched by a raging tempest. The billows rose foaming above its surface, all white with the whiteness of fear. When they sank back again, they were black—black as despair that knows of no hope.
Steep hills mounted abruptly on either side of the river until they touched the sullen, colorless cloud-banks overhead. Their sides were seamed with numberless paths, running on narrow ledges, one above the other, from the river's edge to the crest of the hill. Men were moving along those paths: they swarmed like ants across the hillside, but I could not see whence they were coming nor whither they were going. All were pushing and jostling and scratching and howling and fighting. Every one's object seemed to be to raise himself to the path above his own and to prevent all others from doing the same.
Down at the water's edge, they moved in a solid mass, arms pinned down, shoulder to shoulder and chest to back. At times a man got an arm out of the press and began to claw the up-turned, tear-stained faces of his neighbors in wild endeavors to lift his whole body. But soon his madness subsided, the writhing arm sank back, and the man vanished out of sight. The mass once more moved stolidly, solidly onward. Once in a great while its surface of heads would begin to boil like the waters of the river near by, and a man would be spouted into the air, landing on one of the paths above. Then each face would be turned toward him for a breathless moment, at the end of which the mass glided slowly onward as before.
The crush on the paths higher up on the hillside was not so great, but the fighting of man against man was incessant and bitter. I could see them clambering up the steep sides of the ledges, with bleeding nails, distorted features and locked teeth. Waving arms and clutching fingers pursued them from below; ironshod heels trampled them from above. Ninety-nine out of the hundred ended their struggles with a fall, and in their rapid descent they swept others with them. But rising or falling, they all pushed onward, onward—from nowhere to nowhere, as it seemed to me. I watched them for hours, for days, for years—always the same wandering, the same scrambling, the same tumbling, without apparent purpose or result. Then my blood rose hotly to my heart and head. A scarlet mist floated before my eyes and my soul swelled within me almost unto bursting.
"Why?" I cried, and the word rolled back and forth between the hillsides until its last echo was swallowed by the murmur that hovered over the wrathful river. The strugglers on the hillside paths, each and all, turned toward me. On every face I read astonishment.
"Why?" I yelled at them again, and the sound of my voice lingered above the waters like a distant thunder. Gradually the expression on all those staring faces changed from wonder to scorn. A man on one of the paths near the crest of the hill laughed aloud. Two more joined him. It became contagious and spread like wildfire. All those millions were laughing into my face, laughing like demons rather than men.
My frown only increased the mirth of that grinning multitude. I shook my clenched, up-stretched fists against them. And when at last their ghastly merriment ceased, I raised my voice once more in defiance.
As when on a bleak winter day the black snow clouds suddenly begin to darken the sky, so hatred and rage spread over their faces. Crooked, bony fingers were pointed at me. Men leaned recklessly from their narrow ledges to shout abuse at me. Stones and mud were flung at me. A hundred arms seized me and tossed my body in a wide curve from the hillside out over the river. For one long minute I struggled to keep myself above the yawning waters. Then I sank. All grew dark about me. A strange fullness in my chest seemed to rise up toward my head. There was a last moment of consciousness in which I heard a single word uttered by a ringing, bell-like voice that came from within myself. That last word was:
Edwin Bjorkman, “On the Banks of Acheron,” Mother Earth 1, no. 1 (March 1906): 42-44.