The Ferryman of Orcus is a Low-Down Lazy Bastard by Connor Towne O’Neill

Photo Credit: Piscivorus Pictures

Going strictly by the numbers, this is the last road on earth.  Route 999.  In the state, at the very least. When the world was still flat, this would have been it—the last strip of pavement before going off into the magical four-digit county roads of the great beyond.  The road ends at the river, the Susquehanna—the far bank the confederate’s farthest advance into Union territory 150 years ago. The road starts up in the cobblestone-and-rowhouse city—America’s most walkable!—and comes prattling through the college town, the farms and the farms-turned-to-subdivided houses, and descends to the water and the end.  More than any other, this is my road.  The one I’ve been on most.  I’m on it right now, in fact, headed towards the river.

*

On the road I remember: through an old bedroom door and of a sudden, all the bees.  Combing in the top corners, the walls seeming never to recede to a point, but to bulge out again in bees.  The makings of an Escher sketch droning in the back room on the third floor of a house ready to fall in on itself. This was years ago.

*

Boilerplate litter mostly, along the shoulder of the road.  The fine print of cigarette butts tan and white, glass and gravel.  Not even a scratched lotto ticket.  It’s just this side of 3am the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  I am alone, without a hat, without a pair of gloves, without a ride.  My five-year high school reunion wrapped hours ago at the VFW with the decommissioned tank parked in the lawn.  I got drunk, gave a speech pretending it was the ten year reunion and wasn’t the five-year fun? And remember that asshole that got wasted and gave a speech?  No one laughed.  I told my ride I’d find my own way home, and this must have been what I meant–walking the three miles down the shoulder of this light-forsaken road.

*

The images of that hive-house, of the invading bees, are vivid and on constant replay on this walk. I’m blowing on embers of memory to stay warm, to stay remotely functional. I think back to that summer—the hottest on my own personal record—like a letter creased-to-tearing at the folds.

I can still remember how the stair count split: 14 to the landing, another 6 to the next floor, past all the rotting wooden bannisters.  How the light came in through the staircase windows on the second landing but not the first, high enough there to catch sun above the house next door.

How I came to know the taxonomies of sweat in the un-air-conditioned third-floor summer.  The windows open always, the screens not on speaking terms with their frames.  And how the animals descended.  I remember the fruit flies collecting in the pools of OJ and rum, the squirrels coming in through the abutting branches of the surrounding oaks to steal pistachios on the counter.   And I remember the bees.

*

What bookends for Virgil but is glossed by Ovid in their tellings of the true-blues of Orpheus and Eurydice is the story of Aristeus.  Son to Apollo and Cyrene, totem to the beekeepers and the cheese curdlers, Aristeaus is the one in the meadow when Eurydice takes her wedding day stroll.  Beautiful girl, meadow setting—the Aristaean wheelhouse—and so he gives chase.

The rest is myth familiar: the snakebite, the death and dying, Orpheus’ woe, the singing of his saddest songs to the toughest customers of hell. How he softened to sympathy, as Virgil puts it, “the inmost Tartarean reaches of death.”

The only term of Eurydice’s release is for Orpheus to resist the urge to turn around on their walk through that last road back to earth.  But as Orpheus crosses back to our side of the mortal intersection, he turns to see his bride still curbside in hell. Now lost to him again.

After launching another appeal—this time unsuccessful—and spending seven months on the banks of hell haranguing the ferryman of Orcus to take him back, the saddest soul singer in Mesopotamia swore revenge and killed all of Aristaeus’s bees.

*

The wind’s a claw-grip around my exposed ears.  The lacquer of darkness intensifying the occasional streetlights to an almost Cheeto shade of orange.  I’m wobbling and I’m raisin-ing my sorry self away in remembering a be-sweated self, a self of best-fit. Gone now.

I am trying, here on the road, while doing an occasional drunken two-step of stumble and recovery, to eat the microwaved leftovers of a previous self.  Not a car passes.

*

Less than a week before the bees descended, I took photographs of her in bed.  Nothing like that, just on the bed, clothed.  How she told about a canoe trip through northern Maine, about how clear the water was. How you could dip the Nalgene in the lake, skim off the top, and drink straight from the water that whorled around your paddles.  How she lay half in, half out of the bedside light, eyes titled as if addressing the ceiling.

*

Aristeus, in mourning the loss of his bees, asked his mother, “did you give me birth to be hated of the fates?  Or whither is your love for me banished? Why did you bid me hope for Heaven?”  Birds of a feather, me and him I guess.  There’s recourse, here, for Aristeus, though.  He is sent by his mother to see the shape-shifting Proteus, is advised to tie his hands to hold him still while he shifts his shape. Restrained and tired of the morphing, he offers counsel: disembowel several male and several female oxen, and sow in their stomachs the dead bees.

Aristeus complies and within a week he is back in the land of honey.

*

The cumulative effect of all the walking creates a sort of internal percussive brio.  Absent the susurrate passing of cars, those vectors of light and warmth, there is just the sound of the footfalls.  Not even the intermittent house has a porch light on. My last-road walk somehow precludes the measuring time.  I could check my phone but don’t.  Each step suggests the next, and that seems enough.

I start to sing.

*

I pulled a muscle in my throat when I found the bees pouring into that room in the slanted house, I shrieked so loud.

What else was I going to do? terrified as I am of being stung.  So I suited up in ski mask, raincoat, snow pants, gloves, and stomping boots—looking like a goofball crook sweating into saran wrap—and took a tennis racket to the swarmed corners of the room. I climbed out to the fire escape, onto the roof of the 2nd floor porch and killed them all.

 

*

Not that I usually think in quadrant-ed terms like this, but for the sake of some XY mapping here on the last road, let’s say that this is probably a low point in my life.

*

Ease erase ease erase ease erase I remember I remember I remember.  Each step suggests the next. I go back in mind again as I start down the hill towards the river. All the doors are locked to that memory-house in Poughkeepsie. I check the mailbox, thinking maybe I summed that previous self up and slapped enough postage to ship myself to a future self. To bound myself around myself, but its just junk mail and the subscription to New York magazine that a previous tenant never cancelled. What felt like a summation’s become a lonesome conjuring, a long walk’s forced recall.

I camp out on the memory-lawn, sulky and pettish, and the memory’s gone cold.

*

There are things I’ve been asked to consider.

From my therapist: recall a moment from a summer.  Linger in it.  Recall a moment from your childhood.  Recall a moment from last week.  Realize that there’s always been someone there, watching, now matter how disparate these memories feel. Realize that there’s always been an observer.  That the you who has born witness to all these things might be the you who you mean when you think of who you really are.  No matter the length between the dissociative heft of this winter and the now museum-ed sweat of that summer. This is a singular you abiding, observing.

And from my mentor, who put it once to me directly and damn near every time I read his work: I need you to understand the difference between loving someone and loving how someone makes you feel.

These two begin a conversation in my head while I try and sing loud enough to get a light on in one of these houses.

*

Plato takes a one-ups-man critique of Orpheus: if he really loved her than he would have just done the damn thing and joined her in the underworld.  That living without her obviates the love.

My critique generates from a different place.  I wonder about the moment, just as his foot falls back on our side of mortality and his torso begins to turn.  Right there.  I wonder this from a spot on the last road where new-black pavement turns to fried-grey macadam in a still sticky bit of tar. I wonder if Orpheus understands the difference between loving Eurydice and loving how she makes him feel. And I wonder if that has anything to do with turning around at that moment, just as he was “verging on the light.”  I wonder: if he understands that difference the way he understands a love song, could he have waited?  Does he want only to feel that type of way or does he want to love her? Is there a difference? Which desire made him turn?

*

The destination here is my shivery room above the garage, an emaciated futon mattress and threadbare blankets.  I’ve long known but still don’t understand that blankets provide no heat, but only throw back to you what you give off. My memory keeps turning around.

*

Each step suggests the next.

*

I’m not quite swaying enough to look like the drunk I am, but from a distance there’s got to be a slight tracking visible. I am the only disturbing force of the stillness on the road as it evens out to approach the river.

The ferryman at Orcus refused Orpheus’s sobs and he was a much better singer than I am.  He won’t take me back to that house in Poughkeepsie; thinks I’m a fool for trying.

*

There are repercussions to fraying memories weave. A recent New Republic article tried to science out these lonely-headed feelings: “But to me, what’s most momentous about the new biology of loneliness is that it offers concrete proof, obtained through the best empirical means, that the poets and bluesmen and movie directors who for centuries have deplored the ravages of lonesomeness on both body and soul were right all along. As W. H. Auden put it, ‘We must love one another or die.’”

Certainly. But how to understand that crucial difference between love and loving how she made me feel when verging on the light? If I could, here on the last road, pave the line between loving her and loving how she made me feel, could I stop turning around? Or do I continue to wayfare my way home, drunk, without a hat, on a lonely road in the middle of the night?

*

Half the world’s population of bees died last year.  Pollution from our oil-dependence, radiation from the compulsive use of cellphones. Living on memory, on the way another makes you feel.

*

I am a killer of bees.

*

I nod to Orpheus as I approach the river but don’t turn back to hear his song.  I’ll cross the river, go inside, get the leftover stuffing from the fridge and fall asleep eating it in the recliner with my shoes and jacket still on.  When my nephew finds me like this in the morning, I’ll offer him a forkful and laugh.

 

 

Connor Towne O’Neill lives and writes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, MFAs at the University of Alabama, and edits nonfiction for the Black Warrior Review.

Be first to comment

Leave a Reply