Narrated by Bob Eccles
The black river flowed, strong and deep, across a gray plain as flat as a sanded tabletop. On one steep bank, the people clustered: old and young, male and female, cheerful and melancholy, all gray. With a single accord they looked at the other shore, longingly, though that side held nothing that was not also on theirs—namely, nothing.
“She comes,” someone whispered. He was jolly, large, and slightly balding, with large eyes that still shone brightly in his gray form.
“She comes not,” another retorted, and faded into the crowd before anyone could make out his features.
Several members of the gathering shifted restlessly, knocking against others who seemed to have given up on motion entirely.
“Funny way of saying it,” a younger woman muttered. “Why not just ‘she isn’t coming’?”
“Were you sent here, perchance, by someone who had, shall I say, had it with your smart commentary and general attitude?”
She turned to look at the speaker, a tall young man with a grin even jollier than that of the first speaker, if such was possible. He might have been blond, but with all the grayness it was hard to tell.
She stared at him a long time, as if searching for something in his washed-out, cheerful features. “’Perchance’,” she said finally. “Even you talk funny.”
“So it is in death’s other kingdom,” he replied. “It seems to demand more formal speech, doesn’t it?”
She was about to say one thing, but changed her mind as she opened her mouth. “We—Would your lips rather kiss, or form prayers to broken stone?”
He laughed and applauded. “You caught my reference! Oh, this is excellent!” He lowered his voice and leaned closer, as if afraid of being overheard. “And what sent you here, you hollow, stuffed woman?”
“Like you said, only instead of making smart comments I quoted Eliot once too often.”
His eyebrows rose. “Don’t want to talk about it, then?” With an air of mock conspiracy, he added, “Or are you being serious?”
“No and no.” She turned and looked out across the flat, gray land. “Is it supposed to be like this?”
“It is until she arrives.” It was a new woman who spoke, but either her non-descriptiveness or the general grayness made the young woman forget her as soon as she turned away.
“But who is she?” the young man asked.
“You don’t know?” It was the jolly man who had first spoken. “I thought you would, making your way around here so easily.”
Gray-blond eyebrows rose. “Do I give that impression?”
“Well, you know to keep your spirits up, don’t you?”
“I’m just an optimist,” he muttered. A few of the other gray people watched, including the young woman, but she was the only one who showed much interest.
When he said nothing more, they turned away.
A while later, he saw her standing on the bank of the river. He came to wait beside her.
“Why does no one ever try to cross?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Do you want to?”
She took a step forward but the movement of her foot slowed, as if pushing through molasses, and then stopped. A shadowed expression crossed her face. “No,” she said, and scuttled backwards.
“Well, then,” he said, perhaps to himself.
“You’ll have to wait for her to come before you can cross.” If it was the jolly man who now spoke, he had lost weight and good humor since they had talked last.
The young man frowned. “And how long will that be?”
“There’s no telling. The time is always set, but there’s no telling.” The formerly jolly man’s voice fell off ominously, and with a lingering dark look he turned and walked away.
“That is a shame,” the young man murmured.
“It must be why we’re supposed to keep our spirits up,” the girl said. “So we don’t wind up like him.”
“Not that. I meant that it’s a shame we have no way to tell the time.” He looked at the dust around them with a wry smile. “I mean, we have all the components of an hourglass except the glass.”
“Am I losing my sense of humor, or are your jokes not funny?”
“Did you mean that to be funny, or are we both losing our senses of humor?”
She sighed and pushed her hands through her hair. “This should be so simple. We’re here. We want to be there.” She pointed at the opposite shore. “But we have to wait for her before we can cross. And in the meantime, we have to keep our spirits up. But who is she? Everyone else seems to know, why not us?”
“Perhaps because we’re new arrivals.”
“Look around. There are hardly any strange faces—
anyone who came here after us.” He looked at her strangely. “What is the last date you remember?”
“August thirty-first…except I don’t know the year. Nineteen…nineteen…but that was when I was born! No, I can’t…”
“It’s past September?” one of the gray ones said.
They stirred restlessly, like trees in a strong wind. The young woman thought of the analogy, rooted in a fading memory. She also remembered that there hadn’t been this much motion among the crowd in a long time.
“Then she’ll be arriving soon.”
“But who is she?” the young woman cried.
They turned to look at her. “The Queen,” one said.
“Yes; the King’s wife.”
“Well, I figured that.”
“She goes away in summer, and all of us who arrive then have to wait…wait until she comes again.”
“Perhaps she’s Godot,” the young man murmured, but none of them seemed to hear.
“I’ve been here since April,” one said.
“March,” said the formerly jolly man, and sighed.
“So we wait for the Queen to arrive. And then we can cross to…over there.” She looked across the river and frowned. “It doesn’t look like much.”
“The dust is always grayer on the other side of the river.”
The few who laughed at the young man’s joke made it seem like a kind of duty.
“Can’t be long now, if it’s past September,” someone said.
“No, can’t be long.”
They stood in silence for several days, though they couldn’t tell it, all of them just slightly brighter with hope. Even the formerly jolly man seemed to grow a few inches around the waist.
Then the wind began to blow. A breeze hadn’t touched this land in months; dust rose and swirled into eyes, under clothes, over skin. And something blew with it: something withered and brown, but such a splash of color that in this place that it almost seemed vivid orange.
“A leaf,” the young woman said.
“A fallen leaf.” The words spread through the gray crowd. “A leaf. A leaf! Autumn is here!”
“And she will be as well, I suppose?” the young man asked.
“Who comes?” a new voice, a stranger’s voice, asked, but they ignored it.
She didn’t appear right away, just more leaves, blowing and twisting in the breeze, coming to land, at once half buried, in the dust. The young woman reached down to take one, but it crumbled in her hands. She smelled the golden residue it left behind.
Something else was carried on the wind: a strange scent, both musty and spicy. It brought tears to the jolly man’s eyes, or at least something did; maybe it was only windblown dust. The young woman closed her own eyes and breathed deeply, and it seemed as if she could hear someone whispering to her. She could not make out the words.
A footstep, then: bare toes on the dry dust, the green hem of a vaporous gown trailing behind, quickly soiled. Dead leaves blown and caught in rich dark hair, deep eyes shining with something not wholly wisdom and not wholly grief.
The Queen came, and she brought color with her into the gray land. The people watched her in awe, but she didn’t look at them or in any other way acknowledge them. Instead she went to the river, and tenderly set foot on its glassy surface. The black water stilled around her as if frozen, but nothing in her presence was cold.
“We can cross the river now,” the jolly man said.
They did: old and young and fat and thin and joyous and melancholy they crossed, walking across the dark face of the river that was not frozen. The jolly man seemed to float, the young man and woman held hands and helped each other across. The Queen led them all, and when they reached the shore she went on ahead; the gray fields changed with her steps into something green and lush, beautiful. A place for the mortal ghosts to spend eternity in, but for her, only a season.
A little while later a young man arrived at the river. Looking across, he saw only a gray, lifeless plain beyond the shore. And he knew, without quite knowing how, that he had missed something important and would now have to wait.
With a heavy sigh, he set about it.
AUTHOR BIO: Therese Arkenberg currently lives in Washington, D.C. Her fiction has recently appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Scigentasy. Her science fiction novella, Aqua Vitae, was released by WolfSinger Publications in 2011. She blogs at ThereseArkenberg.blogspot.com.