Walking along the brightly lit streets of Venice, Hector took a moment to revel in the sweet smell of the sea on the crisp Italian night. His trip had been one he’d been planning for years and now that he was finally here, he wasn’t disappointed. The museums and art galleries were nearly endless, each one containing more esoteric pieces than the last.
He’d spent the last three days filling his camera with pictures of sunsets and models posed in strange positions, sculptures, and gothic buildings with bizarre arches. As this was his last night in Venice, he was looking forward to sampling a bar he’d heard about while eavesdropping on a young couple in a sculpture garden.
Looking at a small map he had of the borough he was walking through, Hector crinkled his brow; the map made little sense. The bar he was looking for wasn’t listed on the scrap of paper, which included every dive and hole-in-the-wall place to get a drink in this section of the city. He knew he overheard the couple saying they wanted to go to the Segugio di Guerra.
Looking up, he caught the gaze of a gondola operator, one unlike any Hector had seen in the few days he’d spent in Venice.
Unlike the other operators who wore bright colors, this man wore a simple black robe over a black shirt and black pants. His features were gaunt as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, his skin sallow and wet. His hair was stringy, hanging from his head in wet clumps that dangled down to his shoulders, which sagged from some unseen weight. The only feature on the man that seemed to be alert were his eyes, which seemed to glow in the starless night and unearthly shade of pearl. He leered at Hector from his perch at the aft of the narrow black boat, leaning on his pole with crossed arms.
“Lost sir?” The man croaked, his voice thick as mud.
“Yeah, um, I’m looking for Segugio di Guerra, would you happen to know where it is?” Hector asked, looking at the strange man with slight trepidation.
The man clucked his tongue a few times before straightening up; rolling his shoulders with a series of pops and clicks. “You’re in luck,” the man said, rolling his neck. “For the right price, I can take you there.”
“You know where it is?” Hector exclaimed, looking down at his map. “I’ve been looking for it for like an hour! Why isn’t it on any map?”
“You’ll find there are many secrets that Venice hides from the tourists’ sir. Di Guerra is a local spot for those looking for a wild time. The locals don’t want to share their hot spots with just anyone, you know?”
“But you’ll take me to it?” Hector asked, intrigued.
The man shrugged, dust falling from his robes in great clouds. “I’m here for that very purpose, sir. I take those that pay me to the bar and ferry them back in the morning.”
“Morning?” Hector asked.
“Yes, the bar stays open from dusk until dawn, and I ferry back those that paid me when the sunlight shines on the tributaries.” The man nodded once. “Now, will you be wanting a lift, or do you want to talk to a ferryman all night?”
Hector stared at him for a moment before reaching into his back pocket, pulling out a crisp five hundred Euro bill, holding it out to the man with a shaky hand. The ferryman regarded it for a moment before reaching out and snatching it, tucking it into the folds of his robe where Hector couldn’t see. After securing his pay, the ferryman held a weak-looking arm out, spreading it widely.
“Climb aboard, my boy!” The ferryman chuckled, heaving himself up from his position where, now that he was standing, proved that the man was nearly seven feet tall. It amazed Hector as he’d thought the gaunt man had been standing the entire time but chose not to say anything, instead walking towards the stairs leading into the water and hopping onto the shining black gondola.
The ferryman reached down to pull his mooring line free, tossing it over his feet carelessly as he pushed with surprising strength away from the stone causeway and out onto the black waters of the tributary. Hector swayed with the current, looking across the channel at the lights of a hotel, smiling at the busts of angels lining the great doors of the hotel. The ferryman quickly began propelling the gondola away from the mainland, out into the darkness of the sea.
Hector pulled his camera from his pocket and took a photo of the hotel from a distance, snapping a few shots for his collection. The ferryman remained silent, though Hector could feel his eyes on him. Feeling slightly put off, he turned to return the stoic gaze of the old man and smiled at him.
“So how long have you been doing this?” Hector asked, hoping some light conversation would make the trip somewhat more bearable.
The man, in mid push, grunted. “Many years now, why, I’d have to say I’ve been here as long as the rivers have flowed… at least after a long day’s work.”
Hector chuckled at that and looked down into the water. His eyes widened when he noticed that he could barely see the water some six inches below the edge of the gondola; a fog bank seemed to have rolled in, encompassing the small vessel in a thick soup of chilly wisps. Hector pulled his jacket around himself. The ferryman chuckled, steering the gondola with practiced ease.
“Yes, the fog is something that the brochures fail to mention,” he said. “It rolls in on clear nights, seeking the warmth of those willing to travel in it.”
“What do you mean?” Hector asked.
“There are legends, tales of the ghosts that lurk in the mists. Victims of past wars, or of the plague… why, almost every coastal city in Europe has tales of the vengeful spirits of the damned. I’m surprised you haven’t heard any of them.”
“I was more interested in the art the local museums offered over the local legends,” Hector drawled, peering out over the mists.
“A pity. When I was a lad, we listened to the tales around the fire, told us by our grandfathers and grandmothers as they kept the hearth going. Those were desperate times when too many went hungry and sickness ran rampant through the streets.”
“Was this when Mussolini was in charge?” Hector asked, his head spinning as he heard a distant splash of something come from the mists.
“Why, I wouldn’t know… I don’t pay attention to the leaders and the comings and goings of what goes on in Italia anymore… I just act as a ferryman.” The man said with a smile before turning to steer them away from some rocks.
“You seem to know these waters well… it’s like the fog doesn’t bother you at all,” Hector observed, noting how the rocks they passed could have easily tipped the narrow gondola over had they run aground.
“Like my father used to say: if you are going to do something, do it well.” The ferryman chuckled before turning a glimmering eye towards Hector. “Look fast now! It looks like I didn’t dodge those rocks as well as I would have liked.”
Hector was about to ask what the tall man meant when he felt it.
Water rising in the boat, from a crack in the hull near where the ferryman was standing. The ferryman kicked a bucket from beneath his seat out towards Hector. “You’d best begin bailing us out while I guide us to safety.”
Hector panicked, grabbing the bucket, he began scooping out pails of water into the thick fog. For several minutes, he bailed out buckets of water, but the hole in the gondola was just too big; water was flooding in at an alarming rate. Hector could tell that if they didn’t reach land soon, they would end up sinking into the ice-cold water.
Minutes passed, and as Hector continued bailing out water, he began to notice something unusual. The boat, while filling with water at a steady pace, didn’t appear to be sinking; nor did the ferryman seem worried as he lazily guided them through the dense mist. Hector scooped up another bucketful of water and turned to throw it overboard, but instead splashed it into the face of someone rising from the water.
Letting out a scream, Hector used the bucket to bash the person in the skull, knocking them loose from the side of the gondola and back into the water. From what he’d seen in the scant few seconds before the body submerged, the person was bloated and blue, water streaming from his mouth as he gurgled out some unknown threat or plea.
What little hair he had was in clumps surrounded by bald spots, where the skin had sloughed off to expose the bare bone. The eyes had been bare sockets while cheeks had been hollow, showing the rotten teeth in the mouth quite clearly for the tourist, well enough for the man to see to the wriggling worms infesting the corpse’s throat.
His screams intensified as six more hands emerged from the water, gripping the edges of the gondola from both sides. Hector turned and looked at the ferryman, hoping the old man would have a plan.
Instead, he just found a sinister smile and the gleaming opals gazing back at him through the mist. “You should have listened to the stories my friend, for tonight my family will grow by one.”
Hector screamed and swung the bucket into the face of an emerging corpse, smacking it across the cheek with a hearty crack. Water continued to rush into the boat, chilling Hectors legs to the bone as he continued to fight off the scrambling cadavers that were attempting to clamber in. The entire time the ferryman laughed a wicked laugh, one that seemed muted by the shroud of mists enveloping the gondola.
“What is it you want?” Hector screamed as one of the dead latched onto his arm, the slimy fingers closing on his bicep like a vice. “I’ll give you anything, just make this stop!”
The grip on his arm slackened, and the mists swallowing the boat billowed out from an unseen wind. Seven of the water-logged dead were hanging off the side of the gondola, their pale eyes staring ahead blankly. The ferryman, however, was no longer smiling; he was staring at Hector with a look of confusion and anger.
“You wish to trade for your life?” The ferryman said in a voice barely above a whisper, the heavy accent tearing from his throat like wet sandpaper through tar.
“Yes! Yes, I’ll trade anything!” Hector pleaded, doing his best to stare the old man in the eyes and ignore the dead all around him.
“What would you trade to me then? Be quick with your offers, for my family longs for an addition.” The ferryman sneered.
Hector wracked his brain, doing his best to come up with something, anything, he could give this strange man that would spare him whatever fate awaited him. As he thought, he watched as the dead became restless, slowly lifting themselves out of the water, slithering up the sides of the boat.
“My wallet? Made from kangaroo hide! It’ll serve you better than just stuffing cash in your robes, wouldn’t you think?” Hector offered, pulling his arm free from the offensive corpse top pull his wallet free from the confines of his jacket.
The ferryman shook his head. “I throw the money away, as I have no need of it. It litters the ocean, merely serving as fodder for the fish once it breaks apart on the crushing waves. You’d best think harder.”
Hector thought, noting how the gaping maw of the corpse next to him was opening and closing as if it were chewing something particularly delicious. He looked down at his feet before smiling. He held up a foot. “How about my boots? They’re handmade, cost me three-hundred dollars!”
“My feet are far larger than yours, good sir,” the ferryman replied, fingers drumming as his eyes flared a bit. “You have one more offer before I have you join my family.”
“You’d best make an offer soon, for my children grow restless,” the ferryman warned.
“Wait! My camera!” Hector said, fishing out his sleek digital camera. “It’s the most expensive thing I own and has pictures of all the great exhibits that Venice offers!”
The ferryman seemed to consider this. “I’ve heard of those though I’ve never seen one. What good would it do a man like me?”
“You… you could take pictures of people you’re about to kill and look at them later!” Hector said, looking over at one of the most decayed bodies. “I mean, look at your… children. They’re all rot and seaweed, hardly anything to look at. But with the camera, you can snap a picture and forever remember the people you… do in.”
“Hmm…” the ferryman hummed before snapping his fingers. The dead all sprang to life once more, crawling backward into the black waters surrounding the boat. “That seems like a fine deal.”
Hector tossed the camera to the ferryman, who caught it in one spidery hand. Tucking it into his robes, the ferryman waved out over the water, summoning the wind to blow away the mists.
Hector sat in the boat, staring. They were still in the tributary across from the garishly lit hotel! Looking back to the ferryman, Hector swallowed the lump in his throat. “What are you?”
“Now you’re interested in legends? No, I think you should leave my boat and go about your business,” the ferryman chuckled, steering them back towards the stone stairs. It amazed Hector as he heard a snapping and popping of wood; the hole in the gondola's side had sealed itself, and the water sloshing about the floorboards was seeping out through the bottom of the boat.
As the gondola pulled up next to the stairs, Hector nearly fell as he raced out of the boat and back onto the causeway. Looking back, he stared at the luminescent eyes of the ferryman who had once again taken his seat.
“Go along now, Hector,” the ferryman said as he pulled out the camera. The aged guide held it up and snapped a quick photo of Hector, the light dazzling the young man for a moment. “I have all I want from you this evening. But be forewarned, I will keep an eye out for you.”
Hector didn’t respond, instead choosing to quickly walk away from the strange old man, counting himself lucky that they had spared him whatever gruesome fate the ferryman had in store for him. Hector passed by a young couple, a blonde-haired woman with pink highlights and a well-built young man. Hector paled when he heard the girl give a squeal of excitement.
“Oh Ben, look! A gondola!”