Loneliness had disfigured him. That was what he concluded, when he failed to recognise the skeletal face as his own. They had warned him that the night shift was deeply unhealthy, that the strange hours would meddle with his circadian rhythm. But that didn’t quite explain it. He wasn’t tired. If anything, he felt too alert. It was the world that had become catatonic.
When he first began, he could not recognise this. For months, he tried his best to rouse some life back into the world. But it would not be woken. At this time of night, people would not meet his eye, much less be coaxed into small talk. Now, the old world felt far away, a memory of a memory, and he no longer recalled how to return.
This deep into the evening, the ferry was empty except for the dregs of the night that had at last been turned out from the bars. The air hung heavy with cold and all was silent, aside from the creak of corrugated metal as the craft drifted toward the jetty.
There was no one there to moor the boat, and he had long ago given up. So, taking his motionlessness as cue, the passengers got up, crossed the threshold, and staggered off into the night.
Now came the wait. For forty-five minutes, he was compelled to sit until it was time for the next crossing. Rarely would even a single passenger alight. The wait made him uneasy. He feared that one day, the night would finally take the opportunity to swallow him completely. But, it was his job to ferry anyone needing to cross, and so he would wait in the dark.
It was as the engine began sputtering back to life, that a lone figure came over the hill. The ferryman watched the man pick his way down, the long grass rustling with each step.
“Are you still taking people across?”
Coins clinked as they exchanged hands, the propeller began to stir, and before a full minute had passed, the craft had pushed off from shore.
Despite the gentle rocking of the water, the ferryman kept his eyes fixed ahead. The river had a nasty habit of guiding the boat into the shallows and the jagged stones protruding from its bed.
“Do you like your work?” The question took a moment to register; he wasn’t accustomed to the passengers speaking.
“Must be nice. Freeing. Out here in the night, just you and your boat,” the words came out in a sigh.
The ferryman glanced at the man: thinning hair, crumpled white shirt, a grave look on his pallid face. “Its got its perks... but sometimes a little too much freedom,” he added.
“Nothing to keep me anchored.”
“Oh. That’s disappointing,” the man said with a pained sincerity. “I would have thought…”
“As did I. But now? Well, the nights drift by.” The remark hung heavy for a while and neither man made an effort to resurrect it.
“Y’know,” a squeak from the bench revealed the man had stood up, “I shouldn’t even be out this late. I’ve got work tomorrow, things to do. HR’s told me, if they don’t see an improvement, they’re going to let me go.”
“So, why are you?”
“I don’t know,” the man rubbed his eyes. “It makes me feel alive, I guess. I need something that feels different. Everything beyond this, it just doesn’t feel real anymore.”
At this, the ferryman looked away, and from the corner of his eye, watched his passenger approach the railing. He stood there gazing at the water, slackened neck-tie flailing in the wind, its tongue flapping against the sullen red marks that encircled his neck.
“It's this or go to sleep I guess,” the man confessed. Never married, I don’t have kids, it’s just me and the flat.”
The ferryman felt a pang of pity. “We all have to sleep eventually,” he offered.
The man looked back at him hard, the greys of his eyes shimmering in the scant moonlight. “And you?”
“What about me?”
“Family, kids, anyone waiting for you?”
The ferryman shook his head, ignoring the vague lapping feeling within, “None of that matters past a certain point.”
The already faint light of the shore had, by now, long ago receded into the distance. Without it, the chill became apparent. His passenger broke out into bouts of shivering. From deep within, the ferryman felt the lapping rise to a dull ache, yet he said nothing. There wasn’t much point at this rate.
Having shuttled thousands across, the ferryman knew where they were from instinct.
“We’re here.” A moment later, a small bump brought the boat to a standstill.
The darkness was so thick, neither man could make out the land that lay before them. Together, they waited, alone except for the ever stretching silence. The passenger’s teeth were no longer chattering.
He turned to the ferryman, “I don’t want to get off.”
The ferryman did not meet his eye. “I know,” he said, “but, this is the end of the line.”
The birds had given him the idea. After all, they were his only visitors. He couldn’t recall when the idea first took root, but amid the fog of days, it began to grow into something magnificent.
Most were too quick to dismiss birds, thinking them simple creatures. He too had given them little attention, but as the isolation dragged on, he studied them more closely. Soon, he realised they studied him too. One long night, the glint of a distant aircraft flashed in a hundred, beady eyes on the opposite roof.
He resolved to win them over, and so began his nightly habit of squirrelling away his meagre lunch and presenting the crumbs on the ledge. They were cautious, but after several days, if he remained very still, they would deign to claim his offering. And so he watched.
He watched how they would strut and fuss among themselves, as though the rest of the world was trivial. He watched them croon and stretch and caw and roost. Most importantly, he watched them fly, unfurling their wings like switchblades to cut through the air. Even a short drop to the story below was an act of aerial grace. Soon, he struggled to focus on anything else.
When he first pocketed the stray feathers, he assumed it was sentimentality, simple gratitude for the little souvenirs they left behind. But, though he did not wish to acknowledge it, he could feel the realisation slowly squirm its way to the surface.
Months slouched on, but by March, he had only amassed several dozen. It would not be enough. As he watched them scrape at the window, hopping eagerly from foot to foot, he knew he would have to change tact. That night, he gave them all he had.
And so it was that one overcast morning, the council were called following a deluge of complaints. People did not know where the carcasses were coming from, but the now sizable heap of naked, little bodies had begun to fester. A team was dispatched, and with them a small retinue of supervisors, managers and anyone with the appropriate air of superiority.
And so it was that the small crowd of onlookers were perfectly placed to spot what could only be compared to an angel. They all watched in awe, as it heaved its way onto the tower block ledge, unfurled its vast wings, and hopped off with angelic indifference.
Their wonder continued all the way to the very moment the body hit the concrete.
The clean up didn’t take long, in twenty minutes there wasn’t a trace. While the sanitation team had little difficulty scraping him from the pavement, the coroners and mortician could not separate man from bird.