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October 2013, vol 8, no 3

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Robert Sonkowsky


The Other Side

When I was a boy, there was a ghost in the attic of a house in my neighborhood. We could sometimes catch sight of it in the attic window. I knew then how scary and mysterious was the world beyond the grave. But I forgot about it, or repressed it, and, as I entered adolescence and became more "manly," the earlier feelings behind those voyeuristic goose-bumps of boyhood were tamed and received the usual ordinary habitations and names in various contexts, literary and religious. I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, a town that regards Harry Houdini, who promised his devotees he would communicate with them after his death, as one of its minor distinctions but is not otherwise outstanding for its otherworldliness. I was not especially superstitious or insecure about the next world. I'm sure I repressed even my curiosity.

Throughout the fourth year of my high school Latin course, however, I studied Virgil's Aeneid, and in Book Six I descended with Aeneas and his guide, the Sybyl, into the dark shadows of the underworld. Of course, we kids were struggling with vocabulary and syntax as well as the wonders of poetry and its rhythm, but when we hit the episode of Charon, the ferryman who transports the souls, or "shades," of the dead across the river Styx, I had an experience that was inexpressible then as now. Charon is a messy, red-eyed, filthy-bearded, and filthy-cloaked, deathless divinity, who is funny and yet scares the hell out of me to this day, and he presides over the water that separates the dead from the living.

Today I am a "Christian." Yet Charon and his mastery over the waterways of the "pagan" next world sticks with me. My Christian baptism by water, the archangel Michael ('he who is like God'), who receives and carries the souls of the dead across the River Jordan, as is commemorated in the African American spiritual "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore! Alleluia!", and the importance of water in other transition stories of world mythologies are somehow richer in my imagination because of Charon.

Flocks of finches flit
up, down, and AT my window;
the latter splatter.


The haiku was published in Verse Wisconsin, July 2012




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