A black river flowed, strong and deep, across a gray plain. 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 there was nothing on that side 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.
“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. He might have been blond, but with all the grayness it was hard to tell.
“’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.”
“It seems like that?”
“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 girl, but only she 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 waited 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 and stopped. “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 dark look on his face 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 -- [End of Preview.]