Keeping Toll by Calley Odum
Kemma left her mother’s abalone brooch. It was shaped like a river trout and shimmered like one too. Onjay left day-old bread, but I think it was his last. Tribbon just paid his way, I heard. Trust him to find the easiest path. Still, the size of the purse left the Tollkeeper’s hands too full to take anyone else yesterday. And I haven’t seen Tribbon since.
The line forms down the pier’s boardwalk each day. First come, first served. At the end of the line is the Tollkeeper. The thin fingers are cupped and outstretched. The wide, trailing sleeves make ripples across the water’s surface. The hood droops low over a small stone statue—a wide, toothless, stretchy sort of smile. But it’s just a statue. At least, this one is. But if you’re generous, the real ones might take you Upriver. Things are better Upriver. Less crowded.
The line stretched out down the River that day. All of us waited to pay the Tollkeeper. Part of me knew, though, that I wouldn’t reach the line’s end. I woke up too late, forgot my offerings in the other pocket, and had to run back. It wasn’t fair.
“Karo! Hey, Karo!” It was Blan, messy-haired and bleary-eyed. Blan never gets up in time to see the line off. They panted from the run—not that they needed to run. Blan just does sometimes. Always in a hurry, with nowhere to go. “We missed you at the bonfire last night,” they said, jumping in without waiting for a greeting, “You shoulda seen—where were you?—the eels follow the light, did you know?—maybe we’ll do it again tonight and you can see!”
“I’m, um… I’m in line, Blan.” I said. I kept my hands in my pockets, rubbing my offering like it was a talisman to ward off questions.
“Well, yeah. But after?”
“There’s not supposed to be an after.”
Blan just shrugs. They know as well as I do that the Tollkeeper won’t have space for me. Or maybe they truly don’t care. Already, their eyes have drifted away from the waiting line, down, down, down to my feet. I wiggle uncomfortably.
“Whadja bring anyway? You know nothing is enough for those statues.”
My little talisman felt hot in my fingers. I tugged my hands from my pockets and crossed my arms instead. Ahead of me, the line took a small step forward. I stepped with it.
“Something must be enough. They took Onjay.”
“Oh, um… actually, Onjay came back.” The way Blan says it is Just-So. No shame or judgment. Just a simple statement. Pebbles are round. The River is wet. Onjay got sent back.
“But… but his bread! That was all of it!” I couldn’t help but blurt, so loudly that some of the other Downriver kin waiting in line shot dirty looks at me. This was supposed to be a silent line. Solemn. It was supposed to give you time to reflect.
“Yeah. He reckons it didn’t have meaning, you know? Value enough, but no meaning.” They laughed suddenly, that throated, unabashed sound only Blan can make, and it rippled through the line like a skipped stone on water. “I dunno though! I think it meant a lot to our bellies!”
“You ATE Onjay’s bread?” My stomach sank, and it wasn’t at the thought of eating. It was the thought of Onjay’s offering, removed from the Tollkeeper’s hands. Empty palms, face up and waiting with nobody there. I didn’t know what to feel. Guilt? Shock?
“Well, sure. Last night at the bonfire. We woulda shared with you, but you never showed up. You make all this time for the line, and none for me!” Blan wagged a finger at me, but didn’t seem mad. They never do. “Anyway, I figure we’re good friends now, Onjay and me.”
“Onjay and I.”
“Sure, you too I guess! Does that mean you’ll come tonight?”
I racked my brain for an excuse. The line ahead of me began to drift apart. I couldn’t see the Tollkeeper’s plinth from here, but I could hear the rumblings and mumblings of the crowd.
“—awake at four, and still…”
“— could’ve fed me for a year on—”
“— just not fair!”
I tried to push forward against the tide of people pushing back. “Who was it?” I cried, “Who gets to leave? What did they offer?”
The news spread quickly, but it was no one I knew, not a name I could place. It rarely is. Downriver is choked with nameless masses of nobodies like me. Whatever they’d offered, by late tonight it would disappear with the Tollkeeper’s plinth, and we’d all have to wait again. I just wished I knew what it was, how much it was worth. A life-changing amount, to be sure.
Blan tapped their foot, “Look, did you want to see the eels or no? It’s fine either way, I just wanna tell Onjay before, so he knows.”
The little offering in my pocket burned. It felt sharp, or maybe that was just my white-knuckle grip on it. But it also felt small. Too small. I couldn’t fill the Tollkeeper’s hands with bread or money. Or even an abalone trout.
I heard my voice like it came from someone else’s mouth: “Sure. I can’t stay late. I have to get up for the line tomorrow.”
We found ourselves at Bonfire Beach most of that day. It’s not a ‘beach’ really, just like Downriver isn’t much of a town. But the rocks there were spaced out wider and left good places to play jumping games and catch eels in the shallows. Blan kept trying to get the eels to follow them, except the sunlight behind their shadow seemed to get in the way and send them scattering. Onjay joined us just as the sun began to lower. We started a smallish fire in a gap between the rocks. Blan got excited.
“You can’t leave yet Karo!” They said, “Maybe now the eels will follow! Watch!” I sat beside Onjay at the fire’s edge and watched Blan dance across the rocks. “There! See? Wait—no… hang on…”
I let Blan’s exclamations float through the fading sky.
“How long until Blan falls in, do you figure?” I asked. Onjay laughed.
“You should have seen them last night! They came back soaked.”
So did I, is what I wanted to say, but I hid it with a laugh of my own, glad that Blan wasn’t around to notice.
“So… about last night. When did you—? I mean, why were you—?”
“Why did I come back?” Onjay said, arching an eyebrow. “Well, at first… yesterday, I thought it wasn’t enough. I mean, with all those coins Tribbon left? And Kemma? That little fish was her whole inheritance. And all I had was bread. I mean, it was everything I had, but it wasn’t enough, you know?”
I nodded. I did know. We all thought it in the line that day, even if we were too polite to say it. Blan was the only person who thought it would work. But then the Tollkeeper’s eyes glowed and… well, like Onjay said, it was everything he had. It also told me I was right, in a way. If Onjay was sent back, then I needed more. I’d have to go back again tonight and—
“Karo, can you keep a secret?” Onjay looked solemn, and when he spoke he wouldn’t look at me, only stared across the slimy rocks where Blan waved fire at the eels. But he must have been able to see me, because he continued when I nodded.
“I don’t think I wanted to go. Not really.”
My shock sat between us like the Tollkeeper’s hands, expectant. Who didn’t want to leave? And why leave an offering then?
“I could have left. And maybe… maybe I should have? I know everyone says it’s better… wherever”—Onjay waved his hand Upriver, into the growing void—“Me and Kemma and Tribbon, we were all…” He frowned. “It’s hard to explain. We were all in the river. Not under it or on top of it, but in it. Made of it. And all around, there was nothing but the same gray stuff. It felt like swimming, except we couldn’t be wet because we were the wetness, if you get my meaning. And it just went on, Karo. Forever and ever, on and on. We still had our offerings. Kemma had the little fish and Tribbon had that purse, and me my bread and they were all glowing, just like the Tollkeeper’s eyes did. And the further we… swam? Walked? Well, the further we went, the more they glowed. We were laughing and talking and telling each other what we’d do when we got Upriver, who we’d become and… and… and I didn’t know.”
For the first time, Onjay looked at me. His eyes were wide. His cheeks were gaunt. That’d been his last bit of bread, of course his cheeks were gaunt. If anyone deserved to get Upriver, it was Onjay.
“You’d know.” I reassured, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Once you got there, I mean. Things would have made sense there.”
“I didn’t know, Karo,” he said again. He pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them. “Maybe I’d have figured it out. Maybe. But then Kemma disappeared.”
“What? In the water?”
Onjay shook his head miserably. “No. I told you, we weren’t in the water. Her trout stopped glowing, and she sort of bubbled from the inside out, like she was boiling. All the bubbles came apart. They all started drifting away and… and I got scared, Karo. I looked for Tribbon, but he was already running away. Stupid. You can’t run from water.”
Onjay’s voice was thick and wet. He didn’t speak again for a while. With a sinking feeling, I reached into my pocket and rubbed my little offering. I could guess what happened next. Onjay didn’t have to say it. He kept his head buried in his knees for a while. Finally, he took a deep, shuddering breath, and said into the ground:
“I waited for it to happen to me. But I didn’t bubble. I just stood there, watching the others come apart. Just stood there like a stupid lump, holding a stupid piece of stupid bread. So… so I dropped it.” He rolled his neck to look at me sideways. “That’s it. That’s the secret. I dropped the bread, and it stopped glowing, and I got sent back here. I could have gone on, but without Kemma and Tribbon there, what was the point? Who’d have ever known I made it?”
Blan’s torch flicked in the distance, little orange tongues lapping at the water. Or maybe that was the eels. Onjay smiled softly. “Blan was right there when I opened my eyes. Like they already knew. Like they were waiting. I told them all this too. And we ate the bread. That helped.”
“Your bread came back with you?” I asked, surprised. I hoped it was more nonchalant than I felt, but Onjay seemed to see me better from that sideways tilt. He didn’t answer, because yes, of course the bread came back. But Kemma and Tribbon didn’t. The weight in my pocket grew two body weights heavier.
“Karo… Do you think they made it Upriver?” Onjay whispered.
I didn’t. I didn’t think so, but my mouth felt too dry to say it. I nodded instead.
We spent a few more hours watching Blan try to move the river eels without success. By the time I left, the moon was full. Onjay was looking much better. And I felt so, so much worse.
Going back that night was the scariest thing I’d ever done. Worse than before. I trudged to the pier with my hands in my pockets and my heart in my throat. The offerings I’d hidden away burned like a coal on a bonfire. My stomach writhed all the way up my throat as though I’d swallowed one of Blan’s eels. It only got worse when the Tollkeeper’s hunched form took shape out of the night sky. The black linen of its robe was dripping as though it’d just emerged from the river. It made the wet hood cling to the carven stone. For the first time, I could see the Tollkeeper’s face. It was smooth. Entirely smooth. No nose. No ears. Eyeless. Just that same stretched grin, too large and too happy for the rest of its expressionless face. Its hands were still cupped and outstretched.
I inched forward.
“I’m sorry,” I said into the waiting darkness. “I didn’t mean to—well, I did mean to, but… but I didn’t mean for this.” I gestured uselessly at its hands. What was the point? It couldn’t see me wave. I cast my fingers into my coat once more to touch the little fish that burned like an ember there, to touch the coins in their embroidered pouch. I hadn’t spent them all, but the purse felt smaller than it had when I’d taken it yesterday. Or maybe it was me. Maybe I felt smaller. “I… I just… I wanted to go too. It wasn’t fair.”
The Tollkeeper didn’t respond. Just grinned. I don’t know what I expected—what did it care about fair? I took the offerings from my pocket. All of Tribbon’s remaining coins and Kemma’s abalone river trout brooch. I set them gently in the Tollkeeper’s hands.
“This is theirs,” I said. “I’m sorry. I just thought if it worked for them, it’d work for me too. But maybe now you could… um… maybe you could take them Upriver?”
I waited. The Tollkeeper grinned.
I waited and waited and waited.
But the hands didn’t close over the toll. The water didn’t bubble or glow. The Tollkeeper didn’t even move. Maybe it was the coins?
“I didn’t spend it,” I promised. “At least, I only spent a little. Just so I could eat, you know? Like Onjay and the bread. So, um, Kemma and Tribbon? You can let them go now.”
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It isn’t their fault! And it isn’t mine really either, is it? It’s yours.” I snatched the offerings back. If the Tollkeeper wouldn’t free Kemma and Tribbon, well, he wouldn’t have those too. My fear was disappearing, slithering away like eels from a torch. I began to yell, “Bran has the right of it all, not bothering with you! What else, huh? What else could you possibly want? You’ve taken everything of value from everybody here! So what if I took a little back? What’s your price, you greedy lump?”
I kicked the plinth. Little droplets of river water rained down and set the river’s surface shivering in concentric circles that seemed to ripple for an eternity. The Tollkeeper’s smile grew wider. I swear I heard the marble crack. I took a step backward as teeth appeared—big, flat, square teeth, each one clicking into place in an open, smirking maw. Then, a noise like a stopper being pulled from a bottle, and a splash! The pier vanished from under me. The cold of the River made me gasp, and the icy water filled my throat, my lungs. I kicked. I struggled. I couldn’t see anything, just bubbles rising around me.
Nothing in every direction. Just like Onjay said, I was in the water with nothing but gray and blue swirling around me, without edge or horizon. No shacks on the shore of the Downriver. No riverbed below me. No pier above. Nothing.
Nothing except the Tollkeeper.
It towered above me, its vacant face twisted at an impossible angle, still smiling. Black cloth veiled me like a curtain and blocked out the dim light. Its fingers, once cupped, now moved. The joints clicked as the fingers lengthened—thin, spindly, coiling behind me like a cage. Its face was inches from mine. I could watch the curl of its lipless mouth as it spoke:
My anger had vanished with the moonlight. I would have cowered, but I couldn’t seem to move.
“I… I gave it back.”
I could hear the crick of its neck as the blank head tilted, near-horizontal.
“I don’t have anything else.”
But that wasn’t true, was it? The Tollkeeper’s spindly fingers recoiled into the depths of its black robes. One massive claw emerged with Kemma’s trout, the other with Tribbon’s purse, as though presenting evidence.
“I gave them back…” I whispered. “Just send them Upriver. I’ll give you… I’ll give you…”
I went silent. Its head rotated further until its chin was higher than its eyes, and its smile looked upside down. The Tollkeeper only took life-changing offerings. Valuable, meaningful, special things. What did I have? It lifted the offerings before me in open palms… and crushed them. Gold dust and rainbow abalone shards dribbled into the water below. I scrabbled for it, as though I could patch motes of dust together. But the water before me bubbled gently. Shivered, quivered, lightened. In it, I could see the hazy form of a town with a pier at its edge. It must have been Upriver… but… There! My friends! Kemma and Tribbon crawled from the river edge, drenched and gasping.
The Upriver folk rushed to meet them, towels at the ready and food in hand. Strange. Their food looked no different from ours. Nor their clothes. Their wooden shacks were built in the same manner as we built our own. I would have thought they’d use stone or brick, something more permanent, being Upriver and all. Still! They’d made it! Kemma and Tribbon had made it. That was what mattered, right?
So why were my guts bubbling like the viewing pool?
“STO—OOO—LLLE,” the Tollkeeper said once more. Its slender fingers raked through the vision in the water. My friends flickered. For a moment, the Upriver haven flickered with them. There was a fierce longing in my fingertips, as though I could crawl onto that pier with them if only I could reach through the water.
“No— NO! Please let me see! Let me know what it’s like!”
The Tollkeeper’s head snapped back upright. The teeth vanished beneath invisible lips. On the other side of the water, a distant figure came sprinting up the shoreline. They were messy-haired and waving a burned stick like a sword. Blan… it had to be Blan…
“This isn’t Upriver.” I said. The roughness of my breath disturbed the viewing water. And I swear Blan saw me, like those little ripples were enough to alert them. They reached in to hug Kemma, and as they cast their gaze across the pier they met my own, even through the viewing pool. They didn’t look surprised, only sad. That made sense, with Kemma and Tribbon being sent back—except, that didn’t make sense, did it? Blan didn’t care who left or who stayed. In the moments before the Tollkeeper’s hands closed across the pool, Blan shook their head side-to-side, vigorously. One hand reached out across the pier, so far away, but so close I could have smelled the bonfire smoke. The bubbles popped. The pool vanished. Blan did too.
The Tollkeeper approached. Its hunched figure floated closer and closer.
“T—OOOOOLLL” it said. The groaning grew louder, “TOLL.”
I had nothing left to give. Whatever I’d gained, I’d stolen from others. I would have given anything—anything—to go Upriver myself. I’d failed and stolen the chance from my friends to forge ahead.
The Tollkeeper’s hands laced together in a cup, outstretched.
“TOLLLLLL,” it said again.
I took off my shirt, my pants, my shoes, and shivered before the Tollkeeper in nothing but my own skin. Its massive hands dwarfed my meager offering. How can I hope to describe the feeling—the bleak, hollow hopelessness of standing utterly exposed, utterly vulnerable and being found wanting? It was like… it’s like…
Like waiting in line for days with no end in sight.
Again, the Tollkeeper made its demands. I wished I had enough to give. I wished I’d never stolen my friends’ offerings. I wished I’d ignored it all and gone eeling with Blan.
Oh… Blan. What would they tell Kemma and Tribbon and Onjay? They’d seen me in that viewing pool. I knew it, I felt it. Part of me hoped they’d lie, but that didn’t seem like Blan. I just wished I could make it up to them all. But the Tollkeeper only accepted life-changing offerings.
“TOLL!” the Tollkeeper droned. It sounded as desperate as I felt. “TOLL!”
And that’s when I understood. I did have an offering. I reached for the Tollkeeper’s cupped hands and placed my own shaking fists inside them. The fingers were clammy. The bone was as thin and brittle as abalone shell. The hands squeezed tight, like it’d been so long they’d forgotten what touch was. There was no gentleness left in them. The Tollkeeper’s eyes glowed. A way to make it up to my friends—or most of them, at least. That eeling trip would never happen, but I could ensure Tribbon and Kemma and even Onjay could go Upriver, if they wanted. I could send them myself. I could send everybody. I could set the toll.
The Tollkeeper seemed to shrink before me, but their hands only grew tighter on mine. A grayish hue crept up my arms. Unseen weight pressed on my spine, forcing me into a hunch. I winced. My cheeks seemed to stretch with the pain of it, further and further into an immovable grin. My neck snapped like an over-burned tree bough. My eyes fixed on my cupped hands—smaller now than the Tollkeeper’s. Longer and grayer too. Everything felt cold, but I couldn’t shiver, couldn’t even blink. The old statue disintegrated with a sigh of release. The dust floated away with the current. I was left bent, grinning, hands outstretched and waiting.
They were waiting still when Blan came, in the earliest part of the morning long before the sun woke up. The line would form as usual in a few hours. Desperate people with desperate offerings who would never notice the difference. But Blan would know.
“You know, I missed you at the bonfire again. Kemma and Tribbon didn’t come either.”
Karo didn’t answer. Blan didn’t expect them to. They weren’t here for an offering anyway. Maybe a gift of sorts. It was chilly, after all, though Blan reckoned the Tollkeepers never knew it. It felt right to give them a blanket all the same. Blan grasped Karo’s cupped hands in greeting and stopped briefly as they brushed a trout-shaped abalone brooch and a leather pouch held within. They gave a small, sad smile. Their eyes were as wet as the river they’d never leave.
“You never did get it, did you Karo? The toll was always too high.”
They cast a tattered red cloth across Karo’s shoulders, sat on the pier, and waited for the line to begin again.
Calley Odum is a children’s librarian from Alaska, and as such is only too comfortable with the cold, the dark, and things that go ‘chomp.’ She graduated with a degree in English from Pacific Lutheran University. She and her partner live in Oregon, where they craft crafts, game games, and write when the stars align. Her past work can be found in Allegory Magazine.