It wasn’t very far back to the village, but Wilom was surprised how dark it had gotten. The lighthouse keeper waited around the corner while Wilom slipped the note under the door and hurried away.
“Not going to speak to them?”
“I haven’t decided to take the apprenticeship yet. If I decide I don’t want it, I can come back and tear the note up before they read it.”
The lighthouse keeper nodded, and gestured. “Back to the lighthouse.”
“Wait. I thought we wanted to go see your friend?”
“We are. But the best way is via the lighthouse.”
Wilom patted his pocket. He still had the key. Via the lighthouse? “I … guess I’ll follow you, then.”
Back at the lighthouse, the lighthouse keeper opened a door behind the staircase, which led down into the cliff.
“Where, exactly, does your friend live?”
Wilom looked at the stairs. “Is this a joke?”
“No joke. The stairs lead to the edge of the river.”
“There’s an ocean under that cliff,” Wilom said. “Not a river.”
“The stairs don’t actually lead to the bottom of the cliff.”
“Can I back out of the offer now?”
“Of course. After all, you still have my door key.”
Wilom pulled out the key, looked at it, sighed, and shoved it back in his pocket. “Fine. I’ll believe the river when I see it.”
“Please do not forget to return my door key, by the way.”
“I won’t leave without giving it back. Alright?”
The lighthouse keeper lit his lantern and led the way down the stairs, Wilom trying to stay close behind, where the stairs were well-lit. He slowed down for a moment, trying not to trip and fall on the uneven stone. As he neared the edge of the pool of light, a thought occurred to him. An image of falling behind, outside the lantern light. Then, suddenly, the light would go out, and the lighthouse keeper would turn to him and smile, with teeth …
He took the next three steps all at once, feeling like a fool. He was nearly eighteen. How could he still be afraid of the dark?
All the same, he had to stop himself screaming when the lighthouse keeper turned around.
“Is something wrong?”
“I’m fine. I missed a step.”
The lighthouse keeper nodded and turned back around. Wilom stayed close to him for the rest of the journey down.
At the bottom of the stairs was another door. The lighthouse keeper pulled a key out of his pocket and opened it.
Outside, there was a river, calm and still. The bank was … probably sand, though not like any sand Wilom had ever felt. Its texture was more like mud, and it didn’t stick to his shoes. The sky and distance were indistinct, like that time just after the sun goes down or just before it rises when everything is tinted blue and trees become silhouettes.
The lighthouse keeper began to walk away from the door and Wilom followed him.
Behind them, the bank quickly faded away. Wilom tried to keep an eye on the lighthouse keeper. He had an idea about what was happening, and he really wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not.
They were approaching a boat. A figure stood in it. Wilom couldn’t tell whether he was dressed all in black, or if it was just the light.
No, he was definitely all in black. He was tall and thin, and carried an oar. His hood was up, so Wilom couldn’t see his face.
The figure looked up. “Keeper.” His voice was surprisingly soft and calm. Wilom realised he’d been expecting something deep and sombre, like a tomb, but the ferryman’s voice matched the River.
“I’ve brought someone to meet you.”
The hood turned down towards Wilom. Wilom nearly ducked behind the lighthouse keeper, but pride held him in place.
“You’ve found another one.” The voice held neither surprise, nor accusation. It was a simple statement.
Wilom struggled to think through that comment. “Another one?”
“You don’t think an immortal master only ever has one apprentice, do you?” the lighthouse keeper asked.
Immortal? The lighthouse keeper had definitely left a few details out of his description of this job. “I … um, hey, can I ask a question?”
“Of course.” The hood didn’t so much as twitch. The air was too still to move the cloth.
“Is this the River? You … you ferry dead people, don’t you?”
“Yes. Do you still want to do this?”
Did he? A dismissive laugh formed in his chest, but died before it reached his throat. There was an ocean under the lighthouse, and yet, here he was on the bank of a river. Whatever was under his feet, it certainly wasn’t sand. There was no sun. The ocean air made morning mists, not midnight ones, and there wasn’t even a beach at the bottom of the real cliff. Instead, he heard himself ask, “Do I need to be dead?”
The lighthouse keeper chuckled.
“No,” the ferryman said. “That is not a requirement. In fact, being alive might be considered a prerequisite.”
“What if I can’t do it? Or if I don’t like it?”
“You are free to leave any time you choose.”
“That’s … very lenient of you. What exactly do you want me to do?”
“I’ll expect you to help me fetch people off the bank. You will be with them in the boat as they cross. You must be courteous. You will not be asked to row the boat. There will be no other duties, but the particulars will become clear as you learn. Does this sound reasonable?”
“I can do all that.” He couldn’t figure out what he felt about it. It seemed so easy. There had to be a catch.
The hood lowered and rose slowly, a single nod.
Wilom looked between the lighthouse keeper and the ferryman. They were both watching him – or at least, the lighthouse keeper was watching him. The ferryman’s hood was turned towards him, and it certainly felt like he was being watched, but it was impossible to see inside the hood, so he couldn’t be sure.
Despite himself, he really had started to believe that this was really the River. He knew pranks, and this didn’t feel like a prank. It had gone on too long, these two were too involved. Were they crazy or delusional? Then Wilom had to be, too, because this place clearly had no connection to the real world at the top of the staircase.
Well, he’d already given the note to his aunt and uncle.
Wilom dug the door key out of his pocket and handed it back to the lighthouse keeper. “Here,” he said. “Just like I promised. I can leave any time I ask, right?”
The lighthouse keeper took it. “Any time, without questions or hard feelings. Good luck,” he said. “I’ll stop by occasionally.”
Wilom shook the lighthouse keeper’s hand. “Thanks for the tea, and, well, everything.”
The lighthouse keeper walked away, the light of his lantern disappearing in the mist.
The hooded figure held out his hand. It was bony, the flesh and skin stretched tight on his fingers. Wilom took it, and stepped into the boat.
Wilom could only remember being in a boat once, and it had rocked so much his father had to pick him up and put him in it, or risk it turning over. This boat, though, didn’t so much as shift when he stepped in.
“Choose a seat.”
Wilom took the bench close to the front of the boat: the one only long enough for one person.
The ferryman pushed the boat away from the bank, and without a word, started to guide it along the beach.