After Trey was gone and the boat was crossing the River again, Wilom gathered the courage to stick his hand in the water. It was thicker than regular water. When he pulled his hand out, little rivulets streamed off his palm, slowly, like honey. He shook his hand, and suddenly it was all gone, not a droplet left. It was like the almost-sand — none of it stuck to anything. He repeated this a few times.
He couldn’t see the other bank from here; either it was too far away, or the mist was blocking his view. The ferryman poled the boat and said nothing. Wilom wasn’t sure whether the silence was awkward, or whether it was just him.
“Thank you,” he said to the ferryman.
“You are welcome.”
Wilom waited to see if he would say anything more, but the ferryman remained silent. He must have messed up, asking about the hardest kind of people crossing the River. The ferryman was angry with him.
Great. One day. That had to be some kind of record, even for him.
“I’m sorry,” he offered.
“Then I forgive you,” the ferryman replied, and once again the conversation stopped dead.
Had … had the ferryman even realised what Wilom was apologising for? Wilom looked over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the ferryman’s face, but the darkness on the River and the ferryman’s hood made it impossible to see.
“You forgive me? Just like that?”
The ferryman nodded slowly. “Yes.”
Wilom wasn’t sure whether the ferryman was serious or mocking him. He nearly made a sarcastic response, but stopped.
He’d ruined his life in his home town, and in the village with his aunt and uncle. This might be the last chance he got. The ferryman didn’t seem like a cruel person – maybe there was some other explanation. “I thought you were angry with me, about what I asked,” he admitted.
The ferryman shook his head. “You may take it upon the highest authority that I will never get angry with you.”
Wilom had to laugh at that. “Be careful what you promise,” he said. “You don’t know me yet.”
The ferryman kept his eyes ahead of them on the River. “Nevertheless,” he said.
Wilom had to fight the urge to argue with him.
“Why do you expect that I will be angry with you?” the ferryman asked.
“I’m not exactly the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Wilom said. “You’ve probably noticed that I say thoughtless shit more often than not, and that seems like the worst possible fault for this job.”
The ferryman tilted his head, in a way that made Wilom unsure whether he was agreeing or simply acknowledging Wilom’s tirade. Wilom took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t blame you if you kicked me out, by the way. I know I’m probably not suited to this.”
“Then why did you agree to the apprenticeship?”
Wilom opened his mouth, really intending to say something scathing this time, but then he realised that the ferryman hadn’t been sarcastic, or even accusatory. The question sounded like nothing more than honest curiosity.
“Because I was out of options,” he admitted. “I suppose that means I’m really running away now. I’m sorry.” Something in his stomach turned over as Jali and Tanim’s faces floated through his mind.
The ferryman’s hood did not move, nor did his tone change. “I will not make you leave so long as you choose to stay, and wish to learn,” he said. “And I forgive you.”
Wilom snorted and looked into the water, putting his hand back into it. “You forgive very easily,” he said. “Besides, I’m not sure I’m even apologising to you. No offense intended.”
“None taken. And if you are not apologising to me, then I have had no reason to take offense. Therefore, whatever you have done, I forgive you.”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works.”
“Does it make you feel better?”
Wilom stopped dead at that. Did it? He certainly liked the ferryman. Did he feel more kindly towards the ferryman because of the ferryman’s forgiveness? Or didn’t it count, coming by proxy?
“Can I get back to you on that?” his mouth asked. Shit. Shit, had that been too sarcastic?
“Take as long as you need,” the ferryman said, calm as ever.
Wilom leaned back against the boat. “What happens if I’m not suited to this line of work?” he asked.
“You may leave at any time, and do whatever you wish,” the ferryman said.
Somehow that didn’t seem like a satisfactory answer. There had to be some sort of consequence. Failure always had consequences.
“For what it’s worth,” the ferryman said as the bank finally appeared through the mist, “I do not think it likely that you will be unsuited for this job.”
“The lighthouse keeper is an excellent judge of character, and so am I. He would not have brought you here if he didn’t think it worth my time, nor would I have taken you as an apprentice. You are here because, even if for only a few minutes, all three of us believed at the same time that this would turn out well in the end. Perhaps you might find that thought encouraging.”
Wilom did. But he only nodded.
Wilom heard the sound on the bank long before he ever saw the person it came from. He’d recognise the sound of a baby crying anywhere.
The boat touched the shore, and the ferryman got out.
Wilom followed him over to the baby. It couldn’t have been more than six months old.
The ferryman bent down and picked up the child. Wilom winced as it screamed harder, but the ferryman didn’t seem to notice. He bent his head and started talking. Wilom backed away, even though he already couldn’t hear what the ferryman said. He felt like he was walking in on a private conversation. As the ferryman rocked the child slowly, it stopped crying, made a small-child noise, and fell asleep.
Wilom climbed back into the boat, and the ferryman handed him the baby.
“Do not wake her,” he said.
Wilom had never been so scared to hold a child as he was on that boat ride. He sat as still as possible in the front of the boat, quietly thanking everyone he could think of that there were no waves on the River. The child hiccupped in her sleep, and he nearly choked on his heart.
The boat touched the other bank and the ferryman got out. While Wilom was trying to decide how to get out of the boat without waking the child, the ferryman gently took her from him.
“Wait here,” he said, and walked off into the mist.
Wilom’s elbows hurt to straighten, they’d been so tense.
The ferryman was gone for a minute, and then another. Wilom waited, stretching his arms. Another minute.
And then the cloak and hood materialised in the mist, still holding onto the oar.
“What was that?”
“I gave the child to someone who will take care of her.”
“The person whose job it is to take care of the dead unable to either get lost or find their way.”
“Are they like you?”
“No. They are not like me at all.”
Wilom hesitated. “Are there more ferrymen?”
“And lighthouse keepers?”
“Do you know any of them?”
“Some. No other ferrymen. Our patrols do not overlap. I know the woman to whom I gave that child. I am friends with the lighthouse keeper on this part of the River.”
“But you don’t see him much, do you? Sounds lonely.”
The hood turned around. “On half of the trips I make, there is someone with me. Before considering the company of apprentices.”
“But they’re not really friends, are they? I mean, you’ll never see them again. Well, the apprentices, I suppose…”
“Correct. But nevertheless, everyone is company.”
“I guess you get used to it.”
The ferryman did not reply.
They were getting close to the bank. He looked up at the ferryman.
“I have a question. Do you ever sleep?”
“But I need to, don’t I?”
“You could if you wished. It will not be necessary.”
“What about food?”
“Not necessary, either. I would not blame you if you asked the lighthouse keeper to bring you some, however.”
“Do you eat?”
“Only on very special occasions.”
“Did you ever eat?”
“A long time ago.”
“What do you eat? And what’s a special occasion?”
“What I am given, and when I deem it to be.”
“Given by the lighthouse keeper?”
“It amuses him to bring me food occasionally.”
Wilom stopped asking questions. The ferryman kept on rowing.