Fear

At the bank, he stopped and turned to Wilom. “Go fetch that man.”

“Man?”

The ferryman did not point. “The bank is not wide. Go find him, and bring him back.”

“You’re not coming with me?”

“Do you understand what to do?”

“Sure. Go find a dead person, bring them back to the boat.”

“Remember, be kind, be courteous, and do not take more time than is necessary.”

“I will.”

Wilom climbed over the side of the boat and looked left and right. Which way? He started to turn around to the ferryman, but then, maybe this was part of the test, too. So, then, left or right?

He chose left.

A little way down the beach, he saw someone pacing up and down the cliff face.

“Hello?”

The man turned around sharply. He was probably Tanim’s age, and there was something dark discolouring his clothes, but the light here made it difficult to tell what it was.

“Oh, thank goodness someone else is here! Do you know how to get out?”

“You can’t. Listen —”

“Damn. I got in somewhere here. There has to be a way back.”

“I don’t think there is.”

“Come on, like you haven’t tried to get back.” He hesitated. “Oh … you didn’t … you aren’t here deliberately, are you? If you are, I …”

“I am, but not in the way you’re thinking. I can tell you there’s no way out this way.”

“There has to be! I can’t get hit by an auto and just die. It’s just so stupid. Come on, will you help me get out before it’s too late?”

Wilom did his best to ignore the man’s tone and manner. How did the ferryman want him to approach this?

The man must be very frustrated. Autos did not travel very quickly, so if he got hit by one, he must have landed wrong or been infected or something, if he died. Wilom could see why someone would be angry at such poor luck. So, he should try not to take anything personally.

“I can’t,” Wilom said, as calmly as possible. “The ferryman asked me to come and get you. I think you need to come with me now.”

“No, not yet.”

“Please?” Wilom didn’t expect it to work, but it was worth a try.

“Didn’t you hear me? Not yet! I might still have a little time. Maybe someone’s going to resuscitate me. There’s definitely still time for that.”

“No, I don’t think you’d be here if there was still time left.” Wilom was just guessing, and he knew it came through in his voice.

“What do you know? You’re what, fourteen? Just give me a few minutes, I said!”

Wilom took a deep breath. It wasn’t personal, he reminded himself. “I’m sure this is hard, but you just have to trust me. Come with me.” He tried reaching out to the man, like the ferryman had reached out to Trey.

“Maybe there’s no way out for you, but there were people all around me! One of them will do something. So you can just wait there, and shut up while I think.”

Alright, maybe hinting wasn’t working. “You’re wasting your time. There’s no way out.”

The man slapped Wilom’s hand away, so hard that Wilom’s fingers stung. “Don’t you dare touch me! Don’t you dare drag me off before I’m done, boy!”

Wilom stepped back, biting back a string of curses. “Fine. You know what, fine! You just wait there until you’re done. I hope it’s forever.” It wasn’t smart, and definitely wasn’t what the ferryman wanted him to do, but the words were out now, and he was still too angry to regret them.

Wilom felt, rather than saw or heard, the ferryman behind him. It was like someone had run a finger down his back. His spine straightened involuntarily, and he stepped aside without really thinking.

The ferryman ignored him, walking straight for the man against the cliff face.

“Please come with me,” the ferryman said.

“Ah, shit, no! Look, I just need some more time! Just a little bit …”

“I am afraid time is no longer a factor. Please come with me,” The ferryman said, and held out his hand.

“Not yet, I said!”

The man had his back to the wall now.

“This isn’t fair. I just … I just wanted to …” He sniffed. Wilom looked away, embarrassed for the poor man.

The ferryman left his hand there. After a moment, the man lifted his hand, hesitated, then placed it in the ferryman’s.

“The boat is this way,” the ferryman said gently, and led the man down the bank.

Wilom started to follow them. The hood turned to him.

“You will stay here,” he said, “Until I return.”

Wilom took a step backwards and watched the ferryman lead the man to the boat. The ferryman helped him in, and pushed away from the bank.

Wilom sat down against the cliff face and waited, picking up pinches of sand and rubbing them between his fingers. Shit, what else was he supposed to do? Yes, he’d lost his temper, that was wrong. But he couldn’t just stare and wait for the man to break down crying! He didn’t have magical ferryman powers, or magical ferryman being-seven-feet-tall.

Maybe he should have just gotten the ferryman from the beginning. But the ferryman had told him to go, so he had to try.

Shit. He’d messed everything up. Now the ferryman would send him away, back to Jali and Tanim. Wilom wasn’t sure which conversation he was looking forward to less: telling them where he had been, explaining why he had failed again, or explaining why he’d only left a letter instead of telling them in person.

It surprised him how close the boat was when he could finally see it. He stood up and brushed away the sand that hadn’t actually stuck to him.

“I’m sorry for losing my temper,” he said immediately. Maybe he could still save this situation.

The ferryman got out of the boat and walked over to him. “Do you understand why I tell you to be kind and courteous?”

“I do. I’m sorry.”

“I do not think you understand.”

“Look, I tried, but I’m not seven feet tall in a black robe and hundreds of years old! It’s just kind of difficult for me to stand there and exist someone to tears!”

The ferryman said nothing.

Wilom knew he shouldn’t have said it. He just wanted this conversation to be over. He wanted to calm down so they could talk about it later, like adults, while he wasn’t angry and feeling like a rebuked child. He tried to head back to the boat, but the ferryman seemed to be in his way wherever he went.

“His name was Eron.”

Wilom stopped walking. “I didn’t know that,” he said. “Should I have?”

The ferryman ignored his question and continued. “Did you look at him thoroughly?”

“I think he had blood on his shirt. And he looked, maybe, thirty-five? Died by auto. And, um. Blonde hair. Lots of wrinkles around his eyes, for his age, I guess.”

“Then no. You did not.”

Wilom folded his arms, and bit down on the insides of his cheeks. He reminded himself that he only said stupid things when he was angry, and therefore resolved to say nothing at all until the lecture was over.

The ferryman gave him a moment, and when he did not say anything, continued, “Did you not see how afraid he was?”

Wilom didn’t want to look at the ferryman.

“I am not telling you to be kind or courteous because it makes things easier for you. I am telling you because the people who arrive here are angry, and scared, and alone. It is important to them that we are patient, that we think before we speak, and above all, we try to understand.”

Wilom kicked a divot of sand away. “Sorry,” he said again. He didn’t know what else to say. Shame, not usually something he felt until long after a lecture, burned in his throat. His hands tightened across his chest.

The ferryman, without moving, seemed to back away. “I do not tell you this to embarrass you or make you angry. Will you look at me, and tell me you understand what I’m trying to say?”

Wilom did. The hood was dark as always, but the ferryman was holding out a hand to him. Wilom took it, and said in a small, strained voice, “I understand. I’m sorry.”

The hood tilted a little. “I forgive you.”

Wilom let go of the ferryman’s hand, unsure exactly what the gesture had meant, but glad that it didn’t seem the ferryman was angry at him after all.

He gave a weak, lopsided smile and tried to sound lighthearted, to mask the lingering tightness in his throat. “Do you think you might teach me some of those tricks? I mean, it’ll be a lot easier if I can just stare people down. Or how about what you did with the baby a little while back? That was pretty incredible.”

“You will learn, in time. If you want to.”

“I do,” Wilom said. “I do want to learn.”

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4 thoughts on “Fear

  1. I just wanted to say I loved the title of this bit ( chapter? section? moiety? ( I’ll admit I intentionally looked up a thesaurus for that last one ) ) – I was like “What’s going to scare the crap out of Wilom?” and it defied my expectation by not being about him, but about what he learns. It was a surprising moment of thematic cohesion ( by which I mean “surprised me by not being what I initially expected” – I just wanted to make that clear, as I re-read that sentence and see that it could be interpreted as having low expectations for the story, which I don’t ( and I re-read this whole comment and realise it’s literally two sentences engulfed in these meandering aside comments ( you know, when I read these nested asides, the voice in my mind is always getting quieter and quieter – it’s not just me, is it? ) ) ) ( although I must say I do have a soft spot for idiosyncratic titles ).

    • Glad you liked it! I have had at least two people message me and tell me that they were very disappointed that Wilom didn’t die in chapter one, after hearing the premise of the story, so I feel like I’m on a bit of a roll of subverting expectations here. I am somewhat proud of this.

  2. You should be proud – it takes knowledge and skill to present ideas that lead your audience one way and then subvert it later on, even inadvertently.

    I’m actually quite glad Wilom isn’t dead, because if he was, his journey would have really limited options for where it could go, whereas being alive means that this apprenticeship isn’t the be-all and end-all of the story – irrespective of how it turns for him, he still has a family to go back to and a life to live; which provides a lot more layers for what’s going on and how it will impact what happens later ( there’s a lot of stories about the dead facing death, but not so many about living doing the same ( Possibly because Western Civilisation, in recent centuries, has moved away from having a standard method of grieving, as it’s become a more personal thing ( which is reflected in art ), and that confuses people when they face that grieve – they literally don’t know what to do or what “grieving” ( in terms of what the outcome of this process is ) even means in the modern day ( Ha! I knew that unit in Death and Culture would come back somehow! ) ) ) .

    • Thank you! I’m also glad I decided not to kill him, it opened up a lot of interesting things for later plotlines, which I won’t spoil.

      That Death and Culture unit sounds really fascinating! I do look forward to seeing how you react to later chapters in light of that (though again no spoilers as to what is going to actually happen).

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